Why Engage in Religious Debates?

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While people of all persuasions are invited to read, the audience that I'm intending to address is my fellow non-believer.

I often seek to engage religious people in conversations, discussions and debates. For this, I am frequently asked questions like...

"Why do I argue, debate, discuss, and converse about religion? What do I hope to accomplish?"

There are many reasons to argue against religion and faith in general, and Christianity and Islam in particular. Honestly, when justifying why I argue to my fellow non-believers, it should be enough to state that Christianity, Islam, and various other religions are false. And, as Darwin once said, "To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact." But there are plenty more reasons.

Supernatural faith-based religions create undue fear and worries in the minds of children and adults about things that don't exist. It redirects time, money, resources and people wanting to do good into useless endeavors. It promotes magical and superstitious thinking. It gives respect and credence to religious leaders for no good reason – and often with terrible results.

Engaging religious people in conversation and debate helps to counter all of these negatives. Conversation and dialogue is a fundamental tool for progress -- if we become increasingly shielded from other points of view coming to a consensus becomes more and more difficult.

I'll present a number of other reasons that I have for arguing against Christianity, Islam, and faith-based religion in general.

Quick note on the format: I will number a bunch of claims that I make which explicitly state my reasons for engaging in religious debate.The final section contains my responses to a number of common challenges to my approach.

Claim #1: If people are loudly proclaiming their false beliefs, they should not be encouraged or go unchallenged.

As Christopher Hitchens says, "It is immoral to lie to children; it is immoral to lie to ignorant and uneducated people." Watch Hitchens say it himself in the first minute of the opening statements of his BookTV debate with Dinesh D'Souza in the following video:

I agree with Hitchens entirely on this point.

Religions that include hell in their teachings, Christianity and Islam in particular, are adding to the fears and worries of millions of children and adults.

In general, I believe that people who cause very real fright and worry in the minds of children about an imaginary suffering in the flames of hell should be confronted directly and publicly. The more that we challenge these dangerous and false beliefs in everyday conversation, the less often they will be handed out free passes from criticism.

Claim #2: Faith-based religion wastes the time, money, and resources of well-meaning people.

Religion redirects charitable impulses to uncharitable ends.

One might try to argue that church or some other religious community is beneficial for members of that community. Even if that's true, members who give money to their houses of worship often think that they are doing something selfless. On the other hand, people who pay to join a social club do so without being tricked into believing that they are helping society, and they definitely do not feel morally compelled to give 10% of their income. A solid portion of people belonging to these religious communities actually think they are contributing substantially to a charitable cause.

An article in USA Today, Americans Give Record $295B to Charity, states that "Donors contributed an estimated $295.02 billion in 2006 [to charitable causes] ... The biggest chunk of the donations, $96.82 billion or 32.8%, went to religious organizations."

According to the National Congregations Study, an extensive 1998 survey of all kinds of churches, temples and mosques, "the median amount spent per congregation on direct assistance to the needy is $1,500 a year; overall, social programs attract an average of less than 3 percent of a congregation's annual budget."

In the US alone, Christian churches take in more than $90 billion in tax-exempt donations every year, over 97% of which is used to build and support these churches and cater to the people who attend them.

To call this a charitable cause seems disingenuous to me. By way of example, consider the following: A man belongs to a country club. This club has a membership of $10,000 per year to belong. $9,500 dollars of the money goes to keeping the country club looking nice – mowing the lawns, keeping the golf greens trim, repainting anything that needs repainting. All very useful things on which to spend membership dues. Also, this country club gives people a social outlet to gather and meet like-minded people. There's nothing wrong with this, in principle. The remaining $500 goes to social outreach that impacts the community outside of the country club directly.

Now, imagine that this man says, "I give $10,000 to charity each year by way of dues to my country club." No he doesn't. He spends $9,500 dollars each year benefiting a social club to which he belongs. And the only thing that could be classified as "charitable" is the $500 that goes to charity.

This is the situation that persists in the United States to a large degree. Less than 5% of the annual income of religious congregations goes to social programs. The vast majority goes to sustaining the church social club for its own members.

It's fine that churches are mostly self-supporting social clubs in a sense. It is annoying when religious and non-religious alike describe any money going to a church as 'charitable' donations. At best it's a mistake. At worst it gives people a false sense of their contribution to the greater social good. It ought to be scandalous if a person actually thinks that he is contributing nearly $10,000 towards charitable causes when the real amount is only $500.

I mean, this fact alone should be just devastatingly embarrassing for Christians to learn and think about, especially when claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Matthew 19:21-24 (NRSV)

Jesus said to him, 'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.'

Seriously, churches that proclaim to follow Jesus should have a hard time justifying why they are spending more than 95% of their wealth on themselves, rather than on the poor. It is clear that they aren't even attempting to follow Jesus' teachings. (Not that Jesus' teachings are particularly enlightened).

Now let's consider the use of resources. Is there a better way for $90 billion to be spent? I mean, are these resources being used in a useful manner?

How about this thought: the National Cancer Institute requested $6 billion cancer research for 2009. I bet they could find a way to use a little cash that would have otherwise been spent resurfacing a church parking lot or replacing yet another steeple that was struck by lightning.

Claim #3: Religion teaches inappropriate responses to real world problems.

"It is not by delusion, however exalted, that mankind can prosper, but only by unswerving courage in the pursuit of truth." - Bertrand Russell

Many religions teach that prayer and fasting are useful responses to problems of this world. This kind of magical and superstitious thinking are antithetical to progress. Prayer is not effective against smallpox; it is a virus that affected people of all faiths equally, and as the Mayo Clinic's page on smallpox says, "In the 20th century alone, an estimated 300 million people died of smallpox."

More people were killed by smallpox in the 20th century than in all the wars in the 20th century combined!

Scientists figured out how to vaccinate against smallpox, and now it's eradicated. Let's contrast this with, for instance, the following examples of Muslim clerics actively attempting to prevent children from receiving the polio vaccine. Thousands of children are crippled from this disease in the Middle East and Africa. IRIN reported in the article, NIGERIA: Muslim suspicion of polio vaccine lingers on, that "Polio has already crippled thousands of children in Nigeria…But 32-year-old Aishatu Mohammed took a different line...'Besides with or without the vaccine, Allah protects his own.'"

When people believe that "Allah protects his own" their delusions cause very real harm not just to themselves, but to the most helpless sections of their own society. As further reported in The Independent's article, War on polio obstructed by radical clerics, "The worldwide campaign to eradicate polio, which is a whisker from total success, is being threatened by northern Nigerian states...[Polio] mostly attacks children under three, about one in 200 of whom develops the disease. It causes irreversible disability - shriveled and disfigured limbs, paralysis and, in some cases, death. But it can be easily prevented."

It's a tragedy that the eradication of an easily prevented disease that inflicts 1 in 200 children under the age of three is being stopped by radical clerics.

Let's move from inappropriate responses in Africa stemming from Islam to Christianity for a bit.

The truly disturbing article, They Say I Ate My Father. But I Didn't, published in the LA Times talks about "the estimated 25,000 children living on the streets of Kinshasa, the capital [of Congo], more than 60% had been thrown out of their homes by relatives accusing them of witchcraft, child-welfare advocates say." -- emphasis added.

60% of 25,000 homeless children is 15,000 children. 15,000 children will sleep on the streets tonight, not because of famine, not because of AIDS, but merely because their relatives believe that they are witches.

Religious debate ceases to be a merely academic exercise; these superstitious beliefs are impacting the lives of thousands every day. The article continues with reasons for these problems, "A rise in religious fundamentalism, revival churches and self-proclaimed prophets is one cause. More than 2,000 churches in Kinshasa offer "deliverance" services to ward off evil spirits in children, the group Human Rights Watch says."

Child witches are being targeted in a number of places.

In Nigeria, according to The Observer article, Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt, writes that "Evangelical pastors are helping to create a terrible new campaign of violence against young Nigerians. Children and babies branded as evil are being abused, abandoned and even murdered while the preachers make money out of the fear of their parents and their communities..."

Or the reports that in Angola, “In another Pentecostal Church, the reporters watched the exorcism of an eight-year-old girl, whose possession was blamed for the breakdown of her mother's marriage. Her mother and a pastor were 'beating the devil' out of her. Asked whether the child should be in hospital, the pastor replied: 'Why should the child die? If the child dies, it means the child is evil.'" - [Mother of child 'witch' traced in Angola reported in the Times Online].

Sure beat the devil out of the child, and if the kid dies, then the kid was evil -- why should an evil kid be brought to a hospital? Beliefs in demons, witches, and exorcisms are not only holding back progress, but they are causing very real suffering in the world.

In case you think I’m being a bit over-cautious, or unfairly lumping together believers from places like the US with believers in far flung countries, here’s an article that directly addresses belief in demonic possession and exorcism in the United States. Published by ABC News on the faith-filled day of September 11, 2001, Exorcism Thriving in U.S., Say Experts, "'…By conservative estimates, there are at least five or six hundred evangelical exorcism ministries in operation today [in the US], and quite possibly two or three times this many," he writes, in addition to numerous exorcisms performed by charismatic, Pentecostal and other brands of Christianity."

Did you think that perhaps exorcisms and demon possession were beliefs that had been "outgrown" in the West? To an extent, it has been more so than many other places. The US doesn't have an epidemic of homeless children turned out because their parents believe them to be witches, for example. But why is this the case? Did "progress" get made in religion? Did the realization that demons aren't the causes of sickness come from a closer reading of the Bible?

No, of course not. I would venture to guess that progress has been made, at least in part, from an unwillingness of the majority of the population to take seriously the problem of demon possession or witchcraft causing problems. This was done through social pressures and communications -- no laws needed to be passed for this progress to be made.

So why do people believe in demon possessions and witches and exorcisms?

Jesus heals all manner of sickness by driving out demons. These are real creatures to many believers – as real as Jesus’ resurrection.

I’m including a fair bit of text here, but take the time to really read it as it should really hammer down this point.

Account of epilepsy as written in the Gospel of Mark:

Mark 9:17-29 (NSRV)

Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

Really? This kind of demon only comes out through prayer? How much progress has this nugget of wisdom brought throughout the ages?

Where do people get the ideas of witches and demon possession? From the words of the Bible and Jesus. If Christians believe that the Bible describes reality even somewhat correctly, they should be hard pressed to deny that demon possession is a common occurrence. If there are Christians who no longer really believe in that kind of thing anymore, it’s not because they’re following their texts more closely.

Claim #4: Promoting faith as a virtue gives credence to religious leaders who have "authority" for terrible reasons.

In Islam, Mohammad’s life is the best example of how to lead a virtuous life. How he lived his life is to be emulated by faithful Muslims. It is blasphemous to suggest that Mohammad’s moral example could be improved upon.

Surah Al-Ahzab 33:21

Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for any one whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the Praise of Allah.

This leads to some tragic modern day occurrences. The Sahih al-Bukhari is the most trusted Sunni collection of Hadiths which records the life of Mohammad. It has passages like the following (the link is to the specific quote in the USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts):

Volume 7, Book 62, Number 88: Narrated 'Ursa:
The Prophet wrote the (marriage contract) with 'Aisha while she was six years old and consummated his marriage with her while she was nine years old and she remained with him for nine years (i.e. till his death).

Mohammad consummates a marriage with a nine year old.

If people honestly believed that this kind of behavior is the highest morality that we could even aim for, what effect could this kind of thinking have in the real world today? Since this is not a hypothetical situation, we know the answer. One example of the consequences of this kind of thinking: Child bride gets divorced after rape, beatings, CNN, "Nujood Ali is 10 years old, but she already has been married and divorced. It was an arranged marriage in which she said a husband three times her age routinely beat and raped her..."

CNN: Top Saudi cleric: OK to wed young girls

The debate over the practice of men marrying children in Saudi Arabia was back in the spotlight this week, with the kingdom’s top cleric refusing to annul the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man.

…Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti, said in remarks quoted Wednesday in the regional Al-Hayat newspaper. “A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”

…  “We hear a lot in the media about the marriage of underage girls,” he said, according to the newspaper. “We should know that Shariah law has not brought injustice to women.”

Mail Foreign Service: Saudi court tells girl aged EIGHT she cannot divorce husband who is 50 years her senior

A father gives his 8 year old daughter in marriage to a 58 year old in exchange for a dowry.  The mother did not approve and filed papers with a Saudi court.

Lawyer Abdullar Jtili said:”The judge has dismissed the plea, filed by the mother, because she does not have the right to file such a case, and ordered that the plea should be filed by the girl herself when she reaches puberty.”

Too bad that the mother does not have equal rights as the father with regards to the daughter… not to mention the daughter’s rights! Too young to file for divorce, yet young enough to be married?

If people honestly believed that this kind of behavior is the highest morality that we could even aim for, what effect could this kind of thinking have in the real world today?

We have the answer — the head cleric of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly declared that Sharia Law not only allows children brides, but is proud of that fact.

Frequent Challenges and My Responses

Occasionally, and much more insidiously, my fellow atheists occasionally try to protect the poor theists of the world from the bullying atheist who keeps insisting that reality be consulted. Some atheists will defend religious belief against criticism because they feel that some people need religion in their life. If you find yourself with this kind of “the theists need to be shielded from critical thinking” notion as though you are protecting someone, watch the video on this page and ask yourself whether you are protecting the man with the whip, or the girl.

My fellow non-believers shouldn’t reprimand others for challenging people who loudly proclaim false beliefs.

To echo Sam Harris, I advocate intellectual honesty, conversational intolerance, and challenging people who pretend to know things that they CANNOT know. As the name of this entire site suggests, what I intend to do is talk and converse with people. I am advocating more dialogue, as this seems to be the best way to change minds.

Amazingly, a challenge that I sometimes get at this point is:

Challenge to me #1: “Religious people don’t think that they’re lying, they think they’re telling the truth!”

Yes! I agree -- they definitely think that they're telling the truth! But this is a point that should increase the impetus to engage these people, not decrease it! This challenge actually widens the scope of people who should be engaged. The people you want to engage are those that have a principled commitment to truth.

If I thought that the majority of religious believers were lying, how would arguing that what they believe is false ever convince them to change their actions?

Challenge to me #2: "We should respect their beliefs."

A strongly held belief does not automatically deserve respect.

You respect a person by engaging people as humans who have the capacity to think and change their minds. If a person believes something patently false and absurd, you are not respecting the person by letting him pass through the night without being corrected.

As stated above, the more a person has organized his life around a false and absurd belief, the more imperative it is to engage him. We should respect beliefs that deserve respect. We should not respect beliefs that aren't worthy of respect. These are all tautologies, but they need to be said regardless.

Challenge to me #3: "You won't change anyone's mind."

I strongly believe that rational argument can change strongly held beliefs. And I'm not just saying that because it's a cute statement that cannot be rationally argued to be incorrect. (A person arguing with the statement either "wins", and rationally shows you that argument cannot change strongly held beliefs – proving what he is trying to disprove. Or he just loses.) I have had many encounters with people and have oftentimes had productive conversations, even if neither side walked away from a single sitting completely convinced.

And of course, I had my own mind changed through a long concerted effort of thinking, discussions, and reading that lead me away from being religious.

Consider the following testimonial:

I am amazed at how well you word your arguments. They have certainly helped me to argue well and convincingly with believers. Bravo. Your work helps us introduce reason to the religiously indoctrinated. I believe it is every strong atheists duty to spread reason in an evangelical manner and your arguments make the job so much easier. I have used your techniques to de-brainwash my mother and the day she admitted she had been fooled by preachers and popular opinion was one of the most gratifying moments of my life. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. http://www.unindoctrinated.com/

Engaging in religious debate is a useful endeavor, you might not change a street preacher’s mind, but there may be people who hear you arguing that haven’t considered that atheists exist, what they think, or why they think that. A fellow non-believer might overhear you and be emboldened to start a conversation of his own.

Let's consider the case where the religious person I've talked with is not convinced by my words. What has come from this encounter? There are lots of possible positives that could come from this. First of all, I gain experience in talking to people about religion. I have hopefully learned at least partly the way a specific religious person thinks. I have a better understanding of what does and does not work in these discussions -- either arguments that fall flat, or analogies that don't work, or wordings that don't convince. Maybe I've sown a seed of doubt that will slowly blossom at a later date. There are often people who quietly listen to the conversations that I get in who may have gained some new ideas and new ways of critically thinking about religion. And there is at least one more religious person out there that knows that people will actively challenge their beliefs.


Challenge to me #4: "Let believers have their false beliefs, it only harms them…"

To deliberately refrain from engaging a person who holds false beliefs that harm society because you do not feel that he can handle reality like you are is a contemptuous stance toward believers. Further, I think that my above claims address this claim directly: from turning out thousands of children into the streets to fend for themselves, to the hampering of disease eradication, to beating children who are demon possessed, to passing Prop 8.

But let me finish by quoting a strong shotgun blast from a fellow online blogger AtheistUnderUrBed:

"Mainstream Christian activists, pressure groups, and voters are having a negative impact on the lives of all us non-Christians whether we acknowledge their presence and power or not. They've managed to derail promising stem-cell research which might have led to cures for many diseases. They've managed to demonize and restrict the availability of abortion, sterilization, contraceptives, and sex education. They've undermined and slashed funding to U.N. programs designed to reduce world overpopulation. They've waged war on homosexuals and homosexual rights. They've stigmatized AIDS victims and impeded programs and practices which have slowed the epidemic where they've been instituted. They've made it harder for people with painful, terminal illnesses to end their lives in comfort and dignity. They've worked to restrict what we can see and read in our communities and on the Internet. They've worked to limit what we can drink and when. They've sought to maintain bans on interracial dating and marriage. They've repeatedly told women in ways big and small that they're not as good as men and that they ought to shut-up, get married, submit to their husbands, and have babies for the glory of God.

At the same time Christians have been working overtime to restrict the rights of others, they've been working to obtain special rights for themselves. Churches and church-groups are now exempt from many of the zoning laws and other rules and regulations the rest of us must obey. Christians want public school students to begin the day with prayers and pledges to their God - and they want their unscientific Creationism to be given special treatment in those students's science classrooms. They also want their Ten Commandments to be accorded a special place in schools, courthouses, and other public places paid for and used by everyone. Some proclaim a God-given right to beat their kids, deny them medical care, own as many guns as they want, and take as many wives as will have them."

Supernatural faith-based religions create undue fears and worries in the minds of children and adults about things that don't exist. It redirects time, money, resources and people wanting to do good into useless endeavors. It promotes magical and superstitious thinking. It gives respect and credence to religious leaders and religious ideas for no good reason other than blind faith – and often with terrible results.

Engaging religious people in conversation and debate helps to counter all of these negatives. There are many positive reasons to engage in religious debates as well. From honing your interpersonal skills, to alleviating another person from an oppressive doctrine. Conversation and dialogue is the best and most intellectually honest tool that we have to make progress in almost any endeavor.

I hope you join me in spreading the conversation to all corners of your world.

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