UPDATE 04/05: In light of a very thoughtful email response (which I have asked permission to repost) I need to make a couple of clarifications to this post. I see in retrospect that I have not been as clear as I ought to have been with regard to what I am calling certainty. As you read this post, please be sure that you take all declarations of certainty as meaning the following: Unless and until the evidence changes drastically, X is so overwhelmingly certain as to be well beyond any reasonable debate whatsoever. Even the most certain scientific principles can eventually succumb to new discoveries. (Newtonian Physics, for instance.) I do not mean to declare that the debate between atheism and theism is dead for all time beyond the possibility of any new evidence coming to light. That would be absurd. I mean to say that the evidence at this time is so overwhelming that any “debate” which does not include previously undiscovered evidence is not a debate at all, but a rehashing of an issue which has already been resolved as well as humanly possible.
I forget sometimes that some things that seem obvious to scientific-minded non-theists are not at all obvious to theists, or to nontheists who are not particularly science minded. I guess sometimes I project my own little sphere onto the rest of the world. Among my friends, it is well understood that any mention of certainty is not meant to imply the strawman of certainty of which many theists accuse us. Every child who graduates from grade school ought to be well equipped to live the rest of his life without thinking of that ridiculous strawman, but unfortunately, we live in a world where many people genuinely believe that is the way we atheists think. So, once again, let me encourage you to read this blog entry as it was originally posted, but please bear in mind that I am not using the Christian, or Fascist version of certainty. In all cases, I mean: As the evidence stands, this thing is so monumentally supported by the evidence as to eliminate the practical possibility of debate.
I had a very nice visit with a good friend in Greenville over the weekend, although my brief car tour around the outside of Bob Jones Univeristy left me feeling a little like Nixon in China. In any case, I apologize that I haven’t had my normal time to read and research this week, so I don’t have anything earth-shattering today.
I do have a couple of thoughts on the debate between theism and atheism, though. Recently, another theist demanded a “real debate” on an atheist site, and was defeated with one short paragraph before the debate could even begin. I have pretty much given up debating theists. I used to do it, and I dare say I was pretty good at it, but after perhaps a hundred debates, on topics ranging from proofs of God to evolution to the nature of knowledge, I’ve come to realize a simple truth:
There is no debate between theism and atheism. There are only people who didn’t get the memo that the debate was won decades ago, if not centuries.
As many of my readers probably know, Richard Dawkins has a blanket refusal to debate creationists. His standard response to requests goes something like this. ”I’m sure such a debate would enhance his CV. It wouldn’t enhance mine.” This witty answer highlights the real problem with theist-atheist debates. One side is simply unprepared for the debate.
It turns out, even a lot of atheists don’t know a simple truth about debate, but anyone who’s ever been on a debate team is well aware that in order to debate on a topic, one must know his opponent’s position at least as well as he knows his own. As an example, if someone is going to argue that Creationism is true, he must know Evolution at least as well or better than his opponent!
This is where every evolution/creation debate I’ve ever seen fails. The creationist is ignorant of even the most basic aspects of evolutionary theory. My own response to demands for debates with Creationists is not so kind as Professor Dawkins. I tell my interlocutor that I will debate him on one condition — that I get to ask him five questions about evolution, all of which would be common knowledge to any undergraduate in evolutionary biology. If he can answer the five questions, I’ll debate. Otherwise, it’s obvious from the beginning that it wouldn’t be a debate — it would be a lecture with a heckler in the audience.
The fact is, there is no question that evolution occurs. None whatsoever. The debate has been over since 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of the evolutionary unit of selection. Similarly, there is no debate between theism and atheism. By the only coherent rules of debate, it is patently obvious that theists cannot overcome the burden of proof. All debates about proving God should follow exactly this format:
Atheist: Prove God.
Theist: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Atheist: You have failed to prove God.
Anything more than this is giving too much credibility to the theist side. I’ve noticed that many theists do not understand the rules of logic or debate well enough to know that they lose the debate by default if they cannot prove God. There are only so many arguments for god, and all of them have been soundly defeated — most of them within hours of being proposed.
Over the past few years, my tactics have changed significantly. While I recognize that there’s a need for the occasional demonstration of anti-theism arguments, I now believe that formal debate gives the opposition the appearance of having validity that it simply doesn’t have. Instead of debate, I now believe in education. In other words, I will not debate a theist anymore, but I will spend time teaching him why he is unprepared for a debate, and I will teach him why his position is in error. Maybe this sounds condescending — and maybe theists would be right to take offense that I would so blatantly insult their intelligence. But you know what? I’m over being worried that the truth might offend them.
This “war” between theism and atheism has long been won. What we have now is a confederacy of the ignorant waging a political battle against the informed, and the ignorant are winning — by a long shot. I’ve vowed to myself that I will always try to remember that there are two very different arenas — intellectual and political. The intellectual war is over. The political war is the one that needs attention. Rather than waste my time arguing with theists over things that they don’t know, I prefer to empower and educate atheists, in the hope that they will join me in treating theism with the only thing it deserves — utter disdain.
Only when we, the atheist community, embrace the fact that we’ve won will we be powerful enough to improve the world on any kind of grand scale. Only when we have the guts to stand up and call Creationism what it is, without fear of offending the ignorant, will we have hope to see our intellectual victory manifested in the real world. Religion is a scourge upon the earth. It is a mind virus. It is harmful to children. It incites war, hatred, bigotry, and fear. Moderate religious people, though very well meaning, are on the wrong side of the fence. There is simply no reason to accept religion on any intellectual ground. It has been soundly defeated on all levels. All we have to do is be brave enough to accept our victory.