Is there any one thing that, above everything else, that separates an atheist from a god-believer?
It is always dangerous to make generalizations, and equally dangerous to try and reduce the complexities of differing worldviews to any one single factor. This is certainly true when examining the differences between atheists and theists. Much ink and much emotion-based rhetoric, particularly from the devoutly religious, has ensued from this question. The views of the atheist community are rarely heard, so this article will attempt to address the situation.
When someone asks me why I am an atheist, I usually respond in the same way, telling them that atheism is the only honest, rational, and moral position for me to hold. I did not come to these words easily, and each of these three factors seems equally important to me. They are inter-related; here we will briefly examine the rational and moral components before focusing on the issue of honesty.
Theists, like atheists, will attempt to use logic in support of their belief in a god. Invariably, logic is a last resort with most believers; fear, guilt and intimidation always supersede logic. To be sure, theistic logic is based on rationalizing rather than rationality (as discussed in another pamphlet) but, so long as it serves their purposes, believers will employ reason if they think it benefits them. When their rationalizations fail them, as they logically must, they will resort to faith, spirituality, or something else which they think will enable them to escape the consequences of being irrational (or, more properly, anti-rational). The introduction of these issues is tantamount to admitting that they cannot give any concrete evidence that their god exists outside of their own minds.
Let us first examine the issue of rationality. No believer, since the beginning of time, has ever been able to explain exactly what their deity is. Invariably, they will wax poetic on all the wonderful traits this deity is said to possess and of all the wondrous things they think he does, but when it comes to actual descriptions and definitions by essentials, they are conspicuously silent. Simply put, they cannot point to the existence of anything outside of their own minds. If a god exists, it must possess identity, meaning that no faith should be necessary to prove its existence; objective truth is the only real truth. To possess identity is our way of distinguishing truth from falsehood, and no believer has ever been able to concretely describe god’s identity, meaning just what he actually is. Subjective truth is a contradiction in terms; it simply means that the person arguing in this way has no way of proving his case. He/she wants it to be true, therefore, they think it is true. This is an infantile way of looking at the world: If something is indeed true, it is true for everyone and in the same way. Numerous books have been written attempting to “prove” the existence of a god, but all fail at this most basic level; they cannot describe their god in any kind of concrete terms. Many will attempt to get off the hook by “describing” their god as the creator of the universe, but this is a disingenuous way of changing the question from “what is god” to “what did god do.” Saying their god created the universe without first describing what their god is means they are putting the cart before the horse. As most of us learned in third grade, every action must have a qualifying noun. Perhaps religious apologists all managed to miss third grade! Until a believer can point to anything outside his/her imagination, atheists have no need to take their arguments seriously. God cannot rationally exist, and no amount of subjective faith can bring him into existence.
With regards to morality, it is certainly true that most theists, like most atheists, do not go around committing crimes and creating mayhem. The motivations, however, are quite different. Atheists, who proportionally to the general population have a much lower prison presence than believers, recognize that humans cannot rely on non-existent sugar daddies in the sky to rescue humanity from its self-created problems. For believers, their motives are more self-serving; trying to score brownie points from their god in order to get to heaven is the lowest common denominator determining theistic behavior. They inadvertently reveal this when they wonder how an atheist can be moral without belief in a god. The atheist, knowing how much blood has historically been spilled in the name of god and religion, asks how anyone can be moral with a belief in god.
We have seen how rationality and morality are incompatible with religious belief. That leaves honesty. It is my contention that belief in a god is inherently dishonest for a number of reasons. One of these we have already noted, namely that believers, when rational arguments fail them, will usually respond along the lines of “well, you just have to have faith.” This is intellectual dishonesty of a most egregious nature. Faith cannot make an untrue statement true.
Faith then, is diametrically opposed to reason; one never speaks of having faith that the traffic light will soon change. It is only when one believes in something either without supporting evidence, or, more commonly, in defiance of existing contrary evidence that one introduces faith into the discussion. Thus faith is, by its very nature, anti-rational and intellectually dishonest. Anyone who insists that they have faith in their god, or in anything else, is tacitly admitting that they cannot prove what they want to believe, and are not about to be dissuaded from that belief, no matter how compelling the refuting argument may be. Any evidence that contradicts what they want to believe will either be ignored, dismissed as unimportant, or else rationalized away. The wise atheist, at this point, will refuse to discuss the issue further; if the theist believes in god on faith rather than reason, then they are certainly not about to be dissuaded from their beliefs by reason. Honesty is based on openness and a willingness to consider viewpoints that contradict one’s own, and, should the contrary evidence be convincing, discard their previous beliefs.
Faith then is a strong example of how intellectual dishonesty is at the heart of all religious belief. No matter how honest the individual believer may be in other areas of his/her intellectual life, when religion comes into play, he/she is committing intellectual treason by making a leap of faith; they are tacitly admitting that their beliefs cannot stand critical scrutiny and need some kind of crutch. Objectively reading religious literature will show the ubiquitous presence of dishonesty and verbal sleight-of-hand. Right-wing Christian politicians likewise show egregious dishonesty in their attempts to introduce legislation favorable to the Christian religion at the expense of everyone else. Moreover, whenever atheists discuss this issue with believers, in almost every case the latter will eventually disclose a fundamental unconcern with truth. For example, they will attempt to excuse their god’s inactivity for failing to prevent a given catastrophe from occurring by saying something to the effect that “god will make it all right in his own good time.” Meanwhile, people are suffering and dying.
A good example of historical dishonesty is when believers point to the writings of the late first-century Jewish historian Josephus (c.37-100 CE) as proof of the historicity of Jesus Christ. Even though it has been known for over two hundred years that the one passage that refers to Jesus is a known forgery, probably introduced by the Christian writer Eusebius, this has little or no effect on Christians who will continue to maintain the veracity of this passage. This dishonesty is ubiquitously present in today’s Christian apologetics and in the writings and speeches of dishonest historical revisionists such as David Barton who continues to put words in the mouths of our Founding Fathers “proving” that this was intended to be a Christian nation. What is this if not intellectual dishonesty?
Many believers become somewhat hysterical when their beliefs are called into question. This is psychologically very revealing; people tend to become upset when they are unable to provide proof or evidence for something they want to believe to be true. Such behavior is a psychological manifestation of the dishonesty that believers must know, at some level, is at the heart of their faith. When we hear ridiculous rationalizations for the existence of a Supreme Being, we are witnessing dishonesty. When Christian writer David Barton, who became very popular in fundamentalist Christian circles back in the 1990s for his scandalously false quotes from our founding fathers, can emerge from his shame unscathed and remain as popular as ever at Christian Right conventions, we are witnessing dishonesty. When professional religious debaters supply quotes that are either false or else taken out of context in order to justify their position, we are witnessing dishonesty. When these same professionals engage in logical fallacies which any first year philosophy student would be able to recognize and refute, we are witnessing dishonesty. When the religious are not willing to focus on any given point raised by skeptics but instead insist on jumping around from issue to issue like water on a hot griddle in order to introduce confusion into the discussion, we are witnessing dishonesty. And when Christian writers deliberately falsify records in order to justify their beliefs, we are witnessing dishonesty of a most egregious kind. These and other examples of dishonesty are ubiquitous in the Christian community.
In my reading of Christian apologetics, I have noticed that last point in particular more often than I can remember. Consider for example Robert A. Morey’s 1986 book The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom. After complaining that “some atheists deliberately use deception to refute theism (pg. 87), Morey cites Nicholas Capaldi’s book The Art of Deception as “proof” of atheistic deception. Morey quotes page 117 of Capaldi’s book thusly: “Never admit defeat…” The only problem with this is that Capaldi doesn’t say it on this or on any other page in his book. Morey, not content with this obvious lie, goes further and attributes other false quotes to Capaldi, such as: “Refuse to be convinced. Even if you feel that he has a good argument and that your case is weaker, refuse to be convinced of your opponent’s case.” Nowhere does Capaldi advocate, as Morey has him doing, that atheists should “use any invalid or deceptive argument as long as it helps him (to) win his case.” Morey concludes this amazing series of lies and defamations of character by noting that his examples provide “a small sampling of the ‘dirty tricks’ methodology that seems to pervade modern atheism,” and that, as a consequence, “my personal experience has proven this makes rational debate with an atheist very difficult.” However, the tactics Morey describes are almost universally accepted strategies in the fundamentalist Christian community. It is not the non-religious, but the religious who are intellectually dishonest. Morey’s work alone should shame the religious community—assuming they possess an ounce of intellectual integrity.
Morey conveniently fails to mention that, in his introduction, Capaldi specifically points out that he is writing the book “from the viewpoint of one who wishes to deceive, mislead, or manipulate others” (pg. 12). His reason for this novel approach is that he thinks it makes his readers more able to recognize this strategy in others. While one may quarrel with this method, ignoring it altogether and instead giving false, out of context quotes, as Morey does, constitutes extreme intellectual dishonesty.
However, Morey thinks he has an “out.” There are no actual quotation marks on these alleged quotes. Yet, they are separated from the main text and page numbers are given, thus giving the appearance of being actual quotes. In addition, the use of ellipses also gives the definite impression that the citation is an actual quote rather than a paraphrase. The “dirty tricks” methodology that he attributes to atheists certainly applies to Robert Morey.
Simply put, most god-believers have too much emotional vested interest in maintaining their anti-rational beliefs to be dissuaded by rational argumentation. Although they will certainly not admit it, comfort is far more important to them than honesty and intellectual integrity. If not, the rationalization from faith never would have arisen in the first place. Nothing is more anxiety provoking than the notion that there is no god and nowhere to go after they die.
Thus, I contend that the atheist position is, by its very nature, an honest position. Our honesty allows us to critically examine all issues and weigh the evidence not on what we want to believe to be true, but rather on where the evidence leads us. And to tie this in with the issue of morality, morality begins with the truth, not with lies, cover-ups and evasions.
I therefore submit that the single most telling characteristic that distinguishes an atheist from a theist is honesty.
- The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom by Robert A. Morey. Published 1986 by Bethany House publishers, Minneapolis, Minnosota
- The Art of Deception by Nicholas Capaldi. Published 1987 by Prometheus Books, Buffalo New York
By: Jon Nelson