As an atheist, this is why apologetics don’t convince me

As an atheist, this is why apologetics don’t convince me December 16, 2014

When I hook horns with apologetics, I often wonder what the other side is doing, because from A to Z, their entire approach is wrong to convince me of anything. Today, I thought I’d spend some time being introspective and explaining where apologetics falls short for me, personally.

Wrong Output

Imagine you are working on a thermodynamics problem. You’re trying to figure out the result temperature of a system, after some volume/work change. After doing the equations, you calculate -30000 Kelvin. But that’s not right… it’s not possible to go below 0 Kelvin… that’s absolute zero.

Based on your understanding of how reality works, you might not have known exactly what the calculated result would be, but you know enough that what you got isn’t right. Obviously, something went wrong.

When theists posit a god for the answer to “where morality comes from” (as weird of a question as it is), I also do a double-take. Clearly, the theist messed up in the equations, because it’s like me calculating “17 ghost potatoes” in my thermodynamics problem.

We all vet claims against what we “know” is true, and the expected outcomes. Don’t get the mistaken impression that I’ve decided ahead of time that no gods exist, so if anything conflicts with that conclusion, it’s obviously wrong. It’s more about mixing a god into things that are otherwise natural – like having “3 teaspoons of ghost extract” as part of a bread recipe. When a theist argues that we wouldn’t have morality without God, that makes no sense to me, particularly when I’m aware of how it arises naturally within us, as a social species.

Different “facts”

We do vet incoming claims against what we think we know is true, but what if those “facts” are wrong?

I’m told that out-of-body experiences have been scientifically proven, so that there’s an afterlife. I don’t know that – I know many/most cases are heavily flawed.

I’m told that Jesus’s historicity is scientifically proven, so the Bible is historically true. I don’t agree. I haven’t processed any information that demonstrates this.

I’m told that evolution is disproven, that the dating methods don’t work, Jesus is the only way you turned your life around, miracles are real, prayers work, and that the Bible is internally consistent. I don’t accept any of these assertions.

You’re going to have a difficult time convincing me of anything, when you use premises that I reject, as though they’re foregone conclusions. You may not agree with me as to whether they’re true or false, but the fact remains – if you’re using “facts” to support your case that I do not accept, I probably won’t believe you’ve made your case, and won’t accept it either.

The facts don’t line up

Suppose we have 10 compasses (as in the points-north ones) on a table, each of a different construction. Nine of them point consistently in one direction, but there’s one that’s pointing off in another. I’m going to trust the 9, that are consistent with each other, over the one that’s an outlier. Sure, there’s other issues that may come up, such as that there may be a local magnetic field screwing with the 9, but all else being equal, I’m going to trust the consensus over the outlier.

Going back to the first two sections, if I’m provided with a “fact” that does not align with my world view, it’s bounds to be rejected without significant evidence.

If you tell me that Jesus walked on water, that’ll probably be dismissed, because I’m familiar with how water works, buoyancy works, the floating tendencies of humans, etc. You throwing in “but magic” doesn’t solve it in my mind, because magic is also something that doesn’t align with what I know.

That’s not to say that you can’t convince me. It just requires substantial evidence, or a systematic deconstruction of all the points of contention, one-by-one. You’d have to show that (supernatural, for lack of a better term) magic is real, and that there’s a trick to walking on water I hadn’t considered. Those that conflict with what I “know” to be true, need to be resolved.

I think this is largely the major hurdle in converting/deconverting someone – that you have to take out each supporting peg of the person’s world view. Oddly, this most often seems to happen under the person’s own power, as they  deconstruct their own world view, due to some motivation, like caring about whether what they believe is real is actually real, or wanting some sort of emotional fulfillment.

Presuppositionalism, as I understand it, works under that principle. They’re not trying to convince you with facts. They’re trying to pry a crack in the armor so the holy ghost can get in and do its thing. It’d help if the holy ghost was a real thing.

Ultimately, you’ll need to do more than just provide that one “fact”.

Outliers, so what?

We all do this – someone manages to sufficiently disprove some notion you had, but you let it go, because there’s a whole set of other points still in your favor. In return, we’ll tend to think that person is missing the forest for the trees.

Some of the support for evolution comes in the form of transitional forms of hominid skeletons. You find out that one or more of those skeletons was either hoaxed, or badly assembled. Okay, fine, that one skeleton is a hoax, but that doesn’t mean the whole of evolution is false.

Just as a single fact, against your position that doesn’t align, can be dismissed, a single fact that was supposed to support your case, but didn’t, can be dismissed. We’re pattern-seeking creatures, and we’ll side with the trend over the flukes.

When it comes to hoaxed fossils, the apologists are often trying to make the point that science, itself, is fundamentally flawed – that it’s not just that one skeleton, it’s all of them, and they’re just providing an example. That’s fair. As a counter apologist, I’m usually trying to educate my advisory about the flaws in his/her approach as well.

The problem with that example is that science is what discovered it was a hoax. Science isn’t about being perfect. It’s about mitigating human error, converging on the correct answer over time, and self-correction. So citing an example of science doing what it’s supposed to do – error correction – as a flaw of science, isn’t compelling.

Again, this “inertia of world view” isn’t insurmountable, but when what you’re saying is contradicting giant swaths of scientific fact, I’d think that’d be a red flag to you. Otherwise, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Being “open minded” doesn’t mean uncritically accepting whatever you say. It means being open to new information, for consideration. Just expect push back for claims that contradict a lot of known reality.

A Different OS

People own Macs and Windows machines, and for the more-awesome individual, some weird mutant of Unix. Largely, software built for one operating system won’t run on the others natively. Those different computers run on different (though less so today) electronics architecture, and kernels.

In order to get your program running on a particular operating system, it needs to run on that machine’s framework.

If you hadn’t guessed, this is an analogy to epistemology. We all have these frameworks, that we operate upon, as to how we go about knowing things. To the best of my ability, I use science. Others use a literal reading of the Bible for a source of knowledge. Hypothetically, one could base his/her epistemology on a Magic 8-ball, and that may even work better than the Biblical one.

An apologist citing the Bible at me has no effect. It just doesn’t. That person may see it as The Truth™, but I don’t, so it’s utterly uncompelling to me. On the flip side, me citing science to that apologist may be dismissed because clearly science is just an arm of atheism, out to disprove God because we all want to sin.

Back a couple years ago, I was arguing with “the Brick Wall” (part 1, part 2, part 3), and I repeatedly made this point to him. If the apologist wants to convince me of anything, he/she has one of two options:

  1. Use my epistemic framework: science
  2. Provide an alternative epistemological framework, and demonstrate it works at least as well as science, and I’ll consider using it

I tried making this offer to multiple apologists, but it either went ignored, or I was accused of just doing some kind of underhanded tactic, when I was actually being as honest as I could.

Some people, like Ken Ham, make a valiant attempt to utilize science, but typically horridly mangle it. Others don’t have the faintest clue of the basics of a useful epistemology. We get “well God has to exist because we don’t know how else life could have started” – definitely not an example of my epistemology in action.

I’m open to the idea that there’s flaws in my methods for knowing reality. Let’s have that discussion, until then – and I’m being totally frank – if you don’t use my framework (or provide an adequate alternative), you’re just going to be spinning wheels.

Logic logic logic

This may sound strange coming from a skeptical, pro-science atheist, and perhaps a little damning, but there comes a point where a person is relying too much on logic. They’ve taken it to an extreme.

I call such instances “Proofs by Logic”, where, without appealing to any kind of empirical confirmation, the person purports to be able to demonstrate that something is true be pure argumentation alone. All they’ve done is (attempted to – I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt here) use logic to construct a long sequences of premises that lead to conclusions, that are then used as premises that lead to other conclusions… and therefore, God.

This actually encapsulated much of apologetics: cosmological arguments, Pascal’s wager, moral arguments, etc.

Fine, you’ve built a compelling case about why it’s reasonable to expect there to be a “first mover” that spawned the Big Bang. Great, now empirically confirm it. Until you do, all you’ve got is argument-based speculation. I bring up black holes as an example of a phenomenon that science speculated might exist, and even had evidence-based reasons to believe so, but until we had empirical confirmation (you know, confirmed predicted results), it remained speculation within the scientific community.

Logic, as well as humans can muster, works fairly well as a guide to investigation, but by itself, cannot accomplish the goal. There’s a strange irony here, because apologists are often chiding atheists/scientists about supposedly claiming that we “know everything” or are flawless, when they’ll point out (rightly) that humans are flawed and error-prone.

Yet, those very same people will attempt to apply logic as though they can execute it with perfection, and therefore, have “proved” their claim.

Scientific investigation is essentially a two-stage process: empirical observation -> logical analysis -> empirical observation -> logical analysis

Much of apologetics is: logical speculation -> logical speculation -> logical speculation -> logical speculation

For me, the bottom line is, without that empirical confirmation, don’t bother.

You can’t read my mind

Don’t think you know what’s going on in my head. If you want know, I’ll just tell you.

Often, we are accused by the apologist/theist of just wanting to sin, or actually knowing that there’s a god, but we’re just rebelling, etc. If you’re trying to convince us of anything, this is an extremely dangerous gamble, with little-to-no potential payoff.

I have access to my own mind. If you get it wrong, you may as well have nuked your own position from orbit, because your credibility has just been blasted into smithereens. If you get it right, you haven’t accomplished much.

This applies to both sides – if you’re going to accuse the other side of being disingenuous, make sure there’s actual evidence to support the assertion.

Inertia of World View

Let’s face it – we’re mired in our own world views. We also don’t like being wrong. I may not have any particular emotional investment in evolution, overall, but I might have some emotional resistance to admitting that I’m wrong. That may be particularly so when I’m in the heat of battle during an argument.

Don’t make the mistake, though, of thinking that I’m disagreeing with you because I’m being emotional. It’s not either-or, but rather can be a degree of resistance. Maybe you make some valid points that I’ll consider later, when just thinking to myself, and may come around.

… or maybe your points are just invalid. It doesn’t help to accuse me of being disingenuous. Present the facts, and argue the points.

Plenty of topics I’ve changed my mind about, some reluctantly. That’s human.

If what you’re arguing is falling into the previous sections, most likely, the problem with your failure to convince me isn’t about me be stubborn. It’s about your approach.


As I said the the Brick Wall, this summarizes why I don’t believe apologists:

No matter which way you cut it, your world view appears to be an intricately interwoven construct of logical fallacies and voids of critical thinking.

That’s not very compelling.

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