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Book review of “The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist”: more bad atheist arguments?

Book review of “The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist”: more bad atheist arguments? July 9, 2021

Let’s jump into more bad atheist arguments!

The 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 what I’m guilty of.

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, Ravi has been revealed as a poor source of any critique of morality.

But back to the book: I disagree that atheists can’t answer questions about morality. More importantly, the Christian thinks he can?! Unfortunately, though the author seems to understand his need to show that Christianity is more than just groundless claims, all he provides in the entire book 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 but then two paragraphs later be lectured that my arguments are embarrassing, “extremely bad,” or “disastrous.” The flippant tone got old fast.

Bannister wrote from a UK context (and five years ago), 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 United States. Christian privilege is indeed a big deal in the U.S., both for atheists living in the Bible Belt and for any American who must deal with Christian motivations behind federal laws and Supreme Court decisions.

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—though public Christian proclamations were common—but the message was pretty tame.

If you’re going to give a reason to reconsider religion, there are plenty of harsher ones. Maybe: “In the name of God, the Thirty Years’ War killed 8 million people. God, I hope you’re happy.” 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.

The atheist bus campaign was triggered by a 2008 Christian bus ad campaign that gave a web address “that said that all non-Christians would burn in hell for all eternity.” You’ve got to be pretty clueless to miss the difference between “There’s probably no god” and stating that non-Christians deserve to burn in hell forever.

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 atheists 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 do cause problems. See the difference?

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 Armageddon, which their parents have assured them is imminent. 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 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 [you pull yourself together]. 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! The heavens don’t shower us with benefits that disbelief will shut off. God already does nothing for us nowthat’s the point. It’s not like we don’t want to admit that we don’t believe in Santa anymore because we’re afraid the Christmas presents will vanish.

You know who 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. Atheist dictators didn’t do anything in the name of atheism. Lack of a god belief is no reason to order people 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 believer in Christianity? 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: “Atheism isn’t a claim”

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

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/19/16.)

Image from Wikimedia (license CC BY 2.0)

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