So, Bob Seidensticker over at Cross Examined is looking at a book by Andy Bannister criticizing some atheist arguments. Seidensticker is going to try to defend the arguments against those criticisms. The problem is that his defenses, at least so far, have been … weak to say the least.
In the first post, Seidensticker characterizes the book this way:
The tone is deliberately lighthearted, often to an extreme of silliness, though it was too full of insults for me to find it amusing. I can’t in one paragraph frisk in field of lavender clover with a miniature pink rhinoceros who plays show tunes through a calliope in its horn and farts cotton-candy-scented soap bubbles but then two paragraphs later be lectured that my arguments are embarrassing, “extremely bad,” or “disastrous.” The flippant tone got old fast.
So, presumably, we can be assured that Seidensticker will not be at all flippant and will use no insults. Hey, stop laughing!
Anyway, the first argument that Bannister addresses, in the first chapter (entitled ” The Loch Ness Monster’s Moustache”) is the atheist bus sign “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. Since I’m interested in arguments not in personal offense, I’ll ignore the discussion of its tone, and move straight on to the actual criticisms of the argument:
Bannister next asks, “What’s the connection between the non-existence of something and any effect, emotional or otherwise?” Do you complain about unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster not existing?
In a dozen places, Banister writes something like this that makes me wonder if he’s just not paying attention. No, we don’t complain about unicorns—they don’t exist, and they don’t cause problems. Christianity, on the other hand, does exist, and Christianity and Christians cause problems.
Sure, Christianity exists. What does that have to with god? In particularly with small “g” god. Sure, Seidensticker can argue that if he disproves the existence of the Christian God, then Christianity itself will collapse. Fine. Does that mean that all of Christianity’s problems will go along with it? Are the problems with Christianity caused by God? Or “god”? Seidensticker doesn’t say, and the bus ad doesn’t say, either. This becomes important later as Seidensticker tries to defend himself from the “Atheist leaders did bad things, too”:
Richard Dawkins lampooned this argument with this tweet: “Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein were evil, murdering dictators. All had moustaches. Therefore moustaches are evil.”
Yes, Stalin was a bad man, but why? Was it the mustache? Was it his atheism? No, Stalin was a dictator, and dictators don’t like alternate power structures like the church. Religion was competition, so Stalin made it illegal. They didn’t do anything in the name of atheism. Lack of a god belief is no reason to order that people be killed. (I expose the Stalin argument here and here.)
So … how many of the Christian leaders that did things “in the name of God” were really dictators using religion as a power base? Marxist communism itself famously refers to religion as “the opiate of the masses”, and history has proven that dictators are willing to use religious biases to grab and maintain power. We have many, many examples of dictators using religion to justify their having power, either by declaring that it was God’s will that they have it, or by insisting that they are the defenders of the faith, or whatever. If you can’t blame atheism for Stalin’s attacking religion — which is the rather odd stance Seidensticker is defending here — then how can you blame God for those other dictators?
This gets even worse when you realize that Marxist communism was, itself, explicitly anti-religious. The reason Stalin could get away with persecuting religions was because communist doctrine allowed for it. He thus used communist doctrine, if Seidensticker’s analysis is right, to remove a personal threat. In fact, pretty much all of Stalin’s atrocities were justified by appealing to communist doctrine (and, yes, backed up by overwhelming power). Stalin, then, used communist doctrine in much the same way as people have used Christian doctrine to justify their own specific qualities. And pretty much any philosophical worldview can be so abused. Thus, there is no reason to think that people accepting “There’s probably no god” will improve anything on this score.
So let me return to earlier in the post and see what these “harms” are supposed to be:
If you’re not causing problems, that’s great, but if you’re not aware of the problems, you’re also not paying attention. Christian adults live burdened with guilt. Christian children startle awake at a noise and wonder if this is the beginning of the imminent Armageddon. Christian homosexuals deny themselves romantic relationships to satisfy an absent god. This isn’t true for all Christians, of course, but imposing a worldview burdened with Bronze Age nonsense and informed by faith rather than evidence has consequences.
So, if people reject god — or, rather, “God” — they won’t be burdened with guilt? Presumably, if atheistic views of morality are correct and atheistic morality doesn’t just devolve into “Do whatever you want”, people will still want to do things that they shouldn’t, and thus will still do things they shouldn’t, and so will feel guilt. Children, whether Christian or not, will still startle awake at noises and fear something, be it monsters under the bed or the threat of nuclear war or that Trump will take their friends away — you don’t see too many liberals blaming liberal rhetoric for that one — or, well, any number of things. There will be people who will or will at least feel like they should deny themselves romantic relationships for various reasons. So these things will still happen. All that will change are the reasons for that. Seidensticker clearly feels that appealing to a “god” is the wrong reason. Fine. But then he’s no longer talking about the belief in god or God or whatever being bad because it causes those feelings or even because those things cause guilt but instead because it is for the wrong reason. And if that’s what he and the ad want to argue, go for it. But the actual argument in the ad is that if you accept that god probably doesn’t exist, then you’ll have a much better life. And unless Seidensticker wants to argue that atheists don’t have to worry about anything, there’s no evidence for that conclusion.
Bannister wants to highlight the problem with the slogan by proposing this variant: “There’s probably no Loch Ness Monster, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Imagine telling this to someone down on his luck, someone who’s been kicked around by fate. Would he be cheered by this new knowledge?
No, because the Loch Ness Monster has zero impact in anyone’s life. Remove Nessie’s non-existent impact from someone’s life and nothing has changed. But do I really have to explain that god belief has a big impact on many people? For example, the United States has a famously secular constitution, and Christians nibble at the edges like rats looking for ways to dismantle the its separation of church and state for their benefit. See the difference?
So, even here, the slogan only works for things that are being directly caused by a belief in god. Er, God. Seriously, Seidensticker spends all of his time talking about Christianity with a slogan — and from a basis — that denies all gods. Sure, the author is Christian, but pointing out problems that some Christians have and some forms of Christianity might cause is not helping the argument. At any rate, Bannister is right that the simplistic slogan won’t do anything for the person who has been kicked around by fate. In fact, a belief in God might make their lives better because they’d be able to appeal to God’s plan and accept it as being for a greater good. Sure, that might not be true … but so might be anything that Seidensticker might do to try to make them feel better about themselves and/or stop worrying and start enjoying their life. So for a number of cases — and likely, even the majority of cases — coming to understand that there’s probably no god won’t improve anyone’s life. In fact, for most people it might not matter one way or the other.
Seidensticker again appeals to things Christians are doing here, but again a) doesn’t link that to the lives of most people and b) even worse, judges it on what he thinks is right. Why does he claim that secularism really makes most people’s lives better and the Christian attempts worse? In short, why is it that he can say that Christians playing politics is bad but secularists playing politics is good (note that the Constitution does not separate Church and State as strongly as he’d like, and many, many other countries do not have that explicit separation and are doing fine)? Oh, right, because he thinks they’re wrong. Again, it’s not the results that matter, but the reasons that matter. And, again, if that’s what he meant, he really should just come out and say it.
Which he does, kinda:
First, I hope we can agree that it’s vital for us to see reality correctly. If there isn’t a god out there, best we figure that out, come to terms with it, and shape society in accord with that knowledge.
And you’re seriously wagging your finger at us to warn that our worldview has no beneficent Sky Daddy? Yes, we know—we’re atheists! It’s not like the heavens shower us with benefits that disbelief will shut off. God already does nothing for us now—that’s the point.
First, it’s too bad the slogan doesn’t say that, because then he could use that to defend it. Second, this is in response to Bannister essentially arguing that the belief in god can make people’s lives better, too, and so the atheist claim that people’s lives will improve if they stop believing in god doesn’t seem to hold. Again, Seidensticker can lean on “But god doesn’t exist!” to justify it … but that’s not what the slogan says. You can’t make an explicit appeal to “Your life will be subjectively better if you don’t believe in god!” and then retreat to “Well, god doesn’t exist anyway!” when someone challenges the idea that it really will be subjectively better.
Bannister laments, “The atheist bus advertisement illustrates the danger not just of poor arguments, but especially of argument by sound bite.”
This is coming from a Christian? Where some think that evolution is overturned by mocking it as “from goo to you via the zoo”? Where church signs have slogans like “How will you spend eternity—Smoking or Nonsmoking?”? Where emotion is the argument, not intellect? Get your own house in order first, pal.
So, his response to Bannister saying that it’s an argument by sound byte is essentially to say “Well, maybe it is … but you’re worse!”. This fails on multiple levels. First, he never argues that it isn’t one. Second, his response implicitly agrees that it is. Third, his argument is indeed a classic argument ad hominem, as it uses the fact that Bannister is a Christian to argue that he can’t argue against argument by sound byte, when there is no reason to think that Bannister himself specifically argues that way. Fourth, he’s given no evidence that Christianity does this in general, which is what he’s using to argue against Bannister’s argument against this specific one. Fifth, you can’t use that sort of general impression to refute a specific instance anyway. And finally, but most importantly, this entire post is about defending the bus ad as an argument, but the retreat and tacit acceptance of it as an argument by sound byte makes it impossible to defend it as an argument. So, at the end, Seidensticker ends up undermining the entire point of the post. Impressive.