My Least Favorite Kind of Internet Atheist

Of all of the various kinds of internet atheist (see Taxonomy of Atheists), my least favorite are the cult atheists who pretend to be polite and open minded. They’re very recognizable because they always introduce themselves with something like, “I haven’t seen any evidence for God, but if I did I would become a theist. Do you know of any evidence for God?” They’ll tend to start out polite, often saying things like, “perhaps I’m mistaken, can you show me where?” It sounds great.

Then when you give them what they’ve asked for, such as presenting them or directing them to one of the arguments which shows that literally all being is evidence for God (e.g. the argument from motion, or the argument from contingency and necessity), their true colors come out. They’re still gentle of speech, but they say things like, “this is an argument from ignorance,” (they love to pretend that logic is an argument from ignorance) or accuse it of some other error which it obviously doesn’t have. They’ll typically throw in some insults, at this point, though gently phrased insults. “I think you might be engaging in wishful thinking” is no less an insult for being said in tea-time language.

As you proceed, the veneer of politeness tends to drop, with accusations becoming much more direct, and everything you’ve explained to them—at their request—rejected out of hand. The more you talk to them, the clearer it becomes that they don’t believe any of their principles, and when you have finally cornered them on something, they just ignore it and tend to claim that they’ve shown something that they didn’t, a few steps back in the conversation. Sometimes they declare victory and accuse you of just not being willing to admit it, sometimes they just claim to have shown you’re irrational or whatnot. They’re an enormous waste of time, and I think that’s their goal.

I’ve dealt with more than a few of them, over the years, and I’ve learned that they all have a tell—their act like they’re new to the subject. They pretend to be fair-minded, but also completely ignorant of the subject. If pressed, they will admit that they’ve heard things about it before, but this gives the lie to their presentation of fair-mindedness. A reasonable person, on asking for evidence of something, will save the other person time by explaining what they’ve already encountered and what their problems with it are. They don’t do this because wasting someone else’s time is their goal.

The other part of this tell is that they are pretending to be the new to the subject. The only people who are completely new to the subject of whether God exists are young children and (possibly) people raised by wolves who have barely learned English. Well, that’s not quite true, since I left off the qualifier of “reasonable.” Reasonable people investigate important questions, they don’t merely ignore them until someone decides to spoon-feed them information about them. If for some strange reason a reasonable person has come across no convincing source of information on the subject of God in real life, he would not merely go onto social media and ask complete strangers for evidence that God exists. A reasonable person (in this odd circumstance) would do some online searching and find sources that seem to be high quality. Or he might even read a book or two on the subject. (And then, as I noted above, if he’s asking randos on social media, he’ll give them some idea of where he’s starting from and what he already knows.)

New Religions Don’t Look Like Christianity Either

To those familiar with religions throughout the world, new religions like environmentalism, veganism, wokism, marxism, etc. are pretty obviously religions and are causing a lot of damage because that’s what bad religions do. People who are not familiar with any world religions beside Christianity frequently miss this because they think that all (real) religions look like Christianity but with different names and vestments.

I suspect that the idea that all religions look like Christianity was partially due to the many protestant sects which superficially looked similar, since even the ones that did away with priests and sacraments still met in a building on Sundays for some reason. I suspect the other major part is that there is a tendency to describe other religions in (inaccurate) Christian terms in order to make them easier to understand. Thus, for example, Shaolin “monks”. There are enough similarities that if you don’t plan to learn about the thing, it works. It’s misleading, though.

You can see the same sort of thing in working out a Greek pantheon where each god had specific roles and relationships and presenting this to children in school. It’s easy to learn, because it’s somewhat familiar, but it’s not very accurate to how paganism actually worked.

All of this occurred to me when I was talking with a friend who said that the primary feature of a religion, it seemed to him, was belief in the supernatural. The thing is, the nature/supernature distinction was a Christian distinction, largely worked out as we understand it today in the middle ages. Pagans didn’t have a nature/grace distinction, and if you asked them if Poseidon was supernatural they wouldn’t have known what you meant.

Would the ancient pagans have said that there things that operated beyond human power and understanding? Absolutely, they would. Were they concerned about whether a physics textbook entirely described these things? No, not at all. For one thing, they didn’t have a physics textbook. For another, they didn’t care.

The modern obsession that atheists have with whether all of reality is described in a physics textbook is not really about physics, per se, but about one of two things:

  1. whether everything is (at least potentially) under human control
  2. whether final causality is real, i.e. do things have purposes, or can we fritter our lives away on entertainment without being a failure in life?

The first one is basically an enlightenment-era myth. Anyone with a quarter of a brain knows that human life is not even potentially under human control. That it is, is believable, basically, by rich people while they’re in good health and when they’re distracted by entertainment from considering things like plagues, asteroids, war, etc. Anyone who isn’t all of these things will reject number 1.

Regarding the second: ancient pagans didn’t tend to be strict Aristotelians, so they wouldn’t have been able to describe things in terms of final causality, but they considered people to be under all sorts of burdens, both to the family, to the city, and possibly beyond that.

If you look at the modern religions, you will find the same thing. Admittedly, they don’t tend to talk about gods as much as the ancient pagans did, though even that language is on the rise these days. In what sense the Greeks believed in Poseidon as an actual human-like being vs. Poseidon was the sea is… not well defined. Other than philosophers, who were noted for being unlike common people, I doubt you could have pinned ancient pagans down on what they meant by their gods even if you could first establish the right terminology to ask them.

As for other things, environmentalism doesn’t have a church, but pagans didn’t have churches, either. Buddhists don’t have churches, and Hindus don’t have churches, and Muslims don’t have churches. Heck, even Jews don’t have churches. Churches are a specifically Christian invention. Now, many of these religions had temples. Moderns have a preference for museums. Also, being young religions, their rites and festivals aren’t well established yet. Earth day and pride month and so on are all fairly recent; people haven’t had time to build buildings in order to be able to celebrate them well. (Actually, as a side note, it also takes time to commercialize these things. People under-estimate the degree to which ancient pagan temples were businesses.)

Another stumbling block is that modern environmentalists, vegans, progressives, etc. don’t identify these things as religions—but to some degree this is for the same reason that my atheist friend doesn’t. They, too, think of religions as basically Christianity but maybe with different doctrines and holy symbols. They don’t stop to consider that most pagans in the ancient world were not in official cults. There were cults devoted to individual gods, and they often had to do with the running of temples. Normal people were not in these cults. Normal people worshiped various gods as convenient and as seemed appropriate.

There is a related passage in G.K. Chesterton’s book The Dumb Ox which is related:

The ordinary modern critic, seeing this ascetic ideal in an authoritative Church, and not seeing it in most other inhabitants of Brixton or Brighton, is apt to say, “This is the result of Authority; it would be better to have Religion without Authority.” But in truth, a wider experience outside Brixton or Brighton would reveal the mistake. It is rare to find a fasting alderman or a Trappist politician, but it is still more rare to see nuns suspended in the air on hooks or spikes; it is unusual for a Catholic Evidence Guild orator in Hyde Park to begin his speech by gashing himself all over with knives; a stranger calling at an ordinary presbytery will seldom find the parish priest lying on the floor with a fire lighted on his chest and scorching him while he utters spiritual ejaculations. Yet all these things are done all over Asia, for instance, by voluntary enthusiasts acting solely on the great impulse of Religion; of Religion, in their case, not commonly imposed by any immediate Authority; and certainly not imposed by this particular Authority. In short, a real knowledge of mankind will tell anybody that Religion is a very terrible thing; that it is truly a raging fire, and that Authority is often quite as much needed to restrain it as to impose it. Asceticism, or the war with the appetites, is itself an appetite. It can never be eliminated from among the strange ambitions of Man. But it can be kept in some reasonable control; and it is indulged in much saner proportion under Catholic Authority than in Pagan or Puritan anarchy.

Why Moderns Abhor Violence

One of the most noticeable characteristics of thoroughly modern people is that they have an absolute abhorrence of violence (when they can see it). One of the other most notable characteristics of thoroughly modern people is that their philosophy utterly undermines any moral restraint on violence and also eliminates all possibility of rational reconciliation, leaving power the only relationship between people. This may not be a coincidence.

In particular, it may be that people will only indulge in being modern (Modern philosophy, post-Modern philosophy, etc) when they feel protected from the violence which is its natural consequence. An analogy may be the various stupid ideas children will engage in as long as they’re not the ones paying for things. (Things like payment should be based on the amount of time someone puts into a job rather than the quality of their work.)

In like manner to how being vegan is a luxury good only made possible (to the degree that it even is long-term possible) by advanced technology and massive trade infrastructure, believing that morality is just an evolved set of preferences where none are any better than any others may be a luxury good for people who have an effective security force that does not believe this ready to ensure one’s safety. Or like how having a philosophy that only works for non-reproductive people is a luxury good for people with a steady supply of converts from reproductive people.

Why Talk About Atheism’s Problems

When it comes to things like defending the faith, the aphorism that one catches more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar is very much on people’s minds, especially in America. Puritans were so dour and miserable that they drove people away from Christianity, etc. So, given that, why be such a downer and talk about the problems of atheism, such as meaning, irrationality, etc? Won’t that just turn people off?

One brief word before I dive into it: it should go without saying that one should not be purely negative, that one should spend most of one’s time on the positives. This post is about why talk about the negatives at all?

One very practical thing to get out of the way before we get to the real reason is that “nice” Christianity has already been played out. That sort of positivity is really an attempt to manipulate people and probably does more harm than good. Patience is a virtue, but imprudent patience is not. Nothing but patience just looks like weakness.

OK, that stuff out of the way, the big reason to talk about the problems with atheism is that a lot of people make what might be described as an inverse Pascal’s wager. Call it the Cheese Pizza Wager. If everyone agrees on cheese pizza but people do not agree on toppings, even if the toppings may be better, just go with plain cheese because it’s safer.

Given how many people will do that, it’s important to point out that we’re not in a pizza situation; the options aren’t cheese pizza vs. barbecue chicken pizza, it’s barbecue chicken pizza vs. poison pizza.

Atheism is not like Christianity but with sleeping in on Sundays. Atheism has real and serious problems such as reason not working, life having no meaning, morality being completely arbitrary, concepts such as a human being not being philosophically tenable on any level (the you-can’t-dip-your-toe-in-the-same-river-twice problem), to say nothing of the more practical issues it has with the breakdown of culture and the tendency to produce totalitarian dictatorships as people’s need for God is replaced by the state. And there’s plenty more. (Atheists will, of course, repudiate all of these things, which isn’t a problem for them since they don’t hold rationality to work and therefore don’t object in the slightest to contradicting themselves left and right while the incoherently scream that they’re being completely rational and calm.)

It’s good for people to realize that there is no consensus and that they can’t safely leave off the difficult task of understanding the world that they live in.

Daniel Dennett On Determinism

If you are not familiar with Daniel Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, he is a good friend of Richard Dawkins and an atheist “philosopher”. (I use the scare quotes advisedly.) As an atheist he is, almost as a matter of course, a determinist. However, he’s also a proponent of “compatibalism,” the “idea” that free will and determinism are compatible. (The trick is to redefine “free will” to mean, not something freely chosen, but something deterministically done without outside force being applied at the time.) There is a wonderful video that Dennett made in which he chides neuroscientsts who tell people that they don’t have free will for being irresponsible in doing so, because if people don’t believe that they are responsible for their actions they make less morally responsible choices:

You read that correctly. A determinist is telling other determinists that if they tell people who have no free will that they don’t have free will, the people without free will will then make morally worse choices because they now know the truth that they’re not making any choices and are thus not culpable for the choices that they’re not making.

He even cites a scientific study showing that people more frequently choose to cheat if they’ve recently read an article telling them that neuroscience proves that people don’t have free will and thus are not culpable for their actions.

Of course, Dennett is a determinist, so therefore doesn’t believe that the neuroscientists can choose to be more responsible and lie to people that they have free will in order to get them to make better choices in their lives. But determinism means never having to say you’re sorry (unless you have to): Dennett himself believes that he has no free will and so he had no choice but to make this video. So it’s all OK. He’s not actually an idiot.

He’s just a puppet being made to look like an idiot by the forces pulling his strings.

It’s Funny How Angry Atheists Don’t Believe Other Angry Atheists Exist

The angry atheist is a very recognizable type on the internet, and as unpleasant as they can be to deal with they do sometimes also bring with them a certain amusement. What I have in mind (because it recently happened) was an angry atheist yelling at me about how science disproves Christianity because evolution means that there was no first human beings. Then a different one came along and yelled at me because everyone knows that all human beings have a common ancestor named “mitochondrial eve”. (Actually, he forgot the mitochondrial part in her name, but he did know that the evidence was mitochondrial DNA.)

This is only the most recent example, I’ve had plenty of times when one angry atheist yelled at me for the straw man of what another angry atheist had recently yelled at me, telling me that no one actually thinks that. What’s very curious is that every once in a great while this happens close enough in time and virtual space that you can actually put the people in touch with each other, but when you do, they never argue with each other. Their point was definitely worth yelling at you about, but immaterial when talking to each other.

Ah, good times.

Science vs. Christianity

Having seen enough Bishop Barron videos where he says that polls show that people who leave the church frequently cite the “conflict” between “science” and “religion”, I’m thinking that I might make some videos on my YouTube channel about how there is no conflict between science and (orthodox) Christianity. This is a multi-faceted topic, though, so it will probably result in multiple videos.

Sub-topics include:

Most People Don’t Know Science: Probably the biggest issue is that a lot of the “science” which is supposed to contradict religion isn’t actually scientific, or isn’t modern science. (E.g. the idea that human beings don’t have a common ancestor isn’t scientific, or, if you can find someone who does propose that, has no evidence to back it up.) The scientific theory of evolution is widely misunderstood, as is quite a lot of physics, too. Etc.

Many People Don’t Know Christianity: A lot of people don’t know what would and would not contradict Christianity, anyway. E.g. the universe being 12+ billion years old doesn’t contradict Christianity, evolution doesn’t contradict Christianity, etc.

Models vs. Reality: Science, or what most people think of as science, consists in the making of models, not in describing reality as it is. Models can be useful while being inaccurate, just as the ptolemaic model of the solar system was quite useful for predicting the movement of the planets. A model having predictive power about a very narrow aspect of reality doesn’t tell you much about reality as it is.

Science Isn’t Engineering: A lot of people confuse science with engineering and think that engineering means that “science” must be “true”. In fact, a very narrow bit of theoretical science actually precedes engineering, rather than tries to explain it after the fact. Where it does, the parts which are demonstrated to be “true” are things like the theory of electromagnetism.

Epistemology: the nature of the scientific method is that all it produces are hypotheses, and these hypotheses have often turned out to be wrong in the past. Even scientific experiments are often badly misinterpreted until later, when they are retroactively interpreted correctly (or, more precisely, in line with our current preferred interpretation).

Rationality: Science presumes the world to be rationally intelligible, which only makes sense within a framework where human beings are made in the image of a creator who created the world according to a rational purpose. (This includes Judaism and Islam, and some variants of philosophical theism, e.g. Platonism or Aristotelianism.)

Religion as Bad Science Creation Myth For Religion: A lot of people think of religions in general as merely being bad science, i.e. as a way to explain the world around them. As if, to quote my friend Andrew, the Romans worshiped Janus the god of doors to explain why doors existed.

No One Actually Believes Science Anyway: E.g. Neck-down darwinism (“from the neck down, our bodies are evolved, from the neck up, all men are created equal”). No one holds that physical determinism (assumed in science) means that rapists shouldn’t be punished because they couldn’t help it. The point is that people know how limited science really is when they care to.

Scientific Methodological Assumptions Aren’t Science: Science is well known for what is sometimes called “methodological naturalism,” i.e. the assumption that what it studies is purely natural. This doesn’t mean that the whole world is natural, only that science is only looking at the parts that are. In like manner, the assumption that the laws of physics are the same throughout space and time is purely an assumption with no proof. The assumption that what we can see (detect) is all that exists, despite us clearly being at the wrong scale to see what electrons do in low-energy environments, does not make it so.

What other subjects should be included? (Please comment below.)


Update: I got a request on Twitter to go into depth on theistic evolution.

Atheists and Morality

When I was young, I heard a fair amount of argumentation that “atheists can be just as moral as Christians,” and in a very theoretical sense—and neglecting the duty of piety to God which an atheist must necessarily transgress—there is a sense in which this is true. As time has proven, though, it’s an irrelevant sense.

There are two possible meanings to “atheists can be just as moral”, though they end up in the same place. The first meaning is that an atheist can, through practice and effort, form virtuous habits according to whatever theory of morality he holds, and continue in these virtuous habits all the days of his life. This is true, especially for people who become atheists as adults, since adults tend to be fixed in their habits relative to children. Habits formed in youth are, certainly, possible to keep even if the reason for them has been rejected. It is not easy for such an atheist, since the continuation of his habits will have only the support of his prejudices and not of his intellect, but it is certainly doable. At least so long as he doesn’t face temptation. Upper middle class bachelors, with cheap hobbies, few wants, and no family obligations, will in fact tend to be harmless until they return to dust.

This misses is that there is more to morality than simply being harmless, or even than simply being “a productive member of society”. These are fine things, but human beings were made for greatness, not for being somewhat more convenient to their neighbors than absolutely nothing would be. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, because of the second possible meaning.

The second possible meaning of “atheists can be just as moral” is that they can be just as moral, according to their own moral standards. If this sounds good to you, consider that Genghis Khan thought that pillaging, raping, and murdering were heroic actions and that he was a really great guy for doing them. Being moral according to your own moral standards—assuming you’ve done your best to ensure your moral standards are correct—may possibly be sufficient to make you saveable by the salvific power of Christ on the cross atoning for the sins of the world, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t being immoral according to the correct moral standards.

To say that an atheist can follow his own moral standards is, in fact, to say that he is liable to be immoral precisely to the degree in which his standards differ from real morality. It is no answer to say that he will approve of himself while he fornicates, adulterates marriages, and murders. It is no answer to say that he will only murder the people he believes it’s perfectly fine to murder, or that he will only murder people he declares aren’t human beings before he murders them. Approving of his evil actions doesn’t make him less wrong, it makes him more wrong.

When the famous enlightenment philosopher said, “there is no God, but don’t tell that to the servants or they will steal the silver,” it is no answer to say, “perhaps, but they will not think that it’s wrong to steal the silver while they steal it.”

This does bring up something of a side-note, which is sometimes talked about in this context: people who believe that God sees everything and punishes wrongdoing in the afterlife are more likely to think that they cannot get away with a moral transgression than are people who think that no one will catch them now or later. There is something to this, since the feeling that someone will know what you do is a support to doing the right thing. This is not the entirety of morality, however. People can habituate themselves to virtue such that they do not need this support in order to do the right thing, i.e. so that they can do the right thing even if they don’t believe anyone will know, merely because it is the right thing to do. Which brings us back to this second point: that does no good if the person’s theory of right and wrong is wrong.

If someone’s theory of right and wrong is wrong, he will not just do wrong (that he approves of) when no one is looking, he will also do wrong when everyone is looking.

Many atheists of the late 1800s and early 1900s took great offense at the idea that an atheist could not recognize moral standards. All people know right from wrong, they indignantly said. That modern atheists are busy villifying those older atheists for not living up to the different moral standards of modern atheists tells you what you need to know about this silly claim.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether atheists can, through effort and practice, create virtuous habits and stick to them even if no one is looking, until the day they die. History tells us, if common sense didn’t already, that they will alter their moral standards before then. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time and temptation before they form new habits accordingly.

Missed One

In my previous post about the taxonomy of atheists, I realized that I missed one: the atheist who hates human nature. This is probably more commonly known as the atheist who wants to be immoral, though they amount to the same thing. The example which comes to mind quickest is Bertrand Russell.

I wrote about Bertrand Russell a bit in my post about his famous teapot argument. The short version was after seeing how stupid his teapot argument was, and knowing that he was a well educated man, I knew he had to have an ulterior motive and so I knew that he was a bad man. And briefly looking up his biography turned up that he was a serial adulterer.

This sort of atheist is not limited to those who wish to contravene sexual morality, though that may be the most common form of it. People who wish to be something other than they are can also fall into this trap, since it amounts to hating God for giving them the nature that they have and not the nature that they want. People can hate God for giving them the wrong hair, or the wrong skin, or making them short instead of tall. It will, of course, be most common where people think that they can do something about it and God is standing in their way. That is why you see this more commonly with morality, since somebody who believes that he should be, by nature, a bigamist, will tend to think that if he simply practices bigamy he will be what he wishes to be. And, indeed, if our nature was our own creation, he would be right. If God exists, however, essence precedes existence and he is what God made him, regardless of what he’s futilely trying to remake himself into.

This, by the way, is why the life history of people trying to make themselves into something that they’re not is always extremely depressing. I’m currently reading the biography of a guy who was certain in his heart that he was a rock star—and he absolutely hated reality for disagreeing with him. The harder he pursued his delusion, the angrier he got at everyone around him. This is really what Sartre was talking about when he said, “hell is other people.” If you take the existentialist position seriously (that existence precedes essence), other people will be hell because, being just as real as you are, they will inevitably prove that the essence you’re trying to give yourself is a lie.