by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

This email is my response to the atheism posts that have been popping up, especially these two. And most especially the last reader comment at the second link above, which concludes: "modern philosophy of religion (when not simply Christian apology), leads at most to a measured reassurance than some kind of vague conception of the divine cannot be dismissed as simply irrational - but it is cold comfort for anyone who values such things as eternal life, a God who is knowable, or a universe in which good deeds are ultimately rewarded."

Though I would like to believe that I am a tolerant, open-minded person, it seems likely that I fall into the "anti-theist" category of atheists. I would not choose that label for myself, but it describes my attitude more or less. My strong feelings on this matter come from two main observations:

1) All the philosophical/theological work on god's existence or non-existence that I've seen doesn't actually prove very much. Pace Plantinga's sleight of hand with modal logic (the premises of which I tend to think are meaningless in a way that eviscerates the coherence of the argument), all the "proofs" I've been exposed to end up concluding that it is possible that some god-like force or being exists. Even Plantinga's modal work merely concludes that some sort of maximally excellent being must exist--but makes no specific assertions about what this being would actually be like in any concrete way.

2) Most of my day-to-day contacts with religious believers, in the context of policy debates and family dinners, center pretty closely on concrete suggestions that religious people make for my life and the policy of this nation. They base their certainty on the contention that their religious persuasion is undoubtedly correct in these matters.

This has been said by other readers, but I hope to add to the conversation mainly by pointing out the gap between what is proven in point 1 and what is asserted at point 2. When I assert that there is no just reason for gay people not to be allowed to marry, or for a woman to be forbidden from aborting her pregnancy regardless of circumstance, I am answered by people who say "it is forbidden because it says so in the bible," not people who say, "it is possible that a maximally excellent being exists."

Just because something is possible does not make it probable. I believe that it's possible advanced aliens exist somewhere in the universe, but I don't base my policy recommendations on that. I base them on observable evidence from the world, on my limited ability to reason, and on my hope that discussion with others will help refine and ameliorate my ideas. I guess what really rankles is being called virulent and strident when my only crime is not believing that another person's faith should trump my reason.

Another reader:

As an agnostic who sees all sides of this issue - brought up in a conservative Christian household, against which I rebelled, only to try to understand where they're coming from, I can say that the main thing I object to is the New Atheists' use of the term "religion".  If you're criticizing young-Earth creationism, or any specific belief or set of beliefs or set of behaviors that are identifiably harmful to our society, then yes, these are fair game and deserve criticism.  I don't think any of us "accomodationists" would dispute that, or try to argue that we should somehow just let fundamentalists roll over us in the public sphere with their archaic religion-based social norms. 

The problem is, the scope of the argument that they New Atheists make extends far beyond mere criticism of a given specific set of religious claims, and attempts to encompass all "religion".  So, the arguments they're making would seem to apply not just to "religion" as it is most commonly encountered in the public sphere in the U.S. (ie, evangelical Christianity), but also: Hinduism? Buddhism? Sufism? Taoism?  What are we talking about here, when we talk about religion?  Are all religious people of all stripes equally deluded?  What does it mean to be religious?  These are questions to which the New Atheists seem to believe there are easy answers, and here I protest: the picture is more complex than that, and I would expect, as well-educated members of the scientific community, that they might take an interest in being more specific with the language they use before making such generalizations.  Stop using the word "religion" when what you really mean is "fundamentalist followers of Abrahamic faiths", and we're getting somewhere.

Another:

So do atheists "weak man" Christians?  Perhaps, but it's because the "weak man" in Christiandom is actually a very powerful and frightening group of people.  Look at Bush's presidency, where abstinence education was pushed to the forefront despite all evidence of its negative effects.  Look at Dover, PA, where a group of Christian nutjobs tried to do away with scientific consensus to teach children the intellectually bankrupt "theory" of intelligent design.  Look at the Pope's failure to condemn the excommunication of those who were involved in an incredibly young girl's abortion after she was raped by her own father.  Look at the Vatican's efforts to protect child molesters.  Look at the Mormon church's concerted efforts to derail homosexual rights.  I think it's incredibly absurd, in that light, to say that atheists are "weak man"ing the religious, when their "weak men" are leaders of hundreds of thousands of religious followers and when those leaders are believed to be in direct communication with the LORD, and that their word is infallible.

The fundamentalists are a real danger to this country and to the world at large.  Could such a danger exist in a vacuum of religion?  Perhaps, but the problem right now is with religious fundamentalists, and the ignorance that such fundamentalism breeds, so we direct our attention thusly.

Second to last:

Far from ignoring these moderates, I have read their arguments and have responses.

"I have an 18 year-old and a 15 year-old which my wife and I have raised in the church.  They are both at the stage where they are questioning and challenging everything.  The idea that I could possibly 'brainwash' them into believing anything is specious."

I am sure this reader's children are immune to indoctrination, but many aren't.  Google the Moonies, the Krishnas, David Koresh, cults, de-programming, et cetera.

One of my nephews went through a similar questioning phase, and happened to open the Bible at random and saw something he interpreted as a sign from God telling him to shape up and get with the program.  In science, this is known as fooling yourself into seeing a pattern in random events.  It happens all the time, but in science one is taught to be wary of it.  In religion, such things are called signs and wonders and miracles.

"Religion deals with symbols, myth, archetypes and believing what you cannot see.  These are intellectual skills that cross over into non-religious contexts. How much of science depends on believing in unseen forces?"

Uh, none, unless you insist upon unaided human vision as the only way to obtain evidence.  All the forces in science which are accepted have good evidence for them, and can be demonstrated in controlled, repeatable experiments.

The observation about the English teacher's ability to distinguish religious from non-religious students by their ability to understand symbols is interesting, but is an example of an uncontrolled and unverified experiment, which could never be accepted in a peer-reviewed science journal, since the risk of bias is too great.

To all those moderates from the previous post in this series (who don't believe in hell, would have no problem voting for an atheist, and so on), thank you all for your support.  Keep up the good work keeping creationists off school boards, insisting on federal funding for family planning which goes beyond abstinence counseling, supporting federal funding for stem-cell research, and electing at least one atheist for every two Christian Conservatives.  Okay, that devolved into snarkiness, but seriously I expect without them things would be a lot worse.  Trying again, sincere thanks to the Ken Millers and Judge Jones out there.

One more:

I think your statement about both sides using the 'weak man' argument against each other gets it just about right. I would very much like to see more spirited debate between the new atheists and the religious non-fundamentalists.

Take my own personal story. I was raised a Catholic, but after several major events I stopped believing in both the institution and the god. But back while I was hovering between belief and non-belief, I went to see a priest for spiritual guidance. Part of me wanted to be assured that God indeed existed. But another part of me wanted to bring some New Atheist fire upon the priest to satisfy the anger that I had because of the complete and utter disappointment that the idea of God has been.

Then I got there and things didn't turn out the way I expected. Here was someone who did not believe that the world was created in literally 7 days, did not believe that the world was 6000 years old, did not believe Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 were God's judgment because of the gays, and so on. Suddenly a lot of the 'easy' New Atheist invective that I had readied fell by the wayside, and I was forced to have a more measured conversation about the merits of the idea of God with this non-fundamentalist priest. And of course, it was a lot more civil than your standard Internet comment debate. It's a lot easier to be an asshole to a screen than it is to someone sitting right in front of you.

While I still don't believe in God, I learned that day that the 'weak man' argument was ultimately a copout. It doesn't raise the level of the debate but instead lowers it so that one can stomp all over it. And it doesn't work unless your opponent is an extremist.

If you haven't read it, Andrew's debate with Sam Harris is an excellent example of what can come from engagement between atheists and moderate believers.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.