Resisting Proselyte Rape: The Unicorn Proposal

The Evangelist wags her finger at me - Bad Sabio!

Last week, a fiery Evangelical 40-something, career-changing seminary student started our very first coffee-shop conversation by firing the classic Theist pointed-question at me, “So, are you an Agnostic or an Atheist?”    I replied by saying, “First, let me ask you a question.”   But before I could, she (yes a female Episcopal seminary student), replied, “No, I asked the question! Don’t answer the question with a question.” Which struck me as rather ironic considering that in her holy texts (Mark 11:29) we are told that her very own Jesus replied to a pointed question from the Jewish Chief Priests with a question and stated, “I will ask you one question, and you answer Me and then I will tell you …” (NASB)

I told her that she started with the demands, so I have the right to put conditions on the conversation if she wanted to continued. She was indignant and said, “But I asked first”.  To which I replied, “Yes, and since you started by demanding something of me, I will draw the conditions.”  But she still looked puzzled, so I went on further, “Let me illustrate the principle: When a man asks a woman for sex, the woman has the right to set the conditions, no? Otherwise, if the man proceeds with intercourse, ignoring the woman’s conditions, his act becomes rape!” She, of course, was bit surprised by this, allowing me enough time to counter with the “Unicorn Proposal”.

The classic reply to this Theist question is to expose the hidden assumption in the question itself.   One way to do this is to ask the Theist if they are “An-invisible-pink-unicornist” or “A-flying-spaghetti-monsterist”.   Such questions will allow the Theist to see how odd it is to define themselves in terms of something they think is bizarre and of course don’t believe in.   The unicorn reply helps illustrate the loaded nature of the generic Agnostic-vs-Atheist question. Instead of taking the Theist’s lead and jumping into their trite weak argument which says “See, you can’t prove there is no God, so you must admit you are an Agnostic and not an Atheist.  And since you now admit you are an Agnostic, you must admit that there may indeed be a God. And thus the burden of the proof is on you to prove that there is no God.” Their question is simply trying to prime this locomotive of poor reasoning to start rolling. But by making the unicorn proposal, you can deflect the locomotive and get the Theist to see that if they said, “Gee, I have to admit, there may be such a thing as an invisible pink unicorn“,  that they too would not want to spend the next hour trying to “prove” that invisible pink unicorns don’t exist.

So don’t let the proselyte sneak in assumptions and demand you have the kind of conversation they want. Resist rape and try to reveal principles of reasoning. You probably won’t change the Theist, but at least you won’t feel like taking a shower after the conversation. 🙂
Related Posts:
Enchanted Naturalist: I address how to avoid negative labels.
Biblical vs. Pink Unicorns: I encourage not taking cheap shots at the Bible


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

25 responses to “Resisting Proselyte Rape: The Unicorn Proposal

  1. Ian

    My response to the “you’re really an agnostic” is to point out that even St Paul claims to have doubts, and if not being 100% sure is the benchmark, then clearly St Paul was an agnostic too.

  2. @ Ian
    She would love me to have doubt like St. Paul. She sees “Atheist” as the belief that “I am 100% certain there is not god”. So she wants you to be an agnostic instead of an atheist in order to get rid of the 100%. THEN she can say, “See, you doubt just like St. Paul. Maybe you doubt much more, but that is because you can’t prove there is not god. See, there is the possibility of a god. Prove there isn’t !” It is the final sentence she is after.

    But by getting her uncomfortable with the bizaare claim that she is an “a-unicornist” helps her see that the burden of proof for believing in something is on the believer, not on the unbeliever.

    Does that make sense.

  3. Pretty smooth, you did that without practicing first? :^)

    And a good illustration of logic too.

  4. @attr: Practice? I have been accosted by evangelicals for decades, you kiddin’ ? Besides, as an ex-evangelical it is easy to imagine where we are going. Have you any stories yet?

  5. What dictionary defines an atheist as “one who can prove God does not exist” or an agnostic as “one who can’t prove God does not exist? I’ve always thought an atheist was one who believed God did not exist and an agnostic was one who believed God’s existence was unknowable.

    I am an a-pink unicornist and an a-flying spaghetti monsterist.

    Hopefully this seminary student was in her first year, or else Episcopalian seminaries seriously undervalue their apologetics courses. Wait. A fiery, evangelical Episcopalian? You’re making this up, aren’t you?

  6. Boz

    “I am an a-pink unicornist and an a-flying spaghetti monsterist”

    You are a heathen and an apostate, Laughing Boy. I pity you.


  7. @ Laughing Boy
    Actually, the story is very real. And our local Episcopal Seminary is very evangelical — you are right, it is a bit of an anomaly !

    You’re are also right about the leap in logic. But to her, and most theists, she is much more pleased to when a person is an agnostic instead of being an atheist. For if an agnostic has doubt then ….

  8. yet another example of how you out-Christian some of my more conservative brethren. that’s an awesome story and it really shows your stance quite well.

    as for atheists or agnostics, i like both! i get more frustrated with the extremes though.. agnostics who can’t ever prove anything or atheists who constantly act like they are completely rational and objective. i also get frustrated with the extreme “God-boxers” which Sabio encountered here. good stuff dawg.

  9. Did you just call me a “dog”? Thanx!
    Yeah, you get it ! Now, if I can only learn to dialogue properly with you liberal universalist “Christians”. 😉

  10. No I don’t have any stories yet, having evangelical experience i also am skilled at avoiding proselytizers I think. Well one story with a Jehovah’s Witness, he was pretty happy I was ex-evangelical and very happy I considered him a Christian. It was quite a cordial conversation, I was happy to send him off with rejected apologetics but acceptance as a person, something harder, no impossible, to do when you consider them part of an evil cult.

  11. Ian


    perfect sense. I must say I’m pretty unskilled at talking to the proselytizing evangelical. Because they are a pretty scant bunch over here.

  12. Yes, it is funny how sects of Christianity considered cults love it when non-Christians call them Christian. I call Mormons Christian and they love it.

  13. One of my pet peeves is people calling themselves atheists while describing their beliefs as agnostic despite truly being atheists who are afraid to define their beliefs as such because they are hung up either over proof and certainty or over having to defend their beliefs which they refuse to acknowledge as belief but rather a lack of belief.

    Another is commas.

  14. @ Laughing boy:

    That was one hell of a knotted sentence.

    I’ve read time and again arguments for calling oneself an atheist or an agnostic. And I forget the pros and cons, for in many ways it matters not to me because the terms are determined by the myth makers and they tell nothing of what I do hold.

    See my post here is you have a moment.

    In ways, I think of it in this way: I am atheist in my choice of action and agnostic toward what we call “self”. Their can be no deeper agnosticism than that.

    And I do think you should be more merciful toward commas, for even they deserve the right to exist.

  15. From the POV of being labeled atheist or agnostic by theists, I can understand the resistance. But in blogland, people, especially atheists IMHO, make a large deal about labeling themselves as atheists (with the red “A”, etc.), yet when they are asked to explain what they mean by the banner under which they proudly march, they get all muddled. The terms atheist and agnostic do have definite and distinct meanings. When those meanings are the point of, or are central to, the discussion, they should understand the difference and use the terms correctly.

    Commas aplenty!

  16. Ian

    “The terms atheist and agnostic do have definite and distinct meanings.”

    Really? Distinct as in, they have non-overlapping sets of referents?

    That’s going to be an impressive definition…

  17. Ian:

    Atheism is a lack of belief while agnosticism is a lack of knowledge. The two terms are simply ways to define each end of the coin.

    On the one side, you do have the gnostic atheists who say that no, there is no god of any kind.

    The agnostic atheists would say that they don’t believe in a god, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be something out there that someone could consider to be a god. However, seeing as how nobody knows what it is and how it hasn’t seemed to care what’s going on over here on earth, it’s useless to live your life based on what you think it or they would want.

    Agnostic theists aren’t sure if their particular god exists or not, but they believe all the same. An example is a “Pascal’s wager” theist who believes because they’re taking a gamble that they’re right.

    Finally, the gnostic theist is someone who is sure that their god exists.

    Obviously, it’s a sliding scale. There’s a whole spectrum in between these points, but they’re pretty good mile markers.

    There’s a caveat to this, however. Most Christians who attempt to argue from the position of “you don’t know if there’s a god or not” aren’t on as firm footing as they think. I may not know if there’s a god in the Deist sense, but the God that they want me to acknowledge has some attributes clearly defined in the Bible.

    To tell them that I don’t believe their God exists is easy. I don’t believe Jesus actually lived since there are no corroborating historical accounts. Even though it says that tens thousands had seen his works, nobody seemed to bother writing it down. This is odd in an age where historical record keeping was a very serious and widespread profession. You think someone, anyone at all, would have noticed the dead rising from their graves when Jesus was crucified, yet the only historical documents that Christians have pointed me to merely talk about a darkness during the day. It seems to me that if someone was going to write about strange phenomena occurring during the crucifixion of Jesus, they’d write about the stuff that didn’t actually have a naturalistic explanation (like an eclipse or an ash cloud from a volcano, both of which blot out the sky for a time).

    Basically, all I’m saying is that any Christian who points out that I don’t really know if a god, in general, exists doesn’t care whether or not I’m a Deist. They’re trying to have me say that I don’t know whether or not their particular God does. Cutting to the chase and simply telling them that my not knowing if there’s some supernatural force out there doesn’t mean that you’re any more right than the Muslims, Hindus, or any other religion out there.

  18. Ian

    ‘Obviously, it’s a sliding scale. There’s a whole spectrum in between these points, but they’re pretty good mile markers.”

    My point (which I think you missed) entirely.

    “I don’t believe Jesus actually lived since there are no corroborating historical accounts.”

    Oh dear. There’s no scholarly debate over whether Jesus existed or not. The only place you hear that kind of argument is in the more rabid ends of atheistic pomo, anti-theistic polemic or the self-proclaimed experts of the internet.

    You have to really work hard to put forward a historical-critical argument that accounts for the wide and early Jesus literature if he didn’t exist. And there are no significant biblical, second temple, or church history scholars who do so. In short, he’s very well attested for a figure of the time.

    Of course, the Jesus portrayed by evangelical Christianity is definitely a recent invention; but there is just no non-ideological reason to doubt that there was a historical Jesus that was the seed around which the 1st century Jesus cult coalesced.

    Your statement above is roughly equivalent to “there are no transitional fossils”.

  19. Ian: Distinct as in distinct, which, in popular usage means: distinguished as not being the same; not identical; separate. Someone who is an atheist does not have the identical ideas about God’s existence as does the agnostic. Although people can vacillate between the two positions, they can’t say they are both simultaneously, at least not without upsetting my apple cart.

    With that I have gone as far down this rabbit hole as I’m going.

  20. Steve Wiggins

    Evangelical Episcopalians are on the increase, I’m afraid. I taught at an “Anglo-Catholic” Episcopal seminary for over 12 years, but it was taken over by an evangelical administration that cost me my career. Ever-loving, those evangelicals! I take it you must be near Ambridge, if your reference to Evangelical Episcopalian is Trinity. My condolences!

  21. Ian

    Laughing Boy – Well the point I’m trying to make is that there is no distinct definition of the two. Janus just gave a definition and explicitly showed how, under his definition, you could be both at once.

    Your definition might enforce that mutual exclusion, but if it does I suspect it won’t cover the vast majority of people who would otherwise fit into those categories.

    The definitions are inherently vague (as are most definitions) and they are defined primarily by the use that one puts them to. So to call out Atheists who like “to march under that banner” but are really confused about what they are is rather condescending unless you can actually show why they might be confused or why the two things are mutually exclusive.

  22. Wikipedia has a great article on the various definition of Atheism.

    Ian is right — Words are defined by use.
    So, instead of being the dictator of HOW words SHOULD be used. Two speakers need to agree on uses. Words are most useful in worlds of shared values and expectations. Where these are lacking, working out a shared vocabulary is often necessary.

    Janus — I agree that agnostic is used sometimes the way you state also — to describe the degree of certainty one has about what one has decided to believe.

    Point: Lots of way to use words. The evangelist in my story was just trying to manipulate with words and not gain understanding.

  23. I think Janus’s siding scale is workable enough, with belief and knowledge being two sides of a coin (coins don’t have “ends”). Belief would be binary and knowledge would be in varying degrees, I suppose.

    However, I still have a problem: can a person “have” a lack of belief? Is there any difference between saying, “I don’t believe in God” and “I believe there is no God?” In other words, can atheism be called a belief? Many atheists bristle at that idea. Why is that?

  24. Ian

    LB: “Is there any difference between saying, “I don’t believe in God” and “I believe there is no God?”

    I don’t think that atheism (or theism) is *one* atomic belief. I think atheism is a mix of both positive beliefs and absence of beliefs.

    I, for example, have pretty specific positive beliefs about Yahweh, his character and history and cultural context. Its not that I just lack belief in Yahweh, I actively believe he is a cultural and historical construct. I have a *very* different pattern of beliefs about Yahweh than about the god Vlurghugh. Up until this instant when I invented him, it was 100% lack of belief there.

    My constellation of beliefs about Yahweh constitute my atheism about him. But its quite a complex ecosystem, with inconsistencies and differences in importance. It isn’t just one thing.

    My atheism with regard to the Ancient Egyptian god Hep is a lot simpler than Yahweh, but still not as simple as Vlurghugh.

    Ultimately categories such as atheist, non-theist, humanist, agnostic, ‘spiritual but not religious’, heretic, and so on, are cultural terms that denote where someone is comfortable seeing themselves in relation to others. Which banner they want to march under, as you put it.

    Dictionary definitions, as always, try to track a core of these popular uses. They don’t proscribe them. Etymological definitions are even more dubious.

  25. I agree, Ian.
    I was so inspired by everyone’s thoughts, I decided to post something on them. See the next post.

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