Christians Trying to Tell Atheists What Atheism Is

Once again, I find myself poking through the “atheism” and “atheist” tags on wordpress to try to find more atheist blogs to read. Once again, a significant portion of the posts under these tags are written by Christians about atheists. And once again, a significant portion of these posts turn out to be straw man arguments against atheists.

The last time I did this, I ended up writing a very angry, ranty post about Christians telling atheists what atheism is, but I decided not to post it. I wrote it because I wanted to rant a bit, and because I wanted to reassure myself that I had good reason to be angry and upset. After I wrote it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted other people to read it in its raw, angry, ranty form. Here’s my attempt at a more calm, reasoned response to Christians telling atheists what atheism is.

One of the most common straw man arguments I see Christians use against atheists is to redefine atheism in a different way than atheists do. Often, this involves asserting that an atheist is someone who believes God does not exist, rather than someone who does not believe God exists. The difference between these two definitions is rather important, although the difference in wording seems quite subtle. The first is an active belief that something does not exist. The second is the absense of an active belief that something does exist. The first is an active belief. The second is a lack of belief. The first is a definition often imposed on atheists by non-atheists. The second is a definition atheists often use for themselves.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to argue against the position that there is definitely, absolutely, positively, no way that God possibly exists. It’s a lot harder to argue against the position that there are probably no gods. The second of these is the position I most commonly see atheists actually take. The first one is the straw man I commonly see Christians arguing against.

I could go on about the various ways I have seen some Christians trying to tell atheists what atheism is. Sometimes people go beyond conveniently ignoring the difference between belief-of-lack and lack-of-belief. One frustrating conversation I had was with a Christian friend I had just come out to as an atheist. She repeatedly described my atheism as “denying the existence of God”. Denial here implies that she is right and I am wrong–perhaps willfully wrong. Is it any wonder that I object to having my atheism described as denial? Next maybe we can talk about people who “deny the existence of unicorns” or “deny that the Earth is flat”.

Of course, I can’t really talk about lack-of-belief vs. belief-of-lack properly without also talking about the way the word “faith” gets used. I mean, it even seems silly to me sometimes to stress the difference between belief-of-lack and lack-of-belief. When people talk about leprechauns, they say things like “I believe in leprechauns” or “I don’t believe in leprechauns” or “There is no such thing as leprechauns”. No one ever emphasizes that their not believing in leprechauns is a lack-of-belief in leprechauns, not a belief-of-lack.

But then, people who don’t believe in leprechauns don’t also have to deal with people telling them that they “deny the existence of leprechauns” or that they “have faith that leprechauns aren’t real” or that “you can’t prove that leprechauns don’t exist”. By the way, it is true that you can’t prove leprechauns don’t exist (you also can’t prove that there is no celestial teapot orbiting the sun somewhere in the solar system). But you don’t need to prove that in order to assert that it is unreasonable to claim that leprechauns do exist. And if someone ever does challenge your non-belief in leprechauns, all you have to do to defend your position is to say that there is no evidence for the existence of leprechauns, and that there is plenty of evidence supporting the claim that leprechauns are something humans made up.

The reason I feel motivated to stress the distinction between belief-of-lack and lack-of-belief when it comes to deities is that I have seen so many people try to argue that atheism is a faith-based position. Doing so requires either redefining “atheism” (as belief-of-lack rather than lack-of-belief) or redefining “faith”. In arguments like these, I find it’s a lot easier to understand things if I substitute some other mythological being into the statements, and then work out what a reasonable person would say.

For example, if someone tried to tell me that unbelievers of Bigfoot have a faith based position, that would be absurd on the face of it. People don’t believe in the nonexistence of Bigfoot because they have faith. They lack belief in Bigfoot because there’s no evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. They look at the world around them and see that there are no reputable sightings of Bigfoot (and plenty of disreputable, ambiguous, or fictitious sightings), and conclude that Bigfoot is just a myth. Furthermore, if tomorrow there were one reputable, unambiguous Bigfoot sighting, with video and DNA evidence, then the abigfootists who lacked belief in Bigfoot would then concede that Bigfoot does, in fact, exist.

On second thought, I think I would have a much easier time talking about the straw man arguments that some Christians use if I just quoted and responded to real, live straw man arguments, rather than trying to outline how atheists define atheism vs. how some Christians impose their own definitions of atheism on atheists in order to more easily argue against atheism. After writing this it seems clear to me that I’m still getting my thoughts in order on this. Like maybe belief-of-lack vs. lack-of-belief isn’t that important of a distinction in and of itself. The reason I seem to care about that distinction is that some people use their insistence on atheism being a belief-of-lack to argue that atheism is a faith based position. But there are other ways I can argue that atheism is not a faith based position.

In conclusion, I still like my strategy of replacing deities with other mythological beings in statements about beliefs in order to better understand the structure and meaning of those statements, and to identify which statements do or do not make sense when talking about beings that might or might not exist (and the existence of which some people have faith in).

Actually, this is a strategy I have used quite a lot. For instance, if my position on unicorns is “while I cannot definitively prove that unicorns do no exist, the probability that unicorns do exist is negligibly small” and, when speaking of unicorns, I usually just say “there’s no such thing as unicorns”, then it would be reasonable to say “there are no gods” if I hold the same position on the existence of gods as I do on the existence of unicorns. And yet I usually still find myself saying stuff like “there are probably no gods” because I’ve learned to anticipate the sort of responses a statement like “there are no gods” gets (e.g. “atheism is a faith based position!” or “atheists are trying to suppress religion!”).

As a bonus, here’s the original raw, angry, ranty attempt at this post:

I am so fucking tired of Christians trying to define what atheism is so they can argue against it or dismiss it more easily, while completely fucking ignoring what atheists have to say about atheism, and then dismissing atheists’ complaints about how said Christians are mangling a label that does not apply to them, and which they have no right to redefine over the many and voiciferous objections of the people who actually use said label.

This isn’t all Christians. I know. I just run into this so fucking often, and I’ve fucking had it with this bullshit. Seriously. It is not ok for the people in a privileged majority (e.g. Christians in the US, or allosexuals) to take the label a minority uses to identify themselves (e.g. atheists, or asexuals), and redefine it whatever way they please (e.g. people who have faith in the non-existence of God, or humans who reproduce by mitosis) just so they can make some stupid argument to dismiss said minority (e.g. “atheism is just another religion”, or “people reproducing by mitosis is absurd, so human asexuality is absurd”).

The definition of a label used by the people who self-identify as that label matters, folks.

Anyway. Kudos to the Christians (and other religious folks) who don’t do this. I know there are a lot of you, it’s just that I always seem to find this bull crap, when I am, for fuck’s sake, looking for posts tagged with “atheism”. Or trying to discuss atheism. Or even just minding my own fucking business.

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15 thoughts on “Christians Trying to Tell Atheists What Atheism Is

  1. I like to think of this problem as ‘possibilities and probabilities’ issues.

    While it is possible that unicorns and gods exist it is extremely improbable that they do. It’s possible that the local barber shop is open at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, but it is extremely improbable. I do not believe the barber shop will be open at that time on a Sunday…. simply due to improbabilities. While it is possible, I do not believe it is so.

    It is possible that there is a god named Zeus that does exist… but the probabilities are so low that even those who ‘want’ to believe in a god or gods do not think it is true. Ask a christian if it is possible that there is a god called Zeus which exists and see what their answer is. That line of questioning can get fairly comical. If you are quick witted you can get them to crucify their own arguments right in front of their very own eyes.

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  2. Yea. It’s a lot easier to state the atheist position in terms of probabilities than in terms of belief or lack thereof. Focusing on probabilities more would probably be really helpful when people try to make it about belief, when it really just is not. Hm. Come to think, one advantage of stating the atheist position as “there are probably no gods” is that it introduces probability into the conversation from the start. Even if it is a bit misleading to say ‘probably’ when you are talking about something that you are 99.99% certain about.

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  3. As a Christian, I can relate to this. It’s definitely frustrating when someone gets my position wrong, and I assume that it is no less so for you.

    I did want to add, however, that I think there is a deeper issue under the “lack of belief” argument. That is, we all have beliefs–an approach to life. That approach will either assume that God exists, or that he does not, but it’s not really possible to live neutrally on that point.

    Of course, one can still live in terms of probability (i.e. “God probably doesn’t exist”), but that is a different thing from simply lacking belief, and goes with a particular view (“probably, there’s nothing other than physical objects”). While Christians should certainly avoid stating or implying that atheists are claiming certainty–or (and I find this much more common) all have the same views–it is not unreasonable to expect that each atheist support a particular view as more likely to be true than Christianity/theism.

    And that, I think is the grain of truth in those straw man attacks. Many atheists I’ve encountered seem to think that Christians believe everything they do, then add God to that, but there are a number of things that atheists tend to believe that Christians reject. And it is not unreasonable to ask whether those things are better supported than Christianity.

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  4. “Of course, one can still live in terms of probability (i.e. “God probably doesn’t exist”), but that is a different thing from simply lacking belief”

    Certainly. But someone who says “God probably doesn’t exist” could definitely be described as someone who lacks belief. Someone who has never heard of the concept of “God” could also be described as someone who lacks belief. The reason I am most drawn to talking about lack of belief is that a lot of people try to claim that atheists have faith that God does not exist.

    “And that, I think is the grain of truth in those straw man attacks.”

    I’m not quite sure what you are referring to as a grain of truth here?

    “Many atheists I’ve encountered seem to think that Christians believe everything they do, then add God to that”

    That would certainly be a faulty assumption. I know when I was still a Christian, I viewed everything through the lens of my faith. Belief in God was not simply tacked on after everything else.

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  5. Despite what we would like to think, probabilities cannot be obtained from extrapolated data. For universes our N = 1, Pruss has it wrong and the Churchlands have it right – however you want to think of it. We can’t know what the probability of a universal entity might be.
    Many who believe in god have faith which is reasonable, like the faith one exhibits in walking over a snow bridge: the glacier traveller has observed the bridge doing something for others, it has done something for him in the past, so he has an expectation of the bridge based on his experience. People have faith in god because of what they perceive god doing – providing solace, explaining their ability to think coherently, providing moral authority, etc. I can’t fault them for that. We may simply have a disagreement on the reliability of the bridge. “Come on, it’s fine,” they say. “Over that thing? Are you crazy?”, I respond. Who’s right? Both have good reason to believe what they do about the bridge’s function.
    My problem has always been, and remains, not what god might do, but what god might be and how we think we might know about god. It took years, but I finally realized, when people say God, I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Properties, secondary abstracts, ultimate teleology I can understand (more or less), but mind as a thing in itself, infinite, maximal properties, uncaused causes, timeless action – all those things which believers subsequently reference are incomprehensible. That’s the problem. When somebody tells me, “The bridge is good because there is an inexplicable property of snow, that I can perceive, which is at work in this bridge, holding it together.”, it reinforces my caution. It is possible that they are right, but …

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  6. “Despite what we would like to think, probabilities cannot be obtained from extrapolated data. For universes our N = 1,”

    Yea, it would be pretty hard to come up with a specific number of “there is an x% chance that God exists”. I’m more thinking of probabilities in a couple of different senses. One of these is the everyday notion of probability, such a person saying “it probably won’t rain today”, perhaps because there are no clouds in the sky. There are no particular numbers attached to this probability, and if the person in question (assuming they are not a weatherman) assigns a number to this probability (e.g. “I am 90% certain that it won’t rain today”) then that is a statement about their level of certainty, not about the actual probability of rain. This is certainly the sense I use when I say things like “I am 99.99% certain that there are no gods”.

    The other sense in which I am thinking of probabilities is in the sense of hypothesis testing. Basically, the data seem to indicate x, but there is a y% chance that I just got a weird set of data. Probabilities in this case reflect the chances of the data being atypical, not the probability of the hypothesis being correct or incorrect. This method of hypothesis testing certainly can be (and has been) used to test hypotheses relating to the existence of a god with certain attributes. For instance, a number of scientific studies have been done on the efficacy of distant intercessory prayer which found no significant effect on health outcomes (source 1, source 2). If a god existed who answered such prayers (and who did not care more about hiding his/her/their existence than about answering prayers), then it would be highly unlikely that the research would arrive at the conclusion that it did.

    “Many who believe in god have faith which is reasonable”

    I’d love to hear the reasonable reasons for their faith. I mean this entirely sincerely. If I’m wrong about the existence or lack thereof of a god or gods, then I want to know this. If I’m missing something really obvious, then I want to know what it is.

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  7. How do you control the prayer experiment, I wonder? I am talking about Bayesian probability. If we are tempted to guess about the probability of god given the universe as we observe it, then we must know what the prior probability of the universe as we observe it is. Two problems confront us there. First, we have not observed the universe yet and, probably, not even enough of it yet to say we know enough to know when we’re close enough to a complete observation to draw conclusions. Second, our data about other possible universes is extrapolated from the data and observationally derived rules of our current N of 1. There are other problems (retrospection using Bayes Theorem), but these two are enough to sink the project, I think. Note that this cuts both ways.
    By reasonable, I mean logically consistent given the premises. For many, those premises are personal experiences and intuitions about the reliability of their perceptions. Looks like a whole lot of confirmation bias, secondary gain and other emotionally motivated thinking to me, but I must acknowledge that I don’t – and can’t – have the information to conclusively deny their assertions. I can’t begin to affirm those assertions either, and I am highly suspicious of the premises (as they are inexplicable by nature), but many believers hold their beliefs, based on such premises, in an entirely consistent way. Many more are bat-shit crazy and incoherent, but that’s people.

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  8. Ah, Bayesian probability. I don’t actually know very much about that (except for having learned Bayes’ Theorem in my statistics course). I should fix that. I’ve been thinking I ought to read up on Bayesian statistics more, anyway.

    “How do you control the prayer experiment, I wonder?”

    From the abstract of the study I linked to: “In this randomized controlled trial conducted between 1997 and 1999, a total of 799 coronary care unit patients were randomized at hospital discharge to the intercessory prayer group or to the control group. Intercessory prayer, ie, prayer by 1 or more persons on behalf of another, was administered at least once a week for 26 weeks by 5 intercessors per patient.”

    Unfortunately, the full text is behind a paywall.

    I guess one issue with control is that you can’t stop someone outside of the experiment from praying for one of the patients. However, it seems plausible to assume that some are being prayed for by people outside the experiment and some are not. So, even if some outside prayers affect the experiment, you would still expect to see a difference between the group that are all being prayed for, and the control group, where only some of the patients are being prayed for by people outside of the experiment. It might take a large sample size to detect such an effect, though, if a sufficiently large proportion of the people in the control group are being prayed for by people outside the experiment.

    “By reasonable, I mean logically consistent given the premises. For many, those premises are personal experiences and intuitions about the reliability of their perceptions.”

    Ah, I see. I can understand that. Personal experiences aren’t always good evidence–and people seem to get really offended if you suggest this about their own personal experiences–but I can definitely understand people believing from personal experience. I’ve had some weird experiences myself (sleep paralysis, mostly), but they happened not to be things that could be interpreted as, say, religious experiences or alien abduction experiences. So I figured the most likely explanation for these experiences, even before I first heard the term ‘sleep paralysis’, was that I had just experienced some form of brain weirdness.

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  9. Thanks for this article. Unfortunately, I’ve probably posted an article or two that would fit into what you are talking about. You are right, I really didn’t know what atheist are really thinking other than what I thought, a lack or faith or belief in God. I appreciate the information and I will stay away from making comments on things I don’t understand about atheism. As a christian I feel it is better to accept and care about others rather than argue and defend our way of thinking. Thankso again.

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  10. I think the difficulty is that for them it is a matter of simple semantics and it can be futile to try and explain oneself when Christians already have made up in their mind about what you really believe. Though, even more aggravating to see (as I have more than once) is when Christians tell atheists that they really do believe in god but they’re “suppressing the truth.” What? I think we would know what we believe better than an outside bigot.

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    • Right? I’ve run into the opposite sort of problem, too, where a Christian tells me that I was never really a Christian, or I wouldn’t have stopped believing.

      So kind of them to define our experiences out of existence, as opposed to, I don’t know, maybe actually thinking things through in a rational and coherent way, without ignoring the evidence that you don’t like?

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      • It’s funny you say that because a while back I was speaking with a friend and he couldn’t get his head around me walking away from the faith. Same thing, his theology taught him that a true believer couldn’t walk away. It suddenly dawned on me, beyond the scientific breakthroughs, beyond the geological findings, beyond the very lack of real proof… I suddenly realized that I was my greatest case study against the reality of Christianity. I truly believed and I truly walked away, therefore discrediting everything I had once believed. It was an amazingly peaceful revelation.

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