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Why Do Atheists Debate Theists?

Atheism vs. Theism

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Question:
If atheism isn’t a religion, then why do atheits debate theists and try to convert them?

 

Response:
There is a common perception that there must be “something more” to atheism than simply disbelief in gods because of the fact that atheists are so often engaged in debates with theists. After all, what’s the point of debating if not to convert someone to some other philosophy or religion?

It is, then, legitimate to ask why atheists get involved in such debates and what they hope to achieve. Does this indicate that atheism is some sort of philosophy or even a religion? The first thing to note is that many of these debates wouldn’t occur if theists didn’t appear in order to try to convert atheists — usually to some form of Christianity. Some atheists seek out debate, but many are content to simply discuss things — often not religious issues, in fact — amongst themselves. The fact that an atheist responds to prompting from a theist does not suggest that there is anything more to atheism than the absence of belief in gods.

The second thing to note is that there is a legitimate interest among nonbelievers in educating people about atheism, agnosticism, and freethought. There are quite a few myths and misconceptions about these categories and people are justified in trying to dispel them. Once again, the desire to spread accurate information does not suggest anything further about atheism.

Nevertheless, there is a category of debate which does involve something beyond atheism, and that is when debates are engaged by atheists not simply as nonbelievers, but as nonbelievers who are specifically working to promote reason and skepticism. In this manner, the specifics of the debate may be about theism and religion, but the purpose of the debate is supposed to be about the encouragement of reason, skepticism, and critical thinking — any encouragement of atheism is incidental to that.

When participating in such discussions, it is important for atheists to remember that not all theists are wildly irrational and illogical — if that were so, it would be much easier to simply dismiss them. Some are genuinely attempting to be reasonable, and some manage to do a decent job. Treating them as if they never heard of logical arguments will only serve to put them on the defensive in the end, and it is unlikely that you will accomplish anything.

This raises a very important question: if you are engaging a theist in a debate, why are you doing it? You must understand what your goals are if you have any hopes of getting anywhere. Are you just looking to “win” an argument or vent your negative emotions about religion and theism? If so, you’ve got the wrong hobby.

Are you looking to convert people to atheism? In the context of any one discussion, your chances of achieving that goal are slim to none. Not only are you unlikely to succeed, but there isn’t even all that much value in it. Unless the other person begins adopting a habit of reasonableness and skeptical thinking, they won’t be much better off as an unskeptical atheist than as an unskeptical theist.

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