Be Hot or Cold

As atheists continue to make inroads into the media and our message becomes more widely noticed, we are attracting attention from all quarters. Some of the responses consist of delighted praise and relief that rationalists and freethinkers are finally making our voices heard. Some responses consist of the furious but ineffectual sputterings of religious fundamentalists. But then there is a third group, smaller than the other two but quite possibly overrepresented in the media: the pseudo-sophisticates who scornfully dismiss both sides of the debate as beneath them. These would-be intellectuals usually know just enough about atheism to drag out the same old, tired criticisms, but not enough to see the obvious answers to those criticisms.

In the words of Alexander Pope, a little learning is a dangerous thing, and members of this group are thoroughly inebriated with the shallow draughts of knowledge they have taken. Typical examples can be seen in two recent articles: in The Scotsman, John Burnside’s review of French philosopher Michel Onfray’s In Defense of Atheism, and in the Ottawa Citizen, George Jonas’ review of Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. These reviews are remarkably similar, and their authors both make exactly the same mistakes. In this post, I intend to straighten them out.

Anti-Atheist Stereotype #1: Atheists Are Just As Dogmatic As Religious Fundamentalists. Here are Burnside’s and Jonas’ obligatory recitations of this sneering cliché.

In self-righteous fervour, a fanatical atheist is about on par with a religious fanatic.

The surprising thing about atheism, considering its supposedly rational basis, is the sheer zealotry of its supporters. As often as not, atheists are not that easy to distinguish from the Christian, Jewish or Muslim fundamentalists they so thoroughly detest: we find in both the same immovable conviction, the same dreary ardour.

People who make this criticism invariably think themselves very clever for pointing it out – “But you atheists are just as dogmatic as the believers you oppose! How’s that for irony, eh?” They are also completely and utterly wrong.

The pseudo-intellectuals think that being willing to change one’s mind about an issue when confronted with the appropriate evidence is incompatible with showing dedication and passion in the meantime. This could not be more wrong. A person can be perfectly willing to change their mind if presented with evidence contradicting their beliefs, and yet at the same time be a forceful and devoted advocate of their position because no such evidence has been presented yet. This is all the more true if the position, like atheism, is supported by multiple lines of strong, independent evidence, making it very unlikely that disconfirmatory facts will someday turn up. Passion is orthogonal to dogmatism.

We atheists would be more than willing to believe, if only there was some reason given why we should. We have indicated, on multiple occasions, exactly what it would take to change our minds. Religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, state explicitly that they will not change their minds in the face of any evidence. Both sides may be dedicated and driven, but atheists are open-minded, and the religious are not. This difference lays to rest any self-satisfied claim that these groups are somehow equivalent.

Next, we move on to Anti-Atheist Stereotype #2: Attacking Religion Won’t Change Anybody’s Mind. Again, Burnside and Jonas are nigh indistinguishable:

In Defence Of Atheism won’t change much, with its uncomfortable stylistic mix of the forceful, the fanciful and the factual.

No faith-based crime, sin or stupidity escapes Hitchens’s eye, no matter how microscopic… He’s like a good shot who walks out to the range with his carefully calibrated and highly polished weapons, then demonstrates his skill by shooting fish in a barrel. Dead fish, actually, for the ones targeted by the eminent British-American journalist have been pumped full of holes before.

It’s certainly true that the cruelties and absurdities of religion have been pointed out before. But that does not mean that these things no longer need to be said. Manifestly, the message has not sunk in – people are still waging war, still committing unspeakable cruelties, still killing each other in the name of God. And as long as they continue to do so, atheists will be there. We have spoken out and we will keep speaking out until people take our message to heart, until the blessed killing, holy bloodshed and sacred murder stop. It may take a while, but we don’t intend to give up.

By what possible logic have these reviewers concluded that we are not having an impact? Because Hitchens and Onfray haven’t spurred people to become atheists en masse, in widespread waves of deconversion? One might as well claim that continental drift isn’t real because we can’t watch it happening. Human psychology does not work that way: it is extremely rare that individual people change their views drastically overnight. But in the aggregate, over longer timescales, we can and do see the ranks of nonbelievers growing with each generation. Hitchens, Onfray and others may be riding this wave rather than driving it, but nevertheless, it is real and it is happening.

Finally, Anti-Atheist Stereotype #3: Atheists Can’t Know That God Doesn’t Really Exist. Both Jonas and Burnside make use of this hoary chestnut, trumpeting their airy detachment, supposing that they sit high above the fray shaking their heads at those silly atheists and theists fighting it out down below. Users of this cliché tend to assert that theirs is just obviously the only rational position, and neither of the two disappoint:

Because neither the deist nor the atheist can possibly know [whether God exists], they both operate from a delusion. Only the agnostic, who demonstrably does not know, has his feet on terra firma.

To assert with any conviction that god does not exist is no more rational than to claim that he personally selected the Jews as his chosen people, or that animals, heathens and the unbaptised will not be admitted to the kingdom of heaven. For the truth is we cannot say whether god exists or not, a conclusion any rational person can easily reach before breakfast.

First, what these glib, condescending remarks overlook is that while it is impossible to prove a universal negative (actually, it is impossible to absolutely prove any statement), we can still be highly confident in the nonexistence of a thing when evidence is missing where there should be evidence. Would Jonas or Burnside also assert that since we can never completely prove whether Santa Claus exists or does not exist, the only rational reaction is agnosticism? If not, what makes the God case different?

Perhaps there is no conclusive disproof of a supernatural being that keeps itself perfectly aloof and hidden, just as there is no conclusive disproof that we are not all butterflies dreaming this life. But that does not mean that either of these hypotheses should be seriously entertained or that we should consider the truth of either to be just as likely as its falsity. When we have no good reason to believe that something exists, the rational response is disbelief – in other words, atheism. Otherwise, we would be obligated to “keep an open mind” about every absurdity that human beings have dreamed up. Consistent application of such a policy would leave us knowing nothing and unable to function in daily life.

I can respect people who say they don’t know enough about an issue to reach a decision, but not people who turn around and claim that their inability to decide renders them superior to people who have studied the issue in more detail and have decided. These pseudo-sophisticates seem inexplicably proud of having no position, happy to admit that they don’t know and don’t want to know. This is either intellectual laziness or it is relativism, and either way I have no respect for it.

What is worthy of respect is not self-congratulatory pox-on-both-your-houses rhetoric, but steadfast adherence to the principle that there is such a thing as truth, that we can find out what it is, and that the effort to do so is a worthwhile one. People of good will who follow this principle may differ in their conclusions, and that’s fine. In that case, let us try our mutual mettle, hurl our worldviews against each other, seek out every crack and flaw in the opponent’s position, test and retest, and find out who is right and who is wrong. Be hot, or be cold; love atheism and defend it, or devote your life to refuting it – in an atmosphere of free speech and open debate, all opinions are permitted. I welcome the chance to stand and do battle, and I will greet all comers and challenge them fairly. What I cannot countenance is the smug belief of some people that they can win the debate by not showing up.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ric

    These middle folk are theists, albeit perhaps not fundamentalists. That’s why they accuse atheists of dogmatism. As for the argument that atheists can’t disprove a god… well, the authors of those reviews can’t disprove that there aren’t invisible leprechauns in their gardens. But ask them if there are and see what they say.

  • Chad

    Ric, while I accept the argument you give as technically valid (ultimately it’s the foundation of my own disbelief), it doesn’t strike me as terribly effective. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, though. It might be that it conveys a certain degree of… dismissal? contempt?… for theists. If I related your deepest beliefs to “obviously silly” things like leprechauns, or invisible pink unicorns, or Santa Claus, you’d probably think I thought your beliefs, and perhaps you yourself, were also silly — which may be true, but would interfere with the broader point. The idea of gods seems “too big” to compare to things like leprechauns, even to me.

    I think the argument works better if one replaces “invisible leprechauns” with the brain-in-a-jar question. It has a similar scale to the deity question, namely one’s entire perceived existence, and it lacks the childish undertones of some of the alternatives. That makes it harder to dismiss out of hand. It’s also pretty easy to grasp, especially for anyone who’s seen The Matrix.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I used to consider myself an agnostic. I wonder if I would have been that dismissive of atheists. I suspect not.

    Mind you, I can also proudly claim to have been an agnostic about the brain-in-a-jar question at around the same time. At least I was vaguely consistent! With that in mind, I second Chad’s recommendation of comparison between the two, not least because it’s plausible that some sort of reasonable agnosticism might withstand such a comparison — and it puts said reasonable agnosticism in perspective.

  • Ric

    You’re probably right, Chad and Lynet, but often what I do feel is contempt for theists and what I feel are their obviously silly beliefs. I recognize that such a thing isn’t necessarily productive, though, so I let my feelings out on blogs. In face-to-face discussions, I try to be more understanding, though I don’t always succeed.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    Ric, don’t back off too quickly. What Lynet and Chad seem to be saying is that we can’t show contempt for patently stupid beliefs (whoops!) because theists might stop listening. But for me, the idea that the idea of gods is too big begs the question. The idea of god is as teeny tiny and as silly as the idea of Santa Claus, and by assuming it is a “big” idea and acting accordingly, one tends to give ground that need not be given.

    Of course, I’ve never seen The Matrix so I may have completely missed the allusion. :)

  • http://everydayatheism.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    What I cannot countenance is the smug belief of some people that they can win the debate by not showing up.

    I love that line. I find that attitude more irritating than most regular Christians. At least they will defend what they believe, rather than claiming a high ground of not believing anything.

  • Alex, FCD

    I think the argument works better if one replaces “invisible leprechauns” with the brain-in-a-jar question.

    Russell’s teapot, bro. Stick with the classics.

    Off topic: guess what the wikipedia article of the day is.

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    The comparison between passionate atheists, like Dawkins and Harris, and Islamic terrorists blowing themselves up to kill innocent people, annoys me no end. How is there any kind of equivalence? One side are scientists who write books, sharing their views on religion. The other side are a bunch of murdering bigots, so fanatical in their righteousness, that the death of many thousand innocents has no bearing on them. See the difference?

    And hell, if we’re gonna be agnostic about god(s), let’s go the whole hog and be agnostic about everthing we can’t disprove. So I guess I’d better be agnostic about: ghosts, FSM, brain in a jar, dream of a butterfly, Matrix, Celestial Teapot, the Kraken, Norse Gods, Oceanic Gods, ad infinitum.

    The whole thing just infuriates me.

  • norman henderson

    Ebonmuse, I have been reading your articles on this site for months. This was one of your very best! I do find it interesting that some people, both theists and atheists alike plead for gentility, politeness, and respect when criticizing or pointing out absurdities of religious views, but religionists are allowed to dismiss with derision any views counter to their own (whether other religious views or atheism). I experienced this all too often during my 20 year sojourn in the church of christ as I heard ministers blast catholics and baptists (for beliefs neither actually held) as the church shouted amen! though neither they nor the minister had actually ever set foot in a baptist or catholic church.

  • Ric

    If you think this is one of his best, you should check out Ebonmusings. Now those are some good articles.

  • James Bradbury

    Off topic: guess what the wikipedia article of the day is.

    Looks like somebody “up there” likes us. :P

  • James Bradbury

    On a more serious point, I understand that it is very tempting to ridicule theists beliefs (I can barely resist sometimes), but we must try. If you want people to listen to your point of view don’t start by insulting them. You’ve made it confrontational and the pride-penalties for conceding or even listening have been increased.

    We should try to ask searching questions rather than tell people what’s wrong with their beliefs and characterize them badly. With luck (and an intelligent theist – yes they do exist, I believe in them anyway), those questions will linger and they will eventually come to their own conclusions, taking the intellectual credit for their discovery. Being proved wrong is painful and trying to do this can make people dig their heels in.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    A brilliant article, Adam.

    I read Burnside’s review last week, and couldn’t believe how condescending it was. I second Norman Henderson (and Ric) that this is one of your best for a while.

    People who make this criticism invariably think themselves very clever for pointing it out – “But you atheists are just as dogmatic as the believers you oppose! How’s that for irony, eh?” They are also completely and utterly wrong.

    Excellent point. I’ve often found this with people who say, “you see, if you think about it, atheism is just another religion“. They always say it as if they think it’s a really profound, new argument, and expect me to be impressed because they think I’ve never heard it before.

    I also really like your term “pseudo-intellectuals”. I was at the BBC in London yesterday to see a radio interview with Richard Dawkins (sorry, couldn’t resist dropping that in). We had refreshments before, and I was talking to an author who told me that while he condemned the religious fanatics, he thought Dawkins approach was wrong. I asked him what was the right way. He said “social analysis, not debate”. There wasn’t time to really engage him, so I gave him my blog and asked him to email me. I hope he does.

  • uhclem

    this is my first post in this forum, but being a huge fan, here it is

    “What is worthy of respect is not self-congratulatory pox-on-both-your-houses rhetoric, but steadfast adherence to the principle that there is such a thing as truth, that we can find out what it is, and that the effort to do so is a worthwhile one.”

    I find this statement mildly ironic given the context. Doubt and uncertainty are fundamental virtues of scientists and the scientific method specifically, but statements like this foster the illusion that there’s a “truth” out there somewhere and only atheists know how to find it. Speaking as a former fundamentalist now rational scientist, I do know that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. The word “truth” has been so abused by religious nuts over the millenia that I think it is important not to similarly abuse it. GD

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    We atheists would be more than willing to believe, if only there was some reason given why we should. We have indicated, on multiple occasions, exactly what it would take to change our minds. Religious fundamentalists, on the other hand, state explicitly that they will not change their minds in the face of any evidence. Both sides may be dedicated and driven, but atheists are open-minded, and the religious are not. This difference lays to rest any self-satisfied claim that these groups are somehow equivalent.

    I think now is an appropriate time to quote the Answers in Genesis Statemend of Faith in part:

    No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record.

    Of course, it does vary among religious people where they stand on this issue. The Dalai Llama once remarked to Carl Sagan that if evidence were presented that conflicted with a tenet of Buddhism (even a key one such as reincarnation), then Buddhism would have to be in error, not science. He has my respect at least in that he won’t ignore reality; he just limits his religion to what we can never see. Of course, this raises the twin questions of how he knows this if we can never scientifically detect it (answer: faith, I’m sure) and what affect it could have on the world if there’s no way to test it. Well, no one’s perfect, but they aren’t all equally unreasonable.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    What Lynet and Chad seem to be saying is that we can’t show contempt for patently stupid beliefs (whoops!) because theists might stop listening. But for me, the idea that the idea of gods is too big begs the question. The idea of god is as teeny tiny and as silly as the idea of Santa Claus, and by assuming it is a “big” idea and acting accordingly, one tends to give ground that need not be given.

    Of course, I’ve never seen The Matrix so I may have completely missed the allusion.

    Well, to give some context, the brain-in-a-jar question is the one that goes “What if my sensory information is all completely incorrect? Perhaps there is no computer in front of me, I have no hands, and I’m not typing — perhaps what I really am is a brain in a jar in some futuristic lab, and all my sensory impulses are being fed to me by a computer.”

    As a comparison with the idea of God, this notion mirrors quite nicely the case where God is real but we have no way of detecting him. On the other hand, a lot of theists hold views that really do make the leprechaun comparison seem appropriate; it kind of depends what notion of God you’re dealing with.

    Chad’s comment really just caught my eye because one of the reasons I used to like the term agnostic (when I was about twelve or so) was because I really liked the idea of questioning everything — including the question of whether the physical world as I perceived it was at all real — and in the case of God (unlike the case of brains in jars) there was a nice easy way of expressing such doubt in a single word.

    As I got older, the novelty of fundamentally questioning my experience in that way kind of wore off. These days I’d call myself an atheist.

    So yeah, I didn’t mean to be criticising you, Ric; I just liked Chad’s idea of a comparison for personal reasons. Ultimately, your example does a perfectly good job of pointing out that saying “no-one can no for sure that God doesn’t exist, that’s obvious” is entirely irrelevant. If the authors of those review really wanted to have a solid criticism of atheism, they would be obliged to affirm either that God is somewhat more likely than an invisible pink unicorn, or that we should be agnostic about absolutely everything. Jumping from “we can’t prove it’s false” to “we have reason to seriously consider it” is a false deduction of which the authors of both articles are undeniably guilty.

  • PeterWR

    Amen to all the praise(!), Adam – excellent article!
    And further to Alex’s comment and also (slightly) OT, people might like to check out a couple of posts on the Guardian’s ‘Comment Is Free’ blog site: Sue Blackmore’s ‘We of Little Faith‘ and Theo Hobson’s ‘Atheism is Pretentious and Cowardly‘. The latter currently stands at 892 comments!

  • Jeff T.

    Another great post. One problem that I find myself faced with lately is apathy. I no longer care if the majority of people want to believe an all too obvious lie and blow each other up while hoping for eternal glory. I no longer care if 3 Republican Presidential candidates say that evolution is wrong and that the Earth is 6000 years old… if the stupidity is that rampant, we might as well start singing Amazing Grace then bend over and grab our ankles.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    For uhclem:

    Doubt and uncertainty are fundamental virtues of scientists and the scientific method specifically, but statements like this foster the illusion that there’s a “truth” out there somewhere and only atheists know how to find it.

    Yes, that is exactly correct: there is truth “out there”, independent of us, and since I believe that atheism is among the catalogue of true things, I do believe that in that respect, only atheists know how to find it. You rightly note that doubt is a fundamental virtue of science, but you miss the corollary: doubt must be coupled with confidence in the evidence. Otherwise, we just have a pointless, radical skepticism which forecloses the possibility of knowing anything.

    Speaking as a former fundamentalist now rational scientist, I do know that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.

    When we learn more, we do become aware of how many more facts are yet to be known, I agree. That does not take away our knowledge of the facts we do possess.

  • Archi Medez

    Ric,

    You can use the names of other popular gods, e.g., if you are debating a Christian you could use Vishnu, etc., or versions of what is alleged to be the same god (e.g., Allah of the Muslims vs God of the Christians).
    ————————————————-

    Re Jonas’ (J) article, some thoughts:

    Jonas does not acknowledge that some faith-based crimes have been of macroscopic proportions.

    Jonas fails to cite a single example of a “macrocosmic” “faith-based mystery, beauty or wisdom,” much less one that is not equally-matched if not surpassed by one that is not religiously-based.

    J: “There’s a big difference between knowing there is a God (the deist position), not knowing if there is a God (the agnostic position), and knowing there is no God (the atheist position).”

    Here Jonas demonstrates that he has not understood the positions at issue. Hitchens’ is not primarily criticizing Deism; he is criticizing specific theisms, e.g., the main ones today being Christianity and Islam, but also some of the others and polytheism. Secondly, Jonas mischaracterizes the atheist position as “knowing there is no God.” In fact, the most common position among atheists is lacking a belief in god or gods, on the grounds that there is no support for the belief and therefore no grounds for having the belief. What Jonas seems to be referring to is the “strong” or “positive” atheist position. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the atheist claims to know that God does not exist; rather, the strong atheist may, on the basis of some analyses and evidence, believe that god does not exist. There is a difference between having a belief and having knowledge. Scientists distinguish between theories and facts.

    Another problem is that Jonas, like most, characterizes the whole issue over god’s existence as a purely philosophical debate. However, that need not be the case. Questions of existence are first and foremost in the domain of science. To claim that God exists is claiming something much more than that it exists in one’s mind as an idea. Rather, it is a claim that God exists in reality as a thing or agency outside of (or at least in addition to) people’s minds. Such claims about god’s existence require physical evidence. In other words, claims of existence are at least postured as scientific. In science, the burden of proof is on the one who makes the claim. Someone who claims that God exists ought to be able to specify the conditions under which God could be detected scientifically. If theists are unable or unwilling to do this, they cannot use the non-result of an experiment that never took place as justification for maintaining their belief in God’s existence. At the very least, believers have no basis for going beyond the belief that God exists as an idea in their heads; that God exists as an idea in people’s heads is something with which most atheists would probably agree.

    J: “Of the three, two debate from an assumption of knowledge (the deist and the atheist) and one from an acknowledgment of ignorance (the agnostic). Because neither the deist nor the atheist can possibly know, they both operate from a delusion. Only the agnostic, who demonstrably does not know, has his feet on terra firma.”

    For the moment, let’s take ‘delusion’ simply to mean mistaken belief. There is no evidence that atheists are delusional in lacking a belief in god or, in the strong case, having a belief that god does not exist. To show that atheists are delusional, physical evidence would have to be presented that (a) the atheist has been presented with the very strong scientific evidence of god’s existence (as more than an idea in people’s heads), and (b) the atheist rejects and continues to deny (a). Jonas has presented no such evidence of (a) or (b), and thus has no basis for claiming that the atheist is delusional. Indeed, if Jonas is agnostic, he must remain agnostic as to whether either believers or atheists are delusional. Yet the belief that god exists as more than an idea in people’s heads is a delusion if no supportive scientific evidence supports it. That is because as a general principle it is mistaken to believe something for which there is no evidence (e.g., the principle by which, I would venture, Jonas is not agnostic with regards to Quetzalcoatl).

    Jonas also fails to distinguish between different degrees of belief or doubt. This again reflects the stubbornly non-scientific attitude of dealing in idealized absolutes, i.e., that people are either 100% sure that God exists, 100% sure that he doesn’t exist, or 100% uncertain about the whole issue. None of these are representative of scientific positions on the question of God’s existence. If we have even a small amount of evidence that people made up all the particular gods proposed thus far (at the very least we know people can create them; even toddlers can invent them too), whereas there is no evidence that god exists as more than ideas in people’s heads, the evidence clearly supports the atheist position more than the others.

    To show that agnostics are not mistaken, i.e., not delusional, also requires a scientific study. However, the gods about which agnostics tend to be agnostic tend to be gods that are so ill-specified that there is no possible way to test claims about their existence. Agnostics generally will not tell you that they are agnostic with regard to the flying spaghetti monster, Zeus, virgin births, and various other miracles, etc. Agnostics are suspiciously agnostic to the extent that the deity in question is unspecified or ill-specified, ever-conveniently out of the reach of science. Thus, agnosticism becomes difficult to distinguish from obscurantism. Loosely, one may be said to be “agnostic” with regard to the contents of unintelligible gibberish, but that is not the same as being agnostic with regard to some reasonably well-specified god.

    Still another major problem for agnostics has to do with morality. Are agnostics agnostic with regard to the propriety of putting blasphemers, apostates, adulterers, and disobedient children to death? Are they agnostic about divine-text-commanded wars to establish a religion and force conversions? Are they agnostic about divine permission to rape female captives and slaves? The agnostic may try to avoid these problems associated with specific religions by appeal to that comfortable retreat, the ill-specified deistic god. But is divine command itself—even if we grant the existence of the deity for the sake of argument—a plausible basis for morality? Is the agnostic agnostic with regards to the propriety of divine command per se?
    Jonas says there are believing and unbelieving fools—though apparently no agnostic fools! However, whether or not anyone is a fool is besides the point. The issue Jones raised, and then avoided, was over whether the particular gods proposed thus far exist or not.

  • Vicki Baker

    Whatever happened to atheists like Percy Shelley and the ones who inspired the Reed College slogan of “Atheism, Communism, Free Love”? Those guys knew how to throw an insurrection – and a party.

  • Stephen

    On a more serious point, I understand that it is very tempting to ridicule theists beliefs (I can barely resist sometimes), but we must try. If you want people to listen to your point of view don’t start by insulting them. You’ve made it confrontational and the pride-penalties for conceding or even listening have been increased.

    We should try to ask searching questions rather than tell people what’s wrong with their beliefs and characterize them badly.

    It depends on the situation and the audience. If you are with a smallish group of people, who are willing to listen to you for an extended period of time, then of course you approach the discussion in a calm reasoned fashion.

    But that is a luxury position. Often one only has a few words or a few seconds, and then it is far more likely to get attention simply to point out that a particular belief is ridiculous, or that a particular theist is a liar.

    Ask yourself: did the religious right get where it is in America by reasoned argument? Of course not! There is a (large) group of people which is susceptible to argument by insult and sometimes it may be necessary to reply in kind.

  • http://www.asktheatheists.com bitbutter

    Excellent post. These rebuttals can’t be made often enough and I think these are the best formulations I’ve read. Great work!

  • http://www.asktheatheists.com bitbutter

    “Atheists Are Just As Dogmatic As Religious Fundamentalists”–Someone over at the Richard Dawkins site dubbed this ‘the equivalence ploy’ which struck me as a useful coinage considering how often this tactic is employed.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Sure, I’m agnostic about some nebulous as-yet-unfound “god” out there somewhere. Absolutely. But I’m atheist wrt any God I’ve been told about – YHWH, Jesus, Thor, Brahma, Changing Woman, Anansi, Kwan Yin, the Triple Goddess, Athena – and I don’t see what’s so “irrational” about that. I used to call myself an apathetic agnostic, but I got tired of explaining why, if I’m so apathetic, I get so annoyed with believers. The “for your purposes, yes, I’m an atheist: your god doesn’t exist” line is more succinct, but not better received.

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    I’ve just got through reading this article and I found it excellent. It was a brilliant destruction of the pseudo-intellectual high and mighty agnostic. I think a lot of the time many people who pretend to be educated on the matter are just afraid of being wrong, or putting their money where their mouth is! That’s never been a problem for me personally, and shouldn’t be for anyone when there IS ACTUALLY enough evidence to choose one side of the debate.

    This part of the article sums it up perfectly: “What I cannot countenance is the smug belief of some people that they can win the debate by not showing up.”

  • uhclem

    Adam wrote:

    “Yes, that is exactly correct: there is truth “out there”, independent of us, and since I believe that atheism is among the catalogue of true things, I do believe that in that respect, only atheists know how to find it.”

    This delves into deeper levels of epistemology than I am capable of grasping, but I would say, rather than there being some “truth ‘out there’”, that instead we can know with confidence only that certain propositions are false. In fact that’s what’s really meant by the statement “atheism is true”. What’s really being said (by me at least) is that a large number of doctrines taught by fundamentalist christians are demonstrably false. And that’s how science works. Our confidence, say, that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on past experience and the lack of any evidence to the contrary, although it’s certainly possible that an as-yet undetected meteor could destroy the earth tonight. So I don’t do experiments to prove things true, I do experiments to test hypotheses, understanding all the while that certain results may falsify my hypothesis. So yes I’m a huge fan of popper as well, what little I know of him.

    “You rightly note that doubt is a fundamental virtue of science, but you miss the corollary: doubt must be coupled with confidence in the evidence. Otherwise, we just have a pointless, radical skepticism which forecloses the possibility of knowing anything.”

    I would rephrase that to say that my confidence in any given theory is bolstered by each piece of evidence which by itself held the possibility of proving the theory false. It’s also the case that any given piece of evidence by itself should be suspect, so reproducibility is key. Newton’s theory of gravity was fantastic, but was “false” in the thirteenth decimal place for example.

    So there’s mathematics and logic where you really can prove things “true”, based on underlying premises, and then there’s the physical world which is much more complex. If anyone ever figures out what the statement “quantum mechanics is true” means, I’d like to know about it. There are just so many things about reality that seem completely nonsensical, like entanglement and all kinds of strange stuff.

    But indeed I believe the statement “the sun will rise tomorrow” is true.

    GD