The Other Presumption of Atheism

Yep, I’m not writing about what is typically identified as the Presumption of Atheism—the hotly disputed assumption that atheism, not theism, is the default position in this whole debate.  That’s a whole other can of worms to be opened at a later time.  Rather, this provocatively titled post is about another and all too common oversight to which many atheists seem vulnerable, and I would contend it’s the atheists of this time’s greatest weakness and ultimate undoing.

Inspiration for this post came from my ethics professor, who openly admitted he was an atheist.  Today he explained that he came from a long line of Baptist preachers and how they left him the impression that they thought most people were going to end up boiling in a lake of fire.  My professor said this belief contributed to his eventual apostasy.  He went on further to make the disparaging comment that if Christians really believed the vast majority of people would be broiling with the fishes for eternity, that they would be out in Speaker Circle like Brother Jed and Sister Cindy yelling at and accusing students.

A little background information on Brother Jed and Sister Cindy: They’re a married couple of Christian fundamentalists who frequently stand in Speaker Circle and engage in combative evangelism.  Speaker Circle is small amphitheater on campus where the speaker has the right to proclaim whatever he or she wants to students sitting down to listen and those on their way to class.

Brother Jed "evangelizing" among students at Speaker Circle.

Now, I don’t agree with Brother Jed’s methods.  I feel they cause more harm than good.  Plus, he has uttered claims that are both non-biblical and blasphemous.  Apparently, he hasn’t sinned in years, and he has the right to judge others despite the Bible reading, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” ~ 1 John 1:8 or “‘If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast the first stone at her.'” ~ John 8:7.

Brother Jed and fundamentalists like him seem to lack significant knowledge of Christian theology and teachings.  Everyone still sins, even Christians.  Judgement is God’s alone.  The Bible is explicitly clear on those points.  So often these fundamentalists have their heads so far stuck in the ass of the Old Testament they fail to recognize the New Testament and superseding covenant established within it.  They don’t take in Christianity comprehensively and neither do many atheists.

Both groups, who are spectrally opposite to each other, make the same error.  Both are so frequently unaware and unappreciative of all the thought and scholarly effort behind the religion.  In the case of my professor, he was raised on a diet of dogmatism and porous theology that of course a lake of perpetually burning fire seemed absurd.  However, I’m aghast at how anyone who objectively opens and reads Revelations where said lake is described can come to the conclusion that it’s a physical place.  There is nowhere in the Bible that provides a sound basis for Hell to be an actual tangible region with its own geography much like the afterlife in Greek mythology.  It’s not like the River Styx empties into the mythical Lake of Fire in Revelations.  The actual book is permeated with metaphors and allegories.  Hence, for my professor to so egregiously mischaracterize the Christian concept of Hell must mean he is ignorant of Christian doctrine.

And finally I get to it, the other presumption of atheism.  That once they think atheism must be true and theism is patent nonsense, they underestimate the latter.  They straw man and bastardize Christian theism.  They make woefully fallacious arguments against what they erroneously deem such a indefensible position.  So, yes, my professor is correct in thinking Christians believe Hell will be awful forever for a vast number of individuals, but is incorrect in thinking that this implies we must all “preach” like Brother Jed if we genuinely hold to that.  He again is an ignoramus to evangelization.  That, many Christians believe the Holy Spirit plays the pivotal role in conversion and we are mere pawns in a cosmic chess game for souls.  Or that there are different ways to evangelize.  Or maybe some Christians just realize there are more effective methods for persuading people than shouting and casting judgement on your intended audience.

It’s evident to me my professor, who specializes in ethics, isn’t remotely intimate with the current happenings of philosophy of religion or Christian theism.  Once he became entrenched in his atheism, he didn’t bother to understand or study the opposing position before he criticizes it.  He assumed it to be weak, lackluster and defeated by David Hume and Bertrand Russell long ago.  He undervalued the arguments made by the brilliant theists of the past and present.  He presumed Christian theism is not an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

He presumed too much.

“Know thy enemy,”

Modus Pownens


12 thoughts on “The Other Presumption of Atheism

  1. Hi Modus,

    I feel your assessment isn’t merely relegated to atheists. While I agree with your post that atheists seem to have this pernicious attitude towards religion/theism in that it’s something wholly devoid of any intellectual rigor, I feel the same judgment can be levied against many theists in their view on atheists. Having said that, I think a better title would be “The Presumption of the Ignorant” as members from both parties can be charged with the same crime.

    P.S. Do try and post more, will you? 🙂

  2. Oscar!!!

    Good to hear from you. You’re absolutely right in your remark that this arrogance isn’t exclusive to atheists. All people are vulnerable. When I wrote this, I was angry, which I’m sure you’re aware, anger is not necessarily a good thing when blogging.

    I wrote this in the context of an academic background as most professors in multiple disciplines are atheists and are smug in their atheism. This is also very prevalent in the New Atheism. They are so convinced that any theist and his views are a laughable absurdity. I offer you a few quotes:

    “Materialism is the religion of our time” and “materialists are convinced, with a quasi-religious faith, that their view must be right.” ~ John Searle, Mind: A Brief Introduction.

    “Due to the typical attitude of the contemporary naturalist… the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief. If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true.” ~ Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo: A Journal of Philosophy.

    “I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind… This is a somewhat ridiculous situation… [I]t is just as irrational to be influenced in one’s beliefs by the hope that God does not exist as by the hope that God does exist.” ~ Thomas Nagel, The Last Word.

    As you know, Oscar, Searle, Smith and Nagel are not theistic philosophers. Smith is actually a philosopher of religion; hence he should have a better understanding of what’s happening in the debate than most. Perhaps, I should have put these quotes in the original post to have exemplified what I meant, lol.

    It’s not that I don’t believe you in that theists aren’t not patronizing to atheists, they certainly can be and have been, but I can’t think of such a case in academia as theism is not the majority held position. So, could you please clarify and or give examples? I’m not sure in what cases you are referring.

    I just want respect and acknowledgement that my position and my belief in it isn’t utter nonsense. Not every atheist is as accommodating as you, Oscar.

    Lastly, I will try to write more. I’m actually in an editorial writing class, so I will definitely be trying to take what I learn from there and be putting it into practice here.

  3. I actually haven’t read – nor even heard of – Searle; I’ll have to check him out!

    I think we can both agree that both theist and atheist alike can fall into arrogance and complacency with respect to their metaphysical beliefs. The prevalence of atheists in academia makes their arrogance more pronounced.Though, I would certainly posit that William Lane Craig is a prime example of arrogance from the other side of the spectrum.

    Looking forward to reading more from you!

  4. Ah, the William Lane Craig. I won’t deny he has a sort of slickness about himself reminiscent of a used cars salesman. And yes, he can come off patronizing.

    But in his defense, he is highly popularized for this sort of discussion so he deals with low quality objections to theism that if most people who have had a little training in philosophy would recognize as silly. He definitely isn’t the greatest Christian philosopher or apologist, but compared to his popular atheist counterparts he is head and shoulders above them. It’s cute when Dawkins plays philosopher, and when Hitchens was with us, he wasn’t much better. Harris and Dennett seem to forget their philosophical backgrounds in their arguments. And Barker…should just go back to being a priest.

    So yes, Craig can be arrogant, but I’ve never seen him treat bona fide atheist philosophers with objections of substance with nothing but respect. I feel like he has respect for the opposite position as long as its not the New Atheism, which forfeited the right after showing us it’s onlt full of piss and vinegar instead of arguments.

  5. Mr. Pownens, I don’t think the New Atheist’s bastardize Christianity as much as your claiming. The fact of the matter is that the Christian world view is founded on such absurd things as faith in miracles, Revelation, and magic holy books which originate from ancient tribal mythology. It is impossible to take someone serious, intellectually, when they must refer to the legitimacy of inexplicable miracles and the power of some select people of divine epistemological inspiration. These are not respectable methods of epistemology–one could refer to these to validate beliefs in anything!
    The arguments of theistic philosophy are a definite improvement from those which simply refer to the authority of the bible (namely because (1) this is a fallacy and (2) the bible is a pretty crappy book by today’s standards), but these arguments are (1) so abstract that they don’t resemble anything biblical and (2) mostly invalid (which shouldn’t be surprising because they try to PROVE scientific claims, a priori).
    If one is trying to legitimate the bible in the 21st century, then I think his intellectual honesty (or capabilities) ought to be questioned. And if you have a bone to pick with the New Atheists, please practice what you preach: “know your enemy”. Sam Harris is a recognized leader of this movement with a great website full of free content, including essays and video debates. Please, wright an essay which honestly demonstrates both his gratuitous smugness and where his arguments are faulty. (Sam is a pretty honest and rational guy, so good luck.)


    1. Hi Brad,

      Thanks for commenting, but I must contend that your first paragraph, as well as your whole post, is just evidence to my point. You bastardized and straw manned the Christian worldview. Miracles are not logically incoherent and neither is Revelation. There is a lot of historical truth in that book of “ancient tribal mythology” that even secular Biblical scholars believe to be true. Moreover, your use of the terms epistemology and epistemological are not appropriate as these prophets were not typically offering any theories on what is truth, what constitutes knowledge nor how we gain knowledge. Sure, divine inspiration can be used to validate beliefs in anything, but it doesn’t follow that divine inspiration wouldn’t be a reasonable justification for a certain set of circumstances.

      Yes, using the Bible to prove itself is circular. Crappy book by today’s standards? I’m guessing your mean ethically. Hardly, especially when it endorses ideas of loving your neighbor. I take it you’re referring to the Old Testament passages about genocide and whatnot. Hermeneutics and exegesis clears these things up. The Bible should be interpreted holistically, and singular passages need to be interpreted with the rest of the Bible in mind.

      Also, I feel the doctrine and arguments in classical theism is not incompatible with the God in the Bible. Establishing unmoved movers, maximally great beings and uncaused causes are in accordance with the biblical conception of of a timeless, spaceless, omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent Christian conception of God. Furthermore, there are tons of theists who disagree and say the arguments are valid, so your assertion is still very much in contention. And you’re going to have explain what you mean by “try to prove scientific claims a priori” by referring to what philosophers did what you’re claiming and what were their arguments. I’m guessing you’re referring to rationalists such as Rene Descartes or Gottfried Leibniz, but I’m not sure. Judging by the lack of precision, clarity or correct use of philosophical jargon in the comment, it seems to me you’re trying run in philosophy before you even know how to walk.

      In regards to Sam Harris, I’m well aware of him. You’re absolutely right that he is civil, calm and polite. This does set him apart from many other New Atheists. However, his arguments, like of many of his cohorts, are porous, unoriginal, been addressed and refuted centuries ago. His linking of morality to science is especially subject. Theists and apologists aren’t the only one who say this about the New Atheism, but also atheist philosophers — individuals whose profession relies on their ability to reason and argue. John Searle has said something along the lines that materialism has become the religion of our time. Thomas Nagel talks about a irrationalism within modern atheism these days. Even if I do grant Harris as a complete exception to the rule, the vast majority of New Atheists are misguided in their critiques, intellectually arrogant and don’t demonstrate the reasoning skills to back up their pomp and circumstance. Hence, I still think my evaluation still holds. Many are still pseudo-intellectuals and sophists when it comes to philosophy and religion. The truth is there are both rational and irrational people on both sides. The New Atheists ignore this truth, and I find that telling.

      With that said, I have a reading suggestion of my own for you. Go read some David Hume, Bertrand Russell and J.L. Mackie if you want to read a stronger formulation of atheism and criticism of religion and or theism. I suggest starting with Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

      Brad, thanks for your input and criticism. They have been noted, but I don’t think they stick. I will however, find one of Harris’ arguments on his website and post a response to it on this blog.

      So, after this response to your comment, are you really going to assert that because I attempt legitimize the Bible in 21st century that my intellectual honesty and or capabilities need to be questioned? Though hey, what do I know? I’m just the guy with the mind virus who is deluded enough to believe that because of a talking snake that convinced two people to eat an apple, that the magical sky father had to give birth to himself so he could become a zombie, allowing me to live with him on clouds in the upper atmosphere after death.

      Modus Pownens

  6. Thanks for the response, M.P.

    I don’t think, though, that defeating the Christian world view requires a sophisticated philosophical argument. The scholarly standards of the authors of the bible were crap compared to todays level of standards for honest intellectual work. It is certainly not a science book, nor is it a reliable history book. It’s primarily a work of mythology, fusing true events with hearsay and fantasy–which has been very popular throughout human history. One can claim that the bible is a wonderful work of literature, featuring beautiful poetry and food for thought. But the claim that it is the culmination of Truth and the work of an infinitely intelligent and powerful being is naive, absurd, and inconsistent with what we know today. (If there is so much evidence legitimizing the truth of biblical stories and the reality of the powers of prayer and revelation, then how have i not ever come across it; I have managed to get a B.A. degree and have never seen any of this evidence. A conspiracy of society and the education system? Unlikely, but if so please enlighten me.)
    You claimed that theism is an intellectual force to be met. I disagree. Theism does not get taken seriously among scientists and is a bastard of philosophy because its argument are honestly not after truth, but are biased towards legitimizing a religious doctrine. Theism doesn’t get taken seriously philosophically by many because it assumes things like a “sensus divinitatus”, which is just absurd. (Note, Plantinga can hypothesize the existence of such a cognitive faculty, but this is obviously an empirical claim to be validated scientifically in the field of neuroscience; he cannot assume it exists, a priori and independent of evidence; for such moves excuse one from the table of legitimate intellectual discourse.)
    With that being said, I do think the possibility of life or the universe being a product of intelligence is an interesting topic with some good arguments (see Nick Bostroms ), but I think it is absurd to attach to these arguments religious mythology.

    -Brad (P.S. I look forward to your essay on Sam Harris; I would very much like to discuss the merits of his work. Cheers!)

    1. Hi Brad,

      Honest intellectual work? I didn’t think the authors of the Bible were aware they were in an academic debate or writing something that would be peer reviewed, where what we consider as intellectual honesty was required. To whom were they debating and how were they being intentionally misleading? Also, I don’t think plagiarism was much of an issue either back then. They wrote down what they believed to be true. Am I required to cite my sources when I write an email to my mother, telling her how I’ve been, what I’m doing, all of which I believe to be true? But due to the fact that it won’t meet today’s modern scholarly standards, she shouldn’t believe it, right?

      The Bible is comprised of poetry, wisdom literature, prophetical writings, historical writings and letters, plus more genres. It never purports to be a science book. I would disagree that it’s unreliable historically. We have substantially more manuscripts of biblical texts than any other ancient book. I think it numbers well in the thousands. What comes in second is Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad. I don’t remember which. As for historical books, I think there’s something like only a handful of manuscripts documenting the exploits of Julius Caesar. No one ever doubts the historicity of his crossing the Rubicon or the Gallic Wars. Brad, I’m sure you’re well educated, but it doesn’t mean your BA makes you an expert in biblical scholarship or textual criticism. I don’t know what you’re BA is in, but not being exposed to evidence in other academic disciplines or field doesn’t mean there isn’t any. I would never claim to know anything about speech pathology, but I would never denounce some theory in the field because I’m simply uninformed of what’s happening within it.

      “You claimed that theism is an intellectual force to be met. I disagree.” Well, I disagree. At the very least, I hope I’m proving formidable enough in this dialogue with you. You seem to find something worth while to come back and respond to, so I’ll take that as evidence contrary to your claim. You should know: The arguments you offered in this following paragraph enter an arena where I wouldn’t dare claim expertise in, but I’m much more well-versed and studied in than biblical scholarship and the layperson. However, you are admittedly unconvinced that theism is worth much intellectually, and I’m presently its ambassador to you, therefore I feel obligated to try my hardest and really cut loose to make you see otherwise.

      Anyhow, here goes intellectual bankruptcy at its finest:

      Science is neutral in the question to whether or not God exists. Do scientists take atheism more seriously when they do science? The answer is no. Science, as an empirical enterprise, just tries to learn about the physical universe and the laws governing it. That’s it. It’s philosophy that takes those findings and reasons towards either atheism or theism. Also, what about Christian scientists? Ken Miller is a Catholic and well-known evolutionist, who has openly criticized the intelligent design movement. Wehrner Von Braun, the father of American rocketry, was a devout Christian. Are they not legitimate scientists who should not be taken seriously?

      “Theism…is a bastard of philosophy because its argument are honestly not after truth, but are biased towards legitimizing a religious doctrine.” That’s simply not true because cosmological arguments go back to pagan Greece with Aristotle. Theism has existed ever since in Western Philosophy and atheism really didn’t gain teeth until David Hume in the 1600s and has only relatively recently become a legitimate position in the 2400 years of Western thought. And even if I did grant your assertion as true, tell me does such an intention and motivation really negate whether or not theism is true or false?

      I’m unfamiliar with Plantinga’s argument toward “sensus diviniatus,” but in the way you presented it, I don’t think he was referring to something physical or material. I don’t believe cognitive faculties aren’t necessarily physical. If I recall my modern philosophy correctly, Rene Descartes posited “clear and distinct perception” as a cognitive faculty and Immanuel Kant argued that that the human mind has cognitive faculties that organizes and structures data from the senses. It’s hard to say what they were referring to was something detectable by neuroscience. Neither Descartes nor Kant arrived at these conclusions a posteriori but a priori. Descartes was a theist; Kant is a little more difficult to say. He didn’t believe you could prove God’s existence, but wrote in regard to his critiques of the classical arguments for God’s existence something along the lines, “I have made room for faith.” Lastly, you seem to erroneously equate evidence with only what can be verified a posteriori. Ironically enough, you reasoned (a priori) to that conclusion, albeit incorrectly, and accepted it as support/evidence/justification for your claim. Whoops.

      Your last paragraph is very interesting: “With that being said, I do think the possibility of life or the universe being a product of intelligence is an interesting topic with some good arguments.” “…the possibility of life or the universe being a product of intelligence…” is one of the necessary tenants of theism, just to let you know. There are also rationally affirmed theists who aren’t religious either.

      Sam Harris is forthcoming and thanks again for responding,

      Modus Pownens

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