How we argue with people sends signals to those around us. We are socially signalling the kind of person we are, and giving them cues as to whether or not they want to engage with us. This is, I think, an important point in rhetoric and persuasion, and can determine how we approach an argument. We can, of course, choose to remain ignorant of the signals that we send (thus sending the signal that we hold the people around us in contempt), or we can go too far and focus too much on ‘how’ the argument is presented such that the content is diluted to nothing.
An example of the former is a tweet by Secular Outpost (@SecularOutpost):
If an #atheist denies having beliefs, ask them if they believe they have no beliefs.
— Secular Outpost (@SecularOutpost) June 13, 2014
This is, frankly, sending up a flare that displays to all and sundry “I am a giant asshole, and I am not here for constructive conversation, but to have fun at the expense of those around me”. Disagree? Alright, let me walk you through it.
Let’s start with the obvious: if someone that I didn’t know were to walk up to me on the street, and declare (apropos of nothing) that “they had no beliefs”, I’d likely respond in a similar way to Secular Outpost: the context is that there is no prior context for this statement, it can only be taken a its (ridiculous) face-value.
But when and where is ‘an atheist’ likely to 1) self-label as such, and 2) declare that they don’t have any beliefs? In the middle of a conversation about religious beliefs. 1) An atheist, unless entirely lacking in social skills and announcing it in all conversations, is only likely to self-label as such in order to differentiate themselves from the other participants in a conversation. And 2) that conversation almost invariably centres around religious beliefs.
Given that context, ‘belief’ is invariably used as a shorthand for ‘religious beliefs’ (being short-hand for ‘positive belief statements regarding supernatural entities and/or occurrences’), and it’s neither foolish nor ignorant for an atheist to simply say “I do not have any beliefs” in that context.
We can approach this kind of conversation in various ways, but the two main directions are to engage with the statement, or to belittle the speaker. If we are concerned with raising the level of conversation, with making everyone at the conversation feel relatively safe (i.e. they don’t need to start guarding what they say) and to maintain some sort of free-flow of ideas and opinions, then it’s a relatively simple thing to say “hey… you seem to be speaking more broadly than just religious beliefs here: are you sure that you mean to say that you have no beliefs, at all, about anything?” And sure, the atheist in question may have very little knowledge of either psychology or epistemology and may double-down on their statement and then make the foolish (and now clear) claim that they have no beliefs.
The other approach? Leaping on any ambiguous statement and interpreting it against the given context in order to make a person feel belittled and foolish. This neither furthers the conversation, nor does it promote people being honest about what they think and/or believe.
But hey, if you want to wave a giant “I am an asshole and here to make y’all feel like crap” banner, then work away. Signal received.