I came across a tease tonight on the WordPress.com dashboard for a post entitled “Things Christians Should Know Before Talking to an Atheist” and, having more curiosity than prudence, I bit on it. It turned out to be from a blog called Proud Atheists, written by an atheist who either thought he had some sage advice for Christians who might be inclined to try to convert him, or perhaps he was only looking for pats on the back from his fellow atheists for his cleverness. I would have given him the benefit of the doubt and assumed the former, but his replies to some other commenters later in the night became highly defensive and cantankerous, leading me to doubt his readiness for meaningful dialog.
Hence, since I have little confidence that my rather lengthy and time-consuming response to his post will survive the editorial delete button over at the Proud Atheists blog, I am posting it here on maybetoday.org first. Without the context of the original post, it may not make complete sense, but you can follow the above link to the original, or probably just figure it out. This isn’t rocket surgery.
[Update: Sure enough, the original post has been closed to comments, and the existing comments have, ummm, disappeared – but not before I received at least one reply worthy of an eight year-old schoolyard bully, replete with personal insults, and taunts that sounded eerily like “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” JWG]
[Update2, Dec. 20, 2008: My understanding is that the comments on the other site reappeared (resurrected?) after things died down. Regardless, since I got a decent amount of traffic on this post, and since I can have a do-over whenever I want on my own website, I’ve edited my counterpoints below to clarify both what some of the issues were, as well as some of my responses. JWG]
Since this post is supposedly directed at Christians for their instruction, and since I am a Christian forever in need of instruction, I read it. In doing so,I uncovered more than a few questionable assumptions being made. This, in turn, prompted me to put together what I here offer as a well-intentioned, point-by-point rejoinder, which I suppose I should title:
Things an Atheist Should Know Before He Tells Christians Things They Should Know Before Talking to an Atheist
1.) I’m not sure why your very first assertion is that Hitler was not an atheist. I suppose it must be because you sometimes hear people associating him with your cause, but I think most thinking Christians couldn’t care less whether Hitler was an atheist, a refashioned pagan warlord demigod, or a New Age guru selling a vision of utopia built upon a bloody battlefield. He was an idolater in any case.
However, this raises another point that bears mention: atheists often play flip-flop in their apologetics, arguing one minute against theism, and the next minute against Christianity proper – conflating the two tendentiously. It might, therefore, seem to some Christian apologists to be a case of “turnabout is fair play” to lump Hitler in with the major atheistic mass murderers of the 20th century (Stalin and Mao), since the three of them form a kind of perfect demonic troika of testimony to refute the tired atheistic canard that Christianity’s “wars of religion” in Europe and/or Crusading in Asia are “proof” that religion is the seedbed of humanity’s warring violence.
So, before you protest your disassociation from Hitler so loudly as to call attention to it, you’d do well to carefully examine the actual philosophical similarities and differences – apart from playing “label” games, and name-calling – because he was nothing if not committed to abolishing the Christian religious virtues in Europe, which is precisely the aim of militant atheism. Contemporary atheism may have a much narrower agenda than German National Socialism did, but it can hardly be disputed that they both drink from the same well of modern, anti-Christian thought, such as that of Nietzsche.
2.) Morality is not a “state of conscience” at all, whatever that means. Rather, it is the consideration and accomplishment, in particular circumstances, of the good and/or evil inherent in an act or idea, and a measure of the moralness of an act or idea in terms of its conformance to the good. If you are attempting to claim that morality is not the exclusive domain of Christianity, and that atheism can also produce morality, you are half right, but you have a problem.
The problem is that since morality measures the moralness (or goodness) of an act by its conformance to the good, the good must really exist in order for morality to be rational. Atheism, however, cannot coherently accept the actual existence of either good or evil as real things, as opposed to concepts that are products of either individual people’s preferences, or of collective opinions. Because if there is such an independent reality “out there” as the good, against which the opinions of individuals or groups or even all of humanity can be measured, then “the good” is God (in the most basic, theistic sense).
And if there is not such a reality as the good “out there” to produce the judgment of morality, then there can be no such thing as actual morality, only opinion – meaning that social “morality” would be nothing but the prevailing opinion of the most powerful interest group (=might makes right). This kind of irrational tyranny is not what Christians (or other theists, for that matter) are referring to when they speak of morality.
So, no, atheism cannot produce morality – and atheists cannot even intelligibly engage in discussions evaluating morality. Atheism can produce value systems based on opinions of greater or lessor worth, but in order for such a value system to be judged moral or immoral, there must be some pre-existing standard of the good to be measured against (i.e. the moral order, or the truth) – the very existence of which would prove the inanity of atheism.
3.) Kindly do not tell Christians who or what they can or cannot pray for. Christians are free human beings who do not tolerate such attempts at thought control, especially coming from someone who holds them in such obvious contempt. As for the millions of “ill and starving,” God is not “testing” them; it looks to me like God is waiting for you to go tend to them. Yes, God is testing you. Please be sure to leave us all a note telling us when you’ve decided to put your money where your mouth is. If you’re, you know, too busy, I’m sure God can find someone else.
4.) The “leprechauns” bit really makes atheists look like clowns. It takes a number of forms, but they all basically come down to the accusation that believing in God is no different than believing in (fill in the blank: leprechauns, fairies, Santa Claus, etc.). The problem, of course, is that these are not the same at all. To an atheist, perhaps the existence of a leprechaun might seem as likely as the existence of God, but that does not make God a leprechaun, nor does it follow that belief in one is the same kind of belief as belief in the other. Any time an atheist accuses me of believing in a “sky pixie” or something of the sort, I know he has run out of intelligent things to say – he is ridiculing me on the obviously false premise that I believe in what I do not in fact believe in, all for the sake of asserting that he is justified in his unbelief of that which I really do believe in. That’s pathetic.
An illustration: To a theist, it seems equally likely that there is no such reality as air, as that there is no such reality as God. Now, if theistic apologists started mocking atheists’ unbelief in “invisible things” by claiming that atheists must believe there is no such thing as air, atheists would probably be beside themselves. They would complain: “This is an outrageous accusation. Just because we don’t believe in God doesn’t mean we don’t believe in air. Even though neither God nor air is visible, there are other rational means we have for believing that air is real, which are not applicable to the problem of the existence of God.” This complaint would be 100% valid, of course.
But if the theists nonetheless continued to mock atheists by claiming that their atheism was, at least by extension if not explicitly, a denial of the reality of air, the atheists would have no other option but to eventually come to the conclusion that the theistic apologists were intellectually dishonest. They would be right. Theistic apologists, after all, have an intellectual responsibility to grapple with the best arguments atheism has. To instead sidestep the real arguments, and construct an absurd strawman argument that bears none but the most blatantly superficial resemblance to the view held by the opposition, is really an admission that you don’t have the gonads to tackle the real arguments.
Ridiculing people with lies when you don’t have an intelligent argument to offer against them might make you feel less impotent, but it only makes you look like a clown. You might want to rethink the “leprechaun” shtick.
5.) If you tell a Christian that you think Jesus is an imaginary person, you’re likely to get a bemused look – if not a pat on the head. The historicalness of Jesus of Nazareth is beyond honest dispute. Now, whether he really is God Incarnate might be an open question, but his disciples were not willing to be tortured and killed for the sake of an imaginary person they conspired to pretend existed. Jesus was a real man whom they really loved.
6.) Atheists may think they know the Bible better than most Christians (and some Christians hardly know the Bible at all, so that’s not saying much), but actually atheists generally know very little about the Bible. If they know anything, they know a handful of carefully selected “gotcha” passages, yet even those they don’t know well enough to understand properly. Most Christians would be well aware of that fact, if and when confronted with demands to answer some “gotcha” question or other. In Biblical language, knowledge implies intimacy, which is the one thing that atheists, by definition, can never achieve with the Bible and still remain atheistic. For to become intimately knowledgeable with (or even about) a book means to come to know, in some manner, its author.
7.) While certain Protestants have, admittedly, muddied the water with their self-contradictory Sola Scriptura doctrine, most Christians would look at you with a bit of incomprehension if you tried to claim that the Bible does not “prove” God. The Bible is a collection of stories that reveal God, not argue for His existence. The Bible, being understood as inspired by God, presupposes both the existence of God, and the existence of the knowledge of God. Christianity has produced some philosophical proofs for God (such as those of Anselm and Aquinas), but these have no real bearing on the life of faith – and certainly have nothing to do with the Bible.
The great theological virtues are faith, hope, and love – the implication being that faith and hope are stepping stones to love. But “proof” (or perfect knowledge), when it comes, will obsolete both faith and hope. This is obvious in the very meanings of faith and hope. That is why the Christian seeks “proof” (of what is yet still hidden) within faith and within hope – and not in the Bible as some kind of cosmic trump card or master answer sheet. You’re barking up the wrong tree.
8.) The founders of the USA did not flee Europe, as you assert; they were mostly born here. I live in a state (Massachusetts) that produced some of the finest of them. On the other hand, those folks who did flee Europe to come here did not flee Christianity, they mostly (especially early on) fled to practice Christianity – albeit in the manner they saw fit, which the states they fled were hostile to. When their descendants later founded the USA, they founded it on ideals of political and religious liberty, avoiding the anti-religious zealotry that would, just a few years later, turn the French Revolution into the abomination of The Terror.
The genius of the refusal to establish a national church, protecting the rights of all to practice their religions freely, needs to be extended in our own day to combat the new, modern threat to religious liberty, which is the militant atheistic tendency to attempt to suppress public religious expression through the use of the power of the state to enforce a practical atheism on public life. This is precisely the kind of state interference in the free exercise of religion that the First Amendment to the Constitution intended to protect against.
9.) I agree that evolution is not just for atheists. But evolutionism, as a post-modern intellectual movement, is simply not content with evolution. Instead, it extends incessantly into philosophical (or metaphysical) naturalism, which is indeed, by definition, for atheists only. This all gets very confusing to discuss, since no less than three completely different ideas end up going by the name of evolution. These three can be more precisely called: micro evolution; macro evolution; and philosophical naturalism. It is my contention that this linguistic confusion is intentional on the part of philosophical naturalists, who benefit from the public conflation of their absurd ideas with the simple and provable (micro)evolution observed in particular species by biologists.
10.) Attendance at “God’s judgment day” will not be voluntary. As for you not needing to be “saved,” what Christianity offers is salvation from death, and if you think you are going to somehow slide by that obstacle without Christ, well, good luck to you, but the Christians you announce this to will not be impressed.
11.) If you believe that someone, before Jesus, was born of a virgin, and resurrected from death, I’d be interested in hearing how it is that you believe it. I suspect this is a pointless point, boldface and all…
12.) Regarding proofs and elves, please see earlier comments on proofs and leprechauns.
13.) Love and faith are not, in fact, emotions; they are acts of the will. While there are feelings associated with these, they are at root rational, outward-focused expressions of human freedom, not feelings.
As to the anatomy matter, you are not likely to impress anyone with pedantic biology lessons. We know what a heart is.
14.) I agree that quoting Bible verses to an atheist is a waste of time, but not because the Biblical writers were ostensibly insane. Rather, it is a waste of time because atheists do not accept the authority of the Bible, and have no interest in what it says – with the exception of those things that can be misconstrued for dubious ends. The Bible itself actually boasts wisdom to this effect.
15.) Regarding your claim that not all atheists are intellectuals: I couldn’t agree more. Heck, I was an atheist myself once, as a teenager. But I ended up discovering that my adolescent atheism – as convenient as it was at the time – was even more childish than the childish “faith” of my youth, and I had to give it up.
I’m afraid many of the Christian apologists you will meet will have had a similar experience to mine, and I don’t think it will be a revelation to them that disbelief is running rampant through all the several strata of our society, and not just in the ivory towers of academia. I must admit surprise, though, that you find it worthwhile to distance yourself from the intellectuals of your movement. Perhaps you think that buys you authenticity. Whatever.
You may or may not have some decent arguments to make, but I think you gain little in distancing yourself from the Dawkins and Hutchins of the world unless you have something more civil and substantial than they do to offer in terms of disagreement. I don’t see any evidence of it here.