Defining and Debating Belief - a Formula for Failure
Belief vs Disbelief
When debating with theists in particular, I'm often astounded by their inability or unwillingness to concede even the most basic points possible. I don't go into a debate (with friends, strangers or randomly) to initially uncover all the evidence that they claim points to the validity of their claim in the existence of god as a whole. Mainly, I'm interested in what they specifically believe - and why they believe it.
Theists tend to approach a debate with an atheist differently. Perhaps they know that all of the typical arguments aren't going to work, but they seem inherently surprised that the atheist typically knows their holy book and the arguments inside and out - often better than they understand them. In that aspect, they tend to go for the philosophical arguments - the arguments like TAG or the Watchmaker that has never convinced anyone to convert, but seem to be the only option when approaching someone without a belief in God altogether.
Many theists don't seem to understand why the bible is not considered a source of evidence or authority. It's like the concept of atheism is so out of their mind-set that it's inconceivable to encounter someone that not only doesn't believe in their god, but rejects their holy book as valid proof to show he exists. They often start back peddling quickly when science is explained to them and fall back to "the bible says in...." not understanding that 1) the bible is not authority to me and I have no real reason to believe anything it says than I do believing in Peter Pan and 2) that by pointing out inconsistencies in their beliefs via biblical verses that directly contradict their point, I am NOT conceding that the bible is in any way an authority. It contradicts itself, plain and simple. You don't have to believe in a book to point out inconsistencies within it - theists do it all the time to invalidate other religious beliefs and traditions. That doesn't mean they acknowledge the validity of those other holy books like the Koran.
I've found that one of two things usually happens, which brings the entire conversation/debate to a screeching halt.
1) The Appeal to Faith or Personal Experience
Faith by definition is the belief in something without sufficient evidence that supports your belief. While personal faith can be extremely important to those who believe in a god as well as those that don't, in a debate setting it is typically just a cop-out answer with little meaning. At this point, the conversation is over. You can't debate someone's personal experience - even they will admit that it cannot be demonstrated or proven to sufficiently prove their point to another person. That's why it's called a personal experience.
If someone tells me, however, that they've had dreams about the person of Jesus (if he was, in fact, a person at all) or that god has come to them in visions or that they know the holy spirit is valid because they've experienced the phenomenon of speaking in tongues first-hand, I can counter each of those. I have dreams about a lot of things, but they aren't simply true because I dreamed them. If they were, I would be endlessly mad at my wife for her dream-self's behavior. We jokingly call it "dream-Devon" because it is often vastly different from the reality of the person that she is. I would also believe in dragons, witches, fairies, elves, leprechauns and unicorns. I've dreamed about all of them many, many times (usually after a night of drinking while watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Dreaming about something does not make it true. Visions are a similar scenario. Lots of people throughout many different faiths and religions claim to have visions. These are often preceded by fasting, sleep-deprivation or other types of behavior like meditation, etc. Any one of these practices can easily explain the vision scientifically, and once again it cannot be demonstrated. Speaking in tongues has been tested scientifically over and over again, and all of the tests have proved conclusively that the people speaking in tongues are not speaking a language - they're speaking gibberish. Not only does this go against the biblical teachings about speaking in tongues (see the beginning of acts with the twelve apostles), it does nothing to fulfill its underlying purpose, which is to spread the gospel of Jesus to those who do not speak your language.
Where do You Fall on the Skeptic Scale
2) They revert back to kindergarten-age behavior
This generally amounts to sticking their fingers in their ears and refusing to listen to anything else you say - regardless of how rational your arguments are. They dig their feet in, in other words, and recognize that the logical consistency of their beliefs is on shaky ground and they're simply unwilling to accept the reality of it. They take a stand. I've often gone back and forth with theist friends endlessly, only to be met with the end result of "I believe what I believe, and you're not going to change my mind". Any further attempts to continue the conversation often go unanswered.
Personal beliefs are often deeply rooted and a challenge to them is easily taken personally. I understand the fundamental causes behind that. If you're entering a debate, however, it is my personal stance that I should be willing to have my mind changed if I'm presented with evidence that I cannot logically or scientifically understand or comprehend. This may not happen immediately within the conversation. Obviously, I would want to research before making a fundamental decision about my own stance.
I stated in my previous post linked below that I do not enter into any debate with the intent to change my opponent's mind. I simply go into a conversation with an open mind and an arsenal of scientific evidence, biblical knowledge and fundamental logic, prepared to give my arguments and respond to whatever they present. I think that going to a debate expecting to convert your opponent (or de-convert in my case) is inherently flawed from the beginning. Not only are you setting yourself up for disappointment, but you're approaching the conversation from a bad starting position and it can easily become a conflict when you don't get the immediate gratification of an instant result. I do, however, intend to plant a seed within the mind of my opponent, and anyone else observing. The more seeds that can be planted, the more likely they are to produce fruit, and that is the overall idea.
I think that digging in one's heels and refusing to even accept contradictory evidence that goes against the foundations of your argument is dishonest. You're basically admitting that your opponent has won, but you're unwilling to consider the ramifications.
Inherent disbelief vs. learned belief
I often like to tell the story relayed to me multiple times by my wife and her mother. When my wife, Devon, was between the ages of six and seven, her grandmother sat her down and proceeded to tell her the entire story of the New Testament. She hit on all the key points, and Devon listened intently to everything she had to say. She covered the virgin birth, the life, teachings and miracles of Jesus, the arrest, trial and crucifixion, the death, the burial and the resurrection in great detail. Once she was finished, she asked if Devon had any questions. The child version of my wife simply looked up at her and said "I don't believe any of that". It's interesting to note that at the time, my wife still believed in Santa Clause. She has been a skeptic for far longer than I have.
Unfortunately, my story is far different than hers. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home and was the adopted child of a retired fire-fighter turned part-time missionary and a Sunday school teacher. I was severely sheltered throughout my young life and was brought up in the church. I was taught not to ask questions and encouraged not to think. I was simply supposed to believe what I was told. My skepticism began early, but it was a long time before I was able to break away from the shackles of faith. I was baptized and did missionary work of my own. I started to question things seriously during my first year of college when I realized that I was gay. From there, I tried vainly to reconcile the faith I was raised to believe with the conflicting things I was beginning to understand about myself and the world around me. I only came out as an atheist last year. My path was a long and hard one.
While I believe that you can choose to remain in ignorance and ignore evidence that disproves your current belief system, I do not necessarily accept that belief is a choice. You either do or you don't. It was only through studying the material for myself and understanding certain things that I came to doubt my beliefs - and eventually break free of them altogether.
Blind or Reasonable Faith?
Christian theists particularly seem to be raised to simply believe what they are taught in church. The church from the time of the Dark Ages has put a lot of emphasis on the authority of the clergy and until the protestant reformation; common people were not allowed to read the bible for themselves. The Catholic Church in particular was insistent about controlling the information and passing it on to their parishes. With the reformation in full swing, the common person first became able to read the bible in their own language and make their own determinations about what it said. The church made vast improvements in overall knowledge. I feel that, in some ways, it has reverted back to its darker past. Not many Christians read the bible for themselves. In fact, when you point out things found in the bible to a christian within the context of a conversation or debate, they often don't believe you - even if you can point out chapter and verse. Most only believe what the pulpit dictates and take no interest in studying what it says for their own benefit.
This encouragement of ignorance is unsettling at best. It not only has provided the current generation with the often contradictory and dangerous beliefs being spouted from the pulpit on social issues like gay marriage and equality, but it is encouraging the ignorance of the future generation as well as parents regurgitate their beliefs to their offspring. I find this pattern disturbing, and it stands in the way of cultural and societal health and growth going forward.
In closing, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong. If I was thoroughly impervious to logical arguments, I would not be in the habit of debating. I would be just as closed-minded as the lot of the people I find myself debating, standing with my hands in my ears refusing to listen to any argument presented.
I'm often asked what it would take to prove that a god exists. Truthfully, I don't know. If there is a god, however, and they're any one of the inherent omni-qualities they're reported to have, that god would know what would be necessary to win my belief. As of yet, they've not obliged.
On a humorous note, I've often asked my debate partners to pray prior to engaging in further conversation. I ask them to ask their god what they should say in order to have irrefutable proof of its existence. If they do so (or at least claim to do so) yet I remain an atheist, their god has failed. They often don't take kindly to the implication. I can't say I blame them, really. It goes against everything they believe in.