Friday, April 24, 2009

15 Responses to Believer Complaints

I was working this morning on adding my responses to “15 typical believer charges against atheists” to my powerpoint presentation in support of my book The Atheist’s Way. I just finished my responses and thought I would share them with you. I’m delivering the presentation to the monthly meeting of San Francisco Atheists tomorrow and East Bay Atheists next month. Cheers!

Here they are:

1. Atheists rob our children of Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the Tooth Fairy

I think that the most straightforward and powerful retort to this complaint is, “Exactly.” It is much better that a child get excited about her parent slipping a quarter under her pillow than that she believe, or have to act like she believes, in the existence of a fiction. You do not have to steal away excitement by telling the truth: be excited that you have kind parents who will buy you the bicycle that you want and leave Santa Claus out of it.

2. Atheists claim to have the truth and no one has the truth (except us).

Actually, atheists claim three things in this regard: we claim that you are patently lying when you invent some god or other; we claim that no one has the truth, if by “truth” you mean an understanding of why the universe exists; and we claim that the application of reason gets us to everyday truths better than does wishful thinking. The shorter answer is, “We have a much better grip on the truth than you do.”

3. Atheists are arrogant to assert that there are no gods.

There are two different sorts of responses to this charge. The first is, “Fine, I accept the charge, if you accept that it is incredibly arrogant of you to assert the existence of a god.” The second is, “No, reason is on my side and all you have is wishful thinking.” But it is really the form of this charge that interests us: all sorts of words can be substituted for “arrogant” in an “ad hominem” sentence with this linguistic form: words like “silly,” “short-sighted,” “deluded,” “mean-spirited,” and so on. So a blanket reply might be, “You sure do know how to use language!” and leave it at that. Or maybe just, “Same back at you!”

4. Atheists are merely negative—they provide nothing positive.

We affirm that human life is as meaningful as we make it. We affirm that a ripe peach is sweet, that love exists, and that a good movie is hard to beat. We affirm tons of things, individually and collectively. And, yes, we do take believers to task for making up gods and using god-talk to perpetrate tyrannies, but we have lots of positive things to say. We only wonder if you care to listen.

5. Since billions of people disagree with atheists, atheists can’t be right.

The idea of responding with a “flat earth” argument springs to mind: at one time virtually everybody believed that the earth was flat, except for a few enlightened folks who knew better. So what a majority believes can’t be the measure of truth. But of course comparing believers to flat-earthers drives the wedge between us deeper. Probably the more useful response is, “If billions of people were atheists, would you still believe?” I think this response is nicely provocative and also paints a picture of a world where atheists are the majority, which is not a bad picture to promote!

6. What’s the harm in believing in karma, past lives, or some gentle, loving spirit at play in the universe?

The harm is that maintaining any supernatural enthusiasm weakens your ability to speak out against god-talk. You become a fellow traveler and an implicit supporter of other people’s supernatural enthusiasms. Your “innocent” fantasy ends up supporting much more dangerous fantasies.

7. Religions provide a moral framework—without religion every evil would be permitted.

Probably the simplest response is to point to contemporary research that convincingly demonstrates that the most religious nations are also the most violent, rabid, and dangerous. Another simple response is to note how content and crime-free the least religious nations are, nations described, for instance, in Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Teach Us About Contentment.

8. Religions provide comfort—without that comfort life would prove just too hard.

This is a compelling complaint and not unlike the argument one might make for morphine. Doesn’t religious comfort have its place, as morphine has its place? Karl Marx famously said that “religious is the opium of the masses” and don’t people with hard lives deserve opium? The only answer is that a dangerous lie can’t also be supported as a legitimate comfort. If the truth provides less comfort, so be it. The choice is between fighting dangerous god-talk and embracing a comforting lie and we know which choice we hope that people are brave enough to make.

9. The wisdom traditions share so many values that they must arise from a common source.

They do arise from a common source—from the minds of men and women. Each tradition is different from the next because John concocted this one and Harry concocted that one, and each tradition is similar to the next because everyone knows what to value. Naturally the wisdom traditions appear to come from a common source: they do, from one single species.

10. Atheists rely too heavily on the methods and findings of science.

“Too” is the essence of the charge, since the whole world relies heavily on science—do believers not watch television, fly in airplanes, or check their email? So the simple reply is, “Dear believer, please define ‘too.’” Or an atheist can just smile and say, “Yes, I rely heavily on science. Don’t you?” Or we can play their game and respond in all seriousness and in all innocence, “Maybe we do over-rely on science, but surely you believers do not rely on science enough!”

11. On balance, religions do more good than harm.

At root this is an argument that people would not support orphanages, avoid adultery, or cross only on the green light unless they believed in a punishing god. Believers indict themselves and show how weak they fear themselves to be when they say that they would not be good without religion to “guide them.” Their fear is not a reason to countenance religion. Let them be brave and good of their own accord, just as we ask of ourselves and everyone else.

12. Aren’t prophets like Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha worth emulating?

All people are just people. They are brave here and fearful there, compassionate here and selfish there. When we say that someone is worth emulating what we actually mean is that we respect certain aspects of the person: her courage, her creative spark, her work ethic, something in particular. The less we engage in the cults of personality and celebrity and the more we announce which personal qualities we revere, the better. There are no prophets—there are just very human human beings.

13. The existence of gods can never be disproved.

Fine. We’d be happy not to bother. You stop creating gods and we’ll stop wasting our precious time helping you see that they are just your inventions.

14. In the absence of certainty, it makes more sense to err on the side of belief than unbelief.

Pascal’s wager boils down to the following: in case there is a god, better stay on his good side! An atheist simply says that he believes the opposite, that in the absence of certainty he will follow reason. The believer can cower, just in case there is a god, and while the believer is cowering the atheist will continue doing his everyday duty, without worrying in the slightest that he has made some miscalculation that will cost him dearly after he is dead.

15. Atheism is just another religion.

Yes, but the right one. And if you can’t that joke, then at least admit that a religion without gods is a pretty mild affair and leaves atheists pretty much to their own devices, having to decide everything for themselves. If you accept that as a reasonable definition of religion—everyone figuring out things for themselves—then we can accept that atheism is a religion. But as linguistic philosophers like to remind us, you can call a horse’s tail a leg but that doesn’t mean that a horse has five legs. You can call atheism a religion, if you like, but you would be doing quite a bit of definitional stretching.

1 comment:

Buffy said...

Very well stated!