Confronting the angry atheist straw man

As an outspoken atheist, I’m often bombarded with atheist straw man arguments. I suppose this is not unusual. Some of those arguments are subtle, and others not. This post will deal with one or two of them…

The worst part of dealing with those straw man arguments is that they are often not presented as arguments. More frequently, they’re presented as questions, some of which are easy to refute – but the refutation is unexpected and unwanted by the person asking the question, since their questions are loaded with assumptions about atheism, assumptions that they are not prepared to question. Whenever I’ve been asked these questions, my answers, which explain the fallacies about atheism that the questions are loaded with, are met with hostility. The person asking the question always reacts that way, and seemingly does not want the fallacy in the question exposed. They then either declare the debate “won” because I couldn’t answer their question (even though it doesn’t really apply to atheism) or they respond with aggressive hostility, all while claiming that I am rude, intolerant and disrespectful. It’s highly ironic, because not only am I not disrespectful, but I am then criticized for refusing to defend a position that does not represent atheism at all. (I call this “defending a straw man.” It’s a term that I made up without knowing or caring if anyone else has used it, but I’m writing it here in case I ever mention it again. Normally phrased as “I will not be goaded into defending a straw man” or something to that effect.)

Some examples:

  1. How can you believe in nothing? The old nothing and then nothing exploded meme. No, I don’t have to explain that, because that isn’t what atheism is about.
  2. Explain how this thing (holds up some complex thing) came to exist by chance alone. How can you possibly believe this came to be by chance? Sorry, but I don’t believe that. That isn’t what atheism is about.
  3. You must have some special knowledge, to know that god does not exist. You’re so arrogant to think that you have this knowledge. Nope. No special knowledge here. In fact it isn’t the atheist who is arrogant. You have that backwards.

Here’s what atheism is about… It isn’t a belief system. It is the rejection of belief systems. It is the theist who presumes that a god created the universe, but not just any god… the same one that he or she was taught about since childhood. Atheism is the disbelief in that assumption. It is the theist who assumes, without evidence, that this specific god created the universe. Thus it is the theist who assumes to have knowledge that he or she could not possibly have. The atheist simply says, “No, that doesn’t make sense. Where did this god come from?” It’s arrogant to provide a magical explanation for everything, and then it’s disingenuous to insist that anyone who points out how preposterous that magical explanation is, is arrogant.

To assume that atheism is the belief in nothing, or that it’s the belief in things existing by chance alone, is a kind of false dilemma. What you have is your belief, and you then insist that atheism is some kind of polar opposite of that belief. As if belief comes down to one of only two possibilities. Evolution is not about anything appearing out of nothing, or by chance alone. Natural selection is a kind of selection, which involves many factors that affect the gradual changes in life forms over millions of years… factors that are far from random. Evolution also has nothing to do with explaining how the universe came to exist. You’re conflating it with cosmology.

But I don’t have to explain evolution to anyone. I rejected your belief in magic purely because there is no evidence for it. I reject not only the god you think of when you say “God”, but all the others that humankind has created.

And when all other arguments fail, I’m told that I (and others like me) are angry. If I were angry, wouldn’t I be the first to say so? Angry with what? Angry with whom? I can’t be angry with god, and which god do you think I should be angry with anyway? I don’t differentiate between them. They all explain what we do not understand using magic. I can’t be angry with the bible. If I am, then I gather you are angry with the Book of Mormon, the I Ching, the Tripiṭaka and the Dhammapada, the Vedas, and a bunch of other “holy” texts.

The simple truth is, calling someone angry is just a way of taking the focus off their argument and attacking the person instead of what they argue. It is ad hominem.

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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3 Responses to Confronting the angry atheist straw man

  1. Perhaps they are angry because you deny their God. I’m met with the same incredulity when I tell my students I don’t believe in religion. I might as well be telling them I’m atheist, even though I lean more towards agnostic. They automatically jump to if I don’t believe in religion I must believe in nothing or have no values or something.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      I think you’re right. If you don’t believe in my god, then you don’t have my morality, and you must believe in something that is the polar opposite of creation, like nothing etc…
      Also some projection going on there.

      But I tried as much as reasonable to avoid speculating why they do this in today’s post. As soon as I speculate about the reasons, an astute critic (like my brother) will tell me that I am also using ad hominem. (Tu quoque fallacy all the way, but it wouldn’t be the first time.)

      Sometimes the anger perceived may well be a projection.

      I believe that some people hold their beliefs so dear, the beliefs form not just their worldview, but the way those people perceive themselves. Therefore criticizing those beliefs is understood not as just criticizing what they believe in, but as some sort of personal attack to begin with. (So an angry response, or a personal attack, is therefore “justified”.)

      There’s also the fallacious idea that morals come from religion. My brother even used this one on me recently, going so far as to say that I do not understand Catholicism at all. I struggle to imagine where these supposed religious morals come from… I mean, the Ten Commandments are mostly gibberish about not accepting other gods. The Bible itself contains far more examples of poor morality, by today’s standards, that good morality. One has to cherry-pick to find examples of goodness in there. But I don’t think a typical believer is aware of the poor morality of their holy book, not consciously anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. pluviolover says:

    Good explanation. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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