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Austin Cline

Priest Presumes to Tell Atheists: Why You Don't Believe in God

By August 4, 2007

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Many religious believers simply refuse to believe what atheists say about themselves — especially when it comes to why they are atheists in the first place. This is, at least in part, an expression of extreme arrogance because such theists are presuming to know the heart and mind of the atheist even better than they know themselves. It's also an exceptional failure of basic moral imagination because it rejects the possibility of someone else looking at similar data and sincerely coming to a different conclusion.

It's difficult to even imagine, much less know, what to do about people like this and their gaucherie. If someone has already started out from a position of asserting that they know you, your mind, your motives, your emotions, and your ideas better than you do, then they are basically denying the possibility that they will ever take you or your arguments seriously enough to even contemplate the possibility of being wrong. The entire universe now revolves around their ideology: whatever doesn't appear to fit is rejected as unreal, including whatever objections you think to raise. We might plausibly label this a form of Religious Narcissism or Religious Solipsism.

Father Stephen Freeman, a bumptious Orthodox Priest in Tennessee, asserts that most people don't know why they don't believe in his god and so doesn't seem to think that believers need to listen to what atheists have to say about themselves. In place of sincerely listening to what atheists have to say, Father Stephen Freeman offers what he regards as the "real" reasons atheists don't believe in his god. Notice that he keeps using "we," indicating that he is presuming to speak for atheists as if he were one himself:

1. We do not believe in God because we are under delusion. We do not see the world as it truly is. We do not see ourselves as we truly are. Most importantly we do not see God as He truly is. ...Our hardness of heart makes our own knowledge poor and frequently deluded. We need to hear and learn from the knowledge of others.

We could replace "God" here with: fairies, elves, Thor, Odin, Apollo, Zeus, Bigfoot, etc. What would the difference be? The argument would be the same: people disbelieve because they don't see the truth. It's a tautology dressed up in a cheap suit so as to appear to sound like something insightful. It would be bad enough for Father Stephen Freeman to make such accusations about atheists in the third person, but by using the first person he is attributing to atheists a personal admission. This makes his statement hard to distinguish from a lie.

2. We do not believe in God because we have substituted false definitions for the true revelation of God.

If we do not believe in any gods, don't apply any definitions to "God". Atheists let believers define what they mean when they use the "god" label and, if it's coherent, we can explain why it's unreasonable to believe that such a thing exists. In the absence of any substantive and serious definitions, we don't need to think about it at all. Note once again that Freeman is writing in a manner that makes it look like atheists are saying that they have "substituted false definitions," which is itself a false statement.

3. We do not believe in God because we hate our enemies and are consumed with anger about the world.

It probably shouldn't be surprising that Father Stephen Freeman would trot out the old canard about people being atheists because they are hateful and angry. It seems that it is just too much to imagine that a person could be kind, decent, and loving without believing in one god or another. As noted above, it's a failure of moral imagination: some people make their god so important in their lives that they cannot get their minds around the possibility of anyone living well and decently without the same beliefs.

4. We do not believe in God because such belief would cost too much.

I never know how to judge this in the life of another. I can only speak from personal experience. In this case there are points and times in my life that I find it more convenient not to know God but to talk about God, to discuss religious questions.

If atheists are going to be accused of not believing in gods because they are angry and hateful, why not also accuse them of not believing because they would prefer to be free from the restrictions that a god might impose. This is typically accompanied by the accusation that atheists are not moral, cannot be moral, and/or have no reason to live moral lives. It's no different or better than saying Jews and Muslims cannot be moral because they don't believe Jesus is the son of God. People who say such things are bigots who are trying to build up their own group by tearing down others.

5. We do not believe in God because of pain and misconception. ...These are fequently the victims of those who falsely claim to know God. By the same token, in God’s mercy, their very rejection of the false God that has been offered to them, is an act of grace, enabled by the true God. Such persons are far closer to the Kingdom of God than those who have inflicted their false religious views on them.

Finally, we get another common myth: atheists don't believe because they were hurt by someone who claimed to be a Christian or a theist. Once again, it's a failure of moral imagination to think that a person could sincerely reject claims that a god exists even after generally positive interactions with believers. Being a good person doesn’t mean that everything that person believes is true. On the contrary, it should be accepted as a truism that we all believe at least some false things and some true things. Every good person has false beliefs; every evil person has true beliefs. Thus the goodness or badness of a person has no bearing on whether their beliefs should be accepted or rejected.

It is doubtless possible for me to expand this posting. Perhaps I will at a later date. For the present, it is all that I have within me.

Father Stephen Freeman is, I believe, an exceptionally arrogant man whose self-righteous posturing I have commented on before. As bad as his prior writing have been, though, this is far worse. I don't doubt that Father Stephen Freeman can expand on his bigoted, false, and defamatory accusations about atheists and am happy that this was all he had within him at the time.

I hope that he doesn't find it within him to continue such risible diatribes because he doesn't have the slightest idea what he is talking about. He should of course feel free to speak for himself and speak on behalf of Orthodox Christianity, but he has absolutely no business speaking for atheists or presuming to instruct others what the "real" reasons for atheism might be.

Comments
August 4, 2007 at 11:09 pm
(1) John says:

Two possibilities occur to me:

1: The priest in question has been so thoroughly brainwashed in his upbringing that he truly cannot comprehend a genuine worldview that does not include a deity;

2: He understands that people genuinely and for good reasons reject the idea of a deity, but pretends that such a thing cannot possibly happen in a desperate attempt to bolster his own position.

If the former is true then he is a victim of his environment, and if the latter is true then he is a victim of self-doubt and insecurity. We could consider that in either case the man is deserving of sympathy, and explain why. This might be a more charitable and perceptive way to respond to his accusations than straightforward condemnation.

August 5, 2007 at 3:43 pm
(2) Fatherstephen says:

As the priest in question, thanks for reading the article. My use of the pronoun “we” is not meant to say “we atheists”, but “we human beings,” because I think many modern Christians (especially in our Western culture) wrestle with questions of atheism themselves. I will readily admit that and do not seek to deny it. My reflections on the subject are rooted in my own experience and that of other (believers) who have written of their own struggles.

I have written elsewhere on the blog articles that speak of the “new atheism” that is clearly different from some earlier forms and I think is worth listening to. But, of course, atheism is just one thing, it’s many things, many forms.

But you have to read more material, I suspect, than that single article to get a sense of what I’m doing when I write. There was, indeed, plenty of comments from atheists on the posting, and even occasional mutual understanding. Sorry if my writing is unclear or misleading. I do not want to presume what you think or why.

You may not be aware of a strong part of Orthodox (Russian) Christian tradition which deals very forthrightly with atheism, and would generally state that most believers in fact do not believe in God, though they think they do. It is from this tradition that I write. Dostoevsky is a good place to start if someone is interested in that particular strain of thought. He writes eloquently on every side of the question.

August 5, 2007 at 7:12 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

As the priest in question, thanks for reading the article. My use of the pronoun “we” is not meant to say “we atheists”, but “we human beings,” because I think many modern Christians (especially in our Western culture) wrestle with questions of atheism themselves.

Yes, many human beings wrestle with the questions of atheism. The use of “we,” however, is inappropriate as a reference to any group other than those who disbelieve in gods. It thus refers solely to atheists and not to human beings generally — no matter what you may have had in mind.

I have written elsewhere on the blog articles that speak of the “new atheism” that is clearly different from some earlier forms and I think is worth listening to. But, of course, atheism is just one thing, it’s many things, many forms.

No, atheism is just one thing: disbelief in gods. Atheism can be a part of many different belief systems, ideologies, religions, world views, and philosophies, but atheism itself is just one thing. There is no “new atheism” that is different from earlier atheisms. The only thing “new” is the attention being paid to atheist writings. The arguments, ideas, and even tone can generally be found in earlier writings, speeches, and arguments.

August 6, 2007 at 9:26 am
(4) tracieh says:

>Many religious believers simply refuse to believe what atheists say about themselves

That pretty much sums it up. Usually they don’t bother even asking before they explain why atheists believe what they believe. But if they do bother to ask me why I’m an atheist, they then express pity that I’m so deluded that I can’t see why I really disbelieve.

It can’t be my years of study that resulted in a self-deconversion (on what started out as an honest journey to find my god), it must be I want to be immoral or I’m angry about some religious mishap.

How can there be a dialogue with the person asking the question answering for me? They don’t want a dialogue, they want an unchallenged monologue. That’s what it boils down to.

August 14, 2007 at 8:58 am
(5) pgobrien says:

don’t atheists deign to tell religious folk why the religious folk believe magical things? aren’t we all trying to tell each other we can look behind statements about belief to see the other person’s true motivation?

August 14, 2007 at 10:08 am
(6) addicted says:

@pgobrien

However, telling someone why they believe in something is very different from telling someone why they lack belief in something.

Belief is an assertion. The default position is a lack of belief. No one is born believing in a Christian god (more than half the people in the world are not even Christian!). So they obviously took some steps to lead to their belief, which raises the legitimate question as to what caused them to form this belief.

Also, atheists do not ignore what Christians say are the reasons for their belief. When a Christian says that they believe in god because the bible says so, we dont dispute their statement. However father Stephen has completely ignored all the reasons atheists have given for their disbelief, and fabricated his own reasons. That is disingenuous at the very least.

August 14, 2007 at 1:44 pm
(7) John Hanks says:

The only way to believe in G-d is to experience G-d. As a Quaker I have done so many times. The odd thing is that once you have experienced G-d, you really don’t come away with a knowledge or belief in G-d. Religion is always an allergic reaction to the silence that is G-d. You have to get rid of all the bric-a-brac. That is why most atheists are much closer to G-d than most religionists.

August 16, 2007 at 12:19 pm
(8) tr says:

Dear Father, It seems every atom of your being is imbibed with the god gene. Please leave your great spirit in the sky. Learn about ancient cultures and their beliefs before your perfect god became who you think he is now. You are educated by the church and its beliefs but you have never considered looking into your own beliefs. Therefore, in your mind, it means that if anyone should look beyond the mysteries and paganism of your beliefs they are considered foolish if not worse. You judge everyone apparently for using reason and the vast libraries of knowledge that are available beyond your own. You have placed limitations on yourself and feel it necessary to do the same to others. You choose to live in a world prescribed by others with no questions asked. I am sorry that you take such a dim look at what surrounds you and I am sorry that you cannot see beyond what you are told to believe. This makes the living experience you are having very limited. I choose not to be limited by false doctrines and dogmas that are man made for the ignorant. It is easy for you to fall back on another’s belief system as proof; stand alone after the nightmare of your faith has ended and you learn truth, then and only then can you tell everyone what it really means to be an atheist.

August 18, 2007 at 3:53 am
(9) Bob Howard says:

I have read the full article. I consider it to be arrogant. If I don’t believe in God it is not because I have a genuine intellectual objection to the existence of God it is because I dare to think at all. I should close my mind and let my emotions carry me. This priest along with many other Christians simply refuses to entertain the possibility their god does not exist. If I don’t think he exists then I have the problem not him. But then religion is a matter of beliefs not facts.

August 20, 2007 at 12:04 pm
(10) Konquererz says:

What is amazing is that no matter how many atheists dispel these ridiculous myths about why atheists in general don’t believe, they keep being spouted. That in and of itself is proof that religionists fail completely to research anything regarding atheistic lack of belief. If they did, they would see that the defining moment of disbelief is different for every person. For me, it was when I really cracked open the bible and read the parts of god ordained rape and kidnapping. And the destruction of every man, woman, child, and suckling, in a city in which they already said was peaceful! Amazing cruelty cannot be rewarded with fealty. If the Christian or Muslim or Jewish god did exist, I wouldn’t give them worship any way because they would be unworthy of it!

Since deconverting, I have found much happiness and joy that the good father is so easily willing to dismiss. As well, I find that I have to stop and help people in need, give money to the poor, and be nicer and more kind to others. Why? Because in the end, god isn’t going to help them which means I have to. If I don’t maybe no one will. What kind of morality says that someone stranded on the side of the road will be fine if you pray for them? Religion is, in many cases, just a cop out from helping people. If you can help them with a “prayer” then why go through the trouble of doing something yourself?

May 27, 2008 at 4:00 am
(11) momesansnom says:

Talk about arrogance! Some of you atheist commenters take the cake. There’s nothing like seeing arrogance challenged by counter-arrogance. I thought I’d get in on the game myself with this comment.

You poor things, you must be so hurt by the mean priest who wasn’t even describing you per se, who was more particularly addressing believers who “disbelieve” (i.e. confronting the less-obvious sorts of hypocrisy that some Christians make a good-faith effort to try to stand guard against), who never claimed to be compiling an exhaustive list (and therefore left room open for the possibility that he wasn’t describing your situation). You seem to suggest that none of his reasons could ever possibly be real-life reasons why people reject the notion of God, even though some well-known authors and friends of mine use some of those very reasons in support of dumping theism.

And this post itself: It says that he should “feel free to speak for himself and speak on behalf of Orthodox Christianity,” except that he really shouldn’t, because then it’s just “bigoted, false and defamatory.” It might be false for him to say what he thinks you think (which I don’t think he was actually doing, anyway), but it certainly isn’t defamatory. If I call you a big sniveling whiner, then that might be defamatory (to a point), but I won’t call you that, because I don’t want to offend you extremely heightened sensitivities.

And, I think it’s a crock when atheists say that “the default position” is atheism. I’ll grant that the default position is not Christianity, but it also certainly isn’t atheism. It’s actually agnosticism. Anything other than agnosticism is a statement of faith, in spite of atheistic arguments that there’s no proof of God so that places the “burden of proof” on theists. Honestly, there is no “burden of proof” because there is no standard law about how these matters should be discussed or argued. The near-universality of the concept of God or transcendent existence across human cultures and times seems to suggest that the burden of proof might actually be on the atheists. I’m not saying it is, but it’s something to consider. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but when most people disagree with you, then it’s up to you to be the “missionary.” I acknowledge you’re doing that right here, but in this particular post, you’re doing it badly.

This post says that Freeman and people like him are “basically denying the possibility that they will ever take you or your arguments seriously enough to even contemplate the possibility of being wrong. The entire universe now revolves around their ideology: whatever doesn’t appear to fit is rejected as unreal, including whatever objections you think to raise.”

Funny thing, though, because you end up doing exactly what you’re bellyaching that he just did: “presuming to know the heart and mind of the atheist better than they know themselves.”

This frankly is a lame refutation of Freeman, primarily because you didn’t bother to catch his actual drift, which he invited you to do in his response to you. But it was more convenient for you to assume you knew what he was talking about, to maintain your arrogance and get all pouty about it and couch it in highfallutin’ words like “gaucherie” to impress your peanut gallery.

Also, to the commenter who said: “What kind of morality says that someone stranded on the side of the road will be fine if you pray for them?” The answer is “not Christian morality.” Jesus said that whoever didn’t help his neighbor in need did not help Jesus in need, and therefore is not known by Jesus.

Also, you say, “What is amazing is that no matter how many atheists dispel these ridiculous myths about why atheists in general don’t believe, they keep being spouted.” Well, believe it or not, some other atheists in fact do exemplify the very myths that you are constantly dispelling. I don’t put you all in one box (other than the box that says “people who don’t believe in a god”). However, some atheists, whether you like it or not, aren’t as thoughtful as you all are.

To the commenter who said: “This priest along with many other Christians simply refuses to entertain the possibility their god does not exist. If I don’t think he exists then I have the problem not him.” There you go, doing the very thing that this post says shouldn’t be done. You demonstrate the “exceptional failure of basic moral imagination” that Austin Cline complains about because you reject “the possibility of someone else looking at similar data and sincerely coming to a different conclusion.”

To the commenter who said: “Therefore, in your mind, it means that if anyone should look beyond the mysteries and paganism of your beliefs they are considered foolish if not worse. You judge everyone apparently for using reason and the vast libraries of knowledge that are available beyond your own. You have placed limitations on yourself and feel it necessary to do the same to others.” Again, here you are doing the very thing that this post says shouldn’t be done, which is “presuming to know the heart and mind of the (theist) even better than they know themselves.”

What’s truly risible is when people don’t even see themselves repeating the presumed mistakes of their opponents.

May 27, 2008 at 6:33 am
(12) Austin Cline says:

Talk about arrogance! Some of you atheist commenters take the cake.

Then why aren’t you able to cite any examples?

You seem to suggest that none of his reasons could ever possibly be real-life reasons why people reject the notion of God, even though some well-known authors and friends of mine use some of those very reasons in support of dumping theism.

Feel free to cite examples of this.

And, I think it’s a crock when atheists say that “the default position” is atheism. I’ll grant that the default position is not Christianity, but it also certainly isn’t atheism. It’s actually agnosticism.

No, it’s both. Babies are born without knowledge of gods (agnosticism) and without belief in gods (atheism).

Anything other than agnosticism is a statement of faith

You are misdefining atheism.

Honestly, there is no “burden of proof” because there is no standard law about how these matters should be discussed or argued.

The absence of a “law” is irrelevant. People who make claims assume a moral and intellectual responsibility to provide support or proof for their claims.

The near-universality of the concept of God or transcendent existence across human cultures and times seems to suggest that the burden of proof might actually be on the atheists.

This is like saying that the near universality of bigotry places the burden of proof on non-bigots to prove why people of a different race or ethnicity are not inferior.

Funny thing, though, because you end up doing exactly what you’re bellyaching that he just did: “presuming to know the heart and mind of the atheist better than they know themselves.”

Feel free to show how.

Also, you say, “What is amazing is that no matter how many atheists dispel these ridiculous myths about why atheists in general don’t believe, they keep being spouted.” Well, believe it or not, some other atheists in fact do exemplify the very myths that you are constantly dispelling.

Feel free to cite actual examples instead of simply claiming that they exist out there, somewhere.

What’s truly risible is when people don’t even see themselves repeating the presumed mistakes of their opponents.

That’s not nearly as risible as a person who keeps making accusations and factual claims without even attempting to provide support for them.

May 27, 2008 at 8:17 am
(13) momsansnom says:

Look, my comments were not intended to be the carefully laid-out arguments against atheism that are meant to stop you in your tracks. You chose to respond to my secondary references to atheism but failed to respond to my mention of the fact that this entire post misses the point of Freeman’s original article: he’s not talking about straight-up atheists like yourself but about people who say they believe in God but demonstrate degrees of disbelief. Your whole post here is based on Freeman’s presumption, but you come across as presumptuous yourself because you took his words to refer to yourself. You also failed to address my point that you to a slight degree and your commenters to a greater degree were doing the very thing that you were so upset about Freeman doing. And I did provide some examples for those claims.

It seems that I do (or did) have a slightly different definition of atheism than yours. I wouldn’t think a baby would be an atheist because I would think of atheism or any kind of belief/disbelief as something arrived at after some amount of consideration. I’ll give it more thought. I would tend to think of atheism as disbelief in gods, which I would differentiate from lack of belief in gods. Seems subtle, but that’s where I would lean. Guess it’s not my call though. Since I’m not an atheist nor the inventor of the word, I probably don’t have much of a say in how to define the word.

As for specific examples … do you really need them? Have you never heard people offer some stupid rationale for a position that you otherwise agree with? Most examples I could offer come from people you don’t know. As for written examples, they exist, but I don’t have references off hand.

You say: “The absence of a “law” is irrelevant. People who make claims assume a moral and intellectual responsibility to provide support or proof for their claims.”

So says you. No such responsibility actually exists, though it is certainly helpful when people take the trouble to back up their claims.

You said: “This is like saying that the near universality of bigotry places the burden of proof on non-bigots to prove why people of a different race or ethnicity are not inferior.”

If bigotry is indeed nearly universal, and if the non-bigots hope to change the world, then the burden of proof does in fact lie with them. They are the ones who have something to prove and who wish to change the status quo. This is just the way the world seems to work.

I said: “Funny thing, though, because you end up doing exactly what you’re bellyaching that he just did: “presuming to know the heart and mind of the atheist better than they know themselves.”

Then you said: “Feel free to show how.”

I DID show how. I quoted a passage from your post in which you told us readers what is going on in Freeman’s mind. You said that he was “basically denying the possibility that they will ever take you or your arguments seriously enough to even contemplate the possibility of being wrong. The entire universe now revolves around their ideology: whatever doesn’t appear to fit is rejected as unreal, including whatever objections you think to raise.” This is you reading his mind, which is exactly what you say bothers you about Freeman’s article.

You say: “That’s not nearly as risible as a person who keeps making accusations and factual claims without even attempting to provide support for them.”

It really isn’t all that risible when somebody doesn’t offer complete support for a position. This is a combox, not a thesis. In any case, I did provide some support for the main gist of my note. I still think it’s more risible when somebody complains about supposed a supposed flaw in someone else and then commits the same flaw himself. My statement of what’s risible still seems to have the upper hand over your example of what’s risible. But, of course, that’s just my opinion. I’m sure quite a few would agree with me if they thought about it.

I’m sure that I’ve left much lacking in my response, and for that I’m sorry, but I’m writing here for amusement more than anything else.

May 27, 2008 at 8:55 am
(14) momsansnom says:

Oh yeah, you asked for examples of arrogance because I said the some of the commenters took the cake on arrogance.

Actually you didn’t ask for examples: you asked me why I wasn’t able to provide examples. This in itself strikes me as arrogant. I guess I just thought that the arrogance would be apparent to anyone reading through the comments.

Well, comment number one states that the poor priest is either brainwashed and incapable of comprehending, or that he’s just an ass. In either case, the commenter says, he “is deserving of sympathy.”

Later, you have the Quaker commenter, saying “Religion is always an allergic reaction to the silence that is G-d.” He knows this because he has experienced G-d and, presumably, he thinks the priest has not or maybe has but has had an allergic reaction of some sort. In any case, the Quaker claims to know better than the priest.

Most of comment No. 8 by “tr” strikes me as arrogant, as it drips with pity for the pathetically deluded priest and beams with confidence in its own enlightenment (that’s how I read it, anyway)

Right after that, we have a guy saying “If I don’t believe in God it is not because I have a genuine intellectual objection to the existence of God it is because I dare to think at all.” Apparently he thinks that he thinks more than any theist does. Arrogance!

The arrogance of these examples seems pretty straightforward to me.

As for an example from your original post, I have nothing as bad as what’s found in some of the comments, but your conclusion that he doesn’t have “the slightest idea” of what he’s talking about seems a bit pompous to me in light of the fact that I think you didn’t really know what you were talking about when you went off on him in the first place … or, I should say, you didn’t know what he was talking about.

But chief for me in my assessment of your arrogance is just that I think you were being such a damn baby about this post, which was a Christian piece written primarily for other Christians and all about Christians. You really appear to have failed to notice what the post was getting at, it’s devotional character. All you saw was a supposed attack on you and your beleaguered friends in the atheistic camp, and you immediately cried foul. This just stinks of arrogance to me.

Please don’t bother pointing out my own arrogance, though. I’m all too aware of it, and it should be obvious to anyone reading this.

May 27, 2008 at 10:30 am
(15) Austin Cline says:

Look, my comments were not intended to be the carefully laid-out arguments against atheism that are meant to stop you in your tracks.

Where did I treat it as such?

You chose to respond to my secondary references to atheism but failed to respond to my mention of the fact that this entire post misses the point of Freeman’s original article: he’s not talking about straight-up atheists like yourself but about people who say they believe in God but demonstrate degrees of disbelief.

Where does he state this?

Your whole post here is based on Freeman’s presumption, but you come across as presumptuous yourself because you took his words to refer to yourself.

He referred to “atheists” without qualification. I’m an atheist.

It seems that I do (or did) have a slightly different definition of atheism than yours.

I use the standard definition of atheism: absence of belief in gods.

I wouldn’t think a baby would be an atheist because I would think of atheism or any kind of belief/disbelief as something arrived at after some amount of consideration.

Well, then you’d need a third word for disbelief without consideration.

I’ll give it more thought. I would tend to think of atheism as disbelief in gods, which I would differentiate from lack of belief in gods.

The first definition of “disbelieve” is usually “not believe.”

As for specific examples … do you really need them? Have you never heard people offer some stupid rationale for a position that you otherwise agree with?

Sure, but I’ve not seen people use the specific reasons offered above.

You say: “The absence of a “law” is irrelevant. People who make claims assume a moral and intellectual responsibility to provide support or proof for their claims.”

So says you. No such responsibility actually exists, though it is certainly helpful when people take the trouble to back up their claims.

It exists with anyone who wants to be taken seriously, rather than regarded as a crank. If you can take the trouble to make a claim, you can take the trouble to support it.

You said: “This is like saying that the near universality of bigotry places the burden of proof on non-bigots to prove why people of a different race or ethnicity are not inferior.”

If bigotry is indeed nearly universal, and if the non-bigots hope to change the world, then the burden of proof does in fact lie with them. They are the ones who have something to prove and who wish to change the status quo. This is just the way the world seems to work.

Actually, this “way the world seems to work” is simply a restatement of the fact that people making claims — like the bigots — frequently don’t want to be held accountable for supporting those claims. Simply forcing people to take another look at their claims and asking them to support those claims can do a lot to get them to realize that the claims are unfounded in the first place.

I quoted a passage from your post in which you told us readers what is going on in Freeman’s mind.

No, you quoted a passage in which I pointed out that Freeman’s position entails denying the possibility of taking atheists’ arguments seriously. It doesn’t matter whether he was consciously thinking it or not; adopting the position he wrote precludes taking atheists seriously and precludes acknowledging anything outside his ideology. That’s what happens when you insist on defining others according solely to one’s assumptions about others.

It really isn’t all that risible when somebody doesn’t offer complete support for a position.

Yes, it is. People who behave that way aren’t taking their own claims very seriously, so why should anyone else?

I’m sure that I’ve left much lacking in my response, and for that I’m sorry, but I’m writing here for amusement more than anything else.

See what I mean about not taking one’s own ideas or claims seriously?

Actually you didn’t ask for examples: you asked me why I wasn’t able to provide examples. This in itself strikes me as arrogant.

Why?

By the way, simply quoting something that you think is arrogant is not, in and of itself, a demonstration that the statement is arrogant. You would need to explain how and why it fits the definition of arrogance.

As an analogy, imagine me saying that one of your comments here was racist. Surely you wouldn’t accept that at face value, would you? If all I did was quote it back to you, without specifying what about it qualifies as “racist,” you shouldn’t take my accusation seriously.

But then again, you’ve already admitting that you aren’t posting here for any serious or substantive reasons, right?

But chief for me in my assessment of your arrogance is just that I think you were being such a damn baby about this post, which was a Christian piece written primarily for other Christians and all about Christians.

So, if a Christian makes false and arrogant about atheists, none of those atheists should object so long as the original claims are simply made to other Christians? It’s being a “baby” to object to the spreading of falsehoods about atheism and atheists among Christians?

Sorry, but that just makes no sense.

You certainly can ‘t believe it, otherwise you are just being a “damn baby” in complaining about an atheist piece written primarily for other atheists. Maybe it’s only wrong for atheists to do this, but not for theists? It’s OK for theists to complain about perceived misrepresentations of what they believe, but atheists are just being babies for doing the same?

Please don’t bother pointing out my own arrogance, though. I’m all too aware of it, and it should be obvious to anyone reading this.

So, being arrogant isn’t a problem — but only so long as you are the arrogant one?

May 27, 2008 at 4:45 pm
(16) momsansnom says:

You say that Freeman referred to atheists without qualification, and then go on to ask where I find that he states that he’s talking about believers who “disbelieve.” It’s right there at the top of his article, where he says: “I do not mean here to offer reasons non-Christians may offer as their own reasons for non-belief in God.” Later, in the comments and response to an atheist who was stamping his or her feet over being picked on, Freeman wrote: “I do not dissect the atheist mind (didn’t mention atheists in this post in this post at all. Many Christians would find this speaking to their situation (I certainly wrote out of my own situation). Oddly enough, I wasn’t talking about you, but unbelief which is also a Christian problem. Unbelief in the True God is not like just plain unbelief in a God concept. He’s not a concept.”

So, in fact, he did not refer to atheists without qualification; he did not refer to atheists at all, not until some atheists got in a huff. And then, right here on your blog, he offers some words about the Russian Orthodox tradition that treats the topic of atheism but also goes beyond that “and would generally state that most believers in fact do not believe in God, though they think they do.” He states that “it is from this tradition that I write.”

Earlier, he wrote to you that “My use of the pronoun “we” is not meant to say “we atheists”, but “we human beings,” because I think many modern Christians (especially in our Western culture) wrestle with questions of atheism themselves.” Of course, you could only respond to him in this sentence by telling him it was inappropriate to use the word “we.” That’s because you stubbornly or densely continued to insists that he was writing about atheists specifically and not, as he himself stated, “we human beings,” and as he earlier stated “we Christians.”

Do you really fail to see that you were fussing about something which he was not writing about? Do you really believe that nobody can explore the motives for disbelief or flagging belief except atheists, and that if they do explore such things, they must do it on the atheist’s terms? I’m beginning to wonder if continuing this conversation with you is worth anything.

You say:”I use the standard definition of atheism: absence of belief in gods”

Oxford American Dictionary calls it “the theory or belief that God does not exist.” Merriam Webster calls it “disbelief in the existence of deity” or “the doctrine that there is not deity.” This is not equivalent to absence of belief, which is more akin to simple ignorance. (Please note: I’m not calling you ignorant; I’m talking about ignorance of a proposition that would be put forth that someone would believe or disbelieve. Babies are ignorant, not disbelievers)

You say: “Well, then you’d need a third word for disbelief without consideration.” and “The first definition of “disbelieve” is usually ‘not believe.’”

Merriam Webster on disbelieve: “To hold not worthy of belief: not believe” and “to withhold or reject belief” Oxford American on disbelieve: “to be unable to believe (someone or something)”

Both definitions carry the implication that the disbeliever is presented with data that he or she disbelieves. The “unable” in Oxford’s definition seems to be unlike the “unable” that a baby would be, for the baby is not presented with “someone or something” to believe.

You say: “Sure, but I’ve not seen people use the specific reasons offered above.” I have not seen people use all the specific reasons offered above, but I have seen quite a few people describe their disbelief in terms of having been burned by religious hypocrites (which corresponds in part with Freeman’s point No. 5) and in simply not wanting to subject themselves to the limitations of believing in God (which corresponds to Freeman’s point No. 4). I’ve heard variations on these, and I’ll admit that most of the time I’ve heard these, it hasn’t been from the most eloquent of spokespersons for disbelievers. I’m just saying that, anecdotally at least, these reasons are out there and are used by atheists from time to time.

You say: “It exists with anyone who wants to be taken seriously, rather than regarded as a crank. If you can take the trouble to make a claim, you can take the trouble to support it.” But you’re not talking any longer about this seemingly universal principle of “you say it, you better support it.” Now, you’re basically saying that if you want to persuade people, then you better support it.

You say: “Actually, this “way the world seems to work” is simply a restatement of the fact that people making claims — like the bigots — frequently don’t want to be held accountable for supporting those claims. Simply forcing people to take another look at their claims and asking them to support those claims can do a lot to get them to realize that the claims are unfounded in the first place.”

I say: I’m in full agreement with you here. But I was simply saying that if the world at large holds one view and the minority holds another view, the minority is more obligated to do the real work of persuasion, unless of course the members of that minority don’t really wish to persuade anyone of anything. And yes, sometimes simply “forcing” someone to look at their claims and asking them to support those claims does work. It’s like the socratic tack that you seem to be taking with me. But I think experience would suggest that, sometimes, that doesn’t do the trick.

You say: “No, you quoted a passage in which I pointed out that Freeman’s position entails denying the possibility of taking atheists’ arguments seriously. It doesn’t matter whether he was consciously thinking it or not; adopting the position he wrote precludes taking atheists seriously and precludes acknowledging anything outside his ideology.”

But, as I’ve been saying, I think you have misread the position that he wrote in the first place. In any case, you do presume that he is precluded from taking atheists seriously and acknowledging anything outside his ideology. You seem to be saying that because he disagrees with atheists this is so. I would think that sword would cut both ways.

You say: “Yes, it is [risible that someone wouldn't offer complete support for their position]. People who behave that way aren’t taking their own claims very seriously, so why should anyone else?”

So how do you manage to engage in casual conversation with somebody?

You say: “See what I mean about not taking one’s own ideas or claims seriously?”

I see what you mean, but I don’t buy it.

I said: “you asked me why I wasn’t able to provide examples. This in itself strikes me as arrogant.” To which you asked “Why?”

The reason is because I felt that you were telling me that I was unable to give examples. In fact I was able to give examples. I just originally thought you would be able to see them for yourself. But that was unfair on my part, since you probably hadn’t read those comments since last August.

You say: “By the way, simply quoting something that you think is arrogant is not, in and of itself, a demonstration that the statement is arrogant.”

Well, perhaps arrogance, at least at times, is in the eye of the beholder. In such cases, I can do just what you say that I can’t. In any case, I feel that you have done this very thing that you protest with your post here. You feel that you’ve demonstrated Freeman’s arrogance, but I feel that you just quoted him and then made a lot of assumptions about what he thinks.

You say: “So, if a Christian makes false and arrogant about atheists, none of those atheists should object so long as the original claims are simply made to other Christians?”

No, atheists are welcome to object, but you skip what I actually said, which is that Freeman was writing “a Christian piece written primarily for other Christians and ALL ABOUT CHRISTIANS.”

You say: “It’s being a “baby” to object to the spreading of falsehoods about atheism and atheists among Christians”

No, that in itself is not being a baby. But, as I’ve said already, Freeman wasn’t writing about atheists in his article. The “baby” part comes in when you give him half an ear and then immediately, and perhaps impulsively, jump to the conclusion that he’s talking about you and your fellows, even though he clearly got the ball rolling by saying that “do not mean here to offer reasons non-Christians may offer as their own reasons for non-belief in God.”

You say: “You certainly can ‘t believe it, otherwise you are just being a “damn baby” in complaining about an atheist piece written primarily for other atheists.”

Alas, I believe I’m addressing what you’ve actually said and done with your post, unlike you, who missed the point of the priest’s post altogether.

May 27, 2008 at 5:18 pm
(17) Austin Cline says:

You say that Freeman referred to atheists without qualification, and then go on to ask where I find that he states that he’s talking about believers who “disbelieve.” It’s right there at the top of his article, where he says: “I do not mean here to offer reasons non-Christians may offer as their own reasons for non-belief in God.”

The term “non-Christian” covers more than just atheists. Hindus have reasons for not believing in God and he certainly wasn’t offering any reasons they might have.

However, he is very clear in saying “all discussions with those who do not believe in God, and a majority of discussions with those who claim to believe in God, would be be discussions that are rife with delusion.” The phrase “those who do not believe in God” includes atheists, offered without qualification.

So, in fact, he did not refer to atheists without qualification; he did not refer to atheists at all, not until some atheists got in a huff.

That’s only true if you imagine that “those who do not believe in God” magically doesn’t refer to atheists. Absurd.

Earlier, he wrote to you that “My use of the pronoun “we” is not meant to say “we atheists”, but “we human beings,”

Since theists believe in God, it’s even more absurd to say that the “we” refers to theists. That’s like a married man talking about “we bachelors.”

Oxford American Dictionary calls it “the theory or belief that God does not exist.”

You should look at more comprehensive and unabridged dictionaries, but I suspect you’ve left something out in your quote.

Merriam Webster calls it “disbelief in the existence of deity” or “the doctrine that there is not deity.” This is not equivalent to absence of belief, which is more akin to simple ignorance.

Absence of belief is not ignorance; ignorance is absence of knowledge. Absence of knowledge might be a reason for absence of belief; but knowledge and belief are not the same thing. Surely you know that.

(Please note: I’m not calling you ignorant; I’m talking about ignorance of a proposition that would be put forth that someone would believe or disbelieve. Babies are ignorant, not disbelievers)

Babies are ignorant because they are not in a position to have knowledge. As for beliefs: either infants possess beliefs or they do not. It’s silly to say that babies believe in any gods because they haven’t acquired the experience of knowledge necessary. Obviously they lack belief in gods.

So what word is used for “lack beliefs”? It’s disbelieve, because one of its definitions is the passive “not believe.” Mere not believing doesn’t imply asserting the opposite or even taking any position on any evidence that might exist. You do not believe any claims you are ignorant of. You do not believe any claims you do not understand. You do not believe any claims you have not heard.

The “unable” in Oxford’s definition seems to be unlike the “unable” that a baby would be, for the baby is not presented with “someone or something” to believe.

You are unable to believe any proposition you are unfamiliar with or do not understand. You do not need to be presented with the someone or something in order to not believe it, just as you do not need to be presented with someone or something in order to be ignorant of it. I am ignorant of your family, even though I haven’t been presented with your family. I do not believe you have a sister, just as I do not deny you do have a sister. I can’t believe or deny it — I lack the information necessary.

You say: “It exists with anyone who wants to be taken seriously, rather than regarded as a crank. If you can take the trouble to make a claim, you can take the trouble to support it.” But you’re not talking any longer about this seemingly universal principle of “you say it, you better support it.” Now, you’re basically saying that if you want to persuade people, then you better support it.

Only if you assume “not be perceived as a crank” is equivalent to “persuade people.” They aren’t equivalent. I can fail to be persuaded by someone, but also not think they are a crank.

I say: I’m in full agreement with you here. But I was simply saying that if the world at large holds one view and the minority holds another view, the minority is more obligated to do the real work of persuasion,

Only if you think numbers is same as having an argument in defense of a position. The mere fact that an idea is popular is irrelevant; it’s claiming that an idea is true which creates the intellectual obligation to support it. How many agree with you is irrelevant.

In any case, you do presume that he is precluded from taking atheists seriously and acknowledging anything outside his ideology.

No, I conclude it because the conclusion is necessary given his stated position. Please understand the difference between a conclusion and a premise.

So how do you manage to engage in casual conversation with somebody?

I suppose I have causal conversations with people who have enough intellectual and moral sense to not make claims they can’t support.

The reason is because I felt that you were telling me that I was unable to give examples.

The alternative is that you can, but don’t care enough about your own claim to do so. It’s more generous to assume that you care about what you are spending time writing, but can’t quite back it up, than to assume that you would spend time writing something you don’t care about.

Well, perhaps arrogance, at least at times, is in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps. You can find out by providing quotes then explaining how and why you think it qualifies as arrogance. Maybe you’ll fail and learn that your accusation was false. Maybe you’ll succeed brilliantly and teach others something. So long as you don’t do it, though, you’re stuck assuming that your initial gut impression was right — and you’re not perfect, so that gut impression could be wrong.

No, atheists are welcome to object, but you skip what I actually said, which is that Freeman was writing “a Christian piece written primarily for other Christians and ALL ABOUT CHRISTIANS.”

He is specific in saying that he is writing about people who do not believe in God. That’s atheists. By definition. There is no wiggle room there and no way to “frame” such a statement so that “those who do not believe in God” suddenly and magically doesn’t refer to atheists.

May 27, 2008 at 5:47 pm
(18) Austin Cline says:

I forgot to address this:

I have not seen people use all the specific reasons offered above, but I have seen quite a few people describe their disbelief in terms of having been burned by religious hypocrites (which corresponds in part with Freeman’s point No. 5) and in simply not wanting to subject themselves to the limitations of believing in God (which corresponds to Freeman’s point No. 4).

I haven’t, and I’ve both read a tremendous amount by atheists and talked to a lot of atheists.

Now, what I have read and heard from atheists how 5 caused them to break away from their church and eventually start down a path where atheism became possible (though obviously not necessary). It is not, however, a reason for their current atheism. I’ve read and heard atheists discuss 4 as a problem with theism, but again not a reason for why they are atheists.

Is it possible that you misunderstood and what you saw was more along the lines of what I described? This is why I ask for specific examples. I know of similar but different things existing; I’ve never seen what is alleged in the original article.

One more thing on the definition of atheism: you might want to note that the prefix “a” means “lack of, absence of, privation of.” With every other a-prefixed word in the English language, people don’t have any problem understanding this. People know that a-gnosticism refers to a lack of knowledge (gnosis). People understand that a-moral means and absence of moral values and a-political means a lack of political concerns or opinions. People know that a-tonal means a lack of tonality and a-synchronous means a lack of synchronicity.

When a-theism comes up, though, all that good sense goes out the window. Suddenly, “a-” no longer means what it means in every other context. Curiously, the standard misrepresentations of what atheism means is precisely what allows so many mischaracterizations of atheists. Essentially, the most common bigoted beliefs about atheists are almost impossible without this basic misrepresentation of what atheism means. Coincidence? I doubt it. Religious apologists push false definitions of atheism because they have to; if people accepted the truth of what atheism is, apologists’ work would be a lot harder.

Atheism is the absence of belief in gods. This definition has been in use among atheists since at least the mid 18th century and in dictionaries since the late 19th century.

May 28, 2008 at 7:02 am
(19) momesansnom says:

You say: “I suppose I have causal conversations with people who have enough intellectual and moral sense to not make claims they can’t support.”

And you’re still here engaging with me. I’ll take that as possibly a compliment, or just that you’ve made an exception for me. But maybe it’s more likely that you don’t consider this a “casual conversation.”

In the interest of not straying from my original point, I will forgo comment on some of the thoughtful material which you provided on definitions and such (and I have gone on to read some other portions of your site on this matter), other than to say that I tended toward the more popular and general use of the words in question, while the definitions you insist upon are the definitions that it appears atheists have themselves given precision to. But I can roll with that. What’s important in clear communication, among other things, is agreement on terms. So, although I’m not addressing much of what you have said on the matter of definitions, I’m also not ignoring it.

Just in passing, I thought it interesting to mention that in the early days of Christianity as described in various martyrdom accounts and patristic writings, pagan polytheists used to refer to Christians (and perhaps Jews), particularly those who didn’t give worshipful honor to Caesar, as atheists, and the Christians in turn referred to the polytheists themselves as atheists. The aim for each side, obviously, was to say that the other side believed in gods that didn’t really exist. I guess one of my points in saying this is that people (obviously theists in this case) for a long time have been playing fast and loose with the term “atheist,” so you atheists perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised or bent out of shape if many people do the same these days. But like I said, I have no trouble accepting the rationale you give for defining the words as you do.

Also, as another aside, you make the statement that every word in the English language that has an “a-” prefix is understood one way but, when it comes to atheism, this is no longer true. I’d disagree. Over time, some words with prefixes, including those with “a-,” can shift a bit in their definition to mean something related to but not exactly what the literal construction would suggest. A word might gain a more abstract or a more specific meaning over time. This is particularly more true for old words, such as “atheist”, than it is for newer coinages. “Atrophy” is an example, as a word that would literally mean lacking in nourishment, but which now can describe various kinds wasting or decline that might not be directly related to a lack of nourishment. “Anecdote” is another word whose meaning has shifted from it’s root meaning of “unpublished” to its current meaning of a short narrative. “Amazon” might be a stretch here, so I won’t push it. If we called someone “anemic” and meant it literally, we’d mean he or she was dead because he would be without blood, but the word now signifies a deficiency of red blood cells. “Anomalous” should mean “not even” but now means “not standard” or “not normal.” “Asbestos,” now a mineral type, derives from “unquenchable” or “inextinguishable.” “Asylum” being a place from which one cannot be seized, now, in one of its definitions, is a place where one can be seized and shut away.

I guess I did have a few comments on definitions.

But that’s neither here nor there, because I really didn’t pipe up here in the first place to argue the merits of theism or atheism with you, or even to examine why people are one or the other. My intent was to tell you that you misunderstood the priest and therefore went overboard in the offense you took. I stated why I think you misunderstood him, and I noted that right from the get-go, he said, as clear as can be, “I do not mean here to offer reasons non-Christians may offer as their own reasons for non-belief in God.” The very title of this post, along with several of your comments, indicates that you take issue for doing what he said he is not doing.

You answered me by saying that he was very clearly referring to atheists by mentioning “those who do not believe in God” without qualification. I would submit, however, that the earlier statement I quoted WAS in fact the qualification that you think is not there, and it makes explicit that he’s writing about Christians. That he does not attach a qualification to every sentence doesn’t mean there is no qualification stated. He provided a signal right at the start telling you that you should read what comes next, including “those who do not believe in God,” not in the same way that you would read it in some other context, such as in an argument with atheists. In this light, because Freeman told us he wasn’t dealing with non-Christian arguments, it could and probably should be understood that Freeman’s “those who do not believe in God” is an emphatic way of talking about “those (Christians) who say they believe but who in truth do not act in accordance with their stated belief (and for that reason can be challenged as not really believing at all)” Discussion of such a phenomenon is almost a commonplace in Christian circles. It’s the topic of New Testament passages such as several verses in James 1 and 2 and Luke 6:47. I think most Christians would catch on right away, as many are familiar with the Christian statement “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” So, as his audience could safely be assumed to be primarily Christian, there was less reason for him to repeat over and over the idea that he was talking about Christians in his article. However, when various atheistic commenters challenged him and it became apparent that perhaps he wasn’t precise enough for them, he was quick to clarify, including right here on your blog, that he was talking about Christians.

Well, I guess that’s about it. I’ll quit pestering you now and give you the last word if you want it. I’ll poke around your site and maybe visit you on the blog another time. Peace to you.

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