I came across your video yesterday on reddit’s /r/atheistvids and was a bit surprised to see an objection to this post from Ed Brayton on FTB: “Atheists, please stop saying these things”. I considered what Ed said to generally be pretty sound, and effectively it’s an appeal to be more philosophically nuanced in our critiques of theists.
I disagree with almost all that you said in your video, and for whatever reason I felt compelled to write up a response. I apologize for not doing a proper video reply, but work and family really get in the way of me doing videos right now.
I’m writing this to try and convince you why I think you’ve got these things wrong on most of these issues, largely because we’re on the same team. Like Ed I don’t like seeing atheists make these arguments either, and I don’t want to see people “on my side” make arguments that can be dismissed by apologists who can see the same flaws I do. Hopefully we can come to some agreement here.
On being told what to do by someone on a network named “Freethought Blogs”
You seemed very upset by the idea that a blogger on a network named “Freethought Blogs” could tell atheists what they should not do, based on the idea that they have no authority over the “free thoughts” of atheists (or something to that effect).
This is misguided because even an atheist would presumably carry at least a few normative beliefs (ie. things you should or should not do). Things like “don’t be irrational” or “beliefs should be in proportion to evidence”.
Certainly I think Ed of FTB would agree that you’re free to entertain whatever ideas you want to work through whatever problems you want, but like most people he’d assume you’d reject any irrational consequences of said beliefs. Further, as an atheist he’d assume you would eventually want to reject propositions that have little to no evidence, like say that the moon was made out of green cheese.
On babies being born atheists
Contra Ed, you attempt to point to a relevant difference between babies and a chair in order to say that babies are atheists in a way that a chair is not. Namely you say that babies have a consciousness, and so can be meaningfully said to be atheists.
This is misleading at best since while I’m sure we’d all agree that babies have a consciousness, we would also agree that they do not yet possess many higher order levels of consciousness. They can’t do abstract reasoning yet, for example. A child will certainly lack belief in gods, but they will similarly lack belief in atoms, quantum wave functions, germs, sound waves, black holes, the scientific method, and a host of other very real phenomenon.
This is Ed’s main point, whether or not a child is born believing in something or not has nothing to do whether or not that proposition is true.
Further, your example of where this would be a relevant point in debate with Christian theists, such as debating original sin, would be utterly useless. Suppose they grant you that all babies are born atheists, how is this supposed to be something that makes them change their mind? If anything, that point being true helps their case since Christians would consider it sinful to be an atheist.
Ed’s point in not saying that “all babies are born atheist” is that while it’s trivially true, it establishes nothing in terms of the debate; and most of the time it is said, the atheist saying it somehow believes that it does.
On not saying theists believe because of brainwashing, guilt, or fear of death
You didn’t even address the main point of what was written in the blog post: we shouldn’t presume to know the reason someone believes (or does not believe). It is ridiculous when a Christian tells an atheist they “really do believe” in god, like presuppositional apologists do. It is also ridiculous when Christians say that we’re only atheists because ‘we hate god’ or ‘we just want to do whatever we want’.
If it is ridiculous for Christians to make the worst assumptions about why we believe (or don’t believe) in what we do, then it is wrong for us to do that to them.
On not using simplistic methods to explain why religion was formed
Your response seems odd here. First you go on to say that “of course religion was formed just to control people”, though later you seem to admit that there are other sociological reasons why religion would form and flourish, but that it doesn’t matter because religion did form and now we must deal with it.
The point of saying we shouldn’t give simplistic explanations as to why religion exists is to rebuff those who make the point and think that it somehow gives them an edge in debating whether or not any particular religion is true.
Ed happens to be pretty involved in the larger debate between theists and atheists, and so when he sees atheists making bad arguments “for our side”, it’s embarrassing.
On not conflating fundamentalism with Christianity
Ed at no point said that we should not attack fundamentalist Christianity. If you read his blog, he does that almost every single day.
Ed at no point said we should not use labels; that would be pretty nonsensical as you pointed out in your video.
What Ed did say was not to think that “all Christians are fundamentalists”, which is why he said we should ask an individual what they believe and try to work from there.
The point is that while we can and should address the fundamentalists, we shouldn’t also disregard the fight against the more numerous (at least outside the USA) Christians who aren’t fundamentalist/presuppositionalist/young-earth-creationists.
On not calling believers stupid
At this point you actually seem to agree with Ed’s point in that there are absolutely brilliant people who are believers. You then go on to call said brilliant people stupid, though you fail to recognize the difference between calling a person stupid and calling a belief stupid. If I had to sum up Francis Collins intelligence level on the whole, I wouldn’t end up concluding he was stupid. I certainly wouldn’t call Isaac Newton stupid, despite the fact that he believed in the bible and alchemy. Newton invented Calculus before he was 26, that exempts him from being put in the “stupid pile”.
I’ll give you credit in that you at least bite the bullet and say you were “stupid” as a believer. I agree with Ed in that I don’t believe I got any smarter when I deconverted from being a Christian. I corrected certain false beliefs, my understanding of science was flawed, but I wasn’t “stupid” before I learned those facts.
The larger point is that the intelligence level of the average believer or atheist has no bearing on whether or not atheism or a variety of theism is true.
On not calling religion a mental illness or a virus
Because you can map the spread of a religion and have it look like a map of the spread of a virus does not mean the two are equivalent. You can map the spread of any idea (like say the theory of evolution) and have it look the same way. Your analogy to a virus “taking over and destroying the host” is rhetoric, nothing more. A religion generally does not ‘destroy a person’ in any meaningful sense.
You say that for someone to believe something false requires them to be psychotic or delusional at worse. That’s just demonstrably false. For centuries people thought the way gravity worked was as described in Newtonian mechanics, not a deformation of space-time as told to us by relativity. Were all those people before Einstein delusional? Here’s a hint, the answer is NO!
On not relabeling agnostics
Again, Ed doesn’t say we shouldn’t use labels, he says we shouldn’t get hung up on labels. What’s most ironic is that you seem to partially agree with Ed’s point in terms of not re-labeling agnostics as “weak atheists”. It is ridiculous to insinuate that we shouldn’t respect agnostics who have been so for more than a week as if the question they are considering is as easily decided as you claim. It’s not that all self-identified agnostics are agonizing over whether simplistic conceptions of a god exists (like Zeus or even OT conceptions of Yahweh), but they may give serious consideration to the fact that philosophy tells us we can’t really prove whether or not naturalism or supernaturalism is true. We can lean one way over the other (and most agnostics do lean towards naturalism), but naturalism makes claims about the fundamental nature of reality (ie where things bottom out) that its very nature makes impossible to verify if that is indeed “rock bottom”.
It’s also false to say that “agnostics” don’t do anything. A very respected philosopher of religion alive today is Paul Draper, who routinely criticizes theistic arguments, self identifies as an agnostic for the reasons I’ve outlined above regarding naturalism vs. supernaturalism.
On taxing the churches
Again, I find it odd that you first agree with Ed’s point and then go on to argue against something he didn’t write. Just to be clear, Ed explicitly says don’t say “tax the churches” if you’re not also willing to say “tax the non-profits”. If you’re willing to say “tax the non-profits”, then there’s no problem. You also agree about not treating churches differently than other non-profits, which Ed says is an issue.
Now you do go on to say that we should still tax churches because they don’t provide a net service to the community, because of what they preach being somehow equivalently harmful to someone who is starving in poverty.
Quite frankly, I must simply question your experience with poverty and with churches who help with that issue. I know of an atheist family who lives in poverty that use a local church’s food bank regularly. They don’t have to listen to any sermons to get access to the food, the church just does it. Churches also provide social support on a host of issues, but especially to their members. I know, I was in one before I deconverted. We helped people.
You repeatedly say that other secular organizations do the same thing, but quite frankly none exist at the scale that is comparable to what is done by churches around the country.
Saying that it’s terrible that you’re effectively subsidizing churches because they’re tax exempt is kind of laughable considering many Christians would say the same thing about tax exempt organizations like the FFRF or American Atheists. Again, if we tax them all, then you’ve no quarrel with what Ed’s written.
On not saying the US Founding Fathers were all Deists/Atheists
This is where you get outrageous. You lambast Ed for saying that none of the founding fathers were actually atheists, but were something in between deist and Christian. You go after him saying “How do you know that?!?” Practically echoing Ken Ham with cries of “Did you know them?”.
No, obviously not. You can read whatever set of quotes you want from them, but that doesn’t change the fact that the religious can read just as many quotes back to you. None of us have much of anything from them that says “I am an atheist”. Even Jefferson who did explicitly deny the divinity of Jesus was still a deist based on what we can read from his writings.
This is why Ed correctly writes “they were something in between”, because we have so many conflicting statements and lack anything definitive in terms of what they actually believed. The point is that the religious right today can’t claim these founding fathers as definitively Christian, which is what they try to do.