Arguing Charitably: What One Can Learn from r/atheism

Featured photo used with permission by Flickr user Orin Zebest.

Featured photo used with permission by Flickr user Orin Zebest.

A trip down r/atheism lane on can be an amusing affair, albeit a rather one-sided one. The subreddit is littered with quips, memes, and snide attacks on religious institutions, persons, and ideas of every stripe, even after a fairly recent effort to reform the subreddit into something more constructive (and less dominated by Raptor Jesus and his meme-kin). There was a pretty serious uproar at the time, though things seem to have settled down since, but I must confess I sympathize with the effort. This is not because there shouldn't be a place where atheists can blow off some steam at the expense of their philosophical adversaries (and the perceived ridiculousness of religion); rather, it is because – as the largest online community of atheists, and definitely one of the most visible to the world at large – r/atheism has the potential to be something more than a clearing house for negative, religion-oriented emotions.

For me, this all comes back to the idea of charitable argument, a strategy familiar to most anyone who has had to argue or debate seriously. Think of it as the reverse-straw-man. Arguing charitably is the strategy whereby you give your opponent’s argument the benefit of the doubt. This may involve making favorable assumptions or concessions in order to bolster a given position, even if those same assumptions have not been explicitly articulated by your opponent. In other words, give your adversary a helping hand before you criticize their position.

This is an important step in any serious critique, and one that is too often overlooked when people attempt to engage with one another intellectually. It is so easy to scoff at a position with which you wholly disagree, but being too quickly dismissive is an easy way to get dismissed in return. No one wins in this situation, as both sides have effectively ended the argument before it has even begun. If you are serious in your commitment to the debate, then this should be avoided at all cost.

I know that many people on r/atheism (or any similar forum) are not there to engage in serious discussion, but rather to have a laugh or to feel a bit of solidarity with their godless brethren. This is great, and I am glad that there are places people can go to get these things. However, there is something to be said for utilizing a public forum for something greater than what has been described as a bit of a circle-jerk. (NOTE: I do not believe this is a good way to describe r/atheism, but I can see why others do. [SECONDARY NOTE: I will not be defining circle-jerk here. Ask your mom or dad if you need this explained to you.])

I imagine that most people who read my articles are of a similar mindset when it comes to religion. I think religion and its trappings are absurd and obviously, blatantly nonsensical. They are hold-overs from our uneducated, fearful, misinformed past and we would be much better off without them. Even the more basic presuppositions of religion - such as the idea of gods - seem riddled with conceptual problems. These are difficult, if not impossible, to honestly overcome and which undermine the entire religious enterprise. However, despite how I myself view religion, if I fail to engage with people who hold a different opinion on these matters, then I cannot hope to sway them to my side of a given position.

Once I have committed to having a discussion, it is actually in my best interest to make my opponent’s argument as strong as possible. The reason is simple: if their position is as strong as it can possibly be, then there is no viable escape route they can take when you tear their argument apart. If this person has any intellectual integrity, then they are duty-bound to address this defeat and – in a best case scenario – change their stance on the matter in question.

As I have said elsewhere, a key part of arguing charitably is treating your intellectual adversary with respect; part of this is to treat what s/he says with the same respect. Being charitable in your interpretation of an opinion, position, or argument is one of the best ways of doing this and the end result is that any blows you successfully land will have a heft and weight they otherwise would not. Imagine a boxing match, wherein one contender is a heavyweight and the other a welterweight: any win by the heavyweight will be without merit, because s/he hasn’t opted to face an equal. Be willing to beef up your opponent’s position to heavyweight class and you might actually achieve something lasting if you can successfully argue against this new, worthy opponent.

Realistically, successfully convincing your foe is not going happen often; it is simply the way people are. We seek things that confirm what we already believe. This is called the "confirmation bias", and it is one reason that things like Fox News and MSNBC exist despite their objectively-verifiable lack of political neutrality. This difficulty in convincing your opponent is even more prevalent when religion is involved, because we are rarely arguing from a purely intellectual vantage point (something I go into at some length here).

Religion is something many people hold near and dear, like a life-long friend. It has probably played a formative role in their social lives, especially for those who are avid church-goers. In light of this life-long influence, any purely intellectual attempt to excise religion from this person is likely to fail, but that does not mean that we should not participate in such a discussion with earnest and a hope for success. Those who advocate religion do so effectively, and evangelism within all religious traditions is a constant threat to the tide of secularism that has been inexorably marching forward over the last century across much of the world. However, we cannot put our faith in the inevitability of religion’s demise. We must keep the pressure on and arguing charitably is a must for those willing to do so.

Featured image used with permission from Flickr user Orin Zebest.

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