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Straw Man

Entry 1028, on 2009-06-08 at 21:26:27 (Rating 4, Religion)

On many occasions in the past I have attacked religion and the religious people (especially creationists) who reject the findings of science. Last night a religious friend sent me some information which attacked atheism in a similar way (except for several critical points which I'll mention below) so I thought it was time to briefly mention a few defenses of atheism.

One of the ideas often used to criticise atheism is that atheists absolutely claim there is no god. This is a negative claim and it is difficult (although not impossible as many people claim) to prove a negative so they say that atheism fails on this point.

This is the first argument atheism's opponents use is a classic straw man. None of the atheists I know (including myself) claim to absolutely know that there is no god. They simply say that there is no reasonable evidence that there is one and we should only accept the existence of something when we have evidence supporting it. Most freely admit that there might be evidence found in the future which will force them to change their mind.

In this situation its often claimed that this isn't true atheism but a variation of agnosticism. Well that's really just playing with words. The dictionary says that atheism is "the theory or belief that God does not exist" and agnosticism is "a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God". I would say that atheism is a better label in this case.

A second argument is also easily refuted. That is that we know only a small part of the total knowledge which exists in the Universe (Einstein said 0.5%) so god might easily be shown to exist if we knew the other 99%.

This is a weak argument and easy to refute because its really just an "ad ignorantiam" (appeal to ignorance) fallacy. If we should believe something is true just because there is extra knowledge out there that we might discover later then we would have to believe in everything! Let's believe in unicorns because we might find evidence for them when we know more. Its an obviously false argument but one they continue to use.

One of the most annoying and silly arguments is that atheists rely on faith to show that there is no god. Faith has two definitions: 1, "complete trust or confidence in someone or something" and 2, "strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion".

Clearly atheists can't be accused of being adherents to the second definition but what about the first? If you looked hard enough you might find some atheists who rely on some sort of blind faith but I don't know any so that's obviously not common. All of the atheists I know of (including myself) can quote both science and theology (ironically many atheists know the Bible better than most Christians) to support their view. That's not faith.

Another very illogical criticism is that atheists expend so much effort attacking god that it proves god must exist. Why would atheists be so prepared to spend a lot of time and effort attacking something which doesn't exist?

I hardly need to say why this is a ridiculous argument but I will say that atheists aren't attacking god, we are attacking the belief in something which is almost certainly untrue and has caused a lot of harm and divisiveness around the world. Attacking an idea that a fictitious entity exists is totally different than attacking the entity itself.

Religious people seem to like to project their own weaknesses onto others. For example, they talk about "the dogma of atheism". The fact that atheists rarely form organisations with consistent views and all have slightly different views shows there is no dogma.

These are the dogmas mentioned in the material I was given: "there is no god, there is no objective truth, there is no ground for reason, there are no absolute morals, there is no absolute value, there is no ultimate meaning, there is no eternal hope". How many of these would I agree with? None of them totally but most of them partly. Does that sound like I'm the victim of dogma?

Here's now I would present that list: "there is no current evidence that a god exists, there is objective truth, there is ground for reason but its not always clear, there are no absolute morals but there are morals which are effectively absolute, ultimate value is subjective, the idea of ultimate meaning is subjective or meaningless, there is no eternal hope given our current understanding of science".

Ask any atheists and I am sure that very few will agree with those "dogmas". Some will agree with some but not others, and some will partly agree with them or completely reject them. The thing that religious people don't seem to be able to comprehend is that we aren't like them. They see atheists more as members of a rival belief system engaging in the same thought processes as they do but that's not true - in most cases at least.

One last criticism I would like to tackle is a bit more subtle. That is that god is outside of science and therefore cannot be proved or disproved by science. Other abstract ideas such as values, morals, love, etc are given as further examples of phenomena which cannot be studied by science.

This is more nonsense in my opinion. Science does examine all of those phenomena quite successfully. God is a bit different because he is supernatural but even then they can't escape because almost every religious person claims their god interacts with the universe in some way. If he didn't how would they know he existed?

So if god does influence the universe then science can study that interaction and therefore study god, even if that is indirectly. There are plenty of other examples of where science studies phenomena indirectly: dark matter and dark energy, quarks, and virtual particles for example. So this becomes another fallacy: this time special pleading. Its great the way you could write a book about logical fallacies by reading these arguments!

So let's be honest about this for a moment. If there was one claim for atheism it would be this: there is no good evidence god exists at this point of time. By "good evidence" I mean something which would be acceptable in a scientific paper or a court of law. And its true, there is no good evidence because whenever I challenge the believers to show me the evidence they can't.

Here's some examples: the Bible has been tested and found to be always true, the resurrection of Jesus can't be explained any other way, millions of people believe in god. So let's take these in order.

The Bible has not been consistently proved to be true. Ever since the early days of the church theologians have commented on the inconsistencies and the errors which are too numerous to list. Also, there is little confirmation of Biblical events in the historical and archaeological record. Examples: zero evidence for creation, zero evidence for the flood, zero evidence for the Exodus, almost no evidence showing Jesus existed, zero evidence for the resurrection. And that's just the beginning! The Bible has zero credibility and saying that it is always true is a lie Christians keep telling themselves so much they have come to believe it.

The resurrection story has no credibility at all. It is mentioned in exactly zero unbiased sources outside of the Bible. Some versions of the story mention the sky becoming dark and the dead rising from their graves. Sounds remarkable doesn't it? So why is it not in all the Gospel accounts and not mentioned anywhere else at all? Simply because its pure fantasy.

Finally there are the millions (in fact billions) of people who believe in a god. But if belief indicates truth where does it end? When people thought the Earth was flat was it flat? Now that they know its (roughly) spherical has it magically changed? Was Zeus real before he went out of fashion. Do UFOs, ghosts, Atlantis, and ESP exist? The fact is that people believe stupid things and belief cannot be used as evidence of existence. That's precisely why we have the methodology of science and why it has overturned so many false beliefs (including literal Christianity).

So atheism remains strong and until the evidence appears I will continue to accept it as my working theory. And that's a statement of confidence, not faith!


Comment 1 (2154) by Mark D on 2009-06-28 at 22:46:20:

I can answer your criticisms here but I don't think you have an open mind on the subject also you don't seem to treat Christians with respect. I think your problem is that you don't want to know about facts which contradict your faith-based beliefs.


Comment 2 (2155) by OJB on 2009-06-29 at 11:09:30:

Well I think I do have an open mind but only to the extent that I need real objective evidence. I don't care how many people think they have a personal relationship with god, I don't care if people think religion makes them moral, etc. Just show me the facts and I'll accept them.

As far as respect is concerned: you shouldn't confuse criticism with lack of respect. I reserve the right to criticise anyone's beliefs and they have the same right of reply here (I don't censor anything). If your beliefs can't survive some robust criticism then maybe you should keep them to yourself!


Comment 3 (2164) by SBFL on 2009-07-03 at 10:35:16:

On your first comment I could respond in disagreement to your self-imposed restrictions but we've been there before.

On your second comment, good point, and one all must appreciate. Maybe Mark D will follow up, and I may end up agreeing with him (or not), but this point you make is essential to any healthy debate.


Comment 4 (2167) by OJB on 2009-07-03 at 11:08:00:

Yes well I sort of thought he might respond at some point or maybe my refusal to guarantee "respect" has scared him off!


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