A Response to Cracked’s “5 Atheist Arguments Which Aren’t Helping Anyone”

I admit, I spend a lot of time browsing Cracked. From its origins as a comedy website about dick jokes, it’s grown into one of the most subversively intelligent and thoughtful sites on the internet, commenting not just on pop culture, but on politics, philosophy and religion. Among other things, they’ve published harrowing personal essays about life in Muslim theocracies, religious honor-killing cultures and the Quiverfull cult.

Which brings me to this column by Luke McKinney, 5 Atheist Arguments Which Aren’t Helping Anyone. Although he’s a nonbeliever himself – he speaks of “prying the ancient religious death grip from society’s throat” and says that atheism is growing “as a natural result of increased access to information” – he argues that many atheists are, to coin a phrase, Not Helping. He lists some of the arguments we make that he thinks hurt our own cause, and I just had to respond:

#5. “There’s No Scientific Proof”

There’s absolutely no scientific proof that points to the existence of gods. We’ve scanned nonillions of cubic light years and delved into the smallest subatomic structures without finding a single speck of divinity. It seems like the best possible argument to an atheist, but that’s just because they lack faith. Or rather, they lack a basic understanding of what the word “faith” means… Having faith means you don’t need proof. Scientific argument can’t convince anyone subscribing to a science-less universe.

The flaw in this is that nearly all religious believers do respect science, at least to some degree. The only people who truly subscribe to a “science-less universe” are the ones who believe that we live on a flat earth covered by a solid firmament holding back the waters of heaven, and that sickness is caused by insufficiently fervent prayer for protection against demons. If you reject that, it’s because you acknowledge the power of science to discover truths about the world we live in.

Yes, it’s true that most theists wave “faith!” as a trump card whenever science fails to confirm their beliefs. But how many religious people spring eagerly on any scrap of “scientific” proof they think they’ve found? Whether it’s the Shroud of Turin, the Creationist Museum, or just miraculous coffee stains and faces in tree stumps, there’s a real desire for validation which shows that they’re not as indifferent to science as they may say. There’s a tension there – a hairline crack – and pointing out the lack of scientific evidence for religious claims is like a wedge to force it open wider.

#4. Logical Paradoxes

…Most people have their faith instilled by their parents or culture before they’ve even learned to think for themselves. It’s just something they’re told and believe. Trying to make them feel silly for it with a series of catchy one-liners will come off as a personal attack, whether you mean it to or not.

This point hits on something true: that many believers treat any criticism of their faith as a personal attack. It’s also true that it’s possible for an atheist to be more aggressive and patronizing than the situation merits, and that this is likely to make a religious person feel defensive and disinclined to listen to anything else we might say.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t choose our tactics based on the worst imaginable response they might provoke. If that were the case, we’d be granting religious people a blank check to shut down any critique by getting touchy. I don’t believe atheists should set out to offend, but if some religious belief contains a logical contradiction or has some other deficiency, we shouldn’t shrink from pointing that out.

The most common such question is “Why does a god let bad things happen?” It’s an excellent question, but one the everyday believer on the street has no need to answer, or have answered for them. Again, that’s what having faith means.

This couldn’t be more wrong! The problem of evil is a major and serious argument that everyday believers do struggle with, and often admit they can’t resolve. (For two examples of this, see these posts: They Have No Answer and The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy. After the 2005 Boxing Day quake, even the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said “Of course this makes us doubt God’s existence.”) Many former believers also testify that the problem of evil was instrumental in their deconversion.

McKinney seems all too willing to take religious apologists at their word. They, the self-appointed spokespeople and defenders of religion, assert that evil and suffering don’t trouble them and that they have counterarguments that soothe away their doubt. But of course they’d say that – it’s basically their job. If you wouldn’t trust a commercial’s claims about how the amazing new product it’s hawking is superior to its competitors and will solve all your problems, it’s worth your while to exercise similar skepticism here.

It’s true that most people won’t change their minds after hearing a single argument, however persuasive. Human psychology just isn’t that malleable. But that doesn’t mean that atheist argumentation is pointless. It just means we need to be realistic about what we hope to accomplish. I’ve used the “wind and water” analogy for this: minds are changed slowly, a little bit at a time, like erosion wearing away a stone. You can’t convince someone who’s determined not to be convinced, but you can plant a seed of doubt or questioning that may one day sprout and grow in surprising ways. And even about deeply held faith, people do sometimes change their minds, as the many, many, many, many testimonials from former believers will bear witness.

#3. “The Bible/Torah/Quran/Tripitaka/Whatever Is Full of Screwed-Up Stuff!”

Of course they are. Anything written millennia ago is going to be full of horrifyingly outdated instructions… But most quietly religious people don’t adhere to religious texts in a literal kind of way… unless you see a Christian trying to sell their daughter as a slave or otherwise use an old book as some sort of shield against modern society, you don’t get to deploy Exodus 21:7 against them.

Of these five points, this one is the most inexplicable. It acknowledges that most religious people believe in, and venerate as the word of God, a book that endorses horrifyingly evil cruelty… but as long as those people don’t practice similar cruelty themselves, we don’t get to bring that up?

This overlooks the obvious point that if a book contains such appallingly bad moral advice, this does and should cast doubt on everything else it says that isn’t as easy to verify. The atheist argument shouldn’t be: “Since you believe in the Bible, you must think it’s OK to sell your daughter into slavery, you evil misogynist” – I agree that would be silly. The atheist argument should be: “You believe in the Bible, but this book says you can sell your daughter into slavery. If you don’t agree with that, why should you take the Bible any more seriously about anything else? Would you take theological advice from someone who saw no problem with such an evil custom?” (This is the point of my satire, “The Great Sage’s Visit“.)

#2. “Religion Starts Wars”

Before blaming wars on religion, find a religious campaign mounted to invade a resource-poor region without any major population centers or concentrations of wealth. Religions don’t start wars; they’re just excellent excuses for them.

It’s very true that, when a nation mobilizes its industrial capacity and populace into the enormously costly endeavor of war, there’s often some material or strategic end in sight (though not always: see below). Religion is often a cause, not often the sole cause.

But that doesn’t mean that religion has nothing to do with war! Often, it’s religious differences that enable the combatants to tell each other apart in the first place – the quality that divides “Us” from “Them” and makes people believe that the resources of Them should rightfully belong to Us. And it’s religious differences that often make wars longer-lasting, less amenable to peaceful settlement, and more likely to spawn lasting hatred and resentment. After all, if God is on your side, that makes it not just a defeat but a sin to compromise with your enemies.

Lastly: McKinney challenges us to find a religious war of conquest with no material gain in sight. Here’s one:

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

One might also cite the ongoing problem of ultra-nationalist, ultra-fundamentalist Jewish settlers displacing Palestinians and occupying their land: not because Palestinians have some great treasure that the Jewish settlers want, but merely because they believe that this land was part of God’s covenantal promise to the Jewish people.

But if that’s the flaw, then religion is the exploit — a codified set of instructions widening one little loophole into a total rootkit for the human mind. With religious motivation, people weren’t just plundering the wealth of another nation. They were serving their god and saving the enemy’s souls at the same time. They weren’t just greedy thugs; they got to feel moral about it, thereby reducing their own fear of death and quieting their consciences.

The weird thing is that McKinney makes a great point and doesn’t notice it. Yes, religion is one cause of wars among many – but as he points out himself, religion is the most effective means bar none of convincing people to commit violence and making them feel righteous about it. It’s a powerful “exploit” to overcome the promptings of conscience that normally make it difficult to kill another person.

That is an excellent reason to criticize religion! By weakening its grip on people’s minds, we deny those who’d commit violence that kind of moral sanction. We deny them the easy belief that the people on the other side of the trenches are God’s enemies, the damned, the sub-human, and that God, who knows best, wants you to wipe them out.

Even if all religion disappeared from the world tomorrow, would people still go to war, oppress each other, kill each other for stupid and inadequate reasons? Sure. It’d be foolish to say that religion is the only cause of any bad thing that’s ever happened. But religion is a cause, and if we take it away, there will be that many fewer bad things in the world. Overturning Jim Crow laws didn’t end racism; giving women the vote didn’t end sexism; instituting same-sex marriage didn’t end homophobia. That doesn’t mean none of those accomplishments were worthwhile.

#1. Any Argument Aimed At An Individual

You have no idea how someone uses their faith. Maybe it’s a comfort in the face of the infinite. Maybe it’s a way of dealing with past trauma. Maybe they just like the idea that their dead loved ones are still around somewhere. As long they’re not sacrificing victims to a resurrection shrine, it’s not a problem. You only need to move against them if they try to apply their rules to anyone else. If someone’s screaming against marriage, or trying to carve out your heart as a sacrifice to Huitzilopochtil… then you do need to stop that individual person. Otherwise, work on the wider picture.

I find this suggestion bizarre. How can we not aim our arguments at individuals?

Religion isn’t a grand, impersonal machine with a mind of its own. Holy books don’t leap off of pulpits and issue orders. All institutions, including religious institutions, are made up of human beings making human decisions. Therefore, any criticism of religion is inevitably a criticism of individual human beings and the things they think, say and do. There’s no way to “work on the wider picture” that doesn’t involve pushing back against them.

Now, as I said, we shouldn’t be intentionally smug, condescending or abrasive. And I agree that we shouldn’t seek out and attack people who quietly take comfort in their faith. But that’s not because I think their beliefs are any less wrong, just because there’s more urgent and serious harm being done. I believe that religion is dangerous even when it’s not doing harm, because the widespread acceptance of faith – even the seemingly benign kinds – as a valid means of decision-making makes it easier for poisonous fundamentalism to flourish. As a species, we’ll all be better off when everyone relies on reason. But that rational utopia will never come into being on its own. The only way we can bring it about is by arguing and making the case for it.

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