America is largely a nation of the faithful. The majority of people living here self-identify as being observant of religious beliefs of one kind or another, with the majority still identifying as some type of Christian. Religion has always had a major effect on America. As society continues to change at a pace that can often be scary for some people, conflicts will often arise over questions of religion and its place in our secular culture. After observing many of these debates online and in person over the past few years, here are five common arguments that some people of faith often use that really don't work. They're not convincing, and don't appear reasonable to anyone who doesn't embrace the same ideas about spiritual matters. Some might look at these as an attempt by an atheist to attack Christianity or religion in general, but that is not my intention. For one thing, I'm not an atheist, and I realize that spirituality brings a lot of joy to individuals and has a place in this world. Religion isn't going away anytime soon, and that's fine by me. To anyone feeling "persecuted" by this piece, refer to the following item on this list.
5. The Belief That Religious People Are Being Persecuted In America.
This is a very common argument that many religious people seem to believe, but it's pretty wrongheaded. More than 70 percent of Americans still self-identify as Christian, and a large number of the remaining population belong to other major faiths. There is a relatively small percentage of people living here who are complete non-believers in some form of spirituality, so it seems pretty unlikely that there is a serious campaign of persecution by non-believers against people of faith.
What this bad argument usually really illustrates is a fear by some Christians of a loss in "market share," meaning there are other religions rising to prominence in this country, and with that comes a fear of losing privilege. This might most easily be seen during the holiday season, when every year a few people seem to feel angry and persecuted because a lot of folks greet them with "Happy Holidays" now instead of "Merry Christmas," a reflection of the fact that it's no longer fair or safe to assume everyone is observing a religious Christian holiday, and might be celebrating other religious or cultural traditions.
That isn't persecution, it's an acknowledgment that American culture is growing more diverse and inclusive. In other cases, religious people will claim they're being persecuted because it's becoming more difficult for them to discriminate against others. The recent stories of Christian businesses refusing service to gay people over their religious convictions are a good example.
It's also important for people of all faiths to remember that criticism of their religion is not persecution. Religions shouldn't get a pass on being criticized when they advocate something harmful to other people, but the simple act of being held accountable for something isn't the same thing as being persecuted.
If it seems like I am picking on Christians specifically, that is not the case. However, since Christianity has always been the dominant religion in America, this specific type of persecution complex is most often made by people claiming to be Christians. Obviously, not all Christians think they're being threatened by having to share the religious and cultural landscape of this country with others, so this isn't aimed at all of them, but some form of this persecution argument is bandied about often, and it's time to abandon it.
4. Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.
Man, how I hate that six-word phrase. I'd never heard it used in any sort of debate until a few years ago, but I've heard it a whole lot recently. It's most often used by religious people trying to rationalize that it's okay for them to judge other people. Usually it comes up in discussions about gender identity or sexuality. I've never heard anyone use this phrase to justify their discomfort with any other category of people who they maintain are sinners, although I suppose it's possible. There's nothing nice about this "feel good" attempt at explaining their reasons for judging or discriminating against others. In the case of gay people, the "sin" judge-y religious types hate is inseparable from the person they're claiming they don't. It would be interesting to see how some of these people would feel if they got countered with phrases like "Hate the faith, not the faithful." Would they take that as a personal attack or not?
If people are comfortable judging others, then they should also be comfortable owning the unpleasant realization that many others think they're pricks for feeling that way. The spiritual sidestep this phrase allows is disingenuous. It also seems to ignore a very basic foundation of what was the central message a certain bearded savior tried to convey: to love others without judgment.
3. The Arguments in Support of Pascal's Wager.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th-century French mathematician, physicist and philosopher who came up with this very popular concept. He thought that all humans bet with their lives over the existence of God, and that since the horrors of an eternity of damnation outweighed the potential consequences if God didn't exist, then a reasonable person should choose to believe.
I've heard religious crusaders try to persuade others to believe in the existence of a Supreme Being using some variation of that basic argument many times over the years, and it's not convincing. It usually is simplified down to "If I'm right, you'll be in Hell forever, and if you're right, I'll be fine," or something to that effect. This argument is not persuasive to the average non-believer for several reasons. First of all, it's not really compelling because this argument seems to imply that the person using Pascal's Wager as a promotion of his faith is not a believer because he loves his deity but because he fears it. That's not a great advertisement for a religion. Many people who reject the idea of God are also not particularly frightened of imagined consequences if it turns out they're wrong. Perhaps instead of using an emotionally charged fear tactic, these believers would be better served promoting the positives of a belief in the supernatural and an afterlife. From a logical standpoint, Pascal's Wager also fails, since it doesn't account for the many different belief systems or gods and goddesses that have followers around the world. Why should a person be swayed by the fear of one but not another? It's a lousy tactic and seems really desperate, not a great way to win over hearts or minds.
2. Religious Arguments for Things Science Explains Better.
Science and religion don't always play very well together, which is readily obvious to anyone who's ever witnessed a debate between someone who believes in Creationism and someone who believes in evolution. Many religious people have no problem balancing a belief in the supernatural along with a belief in science, but others have a problem accepting that religious ideas don't adequately explain certain things as well as the scientific method. For people who are of a fundamentalist bent, everything about the nature of existence is dictated by what their religious texts say, but that's not really compelling to anyone who's not as pious, or who comes from another religious tradition.
Instead of arguing that the "theory" part of the theory of evolution somehow points to it being an untested assumption, rather than something the vast majority of scientists in the world support, some religious people will promote the idea that the Earth was created thousands of years ago and that man once inhabited the planet side by side with dinosaurs.
On a personal level, it's fine for an individual to have beliefs like that, but problems arise when such a person feels that he needs unscientific religious ideas given space in public school books or can't grasp that many of us won't accept those ideas as readily as scientific explanations.
A lot of people are going to demand proof for claims that break from observable and tested science, and any argument that relies on religious histories to explain the complex nature of our world is not going to be compelling to many people.
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Let's say I believed that a giant red rabbit named Trevor created the universe and the first humans. Trevor's supernatural powers are what defines reality and keeps the world functioning, despite the scientific community's rejection of Trevor. I have a feeling that almost everyone would probably reject my belief that Trevor created and runs the physical aspects of our universe. Religion is fine, but it is a belief in the supernatural. It doesn't do very well when it goes head to head against science.
1. Arguments That a Person Would Rape and Murder Without a Belief in God.
I hear this argument a LOT, and it thoroughly creeps me out. Some religious people apparently believe that a belief in their God is the only thing keeping people from going on a murderous rampage or sexually assaulting anyone they desire. That's about as scary an argument for religion as I can think of, because anytime I hear someone say it, I wonder if that's the only thing keeping him from being a murderer or a rapist.
Seriously, this is one of the worst and least compelling arguments I've ever heard for faith, and it's obviously flawed, since there's no evidence that non-believers are more prone to thrill killing or sexual assault. I have absolutely no interest in either of those things and it's because I have no desire to harm other people. It's possible to live a moral life without believing in a supernatural force that will punish a person for stepping out of line or harming someone else. On the other hand, major world religions have a pretty awful track record when it comes to harming others, usually because those people chose to believe something different.