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Atheism, Faith, and Violence: Focus on Atheism

Posted on Feb 27, 2013 by Tom Gilson

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Atheism, Faith, and Violence

Posts In This Series:

Last time in this series on atheism, faith, and violence, I took a very brief look at Richard Dawkins’s misunderstanding of faith: specifically, that it’s not just the fact of faith but also its content that matters.

That was the first of five items I said I would cover in pursuit of the question Dawkins raised: is there a more logical path from faith to violence than there is from atheism to violence?

The answer to that quite obviously is yes, provided that the faith in question is one that endorses violence. Islam does, according to many common interpretations. Christianity does not, according to all of the most common interpretations.

As for atheism, there’s no logical path at all from there to violence (although see Case 2 below). That might sound as if I’m agreeing with Dawkins. Far from it, and the following explains why.

I’ll make my case twice, on two levels, starting with a version that does not expect any agreement with biblical thinking, and then moving from there to one that takes biblical thinking to be generally true.

Case 1: Atheism Is No Help Against Human Violence

“Atheism is not a belief. Atheism is merely the lack of a belief in God or gods.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that. It is one of the chief Internet Atheist mantras I’ve been told that rocks are atheistic: they don’t believe in God or gods. When you probe for what atheism is according to atheists, what you find is one big negative. There’s nothing there. There’s no belief, only a specific disbelief.

That’s what they say, at any rate. In actual fact, most contemporary atheists, especially in the New Atheist camp, hold a positive belief in all or most of the following:

  • Reality consists of matter and energy interacting according to necessity and chance, and nothing else but that
  • Human beings are essentially the same as animals, differing only in our complexity and in a persistent illusion of free will, self-hood, consciousness, purpose, and meaning
  • Human morality, originally produced for the purposes of group selection, is now a matter of human opinion, whether on an individual or a cultural level.

I could add more, but you get the picture: for most New Atheists, there really is a definite set of positive beliefs associated with atheism.

Now, then, does any of that lead logically toward violence? Not really. But here’s the kicker: it doesn’t lead away from it, either. And that’s a fatal flaw, for there is violence wrapped up in the heart of humankind. In small ways or in large, we all push our weight around, unless we restrain our impulse to do so. We do this in subtle ways: gossiping, maneuvering politically in the office, getting grumpy with our spouses and refusing to help at home. Sometimes we do it more openly: fighting at home, backstabbing at the office, lying on Internet sites. Some of us commit crimes against life and property. A few even gain enough power to multiply those crimes upon millions in their own country.

And this is indeed the human condition: we push our way around to the extent that we have power to do so, unless we restrain ourselves. And there is nothing in atheism to restrain us. How could there be? There’s nothing in atheism at all, if we accept the atheists’ doctrine that atheism has no doctrine.

Even if we look deeply into common New Atheist positive beliefs, such as those I bulleted above, there’s nothing there to provide moral restraint. Suppose someone decides to set aside his or her culture’s morality. There’s nothing in atheism to tell him or her it’s wrong—nothing but social pressure, that is, which is only superficially different from violence itself. That’s how I regard peer pressure that attempts to control me and my values—don’t you? It’s pushy. It’s one of those subtle forms of violence I alluded to earlier.

So when a Stalin or a Mao kills millions and millions of people in the name of atheism — for they did do so in the name of atheism, whether atheists like that fact or not — we might not be able to say “atheism caused this.” But we can say, “atheism opened wide the door for this.”

Biblical Christianity, in contrast, could never permit that. It doesn’t even endorse gossiping or backstabbing, much less theft or murder (remember the Ten Commandments?).

Other religions might or might not open the door for violence; it’s not my purpose here to comment on that. But atheism does, whereas biblical Christianity does not.

Case 2: Atheism’s Rebellion Against God Overflows Into Violence Against People

Atheism, the denial of God, is also the denial of the Good, the True, the Right; for these are completely wrapped up in who God is. Atheism is the rejection of God’s love. Therefore to reject God is to distance oneself from the source of all goodness, including the power to do what is good.

This is not to say that every atheistic act is overtly immoral, or even that atheists’ actions are necessarily worse than believers’. It is to say, however, that atheists’ every thought and deed is tainted by rebellion against God. To live a life of denying God is to say, “I don’t need God, I can do this on my own;” which is to deny the One who created us, loves us, sacrificed himself for us on the Cross, and offers us his life forever.

Think of it: to deny your father or mother while they actually love you and are doing what is actually good for you—not just trying or hoping to do what is good, but actually doing it—would be an act of violence against them. The same is so for denying God, only much more so.

A life of atheism is a life of self-reliant, self-centered rebellion against God. That self-orientation often overflows into overt violence against others.

I must clarify again what I am saying. I am not saying that every atheist is violent toward others. I am saying that every atheist is in a state of rebellion against God, and that for some, that rebellion overflows into overt violence. For those persons, their atheism does more than permit violence. It causes it.

And so we see that Dawkins is narrowly correct in some cases, viewed from a certain limited perspective: to the extent that atheism is non-belief (or to the extent we’re willing to believe that of atheism) it does not cause violence. Rather it opens wide the door for humans to express our violent proclivities without restraint. For some persons, though (and based on a biblical perspective), atheism is a direct cause of violence, as its hatred for God overflows into anger, hatred, power-seeking, and eventually violence toward others.

I’m sure that the biblical perspective I’ve described in Case 2 will bother some non-believing readers. I remind you that the first case I have presented here is enough to knock the legs out from under Dawkins’s position (for which see here). And I invite you to consider this: If it were true after all that God exists, and that he is the source of all that is good and right, wouldn’t it be likely that rejecting him would result in a life that is deficient in what is good and right—either in a covert way (simply holding an attitude of denying God) or in overt ways like subtle, open, or even blatant violence?

Before you reject this thesis, think of what it might mean if it were true.

Our Common Condition, With A Way Out Of It

One final word. Rebellion against God is humans’ natural state. We all started in it. God has drawn some out of it, and invites you and all others to come out of it as well. To turn away from that rebellion does not make any of us perfect, for believers lapse into it more often than we would like to be true. Still, to the extent that we align our hearts and lives with God, to that extent we align ourselves with what is truly good. To the extent that we resist that, to that same extent we resist the good. That’s true for believers. As one who has experienced God’s goodness, I invite you warmly—and urgently!—to taste of it yourself.

Series Navigation (Atheism, Faith, and Violence):<<< Atheism, Faith, and Violence: So Close Yet So Wrong

46 Responses to “ Atheism, Faith, and Violence: Focus on Atheism ”

  1. Sault says:

    One final word. Rebellion against God is humans’ natural state. We all started in it.

    FINALLY someone acknowledging that we are all born atheists… even if their definition of ‘atheist’ is a little off.

    It’s funny. I don’t feel like I’m “rebelling” against anything, except perhaps people who want to impose their beliefs and morality on me. Can someone be a rebel if they have no idea that they are actually rebelling?

    As far as the “the Bible doesn’t permit violence” canard… well, whatever. You can read the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible as well as I can, or spend a minute or two on Google and look at the Wikipedia entry on violence in the Bible, or check out the NPR interview where Philip Jenkins concludes that the Bible is even more violent than the Koran.

    Or you could even just read the dang thing.

    It’s annoying to see Tom utter a “killed in 2 minutes by Google” sentiment (in my experience that’s usually a realm inhabited mostly by Creationists), but I suppose it happens to the best of us sometimes.

    Christians have their “personal relationship” with their God, what is at least theoretically an objective morality that He has given them, a pretty specific list of moral do’s-and-don’t’s, and a set of pretty imposing threats of punishments… yet they still sin.

    Atheists don’t have this personal relationship – in fact, they are (apparently?) in outright revolt! They have what has been described as an inferior relative morality, have only general moral guidelines (e.g. “Don’t be a dick” – Will Wheaton’s Law), and lack any after-death punishments… yet we’re still just as moral and decent as the next guy.

    Where, in the “broadest cultural sense” do we find evidence of any of Tom’s accusations, specifically that atheism broadly engenders violence and immorality?

    I’m an atheist, and I’m not particularly violent. My atheist friends aren’t particularly violent. I don’t think I’ve ever even met a particularly violent atheist. If Tom is speaking from anything other than a vague ideological/metaphysical/spiritual/unconnected-with-actual-observable-reality standpoint, then I think he’s pretty much sunk on this one.

    This whole post is brash, whitewashing bunk.

    But hey, at least we’re all pretty much on the same page – we’re not born believing in God.

  2. Sault says:

    Atheism’s Rebellion Against God Overflows Into Violence Against People

    The new war cry for the most militant atheists among us can now be

    “Atheism – because we’re better at Call of Duty than you are!”

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Sault, for you to reference the Skeptics Annotated Bible on this is
    a) Intellectually reprehensible, because the SAB makes no pretense at understanding any relevant scholarship whatsoever. Not even a little bit.
    b) Morally reprehensible, because you’re taking the most incredibly biased, stereotyped, and bigoted version of scripture interpretation and saying that represents the truth about what we’re following.

    It is ignorant bigotry. I am personally offended, and I’m embarrassed for you, for offering it in evidence here.

    Now, for Wikipedia: who gives a rip what Wikipedia thinks?

    As for Phillip Jenkins, the only place where he indicates the Bible affirms violence is the so-called genocide issue. Look up “God Bible genocide” on Google, okay? You might find a link there where someone has given it some actual thought.

    Sure the Bible is violent. So is any standard history of WWII. To mention violence is not to affirm violence.

    And for Pete’s sake, Phillip Jenkins is not the only living human being who has anything to say about this.

    But hey, if you have a stereotype you want to support, he’s someone you can go to for it! And if you think being a 2-minute Google scholar is what qualifies you to speak on these things, man, am I ever embarrassed for you!

    You’re not usually a bigot on this blog, but you sure hit big on it this time.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Your Wikipedia entry says,

    In response to these charges of violence in their scriptures, many Christian theologians and apologists respond that the “God of the Old Testament” is a violent god whereas the “God of the New Testament” is a peaceful and loving god.

    Poppycock. Utter and complete nonsense. No conservative theologian sees the two Testaments as describing different Gods. That may be a liberal, non-believing theologian’s view. It’s hardly an apologists’s view. I’ve been reading apologetics for decades and I have never run across that. This Wikipedia entry is ignorant from the get-go.

    I am embarrassed for you.

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    Need I add, Sault, that there isn’t a shred of credibility to what you wrote last?

  6. Andrew W says:

    FINALLY someone acknowledging that we are all born atheists

    I don’t think it’s acknowledging we are all athiests – it’s claiming that we all reject God’s authority. There’s an important distinction between rejecting something because it doesn’t exist and rejecting something while acknowledging it exists (even if we’d like to think it didn’t).

    The critical issue in Tom’s discussion above is not the athiest denial of the supernatural, but the athiest denial of purpose. Without purpose, there is no ultimate point of reference for any moral claim. Without purpose, there is no right or wrong, only preference.

    Which makes “athiest ideology”, exemplified in the negative by Stalin or Mao, an intellectually bizarre idea. Ideology requires a goal, a story, a purpose. And yet athiesm explicitly denies this, so one ends up hanging one’s ideological and moral coats on a bare patch of wall. All that is left is preference and power.

    While no Mao or Stalin, Dawkins and his ilk fall into the same trap. They wish to win people for athiesm, but at its heart it is the self-importance of humanity because humanity declares itself to be important. The moral question is fundamentally begged.

    And yet, the only athiests for whom this should be a problem are those who believe in morality, and thus ultimately deny athiesm. Athiesm can give functional and dysfunctional, but not good and evil. But why should we prefer functional to dysfunctional? Why prefer good to evil? Why prefer painful reality to pain-free fantasy? Why see any form of moral preference as anything more than biological and sociological indoctrination? Meaning requires purpose, otherwise it’s just self-flattery.

    The Christian claims that Christian and non-Christian alike are born anti-God, and yet valuable to him and responsible to him (and thus each other also). The athiest moralist claims that athiest and non-athiest are like are born valueless, and yet the athiest’s make-believe morals are more moral than anyone else’s.

  7. Sault says:

    Need I add, Sault, that there isn’t a shred of credibility to what you wrote last?

    Of course atheists aren’t necessarily better at “Call of Duty”. It was a play on words – what “militant atheist” might actually mean in the real world.

    You’re not usually a bigot on this blog, but you sure hit big on it this time.

    You’re not a bigot when you disparage atheism, but I’m a bigot when I criticize you and your faith? Pfft. Okay, well, let’s talk bigotry:

    I came across this post of yours where you give your definition (at the time, at least) of ‘bigot’…

    My definition of “bigoted” would go something like this: “unreasoningly, unreflectingly, discourteously committed to the belief in the superiority of one’s group or one’s opinion.”

    I found an earlier post of yours where you use a Merriam-Webster’s definition -

    “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”

    I referenced an admittedly biased group, a source speaking to liberal theology, and a conservative theologian with whom you disagree (I managed to squeeze in a bit of the whole spectrum in!). I called your post a brazen attempt at whitewash. Unkind, perhaps, and probably a little over the top, and you’re more than welcome to respond to that, but to label this as bigotry???

    Good Lord, Tom. You can do better than calling me names, and you can at least be consistent with your own usage of the word. Where is my hatred? Where is my assertion that atheists are better than Christians? Where is my intolerance for your right to believe??? Where is my obstinance? Substantiate your allegations and I’ll recant and thank you for it!

    Calling for evidence that substantiates your claim that atheism leads to violence against people? Please, do so, but don’t call me a bigot for asking!

    So skip the false condescension – you have attacked my character and the character of the sources that I have used (even the conservative Christian? …weird!). I have not known you to normally do so, and it puzzles me, but I’m not going to personally attack you for it. I’m willing to chalk it up to you having a bad day or something, no biggie.

    Answer with evidence – show that atheism and its “rebellion against God” leads to violence against people! Answer why atheists aren’t demonstrably less moral than Christians if we are in this supposed “rebellion” against the source of all Goodness! For God’s sake (literally), show me that your allegations have some basis in reality and aren’t just a bunch of rehashed Christian talking points!!!

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Sault, would it make you feel better if I retracted “bigot” and left it at “intellectually and morally reprehensible”?

    In any of your searches for my use of “bigot”, did you happen to come across any in which I described stereotyping as the essence of bigotry? Or am I restricted to the two definitions you found?

    Sure, I objected to your use of Jenkins, too. It has every appearance of picking and choosing to suit your prejudice. It also has every appearance of being selected out from that massively inaccurate Wikipedia reference you tried to send us to. I mean, really, do you want us to think you know what you’re talking about when you pull these shenanigans?

    Sault, I will humbly retract the name-calling of “bigot” if you will own up to the rest of the manure you so ignorantly and tendentiously slung there.

    As for evidence, I’ll be back in a moment.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    Sault, you have demanded evidence that atheism is rebellion against God.

    This is funny.

    If there is a God, then atheism is rebellion against him. That’s easy.

    But you don’t think there’s a God, which means for me to prove that you’re rebelling against God I would have to prove there really is a God. So how shall I prove you’re rebelling against God? It’s an odd request you’ve made, you know.

    And that means I can’t prove to you the point I made in Case 2. That was (you may recall) the one that I acknowledged you would not likely agree with, in which I invited you to “consider … if it were true,” where I also said, “Before you reject this thesis, think of what it might mean if it were true.”

    As for “evidence that atheism leads to violence against people,” here’s the situation.

    1. You do not seem to have disputed Case 1, that is, that if there is any inclination toward violence in a person, atheism will do nothing to prevent it.

    2. If I mention the millions upon millions of murders committed by atheist despots in the name of atheism in the last several decades, you will undoubtedly brush it aside as being attributable to something else.

    3. If I speak in terms of Case 2, you will reject it because you reject the premises upon which I built the case. You won’t accept that you’re rebelling against God unless you believe there is a God. I’ve been making that case for you for many months now, but we have not come to agreement on it yet. That’s not news to either of us.

    So that leaves us at rather an impasse, doesn’t it?

    Have I attacked your character? Only to the extent that you, like every person, are in a state of rebellion against God. He offers rescue from that condition, and some have accepted it. You could, too. Those of us who have done so have not done so because we were of better character (Eph. 2:8,9). We’ve done it because we saw a good gift worth receiving. That’s all.

    Other than that very important aspect of character, I have not said you or any other specific atheist is more or less moral than any believer. I do not wish to downplay the importance of rebellion against God–it is the most fundamental of all errors. But if you think I’m comparing individuals’ behaviors, no.

  10. Ray Ingles says:

    Tom Gilson –

    Human beings are essentially the same as animals, differing only in our complexity and in a persistent illusion of free will, self-hood, consciousness, purpose, and meaning

    In “The Last Supersition”, Edward Feser disagrees with you. On pages 235-236, he states that ‘eliminative materialism’ is “definitely a minority position” and most materialists accept that the mind does exist.

    Human morality, originally produced for the purposes of group selection

    Surely that would be “originally produced through the process of group selection”? And that, too, would be a minority position – the existence of ‘group selection’ itself is rather controversial.

    (There are other ways to conceive of morality, too.)

    Think of it: to deny your father or mother while they actually love you and are doing what is actually good for you—not just trying or hoping to do what is good, but actually doing it—would be an act of violence against them.

    That’s a bit overstated, isn’t it? It would be rude, but that’s not the same as violence, no?

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Rude? That’s a bit mild for the scenario I presented.

    Read it again, please. Imagine yourself as the parent.

  12. Ray Ingles says:

    If one of my kids grew up to hate my guts and want nothing to do with me, it would hurt my feelings very much.

    But I still wouldn’t have any ground to press charges against them.

  13. Sault says:

    Think of it: to deny your father or mother while they actually love you and are doing what is actually good for you—not just trying or hoping to do what is good, but actually doing it—would be an act of violence against them.

    Yeah, I’m with Ray on this way. My service and the sacrifices that I have made for my child are acts of love, and acts of love are gifts. If my child rejects them, then I will be very hurt… but having my feelings hurt isn’t an act of violence. When you give a gift to someone, you can’t control what they do with it.

    As far as the rest of what you’ve written…

    In any of your searches for my use of “bigot”, did you happen to come across any in which I described stereotyping as the essence of bigotry?

    I did not, actually, and thanks for the clarification. So all it takes for you to label someone a bigot is for them to demonstrate some degree of stereotype?

    Quote me my stereotypes. Show exactly in which sentences in this thread I have displayed negative stereotypes towards Christians.

    If you could also please google “violence in the Bible”. As of the time of this post, the references that I used are the 1st, 2nd, and 4th results (I thought that referencing a website called “godlessgeeks.com” would be counterproductive; little did I know…). Am I a bigot for hasty research, the reference to liberal theology, the reference to one conservative theologian, or the reference to a skeptics’ website?

    In the meantime, perhaps you could tell me what is not stereotypical about depicting atheists as rebels against God? What is not stereotypical about a Christian saying that some of the most horrendous crimes against humanity are a direct result of atheism, or that atheism leads to violence against people?

    If you want a conversation about violence in the Bible (both accounts of an prescriptions to) then we can have that conversation… but your rhetoric isn’t doing anything but get in the way of justifying the accusations you have made in your post.

    1. You do not seem to have disputed Case 1, that is, that if there is any inclination toward violence in a person, atheism will do nothing to prevent it.

    Nope, no dispute here. Subsets of atheism might (humanism, perhaps), but atheism itself? Nope. Then again, God won’t stop people from being violent, either (quite the opposite, depending on which portion of the Bible you’re reading), and neither the threat of Hell nor their personal relationship with their God will stop Christians from immorality (violent or otherwise).

    So what is the real-world, observable moral difference between them?

    2. If I mention the millions upon millions of murders committed by atheist despots in the name of atheism in the last several decades, you will undoubtedly brush it aside as being attributable to something else.

    Yup, I sure would. I would then politely suggest that you both avoid body-counts (for your God surely killed just as many people during the Flood), and remind you that the exception does not prove the rule. If you don’t want me to judge you and yours for the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church (for instance), then I would expect the same courtesy in return.

    Sault, you have demanded evidence that atheism is rebellion against God.

    Let’s try this again.

    Let us imagine that there is a God, and that atheists are rebelling against Him. If the Christian stereotypes in general and your allegations in particular are true, then we should see some pretty blatant evidence of this – we should see atheists as being violent towards people, as being less moral, etc.

    So where is this evidence? Show me that the Christian stereotypes that you repeat here have some basis in reality. There are countries that are mostly atheistic. How about them? There are atheists here in the United States. How about them? Surely they, with their relative morality, must show some signs of their rebellion against God!

  14. Tom Gilson says:

    First, Sault, to describe atheists as rebellious against God is no more stereotyping than it is to describe African-Americans as darker-skinned than Northern-European-Americans. In fact even less so; for the racial factor I just gave you is descriptive, whereas the one related to atheists is by definition. To be an atheist just is to be in rebellion against God.

    That’s not stereotyping. Stereotyping is taking some real or imagined characteristic of some members of a group and falsely applying it to every member of the group. This, in contrast, is a statement of something that is necessarily true of every member of the group.

    I hope that clarifies that important point and takes it off the table for further complaint.

    Do I consider every instance of stereotyping to be bigotry? Well, both stereotyping and bigotry are matters of degree, and they do tend to correlate. Mild stereotyping is mild bigotry. Sometimes it’s too mild to bother mentioning. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite and needs to be called out.

    What did you stereotype? Please re-read what I wrote:

    b) Morally reprehensible, because you’re taking the most incredibly biased, stereotyped, and bigoted version of scripture interpretation and saying that represents the truth about what we’re following.

    It is ignorant bigotry. I am personally offended, and I’m embarrassed for you, for offering it in evidence here.

    What you did was:
    a) Wrong in multiple dimensions
    b) Supportive of an incredibly biased, stereotyped, and bigoted version of Scripture interpretation. You endorsed it as something we should consider to be an authority on the topic.
    c) Personally offensive.

    I think that’s something a person like you would want to back down from, not to stand your ground on!

    As for “violence in the Bible,” if you think that picking the first few Google responses represents responsible scholarship, I’m really disappointed in you.

    Look, Sault, I read the Bible. I know what’s in it. I know what it affirms and what it denounces. I know something of the progress of history through the Bible. I found it out the hard way: lots and lots of personal interaction with the hard stuff.

    And then you come along and tell me to refer to the first three or so Google responses???? I’m sorry, but that’s weak. It’s pathetic. It’s wrong.

    God won’t stop people from being violent? My friend, you speak without knowledge. You haven’t read the Bible, the source book. He does it there all the time! And have you ever met a Mennonite or an Amish person? Have you ever read anything of Just War theory? My goodness. You are speaking from ignorance.

    God didn’t “kill” as many during the Flood, and on that count, you had better be more careful with respect to justice issues. God can deal justly with the living and the dead. Stalin, Mao, and the like were not that way.

    I didn’t say that atheism always leads to violence against people; but I think it’s quite defensible to say that in the case of these despots, it did. I did not say that was the case for you! I specifically rejected that broad brush in the OP!

    The chief sign of atheist rebellion against God is atheism. What more evidence do you need?

  15. Andrew W says:

    for your God surely killed just as many people during the Flood

    Unlikely, given relative populations, but the point holds. And also demonstrates the fundamental problem.

    God is not subject to our moral standards, any more than I am subject to the moral standards (if any) of the plants in my vegetable garden. I like a plant – it stays. I don’t like a plant – it goes. I want a plant somewhere else – I move it. I am the boss, and I have total authority over my plants. If I want to dig up the garden and turn it into a fish pond, I can and will, and don’t have to justify myself to the plants before I do so.

    God gets to choose who lives or profits or ails or dies, and we have no recourse or court of appeal except God himself. The very act of attempting to engage in moral negotiation with God proves our rebellion – we think there is stuff that God got wrong, that there is something we can hold him answerable to. God answers to no-one but himself.

    That said, God’s nature manifests in his creation, and (as a Christian) I observe that his goodness and constancy is a blessing to us. If there is something that I dislike or do not understand, I can plead with God, but I do not rebuke him.

    Back to the garden analogy. When one plant “attacks” another, I discard the offending plant, for its behaviour offends me. Yet the garden cannot take me to task for the same behaviour, because I am lord over it, not the other way around, and it exists only at my pleasure.

  16. “To be an atheist just is to be in rebellion against God.”

    No, ‘rebellion’ is a biased term. There are no gods, including God, and therefore nothing to ‘rebel’ against.

    That’s also why it’s incorrect to say an atheist “doesn’t believe in” God. Neither do we “deny” God. There never was a God to reject or deny: you invented it, and in your own image. That’s our basic position, at least.

    Surely, it’s fair that we be defined according to the way we represent ourselves, or do you get to define atheism any way you want (like marriage)?

  17. Andrew W says:

    Larry – I think Tom covered this in post 9, talking about case 2. If God exists, then the claim to rebellion is blatantly true.

    But let me push the converse. If God doesn’t exist, then any claim to purpose or morality is making stuff up. If something supernatural only “might” exist, then it’s guesswork. In any case, we have no basis to call what Stalin or Mao did “wrong”, except inasmuch as we “don’t like it”. It’s just personal taste, not truth.

    If athiesm is true, then Christian and athiest alike are just making stuff up when we talk about any sort of purpose. We might have more elaborate pretense than you, but we’re both pretending, and who says pretense is bad anyway? But if God does exist, then there is a fundamental obligation on everyone, and to deny his existence is to continue to vomit in the face of that obligation.

    PS: I should add that there’s a third option – we’re all wrong. There is a supernatural, and it’s quite different from either athiest or Christian claims. But I haven’t seen anyone in this conversation actually championing that position.

  18. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Ray Ingles:

    In “The Last Supersition”, Edward Feser disagrees with you. On pages 235-236, he states that ‘eliminative materialism’ is “definitely a minority position” and most materialists accept that the mind does exist.

    Right in the paragraph following the sentence you quote (pg. 236, transcript of mine, hope I have not made any typo):

    And as John Searle (who, as we have seen, is no religious believer) has argued, every form of materialism implicitly denies the existence of the mind, whether or not it intends to. Thus, every form of materialism really entails eliminative materialism, and is thus as absurd, incoherent, and false as eliminative materialism is.

    In other words, Prof. Feser’s argued position is that materialism, if followed consistently, is necessarily eliminative.

    So you go to the trouble of giving an exact quote, actually give the page numbers, and at the same time erroneously and misleadingly describe Prof. Feser’s position. Wow.

    note: for some reason, my response to you on the other thread is not showing up; I suspect the problem is on my end, though.

  19. Tom Gilson says:

    Larry, this is ironic as can be:

    Surely, it’s fair that we be defined according to the way we represent ourselves, or do you get to define atheism any way you want (like marriage)?

    Who’s defining marriage any way they want?!

    And now you’re denying that atheists don’t believe in God. Wow. What do you don’t believe in? (The grammar weirdness is of course intentional.)

    And please. This idiocy that says we created God in our image is completely ignorant of the holy transcendence, the complete other-ness of God, in the Bible.

    You could say that quite accurately perhaps about the gods of all mythologies (you might say “other” mythologies; I don’t need to quibble that here). They reflect humans in everything from their conflicts to their sexuality to their limitedness to their being virtually a part of the created order to their ethical vagaries.

    If you think the God of the Bible is anything like “created in our image,” perhaps you should read some comparative mythology alongside the Old Testament. Then you could see what it means for a god to be created in our image–and what it doesn’t mean for God to be that way. For a shorter path to the same end, try Oswalt’s The Bible Among the Myths. (I’ll be reviewing it soon.)

  20. Larry Tanner says:

    Andrew,

    I’ll review comment 2, but I feel it is important to point out biased terms such as “rebellion.”

    The rest of your comments have no bearing on the facts of what I argue: no god, no rebellion.

  21. Tom Gilson says:

    G. Rodrigues, I’ve found that comment and fixed it.

  22. Tom Gilson says:

    Larry: I agree 100%; no god, no rebellion.

    My position remains what it is.

  23. Ray Ingles says:

    G Rodrigues – Between what I paraphrased, and what you quoted, there is this passage:

    For there are… very serious problems with any attempt to explain the mind in purely material terms, and most materialists realize this. They hope and believe that these difficulties can be overcome…

    Now, you can accuse the majority of atheists of not believing the mind exists. Or you can accuse the majority of atheists of not recognizing the full implications of their positions with respect to the mind. What you cannot do is level both accusations at once. Pick one, and stick with it.

  24. Andrew W says:

    Larry,

    The rest of your comments have no bearing on the facts of what I argue: no god, no rebellion.

    I agree. I’m just elaborating the consequences, such as “no god, no normative morality”.

    You can have a morality; you just don’t have any philosophical basis for it to be universal or normative. Which, to pick up Tom’s point above, makes Stalin and Mao completely legitimate expressions of athiesm (though not normative, because athiesm can’t do normative).

    To riff off the Old Testament, it’s the difference between “as for me and my family, we will serve the LORD” and “everyone did what is right in his own eyes”.

  25. Keith says:

    If the Bible so effectively restrains the religious from violence and moral turpitude, why isn’t it more effective?

    There’s weak data indicating prison populations are more religious than the general population; there’s strong data the most religious US states have higher crime rates and more teen pregnancy; there’s strong data the least religious countries have lower crime rates and less teen pregnancy.

    We can quantify how the color of the car you drive makes it more or less likely you’ll have an accident. Why can’t we detect this effect of Biblical Christianity on violence in our society?

  26. Tom Gilson says:

    Survey results differ. Your sets of results are highly subject to the ecological fallacy. Here’s a better one. And another.

    And here’s an answer to your question about the “most religious” states, that squares that result with the research I’ve just linked to. It is this: religion as such isn’t such a good thing. Hardly any evangelical Christian would affirm that it is; at least not if it’s just religion. We see it repeated page after page in the Bible, and in life after life in church history and present experience: religion (as such) is harmful, specifically when it’s religion centered on behavior rather than relationship with God.

    And that form of religion runs rampant through communities that have high rates of religion. The most religious states may well be the ones with the most social pressure to conform to a “religious” standard.

    That’s not biblical Christianity, however. As Paul says in Romans 7, the pressure to conform to law produces contrary results unless the person responds to it (see Romans 8, also John 15) through a deep relationship with Christ. You also see this covered extensively in Galatians 5 and 6.

    We haven’t spoken of this much here, but the topic hasn’t been absent; in fact, I consider this article on the topic to be one of my most important messages. I share it with groups (churches, conferences, etc.) as often as I can.

    All of that is to say that this is no ad hoc, save-the-theory-in-light-of-the-data contrivance. It’s been there since the first century. But I appreciate your patience with me: I haven’t finished explaining what I want to say.

    Here it is. The “most religious” states have a culture that expects people to “behave.” At the same time people (esp. young people) experience a strong cultural impetus in the opposite direction, through nationally broadcast media and the Internet. And they have for the most part the same opportunity to misbehave as young people anywhere else.

    The ones who are more genuinely devoted to Christ do measurably better than those who are not (see Smith and Denton, second link above). But there are likely to be a whole lot of young people whose religion is merely a matter of being dragged along to church, and whose experience of that religion is legalistic (“religion equals doing good”) rather than relational (“religion is about life in Christ,” see my article linked last, above). That, according to Christianity, is a formula for failure. I can vouch for that from personal experience.

    Does that answer your question?

  27. Keith says:

    When you say “here’s nothing in atheism to tell him or her it’s wrong”… that’s true, but fortunately it doesn’t matter, because whatever there might be in Biblical Christianity with respect to morality, it doesn’t matter either.

    There is strong evidence neither atheism or religion has any significant effect on morality and we’re all hard-wired with roughly the same morality courtesy of evolution and natural selection. I won’t bother listing any of it, that’s probably not necessary in this group; in short, the religious (regardless of religion), and the non-religious all view moral questions in the same ways and resolve moral questions with the same techniques and the same predictable errors.

    Where is the evidence that Biblical Christianity has any significant effect, either positive or negative, on morality?

  28. Tom Gilson says:

    What?!

    Atheism presents absolutely no philosophical basis for ethics. It has no motivational basis for ethical behavior. The Bible has both. Are you saying that’s irrelevant???

  29. Tom Gilson says:

    And did you present your request for evidence before you had a chance to read my comment #26?

    Have you heard anything anyone here has said about how Christianity has changed the world? Hospitals, places of care and refuge for the poor, women’s dignity, bringing about the end of slavery….

    That’s moral behavior in action!

    Quick: look up “rescue mission” in your local service pages (phone books used to be the place). Who’s running it?

    Look up the names of the hospitals in your area. How many of them have names of denominations or of saints in their titles? Or names like “Mercy Hospital”? Some Christian-founded hospitals don’t display their associations that prominently: the Florida Hospital group in Central Florida and the Loma Linda Medical Center are Seventh-Day Adventist institutions. I’m sure there are many others; these happen to be ones I know about.

    Look who responds most readily to natural disasters.

    Look at Arthur Brooks’s book (linked in my second-to-last comment) and Smith and Denton’s research (also linked in that comment).

    There’s evidence, my friend.

    Final recommendations: Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, and Vishal Mangalwadi, The Book That Made Your World.

  30. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Tom Gilson:

    Are you saying that’s irrelevant???

    I cannot answer for Keith but that is what his statements entail. According to him:

    There is strong evidence neither atheism or religion has any significant effect on morality and we’re all hard-wired with roughly the same morality courtesy of evolution and natural selection.

    Keith is not a free, responsible moral agent, but rather a mindless drone and puppet in the hands of these mythical creatures called Evolution and Natural Selection that hard-wired whatever prejudices and biases he consciously or unconsciously holds.

    As Dr. Johnson remarked:

    But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.

  31. Keith says:

    @Tom #26, #28:

    Agreement on survey results differ.

    Yes, that answers my question; it’s hard to imagine a way to test that answer, though.

    I’m not sure what you mean by irrelevant, let me try to clarify.

    I’m saying religions and religious writings are a reflection of a previously existing, underlying morality.

    The Bible certainly articulated morality and guided thinking about morality for a large group of people, but I don’t see evidence the Bible created new morality. So, huge relevance in one arena, no relevance in another.

    Morality predates religion by a lot, and we know (as I said), the religious (regardless of religion), and the non-religious all view moral questions in the same ways and resolve moral questions with the same techniques and the same predictable errors. Humanity shares a core morality; I don’t think there’s much debate about that, or about the mechanisms that caused it to happen. Is there?

  32. Keith says:

    @Tom, #29:

    By “evidence”, I was hoping for something a little less anecdotal. :-)

    Christianity has changed the world in wonderful ways (abolition and men’s rights, charities, hospitals and care for the poor); and in horrible ways (the Crusades, two Inquisitions, repeated genocide and anti-Semitism).

    Women’s rights, well, Christianity has been emphatically arguing on both sides for some centuries, so it probably has to be listed in both columns. :-)

    Christianity’s greatest hits is a pretty mixed record.

  33. Tom Gilson says:

    Haven’t we been agreeing with you all along about the mixed record? Don’t you see how it’s consistent with the Christian message and worldview? Don’t you see how atheism has nothing to offer in response?

    As for “morality precedes the Bible,” well, of course! God created humans in his image. See Romans 2:14,15. No one ever said the Bible originated morality. We do say that it uniquely explains morality.

  34. Tom Gilson says:

    The research I linked to in #26 was not anecdotal.

  35. Keith says:

    @G. Rodrigues, #30

    Oh, just stop it.

    Believing there’s no supernaturally imposed objective morality doesn’t imply morality doesn’t exist, or I cannot make moral assertions, or I wouldn’t agree the first responsibility of the inventor of a time machine is to go back and assassinate Hitler, or that Subway should offer a real Baby Back Ribs special.

    “Mindless Drone of Natural Selection”, well, that kind of has a good ring to it. We should have T-shirts made up.

  36. Tom Gilson says:

    Believing there’s no supernaturally imposed objective morality doesn’t imply morality doesn’t exist

    It does imply that morality doesn’t exist in any form other than human preference–which as Richard Joyce (by no means a theist) argues forcefully in The Evolution of Morality, implies that morality doesn’t exist.

  37. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Keith:

    Oh, just stop it.

    Believing there’s no supernaturally imposed objective morality doesn’t imply morality doesn’t exist, or I cannot make moral assertions, or I wouldn’t agree the first responsibility of the inventor of a time machine is to go back and assassinate Hitler, or that Subway should offer a real Baby Back Ribs special.

    You stop it. If you cannot understand an argument, or what is a logical entailment, it is your problem not mine.

    And for the record, I never mentioned a “supernaturally imposed objective morality”; that is a straw-man of your imagination. If you “think” that I believe that moral questions can only be decided by appealing to divine law, you are simply wrong.

  38. Keith says:

    @Tom, #33:

    Yes: trying not to beat that drum (honest!), mixed record, we all agree. I don’t agree atheism needs to offer anything, but I think we understand each other’s positions there.

    Do we also agree on evolution in general, and specifically the evolutionary development of morality based on natural selection?

    I think I understand the Catholic view on this, is there any consensus in the evangelical community?

    (And I realize those may be separate questions.)

  39. JAD says:

    What good have atheists ever really done in the world? The agenda of most atheists I know about, if not violent, is destructive. To be fair there are some better than worse versions of atheism but at best I would describe even these versions as non-constructive.

    Of course, that includes the atheists who for some reason appear to be obsessed with Thinking Christian. All they have to offer is criticism. If you destroy religion and Christianity, what are you going to replace it with?

    On a earlier thread (Thank You, Larry Tanner, For the Compliment) I wrote:

    Here are a couple questions for atheists to answer:

    1. How has atheism made the world better?

    2. How will atheism make the world better?

    So far there has been no response. Why is that?

    (BTW this is not the first time, or place, I’ve asked these questions. The response in each instance has been pretty much the same.)

    If you substitute Christanity for atheism in the questions above, is there an answer?

    (If you are a Christian feel free to respond. Of course, many of you already have.)

  40. Noah says:

    In reference to #26 and 29

    Tom,

    So, from what a gather, if a person commits some violent, immoral act and that person is religious, that person should actually be analyzed to find out if they are indeed truly Christian or if they are just truly religious?

    Then a few lines down you mention hospitals with just the names of some religious organizations, aren’t these places simply religious too? What about the staff should they be broken down into people who have relationships with God and adhere to the Evangelical style of Christianity vs the truly just religious people to get an actual people of who is doing the truly good?

    It seems like when a person who believes in God (Christian God) commits some act they are just deemed religious and don’t have a real, true relationship with God, but when an atheist does such a thing…well that’s because he is in a natural state of rebellion and therefore its totally normal for that person to behave in such a manner.

  41. Tom Gilson says:

    I do not recommend analyzing persons. That’s up to God.

    The point about the hospitals is that they were founded by Christian churches; they contribute to the evidence base of morally good actions by Christians.

    Your last paragraph is kind of true and kind of not true. Sin (acts, attitudes, and a condition of life that are all separate from God and his best) is our natural state, although we have a general knowledge of the good. Sin is pervasive in the sense that it touches everything we do, but not overwhelming in the sense that we can do no good. That’s the condition of the non-believer.

    Christians can slip back into that way of living; see 1 Cor. 3 and Gal. 4 for some biblical examples. In that case he or she is acting and living just like a non-believer, and functionally living as if he or she has no relationship with God, even though that relationship exists.

    I recommend you look at my “Map or Fuel” article if you didn’t already find it from the link above. It covers this ground more than I can do in a comment.

    Thanks for the question.

  42. Keith says:

    @JAD, #39:

    JAD, you need to hang out with different atheists.

    “Atheist mob storms embassy because somebody burned a book, exercised their legal rights, drew a picture or made a YouTube video!”, said nobody, ever.

    To answer specifically as to what atheists would replace religion and Christianity with, I’d ask you to be more specific. Religion satisfies societal functions both historic and modern; atheists should understand the functions religion served then and now, and must consider how to provide for the useful ones in a modern society without religion.

    To answer your specific questions, I believe atheism makes the world better because I believe a more rational society is a better society and because I believe atheism best describes reality.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not reading Thinking Christian just to criticize. I do want to understand how you view the world, to both validate and challenge how I see the world.

  43. Tom Gilson says:

    You need to hang out with different believers, Keith. Islam isn’t something either of us support; and to conflate that with Christianity is a mistake I addressed in the first article in this series.

  44. Keith says:

    @Tom, #43:

    I’d agree that Islam is more violent than Christianity in this century, but the bombings, burning and shootings at abortion clinics in the US, killing doctors and patients, supports the argument.

    Atheists kill other people, about as much as any group I suppose, but not based on their atheism. You can argue a lack of religious belief leads to immoral behavior, of course, but we’ve covered that ground already.

  45. Tom Gilson says:

    The bombings, shootings, etc. support which argument?

    Your second paragraph affirms exactly what I wrote in the OP, as much as it affirms, at least.

  46. Mr. X says:

    Larry @ 16:

    “Surely, it’s fair that we be defined according to the way we represent ourselves, or do you get to define atheism any way you want (like marriage)?”

    If that parenthetical aside is meant to be a swipe at religious opposition to gay marriage, you seem to have rather missed the point of your own side’s arguments. It’s the pro-SSM campaigners who claim that we as a society can define marriage however we want; it’s the opponents who think otherwise.

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