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In apologetics,arguments,Atheism,God,Justin Wishart

Two Atheistic Pet Peeves

By Justin Wishart

In my years of online debate, I have noticed two common Atheistic arguments that have recently begun to drive me crazy. I know it is my failing for becoming so annoyed at this, but they are such obviously poor arguments that I am surprised they are so commonly used. Part of my annoyance also stems from my observation that Atheists are not called out on this by their opponents. It seems as if many Theists cannot see how poor these arguments are as well.

Atheism is Just Unbelief

I have seen many conversations go something like this:

Christian: Okay, prove to me God doesn’t exist! (Often the Christian will say this when the Atheist gets the upper hand.)

Atheist: I don’t need to prove that to you.

Christian: What? Why?

Atheist: Because Atheism is not a belief, but merely a lack of belief. I simply lack the belief that any gods exist, so I have nothing to prove. You are the one who is making the positive claim here, so you have the burden of proof to demonstrate the truth of this claim.

Christian: . . . uhh . . .

If you think this sounds like a convincing argument, you really shouldn’t. This argument fails to understand basic logic. Tell me what is different between these two propositions:

I don’t believe there is money in my bank account.

I believe there is no money in my bank account.

Having trouble seeing any real difference? While the words are slightly different, the proposition is identical. However, notice that the first proposition is expressed as an unbelief (“I don’t believe . . .”) and the second one is expressed as a belief (“I believe . . .”). Now, let’s take our Atheist’s claim and see if the same concept applies:

I don’t believe in the existence of any gods.

I believe in the non-existence of any gods.

Isn’t the proposition identical? It appears that the same proposition can easily be expressed in terms of unbelief and in terms of belief. Of course Atheism is a belief; otherwise, Atheists would be Agnostics. It turns out that this argument is just smoke and mirrors. If I show this to the person I am debating, it usually looks something like this:

Me: Prove to me that God doesn’t exist.

Atheist: Atheism is not a belief, but merely a lack of belief. I simply lack the belief that any gods exist, so I have nothing to prove. You are the one who is making the positive claim here, so you have the burden of proof to demonstrate the truth of this claim.

Me: No, you have it all wrong. You believe that God does not exist, while I merely disbelieve that God doesn’t exist. It is you that is making the positive claim and I merely disbelieve something. Therefore, the burden of proof falls on you.

Of course, I say this sarcastically (another possible moral failing of mine), as I know we are both making truth claims. In reality, we both should make positive cases for our respective views. The Atheist generally understands, however, that it is much harder to prove something than it is to argue against something. This way, the Atheist is able to maintain control of the conversation. Fortunately, the very mechanism he uses to establish his control isn’t justifiable and does not need to be accepted. Yet it is unlikely that if his bar of proof is used on his Atheistic belief, it would pass his own test.

Extraordinary Claims

Another irritating argument used by many Atheists is summarized in this pithy quote: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This argument is often used to say that even if Theism has some worthwhile things to say about itself, it is still not enough to justify belief. However, this argument is ambiguous and unjustifiable, and it really shouldn’t be used.

First off, let’s look at the word “extraordinary.” What does this mean? Who gets to decide what is extraordinary and what is not? The word seems ambiguous and arbitrary. I think the proposition that the universe had its genesis from nothing is a far more extraordinary claim than that the universe derived from an eternal being. However, this merely showcases some of my presuppositions, and the Atheists are in the same boat. They view a God-hypothesis as a much more extraordinary claim than I would: not because it actually is, but because in light of their presuppositions it appears to be.

We can also look at the word “requires” in this argument. Why should any claim require evidence? In fact, this could lead to erroneous conclusions. Suppose that you were walking through a forest and you come to a clearing. Across the clearing you see lights which then hover off the ground. In the following second it zooms off into the air so high it disappears from sight. Imagine that this actually happened and it wasn’t a hallucination or some natural phenomenon. You walk home and tell your best friend of what you saw. She says, “that is an extraordinary claim, but you need extraordinary evidence for it!” The next day, your friend and you go back to the same clearing to investigate but find no evidence. You check with the nearest air force base and they report nothing showed up on their radar screen. Neither you nor your friend can find any corroborating evidence. Your friend concludes that since all extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that no evidence was found, that you didn’t actually see what you thought you did (or that you are just pulling her leg). However, it did happen and you saw it. It was her criteria which forced your friend into error.

Lastly, we can examine the word “evidence.” What does this mean? Is science-based evidence the only evidence allowed? How about logical evidence? What about biblical evidence? This argument makes the Atheist the arbiter of what is meant by evidence and, as such, he can place the definition wherever he likes. If the Atheist says that the only reasonable evidence for God’s existence would be a personal appearance of God, the Theist will fail in his attempt to provide it. This very definition of “evidence” has been demanded of me in that past and the Atheist thought that he had won the debate. But why should the Atheist get to dictate what constitutes justifiable evidence? This doesn’t seem a reasonable way to go about having this conversation.

The Atheist should be asked what he means by the word “evidence,” so that he has to defend his definition. Regardless of how the conversation progresses from there, it is clear that the extraordinary claims criterion tends to put the Atheist in the driver’s seat. He is really in control of the conversation if this criterion is left unchecked. The point is that one’s understanding of the word “evidence” is directly dependent on one’s epistemic presuppositions. The question becomes why the Atheist’s epistemic presuppositions should be more valuable than the Theist’s or whether it is even valuable at all.

These are two common arguments that rub me the wrong way. I have heard them over and over, and there is really no basis for either of them. Apologists are under no intellectual obligation to accept them and I think they simply need to be exposed for the shallow arguments that they are. However, I should also learn to become more patient and not let such things irritate me.

  • Michael Mace

    I find the whole apologetics movement interesting although I am not a believer. Regarding your pet peeves, I suggest that you read David Hume’s work. Hume suggests that there exists pure reasoning and analytical reasoning. Of course, both rely on the application of logic. An example of pure reason is the mathematical law governing right angle triangles. In a right angle triangle the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides always equals the sum of the square of the hypotenuse. It is a mathematical certainty in every case. On the other hand, analytical reasoning relies on empirical evidence or experience. For example, one can be reasonably certain that the sun will rise tomorrow because there exists millions of years of empirical evidence that supports this conclusion. It cannot, however, be demonstrated by pure reason that the sun will rise tomorrow to an absolute certainty. There is no mathematical or scientific law that proves to an absolute certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. It is a conclusion and a belief based on empirical evidence and experience. Is it a valid conclusion and belief – of course it is.
    Empiricists question the existence of God because they question the empirical evidence and experience that is the basis of the analytical reasoning that supports the existence of God. It’s not about the strength of the argument or the integrity of the logic, it is the subjective starting point or foregone conclusion that is the premise of the reasoning. Otherwise every thinker and scholar who examines all the empirical evidence and experience would reach the same conclusion with a very high degree of certainty – something like the sun will rise tomorrow.
    A good friend recommended that I attend a Faith Beyond Belief conference in Calgary in February and I am considering it.
    All the best of the season!
    Michael

  • Sam

    Let’s change the proposition a bit:

    You: There is money in his bank account, and he’ll use it to pay you.
    Me: I don’t believe there is money in his bank account.
    or
    I believe there is no money in his bank account.
    You: Prove it to me that there is no money in his bank account!

    Then keep in mind here that we’re not talking about money, but about something intangible, extradimensional, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. One might reasonably believe that someone has money in a bank account from a form printed by the bank, one is unlikely to believe a deity exists based on a printed form.

    When it comes to our own beliefs, we’re always the arbiter of what evidence we’ll accept. If you want atheists to accept Biblical evidence, you need to successfully argue that it is unreasonable to discount such evidence.

    Your example of seeing the UFO (presumably) seems to me to cut against you. Put yourself in the position of the friend — what real reason DO they have to believe you? If the alleged viewer points out there’s a similar report of something in a far-off country, does that really serve as evidence? However, if the friend doesn’t believe them then they’re disregarding some of the evidence — specifically, the friend’s testimony. Testimony is evidence in a court of law. Apologists tend to like the legal definition of evidence because it’s pretty lenient in what it allows to be called evidence. A murderer saying in court, “I didn’t kill anyone, that body is a carefully crafted robot made to look like a real person to physicians and the real person is living out their life secretly.” would be evidence in court, but it would take someone especially gullible to believe it.

    Back to the bank account, I’d add that for most atheists whether you believe there’s money in “his” bank account is irrelevant. We don’t really care if you want to do work expecting to be paid from that account. If you want to structure all of society around the money in that account, though, we have a problem.

  • Darn, I was hoping for some secert formula LOL .Not that it surprises me. I come from a family of non-believers and I’ve been trying to figure a way to plant seeds. I thought, if I could get St. Thomas Aguinas’ five proofs of God down, then I could wow them with my intellectual reasoning. But when I ask about the non-contingent reason for our existence which is contigent, they just shrug it off and say I don’t know. And that’s that. So yes, I’ve been praying for them also.