How to Have an Argument about Religion


What makes a religious moderate, moderate? From what well of sanity does the measured follower of Christ or Mohamed draw? The simple answer for the contemporary Christian or Islamic adherent, is their gentle and modest approach to spiritual life springs from a reinterpretation of their holy books – abandoning literalism.

Within the narrows of theology and the lay religious, a movement from blinkered devotion to a vague and sometimes personalized reckoning of scripture has resulted in vast tracks now comfortable skimming the parts about coveting asses. Furthermore, more relevant stories are taken as that, allegorical, and in combination with rich metaphor much if not all of the Bible or Koran is reduced to opaque and difficult ancient parables.

However, the very process the religious world has undertaken to excise the blunt interpretation of scripture parallels the same move secular society has undertaken when it comes to matters religious. Mainstream Christianity has not simply morphed from blinkered literalism to a fuzzy and warm spiritual love in, but has become more secular, i.e. less religious. Secular values, science, scrutiny, technology, and culture, have pounded religious truth claims to the point where only the most circumspect ideas about the physical world have any purchase on the flock. Christianity had no choice but to abandon its claim on the natural world for fear of being rendered utterly and totally outmoded. To continue to make claims on physical reality would be to risk its spiritual teachings rendered dumb for being clouded by manifestly obvious falsehoods about the nature of the universe.

Both the moderate and the atheist eschew literalism, and the process enjoyed by both groups is rooted in the sifting of abhorrent ideas, and abandoning those ideas which are no longer relevant. The arguments between moderates and atheists begin at this point; everyone agrees a literal interpretation of scripture amounts to insanity, and everyone agrees that religion has nothing to say about the natural world.


One can never claim to know something they cannot possibly know.

Break the above rule and you are off the island. Pack your bags and say goodbye to the rest of the contestants, for claiming access to information you cannot have is tantamount to dishonesty whether one realizes it or not.

One is never called upon to prove a negative

“You cannot prove it isn’t either” is never an acceptable riposte to any argument. Given that there is a literal infinity of concepts and things that one might posit is true, the only fair argument that can be made is one in the positive; “I believe in God because” and never “You cannot prove he doesn’t exist.”

One shall never argue from authority

Aside from being both boring and slightly rude, claiming that one’s position is solid because an expert says so is a no no. However, it is perfectly acceptable to point to the accuracy of predictions, e.g. “If I flip the light switch to off, the light goes out. Therefore, when it comes to the manufacture of light switches, electrical engineers can be trusted in the overwhelming majority of cases.” The same can be said for the motion of planets, quantum physics (the counter intuitive nature of the concepts might be mind boggling, but the accuracy of the predictions are breathtaking) meteorology, etc.

Avoid Linguistic Quagmires

Not so much a rule as a piece of advice, but you will save many valuable hours of frustrated shouting at cross purposes if you choose your words carefully.

Faith means: belief in the absence of evidence. If one insists on calling trust in science “faith” in the same sense that a devotee of Christ has faith in god, then the word “faith” ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. Get that out of the way at the outset.

God means: a supernatural being capable of suspending the laws of physics; the creator of the universe. If you are talking about a biblically revealed God, the definition extends to: a God that takes an active interest in the affairs of man. Other definitions of God, such as extremely personal notions of God, are perfectly acceptable, but need to defined well in advance of any discussion (and if personal notions of God are the discussion, pick something else to talk about, because there really is nothing to talk about in that case).

Religion means: an ideological prescription for living that gets its authority from God. This is in contrast to Buddhism and the ilk which bear many resemblances to religion, and in some fields of study are identical (such as in sociology) to religion, but are more aptly categorized as moral or spiritual philosophy. The important distinction, is that religions have a supernatural component.

Truth means: Something is only true when you can say why it might not be true. This notion is rooted in ‘falsifiability.’ Falsifiability does not imply that something someone might claim is false, but that if it were false, then its falsehood could be demonstrated. Therefore, while such statements as “it is good to help people” might be statements we can all agree on, we cannot call them formally true.

Personal truth might be a powerful motivating force, but it is much better and altogether simpler to call personal truth “belief.” Avoid this linguistic trap, and insist on it in others.

End Notes

The religion debate informs all other discussions, and without exception. Not only can you tell a great deal about another person by whether they believe they exist due to physical forces and the laws of biology, or due to the hand of God, the debate informs the very nature of how we go about interacting with the universe. Is there a purpose to life? What does it mean to be good? How should I raise my children?

The epistemological ramifications alone make the question of God the Primum Movens from which all other questions and conclusions spring. Enjoy it.

Robin Lindsay



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7 Responses to “How to Have an Argument about Religion”

  1. bwaymark Says:

    “Personal truth might be a powerful motivating force, but it is much better and altogether simpler to call personal truth ‘belief.’ Avoid this linguistic trap, and insist on it in others.”

    Very well said ….

  2. rockrobinoff Says:


  3. bwaymark Says:

    On further reflection, I think it would be accurate to say that any conversation or argument that involves a number of specific words and phrases can be immediately terminated on the basis of the conversation being entirely futile. Some of these are:

    buzz words
    personal truth
    mindset (Prof. Atherton at the Dal classics department once threaten to fail any paper using that term, bless him)

    I am tempted to add “makes me feel” or “my opinion” to that list, but I am entirely sure ….

  4. rockrobinoff Says:

    hah. i’ll sign any petition you care to present me that advocates abolishing that wishy washy list from intelligent discourse.

  5. Shamelessly Atheist Says:

    Very nice. I’ve often said myself that belief, no matter how strongly felt, is not knowledge.

    I would add one rule: someone else’s subjective experience is not evidence for anyone else. I good way to head someone about to “witness” off at the pass….

  6. rockrobinoff Says:

    i can’t help but agree Shameless.

  7. Ben Waymark Says:

    Any argument has to begin with a reason for having an argument. Usually one argues to make their point and listen to someone elses’ in the hope of one or the other or both learning something.

    If you are arguing with a fundamentalist, then the only reason for so doing would be to find out they think (out of interests’ sake) because you probably won’t change their view, so ‘I feel’ and ‘My truth’ and that sort of bollocks would be acceptable enough.

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