Look Both Ways Before You Believe


A puzzling, yet rather common tactic of the religious is to try and paint atheism as being comparable to a religion, with its members as fundamentalists and the whole basis of it rooted in faith. Many even don’t stop at mere comparison, they declare outright that atheism is a religion. What I find puzzling about this is the tactic is meant to denigrate atheism and atheists, to knock them down a peg if you will, undermining the basis of their position and the most prominent spokespeople of that position but how can accusing people of being like you be a denigration? That’s what I find puzzling.

I would have to guess that despite what’s said about the value of faith, the religious can’t ignore, and ultimately do value knowledge and evidence as well as respect science. Very few will forego medicine for prayer. Fewer still will rely on faith to know when it’s safe to cross the street rather than turn and look both ways. All of us, religious and non-religious alike, understand the importance of observation and evidence. I’ll go on to say that logic is also esteemed, at least insofar as no one would want to be considered illogical, so when atheists claim religion is bunk because it fails to hold up to these standards we all value, it’s incredibly troubling to the religious. I believe that this is the reason why the religious claim atheism is not based on these things and instead based on faith, because they acknowledge the superiority of a position based on logic and evidence. This can be seen in the fervor of the religious when their beliefs are “proved” to be true, be it by an artifact, an alleged miracle or merely a burnt bit of toast that looks like Jesus.

I recently saw this tactic at play in Paul Wallace’s article, “Way Beyond Atheism: God Does Not (Not) Exist.” I’ll focus first on his claim that “Dawkins refuses to examine the ground on which he stands: science itself.” His argument is failure to do so makes one a fundamentalist, but I’d have to return to the issue of looking both ways before crossing the street. Why do we do that? Is our failure to question the value of doing that and not stopping to consider closing our eyes and relying on faith or “the force” to guide us safely across instead make us fundamentalists? No, of course not. The value of looking both ways is demonstrable. Again, observation and evidence are valued because they are the best means of gaining knowledge about our world and navigating through it. This is what science is based on, and ultimately why we, religious and non-religious alike, trust it. It works.

In light of this, some try to erode that trust by either pointing to what science has yet to explain or by listing how often it’s been wrong. The latter is what William Lane Craig likes to refer to as the “shifting sands of evidence”. To the latter, I think it’s important to note that when science is shown to be wrong and thus corrected, it’s not by religion, ouija boards, or crystal balls. It’s by science. New evidence is found, theories are challenged and if they don’t hold up, they’re overturned. Compare that to religious dogma and tell me where the fundamentalists are. As for what science has yet to explain, there may indeed be things that can’t be explained now or ever, but we have nothing else. Faith based beliefs don’t offer explanations, they only offer imaginative tales to fill the void.

One of those tales Mr. Wallace would like believers to grasp hold of is “God transcends the distinction of being and not-being.” He goes further to suggest that language and image are insufficient to describe him. I’m sorry, but that’s intellectually inexcusable, for it’s merely a pedestrian fallacy of logic known as special pleading. You can’t simply say the rules don’t apply to your belief because your belief is special. Although he freely admits such a theology appears to be “content-free and useless”, to argue that it’s not he cites the work of Thomas Aquinas and his use of analogical language to speak of his god’s attributes. Is not analogical language still language? If language is insufficient to describe the god Wallace believes in, then how did Aquinas use language to do it? Sounds like more special pleading.

The religious believer is left with nothing more than a faith based belief, and if Mr. Wallace had his way, a belief in a thing no one can show evidence for nor even adequately explain since, according to him, language and image are insufficient for the task. I think that’s ultimately unsatisfactory to most when we require more for all the mundane minutia of each day. This must be why the religious try so hard to claim atheism is a faith based position, for they’re well aware of how inadequate such a position is.

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25 Responses to “Look Both Ways Before You Believe”

  1. Even though Wallace's piece is more entertaining than a lot of what passes for Christian apologetics – and it's certainly more intelligible than Lane Craig's gobbledygook – it's still basically just the Courtier's Reply in a fancy new dress.

  2. Oh yes, that too. I saw that part of his article not even worth addressing because it's one of the stupidest apologetics out there. I think of it like the Python Spam episode.
    [youtube anwy2MPT5RE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anwy2MPT5RE youtube]

  3. Besides, if you hadn't addressed some of the more interesting parts of Wallace's argument, your post would have been a lot shorter:

    Courtier's Reply

    The End

    With regard to those who criticize atheism as a faith position, the ones who aren't merely parroting something that strikes them as a clever bit of rhetoric may regard the implicit criticism of all faith positions as an acceptable (perhaps even necessary) sacrifice (like sacrificing one's queen in order to capture the opponent's king two moves later), because then atheism and theism are on the same level playing field. If that premise is accepted, then theists can justify keeping their faith binkies and ignoring all that rubbish about reason and evidence and the like.

  4. Well, you're still just an asshole. You should try suicide. It might be worth it.

  5. Still projecting, Arthur? Sad.

  6. Someone is in a very bad mood this morning; perhaps the sermon did it?

  7. He just has some issues to work out.

  8. Damn, Philly. IIRC, a commentator named Bob showed up at the chapel about 18 months ago, tussled with you there for a bit, then followed you here. Somewhere along the line, he suggested you should commit suicide or something like that too, didn't he? To paraphrase Leia to Han, you sure have a way with believers. :D

  9. "but how can accusing people of being like you be a denigration?"

    I agree with your nifty analysis, but I'll add a possibility. Maybe it's a twisted, camouflaged version of Pascal's Wager. If you are nothing more than "religious" in your atheism and "Bob" is religious in his Christianity, why not simply accept what Bob does, on the off-chance you end up in heaven, while you know your "religion" has no such possibility?

    Maybe it's a bit of both solutions.

  10. I had forgotten. It's so hard to keep track of who wants me dead.

  11. Certainly if it's all faith based, then you could easily switch. If conversion is the goal, then maybe you're right, John. I just don't find argumentative believers as confident in their faith. They fight and lash out to quiet their own doubts. Take the clown above who followed me here from Chappie's blog. He's a sad sack who needed to flex his superiority over an atheist to feel good about himself and his belief, and when he was denied that, well you can see the results.

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