Greta Christian’s post on How Atheists Can't Win tells why we can’t seem to win in our debates with believers. I’m going to give ten reasons why atheists can’t win at all because we are against the overwhelming odds—so much so that a post title like this is deserved. The odds are so against us that it should be shocking when believers change their minds by leaving their inherited Christian faith. I think religion is here to stay and that’s why atheism can’t win.
1) Atheism can’t win because in America (where I live) Christianity dominates our culture. People in America are enculturated or indoctrinated to believe, first by their own parents and immediate family, and also by the culture at large. This has the same effect as brainwashing with all of the difficulties of helping brainwashed people see things differently. There is also a lot of social pressure to believe, depending on one’s social contacts. And it’s harder in the professional business or sales world to get ahead if it’s known you are an atheist. There are alternative Christian Yellow Page phone books for people proud of their faith, whereas any atheist listed in an Atheist Yellow Pages would bring the kiss of death to his business. Polls show that atheists are one of the least trusted minorities. Christians also have a ready made network of social groups in place for believers to meet other believers in church, and to find companionship and help in times of need. Atheists in the meantime are afraid to come out and remain isolated and aolne in their doubts.
2) Atheism can’t win against the the brain. Our brains evolved from the lower species of animals and so we have a built in agency detector inherited from them. Animals who survived were the ones that saw faces in the leaves and the grass and the trees. Precisely because they saw faces in random objects in the woods they also had the time to escape from any predators lurking in the woods before they struck, even if this meant a lot of false alarms. It’s this same agency detection that caused the ancients to see divine agents behind strange events their world, like lightening, or thunderstorms, or disasters like fires. And this same agency detection was at work when they had a good crop, or the birth of a boy, or when they had a dream. As agency detectors they saw divine beings behind these events and it still lingers on today. Even in today’s world after a plane crash kills everyone on board except one woman, she will see the hand of god in it and believe god has a purpose for her life because she was spared.
3) Atheism can’t win because it offers no hope. It offers no hope to live forever in a blissful heaven with a loving all-powerful eternal God, which ultimately means that our life had no eternal significance. It offers no hope to ever see dead loved ones. It offers no hope that there is some supernatural being outside this world who can help us when we’re in need as we pray. When I see that picture of Jesus welcoming a pilgrim into heaven I know atheism cannot compete since there is nothing we can offer to replace that wishful hope.
4) Atheism can’t win against the threat of an eternal hell. This is the flip side to reason number 3. Once indoctrinated to believe as children by our Christian culture it becomes extremely difficult for adult believers to doubt their inherited faith. Throw in the belief of a devil who wants to make you doubt and thereby cause you to end up where he will, and you have a cradle to grave threat against even wanting to seriously investigate your faith. And when a believer does care enough about the truth the threat of hell will cause the atheist to make an overwhelming case with overwhelming evidence before they will seriously question it. But this doesn’t seem to be something we can expect to produce given the nature of belief and the kinds of evidence they will accept as telling against what they believe. After all, the believer must be forced by the available evidence to risk Pascal’s Wager that the Christian faith is nothing more than someone crying wolf too many times to be bothered by it, without even pondering for a moment that Christians risk the hells of other faith including some sects within their own ranks.
5) Atheism can’t win against religious faith, for there will always be room for it. The mere existence of something unexplainable by science will always leave room for religious faith, since that’s where believers can find their god, in the gaps of our scientific knowledge. The problem is that in closing the existing gaps, scientists will also discover more mysteries to be solved. Scientific discoveries do this, for that’s the nature of what makes for a fruitful scientific discovery in the first place. And as science has opened up new gaps the believer can always say with faith that “God did it,” without waiting for science to close the very gap that it discovered in the first place. Even as scientists close the gaps believers can still find a designer/creator god in the complex workings of the harmonious universe who isn’t to be found in the gaps at all. So even if one day scientists come up with a Theory of Everything that closes all of the gaps, believers have already been preparing themselves to say “God is in the universe, not in the gaps,” so it won’t change anything for True Believers.
6) Atheism can’t win against the mind of the believer—especially the smart, educated ones—who rationalize away the objections to their faith in the face of the available evidence. This is where cognitive dissonance theory comes into play. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that when a people have a lot vested into what they believe then when confronted with powerful evidence to the contrary they will not only remain unconvinced, they will actually become more convinced that they are right. And in the case of Christianity, it’s eternal promise of reward and threat, and its cultural dominance this has got to be of much greater force than on the more mundane cases where psychologists have studied. See this chart about cognitive biases. And I’ve devoted several post to the topic People believe what they prefer to be true. So coupled with the threat of hell and cognitive biases atheists must present utterly overwhelming evidence that Christianity is false, something which isn’t to be be found in the debates that separate us. You would think though, that in any other debatable issue a believer would cease believing if it weren’t for these biases and the threat of hell.
7) Atheism can’t offer a universal absolute unchanging eternal grounding to morality (or ethics). For some reason believers think an absolute grounding for morality is necessary for living a good life. In fact, this is one of the reasons atheists are one of the least trusted people in the polls, for without an absolute grounding then why not eat babies, rape others, and kill them if we think we could get away with these deeds? This misinformed belief of what it makes to live life without a god is something even intellectuals like William Lane Craig prattle on about. It’s a serious impediment to getting believers to consider atheism. In any case, morality for the atheist is that which pays in the here and now in this world without any eternal promise of a reward or any threat of punishment, and that’s all there is to it. It does matter now what they do. It matters a great deal to ones they love and who love them. Believers by contrast don’t have to question their inherited ethics so much because their god is the source of it. All they have to do is accept it. But believers just don’t see that theirs is an infantile morality where they feel secure in knowing the limits of behavior rather than having to think about it and come to their own conclusions. 8) Ignorance and fear
9) Atheism can’t win because it faces an astounding ignorance from believers. It takes a massive amount of ignorance to believe. Believers are blinded by their faith and cannot see this for what it is, but it’s ignorance, plain ignorance. They are ignorant about the Bible, how it originated, what we find in it, and why we should not believe it. Who in their right mind can read Judges 19-21 and believe anything these kind of barbaric people said about God? Polls have recently shown that atheists are more knowledgeable about the Bible. That’s why we say that to read it is to disbelieve it. Believers are also ignorant about the historical method for ascertaining what happened in the past. The historical method must assume a natural cause for events in the past, or else historians will be at the mercy of every wildly bizarre miraculous claim by ancient people. Believers will talk about “background knowledge” or their “priors” when assessing this evidence but thes “priors” don’t help them at all. Where did they get these “priors'” from in the first place? They got them from living in a Christian dominated culture. But even if we grant them that Yahweh exists and that he does miracles this still does nothing when looking at the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, for the Jews of that day with those “priors” couldn’t believe Yahweh did that particular miracle. Believers are also ignorant about science, even to the point where they will claim there is no scientific method. Perhaps they might try explaining why science continues to advance without one then. how is that possible? And they inconsistently will accept the results of science in an overwhelming number of disciplines except for the extremely rare ones where it contradicts what ancient barbaric people wrote down in a set of canonized books. Ignorance. Selective ignorance. Using double standards for evidence.
10) Atheism can’t win because believers frame the debate. This is the bottom line in our Christian dominated culture. Christians do what I call definitional apologetics where they force us to chase them down a rabbit’s hole as they try to define away a particular problem. An extraordinary claim demands a lot of evidence for it, we say. Well, what’s an extraordinary claim?, a Christian responds. At this point I like to talk turkey rather than try to catch that greased pig. I offer specifics, like a snake and a donkey who talked, or a woman who supposedly turned into a pillar of salt for slighting an omniscient God who knew she would, or people walking around a desert for forty years fed by manna from the sky, led by a pillar of fire by night, with their shoes never wearing out, a story that archaeologists have not found a single fact in support of that mythical tale. They also define atheism as a religion, which is such a farce I haven’t the words, or that we have the equivalent of a religious faith. Sheesh. They also frame the debate as if it’s Christianity vs atheism--as if the Christian faith won it’s right to sit at the table to debate us when we are in a bracket of our own. They think that simply because Christianity is the dominant religion that it has more epistemic merit than all of the other religious faiths out there which are dominant in other geographical areas around the globe. Well I’ve got news for them; this is not the case at all. I wrote about this before.
And yet, here I am sloughing away, for I think my effort is worth it.