Specious Atheist Arguments Don’t Mean a Thing

Born Again AtheistElizabeth sent me to this very interesting Luke McKinney article at Cracked, 5 Atheist Arguments Which Aren’t Helping Anyone. It is written by my kind of atheist: one who seems constantly frustrated at the state of atheism today. Back in 1990, I started going to local atheist meetings in Portland. And they were filled with the most extreme group of oddballs you have ever seen. But look at atheism today: it is so much more “normal” and acceptable. So I think people now can be more delusional about it. They think the day when religion is gone is nigh. And they really do sound a lot like missionaries.

In the past, it was enough to know that Christians were silly and to find others who knew that too. But here’s a big thing, most arguments I got into in those days were extremely open-minded on my side. I would have loved for my Christian friends to have been able to convince me. Such cheap salvation! Just believe one silly thing and your life has meaning! Who wouldn’t want that to be true? Of course, on the other side of those arguments were always the most closed-minded of people. There was no way they were ever going to yield a point because they had discovered that One Weird Trick for endless ecstasy.

Atheists have decided that they should have faith in science. And that’s good! Science is about the best thing we have going. But it doesn’t provide us with ultimate truth. There are limits to science.

One of the most annoying things that Christians do is make really lame arguments. How do you know that heaven is real? It says right here in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Oh, that explains everything. So I know that heaven exists because someone who thought heaven existed wrote it down in a book. This is the kind of closed-minded and closed-loop thinking that drives atheists crazy. And with good reason!

Today, there are far too many atheists whose thinking is every bit as closed-minded and closed-loop as the worst Christians. And a lot of atheist arguments are just a bag of tricks that they think just destroy Christianity or whatever other religion you want to talk about. The most annoying of these are the paradox arguments. I wrote about this before, No Contradiction in Genesis Eve Creation. My main point there was that paradoxes are found everywhere — even in deductive systems. And certainly the existence of the universe is a paradox, so why wouldn’t a creation story have paradoxes? (I then go on to show that there isn’t really a paradox to begin with.)

But the biggest problem with these kinds of trivial atheist arguments is that they really only address Biblical literalism: the most primitive kind of belief. And it isn’t just the smug Twitter atheists who do this. I’ve read atheist books by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and many others. And not one of them deals with religion as it is practiced by intelligent, thoughtful people. Now that’s fine! The vast majority of people do practice a kind of brainless fideism. But these same authors seem to think that their atheist arguments have wider currency. And they don’t.

What I hate in all things is hubris. (I hate it in myself most of all.) When Penn Jillette wrote his pathetic book God, No! his main argument is that we just don’t know and that we shouldn’t believe in things that we don’t know about. It’s a nice thought. But of course, Jillette is lying. Atheists are as certain of their worldviews as everyone else. And the vast majority of them have far more faith in science than they should have. They suffer from some a kind of literalist-like error regarding it, “Science says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Well, no. That’s the thing about science: nothing is ever settled.

Atheists have decided that they should have faith in science. And that’s good! Science is about the best thing we have going. But it doesn’t provide us with ultimate truth. There are limits to science. (If there are limits to logic, there are limits to science — see Kurt Gödel.) But with regard to the atheist debates, we are stuck with the fact that most religious people have just as much faith in science. Read Carl Sagan’s interview (pdf) with the Dalai Lama.

I complain so much about atheists because I expect better of them. When a Jehovah’s Witness comes to my door wanting to explain how we know that God loves me because John said so, I don’t much care because they are idiots. What I can’t tolerate is people thinking that just because they believe in science, they can make equally specious but atheist arguments.

7 thoughts on “Specious Atheist Arguments Don’t Mean a Thing

  1. I find it hard to be an evangelical Christian. Mainly because I know too much history about how the Bible came to be but also because I truly believe that each person is always going to have their own relationship with God that satisfies them and who I am I to try to convince them otherwise? Probably is not a surprise that if I was going to go to church regularly, it would be to the Society of Friends.

    One thing I find odd about the current online atheist movement is how angry they are at someone who believes in God. I will mention I am a theist on a board and get attacked for believing in God along with endless demands for “proof” of God’s existence. Trying to point out how “I literally don’t care if you don’t believe in God” does nothing. Mere fact that I, some random stranger on the internet who frequently claims to be Queen Elizabeth II to point out you can be anything online, infuriates them. Probably because it makes them assume I am about to try to make them believe or I am now the stand in for those annoying assholes who do that.

    • There are a number of issues here and I still haven’t given up on writing a book about all my thoughts. One of the most exasperating things about a lot of atheists is how much their idea of God is as primitive as the most brain dead fundamentalists. People like to talk about the straw man fallacy, but the truth is that almost all atheist literature is straw man. I get it: the fundamentalist and literalists are really aggravating. But as atheists, we don’t need to fight them because there are enlightened theists who have done so for a long time. I often pity literalists because they miss out on much of the glory of human knowledge. But I also pity most atheists because they miss out on the glory that religion can be (it isn’t surprising that a lot of hardcore atheists used to be fundamentalists). They are stuck thinking of “man in the cloud with white beard” and they just avoid the question of existence altogether. I have a real hard time with the first part of that. I have no problem with the second part, but they generally won’t admit that they are avoiding the question. They say instead that it is not a real question. Well it is. At the same time, I get pretty tired of atheists telling me that I’m really an agnostic. But there is a difference between theism and religion. I am an atheist and also something of a mystic. Most forms of Buddhism are atheistic. But maybe what they really mean is that I’m not one of them. And they’re right! But my purpose on Earth seems to be to piss off everyone a little.

      • Your book would be a billion times better then Scott Adams’s silly book on the subject. But I will admit to having bias since I like you more even when mildly annoyed at something you have said.

  2. I’ve started thinking of myself as an “agnostic Christian,” meaning that I was raised Christian, it’s an important part of my identity, and I still find it important to attend church and belong to a Christian community, but I have my doubts as to the literal truth of all of it. I certainly hope it’s true, but I can never banish the voice that says “what if it’s all just a story to make you feel better?” Well, contra-Paul, if that’s the case, I don’t think I am to be “pitied.” I feel it’s enriched my life, even if it is the only one I get.

    Your “paradox” arguments infuriate me, too, mainly because people generally present them as though it’s something new. Reddit’s atheist community is terrible about this. “Listen to this totally for real story about how I dominated my theist friends with stone cold logic!” And it’s usually something that theologians have been debating for millennia and are fully capable of dealing with. The worst are when the fundamentalist atheists are inadvertent allies with fundamentalist Christians. Here’s a good one: “If Adam wasn’t a real person, then there was no original sin, and why did Jesus need to die?” This has been used by both “sides” to say that evolution and Christianity are inherently incompatible, and therefore you have to choose one or the other. There have been whole books explaining why that’s a false dichotomy (I recommend Peter Enns’s “The Evolution of Adam”), but what’s weird is that the atheists’ argument alienates the mainline Christians who should be there natural allies. If you support separation of church and state and science education, why not work together against those who oppose both?

    • That makes me think of Graham Greene, who was a Catholic and an atheist. I’ve never seen any real contradiction with that.

      As I noted in response to Elizabeth, a big chunk of the atheist community has basically the same conception of God as the literalists do. As I’ve noted many times, I think my fights with the New Atheists is that they come from a scientific perspective and I come from a mathematical one. There is clearly a larger reality that we simply can’t see because we are a part of it. And this leads to a kind of rational mysticism. The most annoying atheists see reality the way that Ayn Rand did: it just is what we see. Well, that’s clearly — scientifically proven — not the case. (Remember: these are the people who believe only in things they have evidence for!) The point of James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed was that reality is what we tell ourselves it is. Science allows us to get a better and better idea of what that is inside the system itself but it doesn’t tell us anything about what is outside the system. And if people don’t want to think about what is outside the system, that’s fine. But thinking that there is more than the reality that we can access and that there is no evidence that we will ever be able to penetrate into that outer realm, does not mean that we believe in ghosts, goblins, or gods.

      But being a theist or an atheist is a mighty thin basis for hanging an identity on. That’s why I’m a humanist. And there are lots of Christians who are humanists. Much of their thinking is silly to me. But it doesn’t matter to me as long as they are working to make this world better. And the vast majority of people would think I was insane if they knew much about the ontological theories I play around with. But it really has very little to do with whether I’m going to send a check to help out the people of Haiti.

      • That’s the problem — hanging an identity on it, particularly a morally superior identity. I became good friends in college with a devout Christian because we had terrific, enjoyable debates. And while each of us considered ours the superior worldview, neither thought holding that worldview made one a superior person in any way. We both admitted that some people on our sides were annoying, even downright harmful.

        These days the atheist community Elizabeth, Jurgan and yourself describe (thankfully, I have little contact with it) seems LESS likely to admit being annoying or harmful than liberal Christians.

        • In general, I’d rather talk to an earnest, intelligent person who I disagree with than one I agree with. I don’t have religious discussions with fundamentalists. It’s a waste of my time. Most atheists seem to only have conversations with such people. And you can see the problem. Most atheist debates are really about science, “Do you accept science?” Well, that’s really not a theological debate. Over the last 200 years, American Christians have done a great deal to dumb down religion. And now the New Atheists are helping them in that regard by pretending (usually quite earnestly) that religion is this kind of nonsense that Thomas Aquinas would have scoffed at in the 13th century.

          And speaking of earnestness: I would never have wanted to have a conversation with Christopher Hitchens because he was smart, but not earnest. He was the intellectual Donald Trump. He was a big part of poisoning New Atheism.

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