Monday, July 24, 2017

Outrageous Statements and their Defenders

Note: This post has been updated, per the request of John Loftus to include an additional exchange.

With a title like this, you'd think I was going to have a rant about a shitty Christian apologist making outrageous claims about atheism.

Except I'm about to go on a rant about two atheists that I'd otherwise admire making outrageous and indefensible claims about theists.

I'm talking about David Silverman and John Loftus.

There's been some buzz because Justin Schieber publicly criticized this meme from David Silverman's book Fighting God, which was created by Dr. David Madison:

This prompted some rather astounding defenses of Dave Silverman on Twitter from one John Loftus:
So rather than go back and forth with John Loftus on Twitter, I had a brief window of free time to give a full treatment to the criticism of this idea.

I should preface this with the fact that I really do like and am grateful to both Loftus and Silverman. Both of them provided resources online, for free, that were immensely useful to me when I was deconverting.  It should go without saying that just because I think they're wrong here it doesn't mean I think they're wrong in other areas where they get a lot right.

What's more I think a lot of the legal work that American Atheists do is worthwhile, and David Silverman personally does good work when he does appearances on Fox News shows arguing the atheist position.

But that doesn't excuse the weapons grade bullshit that is the last part of the above quote.  Lets be clear what I find objectionable by going line by line.

"We need to shout from the rooftops that which we know is true:"
CA Rating: Good!

"Religion is a lie (yes, all of it)"
CA Rating: Good!

"gods are myths (yes, all of them)"
CA Rating: Good!

"and most people already know it (yes, they do)"
CA Rating: Weapons Grade Bullshit!

So why is this bullshit?

Because we can't ever really claim to know what other people truly believe or think about their own beliefs.

I can't know your subjective emotional experience, at best I can infer from your actions and statements what you're telling me is the case about your own subjective mental state.

This is because on atheism there is only one person who can truly know the fact of the matter their own beliefs: Themselves.

Dave and John are claiming that most religious people already know that their religion is a lie and that their gods are a myth - which is an outrageous, indefensible claim.

It's an outrageous indefensible claim when Christian apologists say that "deep down atheists truly know that god exists!" and that we are engaging in "cognitive dissonance" or "self deception" to say we truly don't believe that a god exists.

It is just as outrageous for an atheist to claim the inverse as true among believers.

Not because one or more religions might be true, not because one or more gods might exist.  But because we can't possibly know what the majority of people (ie. theistic believers) really know or believe about their belief in religion or gods.

I for one, am inclined to believe people when they tell me they believe something to be true.  At least I will after honest dialog and we've established that we're not joking around.  And guess what - tons of fucking people say this! They report belief in a god and/or a religion. The data is pretty fucking clear.

To claim that people don't believe what they claim to believe is to pretend to know what you don't know. It should go without saying that pretending to know what you don't' know is a bad thing.

(Note: This is not an endorsement of defining faith as "pretending to know what you don't know).

Does Dave Really Claim This?

The only thing I can infer as a possible objection to this is that Silverman isn't really saying that all religious people already know their beliefs are false.  This is something Loftus seems to be hinting at:
Except this can't be the case. Dave says that atheists know that religion is a lie and that god's are myths, and that most people already know these things.

Again, the data is pretty fucking clear that "most people" in the world today are theists.

So no, "most people" don't know that gods are myths and that religion is a bunch of lies.

At best, an atheist could try to claim that all "unaffiliated" people are atheists (this is false), and as such we'd say that only roughly 84% of the world's population are theists of some sort or another.

So for Dave's claim to work out, at best, we'd have to have 40% of professing believers to be in a state where they don't actually believe what they say they believe and for all "unaffiliated" people to be actual atheists (with none of those people not actually believing what they claim publicly).

This is an outrageous claim for which no evidence is presented.

It's an astounding leap of faith to think that this is remotely plausible compared to simply accepting what people tell you about their mental states are actually true.  If you want me to believe otherwise, then you need to start providing me with some incredible evidence for that claim.

Update: An Addendum on Nietzsche

As a reader can see in the comments below, John Loftus is alleging that I'm somehow being dishonest by leaving out part of our Twitter exchange where he references Nietzsche.  I don't see how this is the case, but in the interests of full disclosure I'm updating the post to include his tweet and my reply:

Beyond that exchange, John wanted to know my reasoning - which prompted this very blog post.

I'm not sure what else to say besides the obvious. Declaring that "god is dead" is not the same thing as saying "everyone who believes god is alive really is just pretending and they know that god is dead!"

Nietzsche isn't arguing that everyone knows that atheism is true, he's arguing for the truth of atheism. David's quote is making that same assertion (he makes his arguments elsewhere in the book) and he makes another, indefensible assertion that I've taken issue with.

I should also note that I never called John Loftus, Dr. David Madison, or Dave Silverman stupid. I just think they're wrong, and that they're doing something morally wrong in the process.


  1. The first thing you should do is add Dr. David Madison in your list of names you disagree with.

  2. cutting him out as the maker of this meme you show you aren't being honest with who you're arguing against.

  3. The second thing you can do is replicate the ending of our discussion on Twitter, you know, the part about Nietzsche. This is another sign you're not being honest here.

    1. I'll even create an addendum to the post to include it and my reply. The point is utterly irrelevant.

    2. His point is a redherring, perhaps intentionally so.

    3. Yup, his bringing up Nietzsche is a massive red herring.

  4. Claim 1 - All religious claims are lies.

    Claim 2 - All gods claimed to exist are mythical.

    Claim 3 - Most people know that all religious claims are lies AND all gods claimed to exist are mythical.

    Given what "lying" means, the first claim actually isn't true. To lie is to intentionally try to bring someone to believe something you believe is false. When the Pope asserts God exists, I think he has asserted something false, but in no way do I think the Pope doesn't actually believe God exists. What David should actually say is "All religious claims are false".

    I suppose claim 2 is true, though if it's an obvious implication of claim 1 so it seems redundant in a way. I'd be more comfortable asserting a weaker thesis that "All gods claimed to exist are almost certainly mythical".

    Claim 3 just seems prima facie false. I don't think David or Loftus would actually want to say claim 3 is true. More charitably, I think David and Loftus would agree with something like this:

    Claim 3* - Most people know that all religious claims are not rationally defensible AND no god claimed to exist can be rationally defended.

    Claim 3* is doubtful imo, but I think 3* is more plausible than 3.

    If anything can be learned from this, it's that people need to choose their words carefully in order to avoid miscommunication. However, it's possible David is just trying to be provocative for attention, but I don't think that's a good strategy.


    1. I'll post the comment I left on your blog here:

      John, you're going off the rails here.

      "So Schieber and @CounterApologis refuse to consider the president of American Atheists is smart because it makes them look good to claim otherwise. See how that works? It's easy to do if you wish to impress Christian believers and look smarter than others, when you yourself lack academic credentials."

      Not once did I say Silverman (or yourself) aren't smart. I think you're saying something that's bullshit - provably so. Smart people say stupid shit all the time, publicly no less. It happens to all of us, including me.

      I don't need to troll other atheists to get respect from believers or anyone else. I don't know how you could look at my videos or blog and remotely say that. I call what I see as I see it, and this is simply bullshit.

      And you know why it's bullshit?

      1.) Because no one can truly know what someone else thinks about their own beliefs other than the individual themselves.

      2.) As such it's absolutely bullshit when believers claim that atheists "secretly know god exists" and engage in subconscious delusion about their beliefs.

      It's exactly the same when an atheist claims the same thing about believers.

      There are two main other points of contention:

      First, I do not deny that at least some people profess to believe something but deep down they harbor doubts/fears that it's not true. But I do think it's outrageous to claim that most believers think so, and to also claim that there's not some percentage of non-believers who think the same way. If anything it seems best to take people at their word when they profess what they believe.

      Second, your comments about Nietzsche are a red herring. Even if we were to go with the first interpretation, at most he's alleging that the people of his day were hypocrites, not acting in accordance with their beliefs. This is a fine point, one I'd even agree with (and celebrate in our modern day). But that's not the same as alleging that "deep down they know god doesn't exist".

      That final bit is why the statement is indefensible bullshit. Being subconsciously unaware is not the same as "knowing something is false when you profess it to be true".

  6. John banned me years ago, so I cannot comment over there.Engaging in situations like the current one is a waste of time. John's claim about divisiveness is interesting though, and I think he should follow this to help achieve it:

    First, make sure your conversation partner understands which propositions you're advocating and make sure you understand which propositions your partner is advocating.

    Second, present your arguments for your respected positions, make sure your conversation partner understands your arguments and do the same with respect to your opponent's arguments.

    Third, focus on assessing the soundness or cogency of your partner's arguments.

    In doing the third step, only mention that which is materially relevant to testing the soundness of the arguments. John probably thinks Justin's education is materially relevant to whether we should believe Justin over John, so I'd allow that. However, most of the additional personal comments (Such as Counter being unfamiliar with Nietzsche or not knowing about cognitive biases) are not relevant to the soundness of Counter's arguments so they should not have been asserted.

    The first steps, I think, are useful precisely because you don't need to worry about being uncharitable to your opponent. If you cannot do step 2, then I would say you ought to steelman your opponent's arguments. i.e. come up with the strongest variation of your opponent's position that you can think of. Or if you cannot properly do step 1, such as being unable to clarify if your opponent is being hyperbolic, then I think you ought to come up with the least negative interpretations of your opponent's claims and tackle each interpretation.

    If anything, I'd say the best advice is to follow Paul Grice's conversational maxims. Just focus on saying what is reasonably necessary to communicate your positions.

  7. I left this comment at Loftus' blog, as well.

    This post (or this exchange) has turned a corner for me with Loftus. Previously, I thought of him as a good thinker and writer with sometimes thin skin. But after this, I've realized that his thin skin can lead him to make irrational, ad hominem and otherwise misleading claims.

    I can still appreciate some of his work, but he seems to lack the integrity I had previously believed.