Have you ever had someone say something to you and you came up with the perfect response to that person...a day later? It has happened to me seemingly thousands of times, whether in argument or being insulted or trying to flirt with a pretty girl, I always seem to find the scathing remark or witty retort that will achieve instant victory and secure my place as a silver tongued devil well after the fact.

I had such a moment when confronted by a theistic-leaning friend regarding my unbelief in God. Did I say a moment? I apologize. I meant to say several of these moment in rapid succession that left me angry and disappointed in myself. Not only did I not think of perfect responses to his questions, but I managed to make such a bad case of my position that I was actually embarrassed for myself.

My friend is a bit of a paradox; a God-fearing womanizer, a party animal son of a pastor, a righteous sinner. He has struggled to reconcile his lifestyle with his beliefs but he managed to hold to his beliefs if not live by them. I had been letting my atheist hair down of late and this must have caught his attention. We rarely talked of such important metaphysical matters to my recollection and I didn't expect to given is own dichotomy. He caught me by surprise by asking me why I didn't believe in God. Off guard, I feebly explained that it would be hard to explain. How do you condense a lifetime truth seeking into a pithy argument? I then abdicated my responsibilty of the matter by suggesting he read a book that I read that helped me come to many realizations (The God Delusion).

Unimpressed, he replied "Books can say a lot of things. It doesn't mean anything".

I sat in impotent silence for a moment before pleading my case. "There are a lot of good arguments in not just this book, but many others. You should read them."

He dismissed this with a wave of his hand. "Books can say anything, it doesn't make it true", he reiterated, dangling such juicy bait that I would be blind to until the next day.

"Well then," I said, looking for a new line of attack. "Look at all the evil in the Bible committed by God. Why would you want to believe in that?"

"What evil? Show me."

Crap. He called me out. I didn't really know the Bible all that well and hadn't bothered to write down any of the chapters and verses that contained these divinely ordered atrocities. I did not have full knowledge of good resources that could point me there in a timely fashion, either. I used Google to find an example, confidently exclaiming that I could find one in mere seconds, impishly implying that they were just that numerous. I found some website and followed it to the first evil verse listed. It was a bonus because Jesus was involved. It backfired miserably. I forget now which verse it was, but it seemed that this site quote mined at least on this verse which proffered as proof of the despicablness of the Bible. He read the passage and explained that Jesus was not saying what he said. "No, no, I explained. "The red letters are Jesus, right?" He nodded. "Well, then he said it!"

My friend patiently read the remainder of the passage which made it clear that Jesus was actually telling a story and therefore debunked my claim. Defeated and deflated I pretty much let it go after that. How had I lost this debate so miserably? Over the next few days it occupied my every other thought. I'd replay the conversation in my head, but would replace myself with a quicker thinking and more clever version of me. Books can say anything? You mean like the Bible? I'd think immediately followed by a vocal "Why didn't I say that?" And so it went as I replayed that conversation over and over, realizing what I should have said and loathing myself for what I did say.

I have since forgiven myself. It was the first time I had been asked to defend my atheism and I didn't quite know how to do it. At present I appreciate a more refined tactic in dealing with questions about my unbelief. I refuse to defend it. I see it as a trap to be forced to defend it and instead I attack their beleifs. But I don't attack with facts, figures, bible quotes, vitriol, arrogance, or science. I attack them by making them think about why they believe in a god. I ask them questions, polite and earnest as if I am truly curious to learn about their God. However my curiosity is piqued by how they rationalize away all the nagging questions that kept me from believing in religion all my life. And so I began to ask them these questions, innocently, and they eagerly explain the reasons they believe. What they don't know is that I am attacking their faith by forcing them to think about it. Maybe a day later they will think to themselves on why they didn't have better answers. And when they fail to have that tardy moment of realizing the perfect response, perhaps they will think on it even more.

Views: 13

Comment by James on June 10, 2009 at 10:29pm
Don't be to hard on yourself. As you said, you were caught off guard. However, I caught him in is own trap almost instantly. I'd suggest some practice debating either online or with a friend. However, constant study and knowing my subject matter has been by far the best 'weapon' I could ever have for these situations. I too, found myself coming up with perfect replies to nearly everything when I was in school. But hours to a day later. It's all about self confidence and you comfort level with the topic.
Comment by Atheist Ninja on June 10, 2009 at 10:42pm
Well the quickest, and really the most valid response to "Why don't you believe in God?" Would be, "I have no reason to." Then it's easy from there, because they'll have to try and give you reasons, which you can put down one after the other for whatever various reason.
Comment by Kelli Lu-Ten on June 10, 2009 at 10:58pm
I feel like this all the time too, and I think the best offense is to be informed whether it be the bible, or.....catholisicm for dummies. This morning we debated FOCA [freedom of choice act] in history class, and my friend actually brought "Catholicism for Dummies" as a reference. She made some obscure point about god sending down a spirit into the whom of the woman when a baby is conceived, and then made me read the passage. Meanwhile the debate was still going on around me, and anything witty I could've said would have to be said to the class out of the blue who werent listening to our side-battle. I actually had some okay points to say, but I couldnt get them out w/o shouting across the classroom, so..
Comment by Godless Girl on June 10, 2009 at 11:22pm
I feel a kinship with you already because I find myself grossly intimidated by those sorts of situations. I had a lifetime of training and discussion as a Christian, but since I've only been a non-believer for less than a year, I feel like I'd be as tongue-tied as you were in that situation. I think the advice you give about asking questions being the best tactic truly is sound. I'd rather not be on the defensive because I know how anxious it makes me feel.

By the way, there's a perfect French phrase for the moment you think of a comeback after the situation has passed: "l'esprit d'escalier" (literally "staircase wit" because you think of the retort on the stairs walking away from the situation). It's so true-to-life!
Comment by Jeremy Roney on June 11, 2009 at 12:57am
I'm not entirely sure what his own response would have been had you asked him about the bible, that almost seemed like he was making it too easy.. it makes me wonder if he asked that on purpose. As Ninja said, turning the tables on them is generally the easiest thing to do since it puts them off guard and allows you to use your own logic to fairly easily disprove their claims. It never changes their minds, nor really shows them why you don't believe since they think you're wrong anyway.. but it does make them stop when they realize they can't change your mind either.
Comment by Aric on June 11, 2009 at 1:03am
I've gotten fairly used to arguing about religion so I'm fairly good at it. However, because I mostly argue about religion and not my other beliefs whenever anyone questions me about my other beliefs I get very tongue-tied and give weak arguments. Then I can't focus for about a day because I'm thinking of responses to an argument that already happened.
Comment by Dave G on June 11, 2009 at 12:08pm
In addition to the French phrase, the English had the phrase 'carriage wit', being the perfect answer you think of while in the carriage on your way home.

Don't worry overmuch about how things turned out, it was your first attempt, after all. Given time and practice you will get better at making your case for your position. I do heartily recommend researching the common arguments you'll hear, as well as reading up on the Bible and similar texts. There are a number of good videos on YouTube covering such things as well. I highly recommend ProfMTH's videos, for example.

And yeah, my first thought when he said 'Books can say a lot of things. It doesn't mean anything' was 'So why do you believe what the Bible says, it's just a book, it doesn't mean anything'. :)
Comment by CJoe on June 11, 2009 at 1:56pm
My only piece of advice is this... read the Bible. You asked him to read the God Delusion (excellent suggestion), but would you be willing to read the Bible if he countered with that? The only reason I'm ever able to get into discussions with theists and place any seeds of doubt in their heads is because I was one and I know their language. As painful as it may be, even attending a church service or five might help you learn their jargon and reasoning. Besides, it'll give them the impression you're trying to understand or whatever... they won't suspect that you're getting familiar with "the enemy".
Comment by Rev. Tom Hicks, D.D. on June 11, 2009 at 2:03pm
Cara has the right method. I never attempted to argue with a theist without knowin' their beliefs as a whole, each denomination at that.
Comment by Misty: Baytheist Living! on June 11, 2009 at 3:48pm
Exactly! Great points CC and Rev!
Read. Learn. Educate yourself.
My response would have been:
"Yeah, books say all sorts of things about talking animals, the rape of man-angels, child sacrifices, rape, murder and displacement of indigenous cultures!"
I love to read :)


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