We Should Abandon Weak Atheist Arguments (Like “Jesus Never Existed”)

Here, “weak” means both those arguments which do not have a strong effect on theists, and also philosophically weak arguments: The arguments which don’t have much effect, and the arguments that shouldn’t have much effect.


The classic example, perhaps, is the “Jesus never existed” line. From Wikipedia’s  “Historicity of Jesus” entry:

“An overwhelming majority of New Testament scholars and Near East historians, applying the standard criteria of historical investigation, find that the historicity of Jesus is more probable than not[4][5][6][7][nb 1][nb 2][nb 3][nb 4] …While scholars have criticized Jesus scholarship for religious bias and lack of methodological soundness,[nb 7] with very few exceptions, such critics generally do support the historicity of Jesus, and reject the Christ myth theory that Jesus never existed.”


It’s just embarrassing to have this kind of argument so common in atheist circles. It is rightly sneered at and rebutted, and also gives credence to the conception of atheists as desperate and grasping at straws. It allows believers with total justification to “score a point” as they refute it.


Now, (it shouldn’t be this way, but it is) “winning” one argument, makes theists (and humans in general) feel like that one win sort of bleeds over into other arguments, and makes their entire position feel stronger than it is (see halo effect on how one good thing about something will make everything about that something seem better).


Let’s imagine how this might play out in a debate. An atheist presents 10 arguments, 5 of which are philosophically correct, and five of which are not (like “Jesus never existed”). The theist debater rebuts the five wrong arguments using proper reasoning, and then uses rhetoric and fallacy to make it seem like the other five are also wrong.


Now, in the absolute best scenario, an audience member will see that one side has proper reasoning about half the time, and improper reasoning the other half of the time. This person will have to work out for themselves which position is right, because the debaters haven’t helped at all.


Outside of a debate context, things are worse. Theists can cherry-pick and quote verbatim actual quotes from atheists presenting bad arguments (like “Jesus never existed”) and the theist can present a completely reasonable, secularly-supported, devastating take-down of these arguments. You can make a whole living out of bashing the cherry-picked bad arguments of the other side, and all who hear you with ears of reason will note that you’re using proper reasoning (more or less).


Of course, just because atheists are wrong doesn’t mean that atheism is wrong. And even if atheism were wrong, that wouldn’t mean that theism was correct (maybe deism, after all) or especially that any particular flavor of theism was correct. But if we think that’s going to occur to most people, we’re optimistic to the point of naivete. Most people think that if an “enemy” is shown to be wrong, that means that their own side must be correct. Yes, this is a false dichotomy, no, that won’t occur to most of them.


As such, a Muslim and a Christian who hear a take-down of bad atheist arguments will feel that this proves that Islam and Christianity are true, respectively.


This works both ways, naturally. I admire Christopher Hitchens as a communicator and as a personality, but as an argument-maker, he was hit or miss. Much of his best work as a critic of religion was based on finding the worst arguments in theism and making solid refutations of them, but not doing quite so well on the slipperier, more complicated theist arguments. Yes, because theists gave him so much bad material he could work with, he practically built a career out of attacking them (note! As long as there are enough bad arguments mixed in with the good, this kind of attack can work even against the side that’s right!).


Here’s the point. By mixing in philosophically bad or unconvincing arguments, we dilute the apparent strength of our position. Someone hears some arguments they can’t refute, but they hear some they can refute; so they call the match as roughly equal (we gave as good as we got, didn’t we?), and allow their biases to keep them firmly on the same side they started on (well, we certainly didn’t lose!). We are allowing theists to displace the failures of theism onto the failures of bad arguments from atheists.


I did this, once upon a time. I would confidently research the critiques of my religion, refuting them with ease, allowing their wrongness to “prove” my rightness. But, once in a while, I’d come across an argument I couldn’t refute. I’d say to myself “Well, this one does seem to lead to this conclusion…” Cognitive dissonance would arise, I’d feel a dread come over me, I began to wonder if I would be able to admit if I was wrong, and then Hallelujah, I’d find some more weak arguments to refute, and my tensed muscles and mind would relax. I literally said to myself “It’s just hard to take this side seriously when they have such bad arguments.” By mixing their strong arguments with their weak, they let me blind myself to the light with darkness that they themselves provided.


What am I advocating for? We drop the just-wrong arguments, like “Jesus never existed.” We also drop the arguments that are “fuzzy,” that we don’t understand clearly and thoroughly. These are arguments like “If God was timeless, how did He decide to cause the universe?” We are not dealing with things we understand really well and which show that a timeless agent is impossible. We are dealing with something that kinda-sorta seems to make intuitive sense (ish), and acting way more confident about that than we should be. Drop the wrong arguments, and drop the fuzzy ones.


What are we left with? The ones that are crystal-clear, and more importantly, right. What does an audience do, when all it hears are some crystal-clear arguments that don’t have any obvious flaws in them? Well, however likely they were to be convinced by the mixed bag, they’re a lot more likely to be convinced by hearing just the good stuff. They’ll also have a lot harder time thinking that atheists grasp at straws and use ridiculous arguments. They won’t be able to use failed atheist arguments to comfort themselves over the failures of theism.


Most theists, coming closer to being convinced than they would have been, will still not be convinced. But I was a believer, and this is not uncommon; religion is losing its support. This way, those with the potential to see through it all will be able to do so more quickly; someone could have saved me several important years of my life. Some others who would have ended up on the edge will end up crossing over it. And even for those who are not convinced, atheists will seem a little less flawed than they would have if they argued dumb points that not even secular scholars believe in.


Here is an example of one of my favorite crystal-clear, effective arguments (more on this in another post).


Suppose we become convinced that there is an all-powerful being. How do we determine if it is honest or not? Suppose the being offered to do anything to show us it was honest. What could it do?


Think about this for a second before moving on, if you like.


There is nothing that an all-powerful honest being could do, that an all-powerful dishonest  being could not also do, if it wanted to look honest. We need one test, and one test only, to check if something is proof that a powerful being is definitely honest (not just pretending). It is: “Could a dishonest being also do that?”


Insert any possible test, or observation you like. The being has been observed to be honest so far? Could a dishonest being do that? The being said it was honest, perhaps in a book or a revelation? Well, could a dishonest being do that? The being appeared to suffer on our behalf? Okay, but could a dishonest being so appear?


There is nothing. The closest I’ve heard is “Well, a maximally great being would also be maximally honest.” Ah, then we’ll have to know that it’s maximally honest before we can conclude that it is maximally great, won’t we? So, back to it, what could an all-powerful honest being do that an all-powerful dishonest being couldn’t fake?


I’ll be doing a series on the six arguments I consider would be unusually likely to have an effect on a believer. A few have counters if you’re willing to abandon certain central theist beliefs, and this is itself a kind of victory.


4 thoughts on “We Should Abandon Weak Atheist Arguments (Like “Jesus Never Existed”)

  1. Great post! I really liked the honest/dishonest being analogy. That would be fun to parse through with a theist.

    I wrote a guest post for Godless Mom a while back addressing 6 arguments I think we need to stop using – “Jesus Never Existed” is one. Although I have a soft spot for it because it DID make me question when I was a believer, I generally don’t find it helpful.

    Linking you in case you want to check out the other 5: http://godlessmom.com/guest-post-6-arguments-atheists-need-to-stop-using/


  2. I coined the term “flesh man fallacy” for the use of a weak argument to “refute” a position. Scott Alexander discussed it on his website under the label “weak man fallacy”. It’s like a straw man, except the arguer goes to the (usually tiny) trouble to find an actual opponent espousing the weak argument. They then proceed to demolish it and make their side look smart.

    I agree with your plea, Hunter. Let’s make it harder on theists, and other purveyors of unwarranted claims. They can still straw-man us, but at least that tends to be somewhat less convincing to audiences.


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