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.
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.