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Hey folks; Dave Muscato here. Today, we did our “Ask an Atheist” table at Speaker’s Circle:
(that’s Rocket Kirschner there sitting with me)
Tony Lakey and I set up around noon, and several of us stayed until roughly 6 PM. There was a large group of Calvinists preaching at Speaker’s Circle today, and they brought with them a few tables, where they were distributing tracts and copies of John, and they also had some sandwich-board signs with bible citations and other messages. Brother Jed, Rocket (pictured with me above), Bro Cope, Sister Cindy, and Martha were also there, although they didn’t start preaching until about 2 PM. (By the way, Martha, I borrowed your photo of our booth from Facebook; if this is not alright, please let me know and I’ll remove it!)
One of the Calvinist tables was set up right next to our usual spot, so I got a chance to talk to them for a bit without straying too far from our own table. By the way, this is the same group that was here last year, when I talked to Ryan, the nursing student from Truman. Last year, once when he was preaching at the Circle, I regularly interrupted him to correct him every time he said “We know…” (with the more-accurate “You believe…”). I explained the brain-in-a-vat argument, and cogito ergo sum, and right in the middle of his preaching, he had a flash of insight and yelled at me, “Fine, I’ll just stop, since I can’t know anything for sure, right??” I was too shocked by his sudden admission of honesty to come up with a good answer at the time – I said something like, “Well, you don’t have to give up just like that,” and after he regained his composure, he continued preaching that Jesus saves, etc. I wish I had said, “That’s right, you don’t; now sit down and shut up!” Maybe next time.
Anyway, as far as today’s discussion, I have reconstructed what I remember of their arguments, and will do my best to reconstruct my refutations below, as well.
I began by talking to a nice-enough young woman, who asked me if I knew Jesus as I was perusing the materials on their table. I asked her what she meant, and she asked if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. I said that would be rather difficult, seeing as the guy’s been dead for a couple of thousand years now. She asked me what I believe, and I said I was an atheist. She responded by saying, “A full atheist?” and I explained that atheism doesn’t exactly come in degrees like that. She clarified that some people are “only” agnostic, and I explained the difference between gnostic/agnostic and theist/atheist. At this point, a grey-haired woman in her 60s took over. She told me her name but I cannot recall it at the moment. There was also a guy about my age there with her, who said he used to be an atheist, and another older man who came over later, Charles Leiter, whom I’ve talked to before, also last year. Charles is the pastor at this church, and has degrees in mathematics & physics.
The older woman presented the arguments below, and she became increasingly more aggressive about them, until she was nearly yelling at me, until Charles “relieved” her. I don’t feel like I really got a chance to refute her assertions properly, because every time she would make an argument, she did so forcefully and without giving me a chance to actually have a dialogue. Each time she introduced a new argument, I had to interrupt her to shoot it down, and before we could finish discussing why it was wrong – as soon as she started to realize that she was in over her head with that particular line of reasoning – she skipped to the next argument. Several times, I outright asked her to pause, select a single argument for us to discuss to completion, and allow me to refute it, before she moved on to the next one. She kept denying that she was doing this, but eventually agreed to settle on a single argument, then chose explicitly two (lol) – which I recognized as the the teleological argument, and the Moral Argument II – but throughout, she denied that she was skipping between arguments at all until cognitive dissonance took over, and she just got angry at me.
I’ve found that this is a very common tactic among religious people: They tend to introduce a new argument before the last one is resolved. Put another way, as soon as you begin to refute an argument, and they start to realize that their argument is fatally flawed, they skip to the next one, in order to sidestep the “Oh, I see your point. I guess I can’t use that one anymore” part of the exchange. Another common tactic is simply refusing to adjust their line of reasoning, even after an argument has been properly refuted. By that I mean, I’ve noticed that many religious people continue to use the same arguments even after I have explained to them why they are incorrect and they have admitted to me that I am right. In this specific case, I can say this with certainty because I talked to Charles last year, and we went over some of the exact same arguments, which I fully refuted last time; apparently he just forgot I already heard these, and he hasn’t stopped using them, even though he agreed with me last year that several of them were/are fatally flawed.
JT Eberhard has an excellent guide to Rational Debating in flow-chart form. Maybe I will bring this with me next time 🙂
Here are the arguments the grey-haired woman presented, and the refutations I tried to work in edgewise:
“It is written in your heart.”
I said that I have seen videos of open-heart surgery and have never seen any kind of writing in there, at least on others’ hearts. She said she didn’t mean it literally; I asked why she believes this and for her source; she cited the Bible. I explained that simply insisting that her god instilled a feeling of his existence doesn’t mean that 1) it’s really there or 2) it came from her god, even if it is there. She switched arguments before I could finish explaining why the Bible is not an authority on this subject.
“You just don’t want to accept it because it would be inconvenient. You’d just don’t want to give up your sins” (modified Argument from Absolute Moral Standards)
I countered by saying that I could argue the exact same thing to prove Islam, e.g. that despite Islam being true, she just doesn’t want to accept it because praying 5 times a day and giving up bacon would be really inconvenient.
“Jesus said…” (Argument from the Bible)
Yeah, Jesus didn’t say shit.
“If you are an atheist now, that means you were never really a Christian” (No True Scotsman)
I attempted to explain Antony Flew’s No True Scotsman fallacy, pointing to the former atheist kid she had with her as an example – “I could just as easily say that if he’s a Christian now, he was never really an atheist” – before I was cut off with another zig-zag to a new argument:
“Most people haven’t even read the Bible; how can you know it’s not true if you haven’t even given it a chance?”
I told her that I have read the Bible. I even showed her my Hebrew/Greek Bible, which I happened to have tucked under my arm at the time. I told her flat out that I’d read this (interlinear) Bible several times, and the Bible in several different translations in English, too.
“You need to read it again” (Argument from the Bible)
I explained that the bottleneck here is not that I haven’t read it; it’s that I have read it and found it to be full of crap.
“Read it again. You’ll see that the truth is there if you just read it.”
After a few more rounds of this, I raised my voice slightly and said, “Look, I’ve read it. I’ve read it several times. Stop saying that I haven’t read it. I study this stuff. The problem here is not that I don’t know what it says. I know what it says. I agree with you that most other people haven’t read it – one poll I’m aware of revealed that 90+% of self-identifying Christians haven’t read the Bible cover-to-cover – but I am not one of those people. This argument does not apply to me. Can we agree to move on to your next argument?” She finally relented and went to…
“My life has been changed because of Jesus” (Moral Argument II)
I responded, “Do you really think that there aren’t people who were lip-service Muslims, who later became very religious, and whose lives didn’t change for the better afterward? Just because you decided to start believing something and your life improved doesn’t make your belief true. If that were so, using your argument, you’d have to agree that Islam is correct, also.” She flew right into…
“All of creation attests to the existence of God.” (Teleological Argument)
I explained that if we’re talking about a deistic “god of the philosophers,” it’s possible, though implausible, and definitely not parsimonious, and therefore not a rational probabilistic conclusion. It also introduces the problem of where God came from. There are a lot of good refutations to this one, but I didn’t have time to get into them, because she went on to…
“You know it’s true even though you deny it” (Argument from Accusation)
I pointed out that you could argue this to “prove” absolutely any position, including atheism.
“If there were no God, I can’t imagine wanting to live. There would be no purpose to life. I would want to commit suicide.” (Argument from Lack of Creativity/Argument from Ignorance/Argument from Meaning II)
I didn’t even have a chance to start explaining that it’s not only possible, but easy, to make your own meaning in your life and create your own purpose for it.
At this point, she got very frustrated and allowed Charles to take over. His arguments were slightly more sophisticated but still riddled with logical errors. SASHA President James Pflug assisted me in refuting some of these:
“The ‘I’ you refer to when you make statements about yourself necessarily depend on the Christian worldview. ‘I’ cannot exist/has no meaning unless you are a Christian.”
I explained that self-awareness has been around long before Christianity and in no way “depends” on the Christian worldview, and we have written proof of this (the writings of the ancient Greeks, to use just one example).
“Morals cannot exist without the Christian worldview. Morals can’t come from natural forces/causes” (modified Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God)
“Consciousness can’t come from matter & nothing else. Random mutations could not result in consciousness.”
“No human could have invented Jesus. He is beyond the scope of human invention” (modified Argument from Insanity)
There is not a single verse in the Bible, Old or New Testaments, that could not have been written by ancient humans working “alone” (without divine inspiration or intervention). If anyone cares to give me a specific example of something s/he believes could not have been written by ancient humans working alone (i.e. without divine inspiration or intervention), I will gladly refute it for you in detail.
At this point, it was 2 PM, and Charles decided to pack up his table and head out – Jed was starting to preach, and he didn’t want people to think that they were associated with him. I laughed at this and said, good-natured, that if he’s trying to convince me that Christianity is the one true religion, it really doesn’t help his case that his “one” “true” religion is so splintered that he doesn’t even want to be seen in public with a fellow Christian preacher, simply because they believe such irreconcilably different things!
I returned to our table, and on the bright side, several other SASHA members and I did have some really great conversations with lots of other people passing by throughout the afternoon. I passed out plenty of flyers with information about our meetings and our new blog, so I hope that on Tuesday, we have a few new people.
That’s all for now. See you guys soon!
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