Via Burt Likko and The Unreligious Right, I came across this article, where the author, Gordon Douglas, explains his “Top ten reasons” why he is an atheist. The problem I have with this article is that, whether you’re an atheist or not, the “top ten reasons” are mostly examples of pretty bad reasoning. But there’s some pretty common sets of arguments being employed here that aren’t very good, so I’m actually going to take my time and look at these right here.
Please note that this series is not an argument for theism — it’s merely an analysis of these particular given reasons for atheism.
1. The Argument From Multiple Religions
Mr. Douglas’ first argument is this:
I used to believe that only my religion could be right, and that every other religion was wrong. I studied apologetics so I could prove this to anyone I met. Anyone else who claimed to know their religion was true deep in their heart was clearly suffering a Satanic delusion. At the exact same time, I believed a clearly mythological story with blind faith and nothing more to back it up than the fact that I knew deep in my heart that it was true. Then I realized that people fly planes into buildings, run into crowded plazas with bombs strapped to them, and drink poisoned Kool-Aid in the name of their gods. If faith is really the true measure of the veracity of a religion, I was clearly in the wrong church, and should have become a militant Muslim.
This is nonsensical. The mere existence of varieties of religious belief has no bearing on the veracity of claims being made. There are multiple hypotheses over various mechanisms of evolution. It does not follow from that fact that evolution didn’t happen. There are multiple theories of ethics. It does not follow from that fact that ethics don’t exist. There are multiple views of aesthetics. It doesn’t follow from that fact that there is no art. Moreover, given that Mr. Douglas is listing reasons to be an atheist, he does not seem to take into account that there are, in fact, atheistic religions. I’m not sure how that lines up with his argument.
2. The Argument That Prayers Don’t Get Answered
Mr. Douglas next argues that:
Then, I came to the realization that if I prayed to God for a given number of things, and I prayed to a rock for that same number of things, the chances are very good that the rock and God would answer roughly the same number of times. Muslims pray to their God, Hindus to theirs, Catholics and Protestants to theirs, Wiccans to theirs… and after all is said and done, every God seems to answer in roughly the same proportion… unless of course for the 100% rate of failure for such requests as healing an amputee or “moving a mountain.”
This isn’t an argument for atheism. It’s an argument against one type of prayer — intercessory prayer. But Mr. Gordon ignores religious traditions that don’t believe in intercession (which are myriad), as well as other types of prayer. (In the Christian traditions alone, he ignores Adoration, Thanksgiving, and Confession.) A belief in God and a disbelief in intercession are perfectly compatible — just ask Thomas Paine.
3. The Argument that the Existence of God is Unprovable
The next argument is a pretty basic one:
I used to say to the doubters “You can’t disprove God!” That’s true, but it’s true for one very important reason: you can’t disprove something you don’t have proof of. I can’t disprove leprechauns, or Bloody Mary, or ghosts, or Smurfs, or anything that I don’t first have proof of. You can only disprove something by showing how the proof of it is not valid.
If you guess that Mr. Gordon does not then provide any analysis or argument of arguments for theism, such as Aquinas’ proofs in the Summa Theologica, or Richard Swineburne’s The Existence of God, or the words of Muslim scholars, or any of the other myriad complex theologies, you would be correct. Simply asserting that God is unprovable is as bad an argument for atheism as the Watchmaker analogy is for theism. (see Hume, et al for the devastations of the Watchmaker argument)
Moreover, there are different definitions of God and gods across the different religions traditions. Are all of them simply “unprovable”? It doesn’t follow. To be sure, the burden of proof is on those who believe in any god or gods, but that doesn’t excuse the shoddy assertion that it’s no provable to begin with.
4. The Argument Against the Bible
Next, Mr. Douglas asserts that:
Considering the only real knowledge we have on the subject comes either from numinous, unverifiable personal experiences or ancient books of mythology which can be proven to be as I’ve just described them (in a word: nonsense), the God which they describe can thus safely be assumed to be fictional.
Three things worth noting about this argument: (1) he fails to address any of the theological arguments in the Christian religious traditions that reject literalist interpretations of the Bible; (2) he notes that the Bible can be proven to be nonsense, but doesn’t actually do so, or even provide a link to someone who does; and (3) this is an argument against the Abrahamic religions — not the existence of a deity. Disbelief in the Bible and belief in one Supreme God are, again, compatible. And again, just ask Thomas Paine.
5. The Argument That “Religion is, By Nature, Deluding”
I’m not going to bother excerpting this argument, because it essentially boils down to a recounting of bad things that Yahweh does in the Old Testament and saying “Look, this is bad!” But that’s not an argument against the existence of God. Maybe God does exist, but he’s a bastard. Maybe Yahweh is an insane demon and the true God is represented by the Serpent in the Garden of Eden and by Jesus — that’s what the Gnostic Christians believed.
All this argument boils down to is a judgement that Yahweh is evil. It has no bearing on his existence, nor does it have any bearing on the existence of any other god or gods. Thor is unimpressed.
6. The Argument that Science Is Better
Mr. Gordon then argues:
Science, it has been pointed out, is not perfect and doesn’t have all the answers. However, it does have a method for obtaining answers, whereas religion simply claims answers without having ever done any of the work to get there. Science starts with the idea that we do not know something and then tries to figure it out. Religion starts with the arrogant assumption that we know God exists and therefore must base all our knowledge on that idea.
To be sure, there are definitely large portions of the religious world that reject empiricism. But that has no bearing on the existence of any god or gods. Whether people reason empirically or not doesn’t change the fact of existence.
Secondly, it’s also not necessarily true that science and religion are incompatible. Many scientists are religious. Many religions embrace empirical research. And, one more time, not all religions are theistic. The fundamental error that permeates this entire article is the completely unfounded assumption that fundamentalist Christianity and all other religions operate under the same metaphysical, theological, and epistemological frameworks. This is utterly false.
Mr. Gordon also mentions this:
Once again, religion causes a delusion which stands in the way of readily-available facts and steps around the intellect.
This is an empirical claim that Mr. Gordon does not back up with any evidence or reasoning whatsoever, save for an argument from his own experience. Given that Mr. Gordon earlier asserted that personal experience is not a valid source of evidence for the existence of God, I presume it’s not valid — or at least, less certain — evidence for his own. Right?
7. The Argument That Religions Are Made Up
Mr. Gordon continues his article with his rather breathtakingly arrogant ignorance of the origins of religion:
The first man to invent religion obviously looked up at the sky and said “I have no idea how all this got here. I made this hut, and this fire, and this wagon, and I tamed this wild dog, and so whatever made the sky must be something very similar to me, only much more powerful.” Obviously. God was made in man’s image, not the other way around. He was a creation of humanity from when we couldn’t figure out any better explanation for the difficult questions of existence.
If Mr. Gordon has any evidence to support the claim that this is how all religions found their origin, he fails to provide it. This account, however, would no doubt come as a surprise to scholars of religious history such as Karen Armstrong, Peter Watson, Elaine Pagels, Daniel Dubuisson, and many, many others.
More to the point, the idea that religion is a man-made system of thinking neither validates nor invalidates the premise that god exists! All systems of thought are man-made. All discoveries are made by people. Most ideas and discoveries are inevitably filtered through personal experience and cultural background. That has zero bearing on the truth of said ideas.
8. The Argument That There’s No Difference Between Religion and a “Relationship With God”
Religion and a Relationship with God are just jargon for the exact same thing. When I was a Christian, I used to use the phrase “Some people have a religion, but what I have is a relationship with Jesus Christ.” I also used to throw around the words “Head Knowledge and Heart Knowledge” quite a bit. But in reality, it’s all just fancy ways of saying the same thing: having an emotional, spiritual experience that can’t be quantified logically. It’s faith, either way… it’s believing in something that isn’t real. Some people just get arrogant about it and think that only they have the right answer, and then stupid phrases like the ones above get formed.
What does this have to do with the existence or non-existence of a god or gods? Your guess is as good as mine.
9. The Argument That Religion is Destructive
Gordon next makes a litany of complaints against religion:
Religion creates rifts and divisions in the world.
So do political ideologies and economic theories. That has no bearing on the truth-value of their claims.
It causes backwards-thinking and halts medical, scientific, and societal progress.
Religion isn’t some metaphysical force. It’s a set of ideas. In some hands, yes, it can cause backwards-thinking. But any ideology can cause that, whether it’s theistic or atheistic. Just ask scientologists. As for society progress, I think that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might disagree about its role in societal progress. As would John Woolman. Or Isaac Newton (who was very, very religious.)
It encourages people to be content rather than try to better themselves, and to trust in an invisible friend rather than strive to succeed.
What religion is he thinking of? If ever there was a time for a Wikipedia-esque “(citation needed)”, this would be that time.
The point is, religious ideas can be positive or negative. People who are religious can do great and terrible things. These facts have no bearing whatsoever on the truth of religious claims.
10. The Argument that Christians Don’t Really Get Persecuted
I won’t bother excerpting this one, either. The header is a sufficient summary of the argument. The fact of the matter is yes, in some parts of the world, Christians are persecuted. But whether they are or not has no bearing on the existence or non-existence of any god or gods.
11. The Argument of the Problem of Evil
Now — finally! — we’re getting somewhere. Mr. Gordon provides his first solid atheist argument. The classic “Problem of Evil.”
My favorite argument for the nonexistence of God comes from Epicurus:“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
I could probably write a book on theodicy, but I would note that Gordon only deals with one pro-theistic argument regarding the problem of evil, and that’s the “free-will” argument. Only he handles it pretty badly:
I’ve heard so many people say “God allows us to have free will. If we do evil with the gift of free will, it isn’t God’s fault, but our own.” That makes me want to do evil to the people who say worthless, thoughtless garbage like that. Is it really a little girl’s free will to be kidnapped, molested, raped, tortured, murdered, and left on the side of the road in a plastic bag? Is it really a woman’s free will to choose a man because he seems to be a good Christian only to find out that his spirituality has caused him to repress perversions that lead to his arrest for molesting children? Is it the free will of all those precious children who die of leukemia, or AIDS, or SIDS, or who are born into the world handicapped or diseased at no fault of their own?
I think that the common answer for this is that people are free to do bad things to other people, and that’s a part of living in this world. However, the basic free-will argument is pretty simplistic. There are a lot of sophisticated theological answers that Gordon doesn’t address — notably, John Hick’s Vale of Soul-Making, the Afterlife theodicy (the idea that since the soul is eternal and time on Earth is short, it balances out in the long run), or Thomas J. Oord’s ” “Essential Kenosis”. And that’s just the Christian tradition! Lots of other traditions have different answers to this question, and that’s not something that can be ignored if you’re asserting the non-existence of God.
That’s all, folks
I think that one of the fundamental mistakes that American atheists make is the equivalence of theism to religion, and the equivalence of religion to “fundamentalist Christianity”, then mistaking criticisms of fundamentalist Christianity for arguments against theism. That’s clearly something that Mr. Gordon is doing here, and in spades. But religious tradition is rich, and theologies are many and varied. Oversimplification of religion and theology does a disservice to all sides of the argument.