What is the Purpose of Atheist Apologetics?

Over the years, I have seen a lot of skeptical arguments against the Christian faith.  There are plenty of websites who are written by people who claim to be former Christians who now have made it their life purpose to ‘disprove’ Christianity. What are the similarities between the purpose of these atheist websites and the Christian apologetic endeavor? As I have already said before, in Introducing Apologetics: Cultivating Christian Commitment by James Taylor, Taylor lists three kinds of people who we will encounter. If anything, if we encounter people in these categories, we should see why we need apologetics in the Church. Taylor says when dealing with people, many people may fall into various categories such as:

1. Critics: those with criticisms of the Christian faith who are not open to the possibility of its truth. Critics need to be answered to neutralize the effects of their criticisms on seekers and doubters.

2. Seekers: people who are open to our faith but are prevented from making a commitment primarily because of honest questions about the Christian claims.

3. Doubters: are Christians who find it difficult to believe one or more tenants of the Christian faith with complete confidence. Doubters need to be restored to full Christian conviction by giving them the tools to remove their doubts.

When it comes to evaluating these atheist websites and their criticisms it is clear these people mostly fall under category #1. They are mostly critics. And they are providing the info for people that have become atheists or are possibly seekers and doubters. Some of them clearly want to turn doubters into #1’s and join the fight against eradicating the Christian faith and religion in general. My friend Tom Gilson has written an excellent article called The Strangely Simple World of Internet Atheism.

What are the similarities between the purpose of these atheist websites and the Christian apologetic endeavor?

First, both have issues of confirmation bias. If someone is a critic (see above), and says that God must not exist or that miracles are not possible, in many cases they will seek out evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and dismiss evidence that might challenge or overturn their position.  Likewise, if someone presupposes that God does exist, they will seek evidence to support such a claim as well. The one thing I have noticed about atheists (and those that adhere to metaphysical naturalism) is that they are only permitted to look for natural causes. Theists are permitted to look for two kinds of causes-both natural and non-natural.

I don’t want to give the impression that this means there is no objectivity involved here. But in many cases, the bias and starting points are the same. Both parties are looking for evidence for their position and they cite books and articles to back up their points. Also, both sides can tend to dismiss each other when they cite an authority on some given topic because the authority doesn’t share the same worldview or position on the topic.

A small example is needed here: go to any atheist website and you will see the same list for the Jesus mysticism position (e.g, Robert Price, Richard Carrier, Dan Barker, Earl Doherty, etc). When Bart Ehrman came out with his book on the existence of Jesus, this list of mythers and their followers trashed it because it challenged instead of confirming their position on mythicism.

Why Atheist Apologetics?

In regards to this topic there is one thing I have thought about a lot. Theism has a clear teleology which is the belief in or the perception of purposeful development toward an end, as in nature or history. Many atheists adhere to a naturalistic worldview which has no teleology. In other words, humans are a blind cosmic accident who came from a process that has no meaning, no purpose, no goal, no directions. Therefore, teleology has a goal in mind and evolution has been seen to run down dead ends many, many times. As Richard Dawkins says:

Humans have always wondered about the meaning of life…life has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of DNA…life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference-Scheff, Liam. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion. Salvo, 2:94.

Recently, Wintery Knight posted this on his blog:

“If you love to listen to the Please Convince Me podcast, as I do, then you know that in a recent episode, J. Warner Wallace mentioned a blog post on an atheistic blog that clearly delineated the implications of an atheistic worldview. He promised he was going to write about it and link to the post, and he has now done so.

Here is the whole the whole thing that the atheist posted:

“[To] all my Atheist friends.

Let us stop sugar coating it. I know, it’s hard to come out and be blunt with the friendly Theists who frequent sites like this. However in your efforts to “play nice” and “be civil” you actually do them a great disservice.

We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time. They served some purpose in the past. They got us here. That’s it. All human achievement and plans for the future are the result of some ancient, evolved brain and accompanying chemical reactions that once served a survival purpose. Ex: I’ll marry and nurture children because my genes demand reproduction, I’ll create because creativity served a survival advantage to my ancient ape ancestors, I’ll build cities and laws because this allowed my ape grandfather time and peace to reproduce and protect his genes. My only directive is to obey my genes. Eat, sleep, reproduce, die. That is our bible.

We deride the Theists for having created myths and holy books. We imagine ourselves superior. But we too imagine there are reasons to obey laws, be polite, protect the weak etc. Rubbish. We are nurturing a new religion, one where we imagine that such conventions have any basis in reality. Have they allowed life to exist? Absolutely. But who cares? Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me. Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife.

I know it’s not PC to speak so bluntly about the ramifications of our beliefs, but in our discussions with Theists we sometimes tip toe around what we really know to be factual. Maybe it’s time we Atheists were a little more truthful and let the chips fall where they may. At least that’s what my genes are telling me to say.”

And Cornell University atheist William Provine agrees: (this is taken from his debate with Phillip E. Johnson)

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

So here’s my point: I ask atheists why they get so much meaning and purpose in trying to disprove Christianity? Look at the comments Dawkins and others make. What kind of certitude do atheists have about this issue? In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria:

(1) It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

(2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

A judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

So are we to understand that as we look at what Dawkins and others say, atheists have arrived to certitude and now they need to go out and convert people to this worldview? As I repeat again, by their own worldview, they have no purpose, goals, etc. But now they say they can create their own meaning. However, while skeptics/atheists can say they can create their own meaning, let’s think about this: If they want to claim they are the beacons of rationality and objectivity, they need to admit they have a gaping hole in their worldview and apologetic endeavor. I am also aware that some atheists view religion or Christian theism as some sort of threat to society. But as far as this issue, there has been enough written about the benefits of Christianity to the world. Jonathan Hill’s What Has Christianity Ever Done For Us? or An Atheist Defends Religion by author Bruce Sheiman are good starting points.

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12 thoughts on “What is the Purpose of Atheist Apologetics?

  1. chab123 August 25, 2013 / 2:07 am

    No, I did not read your post. But I knew your blog address looked familiar since one of your disciples has copied and pasted your posts (without giving you credit) and also sent me some of your other links to read. But other than that, I haven’t spent much time on your blog. And I had posted a post by Nick Peters about the minimal facts issue a ways back ( I guess you and he are going to have a debate soon).

    As far as a non theists’ motives being that one might make arguments against religion is a perceived harm to humans and society there has been enough written about the benefits of Christianity to the world. Jonathan Hill’s What has Christianity ever done for us? or An Atheist Defends Religion by author Bruce Sheiman are good starting points.

    Motivation is goal-orientated? Okay, so your motivation leads to a moral obligation to do atheist apologetics because you think religion is harmful for the world? In other words, when you say “You ought” to do atheist apologetics because that is a moral duty? A moral duty encompasses both a proposition and a command; both are features of minds. But based on a naturalistic worldview, whatever is there IS right. In other words, the descriptive element is there. But there is prescriptive aspect here which is missing. It is a challenge to make the leap from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought.’

    Notice I said that an atheist can go ahead and create their own purpose or motivations. But that doesn’t get rid of the problem with trying to be consistent in their worldview (such as a metaphysical naturalist).

  2. oiscarey April 8, 2014 / 5:38 pm

    Natural selection has designed our brains to have motivations. Our brain are designed to assert things like I ought to eat, I ought to go exploring, I ought to reproduce. Our brains have also been designed to have a concern for the wellbeing of conscious creatures, as we experience the suffering of others as our own. In this manner our brain tells us that we ought not to rape people, or to keep them as slaves. This is the innate morality in us that has been designed by evolution.

    This innate morality does not require logical justification because it is simply a fact of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, however morality is logically justified by the mathematics of positive sum games, which show that one player benefits most when all of the players of the game work towards ends that reward every player. If everyone abides by the stricture ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, everyone is better off, simple as.

    God is not a requirement for any of this.

  3. chab123 April 9, 2014 / 9:22 pm

    Oiscarey,

    You seem to confusing the is/ought divide here. You may like Massimo Pigliucci’s comments from a ways back in his article to his skeptics called The Community of Reason, a self-assessment and a manifesto -here: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-community-of-reason-self-assessment.html

    In it, he addresses the issues whether science can answer moral questions. He says :No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless.” As I already said above,

    Based on a naturalistic worldview, whatever is there IS right. In other words, the descriptive element is there. But there is prescriptive aspect here which is missing. It is a challenge to make the leap from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought..In the end, I think that natural selection doesn’t explain where moral obligations come from. Natural selection can only account for preprogrammed behavior, which doesn’t qualify as morality. The evolutionary explanation reduces morality to descriptions of conduct.

    I also don’t understand how the following comments answers the issue: “But its a fact we have evolved a capacity to make moral judgments”. As a theist, I could justify the existence of God by noting that evolutionary psychology suggests we have evolved a capacity to believe in and worship deities.

    • oiscarey April 10, 2014 / 1:50 am

      Chab123:

      “I think that natural selection doesn’t explain where moral obligations come from. Natural selection can only account for preprogrammed behavior, which doesn’t qualify as morality. The evolutionary explanation reduces morality to descriptions of conduct.”

      I think you ought to do some reading of evolutionary psychology and the origins of morality before making a knowledge claim about the veracity of a whole field of science. Natural selection can account for more than programmed behaviour, it accounts for our emotions and motivational systems that dictate how we learn and react to situations.

      If evolutionary psychology gave a full account of the nature of human motivations, it could in principle make prescriptive claims about how best to fulfil these motivations. These core motivations would be genetic, not open to question, but there could be many equivalent answers without the science being made ineffective. All oughts can be reduced to is statements if you ask “Why?” for long enough, and this includes human values and morality. Check out Sam Harris on the Moral Landscape for more on the philosophy of naturalistic morality.

      • chab123 April 10, 2014 / 1:55 am

        Nope, Sam Harris on the Moral Landscape is the probably the last reason to think science can give us moral obligations. See the link I left by Massimo Pigliucci. He addresses the issues whether science can answer moral questions. He says “No, science can inform moral questions, but moral reasoning is a form of philosophical reasoning. The is/ought divide may not be absolute, but it is there nonetheless.” And the position Harris takes on determinism really hurts his position.

        You sound as if you have certitude about this issue. To be that confident from what Harris has proposed is quite sad. Please read the critics of his book. Anyway, so I am to understand that natural selection has given you the moral obligation to do participate in atheist apologetics?

      • oiscarey April 10, 2014 / 9:11 am

        Chab 123:

        I don’t see that any reason has been offered to doubt my account for morality except that Massimo Pigliucci disagrees with me for unspecified reasons (is he an authority?). Can you please explain where am ought appears in what I have said about morality and human motivation?

        I am not an atheist, that was an assumption on your part. Natural selection has provided me with a brain that has a concern for the wellbeing of others, and also a desire to understand the universe, so I argue to test my beliefs and to try to help others test theirs.

      • chab123 April 10, 2014 / 2:42 pm

        He ia an authority on that topic. Anyway:

        If humans are products of Darwinian natural selection, ideas arise in the human brain by chance, just like Darwin’s chance variations in nature; and the ones that stick around to become firm beliefs and convictions are those that give an advantage in the struggle for survival. Darwin said, “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals are of any value or are even trustworthy.” Natural selection and evolution is interested in fitness and survival but not true beliefs. Knowledge is a belief that is true and is warranted or properly accounted for. In other words, knowledge excludes beliefs that are just true accidentally. If naturalistic evolution were responsible for our beliefs and we think that we happened to believe that naturalistic evolution were true, then this would of come about by accident. We would hold accidentally true beliefs. So I wonder how natural section gives you true moral beliefs. It is fitness aimed, rather than truth aimed.

      • oiscarey April 10, 2014 / 3:55 pm

        Chan123:

        Natural selection does not provide one with beliefs, moral or otherwise, it provides us with motivational systems, emotions and learning mechanisms.

        Moral beliefs arise from our motivational systems concerning how to behave socially. We have been designed to think that harming others is bad, we believe this because the harm of others harms us and makes us fear for our safety.

        You are correct, our brains have been designed to come to beliefs that help us survive, even if the belief itself isn’t true. Our moral beliefs are about how humans ought to behave socially, e.g. you ought not to beat children when teaching them, or you ought not to rape people. Since morality is about suffering and well-being, in this case the ought is a translation for “these things hurt people, and this hurts all humans”.

        For our moral beliefs to be wrong, we need to be wrong about how these actions make humans feel, so if beating children in school resulted in them ending up happier and more knowledgeable later in life then we could say we were wrong about our moral belief because it necessitated that the action harms humans rather than helps them.

        Your use of the word “accident” when talking about the results of natural selection displays a profound lack of insight into what it is and how it works. If I get a pack of wolves and selectively allow only the friendly ones to mate, it would not be an accident that after many generations the offspring would be virtually identical to dogs and be unable to mate with wolves. If the environment similarly caused the friendly wolves in one area to be more successful at mating, it would not be an accident that they develop a concern for the wellbeing of other creatures, a concern their ancestors lacked. Accidents in natural selection happen in mutations, or else in concurrence with other selection pressures like sexual or synthetic selection, like the gene for ginger hair.

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