During my years of talking with theists, I have found a particular pattern of argumentation emerging. There is a number of claims that theists seem to routinely make when debating and atheist. In this post, I will list eight common theist arguments that I hear the most. As far as I can see (and I’m not just speaking for myself; I’ve witnessed hundreds of other atheists reply to these arguments), these eight arguments have no legs. If you want to ever sway an atheist (and potentially help him save his soul, if that’s what you believe), I suggest you stay away from these claims. Atheists just don’t want to hear them. And here’s why.
1. If there’s no God, how come there exists a complex/organised/non-chaotic/organised/informatively meaningful Universe/human body?
In short, this is an appeal to the many different design arguments. We don’t need to dwell on any particular ones here. Atheists reject this reasoning because it is fallacious. Any claim that complexity/organisation/non-chaos requires an intelligent designer automatically excludes God as the answer to the question. If God exists, he also is complex/organised/non-chaotic. In fact, in order to comprehend (not to mention create) the entire Universe in every detail, God would have to be much more complex/organised/non-chaotic than the Universe itself. So, who created God? “God always existed” doesn’t help. Once you agree that a thing as complex as God can have always existed (without a cause), you simply can’t exclude (or even claim as less probable) that a non-intelligent and non-sentient (but still complex, organised and uncaused) entity may have always existed (or just existed uncaused) and given rise to the Universe as we know it. In fact, this is a less demanding explanation, as it requires us to make fewer assumptions about the entity.
Atheists see this glaring problem pretty much straight away. When confronted with the above type of argumentation, most of us simply smile and mutter something about intellectual dishonesty, fallacy, hypocrisy or special pleading.
The other obvious problem with this is that it constitutes Gap Theology. People have always made the mistake of creating gods to answer questions that their knowledge didn’t sufficiently explain. “I don’t know what caused the Universe/earthquake/plague” does not allow you to say “God caused it”. History has proven this, time and time again.
The argument is a failure, has been disproven time and time again, and is really quite embarrassing to make. If you want to convert an atheist (as opposed to confirming his position by showing the fallacy of your own position), I suggest you stay away from this one.
Note that I deliberately didn’t go into evolution, big bang cosmology or abiogenesis here. Scientists are working on the answers (and, as in case of evolution, often have them with unquestionable certainty) and God bless them for it. What we need to understand, though, is that we don’t need to know these things in order to throw away the design argument. God is simply not within any set of eligible options. Why? Because there’s no evidence that a god exists, such that would be capable of doing these things. You might as well say it was a magical stick or rock or giraffe.
2. If God doesn’t exist, what’s the purpose of it all? Why are we here?
This is another example of a common theist fallacy. It actually amazes me how many (otherwise perfectly intelligent and rational) people fall for this one. The answer is simple: “if there’s no God then there’s probably no purpose. So what?”
Why is it so difficult for so many theists to comprehend that there doesn’t have to be a purpose? We are here because the Universe brought us here (see above) and we only have whatever goals or purposes we set for ourselves. Even if we had a wish that there were a purpose for our existence, that would just be wishful thinking.
Most atheists are mature enough to know that wishful thinking cannot alter reality (although, of course, it can affect our motivation and help us in changing reality ourselves, to the extent that we can; creation of gods isn’t one of the things we can do). It also doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. I can wish for whatever I like and my act of wishing it will not make it any more true than it were before I wished it.
3. What happens after we die?
This is another example of wishful thinking. Atheists know that there’s no reliable evidence of that consciousness can survive physical death. There simply isn’t any evidence of an immortal (or any) soul. What happens after we die? We decompose. Our minds probably exist no more. As in the case above, this may not be very good news to some of us. And again, as in the case above, that’s no reason to invent an alternative reality; it’s wishful thinking.
Atheists do not buy into this argument at all. Most of them feel it’s silly; hopelessly irrational and completely misplaced. In addition, most of us don’t actually have a problem with the prospect of dying one day. While of course we do have our genetically-embedded survival instinct, we are fully aware of the fact that we’ll die one day and most of us can come to terms with this. We weren’t around for 13 billion years and that didn’t hurt, right?
4. If there’s no God, why be good?
This is a typical moral blackmail argument. It’s also one that backfires on whoever makes it. The immediate thing that comes to mind is “so you only try to do the right thing because you think there’s a god out there? If you didn’t believe in God, you’d go raping, killing and stealing? What kind of human being does that make you?” Atheists don’t at all accept that you have to believe in a god (and a reward or punishment in the afterlife) in order to act morally. In fact, atheists KNOW this is not the case because they KNOW that, despite having no belief in a god (or his rewards or punishments) they certainly do have moral radars and do try to do the right thing. Why? That’s a different question altogether. Perhaps there are genetic factors in this (many animals do exhibit “moral” types of behaviour) and certainly there are cultural ones. But again, it doesn’t matter why. We know that our nature (including our cultural upbringing) is such that we tend to follow moral and ethical principles. We know that ethics is a field that’s actively being researched by devoted philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and many other professionals. We are keenly interested in learning about these developments. But we do not accept any claim that we must believe in a god in order to be moral human beings. We simply know, from our own experience, that this is not the case.
If you pose a question like this to an atheist, you are likely to annoy him/her. They will consider you ignorant, arrogant and morally deficient. The last thing they will do is want to hear whatever else you have to say.
5. If there’s no God, there’s no objective morality, so it’s ok to kill babies as long as you think it’s ok to kill babies
This is related to the above point but is not the same. It’s also an example of moral blackmail. And again, it’s very risky for whoever makes the argument. If you think that the only reason it’s wrong to kill babies is that God says so (in practice, God often commands the killing of babies; see the Bible for the biblical version) then you don’t actually see anything wrong with killing babies per se. If God told you to kill a baby (or you thought God told you to kill a baby), you’d probably do it and feel very good about yourself. 9/11, witch hunts, Adolf Hitler (oh yes, he certainly was a believer; just read Mein Kampf) and the Inquisition come to mind.
Apart from being moral blackmail, the above argument is also another example of appealing to consequence (wishful thinking). There’s no real evidence that morality is objective at all. Most things that many of us would consider heinous are (or have been) practised readily and without any moral reservations in many cultures. Moral systems do have some common grounds (killing is generally – but by no means always – considered a wrong act) but we see a similar pattern in many other non-human animals. Any animal that lives in groups tends to have a “code of behaviour” in place. This is evident by empirical studies (many studies have been conducted confirming the claim that many animals have an “ethics-like” system in place, often including notions of apology, reward and punishment). But it also makes sense a priori (in simplest terms, “just by thinking about it”). If a group of animals has no rule in place, what’s the advantage of being part of the group? None.
We are also acutely aware that morality changes together with the times. This probably results from people discussing moral problems. Many of us can say we’ve been convinced to change our stance on many moral issues, simply as a result of observing human interactions or of discussing moral dilemmas with other people. The moral landscape of today appears to be a combination of everyone’s values.
Does that mean that it would be ok to kill babies if everyone believed that it was? Can a moral relativists (somebody who doesn’t believe in objective morality) say that it would? That depends on a number of things, including how we define our very basis of morality. The fact is, nobody amongst us seems to think that killing babies is ok. Most of us even feel a little sick when reading the biblical accounts of the Christian God slaughtering Egypt’s first-borns or of Moses (acting with God’s consent) commanding the Jews to wipe out all the Canaanites, including non-virgin girls (the virgins were to be kidnapped by the Jews “for themselves”) and babies.
Had we been brought up in a society where killing enemy babies were considered OK, would we think it was OK? Some of us might and some might not. Do we like that? Probably not. I certainly don’t feel very comfortable with that idea. But does that entitle me to conclude that objective morality exists? No, to do so would again be wishful thinking (appeal to consequence; a known fallacy).
6. The Bible/Quran tells us there’s a god and the Bible/Quran is the true Word of God so it doesn’t lie.
To an atheist, the above is laughably back-to-front. Why are we to believe what a holy book says? In order to believe it, we would first have to accept that it was indeed the Word of God, or at least divinely inspired. Thus, we’d first have to believe that God exists.
There’s nothing about the Bible or the Quran that allows an objective observer to conclude that it is divinely inspired. To the contrary, both books have all the appearances of just another mythology. They are packed with stories of miracles, some more funny than others. They also contain moral propositions that most of us would find deplorable (stoning to death your own kid for being stubborn is one that comes to mind: Deuteronomy 21:18).
Some theists try to tell us that the Bible’s truth is proven by examples of fulfilled prophecies. I don’t have the room or the time here to go into specifics. But I will say that all of these prophecies are only “fulfilled” if we read them down in such a way as to retrospectively (ad hoc reasoning; another fallacy) make them true. An honest reading of any of these prophecies shows that they don’t actually come true; only little bits of them. In order to find these bits, we have to cherrypick and dismiss the bits that don’t check out. That’s not honest.
Muslims, on the other hand, try to rely on passages in the Quran that they claim are scientifically correct. “How could Mohammad know XY&Z when it wasn’t scientifically known in his day?” They then go on to describe some passages from the Quran. Again, they use a particular interpretation which (in an ad hoc manner) fits their preconceived (through scientific knowledge) views of the world. For instance, the Quran contains a comparison of earthly mountains to pegs. Many Muslims claim that this is miraculous because nobody in that day knew that mountains were in fact structured like pegs (being embedded in the ground). But is this honest? Mountains do look like pegs and it makes sense that a mythology could draw such a comparison. But this is where the comparison really ends. There are many things about mountains that are un-peg-like. For instance, their formation has nothing to do with the way a peg is placed into a ground.
No rational atheist will ever be swayed by claims of holy books. We know that these books exist and that they have existed in many other (non-Christian, Jewish or Muslim) mythologies. We also know that many mythologies do contain some elements of truth and we’d expect to see the same in the Bible or the Quran. We don’t accept cherrypicked claims of miracles or of inexplicable “scientific” knowledge; not the way they are proposed to us by our Muslim or Christian friends. These claims have all the markings of selective interpretation. Most atheists consider that to be dishonest and will dismiss it.
7. There are eyewitness accounts!
This claim is very often made by Christians and refers to the Gospels. When hearing this claim, an atheist immediately becomes aware that they’re talking to an ignoramus. This is because we know that the gospels don’t even claim to be written by eyewitnesses. We also know that they’re not even signed. There’s nothing in the “Gospel according to John” that would indicate that it was written by a man named John (the “authorship” names were added later and didn’t appear originally).
There’s no merit in any claim that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Most atheists know this (many of us are former believers, brought up in Christianity or Islam and very well versed – often better than practising believers – in the holy texts).
Now, even if the accounts did claim to be those of eyewitnesses (and they don’t), we know that there have been many other religions and cults that claimed to contain eyewitness accounts. We know that thousands of people claim to have been abducted by UFO’s and had experiments conducted on their bodies. There are thousands of people who claim to have seen Santa. There are also people who are convinced they are Elvis or, for that matter, Christ.
To top it up, there’s no independent contemporaneous evidence (non-Christian evidence) of even the existence of Jesus. This comes as real news to most Christians I speak to. And yet, it’s true. The earliest non-Christian mention of Jesus appears to be Josephus. But Josephus wasn’t born until sometime after Christ’s purported death. It certainly isn’t contemporaneous. There were historians around in Christ’s day and none of them appear to have taken any notice of the great works and miracles performed by the leader of the Christian sect.
Whether Jesus existed or not, atheists don’t accept the Gospels as historically accurate. Some of us (perhaps most) accept that Jesus, the man, did indeed exist and did probably lead a religious sect. Other than that, there’s very little that is really known about him. We see lots of hype in the four Gospels. And that’s what we’d expect to see in the accounts of any sect. At the same time, we see great inconsistencies between (and even within) the Gospels. Apologists sometimes try to explain these away by saying “if you have a car accident and four witnesses, you are bound to see four different versions”. That’s fine. But it’s also an admission that the book isn’t the inerrant Word of God. At the most, it’s human work, subject to the same flaws and errors as any other human work.
8. God loves you
This one probably takes the cake. Why would an atheist ever budge to a claim that someone who (in his worldview) probably doesn’t exist loves him? What sort of emotionally insecure and desperate person would one have to be in order to be at all affected by this type of statement?
No, it’s a no-goer.