Silly and Stupid Atheist Challenge

PZ Myers - Atheist ChallengeChristopher Hitchens offered up an atheist challenge to religious believers: name one moral act that is excluded from the atheist population. Well, that’s a silly challenge. Even brain damaged Biblical literalists understand that atheists can be good people. What is the purpose of this challenge but to get into the gutter with the most vile of apologetics of the cultural Christians? Nothing obviously. And this is a big part of my problem with the modern atheist community. Are we really going to be just like them? Are we really going to show that our understanding of their culture is as vapid as theirs is of ours?

But I was listening to a lecture that PZ Myers gave back in 2010, Science vs Religion: How Faith Makes Us Wrong. And he ended it with his own atheist challenge: name one example where religion has provided us with a novel insight about the natural world. I actually like PZ Myers, but his atheist challenge is beyond silly. It’s just stupid.

How about a theist challenge: name one example where science has provided us with a novel insight about theology. Religion is not in the business of coming up with insights about the natural world. It serves a sociological purpose. Asking it for insights about nature is like asking Dancing with the Stars for insights about nature. It’s absurd.

Who Cares About the Atheist Challenge?

I say all this as someone who doesn’t think that religion adds much to society. Human experience is so varied that what we once got from religion we can now get in countless other ways. The one thing that religion could provide us is some kind of social cohesion. But given that most people still follow ancient religions, we don’t get that. In fact, we get rather the opposite. But there are trends toward a shared spiritual sense. And I do think that humans are likely reach some kind of shared insight. But it will be no thanks to the atheist community that acts every bit as tribal and intolerant as the the theistic fundamentalists.

Myers brought up a tired old atheist complaint: why didn’t God tell the people to wash their hands?! Oh my God! Jesus said it wasn’t necessary to wash your hands! He must not be God! Well, as I would have said when I was ten: duh! What do people like PZ Myers think the Bible is, anyway? It’s just a bunch of folk tales and the results of sectional fighting about how the Jewish and (later) Christian communities should be. It was, in that way, no different than the Iliad was for the Greeks.

The problem with so many atheist complaints — and totally on display in the atheist challenge — is that they are committing the straw man fallacy. Most people think of this only in terms of the individual. There are theists who make stupid arguments and 99% of the time spent by professional atheists is used to refute these arguments. So we get the atheist challenge to show that atheists can be moral. And we get the atheist challenge that religion should provide scientific insights. These do not address the best arguments theists make. It’s unbelievable that atheists act this way.

Saving Atheism From Itself

And before my atheist friends get all upset that I am yet again complaining about the atheist community, consider this: it’s embarrassing. We atheists are supposed to be the smart ones. We’re supposed to be the open-minded ones. But instead, we’re just like them. We’re more interested in winning people to our side than in looking for the truth. The fact that I still complain shows my commitment. But I have to admit, it is failing me. More and more, I see the atheist community as bankrupt and irredeemable.

35 thoughts on “Silly and Stupid Atheist Challenge

  1. The ” most vile of apologetics of the cultural Christians” appears to have convinced over half of Americans (most people in other developed countries are not so gullible and/or hateful):

    In North America and Europe, more people agree that it is possible to be non-religious and still be
    an upright person. At least half in nearly every country surveyed take this view, including roughly
    eight-in-ten or more in France, Spain, the Czech Republic and Britain. In these two regions,
    Americans are unique – 53% say belief in God is necessary to be moral.

    It doesn’t look like a straw man to me. It may not be addressing “the best arguments theists make”, but it is addressing an argument that most theists make (because in less developed countries, huge majorities think belief in God is needed. China was not polled, but I don’t think it could overcome the result from India, Indonesia, Pakistan and more).

    You don’t have to address the best arguments all the time; while large numbers of people are still listening to crappy arguments, those need to be addressed too.

    • Interesting point. A few things I’d like to mention in response:

      Most people tend to think that others like them are better than others who aren’t. This can be said of people who buy organic produce, smoke weed, drive sportscars, commute via bicycle, homebrew beer, root for the Green Bay Packers, whatever. It’s just something humans do. Of course, in mostly non-religious countries, more people are likely to say religion is not needed to be moral; of course, in religious countries, more people are likely to say you do need religion for morality. Country folk think city folk are lazy, city folk think country folk are dumb, etc.

      Speaking of which, where are the most intolerant Christian churches in America found? In rural areas and rich suburban areas. These are places where people mostly come into contact with others of the same background, education, class level, and so on. In rural areas churches tell people they’d be better off if it wasn’t for all those anti-Christians in Big Gummint; this message appeals to rural churchgoers, who are mostly poor. Rich suburban churches tell parishoners that they deserve their wealth and God doesn’t want them to pay taxes. Rich atheists can go to TED talks to hear much the same thing.

      Of course we should criticize crappy religious beliefs, just like we should criticize Ayn Rand. And we should criticize the teachings of individual faiths as well. Mormonism is very sexist, which is bad, and encourages charity, which is very good. Different belief systems have different things wrong with them.

      I think Frank’s point isn’t that religion can’t be harmful, it’s that too many New Atheists claim non-faith immediately makes one more rational, and if we only eliminated all religion, ours would be a better world. Which is incorrect (many atheists are jerks, just like anybody else), impractical (we’ll never get rid of religion), and ultimately inconsequential. If you want to reduce the harm done by religion — say, the Catholic church ban on birth control — you help improve income equality. Raising the income of poor Catholics will change their views on birth control much more than yelling about how irrational the Church is. Women have more rights in more economically equal societies.

      To take Europe, compare religious views in Western Europe and Russia. The Soviet Union officially banned religion, and people still clung to it because life for most under Communism was awful. Democratic socialism in Western Europe raised the standard of living for everyone, and religious attendance dropped to near-nothing. Now right-wing European politicians hoping to destroy democratic socialism are attacking Muslims for being too religious. Of course, if one wants to reduce fundamentalism in European Muslims, one needs to improve their job opportunities.

      I could go on and on! But that would be even more tiresome …

      • You made me go back and read what I wrote, because I really didn’t remember. I think you made better points than I did. What I’m getting at is very simple. The atheist community is very interested in science. What I’m saying is that we should act more like scientists when it comes to this stuff. We should be open-minded. There are religious beliefs that we can’t simply dismiss. But we avoid them. That’s why we so love laughing at the literalists. Ha ha! A guy living inside a whale (it’s only in the past 200 years, I believe, that humans knew whales were mammals and not fish) for three days. How ridiculous if taken literally! Yes,yes. Go have your conferences and have a big laugh. I don’t want to be part of that.

    • Yes, but when do the leaders of the atheist community ever engage with the best arguments? Almost never. And when they do so, as I’ve talked about before, they are so ignorant of the subject that they throw up their hands and declare victory based on the fact that they don’t understand it.

      • What are the ‘best’ theist arguments? There’s the deist argument about whether the universe needs a cause – is that the kind of thing? Or is there a decent theist argument about evidence for an interventionist god that has a sense of morality, to distinguish them from deists?

        How many Christians do you think would admit to the Bible being ” just a bunch of folk tales and the results of sectional fighting about how the Jewish and (later) Christian communities should be”? Pretty much by definition, they believe that Jesus was anointed by ‘God’, and so think it’s more than just folk tales. Even sensible, pleasant, sophisticated Christians who do think that atheists can be moral. The vast majority think he was resurrected.

        • In the first paragraph you get at it. I can’t say that deism are the best arguments, but they are in the realm. I can’t take arguments for an interventionist god seriously because we just don’t see it. And I should point out that I don’t find deist arguments compelling. Or more accurately, I don’t find them necessary. But they can’t be dismissed out of hand.

          As for the second argument: I understand that most theists have a primitive and silly notion of God. But I still think it is wrong to try to convert them with arguments that aim to turn them from silly theists to silly atheists. And I really think a lot of the stupid atheist chatter comes from exactly these converts. The vast majority of atheists who have a public platform are are people who used to be fundamentalist theists. Let the theists be fishermen of souls. Let we atheists not be fishermen of non-souls.

      • If “leaders of the atheist community” focused on the “best arguments” (which I take to mean the most intellectually sound as opposed to the most persuasive to the greatest number) than they’d be Michael Martin and read by five philosopher peer-reviewers rather than leaders of any community.

        • I know this argument well. But it’s not an argument I’m interested in. That’s their game. I’m not interested in collecting converts by trying to convert. That doesn’t mean we sit by and let nonsense go unchecked. But it most definitely means “Abrahamic religions are silly so religion is wrong, QED!” is stupid.

  2. Oh God didn’t tell them to wash their hands because they were in A DESERT WHERE THERE IS LIMITED WATER.


    • My mom was a devout Catholic, and always had great rational explanations like that for things in the Bible I found strange. How come they couldn’t eat pork but we can? Well, little James, they cooked with fire, and lived in a desert without a lot of firewood, and if you don’t cook pork really really hot, it can make you very sick. But we have an electric oven so now we can cook pork roasts. Okay, Mom!

      Another good one was when I read about the age of the universe in science class. How come the Bible says six days, but my schoolbook says it took billions of years? Well, little James, God has been around forever and ever, so a day to him might be a billion years to us. Problem solved!

      But then again she came from a New Deal farm family, so she was a bit more open-minded than most (and a damn sight smarter than most). It’s odd how places like Wisconsin and the Dakotas used to be very liberal …

      • Note that I don’t buy any of that kind of rationalization for the biblical laws. Religions do not have food prohibitions for rational reasons. They are just a sign of belief. It’s like covering the head. Sure, we can all come up with rationalizations for why it started, but that isn’t the reason. However, if it allows Catholics to eat bacon, great!

        Note that the Catholic Church has not be literalist for a very long time. But it also isn’t very good at getting the word out. Just come to church, go to confession, and keep those donations coming!

        • Well, I dunno about eating shellfish; that’s probably just a good idea all the time! But mostly, you’re probably right. Cultural food taboos and favorites are mostly like drinking whiskey straight in an Irish bar, proving you belong.

          What I was getting as was what you and Jon were talking about in another thread; how it’s possible to believe the Bible is “true” and still accept an old universe, evolution, modern medicine, etc. Alas, a large subset of a subset of a subset of American Christianity clings to things like dinosaurs living with cavemen … The reasons have little to do with the ancient mishmashed texts, as you know.

            • I’ll have to check that out. I like it when historians acknowledge we are not smarter than ancient people. We know more than they did, and assuming civilization doesn’t destroy itself (I put the odds at 50/50), future generations will know more than we do. (Amassed knowledge, I mean. An individual 10,000 years ago knew a lot more about growing stuff and making stuff than anybody does today!)

              I had a teacher in school, the only history teacher I ever liked, who drilled this into our heads. “Don’t assume the Phoenicians were simpler than we are, because they didn’t have aspirin. It’s great we have aspirin, and it makes our lives better. But they had exactly the same feelings and hopes that you do.” Made a big impact on me.

              • That’s a great quote. And very true. It reminds of all the ancient alien nonsense. It is based in large part on the idea that ancient people were stupid and ignorant. It’s just not true. Hell, look at Donald Trump supporters! Geez.

                • Well, primitives could never have built the pyramids or Stonehenge! Those things would have involved trial and error, which only we moderns can grasp and learn from. When dipshit ancients kept making a mistake, they were too foolish to correct it. Not like us.

                  • Yeah, I find that so offensive. But it’s also so ignorant. We have writing back 5,000 years and it is mostly what our writing is: contracts and tax documents. Although the people who believe this stuff does make you wonder how smart modern humans are.

          • How do we know? I don’t think we do. I also don’t think it is priests trolling people. I think people have visions and come up with weird things. Sometimes they take off, “For Vectron!”

              • I don’t know what those are. My point is just that religion does something for people. It isn’t random. I may not agree with such beliefs. I may think it is fake comfort like telling a child that dad is with God now. But people like that kind of stuff. It seems presumptuous to claim that religious people are idiots. Some people need the eggs.

    • Some Christian you are! That scene is about Jesus breaking with Jewish law. He’s making the distinction between physical and spiritual purity. And the scene was doubtless added by those who wanted Christianity to be a clean break from Judaism. Also: I don’t think Jesus was in the desert. That region was a hell of a lot nicer than it is today. Now go and sin no more! :-)

    • Because, of course, God never tells anyone in the Bible to do anything that needs a bit of effort, does He?

      Oddly, Islam comes from a more water-sparse region, but it’s quite detailed about the importance of washing. Maybe it’s all random. Which would be Myers’ point.

      • It is a thing that’s always driven me nuts about Ramadan. We know self-purification rituals can have some psychological benefits, I’m fine with that. But no water during daylight? That’s not healthy! Plus, Muslims use a lunar calendar, so the dates of Ramadan move around every year. So some years it’s in the short winter days, some years the longer summer days. I guess it’s less of a problem around the equator. But nowadays Muslims live in high-latitude countries like Sweden. Summer days there can be 18 hours long! They deserve a pass!

        • Washing your hands is a waste of water? Even in food preparation, which was the topic, I think? See

          Water isn’t that rare in Palestine. A suggestion to wash your hands after handling raw meat would do a lot more for health than the prohibitions about eating pork, which are often rationalised as health protection. The point is that the scriptural claims show no sign of having been decreed by a being with good knowledge of healthcare. I know Frank thinks that only fundamentalists think God inspired the Bible, but actually that’s a typical belief for a Christian. Even more so for a Muslim and the Koran. So countering the arguments that most theists used is not ‘silly’ or ‘stupid’.

          • Darmok and Gilad at Tanagra! You can believe holy books have divine inspiration and still regard the stories as metaphors. 60 years ago, most American Christians did.

            Naturally holy books are very backwards on healthcare. So were the Greeks, who were much more scientifically minded. My interest in the matter is sociological. What rituals/taboos/spiritual teachings came about as mere tribal identification, and which had real world applications? Say, Native American spiritual beliefs about not wasting natural resources. They probably started as nuts-&-bolts adadptationary practices (don’t shit where you eat) that over time became spiritual teachings.

            Then there’s cultural folklore/superstition. Old ladies in Sicily who believe if you burp while looking at the full moon, you’ll catch a cold, or some such. That’s just confirmation bias (“I know it happened to my cousin Armando”). There’s probably some of each in most mythic writing.

            My bet, and I have nothing to back this up, is that spiritual teachings had more to do with practical matters before permanent agriculture. Once you had permanent agriculture and division of labor, you needed to make people accept the idea of arbitrary authority. Do this because the Power In Charge says so, not because it has any logic.

            Incidentally, in serfdom times, Catholicism had a practical purpose — days off. I’d rather sit in church and be lectured about my wicked thoughts than work in the fields all day. Many medieval serfs had more days off (there are LOTS of Catholic holy days) than American workers today. And about the same quality health insurance (grumble).

            • That’s an interesting idea about pre- and post-Neolithic spiritual beliefs. I’ll have to think about that. But otherwise, I disagree with you all on this issue. I think you’re all too cynical!

      • I think it is random. It’s like, “Don’t look the king in the eye!” It’s all about showing fealty; it is nothing more. I think Fiddler on the Roof puts it all quite right. Why do we do this? Who knows! It’s just what we do. Religion is, above all, social. And as such it is good and bad. But it isn’t surprising that I’m not that interested in it. I’m interested in ontology. This is not an issue many theists or atheists are interested in. Although I continue to find this amazing. What could be more fascinating?!

  3. I’m a former Christian rather than a current one, but seeing atheists behave like this is weirdly comforting. It’s like seeing those Asian kids who think English and German words are cool after years of Western idiots tattooing Eastern sentiments (that often don’t even add up to actual words) all over their bodies. It’s like, oh good, we’re all the same after all. Rotten, but all together in our rottenness.

    • Yes, there is a nice universality to it.

      That reminds me that I had the idea of making t-shirts that said, “Toshiro Mifune” in Japanese. But I figured that would be too obscure. And people would think I was conning them and that they really said, “Japan Sucks!” Or something similar.

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