Reply to Stephen Feinstein, round two

This post is part of an ongoing discussion between Russell Glasser and Pastor Stephen Feinstein. Here are all the previous posts in the series.

As before, I’ll be disabling comments in this post, as it is supposed to be a conversation only between the two of us.


Stephen,

I want to take a moment to remind our readers again of the first thing that you said in this discussion.  You promised to make the case that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.”  That was a pretty bold acceptance of the burden of proof that you took on.  In fact, I’d venture to say that if you don’t start clearly progressing towards making this case, it will be as good as a concession that you’ve lost the debate.

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Reply to Stephen Feinstein, round one

 

Hi folks,

I’ve been asked by a third party to get involved in a discussion with a Christian named Stephen Feinstein. Stephen has created his own blog for the occasion, and his very first post is here:

http://sovereignway.blogspot.com/2012/07/debating-atheist.html

In order to keep this as a one-on-one discussion, I’ll be disabling comments on my posts and so will he. Hope you enjoy the discussion, which I imagine will probably last several weeks. When we both agree that we’re finished, I’ll probably open up a big post-mortem comment thread. Until then, enjoy and be patient.

"Is this the right room for an argument?" "I told you once." "No you haven't." "Yes I have."

Post-debate update: For convenience, I am linking all 10 posts from here.

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We get email: The difference between being unreliable and 100% wrong

Last week, Matt and Tracie got in a brief argument with a caller named Charles before hanging up on him.  Charles has continued to email us, and although Matt has decided that he’s a fake, I usually feel that genuine stupidity is the less extraordinary claim.  Anyway, I’m going to excerpt selected parts of this exchange, because it illustrates a couple of principles.

First, there is this perenially weird argument that if any one thing is found to be true in the Bible, then the whole thing must be true.  As I mentioned on the latest Non-Prophets, it’s as if fundamentalists live in this sharply divided world like the logic puzzles of Raymond Smullyan.  Everyone in the world is either a knight, who always tells the truth, or a knave, who always lies.  In Smullyan’s puzzles, proving that a person has made one true statement is enough to conclusively prove that everything that person has ever said or will say is also true.

In the real world… not so much.

Second: People who are bad at arguing commonly use a tactic known as “Quick!  Change the subject!”  NEVER allow the argument to continue if they’re dodging the point.

Charles says:

U discredit the bible you say you don’t care what the bible says. Then u validate it saying there are facts in the bible but then say there’s also false things in the bible (which is an unsupported assertion). That sir is a contradiction.

Matt:

No, it’s not a contradiction. It’s true.

There are true things in the Bible (like Herod and Jerusalem). There are false things in the Bible (like the cure for leprosy, the global flood, the genesis story, the exodus).

Imagine that I wrote you a letter and the letter read:

“Dear Charles, The sky is blue. The Earth is a rough spheroid that orbits the sun, which is a star. Mars is the biggest planet in our solar system. You should eat more vegetables. I am the supreme ruler of the universe.”

Some of that is true and some of it is false. So, referencing that letter is useless – because whatever is true, is true whether it’s in the letter or not. The same is true for whatever is false. So telling someone “Hey, it’s in the letter from Matt” doesn’t give them ANY information about whether or not the claim is true or false.

The same is true about referencing the Bible.

At this point I jumped in, not wanting to miss out on the fun.

Charles,

I’m going to walk over to my bookcase right now, pick up the first work of fiction I see, and find a true statement written in it. Ready?

The book is The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett. This is actually an especially easy one, because Follett writes historical thrillers, and this one takes place in Egypt during World War II.

End of the book, chapter 29: “Rommel glanced up and saw the British bombers approach low from behind the nearest line of hills: the troops called them ‘Party rally’ bombers because they flew in the perfect formation of display aircraft at the prewar Nuremberg parades. ‘Take cover!’ Rommel yelled. He ran to a slit trench and dived in. …Today was September 1, and something had gone terribly wrong.”

Rommel was real. Egypt was real. The British bombers were real. Does that mean, then, that the whole book is to be taken as literal truth? It concerns a fictional agent capturing a fictional spy and falling in love with a fictional girl. The fact is, I can accurately say that the book contains both true facts and made up events and characters, and finding true stuff in this book is no proof that it’s reliable as a whole.

Suddenly, a wild change of subject appears!

Mr Dillahunty, I remember you hanging up on me for saying evolution is a theory (which it is) just a little hint I thought u should know. Evolution is the only one of millions of theories that was taught in every American public school. That should make everyone pause to think about who is making the decisions of what does and does not get taught in schools, and what their agenda is. I have more proof of God’s existence than every text book has of evolution. The type of evolution that people believe would disprove God has not been disproved either. God decided that to this point, we didn’t need to know how he created us. If evolution is proved to be true then I guess we will know how he created us. According to Darwin’s own words, evolution is false.

I’m not having it.

Charles,

I noticed that you’ve changed the subject very abruptly. Does that mean that you now recognize that books like the Bible can contain some true statements and still not be reliable? I’m happy to discuss evolution with you, myself, but first I’d like some acknowledgment that you were paying attention to the things we already talked about.

Charles says:

The unsupported assertion that the bible is “unreliable” totally baffles me. And yes I was paying attention to what was said and I’m going to discredit evolution simply because its a theory not a fact.

Me:

Charles,

Here’s the problem with this conversation. You’re claiming the broad ability to overturn a major pillar of modern science, and yet you seem to be psychologically incapable of comprehending even the most basic questions about critical thought. Apparently you find it “baffling,” and it’s hard to have a conversation with somebody who can’t even share that most basic foundation.

We’re not even talking right now about whether everything in the Bible is true. You started this conversation by claiming Matt contradicted himself by saying that
(1) There are true statements in the Bible, and
(2) The Bible as a whole can’t be used to determine truth.

Several of us have now explained to you why that’s not a contradiction. Matt pointed out that people and books in the real world often make both true and false assertions at different times. I even gave you a live example by finding a fictional book that has true statements in it.

The question isn’t “Is the Bible a reliable book?” at that point — the question is “Do you understand that it is possible for the Bible, or any other book, to say some things that are true, and still not be a true book overall?” Your response was to not acknowledge this question, but to hastily change the subject to something else that you thought would go better for you. But I’m not cool with that.

It’s a really simple question, Charles. Do you understand and agree with what I’m saying about true and false statements, or don’t you? If you’re going to just run away from a subject every single time you don’t like the way the conversation is going, then I don’t really see what the point is of talking to you.

Awaiting an answer that may or may not come.

So Many Claims, So Little (No) Support…

This letter was to Matt, so I opted not to reply. But also, if I did reply, I wouldn’t have much more to offer beyond, “I’ve never seen anyone offer up such a lengthy list of claims that included no attempt at offering even one shred of support.” Does Guinness have a category for something like this?

In addition to offering no support for anything asserted, s/he makes the mistake of capitalizing “atheism” throughout (see Austin Cline’s blog on this issue for further info on why this demonstrates a misunderstanding of atheism, and note the letter writer does not capitalize theism, so this is clearly quite deliberate on his/her part). The writer goes on to play “bait the atheist” by pretending Matt really does know a god exists, but for whatever reason, is saying otherwise.

Finally the person threatens to call the show. I can only say, “Please, please do.” S/he asked us to read this on the air. But honestly, it’s just preaching with no evidence or support offered—and we’re not The 700 Club, and since no evidence or support was provided, what would we examine? The rebuttal to the entire lot would be “you offered nothing to support anything you claimed.”

At any rate, without further ado, I bring you, more unsubstantiated claims and assumptions than you can shake a stick at:

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The next response from “AS” – the teen apologist

I’m afraid to hit the “publish” button for fear of breaking the blog. I’m including his full text, which is substantial combined with my general verbosity. Apologies. Starting with him:

I’m just flat out tired of the responses from people, as to “why” they clearly don’t or WON’T believe in God. He’s NOT allah, He is Jesus Christ, the one who is alive, forevermore, and IS coming back. I can’t give you the “prove” that you want. And I’m NOT saying to read the Bible, ALL you have to do is ask God yourself. but since you don’t believe in Him, you won’t ask. if you TRULY want to know, you will go to God, and ask Him to reveal Himself to you.

I sent AS “Dragon in My Garage”—and he still has either not read it or not understood it. Note that AS isn’t claiming above that Jesus was a man who used to exist—he’s claiming that Jesus is a god that exists now—and should be demonstrable now. We should be able to examine current evidence for the measurable manifestation of whatever “Jesus” is that exists now. Anything for which we make a claim of existence must be demonstrated to manifest in a way that differentiates it from nothing. Otherwise, what does it even mean to exist—if things that have all the same attributes as “nothing” are to be reasonably considered as “existent”?

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“AS” strikes again

The 16-year-old who wrote to us with many proofs of god, featured a few posts below, has replied via e-mail. I wanted to share the reply, and my response, interspersed below:

well, to reply to you very first paragraph, lol.. does George washington exist? well, you know he does in fact exist because of documents, and history books. You know, he said MANY quotes, JUST like Jesus did.

No, it’s not “just like Jesus,” because Jesus never wrote anything himself that we know of. We have no autographs. And we have no records of Jesus supplied to us by reliable eye-witness, contemporary authors. So, it’s not “just like” what we have for Jesus when it comes to George Washington. The mountain of records available for the existence of George Washington, and the specific records by contemporary peer sources for his actions during his lifetime, and his personal correspondences, make George a historic person, where Jesus becomes more myth than man. And when we’re given events that sound even a bit “iffy” about George, we don’t accept them as accurate. So “he never told a lie” is discarded as myth. And with Jesus, so many of the claims about his life are outlandish, far beyond “he never told a lie,” that we have to reject quite a lot of what is recorded about him by even the second-hand sources. So, it’s not comparable at all.

how can you believe one side of history, like George washington, when you don’t believe in the history side about Jesus, doesn’t make sense AT ALL.

Because I already explained that history rests on evidence available—realizing that what we claim to “know” must be supported by what we can actually reasonably support. With Jesus, again, not one reliable contemporary eye-witness account. That means what we have are stories about stories. That’s not the best to work with in trying to piece together facts. The “historic” Jesus that is put forward by historians is nothing like the Jesus recorded in the Bible. I am willing to accept that there may have been a rabbi upon whom these myths were based, since this is expert opinion. I never said I think Jesus never existed. But I reject the miracle claims (as do serious historians), the same way I would reject them about Washington—or about Homer’s claims as I explained already earlier. I accept “Jesus” historically, with all the same requirements I apply to claims of all other historic persons.

expert? lol, who’s to determine an expert?? we could all be dummies here on the Earth. While some are smarter than others, I don’t think that term was correct, noone is completly 100% an expert on things, if they were we’d all have the answers.

If my sink breaks, I don’t call a heart surgeon. Would you? There are men and women who have devoted their lives to the study of specific areas of history. It has nothing to do with being smarter. It’s about them having access to the best evidence and information available—that the rest of us will likely never see. And also the fact they’ve studied these areas of history to a far greater extent than the lay population. That makes them better qualified to comment on the issue than you or I.

To claim nobody is any more expert in a historic opinion than anyone else is not reasonable. And to claim, then, that we can’t accept anyone’s explanations, even the most educated people in the field of history—as being “the most” trustworthy—undermines your own views as much as anyone else’s: If you can’t trust anyone—why trust the people who wrote and produced your Bible and told you it was about a god? If we have to put our trust in anyone—why would anyone assert it wouldn’t be the people who are best informed in any given area of study? Again, if you’re going to say that your beliefs don’t have to stack up to evidence or expert opinions, then why are we even talking about this? What is your method of determining if your beliefs are likely to be true or not, if you reject evidence and expert explanations of that evidence? What do you trust in that case, and why do you trust it?

And who said you have to know anything 100 percent? I’m saying that if you care whether or not your beliefs are likely to be true—then you will align your beliefs to the best evidence available and the most educated explanations of that evidence.

Example: I come home from work tonight, and my house is a shambles inside. My television and computer are gone and a window has been forced open, do you think it is more reasonable to assert that I have been robbed or that I have been violated by a poltergeist? It’s hard to accept that you seriously believe that evidence should have no bearing on our beliefs, or that some beliefs are more or less likely to align with the available evidence. What you’re claiming is that if we can’t “know” a robbery has occurred, then saying it’s a poltergeist makes just as much sense. And I can’t begin to tell you how unbelievable it is to hear someone say that. I hope you’re more reasonable in other areas of your life than you are in your religious beliefs—otherwise, you’re a con man’s dream come true—since you have no apparent method of telling fact from fiction, evidence and reason have no value in your worldview, and you’ll believe outlandish things based on stories.

And about the tower of Babel, NO they clearly were trying to get away from the flood, as well, as get to God.

No, they weren’t “clearly” trying to get away from a flood. You are simply wrong. Here is the entire script of the story of the tower. Where do you see any mention of any flood concerns from anyone?

Genesis 11
1And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
4And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
8So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

Of course NONE of this matters if you don’t believe in God.

Uh, your subject line, just to remind you, is “AE Show – Proofs of God”—what good are proofs of the existence of god which are only convincing to people who already believe god exists? If your proofs of god don’t demonstrate a god exists to people who don’t believe god exists already, why exactly did you contact unbelievers to present these “proofs”?

My advise is, as BEST as I can give it, is that if you TRULY want to know if God, exist you WILL ask Him, to prove Himself to you,

And if you truly want to know if atoms exist, you will ask them to prove themselves to you. Do you approach other things in your life this way? When you want to know if a thing is real—you ask the thing? You don’t verify it against evidence and reality? You just “ask it’? This is NOT how we determine if things exist. This is not how to tell fact from fiction. This is not the process we use if we care whether or not our beliefs are likely to be true. Existence is manifestation in some measureable way. That’s what it means to “exist.” If your god exists, then it should not be difficult to demonstrate that. If there is nothing there to measure—then in what way is your god different than nothing? Did you read the Carl Sagan essay “Dragon in my Garage” that I linked you to? If not, I assure you it’s very short, but very useful in explaining why we don’t go around asserting things exist if we can’t actually tell them apart from nothing. It’s also the lesson of the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” in case you just don’t have time to read the Sagan essay.

If your god answers you when you ask him for things—as you’re telling me that if I need proof I can just ask—why don’t you pray and ask him for a proof that actually convinces nonbelievers? If he exists, you’ll get it, right? If he truly wished his adherents to seek and save the lost—that is, the unbelievers—why did he only supply you, this round, with reasons that you say only convince those who already believe?

 I can sit here and give you everything I know,

You just told me you can’t know everything, and that, therefore, “we could all be dummies here on the Earth.” So, why should I believe that you “know” any of these things you’re asserting? Why should I believe the people who told you these things “know” anything? What I know, is that you can’t claim to “know” what you have not verified and what you have not demonstrated to be true. When you admit you have nothing convincing to offer for why you believe what you believe, it’s ridiculous to immediately turn around and call it “knowledge.”

and every word in the Bible,

It’s like I’m sending letters into a void. Did you read what I wrote when you claimed your Bible was perfect and that even the strongest scrutiny hadn’t shown any errors? I sent you Bible translators’ notes, right out of the Bible, telling you there is forged material in your Bible. Why then would you use the Bible in your next letter without addressing how it’s reliable in light of the fact that it’s been edited with inserted passages? Why do you trust its content? I believe the Bible scholars, you don’t. So, I’m asking you, who do you believe, because you believe it’s perfect. Since that’s not the expert view, who has told you this, and why do you accept that as true above actual Bible scholars?

but it won’t mean 1 thing if you don’t see God for who He is.

And here I am again. Ironically, a Muslim once used this exact argument with me. He told me that if I read the Koran, it would convince me Allah is real. I told him I would get it from the library and read it. In his reply to that, he wrote that it would only be convincing if I read it believing it was written by Allah. I hope that sounds silly to you. And I hope you can understand why changing out “Bible” for “Koran” and “Jesus” for “Allah” makes it no less ridiculous.

More on McGrath

I actually found another exchange between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins that is set up in debate format. This series, also on Youtube, is in seven parts, unlike the more conversational series I described in my last post about these two men, which is in 15 parts.

McGrath authored a book in response to Dawkins’ book “God Delusion.” But I’m not critiquing his book, just his arguments as he speaks to defend his faith against being declared a “delusion.”

My first objection came in part 2, where McGrath said (emphasis his):

“In the brief time available, what I thought I would do is to try and engage with what seems to me to be the strongest argument in Professor Dawkins’ book. And that is that there is in some way a link between religion, between belief in god, and violence. Because I think that is a very significant issue, and one that really does need to be addressed.”

Note to theists: This is not only not the “strongest argument” to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion, it’s not even an argument that is generally ever used to demonstrate belief in god is a delusion.

There are mainly two situations I observe where atheists appeal to the harm caused by religion:

1. “Why do you care?”
The first is when asked “Why do you care what other people believe?” And in that case, it’s extremely relevant. The reason it is important to “care” what a religious person–let’s say a Muslim extremist–believes, is as easy as 9-11. People act on what they believe. What I believe matters. What you believe matters. What other people believe matters. Not everything a person believes has consequences, but when something they believe can be demonstrated to have consequences for others, it’s justifiably important to others.

Some beliefs seem to have a capacity to motivate people to do terrible things. Religion is in that category. Many religious people are good people. Some are dangerous people. The issue with religion is that it’s often the case that the dangerous people explain their harmful actions by pointing directly and unambiguously to their religious beliefs. They aren’t bad people who “just happen” to be religious.

I’m not talking about the guy who attends church every Sunday, but secretly molests his daughter. Yes, that guy “just happens” to be religious. Nothing within his religion justifies abusing his child. But the activities of Muslim extremists are absolutely driven, at least in part, by religious belief. That familiar shout of “Allahu Akbar!” says it all. They aren’t a group of people doing bad things who “just happen” to be Muslims.

But none of this has anything to do with whether or not their belief in god is a delusion. God may exist and may be the cruel and abusive tyrant they prostrate themselves to regularly. I don’t believe that’s the case, but my doubt has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that extremists do horrible things. The best I can do in response to this single fact is to say that if their god exists, I don’t like Him. I can’t conclude from it that their god is probably not real. There is simply no way I am aware of to make a logical connection that someone doing horrible things, even for their god, means no god exists. And I’m sure Dawkins understands this. And I’m baffled McGrath doesn’t understand that Dawkins quite probably understands this–which is what caught my attention.

2. Morality requires religion
The second reason I see atheists broach the fact that religious people can be driven to do horrible things because of (not in spite of) their religion, is as a portion of a defense to the spurious claim that religion is somehow a bastion, or even the only means, of morality. And this would generally be put forward along with examples of nonreligiously motivated acts of kindness.

So, that’s really it. Those are the two reasons I most often see atheists appeal to religious harm. As a foundational argument for unbelief it’s rarely used, and I’d spit milk through my nose if I ever heard Dawkins use it in that way. Certainly it cannot be among the “strongest arguments” for god as a delusion, for the simple reason it offers nothing whatsoever to undermine the claim “god exists.”

Many atheists criticize religious harm. But there are very few who hang their unbelief in god on it. It is the rare atheist who says, “I just can’t believe there could be a god who could allow such things in His name.” That’s a variation on an informal fallacy, the Argument from Incredulity. I do recall, though, in my religious indoctrination, being taught that this was a common atheist argument against the existence of god. But, based on some other statements McGrath makes, I don’t suspect his use of this particular strawman is due to indoctrination. And I’ll give my reasons for that later. For now I will just say I’ve never personally interacted with such an atheist–although I do recall at least once coming across something similar to that statement online posted by a self-labeled atheist. So, I don’t doubt such atheists exist. I just doubt they are so numerous that this point about religiously motivated harm could be justifiably labeled the “strongest argument” in Dawkins’–or any atheist’s–arsenal against belief in the existence of god. Not many atheists use it, and it’s a glaring fallacy. It would seem reasonable that the “strongest argument” would have to be one that attacks the root–god’s existence–not merely a branch–how believers behave.

If we believe gods can exist–but there are none to examine–we cannot logically rule out the possibility of apathetic or cruel gods. In fact, cruel or uncaring god models would subvert many atheist rebuttals, such as the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro. To assert “my preferred model of a kind god doesn’t appear to exist, therefore no model of god can exist” is egocentric in the extreme–and logical garbage, to boot. There are a variety of decent reasons to support unbelief; however, “religious harm” is not among them.

Note to theists: If you are responding to someone who is saying your belief in god is a delusion, and you think their “strongest argument” is that some religious people are horrible, you are either arguing with that one-in-a-million atheist mentioned above, or you don’t really understand the point you’re being presented with.

McGrath then goes on to say: “The point I’d like to try and make is this: Religious belief is ambivalent. It can be destructive. I think we need to be very, very clear about that…That is a significant danger in any religious belief system. And indeed one of the reasons why I, myself, was an atheist for some time was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if there were no religion in Northern Ireland, there would be no conflict. Likewise, at the time I was studying the sciences, and it seemed to me obvious, again, that if the sciences were right, then there was no need for god at all. This could be safely disposed of with the greatest of ease.” (Emphasis mine.)

Let’s hold right there for a moment. I can grasp his second reason–the bit about science. You can legitimately cut out parts of models that aren’t necessary–as we all learned from the old children’s tale, “Stone Soup.” Howeve
r, how does that first reason figure? Let’s say it’s true that if you could eliminate religion from a region it would result in the end of conflict. How do you get from there to “I don’t believe god exists”? There is no rational path between that statement and atheism.

McGrath actually says this is one of the reasons he was an atheist. To demonstrate the absurdity of what he just said, let me restate it almost verbatim and put in something else that can sometimes cause harm, besides belief in god. Let’s see how it translates: “One of the reasons why I, myself, was an unbeliever in the sun for some time, was that it seemed to me logically inevitable that if we didn’t have sunbathers, there would be a lot less skin cancer in the world.”

To deny the existence of something because you dislike its effects is not rational. Someone asked in the other post about McGrath, why he had been an atheist. I’m wondering, if his reasons for unbelief really did include “religious harm,” does he then assume other atheists are atheists because they are similarly impaired when it comes to understanding where the implications of religious harm are or are not logically employed? Could he be reasoning that because he held to an unreasonable connection between religious harm and the nonexistence of god, that’s why the rest of us keep bring up religious harm in atheist-theist debates? If that’s what is happening, then his own experience has put a bias in place that interferes with his ability to understand what the atheist is actually saying. Even Dawkins admits he could be wrong that god is a delusion; but if he is wrong, it won’t be for reasons that stupid.

In my prior post, McGrath seemed to be thinking Dawkins didn’t know you can draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence, even while the real question was: Why do you feel compelled to take that leap of unjustified faith at the end, when you could stay rational and stop where the evidence ends, with an honest statement that there is insufficient evidence to justify that last leap? In trying to analyze these exchanges, I see twice now where the problem is that McGrath is misunderstanding Dawkins’ points in ways that presume points only an idiot would make. If theists generally think this way–and I certainly recall thinking this way–it’s no wonder they see atheism as the irrational position. They have no idea, really, how the position is supported. I am beginning to see more clearly the dire need to get information out to the public to dispel misconceptions about atheism. Is this really how people think we reason? Even though I thought this way myself, as a fundamentalist Christian, I suppose it never dawned on me how powerful these misconceptions–these strawmen–can be.

He goes on to point out religion is powerful and transformative. Agreed. That is precisely why it’s so dangerous when it goes bad. He says we need to be aware that religion going bad is a possibility, but there are other possibilities. Agreed. Not all religious people are oppressive or murderous. Did someone say they were? While I could imagine an atheist who might make such a wild accusation–that atheist wouldn’t be Dawkins, or anyone at AETV, or any atheist who contacts us generally. So, who is McGrath talking to?

In support, he quotes Shermer saying that religion causes horrible atrocities, but that many believers do good things. Is he assuming atheists don’t know this? The question from critical atheists is whether those people could be motivated to goodness without religion–which McGrath agrees comes with some powerfully harmful baggage. McGrath criticizes Dawkins for not giving credit to religion in “God Delusion” for the good associated with it; but Dawkins wasn’t making a case for religion. He was explaining his reasons for being against it. Touting positive attributes–that religion, itself, shouts nonstop from every rooftop–would seem unnecessary and out of context. Is there anyone in this debate who isn’t already well acquainted with Christian charitable efforts?

The question is actually, “Does a motivated Baptist do more good than a motivated Humanist? Is belief in god required to motivate people to do good?” And the answer is, “Clearly not.” Is it required to motivate people to do bad? Also, absolutely not. It motivates both good and bad in people. But without it, we could still motivate people to do good through Humanist endeavors that work toward the good of mankind and the planet–but don’t demonstrably result in people blowing themselves up. Also without it, the threat of the “bad” it generates would be eliminated. Surely there would be other ideologies out there to motivate horrors, just as we have others to motivate goodness. But without religion, there would be one less to motivate horrors. And the positive force it represents–the motive to do good–could be shouldered just as well by secular outlets for humanity which would remain available.

Here, in clear terms, is what I mean: Let’s say we find a treatment for all terminal varieties of cancer that permanently paralyzes 20% of the people who use it, but positively cures the other 80%. If we later discover a similar cure that paralyzes 10% of the patients, and cures 90%–would anyone argue we should continue using the first treatment for the “good” that it does, if it offered no added benefit over the new drug? Who could reasonably, in good conscience, suggest such a thing?

I may do more on McGrath. I’m not sure. I see a benefit to examining the communication divide: what atheists “say,” versus what theists “hear.” Understanding not only what sorts of misconceptions theists hold, but also why they hold them, could assist in moving dialogs along at a quicker pace. It would be, I suppose, “increased understanding,” not to increase respect, but rather to increase communication efficiency.

That would be my goal. Whether or not I achieve it is another matter.

Communication Interference

In the most simple communication models, you have a single sender, a message (usually represented as an arrow pointing to the receiver from the sender), and a single receiver represented. As communication becomes more complicated, so do the models. One component that can be added to the model is something called “interference.”

Interference can be anything, including more obvious things like loud noise in the environment, or less obvious things like poor communication skills on the part of the sender, or an unconscious personal bias in the mind of the receiver. If the message received is not the message sent, as intended by the sender, there has been some kind of interference–also sometimes called distortion–that you should be able to identify.

Part of religious indoctrination includes inputting interference into a person’s mind by instilling bias. For example, a child who grows up in an area and family where racial hatred is pervasive has a much greater possibility of being, himself, a racist, than someone who is not raised in that environment. He’s unlikely to want to be friends with people in the despised races and to have an unfriendly attitude toward them. He probably will be a bit more dismissive of any research that indicates his reasons for hating are unfounded–he may not even bother to consider it. Additionally, he may fight against any legislation that would result in greater equality and social acceptance of those he hates.

If you’re going to have a dialog about racial equality, having it with this particular person comes with a load of baggage you’ll have to first get past that is “interference.” Your message will not tend to be heard clearly, but rather through a filter of misconceptions and prejudice about what you’re saying–even before you speak a word. This means that communicating rationally with this person will be an uphill climb, with no guarantee of successfully communicating your message at the summit. It means the person who wants to dispel the racial hatred has a hard row to hoe, a great cost of time and effort, with a real possibility of failure at the end. And this assists indoctrination efforts as well, because who is going to want to invest a lot of time and energy with a good probability of failure at the end? Better, in an individually selfish way, to leave this person in his racist delusion. And yet, would any advances against racism have been made if nobody had decided to carry the gauntlet, inch by painful inch, up that hill?

Still it is a demonstration of the walls that indoctrination can throw up against reason and good judgment. This is how indoctrination makes use of interference to help maintain its hold on the adherent.

I explain this because I recently watched a dialog between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, where I noticed a very frustrating level of interference. There was one question that Dawkins presented three separate times, that was never resolved by way of any relevant answer from McGrath. McGrath even stops and enlists the sympathies of the film crew to ask if they can move on to the next question, since he has already answered this one. However, the crew’s consensus is that they’re unclear on his answer as well. And McGrath seems, in all fairness, genuinely confused. McGrath certainly answered “a” question; however, he failed to answer the question Dawkins asked. And he really could not tell the difference in his head between what he was “hearing” and what Dawkins was “saying”–although, to me, and seemingly to the crew as well, the question was simple enough to understand.

In Christian fundamentalist indoctrination, there are a lot of presumptions systematically taught that are intended to head off questions the young Christian might receive by people who aren’t Christians. I recall when I finally learned about other religions, for example, the doctrines were so vastly different than what I’d been taught in Sunday School that I remember alerting our preacher that I’d read some Buddhist literature–written by Buddhists–and it was not true that Buddhists “worship Buddha,” as had been stated repeatedly from the pulpit. I thought I was doing a good thing, enlightening him about a truth. But rather than showing any interest in what I had discovered, he admonished me for having read these things without proper oversight. And even in my late teens or so, I recall thinking there was something very wrong with his response.

What if, rather than read a book, I’d have talked to a Buddhist? During the entire dialog, I would be thinking, “This person worships Buddha”–even though I’d never spoken to a Buddhist in my life or read a scrap of Buddhist literature. I’d simply been told. And that’s what the people who indoctrinated me into Christianity hoped I would believe. They, in turn, probably had never read any Buddhist literature or talked to a Buddhist, either, and had read only Christian literature describing Buddhism. I assume this because even the most cursory reading of just about any Buddhist foundational text demonstrates the assertion is false–or at best an exaggeration of what a Buddhist would describe as his belief.

Often we get this question on our e-mail list: “Why don’t you ever talk to any really intelligent or educated apologists?”

When we get these letters from theists, the obvious shock is that the person asking us to do this is unavoidably asserting that the average Christian person is not intelligent–since we nearly always talk to and about average Christians who engage us on the program.

Beyond that, I’ve been spending a lot of time these days watching theological debates that involve theists of some clout, on many levels of the spectrum–church leaders, mega-church preachers, and most recently this civilized Q&A between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins.

Let me just note that I had argued myself out of theism long before I knew who Richard Dawkins–or any other atheist author–was. I deconverted on the weakness of theism’s merits, not on the strength of any atheist’s arguments against the existence of god. And for a few years, after I first heard about Dawkins, the descriptions of him as an arrogant, condescending, anti-theist, ass prejudiced me against even wanting to read his literature or hear him speak. My first encounter was when I finally broke down and read God Delusion–where I dispelled my own “Dawkins Delusion.” I couldn’t have wished for a more patient, well reasoned and fair address of theism than what Dawkins offered. And the first time I finally heard him speak, I was actually shocked by the mild and disarming tone of his voice and the relaxed collectedness with which he expressed even the points on religion he described as most objectionable. He often pauses to think about his phrasing before speaking–even in mid-sentence–a habit I should surely cultivate and employ more often. In this discussion with McGrath, you can almost see the gears shifting in his brain as he considers “How do I put this in an inoffensive way?” What comes out is, more often than not, very gentle compared to how many atheists might well have phrased it.

McGrath, for his part, is every bit as genial, and even more enthusiastic, in his expressions. On several occasions when McGrath spoke, I shut my eyes and thought, “Listen. Really listen and try and hear what he means.” I wanted to see if McGrath would offer some clue to his beliefs–as an educated and respected theologian. I sincerely wanted to understand what he believes and why. But after finishing “Part 15 of 15,” posted on Youtube, I had failed. After listening to McGrath explain his position, uninterrupted, in a conversational style, for his part of approximately an hour and a half, I still can’t tell you what he believes or why he believes it. And if this eloquent, well mannered, educated and willing theist can’t offer an explanati
on that makes sense, what hope does that average theist have?

Initially, my desire was to do an analysis of the entire debate, detailing where the communication interference was happening every step of the way. But, the length of my input regarding the first question alone was so long that I understood immediately I was too ambitious. I may do a full breakdown in sections at some point, but for now, I’m going to deal only with the central question of the dialog that would matter most to atheists: the reasons for belief.

There were many points in the footage where I thought, “OK, I understand what you’re saying, but wouldn’t that raise this other question or problem?” And as I thought these questions, McGrath would finish, and Dawkins would ask them for me. And I would be glad, because I wanted to know how McGrath resolved these issues. I wasn’t hoping for a fail. I was hoping for a resolution from McGrath to something for which I was unable to imagine a resolution.

Oddly, when McGrath would be asked to further explain some point of his stated position, it often sounded as though he was negating, or at the very least mitigating, everything he had previously asserted. I was left with a feeling that whatever I had learned from him in his prior explanations was now being described, by him, as either “wrong” or “unimportant.” In the end, I was left confused about which parts I was supposed to carry away as consequential or correct about his position on faith and god. Did I misunderstand his meaning? Did he not say what I thought he had just said?

McGrath begins by explaining his background growing up in Ireland as an atheist. He sees religious violence and equates it, understandably, with religious differences. He also says he studied Marxism and natural sciences. In response to Dawkins’ request for an explanation of how he moved from atheism to theism McGrath responds, “I began to rethink things. I began to realize they weren’t, perhaps, as straightforward as I thought. And certainly it was at that point that I really began to feel that Christianity offered a better way of seeing things and making sense of things than I’d imagined in the past.”

When Dawkins asked, “What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?” He was asking the same question we ask time and again on the show: Explain what you believe and why you believe it. I would assume that whatever McGrath offered next would be the underpinning of his belief. Here was his chance to give the evidence and reason behind why he decided to become a theist. This was an edge-of-my-seat moment, to be sure.

McGrath started out rationally enough. He noted that not all of our beliefs are based upon what we might consider hard evidence. When I measure the distance from one wall to another, my belief that the room is 10-feet wide is based on solid facts. However, someone’s belief that their spouse is stopping to put gas in the car on the way home, may be just as strong, and even perhaps just as right, but not as fact-based. Our brains are constantly testing the consistency of the reality in which we live. And it certainly makes determinations based on many different levels of evidence about what it will accept as true, and what it will not.

In order to function, depth perception, the length of the room, is important. Having some concept of how far things are from one’s self and where they are in relation to one’s self is fairly integral to the existence of any sighted person. But whether a spouse is gassing up the car may be something one cares not at all about. By and large, in most day-to-day scenarios, the main thrust of pressure put upon a person to care about their spouse’s fuel situation, would be pressure only from within. We really can ask, “Does this matter to me? Do I need an opinion on it?” We aren’t called upon in life to consider all questions equally–or at all–or to make conscious decisions about truth values on all propositions.

This means that if my spouse tells me he is stopping by the gas station on the way home to fill up his car, I don’t have to believe it, or even consider if I believe it. I can merely accept it’s what I’ve been told, and go about my life. If he forgets to fill up the car, if he changes his mind during his commute–nothing is lost. And if someone asks “Where is your spouse?” I can say, “He said he was stopping off to get gas on the way home.” I don’t have to assert “He’s at the gas station,” although it’s unlikely anyone would fault me for asserting it and even believing it was true, based only on my spouse’s word.

So, with any proposition we are presented, we can believe, not believe, or believe the opposite. I can accept my husband is at the station (believe it), not have an opinion on it (not bother to believe it), or believe he’s not at the station (he forgot, changed his mind, was waylaid, or lied). And McGrath understands this, when later in the discussion he explains the following (emphasis mine):

“I think that one of the big questions one has when one tries to make sense of anything that is big, for example, ‘what is the meaning of life?,’ ‘Why we’re here?’ things like that, is that there are many explanations. And inevitably this means we have to try to do what Gilbert Harmon described as being fair to the best explanation…We have to make a very difficult judgment: ‘Which is actually the best of these?’ And the real difficulty…is that evidence takes us thus far, but when it comes to a number of competing explanations, it is extremely difficult to have an evidence-driven argument for those final stages…I believe faith is rational…It tries to make the best possible sense of things. But in the end it has to move beyond that, saying ‘even though we believe this is the best way of making sense of things, we can’t actually prove this is the case.’ And therefore, although I believe faith is rational, in that it can give us the best possible case it can give, there is a point at which it goes beyond the evidence. And it’s at that point…that your concern that it might be irrational…comes into play.”

Yes, in fact, that is the point at which the concern it becomes irrational comes into play. To be fair, Dawkins prefaced his question, with a statement saying that he perhaps has not given sufficient attention to how religious people might use the term “faith” differently than he does. However, his question was, again, “What kind of reason, what kind of evidence do you use to support your faith?”

McGrath offered an explanation, I suppose in one way, of how he uses the word “faith,” and how it relates to reason and evidence; but I have to admit his answer seems to demonstrate an interpretation of the question I would never have arrived at. At the end of his answer, he hasn’t really told me anything I don’t already know, and, really, anything anyone else doesn’t already know, either. Surely he didn’t assume Dawkins was asserting people never draw conclusions without iron-clad evidence? Any nation that has courts understands there are times you could be forced to make decisions without benefit of conclusive evidence. Surely, McGrath knows someone as intelligent as Dawkins is not asserting it is impossible for a human to draw a conclusion without conclusive evidence? That would be a idiotic assertion, indeed, from anyone–but most especially so from a literate and educated person.

The question, I assumed, was a request for McGrath to explain specific evidence and specific reasoning that has led him to draw his conclusion–to become convinced where he was once skeptical–”a god exists.” And no matter how many times you read his answer above, you will not find that offered or explained.

Carl Sagan once shared a story about a question he was asked regarding whether he believed in the existence of extra-terrestrial life. He replied that there was currently no evidence to support that conclusion. The reporter pressed and asked something to the effect of “What do you think in your gut?” Sagan responded that he didn’t think with his gut, and that it is fine to hold off drawing conclusions until there is sufficient evidence available to support a conclusion. Sagan, who strongly supported efforts to seek extra-terrestrial life, here admitted that while he held it was true such life was possible–perhaps even probable–he would not extend belief to “it exists,” until he saw that conclusion was demonstrated by evidence–presumably when such life was actually discovered.

I absolutely concede that I could hardly live my life without some attempt to draw conclusions without conclusive evidence, on occasion; but compared to the comparatively limitless conclusions I draw based upon solid evidence every millisecond of every day, conclusions based upon insufficient evidence are actually relatively rarely required to be drawn. I hardly have to know “what is the meaning of life?” or “Why am I here?,” in order to live my life, or even enjoy the life I live. I can safely say many people live and die and never find any answer to those questions–perhaps never even consciously ask them–and lose never a night’s sleep over it. Try and kill such a person, however, and you’ll see firsthand how much they value their own life–even if they can’t explain to you what their life “means.” Truth be told, if there is some cosmically imposed meaning, the fact people have been arguing over the answer for millennia is near enough an indicator that there is no clear answer–and yet we all continue, somehow, to go on living our lives–many of us enjoying them–in spite of that.

Interesting as these questions are, are they “necessary” to answer, as McGrath asserts? If I know I prefer to live rather than die in most situations, and I extend that assumption to others in order to do what I can to mold a generally pleasant society, but I then miss out on the cosmic meaning–does it matter? If there is a cosmic meaning, and we don’t know what it is–how can we answer the question of whether it’s beneficial to know it? In fact, I can just as well consider that such questions are as near unanswerable as any questions can be, and go on using my reasoning skills–god given or not–to figure out what sort of life I would like to live and try to live it.

If I’m a generally good and kind person–would finding out there is a cosmic mind that has a plan, which is that people should be good and kind–make a speck of difference? Alternately, as a generally good and kind person, if I stumbled upon a cosmic plan that included I should blow up a building filled with people, I would be highly unlikely to comply–so that would make not a speck of difference in my life, either. There could, I suppose, be a god who would wish to punish me for not completing the proper sacrifices, or praying in the wrong direction, or for thinking the wrong things; but unless I have some really compelling reason to think such a thing exists–the details of what it expects of me never become any more important than what alleged alien abductees describe as their experiences–both wonderful and horrific–aboard spacecrafts.

But read McGrath’s answer again, and note the areas I have highlighted. He presses that these questions are necessary to answer–and he equates the question “does god exist?” with those questions that demand a conclusion be drawn. But, it isn’t one of those questions that requires a response. We aren’t in a jury box being told a man’s life and society’s safety are in our hands, and our decision on insufficient evidence must be determined. “Does god exist?” may have implications for the believer–once the mantle of belief is taken up. But until belief is merited, questions related to what happens after that belief are unimportant. The question “does god exist?” has no greater significance before you believe it than the question “do aliens exist?”

Certainly if either proposition is true, it could be life altering. I don’t wish to be kidnapped and violated by aliens any more than I would wish an eternity of hell upon myself. I don’t wish my children or friends to be maltreated by gods or aliens, either. And if I believed aliens were abducting humans for experimentation, I’d be up in arms demanding some sort of protections from my society or government. But until I believe, it matters not at all in my life. The believer may assert it matters in that I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat in order to avoid mind control by the aliens–but really, that’s him overlaying his perspective as a believer onto me. I don’t do anything in my life where I first consider, “Now, since I don’t accept aliens are abducting people, how do I wish to handle this situation?” The question of abductions is not a question that demands I deeply consider whether or not I believe it’s true. And the question “does god exist?”–whether believers assume horrific consequences or not–is no different than that to someone who does not yet believe.

What this means is that the end leap of faith McGrath describes is not required. And what that means, is that it is not a reasonable leap of faith. It is not, as Josh McDowell also asserts, “evidence that demands a verdict.” If I were in a jury box and forced to decide, then yes, I must do my fair and level best to make the most rational decision with whatever evidence is presented. But there is no such pressure applied to the question “does god exist?”–outside of whatever pressure indoctrination has pre-inserted into the adherent’s brain.

Not only did McGrath fail to provide any specific reason or evidence for his particular faith, he failed on a general level to explain what sort of reason he applies, because the sort of reason he describes is not reasonably applied to this particular type of question. The final “required” leap of faith, in the area of religion, he has not justified, only asserted.

Thankfully, but not surprisingly, this doesn’t escape Dawkins’ notice when he explains it is this final leap–not supported by rationality or evidence, and not required–that he would describe as the employment of “faith.” I would assert not only faith in a conclusion, but faith in a pre-existing prejudice that the conclusion was already very likely true in the first place; otherwise, why would the question even have mattered to McGrath any more than the question of alien abductions?

I’d finally like to hit on McGrath’s statement that “faith is rational in that it can give us the best possible case it can give.” This is nonsense. Anyone who holds any belief, no matter how ridiculous, can give us “the best possible case” they can give. That in no way makes their belief “rational.” As a joke, I sometimes invent conspiracy theories on the fly–putting unrelated groups and events together to assert one is privately colluding to produce the other. It’s amazing how many reasonable-sounding arguments you can create for absolutely fabricated assertions. Often, others will join in to add their “evidence” for the conspiracy–laughing as we build upon it. We actually can put together explanations for these fantasy conspiracies that sound reasonable. But we’re just making it all up. And our “rational” explanations are not at all likely to be true. But,
if rational can be defined as “making the best case possible,” we’re absolutely being “rational”–but also, no doubt, ridiculous.

Again, I really only addressed one small segment of the dialog here. If I have time in my future, I’ll address more. But clearly there is, throughout these videos, a huge communication divide–a gargantuan level of interference. McGrath seems unable to hear and understand what Dawkins is even asking. And I’m left wondering, is an intelligent theologian merely a person who makes nonsense sound better than most theists can? Is he merely someone who puts forward inarguable realities we might all agree with, sprinkled with unsupported assertions, and who fails to address the questions being asked?

Is that what it means to debate an educated and intelligent apologist?

What Is an Atheist?

Someone contacted the list with the following claims:

Assertion 1: An agnostic is someone who is neither a theist (someone who believes a god exists) nor an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists OR someone who denies a god exists).

While I agree with this, I soon found out I have different reasons for doing so. I go by the theologically classical definition of agnostic as someone who addresses knowledge regarding god, and finds it lacking, versus the Gnostic, who believes that knowledge about god is accessible and perhaps even that he has such knowledge. The person making claim 1 above, however, asserts that an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves that a god exists. They wished to use that definition alone because it is what their friends agreed was right, and it was listed as a “colloquially” acceptable definition in his dictionary, some version of Merriam-Webster.

I already knew the dilemma this person was creating for himself. To define the agnostic off the bat as not being a person who believes a god exists leaves little room for then trying to defend that the agnostic is someone who does not believe a god exists. I think most people would see the problem with the position even before it unfolds:

If a “senior” is defined as one who is at or over 65 years old, and you assert that I am “not a senior,” there is no escaping that you have just indicated I am not at or over 65. And the writer does agree that a theist is a person who does believe a god exists. Thankfully he understands at least one significant definition in theological terminology.

I knew he was going to encounter difficulty, then, in defending his claim that this agnostic is no atheist. Literally, anyone who is not a theist (someone who does believe a god exists) is an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists). And this person who contacted us, let’s call him “J,” for brevity, agreed that the atheist is correctly defined as “someone who does not believe a god exists.” In fact, he agreed to this during a call to the show–on the air–recorded for posterity, before he wrote to us.

So then, his argument begins with this:

The agnostic does not believe a god exists (or else he’d be a theist), but he also does not, not believe a god exists (or else he’d be an atheist). So that this magical being, the agnostic, both does “not believe” and also does not “not believe”–which is a logical impossibility. I can no more accomplish this as a human being than I can both be a senior and not be a senior.

I accepted the writer as merely a person who is ignorant regarding where the term “agnostic” originated and how it is used in actual theological discussion of these issues. The Gnostic movement is one that concerned itself with knowledge about god. Certainly knowledge is a subset of belief, but one that was the focus of the Gnostics that separated their ideology from broader definitions of belief. And I do not claim this distinction is without problems.

The term that defines the response to Gnosticism, “agnosticism,” was coined by Thomas Huxley, in the mid-1800s, to describe his rejection of Gnosticism, and subsequently all claims to knowledge regarding gods. He was not claiming that no one has belief in gods and that belief in gods is unavailable to people. He was making a statement about a subset of belief, knowledge–which is usually far more narrowly (and problematically) defined.

The idea that an agnostic is simply someone who is wishy-washy about their belief in god is a misconception that has grown as discussion of “atheist issues” has become more common. And the reason it grows is that people love to talk about religion, but they don’t seem to like to actually research it or inform their opinions before they open their mouths.

In short, it’s like the word “founder,” which means to have trouble staying afloat. The word fell out of common usage and began to be “replaced” with “flounder”–a type of fish. One suggestion is that people equated it to “flopping around” and being unable to move well, and that’s why they began to describe something that doesn’t progress well as “floundering,” more and more often. Today, when you look up the word “flounder,” it actually does generally have a secondary definition that makes it synonymous with “founder.”

Dictionaries are wonderful tools. They inform us both of classically correct usage, but also must reflect common usage–which can become correct usage over time. With “agnostic,” we have a common misconception that may one day find its way into a secondary form of correct usage. But it carries with it the problem of making all such defined agnostics atheists. And there was a moment when J began to realize this as a necessary conclusion, when he accused me of trying to say that all agnostics were, in fact, atheists. I honestly replied that I do not use his definition of “agnostic,” and that I know many agnostic theists; but that if I am compelled to use the term “agnostic” by defining it off the top as a person who is not a theist, and, by necessity, then, a person who does not believe a god exists, then I cannot agree to the second half of the definition–which is logically impossible–that he also is not an atheist and not someone who does not believe a god exists. A human cannot be both someone who does “not believe” a claim and someone who does not “not believe” a claim.

So, this, I chalked up to ignorance and misconception on J’s part. I did so, at least, until it went on for more than a few exchanges and I began to suspect there was more here than just simple correction of a misconception required. J was defending, not honestly communicating. A person honestly communicating would have, at or before this point, pretty well have said, “Maybe I hadn’t thought this through, and it appears I might be working under some misconceptions.” But not J. J has something to prove, which leads to his next assertion:

Assertion 2. The atheist is making a positive claim and we can extrapolate other atheist beliefs from the position “I do not believe a god exists.”

Specifically, when J first called us, J wanted to be able to say that we can know what atheists do believe, by knowing what they do not believe. And that is simply not the case. And I should add that it’s no more the case than me claiming I can know what someone believes when they claim they do believe a god exists. I have no idea what they mean by “god” nor what impact their god has on anything, including on themselves. But, more specifically, he thinks he knows what an atheist thinks of universal origins, according to his call. His argument is along the lines of this: Either a god created the universe or a god did not. If you don’t believe in a god, then you must believe in naturalistic origins (and I assume that would lead to the common misconception that all atheists believe big bang, which I know to be false).

The idea here goes something like this: “I assert that fairies created the universe. If you do not believe in fairies, then I know how you think the universe was created.”

Obviously that would be ludicrous. But as is so often the case, the theist can’t see how absurd it is when you use “god” instead of “fairies.” But using fairies, anyone should be able to see how ludicrous this claim becomes. Of course you could assert you know that however I believe the universe came to be, it is a non-fairy model. That much is fair–but as far as asserting tha
t you have some insight into what I do think pumped out the universe (if I’m not obstinately holding to steady-state theory, and asserting that the idea it was “produced” at all is nonsensical to me)–what I do believe about it–is unjustified.

Here I should note that J does not dispute the broad definition of atheist on the surface. If you show him a dictionary that indicates that the atheist either does not believe in the existence of gods OR believes no gods exist, J will say “OK.” However, I don’t think J really comprehends what he’s agreeing to here–or at least he didn’t at first.

The idea that I say you can be “one or the other” means that the “one” is not the “other.” And while I think anyone could understand that, J is, apparently, not just anyone. I happened to pull a definition that read “disbelieve” rather than “does not believe,” and J decided to fly with this. In fact, he tried to fly this to the moon. “Disbelieving,” he asserted, is not at all the same as “not believing” something. I kid you not. This was his response.

Bear in mind that if I knew “disbelieve” would trip him up so badly, I’d have pulled a valid authoritative dictionary from the start that said “does not believe”–because they are out there. But since J had agreed during our call that an atheist is one who does “not believe” a god exists, it did not occur to me he’d now try to claim “does not believe” isn’t valid since this one dictionary I pulled had “disbelieve.” So, back-peddle number one is that he tried to duck out of his initial agreement that it’s fair to label someone who does “not believe” a god exists is an “atheist.”

And here we have a lesson in definitions. And by that I don’t mean that there are not myriad dictionaries that will support than an atheist “does not believe” (if it’s “disbelieve” that is all that is freaking you out) or that there are not myriad dictionaries that assert that “disbelieve” does include “not believe,” but we need to see something here about broad and narrow definitions, in general, and how they must be understood by any fair and honest person:

If I assert that Word-X means “A” and you assert you are using it as “B,” and I say you are wrong to claim it means “B,” and we look it up in 6 dictionaries, and some say “A” and some say “B” and some say “A or B” or “A, B and sometimes C,” then I am wrong even though “A” is not incorrect. I did not assert I use it as “A” and you use it as “B.” I asserted it is incorrect to use it as “B.” And I am wrong. And in our discussion about agnosticism, despite my knowledge that he was abusing the term by using a definition that represents a common misconception, I still agreed to accept it and roll with it. That’s what people do when they are trying to have a fair and honest dialogue to understand what you think and why.

It is possible to find dictionaries to support that “disbelieve” means to reject belief in a way that condemns the claim (in this case, “a god exists”) as false. But to claim that “disbelieve” does not mean “not believe” is to ignore all of the other dictionaries that assert that “not believe” is an acceptable usage of the word disbelieve. It is to tell me I am wrong to use “B”, while “B” is supported by myriad authoritative sources. In order to stop me from rightly using a valid definition, the burden would be on you to demonstrate why those definitions are incorrect and the sources are faulty, or to demonstrate why those definitions might not apply in the context of our particular discussion. In this particular case, however, I even used J’s own dictionary–Merriam Webster–to demonstrate “disbelieving” as “not believing.” And he was still unwilling to to admit the words can validly be said to carry the same meaning.

At this point I could not give the benefit of the doubt–that this was ignorance rather than pride– any longer, so I asserted rather that dishonesty might be involved in some way as a motive. But it would be more true to say the motive for his unwillingness to accept what was in front of him was defensiveness. This, in my book, includes being willing to make ridiculous assertions in the face of rock-solid, contrary evidence, by way of lying to oneself and/or others. I think J was insulted by the “dishonest” comment–but it was that or “stupid,” and of the two, I would think “dishonest” would be the more complimentary. However, admittedly, I might have gone for duplicitous, hypocritical or disingenuous.

Hypocrisy 1:
Eventually J stated that the agnostic does not believe god exists “on the face of it”–and I have no idea what difference it makes. If he does “not believe” a god exists, he is an atheist. If he does “not believe” because he’s uncertain what to believe, because he’s investigated and found it to be unjustified to believe, because he’s drunk and it’s Wednesday–it really doesn’t matter. As long as we can honestly say this person does “not believe” a god exists (and if we agree, as J and I did, he’s no theist, then we can), and as long as we can say that an atheist does “not believe” a god exists (and J agreed to this initially, and a dictionary survey and history would support this), then we cannot deny that this person is an atheist, while he is not a theist.

It no more matters why I don’t believe in god than it matters why I do believe in god. And here is where we get into the sort of hypocrisy that could stir me to righteous indignation if I were to allow it.

Can you imagine how ridiculous and presumptuous it would be, if I went to a theist e-list and began asserting that only theists who believe a god exists because god has personally spoken to them are theists–and that anyone else doesn’t really “believe” and is an “agnostic”? What if I asserted that those at the e-list who believe only because of what they’ve read in their Bibles can’t be labeled “theists”?

Where do I sign up to cherry pick for theists which reasons for “belief” are valid reasons under the theist definition, “someone who believes a god exists”? Would J think that was rational of me, to go and tell theists that if their belief is based on “A,” then it counts, but if they believe for reason “B,” then their belief isn’t really “belief” under the theist definition? The reason they believe is not relevant. All that matters is that they believe. The definition of “theist” doesn’t have an asterisk leading to a note indicating that “if you believe for the following reasons, then ‘theist’ is not what you are.” You can believe for any reason. And a you can not believe for any reason. You still believe or you still disbelieve. And whether you believe or disbelieve is all that matters to these definitions–not “why.”

Hypocrisy 2:
In a context of a particular field, it is possible for definitions to have agreed upon meanings. For example, the term “stripper” in publishing used to mean a person who worked in preparing materials for pre-press. This is very different than what the general population thinks of when they think of “strippers.” And I think we understand this pretty well. In theology, where theists equate “belief” with things like “faith,” we are often confronted with models of the martyrs–those who exhibited such deep conviction to their views that they would suffer and die for
them. Theists make quite a verbal dog and pony show, often becoming offended at any slight to their “deeply held beliefs” or their “god,” in which they believe and whom they “revere.” This “belief” they speak of is important, sometimes life-altering, something they teach their children, something to spread to the far corners of the world, something that brings them great “joy” and “peace” and “happiness.” Theists make it known that “belief” is no small thing. In fact, in the Bible it says that if a person “believes,” they can be saved–receiving eternal bliss with god.

This is how the theist frames theistic “belief.”

Further, during our call with J, Matt said belief was “acceptance of a claim as true,” and J agreed. Later, the e-list exchange, we used a definition of “conviction of the truth of a claim,” and J did not take issue–at first. The definition went along, accepted by both parties for a few exchanges. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, J decided that the sort of “belief” we were discussing, the belief in god that distinguishes a theist, was this sort of “belief”:

Me: “Where is Tammy?”
You: “I’m not sure. I believe she said she was going to the store–but I might have not heard her correctly.”

His point was that you can have varying degrees of belief in god–that not having conviction doesn’t mean not “believing.” So, the agnostic is like this–he is unsure and sort of “believes.”

Beyond back-peddling–literally going back and saying that a definition he accepted twice isn’t working out as well as he’d hoped, so he’s now going to just reject it and claim I’m the one being unfair–there are two huge problems with J’s assertion:

First of all, if this truly is “belief,” then we have a problem with J’s Assertion 1: If I believe a god exists, I’m a theist by definition–using any source you want to pick. And that means that, according to J, this person is no longer an agnostic, because he has belief in god, and, therefore, must be a theist (which J asserted his agnostic is absolutely not). If there can be “little” belief–then his agnostic would be correctly labeled a “theist”–and J must say there is no such thing as an agnostic. He would actually be saying that anyone who has doubts about the existence of gods has some small “belief”–and those who have no doubts and think a god does not exist, are atheists. So, rather than defend his agnostic, he has successfully defined his agnostic right out of existence.

But secondly, and even more pathetically and dishonestly, J is now taking his belief in god (he is a theist) and throwing it under the bus, in order to salvage his sorry position. No longer is “belief” a conviction or accepting a claim as true. No longer does god require deep faith and the courage to live and die by that conviction that He exists and came to save the world from sin. No longer does god demand worship and reverence and commitment. It seems that when the Bible talks about believing and being saved–it only means not being sure god doesn’t exist. If that’s the case, many atheists will be thrilled to learn they’re saved according to the Bible–for they believe. And that’s apparently what theists mean by “belief”–according to J.

Why is this surprising though? Why should it be a shock that when it supports a theist’s argument for how wonderful it is to be a theist, belief is a conviction that can fulfill your life, but the moment you want to say that without that conviction, a person can’t be said to “believe,” then belief becomes nothing more than the thinnest shred of a doubt about the false nature of the any claim? In other words, I should say I “believe” fairies exist, according to J, because I have to admit that, logically speaking, I cannot “know” they do not exist, even though I really, really, really, really doubt they exist, and feel fair saying “I do not believe in fairies.” I still “believe fairies exist” according to J, because I have to acknowledge that it would be logically unsupportable for me to assert that I know they absolutely do not.

And J keeps asking me why this is so hard?

From where J stands, it isn’t possible that he’s twisting in the wind. I sometimes have pity on him because it’s hard to see a person humiliate himself repeatedly on this level; but then he acts like this is a debate or honest disagreement we’re having, rather than me trying to educate an ignorant, defensive individual, and I get my perspective back.

This brings us back to “one OR the other.” If these doubts constitute “belief,” then we have a problem with the definition of atheist, with which J took no issue. J agrees that the atheist is either someone who disbelieves/does not believe a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists). And here’s the rub: If “disbelieve” means to accept a claim is false, and if “believe” means to be anything but 100 percent sure the claim is false–then what is the difference between “disbelieve/not believe” and “believing no god exists/denying god exists”?

J, who does not claim to take issue with the definition of “atheist” that reads, someone who disbleieves a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists), is now trying to say that “disbelieving” and “believing the opposite” represent the same condition, thus rendering the “OR,” and the definition of “atheist,” nonsensical. In other words, while he claims to take no issue with the definition, J is actually trying to assert that an atheist is only someone who denies a god exists, and that a person who disbelieves a god exists is actually no different. In my last communication, I asked him what he imagines the dictionary (his Merriam Webster) is trying to demonstrate as the difference between “disbelieve” and “believe the opposite”? I just sent it this morning, so I can’t report on the answer to that head-scratcher.

But I must say that I reject any claim that it is honest to assert that I “believe” fairies exist. I am unable to logically defend that it is impossible for a small race of magical woodland winged creatures to exist. Do I believe fairies exist? If you think it’s reasonable to say I do, I know this guy, J, you really need to meet, because I suspect the two of you will really get along. But I do not expect anyone will ever find a fairy. I do not accept that all the writings about fairies are a compelling reason to think they exists. And if someone presented me with one, I would have to admit I have been “wrong” regarding the existence of fairies. But why? If J is correct, I always believed in them, since I always was willing to admit that I could not be 100 percent certain they do not exist.

Also, J rejected that agnosticism had anything to do with knowledge. And I submitted that theism and atheism addressed belief, not knowledge. And he never took issue with this. Meanwhile, he seems to be saying the atheist has to assert knowledge (certainty), and I don’t see that in the definition. Surely an atheist could feel certain there is no god. But I simply note it is not necessary to be an atheist.

I sent J, several e-mails back, a link to a wonderful series of articles written by Austin Cline, who has been for many years the host of about.com’s Agnosticism/Atheism section. I don’t think J read the articles. That’s too bad. If this is an issue that interests any of you, I encourage you to do some further reading at Cline’s site. Here are a few links you might enjoy:

At his main page is a link to “Atheism 101,” a series that talks about these same misconceptions.

Dictionary Definitions of Atheism”“Definition of Atheism in Reference Books”

h1 = document.getElementById(“title”).getElementsByTagName(“h1″)[0];h1.innerHTML = widont(h1.innerHTML); Here are a few quotes I thought were very appropriate to this discussion:

“Atheists are simply those who do not accept the truth of this claim — they may deny it out right, they may find it too vague or incomprehensible to evaluate properly, they may be waiting to hear support for the claim, or they may simply not have heard about it yet. This is a broad and diverse category and there is no particular counter-claim made by all atheists.”

“Many have trouble comprehending that “not believing X” (not believe gods exist) doesn’t mean the same as “believing not X” (believe gods do not exist). The placement of the negative is key: the first means not having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is true, the second means having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is false. The difference here is between disbelief and denial: the first is disbelief in the broad or narrow sense whereas the second is denial.”
“A belief is the mental attitude that some proposition is true. For every given proposition, every person either has or lacks the mental attitude that it is true — there is no middle ground between the presence of absence of a belief. In the case of gods, everyone either has a belief that at least one god of some sort exists or they lack any such belief.”


“A person who is an agnostic, who does not claim to know for sure if any gods exist, still either has some sort of belief in the existence of some sort of god (believing without knowing for sure is common in many subjects) or lacks a belief in the existence of any gods (not believing without knowing for sure may be more common). Confusing the definitions of atheism and agnosticism is a popular tactic with some religious theists because it allows them to essentially define the territory of debate in their favor. They should not, however, be permitted to misdefine and misrepresent basic categories in this manner.”
I still am stunned at the presumptuousness of a theist calling an atheist public outreach program to argue with the hosts about what an atheist is, writing to an atheist educational foundation to assert they don’t understand the definition of agnostic or atheist, and potentially going to Austin Cline’s section to say that a person who has dealt in atheist issues for longer than I’ve been an atheist (and who has extensively handled this question particularly) doesn’t have a clue about atheism. I would never dream of contacting the Baptist Convention to say they don’t know the first thing about what a Baptist is. In fact, if I did get into a discussion with the president of a Baptist educational foundation (as J disputed with Matt D as well), and he told me that I misunderstood some aspect of what it means to be “Baptist,” and dictionaries and reference sources largely supported his assertions–why wouldn’t I back down and own up to my misconception? Austin Cline has a thought on that in one of his Atheism 101 articles:

“Another reason for insisting that only the narrow sense of atheism is relevant is that it allows the theist to avoid shouldering the principle burden of proof. You see, if atheism is simply the absence of a belief in any gods, then the principle burden of proof lies solely with the theist. If the theist cannot demonstrate that their belief is reasonable and justified, then atheism is automatically credible and rational. When a person is unable to do this, it can be easier to claim that others are in the same boat than to admit one’s own failure.”

I think this pretty well nails it.