As an atheist, I get a lot of religious people trying to tell me why I should believe in their religion so I can be “saved”. The discussions tend to follow the same course each time and, at least in my experience, theists seem to use the same weapons over and over again.
So here I have decided to put together a list of some of the most common ways that theists have tried to “convert” me to their religion, and why they are not effective. Okay, let’s get started.
1. Quoting verses from your holy book.
This is usually the first thing a religious person tries to use, and it’s understandable. For them, their holy book is the ultimate source of information – and it’s their main source of information about their god. So naturally, if they’re going to tell someone about their religion, they should start from the founding document, right?
But there is a big problem. Atheists (or indeed anybody that does not share the same faith) do not see the book in the same way as the theist that advocates it. Moreover, many if not most atheists have already read the book in question, in great detail, and disregard the book as a man-made document not in any way “god-inspired”. So it makes no sense to use verses from the book to support your position. We see no reason to take on what the Bible or Quran says purely because it is written in said books, so why would we care what any particular verse says?
2. Criticising evolution.
Have you ever heard that evolution is “just a theory”, or that there is “no evidence” of evolution? I see these sorts of claims from creationists regularly, as well as claims that there is “irrefutable proof” of “intelligent design”.
Yes, evolution is a theory. Just like germs causing disease is a theory, gravity is a theory and the earth rotating around the sun is a theory. Theists that label evolution as “just a theory” are using the definition of “theory” in a colloquial sense and applying it to evolution, even though the term is used differently when referring to a scientific theory. The National Academy Of Sciences defines the term “theory” in science as “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.” In contrast, Dictionary.com defines the everyday use of the word “theory” as a “guess or conjecture”. Obviously these two definitions are quite different. In short: evolution is a fact, evolutionary theory explains the fact.
Of course evolution has nothing to do with atheism. Many theists accept evolution as true. It is not the job of evolution to answer the question of whether of god exists or not. The only reason theists attack it is to promote their version of creationism.
And even if evolution was false, it still wouldn’t prove that atheism was false or that “intelligent design” is true. Disproving theory A doesn’t prove theory B. So even if a scientist was to one day disprove evolution and collect a Nobel Prize (I see none of these creationists have got theirs yet!), it would not mean that intelligent design was the only other answer or that god exists. The creationist still has all their work still ahead of them to prove not only that a god exists, but that said god created everything.
3. Claiming that there can be no morality without God.
Theists like to tell me that without God, I cannot have a sense of morality. That I wouldn’t know right from wrong if it wasn’t for God telling me what to do. As if the only reason I don’t kill people is because some dude in the sky will punish me if I do.
There are multiple problems with this assertion. Firstly, it defines morality as simply obeying God’s commands. But following orders isn’t morality – it’s obedience, which is doing what you are told regardless of what is right; while morality is doing what is right, regardless of what you are told to do. Is something good because God commands it? Or does God command it because it is good? The former is a “might makes right” mentality, which of course is nothing like morality. The fact that someone is powerful does not make their actions or teachings correct. And if the latter is true, then it means that God is not required for morality; furthermore, morality is independent of God.
The second issue is that theists are claiming that if it weren’t for their belief in God, they would be running around raping and killing everyone. It is not a good concession to make when arguing from moral superiority. If the only thing standing between you and a mass-murderer is fear of divine judgment, then you are not a good person; you are just afraid of punishment. But if these people were to suddenly lose their faith, would they really become monsters and start committing heinous crimes? And it’s not like religion is much of a deterrent to immoral behaviour – some of the most horrific atrocities in history were performed by people of faith. The suicide-bombing community is entirely faith-based. The genital mutilation community is also entirely faith-based. In study after study, it is repeatedly demonstrated that the less religious a society is the better they score on tests for societal health, wellbeing, crime and so on.
Also, it devalues human decency. If it were really true that morality was commanded to us by a god, then it would mean that we were only doing good because we were told to, we were hoping to get a divine reward or we were afraid of going to hell – rather than doing good for the sake of it. Christopher Hitchens addressed the issue of religion and morality in the form of a challenge:
“Name one moral statement made, or moral action performed, by a believer in the name of faith, that could not have been done by an infidel, and if you can – and this is easier – name a wicked action performed or wicked statement made that could only be done in the name of faith.”
Religion does not have a monopoly on human decency. It is innate in us. Which brings me to the next item.
4. Bringing up Hitler, Stalin, etc.
When dealing with morality theists often attack the atheist position by bringing up the atrocities committed by Hitler, Stalin, etc.
First off, Hitler was not an atheist. He was a Roman Catholic; he never renounced his baptism and the Catholic Church said a prayer for him on his birthday every year until 1964, well after the end of the Nuremberg trials. The belts of the Nazi soldiers had “Got Mitt Uns” – “God With Us” in German – engraved upon them.
Even if he was an atheist, which Stalin almost certainly was, he nor Stalin did their terrible deeds ” in the name of atheism”. Religion certainly had a large role to play – you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t find a way to exploit people’s willingness to behave religiously. The likes of Hitler and Stalin were almost deified and they demanded to be respected like gods. They are certainly not examples of secular leaders. Quite the contrary; their dictatorships were very religious in nature.
To quote Hitchens again:
“Morality does not come from a divine being, it is innate in us. For those in which it is not innate – sociopaths who only care for the needs of themselves and psychopaths who take pleasure in the suffering of others – on one hand they were also created in the image of God, which makes the image of God rather questionable, does it not?”
5. Telling the atheist to prove god doesn’t exist.
I have lost count of the number of times I have asked theists for evidence of their god and they have responded by telling me that there is no proof that god doesn’t exist. First of all, this is shifting the burden of proof onto the atheist. Instead of providing evidence for the claim “god exists”, the theist demands that the atheist proves a claim he/she is not making. Atheism is not the belief that god doesn’t exist; it’s just responding “I don’t believe you” to the theist claim. Since it is the theist claiming god’s existence, the onus is on them to provide evidence.
When making a hypothesis in science, it must be falsifiable – that means that it is possible to disprove the hypothesis provided the right evidence is presented. That is the only way it can be possible to test it. For example, the claim that gravity makes objects fall towards the ground. An easy way to disprove it would be to drop something and have it float upwards. That makes the claim falsifiable; that is, that certain evidence if it were to show up in experimentation would disprove the claim. The claim that god exists is, as it stands with our current knowledge and possibly always, unfalsifiable – meaning that no item of evidence presented can definitively disprove the claim. But then how could you test if the claim was true? No matter what experiments are performed, you would never get evidence that disproved it even if the claim was indeed false.
Bertrand Russell demonstrated this with a hypothetical teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars, that is so small it cannot be detected with even our strongest telescopes. Obviously you can’t disprove the existence of such a teapot, but it would be ludicrous to believe that it existed just because there was no way to prove it didn’t. Similarly, just because god’s existence cannot be disproved (at least not yet) doesn’t mean that god exists. Only evidence that god exists can prove it.
6. Asserting Pascal’s Wager.
“Well, if I’m wrong I lose nothing. If you’re wrong you’re going to hell forever! HAHAHA!” Or words to that effect. That is Pascal’s Wager, which says that it is better to believe in god and be wrong than not believe and be wrong.
For a start, there are literally thousands of gods to choose from. How do you know that yours is the correct one? What if your religion is false and the one true religion is someone else’s? What are you gonna do, believe in all gods in case you’re wrong about them?
Second, don’t you think that an all-knowing god would see through your bet and would know that you didn’t sincerely believe? As far as I’m concerned, any god worthy of praise would prefer an honest atheist to a bet-hedging theist.
7. Arguing from “faith”.
Usually after repeated requests for evidence are failed to be met, the theist will argue that they have “faith” that their religion is true.
Most atheists are such precisely because they value evidence over faith. Since faith is a belief without evidence, and sometimes despite evidence against the belief, atheists do not see faith the same way as theists. In literally any other discourse an argument from faith would be a concession of gullibility. Yet when talking about religion, somehow “faith” gets special status and is even considered a virtue superior to evidence. Any reasonable atheist will never place faith over evidence.
The other thing that theists fail to realise is that people from other religions make the same argument of faith for their religion. Muslims have just as much faith as Christians – on what grounds does one get to decide which person’s faith claims have more value? If one wants to grant credence to the faith argument for one religion, one must grant it for all – which is of course ridiculous as every religion cannot all be right at once. The most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong, since there is no evidence for any of them and faith proves nothing.
8. Saying that science doesn’t know everything.
While it may be true that science doesn’t yet know everything, it doesn’t mean that the remaining answers lie in religion. When science didn’t know about thunder and lightning, god was used to explain that. When science didn’t know about germs, demons and curses from god were used to explain disease. This is what’s known as God-of-the-gaps. Wherever there is a gap in scientific understanding, God is placed into the gap.
The problem is that if scientists had settled for “god did it” when it came to disease, we would have never found out the true cause and would still be performing exorcisms on epileptics. If scientists had settled for “god did it” when it came to natural disasters like earthquakes, we would have never found out what caused them. Just think about the many things that once had a supernatural explanation that now has a natural explanation. However there isn’t a single thing that once had a natural explanation, that is now better explained by the supernatural. Furthermore, if a “supernatural” explanation was to ever be proved scientifically, the phenomena would cease to be supernatural and would simply become a part of the natural.
So far, religion has a pretty poor track record when it comes to facts. And even if science never finds out everything, ever, that still does not mean that “god did it”, or that the answers can be found in religion.
9. Providing an anecdote of a so-called “miracle” or personal experience.
Theists love to tell atheists about how they “saw God”, or that they or someone they know had a “miraculous” recovery from illness/injury, got a promotion after praying for it, and so on. They think that this is powerful evidence that god exists.
However, these anecdotes are only evidence for god if you already believe in god. Occam’s Razor, which states that the most simplest and most plausible explanation for something is usually the right one, is well-known among atheists. When a theist claims that they saw a vision that could only be God, atheists realise that it is not the most likely explanation; it is far more plausible that the theist was simply hallucinating, and linked the hallucination to God because of the beliefs of his parents. Similarly, whenever theists claim that somebody’s cancer was cured by faith healing they usually leave out the part of the story that says that the person was also having chemotherapy or that they died later on.
Some theists will try to get round this by saying that God works through people sometimes to achieve miracles. But it is an insult to doctors who save lives every day to suggest that god is doing all the work. Just imagine being a top surgeon, who has just spent hours and hours saving the life of a person who, without medical intervention, would have died. When telling the person’s family of the operation’s success, the first to be thanked is God. The only recognition you get is as a puppet; that God merely worked through you to perform his “miracle”. Excuse me? I’ve just spent hours saving your daughter’s life, and you thank God? In fact, it is an insult to just about anyone who has ever performed a good deed. Thanking God for everything even when it’s something a human being has done completely devalues all human endeavour, as it wouldn’t really be us doing it.
And while you are bragging about all the miracles that God has performed for you, you fail to take into account the vast numbers of people who pray for miracles and don’t get them. What makes you so special?
And while on the subject…
10. Saying how arrogant atheists are.
Theists not only claim that they know god exists, but that they know what this god is like and what he wants from us and especially what he wants us to do while naked. They have no problem with that, but an atheist saying that there’s no evidence to support such claims – apparently that’s “arrogant”.
Oh yes, atheists are so arrogant for not thinking that the entire universe was created with them in mind. That’s something that gets on my nerves about theism, particularly monotheism – all this me, me, me crap. Never mind the millions that suffer and die year on year, only to go to hell for eternity for believing in the wrong god, my god loves me and I will get to go to heaven!
11. Telling the atheist “I’ll pray for you”.
Going by how often I have theists tell me they’re going to pray for me, if it really worked I should be a believer by now.
Telling an atheist you are going to pray for them is meaningless. We don’t believe god exists, nor that he can answer prayers or cares about us. And as a theist you know that we don’t see prayer in the same way as you. By all means, if it makes you feel any better to pray for us you can go ahead. But why bother telling us about it? (Especially if you are Christian. Read Matthew 6:6 before praying in public or announcing you’re about to pray.) As far as atheists are concerned it doesn’t help, so it makes no sense to inform us of your intent to pray for us. We really couldn’t care less whether you pray for us or not. It won’t make a difference either way.
12. Threatening the atheist with hell.
This is the last defence of the theist who has nothing left to offer. But while such a punishment may seem terrifying to the theist, it is meaningless to an atheist. We don’t even believe that such a place exists, so why should we be afraid of going there? Threatening an atheist with hell is about as effective as telling an adult they will not be getting presents from Santa. And you wonder why we laugh at you.
If you want atheists to start taking your god claims seriously, you probably shouldn’t keep using the same tactics over and over again after repeated refutation. It’s intellectually dishonest and won’t help to win us over. In closing, I shall leave you with a quote from Richard Dawkins:
“Evidence is the only good reason to believe in something.”