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What's the worst atheist argument you've come across?

Are there any arguments, beloved by atheists everywhere, that you feel are shockingly bad? What claims would you suggest atheists not make if they value their self-respect? Are there any approaches to arguing God that just make you cringe?

Posted: June 18th 2007

SmartLX www

I know a woman who began a relationship with a vocal evangelical Christian. He impregnated and abandoned her. Her entire family appears to have turned atheist solely because of that one hypocritical man.

This is of course intellectually indefensible, but such was their emotional impetus that they stuck to it long enough to find better rationalisations for their atheism. They had to have, or else they’d be believers again by now.

Goes to show that even the right conclusion can be reached using bad logic, or without logic.

Posted: November 27th 2007

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Russell Blackford www

My short answer: I think that atheists often mishandle the question of where morality comes from and what it really is. We can end up sounding defensive, when we actually have a positive story to tell. If we value our self-respect, we ought to cconcede quite frankly that atheists do not have a basis to endorse the old, miserable morality that religious moralists try to shove down our throats, and we should insist that this is to atheism’s credit. We are better placed than religious people to make rational decisions about how to live and conduct ourselves. We are better placed to treat ourselves and others well.

Elaboration for those who want more:I do think that there are perfectly good naturalistic sources of morality, but not of the traditional morality that a lot of religious believers favour, with its rigid rules, its obsession with sexual purity, and its emphasis on piety, guilt, submission, and the renunciation of Earthly pleasures (“the pomps and vanities of this wicked world”, as I was taught from the catechism as a child).

We should be open about the fact that a morality built on a purely naturalistic base would be much more flexible. It would still require that we show kindness, courage, generosity, a disinclination to engage in violence, and many other traditional virtues. But it would not rule out, or deplore, a proper pride in one’s abilities and achievements, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or the celebration of sexuality and physical beauty. It would not value submission to tradition and authority, or support the “belief in belief” that Daniel Dennett has discussed.

A morality grounded in entirely naturalistic considerations might seem more “pagan” than Christian or Muslim morality, but that is not a bad thing. To the extent that an atheistic morality would differ from religious morality, then so much the worse for the religious morality concerned.

Living in accordance with a morality with a purely naturalistic basis will mean rejecting absolute moral rules, and replacing them with more complex things, like values and virtues. That may mean living with a degree of ambiguity – without totally clear answers to every question. But religious morality has the same problem in a less honest way: relying on absolute rules proves to be impossible, and many of the actual rules in holy books have to be explained away in any event, as they come to seem barbaric to more enlightened generations.

There is also the problem of the divine command theory of morality being incoherent. Why should we obey the commands of god, anyway? If it’s because this being is good, that suggests we have an independent standard of goodness, so where does this come from? If it’s because the god is merely giving us wise advice about how to live a flourishing life, that would be fine, except that the advice is open to interpretation, largely because, taken simply as advice, much of it seems so bad. Thus, religious believers often end up having to explain a lot of it away, while selecting what seems wise to them.

In short, it is religious believers who should be embarrassed about lacking a rational basis for their warped morality.

All in all, atheists can tell a positive story about the nature and the content of morality: it’s a much more positive story than the religious one. What we should not do, however, is pretend that the old, repressive, demeaning, miserable morality can still be preserved, or that moral absolutes can be found, within a purely naturalistic worldview. They can’t be, and that’s actually a good thing.

Posted: June 19th 2007

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bitbutter www

While I think the world could be a better place without religion, the claim that religion is only ever a force for bad is indefensible I think. This sentiment finds expression in the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ book: God is Not Great : How Religion Poisons Everything.

A more extreme, and thankfully rare, blunder that makes me cringe is to claim that the world’s problems all stem from religion. This idea is echoed by the unfortunate title of Richard Dawkins’ television series about religion: The Root of All Evil. Dawkins explains

I think it’s the root of quite a lot of evil, but it’s not a very catchy title, and I lost my fight with Channel Four.

Posted: June 19th 2007

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brian thomson www

The primary mistake an atheist can make is: to make an assertion such as “there are no gods, anywhere”. I’ve heard this called a “hard atheism” argument, but being sure of that would require a complete knowledge of the universe, which no-one has at this time.

That sounds simple enough, logically, but most theists’ claims are not simply for gods “anywhere in the universe”: they specifically postulate a God (capital G) who is powerful, all-seeing, and takes a personal interest in our lives. We simply do not see any reliable evidence to back up that assertion. “Scripture” does not work as proof, any more than The Lord Of The Rings proves the existence of Middle Earth.

Other logical fallacies are also possible and should be avoided: begging the question, “correlation is not causation”, and ad hominem attacks.

Apart from that, we lazy atheists have the easy job, philosophically speaking: we don’t have to go out and demolish arguments for theism, we can just sit back and wait for proof that never arrives. Without real objective evidence to back the claims theists make, we have no reason to believe them, and can get on with our lives.

In the last few years, however, the negative impact of religious beliefs on our world has led to increasing awareness of the violent nature of fundamentalism. There is a real need to come out and defend science, civil liberties and free expression, from those who would impose their beliefs on whole countries, and deny you the right to ask questions.

Posted: June 19th 2007

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