First, when it comes to successfully dealing with people, don’t use arguments. Use Street Epistemology.
The biggest problem which touches most arguments (unless someone knows SE), is that atheists do not try to understand what the believer means by free will or whatever; they just jump into a counter-argument.
If you just ask people to explain more precisely what they mean by free will, and why it would be so awful for something to stop people from hurting each other, you’ll usually find that they don’t know what they mean, and don’t understand why that’s supposed to be a bad thing. They’re just repeating what they’ve been told, and may realize that if they’re asked for lots of clarification.
But they never realize that if you just jump into attacking an argument you barely understand. Learn about the backfire effect of arguing against people at Failures of Atheists (To Avoid): Style.
But maybe you’ll be debating in front of others. Maybe the audience can be persuaded with arguments.
In which case, don’t embarrass us. Don’t use bad arguments. Watch out for the following failures.
Failed Atheist Arguments
- Who designed the designer? What caused the first cause?
It is a feature of the universe that everything in it seems to need a cause. If we suppose there is something outside of the universe, we would be making a hasty generalization if we were to insist that it also required a cause. We have no observation of things outside the universe, and would have no idea how things function outside of the universe.
So we really can’t say that we know that if there was something outside of the universe, it must have had a cause. We simply don’t know what it needs or doesn’t need; we have no experience whatsoever to judge such a thing.
- People are just as moral without God
If you mean that people can be just as moral without God, then fine. If someone, religious or secular, dedicates themselves to moral learning and thinking, then yes, they have the potential to be quite moral, and I would even suspect that the secular person had a better chance of getting to a better state of morality.
But what if you don’t dedicate yourself to moral learning? If you’re religious, you’ll probably run across some moral teaching just because of church and stuff. There’re some bad bits in religion, but there’s also stuff like the Golden Rule, and “let every man prefer his brother before himself,” and encouragements to be nice and help people and so on. The Good Samaritan, for example.
Whereas, if you’re not religious, then you’re not likely to run across much moral teaching unless you go looking for it. You have the same potential as anyone else, but you’re not developing it.
Richard Dawkins says it’s “offensive” to think that people might act less morally without a belief in God. That’s exactly the kind of argument you make when you’re wrong. What difference does it make if it’s “offensive” or not?
Consider instead Benjamin Franklin’s words to an atheist:
“Think how great a Proportion of Mankind consists of weak and ignorant Men and Women, and of inexperienc’d and inconsiderate Youth of both Sexes, who have need of the Motives of Religion to restrain them from Vice, to support their Virtue, and retain them in the Practice of it till it becomes habitual, which is the great Point for its Security; And perhaps you are indebted to her originally that is to your Religious Education, for the Habits of Virtue upon which you now justly value yourself.”
Franklin’s attentions focus especially on the youth. I think most anyone who thought on the matter would agree that some youth avoid doing bad things because of their religious beliefs.
This is one of the reasons we focus here on moving beyond atheism, allowing atheism to mark only the first truth learned in a long series of other important truths learned. See “Is Atheism a Worldview” and “Secular Morality” in the main menu for more on the subject.
- God killed a bunch of people, so he’s evil (or would be if he existed)
If God is real, and religion is true, then death per se, is no evil at all. It’s like pushing someone from one room into the next. There is no non-existence, no end to life and consciousness, just another kind of life.
Now, if those people are then set on fire and left like that for eternity, then yes, we have a serious charge to bring against whoever is responsible.
- The universe wasn’t fine-tuned; whatever its constants were, some kind of life would have arisen which needed exactly those constants, that’s all
As I understand it, our universe’s constants aren’t just balanced on a knife edge for allowing life “as we know it,” but are balanced on a knife’s edge for allowing any kind of orderly particle interactions at all. With slightly different constants, particles would all be so distant from each other as to never form anything complex. Or with different constants in another way, all particles would be bunched up against each other, in a static state.
Science doesn’t know why the universe is or seems fine-tuned. Have you ever heard a physicist give that line about “with different constants there would be different life?” This is a real question, and a fascinating one. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s no big deal. It is a big deal; that’s why you’ve heard about it.
- Religious people waged wars, and justified their wars in the name of religion
People will go to war whether religious or not. If they happen to be religious, then, of course, they have to say that the war is justified or commanded by God, and that He’s favoring their side, or that they’re protecting his glory or something. Religion is just an excuse.
Now, wars are often caused by tribalist feelings of us vs them, calling “them” evil and hating them. And religion can contribute to feelings like that, as in the case of the Muslims and the Jews. If there were no religious tribes, though, I suspect people would just hate each other for different reasons. It’s not like religious hatred was ever rational; if someone wants to hate someone else, they’ll find a reason. If religion’s not available, they’ll find something else.
Religion is certainly responsible for some wars/violence (like suicide bombers), but it’s certainly not for all the ones where people claimed God wanted the war.
- Contradictions in the Bible
There are some contradictions in the Bible. But most atheists will refer to old, well-known ones that genuinely already have an answer. Sometimes even a good answer.
They’ll say “Judas, died by hanging or by falling off a cliff?” And the usual answer is that he hanged himself on a tree by a cliff and then fell later. Maybe you think this is a stretch, a rationalization. Well, maybe it is, but it’s certainly not an open-and-shut case for a contradiction in the Bible.
Same with Jesus having two different lineages. Supposedly one is familial, and the other royal, or something. Or sometimes people used to refer to the father of a woman when they meant the father-in-law of the woman or whatever. Regardless, it’s not an open-and-shut case. And most atheists only have a shallow understanding of these issues. They’re too quick to accept any ammunition they can find against religions.
This makes their arguments seem weaker, and discredits them in the eyes of the people who watch them.
If you’re going to say there’s a real contradiction in the Bible, then at least Google if your accusation has an answer, too.
- Talking Snakes and Stuff
If there is a God, then talking snakes and donkeys can happen just fine. Within a hundred years, we’ll probably be able to make that happen with technology.
If there is an omnipotent being, then it can do whatever it wants, so you can’t say that things seem too far-fetched. And if you prove that there’s not an omnipotent being, then why bother moving on to talking snakes and stuff? The argument’s already over.
- Jesus didn’t exist. And he was copied off of Horus or whatever
I don’t pretend to know a lot of history, but you should at least know that most historians think Jesus probably existed (see Wikipedia’s Historicity of Jesus). And the whole “Horus” thing is greatly exaggerated. Google Horus and try to find anything about his 12 disciples and his baptism, Christmas birthday, or visit from three wise men.
By all appearances, this is just another example of atheists being too quick to accept an attack (any attack) against religions, because they’ve bought into an us vs them, emotionally-charged soldier mentality where they can’t allow any aid or comfort to the “enemy,” even if they stretch the truth to do it.
- God wouldn’t allow there to be evil in the world, so there is no God
Yes, some religions have a problem with this. Some have a relatively decent answer.
The real problem is that most believers have an answer to this argument, usually something about free will or how it’ll all be better in heaven or something. Most atheists are not well-prepared for this, and will make up counterarguments on the spot about why free will doesn’t demand that evil be allowed to happen or something.
And the biggest problem which touches most such discussions (unless someone knows SE), is that atheists do not try to understand what the believer means by free will or whatever; they just jump into a counter-argument.
If you just ask people to explain more precisely what they mean by free will, and why it would be so awful for something to stop people from hurting each other, you’ll usually find that they don’t know what they mean, and don’t understand why that’s supposed to be a bad thing. They’re just repeating what they’ve been told, and will realize that if they’re asked for lots of clarification.
But they never realize that if you just jump into attacking an argument you barely understand.