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I am currently digging into atheism/agnosticism (I will use atheism for terms of simplicity). Before, I was not religious, I really did not give the subject much thought. I am reading Richard Dawkins The God Delusion and view some videos from discussion between atheists (Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins mainly) vs. theists to learn about the arguments. Thinking about these discussions, I asked myself the following question (and I will pass them onto you):

Why bothering debating theists?

To give more explanations: Atheists base their thinking on reason and logic. Debating someone whose logic is different does not make sense, does it? It would like speaking in 2 different languages to each other without understanding the opposite one.

So let me come to my core question: What makes my logic and reason right? I of course have a strong feeling that logic is the correct way of thinking. But is there a way to argue that it is correct?

I am neither a native English speaker nor an expert on atheism or theism. So I hope I expressed my confusion about (1) the foundation for debate and (2) the reasons why logic and reason is the correct approach.

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    It's said that during the early days of the space race, a Russian cosmonaut said to an American astronaut: "When I was in space I looked for God but he wasn't there." And the astronaut replied: "Yes. But you looked!" – user4894 May 15 '14 at 6:49
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    Why do you assume all theists do not base their thinking on reason and logic? They can possibly take different assumptions but still make valid conclusions. They can also reason from history, morality, the intelligibility of the world, and from personal experience placing greater emphasis on different factors when making judgments. – abnry May 16 '14 at 19:12
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    There is no proof or compelling evidence that god exists or that god doesn't exist, so most of the debates are between agnostic theists and agnostic atheists. Since neither side claims knowledge, the debate centers on trying to shift the burden of proof and the definition of terms. In a sense, there really is no point to the debates at all. – Kevin Holmes Sep 11 '14 at 16:15
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    Shame on you for subsuming both atheism and agnosticism under the first term ... – Drux Sep 16 '14 at 20:29
  • @surelyourejoking Richard Dawkins on Why I refuse to debate with William Lane Craig ... – Drux Sep 17 '14 at 4:29

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I'm addressing this primarily to the question in your headline, rather than the one in your post.

As a theist, I've often wondered the same question from the other side --is it worthwhile to debate atheists? Here are some answers in the affirmative that work equally well from either viewpoint:

A) If you believe you are right and that it would truly benefit another person to share your viewpoint, it is a kindness to try to extend them that benefit --to a point.

B) It can clarify your own beliefs and values to test them against an opposing perspective.

C) You might learn something of value from the other person.

Nevertheless, an attitude of mutual respect is a prerequisite --without it, there truly is no point. As far as your second question: how do you know your logic is correct? Perhaps the debate will help show you if it is or is not.

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    I follow these same three ideas from an atheist perspective. In any debate (requiring, of course, an attitude of mutual respect) it is the opportunity in my view to win a debate if you either learn something or teach something... thus both sides can win simultaneously by advancing each others knowledge. Advancement of knowledge is, I think, the fundamental purpose of debate. – KnightHawk Sep 11 '14 at 13:44
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Different, But Similar Enough

Debating someone whose logic is different does not make sense, does it? It would like speaking in 2 different languages to each other without understanding the opposite one.

Two standards of logic may differ, but they don't necessarily differ in all respects. On a general level, I'm quite sure many of varying forms of logic that exist today agree on basic logical deductions, for example, that if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. I am certainly not an expert in any of the non-Western logical systems, but I'd be quite surprised to learn of a logical system that didn't accept such a deduction. The differences you speak of in terms of "logic and reason" would likely lie elsewhere, such as what is and what is not an acceptable standard for proof.

Which Logic is Better?

What makes my logic and reason right? I of course have a strong feeling that logic is the correct way of thinking. But is there a way to argue that it is correct?

So as you mention, you can indeed debate over the soundness of logical axioms or principles. There are of course arguments one way or another which suggest a particular system is better or worse at achieving a particular goal, as long as you are able to agree on some basic (foundational) things. If you can both agree that X is the ultimate goal (say, "happiness"), and you have some method of comparing strategies in reaching X, then you can debate which strategy (logical system, reasoning principle, etc) is best to meet such an end. In theory, you could agree on nothing, and then yes debate would be futile. But in practice, I think most people agree on much of the foundational stuff, and are just haggling over the upper-level details, whether they realize it (or want to admit it) or not.

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Surely most of this discussion is moot.

The supposition that people of faith do not use logic is the point to focus on.

If it were true that people of faith, or theists do not use logic then I would agree, there would be no point in debating them at all, from any point of view or for any reason. It wouldn't even make sense for two theists to debate as they would have no basis on which to agree who was more right in a particular case.

The assumption that theists don't believe in/don't use logic is the problem. It's one of the primarily important reasons that these debates happen - so people can see that being theist is not an abandonment of reason or logic.

I think the reality is these debates show people disagreeing on what is a correct interpretation of reality - whether there is a God or not. Both sides use logic and reason as much as the other, they just are led to differing conclusions and so they debate the logical/reasonable steps made to get to their conclusions.

Any theist who debates without logic shouldn't be debated with by anyone. However, as you will start to see by watching these debates, most of the theists are not only logical but pretty reasonable in their arguments.

  • Pointing out the invalidity of the question's presupposition is a sufficient answer in itself. It is more of an ad-hominem, I think, than a strawman, or begging the question ... but ... it is still invalid nevertheless. – elika kohen Aug 11 '17 at 2:23
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Why should atheists bother debating theists?

Short answer: Because a debate usually involves three parties, not just two: The proponent 'for', the proponent 'against', and - often most importantly - the audience.

Longer answer:

For the purposes of this answer, I am assuming that the question refers to some sort of structured (semi)formal debate, not just a casual conversation where each participant takes an opposing view. The latter is still valuable and has led to many deconversion stories, but lies outside the scope of this response.

Additionally, in many of the atheist/theist debates the theistic position is represented by a theist who holds to some variant of a creationism viewpoint. While all the examples linked below involve creationist theists, the author feels this answer still applies if engaging with a different theistic viewpoint, such as deism. The particulars may be different, but the general benefits should still stand.

Debates are a tricky thing, and on the surface would seem to be anathema to anyone who generally thinks scientifically. After all, science is about developing models and putting them out for rigorous testing, with reality as the final judge of whether the model accurately describes what it sets out to describe. It doesn't matter how popular, charismatic, elegant, sexy or comforting the idea is - theories are accepted as provisionally true so long as their predictive power holds, and refined, revised or replaced if new data brings the theory into question. In science, data trumps all.

A debate, however, cares nothing for truth or even a reasonable facsimile thereof. Debates are won by scoring rhetorical points, not by being truthful or factual. In a live debate, there's not even time to fact-check your opponent's assertions - your rhetorical adversary could be confidently asserting one bold lie after another, and unless you're ready with snappy counters ahead of time each lie left unchallenged will look like a point in the other debater's favour1. If enough of the lies stand unchallenged at the end of the debate, Team Reason appears to have lost in the eyes of the layman and neither side will have changed the other's mind.

So why on earth would anybody favouring science and reason as means for arriving at functionally true statements about the world ever use a debate format to present the scientific case for anything?

When Christopher Hitchens debated William Dembski, he wasn't there to convince Dembski - he was there to present the case for science and reason to the young audience, and did a magnificent job doing so. When Bill Nye debated Ken Ham he went to raise awareness of science education in America, not to change Ken Ham's mind. Some debaters, like YouTuber Aron Ra, use an extended debate format as an educational tool. Websites dedicated to the issues, like the TalkOrigins Archive, turn the material generated by online debates into lasting educational resources.

Additionally, by engaging with the best arguments that your rhetorical opponents can muster you can improve your own knowledge2 and strengthen your own position - or realize you harbour misconceptions/misinformation of your own, and strive to correct it. Even if the 'other side' seems unwilling to budge, as a debater on Team Reason make it clear that you're open to changing your mind if the evidence warrants... despite the fact that you probably consider the odds such evidence exists is infinitesimally low.

Many of these debates take place in a wider societal context, and its the extended scope where these have their lasting value. Debate should not be the only tool in your kit, but done well a debate can be used to address issues such as science education and literacy, can expose people to views they might not normally encounter or consider, and can serve as an educational tool for yourself and for others.


1 When debating creationists, this strategy is known as the 'Gish Gallop'. Note that, while professional creationist debaters may do this deliberately, the average theist who stumbles on this strategy usually doesn't realize that they wield misinformation against you.

2 One of my favourite creationist/ID arguments will forever be the one about the "apparent design" of the avian pulmonary system, largely because I learned some pretty cool stuff about birds and early theropod dinosaurs researching a rebuttal.

  • The idea of keeping people appraised of dissenting opinion - I think - is especially important, and sorely lacking in U.S. school-systems. Instead, we debate whether to suppress dissenting opinion. I think this is an incredible argument, in this regard. – elika kohen Aug 11 '17 at 2:25
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First of all, assuming the deists are someone "whose logic is different" than the atheists, that right there is something that could be argued. Further, you and I can reach two different results with the same logic if we have different premises; it doesn't mean that two people who do not agree on something are using different types of logic. If that were the case, then there would be seven billion different logical systems.

Secondly, because of the thing I explained, you cannot build an analogy between two different languages and two different ideas.

And to your second question, what makes logic and reason right is that it is "Consistent and Complete". And do not make the mistake to think that "logic is a science". That would make logic falsifiable. However logic is not a science, it is composed of the definitions. Logic and reason is right just like you cannot prove x=3 after you defined x=2. What I mean is, if you know that x is a natural number, and you say "Ouw, then x is 2", then what you said is falsifiable. However if you say that "Let x be 2", then you say "Ouw, then x is 2", there is nothing false here, because you defined x that way. You could have define x as "Let x be 3", and say "Ouw, then x is 3", and that would be true too. It's just about how you define it. Logic is a definition. Everything that you defined is right, it is defined that way.

  • Hey. :) I tried to clean up your answer a bit but I don't really understand your "secondly" part or the part after, particularly the last sentence which did not really make sense in English (I tried to fix it to what I thought you meant). Could you clarify? – stoicfury Nov 15 '13 at 16:57
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Atheists tend towards reason and logic Theists have faith. Faith doens't require logic, it seems.

If you argue logically with a Deist about whether God exists, they'll always have the retort that they believe God exists because they have faith that he/she does. That's impenetrable to logic. Essentially, logic isn't a requirement in the notion of whether God exists, if you have faith.

So I think you're right in that there are two different types of something, but the something in theists case isn't logic. (incidentally that's not a sleight on such people)

I mention this because I've seen some arguments burst out between people who I know to be very bright and amiable, because they're talking with different requirements for their belief (logic vs. faith - not sure how else to put it), it can become heated as one gets infuriated with the other. Fact is they're not just talking from different standpoints, their arguments for their point just aren't relevant to the other side's beliefs.

  • Incidentally I realise I didn't directly answer your question - I think my answer is : Logic is one way of developing thought, faith is another. Which is "correct" ? I think that's subjective, and each would probably argue they're right, but never be able to agree. – user2808054 Nov 20 '13 at 15:06
  • "Faith doens't require logic, it seems." This is an extravagant misrepresentation of religious texts, and theists. For example, there are no examples of "Blind Faith" in Scripture - but rather, examples of trust - based on previous experience - which is absolutely rational and logical, even relying on empiricism. 1 Cor 2:5 - "... so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God." etc. etc. Granted, it is rationality based on empiricism, rather than the intrinsically limited exercise of logic. – elika kohen Aug 11 '17 at 2:26
  • "This is an extravagant misrepresentation of religious texts, and theists" - No, it isn't. It's a statement resulting from experiences of real life. – user2808054 Aug 15 '17 at 8:38
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    user - At least a quote from a religious text, or even from a notable theologian providing a basis for your claim would help. The insistence to believe in the argument you are making here - through faith - without any evidence, or requiring people to rely on hearsay - isn't rational merit-less. Your accusation would hold more merit, if this argument wasn't demonstrating the same fault. – elika kohen Aug 15 '17 at 20:54
  • @elikakohen the irony isn't lost on me ;-) I keep forgetting that we don't 'do' philosophy here, just reference what others have already done. I'll desist from posting answers because I have no philosophical training on whcih to base an answer – user2808054 Aug 22 '17 at 17:16
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What's the point of a debate? Show/listen to others, argue, and change your mind if they prove you wrong. It's pointless to debate with theists, not only because faith is impenetrable to logic, as user2808054 pointed out, but because while an atheist is ready to change his mind, a deist is not. Never.

Is faith or logic the proper approach to go to a debate? Which one will let you come out of it wiser, by making you changing your mind if necessary?

Edit: this has reminded me of http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/12/30/why-i-dont-debate-creationists/

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Both religious and non religious people have their inner worlds.
Both groups need some base in their worlds.
For non religious that base is often logic.
For religious - faith.
If one group has intention to out-argue other group they have to prove that argument in beliefs of opposite group, in such argument that it would eliminate base of their world.
In this matter no group is different no one can prove that logic is wrong by using logic, nor prove that faith is wrong using faith.
The answer is: no there is no point in having argument or debate.

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    What you're describing for religious people is called "fideism." Fideism doesn't cover most religious people. Plenty of religious people use logic... Some non-religious people have a faith rather than logic. – virmaior May 17 '14 at 0:46
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1. Question Restatement:

Why should atheists [scientists] bother debating theists?

A False Presupposition: "Atheists base their thinking on reason and logic." So, theists don't??? I am supposing that the original question is actually addressing "Scientists debating with Theists".


2. Addressing Confirmation Biases:

2.1. A Source for Creativity, Inspiration, Abductive Reasoning:

Theism and Mysticism have incredibly expanded what we have thought possible / plausible, (this is abductive logic, not inductive nor deductive).

For example: We aren't living in the Dark Ages any more, and we know the plausibility of gods is certain - especially given: we are already creating artificial worlds, intelligences, toying with nano-technology, quantum mechanics, biological engineering, terra-forming, etc.


2.2. Evolving Definitions and Perceptions:

Deism, Atheism, and Mysticism, in their various forms, throughout history, are relative constructs, and have changed over time.

It is absolutely certain that our concepts of theism/mysticism will mature further.

Consider: Justin Martyr defended Christianity against accusations of atheism.


2.4. A Brief Note of some Standards of Validating Truth, and their vulnerabilities:

  1. Logic: That which is true, because it must be. (Vulnerable to Creative, Cleverer, Thinking.)
  2. Empirical Evidence: What is physically observable. (Vulnerable to full awareness of a Causal Domain.)
  3. Moral Veracity: What is equanimitable, (Limited by Entropy).
  4. Wisdom: What brings fulness of life - in the context of eternity, (Limited by lack of transcendent awareness.)
  5. etc., etc. - Tradition, et al.

Regardless of the "Validity" of standards of truth, or what their true vulnerabilities are ... scientists, throughout history, have shown general biases towards one standard - or another.
For example, a "Wisdom" Bias: True Justice always injects life, never death or toxicity. So, justice will be merciful to those who show mercy, and will judge those who condemn, according to their own condemnations. Mercy triumphs over condemnation, (c.f., Every narrative in Judeo-Christian texts). The validity of this bias is subject to its internal consistency, (logic), empiricism, (textual evidence), and Morality.


2.5. A Good Faith Effort to Address Confirmation Biases:

Yes, there are "Logic" and "Science" biases too. (The historical debate over the exact nature of mankind's evolution is a great example, the Scriptural account being one of the first examples of genetic engineering.)

Mankind, still in its infancy, cannot rationally assert which bias is more valid than others, let alone argue that each bias doesn't have some validity in their own right.

The Scientific method, at the very least, requires an assessment of rival hypotheses. Accordingly, it is often observed that when rival hypotheses are rejected - those hypotheses often evolve, and even the de-facto hypotheses mature too.

It is prima-facie apparent that each different confirmation bias has led to hypotheses that have challenged and refined other hypotheses under different biases.

This mechanic of intra-accountability between standards of truth has added, and still adds value, to the scientific method - is not too burdensome, and risks can be reasonably mitigated.

Regardless, this mechanic of intra-accountability can only be dismissed according to the same exact principles that other mechanics in scientific development could be dismissed.

Until that burden of proof is met - then it is not reasonable to dismiss the "dialectic" between "Theism" and "Science". (Whether that burden of proof has already been met, or how it could be met, is a great question, tbh.)

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There is no need to posit alternate forms of logic because of religion. The logical contradictions of their religious beliefs will eventually become apparent to most reasonably intelligent believers as they are exposed to other views -- even other religions. In my own case, when as a child of ten, I wondered which is more likely: That only one of dozens of similar sects and religions was right and that followers of the rest would all burn in hell, or that they were ALL wrong? Not a very sophisticated analysis, but soon after I admitted even the possibility of the latter, I left religion behind and never looked back.

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    Not really sure I grasp the content of this as an answer to the question asked. I think he's asking "why should atheists bother debating theists?" -- not why are theists dumb and self-contradictiory at the end o the day. – virmaior May 15 '14 at 6:32
  • @virmaior There was a suggestion by the OP and others here that there are different kinds of logic -- one for atheists, another one for theists. I'm saying that there is only really one kind of logic. But you are partly right. Most, if not all, theists are self-contradictory and, in an open society, could well come to realize this on their own as I did. Debate may even slow this process by putting them on the defensive. Imagine. – Dan Christensen May 20 '14 at 15:28

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