Clarifications Regarding My Controversial Atheist “Reductio” Paper

Clarifications Regarding My Controversial Atheist “Reductio” Paper August 20, 2015

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Photo by Johnny Magnusson [public domain / Free Stock Photos.biz]

My recent, provocatively titled paper, Atheism: the Faith of “Atomism”, raised a firestorm of protest from some 20-25 atheists, who swarmed the combox and wrangled with me literally all day long yesterday,  for a total of 194 comments. Long story short: they almost universally accused me of woeful ignorance of atheism (i.e., of making a straw man argument). For my part, I charged that almost all of them failed to understand the nature of my argument in the first place, as an instance of a humorous, sarcastic version of the fabled (or notorious) reductio ad absurdum argument (in logic): in other words, that they were fighting a straw man, just as they said I supposedly was. Never the twain met, all day!

What the reductio is, can be read in the (very heavy, dry, philosophical) link I just provided, or the much more popular-level page about it on Wikipedia. I need not spend time on that here. Rather, I’d like to clarify my intent and motivations and thinking in the piece itself, so there will be no further misunderstanding. I made the following observations (in no particular order) in the combox of the original post, and in a post and discussion today about my discussion policy, in relation to the fiasco that occurred. No one likes to be misunderstood. I hate it as much as anyone. I can only try to carefully explain my true position and let the chips fall where they may.

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Never said it did [“render an entire philosophy without merit”]. The reduction was designed to force atheists to concede, that they, too, exercise a profound faith in unproven axioms, just as Christians do.

* * *

This is a reductio ad absurdum argument, which often (but not necessarily, or by nature) involves generalization, non-literal statements, exaggeration, overstatement to make the point.  All the atheist has to concede in accepting my reductio, is that they exercise every bit as much faith as any Christian, when it comes to the origin of the universe and the marvelous processes by which it came to be. That’s it! That’s not even painful. You don’t have to give up atheism. This isn’t an argument against atheism per se. It’s a turn-the-tables argument against the notion that Christians are somehow uniquely gullible and subject to blind faith with no evidence.

* * *

I agree that sarcasm and exaggeration are non-necessary elements in a reductio; so technically, my paper could (or should?) be described as a reductio ad absurdum argument that has elements of turning-the-tables, and heavy use of sarcasm, satire, and rhetorical exaggeration to make a point. Humor (of a tweaking / provocative sort) was fundamental to it. And that was missed by the ones who were getting most angry about it. Originally, I stated that “by nature” a reductio involves sarcasm. That isn’t strictly true (though these things are often present in reductios; they don’t have to be).

[So I have rephrased that in a few places in this post]

I would still say that the atheists who objected so much should have realized that it was a humorous / sarcastic- and satirical-themed version of a reductio, and interpreted accordingly. Yet we got many statements saying that “atheists don’t worship atoms as gods!” etc.: which showed a complete lack of grasp of the fundamentally humorous nature of my piece. 

* * *

Nothing is more “magical” than believing that something came from nothing, for no reason, and created itself, with every conceivable power to endlessly create all that there is, and all because of the inherent capabilities of matter: for which we don’t have the slightest scientific or even rational explanation; therefore accept with the most blind faith imaginable: far more faith than Christians ever have exercised.

* * *

Reductio ad absurdum (not necessarily or in essence, but often in practice) involves sarcastic exaggeration to make a point (as does the turn-the-tables methodology). This is an examination of what I believe atheism logically reduces to, even though no atheist would ever put it this way. Unless these sorts of basic characteristics of the piece are understood, it’ll never be grasped. It’s difficult for anyone to endure a strong critique of their view as it is.

* * *

The atheist has to explain (if he is curious about origins) how matter came to possess its remarkable powers by itself, with no outside source.

* * *

I don’t deny that formerly held Christian beliefs weren’t real. Quite the contrary. They were real and heartfelt (I assume in charity). Nor do I deny that atheism is real. I don’t regard atheists as wicked or liars or “insane” simply because they are atheists. I see it as a flaw in thinking: the sincere acceptance of wrong premises and falsehoods. I have a post up where I say that atheists can quite possibly be saved (as atheists). But if so, it is because they haven’t truly known God. I have atheist friends that I know in person. I was just with six of ’em over dinner a few months ago, for a every enjoyable evening. On another occasion I did a Q&A in person with eleven atheists. I was well-received, and had the most fun doing apologetics that I’ve ever had in my life. These guys actually talk rationally and have respect for a person (like myself) who is a thinker like they are. So we have a great time. They don’t have to stoop to mere insult and relentless straw-man bashing.

I don’t think atheists are stupid. They are usually quite intelligent and rational. But they are what we call hyper-rational: where reason is placed too high in the scheme of things. Reason ain’t all there is. So if these sorts of things, coming from other Christians, make atheists lash out, neither applies to me. It’s projected onto me. I am quite prepared to respect and treat with kindness any atheist who can carry on a normal conversation.

* * *

It takes just as much faith to believe the universe got here somehow (who knows how?), by the inherent powers of an evolved matter, as it does to believe in a God: a concept that has been held by countless great minds through the centuries. I don’t see all you guys mocking, e.g., Einstein, who believed in a higher power of some sort in the universe (pantheism). No; it’s always mocking Christians and ignoring that the greatest scientists in history were Christians or theists or at least pantheists.

* * *

Of course it is felt to be insulting, because it is a hard-hitting reductio (and this is perhaps the hardest-hitting one in any of my voluminous writings), with use of sarcasm, and hits the atheist precisely where they are most vulnerable. So it comes off (to the extent that it is truly understood) as a low blow, and we see reactions in accordance with that falsely-perceived ” insult.” All reductio / turning the tables arguments are very hard for the recipient to receive. It requires a person who is very secure in their belief-system to take it and make a rational reply back.

* * *

It’s [“irrational children”] an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek portion of the overall reductio. You have faith as a materialist just like anyone else who thinks, in the sense of accepting unproven (and sometimes unprovable) axioms. You don’t possess all knowledge anymore than anyone else does. My post itself is always semi-humorous, as a reductio and one with heavy sarcasm throughout. Many many people can’t take sarcasm at their expense, even if it demonstrably applies. Atheists obviously are no exception. Since so many literally despise Christians, they get all the more angry when one shows them up a bit and punctures some of their sacred cows (alert: more sarcasm!).

* * *

Reductios involve rhetorical exaggeration. That’s why I keep saying that the mode of argument is not understood. If you understand how the argument and the sub-idiom of language within it works, these things would not be issues, and you would already understand that I’m not literally claiming all atheists are gullible children. This is what is completely misunderstood. I’m turning the tables on the usual atheist argument against us, saying in effect, “you wanna argue that we are gullible and infantile imbeciles? Well, here are some ways that such a description can just as easily be turned back on you. Since that is the case, the argument ought to be dropped as a wash or an irrelevancy (non sequitur) to the actual issues.” In other words, you have a childlike faith that it came into existence somehow (since it is here now, and isn’t eternal, as far as scientists can tell); just not possibly by God. In reductio rhetorical, sarcastic terminology, I say you have a “childlike religion of blind faith atheism.” You must believe that the universe came about purely by matter, having arbitrarily, dogmatically ruled out spirit (dualism, which also has a long, respectable history in philosophy).

* * *

My bottom line point in all this is that atheism requires as much faith as Christianity does (defined in this context as acceptance of unproven axioms or unknowns), specifically when we’re talking about theories of the origin of the universe. Since that is the case, the atheist should then be “intellectually humble” enough to acknowledge that this area is a level playing field, or a wash, as opposed to the usual hogwash about atheists being smart and scientific, and Christians against science and reason and with infantile beliefs consisting of idiotic fairy tales only.

* * *

Making arguments against positions is not attacking people. But the equation of people / beliefs is very common today, and is the death of good constructive discussion.

* * *

The atheist is a materialist, by definition. It is all that he can be, since God is ruled out. Thus, if an atheist is at all interested in science (and most are, very much so), and has an appropriate intellectual curiosity, then he will have to tackle these sorts of fundamental questions sooner or later. It is your burden. Our belief regarding origins is God, and we have all kinds of arguments that we bring to bear in defense of Him (cosmological, ontological, etc.). Without God, it has to be explained at some point how matter could create the universe. If you don’t have that explanation, or concede that you have none (not even a semi-plausible guess), then you fall back to a sort of default version of blind faith, or utterly unproven axioms: precisely as I have been arguing.

* * *

How is it that you “know” that [God didn’t create the universe]? You have no idea what caused it, but you think you “know” what didn’t cause it . . . The usual atheist  false dichotomy of “religion vs. science” has never been true among religious people who have an IQ higher than a pencil eraser, and never will be. The yearning to understand is a human trait that unites all thinking people, atheist and theist alike.

* * *

“Remarkably Childlike” is both an exaggeration according to the argument and meant to garner interest in a few words (which it did!). My primary mistake, as I see it, was assuming that atheists (a very smart lot) would understand how a reductio ad absurdum works. But they did not. I was surprised by that. So in retrospect I would have explained at the end exactly what I intended to argue (as I am now doing here). But one of my main points was to point out that atheists believe many things that are arguably just as childlike as what Christians believe (or how atheists perceive what we believe). It turns the tables on an ultra-common atheist argument. And that ticks people off big-time; makes them very angry. If atheists didn’t falsely convince themselves that they have no faith (belief in unproven axioms) at all, then they wouldn’t get so angry when the obvious is pointed out (all thinkers accept unproven initial axioms, somewhere . . . ).

I wasn’t literally claiming that atheists would consciously say they believed in “gods.” Of course they will not say that. My argument was that how they view atoms and cells, in effect, is every bit as “godlike” as what we say about our God. I spelled that out very clearly and precisely in the paper. How you guys view matter is very much like how we view God’s creative aspects. And so, in the humorous reductio vein, that is expressed as “believing in atom-gods and cell-gods.” Y’all need to lighten up! It’s satirical humor. Have you never read satire? Never watched Saturday Night Live or read the Harvard Lampoon or watched Monty Python or Stephen Colbert or listened to Rush Limbaugh? If so, did you take every word of those things literally (as mine were approached)?

* * *

Both belief-systems entail evidence and faith. It’s untrue that Christianity is all faith, and atheism all rationality. Both systems have both. We have a lot more in common than either side usually realizes. My very occupation (apologist) has to do with the relation of reason and faith. I give arguments from reason, for Christian beliefs. If Christians cared nothing for reason, I would be out of a job. It’s a bum rap. Some Christians (a very small amount of those who are educated and “thinking” Christians) are fideists or anti-intellectual, but implying that all are or that it is a system of blind faith, pure and simple, is sheer foolishness and a straw man as high as Mt. Everest.

* * *

My point is that you guys mock us for believing in God as the Creator, as a silly, infantile fairy tale with supposedly no “evidence” whatsoever. So what I did was bounce off of that and argue, turning the tables, “okay, you reject our view. What is yours? Having ruled out God, how do you say the universe came into being?” And then it is a question of matter somehow doing all this, which I developed into atomism and cell-gods and the goddess of time. These things (about matter and its traits) are real factors in a materialistic belief of the origin of the universe; serious issues to grapple with. But no one did. All they said was “I don’t know.” Now if you say you don’t know, you still believe that the universe is here and came about somehow, so that is a sort of faith, just as ours is, unless you want to deny that the universe exists, or ague that it is eternal, contrary to present accepted cosmology. My piece was a sarcastic treatment of what I believe are difficulties in materialism, and ironic similarities to some Christian beliefs, and to those of ancient polytheists.

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