Saturday, May 03, 2008

Parsons on misconceptions of atheism

This is an interesting Keith Parsons essay on misunderstandings of atheism. A redated post.


Edwardtbabinski said...

Related to Parson's essay, an e-friend of mine, John Loftus recently "came out" as an "atheist" over at tweb (theology web, an online religion forum where he's known as Doubting John, and I'm Babaloo). You might be interested to learn that John took some classes with William Lane Craig and got to know him a bit. John also recently updated a book he wrote about his spiritual and religious journey and increasing doubts vis a vis his fomerly religious certainties, titled, From Minister to Honest Doubter. When he told me that he had recently become an atheist, I had these words that he appreciated:

I'm probably an a-theist at least 99.9% of each day, since most things we do or decisions we make--from working--bathing--driving to stores--to shaking hands--has little to do with religious beliefs. Though on the other hand, neither do I try to force myself NOT to pray, nor force myself not to meditate, nor force myself not to yearn that a higher power might help us all make greater sense out of this rag tag cosmos.

Bonhoeffer once wrote, "A God who allowed us to prove his existence would be an idol."

Mark Twain's satirical comment aimed at the "provers of God's existence" is also apropos:

"We have infinite trouble in solving man-made mysteries; it is only when we set out to discover 'the secret of God' that our difficulties disappear."

I admit with Twain that "God" sure does comes in handy when we "set out" to "solving mysteries," like the mystery of the how the cosmos and life began, or the human mind. All easily "solved" by invoking an even greater mystery, namely, "God." Just don't fret over where "God" came from. Though I can't help fretting a little bit over using one mystery, an ever bigger mystery, to "solve" another. I don't see that as a highly satisfactory "solution" or "explanation." So I continue to have more questions
Than answers.

Along those lines, here are some quotations from Henry David Thoreau as quoted in Henry David Thoreau: What Manner of Man? By Edward Wagenknecht:

"Let God alone if need be. Methinks, if I loved him more, I should keep him--I should keep myself, rather--at a more respectful distance. It is not when I am going to meet him, but when I am just turning away and leaving him alone, that I discover that God is. I say, God. I am not sure that is the name. You will know whom I mean…"

"Doubt may have 'some divinity' about it."

"Atheism may be comparatively popular with God himself."

"When a pious visitor inquired sweetly, 'Henry, have you made your peace with God?' he replied, 'We have never quarreled.'"

Therefore, whether a person is a hard atheist, soft atheist, just-right-atheist, nullifidian, dull-afidian, charismatic agnostic, or just plain John or Ed, I'm not a big fan of labels. The Romans called the early Christians "atheists" because they dishonored traditional
Roman religion by refusing to offer up a bit of incense to the Emperor. After Christians were in the ascendancy they started using the term "pagan" [a term akin to "country bumpkin"] to put down everyone from philosophers and educated classes to common folks, i.e., anyone who was not labeled as either a "Jew" or a "Christian." And Christians added more labels like "heretic" [the original Gk. for that word meant, "one who makes choices," which was apparently not a good thing for "Christians" to be doing by the time that word was being widely used], not to mention other labels like, “Blasphemer!” “Idolater!” “Infidel!” “Antichrist!” “Apostate!” “Schizmatic!” “Demon Deluded Servant of Satan!” “As Fit to Be Fried as Lucifer’s Lamb Chops!” Oh wait a sec, I invented that last one.

I do admit to being a bit of a fan of the "crazy wisdom" tradition found in many religions (as Conrad Hyers of Gustavus Adolphus College pointed out in his wonderful books about spirituality and comedy; see also Idries Shah's book, The Wisdom of the Sufis).


A man was having a pair of pants made by a Jewish tailor. But the man grew impatient over how long it was taking the tailor to finish them. The man complained, "It only took God six days to make the world, but it’s taken you over a month to make the pair of pants I ordered." The tailor held out the man’s pair of pants with pride and said, "Dat may be so, but take a look at the world...den take a look at dees pants!"

I believe in Someone Out There--call Him God, since other names, like Festus or Darrin, do not seem to fit--but I am not entirely certain that He is all that mindful of what goes on down here. Example: Recently a tornado destroyed a town in Texas and dropped a church roof on a batch of worshipers. One of the few things left standing were two plaster statues, one of Jesus, the other of Joseph. The townspeople, according to the news, "looked at the statues’ survival as a sign of God’s love." Hold the phone. This sounds like the he-beats-me-because-he-loves-me line of thought. If the Lord in his infinite wisdom drops a concrete roof on the true believers but spares two hunks of modeling compound, it is time to question the big Fella’s priorities. If I have to be made up of plaster to command attention in this universe, something is amiss.

James Lileks, "God Has Call-Waiting," Notes of a Nervous Man

I am at two with nature.

Woody Allen

Did God who gave us flowers and trees,
Also provide the allergies?

E. Y. Harburg, "A Nose Is a Nose Is a Nose," 1965

Amorphophallus titanus is an eight to ten-foot tall plant which produces the world’s largest flower, part of which looks like a titanic penis. The odor the flower produces is incredibly foul--a mixture of burnt sugar and rotten fish that attracts flies which pollinate the plant. (Did God create the world’s most titanic flower to pamper fly noses and revolt human ones? Does the Designer love flies more than us?)

Or take the Aristolochia grandifloria...PLEASE! It’s a huge plant whose smell is so disgusting that wild animals stampede from the area when the plant blossoms. (Helpful hint: If you’re sending flowers in memory of a dearly departed relative, a bouquet of these would not be appropriate.)



I’m convinced that the God of nature is a libertarian. After all, there are hermit species and social species; herbivores and carnivores; some that mate for life, others that live to mate, and some that eat their mates. Plus, there are species in which sons mate with their mothers, newborn children mate with each other, fathers kill other father’s children, mothers eat their own children, daughters eat their mothers, and children devour each other in the womb.


Only a Designer would have had the infinite wisdom…

…to make the male giraffe taste the urine of the female before they copulate

…to make the baby giraffe fall several feet and land on its head at birth.

…to make the male porcupine pee on the female before copulating with her.

…to create two side-toes on each foot of the pig that do not touch the ground as it walks.


If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst thing you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.

Woody Allen

"Don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways, there’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us...How much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?"

"Pain?" She pounced upon the word victoriously, "Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us of bodily dangers."

"And who created the dangers?" he demanded. "Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of his celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He?"

"People would look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads."

"They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupefied with morphine, don’t they? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering."

Joseph Heller, Catch-22


It was no use feeling the pain of an inflamed appendix until modern surgical techniques were sufficiently advanced to remove it. And often the "warnings" appear ill-adjusted to the seriousness of the disease. Toothache kills few people, while some forms of cancer give little pain in the early stages.

C. S. Rodd, The Expository Times, Vol. 107, No. 2, Nov. 1995

All great religions in order to escape absurdity have to admit a dilution of agnosticism. It is only the savage (whether of the African bush or the American Gospel broadcast) who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely.

H. L. Mencken

Believing hath a core of unbelieving.

Robert Williams Buchanan: Songs of Seeking

One does not have to believe everything one hears.

Cicero, De Divinatione, Book 2, Chapter 13, Section 31

A man must not swallow more beliefs than he can digest.

Havelock Ellis, The Dance of Life

Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.

Thomas Jefferson, Writings, Vol. II, p. 43


I once wrote a short story about someone who made a wish that magically came true. He wanted all the physical dangers and death in the cosmos to vanish. Presto! It did. The earth was henceforth eternal and immortal and ecologically perfect, and everyone could have as many children as they wanted because the planet expanded magnanimously at will to accommodate them. When you gazed up into the sky you didn’t see stars, you saw Beyond the clouds a reflection of the same earth you were on, because the whole universe curved back in on itself, and when you pointed a telescope overheard and looked up you could even see yourself looking down at yourself through a telescope, because that’s how tightly curved the space of the entire cosmos now was. No danger of asteroids or outer space rubble slamming into the planet and destroying life. And you could eat all you wanted and your body would take whatever you ate and produce tiny white pellets that smelled like flowers and came out your anus. When the pellets dropped on soil they fertilized it, but when they were eaten by any species, it ensured that organism’s perfect health. So nothing at all could possibly go wrong. Death wasn’t an option because someone was always there to feed you a little white pill whenever you broke an arm or got burned. And nobody ever wanted to die, they were all so happy, so nobody tried to destroy themselves irreparably and everyone took care in their mellow environment, which lacked harsh winds and temperatures such that planes never failed in their duty to stay on course and never fell out of the sky.

Then one day the person whose wish had created this world made another wish, he wanted to avoid even verbal arguments and wished everyone believed as he did, and presto! Everyone did. They believed as he did about EVERYTHING--from philosophy and theology, right down to which fashions were the most stylish. In fact, as the days passed he noticed everyone in this perfect cosmos was growing to look more like him. His world truly was perfect, it was HIS world through and through.

But that’s when he grew to loathe absolute safety, absolute agreement, absolute perfection, seeing his own reflection in the faces of billions peering at him from the sky above as he peered up at them from his telescope below, hearing his own thoughts constantly echoed back at him, on all sides, forever. Now that he was right, finally, utterly correct, there was no point in discussing new topics with anyone, since everyone lived similar lives, heard the same news, and thought what he thought about every matter. Nor did he encounter in the world of philosophy, art, fashion or song, anything of which he didn’t already approve, so, there were no differences, discords, diversity or dangers in the cosmos, nor any surprises. All wishes for health, happiness and eternal life had been fulfilled. Yet he never felt deader inside, and never wanted to live less than at that moment. And naturally everyone else on the planet felt exactly the same way.

He tried wishing away his first and second wishes: 1) to abolish all death and dangers, and 2) to make everyone agree. But nothing changed. Apparently he had only been granted two magical wishes, not three. Soon afterwards, the human beings in that perfect little cosmos all decided to do away with themselves at approximately the same time and by the same suicidal means, leaving no one behind to feed them the little white pills that could have revived them.


Perhaps God or the gods got omni-bored with their omniscience, omnipotence, eternal perfection and power, and decided to take a rest from eternal boredom, and we are the result? We are the part of God that is currently "on vacation," or, "gods on vacation." We are risking, discovering, being SURPRISED, as well as suffering pains and challenges, which is exactly what an omni-bored God or gods would want to experience when they’re on vacation.

Lance E. Lawyer

I believe in an afterlife. Because the combined royalties of everything I’ve ever had published in this life, aren’t worth living for.


If you live right, death is a joke to you as far as fear is concerned.

Will Rogers

He deserves paradise who can make his companions laugh.

The Koran

We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers, quoted in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

Victor Reppert said...

I don't think this has a whole lot to do with Parsons' essay. Please stick to the subject.

Mike Darus said...

There is much to say about Parson's essay. Seems like more than one straw man. I thought his complaint about the abuse of atheists was unconvincing. Everyone who is anyone can complain of being persecuted. His example of David Hume seems a bit of misrepresentation. This is a more complete account:

In 1744-1745 Hume was a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. The position was to be vacated by John Pringle, and the leading candidates were Hume and William Cleghorn. The Edinburgh Town Council was responsible for electing a replacement. Critics opposed Hume by condemning his anti-religious writings. Chief among the critics was clergyman William Wishart (d. 1752), the Principal of the University of Edinburgh. Lists of allegedly dangerous propositions from Hume's Treatise circulated, presumably penned by Wishart. In the face of such strong opposition, the Edinburgh Town Council consulted the Edinburgh ministers. Hoping to win over the clergy, Hume composed a point by point reply to the circulating lists of dangerous propositions. It was published as A Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend in Edinburgh. The clergy were not dissuaded, and 12 of the 15 ministers voted against Hume. Hume quickly withdrew his candidacy.

His "atheism" did not disqualify him, but it did make unpopular which is a disadvantage in an election.

Mike Darus said...

forgot to footnote:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Reppert,

Have you read any St. Maximus the Confessor? I was reading your book last night on the Argument from Reason last night and thinking how exciting it would be to see you interacting with him. "Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor" by Joseph P. Farrell is certainly worthy of a read as well.

thnuhthnuh said...

1-2: completely wrong. It's wrong for atheists to be so afraid of disapproval that they resort to this kind of talk. It's like being 'seeker sensitive'. The truth may not be pleasant, but you've got to face it in any case.

3: This endless quibbling between both sides I never quite understand the reason for. Atheists are without belief in God, but this means on the whole we believe it overwhelmingly more likely that God does not exist. But we do not claim that we have a logical proof against the existence of God. Tarzan may have been 'without belief in God' but once the proposal is made to him, he'll make a judgment as to whether he thinks it's true or not! We atheists have had the proposal made, and we've come to a decision.

4-7: right on target.

IlĂ­on said...

What I don't understand is how someone (in this case, you, Victor Reppert) can respect ... you know, honestly respect, not just say the word ... someone so intellectually dishonest as the author of this list of "misconceptions."

But then, I suppose one might always claim that Mr Parsons isn't actually intellectually dishonest; that is, that he isn't intentionally misrepresenting atheism so that he can (dishonestly) claim that we non-atheists misunderstand it ... but rather that he is merely intellectually deficient in some serious manner; that is, that he just doesn't understand how to think logically and/or simply doesn't himself understand atheism, and therefore simply cannot grasp the truth about atheism and its implications.

philip m said...

Whenever atheists address the claim that without God life is meaningless, I feel like they really stop thinking about it in an objective mindset. The point is about our ultimate meaning, which is a category in everyone's minds I think. It is not a point about your life from point A to point B, but rather is a thought about humanity's place in the universe.

Parson's response made me think of the Pascal quote, "We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it."