I keep seeing the same tired old arguments that have been debunked a million times, but people so unfamiliar with the debate often roll these out as if they think they are an atheists worst nightmare. I've put together a ranking system that you can use to gauge the skill level of your opponent.
Evolution is just a theory
Any atheist involved in online debates would have heard this a thousand times. It makes me wonder if the people who use it have had the actual definitions of the word theory explained to them. In many cases, I think that they must have, but either didn't understand it, or chose not to listen. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear prominent theist apologists using it, as though they have never heard the counter-argument before. It's unlikely that this is the case, but the alternative would be that they are deliberately ignoring the fact that their argument is fallacious, or even lying (surely a Christian wouldn't lie?). There is a chance that they disagree with the meaning of the word given, but it's pretty clear - science has defined the word theory to have a specific meaning when relating to science, whereas when misused by theists, it means something else entirely. Unfortunately, the theist 'leaders' in these debates pass on the arguments to those with even less understanding, and they are used again and again, even long after the original perpetrator has retracted the argument.
Last year, the Australian TV show Q&A hosted a debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell, on the topic of religion. You might imagine that with one of the world's most prominent atheists facing off against the leader of the Catholic church in Australia, it would be an energetic and involving debate, with new and powerful arguments brought into the fray?
Most of the time, Professor Dawkins was faced with arguments that I would have expected to hear from somebody new to the whole debate. Many of the points that Cardinal Pell brought up are things that I have heard many times online, from some of the most amateur theist apologists. These arguments would have been made thousands of times, and refuted just as many, only to be made yet again, to the exasperation of many an atheist. One of the arguments used was that evolution is "random selection", which any evolutionary biologist - or anybody with even minimal knowledge of the theory - could tell you is wrong, and another was about Hitler and Stalin and "the two great atheist movements of the last century", an argument which is easily, and often, refuted.
One of the most common heard online would be "evolution is just a theory". Now most atheists know that the word "theory" has more than one meaning, one being used in a general sense to mean an unproven idea or hypothesis, while the other has a more complex meaning in science, which is an overarching body of facts, observations, and data, that explains a natural phenomena in great detail, which is verifiable through repeatable experiments, and can be used to make predictions. Somehow this distinction between the two definitions is completely unknown to many theists. We explain it again and again. And we hear the same argument again and again. It's like every time you meet a different theist online, the same question comes up, and the same explanation needs to be given before you can move on to another point. It's almost like this should be assumed knowledge, and it makes me wonder if theists aren't deliberately misrepresenting the term merely to waste time in an argument.
The Q&A debate was largely that - a waste of time. Sure, Dawkins destroyed Pell's arguments with ease, but so could most of us. I can imagine Dawkins leaving the studio and thinking "was he really the best they've got?"
I do wonder if there might really be a method to Pell's madness though. Theology can't really win in a rational debate, so the apologist might attempt to derail any valid criticism of their fallacious arguments. Rather than talking for an hour about complex scientific theory and philosophy, the argument veers off on irrelevant tangents, dead ends and the tired old flogging of dead horses. Could this be a prescribed method in the apologists' handbook? Or, is it merely the feeble straw-clutching of the intellectually inept?
There are, however, some theists out there who do want to get involved in a rigorous debate - at least while they still believe they have a leg to stand on - and the experience and knowledge of the theist can vary greatly, from the newbie with limited skill in a debate and a head loaded with misinformation, to the seasoned theologian who really knows how to dress up those old "classical arguments" with so much convoluted fluff, to confuse the unwary atheist.
So without further ado - this handy guide will help you to determine the skill level of any theist you find yourself up against.
Please note that these levels are not representative of a person's willingness to debate, or whether they will engage in a conversation without stooping to insults and abuse, or spam-blocking - there are people of all levels who are able to engage with civility, although uncivil behaviour does seem to be more common with the lower levels. Also, higher levels won’t necessarily eschew the more easily refuted arguments of lower levels – they are often still used, only dressed up with more jargon.
- Jesus fanboy AKA Punching Bag
This type of theist knows almost nothing at all about his own religion, but has been strongly conditioned to believe in it, no matter what. He believes that science is a major detriment to the human race and the cause of most of our problems. Usually quick to cry insult or persecution, and often resorts to insults and abuse, after only mild questioning. Often changes the subject due to lack of any understanding whatsoever. Commonly misspells atheist as athiest.
- God is real, you must be able to see that or you are stupid.
- Why do atheists talk about God so much? Obviously they must believe in him.
- Atheists believe in nothing.
- Homosexuality is a disease spread by atheists.
- Sunday school bully
Knows almost nothing about his own religion, but knows a few of the key arguments used, such as "evolution is just a theory!", however mainly recites the catchphrases without understanding what they mean. The reason why they are wrong can be explained to him, but they will not understand the reason and will continue to use the argument. Also very quick to resort to insults or false reporting as spam when their arguments are questioned with even the most obvious rebuttals. Non sequiturs are standard strategy.
- You are atheists because you just want to sin and not have to answer to God.
- Atheists are all sad, angry people.
- Atheists hate God.
- Atheism is a religion.
- Atheists are hypocrites if they celebrate Christmas!
- Altar Boy
Knows a little bit about the theism/atheism debate, but not enough to contribute anything meaningful or that would be unworthy of ridicule or scorn. Believes that the existence of the universe is proof of creation. Believes the banana causes a significant problem for atheists. Believes everything necessary to know about science is available from the Discovery Institute.
- Atheists are jealous of other people's faith.
- Creation is evidence of a creator.
- If evolution were true, why are there still monkeys?
- If evolution were true, why are there no crocoducks?
- Atheists believe that everything came from nothing.
- Career Theist
A Career theist follows the theism/atheism debate with ferocity, albeit only by devoutly watching all the videos made by the Discovery Institute and reading Answers in Genesis. Can rattle off logical fallacies in quick succession. Also believes that he is on the cusp of winning a nobel prize for personally debunking evolution.
- The bible says that it's a fool who doesn't believe in God.
- Atheists are starting with a presupposition of God's inexistence.
- Scientists are misinterpreting the evidence, which actually supports creationism.
- You can't use reason and logic to disprove God, because God exists outside of reason and logic. He created them!
- Evolution can't be true because of entropy, or the second law of thermodynamics.
- There is an objective moral law, therefore there must be a lawmaker.
- "Doctor" of Theology
This level of theist has studied religious apologetics extensively, and can crank out logical fallacies with ease, often deftly disguised with so much convoluted fluff. Can also quote bible verses, but usually focuses on seemingly reasoned arguments. Believes that strong belief is proof of God's existence.
- We can't prove God's existence with evidence, but knowing is different to proving.
- If it's possible to prove God's existence to people, who then know it in their hearts, then that counts as proof.
- Science can't answer everything, and what science can't answer, religion can.
- Religion has done so much good for the world, like charity, religious art and architecture, and many of the most important scientists were religious.
- The Ontological Argument
- Creation scientist AKA Pseudoscientist
This type of theist has some actual knowledge of the Theory of Evolution, and even knows what the term "theory" means in a scientific context! However, as their scientific study is done through religion-coloured glasses, their so-called scientific work is extremely unscientific, and is often only the refusal or ignorance of evidence supporting evolution (rather than the finding of evidence supporting an alternate theory), even though the evidence has already been provided. Can cause a problem for atheists without a strong science background, but usually laughed at by scientists of merit.
- There is no evidence to show how the eye evolved.
- Irreducible complexity - if you take away any of the parts, it doesn't work.
- It can be mathematically proven that genetic material can't be assembled by random chance alone.
- Warrior of God
This theist combines the 'powers' of the theologian and the creation scientist, and actually has some pretty tricky questions that most atheists would find difficult to answer. It can take some very critical examination to see why they are wrong, and it often takes an atheist with good knowledge of logical fallacies to point out why some of this person's arguments are illogical. They might also have some understanding of the finer points of evolution, making it difficult for non-scientists to answer, although actual scientists have little trouble. Extremely rare.
- Fine tuning of the universe (and actually knowing the science behind it)
- The Cosmological argument (usually presented in a complex way)
- Prophet / Boss Level Theist
This person has arguments that no atheist can counter. So far a theist of this skill level is yet to be seen. Widely considered to be as nonexistent as the god they would be proving. Since none of these have ever been encountered, real examples cannot be provided, but might include:
- Rock solid philosophical arguments to support Gods existence
- Actual evidence of God's existence.
- Fossil rabbits in the precambrian.
These skill levels might give the impression that an atheist might be able to 'fight' their way up until they get to face off against the boss level theist, but in reality we are usually confronted with the low level grunts - the first four levels - while those of higher skill are providing them with all the misinformation, logical fallacies and even lies they need to confound atheists everywhere (and by confound, I mean annoy rather than anything close to defeat using reasoned debate). Even the highest profile atheists, such as Professor Dawkins, would rarely go up against anything beyond a level 6 theist.
And of course, the highest level has never appeared in reality, although the vast majority of theists seem to think the phrase "if we came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" puts them in this category. We may yet have a lot of work to do.