Atheists and Theists Will Never Agree

One thing I know for sure is that atheists and theists will never agree nor will they ever agree to disagree. I believe that if I bet on this, 50 years from now, I will have one the bet.  Greta Christina has a great argument about why feeling God is real is not a real argument for believing God is real. She’s right, it can’t be the sole evidence for one’s faith. There should be other evidence; like the testimonies of millions of people who believe, those who claim to be healed or have had visions, etc.  However there are also reasons why I would never live my life at the level of sight verification that she does.  Take her story about the zebra:

If I saw a zebra in front of my house, I would want to test that perception before assuming that it was correct. I’d ask other people in my neighborhood if they’d seen a zebra. I’d call the zoo and ask if any of their zebras had escaped. I’d call the newspaper, and ask if they’d heard any other reports of zebra sightings. I’d post on Facebook, ditto. I’d check for zebra droppings.And if none of these inquiries confirmed my sighting of a zebra, I would conclude that I almost certainly hadn’t seen a zebra after all. I’d conclude that I was sleep deprived, or that it had been an optical illusion, or that some neighborhood prankster had painted a horse to look like a zebra.

Really? You’d really go through all those steps before you would admit there is a zebra in your yard? Why would you doubt your own senses?  Maybe the zebra didn’t come from the zoo. Maybe no one was home in your neighborhood when you saw it. Perhaps the zebra didn’t poop in your yard. You wouldn’t believe your own eyes? Well here I must say that I would. In fact sight is what I would believe first. You can’t say you didn’t see it even if it was a mind trick. She wants to rationally use her mind to test things in one breath and then doubt her mind when she sees or experiences something the next. Question: when CAN you trust your own mind, if at all? Her argument is like the fundamentalist who says you should never trust your own mind but only the bible. Same argument, different mistrust.

But even if this was a good example of testing every hypothesis which I don’t believe it is, I stand by my assertion; atheists and theists will never agree, nor will they ever agree to disagree. Why? Because each side is convinced of its “rightness.” Each have valid arguments yet neither will admit the other has valid arguments.  Each will continue to make fun of the other side and their purveyors and to what end? Our premises will forever be at odds. And at some point, each of us makes a choice. Greta’s made a choice and believers have made choices. The problem comes in when we try to convince others of our rightness. Why do we do this? Let’s just say we remain unconvinced and move on. Stop trying to convert each other to score points “for the team.” Living peacefully together is more important.  As long as laws are in place where government does not coerce belief or condone religion we can do this.


24 thoughts on “Atheists and Theists Will Never Agree

  1. >>Why would you doubt your own senses?

    There are many, many reasons why you should doubt your own senses, especially when it comes to situations that don’t logically follow. The situation of the zebra is not really a good one to illustrate this – a zebra in your garden would most likely provoke the response “Why is there a zebra in my garden?” rather than “Is there a zebra in my garden?” That’s because there are logical bounds you can apply that would make sense. In other words, there are a dozen plausible reasons the zebra might be there, even if they are unlikely reasons. If you are not prone to hallucinations, it’s more reasonable to assume the zebra is there for a logical, if unlikely, reason.

    Where you get into trouble is when you see a unicorn in your garden. You apply rational thinking and the first hurdle you must jump is “Unicorns aren’t real creatures”. You are immediately outside the bounds of rationality, and therefore you need to examine your sensory perception of the situation.

    If you are going to use the argument that ‘even if it’s a mind trick, it’s real’ then all bets are off. But, as I have said before, then you have to accept that anything that anybody believes is equally real.

    I don’t know about you, but if I was to see, oh, a dragon appear in my backyard, then the VERY FIRST thing I would do would be to fetch a witness. That’s how science works, and why, in my opinion, it’s more reliable than religion. If your friend also sees the dragon, and you get a good photo of the dragon, and you pick up some dragon poop, and the dragon gets filmed by a news crew and makes the 7 o’clock news, then you’re on your way to having a bona fide genuine dragon.

    However. If I went to fetch my witness and when we came back the dragon wasn’t there, and the shot I took of it on my phone was ‘mysteriously erased’, and the dragon poop turns out to be M&Ms, and the news crew was looking at me funny, then, as a rational person, I would be forced to examine my own sensory experience.

    Have you ever taken hallucinogenic drugs? I’m guessing not. Go with a trusted friend to Mexico and take some peyote. Then come back and tell me your senses can’t be fooled…

  2. And in these struggles between those who believe in numinous belief, and those who believe in the provability of non-belief, I come back to my point on your post about those who leap to judgment. It’s what you say about “Scoring points for the team”, and “proving their rightness”. The need to prove someone else wrong and the need to score points is a competitive urge. I’m sure that taking the heat out of all this is going to be a hard thing for me to do, but learning to explain why I believe what I believe, and to explain why I don’t believe what someone else believes, filtering out the competitive need to crush the opposition, has to be a worthwhile aim. That way, atheists and theists may never agree, but it has to be worth trying to disassociate one’s personal perspective from our primeval need to make war on another group. The vanquished are more likely to feel resentful than enlightened. Time to decommission the heavy artillery.

  3. Yes, I agree that fetching a witness is a good thing. I’d do that too. What if believers can also fetch witnesses? I know I’m pushing a point, but I agree that the first thing I’d think also is, “There are no such thing as unicorns and dragons.” Unless of course they kept showing up in my yard, and then I’d probably move. 🙂

  4. I agree. Showcasing how religions make fools of themselves may help some in the long run take a nice hard look at what they believe, but to me, it seems to stir up rancor more than anything. I know, I’ve done it, especially with some fundie catholics who want to defend the indefensible. That’s just blind belief and following the herd because they say so. That I don’t espouse.

  5. Well, if believers could fetch witnesses that stood up to unbiased third-party scrutiny (ie, not witnesses who were already predisposed to believe), then there would be no conflict at all with science. Unfortunately no religion, ever, has managed to do this.

    And religion has the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card: it doesn’t require proof anyway! To square things away with those who might question the need for evidence, religion came up with the idea of Faith. In scientific terms, there’s no getting around this.

    And, as far as your ‘There’s no such thing as unicorns’ response – well that’s fine. But what if you actually saw one. Really. Standing in your backyard nibbling the petunias. How would you deal with that?

    I’m not being flippant – think about it seriously for a moment. It presents a huge problem of rationality vs what you know to be true. There are no such things as unicorns, yet you see one. How is the best way to proceed? ALWAYS it’s science. First of all, you might question your senses; am I really seeing this? Did I just wake up and it’s a dream remnant? Is it really a unicorn?

    You would then, probably go over and touch it – additional sensory data. If it felt like a unicorn, and its horn seemed real, and it was magically sparkling, and spoke to you telepathically, well, the very next thing I would suggest you would do is take a picture of it. And call out to anyone nearby. You’d not want to take your eyes off it just in case. All these things constitute the gathering of scientific evidence.

    If you just accepted your senses and said ‘Oooh. A unicorn!!’ then you’re employing the methods of religion – uncritical acceptance.

    Personally, I think these questions are simple.

    Where it gets difficult is when you see and hear and touch the unicorn and no-one else does. Then we get into a difficult area of brain chemistry or perhaps even metaphysics. But scientifically speaking, there are still rational explanations to hand. As I said before – if you’ve ever taken any kind of psychotropic substance, you will understand how fragile your sensory ‘reality’ is. Under the influence of mescaline or lsd it is quite possible that you might fully experience the reality of a unicorn.

    But the question becomes: is that reality valid for anyone else? If you’re a religious person, is your religion valid for anyone else? My answer: no. It is a personal experience and you have no right to inflict it on me, or especially on people who are innocent, gullible, needy, fragile or lost.

  6. Anaglyph,
    “is that reality valid for anyone else?” My answer too would be no as well. If UFO abductees tried to tell me that I had to believe what happened to them or I might die, I would say, well I don’t and that’s that. I think it’s true of those with faith. If no evidence can be offered that satisfied a large majority of the people, then I’d say, no, their religious beliefs are not valid. You see, the problem I have is painting all the faithful with the broadest brush and trying to convince everyone that all faith in our perceptions, intuitions, emotions, etc. is wrong. I don’t like that and it’s not necessary. When atheists say the only rational response is to NOT believe, they are no different than faith-ists telling them that the only good response is faith. Same thing, different criteria. That’s why I wish everyone would just hold a “time-out” and stop trying to convince everyone else of the rightness of their ideas. It only leads to entrenchment of each side and bad feelings. As for people who may be trapped in their own minds and consciousness, who see and hear and perhaps feel things we don’t? I think perhaps it’s as real to them as those things we believe aren’t real. It’s just not obvious. Great conversation however. Thanks for those thoughts!

  7. O.k. so I want to point out something here. What your evidence and science proves isn’t that something is true, it’s that the consensus agrees that it’s true and it seems to be true so far and for the majority of people. You may think this is the same thing as objectively true and ultimately practically speaking it’s probably as close as we get, but I don’t really believe in objective reality. I believe in Consensus reality and subjective reality but I also don’t think that one is necessarily more real than the other.

    It’s useful and practical and convenient to say that as long as the dragon still seems to be there and other people agree, it must be true, but we really have no proof that that is a true statement. How do you prove that something is true? By showing that it is consistently true so far? How do you prove that *that* statement is true? I agree that it’s often useful to function in a society such that we accept that what most people believe to be true is true, but it’s not always the most useful way to approach a situation.

    For instance: Let’s say you see a dragon in your back yard. You don’t tell anyone. You look at it, you even touch it but decide that you are worried others will make fun of you or just plain might not be able to see it. One day it talks to you and starts giving you useful advice. The advice is helpful and doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe you ask one of your friends if they see anything strange in your back yard and they say no. Does it matter whether or not you base life decisions on the advice of a dragon only you can see? Is it valid for you to accept this as real? Does anyone else have to consent to your dragon existing? why?

  8. and I agree with britishreg as well. One other thing to consider, a truth I’ve realized recently, is that anyone who adopts an inclusive “live and let live” philosophy will always automatically exclude or be at odds with those that feel it is their duty to fix things. If someone is convinced that something terrible will happen to you or even them if you do not act or believe the way they do, then they feel they have a moral and perhaps even mortal obligation to change your behavior and beliefs. Of course those of us that do not agree will by definition try to keep them from having their way even if we try and be accepting and inclusive to as many people as we can. Of course this is still being generous to the excluders, if you assume they are not just being bullies and pretending to care when they really just want to have an excuse to hurt others.

  9. You are right. Perhaps the atheist motive is not to be overrun by loonies, but the theist motive is probably to save our “immortal” souls. I do know that I’ve known some really compassionate people on the faith side even inside the halls of those atheists would consider “loony.” It’s not as simplistic as some think. It’s just that those who embarrass the faith crowd always get the press.

  10. As for people who may be trapped in their own minds and consciousness, who see and hear and perhaps feel things we don’t? I think perhaps it’s as real to them as those things we believe aren’t real.

    That is probably so. But the question then becomes, how do you decide if any of these illusions are ‘real’ and if so which to believe? My own view is that you can’t. If you have personal experience of God, it’s not my experience. Why should I believe what you say? This is precisely the situation we find ourselves contemplating with religion.

  11. I believe in Consensus reality and subjective reality but I also don’t think that one is necessarily more real than the other.

    I disagree. Consensus reality does not make things so. Consider this: millions of people are happy to board airplanes every day, even though they may not understand the science that keeps them in the air. No-one is ‘agreeing’ that planes can fly. What keeps planes in the air is science. On the other hand, millions of people believe in the power of prayer, but tell me truthfully – are you willing to jump out of an airplane and pray to God that he saves you from an unpleasant impact with the ground? I assert you would not do so. It does not matter how many people ‘believe’ in something – it will not have real world implications unless it is supported by science.

    Does it matter whether or not you base life decisions on the advice of a dragon only you can see? Is it valid for you to accept this as real?

    In my opinion, no, it does not. I have no problem with a person living their life by the dictates of a magical dragon. What I DO have a serious problem with is someone telling me that I should live my own life by the advice of a magical dragon that I can neither hear, see or touch, and for which the dragon devotee can bring forth no evidence whatesover. What’s more, I really don’t care how many people ‘agree’ that the dragon exists. People are easily fooled, especially when they are badly educated, fearful and vulnerable.

    Let me ask you this question: if consensus belief is so valid, why do you not hold a faith in the Egyptian god Ra? At least as many people have believed in that deity as have believed in the Christian’s God. How do you determine that that particular ‘consensus’ belief is less valuable than another consensus belief? I submit that you can’t – people believe, for the most part, in the deity of the culture in which they were raised. That in itself is something I would question most seriously if I held a particular faith.

  12. and those who believe in the provability of non-belief

    This is a commonly held mistaken belief. A good scientist (or atheist) knows that you cannot ‘prove’ a negative. For my own part, my stance is not that ‘God has been proven not to exist’, but that there is no evidence to suggest that I should adopt the view that He does.

    It’s exactly the same as a belief in unicorns. I assume you are rational enough not to hold a belief in such beings. You are not attesting that unicorns have been ‘proven’ not to exist (for such a thing is logically quite impossible to prove) but rather that there is no evidence to assume that they do.

    You may of course take the view that the jury is out for all such beliefs, but again, I assert that there are things in which you don’t believe: Pixies? Alien abductions? Leprechauns? Civilizations living inside the Earth?

    You don’t need such things to be ‘proved’ to be impossible. You are making an assessment based on your rational thought processes. Why does religion not get that same attention?

  13. Maybe the short answer for me is, you don’t have to believe what I say. You see, my problem with religion is also the atheist’s problem: I don’t want religionists pushing their sharia, OT laws, or any other belief system on me and mine. Period. I don’t want them being violent toward others just because they believe they have the right. I honestly don’t think argument works with these folks which is why atheists have such a hard time getting through to them. It has to personal and it has to hit home somehow. I love constructive and civil dialogue, but when factions degenerate there is “no health in it” as Reg would say. I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s similar to telling kids to play nice in the sandbox.

  14. @MOI:

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but it’s similar to telling kids to play nice in the sandbox.

    Well of course, I’d like that too. But the problem is that religion has not ‘played nice in the sandbox’ for many millennia, and it’s not about to start now.

    Indeed – why are we having this conversation in the first place? It’s because, for the first time, religious people all over the planet are hearing the voices of those who don’t believe in their myths and they are upset about it. What’s more, there are a LOT of these terrible atheists and that is a deeply worrying thing for religion. Religions all base their hold on the idea that you don’t question the doctrine. Then, in a relatively short time, a lot of people start saying ‘Of course you can question the doctrine – and here’s why!’

    You may not like the friction that this causes, and wish it would all just go away, but the friction is there because religion won’t, and has never, played nice in the sandbox, and they’re being called on it.

    I’m not particularly impressed with the more aggressive spokespeople in atheism, but I certainly do understand their point of view. If we adopt the ‘live and let live’ philosophy, then religion will continue to do what it has always done – exploit the weak, the badly educated, the fearful, the lost, the vulnerable. It creates whole cultures filled with silly laws and rules that have negative social impacts. It allows people to abrogate their responsibilities to a deity rather than assuming them personally. It puts power in the hands of those whose interests lie in keeping people fearful and uneducated.

    This is not to say that religion offers nothing of value – personally I think it does. However, I believe that the damage done by formal religion far outweighs its usefulness here at the beginning of the 21st Century. Quite plainly we don’t need religion. Millions of people live moral, ethical and satisfying lives without it.

  15. anaglyph, I agree mostly with what you are saying, but I know many highly educated, unfearful, and non-vulnerable people who believe and take full responsibility for that and I can’t buy whole hog the idea that religion is detrimental to society. Some of faith have played nice and I think your statement about “never played nice in the sandbox” stretches the truth a bit. Like all ideologies, of course the charlatans take advantage of the weak, uneducated, and the lost, but by no means do they all do that. There are those who exploit and use any ideology for an excuse for power, but I don’t feel that using them as an example of what’s typical in religion is helpful nor is it conducive to dialogue. I’ve witnessed horribly arrogant and aggressive atheists, but I know this isn’t the norm. Those who try to convince others of their ideologies so vehemently are merely trying to convince themselves. I would think a little compassion on both sides would go a long, long way in easing the tension that keeps building between the camps.

  16. When I say religion ‘doesn’t play nice’ I don’t mean that it doesn’t have good qualities. I specifically mean that when something is in the interests of a religion it will pull out all stops to achieve its own ends, regardless of the humanitarian or moral consequences. I don’t even have to enumerate the countless examples of this. This is what most atheists object to. In fact, I know very few atheists who don’t agree that asserted moral bases for most religious beliefs are sound – usually they come down to obvious codes of moral conduct such as ‘Don’t kill people’; ‘Don’t steal stuff’; ‘Be honest’; ‘Treat others like you’d like to be treated yourself’ – and so forth.

    What many, if not most, atheists are trying to get people to understand is that the doctrinal edifice of religion, especially the huge religions like Christianity and Islam, is a bad thing. Not only do such religions operate under agendas, they are based on mythologies and stories that have no basis in rationality and no relevance to a modern world. They are, in our opinion, vestiges of simplistic thinking that we can dispense with.

    Please note – I am NOT saying that we should dispense with ideas of morality, community, social responsibility or ethics. But I don’t think we need to look towards religion to get guidance for those things. I am able to live my own life without religion. I think I would be right in saying that anyone who knows me would consider me to be a very honest, moral and socially responsible person. I have a happy and fulfilled life. I don’t kill or hurt people, I take care of my family in the best way I can, I am polite and courteous to those with whom I disagree. I have many friends, and, as far as I’m aware, no-one who would consider me to be an ‘enemy’. I am able to contain my anger, my jealousy and my vanity to what I think would be considered acceptable social levels.

    God didn’t tell me I should do any of this. I came to this point because I’ve made it a priority to educate myself widely, and it seems to me to be the rational thing to do.

    So I look at religion and think: the good things about religion are not exclusive to religion. But the bad things are.

    It’s a QED for me. We don’t need religion.

  17. You write: “We don’t need religion.” I simply would say that you don’t need religion, but many of us do, and I wouldn’t even say religion per se. We need spirituality and a sense of connection that many of us cannot get any other way. Tell us we have a defective gene or whatever, but we find fulfillment in different ways. For instance, I love ritual. Trying on my own to create a ritual satisfying for me has not worked. I don’t know why it calms me or helps me connect to the greater part of things, but it does. So I allow someone else to craft it for me. I could care less any longer what doctrines are behind it, unless and until they interfere with conscience. Do I listen to their opinions? Sure. But they are not my rule. My conscience is my rule. I realize that my needing certain things from religion makes me appear weak in your eyes and all believers weak in the eyes of atheists, but it doesn’t bother me. I admit that readily. Some people need circumscribed boundaries, some do not. I can only reiterate my position that if someone needs it, great. If they don’t, that’s great too. My beef, like yours, is with institutions that claim absolute authority and infallible fact.

  18. “One thing I know for sure is that atheists and theists will never agree nor will
    they ever agree to disagree.”
    Some of them may agree to disagree, or they may lapse into some mutually agreed agnosticism which would enrage both ends of the belief/nonbelief spectrum.
    But I say “would enrage” because we’ll never hear about those people. The kind of protagonists who put forward their certainties in public will never agree; they can’t afford to. Both ends of that spectrum have an oddly symbiotic relationship. They need each other, as in this excellent article.

  19. We need spirituality and a sense of connection that many of us cannot get any other way. Tell us we have a defective gene or whatever, but we find fulfillment in different ways.

    It’s nothing to do with ‘a defective gene’ and you misrepresent me by painting me as someone who thinks that religious people are somehow ‘weak’ or ‘defective’. I don’t think that, and the majority of atheists I know don’t think that either.

    You’ve merely been socialized into thinking that you need religious ritual. If you’d been born into a Hindi culture, you’d need their ritual. If you’d been born into a Muslim culture, you’d need their ritual. If you’d been born into a South Sea island culture you’d need their ritual. If you’d been born into a culture without superstitious beliefs, you’d simply take on the ritual of that culture. Ritual – and indeed ‘spirituality’ are not prerogatives of religion.

    What I think you’re saying is that you like the rituals of your Christian culture – well, you might find it surprising to hear that I do too. I was born into a Christian family – I love churches, religious music (of which there are some awe-inspiring works) and Christmas. But I love them in the same way that I love ghost stories even though I don’t believe in ghosts. They are just part of our rich history.

    I have no problem at all with the inclusion of our religious past in our lives – in fact I think it should be embraced. What I think is a problem is the employment of outdated and superstitious thinking as a model for our future.

  20. I find it curious that both you and MOI seem to view this kind of discussion as some kind of ‘war’. As an atheist I certainly don’t. It seems to me that it is a discussion worth having. I don’t feel the need to ‘agree to disagree’, for that, in my opinion, would simply be avoiding the issue. But neither do I feel the need to put on the gloves and get into the ring. I’m not in this to see blood.

    There’s not the faintest chance I’m ever going to ‘lapse into some mutually agreed agnosticism’ so according to your prognosis I must end up as an enraged atheist. Do you really see it like that – that atheists must necessarily be be ‘enraged’ because they don’t think it’s a good idea for the world to be ruled by superstition? It’s strange, because I don’t feel particularly enraged – saddened, maybe. Frustrated, disappointed, perhaps. But anger and rage? You really think they are necessarily a part of my life because I’m an atheist?

    You also seem to think that there is no way forward – that there must be some kind of permanent, intractable stalemate. That it would be desirable for everyone to ‘agree to disagree’. Again, this seems curious to me – a particularly ‘religious’ viewpoint, if I may say. There is most certainly at least one possible creative outcome of this debate: the lessening of the influence of religion on our species. Maybe that’s not an outcome you want to think about, but it’s why people like me take on this discussion. From a religious standpoint I can see how that would be enormously threatening, but if I were a religious person I’d be asking myself why, exactly, does it feel threatening?

    Where is the room for productive discussion in your assertion, britishreg? Why must it be a battle?

    (The article that you refer to in your link is not particularly impressive in my view – Eric Reitan, while attempting to toss off an air of impartiality, is pitching a conservative religious point of view. Not ‘conservative’ in the Conservative Right Fundamentalist way, but conservative in its banality. He says at one point that ‘good science is not about winning in the eyes of your constituency. It’s about seeking the truth.’

    That sentence alone is full of impossible contradictions. There is no ‘science’ in the argument for God. You can’t use science to prop up superstition. It doesn’t work. In addition ‘ seeking the truth’ is not something religious people want to do. What religious people do when they enter an argument is seek to reaffirm beliefs they already hold. The ‘truth’ does not care about your beliefs. What Reitan is talking about is a ‘truth’ that comes with caveats. Like all religious apologists, he’s made up his mind before he enters the argument. (His book, by the way is of a similar calibre – he never faces Dawkins’ arguments directly, but frequently misrepresents them to make them sound weaker. In several instances he even agrees with Dawkins, but tries to reframe his agreement to make it sound like Dawkins is arguing from a religious moral stance – something that is quite peculiar).

    Personally, I think that ‘show’ debates such as the one between Hitchens and Wilson are stupid and futile. All anyone ever wants to see is some name-calling and fuming. It’s why Richard Dawkins refuses to debate creationists any longer – there can be no productive outcome.)

  21. anaglyph,
    I don’t see it as some kind of “war.” I’m not sure where you get that impression. For me it’s a discussion as old as time. How do we know what we know? From where do we derive our ethics. etc. It’s philosophical. Religious systems are unimportant to me. I merely say that there are things above science that cannot be measured but by the individual. If I choose to believe in it I choose it. You don’t have to. And I’m not using science to “prop” up superstition. To me, they are vastly different arenas. And for the record, I do believe there will be a permanent intractable stalemate when it comes to defining “truth.” I’m fine with that.

  22. And I’m not using science to “prop” up superstition. To me, they are vastly different arenas.

    That comment was directly related to Eric Reitan’s article and his arguments. He does do that.

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