Arguing with Atheists

Arguing with Atheists January 8, 2014

There’s a very big difference between, on the one hand, making a theological, philosophical, or scientific argument for the existence of God and, on the other hand, making a personal statement about why you still believe in God despite your doubts. Those are two very different types of communication.

I am keenly aware of the difference. I’ve written many posts here that are the former, and I’ve got an entire chapter already written for a forthcoming book that is along those lines, arguing with Aquinas’s famous “Five Ways.”

Yesterday’s post was surely not that. Yesterday’s post was the latter, an honest accounting of one of the several reasons that I continue to profess faith in God, in spite of the fact that I am beset with doubt.

But the biggest atheist blogger in the world picked it up, mocked it, told his readers that I had made the worst argument for the existence of God that he’d ever read, and pointed them here. They came, they told me I’m an idiot, and they left. (It’s shocking — shocking, I tell you! — that atheists don’t find one of my reasons for belief compelling.) I don’t imagine they’ll be back anytime soon.

So it goes in the blogosphere these days.

For those of you still reading, I was simply trying to say this: One of the reasons that I continue to have faith is that so many in the world do; so many — the vast majority, by anyone’s reckoning — that I cannot help but pay attention to that. I don’t think that all those people who believe in the divine, and all the billions who’ve preceded us on this plant who have believed similarly, are stupid lemmings. I think their belief deserves enough respect that I cannot shuck it off so very easily.

Take it or leave it. But I stand by it.

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  • Joe Agnost

    I’m not sure why you’re so shocked that after presenting a really bad reason to believe in god(s) you were taken to task for such bad reasoning.

    Perhaps if you don’t want to hear how bad your reasoning is you could keep it to yourself… otherwise prepare to have your position criticized.

    • Ben Hammond

      From an analytic school of thought maybe it’s bad reasoning, but from a continental school of thought it has some credibility.

      Also, out of curiosity, from your perspective do you think there are any “good” reasons to believe in a god?

      • Joe Agnost

        Ben asked: “from your perspective do you think there are any ‘good’ reasons to believe in a god?”

        None that I’ve ever heard… but I’m always open to suggestions!

      • Psycho Gecko

        Well, if one exists and could be proven to exist, that would be a good reason to believe in a deity.

      • I am a continental philosophy student, and I concur. I think the analytical school has some valid points, and I don’t want to negate logic as valid reasoning. But I find analytical philosophy more weighted on one thing, not accounting for much of what the hermeneutic philosophers knew about the way we form and organize the production of knowledge.

  • Joe Agnost

    Tony wrote: “I don’t think that all those people who believe in the divine, and all
    the billions who’ve preceded us on this plant who have believed
    similarly, are stupid lemmings.”

    Neither do I. They certainly aren’t ~all~ “stupid lemmings”.

    What they are, collectively, is wrong. There is difference.

    Tony cont’d: “I think their belief deserves enough respect that I cannot shuck it off so very easily.”

    Some of “their” beliefs certainly don’t deserve respect! The Taliban’s idea that if you aren’t the proper flavor of Islam you deserve to die certainly doesn’t deserve respect.
    And given that many (historically and today) of these theists you cite believe in multiple gods does that not give you pause before standing with them?

  • Phil Miller

    I guess I missed all the hubbub yesterday… I’m with you, though. It has always been a great irony to me that many of those who claim to care the most about the poor and downtrodden in the world don’t really care about what they believe or have to say about the world. I suppose it’s a type of intellectual imperialism, if you will.

    By the way, this is one of the reasons I still consider myself a Pentecostal. I’ve certainly seen enough abuse and stupidity that I should probably not be one by now, but I simply can’t dismiss over half a billion Christians that easily. It’s the same reason why I can’t simply ignore Catholicism.

    • Psycho Gecko

      Seeing as there’s more than a billion Muslims, you should convert to Islam then.

    • Lausten

      Have you looked at Haiti? I care about what people because I see how it affects them. Their beliefs keep them from taking charge of their lives.

      • Alyce Smith

        Having been in Haiti within months of the earthquake I can say first hand that people of faith were among the most generous, hopeful, steadfast, etc. Not better than everyone else, but certainly their faith was exemplified in their actions.

        Don’t paint a caricature of Haitians or Haitian faiths. That’s ignorant and false.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Take it or leave it. But I stand by it.

    Of course you do. Because when you write something full of logical fallacies and blatant lies, it’s much easier to respond to the arguments against your position by just sticking your fingers in your ears like a petulant child and play the victim rather than actually address them.

    Even if we were only 5%, you’ve managed to remind me once again how nice it is to be in the minority. (Privileged as it may be)

    For the record, I don’t think you’re an idiot. I think you’re a charlatan, and kind of an asshole.

  • Elizabeth Smith

    It’s always best to be honest about what you believe. God knows all of our
    thoughts anyway. All great theologians, saints and evangelists have
    wrestled with doubts. If you can’t doubt God at times, perhaps you’ve stopped
    growing in your capacity to keep lovingly observing this incredible universe we
    all call home…Elizabeth Smith

  • copyrightman

    It wasn’t a logically fallacious argument, it just wasn’t stated in the fashion of a logical argument. Atheists make the same sort of argument when they employ common sense realist approaches to sense perception. If anyone can see and verify something, it presumably is true, and that is the heart of the scientific method. It is sensible not to dismiss such observations outright, and indeed it is sensible to hold them to be valid, even though some defect or limitation in perception might be implicated. If more refined observations later lead to a different consensus, then a change of belief might be indicated.

    Analogously, if most people have a sense that there is a God / transcendent presence, it is sensible not to dismiss that common human experience outright. The question is whether that common sense is based on defects in perception. The question of the sources of religious experience is of course a subject of significant debate. In my judgment, how one responds comes down to prior assumptions about what is or isn’t possible.

    This latter point relates to the “elitism” argument. The sociological observation is valid because it helps illuminate the origin of the epistemological and metaphysical assumptions that most modern atheists bring to the table. Most people are not intuitively materialists or logical positivists. The rigid insistence that materialism and logical positivism are the only acceptable metaphysical and epistemological stances is policed most stringently in certain segments of the modern western university and in certain segments of the blogosphere. To suggest otherwise is to become trapped in a circle of self-referential confirmation bias.

  • Brandon J. Brown

    Over-reacting and dismissive over-characterization seem the norm of the internet. Our super-stars, be they atheist or Christian, are like worship leaders – pointing us to what to praise and what to hate.

    It’s really discouraging.

  • Rob

    Tony, you didn’t just simply say “One of the reasons that I continue to have faith is that so many in the world do”. You also said:

    Atheism is almost exclusively the purview of educated, white elites. The old saying goes that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it should be updated to say that their are no atheists in the slums of Bangladesh, in the townships of South Africa, in the trash heaps of India.


    I have enough respect for the collective wisdom of humanity to stand in solidarity with them in proclaiming that there is, indeed, a God.

    So, not only are atheists 5 or less% of the world according to you, they also hold to a “belief” that comes from a position of white elite privilege, and is not respectful and in solidarity with collective humanity. And….you wonder why you got challenged? Are you being serious? What did it add to your post, other than to stereotype a group of people, to add those two statements? I’m confused here. I would think simply saying what you said would have been something like: “I am still a christian because in my opinion the majority of the world holds to some form of theism. And, for me, that theism is expressed best in Jesus Christ”. That’s different from what was posted.

    • JoeyS

      I’m interested in this discussion, not to defend Tony (he can do that fine himself) but because I think he may saying something that is true – and that possibly true thing doesn’t necessarily stereotype atheists. I may be wrong.

      If we dissect the logic, it goes something like this:

      For most of human history, most people have believed in a deity.

      Today, most people believe in a deity.

      Most people who believe in a deity are poor and not white.

      Most people who hold to atheism are educated and white (short of anecdotes).

      It follows that atheism is something that exists in privileged society (which is a relative term – there are plenty of people who are not theists who are still oppressed in relation to our own society, but in relation to the rest of the world are still quite privileged), which in our culture is largely white.

      It may not have been a valuable statement to Tony’s overall point but I would like to see demonstrated how it is 1, wrong, and 2, a stereotype. Not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of learning and hearing your case, honestly.

      • Psycho Gecko

        1. Every baby born lacks a belief in a deity. It is the default state of humanity’s beliefs about gods, not some exceptional privilege. Religion is taught.

        2. You are more likely to be atheist the more you are educated, but that doesn’t mean atheists only or even predominantly come about from those who have been to college. Some are raised without religion, others deconverted a long time before making it to college, and some never go to college. If a high school degree is what you mean, then Christians are predominantly educated and white too.

      • Sven2547

        I’m going to point you to the comment I made on the very subject. A comment that remains unaddressed.

        • stuchan

          I suspect he hasn’t addressed it because he has an inkling that he’d have to eat a bit of crow over it. Either that or he actually thinks he made supportable statements (though he hasn’t actually tried to support those statements in any substantial way, as you note). I kind of want to throw a copy of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life at him while I’m at it…

        • JoeyS

          I think there may be another level of privilege here too, though. In our society it is privilege that allows one to be an atheist, even when there are unfortunate reprecussions (verging on, if not out right, oppression), whereas in other cultures there is not nearly as much freedom to be an atheist. So even atheists on our culture are so becausse of privilege but their stance on a deity means that they face backlash. I’m a pacifist, which is also an unpopular position, but I recognize the the massive amount if freedom I have that allows me to hold on to it. Perhaps a stretch but I think the metaphore holds.

          • fojap

            I’m having a hard time following your logic.

            You point out that there are reasons that atheism and some level of privilege might coincide, but the reason is that coming out as an atheist would add another level of oppression to their lives. Furthermore, you seem to have conflated coming out as an atheist with being an atheist, even while you say that some people might live in a culture where they can’t articulate their lack of belief without severe, perhaps life-threatening, repercussions. So people without freedom to be an atheist must not be atheists?

      • OverlappingMagisteria

        Thanks for the summary. I don’t know whether that conclusion is wrong or right (leave that to global surveys, though there may be issues with those as well) but I agree that it was not a valuable statement to Tony’s point.I think that fact that Tony included it in the point was what was very confusing.

        Was he saying that because atheism is a privileged position it should be avoided? (Heathcare is more common in privileged societies, therefore avoid healthcare?)

        That being poor makes you more qualified to know about God? (It neither makes you more or less qualified, in my opinion)

        That he believes in God because he wants to identify with underprivileged people? (It’s nice to want to identify and be in solidarity with the oppressed but this is no reason to believe)

        It seemed that he brought it up to support his reasons for belief was just confusing. Perhaps he can explain better what the line of reasoning was.

      • toddh

        I wonder about that too. It seems like a lot of the comments threw out some links showing that there were atheists all over the world, but they didn’t really address the substance of what Tony said. To me, the whole post was relatively innocuous. Among “educated,” “elitist,” and “white,” I’m guessing atheists didn’t like the “elitist” and “white” parts, because they certainly don’t have any problem reminding everyone how much more educated they are.

      • Lausten

        You’re not asking why educated people are atheists. It’s because they got out from under the power structure that kept them ignorant. The structure that told them not to ask questions, just follow the old rules. For most of European history, the clergy were the elite, now that they’ve lost that status, all of a sudden it’s bad to be educated and think for yourself.

      • fojap

        How does this graph confirm your notion of privilege?

      • fojap

        What is your source for the statement “Most people who hold to atheism are educated and white….” It seems to me that that falls under the category of “received wisdom.”

        I looked it up.

        First of all, it might be worth noting that there was no significant difference in rates of “religious disaffiliation” by race in 2007. Which would imply to me that there is not a significant causal relationship between being a “none” and race. Since then there has been an increase among whites, but not an increase among but not among blacks and Hispanics. The numbers, in percentages, are respectively 20, 15 and 16. The numbers for education are even closer, college grad – 21 percent, some college or less – 19 percent. There’s a significant difference with sex and region. (This is a U.S. survey.) Virtually no difference with income. Age seems to be the single biggest correlation.

        You know, I’m glad I looked this up. I always accepted the received wisdom and it’s interesting to see I was off. Unfortunately, we’re still lacking a lot of data. This asked about the “nones”, not necessarily atheists.

      • Otto Tellick

        Your “dissection” of logic has some problems. In this context, “most of human history” should refer to most of the 100,000+ years of human existence. We can only loosely infer what people believed for most of that time by extrapolating from recent observations (over the last 100 years or so) of pre-literate cultures. There are instructive parallels between those observations and the oldest linguistic records about human beliefs:

        It appears that most people believed in multiple deities as amoral agents wielding the powers of nature with capricious disregard for mankind’s needs and desires. The notion of “worship” was actually a matter of appeasing deities rather than loving them, the purpose being to gain practical benefits and/or avert the various kinds of harm these deities could inflict.

        People loved their elders and gave their bodies careful treatment after death if this was possible, in the hope that their spirits might do well in the afterlife and/or continue to help out, to comfort and advise the living – things that powerful deities wouldn’t do. Only recently has it become so easy to conflate belief in an afterlife with belief in deities; it’s more likely that these notions were unrelated in most cultures most of the time.

        The beneficent creator god of monotheism is a relatively recent invention, arising from a relatively elite (and predominantly Caucasian) culture that had inherited (or rather adopted) its koine literacy and optimistic ideas from Hellenism.

    • stuchan

      This is precisely what attracted so much ire:

      “As others have noted recently, atheism is a position of privilege. Atheism is almost exclusively the purview of educated, white elites. The old saying goes that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it should be updated to say that their are no atheists in the slums of Bangladesh, in the townships of South Africa, in the trash heaps of India.
      At this point, I simply cannot abide severing myself from the rest of the world’s population, from 7 billion of my fellow human beings. I have enough respect for the collective wisdom of humanity to stand in solidarity with them in proclaiming that there is, indeed, a God.”

      There is so much b.s. embedded in there, it’s hard to know where to start, but I’d say the commenters from yesterday did a pretty good job of unpacking it. It’s one thing to say “I give creedence to the existence of some ultimate divine” and another to make a bunch of unsupported (and unsupportable) sideswipes and mischaracterizations of a group of people who are already overwhelmingly negatively stereotyped as it is.

      I find it of particular note that there was no response to the valid criticisms of the attempt to paint a class-based “us vs. them” picture of atheists as a bunch of snobby overeducated elite white guys, despite the issue being raised multiple times, from multiple directions.

      Full disclosure: I’m *not* an atheist, and got here via Ryan Bell’s blog.

      • fojap

        I am an atheist, but I rarely read Mehta. I came here via the Irish Atheist’s blog.

  • copyrightman

    With respect to your work on Aquinas “Five Ways”: I hope you look into the contemporary Aquinas scholarship that understand the “Five Ways” not as efforts to “prove” God’s existence logically, but as pointers towards an apophatic theology. Denys Turner’s work is fundamental on this point. My sense is that most serious scholars of Medieval theology understand the Five Ways within the context of Aquinas’ analogical / negative theology and therefore as much more subtle and interesting than either later Catholic neo-Scholasticism or modern evangelical apologetics make them out to be.

  • The point was that your argument is silly. The vast majority don’t actually believe in your God. What you are saying is that because someone in India believes that we are the result of Vinshu dreaming while sleeping on a many headed snake, that lends credence to your belief that Yahweh born himself as Jesus through Mary to act as a human sacrifice to appease Himself because people are inherently bad. You see there is a slight disconnect, and by slight, I mean large, enormous, grandiose.

    And yes seven billion people can be wrong, without being stupid. Just look at your lemmings analogy. It’s based on a belief held by millions, that lemmings blindly follow each other off cliffs in epic population wide suicides. Well, millions of people are wrong. Lemmings don’t do that. They’re just really chubby mice.

  • Sven2547

    *raises hand*

    I commented hours before Hemant blogged about it, and I didn’t criticize your beliefs or your reasoning in that comment, just your misinformed anti-atheist stereotypes.

    I further note that my comment was one of the few that didn’t seem to warrant a reply. I was hoping to at least receive an acknowledgement.

    • Ric Shewell

      I think nobody commented on your comment because nobody wanted to defend an argument that atheists are a persecuted bunch.

  • Jesse

    Theism and Atheism are old news! Both are categories of early modernity that came about long before we had an evidential understanding of how the world came into being. They presuppose a trivial, unnatural God and a Cosmos that is not itself divinely creative (M. Dowd).

  • Chris Corrigan

    I think the lesson here is that it is always better to declare what it is you are for than to try to take a position against something as personal as belief. Speak to your own beliefs and kind hearted people will hear you out. Speak to others about their and they will always give you an argument, because there is no way you know them better than they do. This is what I despair about both evangelical Christians and evangelical atheists: each presumes to know what I believe, and I rarely get a conversation instead of a cross examination.

    • fojap

      That is one smart comment.

    • Rob

      Precisely the point, thanks for stating it.

    • Lausten

      But religious people don’t just share their religion and leave it at that. Before they were tamed, they burned people at the stake. It has taken several court cases to keep them out of science classes. They threaten authors and comic strip writers. They fly planes into buildings. They take money from vulnerable people. Keeping quiet about all this has proven to be a bad strategy.

      • “…religious people…” That’s a large group you’re lumping together, Lausten. I don’t think that grouping and subsequent characterization is the least bit valid. But that’s just me.

        • Lausten

          It was a difficult for me to grapple with too. I eventually
          admitted that my participation, (giving money to my church, telling people (especially children) that God actually works in our lives), contributed to irrational thinking that allowed televangelists to exists. Burning at the stake can only happen in a society that represses rationality to a point that the rule of law isn’t effective. Our society still restricts the rights of gays and is doing a poor job of protecting some children from some priests. What does that tell you?

          If I don’t use any rules for determining what is true for me, how can I demand that a terrorist think rationally about his actions? If you wait until someone is harming others in the name of their god before you draw a line, then you’ve waited too long.

          • Point taken. But what about the “religious people” who actually uphold justice and love mercy; advocating for those whose voices/lives are being marginalized and oppressed?

            • Lausten

              The point was that I didn’t lump all religious people together. The positive actions of some can’t be lumped in to gloss over the negative either. The questions should be, what motivated the negative actions, what’s wrong with the system that allowed them? Even for the positive, could
              that have been done better? Are there others ways to encourage those actions? If so, why is religion special? Why does it deserve special consideration?

      • Flee Bus

        Saying “religious people” burned people at the stake is like saying all atheists were Stalinists or Nazis.

        • Lausten

          Bad analogy. Burning at the stake was done for specific
          religious reasons. Stalin and Hitler did not claim atheist reasons for what they did. I can look at “religious people” and try to understand their motivations and even predict behavior without claiming that all who are religious will act a certain way.

  • Angie Rines

    If you don’t like it, don’t read it. There are millions of blogs out there. You don’t need to argue with one person to justify your own beliefs.

  • I think the situational arrogance of believing contrary to the majority is part of the appeal of atheism. It’s a faith already full of conceit for many – if I can’t understand it, I won’t believe it – and the subtle implication that you’re in the right while so many are in the wrong must be tempting.

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      You are making a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions about the inner workings of the atheist brain. There are many atheists who have done a lot of study into religion, even religious leaders, before they stopped believing. These people aren’t atheists because they “can’t understand it.” They do.

      And believe me, people don’t become atheists just cause they want to be contrary and stand out from the crowd. Many atheists face serious social repercussions for their lack of belief and many struggle with their loss of belief themselves.

      I rarely give downvotes to comments and I don’t downvote simply because I disagree. But comments that are based on bare assumptions that degrade a group of people are harmful to discourse and prevent understanding. So you’ve earned one from me.

      • KentonS

        Isn’t *your* comment based on a faulty assumption that your individual experience must be a universal? You’ve done study into religion, therefore no one goes into atheism without study? You don’t want to stand out from the crowd therefore no atheist wants to be contrary?

        Some people are wired to be contrary, and some people have martyr complexes. Not all, but goldenj wasn’t implicating all.

        • Psycho Gecko

          If atheism is only about standing apart from the crowd to you, you think, then first of all that’s rather insulting to those of us who are in some very dangerous situations, whether that’s atheists being killed in other countries or atheists just receiving death threats in this one because, say, they joined the military or wanted to protect the Constitution.

          It also insults Christians, who may not like the suggestion this makes that Christians just want to go along with the crowds without caring about what may be true and correct and well-reasoned.

          I think a big part of your comment is this assumption that people just switch around their beliefs to be contrary. Like if a teen got into a fight with his mom, he’d be able to go “That’s it, I don’t believe in God now!” That’s just not how it works. You don’t just flick belief on and off like a switch. If you think you can, then you might try not believing in gravity while you jump off your roof (assuming it’s single story; I’m not trying to suggest you hurt yourself).

          • KentonS

            Puh-leeze. I don’t think belief is turned on and off like a light switch. To make that charge from my comment is just ridiculous. I understand there are complexities involved and mindsets evolve over long periods of time. That does not change the idea that what’s behind those changes in ***some*** cases is subconsciously motivated by contrariness and/or a martyr complex.

        • OverlappingMagisteria

          I do not claim nor believe that my experience is universal.* There may be a small fraction of atheists who stopped believing simply because they want to be contrarian or because they were frustrated in their religious studies. However, goldenj said “many.” That seems to indicate that this a large view amongst atheists. The fact that there might be a few doesn’t excuse you or goldenj painting “many” atheists with that broad brush.

          But whether or not goldenj was talking about all or many atheists is irrelevant to my main point. The main point was that goldenj is presuming to somehow know what “many” atheists think. How does she/he know this? Can goldenj read minds? Do atheists say “I’m an atheists cause I like to stick out and think I’m smarter than everyone”?

          It is very risky to make assumptions about other people’s thought processes and to then use those assumptions to label people arrogant is insulting. That was what I was getting at.

          *Although, I can see how my second paragraph could have been interpreted that way. Apologies for my sloppy wording

          • KentonS

            I can’t speak for goldenj, but like I said in my response to him, *I* can attest that *I* have been guilty of the sort of “situational arrogance” he’s writing about. Am I the only one? Or is that sort of thing is limited to those of us who self-identify as theists?

            You see, sometimes it’s easier for those of us who have been guilty of that sort of thing to see it in others, and, yes, I’ve seen it on both sides of this divide. Maybe the brush is finer than you think goldenj is painting with. Sure, whatever.

            (And no need to apologize for the sloppy wording. We all do it. Maybe you can have some grace for Tony’s sloppy wording. Or goldenj’s. Or mine.)

            • wanderer

              I think it’s easier for those who have been guilty to *assume* they see things in others. You can’t know because you’re not in someone else’s brain.

              • KentonS

                Yeah, and I guess I should have remembered whom I was talking to. Athiests need proof, right? You can’t know something unless there is clear video evidence, and even then it has to be verified that it wasn’t doctored. Something could walk like a duck, look like a duck and quack, but if you say it’s a duck, you’re *assuming* it’s a duck. You don’t *know* it’s a duck because you haven’t extracted DNA from the creature and compared it to DNA from what the scientific community has accepted and defined as “duck.”

                I think this is why some of us are just as frustrated with atheist fundamentalism as we are religious fundamentalism. It’s essentially the same damned thing.

                • Joe Agnost

                  Kenton wrote: “this is why some of us are just as frustrated with atheist fundamentalism as we are religious fundamentalism. It’s essentially the same damned thing.”

                  What an incredibly ignorant thing to say. Religious fundamentalism flies aircraft into buildings, murders infidels, forces women to live like chattel, etc…
                  Atheist fundamentalism puts billboards up in time
                  square, fills comment sections of blogs, forces everyone to follow the constitution, etc…

                  Yeah – pretty much the same thing. (roll eyes).

                  And BTW – I’d call it a duck because there is plenty of good evidence that it ~is~ a duck. We don’t need “proof” (a DNA test for example) as you claim – decent evidence is a start and often good enough to believe

                  • KentonS

                    All fundamentalists have certain things in common. They fail to see the value in the other side. They deride those who disagree with them. They’re blind to the evils their fellow fundamentalists commit, and they can’t see any limits in their understanding.

                    Sound familiar, Joe?

                    • Joe Agnost

                      So? Your claim (that fundamental theists are “essentially” the same as fundamental atheists) is demonstrably wrong. The two are very far apart in terms of the harm they inflict on mankind – miles apart!

                      You might not like the ideas espoused by atheists – but your claim that they’re just as bad as theists is ludicrous!

                    • KentonS

                      Atheists have certainly inflicted their share of harm on mankind: Stalin and Chairman Mao for starters. Did their atheism contribute to their tyranny? Well, given how the premise in this thread is that no one else can know another’s thoughts, I don’t think you can go there. Certainly there have been religious tyrants too.

                      Eric Harris was believed to have singled out one of his victims because she believed in God.

                      Evil can happen on both sides of this divide, Joe. Believing you are immune because of your (ir)religious views is dangerous.

                    • Joe Agnost

                      One of the claims you made (about fundamentalists) was that: “They’re blind to the evils their fellow fundamentalists commit”

                      I am ~not~ blind to the pain that Mao, Stalin, et al have committed. I doubt you could find anyone that doesn’t acknowledge that.
                      I also don’t believe you could show that they were “fundamental” atheists driven by atheism to do harm – but like you said I can’t know that for sure.

                      The question is whether atheist fundamentalists are “essentially” the same as theist fundamentalists – and I don’t think you can make that claim. Not even close…

                    • KentonS

                      Well, not in a way you would ever acknowledge.

                    • Joe Agnost

                      I won’t acknowledge it because it’s a statement based on faulty logic and poor reasoning… as I said, the statement is ludicrously off base. Ridiculous…

                • wanderer

                  Again with the assumptions. You know nothing about me. I’m an atheist because I think it’s normal and healthy to not assume that my motives in a particular action are also everyone else’s motives in that same action? This is called healthy interpersonal communication and basic respect. If to you this is the behavior of only fundamentalists, then I’m scared for your worldview.

                  • Guest

                    I don’t know which of your argument’s two faces to respond to. On one hand, I can’t draw any conclusions of what you’re thinking because I don’t know you, on the other you claim to know what I’m thinking even though you don’t know me. If you’re gonna argue, wanderer, at least be consistent.

                    • wanderer

                      K, I’m not sure who is talking to me now because I was responding to KentonS but a “guest” has answered. If this is KentonS but just not signed in, I will say that I wasn’t really looking to argue. I was making the point that it’s dangerous to assume that your motives for something are the same as other people’s motives, even if they are doing the same action as you did.
                      Guess I’m not making my point clearly, but that’s what I was intending to say. Not sure I can beat this to death much more though.

    • KentonS

      As someone who has on occasion been guilty of the same situational arrogance, I think you’re spot on. Maybe not for every atheist (and indeed you seem to be saying as much), but for some I think you’re right.

    • stuchan

      What a foolish comment! How many actual atheists do you know? Most of the ones I am familiar with weren’t out there shopping for a cool ideological outfit, one what said “I’m not a part of the crowd, baby!” You can try to psychologize all you want, but it’s easy to assert all kinds of things about what might be going on in other people’s minds – and convenient, too, since you don’t have to prove anything. Quite often the story I have encountered has been one of agonizing soul-searching, of long bitter hours struggling with oneself over difficult issues (epistemology, theodicy, axiology). Sure, there is a contingent (as with any conspicuous out-group) who might be poseurs, but they are a rarity. The costs of being a self-identified atheist tend to weed out the insincere over time.

  • tyler

    generally when one offends a bunch of people isn’t the proper response to ask yourself “why might they be offended by what i said” rather than to buckle down and paint yourself as a martyr

    i surely cannot imagine why people would be offended at the reinforcement of negative and ultimately unfounded stereotypes, which 95% of the comments you received appear to be criticizing (heck even the article clearly rips into the stereotyping over the poor logic did you actually read it or just react to the headline)

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    “I think their belief deserves enough respect that I cannot shuck it off so very easily.”

    I agree with this (and mentioned it in yesterday’s comments, but it may have been lost in the deluge.) However, I make a distinction that this is a reason to look into something, but not necessarily to believe it.

    Plenty of people believe in some sort of deity and for this reason, I don’t shuck off their beliefs as if they are unworthy of consideration. I look into those beliefs and ask why they hold them. I read religious texts and literature. I take the question seriously. If so many people believe X, then there might be something there.

    However, to me, this is a reason to investigate, not to conclude. Believing just because other people believe is kind of passing the buck. “I believe cause, well… all those other people probably have a reason.” Well, let’s get to the heart of the matter and see what those reasons are! But that’s my 2 cents.

    I think you will get more mileage out of your future writings on Aquinas’ 5 ways. Although they may not convince many atheists, I think they are at least stronger then the ad populum argument.

  • Abandon Window

    In making your personal statement you made some very uncharitable generalizations about atheists. The kind we hear and read all the time. That shit is hurtful. You wrote on Twitter that it wasn’t an attack, but clearly people felt attacked. Do with that what you will.

  • Brian K

    I’m a fairly regular reader of your blog, and I’ve appreciated your perspective in the past. I read your post yesterday through about 7 times trying very hard to find my error in interpreting it as “I’m a Christian because I don’t want to be like those damned atheists.” That may not be what you intended, but it’s what you said. We get described by religious fundamentalists as bad people all the time. We’re used to it. To hear it from you was painful.

  • PrimateZero

    Well look on the bright side….yesterday’s post was probably the most traffic you’ve had to this site in ages. Or am I making assumptions based on my own opinion without doing any research into how many people actually read your blog?
    Well take or leave it, it’s my comment and I stand by it.

  • jeffstraka

    What I find discouraging about Tony’s bigoted attitude towards atheists is that atheism is simply a single statement on the God Question. Nothing else. What Tony fails to realize (which is also discouraging for someone with a PhD from Princeton) is that most atheists are Humanists and align quite well with the progressive social and political ideals (equality, environment, non-violence) he claims to hold. HUMANISTS ARE ALLIES in moving this country forward and away from the conservative fundamentalist who are causing so much harm, So, way to go, Tony. Way to alienate a growing number of allies.

    • Cecilia Davidson

      I’m surprised that, with all of the nice things atheists and skeptics do, the religious still keep harping on the not-believing part and saying EVEN WITH ALL THE GOOD WORKS YOU’RE GOING TO HELL! and other versions. There are atheists of all kinds, anyway – not just Jewish, as there are apparently Christian atheists (to merit a wiki article means something happened) who still follow the teachings of Jesus but just don’t believe in a god.

      • jeffstraka

        Most progressive Christians (I was one before I became an atheist) don’t believe in a literal hell. But I surely can’t speak for Tony, cuz he sounds more like an evangelical these days. Most progressives also don’t believe in a literal resurrection, but Tony does.

  • mhelbert

    Tony, as a Christ-follower and a loyal reader of your stuff, I gotta say that ethe post you wrote was simply bad. You’re way smarter and blessed than the words you put out there. Hemant and the others were well within their rights to bash it. It was, well, lame. I know you can produce better stuff. And, we are still with you. Just pull your head out and do what God has gifted you to do.

  • You say you believe because you don’t want to think all the other believers are and have been ‘stupid lemmings.’ They weren’t and they aren’t.
    Everyone, belief or no, is out there looking for answers. Humanity since the birth of civilization and I’m sure long before it has just always wanted answers. That some people have and will come to the wrong answer is obvious by the fact that not all of us can be right.
    But it’s the searching that makes us human, and makes us brothers, and it always will.

  • UseYourBrain

    The reason atheists and other thinking people do not find your reason compelling is that your argument is simply fallacious.

    It takes a form like this :
    a. the majority of people in this world like sport
    b. i like a sport called cricket
    c. therefore i am in solidarity with people who like synchronised swimming and people who like cage fighting

    … and that’s why i like cricket

    • Jennifer

      It’s more like this:
      a) The majority of people believe that sport is valuable.
      b) I believe that cricket is valuable.
      c) Therefore I am in agreement that sport is valuable with people who might not like cricket but who think that synchronized swimming is valuable.
      d) So many people are in agreement that sport is valuable – even different sports – that this increases my belief that sport is valuable.

      Except the non argument might go more like:
      A) the majority of people believe – and have believed for a very long time – that exercise is good for you.
      B) although I am struggling with doubts as to the true nature of the perfect exercise, and no one seems to agree on what the perfect exercise may be, the fact that so many billions of people agree that exercise is good makes me doubt that exercise could be bad.
      C)this is one of my reasons for continuing to exercise. I have others.

      • UseYourBrain

        Unfortunately, Jennifer, if you transpose either of our initial analogies back to the issue of religion (sport) and christianity (cricket) you will see that point c is where the argument becomes fallacious. So many people believe that religion is ‘valuable’ ONLY IF it is their particular religion.

        Back to the analogy, there is no agreement about the validity of other types of sport. There is no solidarity with followers of different sports (Hell, there’s not even any agreement about the validity of the different forms of cricket). That is, point c is a fallacious conclusion. Cricket is the only TRUE sport and all the other sports are not really sports at all. This is where the argument falls apart.

        And this is what makes the author appear to be either extraordinarily ignorant or excruciatingly dishonest. Or perhaps he just wasn’t thinking straight that day.

        • Jennifer

          I didn’t read Tony’s post as an actual argument. My “arguments” about sport were a bit tongue in cheek because I found the attempt to hammer a personal opinion post into the form of a scientific argument daft. I tried to make that clear by calling the second one a non argument.

          I read Tony’s post – through the filters of my own questioning eyes – as someone saying that he had doubts and questions about his faith, but that ONE of the reasons he continued to believe in God was that so many billions of people shared a belief that womething divinely other is present in their lives.

          I read the post as a personal commentary and not – in this case – as an advanced argument for the existence of a specifically Christian God. More of a “heck, so many people believe in God (gods, goddesses…. Whatever). They must have their reasons for persisting in this extremely long held belief that something “other” exists. This aspect of their belief (that something “other” exists). feeds into my feeling that God (in my case) exists.”

          • UseYourBrain

            Yes, I can see that view … except that the piece took the form “if this, then thus” which, it’s not possible to deny, is an argument. Tony would probably not have received such a caning if he did not insist on quoting bogus statistics and assertions (95% profess belief, no atheists in slums, only white elite are atheist, etc).

            If you are going to approach your doubts with questioning eyes, you MUST ensure your questioning is honest (otherwise you’re not really questioning at all, just pretending). The very fact that billions of people believe in a plethora of gods should INCREASE your doubt about your own particular version of god. When you view this fact correctly it shows that, of 6-7 billion people, hardly anyone believes in the same god as you do. And history has shown over again that the ‘vast majority of people’ have collectively believed something that has subsequently been shown to be incorrect — thanks to science and rational thought.

            If you share Tony’s opinion that this is “one reason that’s most significant to me these days …”, then I suggest that you have more than just doubts (you’ve gone past ‘doubting’) and I sincerely encourage you to pursue your doubts, question your beliefs and your ‘knowledge’ and come towards to light of reason.

            When you free yourself you will truly begin to live in this, the only life you’re ever going to get. And I wish you all the very best in your journey.

            • Jennifer

              I was a bit confused by your response until it occurred to me that you might be thinking that I started out with a belief in God and am now doubting my beliefs. I wasn’t raised with any particular religious view and it is with no small amount of alarm that I find myself inconvenienced by a growing belief in God. I’m not quite sure what you meant by your statement that once I have freed myself (from?) I will truly begin to live in my only life. As a middle aged woman who is married, has a great kid, loves my dog, ran a successful business for years, has great friends, loves the outdoors, knits, reads, talks with perfect strangers about religion, shoots creepers with enchanted arrows….I have a pretty full and happy life.

              I’m not particularly fazed by the differences in religious beliefs. It’s a bit like the blind men and the elephant. Obviously not all religions can be “right” about the “truth”. And there is unlikely just one elephant here (grin). But there is something about the religious experiences shared by such a huge chunk of humanity that draws me. This is not the one and only reason I believe in god. I don’t think it’s Tony’s only reason, either, despite his phrasing. I took his use of the words “these days” to indicate a current focus rather than the entirety of his belief.

              As far as I know, no one has proven one way or another whether God (Gods, goddesses, whatever) exist. It could be that he does and we just don’t have the ability to prove it yet. It could also be that he doesn’t and we just don’t have the ability to prove it yet. I guess, in that sense, both views are “unreasonable”. Do I find some aspects of the Christian faith or other faiths unreasonable based on my knowledge of science, etc.? Yep. Does this mean that I throw out all of my beliefs? Only the ones that don’t hold up to what I find to be true.

              Thank you for this relatively civil conversation. Not being an atheist, Tony’s comments about atheists didn’t really register with me. I’ve since looked up some information on the internet and see that painting atheists all with the same brush isn’t particularly accurate or useful.

              • UseYourBrain

                You are right. I made foolish assumptions about where you were coming from. A clearly intelligent person getting through half a lifetime without the need for a god, then coming to a position where a god might be even plausible, is a quite incredible idea to me. Clearly I have a LOT more to learn about human belief. Thank you for the education.

                Wherever your journey takes you, I hope you travel safe.

                • Jennifer

                  There is no shortage of incredible ideas out there 🙂
                  I hope that you travel safe as well.

                  • Gun Nordström

                    To UseYourBrain and to Jennifer
                    It was very refreshing to find two people so willing to piecefully listen to eachother, not condemning anything but continuing commenting until they got further in understanding eachother.
                    I felt how UseYourBrain also opened his/her heart and understood how the mind had made unnecessary assumptions which always are barriers withholding us from real understanding.

                    • Jennifer

                      Thank you. I quite enjoyed “talking” to Use your Brain despite our different beliefs. He or she gave me some things to think about along with the opportunity to try to clarify my own thoughts. It was refreshing not to encounter the hostility that is sometimes present in social media.

  • Cecilia Davidson

    An honest accounting, alright, but of your own ignorance about others.

  • Rachel

    Almost every human being prior to a few hundred years ago thought the earth was flat. They weren’t stupid lemmings, but they were wrong. Large groups of people can and frequently do believe incorrect things and make bad choices.

    You also seem to conflate any belief in any supernatural power with belief in your supernatural power. Believing in a pantheon of divines isn’t the same thing as believing in one. Believing in spirits who guide us is not the same thing as believing in God.

    I don’t mean to knock you. I think your feeling on this is based on some faulty assumptions, though. And that’s not a bash. We all do that from time to time, particularly in sensitive matters like faith. 🙂

  • Cecilia Davidson

    Let’s break this down a little –
    But the biggest atheist blogger in the world picked it up, – yeah, this happened.

    mocked it, – no, he bluntly called out your bullshit. Your argument for believing in a god was boiled down to argument by popularity, a fallacy if ever there was one …

    told his readers that I had made the worst argument for the existence of God that he’d ever read, and pointed them here. – Well, you did make the worst argument. There have been more elegant that still have their flaws, such as those arguments by Occham and Anselm and Aquinas, but we have the privilege of seeing the flaws in the argument when we’re not the one making the argument at first. If there’s a flaw, either you’re going to realize it, or someone else will tell you.

    They came, they told me I’m an idiot, and they left. – No, they’ve been calling you ignorant for not bothering to research. You also make the implication that atheists detach themselves from the world. We in the humanist community called you on a blatant falsehood.

    (It’s shocking — shocking, I tell you! — that atheists don’t find one of my reasons for belief compelling.) – Well, that’s because your arguments are full of flaws and fallacies, particularly within this article. Even David Hayward, whom I won’t always agree with on certain things, due to my being an ex-Catholic, has made clearer arguments with better theological backing. You can otherwise be okay in my books and I am a regular reader, but you decided, and i mean decided to act like a jackwagon about this.

    I don’t imagine they’ll be back anytime soon. – If you’re going to act willingly ignorant, in your position, about atheists who may otherwise have no issue with religion, then they will be back.

  • I’m sorry people are assholes. There are lots of bad reasons for belief, disbelief, and doubt. There are lots of good reasons for all three of those as well.

    The one you spoke about yesterday? Incredibly bad. But that’s ok. It’s the reason you have found yourself with.

    • Cecilia Davidson

      At least his reasoning for his reasons may be built upon better ground now – and he won’t throw people under the bus

  • Lausten

    Tony; I love you and respect you. Most of these recent commenters do not know the good work you do and how you are moving Christianity into a better future. You are one of those important people who continues to engage his detractors. As an atheist, I am glad to have you in my life.

    This post kinda made things worse though didn’t it? An issue with this debate is that, after one side addresses a particular argument the other says, “well that was just one reason”, then attempts to move on. Sometimes you have to do that, but leave it with something that tells us either you are thinking about it or just can’t think of anything else to say at the moment or you heard this or that point and appreciate the feedback, or something.

  • Monty

    I’ve thought about your reason today. I think you’re right. My vacillating doubt/faith teeter totter position is elite. I think your description of my education, white attitude toward god is spot on. It’s elitist. I think the way I do as a direct extension of my education and the books I’ve read. But what now? Rollins, Baker, Bell, you, me, Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris..we’re all white elitist. There was a time when I was ignorant, happy and content. That’s not today’s case. Keep up the honest journey. Thanks,

  • Zeke

    I think it’s worth pointing out the irony that Tony, a professed Christian, disbelieves in all the other gods of the “95%” that he feels are kindred souls that reinforce his faith. The atheists he maligns simply disbelieve in one more god than him……

  • Laura Larsen

    Yesterday’s post was one of my favorites. Personal, winsome, lovely. Well done.

  • corvelay

    A progressive Christian gives a flaky, bleeding heart-type reason for believing in God, then atheists arrive and behave in an obnoxious, socially stunted manner in response. A pretty good day for stereotypes!

    • jeffstraka

      You obviously did not read the comments.

      • corvelay

        Oh I surely did!

        • Cecilia Davidson

          clearly not, because most of them weren’t in such a manner.

    • BradC

      made me laugh

  • Re: “But the biggest atheist blogger in the world picked it up, mocked it, told his readers that I had made the worst argument for the existence of God that he’d ever read, and pointed them here.”

    Oh teh horrerz!

    You said some things, and people criticized them. It happens all the time on blogs. The only question to be asked and answered here is, was the criticism justified? In my own comment I pointed out your combined fallacy of argumentum ad populum and appeal to tradition. Logic tells us that veracity is not up for a vote, and tradition is not fact. Was it wrong for me to point out your fallacies? Is it some kind of “attack” on you? If a non-believer had posted something fallacious on his/her blog, would it have been wrong for you, in a comment there, to point that out?

    In both cases the answer is “no.” If you use fallacy, you deserve to be told you did so. That goes for believers, non-believers, and for everyone in between. Simple as that.

    Furthermore, your blog post derisively portrayed atheism as solely the product of vile, nefarious, white male intellectual elitism. In so doing you needlessly insulted the many atheists in the world who are neither male, white, nor intellectuals. (They DO exist, even if you’d prefer they didn’t.) Were people not supposed to notice this? Or take offense at your insult? If not, why?

    Instead of bellyaching that you’ve been taken to task for your own words, you might want to consider: 1) that you did, in fact, employ fallacies, and ought not to have done so; and 2) that you did, in fact, insult people whom, in your sanctimonious outrage over the very existence of atheists, you completely overlooked.

    In other words … show some courage. Admit what you did. Take your lumps like a man. Whining that you’ve been critiqued is childish and beneath someone who works in academia.

    Re: “(It’s shocking — shocking, I tell you! — that atheists don’t find one of my reasons for belief compelling.)”

    How horrible of them! Why, everyone knows they were supposed to have read your piece, immediately repented, recanted their non-belief, and run to the nearest minister to “accept Jesus Christ as their ‘Personal Lord & Savior™'”! How dare those insolent reprobates have done anything less for you!?

  • Flee Bus

    I think you were wrong about the atheists going away… if there is one thing that defines them, it is finding a reason to have a go at religion.

    A throwaway line like yours was “manna from Heaven” so to speak.

    It is important to note that these atheists do not not care about religion – they care about it very much, which is why they comment. They may not believe in God, but they believe in not believing, which could be said to be a kind of faith in itself.

    The ironic thing is that you probably have more in common with them than those people who are absolutely indifferent either way.

  • BradC

    This got crazy
    Mehta took a cheap shot at you and that’s not like him. He is friends with Randy Frazee – pastor at Pantego Bible Church years ago when I was on staff and now at Oak Hills in San Antonio. Mehta and Frazee have done some friendly dialogues at Willowcreek and Oak Hills. I was surprised when I read Mehta’s blog because – he doesn’t seem to be the kind that does that stuff.
    I understood the intent of your post and I wish others had taken the time to comment on their own thoughts rather than jump this as an attack on atheism.

  • tanyam

    “I completely changed my worldview because of a comment on a blogpost,” said no one, ever.
    So . . . any chance we could all try to learn something in these conversations, instead of playing gotcha? Could we ask each other questions instead of pointing out how “stupid” the other side is? Could we avoid sarcasm — because it almost never leads anywhere helpful?
    How ’bout we try to channel the most humanitarian representative of our “team” we can think of. Here, and everywhere.

  • `There is no God,’ the wicked saith,
    `And truly it’s a blessing,
    For what he might have done with us
    It’s better only guessing.’

    `There is no God,’ a youngster thinks,
    `Or really, if there may be,
    He surely didn’t mean a man
    Always to be a baby.’

    `There is no God, or if there is,’
    The tradesman thinks, ` ’twere funny
    If he should take it ill in me
    To make a little money.’

    `Whether there be,’ the rich man says,
    `It matters very little,
    For I and mine, thank somebody,
    Are not in want of victual.’

    Some others, also, to themselves
    Who scarce so much as doubt it,
    Think there is none, when they are well,
    And do not think about it.

    But country folks who live beneath
    The shadow of the steeple;
    The parson and the parson’s wife,
    And mostly married people;

    Youths green and happy in first love,
    So thankful for illusion;
    And men caught out in what the world
    Calls guilt, in first confusion;

    And almost everyone when age,
    Disease, or sorrows strike him,
    Inclines to think there is a God,
    Or something very like him.


    • Cecilia Davidson

      That was by no means relevant to the conversation.

      • Lamont Cranston

        Martyrbation is never relevant to anyone but the martyrbator.

      • Seems to me that Our Esteemed Host was not making an argument for God’s existence (the misperception of which has resulted in such furious counterargument), but merely expressing his feeling, or intuition, that it is the humbler, the poorer, the more oppressed portion of humanity that looks for a vindication of justice and an assurance that the world is not merely a theater of forces in conflict devoid of hope, and that he takes comfort in his solidarity with them. Furthermore seems to me that the poet rather beautifully expresses a similar sentiment, which is why I thought it somewhat relevant. For most believers, so far as I can tell, God is not the final term of a set of syllogisms.

  • Tony, I’m generally a fan of your blog.

    I left some pretty scathing comments when you posted about homeschooling, because I was homeschooled, and I think you have caricatured homeschooling here.

    I won’t be scathing here, but I do think you have a pretty big On one hand, your positive argument for belief is being criticized, and I assume you would expect that.

    OTOH, you are being criticized for making a caricature of atheists. Surely, you understand what privilege is. Perhaps you don’t understand what the majority of atheists in the world experience on a day-to-day basis.

    I suspect that is the case, analogously to the way you think about homeschooling.

    I think you would do well to consider that criticism, and own up to it. I think that would clear a lot of it up.

  • campero

    “One of the reasons that I continue to have faith is that so many in the world do; so many — the vast majority, by anyone’s reckoning — that I cannot help but pay attention to that.”

    The “vast majority” is not a true statement. I wish you could back your claims with factual data. World religions are distributed as follows:

    Christians 32%
    Muslims 23%
    Hindus 15%
    Buddhists 7%
    Jews 0.2%
    Folk traditions 6% (African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions)
    Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism, to mention just a few slightly less than 1%
    TOTAL: 84.2%

    The rest are not affiliated with any religion!