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Ten Contradictions Theists Just Can’t Stop Making

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Talking with theists about religion sometimes – and by sometimes I mean almost always – feels like Groundhog Day,  a painful and monotonous slog that simply travels the same territory over and over and over.  I get weary of both hearing and repeating the same arguments so frequently, so I decided to compile the most tired (not to mention the most tiresome) themes that I encounter, so that going forward I can simply point people here when they trot out these inevitable gems.

1. Explaining what god is or wants, then saying humans cannot understand god.

The conversation goes like this:

Theist: “God loves us and wants us to be saved. God is just and merciful. God will provide. God always gives us what we need, not just what we want.”

Atheist: “If god loves us, is merciful, provides, and always gives us what we need, why do children starve to death?”

Theist: “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand His ways. You can’t apply human standards to god.”

Uh . . . If we can’t apply human standards to god when it comes to figuring out why he lets children starve, why can we apply human standards to establish that he loves us, is just and merciful, and will provide?  By what means do you ascertain these attributes in the first place if not by human standards?  God is either knowable or he isn’t; you either understand him or you don’t. If his reasons for allowing innocent children to suffer and die are inscrutable, so too must be his reasons for everything else, and to claim otherwise is to admit that you in fact know nothing of god, but have opted to believe what is most comforting to you – something that is manifestly apparent to atheists already, but which most theists would not confess in so many words.

2. Claiming that god loves us all, then rationalizing human suffering.

Theists most often dismiss human suffering by victim-blaming – declaring that our own free will causes us to make bad choices, which cause us to suffer as a result. Once we get past the inherent privilege of a claim that assumes everyone has an array of both good and bad options from which to choose (or has a choice at all), we are still left with the problem of suffering that is not the direct result of our own actions. “Free will,” they repeat. “Some people use theirs to hurt others.” Ah, okay – so god is willing to stand idly by and watch innocents be tortured and murdered because he prioritizes the free will of evil people to do harm over that of their victims? That’s not much of a resume-builder for god, but for the sake of argument I’ll give you that one too. What about illness and natural disasters then? Even the most nefarious of minds cannot will a tumor or an earthquake or a tsunami into being. That’s when, if we don’t hear “Oh, free will causes climate change which causes those disasters,” we hear (again), “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand god’s ways.”

In this world, deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on someone we claim to love is called abuse. In religion, it’s called grace. When we regard human suffering as not only inevitable but as an expression of love by an omnipotent being, we trivialize the experience of those who must endure it and stifle the otherwise natural human impulse to alleviate it.

3. Pretending that free will and a divine plan are not mutually exclusive.

When asked once if he believed we all have free will, Christopher Hitchens ironically replied, “Of course I have free will; I don’t have a choice.” In other words, an omnipotent god endowing humans with free will and commanding that they use it negates the very notion of free will in the first place – with or without it, we are still exactly as god made us, choosing exactly as he already knows we will. Conveniently, free will seems to only ever cause humans to behave badly; when they are charitable, kind, generous, selfless, humble, honest, and virtuous, it is always because they were following the example set by god, but when they are selfish, cruel, and violent their actions are the result of their own frailty, thus ensuring that god continues to reap the credit when we choose well and remain blameless when we don’t.

As if this weren’t bad enough, many of the same folks who talk about free will also claim that god has a plan. Take a common trope on prayer, for example, that says when you pray, “God answers in one of three ways: 1. Yes; 2. No; 3. I have something even better in store.” All three of those responses entail a god who is actively shaping your life, and who is giving or withholding things based on what he either intends or knows will happen. So which is it? Because it can’t be both.

4. Behaving hatefully, then saying “god bless.”

I recently had the pleasure of conversing with a theist on my Facebook page who called me “ignorant;” a “liar;” a “child;” “dense;” “trash;” laughed that I was “probably not” in a stable relationship and therefore infected with “the latest STD;” that my jokes aren’t funny (O, the humanity!); and, predictably, that she wished she could be there when I stand before god after death to see me receive my eternal sentence for disbelief. She topped off this love-fest by saying, “May God bless you and keep you in the New Year and many more to come.” Wait, I thought you were being an arrogant ass, but you want god to bless me? Well, in that case, right back atcha! Hugs and kisses!

These people seem to think that no matter how nasty they act or how mean-spirited their words,  it is all permissible and forgiven as long as they conclude with an insincere blessing.  Some of them will further justify their unpleasantness by claiming they were only fulfilling their godly responsibility to love their enemies by pointing out the error of their ways.  Hence we end up with comments like, “Your ignorance and your unfunny jokes make baby Jesus cry, you slutty, disease-infested piece of trash! I’ll be laughing while you burn in hell! God bless!”

5. Declaring god as the source of objective morality, then interpreting scripture.

It is frustrating and disheartening that the myth that one needs to believe in the supernatural to live ethically persists in the face of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Beyond this obvious fallacy, however, lies the transparent manner in which theists lay claim to the objective correctness of their morals while simultaneously applying their own contemporary cultural morality to the world. “Look here,” you say, pointing at the words on the page, “it says to murder your loved ones if they worship any other god.” “You’re taking that out of context,” comes the reply. Or maybe it’s, “You have to consider the culture at the time this was written.” Or perhaps, “That isn’t meant to be taken literally.”

If objective morality comes from god, then the only way to determine that morality is through scripture.  If you are not going to take scripture at face value, then you are admitting that your morals are inherent within you and influenced by the society around you, not handed down from the outside.

6. Labeling god as omnipotent, then blaming evil on the devil.

Is it that god cannot defeat the devil, or is it that he chooses not to? Not that anyone could blame him if it was the latter, seeing as how the devil makes such an outstanding scapegoat. But seriously – if you believe god is omnipotent and you also believe in the devil, then you have to believe that god has made a decision to let the devil do his thing. If god cannot in fact defeat the devil then he is not omnipotent, in which case it makes little sense to worship and pray to him at all. In either case, though, god sure as shit has both the power and inclination to get involved once you’re dead – by sending you straight to hell for doing whatever it was the devil talked you into while god stood by and watched.

7. Seizing upon minuscule inconsistencies in highly specialized scientific disciplines as a failure of science to explain the universe while accepting supernatural explanations for which there is no evidence.

There are mountains of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang. Virtually all of modern biology and cosmology are predicated upon these theories; the elegance of their explanations and success of their predictions continually reaffirm their validity. Furthermore, there is no small amount of evidence to suggest that under the right conditions, complex molecules can become self-replicating – the first step towards the creation of life. Meanwhile, there is no evidence for god. As in, zero. Zilch. None.

It has always struck me as odd that an institution that not only extols the virtue of faith but requires it as a matter of course and as a prerequisite of salvation would turn to science at all to justify its claims; after all, if the religious are so certain they are correct, shouldn’t faith be sufficient to maintain belief?  The answer is, of course it isn’t, and their desire to claim the legitimacy of science betrays their understanding (and fear) of this fact.  Furthermore, you cannot pretend to be concerned about the quality or weight of the evidence for a natural explanation of the universe while simultaneously advancing a hypothesis for which thousands of years of inquiry have failed to produce a single shred of evidence.

8. Subscribing to religion, then labeling the religious beliefs of others as “crazy.”

Protestants say Catholics aren’t really Christians. Baptists say Pentecostalism is a cult. Mormons say creationists are nutty. And yet all of these people believe more or less the same thing: That an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving deity created the entire universe and was subsequently so displeased with his own creation that he made a virgin pregnant with himself in human form; condemned himself to be tortured and sacrificed to atone for the sins of his creation; rose from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky; and now presides over the affairs of all humans and keeps track of where they put their car keys and whether they masturbate so that he knows who to help while they are alive and who to torture for all eternity after they die.

Anyone who thinks this is plausible forfeits the right to comment on the sanity of anyone else’s ideas.

9. Accusing atheists of cherry-picking scripture to make it look bad.

This one always makes me laugh.  For one thing, no one needs to try to make scripture look bad; it does that all by itself with its genocide and rape and slavery and conquest and general bloodthirsty, vengeful douchebaggery.  For another thing, scripture is packed with so many mutually exclusive commands and prohibitions that cherry-picking is required if one is to follow or even just discuss it.  The only question is which cherries one will pick.  Some will pick the ones about love and kindness and charity and claim these are the “real” version of their religion, leaving the others – the ones about torture and violence and cruelty – on the branch, hoping no one will notice them.  Perhaps cherry-picking isn’t even the right metaphor.  I think a better one is the Tree of 40 Fruit:  Some of what it has to offer is sweet, some is bitter, and some may even be poisonous, but it all grows from the same plant.

10.  Claiming membership in one of thousands of sects of religion as authority for telling non-believers why our interpretation of religion is wrong.

How often do we hear from theists that we misunderstand, misrepresent, misinterpret, or are ignorant of their scriptures? “What the bible (Qur’an / Torah / etc.) really says is X,” they say, or “When god said that he meant Y.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that many atheists are former believers who are intimately familiar with scripture, what do we make of the fact that other people who also identify as belonging to that religion claim that actually, god didn’t mean Y either, but Z? And what of the ones who say not Z, but A? Theists themselves cannot agree with one another on what god really meant or wants and none of them can produce a single valid reason why their interpretation is more likely to be right than anyone else’s. Why then is the interpretation of a non-believer any less credible – or to be more precise, any more incredible?

What most believers refuse to see, or at least to admit, is that there is no wrong interpretation of scripture. What is “known” about god resides inside people’s heads; there is no objective, external yardstick by which it can be measured, nothing that can be observed, and no source to clarify what was truly intended by any given chapter or verse. Furthermore, even if we could eliminate the ambiguity of scripture we would still be left with the contradictions: For virtually every instruction, elsewhere in the text is its prohibition or the command to do the opposite, and since no one can ring up Yahweh or Allah to ask which one is the right one it is left to the individual to decide. Said another way, scripture is sufficiently ambiguous and contradictory that all interpretations are justifiable – in which case we are left with nothing more than a free-for-all in which religion is whatever any given believer says it is.


In defense of theists, contradictions are the inevitable consequence of belief in monotheistic religion, given its outlandish claims and its incoherence. It is hard not to wonder, though, to what degree these contradictions are the result of intellectual dishonesty and what can be attributed to a mere extreme absence of self-awareness.  Whatever the case, now that I have (hopefully) saved myself some time in future discussions, maybe I can at least spend less of the next Groundhog Day trapped in tedious debates and more of it sipping Mai-tais with Punxutawney Phil.

Ten Things I Really Wish Atheists Would Stop Doing


I confess: Usually when I read articles by atheists criticizing other atheists, I feel annoyed and maybe a little betrayed. “Why,” I ask myself, “are we picking on each other for atheism-ing wrong when we should be calling out public officials for governing wrong, and religious leaders for morality-ing wrong?”

Why indeed. Secularism may be the single most effective means of improving human rights around the globe, considering that oppression of women, discrimination against LGBT people, racism, limitations on women’s reproductive freedom, and many other injustices result from the injection of religious doctrine into public policy. That is why it pains me so to see those who should be comrades in arms obstructing this noble and important endeavor, and what leads me to become what I once disdained: An atheist calling for her fellows to just cut this shit out.

1. Saying faith is harmless. 

This is what evolutionary biologist and author Jerry Coyne refers to as “the little people argument:” That you are too sophisticated to have need of comforting lies, but the unwashed masses need something to hold onto. If we put aside the condescension inherent in such a pronouncement, we are still left with a statement that is demonstrably false. Religion has for centuries served as justification for oppression and atrocities and continues to do so today. “No no,” you say, “the real cause is greed / imperialism / desire for power / psychological phenomena / something-else-totally-not-related-to-religion.” This excuse fails in two ways: First, because it ignores the convenient cover (not to mention the vast resources) that religion, as an institution, provides for those who would exploit it for their own worldly ends; and second, because it discounts the sincerity of those who hurt others, intentionally or not, as a result of doing what they truly believe is ordained by god. In a world where children die because their parents pray over them instead of taking them to the doctor, the claim that faith is harmless is both empirically untrue and callously indifferent to those who have, in fact, been harmed by faith.

2. Conflating criticism of religion with hatred of religious people.

I have been told more than once by other atheists something along the lines of, “You can’t separate criticism of Religion X from criticism of followers of Religion X. Their beliefs are who they are, so if you say Religion X is bad, you are saying THEY are bad.” And woe unto him who dares speak ill of Islam, which will precipitate anguished cries of Islamophobia, racism, and accusations that you are indicting every Muslim on the face of the earth because of the actions of a radical few.

Sigh. How many times must we explain this? A religion is a set of ideas. It is an ideology. It is NOT a person. Ideas don’t have rights or feelings. Ideas cannot and should not be immune from criticism, and certainly not ideas that form the basis of governments, shape cultural norms, and otherwise directly affect the lives of billions of humans – including humans who do not share those ideas. No one gets upset when I say that I think licorice is disgusting, because they know I am not passing judgment on people who like licorice as also disgusting. Why is it, then, that when I say that I think the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Torah are nonsense, all of a sudden it means I must thereby despise all people who follow them?

3. Hating on Richard Dawkins.

We get it. He isn’t good at Twitter. He can be condescending. He occasionally loses his patience. Maybe his writing style doesn’t set you on fire. That all leads me to the question: So the fuck what? Dawkins is an accomplished scientist and, like it or not, the path we secularists now tread has been cleared in no small part by Dawkins and others like him who have refused to remain silent: Silent about the existence and rights of non-believers, about the falsity of religious claims about the universe, about the irrationality and injustice of religious privilege. I have to wonder to what degree some criticisms are sour grapes over the success he has had as a public skeptic, and how much of it is simple accommodationism – a means for some critics to ingratiate themselves with the religious majority so as not to end up on the wrong side of their considerable power and influence (not to mention wrath). Does Dawkins occasionally step in it? Sure. Is it fair that he just rubs some people the wrong way? That’s bound to be the case with any public figure. But Dawkins-bashing has become something of a status symbol, a way for wannabe skeptical superstars to flout their intellectual bona fides like Hollywood ingénues who just happen to show up at all the right clubs. (A recent example of this phenomenon can be found here.) At any rate, Dawkins is not going anywhere and his contributions to science and the process of questioning That Which We Dare Not Question are irrefutable. Don’t like him? Great. But for the love of all that is chocolatey, STFU about it already.

4. Claiming that atheism is “dogmatic.”

A commenter on a science page said to me recently, “While I share your criticisms of Judeo-Christian explanations, [atheists hold] that any belief in the existence of a non-corporeal world undetectable in the corporeal world is an indication of intellectual shortcomings and a deflection of responsibility. This is an equally dogmatic concept.” Uh, wrong.

First, this is a generalization which simply doesn’t hold up, as is so often the case with generalizations. It’s probably true that some atheists think this, but since atheists are as diverse a group as anyone else, there is very little one can claim that “atheists” hold other than a non-belief in a god or gods. Second, even for those atheists who do think this way, this is still not dogma. Dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” that “serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system,” according to Wikipedia. Further, I most often see claims of dogmatic atheism when atheists refuse to yield to arguments that offer either no compelling evidence or no evidence at all – but dismissing an unfalsifiable proposition for which there is precisely zero evidence is not remotely the same as dismissing a proposition because it contradicts a closely held belief. In other words, don’t cry about dogma when your opponent is simply siding with the evidence.

5. Pretending that trust in science is identical to faith in the supernatural.

This is an offense similar to item 4 in which those who hold that science is the best method for understanding the universe are accused of “worshipping science” (or even worse, of the dreaded “scientism”) as though it were an infallible deity (such as we see here). It is a silly enough accusation when it comes from theists, but truly perplexing when made by fellow atheists. To begin with, it assumes that people are hard-wired to have irrational faith in something, so if it isn’t in the supernatural, it must be an unfounded trust in the conclusions of science. Of course, anyone with even a cursory understanding of the scientific process knows that there are few, if any, absolutes in science, and that what scientists claim to know always comes with the caveat that it is based on the best available evidence. This is why people often say that science has been wrong. Well, yes and no – it drew a conclusion that turned out not to be correct, but it was still the best conclusion based on the evidence on hand at the time.

Further, as others have said, trusting something based on evidence and prior experience is not remotely comparable to believing in that for which there is no evidence. Belief in god requires faith. Belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that if I strike a match it will burn, or that taking penicillin will cure an infection do not.

6. Comparing secular activism to proselytizing.

How often do we hear the charge that atheists who are vocal in their animus towards religion are “no better than religious fundamentalists,” guilty of “shoving their beliefs down others’ throats?” Too often, as far as I am concerned. To clarify why this accusation is – well, stupid – let’s review a few things. First, atheism is not a belief system; there are no “fundamentals” other than not believing in a god or gods. Second, atheists rarely go on faraway missions to convert people to atheism, knock on doors to spread the good news of the Big Bang, put fliers under windshield wipers explaining why everyone should accept evolution, or shout at strangers on street corners that they are doomed for eternity if they do not become atheists. Third, atheists get no special get-out-of-jail-free passes allowing them to disregard laws and rules they dislike, unlike their believing counterparts who can opt out of countless responsibilities if they claim that their religion demands it.

Speaking out about the absurdity of religious faith – even if you’re really, really obnoxious about it – does not a “fundamentalist” make. Unless you are trying to convince the faithful to abandon their beliefs and come over to The Dark Side, whatever you’re doing is not, in fact, proselytizing.

7. Using “freethinker” and “humanist” as synonyms for “atheist.”

In an atheist forum I used to frequent, one member confided that he had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. During a disagreement with this person another member commented, “Is the reason you’re such a dick because you had to suck so much of it as a kid?” I don’t think I have to explain how repugnant that remark is or why it is inconsistent with the concept of humanism. In another group – one that even had the word “humanist” in the name – a member referred to children as “crotch goblins” and “disgusting little monsters.” Then there are the folks who will laugh at theists in one breath and endorse homeopathy in the next.

As has so often been observed, everyone’s a “freethinker” until you get too close to their own pet bullshit. I’d wager that most humans, regardless of whether they do or do not believe in any gods, are probably not freethinkers. That territory is reserved for professional scientists and philosophers, and even then, as humans they are subject to the same biases and frailties as the rest of us, if perhaps to a significantly lesser degree. If you don’t believe in god, you’re just an atheist. These other labels may be more palatable, but they aren’t interchangeable.

8. Infighting.

We’ve all heard the analogy comparing organizing atheists to herding cats. I desperately want this not to be true, and I just as fervently believe it doesn’t have to be, but for the time being it remains, alas, an accurate metaphor. It is true that, as Sam Harris said, knowing someone is an atheist is to know almost nothing about that person. And yet, almost nothing isn’t nothing. Can we not find some way to leverage that commonality among us to some greater good? Yes, it is important to recognize the diversity of our demographic. Yes, it is important to police ourselves, to ensure that as we seek better protections for non-believers in the wider world we are not guilty of the offenses we condemn. But too often this crosses into accusations and counter-accusations: “Stop being so angry!” “You’re not angry enough!” “Stop trying to disprove god!” “Atheists need to stand up for causes unrelated to atheism!” “Stop worshipping Dawkins!” And on it goes.

The secular movement will likely remain fragmented and diverse into perpetuity. Differences of style, opinion, priority, and approach are inevitable and, as I point out below, necessary. But we must take care not to devour each other and ourselves in the process. We have a common opponent. Let’s not forget that.

9. Having tunnel vision.

In fairness, this is something that applies to people in general and is not specific to atheists, but to the degree that it holds back the secular movement it deserves some attention. Humans have a tendency not to see much farther than the end of their own nose, shrugging off or even denying problems that don’t affect them directly and assuming that what has worked for them will work for everyone. This is fair to an extent, as we can take on only so much concern and responsibility and still maintain our mental health.

That being said, cultural change does not occur by being complacent. It cannot be effected using a single, limited strategy. There is a place for calling out micro aggressions, just as there is a place for conciliation, just as there is a place for satire, just as there is a place for negotiation, just as there is a place for fighting against blatant abuses of power. If a particular strategy is not in your wheelhouse, that’s OK. If you have no strategy at all and just want to sit it out, that’s OK too. No one expects everyone to have the same skills or priorities. But it harms us all when we try to stop others from being effective in the best way they can.

10. Believing in bullshit.

I know atheists who are anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, GMO-opposers, climate change deniers, chiropractor patrons, anti-choicers, second amendment fanatics, and paranormal-believers. They cling to these opinions sometimes in the absence of evidence, and in sometimes in spite of overwhelming and unimpeachable contravening evidence – and then they will laugh at the silly theists who believe an invisible sky daddy created the whole universe in six days and CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW SILLY THOSE PEOPLE ARE, HAHA!

It has been disillusioning, to say the least, to discover that while most evidence-based thinkers are atheists, too many atheists are not evidence-based thinkers. More atheists need to take the critical thinking and objectivity they apply to the god question and turn it inward, examining the foundations of their own worldview. It can be discomfiting – threatening, even – to shine a spotlight on those things that define who we are, and the more strongly we identify with those things, the riskier the exercise becomes. What if we discover those ideas really aren’t based on reality? What if we have been wrong all this time? How will we live with that humiliation? Who will we be then? And yet, this is the very essence of rational thought – the willingness not just to tip other people’s sacred cows, but to take a good, long, hard look at our own and decide whether it’s time to put them out to pasture.

Religion Gives Comfort. So What?

If you are reading this you are likely of the atheist persuasion, and thus have most likely seen, among the 9/11 remembrances in your news feed yesterday, at least a few pointing out that religion was at the heart of the tragedy. You may have also seen some of the backlash against those comments – most often some variant of the proclamation, “How dare you criticize something that gives people comfort!”

Let me now explain why that makes no fucking sense.

First and most obviously is that something being a comfort is entirely irrelevant to whether it should be subjected to criticism. What if some people take comfort in shooting heroin? Or setting houses on fire? Or smothering kittens? And before you say I can’t make those comparisons, recall that the claim is strictly that that which gives comfort is off limits for criticism, not that which gives comfort and is also innocuous. Something giving comfort is not evidence that said something is inherently good, or entitled to deferential treatment.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that what they’re claiming is, in fact, we should not criticize that which gives comfort and is also harmless. This still does not exempt religion because of the mountains of empirical evidence which show beyond any doubt that religion is far from harmless – including the point that religion caused the 9/11 tragedy in the first place.

Third, even if we concede that many people do find comfort in their religious beliefs, why should that immunize religion from criticism? Okay, it gives comfort . . . So fucking what? Are you suggesting that the little people are too weak-minded to survive if the rest of us don’t kowtow to their precious beliefs? Or are you inadvertently admitting that the self-delusion required to maintain faith in a just and loving god in the face of a devastating tragedy like 9/11 cannot withstand pointed questions without collapsing in on itself? And if it’s the latter, is that really so terrible? Atheists know well that it is entirely possible to cope with the harsh realities of life without relying on invisible friends; indeed, for many atheists it is more comforting to understand that disasters are the result of human frailty or natural processes beyond our control without having to reconcile human suffering with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god who could prevent suffering, but doesn’t.

Beyond its common theme that religion should be privileged above all other endeavors, perhaps the most insidious effect of “don’t criticize religion because it gives comfort” is that it enables continued religious harm. It is not in dispute that religion caused the terrible events of September 11, 2001 – but for reasons that escape me it is considered worse to acknowledge that reality than to perpetuate the conditions that inevitably result in more violence and pointless loss of life. It’s like a terrible cycle of “religion caused this tragedy – but don’t point out that religion caused this tragedy – because people need religion for comfort – which they will need when religion causes another tragedy.” If we instead were willing to look reality in the eye it might be possible for us to find solutions – but as Dr. Phil used to say, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.

Perhaps it is time to take a more critical and realistic look at what religion actually does in society. Perhaps if we stop pretending that atrocities are not committed in its name there would be fewer atrocities, and we would not require so much of it for comfort.