So why do some atheists engage in counter-apologetics? Why can’t we just let people believe what they want? What’s the harm?
Aside from zealots trying to write their beliefs into law and make me follow them, or taking positions which are demonstrably harmful (religious warfare or anti-science positions, for example), they do their best to drag us back to the time when religion was at its zenith—we call that time the Dark Ages for a reason.
Generally, an apologist fails because that person makes an assertion which is unfounded, does not present evidence for a claim, commits a logical fallacy in argumentation, or gives undue weight to one or more authority’s assertions.
This isn’t an apologetic at all; it is a complaint. An apologetic attempts to answer a question; this argument specifically attempts to avoid them.
Something I’ve seen on the Internet (to the keyboard, someone is wrong!) recently is an attempt to throw the ball in the counter-apologist’s court by demanding terms of debate. This frequently turns up as lists such as “Ten Things Atheists Should Stop Saying.” Interestingly, sometimes these come from atheists themselves. I have not seen anyone other than Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) and certain “why can’t we get along atheists” use this tactic. (Those atheists need a cluebat.)
What this seeks to do is reframe the debate and take away inconvenient questions the apologist cannot answer. Of course, no question should be taken off the table until it is properly answered, and as of yet, none have. No unilateral disarmament, sorry.
It is not my job to make a religious person feel comfortable only defending the things they want if they are going to assert I should believe in his or her god.
So here is one of these lists, from a Christian apologist, and why he is wrong. He asserts with this list that counter-apologists use these arguments frequently and they should quit doing so.
- Theists are the only ones with burden of proof
- Theists have a "blind faith"
- Saying you don't have a worldview
- Evil disproves God's existence
- Science disproves God's existence
- Jesus never existed
- Religion does not provide scientific advancements
- Who created God?
- Only dumb or ignorant people are theists
- Stop regurgitating
So tackling these one-at-a-time:
1. Theists are the only ones with a burden of proof.
Yup. A theist is asserting one or more gods exist, and additionally asserts this god or gods has specific properties, and (depending on the god) effects on the physical world. The person who makes an assertion has the burden of proof to give evidence for their assertion, and if that is inconvenient, too bad. I am not required to accept an assertion of a god without evidence any more than the theist has to accept the assertion I have a Smart car parked on the street next to my house.
The difference between these assertions is gods are extraordinary claims, Smart cars or streets are not. I can demonstrate my Smart car any number of ways (take a photograph of it and send it to you parked on the street, invite you over to my house to see it parked on the street, drive it over to your house, present you with the bill of sale showing you I bought a Smart car, direct you to the dealership where I bought it so they can attest to my statement, &c.)
If I asserted “no gods exist,” then indeed I have a burden of proof. Atheists who make that claim are vanishingly small in number.
2. Theists have a blind faith.
Yup. Asserting a theist has blind faith (which is something of a misnomer, since all faith is blind) is a positive claim by an atheist, therefore the atheist has the burden of proof to show it’s true. That can either take the form of quoting back a theist’s own statements (for example, “you have to have faith in God”), or in the case of a Christian, quoting their own Bible. You can even quote the New Testament if the person is one of those who claims the Old Testament (despite the creation myth and Ten Commandments) does not apply any more.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. —Hebrews 11:1, King James Version
Things hoped for, and things not seen, are not “evidence.” I can hope I win the Powerball lotto drawing, though that is not evidence I will. I can demonstrate both the Powerball lotto exists and I have a ticket. That’s more evidence for my assertion than I have ever been given for a religion.
Anyway, Christians constantly claim their faith is why they believe. That is the definition of “blind faith.”
3. Saying you don't have a worldview
This is a logical fallacy, specifically a motte and bailey fallacy. (A motte and bailey is a military defensive structure—the bailey is a difficult to penetrate defensive screen which surrounds a motte, a desired military position but difficult to defend. A castle with walls is an example of this, as is an ammunition dump surrounded by concertina wire and landmines.)
In a motte and bailey fallacy, the apologist uses an equivocation fallacy (the atheist has a worldview, equivocating between any worldview and a specifically religious worldview), along with positing a bailey for the counter-apologist to attack (atheism is a religious worldview), while retreating to his motte (religion actually has a worldview set forth in holy books, rituals, moral instructions, holy sites, &c, which he cannot defend). The point is to deflect an atheist attacking an apologist’s religious worldview by saying “well you’ve got one too.”
It is a bizarre sort of claim to assert “atheism is a religious worldview” (giving it equal status with their actual religion). I’ve never understood why Christians use this argument, but I have heard it countless times over my life.
Defeating the apologetic simply involves ignoring the bailey and attacking the motte (by dispensing with the equivocation). I have a worldview. It is not related to atheism as atheism asserts nothing. It is a dishonest argument to assert something in your opponent which does not exist or is untrue. Now let’s get back to my question about defending your religious worldview you are asserting or showing me why it’s true? (Alternatively, you could ask the apologist who asserts atheism is a worldview to describe that worldview, but that red herring will lead you away from your original debate. It does give you the opportunity to attack a dishonest claim, however. Lying for Jesus could be an Olympic sport.)
4. Evil disproves God's existence
There is a bit to unpack here. First, “evil” is a religious construction. Second, any atheist who tried to make that claim has made an assertion (God does not exist) and adopts the burden of proof to show it is true. I don’t know any atheist (though I hardly know even a tiny fraction of all atheists) who makes that claim. The apologist is dishonestly misrepresenting an atheist’s position.
If we stipulate “evil exists” to advance to the meat of the argument, that doesn’t disprove a god. The Bible itself says God creates evil (Isaiah 45:7).
The actual claim is the Problem of Evil. If evil exists in the world and God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent, then he is either incapable of stopping the act (debunking omnipotence), can’t foresee the act (debunking omniscience), not around when the act occurred (debunking omnipresence), or doesn’t want to stop the act (he’s a jerk). The Problem of Evil shows that God cannot exist in the way Christians describe him, not that God doesn’t exist at all.
Frequently free will is thrown up as a counter-counter-apologetic. If someone commits an evil act (armed robbery), does that mean the victim was exercising free will (he wanted to be robbed at knife point)? Free will as an answer is a red herring.
“Maximally powerful” or “God cannot do anything which is against his nature or logically inconsistent” are also red herrings and dishonest representations of what Christian theologians have asserted about the nature of God for two millennia. Moreover, “maximally powerful” is undefined, unless you can show a maximum to power. The assertion without evidence of a god is logically inconsistent with what we know about physics and biology, so if God cannot do anything that is logically inconsistent, the apologist just argued God as depicted in the Bible out of existence.
5. Science disproves God's existence
Nope. If someone actually made that assertion, they have the burden of proof to present the evidence. The actual argument is that science can debunk many of the claims of the Bible (light being created before stars in Genesis 1 for example). Even cartography can debunk claims of the Bible (for example the prophecy of Ezekiel in Chapter 26, where the writer notes the calamities which will fall upon the city of Tyre, resulting in its total destruction and abandonment in verses 20 and 21).
The folks who live in Tyre today would be quite surprised to find they and their city don’t really exist. While the city has been conquered many times after it was founded by Phoenicia, by everyone from Alexander the Great to the Ottoman Empire, it never ceased to exist. It is currently part of Lebanon after the Ottoman Empire gave it up upon its own partition after World War One in 1920. The city of Tyre has too important a harbour to abandon, and sits astride an important trade route for millennia.
6. Jesus never existed
If an atheist made such an assertion, it would be an extremely difficult proposition to prove. I’ve never heard any atheist make that claim, though I have heard he couldn’t have existed in the way he’s described in the Bible or subsequent forgeries such as the writings of Josephus a couple centuries later. (Josephus gets brought up a lot by apologists to prove the existence of Jesus, though Biblical scholars themselves note that his attestations to the existence of Jesus are actually forgeries—and even if they were not, he would have lived decades after Jesus so he didn’t witness Jesus anyway.)
The actual claim is there is no evidence for the acts attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (or the Qur’an). Possibly the most brazen act attributed to Jesus (aside from rising himself from the dead) is the one ascribed to him in Matthew 27:52-53. Can’t get out of this by claiming “we’re under a new covenant,” since this is in the Gospel According to Matthew. Those verses describe what happened in Jerusalem on the moment of the ascension of Jesus into Heaven.
“And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”
Yeah, if that happened, there would be lots of accounts of the dead arising and appearing to others in Jerusalem. It’s not like the Roman Empire was a giant bureaucracy which kept detailed records about everything which happened in its provinces or something, or didn’t have any historians, or the Jewish authorities in the Province of Judea didn’t have historians either.
If a bunch of people suddenly got up out of the grave and started walking around town, everyone who could write who was a contemporary would have jotted something down about it. Yet the only place this claim exists is in Matthew, or books which draw on Matthew as their source.
7. Religion does not provide scientific advancements
Nope, religion doesn’t provide scientific advancement. Science provides scientific advancements. Religion provides theology.
Many religious people have been and are now scientists, but it isn’t their religious beliefs which inform their science. Everything from the heliocentric model of the Solar System to the Big Bang to the human genome was discovered by religious people. Prior to very recent history, atheists had a tendency to become religious bar-b-ques at worst, or put out of families or society at best (and they are still put out of families or society today in religious nations like the USA—a fair portion of my family has disowned me because I don’t believe in their god).
When religion informs a scientist’s investigations, those investigations are no longer science. Sir Isaac Newton developed his Laws of Motion, was a contributor to the science of optics, helped develop the mathematical discipline of calculus, showed white light is actually composed of coloured light, made the first prediction of the speed of sound, served in the UK Parliament as a member of the Whig Party as a representative from the University of Cambridge, served as the master of the Royal Mint, and was president of the Royal Society.
He was also a theologian, and as such used theology to try to prove alchemy.
When Newton was acting as a scientist, he made many great discoveries which are still in use today. When he acted as a theologian, he discovered nothing. For his contributions to science, he was knighted by Queen Anne. For his contributions to science using theology, he is entirely unremarkable.
This is the same of every other religious person who tried to make a scientific discovery using theology. For example, the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory) was founded by the Holy See. The papacy has had a long interest in astronomy, due to the astronomical basis of the ecclesiastical calendar. Nothing about the ecclesiastical calendar has anything to do with science (the timing of Easter, for example). While the Specola Vaticana has made important contributions to science, those were achieved because they were engaging in science (for example, the observatory made the first photograph in the world of a “green flash” at sunset in 1960, showing that long-held folk assertion actually exists). Atmospheric science can now explain why the green flash exists, but it first had to be proved to exist, and the Specola Vaticana did that.
8. Who created God?
Good question. Instead of special pleading (he always existed), how about answering it? Asserting “he always existed” actually complicates the apologetics for the existence of God (now you have to explain why he always existed as well as his existence in the first place).
The Bible itself doesn’t say God always existed.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”— Genesis 1:1, King James Version. The most you can get out of that assertion is there was a beginning, and God caused it. It says nothing about God before that “beginning.” Moreover, there wasn’t anyone around at the time to record that beginning.
The Universe is an immensely complex place, so much so we will probably never understand it all. Explaining how it came into being by positing something (God) as a solution actually answers nothing, and creates a much more difficult question (where did God come from, the point of the question). Moreover, God as a solution to “where did the Universe come from” posits a much more complicated being than the Universe itself.
Complexity is not proof of design.
It also inserts a presupposition (creation). There is no evidence the Universe was created. Present that evidence and collect your Nobel Prize.
That would of course destroy the whole point of faith. If there was evidence for God you wouldn’t need faith, he would be science.
9. Only dumb or ignorant people are theists
“Dumb” is often conflated with “ignorant.” Ignorant is not an insult (though many people take it that way). Ignorant means you lack knowledge. I am ignorant about a great many things, far more than those I am knowledgeable about (though I suspect I am more knowledgeable about Christian theology than the average Christian). “Dumb” can mean many things but can generally be assumed to mean “unintelligent.”
Some atheists do make the first claim (theists are dumb). That claim is incorrect. There are a whole lot of smart Christians and a whole lot of dumb atheists. There are a whole lot of knowledgeable Christians and a whole lot of ignorant atheists. (That said, knowledge is not required to be an atheist, as atheism is a lack of belief in any gods.)
Anyone using the argument “theists are dumb” probably should drop it. It shows nothing about the truth or falsehood of a religious claim, and “dumb” in particular is an ad hominin attack. As for “ignorant,” nope. If someone asserts that evolution by natural selection can’t be true because that theory is in opposition to the Bible, they are in fact either ignorant of the overwhelming mountain of evidence supporting evolution, or they are lying.
10. Stop regurgitating
Nope. This is a demand to an atheist to quit asking these questions or making these points (and conflating it with the idea of vomiting, which is what regurgitating means; atheists are just spewing questions). They are used as counter-apologetic arguments to PRATTs (points refuted a thousand times). As long as apologists keep bringing up assertions which have been refuted, they will get the same answers. Drop the assertion or provide evidence for it, then we’ll “stop regurgitating.”