Ah, snark. It’s such an amazingly effective way to accomplish absolutely nothing in a debate, unless, of course, your goal is to tick off the strong-minded and silence the weak-minded with a Sith Lord mind trick. Don’t be weak-minded. These ARE the droids you’re looking for.
Let’s go through some rules for dealing with the snark. I’ll use this horribly snarky quote from Ricky Gervais as an example.
- Don’t point out the tone. You should recognize the tone yourself, but you need not point it out. It only serves to give the impression that you were offended by it, which paints you as being emotional rather than logical. Atheists especially love to consider themselves objective rationalists, so they will go to town with you if they think you’re being emotional.
- Recognize why the argument uses snark. Often, tone is a substitute for substance. Here, for instance, it is designed to mask illegitimate contempt for monotheism – on the implied grounds that a given monotheistic religion is somehow answerable to the falsehood of other religions – behind general and legitimate contempt for pluralism. Gervais is hoping you’ll overlook this distinction because you’re too busy feeling stupid after being dressed down by his superior wit. (Aside: atheists often have a sense of superior intellect; that is, they think they’re smarter. I once had a student who insisted that he was smarter than I simply because he was an atheist, but it was clear that he couldn’t argue his way out of a paper bag and that his atheism was deeply rooted in fatherly abandonment issues.)
- Restate the argument. Point out that the strongest rewording of Gervais’ argument can be summed up thusly: Given that 3000 different groups all claim to be right about mutually exclusive things, what are the odds that you, being one of them, happen to be right?
- Respond to the argument candidly. “Well, 1 in 3000, of course.” This shows that you can get to the heart of the matter and laugh off the implication. It’s disarming.
- Argue the facts. Of course, your chances of being right aren’t 1 in 3000. Most world religions – which is not to say “most religious people;” here we’re treating all religions with equal weight – are polytheistic, which means they aren’t mutually exclusive. That negates Gervais’ assertion that “the others are silly, made-up nonsense.” Simply put, most world religions don’t think this way about other world religions. (They should, though. Polytheism is a logical impossibility, but that’s for another post.) So:
- Fact #1: Gervais’ figures are drastically inflated. Mutually-exclusive world religions probably rank in the dozens; it’s difficult to gauge. Of them, only 3 are well-known: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
- Fact #2: Worship is primarily an act of the will, and so anyone who intends to worship the “One True God,” must, logically, do exactly that. This is important because although there are three major monotheistic religions, that doesn’t mean there are three different religions that believe each in a different God. We’re mutually exclusive with Judaism, for instance, in regard to many of our doctrines, but not in regard to the object of our worship: we both worship the same God. So Christians don’t say of the other major monotheistic religions, “the others are silly, made-up nonsense,” as Gervais claims. (We don’t even say that about Islam; see CCC 841.)
- For the sake of avoiding syncretism, I should be clear: two people can look at, listen to, and address the same person, yet of those two individuals, one might have perfect sight, hearing, and speech, while the other is blind, deaf, and mute. Intending to worship the One True God – indeed, even actually worshiping Him – does not mean perfect understanding of Him or perfect execution of that intention. Thus it is with a) the Jews, who deny certain revealed truths about God, b) the Muslims, who have a very skewed understanding of God, yet still profess to worship Him, c) the non-Hebrew Old Testament figures who believed in the One True God, e.g., Melchizedek, Jethro, Job, et al., d) the various philosophers and other ancients widely considered “proto-Christian,” such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil (placed in limbo by Dante and nicknamed by his pagan friends “Virgil the Virgin” on account of his virtue). All these have in common that they have skewed understandings of the One True God, and many of those false understandings can bear serious consequences for salvation.
- Turn it around. In Gervais’ phrasing, it sounds both ignorant and arrogant for a theist to claim that everyone else is wrong but himself. On the contrary, we’ve seen that Gervais himself is speaking from conceit and condescension. A bit of clear-headed reason will set this straight.
- Argument #1: “Monotheism’s being correct is not logically contingent on pluralism’s being correct, especially when monotheism is logically opposed to pluralism.” Cut right to the heart of things. What Gervais wrote is illogical. Period.
- Argument #2: “Just because others are wrong doesn’t mean I am. Even if a billion other people are wrong, it doesn’t mean I am.” This is logically true. Gervais’ daunting implication is that so many others are wrong, you must also be. You wants you to feel arrogant for thinking otherwise, as if your opinion or thinking could be more valid than 3000 other lines of thought. Yes, we should have humility in making our claims, but we should also have confidence in what we’re saying. Confidence literally means with faith. If you believe in something, you believe it’s true, and you really aren’t being arrogant in saying so.
- Argument #2: “Isn’t it arrogant to claim that there isn’t a god when there are a multitude of other opinions and lines of thought?” Atheists often try to say they don’t have a religion because that way, they can avoid the implication that they also believe something. I disagree, but that’s another matter. The point is, to be an atheist, to say that “there is no God” is true while all those religious beliefs are false, is just as arrogant as what Gervais accuses believers of.
- Argument #3: “Frankly, atheism is more arrogant.” The vast majority of atheist arguments today come from a form of empiricism; they believe that unless something can be proven, it isn’t true or doesn’t exist. Yes, atheists disbelieve in God because they can’t measure Him. They think so very highly of themselves, of their reasoning, and of their massively superior brains, that nothing can exist without their knowing it, or their being able to know it. Nothing is beyond the grasp of their intellect. Not even God Himself! Nevermind that God, by definition, is pure spirit and therefore cannot be subject to empirical measurement.
You can’t possibly know at this point how the conversation will go, but you’ve addressed the snark and dealt a swift, decisive retort. Pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance and, these walls having been torn down, see if you can’t share your faith a bit.