Hustling the Gospel

Writing for the Huffington Post, Pastor Rick Henderson explains Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist.

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations…

What follows is another one of those arguments where morality is supposed to come from God, and therefore without God there can be no good or evil, and therefore atheists can’t be “good” because they’ve denied the existence of good and evil. What’s interesting is the way Pastor Rick introduces this particular scam.

For those of you who are eager to pierce me with your wit and crush my pre-modern mind, allow me to issue a challenge. I contend that any response you make will only prove my case. Like encountering a hustler on the streets of Vegas, the deck is stacked, and the odds are not in your favor.

The atheist is talking with the pastor, but he’s being hustled, because the pastor has stacked the deck. I’ve seen believers pull this particular hustle before, but Pastor Rick is the first one to openly admit he’s using dishonest tactics to achieve his goal. But let’s lay all our cards on the table and check out his “three additional affirmations” and then see who deserves to win this particular hand.

The first affirmation is a somewhat vague and hand-wavy affirmation of some kind of materialism.

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

This is somewhat garbled. It sounds like he’s trying to reduce materialism to the belief that only things made of atoms are real. But that’s not what scientists believe. Time is real, but it is not made out of atoms. Likewise the space between atoms, and all the events and processes that result from the actions and interactions of matter and energy over time, are not themselves made out of atoms. “Made out of atoms” scarcely begins to express what “purely material” really means.

A more accurate affirmation would be to explain that material reality is everything that exists and occurs in and of itself, independently of any 3rd-party observer’s perceptions of what exists and occurs. Material reality is that reality which stands in distinction to that which exists only in the imagination and misperceptions of the observer. Atheists do not deny the existence of things outside of material reality. Myths do exist, as do errors, ignorance, and “stacked decks.” The important thing to note about such non-material “realities” is that they are not part of material reality, and are not consistent with it. Any god who is not material (i.e. who does not exist in and of himself), is necessarily a mythical being, and exists only as a myth and a fantasy.

Thus, atheists affirm the existence of material reality, and make a distinction between that which exists in and of itself, versus that which exists only in the imaginations of the mind and heart. This in no way handicaps the atheist, because to deny this affirmation is to deny the existence of reality itself, and/or to fail to make any distinction between that which really exists, and that which is only a figment of the imagination. It might be possible to disagree with atheism on this point, but it would never be wise to do so.

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

This is another muddled affirmation. A more clear and accurate expression would be to say that material reality is consistent with itself, meaning both that material reality does not contradict itself, and that every part of material reality is integrated with the rest of material reality, such that you can proceed from the things you can observe to discover things you did not previously know. Or in other words, that material reality is meaningful.

That is, after all, what science is all about: discovering the meaning of what we see. You dip litmus paper into a solution and it turns from pink to blue, and that means the solution is more basic than acidic. You put some on a glass rod and hold it in the flame of a bunsen burner, and the flame turns bright yellow, and that means the solution contains sodium. And so on.

Meaning comes from the fact that reality is consistent with itself. Take any one real thing, and it’s interconnected with other real things, such that you can know the other things when you observe the first one. That’s what “meaning” is: the mutual, reliable relationship between things. Consequently, the second affirmation is really an affirmation that material reality is rational and meaningful. Again, you can contradict the atheist on this one if you choose, but if you do, you’re denying the existence of meaning and reason, which leaves you with no basis for asserting any valid alternative to atheism.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

This one starts out fairly well. The atheist does indeed affirm that the universe (i.e. what the believer would call “Creation”) does not have any consciousness or will of its own. I rather doubt that any Christian would assert the contrary: that somehow the galaxies and dust clouds and empty spaces of the cosmos form some kind of conscious, sentient being sufficient to make it into a person. That’s not really even controversial.

But then Pastor Rick goes on to insist that atheists have to affirm that no conscious will guides the universe. That’s roughly true, with the caveat that parts of the universe are most definitely guided by conscious wills—ours! Still, that’s a less-useful expression of the real atheistic affirmation that belongs here. A better declaration would be to say that atheists reject superstition as a means of acquiring knowledge about material reality. In other words, we do not attribute natural phenomena to some assumed and unverifiable “intentions” of some supposed invisible spirits.

The problem with superstition is that it is both arbitrary and subjective. You take some real-world phenomenon and then arbitrarily associate it with some alleged cause or effect, in the absence of any verifiable connection between the two, and typically without even any workable description of what this connection would be if you could look for it. The connection is always of the “*poof* Magic!” variety, and it exists only in the mind of the superstitious person making the connection. And needless to say, different people make different associations, because it’s all arbitrary and subjective. Hence, it is completely useless as a means of understanding the actual workings of material reality. Atheists are perfectly right to reject it, because it would be silly to try and base your understanding on such arbitrary magical thinking.

Bottom line, if we unstack the deck, and deal out a fair hand, we see that atheism is based on making a distinction between material reality and subjective fantasies, and on the observation that material reality is rational and meaningful, and on a rejection of superstition. Seen in this light, Pastor Rick’s conclusions are rather nonsensical.

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.

That’s the kind of hand you deal out when you’re playing with half a stacked deck. The reality is that morality—our experience of “good” and “bad”—is a hybrid phenomenon that has both an objective side and a subjective side. Morality is a system of values, and as such it must be subjective, because values are attitudes and priorities as held by people. But because we are material beings, our experience of “good” and “bad” also has an objective, material component. You can’t subjectively decide that murder is good, and then have murder not kill anybody. Real things have real consequences in the real world.

There is thus a perfectly rational, materialistic, godless basis for assessing good versus evil relative to the material, real-world consequences that result. Indeed, even Christians have to resort to materialistic morality in order to have any basis for the “divine” morality they seek to impose on the rest of us. The whole doctrine of resurrection and judgment is based on associating some kind of painful physical experience with the idea of sin. Everybody ultimately draws their understanding of “good” and “bad” from their own personal experience of material things they either liked or did not like. God has nothing to do with it; He’s just tacked on after the fact to give believers some leverage.

As seen in a rational, meaningful, non-superstitious light, there are a great many good atheists, who do good in the world, and who actively oppose things that people do that are genuinely harmful, like genocide. Among other things, we find many atheists fighting against prejudice, against superstition, and against injustice, and they do so while staying consistent with their fundamental philosophical and moral principles.

Can believers honestly say the same?


  1. says

    “Myths do exist, as do errors, ignorance, and “stacked decks.” The important thing to note about such non-material “realities” is that they are not part of material reality, and are not consistent with it.”

    Couldn’t one make a good case for saying that myths etc. are ‘part of material reality’, existing as states of activity in material brains?

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Yes, and I was tempted to go into more detail here, but chose not to for the sake of brevity. I think subjective realities have a “derived” existence, meaning they depend on the existence of a real person to think them and believe them and give them their shapes. They “exist” as descriptions of concepts that a particular person is thinking, as distinct from describing that which exists in and of itself, apart from anyone else’s perceptions. I suppose if you wrote a story about a character who wrote comic books about people having dreams, you could get derivates of derivatives, and so on. Each derived reality would be one step further removed from whatever material reality they happen to draw from.

  2. voidhawk says

    This line of stupid thinking could easily apply to ‘health’ as well, since we’re just atoms and therefore it doesn’t matter if you have cancer and die because your atoms are still there. If ‘morality’ is taken to be the amount of harm caused by an action then it’s easy to frame any discussion in an objective manner, even if the answer isn’t apparent or known.

    For when considering, “A tree falls on a girl” you can think of it as ‘will this cause of action cause suffering to the girl?’ if the anwer is ‘yes’ then the most ethical action to take is the one which prevents the tree falling on the girl. Most people can agree that doing nothing to prevent the girl being squashed where something could have been done is unethical and this can be determined objectively by looking at the suffering resulting from the inaction.

    Obviously there are moral grey areas (The trolley problem) but just because we don’t always know the answer to an ethical question doesn’t mean the question itself is invalid. In the same way that we don’t always know what is the best outcome in terms of health doesn’t stop us asking ‘will action [x] make me more or less healthy?”

  3. unbound says

    I love the arrogance that permeates the article which even a high school student can tell is nothing more than confirmation bias. Heck, that pastor is likely one of the reasons (albeit smaller) that atheism is growing.

  4. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    Actually I don’t think Pastor Rick’s intro is all that bad. Unsophisticated and clumsy, perhaps, deserving of your dissections, but really, not bad as a folksy version of the Naturalist position. Here is where he goes completely off the rails:

    These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.

    That’s the statement you should refute. That’s the heart of every moderately sophisticated theist’s claim that we can’t be moral: that in a naturalistic universe, things lack “meaning.”

    It’s wrong because it ignores the one distinction we humans have over the rest of nature: the intelligence to reflect on the universe. That changes everything! The universe does not lack a meaning-assignment function; it has one, and it is us! We decide the meaning of events. The universe has delegated — or perhaps more accurately it has abdicated — the job of assigning meaning to a piece of itself, a piece with the ability to reflect on and evaluate its own operations.

    It’s a big job, but in truth it is only the naturalists (or atheists, if you prefer) who are willing to take on that task. It is the theists who shirk the responsibility, who abdicate in turn to push the labor of moral judgement onto a fantasy creation.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      That’s true from an atheistic skeptical perspective, but I also think that believers tend to use “meaning” as a euphemism for superstition. Not that they’d ever see it in those terms, but listening to believers talk, and remembering my own experiences and attitudes during my years as a believer, the things they perceive as the “meaning” of life boil down to giving God credit for arranging the circumstances in their lives. That’s superstition: arbitrarily associating real-world phenomena with some kind of magical cause or effect. It’s the same as if they gave the credit to their horoscopes, or to bad luck, or any other superstitious mechanism. So the real problem believers have with skepticism is that they understand the world in superstitious terms, envisioning God as a divine puppet master pulling the strings on everything, and if you remove gods from the picture, there’s no one on the other end to tie the strings to. Their “meaning” falls down because they need magic to support it. They don’t realize what it means to be able to find meaning in life apart from superstition, and can’t even imagine how much better reality-based meaning is.

  5. says

    but Pastor Rick is the first one to openly admit he’s using dishonest tactics to achieve his goal.

    That’s not how I read it. I got the impression he’s implying that “the deck” is analogous to “reality”.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      That’s also a possibility, but it sounds kinda weird to accuse reality of using dishonest tactics. Not saying you’re wrong, but I suspect his metaphor didn’t work out the way he intended, no matter how charitably we interpret it.

  6. ericblair says

    I’d rather trust someone who does good because it’s the right thing to do than someone who does good because they’re scared shitless about some overheated afterlife.

  7. Red-Green in Blue says

    From Rick Henderson’s article:

    There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality.

    And yet, people exist who (a) would be recognised by Christians as being atheists, and (b) lead lives which Christians would describe as morally good. Is reality getting in the way of belief again?

    If your worldview can’t makes sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it’s not worth your allegiance. This new reality may launch you onto a journey of reluctant discovery.

    I wonder how Rick Henderson deals with the uncomfortable fact that such “journeys of reluctant discovery” often start out from Christianity and end up in atheism. And why is it, if the universe is suffused with objective morality that comes from a divine being, that cultural changes which are demonstrably beneficial are often undertaken by societies in the face of opposition from his self-appointed spokesmen? (Gendered terms used deliberately.)

  8. corporal klinger says

    The uncounted millions of dead, tortured and ruined victims of religion beg to differ. There is a good reason why the dark ages are called “dark”.
    Our scientific knowledge is a thousand years behind of where it could be if the ancient civilizations wouldn’t have fallen to christianity/barbarians/islam. (I’m not ignoring the golden age of islam, I think it rather proves my point).
    Following this guys logic, very religious societies should be places of peace, progress, order and well being; thriving communities. Paraphrasing the late Christopher Hitchens ” I look to Beirut, Baghdad, Belfast, Bombay….”

  9. Usernames are smart says

    Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.

    Unlike, say, a Tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of people, injures many, and makes homeless countless others.

    Or, say, a murderous mob who kills members of another group based upon skin color, language, heritage, or any other myriad reasons.

    Or the god who stands by and cannot or will not intervene in any of the above.

    there really is no objective morality

    Correct. “Morality” has basis in one’s culture. In one culture, it is immoral to allow sickly children under 18 months to continue to live. In another, leaving an infant exposed to the elements is tantamount to murder. Which one is right? Neither or either, depending upon one’s culture and personal morals.

    A person whose morals come from a god that can change them at will (e.g. Abraham and Issac; Job) is so washy-washy as to be simply morally bankrupt.

  10. juice says

    1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

    I don’t know if this is true or not, but there is no evidence that there exists any supernatural force or being.

    2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

    I don’t know if this is totally true or not, but there is no evidence otherwise. Everything sure looks like the universe is governed by universal laws. Whether everything about the universe is knowable is, well, unknowable.

    3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

    I don’t know if this is true or not, but there is no observation that would lead a rational person to believe that the universe is conscious or is guided by an “outside” consciousness. He’s trying to make it seem like these “affirmations” are some sort of atheist dogma, but they aren’t dogma. They’re just observations that any limited but rational human being would make. They could also be immediately disproved by credible evidence.

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