The Moving Target: Pragmatically Arguing Against Religion

I have been doing my usual web-surfing over the last few weeks (crawling through some blogs, perusing Reddit, poking around YouTube, etc.) and I think that something needs to be said overtly: the argument we want to have with theists is very often not the argument they are willing or able to have. To be more specific, the more academically-oriented refutations of various religious arguments often have no effect largely because religion is not structurally supported by those sort of beliefs for many, if not most, people of faith. However strong a given argument might be against a particular religious belief, it is unlikely to dissuade a religious person from holding that belief. Given this intellectual reality, the best we can try and do is to begin to poke holes in the story that many people live their lives by; hopefully some light might shine through those holes and bring that person out of the dark. Consider, as an example, attempts to undermine the idea of the tri-omni God (omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient). However eloquently elucidated, these logical refutations rarely seem to have the desired effect during a religious debate. I personally have never had anyone throw their arms into the air, unleash a mournful cry, and then dedicate themselves to secularism and humanism. I might just be argumentatively incompetent, but I think the problem lies elsewhere. To demonstrate this, think of the many ways that religions integrate themselves into the identity of those who hold to them: social, personal, intellectual, spiritual, moral, and emotional.

In what follows, I aim to show how these aspects of religion can impede our attempts to dissuade people from holding those beliefs. I believe that understanding the impact these forces have on people is necessary to make any argument against religion worth having in the first place. Given the many ways that religion influences people, arguments against religion are attempts to hit a moving target. The effort to understand the context within which we are having a religious debate is largely a pragmatic one: by better understanding what sort of an obstacle religion is, I think atheism and secularism can be more effective in hitting our mark when we take aim at religion.


Religion, even for those who no longer hold to it personally, permeates society. Many of our popular phrases (going to hell in a hand basket), exclamations (Jesus Christ!), curses (God damn you!) have religious origins and are littered throughout our language. In English, the days of the week are primarily named for gods from a variety of traditions (Wednesday = Woden’s Day, etc.). Our major holidays are almost exclusively religious, and these holidays can effect everything in the time periods surrounding them - just think of Christmas and the 50 or so days it dominates popular culture, not to mention the economic success of many businesses. Religion sets neighbor (Sunni) against neighbor (Shi'ite) throughout the Middle East, leading to sectarian violence that is taking the lives of hundreds (if not thousands) of lives every month. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, or meant to give religion sole credit for all of these phenomenon; it is simply an off-the-cuff survey of religious influence on the lives we all lead.

I myself find it odd at times just how large of a roll religion can play in my life, and I have never been religious, nor was my upbringing. We are all defined to one extent or another by the social trappings of which we are a part, whether or not we are conscious of this interaction. Given the prominence of religion throughout history, it is no wonder that we are all shaped in myriad ways by religious traditions. Dismissing religion too flippantly ignores the social importance it has and continues to hold and make you seem blind to the impact religion has in the real world. We must acknowledge the size and nature of the beast with which we are tangling intellectually if we are going to successfully overcome it in the long run.


Religion’s hold on the individual is dramatic. Some people define themselves and derive meaning for their entire life from the tradition to which they hold. They can be comforted in times of trouble or they can be deeply grateful in blessed times. For those of the Abrahamic traditions, a relationship with God is often described as personal, above and beyond any other descriptor. How many times have you heard someone talk about their personal relationship with Christ? How often do Muslims actively pray to Allah, engaging in a personal dialogue with the creator of their universe? How many of us have seen Jews at the Temple Wall, rhythmically swaying as they pray to Yahweh? God can play any number of roles for the individual, whether as an explanation for the universe’s existence or as a sort of divine psychologist one can always to which they can always when in need. Regardless of the particular role being fulfilled by the divine for any given individual at any given moment, the extent and impact of that relationship must not be underestimated.

Given this importance, attacking the deity or deities that ground a large portion of a person’s identity is effecitvely the same as attacking that person. While it is easy to divorce one’s self from the emotional aspects of an argument when you do not have a dog in the fight (in this case, dog = god [hooray palindromes!]), chances are a believer is going to be more heavily invested in the object of a religious discussion. Do not take this lightly. While we may find the belief in gods silly, repugnant, or unnecessary, demonstrating those opinions openly can be the same as finding your intellectual adversary silly, repugnant, or unnecessary. Respect and understanding can go a long way, so let the humanist-side of you (assuming you have one) shine through during your philosophical sparring.


As much as we might begrudgingly accept the premise, the divine is not logically inconsistent with the world as we secularists generally understand it to be. Worse, a divine explanation for certain things can make for a nice, neat intellectual explanation for particular problems. A good example is found within morality, which we’ll explore more fully below, but I will hint at now: a divine explanation for morality potentially provides for ethical certainty for any problem faced by any person. As long as we know the rules as handed down (revealed, discovered, etc.) by the divine, then we know, in principle, how a person should attack any given moral quandary.

It is not that gods provide a uniquely efficacious explanation for this or other problems (such as the origin of the physical world) but it can be a useful way to answer certain questions; underestimate this at your intellectual peril. There are many ways to punch holes in the arguments put forward that aim to use the divine as an explanatory force, but this will rarely (if ever) land a debilitating blow. That does not mean, however, that chipping away at the limits and usefulness of those explanations is a waste of time.

To demonstrate how pressing an intellectual attack can be profitable, consider again the notion of the tri-omni God. In light of the problem of evil, many attempts have been made to massage the accepted image of God in order to make sense of an apparent contradiction: how can a God that loves us wholly, knows everything, and is all-powerful let bad things happen to good people? There are many proposed answers to this problem, but all of them seem to tarnish the divine veneer to varying degrees. If this tarnish turns to rust, it might slowly eat away at the divine edifice until it crumbles away. This long-term effect is, realistically, all we can aim for in these types of debates, but the long term impact could be to soften someone’s intellectual reliance of the divine. We can respect the fact that gods are not prima facie illogical while simultaneously undermining the attractiveness of those same deities as intellectually viable explanations.


Say what we irreligious people will, there is something experiential to which religion speaks. There are moments people have wherein they feel some sort of spiritual connection - some deeper emotional experience - that seems outside the normal bounds of everyday life. I myself have had moments of spiritual awareness that were deeply moving, though my explanation of the events was wholly devoid of supernatural explanation. We cannot dismiss this power of these spiritual experiences without alienating the person with whom we are speaking. They are simply too formative and defining for those who have had them to dismiss them as ultimately meaningless.

We atheists (agnostic, etc.) can even attempt to use this shared spiritual experience to our advantage, building an empathetic bridge between ourselves and theists. Think about a die-hard atheist like Sam Harris. Like him or not, Harris has spent a substantial amount of his time advocating for an exploration of the spiritual side of human nature as experienced through meditative practices. We do not need to abandon these impactful and meaningful experiences wholesale, even if we must be careful (philosophically speaking) to approach them without undue deference or mystery. If we can acknowledge that there is something that is tied up with the religious experience that is not simply mistaken or false, then we stand a better chance of building a bridge between the beliefs and practices a religious person has and the worldview for which we are advocating.


Morality is, for many religious people, defined by their god(s) and the traditions to which they hold. People go to extreme lengths to live up to the moral standard to which they believe they are called, and many people view the very underpinnings of society as those moral precepts granted to us by the divine. We are talking about how people ought to be to one another, or how we should live our lives as decent human beings. Negating the being or beings that gave those moral laws their authority is not something to be done flippantly. You are potentially destroying the moral threads that someone has woven into their personality and identity as a good human being.

As I hinted at above, religion affords convenient platform on which we can ground our moral precepts. Secularists are often accused of de facto moral relativism. For reasons I have written about elsewhere, many people object to the idea that there is an absolute truth-value for any given moral proposition. In other words, some people want there to be (at least in principle) an answer for every moral quandary regardless of the particular circumstances of a given person's life. For these moral objectivists, the question "is murder wrong?" should not change based on the society or times in which we live. Many religions claim to have the answer to moral questions, couched in the absolute and unchanging moral authority of the divine. Philosophically speaking, it is much more difficult - if not outright impossible - for secularists to escape relativism. Many people feel that the moral "truths" to which they hold are facts that undermine secularism and reinforce the intellectual justification for god(s).

These are deeply felt and strongly held intuitive "truths" that often guide the day-to-day interactions we all have with one another. The roots of these beliefs go deep, intellectually, socially, and personally. That does not mean, however, that we should not press on this point strongly, even if we must be a bit delicate in the process. Again, respect is important, but that does not mean we have to tolerate religion simply because some people define their morality by it, or because it can philosophically convenient. There are also enough instances of religiously inspired inhumanity to demonstrate that religious morality is not superior to any other type; indeed, it might be worse. I’m reminded of something the physicist Steven Weinberg said:

“With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”*

Given the importance of morality for managing human dealings and affording us the space to live happy lives while closely hemmed in by our fellow homo sapiens, we should constantly be arguing for moral improvement. Religion is often an impediment to this (consider the recent fallout following the decision by the Boy Scouts to allow openly gay children into their ranks) and so I think this is an incredibly meaningful area of discussion. Moral issues are very often the area within the public sphere wherein secularists and the religious clash most openly, so mitigating the negative impact of these public battles could be very helpful in advancing the secular cause.


Tied up with all of these facets of the religious experience is the emotional impact of religion. Given the irrationality often on display within religion and the religious, emotion is probably the dominant driving force behind the religious experience. This is what gives morality its heart-felt importance, or a spiritual moment its life-changing efficacy. It causes otherwise brilliant minds to seemingly waste their time intellectually bending over backwards trying to square some antiquated belief with an obvious contradiction or conundrum. Religion can also be the backdrop to some deeply emotional moments in a person’s life, with both personal and social importance. How many brides and grooms have wedded themselves to one another in the halls of a church, mosque, or temple? This is only one example, but I think its cross-cultural relevance is useful for pointing out how religion is often a part of very personal and/or social emotional experiences in peoples’ lives. Emotion is what makes otherwise decent people impose their (im)moral will on their fellow human beings in the social sphere. In short, emotion is the motivating force that moves people to be religious and to act out in accordance with the precepts of their religious tradition.

Emotion is the fuel that makes the engine of religion fire. It is the enemy constantly lurking behind every religious debate, because it threatens to overwhelm an otherwise rational and calm exchange. We atheists (agnostics, etc.) must be vigilant in our efforts to keep the emotional response of theists under control in light of the many ways we have just seen that religion can influence and shape people. The argument is finished the moment that emotion takes over, which is why we must always strive to respect our opponents and, vicariously, how important the religious beliefs we are attacking are to those people.


.         .         .


In the end, emotion is probably the biggest obstacle standing in the way between a religious person, and atheism and secularism. This is why I think it is very important to keep the significance of religion to a religious person in the forefront of your mind if you engage in an argument with them. I obviously am of the opinion that there is so much evidence out there in defense of our position, or in stark opposition to theirs, as to make such debates worth having, but we must be careful how we present that evidence so as to not alienate theists from the outset of every religious discussion.

Realistically, chances are slim that anything will come from such a discussion in the short-term, but that does not mean that such discussions are meaningless. Rather, I think we are laying the seeds that might make it easier for the next argument to have more of an impact, until finally – probably generations from now – religion as a force is so weakened and undermined as to be deemed irrelevant by most people. At that point we can fully turn our attention to the human situation we all face. Given the chance, I think secularism and humanism are the way forward for everyone. We just have to get past the monolithic obstacle of religion before we can get to that point. Hopefully – if we consider the personal, social, intellectual, spiritual, moral, and emotional importance of religion to many people - the intellectual battles we atheist and secularists wage against religion will not be for nothing in the end.


*I grabbed this quotation from Wikipedia, but the source as cited there is an address at the Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C. (April 1999).


Follow me on Twitter and Google+ and check back weekly for new articles and podcasts. You can also follow [37G] on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or YouTube.