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12/12/2017 5:37 pm  #1


How to speak with atheists

I’m not sure if this is the appropriate place in the Forum.  Please move this post if it’s not.

I have been getting into (in-person) conversations with atheists and have found it difficult to develop practical “road maps” for these discussions. 

Back in 1990, when I was moving from Protestantism to Catholicism, the material I found most helpful were conversion stories as told by men like Hahn and Matatics, and apologetic writings/debates by Keating, Madrid, Matatics and Akin.  Along the way, I found solid, older, Catholic books that presented theology in systematic structures.

When explaining my decision to Protestant friends and family, I used approaches/strategies (depending on the subject) developed as a result of the apologetics learned from the gents above.  Obviously, coming from a non-Catholic tradition, I was quite familiar with the more anti-Catholic arguments and responding to them was not foreign to me.

Today, I am struggling with how to make cogent and thorough arguments against atheism (or for theism).  This is despite reading books by Feser, Augros and others or watching Craig’s debates.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is that their arguments come across so “academic” and complicatedly sophisticated.

I read TLS and loved it after reading it the 2nd and 3rd times. I want to tell the atheist, “you need to read this book because it’ll do a heck of a better job than I’m doing.”  (I actually said that once and the reply was “if you can’t prove and explain God without referring me to a philosopher’s book...”)

Is there any better debates or apologetics material that can serve as more of a “How to” approach?

 

12/13/2017 12:23 pm  #2


Re: How to speak with atheists

I think it's a matter of practice and rhetoric. You need to "get used to" what the atheists are saying and have ready answers to counter them. Could you elaborate more and give us examples on what difficulties you're finding? What are the atheists saying that you're finding difficult to respond?

Some other good books on apologetics are Craig's "Reasonable Faith" and "On Guard". Reasonable Faith is bigger and features more arguments, such as Craig's favored version of the leibnizian cosmological argument, but "On Guard" is simpler and designed to help people memorize the arguments and so on. If you like Feser, his new book "Five Proofs of the Existence of God" is out now and it's excelent; it features 1- the aristotelian proof, 2- the neoplatonic proof, 3- the augustinian proof, 4- the thomistic proof, and 5- the rationalist proof. His book "Aquinas" is also a great introduction to thomistic metaphysics (which helps in these cases) and features long discussion of each of Aquinas's five ways, as well as that of the immortality of the soul. Richard Swinburne's book "Is there a God?" (or maybe the title is "does God exist?" I don't remember now) summarizes Swin's own inductive case for the existence of God, and does so in simple language and at popular level, I think it can be useful. It's good to "drill" the arguments until they become second nature to you and you understand them.

For Christian theism specifically, on the resurrection of Jesus, I'd recommend Craig's articles on the subject, as well as Dr. Brant Pitre's excelent "The Case for Jesus", he's a catholic and specializes in this stuff. It's a must read.

But really, we can recommend thousands and thousands of books here. It'd be better if you were more specific about what difficulties you're having. What are the atheists saying, exactly? What are you confused about? I can try to give you more in-depth answers if you specify these questions.

As for what the atheist said there, it's just not a good idea to expect everyone to be able to explain everything in a conversation. If the person is really interested in a certain subject, they should be willing to read a proper book about it, written by a specialist who challenges their beliefs. Would they expect a layperson to explain and prove evolution "without referring to a biologist's book"? What would they think if a protestant fundie did this?

 

12/13/2017 12:37 pm  #3


Re: How to speak with atheists

For me the most annoying and frustrating and puzzling atheists are those who have given precious little thought to their atheism and its entailments. They don't think atheism is a world view, they don't even see any point for a world view, or perhaps they assume they have a world view simply by virtue of existing as persons, so their position is just all over the place, nothing follows from a previous statement, contradictions abound but are not perceived as contradictions by them even though there is no way and no attempt to bridge the propositions.

It's sort of obvious that nobody would want to write a "how to" apologetics manual to address that sort of atheism. Who would want such people converted to one's own camp anyway? If life makes you recurrently meet such people, it's probably best to try to have Christian patience, humane tolerance, I assume. Lead by example. The rest might or might not follow, it should not be too urgent a concern.

 

12/13/2017 1:17 pm  #4


Re: How to speak with atheists

seigneur wrote:

For me the most annoying and frustrating and puzzling atheists are those who have given precious little thought to their atheism and its entailments. They don't think atheism is a world view, they don't even see any point for a world view, or perhaps they assume they have a world view simply by virtue of existing as persons, so their position is just all over the place, nothing follows from a previous statement, contradictions abound but are not perceived as contradictions by them even though there is no way and no attempt to bridge the propositions.

It's sort of obvious that nobody would want to write a "how to" apologetics manual to address that sort of atheism. Who would want such people converted to one's own camp anyway? If life makes you recurrently meet such people, it's probably best to try to have Christian patience, humane tolerance, I assume. Lead by example. The rest might or might not follow, it should not be too urgent a concern.

Indifferentism is a different breed of animal. Such people are throwing up excuses not to care more than actually making (as it appears) reasoned arguments for their position/beliefs. Sometimes the underlying issue is more conjoined with strong emotional experiences: they are angry with God while claiming not to believe in Him. Often here the best thing to do is to form an amicable relationship with the person (assuming they are not living such lives that would lead to temptation for you or risk your own salvation) and, above all, to pray for the person. God will open up doors and windows and you may without knowing it become the vehicle for their reconciliation - but some people have a long and winding road to follow first.

As a rule, atheists are more likely to be, e.g., online developing arguments and reading literature. Insofar as reason is concerned, posting on forums and sharing arguments for the reasonableness of God and proofs or evidence of His existence (e.g. the historicity of His miraculous interventions in history) as well as philosophical arguments is the best you can do to at least turn a full blown atheist closer to an agnostic view. But birds of a feather tend to flock together: it can be difficult sometimes to find forums or venues where you might get a fair hearing with an atheist audience.

Last edited by Timocrates (12/13/2017 1:18 pm)


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12/13/2017 2:10 pm  #5


Re: How to speak with atheists

Oh, and joewaked, I'd also recommend you the book "The One and the Many", by fr. Norris Clarke SJ. It's a great and original exposition of a broadly thomistic metaphysics, and it also includes some very interesting presentations of arguments for the existence of God. Not only cosmological arguments (Clarke defends a number of them, on "conditioned existence"), but also some interesting and different ones from the "dynamism of intellect and will", etc. It's written in clear and argumentative style, intended as an introduction to metaphysics. I think you'd enjoy it.

 

12/13/2017 4:12 pm  #6


Re: How to speak with atheists

I don't know much books and articles besides the classics. But I can speak from personal experience. ^^'

Where I live, in France, it's quite a secular country, and we live under the French laicité, which is basically "freedom of religion" for everyone, including the public space - which is, in my opinion, a very wrong idea, as it often leads to disagreements; which pushes people against religion using feelings rather than arguments.

So, well... I use the socratic approach. Basically, ask them how they see the world. And don't take the "well, you know, it's obvious" answer they give you. Or the "well, I don't know". Just ask, be curious. And what's interesting, when you dig deep enough, you'll start to find agreements. Don't bring God in the picture too fast, because you need to remove the idea that God is a "flying bearded man in the sky".

Don't specifically look for atheists online. It's not a good way, since most people online aren't interested in debates, and most of them just want to express their point of view and see how well it holds (often in a biased way).

If I were you, seeing you're a bit afraid (“you need to read this book because it’ll do a heck of a better job than I’m doing”), look for friends who you are comfortable with and hold different points of view. Remember too that we can't really convince anyone to believe, but that we can only show them how it goes. Conversions like Feser's don't happen all the time, and not always fast - for example, a friend of mine, who was an atheist, did got interested in Greek and Jesus went with me for a history and exegesis class. He was baptized a few years ago.

I'd think that the secret of the dialogue is good faith. As long as you and your discussion partner is interested in what you are discussing about, you could learn a lot of things.

For another example, one of my best friends is a Jewish atheist. We spend hours discussing how we see God, and try to both expand and think about it. Even if we don't always agree on things (most of the time, we don't), he helps me dissipate what Simone Weil says about idolatry vs. atheism. And he often brings me new light on how to get out a crisis of faith.

God bless !

 

12/13/2017 10:12 pm  #7


Re: How to speak with atheists

seigneur wrote:

For me the most annoying and frustrating and puzzling atheists are those who have given precious little thought to their atheism and its entailments. They don't think atheism is a world view, they don't even see any point for a world view, or perhaps they assume they have a world view simply by virtue of existing as persons, so their position is just all over the place, nothing follows from a previous statement, contradictions abound but are not perceived as contradictions by them even though there is no way and no attempt to bridge the propositions.

It's sort of obvious that nobody would want to write a "how to" apologetics manual to address that sort of atheism. Who would want such people converted to one's own camp anyway? If life makes you recurrently meet such people, it's probably best to try to have Christian patience, humane tolerance, I assume. Lead by example. The rest might or might not follow, it should not be too urgent a concern.

​They mostly aren't explicitly atheists, but the majority of the population in somewhere like Britain or Australia is this kind of unbeliever. Some of them are vaguely open to spirituality, as long as it doesn't conflict with any of the mores of modern society, or demand from them any substantive commitments. I think this kind of person, in a society like Britain or Australia, is perhaps harder to convince than the philosophically knowledgeable or interested person. I see street preachers in the CBD in Sydney and I really wonder if they ever get converts. For the indifferent, philosophically uninterested modern traditional religion isn't an option they can take seriously or understand, whereas there is some opportunity that the more philosophical interested modern might become interested in wider responses to existential issues than our dominant culture allows, or might be forced to properly confront arguments for God and religion. 

​In general, it would take more than intellectual arguments to convince such people. You would have to appeal to them imaginatively as well, convincing them that God and religion are live options for understanding the world and our place on earth. And this is obviously very hard when the dominant culture is pushing the other direction. Indeed, for some - those whose intellectual horizons are more or less incapable of rising beyond their current culture - it would be nearly impossible without a cultural shift. Others might be able to won over without one, though not easily, if they can be appealed to imaginatively (which usually includes convincing them of the intellectual worth of theism and religion as well).

 

 

12/15/2017 12:55 am  #8


Re: How to speak with atheists

Thank you all for your recommendations and advice!   I very much appreciate it.

Btw, Dr. Feser’s Five Proofs... just arrived tonight!

Let me restate what I was clumsily trying to say:   If anyone asks you to demonstrate (or more likely “prove”) the existence of God, where/how would you begin your argument?

For each of you, does it depend on what kind of atheist is asking you?   For purposes of this discussion, I’d rather ignore the New Atheists and anyone whose intent is to mock and deride.

Do you ask them questions first to understand what their presuppositions are?  Do you try to figure out if you share any common ground on which to build your argument?

Suppose you’re speaking to an atheist who’s a materialist and prides himself on love of physics, where do you begin?

Or suppose you’re speaking to one who refuses to concede these 2 fundamental beliefs:
(1) every effect has a cause; and
(2) something cannot come from nothing.

How do you even have a conversation with that person?

These are the two atheist friends of mine with whom I’m currently speaking.

Last edited by joewaked (12/15/2017 12:58 am)

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12/15/2017 4:11 am  #9


Re: How to speak with atheists

joewaked wrote:

Btw, Dr. Feser’s Five Proofs... just arrived tonight!

Let me restate what I was clumsily trying to say:   If anyone asks you to demonstrate (or more likely “prove”) the existence of God, where/how would you begin your argument?

There are a good selection of starting points and lines of arguments in that book. They serve as good clues how to go about it, at least.

joewaked wrote:

For each of you, does it depend on what kind of atheist is asking you?

Of course it depends, because when anyone asks for a proof of or evidence for anything, the effectiveness of the answer is directly proportionate to what the questioner takes proof or evidence to be. Rather commonly it turns out that the questioner is asking empirical material evidence for the immaterial. This is best sorted out early on in the discussion.

joewaked wrote:

Do you ask them questions first to understand what their presuppositions are?  Do you try to figure out if you share any common ground on which to build your argument?

Yes, to establish the terms and definitions in order to ensure a rationally ordered discussion proceeding step by step, occasionally retracing.

A street evangelizing situation is different, a brief instant immersion of the fellow in your message, not spending too much time figuring things out, but when you are required to explain your own (personal) background and aims, this is best done in solid mutual understanding, either in the form of socratic Q&A or tit for tat, revealing about as much as is being revealed to you.

joewaked wrote:

Suppose you’re speaking to an atheist who’s a materialist and prides himself on love of physics, where do you begin?

E.g. does physics explain psychology? Morality? Intellect? Meaning and purpose? How is it logically consistent, intellectually satisfying or metaphysically complete to leave these things ungrounded in your world view/cosmology/way of life?

joewaked wrote:

Or suppose you’re speaking to one who refuses to concede these 2 fundamental beliefs:
(1) every effect has a cause; and
(2) something cannot come from nothing.

Or assert that 2+2=5 "for very large values of 2" (--Lawrence Krauss). In this case, we are dealing with a New Atheist type.

 

12/15/2017 10:16 am  #10


Re: How to speak with atheists

joewaked wrote:

Or suppose you’re speaking to one who refuses to concede these 2 fundamental beliefs:
(1) every effect has a cause; and
(2) something cannot come from nothing.

Well, what do they answer from that? How they "refuse to concede"?
There's a practical answer : you can friendly punch them (if you're friendly enough), and frown when they ask you why you punched them. You can then argue that the punch came from nothing, and build from there.

Last edited by FrenchySkepticalCatholic (12/15/2017 10:18 am)

 

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