The Bigger Question

by Patrick Appel

A reader makes many good points:

There are so many intellectual and philosophical criticisms to level at the most irritating of atheists, it's hard to know where to start, but one fundamental point is that atheists commonly commingle two debates into one.  Atheists' main core argument, if they are pinned down to one, is about the lack of existence of God.  The problem is that discussions on this quickly devolve into analogies to Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, or whatever.  The far more interesting argument, which these angry only rants seem to spend the least time and effort on, would be whether or not the practice of religion is worthwhile.  This particular class of atheists state rather reflexively that it is not, and get annoyed when asked to back that up.

This is unfortunate, because it belies not just an ignorance, but a willful one at that, of how most believers experience religion.  Atheists presume that believers accept God on faith and then practice religion according to the specifics of that faith in God.  I would rather contend that this is what a believer may do in childhood, but that for many adult believers (or perhaps I should say practitioners), the belief in God largely is supported by the belief that the practice of a particular religion is beneficial at some level.  It's not only a more relevant argument, but it's much more fertile for constructive discussion, and actually probably cuts far closer not only to why believers believe, but why unbelievers don't.

Finally, one of the most galling things to me about the modern internet atheists is that in my experience, while they talk a big game about Science and Rationality and Learning, they can be remarkably intellectually unsophisticated.  John Gray hit the nail on the head so hard he blew it apart, I think, when he outlined how the framework behind most of the "New Atheists" is really just a crude mix of vulgar 19th century-quality positivism with some reflexive materialism and shallow humanism thrown in.  They ignore a century of rigorous, lively philosophical debate and criticism on ontology and epistemology, preferring instead the staid certainty of Victorian science.  I don't mind having my beliefs criticized, but if you can't at least discuss anything pertaining to the topic since before the Nietzschian turn, go away.

Before I go too far, let me just state for the record that I've interacted with a huge number of thoughtful, sophisticated atheists, both online and offline, which has been incredibly rewarding for me.  However, these conversations generally don't mention Santa Claus.