Debating Theists: “I Don’t Know” Is an Acceptable Answer

Alternative Answers Are Not Necessary to Reject Theism

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When debating theists I have found that it is a common tactic for many of them to attempt to “turn the tables” on the atheist when their own arguments are failing, have failed, or even from the start.  To make things clear let me provide you with an (oversimplified) example:

Atheist: There is no evidence that your god exists.

Theist: Well if there is no god, then how do YOU think that the universe was created?

This approach from the theist is a classic example of the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy”.  There are more than two possible options to the question.  The choices are not simply a) god did it or b) you need to have a better answer.  The answer, “I/we don’t know” is not only an acceptable answer; it is often the only honest and truthful answer.

This approach is a common tactic deployed by theists of all stripes.  I have seen people well versed in apologetics use it and I have seen personal (theist) friends who have absolutely zero knowledge of theology, philosophy, science, or any other typically relevant field use it.  A problem that I see quite often is that people new to atheism often do not know how to handle this encounter. I know that I struggled with this at first as well.

Here is where I think atheists often go wrong.  They engage the theist on those terms and wind up trying to prove something that is not provable.  They end up trying to prove a godless cosmic creation—sure there are theories, but nothing is definitive yet.  They end up trying to prove a source for morality—again, there are theories, but nothing is definitive yet.  Etc.  This is not necessary.  In fact, what have here are really two separate conversations that have merged into one.  This is clouding the issue at hand.

Conversation 1: The existence of god and the theist’s reasons for believing in their deity of choice.

If a person is positing that a supernatural being exists, it is their burden to provide evidence for that being.  I personally view it as my burden to listen to that evidence and either accept it or point out why it is flawed.

The important thing to note here is that what I (the atheist) believe to be the truth of the matter is completely irrelevant to the theists claims.  This conversation is NOT about me or what I believe, it is about their belief in god(s).  To make my point, we need look no further than the answer “I don’t know”.

I am quite happy about the fact that I am fortunate enough to be reasonably well educated and can converse relatively well on a variety of the relevant subject matter debated between theists and atheists.  However, often the only truthful answer is “We (as a species) do not yet know the definitive answer to that question”.  My (or humanity’s) lack of knowledge does not make the “god-concept” correct.

However, pretend that I had absolutely zero knowledge of theology, philosophy, cosmology/theoretical physics, biology, etc.  Suppose that I cannot offer even one possible answer to life’s larger questions.  This is would be completely irrelevant to “Conversation 1”.  I do not need to posit an alternative answer in order to point out weaknesses in someone’s (the theist’s) argument(s).

An example:  I know almost nothing about cars.  Let’s say that my car is making a funny clunking noise when I drive down the highway.  I take my car in to be looked at by a mechanic.  After his inspection and testing he informs that my car is in fact in tip top shape, that nothing is wrong with it at all.  I already told you that I know almost nothing about cars.  There is zero chance that I can offer him any explanation for why my car is making this awful noise.  Must I accept his conclusion that my car is operating perfectly?  I would never do such a thing.  I can easily point out that my car is clearly not operating correctly, though I have no idea why or what is causing this problem.  I do not have to offer my own diagnosis in order to know that there is a problem with this mechanic’s “theory”.  My answer to the question is “I don’t know” what is causing this problem.  My ignorance does not mean that he is correct.  (You can also be sure that I will be visiting another mechanic).

Back to our theist…  Many theists do not accept the above scenario when it comes to discussing god.  They refuse to accept the fact that often an atheist may not have a definitive alternative answer to “god did it”.  The fact of the matter is that they do not have to like it.  It is completely irrelevant to whether or not their argument is correct.

In summary, the atheist does not need to posit an alternative answer to show why an argument for god fails.

Conversation 2:  What the atheist believes.

This is a completely separate conversation from what the theist believes.  I find, as I alluded to above, that many theists try to merge the two.  It is incorrect to do so.  What I believe may very well be worth talking about.  I may be correct.  I may in fact be completely wrong.  The point to note is this, that whether or not my belief(s) are correct or not has no bearing on whether or not the theist’s belief in god is correct.

I can point out flaws in the theist’s argument all day long and illustrate why god belief is irrational and unjustified.  However, suppose I believe that the universe was created by a giant stork that laid a “universe egg” which hatched and lo and behold, here we are!  This is not a supernatural stork mind you, nor is it a deity.  The absurdity of my belief is not at all relevant to the theist’s premise.  In this scenario it just so happens that we would both be wrong.

These are two very distinct conversations.  I fully admit that I have a burden of proof for my beliefs.  I believe that evolution is true.  As a result of that belief, I am prepared to defend it.  However, I need not do so, nor must I be able to do so, to disprove Young Earth Creationism.  This is a huge point that must be recognized.

Many theists that I debate chafe at this distinction.  They point out that I must disprove their god, because as an atheist, I do not believe in god.  This is not correct.  This theist is assuming that I am a gnostic atheist (who does have a burden of proof).  I do not believe in the existence of god(s) because I see no compelling evidence/reason to do so.  Could some type of god exist?  I suppose so, but I have no reason to assume that one does.  In fact, I have many reasons to assume that one does not.  The probability of a god existing is quite low.  Therefore, I lack a belief in gods.  My only role (or burden) in this conversation is to either accept the theist’s argument or show where it fails.  (There is a great deal more to be said on this topic and I have done so elsewhere.  If you want to read more on that you can click on my Atheist v Theist, Agnostic v Gnostic and The Burden of Proof posts, as well as a few others on my Atheism 101 page).

In closing, what the theist believes is often irrelevant to what the atheist believes and vice versa.  They are two separate conversations.  I would caution those of you who are new to debating theists to be cognitive of this.  Do not let yourself be drawn into a mess of conversation where you are trying to attack the theist’s position and trying to defend yours at the same time, all the while, the theist is doing the same thing.  This will get you nowhere.  It is far better to slow things down and separate the two conversations.  It leads to far less confusion and, it keeps the conversation honest.

It is the theist’s burden to prove his/her deity.  If you have engaged in that conversation, it is your burden to accept or reject his/her “evidence”.  It is also completely acceptable for you (the atheist) not to have an alternative answer to “god did it”.  Any alternative answer—either true or false, is irrelevant as to whether the theist’s claim is true.  Further, “I/we don’t yet know” is an acceptable and often, honest answer.  The “god-concept” does not win by default.  It must be vetted and proven like all other ideas.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.


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13 thoughts on “Debating Theists: “I Don’t Know” Is an Acceptable Answer

  1. hausdorff from Oak Park, MI, United States

    I like the way you break up the 2 conversations. For me, the difficulty is I want to have conversation 2, I have thought a lot about it and enjoy breaking those ideas out. And while I think it is worth going down that road, as you point out, you don't want to have both conversations simultaneously. It is a good idea to focus on either what you believe and why, or what the theist believes and why. If the conversation is jumping back and forth chaotically it's a good idea to try to focus it one way or the other. As you said, one tactic would be to simply point out that both ideas could potentially be wrong, so disproving my idea does nothing to validate yours.

    My recent post What Does the New Testament Say About the Afterlife and Free Will?

  2. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

    That's really the reason a lot of people are theists, because they are psychologically uncomfortable to admitting that they don't know the answer to a question, therefore they just make something emotionally comforting up to fill the gap. Then, once they've made up an answer, they are attached to the answer and getting them to admit they made a mistake is virtually impossible.

    Welcome to the primary cause of religion in mankind.
    My recent post Pope’s Departure Not Such a Surprise

  3. Blueblood from Annandale, New South Wales, Australia

    More gratitude than comment. Thank you very much for this, I have forwarded it to my 12 year old son, whose father is about to marry a Seventh Day Adventist. He is a smart lad, but adults can be devious and nasty when a child does not agree with them. As my mum would say, "forewarned is forearmed" and arming him with knowledge is the best I can do. Thanks for the help.

  4. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer … to which, under certain circumstances and in certain argumentative company, I would add: "And YOU DON'T EITHER!"

    'Nuff said.

      1. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

        I wish that some of these theists could learn the attitude which Richard Feynman had regarding not knowing. He seemed positively thrilled with the idea that there was something out there that he didn't currently have a grasp on. Of course, what would probably happen AFTER that was that he would GO AFTER THAT, study, learn, experiment, discuss with others, in an effort to LEARN WHAT HE DID NOT KNOW.

        When you boil it down, claiming to know something you don't amounts among other things to intellectual laziness, to an unwillingness to put the work in, and in the theists' case, a fear of having your precious beliefs dismantled by facts which care nothing for those beliefs.


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