Arguing with Atheists

I don't like arguing with atheists, as a matter of course. It's not my job. They aren't my competition, even if they compete with me. It reminds me of growing up around Philadelphia radio, and the lengths to which Howard Stern went to compete with John DeBella. Why? DeBella had something: position. Stern wanted it, but he was "up-and-coming." He'd do anything to get it -- some seriously dirty stuff, too, and nobody who knows Stern's "shock jock" reputation is surprised -- but the major tactic was simply to get DeBella to respond to him. To take him seriously. Because at that point, he'd win: he would have his entrée into the top tier of the industry.

Pop atheism is about cultural cachet. Position. It sells books. It's "number 2 with a bullet," or it would like to be, and number 1 is Christianity. Atheism sells, not by being a position, but by being a negation. Whatever else an atheist will claim, the thing that makes them not simply a non-Christian is the assertion of a particular kind of anti-Christianity -- frequently in the form of refutations of philosophical theism on the basis of Christian doctrinal propositions. An atheist is bound up in the disproof of theistic religion, but not on the design of any other supposedly theistic religion. That abstraction belongs to the Western cultural hegemony of Christianity. Atheism simply cannot hold the top spot -- it would cease to exist. It remains wholly subsidiary to Christianity. But it succeeds by getting Christianity to argue with it on its own terms. It demands response to justify its responsive existence.

Barth's approach to natural theology in the Gifford Lectures applies. One defeats oneself trying to negate a negation. Negation may be asserted against any position; it's the nature of positions. Every yes implies a no, wholly separate from determining respective truth values. The best service one can render to the negation is to articulate the best possible position. But it is therefore a cheap sort of atheism that misunderstands its position, and sets out to oppose something that is not actually credible. It is the duty of the intellectually honest atheist to understand exactly what it is they oppose, and how it works, and on what basis. The negation must become and remain the shadow of the position in order to be valid. An honest atheist must become a theologian.

Non-belief is not functionally the same thing as atheism, for this reason. I will not attempt to argue with a non-believer, because faith is not a product of rational argumentation. When confronted by argumentation against my position, however, I will attempt to engage in clarification. And this is a qualitatively different game.

For starters, it is a game that rarely comes out and asks, "Why do you believe." It presupposes the answer and attempts to attack the foundations of its presupposition. Generally the attack is made along lines of approach dictated by some form of institutional Christian religion. Such an attack functions precisely because the majority of Christians are not theologians, either. Selection bias sets the terms of the disagreement because the presented arguments will find the portion of the audience in which the position opposed actually exists in some form. The remainder will generally ignore the attack. Hence the popularity of creation and hell as argumentative grounds, despite the fact that neither is a fundamental dogma, and opinions on both cover a wide gamut depending on a large number of other doctrinal positions and fundamental beliefs. They grasp the imagination, and the laity tend to believe them tout court, without grasping the systems that uphold or deny given positions on those doctrines.

The result is that such attacks take a modus tollens approach, but base it on grounds which do not support the modus tollens approach. That is, I may agree to deny certain positions, but without compromising the integrity of my position or the validity of the Christian faith. "No true Scotsman" comes into play to defend here, but the simple truth is that the theologian is not the target; a certain form of the institution is. And this argument derives its form from a period in time when handbook orthodoxy reigned, and so to negate a position was to negate the whole, which was to challenge the religion, which was to oppose the power that upheld the whole. And handbook orthodoxy (also known as compendium dogmatics, particularly of the Schmid, Heppe, or Denzinger forms, all reasonably polemically opposed, but for that reason remarkably similar) is related in form to the view of scripture itself as a compendium doctrinae, most clearly evident in Calov as a 17th century opponent to "union theology" or consensus. This is to say that the arguments of atheism presuppose a univocal institution of Christian religion based on a univocal scriptural canon. This is something that is no longer available, and which was not genuine even when it was available. Such attempted atheism is a polemical negation of a polemical position that was simply the elevation of one theological opinion among many. It is a negation of an obsolete power structure -- which makes it absurd to fight atheism by asserting exactly that power structure! "No, don't throw me in the briar patch!" Atheism was born and bred in the briar patch of orthodoxy.

Given this, I realize that most atheists are not disagreeing precisely with me. Most are instead talking across me, aiming at some other target. And maybe it's ironic that they find that target in certain versions of Evangelical Fundamentalism -- but on the other hand, those traditions belong to the family tree of inerrantist total-system orthodoxy. And I belong to the family tree of Protestant liberalism. This is a much more difficult target, because it does not believe everything, everywhere. It is willing to change and adapt its claims to the state of knowledge in its time. It is the embrace, and not the rejection, of critical scholarship. It is therefore the rejection of all sorts of critical scholastic positions, on their own terms. It is also the rejection of all sorts of claims to doctrinal necessity. Minimalist, rather than maximalist, Christianity.

But for that reason, I have quite enough competition internal to my family tree. I prefer arguing with people who know the arguments as they stand today. And so my best way of arguing with atheists is to try to show them where they should bother attacking. Because I know the standard openings, and I don't have anything invested in them. I don't basically care about most atheism, unless it can teach me something. And if provoked with the standard openings, I will try to play them into what might be an interesting middle game, once we get to territory that isn't so thoroughly played-out. I have answers for the supposed incoherence of scripture, the historical-epistemological "ditch," the arguments about the existence of God, &c. I have no interest in "winning" by negating your negation; I'd much rather bring you into the family so we can all play an interesting game. Because you can be useful to me, and I'm willing to be useful to you by doing my job.

As far as I see, it's the only good way of arguing with atheists.