The One Thing Atheists Should Stop Saying
by Noah Lugeons
It’s rare that I so profoundly disagree with Hemant Mehta. Anybody who reads this blog or listens to the show knows what a high regard I hold the man in; after all, he was my nominee for 2013 Atheist of the Year.
But in a recent video post, Hemant offered a list of “9 Things Atheists Should Stop Saying“, and without exception, I disagree with every single one. While I agree with some of the larger points he was fitting within this framework, he didn’t actually come up with anything I think atheists should stop saying.
Let me break his points down along with my objections.
#1) “I lost my faith”
This was the only one of his nine where I had trouble even seeing what point he was trying to make. He starts off by claiming that “lost” carries a negative connotation (ie I lost my keys, I lost my job, etc.), then points out that this is false by bringing up the counter-examples of “I lost my virginity” and “I lost weight”.
The point he appears to be making is that when an atheist says, “I lost my faith” it sounds sad to a believer. I’m not sure if this is true or if it is relevant, but either way I don’t think it belongs in any reasonable “banned phrase” list. It’s a minor semantic objection and if we disabuse ourselves of this phrase we’re hamstringing our ability to talk with theists in the language they understand. I’d like to believe that when reasonable theists here someone talk about “losing their faith” they will attach it to the context in which the statement is being said. If it’s uttered by a forlorn shell of a human, it’s depressing. When it’s offered as a preamble to an enthusiastic defense of atheism, one would have to be almost willfully naive to see it as a negative.
#2) “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
The point he’s making here is that when we say this in the context of a religious debate, it sounds like we’re setting an uneven criterion. The claim that prayer works is extraordinary to you and I, but might not be for a Christian. It almost sounds like we’re setting up a double standard that asks their claims to meet a higher standard of evidence that theirs.
But rather than chucking such an important rhetorical point under the bus, I say that when you encounter this misunderstanding you should explain what it meant by it. Offer up an extraordinary claim in science such as the big bang and explain the extraordinary amount of evidence that was needed for the scientific community to accept it. Explain the precept of Occam’s razor. Explain what makes a claim extraordinary.
He also makes the point that many theistic claims fail to meet even the lowest bar of evidence and I agree that this should be pointed out, but this can be offered as an addendum rather than a replacement point. This claim is also spectacularly useful when dealing with claims that do meet a very low bar of evidence (think ancient alien conspiracies, for example).
#3) “Everyone is born an atheist”
Hemant’s point against this statement makes perfect sense when he presents it without context. As a stand alone statement, this would be a ridiculous claim. All babies are atheists in the same way that all rocks and staplers are atheists. It confuses the difference between explicit and implicit atheism and might confuse people as to what, exactly, we mean by atheism.
That being said, I’ve never heard this offered by itself. Perhaps I’m less “in the know” that he, but when I hear atheists making this point, it’s usually in response to references to “Christian” babies or “Muslim” babies. Hemant compares the statement that atheists are babies to saying that babies are “political independents”. And this makes sense, except that their aren’t people claiming that babies are republicans or democrats. People do claim that babies are “Christian” or “Jewish” or what-have-you and go so far as to surgically alter them in accordance with that belief.
In this context, I think it is very important to point out that all babies are atheists, though I’ll admit that such a notion could easily me misapplied by a novice atheist debater.
#4) “We can be good without god”
Here he draws a very compelling parallel. Christians might take this the same way that one would take the statement, “I can drive home without wearing my seatbelt”. Well sure, you can and you’ll probably be fine this time, but wouldn’t it be better if you did wear the seatbelt? The theist will take this statement at face value, but might counter with the notion that you could be better with god.
And maybe this is true of some theists in some situations. But I’d reckon that the minority. As Matt Dillahunty points out in his response to this same post, morality continues to be the major sticking point with most people that have issues with atheists. The claim that we have no “absolute moral code” or that morals can only exist with a divine lawgiver is pervasive in the religious community and I don’t know that there’s a single message we could be sending that’s more important than “We can be good without god.”
#5) “I trust science, not some 2000 year old book”
I can’t fairly summarize his point here, because I didn’t honestly understand it. It was something about this statement lending a false legitimacy to the bible, but I really didn’t follow him. If his point had been not to use the word “trust”, I might be inclined to go along since we don’t “trust” science; we demand from it the same evidence that we would from any other claim or sets of claims; but that wasn’t the point he was making at all.
#6) “You can’t reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place”
This is the closest I come to agreeing with any of his points, but again, I think he sets aside context when he says this. If the statement above is offered as a reason not to engage with theists, it is profoundly incorrect. We should definitely employ logic and reason in our efforts to move people out of the “believer” column. We shouldn’t belittle their mental function by pretending that they don’t prop up their beliefs through reason.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit in this statement. I say it all the time and I’ll continue to say it, but when I do it isn’t to point out that reasoning with a religious person is impossible; it’s to point out that reasoning with them isn’t enough. Most atheists hold to their disbelief for logical reasons, but there is an emotional aspect to faith that can’t be ignored in debate. This statement serves as a constant reminder that reason might not be able to do the trick alone.
When I’ve successfully “deconverted” people, it’s been a long process that began with breaking down the logical walls, but ended when I helped them through the emotional hurdles of accepting a worldview without an afterlife or without a “divine plan”.
#7) “I don’t believe in god”
This one didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to be either, to be honest, though I did like the larger point he was making with it. He points out that when you say “I don’t believe in god”, a theist probably reacts the same way we do when people say, “I don’t believe in evolution”. It doesn’t matter if you believe in evolution; evolution doesn’t need you to believe in it to exist.
And this is a good point; one worth keeping in mind any time you engage with a believer. But I don’t understand why one would avoid saying it. I don’t believe in god. That’s an accurate statement. What’s more, the replacement he offers is all but a distinction without a difference: “I don’t believe that any god exists”. I’m not sure how this solves the perception issue, as I’d be no more impressed if a creationists said, “I don’t believe that any selective pressures that cause speciation exist”.
#8) “Religion doesn’t make any sense.”
Again, completely devoid of context, this is probably a useless statement. As Hemant points out, quantum mechanics don’t make any sense. But more than that, it offers the theists a mental refuge. When you say, “Religion doesn’t make any sense”, you’re saying that you don’t understand it and the theist can retreat to the comforting thought that if you understood religion, you’d be just as religious as them.
But again, it’s not like this statement is generally offered as a standalone. I would assume that the majority of atheists would follow this statement up with a few examples of why they don’t think that religion makes sense and, if done well, those supplementary points would aptly demonstrate that the atheist does know as much (or more) about the religion than the theist.
And if the theist counters with a point about quantum mechanics not making sense, the atheist can offer in response that quantum mechanics is able to demonstrate its claims. Cellphones work and we can prove that. There is no religious equivalent when it comes to demonstration.
#9) “You can’t just pick and choose what you believe”
This is a fairly common practice among atheists while I’m not ready to draw a circle and a line through this statement, I actually do agree with the larger point he’s making here… or at least I tangentially agree with it. He’s talking here about “cafeteria Christians” that believe in the good parts of the bible and disagree with the hating gay people and stoning adulteress parts. Atheists very often enter debate with an “all of nothing” attitude about the bible that doesn’t reflect a realistic understanding of their opponent’s position. After all, who is an atheist to tell a believer how to believe in their religion?
But again, this only makes sense when it’s divorced of context. I’ve used a variation of this in debate before but never when talking about religion in general. This is an excellent point when discussing the bible. If a theist offers a biblical justification for belief x or belief y, it’s perfectly acceptable to point out all the horrible shit in the bible and say, “You can’t just pick and choose the biblical passages that support your point and ignore the ones that refute it”. In other words, if they want to use the bible in their defense, their stuck with the whole thing, warts and all.
Nine for nine. I didn’t agree with a single point he made.
Now, to be fair to the Friendly Atheist, he was using this framework to make a series of larger points, many of them quite valid. But none of them justified the concept that atheists should “stop using” this phrase or the other. It’s important that we take time to reflect on what we’re saying and how it’s being interpreted, which is precisely what Hemant was doing with this blog entry, but it’s also important that we phrase it correctly. None of these are statements that atheists should, “stop saying”, but they’re all things atheists should think about and reflect on before using them in conversation.
In my opinion, there’s only one thing that atheists should stop saying, and that’s what other atheists should and should not say.