Answering Believers

 

The following post was previously posted on several internet forums. In it I try to dissect and debunk the most common arguments for the existence of God. If you want to tell me why I am dead wrong, you are more than welcome to do so. But first I want you to ask yourself what kind of reasons it would take to convince you that some religion other than yours was true, because that is the kind of reasons you are going to need if you want to convince me.

1. God as the cause of existence 1.1. The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument comes in many forms, all of which share the same basic flaws. In its purest form the argument says that God exists because something must have caused the universe to exist.

Criticisms:

  • If you take as a premise that everything needs a cause to account for its existence, then the same thing must be true of God himself or the whole premise is worthless. But then God is not the first cause after all. Instead we get an infinite regress of causes.
  • If it is possible for something to arise spontaneously or exist from eternity, then that "something" may just as well be the universe itself (in some form). Modern physics seem to favor such an interpretation.
  • Even if the universe did need a cause, it does not follow that what caused the universe to exist is a supernatural, personal creator - let alone any of the specific gods that are worshipped in the worlds competing religious traditions. Occam's razor favors a simple, natural cause over an intelligent, supernatural one.

Many attempts have been made to immunize the traditional cosmological argument against the problem of infinite regress (what caused God?), the most common of which are known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Argument from Contingency:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument:

  • Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

The Argument from Contingency:

  • Premise 1: All contingent* things must have a cause.
  • Premise 2: The universe is a contingent thing.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

*"Contingent" things are defined as all things that don't exist by logical necessity. By this definition everything that exists is a contingent thing, since there is no contradiction involved in imagining a reality in which nothing exists.

Notice first that both the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Argument from Contingency also suffer from the last two flaws mentioned under "criticisms" (above) and can be dismissed on that basis alone. But it is worse than that: Both arguments try to dodge the problem of infinite regress by treating everything in the physical universe as a subset of things that exist and postulating that only members of this subset need a cause. The arguments are both circular in the sense that the only justification for singling out things that have a beginning or contingent things as a subset is the assumption that a non-contingent being with no beginning exists. But that is just what the argument was supposed to prove! In essence what both arguments boil down to is:

  • · Everything except God needs a cause

The first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument breaks down within quantum physics which appears to show that it is indeed possible for something to come into existence spontaneously.

1.2. The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument is also known as the argument from design, and is the undisputed favorite argument of all creationists. Like the cosmological argument the argument from design also come in many different forms, which often involve exceptionally bad analogies between living organisms and designed artifacts such as watches, computers, jumbo jets etc. In its purest form the teleological argument says that living organisms (or the universe as a whole) display a complexity and a sense of purpose that are otherwise only observed in the products of human design, so by analogy we can infer that they must have a designer.

Criticisms:

What I would like to know is this: Does anyone seriously think that atheists don't believe in God because we aren't familiar with this argument?!! If it is improbable that something as complex as life or the universe could exist without being designed, how improbable does that make anything as complex as God?! Introducing a God doesn't explain anything, but only postpones (and amplifies!) the problem by introducing even more complex things (i.e. God himself) that need to be explained. I think we are forced to conclude, as Richard Dawkins does in The God Delusion, that the one thing that can definitely not explain the problem of improbability is a designer, because that just replaces the problem with an even bigger one. Hence "God" is just another word for "don't want to look any further".

It is not even true that nature in general acts as a well oiled machinery. The immense destructive powers of supernovas and black holes hardly supports such a view, neither do the millions of comets and asteroids out there that might kill us any moment. Our own appendix or the blind spot are only two obvious examples of sub-optimal solutions in biology that no intelligent designer could possibly be proud of. Most species that have ever existed on earth are extinct, and even for the lucky survivors life has been an endless struggle against hunger, thirst, disease, natural disasters, predators and a hostile climate. I would not hire an architect or engineer with such a lousy success rate. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that if there is a God out there who's in charge of everything, he is either incompetent or he seriously hates our guts.

1.3. The “fine-tuning” argument

This is basically just another version of the argument from design with all its inherent flaws, but deserves a category on its own since it appears to be where creationists are going next. The argument says that if the laws and constants of physics had been only slighly different, life as we know it could not have arisen. More specifically the constants had to be such that stars could form and exist long enough to produce the heavier elements needed for life to evolve. That all the constants should have just the right value for us to appear - so the argument goes - is too improbable to be a coincidence, therefore there must be an intelligent designer who set up the laws of physics and fine-tuned the constants so that humans could evolve.

Criticisms:
The major flaw of the argument is changing the values of just one constant at the time while leaving the rest unchanged. By varying all the constants at random in a computer model physicists like Victor Stenger have calculated that lasting stars and heavier elements could indeed arise with many different combinations of values. The argument gets it all backwards: The universe is not fine-tuned to us, but we are fine-tuned to the universe through natural selection. Just because our particular form of life could not evolve with a different set of constants, doesn’t mean that life of any sort could not evolve. The hypothesis of a “mulitverse” opens the possibility that this is just one out of many universes, all with a different set of constants. If so, it is hardly improbable that a minority should happen to have the right constants by coincidence alone. If nothing else, this goes to show that there are other plausible explanations that don’t involve anything supernatural. Occam’s razor favors a simple, natural explanation over an intelligent, supernatural one. Just like the traditional teleological argument, the fine-tuning argument only raises a bigger problem than it solves: A God capable of fine-tuning the constants of physics would have to be even more complicated, and therefore more improbable, than the finely tuned universe itself. Finally, we do not even know if the constants could have been any different than they are.

2. Arguments from Ignorance 2.1. The God of the Gaps

The God of the Gaps argument basically says that:

  • Science can not explain X, therefore the explanation for X is God

X can represent anything from legitimate scientific problems, such as the origin of the universe or the first self-replicating molecule*, to phenomena for which we already have a perfectly good scientific explanation, such as the bacterial flagellum, the hemoglobin molecule or the immunity defense system.

* After that Darwinian evolution by natural selection is perfectly capable of explaining the rest.

Criticisms:

The fact that there are unanswered questions inn science, does not make religious answers any more likely to be true. It simply means that the answer is currently unknown. Lack of evidence for a scientific explanation is not evidence for an unscientific explanation.

2.2. The Galileo Argument

This old classic consists in comparing oneself to Galileo Galilei or other tragic heroes who were rejected by their contemporaries but have since been proven right.

Criticisms:

The fact that Galileo’s claims were considered ridiculous in his age does not imply in any way that whoever makes ridiculous claims today will be proven right in the future. For every Galileo who was proven right many more were proven 100 % wrong. Galileo’s claims forced themselves through because they were massively supported by evidence. Nothing of the sort is true of God.

2.3 Slippery Slope

In this category we find the following classics.

  • You only believe in what you can see and touch, but don’t forget that no one has seen X.*
  • So what? Can you prove love?

    * X can represent the atom, gravity, dark matter, black holes etc.

Criticisms:

What is implied here is obviously that if you are prepared to believe in other things without having seen them, it is you might as well believe in God also. Nobody has alleged that only things that can be seen with the naked eye should be believed. Many things can also be inferred by applying well tested theories to new observations. All the other examples are ultimately based on something that is observed. The same is not true of God.

2.4. Shifting the Burden of Proof

This fallacy can be expressed, or often rather implied, in very different ways, but basically what it all boils down to is that unless atheists can disprove God’s existence, believing in God is at least as rational as not believing. In the absence of evidence it takes no less faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in God.

Criticisms:

Just because you cannot prove a negative, doesn’t mean that anything that can be imagined “may just as well exist for all we know”. Even the believers themselves dismiss an infinite number of other imaginable gods that are neither more nor less supported by logic or evidence than theirs. Atheists simply apply the same rational standard to one more God. Postulating a realm outside the physical universe (whatever that might mean?) does not justify making shit up. Defining fairies as “transcendent” would not make them any more likely to actually exist.

3. Arguments from Personal Experience 3.1. The argument from personal revelation

This category includes all anecdotes of alleged personal contact with the divine. Throughout history and all over the world people have interpreted such “spiritual” experiences in light of the prevailing religious mythologies of their own cultures. Experiences of this kind may seem persuasive to those who have them, but fail to prove the existence of anything outside the believer’s own heads. The same is true of arguments from intuition, “gut feelings”, knowing “in your heart” etc. Just because something “feels right” doesn’t make it true.

3.2. Post hoc

This common fallacy concludes that one event was caused by another because the former followed the latter. Anecdotes of prayers that came true tend to fall into this category:

  • I prayed for X to happen, and X happened!

Criticisms:

The fact that one event follows another does not prove that the latter caused the former. Both events may be caused by a third factor or the correlation may be accidental. A billion people pray for a billion things every day. Given the number of prayers it is hardly surprising if a few of them come true by sheer, dumb luck, especially if you pray for events that have a high probability of happening anyway. It also seems to be pretty irrelevant which God one might be praying to. It is exceptionally easy to deceive oneself by only counting the successes and forgetting (or explaining away) the failures. If prayer really did work, then why is it no good trying to pray for something significant, like an end to war, famine, disease or natural disasters? If God is perfect, he only makes perfect decisions, so how can prayers influence his decisions at all?

3.3. The argument from luck

The argument from good luck simply attributes any good thing that happens – including the good deeds of other people – to God without any further justification. God is also credited for any bad thing that either does not affect the believer personally or could have gone even worse.

If something really bad happens (tsunamis etc.), the argument from bad luck says that it was a punishment from God or a test of faith, unless, of course, it was the work of the devil. That’s how easy it is to make any set of data –no matter what they might be – fit your agenda.

4. Arguments from Scripture 4.1. Appeal to Miracles

This fallacy simply assumes, without any further justification, that the miracle-stories of the Bible are true and argues that they can only be explained by God.

Criticisms:

The argument is circular in that the alleged miracles are a part of the very same faith that the argument is meant to support. Claims of alleged miracles can only be accepted if it would require an even greater miracle for the claims to be wrong (Hume). Trickery, hallucinations, misinterpretations, insanity and lies are just a few examples of far more likely explanations.

4.2. Appeal to prophecy

This category says that the Bible must be divinely inspired because it contains prophecies that have come true. For example:

  • The part about “wars and rumors of wars” in Mark 13:7 refers to the American war on terror.
  • The part about the “day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall” in Isaiah 30:25 is an obvious reference to 9-11.

Criticisms:

Any fool can make unspecific prophecies about wars, natural disasters etc., since there is always a war or a natural disaster going on somewhere. The “fulfilled” prophecies tend to be so unspecific or vague that they can be interpreted to mean almost anything. In a book the size of the Bible it is always possible to find some phrase that -if taken out of context- can be retrofitted to current events. The Bible also predicted that Jesus would return in the lifetime of some of the apostles ( Mark 9:1 , Mark 13:30 , 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 etc...) but fails to say anything about the discovery of America, the reformation*, the industrial revolution, technology, World War I & II, the holocaust**, the atom bomb, the internet or global warming.

* Shouldn’t God have made it clear which version of Christianity he actually prefers in order to avoid misunderstandings among his servants?

**Shouldn’t we expect to see some reference to the murder of 6 millions among God’s own chosen people?

5. Circular reasoning

This is probably the single most common fallacy in defence of religious beliefs. The unstated first premise of almost every argument for the existence of God is that God exists.

5.1. God vs. the Bible

One typical example of circular reasoning is when the same person makes both of the following arguments, only at different times:

  1. The Bible proves the existence of God.
  2. The Bible is reliable because it is the word of God.

Criticisms:

  • If (1) is true, how do we know that the Bible is reliable?
  • If (2) is true, how do we know that God exists?
5.2. Beliefs vs. reasons

Another example of circular reasoning is the argument that you must believe in God in order to understand the reasons (for believing in God).

Criticisms:

If your reasons for holding a belief are a part of that very same belief, the argument is circular and the reasons are worthless. Once you already accept something as true, nothing is easier than interpreting the data – whatever they might be – in such a way that they appear to support your beliefs. The argument is right in the sense that no argument for the existence of God could possibly impress anyone who does not already believe.

5.3. Faith vs. truth

Last but not least this category includes every version of the argument that God’s existence is only available to us through faith.

Criticisms:

To “have faith” that God exists means “holding it to be true” that God exists. What the argument basically boils down to is that in order to reach the conclusion that God exists, you must start by holding it to be true that God exists.

6. Arguments from Final Consequences

Very often when people argue in defense of religion, they don’t argue that it is actually true, but rather that it is useful or even necessary because of its alleged good effects. Even if this was true, it would not make God any more likely to actually exist. But is it true?

6.1. Without God everything is hopeless

This argument says that God must exist or there is no hope, life has no meaning and all human endeavors are in vain.

Criticisms:

Just because you hold something to be desirable, doesn’t make it true. Life has neither more nor less meaning than we ascribe to it. If that is not meaningful enough, we might as well ask what is the meaning of God’s life. If simply living is not meaningful enough, what makes it so much more meaningful to go on doing it forever in heaven?

6.2. Without God everything is permitted

This category includes every version of the argument that you need God to be a good person. In its most extreme form the argument says that unless you expect to be called before God on judgment day to answer for your sins, you have no reason to treat other people well. No one whom I would call a moral person could make such a preposterous claim and be sincere. If you only treat other people well because you think God wants you to do it, and will reward you if you do and punish you if you don’t, then you are not moral and all the faith in the world is never going to change that.

Another version of the argument says that we could not know the difference between right and wrong if God had not given us instructions in the Bible. If this was true, we should not be able to make any moral judgments about these instructions themselves. For example genocide, stoning, slavery and torture should not bother us, at least as long as the victims are infidels, whereas animal sacrifice and keeping the Sabbath should be among our top priorities as far as morality is concerned. It is pretty clear that even most fundamentalists use bible verses selectively – as a theological alibi for values that they actually subscribe to for other reasons. These “other reasons” are our real criterion for distinguishing between right and wrong.

A third version says that there could not be any “right” or “wrong” at all if there wasn’t a God who had decided that it is so. If there is no God, then all moral values lose their vaildity. The argument is pretty much self-refuting: If morality is not sufficiently justified by the desire to minimize human suffering, then why is it so important to keep it? If it is not important, then why invoke God’s authority to save it?

6.3. Without God everything in uncertain

This argument says that faith in God gives the believers a reason to trust in the validity of experience and reason, which can otherwise only be assumed dogmatically.

Criticisms:

To avoid a circular argument, one can not argue that faith is founded on reason while at the same time arguing that the validity of reason rests on faith. Therefore faith itself can not be based on reason according to this argument. Basing the validity of experience and reason on arbitrary faith does not make them any more certain, but only relativizes the most certain knowledge that we do have.

6.4. Other undesirable effects

This is hardly an argument at all, but I hear it so often that it needs to be mentioned:

  • Without Christianity we have no reason for celebrating Christmas!

Criticisms:

I guess your faith can’t be that deep if you are persuaded by arguments like this.

7. Pascal’s Wager

Like the argument from final consequences this argument doesn’t really say anything about the likelihood that God actually exists, but argues that one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God, because:

  • If the Christians turn out to be wrong, they will have lost nothing. If the atheists turn out to be wrong, they will have lost everything.
  • As long as you don’t know there is no God, you should assume there is just in case.

Criticisms:

Believing in God offers no security: What if you chose to worship the wrong god? Or what if God only rewards those who have the courage to stick with science and reason and not be swayed by threats or promises? How likely is it that a just god who can read people’s minds would reward an opportunist who only chooses to worship him out of pure self-interest?

A rational belief is really not something you choose at all. To “believe” something means holding something to be true or most likely true, whereas a choice by definition is an act of will. Your will cannot tell you anything about what is true or likely. It is not true that you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God. If there is no God, the believers have wasted a significant part of the only life they will ever have on pursuing a fictitious goal. Many believers have also made themselves guilty of a miscarriage of justice by condemning others as “sinners” on false premises.

Even if a strong argument could be made that believers would definitely go to heaven and atheists would definitely go to hell if there was a god, it would not make God any more likely to actually exist. In fact, the argument can just as easily be turned on its head: The fact that an atheist such as myself can write all of this without feeling the least bit worried about provoking the almighty should give you some idea of how remote and hypothetical I consider the "possibility" of God to be.

8. Appeal to authority

This fallacy basically argues that a belief is credible because it is shared by people who should know what they are talking about.

8.1. Appeal to famous scientists

This common argument usually goes something like this:

  • X believed in God. Do you think you are smarter than X?
  • X is a devout Christian. Do you think you know better than X?

X = any famous scientist who either believes, or is alleged to believe in God

Criticisms:

Whether or not your beliefs are credible depends on your reasons for believing as you do, not on who you are. Statistically members of the scientific elite are far less likely to believe in God than the average person. The argument can just as easily be turned on it head: If faith is so rational, why have even brilliant religious thinkers for the last 2000 years had to resort to intellectual cheating in order to defend it? It is not as if there has been a shortage of creative attempts. Intelligence is not the same as rationality. Josef Goebbels was a genius according to experts.

8.2. Appeal to academic titles

This argument appeals to the education or academic titles of religious individuals and argues that they ought to know what they are talking about, for example:

  • As a professor of physics I hold the idea of a godless universe to be indefensible.
  • I know a professor of physics who holds the idea of a godless universe to be indefensible.

Criticisms:

The argument is very similar to the appeal to famous scientists and fails for all the same reasons. Religious philosophers, theologians, priests, apologists or creationists may have learned to dress the same old bogus arguments in a more intellectual sounding language, but the arguments themselves still fail for all the same reasons. It is how quickly such “professors of physics” etc. seem to forget everything they have learned about scientific methodology, good and bad logic etc. when it comes to defending religious beliefs. Of course no amount of scientific education is going to get you anywhere if you don’t use a scientific method.

8.3. Appeal to tradition

This common argument says that faith is important because it is a part of our cultural heritage:

  • This is a Christian nation!
  • Our identity as a nation is deeply rooted in our Christian heritage.
  • Our nation was founded on Christian values.

Criticisms:

Just because faith is a tradition doesn’t make it true. The fact that something has been practiced in the past is not a reason to keep doing it. There is nothing “Christian” about the values upon which western civilization is based, at least not the ones that are worth keeping.

8.4. Appeal to popularity

This argument starts with the observation that people throughout history and all over the world have believed in some kind of “god(s)”:

  • …and they can’t all be wrong, can they? So there must be “something to it”.

Criticisms:

This only tells us something about a strong human tendency to believe, nothing about the objective truth of the same beliefs. No matter what religion you might subscribe to, most people on the planet will think you are wrong, since no single religion is supported by more than a minority of the world’s population.

8.5. Appeal to converted atheists

This argument usually goes something like this:

  • X was once an outspoken atheist. Today X is a devout Christian.
  • I was just as atheistic as you once (now I know better).
  • Many Christians have been where you are now.

Criticisms:

The point that is being implied here is, of course, that the reasons to believe in God are strong enough to convert people with the same skeptical attitude, and the same commitment to logic and evidence as you. As long as ex-atheists are unable to provide any good reasons for converting but resort to the same bad excuses to believe that are dealt with elsewhere in this article, the fact that they used to be atheists is irrelevant. There are also plenty of examples of believers who have become atheists. Some of the best people at dissecting Christianity are ex-christians. Apparently being “saved” is not so profound an experience that it is to late to change one’s mind.

8.6 Appeal to martyrs

The appeal to martyrs argues that a religious belief must be true because someone has been prepared to die for it:

  • Do you really think that all the Christian martyrs would give their life for a god who didn’t exist?

Criticisms:

Voluntary martyrdom may prove the strength of a conviction, but not its objective truth. Believing strongly is not synonymous with being right. Many religions have martyrs (think of Muslim suicide bombers). Since they cannot all be right, the argument is basically worthless.

9. Postmodern relativism

This type of argument is especially popular among religious moderates and even some secularists (especially among the academic left) who are simply just offended by the very idea that any view is “better” or “more correct” than another. The point in this category is not so much to argue that religion is objectively true, but rather to argue that there is no such thing as “objective truth”, only different points of view, subjective or cultural biases as well as “social constructs”. Therefore you might as well go ahead and make the “truth” whatever you want it to be, and any objection that anybody might raise can automatically be dismissed as just another opinion.

  • Even science rests on a number of unproven, philosophical assumptions.
  • Even atheists don’t have the absolute truth.
  • Who gets to decide what is rational? (You?!! Ha!)

Criticisms:

If you cannot “elevate” religious beliefs to the level of truth, you can always try to reduce all truth to the level of religious beliefs so at least you can tell yourself that your faith is neither more nor less ”true" than anything else. This is just another immunizing strategy. No matter what objections your opponent might raise, they can always be dismissed by attacking your opponent’s premises (and the premises of the premises etc. ad infinitum). The argument is ultimately self-refuting: If there are no objective truths, it cannot be objectively true that there are no objective truths. It there are no objective truths, it cannot be objectively true that God exists. There is nothing very “divine” about a God who only exists “from a certain point of view”. There is nothing particularly brilliant about the insight that for the most part things are not “black and white” (the false dichotomy fallacy). The postmodernists however, blinded by the cosmic revelation that thing are not black and white, head straight for the opposite extreme (see the irony of that?) and conclude that it is all grey (the false continuum fallacy). If the distinctions are fuzzy and not black and white, the postmodernists conclude that there are no real distinctions at all.

10. Orwellian newspeak

This category includes some of the most creative methods employed by believers in order to deceive themselves through tortured uses of language.

10.1. The Trojan argument

This argument attempts to smuggle God in through the back door defined as something else. The argument typically goes something like this:

  1. You define “God” as X (X= life the universe and everything etc...)
  2. You argue that since “God"=X and X exists, God exists.
  3. You conclude that since the word “God” has been shown in (b) to mean something that exists, the supernatural, personal God of the Bible exists.
  4. If someone objects to your conclusion in (c), you accuse them of denying the existence of life, the universe and everything.

Criticisms:

The trick, as we can see, is to introduce an alternative concept of “God” whose sole function is to be easily defended, and using that as a “Trojan horse” to smuggle inn all the theistic, supernatural crap later.* Usually it doesn’t take too long before life, the universe and everything have become “self-conscious” and before you know it you have gotten both Jesus and the Bible as part of the deal. The definition offered in (1) makes “God” a pretty meaningless term whereas the conclusion in (3) is invalid because the word “God” changes definitions between (2) and (3).

* This is the main reason why I hate the idea of “pantheism”. Obscuring the distinctions between theism and non-theism by using the word “God” as a metaphor for nature only serves our opponents. Once we start using words like “God” or “theism” or “spirit” about real phenomena, we provide our opponents with a convenient loophole through which they can smuggle in the supernatural.

11.2. The ontological argument

The ontological argument starts with the premise that humans can imagine a perfect being and concludes that such a being must exist by definition – or it would not be perfect after all.

Criticisms:

You cannot define something into existence. A definition is a linguistic demarcation of a word’s semantic content in order to enable precise and meaningful communication, not a magic spell with the power to transform reality. The argument is circular in the sense that it already postulates at the outset that our imagined being really does satisfiy all the requirements of a perfect being, and then names “existence in reality” as one such requirement.

10.3. Confusing meaning and reference

This incredibly silly argument basically says that God must exist because we have such a word as “God”, and of course it has to mean something doesn’t it?

  • ...but then “God” cannot mean something that doesn’t exist, or the word would mean nothing.
  • Hah! You said the word “God” yourself! Either God exists, or you are arguing against nothing! (Lol etc...)

Criticisms:

Making oneself stupid in this manner is unfortunately far from uncommon. For a linguistic expression to have a meaning it only requires a definition. It does not require a reference to anything in the real world. Most believers would probably not accept the argument that witches or elves, not to mention other gods, exist just because they have a name.

11. Attacking atheism

The fallacies in this category basically argue that religious beliefs are right because “atheism” is wrong. Logically this is little more than a double negation. Arguing “against atheism” is no different than arguing that God does “not ‘not exist’”, which is just another way of saying that God exists. The only way in which “atheism” can be wrong is if there is at least one god. The only way to disprove atheism is therefore by proving the actual existence of at least one god, and any other attempt at framing arguments in defense of religion as criticisms of “belief in atheism” etc. is just word-splitting and intellectual dishonesty.

11.1. Tu Quoque

Isn’t it ironic that those who argue in favor of religious faith can find no stronger objection against atheism than calling it a “religion” or a matter of faith?

  • Atheism is a religious belief in the non-existence of God.
  • Of all religious believers atheists have the strongest faith.
  • It takes more faith to deny God’s existence than to believe in him.

Criticisms:

There is a difference between not believing in God because there are no reasons to believe what so ever and believing in spite of not having a reason. An “atheist” simply someone who views god(s) the way almost every religious believer views fairies, not to mention the competing gods of other religions. If atheism is a religion, then the view that there are no fairies is also a religion. Atheism does not put anything else in God’s place or otherwise add anything to reality. Atheists neither worship nor believe in a “minus-God”. To call this a “religion” or a “matter of faith” is just intellectual dishonesty and Orwellian newspeak.

11.2. Ad hominem

This argument says that “atheism” is wrong because of some negative characteristic ascribed to individual atheists, whether it is a lack of morals, arrogance, intolerance, stupidity, fanaticism, dogmatism, closed mindedness, fear of the unknown, bitterness etc.

Criticisms:

Personal attacks are irrelevant: Even if atheists did have all the negative characteristics they are accused of having, it would not make God any more likely to actually exist. Resorting to personal attacks and name-calling is usually a sign that you have run out of arguments. Those who have good arguments in favor of their view don’t need this kind of garbage.

11.3. Guilt by association

This category includes any attempt to discredit “atheism” by linking it to persons, groups or ideologies that are generally unpopular, for example:

  • Hitler and Stalin were atheists.
  • Just look what the “atheistic regime” in the Soviet Union did.

Criticisms:

Hitler and Stalin probably didn’t believe in trolls either. Does that count as an argument against “a-troll-ism”? The crimes of Hitler and Stalin were not motivated by atheism, let alone by a general lack of irrational beliefs. The fact that communism is atheistic does not imply in any way that atheism is communistic. Nazism and Stalinism did not result from a commitment to science, reason and critical thinking that went too far, but were basically political “religions”. The common denominator between Nazism and communism on the one hand and religion on the other is blind acceptance of certain teachings that are seen as the one true answer to everything, as well as blind obedience to an absolute, infallible authority.* Finally, even if was true that atheism lead to Nazism and communism, it would not make God any more likely to actually exist.

* As somebody correctly pointed out to me, Nazism, communism and religions also share the evil idea that individuals don’t own themselves, but are the property of the authority, whether it is God, the party or der Führer.

11.4. Attacking straw men

This well known strategy consists in attacking a fictitious or caricatured point of view and passing it off as that of your opponent, for example:

  • Atheists believe that life has come about by accident.
  • Atheists believe that the things we are aware of are all that exists.
  • Atheists believe that science and reason have the answer to everything.
  • Atheists don’t believe in anything that cannot be proven with 100 % certainty.
  • Atheists believe in nothing.

Criticisms:

Whether the views that are ascribed to atheists are true or false has no bearing on what atheists actually believe, since most atheists don’t make any such claims. Regarding the 2nd and 3rd point, atheists do not claim that science and reason has already found, or will ever find, an answer to everything, but as Dawkins points out just because science and reason cannot (yet) answer a particular question does not mean that religion can. Regarding the last point, this claim only makes sense if you equate the entire natural world with nothing which is just about as nihilistic as it can possibly get.

11.5. The argument from spite

This fallacy involves listening to the opponent’s arguments and drawing the opposite conclusion in pure defiance:

  • The more I listen to you the more I am convinced that there is a God.
  • You only strengthen my faith by confirming all prejudices against atheists.
  • Just go on like that. You are doing a great job in turning people off from atheism!

Criticisms:

If anyone’s faith is strengthened by listening to atheists, it only goes to show that they believe as they do for irrational reasons. No matter how unsatisfying, obnoxious, offensive or wrong you might find the arguments of atheists, they certainly cannot give you any more reason to believe in God.

12. Inconsistency

Debating religious believers is a lot like playing the noble game of Calvinball* in that the rules are made up and constantly rewritten in a completely ad hoc manner while you are playing. A rule (f. ex. organized complexity requires design) is considered 100 % valid just as long as it is convenient for the argument that the believer is trying to make there and then (Design requires a designer). As soon as the rule becomes inconvenient (Then who designed the designer?), it is cancelled by another improvised Calvinball-rule (God has always existed. That’s just the way it is), and so forth indefinitely. Not even the believers themselves would accept their own arguments if coming from someone of a different religion.

* From the excellent comic trip Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

12.1. Knowing the unknowable

God is often claimed to be transcendent, unfathomable, inscrutable, inaccessible to all human ways of knowing, which is why his existence cannot be proven.

On the other hand the believers obviously think of themselves as having some kind of knowledge* about Gods existence, since they claim for a fact that he does exist. Not even the believers themselves would consider this other way of knowing - whether it is revelation, intuition, habit, a gut feeling or whatever- a good enough reason for believing in any other religion than their own.

* At the very least they must think they have something more than pure speculations.

12.2. This wonderful pile of junk

On the one hand nature is claimed to be so wonderful and complex, so perfectly put together, so brilliantly designed in all its parts that nothing less than a divine creation is sufficient to explain its miraculous perfection.

On the other hand any suggestion that such a wonderful, perfect nature is capable of giving rise to all the complexity in the universe even without any divine tinkering is dismissed as self-evidently absurd. Arguing that humans are themselves a product of this wonderful nature is seen as an insult to human dignity. And if nature is all there is, it is argued that everything is worthless and life cannot possibly be worth living. Come to think of it, there is nothing wonderful at all about nature, and it is only good thing that God is going to wipe it out of existence on the Day of Judgment.

12.3 Having your science and eating it too

Religious believers usually don’t mind claiming science and reason for themselves if they get a chance, and seldom need much persuasion before grasping on to any straw - no matter how thin - provided by science or individual scientists.

On the other hand counterarguments based on science and reason are quickly dismissed on the grounds that God is inscrutable and beyond human comprehension. And besides science and reason don’t apply to questions of faith anyway, therefore they have nothing to say, one way or the other, about God’s existence.

12.4. Having your morals and raping them too

Religious believers frequently claim all human values and ethical intuitions for themselves and their faith, for the Bible or for God. It is argued that God is the source of our sense of good and evil and that we could not possibly tell right from wrong without his guidance.

However, as soon as atheists apply the very same human values and moral intuitions to religion itself and argue that the Biblical God is the very antithesis to all human morals. It is argued that “our morals are not the same as God’s morals” and “who are you to think that your sense of right and wrong should apply to God?”

12.5. Anti-relativism vs. total relativism

Religion is often portrayed as the best, maybe even the only alternative to moral relativism. Without God’s authority as an absolute standard – so it is argued – there would be no basis for morality other than arbitrary cultural conventions.

On the other hand it is hard to imagine any greater relativists than the believers themselves with respect to Gods own morals. Those who base morality on God’s “inscrutable” will have no criterion for arguing that practices such as genocide, stoning, human sacrifice, forcing parents to eat their children, slavery, oppression of women and eternal torture for thoughtcrime are immoral if it happens to be what God wants. To an atheist such as myself it is not difficult to think of something which even God would not have the right to do. In fact, if you measure evil by the amount of actual harm or suffering that it causes to others, then nobody has more evil to answer for than the biblical God (or would have if he existed).

12.6. The mother of all accidents

Intelligent design ultimately rests on the premise that accidents cannot account for very improbable phenomena like living organisms. And since everything except design is equated with “accidents” (totally ignoring the non-random role played by natural selection), it follows that there must be an (even more improbable) intelligent designer.

However, in order to explain away the mountain of evidence successfully predicted by the theory of evolution – including mistakes in our DNA that we share with chimpanzees – they have to assume the mother of all accidents (it just happens to be how the designer choose to make us) unless, of course, the designer deliberately made it appear as if evolution had occurred in order to deceive us.

13. Miscellaneous 13.1. Immunization

This category includes all the most common excuses for not even taking conflicting data into consideration. In short: excuses for not thinking:

  • God’s will is inscrutable.
  • God has a higher purpose that is not known to us.
  • God’s logic is not the same as our logic.
  • God is testing our faith.
  • You are thinking exactly as the devil wants you to think.

Criticisms:

The arguments are all circular in the sense that the justifications for dismissing objections to faith are a part of the very same faith. If something is unknowable by definition it is inconsistent to claim any knowledge about it, and if you don’t know anything about it, there is no reason to believe it exists.

13.2. Appeal to theology

This argument insists that there are many sophisticated and credible philosophical arguments for the existence of God that are well known to educated theologians, and accuses atheists of sloppy thinking for not dealing with these arguments without specifying them any further.

Criticisms:

Before criticizing others for not dealing with these supposedly “credible” arguments then at least have the decency to specify what they are. If such “credible” arguments really exist, then how come most believers never even mention them, but resort to the same rationalizations that are dealt with in this article?

13.3. Appeal to faith healing

This category includes all anecdotes of “miraculous” healings by charlatans such as Peter Popov and Benny Hinn, for eksample:

  • Lame people have gotten out of their wheelchairs and walked (halleluiah!)

Criticisms:

Faith healing is a pure swindle, but no matter how many times vultures like Popov and Hinn are exposed some people are simply determined to be deceived. You don’t have to be lame to sit in a wheelchair and believing you are healed is not synonymous with actually being well. Many desperate souls have ruined both themselves and their families financially on such quackery before finally dying of the very disease from which they believed to be healed.

13.4. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t

This argument typically goes something like this:

  • You are not a real atheist unless you dare to pray for a painful death.
  • Why don’t you ask God yourself? Or are you afraid to get a response?

Criticisms:

This is little more than a poorly disguised attempt at having it both ways: If you don’t ask/pray to God it is concluded that you are afraid to because you are not “a real atheist”, but if you do you have indirectly admitted that God exists by praying to him. What could make less sense than acting as if you believed in God when you don’t?

13.5. Appeal to absurdity

I guess these speak for themselves:

  • I know it’s absurd, but that is exactly why I believe it!
  • You couldn’t make up anything that ridiculous even if you tried, so it must be true!

Criticisms:

I rest my case.

The end