A Voice in the Crowd

In “The Bubble“, I discussed how religious sects shelter their members from criticism by creating isolated worlds where only orthodox viewpoints are heard from. No doubt, this insularity creates a serious obstacle for atheists and freethinkers who want to promote the message of reason. How can we even begin to persuade people unless we can reach them? How do we pierce that bubble and get our message where it needs to be heard the most?

Obviously, there’s no secret key to this. No special choice of wording or tone will unlock the church doors that are barred against us. But we do have one significant advantage that we can use. In a recent comment, Lynet eloquently alluded to this advantage:

I suspect the problem is largely that people are so used to whispering around religion that an everyday voice sounds like a shout.

Lynet’s comment was in reference to the tendency of apologists to demonize atheists who speak out as intolerant and prejudiced. Religious believers are so unaccustomed to serious criticism that, when it does arise, it often catches them completely off guard, and they perceive it as a shocking and vicious attack. This is unfortunate, because it means that stereotypes about us and our movement spread easily, and atheists have to spend considerable effort clearing them away just for our real message to be heard.

But, at the same time, this is something that we can benefit from as well. Simply stated, the modern atheist movement has a significant advantage: the advantage of novelty.

New movements and new ideas are inherently newsworthy, especially if – as is true in our case – the idea under discussion is not just a new and different way of doing things, but a challenge to a belief long held sacrosanct. Nothing attracts attention and interest like a controversy, and we have set our sights on the highest target there is. We have stepped up to challenge literally the most sacred idea there is, the one upon which whole cultures are built and countless millions of individuals have based their very identity. The audacity, the sheer outrageousness of this goal guarantees that atheists will not just be one more voice in the crowd. We will be heard far and wide, which means that our arguments have a tremendous opportunity to reach people who would otherwise not have heard them.

Granted, we can’t expect that our ideas will make it through the screen of religious polemic intact. They may only reach some people in distorted form, but even that is better than nothing. The masses who simply believe what their pastors tell them and swallow whole the slanderous stereotypes disseminated from the pulpit are not the ones we’d be likely to convince anyway. But there will always be some people, in the pews or wherever else, for whom our words will strike a spark. There will always be some who, once they learn of our existence, will take the initiative to seek us out and see what we say in our own words.

Once we’ve won this initial hearing, we have the advantage. Our arguments are stronger, and on a level playing field they can win the day. But because our power to be noticed, to get our names out there, stems from the novelty of our message, it is necessarily an advantage we have for only a limited time. Once the New Atheist movement becomes an accepted part of society’s discourse, it will not command the same headline-making prominence. We have a short time, so it’s vital we make the most of it – make the most noise, be audacious, and spread the message as far and wide as possible. We shouldn’t be afraid to be aggressive in getting the word out. Doing this is an investment, and in time, it’s one that will pay off.

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.

  • Justin

    I’m not so sure about this part…


    [the ideas] may only reach some people in distorted form, but even that is better than nothing.

    We all know how quotemining can be used against a person.

    Sorry about the blockquote. I haven’t yet figured out how to end it with the xhtml code.

  • Mark C.

    Justin,

    Just use a slash right after the “<” in the tail-end thing.

  • 2-D Man

    Justin, the idea comes from the next sentence:

    The masses who simply believe what their pastors tell them and swallow whole the slanderous stereotypes disseminated from the pulpit are not the ones we’d be likely to convince anyway.

    The people being referred to here are the ones who won’t go and check facts; who won’t “debate on a level playing field”; they will never be freethinkers. Even if they deconvert, they will just subscribe to a new dogma.
    However, there will be those that will think the message is weird. They’ll see some inconsistencies, perhaps from an atheist they’ve met, or when they go out to find evidence for how evil we are. It is far better to get the message out than to leave these people in the dark.

    As for the xhtml problems, Wikipedia can give you a run down. To end a blockquote, use {/blockquote} (except with the triangular brackets – as you seem to know). This is generally true for any tag. – Does this help?

  • mikespeir

    I had some reservations about that, too, Justin. When I read that line I was reminded of this:

    Php 1:15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will;
    Php 1:16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel;
    Php 1:17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.
    Php 1:18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.

    That bothered me as a Christian. The same kind of sentiment now bothers me as an atheist. It’s important that people not get a distorted impression of either our message or of who we are. On the other hand, there’s probably no way to prevent it altogether.

  • velkyn

    People will get a distorted message or simply distort that message between their ears. As has been said, some will never attempt to understand and are happy with their little lies. This said, I agree that we need to be loud and proud and get the attention we can to reach who we can. My current hometown, Harrisburg, PA, just got our very own FFRF billboard (pictures here: http://www.panonbelievers.org/)

  • Joffan

    Justin:
    Assuming that my tricks survive interpretation :-), to make

    this quote

    use
    <blockquote>this quote</blockquote>

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup.

    My strongest hopes, actually, are not for this generation. They’re for the next one: for the children and teenagers who are growing up knowing, if nothing else, that atheists exist, and that atheism is an option. I have some hopes of convincing some adult believers… but mostly, I want to be part of an increasingly loud chorus of voices letting the younger generation know that we’re here, and we’re queer atheist, and we’re doing just fine, thank you.

    And speaking from my experience in the queer movement: It is pointless to hope that our message will not be misunderstood or distorted. That’s just going to happen. Of course we should try to speak as clearly as we can, but if we constantly try to second- guess ourselves about “how will this be interpreted?” we’ll never get anything said or done.

  • Justin

    Thanks for the xhtml advice, everybody.

  • steve bowen

    But because our power to be noticed, to get our names out there, stems from the novelty of our message, it is necessarily an advantage we have for only a limited time. Once the New Atheist movement becomes an accepted part of society’s discourse, it will not command the same headline-making prominence.

    and we could be a fad; easily dismissed as temporal and insignificant. Truth, by which I mean real and verifiable objective truth, will always be there. We should not be afraid of taking a slow and reasonable approach, stating our position and arguing from evidence. There is danger in polemic as Dawkins has discovered because it leads to ad hominem attack which distracts from from the real argument. “softly softly catchee monkee”

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Wow! That’s a good thought, but a scary one. You’re right, we’re catching considerable attention here. And yes, people who would never expect to agree with us are still noting what we say. But what are they seeing?

    Being under scrutiny gives us a responsibility, and here I find myself agreeing with Steve. We want people who are curious about the atheist movement to be able to find civil, rational discussions of the issues. We don’t really want them to be able to sit around smugly making posts like this. That said, I think there is plenty of civil, rational discourse out there, including some of the stuff that gets attention. For example, a startling number of the critiques of Dawkins accusing him of being overly strident attribute positions to him that he does not hold, and a reader of The God Delusion would be likely to notice this.

    My main reaction to this article is really to hope that those whose attention is caught by the buzz are able to find atheist positions stated in a way that allows them to seriously consider the position — which is all the more reason to support this site, of course!

    (Oh, and thanks for the compliment).

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    My strongest hopes, actually, are not for this generation. They’re for the next one: for the children and teenagers who are growing up knowing, if nothing else, that atheists exist, and that atheism is an option. I have some hopes of convincing some adult believers… but mostly, I want to be part of an increasingly loud chorus of voices letting the younger generation know that we’re here, and we’re queer atheist, and we’re doing just fine, thank you.

    Thank you, Greta! That was wonderful – you cut right to the essence of what I was trying to express here. I think the analogy between the atheist movement and the gay rights movement is a very good one, and that explains why similar tactics are likely to work for us.

    Think of the situation of a person who’s born and raised Christian, a lifelong believer who knows no community outside the church, but who also happens to be gay. As far as that person knows, they’re alone in the world. But now imagine that one week, that lonely seeker hears his pastor denouncing gays from the pulpit, condemning them as hellbound sinners because they’re fighting for the same rights as heterosexuals. Yes, there will be many in church who will nod their heads. But think of the electric effect it will have on that person’s worldview, learning that they’re not alone in the world, that there are others out there who think and feel the same way.

    What the church authorities actually say is almost irrelevant – all that matters is that they offer a glimpse of a different way of life, one that will strike a chord within those whose sympathies were already drifting in that direction. Even that glimpse can turn a formless hope of something different into a focused, directed goal. That’s the situation atheists should be aiming for.

  • bestonnet

    Greta Christina:

    My strongest hopes, actually, are not for this generation. They’re for the next one: for the children and teenagers who are growing up knowing, if nothing else, that atheists exist, and that atheism is an option.

    Completely true. Even if we can’t get many adults to deconvert (and we probably can’t) their children have about a one third chance of leaving the religion they were bought up in (most of them just leaving religion entirely).

    This is also why it is so important to keep crap like creationalism out of schools (unless it is being taught as an example of how not to think). Their religion can only survive if it is forced on people (very few pick up a religion late in life).

    Ebonmuse:

    I think the analogy between the atheist movement and the gay rights movement is a very good one, and that explains why similar tactics are likely to work for us.

    In terms of parallels with the gay rights movement along with the previous movements for racial equality and women’s rights there is a notable difference in that we can actually change people to be like us whilst those movements could not do so and so were required to seek equality for reasons of strategy not merely morality. The fact that we can change the rest of the population to be like us gives us a massive advantage since we have the potential to become the overwhelming majority but it also brings up some worrying possibilities that extremists in our movement could decide to do that through coercion (though having a few of them around might help push Overton’s window in a more desirable direction).

  • John

    Dear Bestonnet,

    Truly, there are many “extremists” in your so-called movement, but I do not consider this site or its commentators extremists, yet. But this atheist “movement” is really nothing new at all. Neither is “free-thought” really “free-thought,” but merely opinions. Today we find atheist books on the Times best seller list right along side of religious/spiritual books on same best seller list. Indeed, as the Bible says, “there is nothing new under the Sun.”
    I have quoted and linked a site to show how old this non argument really is.

    “Ironically, the battle lines in this Cultural War resemble those in place at Fatima when the Mother of God appeared. The simple faith of the local populace faced off with the atheist and freethinking minority of the region who reviled and ridiculed them. The faithful resisted and believed. And as has often happened throughout history, the simple faithful won.”

    http://www.tfp.org/TFPForum/TFPCommentary/politics_of_god.htm

    John

  • Brad

    Horvat’s article appears to be a group of burning straw men. Here’s some other stuff:

    Faith becomes mere wish-full[fill]ment.

    That’s what it’s always been.

    For twenty centuries, the Church has confronted and overcome atheists of all kinds: She feared not past arguments, nor does She fear them now.

    I suppose that’s a statement of faith, because the real facts contradict that. (“overcome,” eh?)

    Now, even the tolerance of religious belief is being challenged and the atmosphere created for yet stronger attacks.

    Special pleading; religious beliefs should be no more or less tolerated than economic theories or personal philosophies. Lastly,

    The simple faith of the local populace faced off with the atheist and freethinking minority of the region who reviled and ridiculed them. The faithful resisted and believed. And as has often happened throughout history, the simple faithful won.

    (“resisted” – that’s a very telling word.) The battle between skeptics and believers is not necessarily one of reason and logic, nor is it exclusively composed of “ridicule” from skeptics. Rather, it normally works in a “Culture War” (as the article says), and so the party which “wins” in history does not do so by good evidence or argument. Since the masses are not generally freethinkers and skeptics, it is easy to manipulate them, and “win.”

  • Brad

    Also, Greta, those are my thoughts exactly. I’ve been thinking about that for a while. I think the reason atheists are increasing in number is not because we’re successfully convincing a large number of believers, but, rather, atheism is appealing to the growing populace over religion, and hopefully will continue to do so.

  • http://www.ateosmexicanos.com/portal/ Juan Felipe

    And as has often happened throughout history, the simple faithful won.

    I don’t really understand this part; what or how exactly did they “won”?

    For twenty centuries, the Church has confronted and overcome atheists of all kinds: She feared not past arguments, nor does She fear them now.

    I suppose that’s a statement of faith, because the real facts contradict that. (“overcome,” eh?)

    Too right you are. No doubt the christians would like to put it as if the church had survived two thousand years of rigorous challenging from the atheist side; but the truth is that blasphemy was a punishable crime during most of that time. Atheist were not even allowed to question it, much less “confront” it.

  • Christopher

    For twenty centuries, the Church has confronted and overcome atheists of all kinds: She feared not past arguments, nor does She fear them now.

    What arguments in the past? For the better part of he last 1700 years few were allowed to examine the core doctrines of the Judeo-Christian faith – let alone raise any challenge to them (as the church was closely allied with the state – the state saw religion as a useful thought-control mechanism). But now the power of organized religion is waning: the fact that you take this fact lightly tells me you’re not prepared deal with a world with church that’s hemorrhaging power thoughout our culture!

    In the past, churches could simply have those deemed “heretics” tortured and burned and destroy their writtings – today all they can do is bitch and moan as the culture leaves their creeds and doctrines behind…

  • John

    Juan,

    “but the truth is that blasphemy was a punishable crime during most of that time. Atheist were not even allowed to question it, much less “confront” it.”

    I agree with that statement. Generally though, atheism has had its ups and downs, while faith marches on, growing in knowledge, and doing away with temporal interpretations of The Bible, as well as the spiritual scriptures of Bhudism, and Hinduism – sadly, Islam does not fall into any category I know of. Did you perhaps see the headline “Jesus Rising in China” on a recent Chicago Tribune? Is it a coincidence that China’s rising as a world economic power coincides with her rising Christianity? Good luck in trying to advance atheism. While you may perceive a small victory here and there, a great forest fire continues to burn – it will not be stopped – humans are spiritual beings.

    John

  • Alex Weaver

    Europeans imported syphillis at about the same time as the potato. Does this mean syphilis is a good thing?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    …while faith marches on, growing in knowledge…

    Gaining in knowledge? What knowledge would that be? What knowledge have we gained from religion?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Judging by the content of that link, John appears to be both a Roman Catholic and an intelligent-design supporter. Apparently he hasn’t heard that his own church has already rejected ID as the vacuous pseudoscience it is.

    I’d also love to hear in what sense the Fatima-believers “won”. Some people said they had a hallucination of the Virgin Mary, freethinkers criticized them, and they went on believing in it anyway? If theists have to set the bar for what counts as a victory that low, we can tell they’re in trouble.

  • Adam

    What knowledge have we gained from religion?

    OMGF,

    Your question is a little off topic but:

    It would be cool if you read this book or watched this TV show (free on the internet)

    Series host, Dr. Thomas Woods, Jr. takes you beyond pseudo-historical attempts to minimize the Church’s contributions to society, revealing how the Church has played an integral role in the Sciences, the University System, Western Moral Principles, Law, Economics, and much else besides.

    http://www.ewtn.com/series/2008/1/Builder.htm

    BOOK
    How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Hardcover)
    by Thomas E. Woods Jr (Author)

    http://www.amazon.com/Catholic-Church-B … 0895260387

    Here is some great info on the knowledge gained from Religion

    http://www.zenit.org/article-14095?l=english

  • Christopher

    John,

    <blockquote.Is it a coincidence that China’s rising as a world economic power coincides with her rising Christianity?

    1. Today, Christians makes up less than 5% of China’s total population – and I don’t think that their numbers will expand far beyond that (as traditional religions – although technically not government-approved – still dominate much of their culture). Quite frankly, your faith is trying to expand into market that’s already saturated.

    2. Is it merely a coincidence that the rise in global temperature coincides with the drop in the number of pirates?

    This type of argument is just plain asinine – as you seek out connections that just aren’t there…

  • Christopher

    Series host, Dr. Thomas Woods, Jr. takes you beyond pseudo-historical attempts to minimize the Church’s contributions to society, revealing how the Church has played an integral role in the Sciences, the University System, Western Moral Principles, Law, Economics, and much else besides.

    It’s amazing just how much those posted articles casually gloss over the things that the Catholic church sought to surpress: Helliocentrism, study of the human body, the concept of the atom, etc… The few contributions that the church did make (like those fucked-up ideas of international “law,” command economy – which is exacly what “just price” was and its ludicrous ideas of “human rights” [which the church itself didn't practice through much of its history, BTW]) are contributions I’d very much like to see burned during our next revolution; and don’t misunderstand, the day is coming…

  • bestonnet

    John:

    Truly, there are many “extremists” in your so-called movement, but I do not consider this site or its commentators extremists, yet.

    Could you point some of them out?

    John:

    But this atheist “movement” is really nothing new at all.

    There have been atheists before there was even religion so it isn’t new, what is new is us actually coming forward and challenging the religious.

    Where religion and other superstitions are powerful anyone who expresses doubt gets killed so the atheists in those societies have had to keep quite (and if they didn’t were likely killed).

    Brad:

    Bad article:
    For twenty centuries, the Church has confronted and overcome atheists of all kinds: She feared not past arguments, nor does She fear them now.

    I suppose that’s a statement of faith, because the real facts contradict that. (“overcome,” eh?)

    Completely true.

    Just look at how well religions are doing keeping the offspring of their members in the church.

    Now there is always Chapter 4 of http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/ (which you should all read the whole thing as it explains the Bush administration very well) specifically pp. 128 (134 in whole book PDF and 23 in Chapter 4 PDF) where we get that about two thirds stayed in the religion they were raised in with most who left just abandoning religion all together and with non-religion having almost a 300% gain. Fundamentalist protestants had an 18% gain from conversions since they lost about half their kids (whilst it doesn’t say where the conversions came from I would not be surprised if they were mostly from other Christian denominations and not from those who weren’t religious).

    Let us now turn to http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2.htm which clearly indicates that Christianity is losing in the US and the non-religious are growing very quickly. Going to “General point of view: Religious or Secular:” shows that the young think religion is less important than the old. Going to “People who have switched denominations or religion:” shows that the group with the largest gain from those who changed their religious affiliation was the non-religious with the religion that gained the most also losing more than they gained and the following note:

    Some groups such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to attract a large number of converts (in-switchers), but also nearly as large a number of apostates (out-switchers). It is also interesting to note that Buddhists also fall into this category of what one might call high-turnover religious groups.

    John:

    I agree with that statement. Generally though, atheism has had its ups and downs, while faith marches on

    That does not fit the evidence.

    John:

    Is it a coincidence that China’s rising as a world economic power coincides with her rising Christianity?

    Yes, although I do expect to Christianity and Islam displace traditional religions in the developing world while they die out in the developed world, as the developing world develops and their standard of living goes up we can then expect religion to disappear there as well.

    Though the fact that certain religions are replacing others in the developing world does mean that those religions, despite losing the developed world can actually still post demographic gains which can fool those who don’t know where the gains come from into believing that religion is gaining ground.

    John:

    Good luck in trying to advance atheism.

    Thank you, though it’s not exactly something that will be stopped.

    John:

    While you may perceive a small victory here and there, a great forest fire continues to burn – it will not be stopped – humans are spiritual beings.

    A third of kids raised in religion leave it, that is not what we would expect if religion were somehow an intrinsic part of us.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Adam,
    If the church sponsors a scientist and the scientist, while using the scientific method, discovers something that grows our knowledge, would you be comfortable in saying that religion has gained us knowledge? I certainly wouldn’t, because religion has really gained us no new knowledge in this instance, but science has.

    Besides, I’m not sure that’s what John was talking about when he said that religion is “growing in knowledge.” Even if it were, however, revelation gets us nowhere in understanding our world. Science does work, however.

  • Adam

    Even if it were, however, revelation gets us nowhere in understanding our world.

    I guess this is true for your world view. Not mine. The Summa for instance comes from revelation. It specifically talks of man, and government, and the like…fasinating stuff

  • Brad

    Humans are indeed spiritual beings. Hopefully, though, more will realize how much religions offer artificial spirituality. You don’t need a church to tell you your place in the world, our place in the universe, the direction of humankind, and the fundamental nature of everything. These things can be figured out without reference to dogma from ancient peoples.

  • Alex Weaver

    The Summa for instance comes from revelation. It specifically talks of man, and government, and the like…fasinating stuff

    It is also, so far as anyone can tell, riddled with inaccuracies and both logical and moral absurdities.

  • John

    A website I peruse has it about right.

    “Ultimately, however, the supernatural’s existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason. Both are a matter of faith and therefore belief. In the absense of verifiability, neither can claim to be absolute truth. Placing a burden of proof on either “side” in the matter would be futile as neither could rise to the challenge. Tolerance for differences of belief would be far preferable.”

    http://www.rawstory.com/news/2006/The_lefts_own_religious_extremists_0429.html

    A quote from one of your own, Richard Dawkins;

    “It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society to be stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?”

    Kinda scary to me

    I am re-reading Robert Godwin’s “One Cosmos Under God.” I highly recommend it. Advance warning – it is a difficult read, and a basic knowledge of physics is helpful. A spiritual movement parallel to this supposed atheist resurgence is occurring – Godwin’s book is one among many that testify of this. I do not attend a church, but if I could find a local Christian Universalist church, I would go there. It seems to me your bigger battles will be with the “new age, spiritual crowd.” Today’s Christianity is destined to be supplanted by a more spiritual Christian church.. This will negate many of your attacks on the church. No longer will you point to seemingly bizarre Bible verses, for The Bible is not a history of Earth book, but a spiritual book, written in parable, in fact
    Jesus Christ, and the Apostles were never physically on our planet. As far as your attacks on “Christian” ministers and lay persons, whose actions belie their Christianity, you are absolutely right to do so; this is especially useful. A real Christian pastor will throw out the things of this world, live a simple life of devotion to God, family, and humanity.

    PS, it will be interesting to keep up with events at LHC in Geneva Switzerland.

    John

  • Alex Weaver

    “Ultimately, however, the supernatural’s existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason. Both are a matter of faith and therefore belief. In the absense of verifiability, neither can claim to be absolute truth. Placing a burden of proof on either “side” in the matter would be futile as neither could rise to the challenge. Tolerance for differences of belief would be far preferable.”

    What is so difficult about the concept of “false until proven true?” Almost everyone understands it in the special case of “innocent until proven guilty” (at least in the abstract).

  • Leum

    From Ms Barton’s article:

    Ultimately, however, the supernatural’s existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason. Both are a matter of faith and therefore belief. In the absense of verifiability, neither can claim to be absolute truth. Placing a burden of proof on either “side” in the matter would be futile as neither could rise to the challenge. Tolerance for differences of belief would be far preferable.

    Actually, we have a predetermined standard for who has the burden of proof: The burden of proof is placed on the person who makes the positive claim. i.e. If I say, “The free market will lift humanity into a golden era of prosperity,” and you say, “No, no it won’t,” I’m the one who has to demonstrate this. I’m the one who is claiming the truth of a proposition. By and large, atheism says nothing more than “your claim that there is a god is false.” It does not say that God is an impossibility. Because the theist is making the positive claim, she or he has the burden of proof, not the atheist (an exception would occur if the atheist made the positive claim that God cannot exist. In this case, the theist would have the burden of proof for the claim “God exists” and the atheist would have the burden of proof for the claim “God cannot exist”).

    From the same article:

    In the middle, as always, are the agnostics who hold that claims about the supernatural cannot be assessed as “true” or “false” because they invoke the unknown, the unknowable, and the incoherent. This is perhaps the most logically defensible stance…

    But because the agnostic does not actively believe that God (or gods) exists, he or she is necessarily an atheist (using the weakest definition of atheism: lacking or without theism). The idea that agnosticism is more sophisticated than atheism is a red herring. The atheist and the agnostic both lack an active belief in any deity, the agnostic just considers the question to be more about knowledge than belief.

    From John himself:

    No longer will you point to seemingly bizarre Bible verses, for The Bible is not a history of Earth book, but a spiritual book, written in parable…

    Parts of it, certainly, although I challenge anyone to find spiritual meaning in Exodus 28 (sorry, can’t make the link work). My point is that for a spiritual work, there’s a lot in the Bible that is nothing more than rules (or immoral commands, or “prophecies” that were probably made while on powerful hallucinogens). Not moral rules, but pointless, silly, useless rules. And of course, if the events of the Bible have no physical or historical truth basis, than why use it and not the Upanishads, Das Capital, the Qur’an, or Atlas Shrugged? What makes the Bible the best book of wisdom?

  • bestonnet

    John:

    It seems to me your bigger battles will be with the “new age, spiritual crowd.”

    The new age junk is of course very annoying but it is less dangerous than conventional religion (or at least they haven’t had any holy wars I know of) and the new age is partly replacing Christianity (with the spiritual but not religious segment of the population rising along with us).

    John:

    A spiritual movement parallel to this supposed atheist resurgence is occurring – Godwin’s book is one among many that testify of this.

    Looks to me more like an attempt to keep faith alive in a world where faith can’t compete.

    John:

    A quote from one of your own, Richard Dawkins;
    It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society to be stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?”

    Kinda scary to me

    Nicholas Humphrey makes a pretty good argument along those lines.

    Although even then we probably can’t restrict freedom of speech of parents (it really is a path we need to be very careful if we go down), instead we need to ensure that they don’t have the freedom of action to harm their children for disagreeing with them (even on matters such as religion) and to ensure that they receive a good science education which includes teaching the facts as can be best determined using the scientific method. Some philosophy and comparative religion could be helpful as well (including the fact that all arguments for the existence of god are based on logical fallacies and that there is no evidence that a god exists).

    John:

    PS, it will be interesting to keep up with events at LHC in Geneva Switzerland.

    Just checking. Oh that’s good, the world still exists (or maybe not).

  • John

    Yes Mr. Weaver,

    “What is so difficult about the concept of “false until proven true?” Almost everyone understands it in the special case of “innocent until proven guilty” (at least in the abstract).”

    Such as a statement made by many atheists; “God does not exist.”

    Which I say is “false untill proven true.”

  • Leum

    Such as a statement made by many atheists; “God does not exist.”

    Which I say is “false untill proven true.”

    And the theist says, “God exists.” By your own logic this statement should also be “false until proven true.” Since the statements “God exists” and “God does not exist” cannot both be true, we must assume the truth of one of these statements. In the absence of evidence supporting an ontological* question, we must assume non-existence.

    You may argue that it is possible to simply defer presumption of either statement, but if you do not positively believe “x exists” you necessarily do not believe that x exists. Atheism doesn’t (by and large) say “I believe (no God)” but “I believe no (God)” or (if I may be ungrammatical) “I no (believe God).”

    *I think this is the right word, as ontological means “related to existence”. To any philosophers out there: please correct me if I’m using the wrong word.

  • John

    Bestonnet,

    I copied this from a link in your comment.

    “So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible”

    So hopefully we Christian parents can be allowed to teach our children the spiritual truth of The Bible. What about churches and Sunday schools? Will atheists also force the closure of these?

    Sorry, but the atheist world is a bit scary. Who knows what else will be banned.

    I was at a middle school recently. A teacher had placed several posters with a picture of a polar bear, captioned with “global warming causing extinction of polar bears.” I know that Canada is still issuing hunting permits for polar bears, so my limited critical thinking ability had alarm bells sound off. It seems more like government schools are places to program certain assumptions into the young mind. Anyway, I digress.

    Also, a fly in your ointment may well be the subject of a local, or nonlocal universe. All the latest scientific evidence points to nonlocality.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Adam,

    I guess this is true for your world view. Not mine.

    So, knowledge is not dependent on what you believe? Thank you for more relativism, which I find to be highly ironic coming from a Xian.

    The Summa for instance comes from revelation. It specifically talks of man, and government, and the like…fasinating stuff

    And, what knowledge does it actually give us and how did revelation give us this knowledge?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    John,
    As others have pointed out, the burden of proof lies on the theist. Trying to shift the burden of proof from having to support your assertion might sound like a good idea, but it’s ultimately not logically correct. When you assert that god exists and I do not simply accept your assertion, then it is up to you to prove it. It is not up to me to prove that your god does not exist.

    Of course, there are many disproofs of gods out there, and most of them make very compelling cases that the majority of gods envisioned by Xians are, in fact, not logically possible.

    As for child abuse and theistic indoctrination, it is a fine line, but your comment that, “The atheist world is a bit scary,” is a bit out of line. There’s nothing wrong with asking whether it is OK to indoctrinate children with falsehoods and unproven conjectures presented as facts. It’s a discussion we should be having, yet some theists act as if their children are their property to be programmed as they see fit. If anything is scary, it’s parents like this that will teach their children inaccuracies and falsehoods about the world we live in simply to make sure that they believe in the right things. This can be damaging to the child and it is something that we need to think about and discuss. If you find it scary to care about children and their mental well being as well as their development, then that, to me, is a scary thought.

  • http://prinzler@calpoly.edu Paul

    John, as Leum noted in a previous post, it’s the *positive* claim that must prove its case. When atheists say that God does not exist, they minimally mean that theists have not made the positive case that God does exist. Their negative claim merely says that the opposite, positive claim has not been made. A moment’s reflection will show that the positive claim is the one that must be made.

  • MS Quixote

    Actually, we have a predetermined standard for who has the burden of proof: The burden of proof is placed on the person who makes the positive claim.

    Leum,

    This is a positive claim in itself, and by your standard, would require proof. I tend to agree with it for the most part, but I was wondering if you (or anyone) had support for it outside our legal system.

    In the absence of evidence supporting an ontological* question, we must assume non-existence.

    Another positive claim. I am not disputing it, but if you could support it, I would be much obliged.

    Formally, ontology is the study of Being, which may be distinct from existence, since existence is generally thought of as contingent upon something necessary in itself, but I think your usage is fine given your context. You would never have to worry about it unless you were engaging in philosophy and needed to keep the two separate.

    Within this formal definition, it can be incorrect to say that God exists; it would be more accurate to say that he has he power of being. That’s why sometimes the term “self-existent” is utilized. But, given the common usage of the phrase “God exists”, no one virtually ever objects. The terms have died the deaths of overusage.

    Ontology is often a pursuit of non-metaphysical or non-supernatural Being. For example, Heideggerean ontology posits being underlying the existing universe without reference to standard theological concepts of God. If I understand it correctly, not being a physicist, string theory, etc., is not far from being an ontological pursuit as it seeks the basic “being” of subatomic particles. If energy were determined to be the basic being of the universe, ontology would still push forward. After all, what is energy? What is its being? That is a fine ontological question. Someone feel free to correct me if warranted.

  • Leum

    Thanks for the lesson in ontology, MS Quixote. Philosophy has always intrigued me and confused me in equal measure, and I usually can’t quite wrap my head around most philosophical ideas.

    Anyway, I consider both of my statements that you listed to be relatively similar; both are arguing for the burden of proof being on the positive claim (the second one just states where belief should lie until proof is provided).

    My understanding is that the burden of proof is placed on the positive claimant because it is easier to prove the existence of something that exists than it is to disprove the existence of something that does not. I can easily prove that my cat exists: he’s right there, staring up at you, hoping you’ll give him tuna. (A solipsist might argue that I can’t truly prove that he exists, but by and large most people will accept my cat’s existence.

    On the other hand, I can scour the universe for a billion years without finding the Higgs boson, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Unless I can prove the logical or physical impossibility of the boson, you can keep arguing that I just haven’t been using a sufficiently perfect particle accelerator.

    So, why assume non-existence of the Higgs boson (or God) without evidence*? Largely to avoid insanity. Claims of existence are made constantly and are often contradictory. If we assume existence instead of non-existence we risk insanity. I simply can’t accept the idea that I ought to believe every claim of existence, especially if there is not even an attempt to provide evidence (many atheists break out the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Invisible Pink Unicorn here, but I accept that most theists have a more transcendent God).

    *Note: there may excellent evidence for the Higgs boson that I don’t know about. Physics is not my area of expertise.

  • MS Quixote

    Leum, your answer seems reasonable to me. I don’t accept the idea that I ought to believe every claim of existence either. But why then would we assume non-existence in favor of suspended judgment on any given matter, or are assumptions of non-existence and suspense of judgment more or less equivalent?

  • Brad

    The Raw Story article linked to is filled with lousy understandings of atheism and reasoning, and it’s only aimed specifically at atheist “extremism” to boot.

    Ultimately, however, the supernatural’s existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason.

    (This is for refuting “outrageous” atheist claim #1) But where is the proof or reasoning behind this statement? I quote Mark Vuletic’s article Is Atheism Logical?:

    1. One can prove with certainty that an entity does not exist if (a) the concept of that entity is incoherent, or (b) the existence of that entity is logically incompatible with obviously present states of affairs.

    2. One can be rationally justified in claiming that an entity does not exist without being certain that it does not exist. This justification comes from (a) the improbability that that entity exists given various states of affairs, and/or (b) the principle of parsimony coupled with a lack of evidence for the existence of that entity.

    Incidentally, how does Barton get away with saying “… it is almost certain that there are things that exist that are beyond any of our philosophies”? Doesn’t that break her own epistemic rules set out in her essay? Anyway, the next “outrageous claims” are virtually nonexistent opinions. The supposed atheist extremist who believes these are obviously misguided scoffers, and fortunately are in a virtually undetectable minority of actual atheists. (Note: The IMAH was generalizing religion to the known organized religions of today, where religious authorities decide what children should believe and tell people that they are to follow the arbitrary whim of an imaginary deity for nothing more than obedience and submission.)

    Lastly, to some of the above atheist commentators, I have to disagree. (This means I also disagree with Vuletic’s 2b.) Both statements “God exists” and “God does not exist” require minimal evidence and reason before they can be reasonably claimed. Before that, we can use the principle of parsimony to act and think as if the unverifiable and unfalsifiable does not exist until otherwise shown wrong. However, the actual truth or falsehood of the two statements are not affected by our use of epistemic tools such as Occam’s Razor, they are merely worked around to the best of our ability.

  • Brad

    But why then would we assume non-existence in favor of suspended judgment on any given matter, or are assumptions of non-existence and suspense of judgment more or less equivalent?

    “Suspended judgment” is exactly the phrase I was looking for. I found the concept also in Ebon Musings’ article Naturalism in Science:

    To show why this is false, a distinction must be drawn between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. The former is what science employs: the belief that natural events have natural causes and that there are physical laws which we can discover and understand. The latter is the belief that there is nothing beyond those natural causes and physical laws, in other words, that the supernatural does not exist. This is a personal belief that some scientists hold, but that science in general does not require. Science must assume that all events it can observe and study are natural in origin, but it does not claim that the supernatural does not exist; nor does it claim that it does exist. That is simply not a topic which it can speak to, and to make a statement either way would be beyond the bounds of science.

    (Emphasis mine.) Also, I have to back-track on my statement that the supernatural can be disproven. I meant that specific supernatural claims can be disproven.

  • bestonnet

    John:

    So hopefully we Christian parents can be allowed to teach our children the spiritual truth of The Bible. What about churches and Sunday schools? Will atheists also force the closure of these?

    Sorry, but the atheist world is a bit scary. Who knows what else will be banned.

    This is an area where we need to take great care to ensure that we don’t let people brainwash their kids while also ensuring that we don’t restrict their freedom of speech too much.

    We’d probably be better off emphasising the positive side of it in terms of children having the right to the best information we have (which also means a right not to go to a faith school or have religious home schooling).

    I wouldn’t go all the way to banning parents from teaching about their religion (I don’t think it’s necessary to get rid of religion to do that, besides, our victory would be much more legitimate if it happened without coercion) although I certainly would ban parents from punishing their children for not being religious (or being of a religion the parents disapprove of).

    John:

    Also, a fly in your ointment may well be the subject of a local, or nonlocal universe. All the latest scientific evidence points to nonlocality.

    I can’t see what locality has to do with anything discussed so far.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    So hopefully we Christian parents can be allowed to teach our children the spiritual truth of The Bible. What about churches and Sunday schools? Will atheists also force the closure of these?

    John, the only people who are trying to ban any kind of free speech on religious matters are theists, not atheists. This includes many of your fellow Christians, who in several countries are currently doing their utmost to outlaw any criticism of Christianity by resurrecting ancient anti-blasphemy laws.

    For all that you criticize Richard Dawkins, you clearly haven’t read him for yourself. In The God Delusion, he states clearly that he is not advocating the outlawing of religion; in fact, he advocates teaching comparative religion to children. The book is written not as a political action program, but as an exercise in consciousness-raising: waking people up to the wrongness of labeling children as if they were members of religions they are too young to join of their own free will, or traumatizing children by teaching them dogmas about Hell and other wicked, brutal religious beliefs.

  • Brad

    Incidentally, I read that Sarah Palin, while a mayor in Alaska, fought to ban a pastor’s book (“Pastor, I am Gay”) that challenged her church’s views on homosexuality.

    (Link + Hat tip to Mrs. Christina!)


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