A couple of days ago, I published the tongue-in-cheek Freethinkers' Guide to Debating Christians on the Internet. While I published that as humor, there is some truth behind the guide: the majority of Internet atheists use the same rhetorical tactics when discussing Christianity. Often, these rhetorical tactics are not meant to be honest discussion, but rather to obscure the truth.
In the Guide, point number six read:
6. Make sure that in any discussion of their beliefs that you refer to it in the most arrogant, mean and nasty way possible. DO NOT SAY, "I do not believe in the Bible because I have seen no proof of it's authenticity." Rather say, "I have to much love in my heart to put my blind faith in some foul book responsible for so much bloodshed throughout history. It may serve for fools who enjoy forcing indigenous people into believing it at gunpoint, but for any real man with brains, it's just plain trash." -- Big, Nasty, Angsty emotional flags dripping with rhetoric are your FRIEND. Now is a good time to mention that "My biggest problem with xtians is that they hate."
My experience lately is that this is has become the favorite tactic among Internet atheists, and I think it has been spurred on by Richard Dawkins and the so-called New Atheists. Instead of making a simple straight-forward assertion, the Internet atheist feels the need to add to every answer all sorts of assumptive language and additional meaning-laden clauses that make it impossible to answer the question simply and in a straightforward way. As an example, in a recent exchange, an atheist commenter to the blog used assumptive language to assert that the Bible was myth as part of a longer comment. I responded that I rejected the idea that the Bible was myth. He responded:
Your mission: Explain to me how 5th-hand, greatly post-mortem accounts of a person's life are any different than the thousands of "miracle workers" and "faith healers" abound [sic] today. What makes Jesus's story any more believeable than that of David Wells or Peter Popoff, aside from their lives' timeframe lining up with ours? People have claimed for millennia, and still do, that they are the chosen ones, and that their powers can help and heal. Osiris-Dionysus and Apollonius of Tyana both had the same acclaim and life story as did Jesus, until Jesus's followers came along and co-opted the old myths into the name of Christ instead. Things haven't changed. If Jesus was the savior, then so is Mohammed, and so is Peter Popoff.
It is very difficult to have a conversation with a person like this. It's not that their claims are irrefutable, but rather there are so many of them built into the question that it would take a long time to respond to each part. For example, the first sentence asserts through assumptive language (1) the Gospels and Epistles were not written by the people traditionally claimed as authors, but by others five generations later; (2) they were written a long time after the events described; (3) they are not different in any significant sense from the accounts surrounding present day faith healers and miracle workers. Of course, books upon books have been written about each of these subjects, and it is impossible to give a complete answer to each assertion in the space of a few short minutes.
So, what happens? If you try to summarize a response, it leads to another assertion that is also loaded with assumptions. I sought to respond to the first clause by asking "What gives you the impression that these are 5th hand accounts?" and proceeded to explain that some scholars make good arguments that every one of the books of the New Testament were written prior to the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. I wrote in this manner not to prove the claim, but merely to try to get the writer to understand that his dogmatic claims were not as set-in-stone as he would like to have thought. Did that matter? Of course not. He continued by asserting another set of assumptive claims that showed he was not interested in conversation but merely wanted to tell me how wrong I was. Seizing upon my question "What gives you the impression that these are 5th hand accounts?" he wrote:
Because Jesus didn’t write the bible. From his alleged words (of which no one could’ve possibly scribed in wax, ink, or stone as quickly as he would’ve spoken) to the Bible you have in your hands is at LEAST 5 generations of hearsay, interpretation, and the good old game of “telephone”. I was being generous. It’s probably more like 10th- or 12th- hand accounts, what you are reading. That is, unless you’ve read the original tablets, scribes, and scrolls… which would themselves be at least 3rd- or 4th- hand themselves.
So, now he seems to assert that the Gospels cannot accurately recount the words of Jesus (which raises question about the oral tradition, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the way that history was written at that time); he makes the mistake of equating the recording of the Gospels with the game of telephone; he completely blows off the fact that some scholars hold to very early datings in favor of his preference for a late dating; and he questions the ability to historians to use higher criticism to recreate lost texts. The entire subtext of the conversation is the argument from ridicule. He has no respect for the fact that others disagree with him. Rather, he merely shows disdain for the opposing view.
In my view, there is little point in having a conversation with a person like this. He doesn't want to deal with one point at a time, but wants to have me explain the entire cumulative argument for the existence of God and the accuracy of the New Testament in one brief blog entry or one comment. If I respond, he merely throws in more issues -- not as questions but rather as dogmatic assertions. If I respond to the assertion by pointing out that at least some scholars don't agree with the assertions, he ignores my response and merely presses forward by claiming his assertions more strongly.
In my experience, this is not an isolated case. This appears to be the generally used modus operandi of Internet atheists today. But this is not argument, but only heavy rhetoric disguised as argument.
Dr. John Mark Reynolds has recently written about Internet atheists from his own perspective in an article entitled The Weird World of Internet Infidels. In the course of the article, he notes that there is a huge gulf between intellectual atheists and what one finds on the Internet. He also cites an e-mail he received from an Internet atheist which uses assumptive language such as I am describing in this post. Dr. Reynolds writes, in part:
Christian philosophers or apologists (with only a few exceptions) soon gain respect for the intellectual powers of our colleagues on the other side. In the world of professional philosophy of religion, there is great mutual respect on all sides.
The same thing is not true, in my experience, for street-level infidel “apologists.” They show almost no respect for the strength of their opponents, are often unaware of the best attacks on their position, and engage mostly with sneers and disdain. Because of the vast size of American Christianity, it is possible for them to be utterly unaware of the force of the arguments of a Bill Craig.
Recently I wrote a blog post on non-religious reasons to admire Jesus, but the street reaction was illuminating.
Here is the sort of thing one often meets in the world of Internet infidelity:Your savior is 2000 year old Jewish zombie, who is his own father, can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree…
And you question *other* people’s judgement if they DON’T believe that?!?
What was this person thinking?
It appears that he or she believes Christian doctrine so foolish that just “translating” our ideas into modern English will show them to be foolish. This would be effective, if this person had paid any attention to what Christian doctrine is. All those Christians who think Jesus is one of the “undead” must worry, but the rest of us don’t have to worry.
The other (charitable) possibility is the idea that Christians are so mentally fragile in their beliefs that a good dose of ridicule will wake us up to our intellectual difficulties. The religion of Charles Williams, Thomas Aquinas, and Eleonore Stump is not so likely to collapse under this sort of assault, but the Internet infidel has not respect for Professor Stump, if he or she is even aware that the good doctor exists.
The Internet infidel has (apparently) never asked why people believe the Christian story. Or if he has it has not occurred to him to ask the question charitably. The other possibility is that he or she simply intends to be offensive.
I think that Dr. Reynolds view is accurate on several fronts, but I do want to point out two points in particular. First, he says "Because of the vast size of American Christianity, it is possible for them to be utterly unaware of the force of the arguments of a Bill Craig." In my experience, most Internet atheists are aware of William Lane Craig and his arguments. However, most Internet atheists simply discount his arguments because they saw some webpage where some other atheists supposedly showed that Dr. Craig's arguments are weak or wrong. In other words, they know the arguments, but they have dismissed them without warrant. So, to the extent that Dr. Reynolds says that they are unaware of the "force" of Dr. Craig's arguments, I think he is absolutely correct.
Second, he says near the close of the quoted section: "The Internet infidel has (apparently) never asked why people believe the Christian story. Or if he has it has not occurred to him to ask the question charitably." I think that is at the heart of the harshness of the rhetoric. Atheists do ask why, but they aren't willing to listen to the answers with an open mind. That is why I find it so ironic that many atheists refer to themselves as freethinkers: their minds are absolutely and resolutely closed to the idea that Christianity may be true or that Christians may have good reasons to believe it. Any argumentation to the contrary is dismissed or ridiculed.
Too bad. It would be nice to occasionally have a real discussion on the Internet with people who are open-minded.