10 further reflections on atheism

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook (and you’ll find a link to add me on the right hand column of this site) will know that my status yesterday was “is looking for a fight”. Well, I found one, a bit, over at the FriendlyAtheist. 

It’s an interesting site. I have some reflections from my discussions there that I think are worthwhile. 

  1. The vast majority of atheists come out of some form of theism – many of the commenters on that blog are former church goers from a range of denominations – there are also a bunch of Mormons. They see their atheism as a natural progression towards enlightenment. 
  2. American culture must be harder on atheists – they all seem so bitter and I suspect that’s largely because the culture of American Christendom is difficult. 
  3. “Good” and moral are different – Christians have made a mistake because of a semantic difference on the definition of good. While Christianity teaches that nobody – not even Christians – is capable of “good” behaviour – this generally means “behaviour that counts towards salvation” – for an atheist it means anything that would be considered selfless or moral. Atheists, as a general rule, seem very angry at the idea they are incapable of moral behaviour because they don’t have God. Which leads them to ask if it’s only God preventing Christians from living immoral lives. (Which was well considered in Andrew’s recent post…)
  4. “Strong Atheists” (those who believe “Absolutely, positively, there is no god.”) are apparently being taught to argue as though they are “Weak Atheists” (those who believe “I don’t believe in God because no one has provided me with any credible evidence that God exists.”) in order to shift the burden of proof to Christianity. 
  5. Thanks to Dawkins and co atheists continue to argue with a caricature of Christianity – and also put forward issues or challenges to Christianity that are considered and covered by the Bible as if they’re compelling evidence – and refuse to accept belief in the Bible on the basis of a history of bad translations, poor doctrine and bad application. For example – David Attenborough, the prominent nature documentary maker – argues that the existence of “evil” in nature (specifically a worm whose only purpose is to burrow into the human brain) is proof that God isn’t loving and doesn’t exist. This dismisses any theological thought put into areas like this – and in fact the basic Christian teaching of the Fall’s impact on God’s creation. 
  6. As a further point on that last one – when the Bible does speak to a “logical” problem atheists have with Christianity it’s rejected on the basis that “the Bible would say that wouldn’t it…” as though considering the issue is part of a grand scheme to dupe us. 
  7. Faith is seem to be a “superstitious logical jump” in the face of conflicting evidence rather than a conviction of truth without all the  evidence.
  8. Atheists hate being compared to Mao – but love comparing Christians to the Crusaders (or in fact any nasty people carrying out nasty acts in the name of Jesus). When you suggest that these Christians weren’t being Christian you’re guilty of breaching the “no true Scotsman” fallacy – when you suggest that their anger at the Mao analogy is similarly a “no true Scotsman” fallacy you’re told that Mao was not motivated by his atheism… is it just me seeing this as contradictory?
  9. A whole lot of bad teaching is coming home to roost – doctrinal clarity is important. Ideas like “God is love” that don’t speak to God’s wrath, holiness, or judgement have caused more harm than good. This is what happens when only part of the gospel is considered with another part swept under the carpet. 
  10. At the end of the day – my staunch “Reformed” understanding of evangelism and election means that I’m not in any position to convince those whose hearts are hardened to the gospel. The parable of the sower would tend to suggest that the standard atheist experience of a choked faith is natural and to be expected for many “converts”…  
  11. And a bonus point – “evidence” is seen to be some sort of magic bullet for atheists – but naturalism presupposes the supernatural – and as soon as something supernatural is demonstrably tested it’s no longer supernatural but just an undiscovered natural entity – God is, by definition, supernatural. He can not possibly be tested in this manner, because we can’t expect him to conform to our “testing” and act the same way over and over again… There are biblical examples of God being tested – Ezekiel and Gideon spring to mind – but these are of no value to this argument… because of point six. This link should take you to what I think is a nice little evidence analogy in one of my comments.

These reflections come from my experience and discussions on these posts. Feel free to critique my arguments or approach in the comments.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

15 thoughts on “10 further reflections on atheism”

  1. Why should we feel free to critique your arguments when you reject logic and evidence? You’re not making any arguments, just assertions.

    Your delusional world is internally consistent. Yay. It has nothing to do with actual reality, but you don’t appear to care. It’s your life: live it as you please until you infringe on my space. When you do, don’t expect me to spend much time trying to persuade you of the error of your ways.

    1. Hi Barefoot,

      I’m not sure how this actually does anything but confirm the generalisations I made in my post. So thanks. Reject logic? No, I just tackle the question with a different starting premise.

      Internally consistent? I doubt that. Theology is harder to grapple with than this dismissal suggests.

      Infringing on your space seems unlikely because I have no idea who you are or where you live.

  2. Wow, obviously you annoyed him more than you annoy me!

    But here’s my two cents on some of your points… I may reread these later and clarify, but it will do for now.

    (not sure that the italics are going to work, but I have tried to quote you so that people don’t have to keep scrolling).

    1. The vast majority of atheists come out of some form of theism – many of the commenters on that blog are former church goers from a range of denominations – there are also a bunch of Mormons. They see their atheism as a natural progression towards enlightenment. 
    .
    I wonder if you have the stats to back this up – the majority of the atheists I know come from a non-faith background.
    But to address the point of those who have lost their faith – you can understand on many occasions how it would give a sense of freedom and enlightenment, given some of the very bad things that have been done in the name of the church (for a current example, see the Irish Catholic Church and its institutionalised abuse). And for all of people saying ‘well, they weren’t actually being Godly when they did that, etc’, it will take a lot for trust to happen again.
    .
    2. American culture must be harder on atheists – they all seem so bitter and I suspect that’s largely because the culture of American Christendom is difficult. 
    .
    Very true. Those Americans I talk to online, many of whom come from a background of deep-south religion, are afraid to tell their families about their loss of faith. Faith and politics in the US are also far more linked (see other discussion on your blog about separation of church and state) – for example, two friends I know were told that as good Christians they had to vote for McCain or they shouldn’t come home, etc.
    .
    Also that there can even be a debate in the US as to whether Creationism (scientifically unprovable) should be taught in a science classroom is telling.
    .
    3. “Good” and moral are different – Christians have made a mistake because of a semantic difference on the definition of good. While Christianity teaches that nobody – not even Christians – is capable of “good” behaviour – this generally means “behaviour that counts towards salvation” – for an atheist it means anything that would be considered selfless or moral. Atheists, as a general rule, seem very angry at the idea they are incapable of moral behaviour because they don’t have God. Which leads them to ask if it’s only God preventing Christians from living immoral lives. (Which was well considered in Andrew’s recent post…)
    .
    True, many, including myself, would like to think we can act in an altruistic way not because we are afraid of punishment or because we have to. I like to think I was a good person before I became a Christian – the issue being that the ‘good’ God is talking about is different to the human definition of ‘good’.
    .
    4. “Strong Atheists” (those who believe “Absolutely, positively, there is no god.”) are apparently being taught to argue as though they are “Weak Atheists” (those who believe “I don’t believe in God because no one has provided me with any credible evidence that God exists.”) in order to shift the burden of proof to Christianity. 
    .
    Don’t like your terms here.
    I don’t see that the burden can be the other way around really, in terms of logical, proof-based argument. Is it not our job to provide proof, even if really by definition faith is faith, and has to be acted on ‘in the dark’ as it were, even if that proof isn’t so much ‘scientific’ evidence, but evidence through how we live.
    .
    5. Thanks to Dawkins and co atheists continue to argue with a caricature of Christianity – and also put forward issues or challenges to Christianity that are considered and covered by the Bible as if they’re compelling evidence – and refuse to accept belief in the Bible on the basis of a history of bad translations, poor doctrine and bad application. For example – David Attenborough, the prominent nature documentary maker – argues that the existence of “evil” in nature (specifically a worm whose only purpose is to burrow into the human brain) is proof that God isn’t loving and doesn’t exist. This dismisses any theological thought put into areas like this – and in fact the basic Christian teaching of the Fall’s impact on God’s creation. 
    .
    Dawkins is just as extreme and blinded in his views as an extremist of any religion. Just because he feels he is talking for the entirety of atheists doesn’t mean it is so.
    .
    6. As a further point on that last one – when the Bible does speak to a “logical” problem atheists have with Christianity it’s rejected on the basis that “the Bible would say that wouldn’t it…” as though considering the issue is part of a grand scheme to dupe us. 
    .
    You can’t use a ‘debatable’ (used in the sense of one that is doubted by some) text to prove a ‘debatable’ idea. To use your religious text (written with the express purpose of communicating that religion) as proof that your religion is true is just illogical.
    .
    8. Atheists hate being compared to Mao – but love comparing Christians to the Crusaders (or in fact any nasty people carrying out nasty acts in the name of Jesus). When you suggest that these Christians weren’t being Christian you’re guilty of breaching the “no true Scotsman” fallacy – when you suggest that their anger at the Mao analogy is similarly a “no true Scotsman” fallacy you’re told that Mao was not motivated by his atheism… is it just me seeing this as contradictory?
    .
    Funny how no-one likes being compared with a mass murderer, isn’t it?
    And I am not sure Mao’s driving doctrine was atheism, more how religion was being used in terms of power and money. Same as the Crusades weren’t so much religious pilgrimages, but more about expansionism, power and reputation.
    .
    10. At the end of the day – my staunch “Reformed” understanding of evangelism and election means that I’m not in any position to convince those whose hearts are hardened to the gospel. The parable of the sower would tend to suggest that the standard atheist experience of a choked faith is natural and to be expected for many “converts”…  
    .
    Maybe, but also you could say that those who come to faith later are not ‘indoctrinated’ (for want of a better term) into their faith from a young age – we tend to actually question the origins of anything presented to us to evaluate what is ‘tradition’ and what is actually part of the faith itself.
    .
    11. And a bonus point – “evidence” is seen to be some sort of magic bullet for atheists – but naturalism presupposes the supernatural – and as soon as something supernatural is demonstrably tested it’s no longer supernatural but just an undiscovered natural entity – God is, by definition, supernatural. He can not possibly be tested in this manner, because we can’t expect him to conform to our “testing” and act the same way over and over again… There are biblical examples of God being tested – Ezekiel and Gideon spring to mind – but these are of no value to this argument… because of point six. This link should take you to what I think is a nice little evidence analogy in one of my comments.
    .
    Again with the definition of faith issue. I don’t see that faith can ever be truly proven – faith necessarily involves some sort of step forward on trust. Otherwise it wouldn’t be faith.

    1. Please note these points were prefaced by the statement: “I have some reflections from my discussions there that I think are worthwhile. ”

      So while I don’t have stats – they’re certainly representative of the threads I’ve been participating in at the Friendly Atheist blog.

      “Don’t like your terms here.”

      Not my terms – they’re quotes, they are from a blog quoting a magazine article on atheistic apologetics, and they reflect the nature of the debates I had over at the Friendly Atheist so I included them in my thinking.

      “Maybe, but also you could say that those who come to faith later are not ‘indoctrinated’ (for want of a better term) into their faith from a young age – we tend to actually question the origins of anything presented to us to evaluate what is ‘tradition’ and what is actually part of the faith itself.”

      This seems a little harsh. I’m not sure it’s particularly fair to those of us who are “indoctrinated” (for want of a better term) and I’m not sure that doctrines, by their nature, can ever be “tradition” given that they are framed as the fundamental tenets of the Faith (capital “f” to distinguish between verb and noun). I would also suggest that the Parable of the Sower, being a teaching of Jesus, should be pretty fundamental to how people understand the Gospel.

  3. Let me be more specific:

    (1) True.

    (2) False: Atheists are typically not bitter, we are angry at injustice, cruelty and oppression, and religions’ and religious institutions’ role in injustice.

    (3) Atheists typically see the Christian account of morality as being fundamentally flawed. Most atheists are secular humanists in a broad sense. Good is what brings happiness and well-being to human beings, ourselves included.

    (4) Atheists are not being “taught” anything: we think for ourselves. Regardless of the strong or weak position an individual atheist actually holds, Christianity does indeed have a burden of proof. The weak atheist position is merely the legitimate demand for this burden and the observation that it hasn’t yet been met.

    (5) It is ludicrous to assert that a form of religion actually held by hundreds of millions of people is a caricature. Dawkins et al. might not argue specifically against your own theology, but so what? For an omnimax deity, Yahweh seems to have done a poor job disseminating his instructions accurately and thoroughly, and the “fall of man” is an excuse, not an explanation, and entirely ridiculous as a philosophical argument.

    (6) I have no idea what you’re talking about here. I hope you’re not so naive as to make the obviously circular argument that the Bible must be true because it says in the Bible that the Bible is true.

    (7) Yes, that’s how we see faith. Since you correctly note in 11 that supernatural claims by definition can’t be substantiated by evidentiary arguments, I can’t figure out in what sense you disagree.

    (8) You do not understand the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It would be a fallacy to say that Mao was not a true atheist because he did bad things, but atheists accept that Mao was indeed an atheist. Atheists also, unlike Christians and Muslims, do not claim that atheism is the root of morality, only that religion is a very popular tool for immorality.

    (9) I agree: clarity is good. Where present, though, it rather trivially reveals religion for arbitrary dogma.

    (10) Bullshit.

    (11) As noted above, you correctly note that supernaturalism is not susceptible to evidentiary arguments, making the subtle and correct point that a proposition proven evidentially is ipso facto natural. This would argue that supernatural claims are either meaningless, or you have some alternative epistemology more sophisticated than “making stuff up and calling it true” to evaluate supernatural claims.

  4. Note that (10) says the conflict is not a reasonable conflict, but a conflict over metaphysical presuppositions, and you can’t argue a paranoid out of his delusions.

    If you want to presuppose that God exists, you cannot also assert its a claim supported by the evidence; the latter entails that the existence of God is an hypothesis, not a presupposition.

  5. Also note re (4) that atheists are typically not absolutely certain about anything; we convinced on the presently available evidence and arguments that no god exists. The difference is subtle but important. It’s logically possible that God is hiding behind my couch, but so what?

    1. “It’s logically possible that God is hiding behind my couch, but so what?”

      I know how much atheists hate it when Christians bring hell into discussions – but I’d say that’s the “so what” – how big does the surprise you may receive from the God who may be hiding behind your couch have to be before you think him worth considering?

  6. Worst. Apologetic. Ever.

    First, even the hypothesis of infinite punishment is insufficient to make me care about the infinitesimal probability of a hidden god. Infinity multiplied by an infinitesimal is undefined.

    Second, if a god were hidden, I have no reason to believe you personally, or any priest, prophet or pundit, has anything true, interesting or meaningful to about it. If a god wants to give me instructions or commands, he can do so personally.

    Third, I don’t like threats. When they’re real I fight back; when they’re imaginary I laugh.

  7. Notice that I prefaced my comment with an acknowledgment that you wouldn’t like the argument – I know you don’t. That’s why I asked a question. Which you didn’t answer. Except perhaps to threaten to fight me if I threatened you. Since I’m fairly sure we won’t ever cross paths I’m pretty sure that’s a hollow threat – since I think you are referring to a threat from God – hypothetically – then I think you should fight it out with him.

    If God is not hidden and the “priest, prophets, pundits” are his chosen messengers then you have every reason to believe me and/or them. Why would God personally reveal himself to you because your logic demands it? That doesn’t make any sense. When does a subject ever tell their ruler what to do in that manner?

    You can run around shouting QED all you like – that doesn’t make it so, it just means you’ve made up your own mind. Please leave others the same space to do so. Rather than declaring “game over” and dancing on our philosophical graves.

  8. Barefoot Bum – as much as you claim that you are not bitter, your arguments are coming across as such. I don’t see that your points here are any more logical than Nathan’s, and they in fact lose credibility because of the aggressive way you make them.

    You claim on your blog post that you have failed to find Christians who will answer your questions. I think if you asked some of them here you would probably find they would be treated seriously and answered.

    Also: why are you so affronted if people believe in a God? How does this harm you in any way? Are you just angry that people don’t think like you? Do you assume that just because someone is a Christian that they don’t think and evaluate their faith and what they do? I’m sorry, but that is as bigoted as you seem to think Christians are.

  9. Nathan – I see that those were not your terms now, sorry.

    Re the come to faith rather than born into faith, I want to say this is just a comment from personal experience, mainly in debates I have with my husband. It is a lot easier for someone from the outside to come into a faith and go – why do we do this? What does this actually mean etc, rather than someone who has had things taught to them in a certain way all their life, or had certain assumptions made that were actually personal preference rather than scriptural (ie the drinking of alcohol etc).

  10. Just coming off the whole “can’t use the Bible to prove the Bible” thing…

    I think a lot of people who use this argument aren’t aware of the background of the bible. Originally, it was not one book. It was 66 individual books. Would it then, if they’d been left separate, be appropriate to use the book of Matthew to prove the book of Genesis, or the book of Romans to prove the book of Leviticus? If so, why is it no longer appropriate, just because they have been published in one physical book? That would be like someone publishing all accounts of Julius Caesar’s life in one book (let’s call it “The Life of Julius Caesar”)… and then another person saying “there is no proof of Julius Caesar, you cannot use “The Life of Julius Caesar” to prove itself”.

  11. To barefoot bum – “Atheists are not being “taught” anything: we think for ourselves.”

    Oh, so clearly if you accept a teaching, you’re not thinking for yourself.

    Whatever. That’s just absurd. I could say that people who believe evolution are stupid because they’ve just accepted a teaching and not thought for themselves… when evolutionists would just argue back “no, I did think for myself and was convinced of its truth”.

    In the same way, Christians might be taught the bible, but we sure think it through for ourselves. This is proven by the thousands of Christians who disagree on minor aspects of Christian theology. Some believe you should baptise babies, others believe you shouldn’t. That proves that people have thought it through for themselves and not just blindly accepted some teaching.

    The idea that thinking for yourself is the opposite of being taught is absurd.

  12. Leah – the point I was making is that to someone who doubts the credibility of the Bible, using it to prove a point to them is never going to work, because to them, it is a biased source.

Comments are closed.