Tuesday, August 4, 2015

No Hemant, these aren't 5 Ways to be a Better Atheist

I really like Hemant Mehta, better known as the Friendly Atheist.  He's not really into philosophy, but he's got a good enough head on his shoulders to be able to avoid the general mistakes of superficial internet atheism, and at the same time call out the bullshit of religious apologists.

He's also great at blogging, and is a generally a solid voice of moderation in "online atheism".

So I was kind of shocked to see him (or his team) share this article on his Facebook page this morning, saying that he thinks it's "a pretty good list".  Since Hemant is a good guy who may be falling prey to a Golden Mean Fallacy, I wanted to write this post why I think he should re-evaluate the list.

EDIT#1: Hemant has kindly replied on Twitter. He didn't post the link himself, and agrees that many of the arguments are silly. He does think that atheists need to do a better job of communicating our answers to these philosophical questions.  This is a position I wholeheartedly endorse. You can read Hemant's updated comments on this on his Facebook page.

EDIT#2: I wanted to add an update based on what I'm seeing in reactions from someone I highly respect, Justin Schieber.  I can agree that for 3/5, probably 4/5 of these general principles are things atheists should do.  I think that they are actually things people in general should do (well 3/5 of them anyway).  We should make concessions, where warranted.  We should be open minded to the existence of the supernatural, when warranted. And we should admit the weaknesses of our position, when warranted.  This doesn't negate the fact that in the arguments that Patton tries to make following these general points are in fact terrible. Or that atheists are not following the relevant general principles.

Jump below to see why.

The article is called "5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist" by an apologist I've not heard of before, C Michael Patton. He seems to have a decent handle of the various nuances involved in the theist vs. atheist debate, at least as far as I can tell from the few things I read on his site after finding this article.

Beware when your ideological opponents come bearing advice

Our apologist friend starts off by pointing out that he thinks "New Atheism" is making an impact on shaking peoples faith and affirming the confidence of existing atheists.  He is no friend to the cause mind you, but he see's some problems with the movement just wants to help us out by pointing out ways he thinks we can improve.

At this point my skeptical alarm is going off that I should be wary of what's going to follow.  Maybe he's in good faith, or maybe this is just some way to try and make people more receptive to his brand of apologetics.

Lets see where this goes:

His first point is that we atheists need to make more concessions.

On its face, this seems somewhat reasonable.  Of course, I'd love to see some concessions from the theist side as well - they're the ones who usually claim we have no objective basis for our morality (false), or that atheism is irrational, or that it somehow takes more faith to be an atheist (a self refuting claim that works against theism).  Apologists take to the stage an give the Standard Biola Bullshit line of apologetics, and give those arguments with all the arrogance and confidence in the world!  In reality they all have well known issues in contemporary (and antiquity) philosophy.

But I've not yet gone into what our interocular wants New Atheists to stop claiming:

  1.     Christianity has no evidence.
  2.     Theism is completely irrational.
  3.     People believe in God because they are uneducated.
  4.     To be a Christian is to commit intellectual suicide.

So far so good actually! There's some issues for atheists here, but they're too often taken beyond what is warranted.  Things are far more nuanced than he's letting on.

Lets go bit by bit:

1.) Christianity has evidence for it, in much the same way that there's evidence for a host of other religions or superstitions.  There's evidence for Mormonism, or the supernatural powers of Sathya Sai Baba.  That is to say, there isn't much in the way of very good evidence for Christianity.  There's evidence in only the most trivial of ways.

2.) I can actually agree that calling theism completely irrational is going to be a waste of time. Why? Because theists will never agree to a standard of rationality that entails belief in a god is irrational.  This is why Alvin Plantinga came up with Reformed Epistemology, which puts belief in god as a sort of axiom that theists should be allowed to start with, rather than a conclusion that can be argued to by way of evidence.

Does that make theism irrational? Well what is irrationality? Is it believing something that is self contradictory? Well if that's the case, then no, theism isn't irrational. But then neither is belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

But if irrationality is subjecting belief in god to the same kind of evidentialist standards we impose on a host of other decisions we make in our personal and professional lives, theism isn't going to withstand that test.  It's not just atheists saying that, it's eminent Christian apologists like James D. Strauss: "if you don't start with God, you'll never get to God."

For reference, Strauss was the person who taught many modern day apologists like William Lane Craig.

3.) This one is complicated. Many people believe in god because they've just accepted the beliefs of their parents without question. This doesn't mean that there aren't the atheist equivalents of this.  The point is that the vast majority of people aren't educated on the topic of god's existence.  In some cases, folks are educated and believe in god, but in the majority of those cases, they recognize god is accepted more as an axiom than as the conclusion of empirical or philosophical investigation. 

4.) Again, a strong claim that probably could be toned down.  In many cases, Christians have committed intellectual suicide. Witness the Young Earth Creationist movement, the rejection of Evolution, and the acceptance of biblical genocides as somehow "moral".  In what's likely the majority of cases, Christians simply hold their beliefs without giving serious consideration to a number of issues that would challenge their faith.

Does this mean that there aren't some intellectuals who are Christians? Well sure, there are. I think they've got some inconsistencies in how they apply criteria for belief, but they sure do exist. But if we're going to use the 70% figure of Americans who identify as Christians, then the majority of them probably have not given much intellectual thought to their faith.

He wants us to drop the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Sauce Be Upon Him)

Simply put, no.

Patton starts out well. He tries to get out of the bite of the FSM by positing god as a "necessary being", and then putting the nature of that necessary being as the difference between different religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, etc.

He then says that pointing to the FSM as an objection to god is misguided, because it's an issue with the second half of the god question, not the first.

And he's exactly right in that analysis, but his conclusion doesn't follow from those premises.

Atheists aren't really up against "theists" in the simple sense.  You're not going to see very much railing from atheists against say deists.

We're up against Christians, Muslims, Mormons, etc.  And each of those religions are absolutely absurd from the point of view of an atheist!  The way we exemplify that is by pointing to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an absurd fake deity.

There is no defense of Yahweh (the Christian/Jewish god), or Allah, Xenu (Scientology), or Brahma (Hinduism) as the "necessary ground of all being" that apologists argue for, that can't be made in parallel for something as absurd as the FSM.

One of my favorite moments was hearing a Christian on Twitter talk about how silly the FSM was because god as the necessary ground of all being wouldn't have a physical form.  Yet they somehow have no problem thinking that the necessary ground of all being took up physical form, died, and was resurrected.

We can cook up our own Pasta Based Theology to explain why the previously timeless, spaceless, disembodied mind of the FSM has appeared in this form to us in order to touch us with his noodley appendage.  Or to come and live inside our hearts, to steal an evangelical parlance.

The FSM is a symbol of the absurdities of trying to "teach the controversy" in terms of putting creation myths on a par with scientific explanations of the origins of our universe and of life.  It's also a symbol for the absurdities of specific religions, even if we granted a great number of apologetic arguments.

It is a symbol of our resistance to theistic hegemony, and it is not going away.

He wants us to admit the weaknesses of our position

Here we can see Patton start making equivocations between atheism and metaphysical naturalism, as well as start assuming the truth of apologetic arguments.

This struck me as particularly duplicitous:
"Concede that atheism does not have a strong explanation for the existence of morals. If you’re honest and say morals don’t exist (which I respect a lot more), again, recognize how difficult this is. Concede that atheism’s greatest weakness is its inability to explain where existence came from." 
Atheism no more struggles with an explanation for the existence of morals than theism does.  The majority of meta-ethical theories that affirm moral realism are completely compatible with atheism.  Look at contractualism for a start. Or various strains of utilitarianism. Or virtue ethics. Or even Platonism for crying out loud! This is just the old canard of "if god does not exist then objective moral values don't exist".

Even if an atheist was not a moral realist, then almost by definition they don't think that it would be a problem.  Furthermore, one can deny morality exists, but still make inter-subjective or utilitarian/egoism based decisions on how they should act.

Finally, atheism no more struggles with where "existence came from" than theism does.  Theism postulates a necessarily existing being. Atheism can just as easily get by with a always-existing physical stuff, and we've got some decent evidence that points us in that direction.

Either way, we're both starting with something having always existed.  An atheist is however free to reject the categories of "necessary" and "contingent", or not. Neither one is particularly a problem for the position of atheism, or even metaphysical naturalism if one wants to go that far.

He wants us to be open minded

Here Patton again equivocates between atheism and metaphysical naturalism, makes some straw-men about being a free thinker, and then actually makes a good point.

First off, atheism doesn't entail metaphysical naturalism.  Lately, I've been thinking that identifying as a naturalist is going too far, beyond where the evidence or rational thought can take us.  Of course I think the same of theism or super-naturalism, but that's another topic.  One can be an atheist but still believe in a host of other things not compatible with naturalism, like Platonic objects for example.

Second, being a free-thinker is a classical reference to being able to question dogma.  For me, being a free thinker is being allowed to think that if there are truly objective moral truths (and morality isn't defined by the nature of what is at base a tyrant), then god has more to answer for than the entire human race combined.   In effect, its allowing oneself to fully appreciate the problem of evil and suffering, and subjecting god to the same moral standards we'd hold any other moral agent to.

That's not something a classical theist is allowed to do.

Patton does end with one good point though.  I am no fan of a "naturalism of the gaps" which would rule out the existence of a miracle a priori.  Perhaps if a god were to show up like he supposedly did in ancient religious texts and start working some repeatable, empirically verifiable miracles, I'd start believing.

I wont' hold my breath waiting.

He wants us to drop Atheism as a Lack of Belief

My feelings here are conflicted somewhat. On one hand, I've agreed that atheists should say they "know" god doesn't exist. On the other hand, I've been thinking that the entire theism vs. atheism debate has gone off the rails a bit.

Patton exemplifies this in his second argument against atheism as a lack of belief:

"Second (and most importantly), your belief system is not neutral.  Lack a belief in God is only part of a worldview. One’s worldview is produced by asking many questions that include and often depend on belief in God:
  • Is there such a thing as morality?
  • Does man have free will?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is the basis for rationality?
By answering these questions, you are creating a worldview (your system of presuppositions and beliefs). All of these are issues of transcendence. The atheist has to answer the question, ”Why is there something” according to the atheistic worldview. The atheist has to justify their belief in rationality. The atheist must give reason for the existence of free will. While the word “atheist” may give the impression that it only has to do with a lack of belief in God, the reality is that they are “naturalists” (often materialists) and, as such, must give a positive explanation for the claims of their worldview."
I'm beginning to think that naturalism as a worldview is a mistake, because it goes too far. It feels as if atheists are being railroaded into affirming naturalism because various religions give a worldview, where as atheism does not.  In order to try to bring atheists down into the proverbial mud to argue, we're saddled (sometimes by ourselves, eagerly!) with metaphysical naturalism so that some philosophical game can be had.

Now this isn't to say that if one was a naturalist, that they can't answer these questions.  I've already covered atheist compatible answers to morality and "something vs. nothing" in this article.  I'll quickly touch on the last two.

Free will is a contentious topic, and embracing even the philosophically indefensible "libertarian free will" (it has no coherent contemporary definition) does not entail accepting theism.  Further, even theists will deny free will, including Christians! Just ask the Calvinists.

As far as rationality goes, there's no real benefit for theism here than there is on atheism.  Theists just assume rationality as part of god's nature, which they assume exists necessarily.   An atheist could buy into the necessary dichotomy, and then accept logic as a descriptor of the behavior of a necessarily-existing physical stuff. Or we can just say that we merely use rationality because it actually works at the levels of existence we operate at on a day to day basis.  Suffice it to say, there's a plethora of options available to the atheist that in no way entails theism.


On the whole of it, this seems to just be a way to try and convince atheists that apologists have something worthwhile to say.  In reality, he's just alluding to a plethora of contentious topics in philosophy that a majority of theists and atheists probably are actually ignorant of.

This doesn't mean that atheism has no options when it comes to these topics, or that somehow theistic answers aren't any less outrageous because they provide an attempt at answering these questions.

I can't completely discount Patton, because internet atheism and most of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism (all of them minus Dennet) have said some really stupid shit.  That doesn't mean that he's not being a bit duplicitous in the "advice" he's trying to give us atheists.


  1. Thank you for your article. You make some great points. I've often seen atheists and theists grapple with the term atheism. For me, the term just doesn't provide any sort of inner struggle. As a linguist (PhD trained and all that), I enjoy 'breaking down language/word' sometimes in a Derridean sort of way, but with regards to the 'lack of belief' there often seems an unnecessary struggle. Taking 'a' rooted to mean 'without'/lack', while taking 'theo' to refer to 'god' and 'ism' as pertaining to the 'practice of'/'system of'/'philosophy of' -- I don't see why we should drop the 'lack of belief' in (a)god phrase. By its very literal definition (or you could say 'lack of system of belief' 'lack of philosophy of'), that's what atheism means. I know theists (mainly Christians in my experience) misuse the term to mean 'don't believe in god.' The (infinitive) verbs 'to lack' and 'to know' are not always interchangeable terms, and I think changing the meaning to include 'know' is problematic. Am I missing something? Thanks again for posting. Like you, I enjoy much of Hemant's work, but had some issues with his post.

  2. I'm leaning towards problems related to "know" in general and I think it clouds the issue. If we define "know" in specific ways that's commonly used, then of course we "know" there is no god.

    A lot is going to come down to how we define knowledge and belief and the fairly complex interactions between those two categories.

  3. Wasn't this from last year?