Debating Religious Topics

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Originally posted by Rehochipe as A Happy Friendly Cheerful Guide to Debating Religious Topics

A Happy Friendly Cheerful Guide to Debating Religious Topics

A lot of the time the issues being debated in the UN forums are matters of ethics, and in this field there's nothing that stirs up a lengthy and hard-fought argument like religion-related issues. And it's ever so easy to get a little heated up and start sniping at each other, and this is mostly because people tend to start breaking the rules of a sensible argument and making invalid inferences, demanding everyone believe what they believe, mocking each other's approaches, and so on. And then things descend into a big shouting match and nobody wins. I've done it, you've done it.

The below is intended to keep me on the intellectual high ground as much as anything else, and if anyone else benefits from it, so much the better.

There is no solid proof of the existence, or non-existence, of any God or Gods.

Philosophers, scientists and theologians have bust their asses over millennia of thought on trying to find ways of proving God's existence, and everything they've come up with has been shot down hard. And every attempt to prove God can't possibly exist has met with the same fate. We haven't even been able to produce anything that influences the probability one way or the other. So, unless you've come up with a brilliant proof the entire history of human thought has failed to manage, and have neglected to tell us so far, then you have to intellectually acknowledge that it's possible you're wrong. In your heart of hearts you may believe that it's impossible for God to exist, but when you're discussing things with other people, you have to acknowledge that this is just belief. If you start slinging around your opinions and acting as if they're hard, unassailable fact and anybody who doesn't realise this is a congenital idiot, people are going to get pissed off at you fast, and they will be right to do so.

The unprovable nature of religions (or atheism) does not detract from their validity.

Indeed, faith is all the greater an affirmation because it requires a leap beyond the verifiable. It takes far more strength to believe in something unverifiable than it does to believe in something self-evident. It takes even more guts to acknowledge that this is the case and still make that leap. Nor does it make faith unreasonable; it is equally unverifiable (though requiring somewhat less of a leap of faith) to assume the sun will rise tomorrow, but most people would assume it reasonable to believe this. And this isn't to say that agnosticism can't be a tough position either.

Morality does not have to rely upon religion.

Maybe it does. Maybe you believe it does. But a lot of other people consider themselves highly moral but believe in a completely different faith or no faith at all. Behaving as if other people are morally beneath you because they don't agree with your beliefs is really bloody obnoxious, and there's nothing that makes people ignore your opinions like being obnoxious. A person can follow no faith at all and still have deeply held personal beliefs; and they could be right just as easily as you could.

You have a right to your beliefs. Other people have rights to theirs.

Since we can't demonstrate the superiority of any one faith or lack thereof, we have to assume that other people could be right and we could be wrong. Okay, you might not believe in this possibility, but unless you pretend to you nobody will care what you think. You can ignore this in your own nation and declare an absolutist theocracy if you want, but here in the UN we like to consider ourselves a civilised lot and that attitude won't wash.

Make a clear distinction between the two approaches:

I believe X (where X is some religious assertion) so Y is what my nation is going to do, and X is true so all of you should do Y. You're allowed to make the first. You're only allowed to make the second if everybody else already accepts X. The classic example of this error is 'The foetus is a person so abortion is murder.' This is begging the question. If you want to make a case against abortion, you should assume that there are people around who believe, for good reasons, that the foetus is not a person, or who withhold judgment. The useful thing to do then is to either see if you can come up with an argument that proves it is, or, if this can't be achieved, to assume that this is a matter of personal belief and that other people are allowed to hold other opinions. Your arguments are allowed to be motivated by personal belief, but you're not allowed to use your beliefs themselves as an argument.

The past actions of the members of a faith do not impact upon the possibility of that faith's validity.

'The KKK are all Christians' or 'bin Laden is a Muslim' or 'the Nazis were atheists' (which is, incidentally, factually incorrect; the Nazis proclaimed Christianity and later, pagan revivalism, strongly: 'Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator' - Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Nazi soldiers, additionally, bore symbols with the slogan 'god is with us') doesn't say a great deal about those faiths; if you're twisted enough you can justify anything by any faith. It's possible to turn just about any faith into an excuse to do bad things; that doesn't render those faiths any less valid, or make people who follow them in good faith any worse people. You are, however, allowed to retain the right to spit on various suspicious cults if a faith's founder explicitly sets out to exploit his followers, which would mean that people are clearly acting in Bad Faith. Again, you're allowed to condemn those who cynically use any religion as a tool to further their own ends, because this is again Bad Faith. You are not allowed to assume that anyone here is expressing opinions in Bad Faith, however, unless they virtually tell you so. To assume this on poor evidence is a deep personal insult.

Similarly, the faith someone follows does not make their opinions any less valid.

If they're an unreasonable, recalcitrant schmuck, it's not Allah's fault. It's theirs. Conversely, if someone's a different faith to you, that doesn't mean you're allowed to take their opinions any more lightly. Be prepared to attack the arguments of those on your side if you don't think they're very good. Be willing to concede a well-constructed argument from the other side. Don't assume that someone's opinions are less valid than yours because he believes in something different.

To have any point at all, a UN proposal must be acceptable to all faiths, including atheism.

If you want a UN ban on abortion or crosses in school or gay marriage or circumcision, you can't justify doing so because your religion says so. Why? Think of it from the perspective of those that do not share your religious beliefs. If you were one of them, would you vote for it on the basis of a religious argument with which you don't agree at all?

Let's say, to make matters simple, that we want to pass a UN proposal to make murder illegal. It's invalid to do so if your only argument is 'It says so in the Bible' or 'because to kill is not the way of the Man of Tao'. To many, many people, this constitutes no argument at all, and your proposal will fall flat on its ass. What you are allowed to do is argue from principles that are accepted across the board by just about anyone who has ethical principles, such as 'there is something deeply important about human life'.


Finally, there's a damn good guide here listing the logical fallacies. It's worth at least scanning them if you want to be sure of getting a good hearing. I'm not fond of election-platform rhetoric; I like thought-out, rational discussion. Play nice, kids, and please point me in the direction of this the next time I'm a snarky git.

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