Common Arguments (1997)
This document contains responses to points which were brought up repeatedly in Usenet newsgroups and on discussion boards devoted to discussion of atheism. Points covered here are ones which are not covered in the document "An Introduction to Atheism." Note: It is highly recommended that you read that document first.
These answers are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. The purpose of FAQ documents is not to stifle debate, but to raise its level.
Overview of contents:
"Hitler was an atheist, and look at what he did!"
Adolf Hitler was emphatically not an atheist. As he said himself:
The folkish-minded man, in particular, has the sacred duty, each in his own denomination, of making people stop just talking superficially of God's will, and actually fulfill God's will, and not let God's word be desecrated. [original italics]
For God's will gave men their form, their essence, and their abilities. Anyone who destroys His work is declaring war on the Lord's creation, the divine will. Therefore, let every man be active, each in his own denomination if you please, and let every man take it as his first and most sacred duty to oppose anyone who in his activity by word or deed steps outside the confines of his religious community and tries to butt into the other.
Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. [original italics]
[Adolf Hitler, from "Mein Kampf," translation by Ralph Mannheim.]
Hitler certainly appeared at times to be a theist, and claimed to be a Christian:
The Führer made it known to those entrusted with the Final Solution that the killings should be done as humanely as possible. This was in line with his conviction that he was observing God's injunction to cleanse the world of vermin. Still a member in good standing of the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy ("I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so" [quoting Hitler]), he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of God. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of God--so long as it was done impersonally, without cruelty.
[Pulitzer Prize winner John Toland
from "Adolf Hitler," pp 507, talking about the Autumn of 1941.]
The "I am now as before a Catholic..." quotation from Hitler was recorded in the diary of Gerhard Engel, an SS Adjutant, in October 1941. Hitler was speaking in private, not before a mass audience, and so it is difficult to dismiss the comment as propaganda lies.
Of course, someone bad believing something does not make that belief wrong. It's also entirely possible that Hitler was lying when he claimed to believe in God. We certainly can't conclude that he's an atheist, though.
"In the Bible it says that..."
Most atheists feel that the Bible is of questionable accuracy, as it was written thousands of years ago by many authors who were recording oral tradition that existed many years before. Thus, any claimed "truth" in it is of questionable legitimacy. This isn't to say that The Bible has no truth in it; simply that any truth must be examined before being accepted.
Many atheists also feel that because any passage is subject to "interpretation," any claim that a passage "means" one thing and one thing only is not legitimate.
Note that this feeling tends to extend to other books.
It is also remarkable to many atheists that theists tend to ignore other equally plausible religious books in favor of those of their own religion.
"If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing--but if you don't believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist."
This argument is known as Pascal's Wager. It has several flaws.
Firstly, it does not indicate which religion to follow. Indeed, there are many mutually exclusive and contradictory religions out there. This is often described as the "avoiding the wrong hell" problem. If a person is a follower of one religion, he may end up in another religion's version of hell.
Even if we assume that there's a God, that doesn't imply that there's one unique God. Which should we believe in? If we believe in all of them, how will we decide which commandments to follow?
Secondly, the statement that "If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing" is not true. Suppose you're believing in the wrong God--the true God might punish you for your foolishness. Consider also the deaths that have resulted from people rejecting medicine in favor of prayer.
Another flaw in the argument is that it is based on the assumption that the two possibilities are equally likely--or at least, that they are of comparable likelihood. If, in fact, the possibility of there being a God is close to zero, the argument becomes much less persuasive. So sadly the argument is only likely to convince those who believe already.
Also, many feel that for intellectually honest people, belief is based on evidence, with some amount of intuition. It is not a matter of will or cost-benefit analysis.
Formally speaking, the argument consists of four statements:
There are two approaches to the argument. The first is to view Statement 1 as an assumption, and Statement 2 as a consequence of it. The problem is that there's really no way to arrive at Statement 2 from Statement 1 via simple logical inference. The statements just don't follow on from each other.
The alternative approach is to claim that Statements 1 and 2 are both assumptions. The problem with this is that Statement 2 is then basically an assumption which states the Christian position, and only a Christian will agree with that assumption. The argument thus collapses to "If you are a Christian, it is in your interests to believe in God"--a rather vacuous tautology, and not the way Pascal intended the argument to be viewed.
Also, if we don't even know that God exists, why should we take Statement 2 over some similar assumption? Isn't it just as likely that God would be angry at people who chose to believe for personal gain? If God is omniscient, he will certainly know who really believes and who believes as a wager. He will spurn the latter... assuming he actually cares at all whether people truly believe in him.
Some have suggested that the person who chooses to believe based on Pascal's Wager, can then somehow make the transition to truly believing. Unfortunately, most atheists don't find it possible to make that leap.
In addition, this hypothetical God may require more than simple belief; almost all Christians believe that the Christian God requires an element of trust and obedience from his followers. That destroys the assertion that if you believe but are wrong, you lose nothing.
Finally, if this God is a fair and just God, surely he will judge people on their actions in life, not on whether they happen to believe in him. A God who sends good and kind people to hell is not one most atheists would be prepared to consider worshipping.
"Did Jesus exist? If not, then there's not much to talk about. If he did, he called himself Lord. This means that either:
It's unlikely he was a liar, given his morals as described in the Bible, and his behavior doesn't sound like that of a lunatic. So surely we must conclude that he was Lord?"
Firstly, note that this argument hinges on the assumption that Jesus did in fact exist. This is at least debatable.
Secondly, the argument attempts a logical fallacy which we might call "trifurcation," by analogy with "bifurcation" (see the "Constructing a Logical Argument" document). That is, the argument attempts to restrict us to three possibilities, when in fact there are many more.
Two of the more likely alternatives are:
Note that in the New Testament Jesus does not say that he is God, although John 10:30 claims that he said "I and my father are one." The claim that Jesus was God was first made after the death of Jesus and his twelve disciples.
Finally, note that the possibility that he was a "lunatic" is not easily discountable. Even today in the western world there are numerous people who have managed to convince hundreds or thousands of followers that they are the Lord or his One True Prophet. People like L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones and David Koresh continue to peddle their divinity. In more superstitious countries, there are literally hundreds of present-day messiahs.
Incidentally, the "Lord, Liar or Lunatic" argument is based on arguments in the book "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis, the well known author and committed Christian. He wrote many books containing Christian apologia, and also a number of fantasy and SF novels influenced by Christian themes. His most famous books, the Narnia series of novels, are a fantasy retelling of many aspects of Christian faith, with Aslan taking the place of Jesus. Amusingly, some Christian fundamentalists in the USA have attempted to have Lewis' books banned from schools, alleging that they are "Satanic" in influence.
"People keep talking about Occam's Razor. What is it?"
William of Occam formulated a principle which has become known as Occam's Razor. In its original form, it said "Do not multiply entities unnecessarily." That is, if you can explain something without supposing the existence of some entity, then do so.
Nowadays when people refer to Occam's Razor, they often express it more generally, for example as "Take the simplest solution."
The relevance to atheism is that we can look at two possible explanations for what we see around us:
Given that both explanations fit the facts, Occam's Razor might suggest that we should take the simpler of the two--solution number one. Unfortunately, some argue that there is a third even more simple solution:
This third option leads us logically towards solipsism, which many people find unacceptable.
"I want to tell people about the virtues and benefits of my religion."
Preaching is not appreciated by the majority of atheists, most of whom have been "preached at" by well-meaning Christians (and sometimes by other theists, as well).
Often theists make their basic claims about God in the form of lengthy analogies or parables. Be aware that atheists have heard of God and know the basic claims; if the sole purpose of your parable is to tell atheists that God exists and brings salvation, you may as well not bother inasmuch as this kind of thing is nothing new.
"I know from personal experience and prayer that God exists."
Just as many theists have personal evidence that the being they worship exists, so many atheists have personal evidence that such beings do not exist. That evidence varies from person to person.
Furthermore, without wishing to dismiss your evidence out of hand, many people have claimed all kinds of unlikely things--that they have been abducted by UFOs, visited by the ghost of Elvis, and so on.
"Albert Einstein believed in God. Do you think you're more clever than him?"
Einstein did once comment that "God does not play dice [with the universe]." This quotation is commonly mentioned to show that Einstein believed in the Christian God. Used this way, it is out of context; it refers to Einstein's refusal to accept some aspects of the most popular interpretations of quantum theory. Furthermore, Einstein's religious background was Jewish rather than Christian.
A better quotation showing what Einstein thought about God is the following:
I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.
Einstein recognized Quantum Theory as the best scientific model for the physical data available. He did not accept claims that the theory was complete, or that probability and randomness were an essential part of nature. He believed that a better, more complete theory would be found, which would have no need for statistical interpretations or randomness.
So far no such better theory has been found, and much evidence suggests that it never will be.
A longer quote from Einstein appears in Science, Philosophy, and Religion, A Symposium, published by the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., New York, 1941. In it he says:
The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted [italics his], in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.
But I am convinced that such behavior on the part of representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task...
Einstein has also said:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
The above quote is from a letter Einstein wrote in English, dated 24 March 1954. It is included in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University Press. Also from the same book:
I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.
Of course, the fact that Einstein chose not to believe in Christianity does not in itself imply that Christianity is false.
For more of Einstein's writings, see Albert Einstein in the Secular Web Library.
"Everyone worships something, whether it's money, power or God."
If that is true, everyone is a polytheist. Theists care just as much about those things that atheists care about. If the atheists' reactions to (for example) their families amount to worship then so do the theists.'
Also, holding something as more important than all other things does not constitute "worship" by any meaningful definition of the word.
"The presence of design in the universe proves there is a God. Surely you don't think all this appeared here just by chance?"
This is known as the Argument From Design.
It is a matter of dispute whether there is any element of design in the universe. Those who believe that the complexity and diversity of living creatures on the earth is evidence of a creator are advised to consult the Talk Origins Archive.
There is insufficient space to summarize both sides of that debate here. However, the conclusion is that there is no scientific evidence in favor of so-called Scientific Creationism. Furthermore, there is much evidence, observation and theory that can explain many of the complexities of the universe and life on earth.
The origin of the Argument by Design is a feeling that the existence of something as incredibly intricate as, say, a human is so improbable that surely it can't have come about by chance; that surely there must be some external intelligence directing things so that humans come from the chaos deliberately.
But if human intelligence is so improbable, surely the existence of a mind capable of fashioning an entire universe complete with conscious beings must be immeasurably more unlikely? The approach used to argue in favor of the existence of a creator can be turned around and applied to the Creationist position.
This leads us to the familiar theme of "If a creator created the universe, what created the creator?" but with the addition of spiraling improbability. The only way out is to declare that the creator was not created and just "is" (or "was").
From here we might as well ask what is wrong with saying that the universe just "is" without introducing a creator? Indeed Stephen Hawking, in his book "A Brief History of Time," explains his theory that the universe is closed and finite in extent, with no beginning or end.
The Argument From Design is often stated by analogy, in the so-called Watchmaker Argument. One is asked to imagine that one has found a watch on the beach. Does one assume that it was created by a watchmaker, or that it evolved naturally? Of course one assumes a watchmaker. Yet like the watch, the universe is intricate and complex; so, the argument goes, the universe too must have a creator.
The Watchmaker analogy suffers from three particular flaws, over and above those common to all Arguments By Design. Firstly, a watchmaker creates watches from pre-existing materials, whereas God is claimed to have created the universe from nothing. These two sorts of creation are clearly fundamentally different, and the analogy is therefore rather weak.
Secondly, a watchmaker makes watches, but there are many other things in the world. If we walked further along the beach and found a nuclear reactor, we wouldn't assume it was created by the watchmaker. The argument would therefore suggest a multitude of creators, each responsible for a different part of creation (or a different universe, if you allow the possibility that there might be more than one).
Finally, in the first part of the watchmaker argument we conclude that the watch is not part of nature because it is ordered, and therefore stands out from the randomness of nature. Yet in the second part of the argument, we start from the position that the universe is obviously not random, but shows elements of order. The Watchmaker argument is thus internally inconsistent.
Apart from logical inconsistencies in the watchmaker argument, it's worth pointing out that biological systems and mechanical systems behave very differently. What's unlikely for a pile of gears is not necessarily unlikely for a mixture of biological molecules.
"Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrates that it is impossible for the Bible to be both true and complete."
Gödel's First Incompleteness Theorem applies to any consistent formal system which:
Gödel showed that in any such system S, it is possible to formulate an expression which says "This statement is unprovable in S."
If such a statement were provable in S, then S would be inconsistent. Hence any such system must either be incomplete or inconsistent. If a formal system is incomplete, then there exist statements within the system which can never be proven to be valid or invalid ("true" or "false") within the system.
Essentially, Gödel's First Incompleteness Theorem revolves around getting formal systems to formulate a variation on the "Liar Paradox." The classic Liar Paradox sentence in ordinary English is "This sentence is false."
Note that if a proposition is undecidable, the formal system cannot even deduce that it is undecidable. (This is Gödel's Second Incompleteness Theorem, which is rather tricky to prove.)
The logic used in theological discussions is rarely well defined, so claims that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrates that it is impossible to prove (or disprove) the existence of God are worthless in isolation.
One can trivially define a formal system in which it is possible to prove the existence of God, simply by having the existence of God stated as an axiom. (This is unlikely to be viewed by atheists as a convincing proof, however.)
It may be possible to succeed in producing a formal system built on axioms that both atheists and theists agree with. It may then be possible to show that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem holds for that system. However, that would still not demonstrate that it is impossible to prove that God exists within the system. Furthermore, it certainly wouldn't tell us anything about whether it is possible to prove the existence of God generally.
Note also that all of these hypothetical formal systems tell us nothing about the actual existence of God; the formal systems are just abstractions.
Another frequent claim is that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrates that a religious text (the Bible, the Book of Mormon or whatever) cannot be both consistent and universally applicable. Religious texts are not formal systems, so such claims are nonsense.
There are a number of books which talk specifically about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and explain concepts such as axiomatic systems, consistency and completeness:
"Did George Bush really say that atheists should not be considered citizens?"
The following exchange took place at the Chicago airport between Robert I. Sherman of American Atheist Press">American Atheist Press and George Bush, on August 27 1987. Sherman is a fully accredited reporter, and was present by invitation as a member of the press corps. The Republican presidential nominee was there to announce federal disaster relief for Illinois. The discussion turned to the presidential primary:
RS: "What will you do to win the votes of Americans who are atheists?"
UPI reported on May 8, 1989, that various atheist organizations were still angry over the remarks.
The exchange appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera on Monday February 27, 1989. It can also be found in Free Inquiry magazine, Fall 1988 issue, Volume 8, Number 4, page 16.
On October 29, 1988, Mr. Sherman had a confrontation with Ed Murnane, cochairman of the Bush-Quayle 1988 Illinois campaign. This concerned a lawsuit Mr. Sherman had filed to stop the Community Consolidated School District 21 (Chicago, Illinois) from forcing his first-grade atheist son to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States as "one nation under God" (Bush's phrase). The following conversation took place:
RS: "American Atheists filed the Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit yesterday. Does the Bush campaign have an official response to this filing?"
After Bush's election, American Atheists wrote to Bush asking him to retract his statement. On February 21st 1989, C. Boyden Gray, Counsel to the President, replied on White House stationery that Bush substantively stood by his original statement, and wrote:
As you are aware, the President is a religious man who neither supports atheism nor believes that atheism should be unnecessarily encouraged or supported by the government.
For further information, contact American Atheist Veterans at the American Atheist Press's Cameron Road address.
"Does anyone have a list of Biblical contradictions?"
Yes. There are many such lists. The following are here in the Secular Web Library:
"Because of the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, shouldn't the United States be considered a Christian nation?"
Based upon the writings of several important founding fathers, it is clear that they never intended the US to be a Christian nation. Here are some quotes"
What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.
I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved--the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!
History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.
I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it.
"Is it true that George Washington said that the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion?"
No. The quotation often given is in fact from Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli (8 Stat 154, Treaty Series 358):
The text may be found in the Congressional Record or in treaty collections such as Charles I. Bevans' Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949, vol. 11 (pp. 1070-1080).
The Treaty of Tripoli was signed in Tripoli on November 4th, 1796. The English text of the treaty was approved by the U.S. Senate on June 7, 1797 and ratified by President John Adams on June 10, 1797. It was recently discovered that the US copy of the Arabic version of the treaty not only lacks the quotation, it lacks Article XI altogether. Instead it seems to contain the text of a letter to the Pasha of Tripoli from the Dey of Algiers.
The person who translated the Arabic to English was Joel Barlow, Consul General at Algiers, a close friend of Thomas Paine--and an opponent of Christianity. It is possible that Barlow made up Article XI, but since there is no Arabic version of that article to be found, it's hard to say. It seems unlikely, however.
In 1806 a new Treaty of Tripoli was ratified which no longer contained the quotation. The 1815 Treaty With Algiers contains a similar article, but does not state that the US government is not founded on religion, only that it is not incompatible with any religion.
Ignoring the question of the wording of the Arabic version of the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, we can conclude that the wording of the English article XI fairly represents the opinion of the time, as it was passed and approved by both the US Senate and the President.
"The Bible says "Thou shalt not kill," yet many Christians serve in the military. What hypocrites!"
The Hebrew word is "ratsach." Although this can mean "kill," it's one of the words less frequently used to mean "kill" in the Bible. It can, however, be translated as "murder." Most modern translations of the Bible express the commandment as "Thou shalt not murder." The fact is, however, that this commandment originally applied only in the case of the murder of one Israelite by another.
"What does the abbreviation "xian" mean? Is it an insult?"
When writing the name "Christ," it is quite common to abbreviate it to X or x, representing the first letter (chi) of the Greek XPICTOC khristos. For example, "xmas" is a common abbreviation of "Christmas." "Xian" just means "Christian."
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the abbreviation "xian" or "xtian" for "Christian" dates back at least as far as 1634. Before that, it was more usual to take the first two letters of XPICTOC, and write "xpian" for "Christian." Priests would record Christenings using the shorthand "xpen" or "xpn."
So no, it's not an insult.
In I Kings 7:23 the Bible says:
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
If you make a molten sea with a circumference of thirty cubits, you'll find that the diameter is 30/pi or 9.55 cubits. Or ten cubits, to round to the nearest integer.
In short, the Bible does not say that pi must be three.
Atheists don't believe in any kind of supernatural being. They view Satan as being every bit as mythological and nonexistent as God.
(This response assumes a Christian view of what's "Satanic"; those who call themselves Satanists often have a very different concept of Satan.)
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