Apologetics, Argumentation, atheism, Atheists, Belief, Humanism, Reasoning, Rhetoric, Self
“I don’t believe in atheists.” That’s a phrase I’ve been seeing a lot lately. It passes for clever in apologetics blogs and it helps many a drive-by tweeter to troll the atheist hashtags. I somehow doubt the majority of these people are making references to the Chris Hedges book from 2008, but who knows how the meme rolls? The bottom line is that lots of folks have found it fun a fun phrase to say.
I wish I could give them all a cookie.
In one respect, at least, the argument does seem fitting. For so long the topic of ‘atheism’ has had a larger presence in Sunday school sermons than it has in the words of actual non-believers. To meet folks who actually claim the title must seem rather surreal to many believers, a bit like having the villains from a story come to life and begin talking back. How much this has to do with the emergence of the so-called new atheism, and how much of this may have been a problem even for the nay-sayers of previous generations, I don’t know, but I do think a lot of Christians must be rather surprised to find other voices have begun to shape a topic over which they expect full control. It really must seem like the height of rudeness for the characters in ones’ own stories to begin asserting ownership of their own narrative. Telling us that atheists aren’t real is a bit like banishing us back to the story lines of Christianity. We are supposed to be vanquished at the end of the sermon; we aren’t supposed to talk back.
…which is what this phrase is really all about.
If pressed on the matter, and sometimes without needing to be pressed at all, those repeating this almost-edgy mantra can usually produce an argument on the matter. Essentially the idea is that atheists are misrepresenting our own selves. Often the argument is that deep down we really know that there is a God. Sometimes, the argument is that we are just rebelling against a god we actually know to exist, or that we simply want to enjoy a life of sin regardless of this god that we really know about. …deep down in our hearts.
I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen this claim that atheists really know there is a god linked to the whole atheists-are-really-just-agnostics-who-need-a-dictionary theme, but that wouldn’t surprise me. Ultimately, both strategies effectively deny the reality of atheism, and of course variations of both arguments are legion.
There is of course little reason to respond to these arguments, but hang on because I’ve got a couple reasons for that at least.
…the not responding part.
I think it pays to recognize interpersonal aggression when you see it, and to separate that as much as possible from efforts at thoughtful discussion. Disbelief in atheism is a paradigm case of poisoning the well, and people don’t do it because they want to talk to you about what you believe, what they believe, or what people might believe in Eastern Mongolia. They are doing it because they want to establish control over you at the outset of the conversation. Why they want that is another question, but make no mistake the issue is control, not some theoretical point they might want to make about anything.
You can have a real conversation about whether or not God exists. You can have a real conversation about what She might be like. You can have a real conversation about what people might or might not know about Her. None of these conversations should be confused with questions about what is or isn’t an accurate representation of your beliefs on that topic.
How do we know what people believe? In most cases, the answer is simply because it is what they have told us what they believe. Support for the truth or falsehood of an assertion about something in this world would ideally take the form of objective evidence, but claims about what one does or doesn’t believe are normally declared by fiat, so to speak, and in most cases, the conversation proceeds from there.
I’m not suggesting there are never any grounds on which to doubt people’s self-representation, but I am suggesting that it’s more than a little unusual to do so. The basis for such doubts ought normally to come from the actions and statements of the party accused of misrepresenting themselves. When (as is almost always the case with dismissal of atheism) the grounds for doubt are little other than theoretical assumptions as to what other people MUST really believe despite their own protestations that is a question good and begged.
It’s also the end of the conversation.
There is of course a secular variant of this argument. We could as easily maintain that believers don’t actually believe what they say that they believe and that all of them are really just pretending to believe in gods. We can go that route if we really want to. But what would be the point of talking about it?
Or even thinking about it, really?
It’s a damned easy world in which those who don’t agree with you become liars or deluded wrecks right from the first nuh-uh, and taking seriously the possibility of real disagreement over an issue is part of taking the issue (whatever it may be) seriously to begin with.
Contempt is always contagious.
I’ve never come across that line. I would probably only stare dumbfoundedly. To me, maybe a Christian thinks that such a phrase would give them control, but to anyone who is rational and objective it just makes them appear utterly unintelligent. Equating doubt in an invisible supernatural being with no material or physical presence with doubt in the truth of my self-identity? Seriously?
Thinking I’m secretly not atheist? Unless I somehow suspended my faculty of reason, I logically must be an atheist. Being an atheist isn’t even a belief. It’s just an acknowledgment of facts.
It would be like saying “YOU SECRETLY THINK THAT CIRCUMFERENCE OVER DIAMETER IS NOT EQUAL TO PI”. It’s a fact. It’s equal to pi. Being a pi-ist simply means that I acknowledge the facts of reality. Having doubt as to my pi-ism would be equivalent of saying that a rational human being could somehow think circumference/diameter ISN’T pi, which is false and absurd.
“Thinking I’m secretly not atheist? Unless I somehow suspended my faculty of reason, I logically must be an atheist. Being an atheist isn’t even a belief. It’s just an acknowledgment of facts.”
That’s an interesting statement, Tiffany, and I’d be interested in your expanding on it. What facts vs. belief do you mean? As a Christian, I have always understood that atheists did not believe in gods, or put another way, they held a belief that there were no gods. Am I wrong in this understanding? Or, do I misinterpret your above statement?
I think Capt. Jill here in the comments does a great job of clarifying it. I don’t know how to be much more clear without seeming antagonizing – since it’s not possible that the Christian god exists, without suspending my faculty of reason it would be impossible that I’m not an atheist.
If you would like to visit my blog, I post a lot of atheist-related material. I don’t want to comment further and derail this nice man’s blog!
I agree with most of what you say. The trouble with pointing out the absurdity of the reasoning in this instance though is that it assumes the person making this kind of argument is actually reasoning about the issue. Far from it. They are simply refusing to engage.
Great point, you are so right!
Christ Centered Teaching said:
Actually a recent neurology basis study made the claim I think. Published not too long ago. The atheist is deluded according to their findings.
You really should read studies before citing them. Also you should actually cite studies, studies you’ve read, instead of alluding to them based on a fuzzy memory of a fuzzy understanding.
Christ Centered Teaching said:
No child. This isn’t about what I do or do not know. This is about you taking responsibility for the claims you make and the information you pass along. If you cannot be bothered to do that, then please do not waste my time with pretend references to studies you haven’t read.
Christ Centered Teaching said:
Child? Exactly! According to this study, when we are children we almost all ,”know”, God and afterlife exists.
And this knowing persists beyond ageing.
But the study was multi-year and world-wide culturally.
In Ecclesiastes of the Bible it is written, “God has placed eternity in the hearts of men.”
Thank you for finally citing your source. It would however help if you would read it. This article most certainly does NOT refute the self-representations of atheists. Moreover, the article you cited contains at least one clear statement to the contrary; “The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.”Far from demonstrating that there are no atheists, this article acknowledges them to exist. Read your sources!
Christ Centered Teaching said:
Do you ever remember believing in God and the afterlife? Are you certain God does not exist?
Seriously. This is what i am talking about. You come in supporting the claim that people like me don’t even know what we do or don’t believe, throw up a pseudo-citation, tell me to google it when I press you on the source and then finally produce a study that says NOTHING like what you claim it does. And now you want to ask some questions. I do NOT drink from a poisoned well. Good day.
Christ Centered Teaching said:
Then I must assume I have asked the right questions!
Christ Centered Teaching said:
You can’t deny the Irony of how often science explains Christian religion. In the Bible we see clearly that man was made for fellowship with God, to know God, to love God.
Most will posit their view occupies the objective high ground of reason, but that is a false peak in the climb up to truth. The absolute epitome of truth transcends reason into the realm of the miraculous where God resides. There reason can grasp the logical existence of a Creator who who made the laws that govern the natural realm, but He himself is not bound to their limitations.
Therefore the atheist has no basis with which he can deny scientifically, rationally, morally, or by any other means, prove God does not exist.
The study you finally cited is from 2011. It states that children are inclined to believe that their mothers are all-seeing and all-knowing, but that as they get older their beliefs become more aligned with the real world.
That’s exactly how I became an atheist. As I became aware that the world is filled with suffering people who don’t deserve to suffer, I concluded that an all-knowing benevolent omnipotence could not inhabit the same universe I inhabit. If I saw a child drowning in a tsunami, I’d attempt to save the child. If I were omnipotent, my attempt would obviously succeed.
An omniscient god would know whenever an innocent child was drowning. An omnipotent god could save each and every one of them. A benevolent, loving god would have the desire to do so. Thus, the fact that children still drown proves that no such benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being exists.
I’m sure children are naturally inclined to believe the world is flat, but that doesn’t mean that the adults who claim to believe in a spheroid Earth are fooling themselves.
Christ Centered Teaching said:
Jesus Christ did not deserve to suffer. God incarnate suffered for us. How does that fit your view of a God who is insensitive to suffering?
Robert Mitchell said:
Good read. Never ceases to amaze me how condescending and rude some Religionists can be — the whole point of a religion is self improvement after all. As a mystic, I get a fair amount of derision from all sides. Meanwhile, I’m inclined to regard most topics in the manner espoused by the great mystic Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing.” It’s absurd for one to assert what another believes. It’s hard enough to sort out one’s own beliefs!
PA Shapiro (@PatrickShapiro) said:
Well said. A little self-improvement is far more productive than trying to improve others, especially with contempt, like the original post says.
Marcy Ikeler said:
Back in the good old days: one’s religious belief was a personal matter. In today’s culture of narcissism, many folks appear as if their beliefs, or lack there of, is of paramount importance to everyone around them–perhaps even to the world. From my experience on social media sites, the number of atheists trying to agitate Christians is far greater than the number of Christians trying to force their beliefs on atheists. Take a troll, ooops, stroll over to Christian strongholds, say on facebook, and you’ll find many Christians slapping each other with Bible verses, while asserting a Christian with a slightly different interpretation of the religion must “not really be a Christian.” How many people are there in this world–yet I/we am/are to adjust my/our belief system(s) to accommodate every person with a different belief system? So, you don’t believe in God. Or, so you believe in God . . . . Probably doesn’t matter to anyone, outside of your family, as much as you would like to believe it does. (Does it matter to God if you don’t accept Him?) Atheists frequently appear to fancy themselves as more intelligent than those that believe in God. Somehow, having no idea of how the elements became available to evolve is a more “intelligent” approach than believing God created the world. Conversely, if one believes in God, it should help them work to live the life they are striving for–and not as a means of elevating oneself over another–as is frequently seen among many religious people. Personally, I prefer the days where belief, or lack of belief, was discussed, privately, with people that expressed an interest in what “you” believe or don’t believe. We are all given the opportunity to choose what we will believe or not believe. Wishing folks could feel secure about what they have chosen to believe or not believe–without the need to stomp their feet, like angry toddlers, declaring what they want or don’t want–and that everyone should pay attention to them!
Religion has always been public and it always been political. There is nothing new in the bickering except the medium in which it takes place, and not all of that bickering is bickering. Some arguments actually have merit. I’m not interested in silencing anyone who wants to weigh in on such issues, or in chasing them out of public forums, just in encouraging more thoughtful engagement.
“Personally, I prefer the days where belief, or lack of belief, was discussed, privately, with people that expressed an interest in what “you” believe or don’t believe.”
And yet, here you are, sharing your viewpoint in a public space.
“From my experience on social media sites, the number of atheists trying to agitate Christians is far greater than the number of Christians trying to force their beliefs on atheists.”
Perhaps. Perhaps you are only experiencing confirmation bias.
In any case, publicly stating an atheistic viewpoint is hardly “trying to force their beliefs” on anyone. Every bill and every coin that passes through my hands here in the United States says “In God We Trust”. I don’t trust in any god. Are these affirmations trying to force theistic beliefs on atheists? By the time I spend the bills, they say “In Good We Trust”. I haven’t hit on a good way to correct the coins yet, but I’m working on it.
I suspect that theists have just been accustomed to having theism taken as a given for so long that any statement from a different viewpoint is perceived as an unwarranted attack. For the record, yes, I do regard it as more intelligent to admit that I have no idea how elemental hydrogen came to be than to assert (with no supporting evidence) that there was a “creator” (how did this “creator” come to be?) who, perhaps out of boredom, decided after an eternity without it that it no longer wanted to exist in a universe without H. And poof! “Let there be hydrogen! And let the hydrogen fuse with itself to form heavier elements! And let there be molecules, and chemistry, and life, and holy books.”
Do theists have a theory for why their omnipotent deity didn’t make itself some equals so it could have a proper conversation? Was its life so meaningless that it needed to make millions (billions?) of “worshippers”? From where I sit, the concept is clearly nonsensical, but I haven’t ascended to what “Christ-centered teaching” calls “the realm of the miraculous”. To me, the real miracle is that any adult could actually believe such things.
I think the most interesting statement in your comment is the notion that the whole point of religion is self-improvement. I don’t think that is the case at all. That is very much a modern turn. It might help an individual here and another there to think of religion in that light, but it would be a mistake to cast the entire history of world religions in such terms. They have been political institutions through and through.
Marcy Ikeler said:
If one were to study what Christians are instructed to do, by other Christians, and the Bible–“we” are to follow the example of Jesus. He didn’t sin, from what we are taught. So, following Jesus’ example is bound to set one on a path of self-improvement. To pick out something you could argue with, in my post, shows the “core” of what this never-ending theological debate is usually about–the need to control other people . . that one-side-or-the-other must be “right.” Why is controlling what others think of paramount importance to those that state THEY are right–and anyone that believes differently is wrong? Back in “those good old days” that I alluded to–we adopted the attitude of “live-and-let live.” How I long for that attitude to re-surface. Also, for others commenting: God is worshiped in many religions–not just in the Christian religion–each religion using what they consider their sacred book. Frequently, it seems writers are using the existence of God only in relationship to the Christian religion. Christians are different than others that believe in God by the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, and died for our sins, so that “we” may be forgiven, and have eternal life with God and Christ. Yes, dissent among Believers in Jesus dates back to early Christianity and was even more of of political football, then, than it is now. The Emperor could just wipe out those that did not participate in the accepted pagan practices at the time. (Pre -Constantine.) And, for the sake of argument–for everyone seething at the terrible things Christians did–yes, they did terrible things, too. Christians are as varied as any other people practicing a religion–and it is disingenuous to lump them all together as if they are factory produced. Remember–religions are theology. Sacred texts are unique to each religion–and sitting on a desk or shelf a good deal of the time. It is the people that follow religions doing the evil when they do evil. So, let’s hold people accountable for what they do–and stop personifying the Bible and other sacred texts. Again–each to his/her own. Think as you wish, however, what I believe is my business–and it is my right as a human being on the planet to believe as I choose to believe. If some people can’t accept that other people have the right to believe differently than they do–that is “the issue.”
Marcy, I’m not going to engage you any further. I find your comments disingenuous, unfocused, and largely irrelevant to the post at hand. Since you also bristle at the slightest criticism as well, I see no point in continuing the exchange. Have a good day.
I actually have heard this line quite a bit, including from a close friend and colleague who is a minister. I can understand taking that position — if you are a Christian and believe that Christ has spoken to everyone … you basically have to believe that all atheists are simply deluding themselves. To believe otherwise would require you to accept that god’s grace isn’t equally available to everyone.
That doesn’t make that line, or the point of view behind it, any less condescending. Just inevitable. If someone is going to open the conversation by erasing your opinion as a lie … how do you even proceed?
You really don’t. Any further dialogue would be drinking from a poisoned well.
ubi dubium said:
I think one of the reasons churches, especially literalist ones, push this idea on believers is that there’s a bible verse somewhere (Romans, maybe?) that says that everybody actually deep down believes in god. So if they accept that we atheists actually exist, they’d have to admit to themselves that their perfect book had a mistake! They have coaching sessions every week to keep them thinking their book is perfect; it’s too much cognitive dissonance to accept the idea that it isn’t. It’s just easier for them to call us liars.
That seems a plausible rationale, but of course people always pick their verses. There is a reason some folks choose to think the issue through in terms of that verse, and it certainly isn’t because they want constructive dialogue.
Capt Jill said:
Christians always assume that the atheist must be lieing because they assume that there is a god and that god has given proof of itself in the bible. They fail to understand that the bible was written by other human beings and plenty of us around 2000 years later refuse to accept those words as coming from god when they in fact did not. God did not write the bible, people did.
I will only accept that there is a god (any god) if and when it shows up in front of ME and proves itself supernatural beyond any doubt. Until that time, I will continue to be an atheist -a person who has no belief in gods ( a=without, theist= gods).
My favorite take on “The Bible” came from one of my Orthodox Jewish students a few years back. I mentioned it, and he responded by saying there is no “The Bible.” It’s not even one book, no matter how much people pretend otherwise.
Capt Jill said:
that’s very true
Some of the time I see a biblical support for the argument that atheists don’t really exist/don’t really disbelieve in God. Romans 1:18-20 are the usual verses cited. That said, really I think it’s just a slogan intended to remind the faithful that they are superior to atheists.
I say this because sometimes the reasoning is taken out of that verse and used in a mocking manner. For example, it’s like when a Christian might say, “You’re blind to all the evidence around you for God. That blindness is by choice.” They’re trying to project thoughts onto others.
The other variant of the argument was featured on Patheos a while back (either “A Pasta Sea” or “Godless in Dixie,” if I recall correctly). That argument only exists as kind of a counterexample of the logic involved. So, one could use it productively in a manner that, if theists are right because of perceived behavior or whatever, then atheists can be just as right because theists go to the hospital rather than just pray for a recovery.
Interesting post. The hospital example is a good one, and that’s why I’m open to specific arguments that key into specific behavior. Sometimes people do misrepresent their own views, or at least get confused as to how to represent themselves, but evidence for that is particular. It isn’t enough simply to say that in one’s view there is no room for the possibility of sincere disagreement.
N. E. White said:
I’ve never heard of this statement before and I find it baffling. I don’t believe. There are no gods. I respect (or, at least, acknowledge) that most other humans do believe in something, but I figure that’s some sort evolutionary mechanism that kept us from killing each other all off. Eventually, we’ll grow out of it. 😉
Thank you for your comment.
PA Shapiro (@PatrickShapiro) said:
I like the money-line at the end: “Contempt is always contagious.”
Most arguments that I’ve experienced about religion, whether it’s one religion vs. another, or one religion vs. no religion, have nothing to do with the ideas that make up a belief system vs the ideas of the opposing belief system. In the macro, it’s always red-team vs. blue-team. In the micro, it’s person vs. person. It’s not about faith, it’s about sport.
Most human arguments boil down to this. We’ve pre-selected our sides, and we’ll fight to the death over them. Republican vs. Democrat. Mac vs. PC. XBox vs. Playstation.
In the end, it’s all just the Hatfields vs. McCoys.
The contempt is obvious in the line in question: “I don’t believe in atheists.”
Tactics like this are meant to win a debate. They’re meant to put another point on the board for one side or the other – which, at best, is a neutral action. Most of the time it only breeds more contempt, and the vitriol just goes deeper.
Most interestingly, debating religion is orthogonal, at best, to the practice of many religions. Christianity, especially, teaches love, acceptance, tolerance and peace. No where in the Gospels are you going to find Jesus saying something like “I don’t believe in atheists.” And you certainly don’t see him drawn into debates with non-believers. The only debates he ends up in are with people that have the same theology as him.
It’s true that Christians are given a command to spread their religion, but nobody ever seems to remember how that’s supposed to be done:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16
None of that sounds like a debate to me. Try feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and offering affection to the depressed. You’ll have a lot better time convincing me what you believe is worthwhile then some dismissive comment in a debate.
I think your point about the irrelevance of debate is interesting. Many of the Christians I admire most are too busy doing good acts to engage in theological battle.
Pingback: On Being An Agnostic Atheist | rejectingjesus
Pingback: “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” …In Which I Read Snake Oil | northierthanthou