Bad Atheist Arguments: Book Review of “The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist”

Bad Atheist Arguments: Book Review of “The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist” December 19, 2016

Andy Bannister The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist bookThe Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (2015) by Andy Bannister promises to critique a number of atheist arguments. The subtitle is, “The dreadful consequences of bad arguments.” I’m on board with bad arguments having bad consequences, so I’m curious to hear about these bad atheist arguments.

Scope of the book

In the introduction, Ravi Zacharias says, “Time and again the atheist is unable to answer the fundamental questions of life, such as ‘is there a moral framework to life?’” In the first place, I disagree, but more importantly: the Christian thinks he can answer these questions?? Unfortunately, though the author seems to understand his need to show that Christianity is more than just groundless claims, all he provides are a couple of references and apologies that pro-Christian arguments aren’t within the scope of the book. It’s like a Creationist approach in this regard—all attack and no defense.

The tone is deliberately lighthearted, often to an extreme of silliness, though it was too full of insults for me to find it amusing. I can’t in one paragraph frisk in field of lavender clover with a miniature pink rhinoceros who plays show tunes through a calliope in its horn and farts cotton-candy-scented soap bubbles but then two paragraphs later be lectured that my arguments are embarrassing, “extremely bad,” or “disastrous.” The flippant tone got old fast.

Bannister is writing from a UK context, and some of his “What’s the big deal?” comments in response to Christian excesses didn’t translate well to the religious environment in the U.S. Christian privilege is indeed a big deal in the U.S., especially for atheists living in the Bible Belt.

Chapter 1. The Loch Ness Monster’s Moustache

He begins with the 2009 atheist bus campaign sponsored by the British Humanist Association that put the following slogan on hundreds of buses in the UK: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” I remember being impressed when I first heard about this campaign. It seemed edgy—public proclamations were more appropriate for Christian messages—but the message is pretty tame.

If you’re going to give a reason to reconsider religion, there are plenty of harsher ones. Maybe: “The Thirty Years’ War killed 8 million people in the name of God. I hope you’re happy, God.” Or: “Christianity makes you do strange things” with a photo of a child killed by parents who insisted on prayer instead of medicine or a teen driven to suicide by Christian bullies.

But the mild “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” still exasperates Bannister. He says,

The slogan, despite its friendly pink letters, is a perfect example of a really bad argument. An argument so bad, so disastrous, in fact, that one has to wonder what its sponsors were thinking. …

Much of contemporary atheism thrives on poor arguments and cheap sound bites, advancing claims that simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Only after several pages of throat clearing do we get a glimmer of an actual complaint.

One might begin by noting the preachy, condescending, and hectoring tone.

With that gentle slogan? Oh, please. Drop some of your Christian privilege and grow a thicker skin.

How big a deal is this?

Bannister next asks, “What’s the connection between the non-existence of something and any effect, emotional or otherwise?” Do you complain about unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster not existing?

In a dozen places, Banister writes something like this that makes me wonder if he’s just not paying attention. No, we don’t complain about unicorns—they don’t exist, and they don’t cause problems. Christianity, on the other hand, does exist, and Christianity and Christians cause problems.

He next gives Christian author Francis Spufford’s critique:

I’m sorry—enjoy your life? Enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment.

If you’re not causing problems, that’s great, but if you’re not aware of the problems, you’re also not paying attention. Christian adults live burdened with guilt. Christian children startle awake at a noise and wonder if this is the beginning of the imminent Armageddon. Christian homosexuals deny themselves romantic relationships to satisfy an absent god. This isn’t true for all Christians, of course, but imposing a worldview burdened with Bronze Age nonsense and informed by faith rather than evidence has consequences.

Bannister wants to highlight the problem with the slogan by proposing this variant: “There’s probably no Loch Ness Monster, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Imagine telling this to someone down on his luck, someone who’s been kicked around by fate. Would he be cheered by this new knowledge?

No, because the Loch Ness Monster has zero impact in anyone’s life. Remove Nessie’s non-existent impact from someone’s life and nothing has changed. But do I really have to explain that god belief has a big impact on many people? For example, the United States has a famously secular constitution, and Christians nibble at the edges like rats looking for ways to dismantle the its separation of church and state for their benefit. See the difference?

Do you understand the consequences of atheism?

He wants to force atheists to take their own medicine.

If the atheist bus slogan is right and there is no God, there’s nobody out there who is ultimately going to help with any pulling. You’re alone in a universe that cares as little about you (and your enjoyment) as it does about the fate of the amoeba, the ant or the aardvark.

First, I hope we can agree that it’s vital for us to see reality correctly. If there isn’t a god out there, best we figure that out, come to terms with it, and shape society in accord with that knowledge.

And you’re seriously wagging your finger at us to warn that our worldview has no beneficent Sky Daddy? Yes, we know—we’re atheists! It’s not like the heavens shower us with benefits that disbelief will shut off. God already does nothing for us nowthat’s the point.

You know what improves society? We do. We’re not perfect, and some of the problems are of our own making, but let’s acknowledge where we have improved things. Slavery is illegal. Smallpox is gone. Clean water, vaccines, and antibiotics improve health. Artificial fertilizer and improved strains of wheat feed billions and make famine unlikely. We can anticipate natural disasters. (More here and here.) God has done nothing to improve society.

As for the universe not caring about us, well, yeah. Is there any evidence otherwise? If so, make a case.

Atheists like Stalin are evil

A popular Christian argument shifts attention from Christianity’s excesses (wars, Crusades, and so on) to bad atheist leaders like Stalin.

What about atheism’s own chequered history? Stalin was responsible for the deaths of some 20 million people, while the death toll for Mao’s regime is at least double that.

Richard Dawkins lampooned this argument with this tweet: “Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein were evil, murdering dictators. All had moustaches. Therefore moustaches are evil.”

Yes, Stalin was a bad man, but why? Was it the mustache? Was it his atheism? No, Stalin was a dictator, and dictators don’t like alternate power structures like the church. Religion was competition, so Stalin made it illegal. They didn’t do anything in the name of atheism. Lack of a god belief is no reason to order that people be killed. (I expose the Stalin argument here and here.)

Bannister concludes that the bus slogan and the moustache argument “are both examples of not just weak arguments, but extremely bad arguments.” Uh huh. You’ll have to tell us why some day. He continues, “I have been struck by how many of my atheist friends are deeply embarrassed by these terrible skeptical arguments.”

Oh, dear. He’s disappointed in me, and I would be embarrassed at these arguments, too, if I had any sense.

Sorry, I’m not riding that train. Give me less outrage and more argument.

Argument by sound bite

Bannister laments, “The atheist bus advertisement illustrates the danger not just of poor arguments, but especially of argument by sound bite.

This is coming from a Christian? Where some think that evolution is overturned by mocking it as “from goo to you via the zoo”? Where church signs have slogans like “How will you spend eternity—Smoking or Nonsmoking?”? Where emotion is the argument, not intellect? Get your own house in order first, pal.

Continue with part 2.

Wandering in a vast forest at night,
I have only a faint light to guide me.
A stranger appears and says to me:
“My friend, you should blow out your candle
in order to find your way more clearly.”
This stranger is a theologian.
— Denis Diderot

Image credit: Wikipedia

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