Why I Prefer Debating Atheists vs Generally ‘Spiritual’ People

When debating matters of religion, I find myself, curiously, more comfortable interacting with atheists than I am with people of a generally “spiritual” disposition. One purely subjective reason is that I used to be one of those “spiritual” types, and it’s easy to transfer my anger at the foolishness of my former self onto other people who I see making the same mistakes. Beyond that, there are a number of differences between the two types that make the experience of dialoguing with atheists unique. Perhaps my observations might be helpful for others who have an opportunity to dialog with either of the two groups.

First, some clarifications and definitions. For the sake of this article, the term “atheist” will simply mean a person who has a high degree of confidence in the idea that God does not exist, or is at least willing to take that position in a debate with you. A “spiritual” person is harder to quantify, but may be a theologically liberal Christian, Wiccan, neo-pagan, member of a fringe cult, or a hobbyist of one of the eastern religions. They typically say things such as “I don’t like organized religion” and “all paths lead to God.” They often call God “she” or “The Universe” or some kind of divine force, and are friendly to ideas like reincarnation, occultism, and eastern religious practices. I will use the term “spiritualist” to refer to this broad group.

Second, I’m not suggesting there are only two groups. Not specifically included here are those who are solidly entrenched in one of the major non-Christian religions. For instance, a Muslim can be an entirely different breed of debating partner and can take an approach that is similar in ways to that of a Christian. However, it’s a different thing to be committed to the unique truth and fundamental doctrines of a religion versus simply being partial to that religion or just raised in its traditions. There are liberals in both Christianity and the other religions, and those tend to fall into my “spiritual” camp.

Now, on with the differences.

Atheists have a strong commitment to logic

Even though there are simple, unreflective atheists, just as there are religious types, the atheists you’re likely to find out evangelizing for the non-faith generally think of themselves as especially rational creatures, not falling into the hype and superstitions of religion. It’s not that they always practice it well or leave their own preferences out of it, but they at least have a stated commitment to reason and logic.

On the other hand, I have often seen spiritual persons attempting to undermine the very concept of logic itself. I’ve heard those enamored with eastern mysticism call logic a “western concept,” and I once heard a feminist call it a “tool of the patriarchy.” After a lengthy dialog with a professor of religion, I attempted to challenge him on the contradictory views he held in support of religious pluralism. When I asked him if he affirmed the law of non-contradiction, his simple reply was “Shroedinger’s cat.” It’s easy to justify any belief when there’s no possible danger of it being contradicted.

Atheists don’t appeal to scripture as a source of authority

Curiously, even the most pagan spiritualists seem to find a place for Jesus in their thinking. He gets conscripted as an exemplar of whatever spiritual path they hold to, e.g., an enlightened one, just another in a long line of avatars, or possessed by an Ascended Master. Along with that affinity for Jesus often comes a certain affinity for the Bible, or at least a tolerance for selective parts of it. For this reason, you will often see them quoting from it (particularly, “do not judge” and “feed the poor”) and telling us what Jesus was really all about. Consequently, debate often descends into matters of biblical interpretation and the authority of scripture.

On the other hand, atheists may refer to scripture in order to attack it, but it’s not a tool with which they can make a case for atheism. They tend to grant a face-value interpretation of it, and may even see it with a more wooden literal and child-like sense than most conservative Christians. Their problem is that there is no room for layered nuance, systematic insight, or prophetic depth, which requires a timeless and omniscient God to pull off. Consequently, when debating an issue, like homosexuality, they don’t try to bend scripture to their own will like a liberal Christian; they accept the many places that speak against it as a given, and find this just one more reason to despise the whole biblical canon.

Atheists are unambiguous about what they believe

Pagan and eastern spirituality is mystical by its very nature, where broad, enigmatic statements pass for deep wisdom; and liberal Christianity is defined more by what it doesn’t believe than what it does. There is no indisputable canon or authority for their beliefs, other than the “light” within, and the only heresy is to confess certainty. This can make it difficult to pin them down on just what it is they believe to be true as opposed to the Christian worldview. It’s hard to argue against nebulous and adaptive beliefs, and allows them to think they have no burden of proof.

The typical atheist, on the other hand, has a much more clear cut view of things. In spite of what some may claim, atheists don’t simply reject God and that’s it; their worldview comes equipped with a variety of implicit “doctrines” (e.g., the metaverse is eternal, abiogenesis is true, mind comes from matter, morality is a human construction, there’s no non-material entities, all supernatural claims are false). Consequently, atheists have a clear, competing worldview that may be dissected and compared to the Christian worldview.

Interestingly, spiritualists will reject and accept so many of the same things as atheists, but add a vague mystical gloss to their characterizations. This seems to make them functional atheists, but offers wiggle room for any challenges that can be leveled at the atheist. For instance, it is a practical guarantee that a spiritualist believes in evolution, and may offer entirely materialist defenses of it, however, when confronting probability challenges to the theory they may appeal to theistic evolution or some guiding principle that is intrinsic to nature.

Atheists care more about your argument than your tone

Spiritual-minded people will often side-step your arguments in favor of a critique of your style and tone. For instance, they’ll often condemn you for judging things, or claim your “example” is more important than your beliefs, or complain that you shouldn’t force your faith on people. I once had a conversation with a Christian Scientist lady, and every time I offered a rational challenge to one of her statements she refused to defend it and only said I was being “mean.” In fact, the very idea that a spiritualist has any responsibility to justify their beliefs is often seen as a great offense.

On the other hand, atheists are quite comfortable with vigorous and dispassionate arguments. They will even appeal to ridicule—indeed, some are satisfied with the exclusive use of it. For the atheist, there is a sense in which truth trumps feelings, perhaps because the “truth” of atheism entails some very cold, hard facts about the world, which negates some of our strongest intuitions and feelings about it.

It is not that we shouldn’t be gracious in our apologetics, but it can be exhausting to constantly focus on how to say things without causing offense, especially when offering anything but affirmation is often grounds for offense.

Atheists practice a healthy skepticism

Spiritualists are often extremely open-minded to all things mysterious and metaphysical. This may include things like spirit beings, astrology, psychic powers, and mythical ancient histories. This can amount to ideological clutter that stands in the way of a Christian worldview, which must first be dispatched or reframed to fit the Christian narrative (e.g., ghosts and spirit beings vs angels and demons).

Atheist’s skepticism toward all things spiritual and un-natural tends to discount not only Christian theism, but all these other peripheral mysteries. Skepticism can be healthy, in principle, and we can ally with atheists on many things, but skepticism is ultimately guided by our prior assumptions about truth. For the atheist, the assumption is that there is no spiritual truth to make sense of any of the metaphysical claims. With the atheist, the primary focus is then to defeat their idea that a purely material world can adequately explain all the mysteries contained within it.

It’s easier to throw trump cards on atheists

There are some concepts that do not fit well, if at all, into a materialistic view of nature. In the course of dialog with atheists you will often find them borrowing assumptions from a theistic worldview. Some examples of this include the reliability of the mind to apprehend truth, the existence of moral absolutes, free will, transcendent things like logic and math, meaning in life, and ascribing “design” to nature. I once had a long conversation with an atheist who admitted that there was no place for objective morality and that people’s ideas of right and wrong are just based upon their preferences. However, later on we talked politics where he began ranting about the greed of CEOs and other wealthy people. Instead of addressing the concept of greed, or talking about free market economics, I simply confronted his own implication that they were being “evil” by using his relativism against him, saying: “there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with these people. They are also just doing what they prefer.”

While spiritualists often hold to many of the same beliefs as atheists, which can lead to similar contradictions, they have the ability to escape into a transcendent world for possible solutions. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be challenged, but you’re more likely to get dragged into their vague metaphysical world when doing so. For instance, many spiritualists will favor some level of moral relativism. If you call them on it they may agree that their preferences are some sort of transcendent principles, but to go further you’ll need to unpack their views on what that transcendent source is, whether it is capable of producing a thing like morality, whether it actually cares about the violation of it, and how we are supposed to know what those moral principles entail.

Conclusion

I’ve covered some differences between dialoging with atheists and generally “spiritual” people that make for a unique experience between the two. Atheists have a narrower metaphysical horizon, and fewer tools in their box to address some very important existential challenges. For this reason, there is a sense in which it can be easier to debate atheists. It should be noted, however, that “winning” the debate with an atheist can often result only in them becoming generally spiritual, and so all bets are off.

It might be argued that an atheist is no farther from the kingdom of God than someone who has a vague spirituality, yet rejects the Christian narrative. Both are in rebellion against the Living God, who owns every square inch of the universe (including our own souls), designed us for a purpose, cares about our behavior, and has intervened in this world to reconcile us to Himself. Spiritualists make idols of who they imagine this God to be, and add a veneer of divine sanction to their preferences. Atheists are just more intellectually honest and thoroughly consistent in their rejection of Him. I sometimes find that blunt denial to be refreshing, and I wonder if God “prefers” it, too.

Posted on September 23, 2021, in Atheism, Debate and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. “They tend to grant a face-value interpretation of it, and may even see it with a more wooden literal and child-like sense than most conservative Christians. Their problem is that there is no room for layered nuance, systematic insight, or prophetic depth, which requires a timeless and omniscient God to pull off. ”

    this is no more than the “sophisticated theology” argument. Unfortunately, no christian can show that their particular interpretation is the right one, and you all can’t agree on what parts to consider as literal, metaphor or to declare they are added by humans and can be simply ignored.

    oh, and your “trump cards” aren’t that at all. Alas, the argument from morality fails since Christians have an entirely subjective set of morals.

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    • Thanks for commenting. I wouldn’t expect atheists to like these parts, particularly the “trump card” statement, but I don’t make that claim lightly.

      Your first point is basically denying the truth of Christianity because believers have differences. This comes up a lot, and my most recent writing on it is found here: https://pspruett.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-christianity/
      The bottom line is that there is enormous unity in belief among those across all divisions of Christianity who actually take the testimony of scripture and the Apostolic Fathers to be true and reliable. The truths that they hold in common are what divide orthodoxy from theological liberalism and all other cults and world religions. It has seldom been my practice to defend some flavor of orthodox Christianity, but instead the central truth claims that it makes. Atheists deny the most fundamental assumptions shared by Christians of all stripes, and consequently it is meaningless to bicker over how to “correctly” interpret scripture in a way that includes such assumptions.

      You are right that Christians can inject their preferences and ignorance into the equations of morality, but that’s not the point. A theist at least has a grounding for the idea of objective truth and morality, even if they don’t alway hit the mark. Atheism has no place for moral principles that span all times and cultures. It doesn’t mean atheism is wrong, but relativism seems to be a necessary feature of that worldview.

      Liked by 3 people

      • If believers can’t cometo an agreement on some “truth”, do tell why one should believe that any of you have it since not one of you can show that you are a baptized believer in christ as personal savior per the abilities promised in the bible to such people.

        “The bottom line is that there is enormous unity in belief among those across all divisions of Christianity who actually take the testimony of scripture and the Apostolic Fathers to be true and reliable.”

        all this means is that you assume that only those who agree with you are true Christians. You are just like every other Christian who disagrees with your particular interpretation.

        Christians do not agree on the following:

        what morals their god wants
        what heaven and hell are
        what baptism does and how to do it
        free will vs predestination
        how one is saved

        all basic to the religion.

        No a theist has no grounding for objective truth, since you all declare you and only you have the objective truth, and not one of you can demonstrate it. You never hit the mark.

        Atheism has nothing to do with morality. It is a conclusion that there is no god or gods. Morality comes from human worldviews. No god needed.

        Christians have a problem in taht they cannotn show their particular morality they assign to their god is the right one, and another problem in that many of you have no problem with your god doing things that you hopefully would find abhorrent if a human did the same thing. That is subjective morality in a nutshell.

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      • You swat at flies and ignore the camel. The differences you list are hardly core Christianity, other than “how one is saved.” And that one you overestimate.

        If Christianity is such a diverse muddle of views in your mind, then I wonder exactly what it is that you are arguing against. I think you intuitively understand the essential claims that bind us distasteful Christians together and make us distinct from atheism and all other religions. Such distinctives are shared by Evangelicals, Reformed, Charismatics, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and even Oriental Orthodoxy. I could name hundreds of meaningful things that are shared in common, but as far as you are concerned I could simply distill all this down to the unique divinity of Jesus, the necessity of the cross in salvation, His bodily resurrection, and His eventual return.

        All of the soteriological, sacramental, eschatological, and ecclesiological questions are interesting and important, but are meaningless in the face of the core claims of Christianity, which sets it apart from every other worldview. In the face of that we cannot even begin to have a discussion on what views are most consistent with biblical/historical Christianity. Come into the house and then we can discuss its layout and decor. I argue only for the house.

        Those calling themselves “Christian” who depart at the very root of historical Christianity tend to do so not simply because they have a different interpretation, but because they have a fundamentally different view of the reliability of the biblical record and the apostolic tradition. Much like the cults, these persons blend in something else as a higher authority — in this case, their own experiences, preferences, and insights into the alleged wreckage of scripture. For this reason, their conclusions are essentially their own, and much like a religion unto itself. It is no wonder that they also have radically different perspectives on moral issues. This is commonly called theological liberalism, and it is neither what I defend nor is it probably of much concern to atheists, because liberal Christians generally tend to be ideologically aligned with the secular culture.

        To your second point, there is a difference between arguing that objective truth exists and arguing that we know exhaustively what that truth is. Here, I am only arguing the former, but one must believe the former to have any hope of pursuing the latter. Sure, Christians disagree on moral issues — far less than you imagine if we discount theological liberals — but when they talk about morality they are talking about something concrete and not *just* their preferences. The point is that for atheism, there is nothing except preference and so they have no grounds for claiming that anybody is violating some fundamental right or moral principle for which condemnation or justice is appropriate.

        Christians have a worldview, tradition, and scriptures to which they may appeal to consider such things, and it’s no wonder that they do find so much moral agreement, especially among theologians and ethical philosophers. Atheists don’t even have the very concept that there *is* a right answer that they may pursue. That is the problem, and that’s where atheists who attempt to tell us how to think, and act and what is “abhorrent”, fall flat.

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      • ROFL. Oh my. No, I do not ignore the camel. Christians, like you, keep insisting that the differences aren’t important, but none of you would ever set foot in a church that didn’t agree with your version.

        I’ll be back later to address the rest of your reply.

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      • Actually, I’ve worshipped in churches of a number of different denominations, learn from theologians of many traditions, and have friends and family from even more whom I am comfortable calling Christians. I’m not dismissing the differences, but for the purposes of debating Christian theism vs atheism it is an irrelevant side-bar. To make a case to the contrary I’d ask you to put it in the form of a syllogism. It sounds to me like you are arguing like this:
        * Where differences of opinion on a thing exist, that thing is not true.
        * Christians have some differences in their beliefs.
        * Therefore, Christianity is not true.

        If that’s where you are going, then I’ve got questions for you and further points to make.

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      • There is nothing irrelevant about how Christians contradict each other. You folks used to murder each other over whose version is right. Happily secular laws keep you from doing that most of the time.

        You, unsurprisingly, try to claim I am saying something I am not.

        1. Christianity is a religion based on the teachings of Christ as presented in the New Testament. Christians, by the millions, claim that their version of Christianity, e.g. their interpretation of the NT as a way to know what this god wants, is the objective truth about morality and reality.

        2. These Christians contradict each other in their claims of what the correct way to interpret the new testament is. None can show that their version is the correct way nor that there is a correct way thanks to the lack of knowledge we have about the authors of the documents that make up the New Testament. They also cannot show that they are true believers in the messiah presented in the new testament since none of them can do the actions promised by this messiah.

        Therefore, there is no evidence that their claims are true nor is there any evidence that there may be some flawless version in existence.

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      • First, it is not up to you to define what it is that I choose to defend, and I’m not here defending some particular flavor of Christianity rather than general orthodoxy. Anyone who wishes to defend something other than that, or something much more specific than that as the one and only truth may speak for themselves.

        Second, your “syllogism” is exactly not that. It has way too many claims and assumptions baked into the premises for starters, and it’s not entirely clear what the conclusion proposes to deduce as false. You seem to be blending concerns over Christian moral opinions together with the truth of the entire Christian narrative. Any chance I can get you to be more focused and precise with your syllogism? A good one typically starts with at least one premise that can be easily agreed upon. I still think your implied argument sounds to me something like the syllogism I offered, but it’s just self-evidently problematic when stated in such simple terms.

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      • P, every Christian has their own “flavor” of Christianity that they are sure is the only true one. There is no “general orthodoxy”.

        Unsurprisingly, you can’t show my points are wrong, and have nothing else but technical claims.

        Christian morals are built into the narrative, so they are one and the same concern. If you want to claim you have the truth, then you are stuck with supporting what you claim.

        My syllogism is fine, you simply don’t like it since it shows your religion failing. A syllogism starts with a premise based in reality, your agreement with it has nothing to do with the premise’s validity. Why would you make such a transparent false claim, P?

        and do show where my explanation is any of these things you claimed: “has way too many claims and assumptions baked into the premises for starters, and it’s not entirely clear what the conclusion proposes to deduce as false. ”

        Lots of vague claims, nothing to support them.

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      • “Unsurprisingly”, you’ve never even asked me what I think general orthodoxy is. However, I think you probably know, and I think it’s the school of Christianity that you’d most like to see extinguished. I’m perfectly willing to have that discussion, though I’ve given you enough information and leads for you to know where I’m coming from. It is meaningless for you to continue to make a case that there is effectively no definition of “Christianity” or unifying beliefs when I know from study and personal experience exactly what it is we do share in common. And that vast corpus of beliefs is more than enough to divide us from all other religions, and certainly atheism.

        I didn’t address the points in your “syllogism” because they are not focused enough (notice your own plural in “points”), and based upon our conversation thus far it seems wise to first make sure we are agreed upon the rabbit before chasing the various trails. If we cannot even agree upon what “Christianity” is, at any level, then I’m not sure what you are aiming your guns at.

        I had hoped we could at least agree on what makes a good syllogism, but even that seems a lost cause. I’m not just being pedantic here, I’m trying to avoid wasting time chasing every piece in the shotgun blast, some of which go beyond the scope of the original post. Here is some of the diversity and problems in your “syllogism”:
        1. You start by claiming that Christians can’t agree on interpretations. But you don’t define what you mean by “Christians” for starters. And by “disagreement” you seem to imply that means not just matters of morality, but what Christianity fundamentally is. So, for starters, it’s not clear whether I’m defending the fundamental definition of Christianity (orthodoxy), or answering the secondary charge of why (or if) orthodox Christians have differing moral views.
        2. You take a jab at the biblical manuscripts and its authors. This is an entirely different, though answerable, question.
        3. You throw in this vague sidebar argument: “cannot show that they are true believers in the messiah presented in the new testament since none of them can do the actions promised by this messiah.”
        4. You conclude that there is “no evidence that their claims are true.” Again, I’m not sure specifically whose claims and which claims: All Christians, including cults and liberals? Just specific moral claims? Claims to the basic truths of the Christian narrative? Claims to the truth of some denomination’s theological distinctives? I know you think it’s all fiction and a muddle from the root to the leaves, but it’s meaningless to debate the color of the leaves if we can’t even agree on which tree we are talking about and if trees actually exist.
        5. You further conclude by denying “that there may be some flawless version in existence.” But who has claimed that there is a flawless form of Christianity or that it is possible for us flawed people to achieve it given the limited knowledge we have? Certainly not I, and I am who you are challenging here, not all these vague “other” people with their alleged radically “other” views. Again, differences in the fringes, no matter how confidently believed, say nothing about the truth or fiction of the core. And I find that for those who agree upon the core, there are far fewer differences in areas like morality than you imply.

        To get back to the point that spun off this whole line of discussion, Christian morality certainly emerges from the Christian worldview. I appreciate that you observe differences in moral thinking on the part of those calling themselves Christian, but any discussion of the scope of those differences would have to begin with an agreement on what we mean by the word “Christian.” That problem aside, let me again make the point that you cannot refute the idea that objective morality exists by pointing to differences of opinion in those who believe in it. There is a fundamental divide in worldviews between the atheist and the theist of any stripe. The theist has a metaphysical place for objective morality, and thus ethical speculation is an attempt to apprehend those real moral principles by way of reason, intuition, and any available revelation. On the other hand, the atheist has no place for morality outside of his own personal mind. This means that when the two speak of right and wrong they are saying entirely different things.

        Question: are you making a play for objective morality for atheists, or are you basically just saying: “You’re right, there is no objective morality. But even if there is, you guys can’t agree on all the details so you’re no better off than us atheists.”

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