Tag: Conradictions

Your Theology Isn’t Sophisticated So Just Stop It

Image: Royalty-Free/Corbis

According to my own experience and an informal survey of every single other atheist that I know, the number one most frequent response to criticism of religion (especially Christianity) by believers is, “You just don’t know what you’re talking about.”  To wit:

  • “You cannot legitimately attack The Bible without a solid understanding of it. What I mean is that when you make claims ABOUT The Bible that are contrary to what it actually says it aptly demonstrates your own ignorance and illiteracy of it.”
  • “The problem with you atheists is that you don’t understand the will of The Most High.”
  • “My objection is not with what you do or do not believe, but rather that your post . . . appears to be written by a sophomoric liberal arts student with a chip on their shoulder.”
  • “This . . . illuminates the problem with majority of the article: a lack of understanding of what classical theists actually believe.”

And so on.  There’s no chance that maybe your religion is writing checks it can’t cash – if it stings or makes religion look bad, the only possible explanation is ignorance and a view of theology that is not sufficiently sophisticated.

This is complete and utter bullshit.

For one thing, this accusation is leveled even when the critique comes from a former pastor or priest, a lifelong believer who recently came to atheism, a seminary graduate, or someone with an advanced degree in comparative religion. Disagreement with any given theist’s understanding of scripture is tantamount to ignorance of scripture, no matter how much better the opponent actually knows it.  It is interesting to note that many theists take this tack not just with atheists, but with their fellow religionists as well, such as those “liberal” Christians who decry the behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church or Muslims who disavow child marriage.  Rarely if ever do we see an admission that those less palatable interpretations are legitimate, if unfortunate. Oh no, we are told – they’re just wrong.

For another thing, the vast majority of believers possess nothing resembling a “sophisticated” theology.  Let’s take Christianity in the United States as an example.

  • Three in four Americans believe that the bible is either the literal or inspired word of god. For Christians these numbers rise to a staggering 9 out of 10, with more than half (58%) believing that the bible is the literal word of god.
  • More than 40% of Americans believe that god created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years. Another 31% believe that humans evolved but that their evolution was directed by god.  (Not surprisingly, these percentages correlate strongly with education.)
  • Among white evangelicals in the US, nearly 6 in 10 believe that natural disasters are a sign from god; more than half (53%) believe that god punishes whole nations for their citizens’ sins; and two-thirds believe natural disasters are signs we are living in the end times.
  • Nearly 3 in 10 Americans think god determines the outcomes of sporting events; among evangelicals this number rises to 4 in 10 who believe that god determines the winner outright, while about two-thirds say god influences the outcome by rewarding players of faith.
  • More than half of Americans say god is in control of everything that happens in the world.
  • The internet is replete with laments from Christian leaders (such as this article, or this one, or this one) that American Christians are increasingly biblically illiterate.

I don’t know about you, but belief in a god who sends earthquakes to punish people for having butt sex, chooses the winner of this weekend’s NASCAR race, and personally dictated the bible that you’ve never bothered to read does not strike me as especially sophisticated.

Here’s the real issue, though.  Ultimately, the claims of religion – the very story it’s selling – are wholly, unambiguously, ludicrously unsophisticated.  Christianity teaches that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent supernatural being created the entire universe for the express purpose of being worshipped by humans; but he wanted their worship to be voluntary, so he gave them the gift of free will; but he subsequently and for generations punished them severely for not using their free will the way he wanted them to (but already knew they would); so in order to forgive humans for using their free will freely he created himself in human form, executed himself in a bloody spectacle, then came back from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky where he now presides over all human affairs and passes judgment; and that those whom he deems worthy will spend eternity in heaven with him upon their deaths, and those he deems unworthy are condemned to hell to be tortured for all eternity.  The rest of the details are window dressing – regardless of whether you take communion, speak in tongues, handle snakes, work on the sabbatth, forbid dancing, or allow women to be clergy, if you are a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word you believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and in the crucifixion as atonement for sin.  In other words, you believe nonsense.

The amateur apologists who wag their fingers at us unsophisticated atheists have to compensate for the fact that the proposition of religion is absurd on its face.  The resulting theology, alas, all boils down to a single argument: We don’t have to understand because god.  Of course this does not prevent them from claiming to understand a great many things – indeed, claiming to know them – as they are forever making unequivocal proclamations about god’s desires, intentions, and emotional state.  But when push comes to shove, the argument invariably comes down to nothing more than good, old fashioned rationalization:

  • “That doesn’t apply because it’s the Old Testament.”
  • “God cannot be judged by human standards.”
  • “That has to be read in the context of history.”
  • “That’s meant to be metaphorical.”
  • “That’s caused by humans.”
  • “You are thinking in terms of the material world instead of in terms of eternity.”
  • “You must feel the holy spirit to truly understand.”

William Lane Craig himself trumpets the need for apologetics in a post-enlightenment world where “emotion will only get you so far,” declaring his dark arts necessary to counter the corrosive impacts of science and secularism on religious belief.  Said another way, the truth claims of religion are so manifestly preposterous in light of what humanity now knows about the universe that linguistic sleight of hand is required to ensnare the innocent and hold onto the indoctrinated.

No doubt this column will be met with a chorus of smug accusations of, “She doesn’t get it!  See how unsophisticated she is?!”  And those folks will simply be proving my point: If people won’t buy what you’re selling unless it’s wrapped in layers of double-talk and obfuscation, you’re selling a lemon.  That’s intellectual dishonesty, and there’s nothing sophisticated about that.

Let Them Eat Cake – Just Kidding! Let Them Starve

starving child
Image credit AP/Rebecca Blackwell

I recently had the misfortune of encountering an article by one Peter Guirguis titled “3 Strange But True Reasons Why God Doesn’t Feed All the Starving Children in The World.” (I will not link to the article because I cannot in good conscience send traffic there, but intrepid readers will be able to find it easily enough.) The author explains in great detail why his god – who, you may recall, is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent – prefers to let children suffer and die in agony through malnutrition rather than put his considerable talent to use to, you know, make some food. Alas that the title is rather misleading, given that the reasons he cites are not strange – at least not to those of us who are used to hearing theists make excuses for the failure of their god to alleviate starvation – and whether or not they are true is a matter of some dispute.

Reason #1: It Isn’t God’s Responsibility to Feed the Starving Children of the World

“Of all the times that I have read the Bible from cover to cover, I can’t think of a single Bible verse in which God makes a promise to feed all the starving children in the world.”

Well then, since there is no bible verse in which god is quoted as saying, “I promise to feed all the starving children in the world,” that totes lets god off the hook! Of course there are verses in which he promises to sustain us (Isaiah 46:4), prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), meet all our needs (Philippians 4:13), give us plenty to eat (Joel 2:26), help us (Isaiah 41:13), satisfy the appetites of the righteous (Proverbs 13:25), and give us whatever it is we pray for (Mark 11:24); but apparently those should in no way be misconstrued to infer that god will actually sustain us, meet all our needs, give us plenty to eat, help us, satisfy the appetites of the righteous, or give us whatever it is we pray for. On the issues of what god was in fact promising in these passages and why he is seemingly constrained to doing only that which he explicitly promised, Guirguis remains silent.

He then goes on to spout the usual nonsense about how it is our job, not god’s, to feed starving children. Never mind that the majority of humans on earth live under circumstances that preclude their ability to influence whether, how, or where food is grown and distributed: They themselves live in or near poverty; or suffer food insecurity of their own; or lack access to information or freedom of movement or other resources; or haven’t the skills or power to implement political and scientific programs to improve food production and distribution; and so on. For most of us with the ability to take some action, the extent of what we can reasonably do is donate to the local food pantry or give money to NGOs, neither of which is going to eradicate hunger. Oh, and how humans were supposed to harvest, preserve, transport, and distribute adequate food across the globe to famine-stricken areas before the advent of modern technology (i.e., for the nearly the whole of human history) is anyone’s guess.

Reason #2 – God Isn’t Like Humans

Atheists make a mistake when they say things like, “If I saw a starving child and had the power to feed him and I don’t, then I am evil. That’s the same thing with God, He is evil because He has the power to feed starving children and He doesn’t.” The mistake that atheists make here is that they compare themselves to God, or they compare God to themselves. They put themselves in God’s shoes. God’s goals are different than our goals. His purposes are different than our purposes. His way of justice is different than the human way of justice.”

This is the claim that theists always make when confronted with the problem of evil: That we can’t apply our own standards of morality to god, which of course begs the question: Why not? And why, if nearly all reasonable and morally normal people would feed starving children if they had the power to do so, and many (if not most) theists at some point struggle with why their god does not do so, is the ethical instinct of all humankind chucked out the window and deemed inferior to a god whose actions are manifestly unethical?  Furthermore, this is not so much a reason why god doesn’t feed starving children as it is an admonishment that we should not ask for one.

Reason #3 – God’s Justice is Coming Soon For All

“While God does see hate crimes, rapes, and murders as sins, He also sees lying, cheating, and hating people as sins too. So since God is a just God, then He’s going to have to give justice to all if He were to judge the world today. That means that there would be a lot of people who would receive punishment for eternity for breaking God’s standards. So instead, God is saving His judgment for Judgment Day . . . So when you don’t see justice taking place immediately, it’s because God is giving everyone a chance to repent, and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

There is a great deal with that statement that is problematic, the most obvious being that it is entirely irrelevant to the question of why god does not feed starving children – unless Guirguis is saying that since Judgment Day will happen someday, there’s no point in feeding starving kids in the meantime. Regardless, it is yet more transparent rationalization of god’s inaction: “It may seem like he isn’t doing anything, but that’s just because he isn’t doing anything right now.  He has to wait and see how many more people will come groveling to him before he decides he’s ready to get his Armageddon on.” In other words, we can’t see god’s ethics, and we can’t see his mercy, and we can’t see his love, and we can’t see his justice, but we still somehow know he is ethical, merciful, loving, and just, so let’s all just accept suffering as inevitable in the meantime and STFU.

Let me be clear that I am not refuting the good Mr. Guirguis because I am seeking to refute the existence of god. Indeed, the god hypothesis has been resoundingly refuted (or at least sufficiently challenged) by many others before me so I have no need or desire to re-invent that wheel. My point is rather that religion – especially the Abrahamic ones – require people to question and suppress their own innate senses of right and wrong, empathy, and compassion in order to reconcile the action (or more accurately the inaction) of their deity. It desensitizes people to suffering and injustice – after all, if god is allowing it, he must have a reason, so who are we to argue? I can only hope that one day people will decide that if god is allowing suffering, maybe it’s his ethics that are questionable, and proceed to embrace and heed their own conscience.

Ten Contradictions Theists Just Can’t Stop Making

Image via parade.com
Image via parade.com

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 Signs You Might Be a Regressive Skeptic

Image credit: Internet Reaction Face Archive
At this point there is little I could say about the tragic comedy that is the Regressive Left in the wake of the terrible attacks in Paris of November 13 that hasn’t already been said, probably better than I could have said it (most especially here and here). As people discussed the attacks and the ideologies and policies implicated therein in the many atheism- and skepticism-centered groups that I frequent, a similarly alarming realization has dawned on me: That just as there are Regressive Leftists who are actively betraying liberal ideals, so too are there what I will henceforth call Regressive Skeptics who are undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the skeptical community. Here are a few behaviors that should raise your antenna when observed in a fellow “skeptic.”

1. They treat constructive feedback as a personal attack.

Let’s face it: No one really likes getting constructive feedback. Hearing about the things that other people think you did wrong or could have done better is not usually a lot of fun, but when offered from a place of authenticity and backed up with sound reasoning, it can be incredibly enlightening. Back in my corporate days, my mentor was someone whose brain could not have been wired more differently from my own, and that dichotomy proved to be of great value because he saw things in a way that would never in a million years have occurred to me. Sometimes his observations hurt, and sometimes I disagreed with him, but they were always worth considering.

The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, will give lip service to the benefits of healthy debate, but the unspoken caveat is that he’s always going to be right, and that his opponent will sooner or later concede this. When his arguments are poor, his premise weak, or his opponent tenacious, he becomes indignant and rude, increasingly fallacious, and eventually ends the debate with a flounce (“Whatever,” “I don’t even care at this point,” “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Just let it go already”).

It’s OK to run out of time or patience for a discussion. It’s OK to be annoyed or hurt by criticism you think is unfair. It’s not OK go on the offense at the first hint of criticism without even considering whether there’s something to it.

2. There are areas of inquiry they consider off-limits.

This is another way of calling out the hypocrisy of Regressive Skeptics who will mercilessly go after homeopathy, chiropractic, GMO-denial, the paleo diet, and other forms of woo, but refuse to touch religion, the Grande Dame of all woo. It is the single-most pervasive and common mechanism by which people learn to accept that for which there is no evidence and to rationalize contradictory evidence. Some skeptics even hold religious beliefs, which is a curiosity that is difficult for me to understand, but which in and of itself is less problematic than those who simply dodge the issue altogether – or worse, pander to their religious followers with assertions that science and religion are entirely compatible, or admonish their openly atheist counterparts to keep quiet so as not to alienate potential allies.

If you are more interested in promoting science literacy than anti-theism, that’s great. Science literacy is tremendously important and a laudable pursuit. But don’t be disingenuous for the sake of popularity, and don’t make efforts to undermine those of us who place anti-theism at the top of our own list.

3. They ignore questions asking for clarification or treat them like fallacious arguments.

Especially on the internet it is easy to inject emotion, intentionally or not, into a discussion. Without the benefit of seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language and hearing their vocal inflections, translating what they’re trying to express is made that much harder, and if your opponent doesn’t write well to begin with, you have a real challenge on your hands. It’s important to know what your opponent is actually saying if you hope to provide any kind of meaningful response, and sometimes the only way to do that is to repeat back what you think you heard (“I read your comment as saying X” or “So are you claiming that Y?”). Whereas someone with a degree of maturity and fair-mindedness should be able to distinguish between a clarifying question that got it wrong and a deliberate mis-characterization, the Regressive Skeptic will immediately respond as though the question was a straw man. This of course erodes understanding even further, because the opponent still doesn’t know what she is responding to and now she has to defend herself against the straw man accusation too. It’s a strategy that relies on misunderstanding to win, rather than on having a defensible premise and a sound argument.

4. They reject any argument coming from “the other side” regardless of whether it has merit.

The most obvious example of this is the Regressive Left’s refusal to acknowledge that the “Islamic” in “Islamic State” has anything whatsoever to do with, you know, Islam. They are so fearful of being mistakenly associated with the likes of Donald Trump, so afraid of being labeled a racist, that they cover their eyes and ears and make excuses for mass murderers and theocratic fascists. It’s an unconscionable form of denialism because it trivializes the suffering caused by ISIS and similar organizations, and sacrifices those who are most vulnerable in those societies on the altar of white guilt and a warped vision of multiculturalism.

It’s bad enough for an anti-vax, organic-kale-eating, Spirit Science-reading loon to go down that rabbit hole. When people who claim to be skeptical thinkers place ideology over reality in this way, it’s unforgivable. They are ceding the discussion to the Far Right and the jihadists by refusing to acknowledge the nuances – not because the nuances aren’t true, but because they cannot abide that the Far Right might have a point. And the only thing I can think to say to those Regressive Skeptics is, shame on you.

5. They give advice that they don’t take.

“You should read authors who disagree with you. To help you with that, here is a list of authors who agree with me.”

“You only selected that source because it confirms what you already believe! To prove you are wrong, I am posting this thing that confirms what I already believe!”

Yes, we are all vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, there is a tendency when debating a topic to seek out evidence that supports one’s own premise. But it’s also entirely possible that your opponent has actually read all of those authors and found their arguments to be unpersuasive, and it’s entirely possible that your confirmation bias is at much in play as your opponent’s. Whether it is or not, if you are dismissing a credible source just because it is in agreement with your opponent you’ve just forfeited any claim to that pedestal from which you’re preaching.

6. They refuse to acknowledge their own errors.

We all make them. It’s embarrassing – humiliating, even – and it can be a blow to self-confidence, but it is likely also instructive and can lead to personal growth and better methodology in the future. But an error is guaranteed to damage your credibility only when you refuse to admit to it. This is not to say that we must agree every time we are accused of making a mistake that we have actually made one; sometimes we are misunderstood, or were right but perhaps not clear, or were both right and clear and it is our opponent who is mistaken. On those occasions when we have in fact erred, though, we usually know it. The mature, responsible, honest thing to do at that point is fess up and fix it. Unless it’s something that simply can’t be denied, the Regressive Skeptic can be counted on to circle the wagons at the mere suggestion that she made a mistake, often resorting to personal attacks and other deflections. She will profess her fallibility in general terms, but fight like hell when confronted with it.

7. They measure others by a different yardstick than they measure themselves or their associates.

This may be another manifestation of confirmation bias, but it happens often enough to warrant its own discussion. If someone is truly a skeptic, then that person should have a relatively consistent standard for what sources or types of arguments pass the sniff test, and should endeavor to at least meet if not exceed those standards – if for no other reason than to ensure sound arguments that are difficult to refute, but hopefully also for the sake of integrity and respect for the search for what is true. The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, accepts or rejects sources on a sliding scale based on their utility and expediency rather than their merits, and will often happily commit logical fallacies in the process of accusing opponents of committing logical fallacies. Another manifestation of this phenomenon is the glee with which Regressive Skeptics will mock woo-followers, but when the subject turns to religion they wag their fingers and say, “You should only criticize the beliefs, not the believers.” It’s a willingness not only to resort to, but indeed to exploit a double standard.

8. They mine others’ arguments for fallacies rather than seeking to understand what they’re saying.

A friend of mine refers to this as “fallacy barking:” Simply pointing out real or perceived logical fallacies in their opponents’ arguments rather than speaking to their premise or making a solid argument of their own. Often they will not even put their fallacy accusation into context, making it difficult to respond at all if it isn’t obvious how (or even if) that fallacy was committed.

This isn’t to say that it isn’t important to understand logical fallacies; indeed, this is a necessary skill for constructing sound arguments and inoculating ourselves against bad ones, and overall is a useful addition to the critical thinking toolkit. Fallacy barking, on the other hand, is a tactic of obfuscation, not befitting anyone who values the actual pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

9. They place identity politics or ideology ahead of scientific findings or other verifiable realities.

It’s hip to claim that the science is settled on matters of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other issues of diversity. New findings that challenge the social justice narrative in these arenas are often vilified and their authors viciously attacked, something that Alice Dreger examines in fascinating detail in her book Galileo’s Middle Finger. Just as with denying the role of Islam in Islamism, rejecting credible, peer-reviewed data simply because it doesn’t conform to the current PR message of a given cause is the antithesis of skepticism: It’s science denial. Might those findings eventually be shown to be untrue? Of course. But that is a decision best left to science, not to its suppression.

10. They equate an opponent who is persistent or correct with an opponent who is just an asshole.

Your being wrong doesn’t make me an asshole. Your making fallacious arguments doesn’t make me an asshole. My calling you out on both of those doesn’t make me an asshole. My providing evidence that backs up my claim and refutes yours doesn’t make me an asshole. My not conceding the argument when you have failed to make your case doesn’t make me an asshole. And to paraphrase the late, great Christopher Hitchens, when you say I’m an asshole I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.

But when you throw up your hands, call me names, and stomp off to the corner to go eat worms?  That pretty much does makes you an asshole.

A Few Words About Apologetics

I caught some flak over my last blog post, Ten Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense, mostly from would-be apologists claiming that my arguments were “unsophisticated” and “show how little” I know about the bible. I even had one person cite what he claimed were marriage laws from Old Testament times to show how the prohibition against coveting one’s neighbor’s wife is perfectly reasonable as one of god’s highest priorities. I’ll admit, that one made me chuckle.

To the people who claim that arguments against religion in general and Christianity in particular must be “sophisticated” to be relevant, I have this response: Thank you for proving my point. From where I sit, the mere existence of apologetics reflects the weakness of the argument for Christianity. If someone needs to be a scholar on the marriage laws of the pre-literate Middle East in order to accept why “don’t check out your neighbor’s wife’s ass” makes the short list of divine moral instructions but “don’t rape your neighbor’s daughter” doesn’t, that simply demonstrates – rather explicitly, in fact – that the proposition is absurd on its face. When your claim requires elaborate rationalization and broad interpretation to be reconciled with a pre-existing notion of a loving and just god, it’s a clue that your claim isn’t a very strong one.


Apologists and theologians in general love to tell atheists why their interpretations of bible passages that portray their god and their religion in a poor light are incorrect. But the contradictions and ambiguity of the texts themselves, and the myriad ways of reading them, belie that there is no wrong interpretation, and no right one either. There are thousands of sects of Christianity, none of which has 100% uniformity of belief, resulting in literally millions of interpretations  of what the bible is really saying. And yet, when an atheist points out the missed opportunity of the Ten Commandments to not issue proscriptions against rape and slavery, apologists expect to be taken seriously when they say we only think that because we are too “unsophisticated” to apply a more favorable interpretation.

I don’t debate apologists for this very reason. It is an exercise in futility and a waste of time to engage in a process in which one’s opponent, by making the argument at all, has already admitted defeat.

Ten Reasons Why Christianity Makes No Sense

When I discovered the online atheist community a few years ago, one of the things that astounded and humbled me the most was the scholarliness of so many activist atheists. I had never before been in the company of so many people so versed in scripture, so skilled in the arts of rhetoric and argumentation, so keen to identifying and deconstructing logical fallacies. I’m not going to lie: It’s often been intimidating to be surrounded by people whose expertise in such things is so far beyond my own comparatively unsophisticated approach. As time passes, though, and I learn more and more about these subjects, I find that my basic issues with religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have not evolved to more abstract ontological questions, but have rather crystallized my inability to reconcile even the most basic and fundamental principles of Christian faith.  The following, while not by any means an exhaustive list, represent what for me are the biggest head-scratchers.

1. Jesus didn’t die. Christians are always going on about how Jesus died for our sins, but if he came back after three days then he didn’t really die at all; more like being in a brief coma, which is a drag, but not exactly the ultimate sacrifice that the crucifixion is cracked up to be. And it wasn’t just his spirit that departed to heaven, but his actual physical being. If you go dig up a three-day old grave, regardless of what you think may have happened to that person’s immortal soul, odds are there’s still going to be a body in it. Jesus’ tomb, on the other hand, was empty, meaning that following his resurrection he was either a zombie or he was fully alive, neither of which is dead. Even more relevant is that when he was hanging there on the cross, Jesus knew that he was going to come back. He didn’t have to endure the fear of death that any other human being would have had to face or the uncertainty that presumably afflicts all but the most devout at the moment of death about whether there really was going to be an afterlife, or if this was lights out for good. Yes, he probably suffered physically, but he knew that death would be no more than a long nap and then he’d be up and at ‘em again. In any meaningful sense, he didn’t die.
2. Jesus didn’t have faith. Jesus was always rolling his eyes and scolding his disciples for not having enough faith. There are many verses to be found in the New Testament in which Jesus says some variation of, “Don’t trust your senses, don’t look for evidence, just accept it because I said so.” But if Jesus was the son of god, then faith wasn’t something he needed – he knew god and heaven were real because that’s where he came from, no faith required. How fair is it to command the rest of the world to accept something on faith alone, threatening eternal punishment to any who don’t believe it, when you yourself have no need of faith because you possess all the evidence?
3. Jesus didn’t take away my sins. Or did he? I am no logician, but if Jesus died to take away the sins of humanity, then doesn’t that mean that once he was crucified there was no longer any such thing as sin? If his “death” was the absolution of the human race, why do I still have to do what the bible says, or go to church, or even believe? Aren’t I already saved by his “sacrifice?” And if I am not, and there are still rules to follow and sins that could keep me out of heaven, then what, precisely, have I gained from it?
4. Jesus wasn’t a very nice guy. American Christians talk a lot about “family values,” but that concept doesn’t have much, if any, basis in the actual story of Christ. Jesus demanded that his disciples abandon their families and save all of their devotion for him and him alone – a rather narcissistic and not particularly family-centric expectation. Aside from seeming to be in direct contradiction to the commandment about honoring thy mother and father, abandoning spouses and children, while not against any commandments, still seems like a douchey thing to do, even 2,000 years ago.
5. Jesus’ dad was really not a nice guy. We all know that the bible is full of rape, murder, genocide, slavery, and every manner of atrocity – and not in a, “This is what our enemies do so don’t be like them” way, but in a “As long as you are one of mine, have at it” way. Then Jesus showed up and said, more or less, that the old laws still applied, and he wasn’t about to change them. Yes, he was willing to call out hypocrisy, and he did seem to care somewhat about social justice – at least with regard to poverty and leprosy – but otherwise he was still the enforcer of some rather distasteful rules. And don’t even get me started on Jesus being his own father – a concept that, in addition to being patently bizarre on its face, makes Jesus himself the very same god of the Old Testament that Christians like to dismiss as no longer relevant (except, of course, when it comes to hating gays).


6. Prayer is contradictory. We are told that god has a plan for everything, but then we are told to pray – for our loved ones to get better when they fall ill, for safety in the storm, for the home team to win the big game. Does that mean god will change his plan if you pray hard enough, or the right way, or get enough other people to pray for the same thing? This seems to suggest that God doesn’t have much of a plan at all, since he’s apparently willing to simply do whatever gets the most prayers or favors those who ingratiate themselves the most or who have prayed the best – not to mention that it’s a rather arbitrary, even capricious, approach to human suffering. Further, people often say they pray for things like inner peace, strength, understanding, the solution to personal problems, etc. I don’t pray, but I do a lot of introspection in search of those same things, and then I do either what my conscience tells me is right or what my objectivity tells me has the best chance for the desired outcome. I suspect that people who pray end up doing more or less the same thing but attributing their conclusion to an outside agency – in which case, how strange is it to carve out your conscience, that innermost part of yourself, the very core of what makes you you, and say it isn’t you?
7. The bible doesn’t set the moral bar very high. Let’s face it: Don’t rape people, don’t own people, don’t hate people, and don’t hurt children are kind of no-brainers when it comes to morality. Our friend Jesus and his old man not only failed to make these things clear, but in many instances they encouraged, condoned, or commanded them. Sure, Jesus said a few things about loving your neighbor and being kind to strangers, but he also said that not believing in him was the worst offense a person could commit and that anyone who didn’t believe would burn in Hell for all eternity. And seriously, the Ten Commandments as a basis for all morality? Checking out your neighbor’s wife is worse than raping his daughter? Taking the lord’s name in vain is worse than owning slaves? Nice priorities. Add to this the fact that god himself does not follow his own rules, to which Christians usually respond that mere mortals cannot understand or judge the morality of god. But if the bible defines morality, and god has a different set of rules for himself than for humans, and we are not allowed to know or understand his rules except that we are expected to do as he says but not as he does, then how exactly does that provide any kind of moral baseline whatsoever?  For a group that loves to point fingers at atheists for supposed moral relativism, what could be more relative than that?
8. Christian love is rarely very loving. We hear a lot about Jesus’ love and god’s love and how god so loved the world that he gave his only son yada yada yada. We already covered the part about him not really giving up his son at all, and enough has been said by people smarter than I am about the questionable necessity of having a baby, leaving him be for 30 years, torturing him to death, and then bringing him back to life a few days later as a way of forgiving humanity instead of – oh, I don’t know, just saying “I forgive you.” We covered too that this supposed forgiveness isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if I’m still considered a sinner and an apostate and bound for hell for not believing. But if we set that part of the contradiction aside, how loosely are we defining love if we are applying it to the bible? “I love you so much that I will torture and murder my own son as a symbol of something I could just give you without the bloodbath. I love you so much that I will reward you with an eternity in heaven, but you have to suffer and die in this world first. Salvation is yours, so long as you swear your devotion to me and only me. And believe what I say even if it sounds like nonsense because I told you to. And admit that deep down you are a rotten piece of garbage who doesn’t really deserve my love. And if you don’t do all of these things you will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity. But seriously, I love you.”
9. Terrible things happen to good people. A quarter of a million people died in the tsunami of 2006. Twenty first graders and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook. People die of starvation, are killed by war and disease, are raped or beaten by people who have power over them, and suffer in countless other ways. If there is an omniscient, omnipotent god who is also loving, as Christians would have us believe, why do these things happen? Why do children suffer and die? Why are there droughts and floods and famines and pestilences and earthquakes and wars? Why couldn’t god just make people nice? Why create natural disasters? Why didn’t he set forth better, clearer rules to eliminate ambiguity about how we are supposed to treat each other? God either intervenes or he doesn’t; god is either omnipotent or he isn’t. If he does and he is, then suffering exists because god intends for it to be that way. If he doesn’t and he isn’t, then he isn’t in control of anything, including the minutiae of how we live our daily lives. How is either a god worthy of worship?
10. It’s all just way too convenient. Got what you prayed for? He answered your prayers. Praise Jesus! Didn’t get it? He has another plan. Praise Jesus! Don’t have the answers? You’re not meant to. Praise Jesus! Figured out the answer? He chose you. Praise Jesus! Sad about the deaths of your loved ones? They’re in a better place. Praise Jesus! Sad about how much your life sucks? You’ll be happy once you’re dead. Praise Jesus! Honestly, when the answer to every question is exactly the thing that makes you feel best / most comforted / least in need of using your own intellect, should that not send up a huge red flag that maybe you’re not being completely objective?

I am not, of course, the first person to make these observations, and no doubt there are many who have made them better. But as someone who has lived an entire life without religion, the exercises of engaging apologists, philosophizing, or running ontological obstacle courses seem – perhaps naively, but seem nonetheless – to be almost beside the point when the most basic premises of religious belief are so deeply flawed and, not to put too fine a point on it, rather ridiculous. These irreconcilable contradictions explain a lot about why religious indoctrination is necessary at a very young age, and sadly, they explain a lot about why the world is in the sorry state it is: Because they make people adept at rationalizing the irrational, believing the unlikely, and justifying the immoral.

This article first appeared in Atheist Survival Guide in December 2014.