Apologetics Fail #13
The Strawman Atheist

Brrr. It is -11F / -23C this morning.

Seems like a good time warm up the computer with an apologtics fail: The Strawman Atheist.

The definition of atheism is a lack of a belief in one or more deities. That’s it. It is not a claim. I don’t believe in Kali because I’ve seen no evidence for her, despite millions of her worshippers.

It turns out that is a pretty tough position to argue against (no position at all). Therefore, apologists will attempt to make all sorts of strawman arguments, most often centred around their own religious beliefs, or shifting the burden of proof. (Strawmanning is itself a logical fallacy, but often includes other fallacies within that one.)

Strawmanning doesn’t necessarily require an assertion. One example is “you can’t prove (my particular) god exists, therefore atheism is untrue/a religion just like mine.”

Unfortunately, many of those who identify as agnostics add (unwittingly) ammunition to this argument, which religious apologists have appropriated to strawman both agnosticism and atheism. Some atheists also add to the confusion with “you can’t prove a negative.” (You can, if you can get that negative defined, such as the claim “I don’t believe there are any black swans.” All you have to do is produce a black swan to debunk the negative claim. Atheism is not a negative claim, it is the lack of acceptance of a positive claim.)

Agnosticism doesn’t speak to what you believe . . . it speaks to what you know. (I do not know if a god exists or not, or I cannot know.) Most atheists are agnostics.

The problem is that many of those who identify as agnostics because they are scared of the word “atheist” (sometimes with good reason considering how atheists are treated in this country) try to portray agnosticism as some sort of middle ground; “I don’t know and you don’t either.” (Does the agnostic believe in a god? Worship one? Pray to one? No? Then that agnostic is behaving as an atheist.)

That might be portrayed as: ~~Theist ********* Agnostic ********* Atheist

Where the agnostic claims the “rational” middle ground. That is a false portrayal, as atheists aren’t claiming any belief either. Agnosticism speaks to what you know, not what you believe or accept. (a- no or not, gnostic- holding knowledge)

As such, religious apologists have hijacked that agnostic model to assert that atheism is a religion. (That is, until the atheist wants to assert his or her religious rights, then the apologist switches back to “atheism is not a religion.”)

The correct model would be a 2x2 grid:

Theism Gnostic Theist: Theist who knows a deity exists (the majority of believers) Agnostic Theist: Theist who does not know if a deity exists (certain strains of deism fit here as well)
Atheism Gnostic Atheist: Atheist who knows a deity does not exist (anti-theist) Agnostic Atheist: Atheist who does not know if a deity exists (the majority of atheists)

Then there are other strawmen (there are as many strawmen as there are apologists, apparently there is a loaner bank of logical fallacies).

One is that “atheists don’t believe in (my) god because they just want to sin.” Sin is a religious offence against a deity. Sin is not a concept in atheism, therefore “wanting to sin” is a strawman. (That also speaks to the claim “atheists have no morals.”)

An interesting one (I’ve only heard this one from fundamentalist Christians) is that “atheists are possessed by demons and blinded to God’s word” (that one is a regular). Demons have not been demonstrated of course, any more than a deity has. That’s an interesting take on the New Testament, which claims in multiple passages that anyone can accept what’s written there. (If demons were controlling atheists, that creates a whole tangle of contradictions with the NT, and also speaks to the question of the omnipotence of God.)

Demons have been used to argue against more than atheism though: Demons were also used to argue for the source of epilepsy. In the Middle Ages, that was grounds to kill you. By the XIX Century it was grounds to declare you “feebleminded” (a wide range of disorders including epilepsy in that definition), and place you in a psychiatric institution (1 Thessalonians 5:14, though such institutions hardly met the command of that verse to “comfort the feebleminded”), and ban marriage or procreation (eugenics, US Supreme Court Buck v. Bell, 1927, never overturned so sterilisation, institutions, and marriage bans could in theory be applied today).

Demons were used to justify the behaviour of runaway slaves in the USA in the XIX Century. “Demon” seems to be “something I don’t like that doesn’t comport with my assertion of a deity.”

The strawman from the theist-agnostic-atheist model is used to assert that atheists have the burden of proof to show a theist’s deity does not exist. That shifting of the burden of proof of a claim (a god exists) is much easier on the theist if the theist can assert an atheist is making a claim a god does not exist. (Frequently an atheist can debunk attributes of a claimed god if the atheist can get the believer to actually describe their god, but that’s another story.)

Today’s atheist inspirational quote:

"Brrr, it's cold" - Several Random Neighbors


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