|English: William Hogarth - "The importance of knowing perspective" (Absurd perspectives), Oil on canvas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I intend the following to be a non-exhaustive list of the most common absurdities atheists hear from Christians:
- You can't prove there's not a god.
- Atheism takes as much faith as Christianity.
- Atheism is a religion.
- You aren't really an atheist; you're just mad at god.
- Without god, people have no reason to be moral.
In my experience, statement #1 above is commonly heard from Christians who have not had the benefit of a college education. It also happens to be one of the most important if atheists and Christians are ever to have any sort of meaningful dialogue.
There are two critical points which both sides must understand here. First, the burden of proof always rests with the person asserting the claim. This is a fundamental principle of philosophical argument. Encountering a Christian who refuses to concede this point is like discovering someone who stubbornly denies gravity itself. Other than suggesting some basic educational resources, there is little point in proceeding to discuss anything at all with such an individual.
Second, the theist is the one making the proof claim. Some Christians will concede our previous point only to argue that the atheist has the burden because he or she is claiming that gods do not exist. But the atheist is not claiming anything whatsoever. The position of the atheist is that the theist has not successfully met his or her burden of proof. Remember, the burden of proof with regard to gods rests solely with the side claiming their existence.
To their credit, educated Christians tend to know how to think and rarely deny that the burden of proof is theirs. Unfortunately, many atheists do not have sufficient opportunity for meaningful discussion with educated Christians and instead find themselves fending off trolls and the like.
Faith, Religion, and Atheism
Admittedly, faith and religion are not synonymous. However, for our purposes, #2 and #3 can be considered together. The smart ass response, "Yeah, and bald is a hair color," may be fun but probably misses what the Christian is really claiming here.
When phrased to focus on faith, the claim typically centers on a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of atheism. Because they have erroneously convinced themselves that atheism means absolutely certainty that no gods exist, they reason that to be absolutely certain without proof is a form of faith. But atheism is not about certainty at all; it is about doubt. As we saw above, the atheistic position is that the theist has not successfully supported his or her claim. Intelligent Christians can sometimes be helped to realize this by being encouraged to consider their stance on other gods (e.g., Odin). They need not be certain; they need only to be unconvinced by the Odinists.
When phrased to focus instead on religion, the Christian is generally asserting that atheism is a religion because atheists act like religious people. They claim that we have our prophets (e.g., Darwin, Dawkins, etc.) and the texts they produce. They insist that we are not thinking critically either but simply conforming to some sort of atheist identity. I suppose this could be true of some atheists but such atheists are rather difficult to find. I'm not sure I've even encountered one. I tend to see this objection mostly as a desperate effort by the Christian to understand us using the only scripts available to them (i.e., religious ones). Atheists have no prophets, no doctrine, no dogma, no rituals, and really none of the essential components of any religion.
There Are No Atheists
I was hesitant to even include statement #4 because it is so silly as to make some think that I am writing this post to mock. And yet, I have encountered this very claim and close variants of it repeatedly. I see this as a form of denial (in the Freudian sense of the term) through which the Christian resorts to an extremely primitive defense mechanism to shield the conscious mind from painful realities. I tend to feel pity for the Christian who clings to such a claim.
One element sometimes attached to this claim does deserve consideration, however, and that is the idea that atheists are angry at some sort of god(s). Since an atheist is someone without belief in gods, it is not logically possible for them to hate or to be mad at what they do not believe. I think that some Christians experience confusion here because it is absolutely true that many atheists despise religion. Then again, religion exists.
No Morality Without (My) God
Statement #5 is probably the most common atheists can expect to encounter from Christians. Whenever I hear some variant of this claim, I am tempted to respond with, "I am sorry to hear that you are so morally depraved that the only thing that keeps you from running wild in the streets is your fear that some ghost might punish you." That wouldn't be nice though, and so I usually keep it to myself. You see, I don't believe in any sort of gods, heaven, hell, or the like, but I still manage to behave in a civil manner most of the time. Why?
In addition to benefiting from a long evolutionary history and entering the world with an excellent head start, I internalized what I was taught about right and wrong just like most of my neighbors. As a result, I feel guilty when I do something wrong such as hurting someone's feelings.
But how do I know what is right and what is wrong in any absolute sense? How, for example, can I determine that much of the behavior attributed to the Christian god in their bible is immoral? As Matt of [GBG] Atheist News says, "Morality is just another way of describing behaviour that is conducive with a productive and cohesive society."
And as Austin Cline reminds us,
So what's the point of being moral if God doesn't exist? It's the same "point" that people should acknowledge if God does exist: because the happiness and suffering of other human beings matter to us such that we should seek, whenever possible, to increase their happiness and decrease their suffering. It's also the "point" that morality is required for human social structures and human communities to survive at all. Neither the presence nor the absence of any gods can change this, and while religious theists may find that their beliefs impact their moral decisions, they cannot claim that their beliefs are prerequisites for making any moral decisions at all.For those genuinely interested in learning something about this subject and not simply parroting back what someone at their church once told them, here are some carefully selected resources to consult:
- Challenging Religious Myths 1: No Morality without Religion
- Morality and the Humanist-Atheist
- Good Without God - How?
What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge…If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. QED. [Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 154-155].H/T to Debunking Christianity for the Shermer quote
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