What this is not: A polemic against atheism in general or a blanket analysis of all atheists. Atheists can be moral, decent, intelligent, productive people who contribute to society, just like anyone else. Now that we have that out of the way…
What this is: An analysis of a particular type of atheist — an anti-theist, really — who is virulently and irrationally anti-Christian and who fetishizes science. We’ll call him the SFA (Science Fetishist Anti-theist).
Let’s say you’re a Christian who’s interested in science, particularly how it relates to your faith. You encounter an atheist who seems willing to discuss this with you, and you’re interested in his viewpoint. (This could be taking place in person, on Facebook, on a blog, etc.) You explain your position on a particular topic, but you’re met with a series of perplexing responses and maybe even some hostility. You try to respond honestly and earnestly, but the discussion is going in confusing directions. He’s attacking your viewpoint, but not really attacking the substance of your argument. You’re being barraged with various claims that don’t seem to have much to do with your position on the topic, but you don’t know how to respond. If this has ever happened to you, it’s likely you encountered a SFA.
This article is a two-parter. In this part, I describe the primary and secondary characteristics useful for identifying a SFA, and offer some general advice on how to deal with them. In Part II, I’ll use examples from encounters with SFAs to illustrate these principles.
Primary behavioral traits of the SFA:
- Almost immediately refers to the supposed conflict between science and religion in any discussion of science and/or religion with a Christian
- If you beg to differ, brings up Galileo and/or Bruno
- Denounces faith as anti-intellectual or anti-reason or anti-science
- Uses the word “science” a lot as a catch-all for responses to questions
- Uses the word “science” in nonsensical ways
- Refers to any attempt to demonstrate that the Bible is not in conflict with science as “creationism”
- Uses the word superstition in reference to your beliefs
- Despite displaying a near-reverence for science, does not actually know much about science
- Is unaware of most of the history of science
- Quotes Dawkins, Harris, Stenger, or any other number of anti-theist scientists at you
If a person displays at least five of those traits, you’ve got yourself a SFA. The fetish aspect refers to the near-reverence the SFA has for science, almost to the point of worshipfulness. The SFA is aware of the power of science and is attracted to it, but lacks the genuine interest to learn how science works. The SFA will also hold science in unrealistically high regard, causing him to not only ignore the limitations of science but to disdain all other methods of knowing.
What makes the SFA pernicious is that he is mildly adept at giving the impression he is reasonable, intellectual, and knowledgeable about science. However, it doesn’t take much to expose him for what he is. For that, all you need to do is challenge the SFA on a particular point and be persistent in asking direct questions. You will then notice his secondary traits.
Secondary behavioral traits of the SFA:
- Avoidance: he will simply refuse to answer the question
- Evasion: he will address it in an oblique way, but refuse to provide a straightforward answer
- Deflection: he will refuse to answer the question while changing the subject
- Misdirection: he will pretend to answer the question while subtlely changing the subject
- Redefinition: he will redefine the meaning of something to suit his purpose
- Mischaracterization: he will twist your words and your intent to mean something else he can more easily attack
The way to combat these is to persist in holding the SFA to things he’s claimed/admitted and requiring that the SFA answer your questions directly. For instance, if you’ve employed impeccable logic to make your case, and he still refuses to acknowledge the conclusion, ask him which step in the chain of logic he objects to and make him back it up with reason and evidence. Stay focused on the question. Be relentless in pinning him down. One key for keeping the discussion on track is to have a penalty ready if he refuses to answer your questions. Christian writer, Vox Day, who is legendary for his skill and tenacity in debating SFAs, has a rule on his blog: you get three chances to answer his question directly; if you fail, you are not allowed to comment again until you answer. If the argument is in person, you can simply refuse to continue unless the SFA answers your question directly. This tends to work, because SFAs are usually eager to keep the discussion going — up to a point.
If you’re persistent with your questions and pinning the SFA down, there are two possible outcomes. 1. The SFA will concede. This is the more desirable outcome, but it’s also the least likely. It’s possible that, through sheer force of will, you can break through the shell of delusion and help bring the SFA to greater understanding. However, the more likely outcome is … 2. Your persistence will culminate in The Superior-Posture Departure (SPD). The exasperated SFA will announce that you’re too ignorant to merit debate and will refuse to engage you any further. For the moment, anyway. SFAs can reappear from time to time to make provocative statements — often the same statements you’ve already refuted — only to disappear again when met with resistance. They may also snipe at you from a distance while continuing to insist that you’re too ignorant to debate.
The thing to keep in mind here is that most SFAs are dishonest, not only with others, but with themselves. I’ll talk about this more in Part II next week, but this self-delusion is indicative of their blind faith in science. For that reason, you will likely never get an admission that you’re right, but this sort of refusal to engage you directly is at least a tacit admission of defeat.
You can’t win through logic. These people are unteachable through dialectic methods. You can try rhetoric, which I’ll admit I’m not very good at.
I’m much better at being persistent with my questions. More often than not, after I keep focusing on the first question, the SFA will move straight to disqualify and beat a retreat. If I get answer to the first question, the second question will generally have the SFA try to disqualify, or just disappear.
Just don’t let your emotions respond and you’ll acquit yourself well, regardless of the outcome.
I have encountered a few SFAs in my blogging “career” and I believe you have pegged them well. I hope more than a few of them recognize themselves here.
This is a perfect description of this kind of person. I’ll look for part 2 on this. I’ve had discussion with these people on twitter which can be very difficult for me. Usually when one SFA begins to debate me, a goup of 3 or 4 will pile on and then it’s very easy to lose sight of the train of thought. Some will be telling me how stupid I am while others will seem to be actually debating but with a superior attitude in each tweet. I’ve made it a rule in these instances to block the name callers after explaining that that retort ends all conversation. But I wonder if I am simply not intelligent enough to keep up my side of such a debate. I may just need to know a lot more than I do now.
Thanks so much for this post. It helps. The more I read about science and the Bible, the more I do understand that the Bible never goes against good science. I’ve also learned as an old RN that science can go far awry due to human expectations and arrogance. Pure science seems to be hard to find in my estimation. The purest form is using the scientific method.
Incisive and unfeigned. Something I’ve always enjoyed about your commentary, Sarah. I’m anxiously looking forward to part two.
Russell: I have difficulty with rhetoric, as well. Questioning is the only thing that really works for me.
Caroline: Unfortunately, it’s not very likely. SFAs are dishonest with themselves even more often than they are with other people.
tannngl: That’s why I avoid Twitter as a platform for debating. It’s okay for a question or two, but once it goes beyond that, I insist on moving the discussion to blog or email format.
im2l8844: Thanks, and good to see you here.
I’m currently in such a “debate” on Youtube, His latest tactic (to back up his self proclaimed ‘superior’ stance) is to use the Miron Zuckerman survey about Intelligent people not being religious. He’s made several logical fallacies and contradictions and ignored a number of my refutations, and has “dismissed” me several times after calling me an assortment of names – his last one being that I’m “a nothing of a person” & “if you believe in it, it’s wrong”.
Reading through your article he seems to check off every single point perfectly – it’s as if he read the SFA guide book or something, LOL.
Anyway, I’ve prepared a response but I know what his reaction will be, denial and more narcissistic rants.
I really feel sorry for people like him.
The comments on YouTube rank even higher on the wretched-hive-of-scum-and-villainy scale than Mos Eisley. The level of debate there is such that I don’t even bother.
I wasted many, many hours debating with people like this until it was pointed out to me that they are emotionally-based in their arguments. Despite their propensity for appealing to “science” and “reason,” they cannot be persuaded by rational arguments. Aristotle described this sort of person thousands of years ago, so this is nothing new. What you’re dealing with is a person who is rhetorically based (persuaded by emotional arguments) rather than dialectically based (persuaded by rational arguments). You will make absolutely no headway with him unless you can figure out how to manipulate him on the emotional level.