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Not Helping

Recently I read and debated an article titled “Atheist Arguments Which Aren’t Helping Anyone.” The author was an atheist but objected to many of the arguments other atheists use in support of their worldview. Since many of these arguments are something I use myself I thought I should consider them and see if he was right about them “not helping”.

The quotes I put around the words above indicate the first problem with any argument of this type: what do we actually mean by “not helping”? Many people might assume that if an atheist is debating religion with a believer then the eventual goal might be to “convert” the believer to atheism. I will admit that if my arguments achieved this aim it would be great – not because I object to religion as such but more because I object to ignorance and delusion in any form. But, as is often said regarding this topic, people who believe a religion generally do so for illogical, irrational, emotional reasons – whether they are prepared to accept that or not – so rational arguments are unlikely to change anything.

There will be occasions when this approach does work. I do remember debating one believer who was genuinely ignorant of the facts (about evolution in this case) and at the end of our discussion admitted he had been wrong. I have no idea whether he still feels that way or went on to entirely rid himself of his religious delusions, but that isn’t really the point.

The real point is that I gave him the information he didn’t have already and what he did with that was up to him. Conversely he revealed his thoughts to me and theoretically I might have been persuaded that I was wrong. Of course, so far I have never heard a pro-religious argument based on real logic or facts so, at this stage, I still reject religion. Still, in theory I might be missing something so I am happy to hear any arguments which might change my mind.

So I would argue any points used in a discussion of this sort are useful in a philosophical way. Debate is good in itself and to say that “it is not helping” is irrelevant. But I now want to look at the individual points and say why I disagree about their “helpfulness”.

Argument 1, there’s no scientific proof.

Not only is there no scientific proof for the existence of a god but there isn’t even any credible scientific supporting evidence. As I said above, believers tend to accept their religion based on emotion, habit, or ignorance rather than facts but there are many who genuinely think there is scientific proof of a god existing.

Some people think there is archaeological evidence of the Exodus for example. But there isn’t. Even archaeologists who really want the story to be true have given up. The Exodus simply didn’t happen. The same applies to many other stories, such as the Flood. They just didn’t happen, or if anything even vaguely resembling the stories did happen the real facts are so different from the stories that they would be unrecognisable and irrelevant as a source of evidence.

So any delusion that scientific proof of a god exists can be eliminated. If the person wants to continue believing anyway that’s fine. Believing something which is obviously untrue is what faith is all about.

I also have to say that I am intrigued about what “facts” my opponents can present. On a couple of occasions I have been impressed with some “proof” which superficially seemed quite persuasive, but after a bit of research it has all – so far – turned out to be delusion. But one day I might hear some genuine proof and that might cause me to adjust my beliefs.

Argument 2, logical paradoxes.

Again, I recognise that most believers haven’t arrived at the conclusions they have through logic so they are unlikely to be dissuaded by logic either. But the same argument which I made for proof above also applies to logic: some people genuinely believe their beliefs make sense and that belief in the supernatural is the only logical conclusion possible.

A common example of this is the idea that everything must have a cause and the first cause for the physical universe must be something else, and the most logical candidate for that first cause is god.

But there are two problems with this argument. First, this is an argument from ignorance because these people don’t really understand that the concept of cause has become quite different ever since we have had quantum physics. There are some things which have no cause, and causality itself is far more complex than they imagine. And second, this is special pleading because requiring the first cause for the universe being god naturally leads to us asking what is the cause of god?

Apparently he doesn’t need one. This is not logic.

Argument 3, the Bible, Torah, Quran, etc is full of screwed-up stuff.

Blindly following the words of an old book is potentially disastrous. Why? Because a lot of what is in these books is not relevant to the modern age we live in, and they are also so open to varying interpretations that they can be (and are) used to justify anything.

Showing that these holy books are full of contradictions, bad advice, and outright falsities may not persuade a believer to give up their religion but it might cause them to be a little bit more careful in mindlessly following what the books say.

I think its our (atheists and rationalists of all types) duty to try to make people think a bit more sensibly. And the chances of success might not be high but they are better than if we don’t try at all.

Argument 4, religions start wars.

I don’t know why even non-believers have trouble with accepting that religions actually do start wars. I agree that there is always more than one factor involved in any conflict but religion has been a primary cause of so many wars that it is impossible to reasonably refute the idea.

The argument that all wars are political and religion is just used as an excuse doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because in most cases (for example in Islam today and Christianity in the past) religion and politics cannot be separated. It would be just as easy to say that politics is just used as an excuse. Everything could be looked at that way and nothing can be excluded as a cause.

The second argument invokes the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. I often hear that anyone who starts a war in the name of a religion isn’t really a follower of that religion. Well they think they are, and in many cases they are following the religion’s dictates more closely than the more liberal members, so I think that argument is entirely fatuous.

Argument 5, aiming at the individual.

I partly agree with this. Religion is a group phenomenon, a “mind virus”, a distortion of reality, but one based on tradition and conventions. People generally inherit the religion they grow up in and it is hard to blame them for the consequences of their belief.

On the other hand I do think that religion can be used for good or bad and that how it is used is very much up to the individual. So getting personal and pointing out that one particular interpretation of a religion by a person is problematic might be useful, especially if that person can be steered into a more a more positive interpretation of the mythology.

The article concludes with this: “Atheism doesn’t need to beat anyone. All atheism needs to do is exist, and not be such a total dick about it.”

Well I disagree. I think we should talk about what we really think. If people see that as being a “dick” then that’s just an unfortunate side effect. In the end it’s the truth that really matters and calling someone presenting the truth a “dick” just makes rejecting it too easy.

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