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Debating Crazies

Entry 679, on 2008-01-20 at 21:14:08 (Rating 3, Religion)

I've had some spare time this weekend so I have been reading Richard Dawkin's book, the God Delusion, and listening to some podcasts from the Infidel Guy. For me this is a classic combination guaranteed to generate an anti-religious rant! So here it is...

A common attitude held by many science advocates is that religion and science cover non-overlapping magisteria, a famous idea by Stephen Jay Gould. Some (especially American) scientists follow this line because they have just been told by endless propaganda that they must be respectful to religion, but I can't see why they should be. Others know its not true but use it as a strategic point to make themselves look less controversial and therefore have a better chance to win the debate.

A related issue is whether its a good idea to even debate religious people. Many people claim that by doing that the other side gains credibility because they can say they have engaged in debate with scientists. Another point is that many supporters of religious ideas are actually skilled debaters and if the person debating the rational side isn't well prepared he can actually be defeated in the debate even when the opposition has no real case.

I have heard several debates where creationists, intelligent design supporters, and just plain theists have been well beaten but I have also heard some where they have seemingly made good points or even won just because the rationalist lacked good debating skills or knowledge in a certain area. So its important that anyone debating religion should be prepared to debate effectively. Being right is not enough, and never has been.

I have debated and discussed the issue with several believers and I think I have made some progress in several cases. I'm not naive enough to think I have converted anyone but I hope that I have given a few people something to think about, at least. Many believers just don't understand that there is an excellent argument against their position because they have a poor science education and constant exposure to religious propaganda in their church. Its important that rationalists correct these misunderstandings but to do so effectively isn't easy.

I have spent many hours arguing with believers in person but I prefer debate on internet chat forums and blogs. I find that type of debate results in more well thought out arguments because there is time to cool off after encountering a particularly absurd statement by your opposition and there is time to consult other sources to support areas where your knowledge might not be quite as complete. I know I have learnt a lot about theology, philosophy, and history by doing this. Since my background is in science and technology my knowledge in these other areas was always weaker.

Another point to consider in these debates is that the subject is only superficially creationism versus evolution, or Genesis vs the Big Bang. What the debate is really about is superstition versus rationality. Its important that the debater should be able to defend the scientific method, logic, empiricism, and rationality against superstition and faith. This requirement extends to debating new age beliefs, fake medicine, UFOs, and many other related areas.

If the believer can substantiate the claim that there way of understanding the world is just as good as science's then the debate is lost. You can point out all the objective evidence in the world but your opposition will just say that is just one way to look at it and that a world view based on faith, traditional beliefs, or the words of the Bible is just as valid.

The fact is the scientific world view is better. There are two main ways to demonstrate this. First, science gets results. For example, thousands of years of religion made no difference to peoples' health but just 200 years of science has tripled their life span. Religious people rely on science for every aspect of their lives but I don't see any major benefits that religion has given me.

The second is that science is based on ideas which are just naturally going to get the most accurate results. Relying on faith can prove anything. I could have faith that the Invisible Pink Unicorn is true. Why is that better than having faith that Jesus is some sort of saviour? Science applies formal logic and rigorous testing to everything. Weak ideas (including religion) are rejected and rightly so.

So I think I am more on Richard Dawkin's side than Stephen Jay Gould's on this question. I will continue to debate believers using the strongest possible techniques. If they don't like it and I scare them away from even considering the question then that's a risk I will just have to take. Those sorts of people would probably never be convinced anyway!

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Comment 1 (1024) by WF99 on 2008-01-21 at 08:45:56:

You've mentioned the IPU several unrelated times - is that a unified mock religion? I've heard of most of them, but not that one.

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Comment 2 (1026) by OJB on 2008-01-21 at 09:15:10:

Yes, she's the goddess of a satiric parody religion. There's a Wikipedia article here.

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Comment 3 (1028) by WF99 on 2008-01-21 at 14:23:53: Ah. Looks interesting.

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