A Guide To Debating Religious Issues

Jun 1, 2004
The following is a brilliant piece of articleship. I chanced upon to read this (posted on other forum by one of my good friends), Please take your time and then make observations...

Thank You
This article of Aparthib Zaman is published in mukto-mona. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mukto-mona/message/6557

Any comments, dear readers ?


Whether we want it it or not, debates on religious issues invariably crop up periodically in almost all forums, present one included, on issues ranging from the existence of God, morality vs religion, critical examination of the scriptures, science vs. religion, religious extremism. In most cases the debates end up in endless altercations, angry exchanges, personal attacks, defences, counterattacks, irrelevant remarks and conclusions. All these are due semantics and can be traced to a failure to recognize where each fits, failure to understand and identify all the precise categories of views and positions that one can possibly take, and failure to fit oneself and his/her opponent correctly in the appropriate category while engaging in the debate.

A good number of such debates can be short circuited once the debaters thrash out correctly how to identify and fit each other in the right category. That would spare all of much time and wasted energy. Most of the problems in the debate are due to using a limited vocabulary and trying to pigeonhole everyone within that small set of terminologies to represent them. Moreover the terms in the limited vocabulary do not convey unambiguous meaning to all, and is conveniently interpreted by each to suit to one's advantage in the debate. All these invariably lead to an unfair characterization of each. Without a finer and more elaborate classification of views and ideologies using an adequate nomenclature, an unambiguous differentiation of various shades of individual views is not possible for a fair debate. Once this is done, room for sophistry and irrelevant attacks in the debate will be considerably narrowed and help everyone stay on track. Once each clearly understands where they stand, they will be unable to wilfully misinterpret terms to gain undue leverage. I intend to do that. I hope by my nomenclature everyone can be mapped in a unique way to the right slot and will help him or his opponent to engage in a debate more meaningfully. So I propose that in any future debate on religious issues, a debater defines his position using the terminologies defined here referring to the link containing this article. I have attempted to avoid being normative, not making any judgement or endorsing any position, but only tried to describe the views of each, including the views held by each towards others from, observations in a matter of fact. The intent is to cover a broad range of views and define and describe them in a precise and unambiguous manner. Let me then jump right in to my intended goal:

Let me start with the notions that pertains to the God debate first, later I will discuss other religious terms and notions that are relevant to debates with a political nature.

Suppose one is asked the following two questions :

(1) Is the sentence "God exists" a proposition?
(2) If yes, then is the proposition true or false?

PROPOSITION: A sentence constructed of well-defined words free from ambiguity and contradictions such that a unique "yes" or "no" value can be unambiguously assigned to the sentence.

COGNITIVIST : Who says yes to (1)
NON-COGNITIVIST : Who says no to (1)

Noncognitivists say no to (1) because God cannot be defined in a logically consistent way free from self-contradictions such that it's existence can be a meaningful notion for (1) to be a proposition. It must be understood that by asserting that "God does not exist" is not a proposition, one is automatically implying (not asserting) a lack of belief in God, which is not the same as "disbelieving" God, as the latter is a negative assertion assuming a logically consistent DEFINITION of God exists whose existence is denied, that is the stand of an atheist. That's a subtle difference that many fail to grasp.

Now cognitivists are of three kinds: viz. theist, atheist and agnostics defined below:

THEIST : If and only if one says that the proposition (2) is true or probably true with a high likelihood.
ATHEIST : If and only if one says that (2) is false or probably false with a high likelihood.
AGNOSTIC : if and only if one refuses to commit to a "yes" or "no" answer to (2) and justifying the refusal by citing insufficient evidence one way or another.

The existing concepts of God can be divided in two categories :

GOD-S: Various SPIRITUAL notions of God formed independent of any established religious doctrines, as being the impersonal, abstract root cause for the universe. The simplest example being belief in God as the creator of the universe and controls everything that happens in it, no other attributes being mentioned. Other examples are Deism where God is defined as the creator of the universe but its the natural laws that govern the universe once it is created. Belief in these notions of God-S is simply a reflection of the ignorance and fear about the ultimate mystery of the universe and of a need for a sense of security in facing the inevitable fact of human mortality. Some well-defined, unambiguous notions God are nothing but relabeling of existing notions, and thus useless as well, since they lack in one very important element, which is a belief in a supreme deity as the cause or control of the universe. Examples of such trivial notions of God are: God=A cosmic love or Consciousness, God=Universe/Nature (Pantheism). These definitions of God should not be classed under theism to be strict. So we will lump it under the generic label "nontheist" to be defined formally later.

GOD-R : Various RELIGIOUS notions of God based on dogmas of revelations or personality cults where God is described as as a personal deity (i.e. in concerned with each human's life in a personal way) often with super-humanlike attributes like omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence (super is symbolized by the "omni-" prefix) and other attributes specific to religions. In both the revelation based and personality cult based case, a specially chosen human (prophet, lord..) is believed to be the authentic representative of God.

Since two relevant definitions of God have been provided we have to qualify the definitions of theists, atheists, and agnostics accordingly by the notations Theist-R, Atheist-R, Agnostic-R or Theist-S, Atheist-S and Agnostic-S. (Non) cognitivists hardly factor in any God or religious debate, so we will refer to them without the suffix "-R" or "-S". Also, in almost all debates Atheists and Agnostic are meant as Atheist-R and Agnostic-R, so we will just use just atheist and agnostic (in small caps) to mean Atheist-R, Agnostic-R. But both theists are relevant and used in the debates, so we must draw distinctions. We will say theist ("t" in small cap) to always mean Theist-R (no exceptions, unless when specifically stated to mean both) and spiritualist to mean Theist-S in all debates and in what follows.

An Important Note : Please be aware that my categorization scheme uniquely maps only INDIVIDUALS to categories, not RELIGIONS as is understood commonly. It is possible that in certain religions different followers of that religion may map to different categories. A Buddhist for example can individually be an atheist, an agnostic or a spiritualist, because Buddhism has no definite stand on the the God question.

Let me summarize:

1. The assertion that God is not logically well-defined automatically implies a LACK in belief in God's existence.

2. LACK of belief in God's existence is not the same as ASSERTING that God does not exist. The latter has to assume that God is logically consistent and well-defined (otherwise "exist" becomes a meaningless word), the former does not have to (as in 1 above).

3. Since noncognitivists do not accept God as a logically well defined word, hence they automatically LACK in the belief in God. (From 1 and 2 above).

So, Noncognivists ==> lack in a belief in God.
Atheists ==> also lack a belief in God, but also assert that it does not exist.

RATIONALISM: Philosophy of using logic and evidence as the sole reliable guide for testing any claims of truth, for seeking objective knowledge and for drawing conclusions about reality. Ratioanlists cannot make a definite conclusion or assert a view on a statement that is not a proposition in the logical sense. Thus rationalists can only take a noncognitivist position in the context of the God , since all defintions of God are not logically precise, and are inspired by ignorance rather than logic or evidence, to make (1) a true proposition. Noncognitivists and atheists both share a common ground in refuting the logic of theists in their "proof" of God's existence. So, for rationalists the issue is not about disproving the existence of God, but is about the following :

1. To test any "definition" of God provided by theists against logical consistency;
2. To test any "proof" provided by theists for the existence of God (Any definition) for logical consistency ;

These two tasks need not be conditional on each other. Even with a logically inconsistent definition of God, it is still possible to detect logical fallacies in the proof.

Rationalism should only test and refute definitions and proofs of God by theists. It is simply being conservative, by not saying more than is allowed by logic. Asserting the non-existence of God as is the case with atheists requires proving a universal negative which is not possible by pure logic or evidence.

Rationalism vs Atheism:

Noncogntivism should be the default position of rationalism, as it rejects the very "notion" of a divine entity, not it's existence, because the notion is considered vague and contains internal logical contradiction. Rationalists cannot accept logically inconsistent notions and base any opinion on it. On the other hand , by asserting that "God does not exist", atheists are taking upon themselves the burden of proof, and by saying that "there is no evidence for God", atheists are relieving the theists of the burden of defining God (tactly, since assertion of evidence or lack thereof can only be meaningful to a well-defined notion). Noncognitivists rather shift both the burdens on the theists. Noncognitivists do not take any position in response to theism (The default), whereas atheists do take a definite position in response to theism. In absence of the claims of theism, the distinction between noncognitivists and atheists would disappear. A further distinction between rationalist and atheist is discussed below in the context of the view on ultimate reality.


How do each category discussed above view the ultimate mystery of the creation? Symbolically the various views on the ultimate reality can be represented by:

(In the following "X==>Y" means X gives rise to Y, "X-->Y-->Z" means X evolves via Y into Z)

(1) ?==>Natural Laws==>Universe(Initial)-->Natural Laws-->Universe(current)
(2) Natural Laws ==>Universe(Initial)-->Natural Laws-->Universe(current)
(3) God==>Natural Laws==>Universe(Initial)-->Natural Laws-->Universe(current)
(4) a) God==>Laws of Nature + Universe(Initial)
b) Universe(Initial)-->Natural Laws + God-->Universe(current)
(5) God==>Universe(Initial)-->God-->Universe(current)

By Universe(current) it is meant everything in the present universe, including all life forms, stars, galaxies, computers etc. Universe(Initial) is the primitive form of universe at the moment of creation and depends on what view of creation one takes.

By Universe (current) it is meant everything in the present universe, including all life forms, stars, galaxies, computers etc. Universe (Initial) is the primitive form of universe at the moment of creation and depends on what view of creation one takes.

Possible forms of Universe (Initial) are:

=> A space-time singularity of general relativity or,
=> A timeless (Where time becomes space) four dimensional hyperspace (no-boundary) as proposed by Hartle-Hawking Cosmology or,
=> Any other possible initial state posited by religion or cosmology

View (1) is the position taken by rationalism and science, where an ultimate mystery ("?") of the origin of universe is recognized.
View (2) is taken by atheists (where "?" = NUL)
View (3) defines a DEIST
View (4) is taken by spiritualists and "modernist apologists" who recognize science (Laws of Nature)
View (5) is taken by theists who deny the reality of scientific laws.

It must be emphasized that (1) and (2) are philosophical world view, whereas (3)-(5) is part of a faith in God or religion. Since (1) and (2) are personal philosophies, preaching or indoctrination should not or does not apply. Rationalism should naturally lead one to (1), whereas (2) does require an additional postulate not required by rationality, nor provable by it, that there IS NO causal hierarchy above the natural laws. So as a personal philosophy (1) conforms more to rationalism than (2). But it is important to realize that since (2) is not against logic and does not contradict any observation, hence a rationalist CAN believe in (1) as a matter of FAITH, but cannot adopt it as an official stand and base any opinion or debate on it, since a faith cannot be backed up by evidence or logic, unlike atheists who assert it as their official stand and base their views and debate on that stand. It is also VERY important to realize that the true significance of "?" cannot be appreciated and likely to be misinterpreted and abused unless one thoroughly understands all that follows it in (1), expected only from a science literate person. Many atheists are uneasy with view (1) because they fear that in many societies, which are not economically and technically advanced and educated, if (1) is promoted, then most people who are not science literate, can misinterpret the "?", which may lead them to all sorts of superstitions, quackery, fatalism, targets of exploitation by unscrupulous people capitalizing on the inherent fear that the unknown generates in their mind. But it is an unfounded concern, as state should not preach or promote any particular world view (theistic or atheistic). Personal worldview should result from science and education on an individual level. A secular political system should only ensure that science and rationalism is emphasized in public education.

Now let me define and discuss some notions that are not directly God related but may have possible political implications.

Some Important Definitions:
NONTHEIST : not theist (spiritualist, atheist or agnostic or non-cognitivist)

INFIDELS: This is a contextual term that applies to a given religion, meaning a non-believer in that religion. Followers of religion-A are infidels relative to religion-B and vice versa. Nontheists born in religion-A are infidels relative to religion-A as well. So nontheist are infidels to all religions.

FIDEIST : Theist who says yes to (2) purely as a matter of faith, not claiming any evidence or logic to justify his faith nor does he necessarily (but may) believe that all the revelations are strict words of God, and keeps his faith private and non-political. They don't have any negative opinions or hatred of other religious beliefs, nor are indifferent to any religious criticisms by atheists or any nontheist, because to them privet faith is the important issue. Fideist can be either a moderate or a puritan. Moderates believe and practice the minimal basic tenets of religion, like belief in God, the holy book and the prophet. Whereas puritans believe strictly in all the practices, rituals and scriptural injunctions in addition to the basic tenets.

APOLOGIST : Theist who says yes to (2) and claims to have evidence and logic to support his belief, believes that all the scriptures and revelations of religion are actual words of God and publicly affirms and preaches it. They are dogmatic about the truth of their belief and believe other reigions as wrong and inferior and believe in religious supremacy simialr to racial supremacy. They are hostile towards any criticism or logical refutation of their claim of absolute truth of their faith. Religion is for them a political matter, an inspiration for nationalism and pride. Apologists can be of three varieties: (Description follows)




Modernist contend that modern science and technology and some aspects of western democracy are compatible with their religious doctrines. They usually live in Western democracies and are thus exposed to and enjoy modern amenities and freedom. They justify such compatibility and advocate integration of certain modern aspects of lifestyles with religion by conveniently reinterpreting scriptures if needed. To them religion is primarily a national identity. They may not practice all the detailed rites or rituals that scriptures enjoin, but nevertheless feel passionately about their religious identity and like to view the achievements in various fields of all the nations where their religion is the majority, as being the achievements of their religion, not as the achievement of those nations.

Fundamentalists are the so called obscurantist who are literal followers of religious doctrines and reject anything that is not in the doctrines, rejects modernism in any form.

Extremists are those who harbor hatred and intolerance towards other religions, more so towards nontheists, viewing them as perpetual enemies to be destroyed or defeated, actively engage in or abet the use of violence snd coercion to impose their religious dogma on all members of their religion, to fight the infidels, and physically harm those engaging in any logical refutation or criticism of the apologists. To these apologists private religious rituals are secondary, the primary obsession is the implementations of the vindictive scriptural injunctions towards infidels, and apostates. and the like.

SECULARISM & THEOCRACY : Secularism is the political philosophy advocating separation of state affairs and religious doctrines and institutions . It believes in keeping religious beliefs and rituals confined to private life. Nontheists support secularism in principle. Fideists are usually indifferent to it. They may or may not advocate secularism. Some do personally prefer secularism as a principle. Apologists are necessarily opposed to secularism, advocating theocracy, which is defined as running a state based on religious scriptures . They favor integrating religion with public life in various degrees . The form of theocracy may differ depending on which apologists (Modernists or Fundamentalists) have the dominant role in running the state.

HUMANISM: A political philosophy whose priority and concern is the upholding and preservating of basic human rights and welfare irrespective of color, race, religion etc and opposing any act that violates basic human rigts without exception, committed under any name or pretext, either by groups or individuals . Humanism does not explicitly advocate secularism. Its primary focus is human rights and welfare. If any form of theocracy necessarily implies human rights violation for some then it will oppose such theocracy in principle, whereas secularism is solely focused on separating state from religion. It is possible that in certain secular state, law may not prohibit a private religious ritual involving the violation of human rights by one member of a family on another within the family. Secularism has no official position on that per se, since state is not involved in it, but humanism will oppose it officially. A SECULAR HUMANIST is one who advocates both secularism and humanism. Most secularists are humanists too, but they need not be strictly speaking. So we will often use the word secularist to mean humanist unless specifically making a distinction. Fideists can be humanists too. Although some modernist apologists may oppose certain human rights violation under religious pretext, they are not committed to oppose all violations unconditionally, so they cannot be humanists which presupposes opposing any human rights violation without exception.

Once again to recap all the relevant terms, where the indented terms listed under each category are all the possible subcategories within that category:


Nontheists :

Theists :
theist (Theist-R):
fideists :
apologists :
spiritualist (Theist-R)


noncognitivist (Offcially)
atheist (Only as private faith)

It should be apparent that all the bitter debates with angry exchange of words occur are usually between secularists, humanists and apologists (modernists and fundamentalists). Most secular humanists trace the acts of extremists to scriptures and criticize the modernists for offering any strong deterrents against the extremists . On the other hand many apologists interpret the criticisms by humanists of certain passages of scriptures and of the extremists as being directed against ALL (Fideist, modernists, spiritualist), an allegation denied by the secularists. Secularists claim instead that their condemnation is directed only against ACTS of extremism and the passages which inspire them to act, and also criticize the modernists for their alleged connivance of the such acts. Secularists also argue that the modernists will not be sincere in deterring the extremists other than token criticism of their acts, for the following reasons:

(1) Both modernists and extremists share a common goal of a theocratic state (although the view of what the form such a state should be may vary between them)
(2) Extremists and modernists are complementary, not adversarial to each other.
(3) Modernists have nothing in common with the targets of the extremists to feel any need to deter the extremists.

That completes my overview and classification of various views. Now how one actually carries on a debate will depend on how each fits himself into this scheme of categorization.