Five things that would make atheists seem nicer

Nathan Campbell —  September 27, 2009

I am trying really hard to cut down on generalising and bagging out “atheists” rather than specific people and streams of atheism.

They’re not all the same – and they aren’t all out to eat your babies. But atheists (general) keep giving me reason to think bad thoughts about them. Like the two who hijack this thread on Communicate Jesus.

Here are five tips for my atheist friends to help them seem nicer and more reasonable.

  1. Stop being so smug.
  2. Don’t assume every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at you – we want the undecideds, not the decided-uns.
  3. Admit that the debate about God’s existence is complex – and that it can, depending on your presuppositions, be quite possible for intelligent and rational people to intelligently believe in an intervening deity who communicates through a book.
  4. Admit that the scientific method – which by its nature relies on induction rather than deduction (starting with a hypothesis and testing it rather than observing facts and forming a hypothesis) – is as open to abuse as any religious belief, and is neither objective nor infallible.
  5. Try to deal with the actual notions of God seriously believed in by millions of people rather than inventing strawmen (or spaghetti monsters) to dismiss the concepts of God – and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws. By all means quote the laws when they are applied incorrectly by “Christians” – but understand how they’re meant to work before dealing with the Christians described in point 3.

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a student at the Queensland Theological College and a mercenary PR Consultant.

239 responses to Five things that would make atheists seem nicer

  1. So the question is now one of plausibility?

    Of course. How else would you determine what to believe than how plausible it is?

    I can understand, since there is evidence of many of the things you claim are implausible. So, what makes something plausible?

    Empirical evidence.

    Why is any recorded evidence of a resurrected Christ implausible?

    Because people don’t come back from the dead. But people are known to make up stories about things.

    The harm to others hypothesis as a basis of morality seems to me to suffer from similar vagueness. So, do you mean others as in individual people, harm to others as in many people, or harm to others as in humanity in general? Indeed, do you mean “others” as in humans at all, or life with emotional capacity, or life generally, or other creatures?

    Similarly, while I can see clearly how killing would be “harm” to that person, it doesn’t take much to imagine situations where allowing certain people to live would be harm to others. Indeed, that was the claimed rationale behind most self-claimed atheistic regimes forcibly eliminating pesky clergy people (short pain to avoid long term harm to people). So you can understand why I would ask such a question of an atheist. How does your morality function in relation to that?

    It is a complicated question. That’s why philosophers, ethicists, and artists have been thinking and writing about it for the past few thousand years.

    In short, why should I apply your moral standard to God,

    Why wouldn’t you?

    and how would that moral standard differ from the actions we see claimed for God in the Bible?

    God starts off by punishing Adam and Eve for seeking knowledge. He orders the Israelites to kill off other tribes, or kill the men and enslave the women and children, in order to establish their kingdom. He orders them to kill people who won’t accept him as the one true god. He orders homosexuals to be killed. He orders children to be killed for disobeying their parents. None of those are good reasons to kill people.

    They may have seemed like good reasons to the people who wrote the Bible. Most of their customs are no more violent and intolerant than other people in that period in history. But coming from a loving god, they don’t make any sense.

    In the New Testament, he demands that people worship Jesus or they will burn in hell. Since we know that people can be good to others without worshiping Jesus, or without even having heard of him, this is clearly not a loving thing to do.

    • "Because people don't come back from the dead."

      Of course, we're not talking about a natural resurrection, but a supernatural one. And in order to eliminate the possibility of that you would first have to show empirically that the universe is causally closed (and I'm assuming, as no one has, that you probably can't). So then if it is not impossible (and we don't have to assume it is definitely possible, only that it might be possible) and it explains the known facts (i.e. Jesus was dead, his tomb was empty, people had what they called appearances of him, the unlikely birth of the church etc) better, more comprehensively than any other explanation than it is likely to be true. It is the normal argument to best explanation:

      "if the scope and strength of an explanation are very great, so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation, then it is likely to be true."
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_method#Ar

  2. “Because all written historical accounts are suspect, especially when they involve supernatural elements.
    Or do you believe the Trojan War started because Eris threw a golden apple into the wedding of Thetis and Pelues?”

    Suspect is a bad choice of words, I apologize. Why is it automatically discounted?

    So, we’re looking for texts that support the resurrection, but if they include supernatural elements, those texts are suspect?

    I disbelieve the reference to the Trojan war because of how I have read that text, I don’t think it was intended to be historical. I have a different understanding of the Gospels, again based on the text itself.

    Finally, while I don’t believe in the cause of the trojan war, I do believe that there WAS a trojan war.

  3. Truthspeaker:

    So plausible empirical evidence is empirical evidence?

    I don’t accept your moral grading of God, because 1) I don’t understand your moral grading and 2) I have serious questions about its moral efficacy.

    If you’re going to tell me what God did and why, you’re going to have to give me the Bible references, so I can deal with them.

    I’m also not sure why intolerance can’t be good in some instances. And the Bible seems to claim that people are actually not good, because well, your moral code and the Bible’s are different. You know by your code that people are good, so you’re unfairly grading another system by your standards.

  4. We discount it because, while nobody in modern times has ever come back from the dead, we have abundant evidence that people make up myths and stories with supernatural elements to help make sense of their lives and the human condition.

    I believe there was a Trojan War. And I believe there was an influential figure named Yeshua in the Jerusalem area around 30 AD with new (for the area) religious and social ideas. And there some people a little later who wrote about him, and some of them synthesized it with the emerging Greek philosophical monotheism.

    But nobody really worked miracles or came back from the dead, because those are just story elements that appealed to people of that culture and that place and time, like countless other people in countless other cultures.

  5. I don’t think people are good, I think people are capable of being good just as they are capable of being evil. No outside agents are necessary.

    The idea that humans are inherently bad is one of the most destructive ideas in Christianity.

    As for the genocide, slavery, rape, and intolerance I mentioned, those are all from well-known parts of the Bible. As I Christian I assumed you would be familiar with them.

    Of course intolerance isn’t always bad. Intolerance of homosexuality is bad. Insisting that women be subservient to men is bad.

    If you don’t understand my moral system, I suggest reading some Marcus Aurelius and some Kant. It’s not uniquely mine and it’s not exactly new. Causing other humans to suffer is generally considered to be immoral.

    • Right.

      This has all been fun. But it’s over now. Thanks for coming all, I hope you’ll stick around for further bouts. I write about atheism about once a week.

      Just so you know – the comments here were mostly in violation of my commenting policy – which I documented here.

      In closing – the question of morality is an interesting one, I’ve touched on it in this post about Atheists and Hitler – but will explore it further in the next day or so.

      Thanks boys and girls. Especially to the snarky atheists who did their best to prove my point…

  6. I am not an atheist yet you make a good case for it.

    When smug people like you represent God, then God is weak. You are lacking in knowledge of the Bible and you are lacking of good intentions. You catch more flies with honey, not with ill-intentioned declarations of battle.

    If you believe in the Holy Spirit than you need an intervention. Find yourself. For you are not doing God's work, you are pushing people away, you are doing the work of the Devil. A proud, smug, righteous individual who triumphantly believes he knows better than his foes. So did Lucifer.

    Christianity is about atonement, sacrifice and good works. Many have exploited this in the name of selfishness and profit, (ie: the Crusades, the 30 Years War, the Hollocaust of both Jews and Native Americans), yet the greatness of Christianity is judged by the greatness of its disciples.

    Even if you made buttermilk pancakes for the disabled veterans of America, you do your cause harm by your smugness. You have become what you detest the most and you need to put yourself in check.

    Take a long hard look at yourself before you throw stones in glass houses. For he who is without sin does not exist, as Jesus deemed, and the only one who can judge a man's heart is God.

    Lead by example, not force.

  7. oh looky here, so I hijacked the thread, by clearly putting down a list of things that christians need to answer if they want to advertise their faith? I asked for answers in regard a campaign that said jesus had answers?

    All I got was asked questions myself.

    Anyway, I won't go into it much more here, I think people have pointed out how well your JAAL campaign is working, plenty of other places to visit yet!

    I mean, so much discussion! This campaign is really achieving that goal hey! :)

    BTW what footy team do you have faith in? We can discuss that faith too if you like :) same thing really, just a belief, just opinion.

  8. Wow.
    I'm not a Christian, and I firmly believe that many Christian ideas are wrong. But I'm shocked at how your fairly sensible piece has attracted the venom of so many would-be thinkers. The ignorance, the inability to think critically, the volume of sheer resentment of the idea that they might not know it all–is quite staggering. Atheists never cease to amaze me.
    Good post, Nathan, and Good Luck to you (even though you're convinced I'm going to roast in Hell :))

  9. Just stumbled across this, and was amazed.

    1. At how Christians are so ready to call other people with differing ideas on life and spirituality "smug". Well, if atheists are smug, at least we have a good reason – we get to really enjoy life while you just retain your illusions.

    2. At how the scientific method is so (deliberately?) misunderstood. Science doesn't start with hypothesis. Science starts with observation; only then does the scientist ask "Why is this?" and starts coming up with hypothesis which he will then test.

    3. At how Hitler is still brought up as a valid argument in every debate about atheism. First, Hitler was NOT atheist. Yeah. Sorry to disappoint. And to crush your argument at the same time. And secondly, even if he were atheist, so what? He was also dark-haired. Does that make dark-haired people dangerous? It's called an inductive process, and it's the kind people often decry.

    But oh well. The debate will never cease. It can't even oppose atheists and christians. It only opposes narrow-minded people with open-minded people.

    And oh yeah, piece of advice to all Christians out there: be nicer when talking about your religion. Please. It could actually make me believe once again that Christianity is supposed to be a religion of love. *cough*which it really isn't right now*cough*

    • Nathan Campbell February 4, 2010 at 8:06 pm

      Bamboo,

      You’re fairly late to the party. Although I thought I had shut the comments on this post a while back.

      Let me address your comments.

      1. I’m not ready to call other people with differing ideas smug. Just the new atheists. Smugness is endemic amongst your ilk (and by yours I mean those atheists who trawl the blogosphere looking for things to disagree with).

      2. I would contend that this is not always the case. Once a philosophical hypothesis (like atheism) has been established it is very rare that an observation comes first.

      3. Hitler was certainly not a Christian – and I think you’ll find that despite your assertion to the contrary – it is more likely that he was an atheist who used Christianity and its mystical elements for his purposes.

      You’re right about the debate not ceasing – and your advice is pretty on the money.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • First, Hitler was NOT atheist. Yeah. Sorry to disappoint. And to crush your argument at the same time. And secondly, even if he were atheist, so what? He was also dark-haired. Does that make dark-haired people dangerous? It's called an inductive process, and it's the kind people often decry.

      It's very difficult to know with any kind of certainty about his beliefs – his public and private statements conflict and contradict so often. The argument that some anti-theists will use: that he was a catholic and thus his actions are just another example of the poison of religion, is equally misguided. While he did identify with Catholicism, it was very much an opportunistic ploy (Bavaria is very Catholic after all), and he certainly had some amount of disdain for religion and the church.

      Normally I read the reply not about dark hair – but that Stalin and Hitler both had moustaches, does that mean moustaches are bad etc. But that is someone disingenuous – clearly moustaches have nothing to do with the kind of ideologies they promoted, but institutional atheism clearly does have something to do with the Marxist ideology of Stalin and Mao (who didn't have a moustache)

  10. Atheists seem nice enough to me. From my perspective, they are a hell of a lot nicer than most theists I have met. And why do you only want them to "seem" nice. It appears that your appeal is to appearances rather than reality. Just because they don't "seem" nice enough to you, does not mean that they actually are not nice. Perhaps it is your perspective, your outlook that needs to change. And why the ad hominen to start? An atheists concern and focus is with the verity of the substance of the theist argument, while it seems you want to misdirect away from this by focusing on how they “seem” to be coming off as.
    My recent post I still love you

  11. Atheists seem nice enough to me. From my perspective, they are a hell of a lot nicer than most theists I have met. And why do you only want them to "seem" nice. It appears that your appeal is to appearances rather than reality. Just because they don't "seem" nice enough to you, does not mean that they actually are not nice. Perhaps it is your perspective, your outlook that needs to change. And why the ad hominen to start? An atheists concern and focus is with the verity of the substance of the theist argument, while it seems you want to misdirect away from this by focusing on how they “seem” to be coming off as.
    My recent post I still love you

  12. 1. What I'm reading on the article link from the poster "Gee Suss" is not arrogant or smug at all.
    The person is providing direct, polite and articulate responses. I find usually that Christians (in particular
    although they're not alone on this) interpret as "smug" is simply disagreeing. Usually, responses to
    atheist "smugness" are either inane drivel "you're stupid, wrong, etc" or, when polite just more rhetoric and empty
    arguments. Instead of answering a question, being told "I'll pray for you" is to an idealistically rational
    person (who is also atheist in this case), smug and disrespectful.

    2. Understanding evangelism as "creating the Kingdom of God on earth" through conversion means that
    it is directed at everybody, and that includes atheists. Seeing our schools, laws and rights being
    manipulated by church polity rather than democratic principles that respect the diversity of our cultures,
    means evangelism is directed at everyone, atheists included. If organised religion kept to it's own and
    minded it's own business, activist atheists wouldn't care less what you believe in.

    3 & 4. Actually, the scientific method works both ways – deduction and induction. Based on previous
    observation, you formulate a hypothesis. Then you test it. If the hypothesis is falsified, you conclude it
    is wrong. Then you do another test, and so forth, developing theories based on what isn't yet falsified.
    Creationism is not science for this reason. Science has falsified the claims of Genesis by
    demonstrating that the earth is older than it claims and that there is significant evidence to suggest
    that we evolved from single celled organisms over many millions of years. Yet Creationism still accepts
    Genesis. This doesn't mean there's no God or that science is perfect – far from it. God doesn't exist
    because it is a completely illogical concept with no evidentary basis, and science is imperfect because
    humans are imperfect and society is imperfect. But at least science is about rejecting silly ideas when
    they are demonstrably false.

    Of course, God-botherers can be intelligent and rational people. Except when it comes to the religion.
    It's though ostensibly free people are allowed to question everything, except what the religious person
    thinks. How religious people can hold so many layers of cognitive dissonance and contradiction without
    their heads exploding is beyond me. I suppose because religion is not something to criticise, it's
    something to believe. What religious people need to realise is that this particular observation only applies
    to them for as long as they want it to – it does not apply to atheists because we do not believe. Hence,
    we can criticise religion, and it's not being smug. It's being genuine about our views.

    Of course, that said, people "on all sides" need to pull their heads in now and again when things really do get rude.
    Myself included.

    5. Interesting that you note Flying Spaghetti Monster as a strawman fallacy, but not "millions of people"
    as an ad populum fallacy. Millions of people can be wrong, and usually are.

    • God-botherers can be intelligent and rational people. Except when it comes to the religion.

      That is blatantly begging the question.

      It's though ostensibly free people are allowed to question everything, except what the religious person
      thinks.

      What makes you think that Nathan is against questioning and criticising religious beliefs?

  13. The Flying Spaghetti Monster was not designed to dismiss religion. (Atheists do that well enough.) It’s meant to illustrate the importance of religious freedom, and the fact that Christians dismiss other religions.

  14. @Chinesus

    Not at all. The FSM was a product of the Intelligent Design wars and was meant as a direct rebuttal to the argument that each deserved equal time in the classroom.

    FSM showed two things: 1) asking special treatment for one religion in the classroom is bogus and 2) that ID’s vague references to a nameless designer is a shell game.

    So, no, FSM is not meant to “illustrate the importance of religious freedom.” It was created to ridicule and, yes, dismiss religion.

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