Manual For (dishonestly) Debating Atheists
+Mike Brown is writing a book by the title "Manual For Debating Atheists". He previews some of his work on his website and has asked me to provide commentary. First off, I just want to thank Mike for giving me this opportunity and secondly I want to offer him some praise for not merely writing into the blind unknown and publishing unchallenged or unreviewed work, which is not surprisingly what many apologist tracts are horribly guilty of.
I agree with Mike when he states the following in his introduction:
"While one can practice logic in isolation a debate requires effective communication which in turn relies on common ground. And, the disparity between the two frameworks has led to confusion and miscommunication."
I don't want to offer a critique of the entire three chapters Mike has supplied, but I want to focus on the initial two parts of the first chapter, because I think he screws up very early on and that will likely taint all his work.
His first part is already mistaken, although the content is not all that bad. It reads:
"1) Break the debate into two parts: (a) Does ‘a’ god exist and, (b) Can this god be the God of Christianity."
The question of whether god exists or not is not, in my opinion at least, an interesting or important question. Answering a question like this requires the kind of knowledge humans simply don't possess, since a god could be hidden in any nook or cranny of human knowledge. The correct question, and the one I am interested in, is whether it is at all rational to believe that a god exists. This question is divorced from overstretched ontological claims and we can focus on epistemology instead of ontology, the former being much more workable and definitive than the latter which is kind of up in the sky and vague all around. Ontological debates are plagued by uncertainties and vague references to the unknown. Epistemology is more closely focused on what is reasonable to believe, so lets stick to that. Since many atheists are somewhat pragmatic it doesn't make sense to discuss the ultimate nature of reality with them, since they are not really concerned with such lofty philosophical assertions.
I agree with the next section, I particularly like the following statement Mike makes, and I think we can all agree on that:
Christians tend to take many things for granted in these debates not realizing that it is because they already believe in god that those things seem true. When talking with atheists however, nothing can be pre-supposed; the discussion starts with a completely blank slate.
This is tough for any person in a debate. Entertaining the perspective of an opponent can be difficult. As such I don't think this applies only to christians, but to everyone.
After this section, Mike starts some dishonest apologetics with the most painful aspect of apologetics: burden of proof!
This method is one I am familiar with and one I have addressed before in my dishonest apologetics series: The Set Up. Since this is one of the most common apologetic tricks I will repeat myself a little here. From my post:
"Most atheists I know are agnostic atheists. They make no claims about the absolute existence or non-existence of gods. Apologists have responded by calling atheists naturalists, defining the term naturalist to their satisfaction and then forcing the burden of proof onto atheists. If you were suckered into this, you now have to be omniscient. You must explain the exact nature of the cosmos, because you must have eliminated every single possibility of any realm beyond the natural. You must reject any agnosticism. "But Mike claims the following:
"From there each participant can offer and support their explanation for existence whether it be god for the theist or naturalism (usually) for the atheist. Thus the burden of proof rests equally on each participant and conclusions are drawn by contrasting alternative explanations rather than by evaluating just one of the explanations against some exaggerated standard."
Because apologists are extremely inadequate in epistemic debates the goal is to shift the debate to an ontological one and to force a position of certainty about the nature of the universe onto atheists. Thankfully for Mike lots of atheists fall into this trap, unaware that they have accepted a much stronger position than their actual atheism has allowed them, and then being cornered later by the same epistemic problems that apologists cannot defeat in order to justify their beliefs.
I don't think Mike is deliberately dishonest. I think he genuinely thinks that atheists claim positions on the ontological nature of reality when in fact agnostic atheism and fallibilism is part and parcel of modern atheism and specifically rejects absolute ontological claims. Ontological debates are starved for real evidence, because we don't know an awful lot about reality as it is. What matters more in the end though is whether the things we believe are rational and based on our best effort of figuring out how the world works.
Modern atheism is about withholding judgement on ontological matters, and not surprisingly modern naturalism falls into that camp too. To foolishly stumble into a debate where you have to make absolute claims about reality is exactly what apologists like Mike want, and it is exactly wrong because it misses the element of uncertainty that atheists hold dear. Fortunately though this poor attempt does nothing to make theism more viable, it just makes any dogmatic versions of naturalism indefensible and rightly so. It does however distract from the actual useful discussions we should be having, but apologists know this because they intentionally want to avoid substantive challenges to their faith and create diversions that will make atheists look bad and by extension prop up their beliefs.
Mike then cries that science is biased against god in classical anti-science rhetoric, missing the point of the question "Is it rational to believe in god?" which is really what the important and interesting question is for most atheists and trying to make the issue about something it is not. He also misunderstands science completely, but since he has screwed up with the burden of proof question it is no surprise that he would continue to be wrong from that point forward.