A while back I wrote an article called “Time to Stop Debating” that was published in American Atheists Magazine. I also posted a version in this blog (see here). In it I suggested that the Atheist Movement has moved into a phase in which it should focus on normalizing atheism, and that one important strategy to accomplish that is to “stop debating.” Shortly after, atheist activist Matt Dillahunty (see here) posted a 25 minute rebuttal video (see here).
I thank Mr. Dillahunty for his sincere and thoughtful rebuttal in defense of continued debate. I felt that he did make a conscientious effort to be fair and even-handed while arguing that debate remains one of our most important strategies to win hearts and change minds. We do not disagree on that.
While he certainly presented a well-crafted argument, it is probably unsurprising that I do not feel he made his case and that his objections were overstated. One major problem is that he characterized my call to “stop debating” as tantamount to surrender and refusing to engage. He repeatedly paints a picture of a minority of atheists remaining silent and passive while refusing to engage in meaningful debate with a vigorous religious majority.
Clearly, I did not advocate any such complacency. I advocate engagement in all forms of discussion and persuasion. What I did say however, is that in those conversations we should take a stronger “no debate” stance on issues of belief and religion. That is, we should reject out-of-hand arguments based on faith, refuse to entertain them, and instead insist upon engaging on the basis of universal principles and evidence.
To illustrate this nuance, think of how we treat racism. We don’t “debate” racism anymore, even though a large number of people may still wish to do so. Yes, we still engage actively in social policy driven by or impeded by racist ideology. But we won’t seriously respond to discredited arguments like whether white men have superior brains. We engage in policy discussions and debate them vigorously, but we only give serious consideration to legitimate arguments. If white racists argue that they deserve special privileges purely because they are god’s chosen ones, we reject it out-of-hand without undeserved debate. To do so would “only” elevate that notion and distract from substantive debate. However, if those same white supremacists make fact-based arguments for the same policies, we should then engage honestly in that debate and be willing to be open-minded.
In public discourse, there are many topics that are “not up for debate.” We should likewise exclude religious fantasy from serious debate. If you argue that god exists or humans were created, we should dismiss those arguments as inherently invalid. If you invoke god or the Bible to justify a policy position, we should insist that you put forth legitimate arguments based upon universal principles. This should be particularly true in all government hearings and debates, but sadly it is not.
Therefore I am not advocating for refusing to engage at all. I am advocating for gradually extricating ourselves from the debate embrace that has enthralled us for millennia. It is unfair of Mr. Dillahunty to dismiss my argument by carrying it to an extreme; just as it would be unfair if I were to portray his position as advocating for the paralysis of the status quo. In the abortion debate and many others, as long as the religious Right can keep us debating on their terms, they are effectively neutralizing us. What we are willing to accept as legitimate debate is itself part of the debate and part of the persuasive process.
And as far as the persuadable middle is concerned, it is my perception that for every one person that someone like Mr. Dillahunty may rightly feel proud to have influenced for the better, there are many, many more whose uncertainty is reinforced by seemingly legitimate debate that makes it appear that “reasonable people disagree” and “there are good arguments on both sides.” Creating doubt through debate is exactly the horribly successful tactic that has been exploited by “The Merchants of Doubt” on a wide range of important issues to create intellectual and policy paralysis (see here).
Mr. Dillahunty makes some other earnest sounding arguments that are not particularly compelling. He argues that although debate has gone on essentially forever, we have new media today that could change the game in our favor. I see no historical evidence of that. Certainly the printing press did not fundamentally change the debate. In fact the Bible became the most widely printed book ever. Likewise it is not clear that the Internet will somehow make our traditional debate tactics more successful.
Mr. Dillahunty also repeatedly asserts that my strategy would only work if we atheists were in the majority. He has no basis for certainty in that assertion. There are many examples of social norms of legitimate discourse that are effectively enforced by a relatively small minority. His argument arises from his assertion that fact-based thinkers have little sway or leverage in society. That is not my assessment; we have reality on our side and the religious zealots who engage in irrational debate are in fact a minority. Finally, if we do not drive this change, if we wait for patient, deferential debate to get us there, we never will. We will be hosting the same silly debates with a Ken Ham (see here) in another thousand years, if we had that luxury of time.
So let me once more sincerely thank Mr. Dillahunty for his stimulating rebuttal. Though I am not swayed, it was entertaining and thought-provoking. I have no doubt that his efforts to educate and inform are valuable and I’m not trying to put him out of business. Quite the opposite, we need talented debaters like Mr. Dillahunty to push us out of this quagmire of eternal debates about fantasy. We should not waste talent like his rebutting long-disproved arguments rather than helping to propel the secular movement into the normalization phase.