There are some theological arguments that have a lot of nested assumptions, a lot to pick apart, and therefore a lot to discuss such that they can take entire blog posts and books about. And then there are arguments that barely deserve a mention, arguments that are so vapid that I don’t care to waste any more time than they deserve. I’ve been seeing a lot of them lately. They’re not that interesting and don’t require a long drawn out post tearing apart every little detail, so I thought I’d hit a few out of the way so I don’t have to really deal with them in the future. Besides, the bossman Bobby C says I’ve been using too many big words and he needs something more digestible. A few bite-sized nuggets are a perfect way to knock a few easy ones out of the park, and listicles are always the most fun, right?
- Atheism says X
Atheism doesn’t say anything. Atheism isn’t even really a thing, it is a non-thing. Atheism is the non-belief in gods. It’s not a belief system; therefore atheism can’t be true or false. There are some atheists that do claim, “God doesn’t exist” or, “There is no god,” but they are simply atheists, they are not practicing atheism. They are just as much an atheist as the person who states, “It’s possible that a god exists, but I don’t have a reason to believe so I don’t.” It’s a fairly useless label, but I think the reason so many of us claim to fall under its banner is not because it means so much, but because so many people do believe in gods and the actions that they carry out on behalf of their beliefs create harm. Since we aren’t tied to certain beliefs that don’t have good evidential support, it makes sense that we work collectively against those unfounded beliefs. If stamp collectors made up 70% of the US population, taught children that evolution was false, and collectively campaigned against masturbating as a result of their hobby, it would be sensible for non-stamp collectors across the country to fight against them regardless of how useless not collecting stamps is as a descriptor of a person. So if you are basing your argument on “atheism says…” then you are certainly constructing a strawman no matter where you go with it.
- You don’t KNOW X
This is an argument that could have some ties to semantics and definitions, which usually makes me exhausted for reasons. But the context I usually see it in is an appeal to absolute certainty. Theists occasionally claim to have the upper hand because they claim they have access to absolute certainty, even though I see no reason how absolute certainty is possibly attainable.
The situation will usually go like this: In an attempt to give a scientific explanation for a phenomenon, one person will bring up some scientific evidence. For example, “We know the age of the Earth is about 4.54 billion years due to radiometric dating”. At this point, the theist will state “But you can’t know that the Earth is that old, you could be wrong.” The latter half of the sentence is technically correct. Every experiment testing radioactive decay rates could have had an unseen flaw in them, or the overwhelming number of meteorite, lunar, or Earth rock samples could have been bad, or if I’m gonna go way off the deep end I could just be a brain in a vat. These are reasons why I’m not absolutely certain that the Earth is that old, but absolute certainty isn’t our yardstick for knowledge. In fact, not even the scientists claim absolute knowledge, as there’s around a 1% error on this, meaning there’s about a 99% certainty that the age is between 4.49 and 4.59 billion years old. Yet we are still capable of saying that we know the age of the Earth, since we have a really good degree of support for our claim. This goes for pretty much anything. We know that when we drop a glass, it will fall down. Even though our entire life experience tells us that it will happen and we even have the science nailed down detailing why it will happen, there’s a small, negligible 0.00001% chance it won’t in the back of our mind, and that’s perfectly fine!
- That’s just your opinion!
To be fair, I see this everywhere, not just in theological arguments. But it’s a perfectly inane, useless argument that doesn’t require much to address, so this place is as good as any to put it somewhere. I’ll make sure to frame it in a theistic context so I don’t do atheism wrong.
Of course there are things that are completely up to opinion and subjective, like what ice cream flavor is the best or what musicians are terrible (except for Nickleback, that’s a given). This is not what I am discussing. There are broad, sweeping opinions that can also be supported through evidence and reasoning. I am of the opinion that the Bible is a deeply misogynistic book entrenched in harmful, patriarchal gender roles. I also know that there are many who don’t hold that opinion. But I don’t hold the opinion just for the hell of it; I can support it by pointing out a multitude of verses and the logical conclusions that church leaders use to enforce these gender roles. To say that it’s just my opinion is really to claim that something is entirely subjective and can’t be supported by evidence or reason. Obviously, this is silly because there are multiple reasons why I can make that claim. It’s also silly, because for even subjective opinions I can explain why I like things. Film critics are able to explain why The Phantom Menace is such a piece of crap and Citizen Kane is a masterpiece. To say that it’s “just the film critics’ opinion” is such a useless counterargument that it doesn’t really need addressing, so it should make even less sense for a claim for which I do have some support. Saying that something is “just your opinion” adds nothing to the conversation.
This goes for pretty much anything, including ethics, standards of evidence, and whether I should get an Android or an iPhone. We are all judges of the world around us, and each of us individually assesses how the world behaves and comes to our own conclusions. When I say, “There’s no good evidence for any gods” I mean that in the sense that I personally have yet to see any good evidence. When I say that the Bible is morally wrong because it condones beating slaves, it’s because I have assessed it that way. I don’t have to claim I have the moral high ground over everyone else to make that claim, nor do I have to promote myself of supreme judge of the Earth to make that statement. We are both able to assess the world and come to our own conclusions, so reducing my statements to just my opinion is so trivial it tells nobody anything.
- Look at the trees!
- You don’t want there to be a god!
At its best, this is a claim that we are engaged in confirmation bias looking for facts to support the idea that we don’t want there to be a cosmic dictator ruling our lives and judging us. At worst, it’s ridiculously poorly thought out argument that’s completely untestable. For one thing, there’s no way to test whether or not any individual wants a god to exist. To claim to know what we want is to claim that you can read our mind, and evidentially useless. Sure, prominent secular leaders like Hitchens have stated that they don’t want there to be a god, but there are plenty of atheists who are more reluctant, including ex-pastors Ryan Bell or Theresa McBain. Missing a god isn’t a universal atheist experience, but it’s common enough to be worth addressing.
The other point is that it doesn’t get anywhere. I don’t like that one day I’m going to die. I don’t like that the temperature of the Earth is increasing at an accelerated rate. I don’t like that entropy inevitably means we lose useful energy and we’ll die out. I don’t like that children die of leukemia. But these are all realities, and I accept them as realities. Not wanting them to exist doesn’t put me in denial and cause me campaign against people who accept them as true. Why would this be the case for the theism question? Some of these problems are inevitable, some of them may be solvable, but denying their existence does nothing. If I don’t want there to be a god, arguing against theists is a pretty poor way of going about it.
- X happened to me!
This is one that deserves little discussion because it’s something I can’t really address. How am I supposed to verify what happened to you? I don’t have to take any given experience from you as an accurate account, and I don’t even have to think that you’re lying to think any experience you’ve had is inaccurate. We know that a variety of psychological phenomena can cause us to experience things that aren’t there. We also know that human memory is incredibly unreliable, and gets worse and worse as time goes on. I have a very clear memory as a child of watching a man disappear in a window at Halloween. It’s incredibly vivid, yet I have no good reason to think something supernatural occurred. Was my imagination running away with me at the time? Has my memory of the event over a decade shifted? Could I have perceived a perfectly natural occurrence, such as lights dimming in a dark room giving the illusion that a person disappeared? We know all of these have happened and been verified in human history, but we have never verified a person disappearing before the eyes. My money is on one of the first three.
- Aren’t you sad?
The short answer is no, I’m not sad. I could get into all the touchy-feely reasons why I’m happy to have the privilege of having this short life to live and that experiencing everything in a naturalistic universe is actually quite fulfilling. But that requires effort and I’m not very skilled at the inspiring bullshit. Watch Pale Blue Dot again for the thousandth time or something if you want that shit.
The reason that this is bad against atheism is it says nothing about atheism. Even if you found that atheists were sad, anxious, or depressed, it would still say nothing about the existence of a god. If you could verify that believers were 100% more likely to live happier lives, it doesn’t mean that what they believe is real. The kind of world that could give us warm fuzzies has no bearing on whether or not that is reality. A lot of people may say the reason they believe that there is a god is that they believe something is out there, and they feel that there is a purpose for them. If that makes them feel happy that’s perfectly fine, but it doesn’t give me any reason to think it’s valid at all. There’s really hardly anything to say about this other than that it’s based in flawed epistemology.