Monthly Archives: October 2012

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How Not to be a Bad Atheist

In this great skeptical movement of ours we have had the opportunity to grow complacent. Of course, being the enlightened intellectuals that we are, we have not squandered this opportunity. Here are some problems I have with public skeptics I’ve watched.

1. Regarding Logical Fallacies

So you took a Logic class and you are now entitled to win arguments, I understand. But the point of those informal fallacies you learned was not to be able to relate them in the middle of a conversation and expect your opponent to understand your jargon. Explain to them in the midst of your argument with a counterexample, do not simply accuse them. The ultimate fallacy is strange idea that the first one to mention fallacy wins the argument. For example, if someone calls you an asshole, which if you’re like me is not at all a rare occurrence, do not say “Hah! That, my mere plebeian opponent, is an Ad Hominem informal fallacy. Had you been considerate enough to memorize that section of our textbook, you would be qualified to continue this conversation, but seeing as you are unfit, I will have to claim this verbal challenge for myself!” Instead, agree with them as you are, in fact, an asshole! But then go on to say “but I don’t know what that has to do with the efficacy of duct tape in improving survival rates of patients with gunshot wounds in the neck!” In doing so you explain to the commoner what an Ad Hominem is, without risking associating yourself with those amateurish logicians who apply their informal fallacy education as if it was a weapon.

2. Regarding Gender

So you’ve come out of the metaphorical closet of atheism and stepped into the literal light of day. Suddenly a new creature appears, a female who dares speak her mind in public! Worse yet, you’re attracted to her! Now, before you criticise feminism with your newfound skeptic methods in order to impress her, consider the facts for yourself, on your own time. Otherwise you risk making unintentionally controversial statements. How can you explain your problems with the theory of Patriarchy if your audience is busy criticizing your use of pronouns?! But there is another audience I’d like to address on this matter. Atheist feminists. Take it easy on us. Many of us are trying not to be sexist, and agree with many of the sentiments of feminism. Being a part of a disenfranchised group does not put you above criticism. The most common manifestation of this silly glorification of disenfranchisement occurs with the phrase “as a…”. For example: “as a woman, I think I better understand the irreparable damage an immature atheist can cause to my gender, and thus conclude that anyone who makes such blunders must be burned on a suitably phallic stake.” Though I would applaud your sense of irony, I would remind you that your argument from authority is everyone’s least favorite valid form. Because I said so.

3. Regarding Defining Atheism

Atheists are people who do not believe in God. That’s it. Don’t try to ascribe additional progressive goals to them. It is possible to be a sexist atheist. Don’t go around arguing what atheists should or shouldn’t do, by arrogantly titling your blog posts things like “How to be a Good Atheist” or presumptuously assuming your atheist audience will be interested in your advice about relating to the minority of public atheists. Even though atheism can and should serve as a platform for additional progressive discussion, we should not try to insist anything but disbelief should be a part of “real atheism.” Thanks for your time.

-Luke Smithems

Opinion

Common Arguments, Refuted: the Cosmological Argument

Hello all,

This is the second in a series of posts deconstructing and refuting some common arguments in favor of theism, religion, faith, etc. This article will feature the so-called “cosmological argument.” The cosmological argument, also called the First Cause argument, goes way back. It was employed by both Plato (in Laws, book 10, his longest dialogue) & Aristotle, and by Thomas Aquinas. A version of this argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, is favored by theologian William Lane Craig.

The argument goes something like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

Put another way,

  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. A causal loop cannot exist.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.

The current understanding of science holds that spacetime began to exist when the universe began to exist. It is meaningless to ask what came “before” the Big Bang, in the same sense that it is meaningless to ask what’s “south” of the South Pole. The concept of “before” didn’t logically exist “before” the existence of time itself, so we needn’t concern ourselves with what came “before” our universe. As Stephen Hawking famously said, “Anything that happened before the Big Bang could not affect what happened after.”

There are several reasons the cosmological argument doesn’t hold water. I think the easiest comes from the particle physicist Victor Stenger, who wrote the wonderful books God: The Failed Hypothesis and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed For Us. The error in reasoning can be summarized in five words 5 words: The first premise is false. According to Stenger, quantum physics tells us that something CAN come from nothing, so the entire idea that everything that begins to exist must have a cause is just plain wrong.

This premise is an example of a bare assertion, a statement unsupported by evidence. This is something for which, as skeptics, we need to watch out in general. If someone presents an assertion to you, especially as a basis for a set of premises, we need to take a moment to ask, “How do you know that?”

As with most of these arguments, this is really an argument for deism, or at best theism, not Christianity or any god or gods in particular. If you find yourself in a debate about Christianity or any particular religion or god, make sure to drive home this point: This is a (piss-poor) argument for deism—belief in a creator entity, whether still extant or not—not an argument for theism or any particular god. If someone tries to tell you that something can’t come from nothing, therefore Jesus, remind them that this is a non sequitur. It is no better than arguing “something can’t come from nothing, therefore Brahman,” or any other creator entity.

I’m reminded of the wonderful Sidney Harris cartoon, which I will not reproduce here for copyright reasons but which you can google if you’d like (try “Sidney Harris miracle math cartoon”): Two mathematicians are standing at a chalkboard with some complicated figures, and in the second of three deductive steps, it simply says, “Then a miracle occurs.” The one mathematician says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two.”

If someone cannot tell you how they know something, there’s a good bet that they’re bullshitting you. Sometimes the right answer is, “I don’t know, but very smart people are working on that.” For me, that sums up anything we could ever want to know about the “god question,” and it’s why I’m an agnostic atheist.

Until next time,

Dave