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Sean the Blogonaut

Add to this the theist who turns up at your blog and critiques your current post without having bothered to read any previous posts where you have gone into the facts at length.

In reflection though this is not strictly limited to the religious.:)



I made some related comments when discussing the Salon interview with James Carse some time back. Specifically, Carse condemned Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for not being "historians or scholars of religion" and so "it's too easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is," when in fact what they were doing was engaging with actual beliefs that people hold.

Not only did Carse display a double standard - he wasn't asking Christians to study sophisticated versions of other religions, to be historians or scholars of religion before they reject other religions - but he didn't bother to engage with even a common but unsophistcated atheist point of view; instead he denigrated a version of atheism he appears to have made up, and his straw-man atheism yields such amusing lines as "To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe."

This sort of thing is extremely common. I think it underlines the fact that a lot of these complaints share a common source - not of an interest in actual discussion or refutation, but simply to shut up any disagreement at all.

I'm sure you've read at least as many discussions as I have ... it often turns out that it doesn't matter if you do engage with "more sophisticated" arguments, because there's always another, slightly different version of a "sophisticated" argument you didn't engage with yet. It's a set of infinitely-moving goalposts, because the point is to avoid any resolution where you might have successfully argued against anything - to keep you dancing around and around in circles.

Just keep at what you're doing, Greta. You write long posts, others of us will write short posts, and some others still will write books. None of them will ever avoid the sort of charges laid, because the whole point is simply to keep laying charges, warranted or not. We can answer these charges when they come up, but we shouldn't worry about that resolving anything, because desire for resolution was plainly not the reason they were made in the first place.

G Felis

This post is a genuine public service. The next time some apologist tries this sort of "But your criticism of X didn't consider [insert entirely irrelevant and unrelated topic Y here]" argument on me, I'm going to follow your strategy precisely - that is, I'm going to point them to this post and go find something better to do. You've done all the work for me!


I don't understand the feeling of "when I first hear a religious apologetic or miracle claim that's new to me, often my initial response is to feel a little tremor, as I wonder, 'Could that really be true?" I don't get a tremor each time someone tells me that "Bigfoot" has been found, or that Santa Claus is coming, or that Elvis has stepped forward. Even "alien baby discovered" stories don't register, though those do have some remote chance of being true someday. And I don't think my mind is closed. I'm just not ready to spare time for extremely improbable stuff like the above, and any particular religion.

Paul Crowley

Yet another one of your posts that I'm going to be directing people to in debates - thanks!

I don't share your open-mindedness - I don't think it makes sense to wonder if it's true any more. But when I first hear a religious apologetic that's new to me, I do get a tremor, because I keep thinking I'm going to learn the argument for God that isn't totally pathetic, the argument that makes it possible for all these otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people to believe. Realistically, like you I know that if this argument existed I would know about it by now, and that I have to look elsewhere for an explanation of how belief is possible for these people.

Mike Haubrich, FCD

As an atheist, I think it would be silly to say "Amen," so I think it best just to say "Thank you, Greta." I have been stewing over this very subject since I had a commenter critique my lack of depth in all things related to his religion. "The Courtier's Reply" was perhaps too oblique for some people, and this post comes straight out and gives it the gas.

We don't have to know all of theology in order to reject it. This post should be required reading in any atheist blogging course.


I'll add a hearty RAmen! I don't get why theists sometimes expect atheists to know religion better than the theist does. It's like they want us to do their work for them.

David Evans

Mike: There's nothing wrong with "Amen". It's a perfectly good Hebrew word, with translations such as "Verily", "Truly", "So be it", and "Let it be". So: Amen. And thank you Greta as well, of course.

This blog is not an encyclopedic compendium of atheist thought. It is not the Single Work Of Writing That Discredits Religion Once And For All.
Personally, I thought religion was a side issue around here. If you'd asked me last week, I would've said this weblog is about
  • What Greta thinks about sex
  • Cool stuff
  • Promoting something Greta wrote about sex
  • Promoting something someone wrote about sex
  • Deconstructing someone's hangups about sex
  • Book reviews
  • Six new kinks I hadn't even known existed
  • Politics
  • Religion (esp. its effect on sex)
"But you haven't considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?" And I always want to ask these people, "At what point is it okay for me to stop?

Once again, I must thank Blake Stacey for his mathematical analysis of how to answer the question "at what point is it okay to ignore Ann Coulter?" It's basically what you said, but with hard numbers.

The flip side of what you're saying might be called the Argument from Apologetics: if, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn't the apologists put it in the top 10?



I don't get why theists sometimes expect atheists to know religion better than the theist does.

If I remember correctly, Catholics are formally accepted as full-fledged members of the church at first communion, around age 12 or 13, right? And Jews become adults (as far as the religion is concerned) at their bar/bat mitzvahs, around the same age.

So presumably there are enough good, simple arguments that at age 12 a person can make an informed decision as to whether God exists. So what are those arguments?

What's that? First communionists and ba[rt] mitzvah-ers aren't making an informed decision? Oh. Never mind, then.

the chaplain

You've done it again. You must have been reading my mind. You've said everything I've been wanting to say to tedious theists who think my blog is their happy hunting ground for Christian converts. Thank you.

Raging Bee

Here's my take on what atheists are supposed to know about other people's beliefs: you don't have to know anything about a subject that doesn't interest you, unless you're talking about it and expecting others to consider you knowledgeable. I don't know squat about Islam, but that's okay, because I'm not writing about it, or trying to influence anyone else's thinking about it. My opinion on it is: "It's not for me." And that's all I have to say.

OTOH, I despise theist evangelicals who confidently say my beliefs are wrong, without knowing ANYTHING about what I actually believe. Some atheists make the same mistake, and they (like the evangelists) knock their own credibility down to zero in an instant. When (for example) someone like Dawkins points out that Christians believe in a blissful Heaven, but aren't eager to end their own lives; and when they then pretend this proves some sort of hypocricy on the Christians' part, they're showing their own ignorance of the full extent of what Christians actually believe. They don't have to study all of it if they're not moved to do so; but if they're going to talk about it, and try to discredit it, they'd better be able to show they know their stuff.

John B Hodges

Replying to Raging Bee... If you know the ABC's, that is usually enough to let you criticize the ABC's fairly. And, If you run into some particular example of one of the many thousands of different kinds of Christianity, and you criticize that particular example, you are not "showing your own ignorance", you are criticizing that particular example. If you want to be free from criticism, be a Tigger- "the very best thing about Tiggers is that I'm the only one." And don't tell anyone what you believe, so that no one can criticize you knowledgably.

King Aardvark

Right on. Nothing to add at all.

J. J. Ramsey

John B Hodges:

And, If you run into some particular example of one of the many thousands of different kinds of Christianity, and you criticize that particular example, you are not "showing your own ignorance", you are criticizing that particular example.

Unless you are overgeneralizing from that example.

Now it is fair to expect that we atheists are going to be taking some sample of assorted religions and generalizing from that sample, since there is no practical way of knowing everything about every religion. However, I can easily recognize that there are going to be some things that are easier to generalize than others. I can get a good feel for how this sample of religions shows signs of being accretions of legends and other made-up stories. Whether the sample is suitable for much besides that is another matter. If one wants to criticize Christians' afterlife beliefs, working from little nuggets that you've picked up in passing or from "what everybody knows" is not acceptable, especially if one is writing a book about it.

Eric R

We're all finite creatures. None of us can know everything there is to know about a subject--not even academics who specialize in the field. Those limits shouldn't keep us from formulating our opinions and putting them out there. In fact, that's why we should put our ideas out there: so that our insights can expand others' limits, and so that others can be given the chance to expand ours.

When we have conversations with one another, we all have a chance to be a bit less limited than we would be alone. And that is and should be one of the grat things about blogging--the chance to connect with and solicit the critical feedback of people we'd never otherwise meet.

And so, I think it would be counterproductive to resent it when someone says, "You haven't taken into account X or Y." It may be that you don't need to take X or Y into account to make your point (which is about Q). It may be that they're idiots who don't know what they're talking about (in which case we don't need to pay attention to them).

But then again, they might have knowledge or insight we don't have. When this is the case, it doesn't invalidate the original post. Nobody should expect a blogger to know it all. But the best bloggers, I would think, are those who are open to learning something new from those who respond to their blogs (even if much of what they get in response is the same stuff they've heard before).

So by all means get peeved at those who try to refute your critique of Q by pointing out that it doesn't undermine Z. But if Q is an interesting phenomenon in its own right that you've never considered seriously before, this confused commentator has still done something of value in the conversation.

Greta Christina

That's certainly true, Eric. But if you're going to do that, you need to then make the case for Q. It's not enough to say, "You didn't make the case against Q, therefore your case against Z is invalid." It's not even enough to say, "You didn't make the case against Q, therefore your case against A through Z is invalid." If you think a case can be made for Q, and you think that Q is important, then make your case for it. Don't just point out that it hasn't been disproven, yet, in that particular piece, by that particular writer.

And it's also not good to assume that the writer in question has never considered Q, and has never made a case against it. I can't tell you the number of times someone has commented on a blog post by saying, "You didn't argue against Q!" when I have, in fact, done so and at great length -- I just didn't do it in that particular piece.

Eric R

I agree, with a couple of qualifications, that advocates of some mode of religiosity (call it Q) should make the case for it, and not merely point out that this or that critic of religion hasn't addressed Q.

My first qualification is that we need to recognize that Q might not be a proposition but a way of life or a mode of experiencing the world, and so making the case for it won't amount to showing that it is true (a category mistake) but rather of showing that it is morally acceptable or in some broad sense reasonable to adopt Q.

My second qualification is that even when Q is a proposition, there may be several ways to make the case for it. First, one might try to demonstrate that it is more likely to be true than false. Second, one might try to show that believing Q is reasonable barring any compelling reasons not to believe Q (in other words, one might show that the burden of proof rests on the critic of Q to establish that one is not entitled to believe Q). Third, one might show that Q is the kind of belief which is such that, practically, one must either live as if it is true or live as if it false; and then go on to show that the weight of the evidence is largely silent on the question of Q's truth, so that one must for practical purposes make a decision in the absence of evidence. And then one might look for criteria which should guide one when the weight of evidence cannot, and argue that these criteria permit (but do not require) belief in Q.

Sandra Menssen and Tom Sullivan pursue the first approach in their recent book, THE AGNOSTIC INQUIRER, in support of their particular brand of philosophical Roman Catholicism. Alvin Plantinga pursues the second approach in his trilogy of episemological works, the third of which is entitled WARRANTED CHRISTIAN BELIEF. I pursue the third Jamesian approach in my forthcoming book (if you are interested in it, a link to the publisher's book page can be found on my new blog site).

But while it is reasonable to ask for a defense of Q from those who ascribe to it, it may not always be reasonable to expect that such a defense can be developed adequately in a necessarily short blog posting.

With respect to my own arguments, the best I can do is offer a very cursory picture which is certain to generate misunderstandings.

But here goes: There is a species of "faith" in which faith is understood to be a decision to live one's life AS IF a hoped for picture of reality is true, even in the absence of compelling evidence to think that it is. Such a decision can be reasonable and morally acceptable if the following conditions are met: (1) the evidence that is available is not inconsistent with the hoped-for picture (the picture is one interpretation of the facts among an array of alternative interpretations that work as well); (2)it is remembered that this is a decision to live as if one possibility among many were true, and that such a decision never confers certainty and, if legitimate in one's own case, must also be legitimate for others who make a similar decision about an alternative picture; (3) the substantive content of the hoped-for picture does not imply behaviors that would be morally pernicious were the hoped-for picture false.

Can religion meet these conditions? Yes. Does it very often? Probably not. Does it do so sometimes? Yes. When it does so, does it have a value deserving of respect? Yes.

If you want my answers to these questions defended, however, I'd need much more space than a blog post.


Greta, here is an interesting critique of the pathological nature of prayer. Given your predilections, you may already have seen it.

Eric R

My own experience (which, admittedly, is anecdotal) tells me that most mainline protestants view religious faith as the decision to live their lives as if a theistic world-picture is true, out of the hope that it is true rather than out of any strong evidence that it is more likely true than false.

If I'm right, then it seems a bit of a stretch to say that defining religious faith in these terms makes it "no longer recongizably religion." Most people aren't very good at defining "faith," but when I pursue some socratic questioning with my mainline Protestant students (as opposed to my "evangelical" or Roman Catholic ones), they usually arrive at a definition that amounts to "living in hope" or "living as if a hoped-for picture is true."

As to the more substantive point about whether the evidence speaks AGAINST a picture of reality which posits a transcendent reality more fundamental than the world of sense experience, I don't have the space to address that here. Victor Stenger, in GOD: THE FAILED HYPOTHESIS, tries to argue that the weight of scientific evidence falsifies such claims about the transcendent in at least a weak sense. But I think his argument fails to distinguish claims about the existence of the transcendent from claims about how the transcendent interacts with the empirical world.

Finally, I'll leave you with a positive assertion for which no non-circular evidence is possible, but which we all feel entitled to believe in the absence of reasons not to: "My senses are generally reliable." Alvin Plantinga makes an interesting case for the view that "God exists" is in the same epistemological position as this common belief. While I sharply disagree with Plantinga about that, I think that other beliefs are in the same category (basic moral beliefs included). Which beliefs we think fall into this category will have implications for the landscape of the debate about religion.

Greta Christina

Eric R: I think there's a difference between "choosing to live as if (X) were true" and "living in actual hope that (X) really might be true." It sounded at first as if you were talking about the former; it now sounds as if you're talking about the latter.

Here's my point. When I talk about religion, I'm not talking about the philosophy part, or the "transcendental feelings" part, or any of that. All of that is available without religion. I'm talking about the "hypothesis about how the real world actually functions" part. I'm talking about the belief -- whether it's a positively convinced belief or a hopeful one -- in some sort of supernatural or metaphysical being or substance that acts on the physical world in some way.

It seems pretty clear to me that that's what defines religion, what makes it different from philosophy or other human endeavors. And that's what I'm critiquing.

If you say, "I choose to live my life as if God exists, regardless of whether that's true, because I find it useful and helpful in my life," then I might be baffled by that, but it's essentially a subjective judgement that you're making about your own life. But if you say, "I think God is real -- or I think it's reasonably plausible that God is real -- and I live in hope that this is correct," then that's a hypothesis about the real, external world.

In other words: The part of religion that makes it distinctively religion is a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. And it's a hypothesis that doesn't hold up. It's a hypothesis with nothing to support it except for tradition and personal intuition.

John B Hodges

Pardon my cynicism. AFAICT religion consists of one human being A telling another human being B, without offering evidence, that B's behavior will have serious consequences in some invisible realm. A thus seeks to change (manipulate) the behavior of B. B has to decide whether to give credence to A's claim and modify B's own behavior accordingly. If religion does not do that, I do not care (and don't see why anyone would care) what religion does do.

If A has made up their own story, and decides to live as if that story were true, without telling the story to anyone else, I do not see why we should call that "religion". It is not something we could observe, there is no reason why we should call it anything. Perhaps if A describes in abstract and general terms how they are living in accordance to a made-up story (unsupported by evidence) that they hope is true, without revealing the actual story, we might call it religion, but IMHO we would be more likely just to call it willful self-delusion.

Glendon Mellow - The Flying Trilobite

This is pretty amazing.

Posts like this help make me feel bolder. You said it so well.

Thanks for your dedication to writing and rationality!


Excellent article and comments Greta.
I have now made this page a permanent link on my blog. A piece I will direct anyone to if they question my ability to question religion.


Hi Greta,

While I may not have anything useful to contribute to this conversation at the moment, I would like to thank you for your refreshing lucidity. I honestly don't know how you manage to cut through such lingual obfuscation, such as presented by the likes of Eric, but I truly appreciate that you can.

Your loyal reader,



Some readers seem to think that all atheist bloggers ever do is think, write, sleep, and breathe atheism. As if we don't have other lives!

James Smith,  João Pessoa, Brazil

To care what theists think, one would first have to believe that they think. That is self-contradictory as a rational, thinking person cannot be a theist.

In the entire history of the world, how many theists have been converted to rationalism by facts and logic? Two or three?

Theists become atheists by learning to think for themselves then asking themselves simple questions like, "Can this possibly be true?"

Like theists, we are also "preaching to the choir."

Jimmy Crummins

Religion rests on faith - not reason. Therefore attacking it with reason is illogical. When you attack faith, you are attacking the social foundation of someone's universe. This can, and often does, cause people to respond emotionally. This is particularly true of Islam, where you are not only dealing with a religion, but a socio-political compact. This is why Muslims are so readily willing to kill (and die) over matters of farth. You will not move their positions by arguement or reason.


when the broad strokes of all religions are magikal thinking and silly on the face of them, the particular details of one verses another don't really matter.

Even beleivers reject the vast majority of religions.

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