5 Atheist Arguments Which Aren't Helping Anyone (with commentary)
By: Dean Tersigni
This is a commentary on an article which lists five arguments that are, according to the author, bad at convincing theists that their belief in a god is unwarranted. While I agree with his overall thesis, that rude atheists are making things worse for themselves, I don't agree with all of his specific assessments, and I wish he would have included arguments that would be more persuasive to religious people. Thus, my commentary.
5.) There's No Scientific Proof
In this first argument, the author explains that telling a religious believer there's no proof of their god won't convince them to stop believing, because theists aren't interested in evidence, they believe through faith alone. I've spoken to a lot of theists, and while they all talk about their beliefs differently, I've found that every one of them bases their beliefs on evidence. When they quote their scripture, cite studies on the effectiveness of prayer, give personal testimonies, or claim to have witnessed miracles, they're appealing to evidence. Sure, I've seen plenty of theists who claim to believe through faith alone, but when asked why they don't similarly believe in Thor through faith alone, they invariably give evidence for why their god exists and Thor doesn't. But even if they give an evidence-free answer like, "Well, I was raised to believe in my god, not Thor," the moment you point out that people who believe in Thor could say the same thing, and that simply being raised to believe in something doesn't yield truth, they often revert to evidence. The point is, just like the non-religious, religious people need evidence to believe.
The author goes on to explain that science doesn't need to disprove religion, it only needs to keep religion out of science; I agree with both points, but he takes it a step further saying that science and religion work fine individually. That science works is indisputable, but the same cannot be said for religion. If the secularists are correct, then all the supernatural teachings of religions are false, and therefore do not "work" at all. Also, many religious people can't seem to help pushing their way into areas of science. It is the Christians, not climatologists, who say, who cares about the melting ice caps, God told Noah he would never again flood the planet! (seriously!) To demonstrate a harmony between science and religion, the author cites Isaac Newton, a Christian whose scientific contributions are uncontested. Trouble is, when Newton had problems getting his theories to mesh with reality, he threw up his hands and said "goddidit!" and spent decades of his life studying alchemy and mysticism. Imagine how much more he could have discovered had he dispensed with such nonsense.
How to Help
The argument, as it is worded, is indeed a bad one. "Proof" is the purview of logic, not science. Instead, we should focus on evidence, but as I alluded earlier, religious people can supply you with plenty of what they believe is evidence, they're just more credulous with the evidence they accept, and they certainly don't appreciate when you point out the flaws in their evidence. What I find to be more beneficial is to tell theists various stories about the application of critical thinking skills. For example, tell them the story of James Lind and how he created one of the first controlled experiments and found the cure for scurvy, then move on to the importance of double-blind trials. Once they realize why testing must be conducted so rigorously, you can then explain why prayer studies stop "working" when patients aren't informed they're being prayed for without the theists taking offense.
4.) Logical Paradoxes
For the most part, I agree with the author on this one. Most logical paradoxes involving religion aren't true paradoxes (including the oft-cited, "who created God" argument), and the ones that are paradoxes are usually too complex to be of any use. If they can't understand the paradox, then when they Google it, they probably won't understand the flaws in a "solution" woven by an apologist. The author explains that atheists often make believers feel stupid when they make such arguments, and this doesn't help their case; I totally agree. If you actually care about getting your point across, you need to be careful to avoid the backfire effect. You must teach a fact not wield it as a weapon.
I'm on the same page as the author right up until he lambastes the Problem of Evil, which I find to be a wonderful tool (when used correctly). When you talk to many ex-religious people, time and time again you'll hear them say their belief began slipping, not from finding flaws with the Kalam cosmological argument, but when they saw all the terrible things going on in the world which they couldn't square with their all-loving all-powerful god. The uneasiness we all feel when reality doesn't fit with our beliefs is called cognitive dissonance, which helps us know when we need to think harder about something. Many believers dismiss cognitive dissonance by saying, "God works in mysterious ways," but no amount of chanting the mantra will quash their confusion over why their god would let infants succumb to a torturous death from bone cancer.
How to Help
Unless the person you're arguing with has some formal education in philosophy, cerebral logical paradoxes are definitely counterproductive. However, those of a more visceral nature can be very useful. The theist may reflexively respond to the Problem of Evil with, "free will," but when you point out that killer hurricanes have nothing to do with free will, they will be forced to ruminate, and whenever a theist has to answer a question with, "well, I don't know, but I'm sure God has a good reason," the cognitive dissonance grows.
3.) The Bible/Torah/Quran/Tripitaka/Whatever Is Full of Screwed-Up Stuff!
The author admits these scriptures contain horrors, but reminds us that the only people who still adhere to the horrible stuff are fundamentalists, and they're nutjobs who are essentially beyond help. Most religious people don't follow the horrible parts, and, as long as they don't try to turn these backward commandments into modern laws, they're not a problem, so you shouldn't bring up such terrible excerpts.
Yes, believers find ways to ignore huge swaths of their scripture because those portions clash with modern secular morality (they won't use such words, but that's the truth). Regardless of whether they follow them, most religious people I have met firmly believe that everything in their scripture is true, that it is the perfect word of their god, and that laws should be based on their scriptures. Sure, there aren't too many Christians selling their daughters into slavery as the god of the bible allows, but the important point to make is, the god of the bible allows people to sell their daughters into slavery! If you are trying to claim, not just a moral high ground, but true moral perfection, you must be able to show why slavery is consistent with perfect morality.
How to Help
I'm pretty much against everything the author says here. For example, tell someone who is interested in converting to Islam about Muhammad's many wives, several of who were slave women presented as gifts, and one in particular, Aisha, Muhammad married when she was six-years-old, and started having sex with her when she was only nine-years-old. Even if a fundamentalist is there to defend Muhammad's acts by saying something like, "it was normal to marry young back then," or, "Aisha was really mature for her age, so it's okay," the fact of the matter is, they're justifying sex with children. By defending such utterly repulsive acts, anyone who isn't already indoctrinated becomes inoculated, but if you wait too long, they may become too inculcated to ever admit such atrocities are wrong.
2.) Religion Starts Wars
The author says that religions are often used to justify wars, but, since people don't invade poor countries in the name of religion, religion doesn't cause wars. And if we were talking about the Islamic invasion of the resource-heavy Iberian peninsula, I would agree. But how do we explain one of the most fought-over parcels of land in the history of civilization, the so-called "holy land" which is a barren desert of no earthly value. Sure, you could say it's about the principle of getting back something that was stolen, and that may be a large part of it, but do you really think millions of people would put their lives at risk over the principle of having a scrap of desert taken from them if religion didn't play a role?
How to Help
I agree with the author that religion makes war much easier to justify, but that's a very good talking point by itself. If peace is as paramount in scripture as many religious people believe, (Jesus said, "turn the other cheek," Islam is called the, "religion of peace," etc.), then why is it so easy for dictators to use their scripture to promote war, and why do so many followers go along with it? Doesn't that mean that the scriptures are ambiguous? If half of the readers interpret the scripture as a call to arms, and the other half espouses pacifism, how can we be sure that we're interpreting all the other parts correctly?
1.) Any Argument Aimed At An Individual
I totally agree with the header of this argument, but there is nothing in his text about refraining from ad hominems. Instead, the author says that we need to focus on ending religious laws that are killing people rather than small issues like Nativities in the public square. Of course, every atheist already believes the former is more important than the latter, the bigger question is, why are such laws still around? Are there really that many fundamentalist voters? I think a big part of the reason is because moderates still routinely see the Nativity in front of their town hall, the Ten Commandments in front of their courthouse, and "In God We Trust" on their money. It's become second nature to have religion in government.
The author suggests, unless a person is trying to kill someone because of their religion, it's not a problem; and you don't know how they use their faith and what joy it causes them. Actually, in many cases, I do know how they use their faith, because I ask them. But more to the point, followers don't have to be actively murdering others for religion to be harmful to society.
How to Help
There are many ways to explain to why religious laws can be problematic. You could bring up blue laws and how states restrict random behaviors when people "ought to be in church," like hunting on a Sunday, buying alcohol, and even, for some reason, selling a car. Appeal to their empathy and ask how they would feel if a different religion suddenly became the majority in their state (a very real possibility for many states) and passed a bunch of laws banning several activities that they enjoy.
All-in-all, I like the article and I like the point that atheists don't need to "win" against religious people, they just need to keep science progressing, and religion will fall on its own. And while I agree that adversarial attitudes don't help at a personal level, the author's live-and-let-live mentality doesn't address the power fundamentalists have in politics today and why it's important to bring out the big guns in a public debate. But, if you want to know how to effectively talk to theists about their beliefs, the best thing you can do is ask as many former believers as possible to give details about what caused them to lose their faith. Ask them which arguments were effective, and most importantly, ask them how not to offend a believer and ruin any hope at argument in the future. Most importantly, I agree with the author's closing remark, atheists need to stop being dicks.