Atheism, at its most basic, is boring. It is the claim that no God(s) exist. It’s an assertion I believe to be true and, given the state of the world I live in, one that I believe it is important to assert. But, taken in isolation, it’s a very dull point. My unbelief in God doesn’t tell you anything about how I think I ought to live my life or, perhaps more relevantly, how I think you ought to live yours.
I argue about religion because I think I’m right on the facts, and I believe that living according to religious falsehoods hurts people. I desperately want to change my opponents’ minds not for the thrill of winning, but because I believe I’d be helping them by changing their minds. My Catholic boyfriend feels the same way; he wants to convert me for the sake of helping me to live a better, healthier life. Loftus, on the other hand, seems more interested in conversion from than conversion to.
He wrote, in response to my original post:
Tell ya what then, you ask your questions and I’ll ask mine. You choose your target audience and I’ll choose mine. You don’t even know who it is I’m co-writing a book with to comment, but you comment anyway, out of ignorance. Listen, there are NO questions you could ask this scholar that will cause him to doubt. He’s in defensive mode. He’ll find a way. There is no silver bullet to kill the beast, nor will 20 of them do. Why in hell would you want to place such pressure on a few questions when they will probably not convince a believer anyway? What is it you’re looking for? Whatever it is, you have unrealistic expectations, and to be quite frank I see nothing in your questions that I could not answer myself from a Christian perspective.
I don’t think it would be impossible for a Christian to come up with an answer to my questions about the Isaac and Abraham problem. And, like Loftus, I think the odds are low that either my interlocutor or myself would be convinced by the following discussion. Unlike Loftus, I am interested in my opponent’s response. I’m not asking a question for the sake of scoring points, but for the sake of trying to understand what the other side thinks and to communicate why I find their perspective abhorrent (the Isaac/Abraham problem is the aspect of religion that frightens me most).
Atheists cannot focus only on embarrassing Christians, we ought to proudly present our own beliefs as compelling in themselves. When we shy away from that challenge, the morals and metaphysics we present appear hollow.
For an example, I’m going to pick on commenter Ashok a little, who decided to reply to the (admittedly flawed) questions posed by Loftus’s opponent. Ashok wrote:
- If there is no god then life has no meaning: You can make one. Go try it. But you don’t have to.
- Yes, everything is permitted, that is to say the universe will permit you to do anything constrained by the laws of physics. Your fellow humans probably won’t though.
- I would be offended if someone said science was a substitute for religion. It’s not supposed to be its substitute, it’s supposed to be it’s alternative or opposite.
I find these answers to be flip and empty. Ashok hasn’t left anything to attack, but he hasn’t said anything of interest. He’s neatly sidestepped his opponent’s questions about his moral beliefs by imposing a narrow reading of the word ‘permitted.’ In the end, he looks more interested in winning the argument than in telling the truth about what he believes (unless he is a nihilist, in which case, he answered fairly).
When prominent atheists like Loftus focus only on deconstructing opponents rather than building up a case that their own position is right, they can appear as manipulative and false as any theist. Evangelical Christianity is not the strongest form of theism, so to set it up in a dichotomy with atheism and then refute some of its principles is still not compelling evidence for our side.
No matter whether Loftus’s maneuver is effective against this particular interlocutor, it has the opposite effect on a non-literalist Christian who assumes that atheists are arguing in good faith, presenting strong arguments. And if this is the best we can do, we are in trouble.
Loftus is a smart, well known atheist, which bears with it a responsibility to represent our side well. Loftus cannot responsibly delegate the job of refuting smart Christians to others, when, because of his prominence, his arguments in these debates will be assumed to be among the best that atheists have to offer. We owe our opponents and ourselves better.