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Even believers realize it’s easier to bring someone down

May 29, 2009

I see this phenomenon so often. People will say, “X is wrong, wrong wrong, omg.” For example, a good X to put in is Mormonism. Well, that’s great to say…but most times when they do this, they don’t mean to say it just to put it out there. Rather, they have a motive in trying to say that their way is better/correct/true. So, “X is wrong and Y is right.” Where Y is some other Christian denomination, atheism, or whatever. (Don’t point my argument in a mirror at me: I don’t pretend to have a job of showing my way is best for everyone…rather, I want to justify that it should be acceptable for me to have this position. You can believe whatever you want.)

So, I’ve always wondered why people do this. If you want to convince me you’re right, then you should show me why you’re right, or why your way is better. How does your way improve your life? When you can only badger me and tear my beliefs and ways down, then it seems to show that your way has an incredible dearth of praiseworthy words for itself. The very obsession of fault-finding seems to be indicative, in fact, of a poverty of ideology. (I caveat again: if I seem to be obsessed with fault-finding as we speak, note that I do not try to wed this to any ideology…if I’m writing critical posts, I’m not doing it as a Career Atheist Evangelist [whatever those are]. I’m doing it as some guy who has been badgered before, who is not and was not happy with it, and who just happens to be a nonbeliever. But to atheists who want to wed anti-theism with atheism or to ex-Mormons or anti-Mormons who want to wed countercult ministry with their new religious zeal, I think that does a disservice to whatever your belief system is.)

Basically, my thing is…when you badger people, you alienate them. Trying to tear down Mormon beliefs, for example, may deconvert some and shatter their faith, but it certainly won’t convince them that the badgerer has the truth. Perhaps I’m just incredibly butthurt, but on the realization that I didn’t believe and I agreed with some historical/theological claims anti-Mormons brought up (even if they were surroundeed by inaccuracies and exaggerations), I most certainly didn’t say, “Oh joy, I’ll join their brand of Christianity!” No, I thought, “Phew, I would never join those guys after the way they treated me.” And even if I did happen to join some denomination any time soon, it would be on my terms.

So, why do people do it, rather than showing the highlights of their own system? Personally, I think what is much more effective is to live a good life and then show, by example of your shining beacon (shine on you crazy diamond) how everyone could benefit from doing the same things. It is a quieter path, but I think a more effective one.

Arthur Sido, who recently commented here, seems to have provided an answer…

I know I need to spend more time specifically in prayer for mormons. I find it easier to show them where they are wrong than to pray for God to show them what is right. I can make the most clever and complete arguments in the world, but as we both know without God working in their hearts none of it will ever matter.

I want to be snarky about now, but Arthur was a recent guest to the site and I believe in hospitality (didn’t god nuke a city or two over some issue with that?) so I’ll just say, I hope you do spend more time in prayer rather than in devising clever and complete arguments that, however logically sound they are (let’s hope you spend time creating the logically sound arguments and not the ones that look like intellectual swiss cheese), will alienate and raise contention. I certainly hope you will come to trust your God enough to let him do the work (or I mean, help him out by living a great example…kill them with kindness, you know?)

…but then again, I think my hand is exposed. Similar to my not caring about the hubbub of baptism for the dead (because I don’t believe it does anything), as long as Arthur and friends stay on the other side, I don’t care much about praying for me or anyone else because I don’t think it affects me. Please don’t cast aspersions on me though, because a harmless, yet still malicious act is still malicious.

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18 Comments
  1. Reasons Protestant Christianity is awesome:

    1) Ned Flanders
    2) Michael J. Nelson of MST3K and RiffTrax fame

    If you need more than that to convert, there is something wrong with you.

    But in general, I agree that’s what’s wrong with a lot of counter-cult evangelicalism: it spends too much time tearing down Mormonism and not enough time sharing what’s wonderful about our own faith.

  2. This is why I only have a couple of posts teeing off on Calvinism. It is just too easy to tear into Calvinism and because it is easy it is cheap.

    Of course there is some value to clearly pointing out the glaring theological weaknesses of Calvinist anti-Mormons because lots of Mormons don’t know the theological position of weakness their anti-mo attackers are coming from. So when I rip into Calvinism I don’t do so thinking I will convert any Calvinists to Mormonism. Rather I see it as a way to call a spade a spade for my Mormon readers who have been badgered by jihadist anti-Mormon Calvinists too often.

    The only good way to do missionary work is to let God do the work. The best way to attract people to Mormonism is to live a joyful, peaceful, contented life with the help of God. People will see that reality and be attracted to it. And of course it also helps to point out that ones peaceful, prosperous and happy life is directly related to ones Mormonism.

  3. I just want to point out that atheism doesn’t provide an alternate way to live life, it is a word relative ONLY to theism.

  4. I agree completely, Bud. Atheism is not a belief system or a worldview; it is simply a lack of theistic belief. But this itself is very freeing, because it means that every atheist is free to discover for himself what beliefs he actually has without simply relying on what has been told.

  5. Andrew: Atheism is not a belief system or a worldview; it is simply a lack of theistic belief.

    I don’t think this is accurate. Atheism is not just a lack of theism — it is the active belief that no God exists. Agnosticism is a lack of theism but it is not atheism.

    I will also note that theists can be just as “free to discover for themselves what beliefs they actually have rather than simply relying on what has been told” as an atheist or agnostic.

  6. Geoff, agnosticism is a lack of knowledge. In actuality, agnosticism is not an answer to the same question as atheism or theism is.

    “Is there a god?” is a question that implies knowledge…so if you don’t know…you say, “I don’t know.” That is agnostic…however, then we have the more important question:

    “Do you believe there is a god?” This is a question that only looks at what a person’s beliefs are and doesn’t require any knowledge, so “I don’t know,” is not a valid answer (unless one of two things: you don’t know yourself or you don’t understand the words in the question). In reality, there are only two possibilities…No is an atheist answer. It is the lack of belief. Yes is a theist answer. You either have belief or you don’t.

    You do bring up an important distinction, because we can have a third question:

    “Do you believe there is no god?” In this case, someone who answers “yes” asserts himself as a strong or positive atheist, because now, not only do they not believe in god, but they posit there is no god.

    But you don’t have to be a positive atheist to lack a belief in god. So, the only thing necessary for atheism is lacking a belief in god (i.e., a no answer to the question, “Do you believe in god?”)

    I also agree with you, Geoff, that theists can be just as free to discover for themselves what beliefs they actually have. This is why we have a multitude of theistic stances. But too often, people fail to compare accurately. They want to compare atheism (which is the broad stance like theism) to some subset of theism (for example, a specific theistic interpretation, such as Mormonism.) This fails, because whereas Mormonism *does* have a normative belief system, atheism does not.

  7. In reality, there are only two possibilities…No is an atheist answer. It is the lack of belief.

    I suppose. But it is also the affirmation of a belief that there is no God. So if the question were simply inverted to say “Do you believe there is no God” and the theist answers “no” do you you also call that a lack of belief in the absence of a God?

    My point is that this “lack of belief” claim sounds like spin to me. When a binary question is asked a lack of belief in one side denotes an affirmative belief in the other side. I assume we agree on that, right?

    Having said that, after some quick dictionary checking I am persuaded that a lack of belief in God is one of the definitions of atheism. I’m not sure what the substantive difference is between not believing in a God and believing there is no God… in fact I have a lack of belief there is a substantial difference between those two.

    I agree with your last point that apples ought to be compared with other apples too.

  8. The thing is…the minimum of atheism is a lack of belief in god. This is the one and only thing you can necessarily guarantee of all atheists and then determine if someone is or is not an atheism. The posited belief that there is no god is not necessary. It only fits for a subset of atheists (strong or positive atheists). Yes, if you ask: “do you believe there is no god” and someone answers, “no,” that is lack of belief in the absence of a god. The question is: does this make someone theist? And here’s the difference: no it does not: theism can only be positive…it only is a positive belief in some formulation of deity.

    This is why Bud is correct in saying that atheism is a word that only has relevance with respect to theism…Atheism is akin to not collecting stamps — something that really tells you very little about someone except with respect to something else (in that case, that someone does not collect stamps.)

    The problem is that we live in a society that apparently values belief very highly (but I guess I am not making a value judgment — that’s just how things are). So, the lack of belief in something that many people do believe in becomes “bigger” than it is.

    When a binary question is asked a lack of belief in one side denotes an affirmative belief in the other side. I assume we agree on that, right?

    Disagree. So, as we look at the weak or negative atheist, he doesn’t believe in either claim. The thing is that his atheism is found in his lack of belief in the existence of gods; it is not nullified by his lack of belief in the nonexistence of gods because that is not the necessary clause. The only thing of interest related to belief in god’s existence, “Do you believe God exists?” or “Do you believe in God?” of which our atheist does not. That is the relevant part.

    will touch the significance of different positions in my next comment.

  9. I’m not sure what the substantive difference is between not believing in a God and believing there is no God… in fact I have a lack of belief there is a substantial difference between those two.

    There is actually a very substantive distinction in the two atheist positions, and this is manifest in the ways negative atheists argue vs. how positive atheists argue and burdens of proof. A negative atheist doesn’t have to argue that God doesn’t exist (or that it is improbable, or whatever)…all he has to argue is that he lacks convincing reason to believe that God does exist. So, if we assume God does exist (let’s just go hypothetically, although for you, it’s probably not hypothetical :D) but is not apparent to an individual, then to lack belief in that god is not incorrect, but a belief that that god does not exist is most certainly incorrect.

    A good example is of black swans. Regardless of the existence of black swans (which, they do exist), Europeans were perfectly justified in not believing they existed until they went to Australia and saw them. However, those who believed black swans did not exist simply had an incorrect belief (regardless of their lack of evidence…they made a false conclusion based on bad argumentation [“absence of evidence = evidence of absence”]). This doesn’t mean that strong atheists (or believers in the nonexistence of anything, for that matter) are always wrong…it’s just that they then have a burden of proof to show why what they claim actually doesn’t exist and why their logic is in fact sound. So, strong atheists might probably argue that god is a logical contradiction…or that even if some thing we relate as god exists, we are misclassifying him because he is actually natural or doesn’t have one of the traits a formulation thinks he does (I like this argument better). Personally, I don’t think those arguments are necessarily rock solid, but can you see the distinction?

  10. The question is: does this make someone theist? And here’s the difference: no it does not: theism can only be positive…it only is a positive belief in some formulation of deity.

    Ha! What a crock. Now I am convinced this is just spin.

    Look if it’s good for the goose it’s good for the gander. I’ll try your first paragraph as an example:

    The thing is…the minimum of theism is a lack of belief in no god. This is the one and only thing you can necessarily guarantee of all theists and then determine if someone is or is not an theist. The posited belief that there is a god is not necessary. It only fits for a subset of theists (strong or positive theists).

    Now I can understand why atheists would like to claim this strategic rhetorical advantage but I won’t grant it. It’s poppycock to claim there can be positive and negative atheists but then turn around and claim there can’t be positive and negative theists too.

  11. Geoff J,

    you call it spin and you say, “what a crock.” But what you’re running against is the intuitive use and etymology of terms. If the defined and used minimum of theism was a lack of belief in no god, that would be great. But theism has been established and is continued specifically and continually as the belief in a god.

    On the other hand, atheism intuitively and etymologically owns the lack of belief in god. The prefix a- denotes “without” or “lack of.” That’s simply how it works. the next part theos relates it to god. and the -ism suffix closes it up as a distinctive system.

    So, the question is: why can there be positive and negative atheists and why can’t there be positive and negative theists. It’s because of what is characteristically contained by the terms. You would never buy a theist as someone who explicitly claimed not to believe there is a god, but merely lacked a belief there wasn’t a god. However, for atheism, this has always been an established possibility — because atheism primarily is not the positing that there is no god but merely the lack of belief that there is.

    So, if you want to take that as poppycock, then fine. But rather, it is an intuitive and etymologically sound distinction.

  12. Keep tellin’ yourself that Andrew.

    What is intuitive is that atheism means one does not believe there is a God and that theism means one believes there is a God. What is counter intuitive is to introduce silly subcategories like positive and negative atheists. It would be just as silly to introduce positive and negative theists but if we are allowing for the distinction on one side of the coin we must allow for the distinction on the other side of the coin as well.

    You would never buy a theist as someone who explicitly claimed not to believe there is a god, but merely lacked a belief there wasn’t a god.

    False. Just because theists don’t commonly make the silly distinction between “positive and negative” theism doesn’t mean theist don’t have equal claim on the concept. As I said, I can see the reason atheists like to try to grab this rhetorical advantage but it remains ridiculous.

  13. re Geoff J:

    I’m not telling myself that. Society intuitively recognizes it.

    What is intuitive is exactly as you say: atheism means one does not believe there is a god (e.g., “Do you believe in god?” no)…and that theism means one believe there is a god (e.g., “Do you believe in god?” yes. You AGREE with me. This is intuitive too.

    In FACT, we leave the realm of intuition by even getting to the question: “Do you believe there is no god?” So you are EXACTLY right that it is not intuitive to get into such distinctions as positive/strong and negative/weak. By your very own concessions, the intuitive idea of atheism is not believing God exists. It is not believe God doesn’t exist.

    And in fact, because it is EXACTLY intuitive (and we only get into this in the first place) to establish theism as a belief God exists (as you also concede), this is why the true necessity of theism is belief God exists. It is *not* lack of belief God does not exist. This is why the “coin flip” doesn’t work for you — it is not unfairness…it’s just how things intuitively are.

    False. Just because theists don’t commonly make the silly distinction between “positive and negative” theism doesn’t mean theist don’t have equal claim on the concept. As I said, I can see the reason atheists like to try to grab this rhetorical advantage but it remains ridiculous.

    It isn’t that theists don’t commonly make the distinction. Rather, it is that theists actively reject the distinction by their own accord. They actively describe theism as a posited belief in some form of deity and they establish this as the necessary quality. So, what you’re describing as ridiculous should be something taken up with the powers that be that once determined what theism stood for.

  14. See my comment on your latest post. There are strong theists to whom the weak atheists can respond. Likewise there are strong atheists to who weak theists can respond.

    Just because weak theism is popular doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  15. Make that: Just because weak theism isn’t popular doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  16. OK, Geoff.

    I think I have something. I replied to your comment on my latest post.

    I’ve treated weak theists just the same as I would treat the weak atheists and I think it points out the problem of the weak theist.

  17. Non stamp collecting is a good analogy. I don’t know which of you subscribes to a religious faith, but suppose someone starts telling you what you believe…it might bother you. The person could just ask you what you believe rather than telling you how your belief is defined. I agree with you in that dictionary definitions cast atheism as the positive disbelief in god, but that doesn’t mean atheists feel that way or live their lives according to that definition. I hear a dogma about god…and I simply do not believe it. I do no accept these positive truth claims. I’m not selling any truth claims of my own.

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