How the Problem of Evil uncloaks Christianity’s total moral bankruptcy

I don’t think Christians are evil. But the Christian God is evil, and belief in him runs the risk of non-evil people embracing evil through lazy moral and intellectual concessions to things that do not deserve to be conceded. And the Problem of Evil settles it.

The PoE came up on yesterday’s show, and in response to the show we got some correspondence from an atheist who’s having this very discussion with a Christian friend. As we see from the friend’s responses, theodicy isn’t so much an exercise in rebutting the Problem of Evil as making excuses for it. [Read more…]

Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.

On public arguments

Today’s email comes from Mark in Colorado.

I work in a Defense firm where everybody is either a fundamentalist Christian or Mormon. I got into a discussion with a mormon guy who is always spouting some stupid shit. Anyway, I confronted him about his ideas and after a few minutes of discussion he realized I wasn’t a pushover, so he switched tactics and started bringing up quantum physics (he feels that proves everything), psuedo science, non sequiturs, real science mixed with nonsense — usually in the same sentence. Just for an example, he said he believed in evolution but described a cartoonish if not naive version. I tried to correct him and tell him he had it wrong, but he switched scripts and said loudly, “You don’t believe in evolution”! It went on with a lot of stuff like that to muddy the waters and it seemed to have impressed people in my group.

My question is, have you ever run across anyone like that and how did you handle it?

In a situation like that, my first rule is that it’s important to keep your cool. I understand that it’s difficult in this situation, but you should calmly step back and assess what you are getting out of the argument. There are, in my mind, three reasons that you would want to argue with somebody:

  1. You think you can change that person’s mind in some way.
  2. You think you can influence the opinion of people who are observing the discussion.
  3. You are genuinely interested in the other person’s arguments, or would like practice responding to them for your own education. Or it’s fun.

These three points boil down to a question of “Who’s your audience?” The answers are, respectively, 1. the Mormon; 2. somebody else; 3. Yourself. How you answer the audience question will have a lot of influence on how you should approach the discussion.

If the Mormon is your audience, you’ve already decided that he is kind of an idiot, so obviously you’re not going to make major gains with him. Your best bet is to find the areas where he’s most badly misunderstanding mainstream science, point out what is wrong in a straightforward way, and steer him toward credible literature on how it actually works. In order to do this, you’ll have to understand the real science well enough to break it down that way, so maybe some extra reading is in order.

If a third party is your audience, you can start out winning big just by keeping your cool. If the other guy is visibly upset, and you are not, then it’s hard to side with him. You said that his rant seemed to impress people in your group, so it’s possible that they were swayed by it. Maybe you’re having your discussion with the wrong person. If you think there is somebody a bit more reasonable who is on the fence and simply doesn’t understand the issues involved, I’d look for an opportunity to talk privately with that person (or people). By expanding your influence to other people and getting them on your side, you’re less likely to find yourself alone in future discussions.

If you are your own audience, then go ahead and argue to a frustrating standstill, then evaluate the specifics of the conversation later. Toss out the points which sounded like a stupid waste of time to you, but remember the points that left you struggling. Maybe the claims about quantum physics sounded like bunk to you, but you couldn’t express why they’re bunk. In that case, it’s time to educate yourself. Go find some real information about science, preferably from a good, well-spoken popular science writer. It won’t help in the current discussion, but it will improve your broad base of knowledge the next time the discussion comes up.

If none of the above are a good audience in this situation, maybe you should check your motives again and see if it’s really worth your time to be talking to this lunkhead. I wouldn’t pick an argument with a homeless guy in the street shouting at people, and you shouldn’t waste time in a situation where nobody has anything to learn.

Whatever the case, remember that a casual debate is a skirmish, not the war. You can lose a battle and it doesn’t ruin you as a human being. Just try to bear in mind your long term goals: becoming a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual; and helping good and correct memes to spread through the general population.

Following the script

We got an excellent question from a fan in Perth, Australia, enough that I wanted to share my answer online.

A friend of mine regaled me with a tale a while back, about a theist spouting a well worn apologetic to a prominent atheist. Rather than shoot it down with a just as well worn counter, he simply replied with “did you really think that would work?” Now, I don’t know the whole story, but apparently said atheist went on to berate said theist about stupid they were for thinking that of all the things that this atheist had heard and read, it was this one guy spouting this one thing that he probably got of some website that would change his mind. While I’m not a fan of berating people, It does strike me as a valid idea, the whole “do you really think that’ll stump me” response.

However, following a lively debate with some fellow atheist friends a while back, I was on the receiving end of a sudden rush of perspective. You see, they were just saying the same old stuff as well. The usual cookies about the christian god being immoral, how many different religions there are all over the world, the nonsense of disregarding science just because it can’t explain EVERYTHING… same old crap you hear from people with an education. It got me thinking, what if the shoe was on the other foot? My girlfriend’s mother is an Anglican priest and I know for a fact that if I just spouted one of the usual chestnuts to her, she’d have an answer pretty quickly, probably one that’d get me off the script, if there is such a thing as an atheist script.

I suppose my question is, shouldn’t a skeptic be trying to come up with new responses all the time, forever? I hate to go us vs them, but the idea of stock responses to stock questions and insular self congratulation seems very, very, well… dumb. In Perth, we don’t have many fundies at all, but a lot of people are so vaguely middle class white spiritual, anti-science. The usual crap, “can’t prove everything” what the bleep do we know pseudo-spiritual nonsense, and when I try to have honest discourse with them, it just descends into stock responses and I give up. It’s very disheartening.

To condense it, my question is: As people who reject claims on the basis of logic and reason, is it enough just to have stock responses? Shouldn’t we be trying to come up with new, better and always unexpected ways to exercise our skepticism? Hope you can shed some light on my ramblings.

And my answer is: Yes and no.

It is a mistake to completely dismiss the value of having an arsenal of sound bites. The thing is, you use your stock responses exactly as long as they work well. At the point where they stop working, you either enhance them or abandon them for something that works better.

For example. My stock response to “God must have created the universe because it couldn’t have created itself” is probably always going to be some variant of asking, or leading into, the question “What created God?”

Theists don’t like this. They ridicule it. They say it’s like a question that a little child would ask. They come up with variants like the Kalam argument, in which instead of saying “Everything that exists has a cause” they say instead, “Everything that begins to exist has a cause” — thereby creating a special pleading loophole. If you’re attentive enough, then you can see where the sleight of hand occurs, much as you can look at a “proof” that your high school buddy used to produce showing that 1=2, and identify the fallacious step where he divided by zero or something.

The thing is, the fact that someone will ridicule and dismiss an argument is not, in itself, a demonstration that the argument is not working. I could enter a history class and loudly scoff: “What’s that?! You expect me to believe that Henry VIII became the King of England in 1509??? You’re so ignorant!” I don’t doubt that if I tried this against a bunch of teachers, at least a few of them would be so insecure that they wouldn’t argue with you, lapsing into embarrassed silence or changing the subject. This seems to be the disposition of many biology teachers today who would otherwise be teaching evolution.

Your atheist friend who says “Did you really think THAT would work?” is using a tactic. It is neither inherently good nor bad; it’s just potentially effective or not effective in a particular situation. The tactic is a combination of poisoning the well and psychological intimidation. He wants to give the opponent and/or the audience the emotional feeling that the opponent is ignorant and the atheist knows more. That feeling may or may not be justified, and the intimidation may or may not work.

Like any tactic, this one has its strengths and weaknesses. If you pull this trick, and your opponent stammers out some apologies and tries to talk about something else, you’ve just gained a point of data saying that it is a good tactic for you. You pulled it off. On the other hand, do this in an inappropriate way, and you look like an arrogant prick. For an example where this approach bombed, check out the historical Bush/Gore debate, where voters came away with a lasting impression of Gore loudly sighing, rolling his eyes, and getting in Bush’s personal space — which was perceived as needlessly condescending, irrespective of whether Gore’s impatience was warranted or not.

Scorning your opponent this way is like throwing a lot of money into the pot in poker. It may be that you are putting all that money in because you genuinely have a good hand — i.e., you are armed with better facts, your opponent really is ignorant, and you can prove it handily when it’s time to show your cards. On the other hand, it may be a bluff, and you’re secretly hoping that your opponent will fold under your withering gaze so that you can collect the money without a prolonged fight that you stand to lose.

And yes, religious people apply this tactic all the time. Let me throw a few book titles at you:

  • You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think (Ray Comfort)
  • I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Norman Geisler)
  • Evolution, A Fairy Tale for Grownups! (Ray again — sorry, but that guy is a walking textbook on this technique)

So as you noticed, it happens on both sides. What, then, do you do when somebody attacks you with that “I’ve already heard that argument” line while showing obvious contempt?

I think the most important rule here is to keep your cool, don’t flinch, and find a way to do a quick end-run around the brush off. The best way to do this, I think, is to highlight the person’s arrogance as their weakness rather than their strength.

This is a place where the “reductio ad absurdum” technique often comes in handy. Ask yourself: “Okay, so this guy is acting as if my argument isn’t even worthy of consideration. What implications also follow from his dismissal?” Highlighting obvious contradictions is useful, and so is the question “How do you know…?”

Here’s a sample dialogue.

Theist: “Everything has a cause. Since the chain can’t go back infinitely, there must be a God.” (Note: oversimplified, in some cases.)
Atheist: “What created God?”
Theist: “That’s a ridiculous question. It’s something a child would ask.”
Atheist: “Oh, so you don’t think everything had a cause.”

(Reversal. Instead of demanding that the theist acknowledge your point, you accept his dismissal and calmly look for
a contradiction.)

Theist: “Well I don’t mean that everything has a cause. Everything which begins to exist has a cause. But God is eternal.”
Atheist: “How do you know that?”

(The theist just tried to inject an assertion, again counting on the assumption that it’s so obvious that only a fool would challenge it. Don’t be intimidated by this.)

The conversation may go in any number of directions at this point — my money’s on “science vs. faith as a means for knowing things.” The important thing, though, is that you find a way around the theist baldly asserting a certainty that he has not earned.

As with any argument, it’s a game. If you fold, then it doesn’t matter how unsupported your opponent was in reality; you still lose. On the flip side, if your opponent calls you on your claim and you can’t back it up, you may well lose worse, because then your opponent has condescended to you and then proven that the condescension was justified. That’s the gamble you take when you are arrogant.

As you probably noticed, you very much should have an arsenal of “opening moves” that, by and large, don’t have to vary much. If you trot out a move and you see your opponent driven before you (and, of course, hear the lamentation of the women!) then you keep doing that. To someone who doesn’t argue on a regular basis, this can look easy, even lazy, and perhaps very risky.

The critical point here is that the opening is not the whole game. Good for you if you can occasionally checkmate your opponent in three moves and that’s all it takes. (Fear Edward Current!) But if your opponent doesn’t cave right away, then what is going to determine your success is your ability to defend the sound bite, to think on the fly and justify your reasoning, not just to quote it.

Developing opening moves does not necessarily have to be a solo, creative process. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you talk to a new person. You should by all means watch other people’s debates, see what works and what doesn’t, and shamelessly steal the stuff you like. That doesn’t make you a mindless parrot, it makes you a smart shopper. But if you use these arguments and then you lose, you should always be willing to take a step back. Ask yourself: Did his response win because it really is actually logically superior? Has he actually made a point? Has he uncovered a genuine flaw in my thought process?

If that turns out to be true, it may well be that you have to dump that argument from your arsenal. The unfit do not survive, it’s evolution in action. (And please note that this is intellectual Darwinism, not social Darwinism. I’m advocating the death and abandonment of ideas, not people.)

But that’s not the only outcome. You can look for other cases where people have had to deal with that same argument, and find a response that will get you a step further in your next conversation. And in that case, you will become more confident and your response will be stronger each time you face that argument.

Building your mental immune system

When Mark from Stone Church called again yesterday, he provided a perfect example of something that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a few months. Namely, it is a tempting but extremely bad habit to only associate with people who agree with you all your life.

One issue that most Atheist Experience hosts feel passionately about, apart from religion, is the spate of anti-scientific attacks which have been leveled against vaccinations. When you vaccinate yourself, you deliberately expose your body to small quantities of a disease or virus, in order to train your immune system to recognize and attack that disease. If you don’t get vaccinated, when the disease attacks you in its natural form it will likely be much stronger, and your body still won’t know how to deal with it.

The fact that they may be adorable is only slight consolation.

Worse, by putting yourself at risk for this disease, you also become a carrier, which could increase its presence in the population at large. The more people there are in a given population who haven’t been vaccinated against a disease, the more risk everyone takes of catching it, and the more common the disease comes.

Critical thinking, of course, is your immune system against bad ideas. Even if you have a general background in skepticism and logic, it can be hard to spot the flaws in a claim that you’ve never heard before. The first time anyone encounters a concerted efforts to discredit vaccination, or prove that alien abductions occur based on anecdotes, or claim that evolution is a scientific conspiracy with no more proof than Biblical literalism — it’s not as easy as you might think to see through those arguments.

It’s really not good enough to say “That’s stupid” and ignore them, because if you have a policy of treating ideas you disagree with that way, then you risk becoming so dogmatic that you wind up rejecting things that are actually true. Instead, skepticism is a habit that requires practice. It’s good mental exercise to take such claims seriously, to ask yourself “What are the implications if this claim is true? Can I investigate it? Are there arguments against it already out there in the memesphere? If so, are they convincing, or do the debunking efforts rely on fallacies themselves? If there are none, why not? Is it not high enough profile, or is there something else going on?”

A lot of religious traditions — like those practiced in Austin Stone Church — reject this approach. Followers of such religions not only don’t try to understand competing points of view themselves, they regard any efforts to do so with suspicion and fear. They may actually believe that it’s a sin against God, or a trick by Satan, if you are even humoring a bad idea. Apologists will often seriously question the value of sending kids to college, because they might be exposed to “worldly” ideas. Cults sometimes advise their members not to read newspapers or watch TV, lest their minds be poisoned by outsiders rejecting their beliefs.

This is the intellectual equivalent of avoiding diseases by locking yourself in a hermetically sealed bubble for life. It can work, of course. As long as no germs can get inside the bubble, you can’t catch anything. On the other hand, once you’re committed to this plan, you can never leave the bubble for any reason. If you do, your immune system is likely to be so weak that you are especially vulnerable to any and all diseases you might encounter. Something very much like this is speculated to have happened to the relatively isolated Native American population when they first encountered European settlers who, by virtue of living on a much larger, more diverse, and densely populated continent, were relatively swimming in diseases regularly, and hence had much broader immunities.

Here, take this blanket. No really, I insist. We’re not using it anymore.


So when you’ve been sheltered by fundamentalism your whole life, my feeling is that you have to keep sheltering yourself or become similarly vulnerable to invasion from foreign ideas. Which is essentially what Mark told us he does in our call yesterday.

Many emailers have homed in on the fact that Mark kept telling us what his church believes, as synonymous with what he believes. Tracie and I mentioned that the kind of evidence that we would need for God is not really all that strict, and that you don’t need to pray or “have faith” in order to be convinced that your mom exists. When something is real and testable, it can be perceived independently by many different people in the same way.

Mark responded that everyone at his church believes the same thing about God, and he proved it by reading a “statement of faith” that all church members are required agree to. I said, “It sounds like you have to devote a lot of work to making people believe the same thing.” And of course, there are 30,000 other Christian denominations in the US, many of which have very different perspectives on who this God person is.

I have long loved this interview that American Atheists spokesman David Silverman once did with Douglas Adams.

Above: A face that David Silverman probably did not have to make while talking to Douglas Adams.

In the interview, Adams elaborated on a great many of his atheist beliefs in a way that he has rarely done explicitly in his other work. One of the most striking and memorable arguments presented by Adams was in comparing religious beliefs to other types of scholarship.

Adams points out that if you wish to be taken seriously in the realms of science, history, or math, you should expect to be challenged constantly. Any claim you make, no matter how trivial the matter may look to those outside the discipline, will be subjected to withering criticism and debate, and the ideas that remain standing after this process, round after round, are the ones that can eventually be regarded as credible.

But religions don’t accept that burden of proof. Quite the opposite, in fact; when someone promotes a silly belief as a statement of faith, we’re asked to lend that faith some sort of automatic respect. Atheists who argue with the faith-beliefs of others are regularly regarded as being dicks.

Anyway, Douglas Adams concluded:

So, I was already familiar with and (I’m afraid) accepting of, the view that you couldn’t apply the logic of physics to religion, that they were dealing with different types of ‘truth’. … What astonished me, however, was the realization that the arguments in favor of religious ideas were so feeble and silly next to the robust arguments of something as interpretative and opinionated as history. In fact they were embarrassingly childish. They were never subject to the kind of outright challenge which was the normal stock in trade of any other area of intellectual endeavor whatsoever. Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it.

And that, in a nutshell, is why it’s not a good idea to show politeness and “respect” for people’s beliefs. I try as much as I can to show respect for the people themselves, and appreciate the diversity of backgrounds that causes them to think the way they do. Greta Christina wrote a great article a few months back called “No, Atheists Don’t Have to Show ‘Respect’ for Religion,” which observes the same behavior. Greta says:

And, of course, it’s ridiculously hypocritical to engage in fervent political and cultural discourse — as so many progressive ecumenical believers do — and then expect religion to get a free pass. It’s absurd to accept and even welcome vigorous public debate over politics, science, medicine, economics, gender, sexuality, education, the role of government, etc… and then get appalled and insulted when religion is treated as just another hypothesis about the world, one that can be debated and criticized like any other.


It’s not about making fun of religion just for sport. When you tiptoe around someone’s beliefs, you’re not doing them any favors. All you are doing is allowing them to stay in their little bubble for a bit longer, while enabling them to spread the idea that it’s okay to be closed off to competing ideas.

“Atheism is a religion too!”

Doubtless you’ve heard this little nugget of inanity from more than one indignant apologist, and it’s usually the sort of thing they resort to when everything else they’ve thrown your way has been flattened. The glib response is usually something along the lines of, “Yeah, like baldness is a hair color!” Then this is followed by tortuous explanations where you find yourself trying to describe the difference between belief that there are no gods and disbelief in gods, to a mind not exactly skilled in grasping nuance.

But there’s an easier way to deal with this one, a way even Christians might understand, and it’s illustrated by a post today from PZ.

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason theism is not a religion. The terms refer solely to the disbelief or belief in gods. But religion implies a ritualized, or at least organized practice. Indeed, a person can be theistic and yet not the least bit religious. Theism is not a religion, but Christianity, Islam, et al, are.

Similarly, atheism is not a religion, but…there are atheistic religions. And they are just as irrational and lacking in evidence as theistic ones. Buddhism, on the whole, seems generally benign, though its embrace of such fantasies as reincarnation (which is something you’re encouraged to avoid) puts it squarely in the realm of delusion and woo. But then there are the Raelians, a gang of raving nitwits who reject God…only to replace him with aliens. It may be generous even to call Raelianism (if that’s the term) atheistic, since they just put God in a UFO and only reject the traditional notion of a supernatural god. But to some, and to themselves, they are considered atheistic on those grounds alone.

We at The Atheist Experience have all encountered self-proclaimed atheists who go on to voice their eager support for other irrational ideas, like 9/11 Trutherism or “alternative” medicine.

So no, atheism itself is not a religion. But there are atheist religions, and there are individual atheists just as lost to reason and confused as many theists. It isn’t enough to reject gods simply because you don’t like Pat Robertson or the Pope or the Tea Party or what have you. Skepticism and critical thinking must inform everything you do. A person can get to atheism by means other than critical thinking, but it’s possible to adopt even ideas that are right for the wrong reasons. Put critical thinking first, and atheism should not only flow naturally from that, but it will have a much more sound intellectual footing, and you’ll be better inoculated against other slippery falsehoods that sneak through the back door of your confirmation bias too.

In which Mike demonstrates once and for all the proof that God exists

Having some problems with the blog comments on this post and hoping that starting a new one will fix it.

Please direct your attention to the comments section, where MikeAdAstraSmith shall valiantly demonstrate to us poor, benighted sinners that God irrefutably exists.

[Edit: Actually we traced our problem to an overzealous spam filter, which probably thought that some comments looked too much like the work of a certain D**** M****. We’re retraining it as fast as we can, but in the meantime, please do enjoy the thread.]

On changing minds

In a previous thread, someone wrote: “While debating with a theist can be as invigorating as playing chess, one should bear in mind that it’s doing them harm. It’s driving them deeper into their psychosis.”

This is simply not true, and yet it’s unfortunately a very common meme among the “Don’t be a dick” crowd. As a counterpoint, I’d like to share a letter we received a few months ago. I don’t post stuff like this often, as it would come across as too self-congratulatory, but I do want to remind everyone that people sometimes change their minds.


For context: This guy originally wrote to us in January. He wrote that seeing the show was causing serious doubts in his own Christian beliefs. He then went on to say:

I was wondering, if there is no higher power, how you would justify morality in an atheist at all? Please don’t misunderstand, as a young person on the verge of apostasy, I’m not saying that atheists have no morals, although I have met ‘christians’ who have claimed as much. After all, if there is no higher power, then there is no objective truth, ergo no objective morality, meaning all morality is subjective. If that is the case, then to say that a murderer is immoral is surely a fallacy, as he no doubt acted as his morals saw fit. If morality is subjective, then he is as moral for acting out the murder he saw as moral as you are for not acting out a murder you saw as immoral.



I wrote back and we discussed the morality issue for a while. The angle I took on this was the Euthyphro Dilemma, though I usually don’t refer to it by name. I like to explore the concept that a God-given morality is somehow objective in a way that human consensus-derived morality is not. In the course of three more exchanges between us, and some messages from Tracie thrown in, we discussed slavery; we discussed the story of Jephthah; we talked about what kind of commands God could issue that would be considered by this person to be immoral.

After a while he said that they were hard questions but he still felt like there must be a god. The conversation petered out.

In September I received this:



Hi, Mr. Glasser,


I doubt you remember me, but we had a discussion about religion and so on just under a year ago. I have since become an atheist and I thought I’d drop you an e-mail to thank you. The video I e-mailed about in the first place was the first real faith-shaking material I had come into contact with, and from there I kept investigating my religion scientifically, historically and morally. Obviously, I found it wanting and, as I said earlier, have since renounced it. I thought I’d let you know a few of the final arguments in convincing me that the bible, at least, is wrong, not really in case you hadn’t heard them (I’m sure you have), but rather because, since our discussion must have been frustrating for you, I’d like you to know. One is that the God of the bible forced us into sin, and therefore knowingly and willingly condemned literally billions of people to hell by creating the Eden situation in the first place, for he knew what would happen but did nothing to change it. This is an act of incredible cruelty, and is unjustifiable, giving trouble even to my own father (a minister). That’s a moral argument, I suppose, but also shows a biblical contradiction (if God is all loving and unchanging then this act (among dozens of notable others) should be impossible). The second is the fallibility of the bible. I wonder if you knew that Luke, in his gospel, lists 28 generations between Joseph, Jesus’ father, and David, whereas Matthew gives 41. On top of that, the census Luke wrote about never happened, and the local census upon which it may have been based happened long after Herod’s death.

Those are just a few, but anyway, thanks again for showing me another way of thinking, and it’s thanks in part to you guys and what you’re doing that I am being fascinated and amazed every day by the way that the world works without resorting to the ‘Don’t ask questions, God did it’ train of thought.





So. I have been asked, on a few occasions, whether arguing with people about atheism ever changes people’s minds. My answer is always “Very rarely, and the changes are usually minor but positive.” This is what I would consider a happy exception.

Theism is the default position?

Michael Ochoa posted a link to a video and asked me to debunk it. Normally, I’d skip requests like this, as I have too much on my plate…but sometimes I get in a mood and just go for it. Here’s the first (and only draft) of a response to the video:

P1 – In order to accept that our rational faculties are reliable, initial sensory experiences of the world must be accepted until proven incorrect. In other words, these experiences must be considered default positions.

This might be true for infants, who lack the wealth of knowledge with which to assess and evaluate the brains interpretation of sensory input, but it is not necessarily true for adults who are cognizant of the ability of our brains to misinterpret sensory data and who have a wealth of comparative experience with which to assess initial interpretations.

For example, we understand that what we see (or, more accurately, think we see) is not always accurate and that our initial assessment of other sensory data ultimately proves incorrect. Realizing this, we are only acting rationally if we tentatively proportion our belief to the quality and quantity of evidence.

In his example about a mirage, he has no reason to question the mirage until he’s given evidence that it might be false. That’s true and it’s the infant position. However, the instant one becomes aware that one can be mistaken, both in perception and in inferences based on those perceptions one is no longer rationally justified in accepting all initial perceptions at face value.

Premise 1, in simplest terms, is simply an assertion that we are justified in accepting our first impressions until they are proven wrong. This is demonstrably false and intellectually childish. Anyone who has ever witnessed a conjurer’s trick understands that the mental image their brain has compiled from the sensory data simply does not map to reality. The same is true for any number or other examples where we can understand that the brain simply doesn’t have enough information to accurately perceive events.

Only someone convinced that they could never be mistaken could hold this sort of view and remain intellectually honest. The rest of us should try to think like grown-ups and reserve belief for those things which are sufficiently supported by evidence (unless, of course, we don’t care whether or not our beliefs are true).

Premise 1 is simply a denial of rational skepticism (he even uses the ‘rigid skepticism’ dilemma to underscore this – but ignores the truth about rational skepticism) and is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of propping up the rest of the argument. Rational skepticism holds that acceptance of claims be apportioned to the evidence, whereas this premise ignores the complexities involved in rationally determining if a belief is justified and instead simply attempts to shift the burden of proof by proclaiming that one is justified in accepting one’s first impressions until they are proven wrong.

P2 – The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe is an initially sensed experience.

No, it isn’t. It is an inference that the brain makes by comparing the internal model of the sensed experienced to other things that the brain already holds to be true. It is, the conclusion of an argument by analogy – and it’s one that we understand may be flawed. It’s also one that can be tested by scientific exploration.

We’ve done this and identified many instances where one may perceive intelligent, purposeful design where no such inference is justified.
Attempting to call one’s inference of design “initially sensed experience” is a rather clumsy attempt to fabricate a predicate link to Premise 1.

P3 – Hence, the belief in a designed universe, which automatically infers a designer, is in fact the default position until proven otherwise.

This directly follows from the first two premises and (given the flaws in the first two) it is unsound. (Nullifying the rest of the argument…)

The fact that he thinks this is where he’ll get the most objections is rather silly. It is only when he asserts that the designer is an intentional, intelligent agent that he runs into trouble, but he doesn’t do that until P4. As this stands, it is a direct conclusion from the first two premises… hence, the “hence”.

P4 – The concept of God (a purposeful, intelligent agent outside the universe that cannot be detected by our senses) is the most tenable explanation for the identity of this designer.

There’s no need to continue until the first premises are fixed, but I’d like to point out how really bad this argument is, so we’ll keep going.
Premise 4 defines a particular god-concept and asserts – without demonstration – that this particular god-concept is the best explanation. Without a demonstration, this premise can simply be rejected.

Additionally, the definition given isn’t simply a theistic proposition. It goes further and without justification. A theistic god need not be “outside the universe” or undetectable and, indeed, many would hold that their god is detectable and operating within the universe.

And here, too, we run into another bit of cognitive dissonance in his argument: outside the universe.

By what right can anyone invoke a claim that any such thing exists? Do we have any direct experience of ‘outside the universe’? Do we have appearance of this? Do we have any initial sensory experience of this? By what right can people assert ‘outside the universe’ or ‘before time’?

C – Hence, Theism is the default position until proven otherwise.

This entire argument essentially reads as:

1. I’m justified in believing whatever my first perception is, until proven wrong.
2. My first perception is to infer design.
3. I am justified in believing the universe is designed until you prove me wrong.
4. I’m convinced that the best explanation for the design I perceive is God X.
C. Therefore, belief in God X is justified until proved wrong.

This argument is dishonest at virtually every point and it is nothing more than a denial of rational skepticism and a blatant shifting of the burden of proof. This isn’t fundamentally different than the obstinate theist who claims “You can’t prove me wrong!” – and thus it fails to all of the objections we would launch at that simplified argument.

The inability to disprove something doesn’t make it a justified default position. You can’t disprove the claim that there are clones of every one of us living on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy – but that doesn’t mean that we’re justified in accepting it as the default position.

It is trivial to demonstrate that our initial perceptions are often mistaken and we have a pretty good understanding of why some people see the appearance of design – and why their inference of intelligent design in nature is unsupported, at best, and incorrect, at worst.

And even if we didn’t already understand how so much of this was wrong, sticking your fingers in your ears and demanding that someone prove you wrong is a childish argument – no matter how you try to dress it up.