It can be useful for both sides to put aside the big contentious dispute and talk about how well the rest of the theory stands up, even when you grant the cornerstone premise... Don’t forget that atheists and Christians don’t just disagree on which way the evidence points, they disagree on what kind of evidence should be counted... Trying to settle the standard is intensely frustrating and leads to a lot of talking past each other. But if you play the internally consistent game, it’s easier to learn how your opposite number thinks (maybe even well enough to pass an ideological Turing Test). You can see whether, even when spotted the major premise, your opponent’s system makes predictions about the empirical world that are flat out wrong. If there aren’t any obvious misses, is it because your sparring partner has limited the real world implications of his position until they can’t pay rent? How do they respond to that criticism?
In other words, instead of getting hung up on things like epistemological methods, whether free-will or immaterial minds exist, and the like... grant such premises and then see how the belief system turns out with respect to reproducible and predictable experience/evidence.
I was happy to read this, as I think I can honestly say that this has been my primary approach, or at the very least the one I have thought would bear the most fruit. In fact, I more or less hate philosophical debates and arguments over things like this. Such discussions hardly ever go well. Ever since I embarked on my quest, I've gravitated toward lines of argumentation that even have a chance of intersecting the world we actually live in vs. a possible on in our minds or one that can only be experienced after we die.
I hope to flesh out more of these reasons in my series on why I don't currently believe in god, but for now, I'll give some examples of where I personally don't think that religious beliefs pay rent, despite being granted one or more key premises.
This is by far my most fascinating area of pondering when it comes to apologetics. I already wrote a bit about this before, and hope to write more in the future. I'm primarily interested in the Catholic positions, as it's the position I maintained. Most particular about Catholicism in this area is its embrace of evolution while requiring firm adherence to a literal first man and woman, Adam and Eve (see the section, Adam and Eve: Real People). For me, this raises a number of issues. Given that evolution is such a slow process of mutations, it's interesting to posit that:
-- Adam had moral capacities while his father had none
-- Adam possessed the potential for eternal life while his father did not
-- Adam was in communion with God in a special way that his father did not partake in
-- Another human, Eve, arose in a close enough frame of time and space for the two to procreate
Even more basically, the point is that without theology insisting on souls, there would be no reason to posit a "hiccup" in evolution. But since souls exist and man needs to be distinct from the animals in more ways than just increased brain power, apologists are forced to insist that god intervened, just this once, to do something fundamentally radical to a living species.
Even when granting that an omni-max being exists who hears prayers and cares about the pray-ers, we fail to see any discernible pattern in answered prayers. Some may claim there shouldn't be a pattern. I suppose this could be correct -- there could be no way to know why god answers what he does. On the other hand, it's suspicious to me that the prayers that go answered are those that could be chalked up to inexplicable medical resolutions or luck, while the prayers that would be truly radical (manna from heaven for the starving third world countries, re-growing a lost limb, praying in tongues in multiple real languages without prior knowledge, etc.) never occur.
Evangelization, the Bible and Doubt
Now that I've wrestled with this muddy realm for almost two years, something that has grown on me more and more is... just that: the realm of theology and apologetics is so muddy. It's been almost 1400 years since Muhammad and almost 500 since Luther. No religion has established itself the victor. I recall thinking about the great commission (Jesus' command to "Go, and make disciples of all nations") and the great juxtaposition I see between god's chosen evangelization tools of word of mouth/a book and how many are well aware of that book and have heard evangelistic words and gone one with their lives completely unconcerned.
I liken the fact that someone can be instilled with belief in Islam/the Koran and therefore give no thought whatsoever to the possibility that the Bible is true to the idea that because someone read Dan Brown's Da Vinci code prior to being exposed to Christianity and the Bible, he/she will not even be slightly interested in whether or not Christianity is actually true. Because there is only one divinely written book, all the rest were written by "mere" mortals. Thus, it's mortals who have been making the true god's authored book utterly uninteresting for 500 years (well, only 150 if we include Mormonism and 50 with Scientology, but we need to draw the line somewhere).
So, there are three areas where I think that even if one makes some hefty concessions... things still start to break down. Since science would not give us any reasons to suspect a special intervention in speciation when it comes to humans, and because Catholics support science, the fall/souls seems to be an ad hoc supposition. There's no reasons to posit it except that it has to in order to maintain theological consistency; there are souls because Jesus died to save our souls.
If we grant that god sometimes answers prayers, the competing hypothesis between chance and god's intervention seems to favor chance due to the type of prayers answered (and I'll add the location -- it is much more likely that someone in an American hospital being treated for cancer will experience a "miracle" than that a dying child in a 3rd world country will suddenly be fully healed).
Lastly, we have a fairly ineffective tool, the Bible, that god himself authored and is the primary method for the conversion of others. Scriptures, beliefs and apologetics that rival Christianity are not empty enough to make them a laughing stock or sharply drop their number of adherents. Thus, I have to grant that mortals have done a pretty good job in competing with the almighty in terms of persuasiveness, convincing scriptural content, fulfilling belief systems, supportive communities, etc.
In any case, the primary point was to highlight Leah's suggestion. I agree that it's far more fruitful to bypass the technicalities and just ask for some evidence based on granted premises. I personally find these endeavors much more exciting, interesting, and hopeful than the typical interactions about defining "matter," "mind," "cause," and the like.