Why Arguing Matters

Every reasonable person admits that some of their beliefs may be wrong. But no-one knows which they are, for if they did, they would no longer be beliefs. It is only in the robust clash of honest argument, that we see their weaknesses exposed.

I like argument. Constructive argument. I like receiving criticism, though I reserve the right not to accept it. This quote more than any other summarizes why.

I strive to be someone who can reject former beliefs when new arguments refute them. I strive to be someone who seeks out the strongest arguments to face. I don’t always succeed, but that would be my goal.

At various points in my life I’ve wanted to be a believer. Sometimes I have succeeded, at least for a while. But fundamentally my atheism comes down to this: atheism just seems to have the stronger arguments.

The quotation above is somewhat elusive. I thought I remembered it. I may have made it up. If I did remember it, it is likely to be John Stuart Mill (It seems consonant with his views, and is related to the line of argument he uses for free speech in “On Liberty”). But I can’t find it exactly, even searching with various combinations through his writings. And I may be thinking of him simply because I share most of his views, and would want to hang such a cool sentiment on him. If you can tell me where it comes from, please do. Otherwise I’ll claim it as my own!


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4 responses to “Why Arguing Matters

  1. Boz

    I agree fully! I very much want to know if I am wrong.

    A similarly themed quote is:

    “The greatest gift one person can give another is to demonstrate thet they are wrong.”

  2. I hear what you are saying Ian.. from a purely rational perspective atheism sometimes makes sense.. I guess I am just not purely rational.

  3. Ian

    @bob – Yes, I understand that entirely. My wife is similar. For some people it just isn’t about arguments, or ideas, or thinking at all. To use the metaphor of the Phi symbol from my previous post, the question of God isn’t a question about Objective reality, it is about Individual experience, subjective reality. It is personal.

    This is how someone like James McGrath (not at all unique among bible scholars, in my experience) can say that they are a Christian, not because he believes in the traditional Christian dogmas, but because his most profound religious experiences have taken place in a Christian context.

    I respect that, but I recognize I am built differently. I have tried to embrace that way of thinking (after all, my most profound religious experiences have also taken place in a Christian context) but every time rationalism comes back stronger. I can’t suppress it. And I have come to realize that I don’t want to. I’m fundamentally wired to treat the question of God as a naked truth-claim – and I am persuaded that that claim is refutable.

    I respect the rights of folks like you and my wife to be different, however. As long as we respectfully disagree, I think sharing and engaging is incredibly rich and valuable.

  4. Thanks Ian for the response. Most of my “Christian” life I have lived from my head and it honestly led me to a dark and complex place of where my religious rules trumped other parts of my life. I read the bible to understand the truth of it and enjoyed parsing Greek works and trying to understand it at that level.

    Then one day a number of years ago I realized that life is not about the head but about the heart and I began to read the bible to know God rather than to know the bible. It changed everything. Instead of understanding the word grace I began to experience it and became a bit gracious. A journey of my heart ensued and has taken me to places my brain couldn’t go. So I think I get the idea of rationalism but I find it lacking – for me any way.

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