Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Turn-the-Tables Interview

From The Wise Fool: It seems that you have gotten yourself into many debates with theists, definitely online, but possibly also in person.  Do you have any recommendations for getting through to the other side, online or in person?  Or is it really just a roll of the dice, depending on how receptive to considering an alternate opinion the other person is?  And a corollary question:  Do you debate like you play poker?

When debating theists, I recommend you become the anti-troll. Present your points, but kill them with kindness. Pointing out flaws in how someone has been living their life will always result in defensive behavior. The more they can find about you personally to justify their inevitable anger, the less receptive they’ll be in what you have to say. In poker, it’s called going on tilt--a player loses a hand, especially when the player thinks they’ve done everything right, and it will take the player out of the game and play poorly in subsequent hands. You want to keep the theist in the game and in the conversation. The alternative will send the debate into a lizard-brain spiral of ad hominem attacks.

My other advice would be to find the root of your opponents link to religion. It might be complete faith in the Bible, in which case you should do your best invalidate their holy book; It might be a fuzzy understanding of apologetic arguments, in which case you need to take them down the rabbit hole of logical fallacies. Or it might simply be that their life is entrenched in church--with friends and family all sharing the same beliefs. In this case I recommend don’t convince them to leave their religion wholesale, just show them that atheists are smart, good people by living the example.

Overall, I suppose I do debate like a play poker, but the goals are very different. In both cases I learn how my opponent plays and adjust my play accordingly, but in debates I only want to learn and educate. At the card table I aim to win at all costs.

From Reason Being: Imagine you have a close friend who is a theist and who is"on the fence" about religion and/or existence of god.  He comes to you and asking for a book recommendation about either atheism or anti-theism, what would you recommend and why?

It largely depends on my friend’s central reason for believing in God. If he thinks that God is needed to explain how we got here, I’d direct him to a book with more biology than atheist philosophy. I find Dawkins is best at explaining evolution, and while The Selfish Gene is my favorite book of his, I’d go with The Blind Watchmaker in this one.

If my friend understands and accepts science, but still sees logic and meaning in God, I would direct him to my favorite book on skepticism, The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. This book doesn't attack religion as a concept, just the backwards thinking that tends to go along with it. It is a love letter to science and it's ability to grant the closest thing to objective truth we have available to us.

After reading either of these books, I'd encourage my friend to read or reread their own holy book. The new perspective may shine some light on the Bible's (or whatever's) shortcomings.

From Hausdorff: Many outspoken atheists like yourself grew up religious and have a lot of anger related to their upbringing, this anger often come out in their writing. Do you harbor this type of anger yourself? If so, is it ever a struggle to keep your writing full of humor instead of rage?

I really don't have much anger. Nothing bad happened to me or anyone I know personally due to my church and most everyone I met through it was a good least on the surface, but as an outsider to their lives that's all that mattered. If I ever sound mad in my writing, I'm mad for others.

The humor comes in not as an anger management tool, just as a light-hearted shaming tool. When you don't believe, believing seems really nuts...and I don't want to feel as superior as I sometimes do. I try to mock the faithful out of their faith. Spoiler alert, it isn't working. :-)

From Infidel753: What can the atheist community do about the problem of sexism and sexual harassment within its ranks, which has already driven Jen McCreight out of the atheist blogosphere and continues to discourage women from participating?

I never read Miss McCreight's blog and she declined to do one of these interviews after the Atheist Plus scandal of 2012, but, sure, I've seen sexism elsewhere. Atheists should cut it out. How? I don't know, how do you stop any troll? Report them? Flag them? Ban them? Depending on the severity and the medium, those might work. Whatever you do, don't troll back--it's the very definition of "vicious cycle."

If I was Miss McCreight after getting the amount of kickback she did, I'd probably blacklist the meanest commenters from my blog and stop checking Twitter until it blew over. I would have at least considered that is that many people though my idea was bad, it might be bad--regardless of how they presented their discontent. Some people are dicks and will lash out at whatever can get the most rise. If she was a he, I'm doubt they would have not attacked him. They would have attacked his gayness or blackness or stupidity instead--whatever would have made him feel the worse. This is the Internet, we need to get used to the occasional flamewar or get to censoring.

From Bitchspot: With all of the interviews you've done now, what is the one thing that you've learned, or the one idea you've now seen from a different perspective, that you find most valuable?

Out of the seven questions I’ve asked each interviewee, only a couple have been standardized in a way in which I could come to an atheist consensus. What caught me by surprise was the consistent answers to the question “Who’s your favorite atheist?” While most everyone came to a different answer, if they answered at all, the biggest consistency was the reluctance to answer.

One “sin” believers can’t claim atheism supports is worshiping false idols. We think they’re all false and we don’t worship at the alter of any of them. “Role-model” is almost seen as a bad word. This is a huge difference from the apologetic mindset encouraging "training" from a select group of well-paid spokespeople.

Standard question #1: Who is you favorite atheist?

When addressing people who believe the crazy shit that holy books entail, a little condescending humor is completely appropriate long as it’s funny. Ricky Gervais comes to mind. Outside of his hours, days, weeks, and probably months worth of recorded audio on the subject, his movie The Invention of Lying was a modern telling of (what I believe to be) the origin of religion.

Penn Jillete and Bill Maher make funny with religion as well. Jillete take is a very interesting and seemingly honest one, while Maher’s is too mean spirited for me to enjoy on a regular basis. My favorite topical comedians are Jon Stewart and Stephen Cobert. Stewart is a secular-ish Jew, but I’m confident Cobert is an atheist. Not sure if he’s ever come out and said it, but he is rarely out of character long enough to say anything honest about himself.

The atheists I listen to most regularly are Adam Carolla and George Hrab, both in podcast form. Carolla’s atheism comes up often enough, but is hardly integral to his show. I’d have to give the “My Favorite Atheist” award to Hrab. He’s outspoken on religion in all the right ways, points out hypocrisy weekly, and balances interest and humor better than anyone I’ve previously mentioned.

Standard question #2: What’s the most harmful aspect of religion?

Historically and abroad, the hatred fueled by the division of faiths is the most harmful. There are no good reasons for conflict at the scale humanity has endured, but warring over who’s mythology is correct is one of the worst.

Closer to home, my biggest problem is religion as an obstacle for progress. Believing things rather than understanding things breeds a lack of curiosity that leads to a destiny of hunting and gathering forever because anything else would be “playing God.” I often think of where we could be today if not for the technological pause of the Dark Ages and the heel dragging of Christian conservatism.
It's not only science that suffers from the irrational conservatism, but so does social progress. The only reason the church rejects slavery today is because everyone else rejected it first. Religion is one of the last hold outs preventing true sexual equality. Civil rights, interracial marriage, homosexuality--the church, most any church, has been or still is completely intolerant. Religion causes harm by keeping humanity in the past when a golden age of acceptance and abundance is waiting for us.


  1. Great stuff man, this line really stuck out to me

    "Believing things rather than understanding things breeds a lack of curiosity"

  2. Cool. Thanks for turning the tables. :-) I knew you'd find a link between debate and poker. I appreciate the incite on all the questions.

  3. Great job Grundy. I found your question on on atheist role-models to be difficult to answer for the exact reason you pointed out. I do see a decent amount of atheist idol worship on Twitter and in blog comments...and it bugs me when I see it.

    I think it important that we remain skeptical, even of those "popular atheists"...sure I like to listen to and read what they have to say, but I don't take anything as true just because of who is speaking.

    I also agree with you whole-heartedly that the, "biggest problem is religion as an obstacle for progress." Which shouldn't come as a surprise to you...I write about it all the time...

    Keep up the great work bud.

  4. I find a link between everything and poker.

  5. Colbert is actually a devout Catholic and even teaches Sunday school. But he does seem to recognize the absurdity of it all somehow.

  6. Seems you're right. He spends so much screen time in character, it's impossible to assume much about his real views.