Atheist arguments

sculpture of two people discussing

It is almost a truism that atheists in western countries have ‘come out of the closet’, and are now enthusiastically pressing christians and other believers to recognise that their faith is unjustifiable. So what are the arguments they mostly use to support this conclusion?

Over the past 6 years, I have engaged in discussions with hundreds of atheists, and have heard the same arguments many times. Here are some of the most common.

Something’s not right

  • Evil and suffering
  • Evil in the Old Testament
  • Evil committed by the church

These three arguments try to show that evil and suffering are incompatible with God existing. While we can explain some level of evil and suffering by people abusing our God-given free will, it is hard to explain why God allows gross evil and extreme suffering (see How can God allow evil? for a brief outline of these issues, and God and evil for a more detailed look). The argument about the Old Testament says little about the existence of a God, but does create difficulties for those who hold a particular view of God (which includes many christians). The argument from the church is often based on bad history, is impossible to evaluate fairly, and says more about the propensity of all people to do evil when in a position of power than it says about God.

These arguments (as a group) probably have more force than any of the others.

Arguments from science

  • Science defeats faith
  • The big bang could have turned out differently
  • The inhospitable universe

The first argument simply asserts that science is gradually showing religious belief to be wrong and unnecessary, the second queries how God could have ‘taken a chance’ that the big bang had unfolded differently, while the third argues that if God had really created the universe, more of it would be inhabitable. If these were put in the form of a formal argument, with premises and conclusions, I don’t think a strong argument could be constructed from any of them.

God is an incoherent idea

These arguments seem to be favoured by more philosophically-minded atheists. They take the form of attempting to show that two characteristics of God (as defined by most theists) are in fact incompatible – e.g. omniscience & omnipotence; omniscience & moral perfection; just & merciful; non-physical & personal. But the arguments depend on particular forms of the definitions of these characteristics and a claim that we time-bound, physical, weak beings are able to know what it would be like to be omniscient, all-powerul, eternal, etc, and thereby to define what God can or can’t do. The arguments are (I think) easily met, and few theists would lose any sleep over them.

Hard to take seriously ….

  • Flying Spaghetti Monster, celestial teapots & Thor
  • I just believe in one less gods than you
  • There is no evidence for the supernatural
  • Who designed the designer?

These arguments and claims are commonly made, especially on the internet, but they all rest on unproven assumptions and misunderstandings. The first three only apply to a believer who has no reason to believe, just faith – but despite common atheist claims to this effect, this is almost never true of christians, whose belief is based on historical evidence. The fourth argument is based on both scientific and philosophical misunderstandings.

Why is God so hidden?

This seems to be a strong reason among many who were once believers but have now given up their belief. They simply think that if God exists, he should make his existence clearer, and they cannot believe unless he does. One can understand their wish, but they seem unwilling to (i) recognise that, for many people, God is very evident in their experience, (ii) consider the reasons that believers give for this state of affairs, or (iii) accept the situation they find themselves in and base their beliefs on the evidence we have.

Sometimes people seem to present this view as a way of keeping the thought of God at a distance, but other times it seems like a real cry from the heart.

Check out the arguments

Have a look at these arguments and my assessment in more detail, plus check out some references, in Atheist arguments.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

12 Comments

  1. That’s a nice overview and I think I agree with your assessment. Anyway, I was wondering what you think of the argument that’s been gaining popularity in non-theist sections of the web, the OTF.

  2. It seems to me that the Outsider Test for Faith is merely a fancy way of saying that we need to try to be objective when we make an assessment of the evidence to believe, otherwise we may choose to believe something that is untrue just because it is familiar. And of course most of us know that already.

    There would be christians who say we should just believe in faith, but few mean that we should ignore evidence, for they surely accept the historical evidence for Jesus and the resurrection. There are probably some who don’t even care about that evidence, and I guess the OTF has something to say to them, but they wouldn’t listen to it anyway.

    But sometimes the OTF is used way beyond its reasonable scope to argue that no christian should believe, because faith is clearly inherited rather than chosen of evidential grounds. But christianity is growing fastest in non-christian countries where it is less likely to be inherited, and declining in western countries where it is most likely to be inherited, so that argument fails the evidence test.

    The OTF is being pushed by a few people, but I haven’t found many atheists using it.

  3. I looked at your reference but didn’t read it all. I was interested that a number of people are quoted as believing the OTF is important, whereas I haven’t seen much interest in it. What did you find interesting (apart from the fact that someone was using the OTF in the opposite direction from how it was intended)?

  4. It was mostly his criticism of agnosticism as the default position that I found good. That is actually part of his mirroring act, but I found it quite convincing regardless (and I don’t think there’s a single suitable outsider position).

    Aside that, I think he did a good job to demonstrate how malleable the criteria are. I wouldn’t accept the reverted OTF as a good argument for Christianity so wouldn’t use it in apologetics, but it surely tackled many issues with the original OTF.

  5. “I don’t think a strong argument could be constructed from any of them.”

    Well, you wouldn’t , of course. But this doesn’t mean that a strong arguement could not be constructed, merely you don’t think it could.
    Hardly seems worth stating the obvious, but this would be the view of any Christian/believer, surely?

    “These arguments and claims are commonly made, especially on the internet, but they all rest on unproven assumptions and misunderstandings.”
    And the claim that your god exists has been proven has it? A tad arrogant, wouldn’t you say?

  6. “Well, you wouldn’t , of course. “
    Interesting comment Akhenaten, but mistaken. I assessed more than a dozen atheist arguments, and I concluded that two of them had force, and the remaining did not – which showed that it wasn’t as you inferred. I wonder whether you would be similarly open-minded about any theistic arguments?

    “And the claim that your god exists has been proven has it? A tad arrogant, wouldn’t you say?”
    Probably would be – but I have never made it. So hopefully you can’t pin that arrogance rap on me! : )

    But what about you Akhenaten? You seem to be a bit angry here – is that so? If so, why? Best wishes.

  7. “Probably would be – but I have never made it. So hopefully you can’t pin that arrogance rap on me! : )”

    Sorry? Are you serious? You haven’t made the claim that your God exists? Really?
    Then forgive me if I have missunderstood; are you not a Christian, (reborn/born again?) and do you not believe that Jesus was/is God?

  8. Ah…semantics. Well, now.
    So you are saying that it has not been proven that Jesus existed. Yes I concur. It has not been proven.
    Yet you believe. Interesting.

  9. Akhenaten, there comes a time when all good things come to an end – and an even earlier time when not so good things must end.

    Either you are simply joking about all this stuff you are saying or you forget what you say from one post to the next. Take this sequence (my italics for emphasis).

    1. Akhenaten: “And the claim that your god exists has been proven has it? A tad arrogant, wouldn’t you say?”

    2. unkleE: “Probably would be – but I have never made it. So hopefully you can’t pin that arrogance rap on me! : )”

    3. Akhenaten: “You haven’t made the claim that your God exists? Really?”

    4. unkleE: “The word I never used was “proven”.”

    5. Akhenaten: “So you are saying that it has not been proven that Jesus existed. Yes I concur. It has not been proven. Yet you believe. Interesting.”

    Do you notice how you jumped from “proven” and “arrogant” in #1 to “claim” in #3 And from “God in #1 to “Jesus” in #5, even though I never mentioned Jesus? Isn’t it interesting that you cannot even read my comments of a few sentences and get them right, yet you claim to be able to “see through” the work of thousands of expert scholars?

    Isn’t it further interesting that you dismiss the work of scholars on the basis of bias, without offering any evidence, yet you assume that if I don’t have “proof” of God then it is strange that I believe at all? And that you don’t seem to understand that in this life only logic and maths can be “proven”, whereas all the rest, including science, and including christian belief, is based on our assessment of the preponderance of evidence, not “proof”? That’s why scientific results are always subject to change – if they were proven, then they couldn’t ever be changed.

    I have tried to be patient and to welcome your opinions, and you are still welcome to comment. But if you can’t do better than that, then please don’t clutter up my blog.

    Thanks and best wishes.

  10. Clutter up your blog? I would have thought you would have welcomed any sort of response considering how few there are?
    “I have tried to be patient…” Good grief, the patronising tone!

    You wish to be disingenious, so be it. You wish to use semantics to attempt to make a point? Good for you.

    If you believe that Jesus is God but state it has not been
    proven then the case against Jesus being God is just as valid.
    Probably more so if you, a christian, express tacit doubt.

    And if maths and logic are the only things provable then logic dictates the preponderance of dubious – and in many case downright fraudulant – evidence would lead one to the conclusion that Ehrman may well be correct in his assessment of an historical Jesus but a divine one is so implausible as to make it completely untenable; thus your faith rests solely on this.

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