Today, I’m picking up where The Areopagus left off awhile ago, with some silly atheist objections to Christianity. (To be fair, we have also lampooned some silly Christian pseudo-arguments.) Last time around, Marc pointed out a popular video with 10 sophomoric objections to belief in God.
This matters to me because, although I identify Christian now as an adult, my grandparents were atheists. I credit them with a ton of my critical thinking skills. It’s an important part of my life, there are notions abroad in Christianity that deserve serious critique from an objective distance, and it’s something that can and should be discussed well.
As for what we are about to consider, sadly, this is not that.
In fact, it’s something where I can’t help having a little fun–I’m not out to be derogatory, it’s just that sometimes a lighthearted approach is the best medicine for these things.
Straw Men are Only for Lighting on Fire
As Marc pointed out originally, rational atheism does a much better job of challenging theism than this. The assumptions required by the 10 strawman questions are worth noting. The whole shaky little house of cards pretty much tumbles together. For those who are not as nerdy as me, trust me, you already know what a straw man argument looks like:
The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:
- Person A has position X.
- Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
- Person B attacks position Y.
- Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person.
It’s Hard to Build a Case on an Argument from Recognized Heresy
I’m just going to take the first of the 10 questions as the main example, since it’s given the position of greatest importance. “Why won’t God heal amputees?”
From the skeptic website:
Strangely, no doctor has ever witnessed God regenerating an amputated leg through prayer. Amputees get no miracles from God. Why is that?
Besides being an argument from alleged omniscience, the expanded version of this question uses what’s called “proof-texting.” By extreme cherrypicking, it falsely locates the power and authority of prayer in human will for the purpose of advancing a propaganda.
When church types do that, intelligent Christians call them snake-oil sellers. What we don’t do is call them an accurate representation of biblical beliefs.
So then, what’s the stance? Special pleading for angry but unsophisticated atheists? I have to say, that’s the first atheist prosperity-gospel charlatan I’ve encountered. Fun!
The question further limits the instances of physical suffering where God ought to intervene to a particular class of case. Amputation is not something that just occurs as one is walking down the street the way a heart attack might. It involves placing one’s body directly in the path of unusually dire forces, whether purposefully or accidentally.
Do we want to limit the case to this example? Excellent. Let’s talk about how people become amputees.
In the case of an individual running into danger for the sake of others (such as a war zone or an unfolding emergency), altruism is invoked. Altruism involves sacrifice for the good of others, rather than for self-benefit.
That’s no problem for competent atheists who don’t have to resort to fallacy to present a case. But the sophomoric skeptic does not want to go there with even a semi-competent theist. If one is not careful, altruism is a direct road to discussing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and sophomoric skeptics tend to hyperventilate loudly when someone tells them Jesus died for their personal sins. Oh well, I guess we can’t all be Spock, let alone Hemant Mehta.*
Then there are stupid accidents, such as oil riggers high on crack sticking their hands into machinery in ways specifically forbidden by safety regulations. (Yes. Some of the people I know.) Are we to negate all possibility of freewill and say God should also preemptively heal all addiction and all lapses in judgment?
Brute sovereignty, like brute freewill, is a mere caricature of Christian theism.
Or there are barbaric antiquated practices like cutting off the hand of a thief. Would God’s consistent divine intervention help to convince such perpetrators of their excessive cruelty, or make it less serious and more acceptable to them?
In the collective balance, would humanity use such divine interventions for overall greater good, or overall greater evil? Only God knows. However, Christianity’s perspective on human nature does not disallow speculation that God has very good reasons for not healing every form of disease and injury all the time.
In the meantime, God can only be accused of picking on amputees, and amputees can only be used as a stunningly obvious expose of God’s non-existence (and the Christian’s corresponding stupidity) if the skeptic’s distortion of biblical doctrine is in fact accurate. That’s how faking one’s way through a case works: Present Y, defeat it, then howl about X.
The Argument Should be Against Actual Theist Ground
In order to be operative, the 10 strawman questions implicitly or overtly require one of three moral grounds on the nature of humanity for their accusations to have basis:
- an overarching and universal moral relativism, which is not intellectually credible;
- an assumption that humans are morally neutral entities;
- or an assumption that humans are essentially good.
It would be better to challenge Christianity’s assertion that humanity is basically though not utterly evil. There’s a lot of fodder in there for getting Christians confused, especially the postmodern ones. Denominations argue about it all the time within and amongst themselves.
In competent atheist hands, the question of human nature and morality can become all kinds of very elegant thought experiment. But as I said, sadly, this is not that.
Lack of Clear and Defensible Basis
And thirdly, in their rush to sketch theism as an illogical and morally reprehensible worldview, the 10 questions implicitly locate their moral basis in the pseudo-authority of because-I-say-so language.
For argument’s sake, why is it reprehensible if the God of the Bible decides to commit genocide (something else The Areopagus [post 1, 2, 3, 4] and Scienda [supporting series found here] have already tackled)? On what moral basis?
If the strawman argument negates the discoverability of moral good and evil as external entities observable in the universe, then we’re back to overarching moral relativism. Fweeeeooooo-explodey-noise. If it does not negate the existence of objective moral values and duties, its sloppy approach to moral implications is quickly going to get dismantled by any competent theist.
In summary: The 10 questions impose absurd distortions; they fail to engage the actualities of the position they attempt to attack; and very flabby assumptions are invoked regarding the basis of authority from which they speak.
That’s pretty much how strawmen work.
Atheism is not a systematic worldview, but it’s systematically better than that.
*Let it be noted that I quite respect what I’ve read of Hemant Mehta (the “friendly atheist”). And also Spock, of course.