There is strength in not pursuing every possible argument

My last entry was about the phrasing of questions to cut off common retreats from the question itself. The last improvement left the question as:

Atheist: Why do you worship a God that allows suffering?

I mentioned that it's still not a great formulation, and a few comments commented that I was leaving a cliffhanger. What further improvments could be made? Quite a few in my estimation:

Tactic: make specific claims, ask for specific claims. Use clear examples and ask for clear examples.

This 'tactic' is a completely symmetric burden for theist and atheist alike. Add specificity to the suffering. It's much easier to dismiss or trivialize suffering when talked about in the abstract. So take a very specific example of the worst kind of suffering you can come up with: the murder of Jessica Lunsford, the 9 year old girl who was repeatedly raped and then murdered by being buried alive.

Atheist: How can you worship a god that allowed the suffering of someone like Jessica Lunsford?

Now, the question, as it's worded is confrontational, and we're going for conversational. Does this mean blunting the criticism at all? No, but it means delivering the full impact of the punch without giving the person you're talking with a bunch of things to legitimately complain about -- those would just be distractions. So, start the interaction from the right mindset. Let me say now that I have read Christian "witnessing guides" that mention witnessing to non-Christians by becoming their friend so that the target is more accepting the Christian message. I disagree with this tactic profoundly, and I am not advocating that atheists try to befriend a person they argue with the goal of sneaking in a deconversion. The goal ought to be effective communication, and with that in mind, try to keep in mind a few suggestions.

  • First, the person you are talking with probably holds the beliefs he does because he believes them to be true -- not to annoy you.
  • Second, your first goal should be to figure out what the person actually believes. Think how annoying is it when you are asked, "So you believe humans evolved entirely by chance?" We don't want to be arguing against a belief that he doesn't hold.
  • Third, once you know what they believe, try to figure out why they believe what they do. You actually want to know what is going on in their head. You can even word it like:

Conversational Atheist: Help me understand your mindset -- because it is honestly a mystery to me -- I cannot conceive of ever praising a god that had full power to prevent the suffering of Jessica Lunsford, yet stood by and watched it happen. If such a god existed, I might understand withholding condemnation out of deference to some kind of unknowable reasoning. But it is truly inconceivable to me that you could actually praise such a creature. Do you see where I am coming from?

We are getting close to the best approach that I can think of from the starting question, "Why does God allow suffering?"

Few more nuances: So, as I say elsewhere, fight for the argument that is easiest to defend that is contrary to a fundamental belief. I suggest that it's unthinkable to praise such a God without knowing the specific reasons for allowing it, and that it's possible that a person could remain a "is god moral" agnostic. Could I argue that if such a god exists we ought to condemn it? Sure, but there are ways out that the theist has available that take time to wrap up.

Here's how I would deal with the most common response. Notice that I chose a phrasing that anticipates the response, "But, isn't it possible that somehow, God has some kind of plan where... greater suffering was averted by this seemingly atrocious event?"

So many ripe targets from such a response, but don't take the bait. Many atheists are very good at identifying every single logical fallacy and error. They honestly could wrestle every single misstep to the ground, but I'm suggesting that there is considerable argumentative strength in not pursuing every possible argument. Concede as much as you can while retaining a rock solid case on your main point.

Conversational Atheist: Sure, it's conceivable that a creature that had this power could have a good reason; it's also conceivable that a creature is a sadistic and evil being. So, I could imagine withholding judgment, and I can imagine condemnation for allowing what appears to be an unfettered evil occur, but, seriously, how could you praise such a creature without knowing the specific good reasons?

Comments, questions, and suggested improvements welcome! As are, especially, if you have tried this approach out yourself: report and success or failures you've had.

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