That’s just your opinion!

It’s something atheist commentators hear a lot when attempting to debunk mythology: “that’s just your opinion!” It’s a conversation-stopper meant to illustrate that something being a personal opinion in and of itself has no value.

Well, ok then, that’s true and, well, not true. Opinions can indeed be valid; the validity of an opinion is entirely dependant on what evidence, expertise, facts or logic (or combination thereof) the opinion is based on. I’ve seen many religious arguments cover the age of the Earth, evolution, the veracity of the Exodus account, Noah’s flood and the Gospel accounts. When presented with contradictory evidence or inference, all too often the response received is along the lines of “that’s just your opinion!” It seems that because someone’s opinion is that countless lines of scientific enquiry converge on evolution being a fact, history contradicting or not supporting Exodus, the Gospels & the Earth being both global flood-free and billions of years old, that opinion is worthless. Well, as not many people have the time or inclination to dedicate to actually inventing a time machine or gaining expertise in all of those different lines of inquiry, a considered, reasoned opinion based on available evidence is all most people have to go on in most arguments. The fact of the matter is that, a lot of the time, we must defer to people who understand these lines of inquiry & the evidence they reveal and who are able to disseminate this information effectively.

However, when you’re an atheist/agnostic/humanist, the very basis of your opinions (science, logic, history) may be precisely what your religious opponent objects to (or flatly deny) from the outset. After all, we’ve all heard that science and religion are really just “two ways of knowing” or “deal with different questions” or that science simply isn’t equipped to answer questions relating to the supernatural (that last one is in fact the case, but probably not for the same reasons an apologist would think).

Also – and this is no small part of the problems involved in entering into these debates – a lot of religious apologists seem to think that all opinions are equal regardless of their basis (a lot of modern mainstream mass media also thinks this, which is why there is usually, for example, a spokespriest giving a soundbite whenever a question of morality or ethics or related legislation enters the public sphere). In other words, it doesn’t matter that your opinion is based on verifiable fact/supported evidence/sound logic; it’s still just your opinion.

But if that’s the case – if indeed all of these arguments simply come down to a mere difference of opinion, like some beer-fuelled discussion of the best [insert sport] player of all time & if all opinions are equal – why even bother? Isn’t religion itself simply an opinion passed down through the ages, disseminated & propagated and into which children are inculcated & indoctrinated? I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of religious people (a) conform to the faith of their parents and (b) do so not out of any commitment to evaluating whether it’s a reasonable proposition, but precisely because of (a). I would hazard a further guess that most people who claim to have evaluated the claims of their faith and made a rational decision to adhere to it have mixed up their terminology and are instead experts at rationalising. But of course, that’s just my opinion and, however reasonable and regardless of what it’s based on, it can only ever be equal to, for example, the opinion that “Science” is a monolithic global cabal of atheist eggheads out to discover “everything”, define God out of existence and ruin “mystery” and “wonder” for everyone (sidebar: obviously if God does get defined out of existence, that’s his fault for either (a) not existing or (b) existing and choosing not to provide evidence that he does).

So, I ask again: why even bother? If all opinions – from “the Earth is 6000 years old” to “Genesis is long, wrong and dull” are supposedly equally valid, why do religious apologists feel compelled to argue their case at all? If these atheist/religionist debates are really just like smashing two identical bricks together, I struggle to think why apologists don’t just say “Oh well, you don’t agree with my opinion, so let us leave it at that,” and go off to privately practise their faith. Surely if my non-religious position is “just an opinion” it can’t be trumped by another mere opinion, regardless of how many people have held that opinion through the ages. Surely there’s no point arguing with an atheist over whose opinion is “most correct” if all the thoughts someone has on any subject are purely subjective and not to be trusted because, logically, that has to include the opinions of the religious person.
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Naturally, I think (I opine!) that there’s another answer. The opinion of the religionist in question is of course the absolute Truth and the revealed wisdom of the one true God and any contradictions, regardless of basis, are absolutely false. But this, of course, opens up another can of theological worms: which particular God are you talking about anyway? Which scripture, which religion, which sect & which Truth? Further, how is that specific one different (and, more importantly, more believable) than the others you don’t hold to? Until terms are properly defined & agreed upon before the argument even begins, smashing our opinions together like a Mythbusters experiment is just pointless (and not nearly as entertaining as when the MB’s do it). There’s no point starting a game where each side has different rules – for example, you don’t get to start arguing about a vacuous deist god when we’ve been talking about the one with definite characteristics who intervenes all the time and literally existed as Jesus. But that’s sort of another post. So here’s one I prepared earlier which partially addresses that (and here’s one I was linked to on the subject of subjectivity in the comments – it’s from the Atheist Climber. Go check him out).

So in the end, you’re just left with my considered & hopefully rational opinion that peoples’ opinions are not inherently equal. Furthermore, if you’re going to attempt to destroy or shut down an opposing argument by dismissing it as your opponent’s mere opinion and not address it honestly & reasonably, my opinion is you’ve already conceded the argument.

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