Theist Arguments Getting Weaker

Maybe it’s just me. But having kept my finger for years on the pulse of the steady drumbeat of apologetics for organized religion, I’m getting the feeling that maybe, just maybe, the theists are starting to sound a little more desperate. The release of several bestselling books on atheism this year, including "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, "Breaking the Spell" by Daniel Dennett, and "Letter to a Christian Nation" by Sam Harris, has prompted a slew of articles and editorials.

Some of them attempt to show balance in their treatment of the subject. But most have a clear bias from the outset. Wired magazine ran a particularly loaded cover story, with the title "The New Atheism: No Heaven, No Hell, Just Science. Inside the crusade against religion." Do we even need to read the article? A crusade? And they’re supposed to be a science magazine. I’ve never been closer to canceling my subscription.

Dinesh D’Souza mounted a defense called "God Knows Why Faith is Thriving" in the San Francisco Chronicle.

What was striking about both these articles, is not that they rehashed some of the same old arguments, they did. But that they actually seemed to concede on the facts! Both articles tacitly admitted the evidence was not good for the existence of a deity. But their argument turned away from the factual, toward which result people like better. D’Souza gave his readers a choice between two world views, and wondered which one was more pleasing:

In the secular account, "You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach 3 1/2 billion years ago. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere."

In the Christian view, by contrast, "You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him."

Never mind that he states the case in a completely one-sided manner, and then proceeds to equate atheism with low birth rates and demographic ossification. In a particularly racist outburst, he chortles: "we have met Nietzsche’s ‘last man,’ and his name is Sven." He portrays the fecundity of the developing world as a by-product of religious belief, a questionable assertion at best. (While we’re arguing from consequence, let’s look at how such indiscriminate reproduction impacts a planet of limited resources.)

D’Souza’s argument boils down to cultural relativism, which raises the value of preference and tradition over facts. If we like the sound of something, if it makes us feel good, if our parents believed it, if it animates our culture, we should consider it to be true. This is intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt. Such relativism is one of the primary human cognitive flaws. It underlies apathy and detachment, a jaded approach to knowledge, the questioning of causality and empiricism, the idea that we can’t trust our senses or instruments–that all is opinion and belief, and "nothing can be known." This is foundationally a bigger problem than organized religion. It is the ocean in which all bad arguments swim.

Wired takes a similar tack, at first seeming to discuss New Atheism at face value. Then author Gary Wolf makes an aesthetic comparison between the practice of religion (vibrant, youth-filled) with that of organized atheism (bitter, aging). He concludes that he cannot go along with atheism, basically because atheists are not nice people. (In a passing reference to Pascal’s wager, he laments we ‘can’t be sure,’ we ‘can’t prove god doesn’t exist,’ and ‘what if we’re wrong’–that’s original.) He sums up his opposition to New Atheist thought thusly:

Most of these people call themselves agnostic, but they don’t harbor much suspicion that God is real. They tell me they reject atheism not out of piety but out of politeness. As one said, "Atheism is like telling somebody, ‘The very thing you hinge your life on, I totally dismiss.’" This is the type of statement she would never want to make.

So let me get this straight: The truth of one of the most fundamental questions we humans ever face comes down to whether or not we want to offend people?

I welcome the renewed interest in the subject. Because the one ‘ace in the hole’ religions have is their continued success at keeping the discussion off the table. The notion of "respect" for beliefs, no matter how absurd, is one of the primary reasons most people don’t often discuss religion in polite company. This favors the established (religious) order. A few bestselling books have shaken things up, and that’s great.

On the facts, religion has all but conceded intellectually. If they hadn’t, their best defense wouldn’t be that atheists are "mean."

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Comments (20 comments)

Roerick Sweeney / October 25th, 2006, 1:46 am / #1

Sean, I thought your dismissal of D’souza was excellent, and even left untouched multiple straw man arguments, leaps of faith, and conclusions drawn from nothing, however, I felt you misinterpreted the wired article.

From the introduction:

“This is the challenge posed by the New Atheists. We are called upon, we lax agnostics, we noncommittal nonbelievers, we vague deists who would be embarrassed to defend antique absurdities like the Virgin Birth or the notion that Mary rose into heaven without dying, or any other blatant myth; we are called out, we fence-sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.

The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking.”

This seems pretty clearly anti theist, and I think that the quote that you took was slightly out of context — it was not completely author’s opinion (and thus, bias), but rather an interviewee’s.

“Where does this leave us, we who have been called upon to join this uncompromising war against faith? What shall we do, we potential enlistees? Myself, I’ve decided to refuse the call. The irony of the New Atheism — this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism — is too much for me.”

Note, the author is not saying he disagrees with the ‘new atheists’, merely that they are too radical in their policies, as opposed to their beliefs.

Myself, I’m not sure where I stand. Dawkins and Dennet are undeniably brilliant men, and everything they say is completely true, but (sorry Sean) to a certain point I agree with the statement you quoted, in that Dawkins’ statements are just too inflammatory to be conducive to converting religious people or even simply to facilitate logical debate.

BlackSun / October 25th, 2006, 9:22 am / #2

Roerick, briefly, truth is truth. Say someone were to base their entire life on a proposition that, say, there was an invisible giant who lived in a cave outside their city. Say they were to claim that this giant demanded that they live in a certain way, that they were to have convinced the majority of the population that their beliefs were true, and that they had passed laws based on the “wishes” of this invisible giant. Worse, other people in other cities have their own cave giant, and are taking up arms in his service, threatening the city with violence.

Now say you and I come along and try to tell them that they are wrong. We have searched the cave, and found no giant. We propose that the laws of the city be based on human needs and reducing human suffering. But the people of the city want no part of it. They insist that their beliefs are off limits, and want to continue to live in fear of the cave giant.

Who is the extremist in this case?

Now I admit that we rationalists cannot search the entire universe and ‘prove’ there is no God. But since not even the religious people can agree on the nature of such a being, and no one has ever seen him or her (except in their own mind), we have to conclude that the idea of ‘god’ is a man-made construct and can be twisted and modified to be whatever people want it to be.

I don’t care how unpleasant this idea may feel to some. If it is true, it is not extremist or inflammatory to hold people to account. As a practical matter, there may be nicer ways of saying it. But, asking people to be accountable to some standards of evidence is the first step to building a society based on human needs and values, rather than fear.

Aaron Kinney / October 25th, 2006, 9:54 am / #3

Excellent analysis of the current debate taking place in the Western world, Sean.

While their “atheists are mean” argument exposes the theists weak intellectual standing, I would also go so far as to say that even THIS argument is false.

Atheists dont hurt people in the name of atheism. Atheist groups are not known for gay pedophilic sex. Atheist groups are not known for putting the government in peoples bedrooms for the sake of atheism.

Atheist groups are not known condemning people to an eternity in hell who dont believe in atheism.

Atheists are certainly not known for denigrating and objectifying women based on some atheistic tenet.

Who would be a nicer guy to spend an afternoon with? Michael Shermer, or Roger Mahoney?

The momentum is gaining. Dawkins book is #2 on Amazon (I just ordered a copy), Sam Harris is making the talk show rounds and bringing the God debate front and center. And churches are closing their doors left and right.

Goddamn do I hope that atheism becomes the majority ideology in my lifetime. I never used to think I would see that happen, but the way things are changing now, it very well could become the majority worldview by the time I have grandkids.

I will pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for this to come to pass. May his noodly appendage touch us all.


Aaron Kinney / October 25th, 2006, 10:07 am / #4

I made a post about this. Good job Sean!

Adron / October 25th, 2006, 10:25 am / #5

I am an atheist.

If people fear me, judge me, or condemn me that is their issue not mine. If I offended someone that is also their problem and I would hope they overcome that issue in their life. Only because I wish all well in every good and great endeavor each and every human partakes upon in life.

Regardless though, I rest easy, work well, and work hard as an atheist.

Dennis Fisher / October 25th, 2006, 12:51 pm / #6

Taking religion completely out of the equation
Is it logically possible that there is a Creator? If not Why?

olly / October 25th, 2006, 1:57 pm / #7

@Aaron: I couldn’t agree more about what we are NOT about. The biggest thing that people need to understand is that an Atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. Period. Anything else attributed to Atheists is simply based on certain groups, certain people, changing trends, whatever, but *all atheism says is that God doesn’t exist*. It’s the same as the Anarchist argument… anarchy simply says that people don’t need Government, and that we’d be better off with out it. Period. Any other attachment to anarchism is simply someone else adding their own agenda, and has nothing to do with anarchism itself.

“Taking religion completely out of the equation
Is it logically possible that there is a Creator? If not Why?”

No, it is not logically possible, period. Two things. First, there is the fact that if a Creator created the universe, then soemthing had to have created the creator. And something had to have created THAT something, and on and on, you get the picture.

Now, the common argument against this is that ‘God exists outside of time’, but this too doesn’t stand up to logic. Creation is a causal event… causal events can’t happen without time… if God exists outside of time, then God can’t create anything, because God is unable to interact with time (so is incapable of causal events). As soon as God interacts with Time, God becomes a part of time, so the question of who created God comes up again.

There is no logical way that there could have been a prime creator. The only thing that is remotely logical is to say that there was a being that assembled humanity out of existing things/molecules/whatever, but that being is a.) not a creator, and b.) would be themselves a product of natural processes to be logical, and therefore becomes about as meaningful in discussion as saying I ‘created’ a car by putting parts together.


Dennis Fisher / October 25th, 2006, 3:20 pm / #8

There are other reasonable conclusions then the two you state.

You Said
“if a Creator created the universe, then soemthing had to have created the creator. And something had to have created THAT something, and on and on, you get the picture” and “There is no logical way that there could have been a prime creator.”

consider this as another possibility for a Creator.

1. Every effect has a cause(s).
2. Nothing can cause itself.
3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
4. Therefore, there must be a first cause; or, there must be something which is not an effect.

BlackSun / October 26th, 2006, 9:24 am / #9

Dennis Fisher, here is a link to a site that discusses one theory:

Even if there is an ultimate cause or creator, neither philosophy nor theology has the slightest chance of unraveling who or what that creator is.

Science has narrowed it down to a “big bang.” But what lies before or beyond that? Speculation. Some posit that universes expand, then contract and expand anew. This could be a timeless process which has always existed. Or there could be a multi-dimentional multiverse as discussed in string theory.

Until the science gets more refined, to even speculate about this is pointless. Religion is no help whatsoever. From the hindu concept of manvantaras, down to the western creation stories–by definition–myths attempt to explain the unexplainable.

My response is that none of this has any relevance to human events. Uncertainty about ultimate causes is a dead-end philosophical diversion with no solution. So why not get on with trying to understand the world we live in, and trying to make it a better place?

Dennis Fisher / October 26th, 2006, 12:55 pm / #10

Sean, are you conceding that there is a first Cause or Creator?

BlackSun / October 26th, 2006, 3:08 pm / #11

Dennis: No, I’m saying it’s impossible to tell. Like olly was saying earlier, if time proceeds in one direction, then a creator or creative force would seem to be needed to set things in motion. But some theories point to timelessness, or a continuum. So in this case, there would be no creator. Everything has always been, and everything will always be. Events are only ripples on eternity.

I have to admit timelessness is a little hard to comprehend. But it seems more plausible than the idea of a first cause. We can understand timelessness as a circle or spiral in the 4th dimension (sort of).

But lets look closely at the first cause: Even if a first cause were metaphysical, or supernatural, we have to deal the the fact that even that first cause would have to have a cause–even on the supernatural level–even if it was a 10-dimensional green dragon sneezing the universe into existence. How did that dragon come to be? It’s an infinite and unbreakable conundrum which equals the conceptual difficulty of timelessness. I think this kind of refutes your previous point 3. If time is infinite, then causal chains can certainly be infinite.

So what I’m saying is that either way, were screwed philosophically. Which is why I’m content to leave it alone for now. We cannot say, with any certainty one way or the other. We have to hope science reveals more, because we are at the limit of what we can know based on our current reasoning ability and observations.

Dennis Fisher / October 26th, 2006, 9:00 pm / #12

Sean, we have here 2 ideas and I agree it is impossible to scientifically tell which is correct between “First Cause vs. Timelessness�
But, we can use logic and reason. To me the “First Cause� is more reasonable.
I think, this Timelessness sounds more like science fiction and I don’t see any physical proof or even logical proof in it. In reality you see Time you can see the clock ticking we all know that life is going to end at some point in time, right. And we all want to know what the Meaning of it all is and time is running out. One by One we all Die. I see no Timelessness.

More Plausible is the idea of the First Cause because in everyday life people can see how cause and effects work. There are lots of examples of cause and effect.

BlackSun / October 26th, 2006, 9:44 pm / #13


I never questioned cause and effect. Science generally accepts we live in a causal universe. (Hume might take issue with that statement, by the way–do a web search on Hume and causality!) But what we don’t know is how far back that chain extends, whether conditions earlier in the universe changed causal relationships, when or how time began, or how or if it will end.

You believe in the idea of a First Cause. But in order to test that idea, it would have to be falsifiable. So for example, we need to be able to state the conditions necessary to prove one way or the other. So if you wanted to prove the existence of a First Cause, you need to be able to state what observations would disprove that existence.

Again, I think this is way out of the depth of what can be derived from current knowledge. But if you have an answer to this question, I’m all ears.

It sounds to me–correct me if I’m wrong–that you are simply interested in accepting a First Cause, and calling it a day. If that’s true, we don’t need to continue the discussion. I’m happy to debate with you, but your last response was to simply re-state your previous opinion. So at this point please tell me if you accept the requirement of falisifiability? And if so, how would you go about falsifying the existence of a First Cause?

Dennis Fisher / October 27th, 2006, 10:27 am / #14

Sean, I would like to clarify something about my self and state that I am open minded. I belong to no religion. I don’t have all the answers either. I believe in the First Cause because I have not found a better explanation of Existence. Something’s in my life I go by my best guess based on the information at hand. I admit also, I am not the brightest star in the universe. I had to look up falisfiability because I have never heard it. My motive was to test your ideas and to question your reasoning. And maybe learn something. My question to you is have you tested the falsifabilty of Timelessness and First Cause? And compared the two? I bet they both fail that kind of test however one is still more plausible then the other.

BlackSun / October 27th, 2006, 1:58 pm / #15

Hey Dennis, I never meant to imply you were closed-minded. Sorry if I did. But my point from the beginning, (and the whole point of this blog, I might add) has been to highlight the dangers of drawing conclusions about the nature of reality based on insufficient information or personal preference.

This is what religions do, and if we are loyal to the truth, we have to admit when something is beyond our knowing. That’s what I’ve been trying to say about First Cause. Belief in a creator has been inculcated into us by our parents and our culture. But we have no way of knowing the truth. And we have found out a lot of things that point in different directions. The “everything forever” site is not just gobbledygook. There is solid science behind a lot of that.

So anyway, your concluding statement is that one is more plausible than the other. I say we can’t know if that’s the case. I’d be just as happy to subscribe to “First Cause” as to the “Continuum” model if I could be shown the evidence. But right now I have to stay in the camp of “I don’t know.”

Best Regards,


Dennis Fisher / October 27th, 2006, 2:57 pm / #16


LuizQ / October 29th, 2006, 4:34 am / #17

1. Every effect has a cause(s).
2. Nothing can cause itself.
3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
4. Therefore, there must be a first cause; or, there must be something which is not an effect.

A first cause makes as much sense as infinity. It is just another way of stating the same problem.

Au-Seti / November 4th, 2006, 5:16 am / #18

To Dennis Fisher.

So, who/what created the polka dot unicorn in my back Yard who says she is the first cause?

Todd Johnson / November 5th, 2006, 1:50 am / #19

The “rules” of the elements in the universe (ie cause-and-effect) are not necessarily, or to be assumed to be the same as the unverise itself.

This is what people are missing. Yes, it gives allowment for the idea of a God or Gods, but one must also realize that it does not require a first cause, either. The point is, both sides tend to look for a first cause… and you could back-track it down to the point of origin within our universe as we see it — but the universe itself, could be infinite — it could be finite within a sea of infinite universes, or have an infinite bang-n-bust scenarios. We don’t know. To presume that a god-being waved a magic wand to create it, is going out on a limb. Those who are non-theistic aren’t saying how it worked — just ruling out an explanation that it HAS to be a simplistic universe, with a first-cause (creation) by a god-being.

beepbeepitsme / November 5th, 2006, 3:11 am / #20

RE: “Nothing can cause itself.”

This doesn’t seem to solve the issue as if nothing can cause itself, and everything has a cause, then there is no first cause.

If “the first cause” doesn’t require a cause, but everything else does, isn’t that a case of special pleading?

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