Posts Tagged ‘argument’

I’ve been thinking lately about making arguments that give away too much ground.

There’s three examples in particular that sprung to mind in quick succession, which should explain what I mean.

1. Born this way

Sexuality is not a choice. When somebody declares that a person “chooses to be gay”, they are, to within a margin of error, empirically incorrect. The idea that one’s sexual preferences are a mere matter of taste, which can be willed away or ignored if one simply stopped being so stubborn, is a falsehood, as many people have pointed out at length.

But if you’re arguing in favour of gay rights, it may be better to downplay this aspect of your argument, when engaging with somebody who is misstating facts in an effort to demean or denigrate homosexuality or homosexuals.

It’s not that you’re wrong to point out that you were “born this way” (or at least, that nature plays a strong role in determining sexual preference). It’s just an argument that gives too much ground.

Sexuality is not a choice. But so what if it was?

If you make the “born this way” argument your central theme, you’re implicitly accepting way too many of the homophobic assumptions behind the other person’s assertions. If most of your time is spent pointing out that a person’s sexual preferences are entirely beyond their conscious control, then it starts to seem like that is the lynch-pin of your argument, and should it ever turn out to be flawed – or even incorrect – then your opponents’ bigotry will be justified.

There’s always some value in correcting a factual misstatement, but beyond pointing out “It’s not a choice,” you might get more to the heart of the issue with: “Okay, say it’s a choice. If it is, it’s my choice. I’ve made it. Your problem with that is what, and I should give a fuck why?”

2. Big is beautiful

You don’t need to spend much time as either a vaguely attentive man or a barely conscious woman in the modern world to notice that there are some fucked-up standards of beauty out there.

There’s also an encouragingly prominent backlash against many of them. Unless you’re hanging out in very different parts of the internet from me, you’ll regularly be bumping into tumblrs and gifs and photoblogs and memes and other internet doohickeys intended to remind you that fat chicks are among the sexiest things you’ll ever see. That sentence doesn’t even need a citation linked anywhere in it. Just Google it. And make sure SafeSearch is turned off first.

It’s beyond trivially obvious that curves can be gorgeous, and the standards of beauty still considered conventional on many magazine covers are insanely narrow and restricted. This defiance is important and empowering, and no doubt helps many people feel better about their bodies – but again, there’s an assumption behind it which deserves challenging.

Even if every human above a certain BMI were universally considered physically unappealing, so fucking what?

Why should being sexually desirable or attractive be the factor most associated with improved esteem? I don’t for a second resent anyone searching this way for validation, or using attractiveness to encourage and bolster the spirits of those who it might help – but the fundamental question of whether it ought to be considered so important deserves a place in the conversation too.

And let’s not forget the chubby men, incidentally. The internet seems to be mostly about the curvy girls, but I hope there are zones of love for the fuller-figured fellas out there, too, in areas I haven’t spent as much time exploring.

3. “Hardworking people

There’s a lot for a lefty like me to get angry about when it comes to the government’s recent war on welfare and rhetoric about “hardworking people”. Many more active activists have pointed out data which render the coalition’s whole output completely asinine – such as that the majority of people struggling to make ends meet, visiting food banks, and claiming benefits are actually in work – completing undermining the workshy scrounger image the Tories in particular are so keen to propagate.

For many, work doesn’t pay; the system is fucked and allows the rich to exploit the masses for their labour without offering them a decent standard of living (let alone the inhumanity of workfare). This is all important to recall.

But there’s one more assumption tucked in there which it’s worth ferreting out, lest the argument take a turn and veer into the kind of divisive territory we should be trying to avoid.

I don’t want anybody to have to experience the stress of worrying about being able to feed their family, or keeping them warm over the winter, or getting behind on rent and bill payments and ending up homeless, even if they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to get off their arse and look for a job.

Those relatively few people who actually look like what the Bullingdon crowd imagine all poor people look like? I want a welfare system which supports them non-judgmentally too.

Compassion and an unconditional level of basic financial security, for hardworking people and feckless scroungers alike.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Is this a useful way to refocus the debate, or would it just distract from the liberating ideas that are already gathering momentum?

2. Are there any other obvious examples of this that I’ve missed?

3. How blatantly am I pandering to the overweight queer working class vote right now?

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Too long ago for it to still be topical, Greta Christina asked for some ideas on how the atheist and skeptical communities can “take on social justice”.

It’s a less intensely important question to me than it might once have been. I’ve been drifting a little from the “community” part of atheism and skepticism online lately, more through a reordering of my priorities and time management than any fading of my passion for the subjects themselves. But I’m going to chip in with an idea of what might benefit a lot of online communities, all the same. It’s not a specific suggestion for something which can directly be put into place (which is what Greta was asking for); it’s just where my mind went on giving the question some thought.

Don’t expect everyone to speak with one voice.

On anything.

There needs to be room for genuine, deep, fundamental differences of opinion to be expressed, among people who coexist in a community and share some common goals and interests. That really needs to be a thing that’s okay. Otherwise disputes and disagreements will still be inevitable, but they’ll also be needlessly divisive.

And we need to be very selective in what assertions someone can make which render them persona non grata to us. We need to be very slow and cautious in deciding that somebody’s differences make them such a hostile, destructive outsider that their collegiality absolutely cannot be tolerated, and they must be either forcefully and vehemently corrected or simply cast out.

We spend a lot of time telling religious people that, even though we think they’re completely, empirically wrong about things they strongly believe, and that our beliefs might offend them personally on a visceral level that makes them recoil from our very existence, we’re still people, and we deserve respect. Well, some of the ideological and personal gaps between atheists are at least as wide and chasmic as those between myself and any given god-botherer, so the same logic deserves to be turned inward, too.

To take a completely arbitrary and uncontroversial example: some atheists think that Rebecca Watson was right in the advice she offered after being approached by a man in an elevator in a way she found inappropriate. Other atheists think that she overreacted in a way that was unjustified and sexist.

Now, there are unquestionably some terrible human beings who’ve taken hardline positions on both sides of this argument. But neither of these viewpoints is enough to make somebody a bad atheist. Neither of these viewpoints alone should make someone unbearable for you to be in the same room with. If the single fact you know about someone is that they disagree with you on “elevatorgate”, it’d be a real shame if that meant you could never swap any stories about your experiences of religious persecution with them, or share thoughts on how to discuss your godlessness with deeply religious relatives, or in some other way engage with each other on a topic that’s meaningful to both of you.

And this doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about Rebecca Watson’s courageous feminist activism and/or feminazi misandrist histrionics. If you think the implications of that whole clusterfuffle are important, then of course you should keep talking about it and explaining why it matters. But it’s not a great idea to use a simple yes/no analysis of “Are they on the right side?” as a litmus test for whether somebody really counts as a part of your group.

Now, if you do manage to give up on expecting your tribe-members to all agree on anything, this may make it harder to define exactly what it is that unites you all. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you don’t need to maintain unity among the group even on important matters. Maybe you might have some positive interactions with folk who, for whatever reason, fail to see the heroic/evil Rebecca Watson for who she really is. Maybe, if we try to see people as still being part of our community even when they’re painfully misguided and wrong about some really obvious and important things, then our efforts toward “social justice” could – and bear with me, because this may sound crazy – benefit from an atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity.

So that ended up being less a practical suggestion, and more another restating of my tiresomely idealist philosophies. I make no apology for feeling compelled to repeat myself.

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I’ve started following some people I disagree with on Twitter.

Listening to people you disagree with is really quite important. I mean, I talk to hypothetical people I disagree with on this blog all the time, and I act like I’m expecting them to listen. So it’s only polite.

And I do get probably an unhealthy amount of my reporting on what “the other side” think only when it’s been filtered through someone on “my side” reporting on it, with all the expected disdain and righteous indignation that I find it hard not to share.

So I’ve added a few contrarians to my feed. I’m planning to find more blogs to achieve the same thing, too. Feel free to make suggestions. (I’m a libertarian socialist atheist humanist, in case you need a recap on who I’m likely to find utterly antithetical to every value I hold dear.)

Anyway, there’s a particular thought process some of these oppositional commentators seem to spark in me. It goes something like this.

1. This opinion contradicts my understanding of the way things are!

2. I am more rational than to simply dismiss it out of hand, however. I shall follow the attached link and look a bit more closely into what the assertion actually is, and how well it stands up.

3. Well, it isn’t immediately obvious to me what’s wrong here.

4. But something must be, this person’s a tit and clearly on the wrong side of everything.

5. Okay, that’s definitely not a rational conclusion. Can I actually find any holes in this piece of analysis?

6. …No.

7. But it doesn’t mean this person’s right; really, I just don’t understand the subject well enough to have an opinion either way. It’s quite intricately political in an area I’m not well versed in.

8. Is that a cop-out to avoid admitting that I was wrong about something, because this person made a good point?

9. No, I think I really honestly don’t have a clue one way or the other. This seems like a good point, but so did the other stuff I’d already read from the other side. Apparently I can’t reliably tell which of these two opposing viewpoints is making the best points. I really should conclude that I just don’t know what’s going on.

10. Y’know, I probably should’ve started with that before even deciding I had an opinion worth defending.

I’ve also provided myself with a few examples of how a little intelligence and rationality can be a dangerous thing, if they’re deployed and placed strategically so as to continue reinforcing one’s own biases.

In particular, this comes up in my reactions when somebody not part of my “in-group” makes a claim about a contentious subject, as opposed to when somebody who is identified as being on “my side” makes a similar claim, when I don’t have time to fully examine either of them right now.

The contrast between “Hmm, I should study this more carefully later, and also find an informed rebuttal from someone who disagrees, to make sure I’ve got both sides of the story and can fully and rationally assess the truth of the situation” and “Yep, makes sense!” is quite stark.

So I’ve learned some things about my own rationality, and the way my brain works when confronted with ideas and individuals I tend to find unreasonable and infuriating.

On the other hand, I’ve also been reminded that, sometimes, people whose political opinions happen to differ significantly from mine are also horrible. Just unbearably, viciously, despicably horrible.

So there’s that.

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If you asked me to sum up one of the most important and influential developments in my outlook on life and way of thinking in recent years, the thing which has most changed my view on the world and on myself, and which I’d most love to see more broadly spread among everyone and its importance appreciated, in a single word…

…I’d probably ask who you are and why I should bother paying attention to your long, wordy, and arbitrarily restrained questions, before making some more tea and procrastinating some more of my novel.

But if you caught me in a sharing and succinct mood, my answer would be:


Which refers, in very brief terms as I best understand it, to “thinking about thinking”; being aware of what goes on inside your own head, of the physical and emotional processes that lead you to certain beliefs and states of mind.

The ability to see one’s thoughts as the product of a cluster of organic matter, moulded into shape by billions of years of competitive evolution, working through its own programming in an often chaotic and messy way – and not as simply the way things are because that’s how you see and feel them and so that’s the way the world is – is massively underrated.

Eventually I’ll explain more what I mean, why I think this, and what it’s meant to me (though in the meantime, as is often the case, Eliezer Yudkowsky’s got it pretty well covered if you want to read some more). But one thing in particular set me on this train of thought recently.

Journalist and nice man Jon Ronson tweeted recently about a new edition of his radio show that’s going to air soon. In his words:

The first episode is about how whenever I look at my clock the time is 11.11.

Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but the ensuing surge of retweets and other Twitter discussion showed that it’s not just some personal oddity, noticing a certain time of day coming up disproportionately often in the course of your clock-watching; many other people reported a similar phenomenon, often with exactly the same time. (I’d actually heard of this before, but with 9:11.)

Why does it happen? Well, various things spring to mind. Once you start noticing when it happens to be 11:11, for instance, it’s probably hard to stop, particularly once it’s in your mind as a cultural event which dozens of people have been tweeting about. I’ve completely lost track of how many times I’ve glanced at some sort of clock today, because none of them has been memorable for more than a few moments; if one particular time had special reason to stick in my mind, then I might start to remember it as if those were the “only” times I looked at a clock.

The lines of 11:11 have an obviously pleasing flat, straight, simple symmetry to them, which make them more interesting to notice than, say, all those occasions when I’ve checked the time and it was 14:53. (That could quite plausibly have happened to me hundreds of times in my life, for all I know, and I don’t remember a single one of them.) And maybe, on a subconscious level, it’s not always accidental; if you notice the time when it’s 11:07, perhaps you’ll be flicking back there every so often over the next few minutes, to see if you can catch 11:11 in the act.

And people regularly exaggerate, misremember, and misinterpret, of course, especially when they’re trying to make sure they have a story to tell that’s at least as good as everyone else’s.

I’d gone some way down this line of reasoning, after reading Jon’s first tweet, when I thought: Wait, why am I starting to get defensive about this? I’m doing some motivated thinking here, as if I needed to defend the idea that coincidences happen without there being some sort of supernatural, paranormal force behind it all.

…When did anyone bring supernatural paranormal forces into this?

Because literally nobody had. The only thing that had happened was someone mentioning a pattern they seemed to have observed. There wasn’t even a hint of an implication that pixies or goblins must be responsible for it (and Jon has a track record for being more grounded than that). But I started reacting as if there were, in the conversation my brain started carrying on with itself.

It’s not hard to understand why I’d do that; those sorts of stories, where an ostensibly improbable occurrence is used to justify belief in something wacky, do go on all the time, and do regularly annoy me. This wasn’t one of those times, but the cached thoughts welled up in my mind anyway, and if I hadn’t been attentive to it, I could’ve started arguing vehemently and digging my heels in to defend a position that wasn’t remotely under attack.

I suppose it’s worth briefly exploring what the trivially obvious arguments against such supernatural bollocks would be – primarily, that any spiritual or divine agent devoting its efforts to influencing when Jon Ronson happens to check the time, but which is continuing to let tens of thousands of children across the world die from starvation, AIDS, and malaria, is irrelevant at best and downright malevolent at worst.

But that’s not my main point here. More interesting right now, is how quickly I began building up mental defences in response to a completely imagined attack on a belief system which I shouldn’t even really be that defensive over anyway.

This has gone on long enough for now. I’ll try to hone in on some interesting parts to this in more detail soon.

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Julian Baggini brought up an interesting concept in the latest issue of The Skeptic magazine. One way people sometimes try to slide an unconvincing argument past you is by using “low (or high) redefinition”.

I hadn’t heard the phrase before, but his explanation was immediately familiar. When an argument centres around a particular definition with an imprecise meaning, it’s a common ploy to bolster one’s case by broadening, or narrowing, the definition of the word as much as possible, rendering it either unhelpfully all-inclusive or unattainably precise.

Some examples might help make this clear. Julian cites the idea common to Christian theology of committing a sin “in one’s heart”; it’s sometimes claimed that when it comes to, for instance, adultery, thoughts and acts are equally sinful in God’s eyes.

Leaving the language pedantry aside, it should be clear that there are substantial differences, in the details of the action and the consequences, between merely harbouring lustful thoughts and actually acting upon them. But it’s useful to some models of Christianity to conflate the two, applying low redefinition so that the single word “adultery” applies equally to both, and ostensibly supporting their argument that, not only is there a connection between such thoughts and actions, but they amount to the same thing.

His example of high redefinition refers to health scares, in which the bar demanded for words like “safe” is set unreasonably high, so that it can never realistically be met, and sensationalist newspaper headlines can make a noise about the “dangers” of what are actually minuscule risks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another example of this can be found in the Christian notion of what it means to be a “good” person. In examples such as this – which probably struck someone, somewhere, as a fine example of excellent Socratic reasoning – people’s claims of being a “good” person are struck down by the presence of any individual instance in which they’ve failed to adhere to any of a number of moral rules.

The way some Christians want to define the word, nobody can possibly be considered “good”; it’s crucial to the theology that we’re all sinners. But if good is really a zero-tolerance proposition at every level, it becomes an uninteresting concept. At the very start of that video, the interviewee gives us a much more accessible idea of what it means to be good, before the term is so precisely redefined by religious dogma: “I try to, most of the time… but I’m only a human being, we all make mistakes… I try to treat everybody with respect and dignity.”

The title of Julian’s piece was “That all depends what you mean by…”, which highlights the futility of getting distracted by semantic arguments about the precise definition of words in these sorts of discussions. If you know what you’re talking about, you don’t need an ambiguous word for it that’s just leading to irrelevant disagreements. Taboo the word, and just discuss the concepts, the exact probabilities, or the behaviours themselves that are in question.

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If you’re someone who engages in the skeptical movement, what are the goals you hope to achieve in doing so?

I’ve been slack with my blogging lately, and I’ve had this post by Daniel Loxton bookmarked for so long that I’ve forgotten most of what I wanted to say about it. But I know I wanted to bring up the idea of being goal-oriented in one’s approach to skeptical issues.

This has been a common theme with Daniel Loxton’s posts to Skepticblog. He often urges skeptics to consider what effect the way we communicate our ideas will have on our potential audience, particularly those who don’t agree with us. He advises against using sweeping terms like “woo” to dismiss popular ideas that have no basis in reality.

The idea is that, while someone who thinks homeopathy looks like a useful treatment option might be open to learning about how ineffective it actually is, they’re less likely to listen to you if it sounds like your opening gambit is “that’s a load of horseshit and you’re an idiot for buying into it”. And, importantly, we should consider how our language might sound to someone on the other side of the issue, even if we don’t mean to insult them by curtly implying that homeopathy’s a load of horseshit.

The basic principle of basing your actions around the outcomes they’ll produce is a hard one to argue with. But sometimes the outcomes need to be considered more broadly. There was quite a backlash against the Don’t Be A Dick philosophy first described by Phil Plait last year, as many people irately defended their right to mock and satirise ideas that are unworthy of our respect.

Phil’s main argument concerned the outcomes of our actions; he asked his audience to consider how often they’d been persuaded to change their minds “because somebody got in your face, screaming, and called you an idiot”. But outcomes were also a prime consideration of those who opposed him. If we feel obliged to pussyfoot around believers’ delicate sensibilities, they said, and are never allowed to use anything as blunt as sarcasm, and have to live in fear of hurting anyone’s feelings even the slightest, then we’ll never get anything done.

The kind of confrontation Phil describes is obviously not constructive. We should certainly all aim to be more goal-oriented than to shout abuse in anyone’s face, for any reason. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of making comments with no other outcome in mind than to make myself feel better by retaliating against a perceived slight; it’s always worth looking further forward than this, or you’re in danger of simply ego-stroking with no regard for others’ perceptions of you.

But another goal worth striving for, when considering the skeptical movement more broadly, is to make sure that those skeptics who are trying to form a constructive part of a community – possibly atheists who’ve lived a sheltered religious life and are only now discovering a group of people who think like them – still feel like autonomous people, with a place to express themselves freely among like-minded folk, even in moments of frustration and anger, and who don’t feel obligated to act guardedly even among their allies for fear of being lectured about the importance of cultivating an amiable public image and being sufficiently goal-oriented.

In other words, shouting other skeptics down if they don’t constantly present a perfectly acceptable and approachable front to believers is another great way of not getting anything done.

I should clarify that that’s not how I’m characterising any of Daniel Loxton’s articles, and I’m not convinced that there’s any such pall of fear at causing offense hovering over the skeptical blogosphere as a whole. But it’s a danger that’s evident when some people are too keen that nobody should ever Be A Dick.

And in the other direction, there are some people who, if you even raise the question of how people not in agreement might respond to something, and suggest that the tone of an argument is worth considering, will damn you for making concessions to the woo-mongering idiots, and accuse you of being that most hideous of ghouls, an accommodationist. Which isn’t necessarily the case either.

Of course our actions should, ideally, only be taken with a view to the effects they will have. But I think some sort of balance between the specific details and the big picture needs to be found.

How close do you reckon I am?

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Evolution, huh? Then where’s my crocoduck?

It’s absurd to suggest that primary school children should get any kind of sex education. Kids shouldn’t be watching porn until they’re old enough to find it for themselves on the internet.

Any psychics in the audience, please raise my hand.

Sometimes it’s really hard to argue properly against someone, especially when they’re making a lot of sense and presenting lots of supportive facts, and even more so if you yourself happen to be full of shit. But the great thing about logical fallacies is that you can quite merrily argue against someone else, someone with a much less defensible position, and still claim a victory.

Sounds so much easier than actually responding to your opponent’s points with sincerity and understanding, doesn’t it? Particularly when the someone else you’re arguing against doesn’t even exist, and is a mere hypothetical construct entirely conjured up by yourself, for the sole purpose of smacking them down and calling your real opponent a failure.

A straw man is just such a construct. Pretend that your opponent’s position is something different from what it actually is, and explain why they’re wrong for believing something that they don’t really believe.

It’s a popular one with creationists who misunderstand (willfully or otherwise) the claims of evolutionary science, and assert that the lack of any dogs seen giving birth to cats undermines anything Darwin might ever have written. (Actually, evolution doesn’t predict this should happen; in fact there’s nothing in the entire field of biology which could possibly explain something so bizarre.)

And it’s something which skeptics need to be careful of when questioning people’s unlikely-sounding claims about, say, paranormal abilities. Maybe it does seem strange how few psychics have ever won the lottery, but it could be that we’re just misunderstanding the nature of the claim, in the same way the creationists are.

This is why Randi is always so painstakingly scrupulous about getting a detailed description of exactly what an applicant says they can do, and under what conditions, before testing them for the Million Dollar Challenge – to paraphrase one of his own examples, it’s no use trying to prove that someone isn’t really a musician by sitting them down at a piano and demanding some Beethoven, if they claim to be a flautist.

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It’s logical fallacy time, here in Skeptictionary corner.

An argumentum ad hominem might look like this:

Is a convicted drunk driver really qualified to comment on a matter of such importance?

Since when did we start listening to suggestions from communists on how to improve our healthcare system?

You’re wrong because you’re an idiot.

It’s an attempt to discredit an argument, by attacking the person (the hominem in “ad hominem“) who is making it, rather than the logic of the argument itself. It’s fallacious because it’s irrelevant; it doesn’t matter who is claiming something, the facts are what’s important in deciding what’s true.

For instance, I hope to get around to discussing the authenticity of the Bible on this blog before long. If you want to defend your Holy Book, it’s not going to do you any favours to rant about how a godless heathen like me can’t be trusted, or to bring up those baby seals I hunted to death that one time, without actually addressing my points. The historical evidence stands as it stands, regardless of my personal history.

And, fair’s fair; if someone brings up a point about Biblical prophecy or some such which they think supports the Bible’s divine origins, it doesn’t help me to simply declare that nobody so blinded by ideology could possibly have anything useful to say. An argument should be judged on its own merit, and irrelevant ad hominem arguments don’t advance anyone’s cause.

They tend to come in three (or maybe four) flavours:

An abusive ad hominem is a straight-forward insult or an aspersion cast against your opponent, in an illogical attempt to damage the logic of their own standing. (“Sure, he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, but can you ever really trust a convicted jay-walker?”)

A circumstantial ad hominem is something I’ve seen described in two different ways. It can be an attempt to undermine someone’s credibility, and thus the credibility of their argument, by pointing out an apparent source of bias. (“Of course he says women should get paid more; he needs the women’s vote to get elected.”) It may also be a way of encouraging acceptance of a claim based on your audience’s personal biases, rather than on the facts that support or refute it. (Asking “What would Jesus do?” only has a chance of being persuasive to a certain demographic of the population.)

And a tu quoque (“you too!”) argument is an attempt to undermine the reasoning of an argument by accusing its opponent of acting inconsistently with it. (“If Al Gore’s so worried about the environment, why does he keep flying around on his private jet to tell us all about it?”)

Making accusations about a speaker’s character isn’t always irrelevant and inappropriate, though. Climate change either is or isn’t a problem we should be doing something about, regardless of Al Gore’s personal carbon footprint – but if you wanted to make the case that Al Gore is a hypocrite, then this would be a relevant point to bring up, even if it doesn’t make him wrong about our impact on the environment. Similarly, gender equality seems to be a fine thing, whatever any politicians are saying – but a claim that can’t be objectively verified, which relies more on the arguer’s personal opinions or authority (“You should vote me, because I’ll do something about this”) can reasonably be called into question by bringing up their personal biases.

And, so long as you’re not confusing it with logic, sometimes hurling abuse at people is just fun.

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Yep. I’m an atheist, for those of you who hadn’t picked up on that, and atheism is a belief system.

Even this is apparently controversial among many atheists, who insist that their position is simply a “lack” of one particular belief, but I don’t know why the idea of a “belief system” is something so many people find off-putting. Presumably anyone who believes anything in any non-random fashion has a system of some sort. I know I do.

I’ve seen some atheists get unnecessarily defensive in asserting that their position isn’t a positive claim. I say “unnecessarily” because there’s nothing shameful about making positive claims about the nature of the universe and things beyond. I positively consider the idea of a creator god very improbable, and the likelihood of the Christian god as described in the Bible to be negligible. But even if I were just to say that I am without god-belief, this doesn’t get me off the hook from having to defend my position.

It is an intellectual position even to withhold from professing a belief in a god, and inherent in that position is the assertion that your position is a tenable one. Unless you’re completely abstaining from any sort of decision, and only claiming not to have any knowledge or opinion about anything, this position (sometimes labelled “weak atheism”) can really be expressed as, “I don’t have a belief in any particular god, and this is a reasonable belief for me not to have.”

To see why this is true, imagine that my friend Bob were to say:

I profess a lack of belief that the Sun exists. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but while everyone else sees a bright fiery ball crossing the sky in perfect order every day and leaps to conclusions about some kind of “Sun”, I’m staying on the fence.

I’d be quite comfortable labelling this as ridiculous. To refuse to take a position on something so apparently unequivocal as whether the Sun exists is silly; actively believing that it’s really there is the only reasonable way to think. (Assume that Bob’s not suggesting we’re in the Matrix, or that he’s dreaming, or anything like that which would throw the whole of reality into question; it’s just the Sun he’s doubtful about.)

Someone else might claim to not know whether, say, the Holocaust really happened – they might not deny it, as such, but they don’t know enough on the matter to actually profess a belief in it. And I think you have to allow for the possibility that this might be fair. My own conviction is that the extermination of millions of Jews in Nazi Germany was a genuine event, but this is based largely on the historical and scientific consensus among people who’ve studied it and seem to know what they’re talking about, more than my knowledge of the actual facts. Although I’ve read Michael Shermer’s explanations of why Holocaust denialism is bunk, and have a reasoned trust in the academic research methods that have almost unanimously reached this conclusion, I couldn’t personally argue the case at all well right now. If I were even less informed, and had given it even less thought, I probably wouldn’t even be comfortable asserting a belief one way or the other.

And then there’s atheism, in which people do not profess a belief in any particular god, or in the concept of God in any general terms. And part of the belief system of anyone who calls themself an atheist in this way is the claim that this is not like maintaining a lack of belief in the Sun, it’s not obvious that I ought to believe based on what’s right before my eyes, I can reasonably and rationally make the claim that I don’t have to believe in a god if I want to avoid being ridiculous.

Unless your lack of belief stems entirely from a lack of interest, this is a belief that needs to be justified.

As an atheist, I think this can be done, and that exploring the justifications can only be enlightening, and get me better acquainted with my belief system.

Let’s go back to Bob for a second. Bob’s not denying the Sun might exist, but he’s not willing to stick his neck out and take a side on the issue. Chances are, if he ever brings this up in conversation, the reaction he gets will be a rather confused one. His buddy Dave, for instance, might say:

What the hell do you mean, you “don’t believe in the Sun?” It’s right there, for frig’s sake! It’s in the sky, you can see it! Also, after millennia of observing the heavens and decades of sending stuff up there to take pictures and look around, we have a pretty good idea of our place in the solar system, specifically that our roughly spherical planet is held in an elliptical orbit around the Sun by the gravitational force suggested by Newtonian mechanics, but more important, it’s right sodding there up in the sky, you cretin.

Dave’s a little tetchy. He thinks Bob’s being ridiculous, because he thinks that his arguments in favour of believing in the existence of the Sun are sufficient that you really should believe in it; anyone who doesn’t must be either completely irrational, or deeply uninformed, unintelligent, or uninterested, to an extent rarely seen in modern humans with full mental faculties. And I’d be inclined to agree. I mean, the Sun’s right there.

For Bob to have any chance of being taken seriously, there must be some reason why Dave’s argument doesn’t convince him. If he can’t explain why he maintains his position, in the face of any new argument or evidence presented that might undermine it, he can’t claim to be using sound reasoning. He’s not obliged to explain himself again in detail every time, to everyone who ever brings up any objection, but there must be a reason, in each case, why this new argument doesn’t make him change his mind. And “The Sun’s right there, why wouldn’t you believe in it?” is something I think he’d struggle to answer.

Similarly, atheists need to have a reason for maintaining a lack of belief. We might be starting off from the default position, but as soon as someone asks, “Where did the Universe and all this cool stuff it’s got come from?” we need to have a reason for not being persuaded by this to believe in a god.

(It’s important to note that this is not the same as saying we need to answer the question. The question itself isn’t an argument for a god’s existence, because a question can’t be declaring anything. The argument implicit in the question might go something like: The Universe exists, and has all this cool stuff in it, which couldn’t have come from nothing, and couldn’t just be here with no reason, therefore it must have been (or probably was) created by some divine being. Atheism needs a reason why it doesn’t reach this same conclusion. Yes, the arguments do get a lot more intricate and sophisticated and complex than this, and address all manner of different subjects; I’m just describing the framework.)

I won’t get into the details here of where the rest of that argument goes. The point is that atheism is a position which needs to be able to logically support itself against any theistic arguments, and we atheists positively assert that this can be done. Further, I claim that the theistic belief system does not adequately address atheistic counter-arguments which suggest that a belief in a god is unfounded, or even that many particular gods are highly unlikely to exist. To me, this is what the atheist belief system is.

Discussion topics:

1. Am I full of shit? If so, do we at least agree on the processes of thinking that ought to be employed, and just differ in our ideas of the justifiable conclusions that can be reached? Or am I really just wrong about everything?

2. What’s so great about being rational anyway? I’m acting like it’s such a big deal, but is it really that important?

3. Can you prove that the Sun really does exist? I mean, maybe there’s actually a big conspiracy and it’s all just done with mirrors, like in that film where Jim Carrey pretends he has an emotional range.

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