Relax, I still think that Jesus is nothing but a dressed-up Santa for adults. What I realized after debating with Christians during the last few days however, is that presenting yourself as an “atheist” or making atheism the focus in a debate is not a good idea. The obvious reason is that I am not primarily an advocate of atheism, but of reason and individual rights. However, this fact alone does not explain how one should present these issues to theists, who happen to be the great majority of the students at my school. As I found out, there are three good reasons to avoid making God the focus or even a starting point of your arguments.
First, by necessity, “God” is a floating concept for theists. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to tie down one’s theology to reality. While this may seem helpful in disproving theism from a rational perspective, it allows a much greater degree of evasion in the form of a large base of floating abstractions that the theist uses to “deflect” the atheists arguments. A well-learned Christian has stock replies to all the usual arguments against theism and can continue arguing them in intricate loops that are completely detached from reality or any real-life parallels you might try to provide. For example, when picking a group to try my arguments on, I first decided to approach the “active” Christians because they seemed to already have a philosophical base to work with. But as I learned, that base was just one huge floating abstraction — they knew it solely in relation to their religion, and were helpless in applying it to reality. I found that I had to resort to simple non-philosophical examples (an invisible pink elephant, the oncoming semi) just to get them to relate to reality.
A more important reason to avoid focusing on theism is that the primary difference between theists and Objectivists is their epistemology, not a belief in God per se. This is not immediately evident because many atheists adopt or retain the same intrinsic/subjective epistemology as their theist counterparts. To invalidate all mysticism – both the secular and religious kind, one first has to convince the theist to use the same epistemological standards for what constitutes true knowledge. In other words, the theist must reject faith and adopt reason as his means of knowledge. But once this happens, the argument is essentially won, because no conception of God can stand up to the scrutiny of reason for very long.
Finally, since the issue of faith vs. reason is not nearly as loaded with religious dogma, emotional attachments, and peer pressure as the existence of God, it can be much easier to break through to an honest person. Of course, it goes without saying that rational arguments only work on someone who is essentially honest, and no proof will ever convince someone who chooses to actively evade reality.