Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 4

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 4

“Who are these atheists, anyway?” is the fourth and final part in the Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be series by Gavan O’ Farrell, who works as a public sector lawyer.

Part one can be read here: Reason and Evidence
Part two can be read here: Morality and the Human Being
Part three can be read here: I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!

Who are these atheists, anyway?

This final Part on the series on atheism is less concerned with argument and more focused on who we’re talking about (and to).

“Non-theists” vary

I’ve decided now to refer to “non-theists”, as non-belief in God ranges from frank atheism (“There is no God”) to agnosticism (“I don’t know”) with each position having its own spectrum and labels not being applied consistently.  Non-theists sometimes describe themselves as “rationalists”, “realists”, “sceptics”, “humanists” or “secularists”.  However, they all reside in the “empiricist box” (see Part 1).

Needless to say, non-theists vary because they are human beings with myriad characteristics and experiences.  I can mention some.

The most serious non-theists are those atheists who are intellectually attached to the evidence argument: if there were a God, it would have been proved by now.  Their demeanour varies: some triumphalist and rude, some civil.

Ordinarily, atheists are a smallish subset of non-theists but, in this era of maximum self-expression, the number is probably artificially inflated.

The most visible non-theists are those who have a strong dislike of religion, especially Christianity.

This dislike may arise from their understanding of the general and historical conduct of the Church – sometimes a genuine misunderstanding that can be treated with information.

Illumination is not effective when the misunderstanding is deliberate – due to prejudice or even organised enmity.  Socialists, for example, oppose Christianity as a matter of ideology, will contradict and abuse it at every opportunity and intend to bring it down.  This stance can be found in many places, people and discussions:  it doesn’t always call itself Socialism but, on the other hand, the Socialism brand is being laundered and relaunched despite its appallingly murderous history.

Or the dislike may be the result of bad experiences within the Church – a story which needs to be seriously listened to before mentioning “babies and bathwater”.  Many are angry: mere indignation for some, while for others it is real hurt.

This anger is sometimes directed at God, not at religion.  If a believer is angry with God, and doesn’t address the situation properly, the anger can take them far away – eg I might “punish God” by proclaiming that I don’t believe in Him.

Determined personal sovereignty and autonomy is another path to non-theism: “I don’t need a God to feel significant or secure”.  Or, “I’m very clever and educated, I’ll take it from here”.  Or simply, “No-one’s the boss of me!”  More attitude than rationale.

Others were raised as non-theists and, like some Christians, think habitually and speak by rote.

Some non-theists call themselves “sceptics”, but I have found that they are typically half-sceptics – sceptical about God and the supernatural but not about their own claims about rationality and evidence (or the social and moral positions put forward by the Left).

Most non-theists are agnostics.  This position is more understandable than a dogmatic “Ain’t no God”.

On the other hand, “I don’t know” is often a cover for “I don’t care”.  It seems strange not to care that there might be Someone who made the cosmos and is in touch with humanity, but we continue to hear “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it”.

For some, “I’ll cross that bridge” is another pretext for avoiding a difficult issue.  We should recognise that delaying consideration (and the “risk” of believing) is understandable, just like not wanting God to exist.

Some people prefer agnosticism because they believe it can accommodate spirituality.  (Oddly, even some atheists are into this.)  Of course, this “spirituality” falls short of belief in a God who is a Person – especially, a Person with, shall we say, “strong opinions” (who needs that?!).  I think they’re trying to have their cake and eat it:

  • A yearning for “the spiritual” is extremely common and entirely natural (a hint at the real yearning for God).
  • However, with no connection with God or the supernatural, “spirituality” is just a species of strong emotion.
  • True atheism – “truth is about reason and evidence” – is hard to market. No-one wants to think of themselves as a left hemisphere on a stick, so no wonder non-theist advocates use hard-sell.  Enhancing non-theism with “spirituality” is smart marketing, but that’s all it is.

At risk of stating the obvious, a conversation with a non-theist is not a conversation with the embodiment of some ideas but with a fabulously complex and unique human being who is in God’s image and likeness, is loved by God, is in humanity’s shared predicament and has an irrefutable claim on everyone’s love.

Atheism and politics

Visiting an atheist site, I once asked “Are there any conservative atheists or are you all Lefties?”.  I was told, “If you’re smart enough to be an atheist, you’re probably smart enough to be progressive”.

Like much of academia, the media, the education system,much of government and parts of the Church, popular non-theism seems to have been infiltrated and largely taken over by “progressives” – to be politically allied with third-wave feminism, the LGBTIQ lobby and other “diversity” lobbies, and united with these in protecting Islam from criticism.

It is strange that such independent thinkers (a claim which non-theists often make to distinguish themselves from Christians) should all of a sudden be of one mind about such difficult and complex issues, especially when you consider that –

  • trans activists ignore and often oppose the “factuality” of science, which serious non-theists ordinarily value; and
  • in an Islamic theocracy, non-theists would fare as badly as feminists and LGBTIQ folk.

As far as I can tell, all these groups have in common is a, shall we say, “warm dislike” of Christianity.  I don’t know how else to make sense of this outlandish alliance.

Some non-theists are seriously dedicated to reality and reason and have avoided being ensnared by these movements.  It is possible to have positive ethical and political conversations with these more independent non-theists.  There is likely to be mutual acceptance of the starting proposition that human beings are highly, and equally, valuable – if the non-theists don’t deride our “deluded” reasons for believing this and we don’t berate them for having no reason at all to believe it (see Part 2).  From that starting-point, a lot of positive discussion and common action are possible.

Some very good books

Before closing, I must bring to your attention four excellent myth-busting books that together respond to most charges laid at the door of Christianity:

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014)
– a history of religion and war – wars, past and present, are usually complex

In these times of rising geopolitical chaos, the need for mutual understanding between cultures has never been more urgent. Religious differences are seen as fuel for violence and warfare. In these pages, one of our greatest writers on religion, Karen Armstrong, amasses a sweeping history of humankind to explore the perceived connection between war and the world’s great creeds—and to issue a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.

With unprecedented scope, Armstrong looks at the whole history of each tradition—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism. Religions, in their earliest days, endowed every aspect of life with meaning, and warfare became bound up with observances of the sacred. Modernity has ushered in an epoch of spectacular violence, although, as Armstrong shows, little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different faiths in our time.

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (2011)
– a very insightful look at the Old Testament generally, but especially those passages that our critics like to highlight

A recent string of popular-level books written by the New Atheists have leveled the accusation that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but a bully, a murderer, and a cosmic child abuser. This viewpoint is even making inroads into the church. How are Christians to respond to such accusations? And how are we to reconcile the seemingly disconnected natures of God portrayed in the two testaments?

In this timely and readable book, apologist Paul Copan takes on some of the most vexing accusations of our time, including:

God is arrogant and jealous
God punishes people too harshly
God is guilty of ethnic cleansing
God oppresses women
God endorses slavery
Christianity causes violence
and more

Copan not only answers God’s critics, he also shows how to read both the Old and New Testaments faithfully, seeing an unchanging, righteous, and loving God in both.

Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity:  How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (2018)
– Christianity did not spread only because it was adopted by the Emperor Constantine

The “marvelous” (Reza Aslan, bestselling author of Zealot), New York Times bestselling story of how Christianity became the dominant religion in the West.

How did a religion whose first believers were twenty or so illiterate day laborers in a remote part of the empire became the official religion of Rome, converting some thirty million people in just four centuries? In The Triumph of Christianity, early Christian historian Bart D. Ehrman weaves the rigorously-researched answer to this question “into a vivid, nuanced, and enormously readable narrative” (Elaine Pagels, National Book Award-winning author of The Gnostic Gospels), showing how a handful of charismatic characters used a brilliant social strategy and an irresistible message to win over hearts and minds one at a time.

This “humane, thoughtful and intelligent” book (The New York Times Book Review) upends the way we think about the single most important cultural transformation our world has ever seen—one that revolutionized art, music, literature, philosophy, ethics, economics, and law.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009)
– covers several bases, including Christianity and science, the Spanish Inquisition, witches and slavery.

Among all the great transitions that have marked Western history, only one—the triumph of Christianity—can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution”

In this provocative book one of the most brilliant scholars of religion today dismantles distorted religious “histories” offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism. David Bentley Hart provides a bold correction of the New Atheists’s misrepresentations of the Christian past, countering their polemics with a brilliant account of Christianity and its message of human charity as the most revolutionary movement in all of Western history.

Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the “Age of Reason” was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 1

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 1


Every now and then, one reads in the press that “religion is irrational”.  In fact, it occurs with increasing frequency – far more often than I would like, speaking as a churchgoer.

Or it might be “belief in God is irrational”, or someone might refer to “faith vs reason” as phenomena in mutual opposition.  Or, belief in God might be frankly compared with belief in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus or someone even more remote and implausible.

This view of religious belief has been around for some time.  What’s changed, besides the frequency of the statement, is the confidence with which it is made.  It used to be a claim, now it’s more like a statement of accepted fact, as though it were preceded by “And, of course” or “As we all know”.

Although it’s a popular view in some quarters, it is demonstrably untrue.  I’ve noticed that people of faith use reason just as anyone else does.  It’s unavoidable:  if you don’t apply the rules of logic (to draw reliable conclusions from stated facts and to adopt consistent conclusions), you’ll get called on it every time and attempts at communication would just break down.  This doesn’t happen.  Whatever we people of faith are, we’re not irrational.

The reason we sometimes reach different conclusions from our critics is not that we don’t use the common logic, it’s because we rely on additional facts (about God) to begin with.  I should say “factual assertions” as these facts are contentious.

Speaking from a scientific viewpoint, atheist apologists typically require empirical evidence (evidence which, ultimately, appeals to our senses) to support any factual assertion.  This is why we theists might be told, “Come back with some evidence and we’ll talk.”

This is the actual objection to belief in God.

So, in public critique of theism, “reason” and “rationality” are actually a red herring.  Some of our critics are aware of this (it’s obvious enough, after all).  So, if you were to ask why they call us “irrational”, I can only surmise that it’s because that’s what they “were told”.  Tracing it back through atheist whispers, I think you’ll find that the promoters of this view believe “irrational” makes for better polemical marketing than “not evidence-based”.  And they’re right.  Also, “irrational” is insulting, which is a plus for many of our critics.

Still, the real objection to belief in God – the lack of “evidence” – is serious and important.

For the sake of argument, I accept that the required evidence is not available.  I cannot demonstrate how to reliably observe God with the naked eye, with a telescope, microscope or other visual aid, or with any other sense or sense-enhancing technology.  I can point to anecdotal evidence of millions of people who are neither idiots nor liars, but atheist apologists say this is of no value.  This is unreasonable of them, but it is not the main problem with their objection to theistic belief.

The objection is misconceived at the outset.  The demand for scientific proof of God derives from the idea (highly contentious) that everything is amenable to empirical or scientific inquiry.  This may be true of everything in what is generally called the “natural world”, but the appropriate scope of a conversation about whether or not God exists is all of reality, not just the natural world.  No-one has established that they are the same and there is no reason to assume that they are.

If I were somehow impartial on the subject (I can’t really pretend to be), I would observe that the atheists have rejected the theistic “delusion” and replaced it with an unproved assumption.  And remark that this is not an intellectual advance.

Insistence on evidence limits the scope of the discussion about God, which falsely (and unfairly) loads the discussion towards no-God.  God’s existence isn’t the kind of [alleged] fact that can be investigated empirically or scientifically

I appreciate that science is indispensable and authoritative for inquiring into the natural world.  And I understand why science-minded atheists might feel uneasy venturing into a discussion in which their scientific tools are of no use.  However, the scope of the discussion should not be dictated by their methodology or convenience.

There is more directly analytical way of approaching the topic.  The scientific (or “empiricist” or “materialist”) world-view is based on the following principle:

It is reasonable to believe that a statement is true (including a statement about something existing) only if the truth of the statement is proved empirically (ie by “evidence”).  It is reasonable to believe a statement might be true only if its truth is provable (at least potentially) empirically.

I’ve done my best to represent the position correctly and fairly.  The second sentence is added to accommodate the fact that science is still learning and, in honest hands, doesn’t make absolute claims about facts and knowledge.

The typical atheist believes the above statement of principle to be true.  The truth of the statement has not been proved empirically.  Nor is its truth provable empirically.  The truth of the statement is assumed.

It is this statement which appears to give rise to the assumption that reality consists entirely of the natural world – amenable to empirical observation (or scientific inquiry).

Most people, probably everyone, have a starting-point in their thinking – a starting-point from which they proceed forward and outward.  They aren’t necessarily aware of it.  My starting-point is God.  The typical atheist’s is the above statement.  You can discover someone’s starting-point by asking “Why?”.  Whatever the topic, if you keep asking “Why?”, you will find yourself delving more deeply into the other person’s thinking, layer by layer and, when you no longer get a different answer, you’ve reached their starting-point.  I’ll end with “Because of God” or “Because God is God”, or similar.

There is a serious logical advantage to the starting-point of God:  I take a leap of faith to God and always acknowledge that I’ve done so, so my thinking is consistent.  The atheist takes a leap of faith (to the truth of the above statement) and, from that moment, scorns leaps of faith.  That sequence of thought is profoundly inconsistent, indeed arguably “irrational”.

I am not arguing here for the existence of God (or anything else supernatural), much less against science.  I am identifying and critiquing the assumption that reality consists only of the natural world.  This assumption involves locking one’s mind inside an “empiricist box” and believing that, because it’s a very large box (as vast as the natural world), it’s not a box at all.  This box represents a self-imposed and arbitrary limitation on reality and one’s ability to apprehend it.

The empiricist box is no place to find out whether or not God exists.  Even if reality does consist only of the natural world, this will not be discovered inside the box.  To think outside such a commodious box might seem like a lot to ask, but a serious God inquiry has to be seriously intrepid.

No-one likes their assumptions being challenged, or even exposed.  There was a time when a person like me could safely assume “the other person” believed in God as much as I do.  That would be a while back.  I’ve had to learn to mingle and discuss far away from this comfort zone.

Being only human, atheists and other sceptics also relish intellectual and social comfort.  I can’t help but think the empiricist box is a place of refuge for the sceptic.  Atheists are not all as triumphant and disdainful, or even as confident, as their public apologists.  Besides, most sceptics are not atheists at all, they just “don’t know”:  many are actually curious, while many others find the subject of God exhausting or frustrating, or embarrassing.  Many others, of course, are simply not interested.

Because it is superficially impressive, the empiricist argument provides a pretext for dismissing religious claims on reflex and for not pursuing any genuine curiosity about God.

The argument is actually misconceived and irrelevant, which is a problem for those many atheists who value intellectual integrity and would like their disbelief to have a sound foundation.

Je n’suis pas Charlie – Defending freedom

Je n’suis pas Charlie – Defending freedom

It has been good to see a number of articles offering some balance to the mass demonstrations that have taken place in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings.  Jeff Fountain from the Schuman Centre here highlights some of the inconsistencies …

“Let me exercise the freedom of expression everyone on the streets says they are defending: Je n’suis pas Charlie! After the mass demonstrations in Paris and other cities across Europe and beyond, I’m left unsettled and confused. What statement exactly were our leaders and the crowds trying to make?”

Read here …  Defending freedom? – The Schuman Centre.

Islamic terrorism and Charlie Hebdo – Is more blasphemy the best response?

Islamic terrorism and Charlie Hebdo – Is more blasphemy the best response?

Michael Cook (MercatorNet) has written a useful reflection on the latest terrorist attack in France, asking whether the approach advocated by many commentators is the best way.

He quotes novelist Michel Houellebecq, who was featured on this week’s cover of Charlie Hebdo, saying,

Look, the Enlightenment is dead … May it rest in peace. … In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear.

via Islamic terrorists mow down staff of Charlie Hebdo.

Mayor responds to Prayer breakfast criticism

Good on Redland (Queensland, Australia) Mayor for responding so graciously and wisely to a letter to the editor attacking her role in a Prayer breakfast.

 … my Christian values drive my passion for this City, my tolerance of different views and my desire to do what I can whilst I am caretaker of this City – to make it a better place than when this privileged role was bestowed on me. – Karen Williams, Mayor of Redland City

This is a fine example of how Christians – in New Zealand just as in Australia – can talk about their faith in the public domain, at the same time as highlighting the importance of faith in general.

Read more …  Letter: Mayor responds to Prayer breakfast criticism | Redland City Bulletin.