The Three Arguments Against Atheism

No, I’m not going to refute atheism for you.

But over at edge.org, the conversation started at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference is continuing with a lively debate between Scott Atran and Sam Harris. A worthwhile read, but I want to focus on something Harris said near the closing of his rebuttal:

If there is an argument against “evangelical” atheists like Dawkins, Weinberg, and myself it must take one of these forms:

(1) Certain religious beliefs are true (or likely to be true); here’s why…
(2) Religious beliefs, while not likely to be true, are so useful that they are necessary; here’s the evidence…
(3) Many religious people are so irrational that it is simply too dangerous to criticize their beliefs. Please keep your mouth shut.

I thought this to be particularly insightful, because many of the arguments I run into these days are entirely tangential to the stratagems Harris lists. A short list of popular tangents:

  • Religious people are often good.
  • There are bad people who are/were atheists.
  • Economic and political circumstances drive people to do bad things.
  • Science cannot/has not answered all questions about origins/meaning.
  • It is impolite/impolitic to criticize others’ religion.
  • You don’t understand the religion(s) you are criticizing as deeply as the believers and/or scholars of that religion.
  • Atheists cannot disprove “God” (for some sufficiently vague definition of “God”.)

These points, in and of themselves, are not fallacies. Yet, granting every single one of them will not diminish by one iota the force of the arguments made against superstition and dogmatism in general, and religion in particular.

Unfortunately, many of these points are regularly trotted out not only by believers who seem to think they somehow bolster the case for faith, but also by well-meaning scientists and philosophers who envision a lasting détente between science and religion.

As I don’t see religion going away any time soon, I can see times and places where temporary détente might be a good thing. However, I believe that mollifying dogmatists is ultimately a losing strategy. Our world has been in dire need of voices like those of Dawkins and Harris who are willing to play bad cop to the chorus of Templeton Prize-contender good cops. Calling the good cops on the carpet for attacking such tangents as listed above is one major contribution to the conversation the bad cops make, as Harris does so eloquently in his rebuttal.

So if you want to attack the arguments (or tactics) of “evangelical” atheists, by all means do so. But do it right and go for the three points that Harris raises instead of the litany of straw men that really add nothing to your position.

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