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Weak Arguments Atheists Use

Some Points That Atheists Would Do Well To Reconsider

Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.10.24, Updated 2017.07.11


Ideally, While I’m convinced that the believer’s arguments are weakest, I have noted several used by atheists that don’t hold water, and would like to point them out. While some of these statements are actually true, at least to some extent, they rarely have actual bearing on whether gods exist.


Finding Aliens Would Disprove God


Even some Christian thinkers posit that “finding alien life forms would be a great challenge to the very perceived existence of God”. However, I have more often heard this from atheists. It is commonly phrased as follows:
“If aliens exist, then the Bible becomes less believable. Why is there no mention of aliens and alien worlds in Genesis? God created man, gave man dominion over the earth. Then later he sends Christ here. Never a mention of aliens and alien worlds... If God exists, and if God inspired the writing of the Bible, then don't you think He would have mentioned all the other life, intelligent and otherwise, that He created all over the Universe? This is a suspicious omission.”
No. Just no. The Bible also doesn’t mention a million things that clearly do exist or have existed. There is no requirement that a religious text mention everything that exists here or elsewhere in order to be true. Would it have been a better book if the Bible had mentioned penicillin and how to make it? Certainly. But the omission thereof is not a proof on the veracity of the book.

Further, even if the very existence of life forms on other planets could somehow disprove the Bible (and every other religious text in the world), that is immaterial to the question of the existence of gods. As atheists (and some believers, for that matter) can tell you, the Bible and other such writings were conceived and written by humans, not by gods.

As someone who regularly and consistently studied the Bible for many years, I can assure you it does not deny the existence of life on other planets. Clearly, the book is not concerned with the question of life on other planets, nor would it need to be, as it was clearly written with humans of planet Earth as its main audience.

However, depending on what kind of aliens we found, it could certainly have an impact on belief here on Earth, especially if they were sentient beings able to communicate with us. Consider the following three scenarios:

  1. The aliens have religions that are important to their society. At least one of the major religions is very similar to one of our own.
  2. The aliens have zero religion, zero belief in gods, and no record in their history of ever having such beliefs.
  3. The aliens have religions that are completely different than ours, but similar in levels of devotion and incompatibility with other religions.

The first scenario, however improbable, would gift powerful bragging rights to the specific religious beliefs shared between civilizations. For example, say it was Christianity. The probability of this religion developing independently on both worlds, without an actual god existing, is very low. To find the same religion on another world would be incredibly convincing to many people. Even die-hard atheists — the ones who understand probability — would be given pause. It would not be proof of the existence of the Christian god, but its sheer improbability would have to be considered evidence, and would require serious consideration.

In the second scenario, religious people on Earth might have tough questions to answer: If there is a God, why did it create these aliens and not tell them about itself? Why were they not given a revelation (Bible, Qu’ran, etc.) while we were? Are the gods of Earth merely local instead of universal?

The third case is most probable I think, and would prove very little either way. If God exists, maybe these ETs started with the same information about God that we had, but then distorted it just like we did. If gods do not exists, maybe they created religions for the same reasons we did.

For me, the only way that sentient alien beings could prove or disprove anything about gods are as follows: (1) they have reliable historical records showing they populated Earth with life at some point or witnessed the development of life here, or (2) they have a religion that is identical with one of our own religions. The first would not disprove gods per se, but would disprove all our creation myths. The second would be such an incredible coincidence that for many it would indeed prove a particular god’s existence. (Keep in mind, it might not be your religion; it might be some sect you’ve never heard of.)

Related: Time Is Why We Haven’t Seen ETs



Most Scientists Don’t Believe In God


Repeatedly, I have seen atheists make the claim that “most scientists are atheists”, with the underlying meaning that smart, educated people do not believe in gods. A few believers make the claim too — for the backward purpose of convincing fellow believers that scientists aren’t to be trusted.

First, this is demonstrably untrue — it’s actually less than half. Some atheists like to cite a survey of the National Academy of Scientists that shows 93% are atheists, but this is a relatively small body and the numbers don’t match up with other surveys of wider groups of scientists.

Second, it’s a logical fallacy (appeal to authority or argument from authority) to claim something is true simply because an authority says it’s true. In the same way, it wouldn’t prove the existence of gods if most scientists did believe in gods — and at some point in history, most of them did — for example, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin both believed in God.

God could still exist even if every scientist in the world said otherwise, mainly because most of science is concerned with observable reality, while god is — by many definitions — unobservable.


Atheists Are More Intelligent Than Believers


This claim comes worded in many ways, and its intent is similar to the scientists claim above: if you’re smart enough, you’ll see that gods are myths; if you’re still in religion’s grasp, it’s because you’re not smart enough.

This one is actually marginally true, at least according to meta-analysis of 63 different studies. The studies, conducted from 1928 through 2012, using various measures of intelligence and religiosity, show that the more intelligent someone is, the less likely they are to be religious.

However, there are a couple of problems with this argument. One is that the differences are very, very slight, and there are many exceptions — incredibly intelligent believers and incredibly unintelligent atheists. Another problem is that it depends on contested definitions of “intelligence”, something that scientists are still struggling to precisely define.

But perhaps the biggest issue is that it doesn’t explain people like me, who once believed but no longer do, or people who grew up without faith and then converted to religion. Did my intelligence suddenly jump up a notch when I realized I was an atheist? Or was I an exceptionally intelligent believer (or am I an exceptionally unintelligent atheist)?

And one reason it will never work in a debate against believers is that it comes across as either ad hominem (“you’re an idiot”) or argument from authority (“I’m smarter than you”), both logical fallacies.

It should be noted here, however, that Jesus himself allegedly preached that his teachings were “hidden” from “the wise and learned”, but could easily be understood by “little children” — Matt. 11:25 — indicating that he agreed with the premise that atheists are smarter than believers. There are also scriptures like Prov. 3:5, which instruct believers not to use their reason or understanding; to simply trust in the Lord.

Similar to the “atheists are more intelligent” fallacy is the “atheists are rational/logical” fallacy, which usually includes the claim that believers aren’t. Unlike intelligence, which is often seen as innate, logic/reason are things that can be taught and learned. Still, not only is the claim untrue (many atheists are irrational and illogical while some believers are rational, logical, etc.), but it also does not disprove a god. My advice: if you’re tempted to make claims about logic or reason, make them specific to a particular argument, rather than a blanket statement about large groups of people.


Religion Is Responsible For So Much Bad Stuff


Religion and “holy” books have been cited to justify slavery, wars, treating women and children poorly, the worst forms of capitalism, dictatorships, monarchies, racism, misogyny, and so on. For a believer, it might be a reason to strive for reform within his or her religion. For a secularist, it is a reason to keep religion out of government. For an atheist, it can serve as a reminder of what unfounded beliefs can lead to. But saying it doesn’t mean gods don’t exist.

Even showing that God himself did bad things (for example) must be done under the stipulation that the stories in question are true, and — at most — shows that a particular god isn’t as moral as its followers claim. At worst, it might mean there’s a real god that is simply evil.

Because of this, it’s a red herring — a distraction. Mentioning it changes the discussion from “do gods exist?” to “how bad, really, is religion?” It gives the believer a chance to list all the good that religions have done, and the good that religious people still do. It becomes a subjective argument about opinions and knowledge and interpretation of history. Further, there is a long list of atheists who have done bad things too.

This is related to the next failed argument often used by atheists.


The Church Is Full Of Hypocrites


This (true) claim is something I heard quite often just before I quit attending church, and just afterward. When I talked to non-church-goers — many of whom still believed in God — one of their top excuses was often: “There are just too many hypocrites in the church.” Usually they would follow up by listing people they’d known who preached holiness but did not live up to it. Today, I frequently read comments from atheists harping on this point.

When you can find a person within a religion who preaches one thing but lives another (the technical definition of “hypocrite”), all you’ve done is found a hypocrite. You haven’t proved gods don’t exist or even that a particular belief system is corrupt or incorrect.

At most, it shows that the person in question doesn’t truly believe what they preach. If the person is in a position of authority at the church, or if there are a large number of them, it might be a reason to avoid that church — or all churches. But it still fails to prove anything about God himself.

And if you keep hammering at this point as a way to discredit a religion, you leave yourself open for any accusations of your own hypocrisy to discredit yourself, or other person’s hypocrisy to discredit any other worldview. If you find a humanist hypocrite, does it mean it’s wrong to be a humanist? No. It just means you found a hypocrite.


False Dichotomy: Atheists vs. Fundamentalists


It’s a mistake to assume that all religious people are fundamentalists, just like it’s a mistake for believers to assume that anyone who disagrees with them is an infidel. There is a wide range of belief and devotion in the world, not only between various religions, but even within specific denominations. Everyone who sits in a pew is not necessarily a “crazy”. Many believers are political moderates or liberal. Quite a few people believe faith is a private matter and can’t be equated with the irritating ones who knock on your door.

(In the same way, there are many agnostics and atheists who just don’t think it’s important enough to talk about.)

I bring this up because I’ve seen many discussions begin with the atheist assuming that the believer they’re talking to is necessarily that kind of believer. It can certainly pay to open by asking about the particular beliefs of the person in question, or using a more general “many of them, in my experience” rather than “you”.

Everyone Is Born An Atheist


While technically true, I don't think it’s helpful to belabor this point when talking to believers. It certainly doesn’t prove the non-existence of gods, and only opens the door for arguments over semantics and definitions. Of course a baby doesn’t believe in God; it has no capacity or understanding to do so. Babies are also born without political parties, without the ability to fend for themselves, and without many other beliefs or abilities.

The only time it might be worth bringing up is in a theoretical discussion about how religion gets passed on. Most people seem to have the same general religion as their parents or wider society, for example. I would be interested to know about any studies done on babies/children raised without gods or the supernatural ever being mentioned to them, to see how they react to the stories when they eventually hear them. (In my experience, though, it’s difficult to live a single day without hearing about it; references to God and religion abound in movies, TV shows, books, billboards, and casual conversation.)


Religion Is A Mental Illness


This claim is pointless on so many levels. On the logic level, it’s ad hominem — a personal attack to make you feel better — and doesn’t prove anything. On a mental health level, it ignores that mental health issues are almost never the fault of the person suffering from them — they are often physical in nature (genetic, injury-related, exposure to neurotoxins, etc.) or related to past traumas (abuse, for example). On a social justice level, it is using mental illness as a slur — which degrades and marginalizes people who actually do fall into this category. Further, it ignores the existence of people like me, who were once religious and then became atheists. Were we mentally ill and then “got better”?

But perhaps most importantly, no professional mental health organization has classified religion as a mental illness (though certain aspects, such as “hearing voices”, could very well be symptoms of actual mental illness).

And believers often say the same thing about atheists.

Perhaps not identical, but similar ad hominems include “dumb”, “close minded”, “blind”, “stupid”, “delusional”, etc. Any one of them could be true in a particular believer’s case, but not only do these accusations prove nothing about a God or gods, but they hinder the argument too. And, to a neutral observer, it makes you look like an ass.


Believers Are Atheistic About Most Gods


I’ve seen atheists say: “You’re already an atheist toward most gods; we just go one god further.”

While it’s true that most believers — at least all the ones I’ve met — don’t believe in any other gods except their own, this isn’t an argument against the existence of that one last god they do believe in, nor is it an argument against any of the ones they don’t beleive in. It’s purely tautological; it only states what is already known; they believe in a particular god, yet not the others.

For me, thinking of this did help, in a roudabout way, but only after I’d long doubted my own God’s existence. As I researched several other religions, I realized that I couldn’t just start believing in them without some kind of convincing evidence. By the time I got back to my own God, I saw it the same way. But that was part of my personal journey, and had to happen organically. In the height of my faith, it would have made zero difference to me had someone told me: “you’re already an atheist about most gods”.

Saying to a believer “I simply believe in one less god than you” isn’t helpful. The phrase is meant to imply a similarity when in fact it highlights a huge difference. The huge difference is that they believe their God is real, while you don’t believe any gods are real.

However — and I think this is very important — I think it’s possible that a dent could have been made earlier, if someone had rephrased this. If someone had opened a line of questioning with “Why don’t you believe in [some God besides the Christian one]?”, they could have waited for my answer, and then suggested I apply the same reasoning to my own God. The fact is, I have zero recollection of any reasoning on my part as to why I didn’t believe in other gods. I further didn’t understand the burden of proof. And I didn’t realize until relatively recently that the only reason I believed in the Christian God is because I was born into a Christian family in a nation where Christianity was dominant.


Assuming Reasons WHY Someone Believes


Another tactic I’ve seen atheists use is to assume the reason why a believer believes. For example: “You’re only a Christian because you were born into a Christian family; if you had been born in Pakistan, you would be Muslim.”

Note that in the previous section, I indeed said that’s why I believed as I did; but I’m saying this now, after a few years as an atheist. I wouldn’t have admitted it 25 years ago, nor would I have understood it. It is also not true of many other believers. It doesn’t explain, for example, converts in non-Christian countries.

And, perhaps most importantly, the way someone became a believer isn’t indicative of whether their beliefs are true or false.

On the other hand, if the conversation is between two people who know each other well, it could be a worthwhile question to ask of the believer: “Do you think you would have become a Christian if you’d been born to a non-Christian family in [any non-Christian country]?”


Conclusion


Lest anyone misunderstand, I think all these topics make for excellent discussion, and a few of them are clearly true (or at least warrant further study). However, I’ve seen them used in debates and arguments as if they were good points. Arguing poorly and using logical fallacies is best left to the theists, in my opinion.

It also, of course, depends on what the debate is about. If the debate is about whether gods exist, then these are poor arguments to use. Interestingly, believers will sometimes bring up these very topics — perhaps because they’re accustomed to atheists mentioning them, or perhaps in an attempt to distract. The best response to those is to stay on topic.


This is the updated version of this page. To see the original version, click here. Known edits to this page are listed below.


• EDIT, 2016.01.22: Added link to original version. Added link to blog entry: Time Is Why We Haven’t Seen ETs.

• EDIT, 2016.05.10: Changed formatting of numbered list in Aliens section. Separated the following paragraph into three. Removed “About Me” section from the More menu. Added link to this Edits section to the More menu. Added final sentence to the Bad Stuff section. Added Hypocrites section.

• EDIT, 2016.05.28: Added last paragraph to Intelligent section.

• EDIT, 2017.07.11: Added meta tags to the html header — invisible to most readers. Removed first two sentences of intro; combined remaining sentences into a single paragraph. Added intra-page links to the More menu. In the aliens section: reworded first paragraph, added three sentences regarding penicillin, reworded “first scenario” paragraph, added a sentence to the “second scenario” paragraph, and reworded first sentence of the “third case” paragraph. In the scientists section: added an introductory paragraph. In the intelligent section, added introductory paragraph, added the word “marginally”, added the reference to Proverbs 3:5, and added a “similar to” paragraph. In the bad stuff section: restructured the first three paragraphs. In the hypocrites section: changed a word in first paragraph, corrected punctuation, added “at most” paragraph. In the dichotomy section: added a third paragraph. In the mental illness section, changed the link (because the Telegraph removed the blog entry I’d first linked to), restructured first paragraph, added a second paragraph, and added a closing paragraph. In the most gods section: added a paragraph at the beginning, added a sentence to the second (formerly first) paragraph, reworded the third (formerly second) paragraph, and added a closing paragraph about rephrasing. Added assuming why section. In the conclusion: removed first paragraph, reworded second (now first) paragraph, and added a second paragraph.




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