So you’re a theist who wants to comment on an atheist blog? Read this first!

There are certain arguments and tactics which we see over and over again, usually (but not exclusively) from Biblical literalist Christians (included hereafter for brevity under the umbrella terms “fundamentalists” or “fundies”). Sometimes their posts are very offensive, but usually they’re just repeating arguments that we’ve already seen many, many times. With that in mind, I’m aiming to create a thread that can be linked to whenever a new commenter turns up and uses these same arguments and tactics.

If anybody thinks of something they’d like to add to it, leave it in the comments. I’d like this to be an evolving entry in the style of a wiki, open to all contributors and commenters to improve over time. So, like I said, leave suggestions and I’ll try to keep on top of them.

If Daniel, Vorjack, or Elemenope want to alter it, they should feel free.

So, tips for the theist commenter:

Consider your audience

Whilst UF has regular commenters who are religious, the vast majority of the blog’s audience is atheist and the religious guys tend to be liberal Christians. This means that there are certain things which you might be used to expressing in social situations with other Christians, which would cause offense here. Examples include, but are not limited to:

“The fool says in his heart there is no God”;

“Repent before it’s too late”;

“You’re all going to go to hell if you don’t bow down and obey Jesus”;

“You can’t experience love if you don’t believe in God”.

Comments in that vein may well draw an angry response, and if it’s your first comment and we don’t know you, it’s possible we’ll assume you’re just a drive-by troll and delete your post. This leads me nicely to my next point:

Trolling softly is still trolling

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re getting some kind of thrill out of “witnessing” to all us Godless atheists, then chances are you’re already winding people up. It comes across in the tone of comments, and it’s very rude. Remember, we’re only atheist because we reject one more God from history’s ample supply of Gods than you do – You yourself are likely atheist about Thor and Odin and Pan and Baal and Bacchus and Helios and Ganesh and all the rest. We’re not so very different, and the fact that we’re not convinced by the supernatural claims made for the personality at the centre of your particular religion does not make us bad people. So be nice and engage politely! Lurk a while, read some old threads, and for the love of all that’s good don’t use some of the following tired arguments:

Evolution is “just” a Theory

The number one, all-time favourite Creationist line of argument: Not acknowledging that the same word can sometimes have two different meanings. In general, what Creationists are actually arguing is that evolution is a hypothesis, not a Theory (I’m capitalising Theory to denote a scientific Theory as opposed to the other kind). Creationists are wrong about that, as we shall see. A hypothesis is a precursor to a theory; it’s the idea that’s initially being tested – So it must be falsifiable. For any non-scientifically literate people reading, that means that it must correctly predict the outcomes of testable questions. It doesn’t become a theory until it’s been tested many times and some kind of consensus exists that it provides a model that accurately reflects what’s going on in the real world.

This is why the Theory of Evolution is science and Intelligent Design (ID) is religion – There are criteria which, if met, would prove the Theory of Evolution wrong. There are no criteria by which ID could even be tested as a scientific Theory. It cannot change or adapt with evidence; it is a matter of faith – It might be a religious theory, but it is certainly not a scientific Theory.

So, to summarise, courtesy of http://notjustatheory.com/:

When scientists use the word theory, it has a different meaning to normal everyday use.

In science, a theory is not a guess, not a hunch. It’s a well-substantiated, well-supported, well-documented explanation for our observations.

Some people think that in science, you have a theory, and once it’s proven, it becomes a law. That’s not how it works.

A theory never becomes a law. In fact, if there was a hierarchy of science, theories would be higher than laws. There is nothing higher, or better, than a theory.

Just because it’s called a theory of gravity, doesn’t mean that it’s just a guess.

The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is our best explanation for the fact of evolution.

Evolution is not just a theory, it’s triumphantly a theory!

In case you were wondering, a scientific law (as opposed to a theory) is the name given to a description of consistent observations; observations so consistent that one can make predictions by analyzing them. For example, the law of gravity is the consistent observation that massive objects attract each other proportionately to their combined mass and inversely to the square of the distance between them. Laws, in short, tell you what’s happening in a results sense about a physical system. Theories, in contrast, are explanations as to how things work such that they produce the observations we observe. As a metaphor, if one were to take the example of pressing the gas pedal of a car, a law about the gas pedal would be describing how fast the car goes when the gas pedal is pushed down with a certain amount of force, whereas a theory about the gas pedal would be an account of how the gas pedal regulates the flow of gas into an engine turning a crankshaft which turns an axle which turns the wheels which drives the car forward. Science is the process of popping the trunk and poking around inside.

“Truth” can be different for different people

Fundies use the word “truth” a lot – But to quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”. Of course, it is arguable that fundies use “truth” in a special, specific-to-context way that is not the same as the way that it is used in everyday conversation – Scientists have their own meaning for “Theory”, after all. The difference is that scientists can use that word in both contexts and know the difference, while fundies tend to learn their own definition of “truth” – which seems to be “what feels emotionally pleasing and agrees with my beliefs” – in everyday conversation, as if it is the only version of the word that matters.

Well, seekers after truth, let me give you a heads-up:

Truth

Noun

1. Conformity to fact.

2. A statement proven as true.

And just for completeness:

Fact

Noun

1. The quality of being actual.

2. Something that has occurred or is actually the case.

It is important to note that neither strength of belief nor emotional response have any bearing on what is “truth”, in the normal conversational use of the word. So go ahead and use “truth” in a specific, religious context if you want to – But please be aware that it also has a wider definition that has nothing to do with faith!

The historicity of Jesus is proven by evidence

[Update] I feel the need to put a note here for the skim-readers since this particular entry has sparked discussion. I’m not arguing that Jesus did not exist as a historical person. I’m arguing that’s there’s no substantive, third-party evidence that Jesus existed as a person. Read the whole entry before accusing me of being a conspiracy theorist or a kook, please![End of update]

This has been a favourite line around here lately. We’ve had a lot of commenters blandly assert that the actual existence of Jesus is a proven historical fact – But not a single one of them has ever presented any of the alleged “proof” when asked. In fact, to get a serious analysis of the evidence, I had to ask another atheist – Cue Nox with a wall of text on the forum. Whether you’re a Christian or an atheist, I strongly suggest you read it – Nox is a very knowledgeable cookie when it comes to theological history, and you will be educated by it.

The upshot is: There’s no good extra-Biblical evidence for the historicity of Jesus. I accept that if you believe the Bible is true then you won’t find that such an issue – But most of us don’t believe that, so it is a problem for us.

The other part of this issue is, as Ursa Minor has repeatedly pointed out, so what? It’s not difficult to accept that in a time and place where there were a lot of Jewish apocalyptic “prophets”, there might possibly have been one named Yeshua, who might possibly have inspired the writing (decades later) of the various books of the New Testament. But so what? It certainly doesn’t follow automatically that he was God, or the Son of God, or a miracle worker, or in any other way supernatural.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, folks. I see lots of claims and zero evidence.

The universe was created by God – My God

This is one that I strongly recommend fundies to sit and think about for a while:

Could any of the arguments you use in favour of your God, be used only in favour of your God, and not in favour of any other Gods?

Let’s enter fantasy land and assume for one second that you can prove that the whole universe was created by an omnipotent being, who then endowed the first naturally formed amino acids with the gift of life, setting the whole chain in motion to create you: Why does that mean that the omnipotent being in question was the particular version of the particular one that you worship?

Just a point to ponder.

John C says it, therefore I can say it too

In a word: No. John gets a pass on what would be considered trolling from anybody else, because, well, he’s John C. He’s been here about as long as the blog’s been going, and nobody is 100% sure that he isn’t the most successful Poe in the entire history of the internet. He denies it. I’m not so sure. But either way, he gets to behave in ways that you don’t.

You can’t disprove my God, so it doesn’t matter that I can’t prove it, so we’re even

Thanks to Len for reminding me to add this one. It’s a common argument, and it completely ignores the fact that burden of proof doesn’t lay with the disbeliever. To be specific: I do not believe in God, not because there’s any positive evidence against God, but because there is no positive evidence for God (though it should be noted that there’s lots of evidence against many specific versions of God).
Let’s base a quick metaphor on Russel’s Teapot. It’s an example I’ve used before, but it’s one I happen to like and it works:

Atheist: “How did the universe come into being?”
Theist: “God did it.”
Atheist: “I will need to be convinced of that before I believe it. What is your evidence?”
Theist: “I have none, but since you can’t disprove my explanation, you must accept that it’s true.”

Does that seem reasonable? How about if we alter the metaphor slightly again:

Judge: “Why have you arrested that man for murder?”
Police: “Because he murdered another man.”
Judge: “I will need to be convinced of that before I convict him. What is your evidence?”
Police: “I have none, but he has no alibi and therefore cannot prove he didn’t do it, therefore you must accept that he is guilty.”

Does that seem reasonable? The point here is this: As a theist, you are providing an answer to the question the atheist posed above, therefore it is for you to provide the evidence.

This is where theists really need to take a step back and decide which side they’re arguing: Do they want faith without evidence, or do they want to debate their religion as a question to be settled? If the former, then commenting is probably pointless – We don’t have faith, and you can’t convince us without evidence. If the latter, then have at it – If you are the theist who can actually post substantive evidence for the existence of something supernatural, then the Randi Foundation has a million dollars waiting for you to claim.

Everybody will be impressed with the story of how I was a baby-eating, Satanical, rock ‘n roll loving, junkie, atheist with a miserable life before I found love and joy in Jeeeeesus-uh!

No. We really won’t. It’s amazing how many theists try that nonsense here – Each and every one of them is absolutely convinced that being an atheist necessarily means leading an immoral, criminal life of debauchery and hedonism. And that’s how every atheist who reads such tales knows that they’re an absolute crock of shit. Save those stories for other fundies – Apparently some of them are ignorant enough to believe them. Here they’ll earn you nothing but scorn.

If only you’d crack a Bible / read my favorite passage, you’d embrace Jesus!

Again: Nope. In the words of Blonde Nonbeliever:

“If you have a Bible on your bookshelf, you may be a Christian.
If you have a Koran on your bookshelf, you may be a Muslim.
If you have a Torah on your bookshelf, you may be Jewish.
If you have all three, you are probably an atheist.”

We have regular commenters and contributors who know several versions of the Bible inside out and back to front. If you ask deconverted Christians why they started on the road to deconversion, I would bet dollars to pesos that a lot of them would answer simply “because I read the Bible”. Perhaps you are a Christian who has read the whole thing, however most Christians we encounter here seem to be blissfully unaware of what the Bible says beyond specific cherry-picked passages that their Pastors have selected for them.

You also need to remember that the Bible is not just a religious document; it’s also an historical social commentary. As Richard Dawkins has observed, one cannot make a serious attempt to fully understand any historical English literature unless one has read the Bible – So a lot of us have read at least one version of it, and some of us have read more than one.

You deconverted therefore you weren’t really a Christian in the first place – No True Scotsman

The phrase “No True Scotsman” was coined by Anthony Flew* in his book “Thinking About Thinking”. It goes something like this:

“Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton [Brighton is on the South coast of England] Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen [Aberdeen is on the East coast of Scotland] man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.

The point here is this: Before you can use something as an analogy, you must first define it. In this case, a Scotsman: Was he born in Scotland? If yes, he is a Scotsman, regardless of other considerations.

This extends to religion fairly simply: When told of Christians who have deconverted, it is standard for other Christians to respond “Well, s/he can’t have been a true Christian” – But that’s nonsense! First define the term:

Christian

Noun

1. A person who is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings.

That’s it. that’s all a Christian is. There is nothing in there about inability to be persuaded by evidence or change their mind.

* I’m well aware that Flew embraced Christianity at some point after he’d already embraced senility, please don’t feel you have to point that out.

What is a straw man and why do theists keep burning them?

In simple terms, a Straw-Man argument is where you misrepresent your opponent and then argue against your own misrepresentation of them, rather than arguing against what they’re actually saying.

This is not always deliberate. Straw-man arguments often result from ignorance of the subject that you’re arguing against, or from repeating arguments you’ve heard from other people who you regard as authorities (such as your Pastor). For example, when discussing the Theory of Evolution it is common to hear phrases such as:

“Evolution is just a theory!”[See above]
“Dogs don’t just randomly turn into cats!” [Theory of Evolution agrees]
“I ain’t evolved from a monkey!”[Theory of Evolution agrees]

This leads me to suggest a top tip for all theists who seriously want to engage in debates: READ! Learn about what you’re arguing against – You might not be quite so keen to argue against it if you do, and you’ll be a lot more interesting to talk to either way. Another top-tip to avoid the straw-man is, be critical when you hear arguments from others, and ask yourself if the person you heard it from can make a serious claim to authority on that specific subject. Your Pastor might be considered a reliable source of apologetic arguments, but that doesn’t make them an expert on evolutionary biology.

Theistic and Atheistic Morality

In view of the rather lackluster way that religion’s physical, empirical claims stack up against comparable scientific ones, a common backup claim among the religious is that religion really shines in the mushier, less clear cut areas where science has been either absent or somewhat less successful. Psychology, aesthetics, and personal well-being come up under this heading, though not nearly as often as morality. This is used as a form of trump: “Science may well discover how things work, but can never tell us what matters and why!” This generally segues into how their particular religion purportedly succeeds to provide these things that science and materialistic, atheistic philosophy cannot. In the context of monotheism, this means that religion is claimed to reveal God’s preferences for human behavior and action, which rather straightforwardly dictates what is right and what is wrong, what is pious and what is profane. Because God has an objective perspective of the universe and the creatures within it, God’s view on rightness and wrongness is the highest standard for those concepts and is unappealable. Without this guidance, it is claimed, morality devolves into sentiment, competing personal tastes, and arbitrary choices.

There are several problems with this account. The first, perhaps the most important, is also the oldest. Predating Christianity itself by nearly four centuries, in a short dialogue called the Euthyphro Plato pointed out through the character of Socrates that the religious claim of an objective source of morality is entirely hollow. Long story short, Socrates asks the question (altered slightly to apply to modern monotheists):

“Does God like good things because they are good, or are good things good because God likes them?”

If the first is true, then God really had nothing to do with defining what is good, since God is merely responding to a quality preexisting in the thing or behavior at issue; God is not the source of morality. If the second is true, then God’s determination of goodness is entirely arbitrary, since no concept of goodness preexists God’s assignment of goodness. With this short, simple argument, the theist is presented with a stark choice: abandon God as the author of morality, or admit that if there are God-given morals, they are as arbitrary as those of other sources.

Aristotle, a contemporary of Plato, had meanwhile codified an approach to ethics that was essentially atheistic, in that its claims to authority do not rest on it being God-given or divinely inspired in any way. This approach is generally referred to today as Virtue Ethics. While a generally vast and complicated subject, virtue ethics at its base is about developing character. The idea is that the goal of life is to flourish, and in order to accomplish that goal a person must recognize the goodness of certain virtues which if properly identified and acted upon lead to well-being; when a person is properly trained by good teachers and becomes experienced through real-life moral dilemmas they become better at being moral. In this view, in short, morality is a skill: the ability to identify in specific situations which general virtues lead to the best outcome. The emphasis isn’t on whether a particular act is right or wrong, but rather upon the capacity of a person in a situation to figure out what is right or wrong, given their commitment to virtue, their experience, and their training.

Plato’s list of these virtues–wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance–should sound familiar to most Western theists, who tend to call them the “Four Cardinal Virtues”. They sound familiar because they were copied wholesale from Plato, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising given that this approach was the popular approach to ethics at the time and place the events in the New Testament allegedly occurred. There was really only one competitor.

The other major ancient approach to ethics that predates Christianity in the West is the ethical system of its progenitor, Judaism. In Judaism, from its earliest written records up to about the time of the New Testament, there was a very obviously theistic system, wherein God makes a contract with his worshipers to adopt a certain number of programmatic rules and prohibitions in return for being their patron. In this case, the generally accepted number is 613, separate rules that either prohibit or require certain behaviors, activities, and relationships. Obeying and internalizing these rules formed a covenant that signaled to the ancient Jews that they were acting morally, which literally meant in accordance with God’s wishes.

As with all rules-based ethical systems before or since, there was a magical ingredient left out of the text of the Torah that had to be provided by the people following the rules themselves. That magical ingredient was abstraction, and it is made necessary both by the simple fact that six hundred rules simply isn’t enough to cover all human situations, and even more worryingly sometimes the rules directly conflict with one another when one tries to apply them to a real situation. Abstracting a rule is an attempt to figure out the essential concepts behind it; what is a rule aiming to achieve, why is it important? This allows the resolution of ambiguities by analogy, and of conflicts by figuring out which rule supports the more important essential concept in the situation.

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews had been using these rules for several hundred years and under many different circumstances and contexts. Given this, the drive to abstract the law into the most general possible terms was finally famously brought to conclusion by two fairly different answers. A famous one is attributed to the Rabbi Hillel (the Elder), who was challenged to state the essence of the whole law while standing on one foot and replied:

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

The other famous summation is written in the New Testament and attributed to Jesus:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This desire to distill the laws and regulations of God down to a simple universally applicable statement will again crop up when we get to modern systems of ethics. Before we do that, though, let’s recap the important points for enterprising theists who wish to comment in an informed fashion:

1. Theistic and atheistic ethics are equally subjective, either because they are both subjective in precisely the same way (good things are good simply because they are considered so), or because the theist claim to access to the source of morality is false.

2. Christian morality borrowed very, very heavily from contemporary pagan Hellenic philosophers

3. The theistic moral rules upon which Christianity is based (the commandments of the Torah) is fundamentally incomplete, as it requires a process not indicated in the text itself to extract useful, meaningful guidance for behavior.

[more to come; section in progress]

Topics waiting to be addressed:

Atheists and the slightly bizarre “intellectual elite” ad hominem
You lose nothing by worshiping my specific God – Why Pascal’s Wager was meant to be ironic
Thermodynamics and evolution?! Seriously?!

Trying On Atheism
Atheists at CPAC
Ya Think?
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind

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