Why do atheists ask boring questions?

UPDATE: I’ve taken a second look at the language I used at the end of this post and revised it.  The revision and the reason are now present at the end of the post.

There’s an update on John Loftus’s book of debates with a Christian scholar (I mentioned it before when he was soliciting possible topics on Debunking Christianity).  He’s picked out the first six questions they’ll be addressing, and I’m really disappointed with the one’s he presumably picked as particularly winning points for atheists.  Here’s the list:

My first three questions have to do with the biblical god:

  • The biblical god ruled over a pantheon of gods and had a wife, Asherah.
  • The biblical god required human sacrifices for his pleasure.
  • The biblical god commanded the genocide of whole people groups.

Hmm, pretty provocative.  Oh, wait.   I already know the answer to all of these questions: Christians are free to interpret almost anything in the Old Testament allegorically.

Essentially this is the same question three times, which could be more succinctly phrases as: Is there anything that God did in the Old Testament that you feel cannot be reconciled with the teachings and works of Jesus? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the answer is no.

Most people do not focus on the troublesome aspects of their religion (whether textual or ethical) on a day-to-day basis, and, if Loftus wanted to poke at these weak spots, he could have picked better targets.  Perhaps he should have asked:

  • Are the moral principles of your religion accessible to everyone?
  • Do the demands of your religion conflict with your moral intuitions?
  • When should you override feelings of moral revulsion to follow the commands of your God?
  • When should you override feelings of moral revulsion to follow the commands of your God’s servants?

For point of comparison, here are the first three questions posed by his Christian opponent.

His first three questions:

  • If there is no God then life has no meaning.
  • If there is no God then everything is permitted.
  • Science is no substitute for religion.

These are better, but they’re clearing an awfully low bar.  The last question is particularly lousy.  Science is obviously a decent substitute for religion when it comes to generating hypothesis about physical phenomena but, contra Sam Harris, doesn’t have much to tell us about morality or meaning.

However, it is not sufficient for religion to assert that it is a tool for answering metaphysical questions.  Religion must also offer reasons that it is a reliable and accurate tool for resolving these questions.  Forcing a false dilemma and then disproving one option is bad argumentation and bad apologetics.  At their core, all the questions posed by the Christian fall into this shoddy reasoning.


What do you wish your side had asked?  Are other atheists as frustrated* as I am?


UPDATE: When this post originally ran, I used the word “embarrassed” where the word “frustrated” now appears.  I’ve changed it, since I think embarrassed was more pejorative than I meant it to be and my word choice was distracting from the debate.  I am frustrated when atheists don’t present their strongest arguments in debates or seek out weak opponents.  I think this doesn’t present our position in the best light, and hurts our side, hence my original use of embarrassment.  However, I didn’t go into enough detail to back up my language.  Hence, two new posts, further explaining my position.

"Well, I would love to know if you now believe that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered."

Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong ..."
"Any chance of you ever addressing the evidence that led you to accept the truth ..."

Letting Go of the Goal of ..."
""Wow, an unevidenced assertion from a religious dipshite. "Your quotes are the evidence and reason ..."

This is my last post for ..."
""Congrats on leaving your brain behind!"Comments like yours are why lots of atheists leave atheism. ..."

This is my last post for ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Your fourth question reminds me of the story of Abraham. It said a lot about the nature of faith.

  • Science is obviously a decent substitute for religion when it comes to generating hypothesis about physical phenomena but, contra Sam Harris, doesn't have much to tell us about morality or meaning. And religion is better?

  • @B.R. – That's one of the most troubling stories in the Bible for me. It's particularly worrying when you think of this trust in God's judgement applied to issues related to homosexuality, where Christian teaching doesn't jibe with most people's lived experience.@Tyro – read the next paragraph. I said that religions claims to do things that science cannot. I am correct in attributing this claim to religion and this claim is correct insofar as science doesn't justify morality. However, as you can see in the paragraph following the quote you pulled, I don't think religion is an adequate explainer either.

  • It's very interesting that the biblical scholar wrote and said this to me: "I think that your topics are strategically wise on your part. I shall have to tred carefully…"Do you know him to be able to understand why he said that? Of course not. You can't.Remember too, there will be twenty topics for us to debate. There is a reason why I have his attention. I know him, so please factor this into your "embarrassment."

  • Answering the Christian's questions:1. If there is no god then life has no meaning: You can make one. Go try it. But you don't have to.2. 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.3. 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.

  • @Loftus – If your interlocutor really is running scared from these questions, you picked well for the purposes of scoring points in this debate, but I still think this isn't persuasive or interesting to an intellectually engaged Christian. If your partner really is flummoxed by these, he sounds like a pretty weak opponent; I'm sure you could hold your own against better.With only twenty topics, wouldn't it make sense not to waste three of them on the question of biblical/Old Testament literalism, which is not accepted in many Christian circles?I look forward to seeing what the remaining 17 slots are going to be used for.

  • Leah do you live in Europe?Do you know my target audience and why I chose them?

  • John-I think you and Leah might be talking at cross-purposes to some extent. I think what Leah's saying (and for the most part I agree) that regardless of your target audience, those specific three questions aren't very intellectually interesting, nor really get at some of the more fascinating questions borne out in the atheist / theist debate. While the questions you're asking might be politically useful, that's not exactly what Leah's talking about and what she finds valuable in this discourse, especially re: the comment about your Christian interlocutor. To be fair, I don't think some of the questions Leah finds interesting are that stimulating (being a deconstructionist and quite a lot more relativistically-minded, for instance, I don't think talking about moral intuitions is useful because moral intuitions are constructs just like everything else), but those questions can't be so brusquely pushed aside with a "no, this text isn't meant to be taken literally" — plus you'll especially run into trouble with postmodern Christians who won't make the argument that anything in the Bible has to be "literally true" because no narrative can be constructed objectively, and will source god to revelation and divine experience (I know a few of these people).But, that's probably just me, and to some extent Leah as well (Leah, please correct me if I'm misrepresenting you). It's not so much about winning the debate as about engaging with interesting questions, because on the political and social level, atheists should be talking about religious privilege and hierarchies and not so much about metaphysics or textuality.

  • Well then, it's as I expected. People just disagree. 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.We must first and foremost drive a wedge between what a Christian believes and the Bible. It's strategic.

  • Ann

    "We must first and foremost drive a wedge between what a Christian believes and the Bible. It's strategic."I concur with Mr. Loftus. Fundamentalists will always fall back on the Bible. The Bible must be deconstructed first, before issues of meaning and morality are addressed. Loftus' opponent believes the atheist's weakness is the question of universal morality. lol!

  • @Loftus,I’ve looked back to my first post and removed the word ‘embarrassed’ and added a note explaining the change. It was a bit stronger than was justified, and I’m sorry if it put you off. I’ve tried to explain more clearly and with less loaded language why I find your approach and questions frustrating and possibly counterproductive in two new posts.I would like to hear your thoughts. We disagree, but I hope we can do so respectfully. I’ve tried to explain my reasoning and I would be interested in your reply. I certainly regret that my comments have put you off discussing this project altogether (as you wrote on your blog). The problem of how to balance the debate tactics for a particular opponent against the way they’ll play to a broader audience is a hard one, and I think it merits discussion.–Leah

  • In my experience Theists think the best atheist arguments are the same ones the atheists find the least compelling, and vice verse. I think this point demands some investigation. However I do agree that the Loftus questions are quite possibly the most answered and least interesting questions one could ask even a hard-core fundamentalist.

  • Actually, just to make an observation, Sam Harris is not the first to suggest that science can say something about morals.John Stuart Mill discussed the 200 year history of this endeavor in his book Utilitarianism. He even develops a model for science based morality.Just thought I would point that out, since so many seem to be unaware of it.