Thu 17th Apr 2014 | Last updated: Thu 17th Apr 2014 at 22:10pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Features

Five ways to lose the argument with atheists

Next time you find yourself sucked into a debate with secularists be careful not to make these five classic mistakes, says Peter D Williams

By on Thursday, 17 May 2012

Don’t stop to think what Pope Benedict might say if he were in your position (Photo: PA)

Don’t stop to think what Pope Benedict might say if he were in your position (Photo: PA)

It is not an uncommon situation. You are reading an interesting article online about some matter of recent religious controversy, but upon reaching the end of the piece you meet the comments area, and try to resist the temptation to scroll further down the page. How many times have you perused such sections before finding yourself infuriated by the base anti-Catholic bigotry you find there?

Still worse, how often have you found your time irretrievably wasted, as you are sucked into futile disputation with secularist trolls who, in the famous words of Churchill, “can’t change their minds, and won’t change the subject”? Like glancing at a car-crash, however, the curiosity can be too great to resist, and you begin to read on…

This experience is hardly atypical for the average Catholic reading online, but it has even become unsurprising to experience similar situations when having a drink in the pub, or while at an otherwise genteel dinner party. Where we are called to defend and expound our Faith in these situations however, we must do so in a constructive way that raises the standard and tone of discussion.
It is regrettable, then, that experience shows us how often Catholics fail to do this effectively. As an illustrative remedy for some of the more common mistakes in this endeavour, here are five brief tips on how not to argue with atheists.

1) Cynically assume the worst in people. Before speaking, or touching that keyboard, imagine your opponent to be an irredeemable ogre, whatever they may have said. Don’t charitably assume they are simply misinformed, or look for the good motivations they may have in arguing as they do. At a false accusation of “homophobia”, don’t try to understand the positive impetus behind this error (genuine concern about abuse and hatred), and refrain from showing how the Church teaches compassion and care for those who experience same-sex attraction – you may help to defuse anger rather than fuel it!

2) Argue as a means of venting emotion. When someone says or writes something shocking or offensive to Catholic piety, our natural reaction is to get angry. Indulge that. Try to forget any Christian goal of defending or expounding the Faith. That will only get in the way of fun. Instead, be determined to show how stupid your opponent is, and punish their ignorance and prejudice with counter-abuse. To be scrupulously gentle and reverent at all times is just far too hard. Of course it could be that, even if someone does not remember your arguments, they may remember what a model of virtue and decency you were in arguing, which might be a good witness that may help them later on – but such considerations should not get in the way of a good bout of rock throwing.

3) Don’t call out bad behaviour, mirror it! If someone is unnecessarily rude or vulgar, feel justified in returning like with like. That “turn the other cheek” stuff is far too high a standard. Simply pointing out your interlocutor’s unkindness (and how it hinders discussion) would be too laborious. And sticking to the substantive arguments that have been produced? What are you,
a robot? Think of our Lord’s response to the liars who accused Him, and the guard who hit Him, in front of the Sanhedrin. What was His answer to calumny and abuse? Well, we all know how that worked out.

It might be that following His example would accentuate the irrational meanness of the person you are engaging with (to themselves and anyone around watching your discourse) and even shame them into changing their behaviour. Don’t worry about all that, though.

4) Adopt the martyr complex. Few things are as convincing as arguing with someone who thinks your ideas will lead inexorably to a new totalitarian regime, or who believe themselves to be “persecuted”. Does this come across as hysterical, and make that person look silly? Of course not. So don’t forget to break out the comparisons with Hitler or Stalin, and be sure to moan about how hard done by Christians are (especially with comparison to Muslims). This is bound to win you lots of sympathy, and isn’t at all clichéd. Not even a bit. No.

5) For heaven’s sake, don’t Pray. Surely an obvious point. Praying before you interact with people, and asking God to give you the words He would have you say, and the sharp but loving mindset He would have you adopt, is just a massive spoiler. So, indeed, is praying for your opponent, that their minds and hearts might be opened, and that your conversation with them might be helpful. Prayer is lethal to good squabbling – so cut it out!

In reality, tailoring our words and our tone to the highest common denominator of human sentiment may not convince the people with whom we are immediately interacting, but may at least begin to win the hearts and minds of any bystanders who are watching. Focusing on how we can best practise the spiritual works of mercy (especially instructing the uninformed, counselling the doubtful, and bearing wrongs patiently) in our arguments with atheists will help us minister to our opponents in the most effective way. In doing so, and in witnessing to the truth of our Faith, humbly, gently and respectfully, we may truly witness to the virtue, as well as the rationality, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Peter D Williams is a Catholic apologist and speaker for Catholic Voices

  • Jonathan West

    That your belief is comforting is not any reason to think it is true. 

  • John B.

    What I think and believe is only my concern, what you think and believe is yours. That I take comfort in something that you don’t believe, or that I cannot scientifically prove shouldn’t bother you, yet you believe you must dispute it.  If the truth for you is a long cold eternal rest than you are welcome it, I have no desire to try to convert you. That’s the difference between you and me, I respect your beliefs but you don’t show me the same courtesy.

  • Jonathan West

    I suggest that not having to worry what a god might say to me after I die is a great comfort to me – it means that I can get on with making the most of this life, since it is the only one I will have. In the process, I hope to make the world a better place for my children and grandchildren. That will keep me usefully engaged for the rest of my life.

  • John B.

    You just can’t resist throwing in some snide remarks can you Jonathan? You imply that by not worrying about god “you can get on with making the most of your life” as well as “making the world a better place” as only a truly enlightened atheist can do, how arrogant. I have no problem with what you believe and wish you no ill, and certainly have no desire to convert you. What I don’t understand is why you fell you must challenge people’s faith on a Catholic web page, obviously you don’t do so to try to convert, so it must be nothing more than to antagonize others for entertainment, that’s it isn’t it?

  • aearon43

    Your post is itself an example of a line of reasoning that does not use the scientific method. Examining the utility of the scientific method is necessarily an extra-scientific endeavour, generally considered to be a type of epistemology. The basic rules of reason and logic must exist, and we must utilitize them in a certain way, before we can use the scientific method. It depends on the authority of logic and mathematics.

    So you may never have seen God, and therefore are hesitant to believe in his existence, yet you do admit that there is a fundamental order to the universe that can be described using logic and maths, which themselves have no empirical basis. So your belief in the scientific method, in order to be intelligible, necessarily admits of other sources of authority outside of the scientific method.

    Having recognized that, isn’t it possible that the human mind is a bigger thing than the scientific method, and capable (if not designed) for more? Looking at it from a different angle, given that human sensory apparatus is quite limited, isn’t the more reasonable position (including logic, maths, and perhaps even emotion as well as the scientific method) to attempt to work around it, to attempt to peer if through a glass darkly at what eludes its perception?

  • aearon43

    There may in fact be a correlation between totalitarianism and atheism. In the US Constitution, rights are understood as granted by God, and God exists as something above the state. If God didn’t grant people rights as his creatures, then why are rights not mere allowances made by the state? 
    Without belief in God, the state takes his place.

  • aearon43

    Yes and who are you then the tolerance police?

  • aearon43

    God invites you to share in his work as creator.

  • aearon43


    There is evidence against a Creator,  and evidence that does not yet have a coherent interpretation”,,, ah yes Very Convenient classification system you have there! Nice how you divide reality into (1) things you know support your position and you can explain why, and (2) things you know support your position but you’re not sure how yet. 

  • aearon43

    Do you think it’s possible that Catholic teaching on homosexuality is intended with the good of homosexuals sincerely in heart — that maybe we’re not just being jerks for the fun of it?

  • aearon43

    Not going to get in an argument about how many times Jesus said “hell,” but do consider that perhaps mentioning it isn’t meant to be some kind of personal attack but rather a sincere warning about an actual danger.

  • aearon43


    Basically it is the idea that a belief based on evidence is more likely to be right than a belief not based on evidence, and the concept that it is OK to change your mind when new evidence comes along.”

    That is not atheism, it’s empiricism. And Christians do not believe there is no evidence for God, or have any sort of problem with evidence. We simply believe the evidence for God is more like the kind of evidence in a legal case, where bits and pieces are put together and weighed, rather than the type of experimental evidence obtained through your beloved Science. By the way you may enjoy this book :  http://jameshannam.com/

    It was shortlisted for the Royal Society book prize.

  • Jonathan West

    This web page is specifically an article about discussing your faith with atheists, and you chose to contribute to it. 

    In contributing, you asked what atheists have that compares with the comforting belief that you will be reunited with those you love after your death. I merely provided an answer. If you didn’t want an answer, then perhaps you might have been better off not asking the question.

  • Jonathan West

    The “empirical basis” of science with regard to logic and maths is that we have observed that the universe works that way.

    As far as I can tell from your contribution, you are saying that we don’t know it all yet, Specifically we don’t know the origin of the order that we observe – therefore God. I suggest that you are taking the traditional religious approach to such matters, that you aren’t in a position to discover the origin of that order, and so instead you decide that the order comes from God.

    There is nothing wrong with this kind of thinking except relying on the answer!

    So, rather than decide that God is the origin, how would you go about trying to find out?

  • Jonathan West

    I did point out that atheism is a consequence of this way of thinking, rather than the core of it.

    And I’m sure you do believe there is evidence for God. A great many Christians have described it to me. It is all remarkably unconvincing. And if you think that the way evidence is weighed in a court case is different from how it is weighed in science, then I have to say that there are a large number of forensic scientists who would rather disagree with you.

    Of course there are many things which were formerly believed to be “acts of God” where we now know better. for instance we know the cause of lightning, and we know that a lightning conductor will protect the roof of a brothel just as effectively as the spire of a church. We know that many diseases are caused by germs, and that antibiotics will cure them irrespective of whether the patient is righteous or a sinner. These things contradict what religion used to tell us.

    And this is entirely one-way traffic. Scientists keep finding natural causes for things previously thought to be God acting in the world. They don’t find evidence that any particular phenomenon is evidence of God’s action.

    That of course isn’t proof that no scientific evidence of God’s intervention will ever be found. But I’m not holding my breath waiting.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

    Insofar as Jorge is prompted by kind consideration to warn of a danger real to him, I’m sure that’s appreciated.

    But the Biblical authority for Hell depends on three passages: Luke 16:19-31, Matthew 25: 31-46, and stepping away from what “Jesus said”, the passage in Revelations chapter 20.

    Two passages a few verses long is not sufficient to justify a claim that “Jesus constantly spoke of Hell”.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     Interestingly, on another thread I’m being informed that politely expressing a view at variance with the majority, and making fact-based non-abusive arguments in its favour, is being a “troll”.

    So much for the “tolerance” of religious people.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     What my faith gives to me is something that no atheist will ever have,
    or take away, and that is a comforting belief that I will be reunited
    with those who I have loved and have passed before me.

    *nods*

    Actually, I agree with you. I think that’s a very comforting belief, and it’s honestly one I’ve wished I could share on occasions I’m sure you can imagine.

    but if that’s what you want others to believe then to hell with you.

    On the other hand, I also don’t have to believe that anyone is being tortured by God for eternity.  Which I cannot help feeling would be a distincting uncomforting belief.

  • aearon43

    Scientists have not shown where things themselves and intelligence come from in the first place. That is what religion answers, not particular events like disease.

  • aearon43


    we have observed that the universe works that way.”  

    Human beings have always been observing the universe. There is obviously quite a bit more to science than simple observation, experiments, statistics, logical correlations, etc. Beyond that, there is the faith-based belief that human observation actually correlates with reality in any significant way.

    “So, rather than decide that God is the origin, how would you go about trying to find out?”

    That you disagree with our reasoning doesn’t mean that we don’t actually engage in reasoning. Suggesting that Christians merely “decide” things rather than attempt to understand them could be considered a bit condescending, wouldn’t you agree?

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     “. In the US Constitution, rights are understood as granted by God”

    Not at all. In the US Constitution, rights are understood as granted by We The People to We The People.

    Likewise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Neither one depends on belief in God.

  • Jonathan West

    My problem with your form of reasoning is that it seems to be a bit short of ways in which you can check whether or not it is right. 

    Within 5 miles of where I live, there are churches for the following denominations: Baptist, C of E, Assyrian, Methodist, Catholic, Coptic, Pentecostal, United Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Church of God, Christian Fellowship, Evangelical, Spiritualist, Greater Life, Salvation Army, and African Methodist Episcopal. In addition there places of worship for Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism, a Buddhist Vihara, a Shiva Temple and several mosques of different varieties.

    The thing is that the Muslims, the Jews, the Hindus, the Buddhists, and the several hundred different varieties of Protestant all have differing and mutually conflicting idea about God. There are even differing ideas about him within Catholicism itself. 

    So it’s not unreasonable to ask by what means we can work out which (if any) of these ideas is true. Wars have been fought between all these groups because they did not have that means and so sought to impose their ideas on others by force. I think it is time we decided to do better.

    We don’t have Anglican science and Catholic science with conflicting rules on thermodynamics. We don’t have Methodist science and Baptist science with different theories of evolution. We don’t have Sunni and Shia Muslim science with a variety of mutually incompatible ideas about relativity, nor Buddhist and Hindu science with alternative approaches to quantum electrodynamics.

    It is certainly true that science doesn’t know everything. But at least it has a means by which disputes on matters of fact can eventually be resolved and the resolution accepted by all. 

    Religion demonstrably doesn’t. The only two approaches the religions have is either for one side to force its ideas on the other at the point of a sword, or for them to agree to disagree and leave each other alone.

    So, how can you show me that your Catholic ideas about God are the right ones (right in terms of being factually based) and that those of your Protestant, Muslim or Hindu neighbours are not factually based where they differ from yours?

    I’m not saying your ideas are wrong. I’m merely asking for the means by which you can tell they are right.

  • Jonathan West

    They are working on intelligence, and more answers will come along in due course. Do you want to bet that their conclusion will be “God did it”? Or do you think that a natural mechanism will be discovered? 

    As for “things themselves” over the last hundred years or so we have made huge progress on that, with the development of the Big Bang theory. As a result, we have been able to show how the universe has come to be the way it is operating according to the same unchanging laws for over 13 billion years. No sign of divine interventions. Do you expect the scientists to find evidence of divine intervention in the origins of the universe as they probe further back, or do you think 
    that a natural mechanism will be discovered?   

    Also, how can you tell that religion’s answers are correct? After all, different religions offer different and mutually conflicting answers. they can’t all be right. How do you know that the answers of your particular religion are the right ones, and everybody else’s are wrong?

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

     Do you think it’s possible that Catholic teaching on homosexuality is intended with the good of homosexuals sincerely in heart

    No.

    I realise that’s a terse answer, but a detailed response as to why I do not believe that Catholic teaching is so intended would be fairly long. If you’re genuinely interested in my answer, that might well be an interesting blog post.

    that maybe we’re not just being jerks for the fun of it?

    Can I point you at Is it now illegal to question same-sex marriage? (The answer’s “No”, but I guess that wouldn’t have been as much fun.)

    You’ll find any number of comments there from self-identified Catholics and other Christians that are abusive and insulting. One person later apologised when I called her on it. The Catholic Herald has let all of the abuse stand.

    On a more egregious level, there was an incident at a funeral in February this year where the dead woman’s daughter was denied communion by a priest because she was openly gay and had attended her mother’s funeral with her partner of 20 years. While the Archdiocese later apologised to the woman, there were Catholics in the diocese who agreed with the priest’s decision to deny her communion: and the Archbishop, Donald Wuerl, had certainly “led” the priest in the direction of being a jerk to lesbians by fighting against same-sex couples getting married and even being foster parents.

  • TreenonPoet

     It would seem from a recent Ipsos MORI poll that most Christians are secularists. (78% of Christans agree that religion should be a private matter and governments should not interfere in it.)

  • TreenonPoet

     You committed the sin of disagreeing with them. That automatically makes you a troll, militant, totalitarian, aggressive, etc. Such labels are an admission that they cannot counter your argument rationally, so take it as a compliment. After all, they are not wanting to burn you at the steak (are they?). Whereas all athiests are like Lenin, Stalin, Pinochet, Pol Pot, and Mao apparently (sorry, scrub Pinochet).

  • scary goat

     Come on now Jonathan, don’t be silly!  You seriously expect us to believe that all that marvellous technology you speak of was created????!!  Silly me!  There I was thinking it had evolved all by itself from nothing.  I jest, of course.  Joking aside, I really like your point that none of us actually KNOW for sure…..I think that’s probably the first atheist I have ever met who doesn’t KNOW definitively that there is no god(s).  By the way, thanks for your postings on the abuse thread.

    Ok, so where did all that marvellous technology come from?  WE created it. How?  With what?  Our brains to think it out (cumulatively), our eyes to see what we were doing, our ability to communicate through complex language to explain the workings of our brains to others, our ears to hear their responses, our hands to make, or to make the machines that make the machines, a skeleton to support all those body parts and more, skin to stop the body parts falling out, muscles to move the body parts, nerves to connect the body parts to the brain, and the brain itself, which not only controls the body in terms of finding food, keeping warm, finding a sexual partner to reproduce….yes these beings even reproduce themselves automatically, but a brain that also has a capacity for abstract thought, philosophy, conscience, emotion etc.  It seems to me that the human “machine” as well as all sorts of other life forms are far superior to the machines we have created, yet we were not created?  We just evolved from nothing by sheer chance?  My first statement about technology evolving was ridiculous, deliberately so.

    I feel that actually the only “fool proof” position is agnostic.  In my opinion we none of us know for sure.  As I mentioned somewhere else on this thread, the creed says “I believe……”  it doesn’t say “I know and can prove scientifically…..”  There are other disciplines of the marvellous human mind apart from science.  There is also philosophy.  It takes all sorts to make the world go round.  From my perspective I am quite willing to accept that no-one knows.  I think we are in agreement that it’s all mind-blowingly marvellous.  I am quite happy for you to be agnostic (in a good way) and carry on trying to find out what it’s all about through science.  Keep us informed of your progress.  I also feel that we have a right to be agnostic (in a good way) and use our minds to philosophise on what your scientific discoveries mean. Traditionally science and religion were considered complimentary disciplines.  It is only in comparatively recent times that they have come to be considered as opposing (by some). 

    I am happy with the complimentarity.  Rather than setting up camps atheist v religious we could actually get on much better if we all redefined ourselves as “believing agnostics” and “unbelieving agnostics”.  There IS a common ground, just the conclusions we draw from the hard facts are different.  I am pretty sure there are questions that are unanswered, maybe even unanswerable, in both camps. 

    Thus far, I have been talking “natural theology” which isn’t quite the same thing as “religion”. How we move from natural theology to religion is another question, which I am not going to start on here.  If unbelieving agnostics will just give believing agnostics a bit of credit for having some intelligence, and acknowledge the validity of natural theology as a philosophy, I am quite happy to agree to differ beyond that point.  What I object to is “knowing” atheists trolling religious websites and insulting us.  So far, you seem to be the exception, and as such, at least from my point of view, you are welcome. I am actually taking a break from CH and won’t be around for a while, so I’ll hand this discussion over to others now.

    Nice to talk with you.

  • JonnyB

     
    Which comment would that be?

    I replied, initially, to your false
    assertion that atheism is defined by the ideology of Dawkins &
    asked a simple question – can you name one example of “damage to
    the world” done SOLELY in the name of atheism (atheism being the
    lack of, or disbelief in, God or gods).

    I see no other post from you which
    clearly demonstrates that Oxford Dictionary (et al) are wrong in
    their definition of atheism and/or shows an example of the type
    requested.

  • Jonathan West

    I’m not sure we can restrict ourselves to a discussion based solely on natural theology without considering any other sources of revelation used by the religious, but we can have a try.

    The scientific position with regard to ignorance is first to acknowledge it. Scientists don’t mind admitting ignorance, it means that they still have work to do finding out! The second aspect of the scientific position is based on Occam’s Razor – not to theorise the existence of entities unless there is some evidence.

    It seems to me that science and natural theology are both addressing the same subject matter, i.e. what we observe of the universe around us. But they take two somewhat different approaches to the subject. Science merely tries to work out generalisations (theories or natural laws if you prefer to call them that) that allow us to reliably predict the behaviour of some aspect of the universe. Natural theology seems to look to find a way of saying that whatever science discovers, it is a manifestation of God.

    Let me give you an example: Darwinian evolution. With Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, as subsequently refined and extended in the ensuing 150 years, we have a theory which provides an explanation for the complexity and variety of all life on the planet. We still have much to learn in terms of the details, but have the explanation in principle, and so much confirming evidence that it is exceedingly unlikely that any of the founding principles of Darwin’s theory will be overturned.

    In steps natural theology with the doctrine of “theistic evolution”, which in essence says that at least some of the apparently random mutations that eventually resulted in the way the world is now (including us) weren’t in fact random at all, but were guided by God with the specific intention of creating us, and God did this in such a subtle way that we have no possible way to tell the difference between the wholly natural process of Darwinian evolution and the subtly supernatural process of guided evolution.

    There are two problems with this from a scientific point of view. First, theistic evolution doesn’t obey Occam’s Razor – God is not necessary to explain the observed phenomena. The second is that theistic evolution (an official catholic doctrine by the way) is what is known as an unfalsifiable proposition. There is no prediction made by theistic evolution, no test you could possibly devise that would enable you to distinguish between natural darwinian evolution and theistic evolution. God has been defined as being too subtle for that.

    There’s therefore no way you can possibly prove theistic evolution to be false. But by the same token, there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is true.

    For natural theology to get over this hurdle, it needs to make specific predictions – that some previously unobserved aspect of the universe will be this way if God exists, and that way if God doesn’t exist. In other words it needs to become more like science.

    And in principle, such predictions should be possible. The God of Christianity is an intervening God. If he intervenes in ways that humans can recognise, as described in the Bible for instance, then it should in principle be possible for scientists to detect signs of those interventions.

    If on the other hand you believe in a God who does not make detectable interventions, but only works through undetectable interventions such as theistic evolution, then the fact is that all your claimed knowledge of God is an invention. It is not and cannot be based on evidence, because you have defined God in such a way that he doesn’t ever leave any.

  • rjt1

    Jonathan: on what does one base the view that the scientific method is a valuable standard for evaluating the truth of propositions? Can it be used to evaluate the truth of any proposition, and if so, is the claim that it can be used to do that a fruit of the scientific method? I think the answer to the third question is no, which means that 1) the scientific method must be based on a more fundamental proof or assumption and 2) it is not suitable for adjudicating all questions.

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

    Wouldn’t you find it offensive to have your relationship with your spouse compared to bestiality?

  • rjt1

    On that point about predictive power: granted that Darwin’s theory is a plausible explanation of the past, I don’t think it has ever been used to predict anything. Does that mean it is unscientific?

  • Jonathan West

    It has been used to predict things. It was use to predict that there would be a cellular mechanism for heredity – it was found in the form of DNA. It was used to predict that there would be a mechanism for the generation and propagation of mutations – it was found.

    It was used to predict that we would never find fossil rabbits in precambrian rock strata – no such fossils have been found. if they ever were, it would utterly overthrow evolution. A few other predictions are listed here

    http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA210.html 

  • Jonathan West

    I think we need to refine your first question, to consider only factual propositions concerning the universe around us. God comes within this category since it is claimed by the religious that he intervenes in the world, and so those interventions are (at least in principle) amenable to scientific inquiry.

    And any factual proposition concerning the world can (at least in principle) be answered by the scientific method, provided it is frames in such a way that a test can be devised that would allow you to establish by observation whether the proposition is true.

    So for instance the proposition that god answers prayers is in principle  testable – get lots of people to pray for something, see if it happens. But the proposition that god answers prayers except when you are trying to count up the answers to see if God exists is unanswerable by science, because the proposition is defined so that no conceivable test can be devised to distinguish between the truth or falsity of the hypothesis.

    If we restrict ourselves to factual propositions for which a test in principle can be devised, then the scientific method 9again by observation) has shown itself to be a pretty good way of going about finding out.

    Now, it may be that while a test is possible in principle, we currently lack the technology or other means to carry it out. In such cases, we just have to wait until the test become not merely possible in principle but also practicable. until the test becomes available, the only answer a scientist can give to the question is “we don’t know at the moment”.

    God is claimed to intervene in the world, and yet scientists have found awfully little evidence of those interventions. I’m interested to know what ways the religious have to know that their understanding of God is correct, ways which are superior to the scientific method and go where it cannot follow. Do you have any suggestions?

  • scary goat

     Ok, couple of points.  Unless this post was before my apology, why do you feel it necessary to keep on about it.

    Also, I am not the straight in a gay bar here. I do not go to gay sites forcing my beliefs on gay people. And before you start about the Catholic Church forcing it’s beliefs on the secular population, that is not a position I personally support.  I have not signed the petition by the way.  I was having a conversation on a Catholic site and did not know there were any gays present.  When I realised there were, I apologised for my comment.

    On further reflection, and before you start screaming about prejudice and hate and foulness, this is a genuine question, not an insult to gays, rather it is a question regarding “equality” and prejudice.  What is actually wrong with bestiality? It is a practice that also is known in human history, and still continues today.  It was originally deemed unacceptable because people feared the creation of hybrid monsters.  We now know that genetically this is not possible.  So why shouldn’t people do whatever they fancy?  Just wondering why our “prejudice” against your position is not acceptable, yet you clearly felt that any
    “comparison” with other behaviours was foul and hateful.  Maybe bestialists (not sure if that is the right word) would consider you to be prejudiced against their position and find your view insulting. I think it is a fair point that we either allow for everyone’s right to do whatever they want, or we accept that not everyone agrees about everything.  As I already stated, I personally do not agree with the Church forcing its views on the secular population.  I am talking about personal views and opinions.  As far as I am concerned you can do what you like.  You can’t force me to like it or accept it.  You either need to accept that not everyone agrees with your position, or you also need to accept that some other practices may also have validity.

  • rjt1

    In the difficulties I raised, I was trying to suggest that science needs a philosophical basis (you have to justify using the empirical method but you can’t use the empirical method to justify using it) and also that the existence of God is primarily a philosophical question. Clearly, many great intellects (Christian and non-Christian) have attempted to answer the question that way.

    Since God is a non-material being, I would not expect him to be detectable by methods that are restricted to material processes. However, I suppose there is still the question of miracles.

    In the modern era, many people would deny the possibility and therefore would dismiss reports of them out of hand but I would invite you to consider, say, the reports from the Lourdes medical bureau, which I believe is staffed by a panel of doctors/scientists, some of whom are believers, others not.

  • rjt1

    Very interesting. Thank you.

  • Jonathan West

    Why does science need a “philosophical basis”? Isn’t enough that it works as a way of finding things out? After all, all it is to say that if you want to learn what something is like, the best way is to take a look.

    Whether God is non-material or not is entirely irrelevant to the issue. It is claimed that God intervenes within the material universe (for instance with miracles), and so in principle those interventions should be scientifically detectable, even if God is non-material in some way not yet understood.

    As for Lourdes, I’m not in the least bit impressed with suggestions of miraculous cures. The fact is that human bodies are highly variable, including in their reaction and resistance to disease. Some time ago, there was a survey conducted (I think it was in Australia) on the survival rates of cancer patients whose cancer was so advanced as to be incurable, and they had been placed on palliative care only. The average survival period in palliative care was 6 months. But some lasted longer and some not so long. A very small proportion (about 1% or so) were still alive five years later.

    At Lourdes, you have huge numbers of sick people passing through the place. Just by sheer chance, you will get an occasional one whose body happens to manage a very rare fightback at about the time they visit. The fact that doctors don’t have a detailed explanation doesn’t mean that there was supernatural intervention. It just means that person was in the lucky 1% or perhaps even 0.1%. If anything I’m mildly surprised that there aren’t more claims of miraculous cures than there are.

    Please realise that I’m not saying that miraculous cures are impossible, I’m just pointing out that if you look only at the 0.1% of best outcomes and draw a target round them, you’re not going to get a very complete understanding of what is going on, and so the existence of such people who have visited Lourdes is no evidence of supernatural intervention.

    Now, you might think I’m nitpicking here, and trying to find ways of avoiding acknowledging the miraculous cures. But I’m doing no more than scientists have learned by bitter experience to do – trying to identify all possible confounding factors, all possible alternative explanations. this is Richard Feynman (Nobel prizewinnng physicist) describing the process.

    “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

    Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. “

  • TreenonPoet

    If anything I’m mildly surprised that there aren’t more claims of miraculous cures than there are.

    Your remark reminded me of the Harvard STEP project in which patients who knew they were being prayed for fared worse than those who received no prayers. Apart from factors such as the stress of the journey to Lourdes, I wonder whether there is a stress factor in needing to prove to friends that the journey was worthwhile, or something similar.

    I thought it was very telling that when Sanal Edamaruku exposed the truth behind a supposed miracle in India, the Catholic Church there was consequently prepared to have this rationalist arrested for blasphemy. So much for the scientific scrutiny they claim that ‘miracles’ are subject to.

  • John B.

    No, your answers are tinged with sarcasm sir, and what you have to offer is nothing at all but platitudes of “making the world a better place” and being “constructively engaged” blah, blah, blah. Let’s just concede that you will not compromise on your beliefs and I won’t on mine, and leave it at that.

  • John B.

    C’mon now, surely you can think of people who should be tortured for eternity, besides the obvious ones. I will admit that my “to hell with you” comment could be misconstrued, it was meant figuratively, not literately.

  • John B.

    I don’t discriminate against Atheists, just pretentious pseudo intellectual douchebags like you TPoet, and when all else fails losers with nothing to back up their argument whip out the Nazi card. Jesus H. Christ, do you really think that Catholics, or any else for the matter really want to convert you? Quite frankly I don’t think any Catholic gives a rats ass about you or what you think, but if you want to get in our faces then we would be happy to take you on, anytime, anywhere.

  • Jonathan West

    No, there is no sarcasm. Please stop making assumptions about me.

    The fact is that at least one of us must be wrong. Either God exists (in which case I’m wrong) or he doesn’t (and you’re wrong).

    I wonder if we could explore whether there is some means of finding out one way or the other. Do you have any suggestions?

  • Jonathan West

    Whatever happened to turning the other cheek?

  • http://twitter.com/EyeEdinburgh EdinburghEye

    C’mon now, surely you can think of people who should be tortured for eternity

    Actually.. no.

    One: because no, I don’t think that anyone could, in a limited lifetime, do anything that justified having them tortured for eternity.

    Two: because even if I could, I don’t think anyone would deserve to become a torturer.

    Three: If we are to believe the people who tell us Hell exists know what they’re talking about, who in their view will go there? Doctor George Tiller? Mohandas K. Gandhi? Peter Tatchell? Abdol-Hossein Sardari? David Attenborough? . I will admit that my “to hell with you” comment could be misconstrued, it was meant figuratively, not literately.

    *grin* Glad to hear it. But seriously, the concept of “hell”, like the concept of “healing prayer”, is something in itself that discomforts me. I do respect the right of everyone to believe as they wish – but some beliefs strike me as ethically/morally dangerous, and Hell is one of them.

  • Los Leandros

    Straight from the Richard Dawkins book of making it up as you go along. Scientists are ” working on intelligence ” ; Dawkins said the same about free will ; to the effect that scientists are presently working on it – they have a piece of free will under the mcroscope as we speak. We await with baited breath. The fact is of course that scientists come in various forms ; from the irrational ( atheist materialists ), to the more open-minded, who know the limitations of their knowledge. 

  • John B.

     Never believed in that one myself.

  • John B.

    Hey if you look around Hell is right here and now, ( I saw it for myself in Fallujah, Iraq) it’s all around us and it’s man made, so is heaven for that matter, or the natural world. As for the after life, who knows? No one has ever come back with evidence that there is one. I would rather believe that there is one than not, but I won’t know until the end, that’s where the faith part comes in. But whatever you believe in, I respect that and wish you nothing but peace.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Dishonest. It does not even begin to compare.

    Punishing people for political opinions destroys the very foundations of
    democracy. How would you feel if Republicans start getting people fired
    from their jobs because they voted for Obama? I assure you that, if
    this happened, Democrats would be so outraged that many of them would
    engage in physical violence.

    What happened in those Catholic schools (I assume, because I cannot load
    the link), on the other hand, was not due to opinion. It was due to
    BEHAVIOR. Do you know the difference?

    And a school obviously does have the right to fire teachers whose immoral behavior is bad example to the students.

    If a teacher uses cocaine, or engages in incest with his elderly mother, or practices sodomy, than he *can* and most surely *should* be fired.

  • Fides_et_Ratio

     Oh please.
    Just read the poor Bible.