There’s a quote that I love about argument: “Discussion is an exchange of knowledge, argument an exchange of emotion” (Robert Quillen).
Think of a time when you and a friend, or your spouse, were in a heated argument and you realized that you weren’t having an exchange of knowledge but rather an exchange of emotion.
You were venting, not persuading. As the emperor in the film Amadeus said, “You are passionate, Mozart, but you do not persuade.”
Logic versus emotion – the differences, and the differences in methods of expression, can become blatantly clear in the realm of religion. Everywhere I turn, I see devout believers trying every conceivable verbal twist and pseudological gymnastics to attempt to present a “logical” argument for religion. Books, articles, speaking engagements, and blogs abound on the “arguments” of religious belief. That is, “arguing” the existence of supernatural, magical, imaginary spooks, er … God.
It makes me think of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. It's like hearing everyone from academics to the lady in the grocery store crying “I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks!” as if their repetition and urgency will make their spooks real.
Would you “argue”—using the processes of formalized debate—the necessary existence of Darth Vader, Hamlet, Paul Bunyan, Shiva, Captain Kirk, Gollum, Oliver Twist, or Superman?
If you did, how do you think your listeners would respond? They may simply back away slooooooowly and leave you alone.
Imagine a person who says “Luke Skywalker is real! He’s really real! I see him, I talk to him all the time, and this is what he tells me…”
Confronted with this statement, some of us would assume mental illness—schizophrenia or some other type or level of delusion. The delusion may be mild enough to allow the person to function perfectly well in society, hold a job, engage in lucid conversation, and so on.
What is less likely is that you would try to “argue” this person OUT of their delusion. You may likely think, as I would, that the mental illness—or its socially condoned cousin, religious belief—is not something that can be eliminated through logical discourse, in the way that you might, for example, convince someone that it was better to fund a new irrigation system rather than to build a dam.
Logical arguments have pros and cons on both sides of the discussion, valid points that are supported by research and evidence and that may persuade others to agreement.
When well-meaning individuals “argue” the existence of the nonexistent, I see this as nothing short of an enormous waste of time and energy that could be devoted to more tangible, more beneficial causes.
The three hours that you spent “debating” whether God listens to prayer or created the universe could have been spent helping a struggling child with her homework, or building a shelter, or campaigning for equal rights for all citizens. You spent three hours trying to "argue the heart," not the head. The head has reasons, but the heart has none. Just as you can’t talk someone out of the feeling of love, you can’t talk, or "argue," someone out of their religious feeling.
So how are you apportioning your time?
Personally, I boycott religious discussion. I refuse to engage, in exactly the way that I would refuse to engage in a shouting session with a person who suffers from borderline personality disorder, a schizophrenic, a five-year-old throwing a tantrum, or an alcoholic pleading for “just one more” drink. I won’t engage with them.
Wise parents and animal trainers know the value of ignoring behaviors. The same technique is used in both areas: praise the valued behavior and ignore the behavior you do not value. The child or the animal eventually gets it that behavior X results in no reward whatsoever (attention) and discontinues that behavior. There’s no profit in it.
Kids will often bait their parents or teachers to get their attention, because sometimes negative attention is better than no attention at all. But when the parent yells, their attention can actually reinforce the behavior that they are trying to curb.
I believe that engaging in religious “debate” reinforces and enables religious addiction, so I choose not to engage. I won’t give the spook-believer that sort of power.
Religious people won’t get my attention by “arguing religion” (an oxymoron, in my opinion). I make it clear that I won’t engage until they are ready to present a point of view that can be supported by reason and evidence.
So if they have the same learning capacities as dolphins and crows, eventually they’ll get it that an “exchange of emotion” will get exactly zero response from me, and if the loss of my attention causes perturbation, they may start to reconsider their topics or tactics.
It’s unlikely that religious debate will end in my lifetime. As a meme, a thought-virus, religion has survived for thousands of years and isn’t going to die out anytime soon. But refusing to engage in its debate is a sort of memetic Lysol. It won’t wipe out the virus but it won’t enable it either.