A recent article "What Atheists Can’t Refute" and book by Mr. Dinesh D’Souza argue that atheists can’t refute the possibility of God. From there, Mr. D’Souza goes on to argue for an affirmative belief in his god: the god of orthodox Christians. It seems like Mr. D’Souza misunderstands atheism and because of this inadvertently supports the argument of the atheists: Whether God is real or not is a separate argument from what we can know. Religionists claim to know that a god exists and typically which god it is. Atheists simply say there is insufficient evidence to call this knowledge.
Might there be realities that we finite humans can’t perceive? Of course! The claim that there could be gods or a god that we can’t perceive is valid. But to call this knowledge, and then to engage in the slight of hand that takes one from this ambiguous opening to religious assertion is absurd.
There might be fairies we can’t perceive. There might be djinns we can’t perceive. The world might rest on the back of an imperceptible turtle. There might be an invisible warrior waiting to whack my head off outside my front door. I can’t say there isn’t because if he’s there, he’s invisible. And if I survive when I go out to feed the chickens, maybe it will be just because he moved on to my neighbor’s house. And if I survive tomorrow, perhaps it’s because he only appears once in 2000 years. Neither I nor you can rule him out.
You can see where this leads—to a paralyzing lot of mental clutter.
In order to function, humans generally limit themselves to making claims about things that they can perceive using logic and evidence. And, in fact, this is exactly what religionists do. Believers say that their beliefs rest on faith, when in reality what they rest on is frail and faulty evidence—the same kinds of evidence that have always been used to support the existence of magical creatures: anecdote, emotion, testimonial, folklore, and inexplicable sensations of transcendence, otherness, or transformation. Religionists don’t see that this kind of low-grade evidence fails to differentiate among the many magical gods and creatures that have populated human history, and, therefore, a position of integrity would require that one argue for the existence of them all.
The reason we don’t hear this argument is because each supernaturalist is actually believer of a specific sort. Each has been infected with a specific viral ideology that creates an emotional inclination, a desire to believe in a certain kind of magical being or a fear of not believing in this being. This emotional valence in turn protects that single set of supernatural beliefs from the ravages of reason.
To make matters worse, if the resonant beliefs are tried-and-true handed-down religions, they fit the structure of human information processing the way that heroin fits receptors in the brain—damn near perfectly, even though that isn’t what the receptors were made for. All of the rational argumentation about whether god could exist is just window dressing, people making abstract arguments for an abstract deity because they want to believe in a personal deity.
Mountains of evidence doesn’t affect the beliefs of true believers. Why? Because, the rationality of believers, as believers, is in fact a false rationality. To some extent this is true of all of this; most of the time we use reasoning simply to support our emotional preferences. In the case of religionists, supernatural beliefs are not bound to follow logic and evidence to their rational conclusions. Argumentation may appear to seek truth, but it does not. It seeks to maintain the status quo. That is why arguing with true believers is so maddening. Even the most lucid arguments put forward against specific magical creatures ultimately are a waste of breath. They may change the minds of a few people who are more compelled by evidence than their peers. (Ironically these may be people who have an emotional aversion to not following the evidence where it leads.) But this has always been and always will be a small minority.
If this were not the case, our devout friends would be subject to rational argumentation. We now have excellent reason to posit that the gods humans believe in (Yaweh, Shiva, Allah, Zeus, and company) are modeled on the human psyche. Evidence abounds that they are the products of human culture and evolutionary biology. Increasingly, we can describe where they come from, both in prior religions and in the structure of our brains.
In addition, as knowledgeable former Christians and ex-Muslims have demonstrated over and over again, the claims of traditional monotheistic dogma are refutable because they are internally contradictory and they are empirically contradictory. They violate morality, evidence, and logic.
Mr. D’Souza makes his abstract arguments in the service of his religion, orthodox Christianity. But we shouldn’t waste our time arguing with him about either philosophy or specific orthodox doctrines.
Perhaps the best argument against the time-worn understanding of Christianity is that it is vile. It is selfish, materialist, and morally repugnant. The heart of orthodox theology is a god who demands human sacrifice. The Bible gives sacred status to some of the ugliest impulses of the human heart: tribalism, sexism, vengeance, rape, genocide, and a host of other brutish self-indulgences. Ironically, it corrupts the deepest values of Christianity itself, the love of Love and the love of Truth. It promises an afterlife in which the saved will be as rich as Paris Hilton (not just gold jewelry, streets of gold; not just gem studded purses and high heels, gem studded walls; not just good make-up but eternal youth) and as blissfully indifferent to the exquisite suffering of their brethren as, well, Paris Hilton (partying it up with riches and friends including the Jesus friend while Baghdad or Southern California or–in this case, Hell–burns). It isn’t just misguided. It’s disgusting.
This article was previously posted at Debunking Christianity, where you can find related comments.