Bad Arguments for Atheism
by Alex Knapp
Via Burt Likko and The Unreligious Right, I came across this article, where the author, Gordon Douglas, explains his “Top ten reasons” why he is an atheist. The problem I have with this article is that, whether you’re an atheist or not, the “top ten reasons” are mostly examples of pretty bad reasoning. But there’s some pretty common sets of arguments being employed here that aren’t very good, so I’m actually going to take my time and look at these right here.
Please note that this series is not an argument for theism — it’s merely an analysis of these particular given reasons for atheism.
1. The Argument From Multiple Religions
Mr. Douglas’ first argument is this:
I used to believe that only my religion could be right, and that every other religion was wrong. I studied apologetics so I could prove this to anyone I met. Anyone else who claimed to know their religion was true deep in their heart was clearly suffering a Satanic delusion. At the exact same time, I believed a clearly mythological story with blind faith and nothing more to back it up than the fact that I knew deep in my heart that it was true. Then I realized that people fly planes into buildings, run into crowded plazas with bombs strapped to them, and drink poisoned Kool-Aid in the name of their gods. If faith is really the true measure of the veracity of a religion, I was clearly in the wrong church, and should have become a militant Muslim.
This is nonsensical. The mere existence of varieties of religious belief has no bearing on the veracity of claims being made. There are multiple hypotheses over various mechanisms of evolution. It does not follow from that fact that evolution didn’t happen. There are multiple theories of ethics. It does not follow from that fact that ethics don’t exist. There are multiple views of aesthetics. It doesn’t follow from that fact that there is no art. Moreover, given that Mr. Douglas is listing reasons to be an atheist, he does not seem to take into account that there are, in fact, atheistic religions. I’m not sure how that lines up with his argument.
2. The Argument That Prayers Don’t Get Answered
Mr. Douglas next argues that:
Then, I came to the realization that if I prayed to God for a given number of things, and I prayed to a rock for that same number of things, the chances are very good that the rock and God would answer roughly the same number of times. Muslims pray to their God, Hindus to theirs, Catholics and Protestants to theirs, Wiccans to theirs… and after all is said and done, every God seems to answer in roughly the same proportion… unless of course for the 100% rate of failure for such requests as healing an amputee or “moving a mountain.”
This isn’t an argument for atheism. It’s an argument against one type of prayer — intercessory prayer. But Mr. Gordon ignores religious traditions that don’t believe in intercession (which are myriad), as well as other types of prayer. (In the Christian traditions alone, he ignores Adoration, Thanksgiving, and Confession.) A belief in God and a disbelief in intercession are perfectly compatible — just ask Thomas Paine.
3. The Argument that the Existence of God is Unprovable
The next argument is a pretty basic one:
I used to say to the doubters “You can’t disprove God!” That’s true, but it’s true for one very important reason: you can’t disprove something you don’t have proof of. I can’t disprove leprechauns, or Bloody Mary, or ghosts, or Smurfs, or anything that I don’t first have proof of. You can only disprove something by showing how the proof of it is not valid.
If you guess that Mr. Gordon does not then provide any analysis or argument of arguments for theism, such as Aquinas’ proofs in the Summa Theologica, or Richard Swineburne’s The Existence of God, or the words of Muslim scholars, or any of the other myriad complex theologies, you would be correct. Simply asserting that God is unprovable is as bad an argument for atheism as the Watchmaker analogy is for theism. (see Hume, et al for the devastations of the Watchmaker argument)
Moreover, there are different definitions of God and gods across the different religions traditions. Are all of them simply “unprovable”? It doesn’t follow. To be sure, the burden of proof is on those who believe in any god or gods, but that doesn’t excuse the shoddy assertion that it’s no provable to begin with.
4. The Argument Against the Bible
Next, Mr. Douglas asserts that:Considering the only real knowledge we have on the subject comes either from numinous, unverifiable personal experiences or ancient books of mythology which can be proven to be as I’ve just described them (in a word: nonsense), the God which they describe can thus safely be assumed to be fictional.
Three things worth noting about this argument: (1) he fails to address any of the theological arguments in the Christian religious traditions that reject literalist interpretations of the Bible; (2) he notes that the Bible can be proven to be nonsense, but doesn’t actually do so, or even provide a link to someone who does; and (3) this is an argument against the Abrahamic religions — not the existence of a deity. Disbelief in the Bible and belief in one Supreme God are, again, compatible. And again, just ask Thomas Paine.
5. The Argument That “Religion is, By Nature, Deluding”
I’m not going to bother excerpting this argument, because it essentially boils down to a recounting of bad things that Yahweh does in the Old Testament and saying “Look, this is bad!” But that’s not an argument against the existence of God. Maybe God does exist, but he’s a bastard. Maybe Yahweh is an insane demon and the true God is represented by the Serpent in the Garden of Eden and by Jesus — that’s what the Gnostic Christians believed.
All this argument boils down to is a judgment that Yahweh is evil. It has no bearing on his existence, nor does it have any bearing on the existence of any other god or gods. Thor is unimpressed…
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