On this post I'd like to reflect on my experiences of attempting to have civilized discussion and debate with militant Internet atheists on atheism blogs, and to also dissect their debating tactics. I hope you're sitting down, because it's not for the faint hearted. Firstly, a disclaimer. Not all atheists are alike. The majority of them want to live their lives without interference from religion, and based on their own definition, live a good life. They want to work hard, feed their children, pay their bills, and raise their families. They have nothing against religious people, but they want no part of it. In other words, they think, "if you want to follow your religion, keep it to yourself and don't bother me with it."
I describe the atheists I have dealt with as militant to differentiate them from those described above. This is the situation as it currently stands. To their minds, religion is impeding human progress. It is evil, and a relic of a primitive, less enlightened era. Science has rendered religious belief unnecessary, but millions of deluded religious believers around the world refuse to accept this. Militant atheists are actively campaigning against what they see as the excessive and unhealthy influence that religion has upon Western society. Not only do they want to drive it completely from the public sphere; they are working to eradicate it altogether. Having achieved this goal, they think they will be able to bring about a fairer, more just society; or to overstate things slightly, a secular utopia. If they ever achieve this, I'd be very surprised if it turns out as well as they would have us believe, but that's another issue.
Why would I attempt to dialogue with these militant atheists? During my theological studies, one of my lecturers said that every Christian should be dialoguing with different belief systems. From a Christian framework, I have attempted to do this for several years. As an avid reader, I have read several books on comparative religions, cults, and new religious movements. Book learning has its place, but if you're careful how you go about it, talking with followers of these movements can be very informative as well. In recent years I have visited a mosque to talk to Muslims, talked with angel worshipers, members of ISKCON, Gnostics, faith healers, Reiki practitioners, Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of David Icke, members of the far right group nationalist group the Citizen's Electoral Council, and so on. My activities on atheist blogs are a continuation of this process. I want to understand their mindset better. My agenda is to develop my critical thinking skills, and at least attempt to have a respectful discussion of competing belief systems.
I'm not attempting to convert them or bring them back to the Christian faith. Based on my experiences, this seems like attempting to ride a bicycle uphill with the chain removed; in other words, pretty much impossible. Going by their blog comments, you can pick up some clues about their backgrounds. While they claim that their rejection of Christianity and its claims, or of any religious belief is purely on intellectual grounds, in at least some cases, it seems evident that there's sometimes more to the story than that, not that they're prepared to admit it if you ask them. They may have had bad experiences of church as an institution, or of significant figures in their lives who were Christians. You can cite numerous examples of the hypocrisy and moral failings of Christians, the corruption of the church, alleged discrepancies in the Bible, to cite a few examples. Add some or a combination of these factors together, and this has driven them to atheism. Their minds are already made up, and it would literally take a miracle for them to change their minds.
I have tried to be polite and respectful, just as I would if I was talking to them face to face, but being nice hasn't worked. I've never been an overbearing, in your face type of Christian, but I have been savaged. Some of them accuse me of "imposing" my beliefs on them. All I'm doing is merely stating my beliefs, strongly at times, but almost always respectfully, so I fail to see how this constitutes imposing them. They attempt to caricature me as some sort of rabid fundamentalist, as if all Christians think alike. If offering a Christian perspective on issues upsets them, this says more about them than me. Besides, there is a difference between being passionate and being obnoxious; a difference which some of them fail to appreciate.
Just because I'm a Christian, they are not prepared to give you a fair hearing. Other Christians are treated the same way. They refuse to take you seriously, or dialogue or engage with you on an equal footing. Just for disagreeing with them, I and other Christians have been mocked, ridiculed, patronized, belittled, and called ignorant and intellectually stunted. Yet my patience, such as it is, wears thin when I see how they badly they misrepresent and distort Christian beliefs, time and time again.
In one hubristic post, one militant atheist blogger trumpeted what he saw as the growing influence of their movement, citing research showing a statistical decline in church attendance and religious belief among certain demographics in North America. Somehow this lead to me bringing up the millions of Christians worldwide who are being persecuted for their faith, sometimes at the cost of their lives. If I remember correctly, I called these Christians "martyrs." Historically and in the present day, these Christians have usually been peaceful citizens, without a violent bone in their bodies, following the example of Jesus himself.
Their only crime is to live under and defy unjust laws which deny them freedom of worship, or live under regimes that do little to protect this freedom. Taken to extremes, sometimes it comes down to a choice between renouncing their faith, imprisonment, or being killed. I had my words twisted, as if I was trying to say, "millions of Christians are being persecuted for their faith, therefore Christianity is true." I was actually making a point about the remarkable resilience and dedication of these Christians under very difficult conditions, and how inspired by their example I am. I was drawing a broad comparison between their persecution and the militant atheist campaign against Christianity, and some of their personal attacks against me, which I see as a form of persecution. As for my use of the word martyr, someone tried to suggest that a non-violent Christian martyr is no different from a militant Islamic suicide bomber. At times their thinking is so warped and vitriolic it leaves me flabbergasted.
This leads to another point. Some of these militant atheists hate having the Bible quoted at them. They make it very clear that they reject it and that it has no authority over them whatsoever. However, they're happy to quote it back at you if it suits their purposes. They want to have their cake and eat it too. To give one example, to support his argument that the Bible condones and prescribes the oppression of women, one commentator quoted from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus. On the same topic, another commentator produced a long list of Bible passages giving examples of women being treated badly.
She shouted me down when I countered that she was reading these passages out of context, and that these passages were descriptive rather than prescriptive. I offered to look into these passages and explain them for her, but she wasn't interested. Just the other day I had one tell me that the Bible prescribes incest, stoning of homosexuals, rape, burning witches, and atrocities against children. Because I personally practice none of these things, I have been accused of cherry picking, that is, only following those parts of the Bible that suit me. This is a meaningless accusation, and one I absolutely reject.
Another commonly used tactic is to obfuscate. Look in the comments archive of this blog for a couple example of this. If they're irrelevant to the issue being discussed is of no concern to them. As soon as you identify yourself as a Christian on these blogs, they will bombard you with a long list of objections to Christianity. These may either be based on difficult passages of the Bible, doubts about the historicity of the Bible or of Jesus himself, the moral failings and hypocrisy of some Christians, or historic and contemporary injustices perpetrated upon humanity by those claiming to act with the sanction of God. In doing this they hope to so overwhelm you that you will feel intellectually outgunned and discouraged from further discussion and give up, leaving the argumentative atheist with the impression that they have won the day, and another Christian has been put in their place.
I take atheist objections against my Christian faith seriously, probably more seriously than they take my faith. Insofar as I personally cannot answer them, sometimes these objections rattle my cage a bit and challenge my faith. These challenges cannot be allowed to fester for too long, so they are actually driving me to look for answers to their objections. Even if I personally lack the knowledge to answer these objections, plenty of other Christians do.
As others more learned than I am have frequently observed, these objections are nothing new. They have already been dealt with satisfactorily by the vast body of Christian scholarship. All I need to do is find it and make the time to read it, just as I have previously whenever I come across people with different beliefs to my own. Some of my militant atheist friends might think that their campaign against Christianity will persuade some Christians to abandon their faith, but in my case, this is very unlikely. My faith has been tested more severely than anything they can dish up. If I was going to give up my faith, I probably would have already done so a long time ago.