Any atheist, who spends even an iota of time in the noble project of engaging theists in dialogue, will quickly learn to appreciate the myriad variety of beliefs on display. For this reason, most seasoned atheist debaters know that one of the keys to a worthwhile discussion with an opponent bent on defending a different metaphysical world view from theirs, is to quickly ascertain what it is, exactly, the theist believes and to what particular concept of purported deity they subscribe. Making this assessment early on in the engagement will serve the atheist debater in a few important ways.
Foremost, it has the potential to save valuable time and energy by lessening the chances that the atheist may begin arguing against a position or belief the theist doesn’t actually hold. A misstep such as this could quickly throw the conversation off-balance by causing the non-believer to necessarily answer to charges of overgeneralization and of advancing straw man arguments.
Another practical benefit to gathering such detail early on in the conversation is that it might provide hints to the manner of critique best suited not just to challenge your opponent’s claims, but to take full advantage of your particular knowledge base and skill set as a debater relative to one’s opponent.
In this regard, there are two general forms the attack of your opponent’s thesis might follow – that of the external critique or that of the internal variety. Each of these approaches are well defined by Dave Fagundes in an article on PrawfsBlawg.com:
“An internal critique questions the validity of the logical steps that animate the paper’s thesis, while an external critique questions the validity of the theoretical construct from which the paper is written.”
From the perspective of the atheist debater going toe-to-toe with their theistic rival, an internal critique would accept, for the sake of argument, their foe’s world view and/or existence of their deity, and then proceed to point out any perceived examples of internal incoherence that permeate the theist’s belief system, god concept or holy text. For example, an oft-used internal critique of christianity would be one which raises the specter of Euthyphro’s Dilemma and the “problem of evil”. Other examples of internal critiques might include the raising the paradox of how it can be that they believe their god is omniscient and privy to the outcome of all future events yet still think it retains the free will to alter future events in our world, or by noting the various inconsistencies and contradictions to be found within the Synoptic Gospel accounts. Making successful internal critiques would require the atheist to be keen at spotting logical contradictions, to have a familiarity with the biblical exegesis of apologists and to have an intimate knowledge of the christian belief system itself.
On the other hand, an atheist making an external critique would not venture within the belief system itself in order to point out any perceived logical contradictions. Rather, the non-believing critic’s argument would remain outside the belief system in question and would challenge the veracity, source or basis of the believer’s faith itself. Examples of external critiques could include refutations of any of the classical ‘proofs’ for God including the cosmological, ontological and teleological arguments or might take the form of questioning the believer’s epistemic pathway to their faith and its associated truth claims.
Prior to deciding on an external critique, it would behoove the atheist to have a firm grasp on the classical philosophic arguments as well as more than a cursory understanding of some of the branches of science such as evolutionary biology, genetics, cosmology and quantum physics. Also, the value of a thorough appreciation for the deep philosophical chasm that divides the epistemic methodologies of science and belief in the supernatural, cannot be overstated.
Deciding between these two tacks could prove to be a daunting challenge however, since the continuum of belief one might encounter runs the gamut. At one extreme we might engage the erudite liberal seminarian who is cognizant of the apparent plethora of internal incoherence within their faith; who does not view The Bible literally; is well versed in apologetics and the fine art of rationalization; and whose concept of their god is so amorphous that critiquing it has often been described as “trying to nail jello to a wall.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the under-educated fundamentalist flock member who possesses a concrete conception of their god’s attributes; reads the parts of The Bible they are told to literally, largely unaware of the incoherence within its pages; and, at best, has only a superficial appreciation of apologetics and the classical philosophic arguments for their god.
Since the vast majority of christians won’t fit neatly into either of the caricatures I sketched above, it is obviously unwise to generalize or to make any decisions regarding the efficacy of internal vs. external critique methods until first gathering as much information as possible about your adversary and by paying close attention to each particular truth claim he or she is making.
With respect to internal critiques, I find them to be most valuable specifically when encountering any of the characteristics displayed by the latter of my two ‘believer-extreme’ examples. The more concrete definition of god’s fundamental attributes advanced by this type of christian leaves them vulnerable to answering for the types of paradoxical dilemmas (e.g. the aforementioned problems of evil and free will) that usually become readily apparent. As well, any christian who has not read their bible thoroughly or who has never been exposed to a direct challenge to their faith, might be hard pressed to reconcile the atrocities perpetuated by their deity, with their concept of Him being a just or omnibenevolent god. One such example of such atrocity would be the command given by Yaweh in 1 Samuel 15:3 for His ‘chosen people’ to utterly destroy the Amalekites, including all their infants.
Obviously, the atheist who has not spent a good deal of time studying the Bible or doesn’t have an appreciation for the wide variety of interpretations available to the believer should cast a wary eye at employing such a strategy and might favor taking an external approach.
In a more general sense, the use of internal critiques may be advantageous when you are simply trying to make headway with someone who might very well be having their faith challenged for the first time. It is often the case that believers who lack a strong science background or who devalue it altogether, or who attribute their faith to personal experience or their own subjective feelings, will prove quite impervious to any sort of external critique. Related to this observation, an interesting theoretical model has been advanced by psychologists who study Terror Management Theory. It proposes that, when a person’s deeply held world view (in this case, one borne of the fear of death) is perceived threatened, that person tends to ‘hunker down’ and will incline toward acknowledging only world view affirming information. In many cases, this kind of emotional response can lead to an actual strengthening, rather than a diminution, of their world view. When dealing with a person in this type of mental state who has invested so much in their faith, it is my contention that the best way to make a breakthrough is not via the external route of, say, bludgeoning their world view into submission under the weight of, say, scientific evidence, but rather by pointing out the wide array of unassailable logical incoherences internal to their belief system. In this way, one simply sows the seeds of doubt and departs, creating the hopeful potential for a believer to enjoy the sense of empowerment that would naturally flow from figuring things out for themselves.
I find external critiques to be the method of choice when one realizes they are dealing with the more intellectually formidable type of christian, akin the seminarian I described in my first characterization above. This type of believer will usually have, at hand, an apologetic toolkit absolutely brimming with well-worn ad hoc rationalizations and pseudo-philosophic ramblings, the latter of which is commonly referred to by atheists as “word salad”. They’re often quite adept at wielding these devices to affect repair of damage caused by most internal critiques (or, at least in *their* minds they think they do) but the specter of responding to an external critique, one which might cause them to answer the question, “How is it, exactly, you know what you claim to know?”, places them immediately on the defensive. The scientifically literate among this brand of christian is quite capable of putting up a valiant defense, often by exploiting the many gaps in our scientific knowledge but remember always, that the burden of proof lies with them, the science and its methodological track record remains on our side, and they will be very hard pressed to satisfactorily answer the question of how they actually “know”.
While I think it is probably best to remain consistent in the type of critique one puts forth, just like any other contest, conditions are apt to change quickly and conversations may easily become derailed or be thrown off on tangents, necessitating a shift in approach. There is no tried and true method for making a decision regarding the two styles of critique but, in the end, I think it is important nonetheless that the atheist (especially one who may be just getting their feet wet in arguing with theists) be well aware of the distinction between the internal and external critique styles and, given the dynamic nature of our project, try to “game-plan” or strategize as much as possible and as much as conditions afford.