Debating Atheism: Five Common Mistakes


The point of this post is to promote meaningful dialogue between Theists and Atheists.  I’m neither attempting to prove the existence of God nor trying to disprove good arguments in favor of Atheism.  Rather, my aim is to examine several statements Atheists have made to me, on several occasions, which demonstrate they do not fully understand where I’m coming from.

I’ve labeled them “common” because, not only have I had these statements said to me, but I have read or heard them repeated by many Atheists (even several academics can be found making these assertions).  I call them “mistakes”, not to belittle the people who make them or to say that Atheism is false, but to point out that these assertions do not actually respond to what Theists are trying to communicate.  They are “mistaken” primarily because they are shots fired at straw men—they are, essentially, irrelevant to the discussion—they make unwarranted assumptions, or, because they prevent meaningful dialogue about the actual issues at stake.

Furthermore, I’ve presented each mistake in the form of a statement rather than trying to classify them with some cool designation.  I’ve done this partly because I couldn’t be bothered trying to come up with a fancy label for each mistake; but, primarily, because these statements, I think, simply reflect how many Atheists respond to Theists in every day conversation.

So, without further introduction, here are the five common mistakes or, misguided statements, Atheists make when debating Theists:

I.  “Atheist’s are not inherently immoral people; you don’t need God to do good things.” 

To my surprise, several books (see: Epstein and Armstrong) have recently been published by noted Atheists which focus almost entirely on this point—a point which virtually every Theist would agree with.  Hardly any Theist would deny that Atheists can do good things or can be morally responsible without believing in God.  This is especially true of Christians, who believe that all men are made in the image of God (whether they believe it or not) and are, thus, capable of having knowledge about moral truths and making good decisions, that is, of doing something morally right.  Furthermore, Christians believe in the concept of Natural Law—they believe morality is objective and woven into the very fabric of reality—and that all men are capable of comprehending moral truths regardless of whether they’ve read the Bible or believe in the Holy Trinity.

When Christians argue that moral values do not exist if God does not exist they are speaking about objective moral values—that is, moral values which exist and are true independently from observers.  Stated more precisely, moral values which exist and are true whether you, or I, or society believes in them or not.  This is significantly different from arguing that Atheists are inherently immoral people or are incapable of doing anything good.  It is also different from arguing that you must believe God exists in order to be ethical.

The Christian argument might start off like this: “so, you (the Atheist) and I both believe it is evil to rape and murder a ten year old child–surely, we can stand in solidarity on this point.  However, I as a Christian have solid philosophical reasons for believing this is objectively evil and you do not . . .”

II.  “Atheists believe many things in this world have value—people, in general, find the world to be full of value—hence, you don’t need God to believe that values exist.” 

Once again, we must distinguish between objective values verses subjective values.  Objective values are ontologically grounded outside of the human mind—they are real in the sense that they are said to exist whether individuals acknowledge their existence or not.  Objective values may be discovered through our subjective experience of reality but are not ontologically grounded in subjective experiences.   Understanding values objectively, one could make the following statements consistently:  “human beings have intrinsic value, dignity, and worth”, “men and women have inalienable rights,” or “one ought not rape and murder a ten year old child.”

Subjective values have no existence apart from the human mind—they are rooted in and relative to the observer or the community.  They are merely accidental properties.  In this sense values are not said to truly exist in an ontological sense—they are simply social conventions, or feelings, or mindless products of evolution.  Understanding values subjectively, one could never make the value statements we made in the preceding paragraph.  We certainly couldn’t make the statements, “X is valuable” or “one ought not do X”.  We could only say things like, “X has value to me”, or “society considers X taboo”.

The reason I’ve gone through such great lengths to explain these terms is because they so easily get muddled in conversation.  When a Theist argues that values do not exist if God does not exist, she means that objective values do not exist.  So, when an Atheist responds to such an argument with the statement, “people, in general, find the world to be full of value—hence, you don’t need God to believe that values exist” he is completely missing the point.  The Theist would agree that values become subjective if God does not exist, in fact, this is the very thing the Theist has a problem with.

III.  “I don’t believe in God because I believe in science.”

I’ve heard this line more times than I care to remember.  This assertion is usually thrown out as a conversation stopper—that is, it is usually intended to show that religious belief is outdated, simplistic, mythical, irrational, opposed to scientific discovery, and hence not worth talking about.  However, the statement carries with it many underlying assumptions which are typically never supported by anything like coherent argumentation.

First of all, it creates a false dichotomy—it suggests that one must choose between “belief” in God and “belief” in science.  It assumes, without supporting argumentation, that the acceptance of one belief necessarily excludes belief in the other.  Furthermore, those who make this statement often fail to explain what they mean by “I believe in science.”  If this statement means “science provides the only valid path to knowledge” then one must provide good reasons for holding this epistemological view (which, by the way, is self refuting).

The Theist, on the other hand, often holds science in high regard and, in fact, many Theists are scientists.  Historically speaking, modern science grew out of a culture which primarily accepted the Christian worldview—in point of fact many of the greatest scientists were Christians or at least Theists of some sort.  Don’t simply throw out this statement and call it a day—open up the doors for a deeper, more nuanced . . . more rational discussion.

IV.  “I don’t need any arguments to justify my lack of belief in God; it’s up to you to prove that God exists.”

Sure, you don’t need arguments . . . if you’re not interested in holding your beliefs rationally.  Consider this example:

If I came up to you and forcefully asserted that the past is not real and that history is just an illusion you’d respond by saying, “prove it, and give me a reason why I should believe you”.  Would you take me seriously if I simply replied, with a smug look on my face, “I don’t have to prove anything; it is up to you to prove me wrong”?  I must have reasons why I believe history is an illusion (even if they are bad reasons) and I should share them with others if I want them to agree with me or, at least, take me seriously.  If, however, I have no reason to accept this outlandish premise, why should anybody give me the time of day?

So, unless the thought “God doesn’t exist” irrationally popped into your head one day and you just decided, without reason, to adopt it as a fundamental truth, you have reasons to justify your lack of belief in God.  Please don’t be afraid to share them—open them up to critique or reevaluation.  Give the Theist a reason to accept that God is dead.  The burden is on you as well; don’t be intellectually irresponsible.

V.  “I’m not having a discussion with you about God; people who believe in God are delusional and probably psychopathic.  It is impossible to have a rational discussion with someone who is delusional.” 

Frankly, statements of this sort are just an excuse to avoid critical thinking and indicate that you are a narrow minded bigot.  If this isn’t a mistake I don’t know what is?

Advertisements