How can I effectively communicate with a Believer? 1

So the Opening Post within a Facebook group starts out with this

Now, if you happen to be familiar with islamic Apologetics, then you should instantly recognise this, because it is a rather old argument. In fact there is a very old story concerning Imam Abu Hanifah having a debate with an atheist. He turns up late and as an excuse tells a story about a boat popping into existence out of nothing. It ends like this …

At this moment, the athiest brust out laughing and remarked, ‘Oh Abu Hanifah, I heard that you were the best debator from amongst the Muslims, I heard that you were the wisest, the most knowledgable from amongst your people. From seeing you today, I can say that you show none of these qualities. You speak of a boat appearing from nowhere, without someone having built it. Nails positioning themselves without someone having banged them, sealant being poured without someone having poured it, and the boat taking you to your destination without a navigator against the tide, your taking childish, your talking rediculous, I swear I do not belive a word of it!’

Abu Hanifah Rahimullah turned to the athiest and replied, ‘You don’t believe a word of it? You dont believe that nails can appear by themselves? You dont believe sealant can be poured by itself? You dont believe that a boat can move without a navigator, hence you don’t believe that a boat can appear without a boat maker?’

The athiest remarked defiantly, ‘Yes I dont believe a word of it!’

Abu Hanifah Rahimullah replied, ‘If you cannot believe that a boat came into being without a boat maker, than this is only a boat, how can you believe that the whole world, the universe, the stars, the oceans, and the planets came into being without a creator?

It is of course the exact same argument as was being presented in the Facebook posting today. To distill it down to the complete basics it is essentially saying …

Everything has a cause, therefore the specific god I just happen to believe in did it all by magic

The rather fatal flaw here is of course rather obvious, if we assume “everything has a cause”, and there are no exceptions, then what exactly caused Allah? The standard reply to this made-up answer is to make up even more with the assertion, “Allah always was, he was never created” or something similar. Oh and so we suddenly discover that the “no exceptions” clause used to justify the existence of Allah suddenly has an exception after all.

So how do they know any of this? Now this is a rather key question.

This is a rather popular argument and so it gets repeated many times over even after being debunked – why am I repeating it here?

Well, because there are a couple of additional observations I wanted to draw out from it.

First Point: This is no real interest in the right answer at all. If you start down the track of explaining what we actually know, for example …

… but such answers are rather pointless, because the moment you start down this track you soon discover that there is no real interest in any of this, eyes simply glaze over, and in an appropriate pause some other completely un-related argument soon pops up as the apologist abandons this initial approach and tries another, and then another, and then another … rapidly working through a collection until they either get a hit and gain some traction, or run dry and simply fall back upon some religious text, “Satan has blinded the eyes of … “, I sure you know the drill.

Second Point: We have always been here.

Belief will wander up to the knowledge boundary, proceed to point out beyond into the unknown, declare –

<insert deity of choice here> is the true answer to this“.

No matter where that boundary has been, this pattern persists as is indeed a very old pattern. Once upon a time, our distant ancestors looked out at the world and observed mysterious things such as lightening, and weather, then with no real understanding of these deeply mysterious things, attributed them to be manifestations of supernatural beings. We might think ourselves beyond all this in our modern world, but no, this is exactly what belief still does … “Here is something we have no clue about and can’t explain … therefore Allah“.

So yes, we have always been here, and when we find answers to the origin of life, and have a better deeper understanding of the universe, or should I perhaps speculate and say multi-verse, then I suggest that we will in all probability still have religious people wandering up to the knowledge boundary to point out beyond into what is then the unknown and still claim “god”.

So what is the best way to tackle questions like this?

The key thing to realise is that the issue here is not what is claimed to be known, but rather how believers know what they claim to know, and so I would recommend a more friendly less confrontational Socratic approach that involves asking questions. For example

In what way could your belief be wrong?


How would you differentiate your belief from a delusion?

… and by doing so, potentially open up a friendly less confrontational dialog regarding how we know what we know to be true.

If people who are entrenched by such thinking can start to ponder over questions, then they can potentially think themselves out of the trap.

In other words, cut to the heart of what is really going on, and step around the apparent question that is being asked. The surface question is not simply an embrace of some information that is wrong, and so it will not be fixed by applying additional facts, the problem is deeper and relates to how we know what we know, and so that is the real issue that needs to be tackled. The only hope is to nurture people into thinking their own way out with some gentle friendly encouragement.

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One thought on “How can I effectively communicate with a Believer?

  • Anwar Bilal (CaptainDisguise)

    As far as logical validity is concerned, argument from design is easily dismissed. No amount of comparisons to man-made artifacts will entail that the universe or nature too needs a maker.

    I personally think there are some people who are simply unable to questions these primitive intuitions about agency. This is not stated as a negative remark but I am wondering whether this has any biological basis. Because it seems for many theists, no matter how much it is explained that there is a monumental gap in the argument from design, they seem unable to conceive of the universe without a creator.

    On the other hand, atheists are comfortable with the idea of a universe existing with no creator and often this is because they are able to be skeptical of their intuitions regarding agency. So perhaps there is something in the very brain chemistry that leads one to think one way or the other.

    That certainly explains why people like OP simply cannot grasp the atheist viewpoint and think it is like a car appearing out of thin air.