Why I Argue About Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 24, 2009 in General Atheism

argument_clinicI often hear atheists say something like this:

People ask, “Does God exist?” The answer is “No.” Now for humanity’s sake, let’s work on some questions for which we don’t know the answer, like the nature of morality or the best form of government or the proper response to global warming. It is a disgrace that we are still arguing about whether or not invisible magical beings control our lives – let’s get on with real problems we can solve if we spend enough effort on them!

I can sympathize with this sentiment, and yet I spend untold hours each week researching, writing, and talking about the question “Does God exist?” Why?

Because billions of people still think our lives are controlled by invisible magical beings. Because billions of lives are harmed or weakened by ancient superstitions. Because there is immense prejudice against atheists in almost every nation on earth. Because maybe, just maybe, I can help some people free themselves from religious brainwashing so they can “move on” and tackle harder questions. Fruitful questions. Important questions.

Why do I argue for atheism? Many reasons. But let me share my most personal reason. I argue for atheism because the best thing that ever happened to me happened because other people took up the burden and argued for atheism.

Dan Barker hasn’t published original research in philosophy or science journals. But he has defended atheism – in print, on the web, in public debates, in the public square, and in music – for 25 years. The clear, simple reasoning in Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist contrasted sharply with the messy, obscured anti-reasoning of the theology books I had grown up with. I owe a lot to Dan Barker because he nudged me out of my dogmas.

Matt Dillahunty is also no philosopher. He wanted to be a preacher but his studies at seminary made him realize that God was a hoax. Now he hosts an atheist TV show and does other work to defend atheism. The call-in guests on his show are usually believers and they asked the same questions I wanted to ask. Matt’s answers were more reasonable than what I usually heard from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. I owe a lot to Matt because he, too, nudged me out of my dogmas.

It comes down to this: You’ve got to pick your battles. I would probably do more good if I fought the greatest evils in the world alongside Chomsky, but I’m ill-equipped to discuss geopolitics. I do have some qualifications to talk about religion. And I have passion for the topic. And that’s why I choose to write about atheism.

Does God exist? The answer is “No.” But some people don’t know that yet.

Arguments and Exposure

Do arguments and reasoning ever really convert someone?

Yes. Arguments converted Dan Barker, Matt Dillahunty, and myself. We were all passionate Christians just wanting to serve God, but then our studies showed us that it was all a fantasy. Browsing online atheist communities, I see some people who left religion because of abuse or intolerance or hypocrisy. But I also see lots of people who, just like me, really enjoyed Christianity until we started learning some things that contradicted our dogmas.

I don’t think someone will read one of my articles and throw out his worldview overnight. But I hope my articles will be one ingredient in a stew of questions and arguments that will help some people to gradually see the light.

But I also think it’s good merely to increase the exposure of atheism, which may break down barriers to unbelief.

The easiest way to explain what I mean is to talk about gays.

The gays are winning. Acceptance of homosexuality is steadily growing, and is now the majority opinion in America and many other nations.

I’ll bet some people were converted by the arguments. But millions more began to accept homosexuality because of mere exposure. The pioneers of the gay pride movement gave closeted gays the courage to speak up. Once people learned that some of their best friends and respected community leaders were gay, they had to question their long-held prejudices. The young were especially open-minded, for their prejudices had not sunk in so deep.

Of course most people see a difference between cultural acceptance of a lifestyle and a factual question about whether or not a certain type of being exists. I’m not saying that people will become atheists because they learn some of their friends are atheists, and nor should they. What I am saying is that as atheists expose themselves, religious teachings that atheists live evil, unhappy, meaningless lives will become laughable, and prejudices against atheists will start to melt away, especially among the young. Then, people who can be persuaded by arguments will be psychologically more open to the idea. I know my greatest resistance to atheism was not rational but emotional.

Exposure can remove emotional barriers to religious doubt, so exposure is another purpose of this blog.

Besides, arguing about atheism is kinda fun.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ben August 24, 2009 at 9:34 pm

It does suck that writing about atheism is predominantly about cultural damage control, rather than anything particularly constructive.
 
Ben

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Timo August 25, 2009 at 11:57 am

You know, for some reason, for a second I thought that the picture you used was from the bit they did about the department of funny walks.  It’s too bad it isn’t because it occurs to me that doing theology is not unlike developing a funny walk.

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Robert Gressis August 25, 2009 at 1:06 pm

In your post, you seemed to put yourself in the shoes of an atheist who voiced the sentiment, “it is a disgrace that we are still arguing about whether or not invisible magical beings control our lives”. Because you later write, “I agree with this sentiment”, I take it that you also think it is a disgrace that there is a need to argue, or that people still argue about whether God exists.

Assuming I’ve read you right, I’d like to know, if you don’t mind telling me, why you think it’s a _disgrace_ that there are some people who believe in, at least enough to argue for, the existence of God. Assuming you don’t believe in free will, do you think it’s a disgrace that there are compatibilists? Do you think it’s a disgrace that there are moral realists? That there are metaphysical idealists? Trope theorists? Extreme modal realists? Modal skeptics? Epistemicists? Philosophers who don’t hold the same meta-ethic as you?

I ask all these questions–and I choose my questions with some forethought–because “disgrace” seems like a strong word. It seems akin to the word one would use–and, probably, should use–to label Holocaust-deniers or perhaps young earth creationists. And yet to me, theism doesn’t seem particularly more or less reasonable than many of the positions I mentioned above; and it would be odd to label each such position above disgraceful.

I don’t mean to be polemical; sorry if I’m coming off that way. I’m more interested for sociological reasons, and I’m ultimately leading up to the question, if you lump theism in the same camp as Holocaust-denial (and I’m not saying you do), what do you make of people like Saul Kripke, Bas van Fraasen, Dagfinn Follesdal, Kurt Goedel, Alex Pruss, Alvin Plantinga, Mike Almeida, etc.?

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lukeprog August 25, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Robert,

Yours is a respectful and insightful question, and one I would like to answer in its own post.

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