Arguing With Internet Atheists Part 1


Recently I have had cause to have fairly public discussions on social media with atheists about the nature of atheism and its entailments. To be clear from the start, these discussions did not centre on whether God exists or not, but rather on the much less controversial topic of varieties of atheism, eg. so-called New Atheism (Dawkins, Dennett et al.) contrasted with other versions of atheism that reject the scientism and reliance on humanism of the new atheists (put forward by Patrick O’Connor here).

I was unable to convince any of these atheists that atheism could not simply be the straightforward lack of a superstitious overlay to a clear-eyed and rational approach to life that they thought it was. I suppose I am naive for being surprised, after all, it is very comforting and a great temptation to think that you are the one that sees clearly, or is unable to be fooled like the masses. I don’t know whether I myself have always managed to avoid this temptation, a kind of Gnosticism, and would only count myself a person of good faith if I was able to say that I had.

Now, I’m not going to go into the reasons for rejecting the simplistic myth outlined above in this post; I will return to that in part 2. What I want to do here is just unpack something a lot more facile and poorly-considered on the atheism spectrum.

Someone who I know personally, but haven’t seen for years, has been reading some of my posts on this blog and sharing them on his social media profile with his own criticisms of them. When I say criticisms, I don’t mean he is correcting my grammar, rather, he is putting forward his own views on religion (negative ones of course) as they relate to the post. However, he is not particularly well-read in theology or philosophy (this sounds uncharitable, but I have to assume that this is the case, or he wouldn’t have made such flawed and fallacious arguments), and so many of his comments actually are only attacking straw men, if that. What he probably has done is read a few of the New Atheists, watched a few Youtube videos, and then decided he is the main authority on theology.

So I would like to share here a few of his comments with the links to my posts, so that you can see how not to argue against theism. In my next post I will tackle some of the issues raised by the question of worldviews and theism/atheism.

Here is a post I wrote for A Level students on Kant’s moral argument. As you can see, it takes the form of three different quality answers to the question ‘Morality has nothing to do with the existence of God. Discuss’. This kind of question on Kant would involve evaluating the way in which Kant believes that morality when properly understood requires us to postulate from practical reason the existence of God. Anyone who has studied the argument knows that Kant does not think that morality proves God, rather that when we see the nature of morality we would understand that it requires God to work. The atheist comments thus:
“The idea that God has some monopoly of morality is ludicrous and arguably rascist [sic]. The major obtuse implication is that cultures that are without God (historically due to geographic reasons) would be devoid of morality. This disproven belief has been used as justification for some very immoral behaviour from those who would act in the name of God. Buddhism could be said to be a very moral teaching as it professes empathy and reduction of suffering and strives toward nirvana (summum bonum) but this teaching has no God pulling the strings or passing judgement. I would say that Kant’slack of wordly experiences and cultural tunnel vision coupled by undoubtedly rascist higher ground typical of most western philosophers and psychologists has contributed to any number misconstrued arguments that attempts to pass as well thought out descriptions of reality.
Morality stems from an instinctual desire to please those in our social atmosphere to encourage cooperation. This is an evolved tendency acted upon by processes of selection and is not at all unique to human beings. All moral behaviour leads to a healthier, happier, more cohesive population that is better able to survive and reproduce. Religion’s role has been as an enforcer of society’s biological moral compass as an indivual may occasionally place their own ego ahead of the empathy required be good.” 

The first sentence is rather a massive misunderstanding of Kant. Kant in fact said the opposite to this – that morality was the result of pure reason – the categorical imperative results from reflecting on one’s duties and universalising one’s actions. It very much does not depend on God at all in this sense. Kant even went so far as to say that Abraham was wrong to obey God when He asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Morality for Kant can never be a divine command, it has to be worked out freely and rationally by humans, or we are mere puppets.

But let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt – surely that is what Christianity says? God has a monopoly on morality? I’ll be honest – I don’t really know exactly what he means here. Does he mean that Christians think that God gives us morals, and that without God telling us what they are we couldn’t be moral? That seems the general gist of his argument, for he then goes on to say that this would be “rascist” (racist I think) based on the fact that some cultures without God would be unable to be moral.

The first thing to say here is that it is an argument built on an incredibly crude understanding of what Christian ethics are. Not even the Old Testament says that the Israelites were unable to be moral before the 10 commandments (the revelation of God’s law) were given to them. Where would that have left Abraham, Noah and so on? These were recognised as good men, even before God spoke to them. Equally, in the New Testament we are given stories by Christ where he explicitly names cultures other than the Jews and shows members of that culture (which the Jews hated) acting in more ethical ways than priests from the Jewish religion (Parable of the Good Samaritan).

So clearly in no sense do Christians or Jews believe that God has a monopoly on morality, or that cultures without God would be devoid of morality. The Christian view is that as created beings we have all been given the ability to distinguish right from wrong by use of our reason. The ten commandments, and later the Beatitudes given by Christ function as moral guidelines, ways of perfecting our natural ethical reasoning. We can choose to obey them or not, and it is hardly fair to say now that there is any culture on earth that is not aware of them, or has not been affected by them – indeed, there is good evidence to show that Mahayana Buddhism has been influenced by Christianity at its origins as far back as the 5th century.

Equally, it would be very hard to show a culture without some kind of God or gods, and some kind of ethics, and this is really the same thing as saying that some kind of moral code tied to belief in the supernatural is as universal as you can get in the history of world cultures. No Christian has any problem with any of this. It follows from the belief that we are all creatures of God. It is only modern atheists who have had a difficult time explaining morality without reference to religion, as this website shows:

The issue turns fundamentally on whether it is plausible to believe that the Enlightenment humanist project of establishing a fully secular autonomous morality can be justified. According to defenders of the project of Enlightenment humanism, there are perfectly good nontheistic grounds for being moral; according to detractors, there are finally no such grounds, and the views of figures such as De Sade and Nietzsche are held to illustrate the failure of the Enlightenment project of an autonomous ethics”

Later, the atheist will follow something like Sam Harris’ lead in trying to outline a morality purely based in evolutionary psychology, so clearly he disagrees with atheists like Nietzsche on this. Anyway, this is enough to see simply from his first two sentences, that he has both massively oversimplified the theists position, and massively underestimated the capacity of theism itself to give answers to the questions he has posed.

So next he gets onto one of his favourite hobby-horses: that religious believers have acted immorally in the name of God, which proves precisely nothing about religion, but does show that human beings are so flawed and sinful that they will use anything as an excuse to be horrible to other human beings. I mean, yawn; ‘religion causes wars’ he whines, like one of my year 7 students. Yep, lots of things cause wars actually, and even if it could be shown that religion has caused more wars etc. than say greed, or desire for resources, that would be to ignore the tremendous force for good, order, and society that religion has been. If we take Christianity alone, it pretty much was the origin of hospitals, schools, benefits, and so much more that we take as the mark of a good enlightened society. I think this is a very weak argument that he puts there.

I like his linking of Buddhist nirvana with Kant’s summum bonum – he has that right at least, that they both function as a kind of ultimate to strive for, but although there is no God to provide judgement in Buddhism there is still karma to perform the same function, so why he has a problem with a personal judgement by a loving being over an impersonal judgement by a cosmic law I don’t really know.

He then has a couple of really funny lines where he says that Kant couldn’t do ethical philosophy well because he had lack of worldly experience and cultural tunnel vision/racist superiority! Hilarious ; makes him sound like Hitler! As one of the founders of Enlightenment humanism, Kant probably indirectly helped to bring about a more tolerant world, and ultimately the end of slavery, with his emphasis on the fact that reason is a universal human faculty, its surely the opposite of cultural tunnel vision? Then he dismisses most of the rest of western philosophers and psychologists with the same slur – erm…overgeneralisation? Ad hominem? Fallacies galore.

He then has a slightly incoherent final paragraph where he outlines a broadly evolutionary psychological approach to morality, favoured as I said, by Sam Harris, Dawkins etc. Such arguments usually manage to account for some of the general features of what we might call the lower forms of morality, simply looking out for those in your group etc. but tend to fall rather short as an account of why we should be moral. The commitment of ‘virtuous atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins to biological reductionism makes it difficult for them to say why humans should not follow their aggressive and xenophobic instincts rather than their cooperative and altruistic ones. They appear to be able to offer only an evolutionary explanation of the altruistic moral instincts, not a reason why they should be followed.

All in all, if you’re going to post my stuff with critical comments on it you’d better make damn sure you know what you’re talking about. This guy clearly doesn’t.

Last Thoughts on Exams

I’ve just had a look at my 2014 predictions – out of 5 questions that I suggested 3 came up although only two were on the specific area – numinous experience and body/soul distinction, whereas one – Biblical miracles came up instead of Hume on miracles. The two (or three if you count Hume) that didn’t come up then I’ve rolled over to this year because – hey the longer it goes not coming up the more likely it is to come up in the future right? Not sure what Hume would say about that…

Anyway, that’s Hume, Ayer and Revelation as three of my guesses for this year. Check out my A2 predictions post for the others. I do hope you get the questions you want dear students – and good luck!

Part 2 – There will always be more plausible explanations for religious experience than God. Discuss.

In my last post I proposed some ways of looking at this question, and tried to unpack what I thought it was asking you to do. I discussed the sceptical challenge which forms the basis of the question – that other explanations for religious experience will always be more plausible because they would have more empirical backing – this is essentially a reductionist challenge: “Nowadays we know that science can explain all that”, as Caroline Franks Davies puts it.

But can science explain all that? We need to take a step back into epistemology to work out the answer to that. Swinburne’s principle of credulity (it is a principle of rationality that if it seems to a subject that x is present, (in the absence of special considerations) then x probably is present) makes experience innocent until proven guilty and thus turns the table on the sceptic. Notice that it is a principle of rationality. All experience is subsumed under this principle – we just find we must operate as if it were the case – no philosopher has yet managed to provide inductive justification for our confidence in our experiences, memories and reasoning processes, but that is no reason to become sceptical about them. Notice also that there can be no proof for such a principle of rationality, because any attempt to prove it would use just the processes and experiences which are under consideration, and thus would be viciously circular. So the principle of credulity, as a principle of rationality, operates somewhat like an axiom does in maths, in that we have to assume its truth in order to get anywhere.

Now all this means is that the sceptic cannot just dismiss all religious experiences out of hand as not having inductive evidence to back them up like normal experience – as all experiences which generate beliefs are initially granted credulity. If we decide later to discount an experience because it could be shown that such an experience was unreliable, then that is not a problem – therefore things like dreams and hallucinations have become known to be unreliable and so we apply what Swinburne calls the special considerations.

So the principle of credulity is not a license to be gullible – just a placing of the onus on the sceptic to show why an experience is not veridical, rather than an assumption that because an experience doesn’t meet certain criteria of validity, it cannot therefore be veridical.

Swinburne recognises certain limitations on the principle of credulity called subject-related challenges – these include reductionist and conflicting claims challenges. These special considerations include things such as; the subject has been shown to be unreliable in the past, or was in a certain state, or had a certain cultural background or psychological mindset such that it is very unlikely experiences under those circumstances were veridical, or that it is very likely the subject would have had the experience whether the supposed percept (the thing perceived) was there or not.

It is worth noting that when it comes to reductionist challenges, they are recognised as presenting problems for arguments from religious experience. Caroline Franks Davies doesn’t think a pragmatic approach like James works either – she says

the ‘fruits not roots’ approach to religious experience is not so successful, since the way an experience is caused and its veridicality are inextricably linked. An argument from religious experience cannot be built on experiences which have therapeutic value but no evidential force”

However, she doesn’t think reductionist challenges present insuperable difficulties for arguments from religious experience. She examines various reductionist explanations for religious experience such as hypersuggestibility, deprivation, sexual frustration, regression and mental illness, and concludes that there is not enough evidence to conclude that any of these are correlated with religious experience. She concludes that such reductionist challenges are unlikely to succeed on their own.

There will always be more plausible explanations for religious experience than God. Discuss.


Recently I posted a set of questions which I thought could possibly come up in the examinations. I wanted to focus on the religious experience one.

The first thing to notice about this question is that it is a general question on religious experience. Thus it is leaving the field quite open for you to explore different areas. You could bring in Swinburne, James and others, you could use a wide variety of criticisms from Mackie to Dawkins or all sorts of challenges from sociology and psychology. Indeed, I would guess that many of those ‘more plausible explanations’ will derive from fields such as these, for instance Freud would see religious experience as a neurosis, Durkheim as aspects of the structure of social groups.

The second thing to notice is that the question is framed as a logical statement – you could rephrase it: “From the very nature of supposed religious experience, any explanation that doesn’t require God will be more plausible” Why? Because some would argue that an explanation that involved God would need to have shown not just that the experiencer seemed to experience God but that it was also true that she experienced God, and given that the supposed bases which we use as foundation for our knowledge about uncontroversial things such as tables and frogs are not there, it would seem that a lack of empirical evidence would undermine religious experience and therefore always make more empirically testable explanations more plausible.

This is essentially Dawkins position, as it is many atheists, but you should be able to show awareness of how Swinburne’s work on religious experience, particularly his principles of credulity and testimony, have revealed the flaws in this kind of approach.

Alternatively you could use James’ pragmatic approach and argue that a common core gives us no reason to believe that religious experience is only psychological, for example.

Finally, it might be a good opportunity to show some of your synoptic knowledge by arguing that even if religious experiences do point to God – the notion of God is so incoherent (eg. problems with omniscience etc.) that other explanations will always be better.

In part 2 of this I will explain Swinburne’s account in more detail and try to show how it deals with the ‘lack of empirical evidence’ question.