Talking with theists about religion sometimes – and by sometimes I mean almost always – feels like Groundhog Day, a painful and monotonous slog that simply travels the same territory over and over and over. I get weary of both hearing and repeating the same arguments so frequently, so I decided to compile the most tired (not to mention the most tiresome) themes that I encounter, so that going forward I can simply point people here when they trot out these inevitable gems.
1. Explaining what god is or wants, then saying humans cannot understand god.
The conversation goes like this:
Theist: “God loves us and wants us to be saved. God is just and merciful. God will provide. God always gives us what we need, not just what we want.”
Atheist: “If god loves us, is merciful, provides, and always gives us what we need, why do children starve to death?”
Theist: “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand His ways. You can’t apply human standards to god.”
Uh . . . If we can’t apply human standards to god when it comes to figuring out why he lets children starve, why can we apply human standards to establish that he loves us, is just and merciful, and will provide? By what means do you ascertain these attributes in the first place if not by human standards? God is either knowable or he isn’t; you either understand him or you don’t. If his reasons for allowing innocent children to suffer and die are inscrutable, so too must be his reasons for everything else, and to claim otherwise is to admit that you in fact know nothing of god, but have opted to believe what is most comforting to you – something that is manifestly apparent to atheists already, but which most theists would not confess in so many words.
2. Claiming that god loves us all, then rationalizing human suffering.
Theists most often dismiss human suffering by victim-blaming – declaring that our own free will causes us to make bad choices, which cause us to suffer as a result. Once we get past the inherent privilege of a claim that assumes everyone has an array of both good and bad options from which to choose (or has a choice at all), we are still left with the problem of suffering that is not the direct result of our own actions. “Free will,” they repeat. “Some people use theirs to hurt others.” Ah, okay – so god is willing to stand idly by and watch innocents be tortured and murdered because he prioritizes the free will of evil people to do harm over that of their victims? That’s not much of a resume-builder for god, but for the sake of argument I’ll give you that one too. What about illness and natural disasters then? Even the most nefarious of minds cannot will a tumor or an earthquake or a tsunami into being. That’s when, if we don’t hear “Oh, free will causes climate change which causes those disasters,” we hear (again), “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand god’s ways.”
In this world, deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on someone we claim to love is called abuse. In religion, it’s called grace. When we regard human suffering as not only inevitable but as an expression of love by an omnipotent being, we trivialize the experience of those who must endure it and stifle the otherwise natural human impulse to alleviate it.
3. Pretending that free will and a divine plan are not mutually exclusive.
When asked once if he believed we all have free will, Christopher Hitchens ironically replied, “Of course I have free will; I don’t have a choice.” In other words, an omnipotent god endowing humans with free will and commanding that they use it negates the very notion of free will in the first place – with or without it, we are still exactly as god made us, choosing exactly as he already knows we will. Conveniently, free will seems to only ever cause humans to behave badly; when they are charitable, kind, generous, selfless, humble, honest, and virtuous, it is always because they were following the example set by god, but when they are selfish, cruel, and violent their actions are the result of their own frailty, thus ensuring that god continues to reap the credit when we choose well and remain blameless when we don’t.
As if this weren’t bad enough, many of the same folks who talk about free will also claim that god has a plan. Take a common trope on prayer, for example, that says when you pray, “God answers in one of three ways: 1. Yes; 2. No; 3. I have something even better in store.” All three of those responses entail a god who is actively shaping your life, and who is giving or withholding things based on what he either intends or knows will happen. So which is it? Because it can’t be both.
4. Behaving hatefully, then saying “god bless.”
I recently had the pleasure of conversing with a theist on my Facebook page who called me “ignorant;” a “liar;” a “child;” “dense;” “trash;” laughed that I was “probably not” in a stable relationship and therefore infected with “the latest STD;” that my jokes aren’t funny (O, the humanity!); and, predictably, that she wished she could be there when I stand before god after death to see me receive my eternal sentence for disbelief. She topped off this love-fest by saying, “May God bless you and keep you in the New Year and many more to come.” Wait, I thought you were being an arrogant ass, but you want god to bless me? Well, in that case, right back atcha! Hugs and kisses!
These people seem to think that no matter how nasty they act or how mean-spirited their words, it is all permissible and forgiven as long as they conclude with an insincere blessing. Some of them will further justify their unpleasantness by claiming they were only fulfilling their godly responsibility to love their enemies by pointing out the error of their ways. Hence we end up with comments like, “Your ignorance and your unfunny jokes make baby Jesus cry, you slutty, disease-infested piece of trash! I’ll be laughing while you burn in hell! God bless!”
5. Declaring god as the source of objective morality, then interpreting scripture.
It is frustrating and disheartening that the myth that one needs to believe in the supernatural to live ethically persists in the face of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Beyond this obvious fallacy, however, lies the transparent manner in which theists lay claim to the objective correctness of their morals while simultaneously applying their own contemporary cultural morality to the world. “Look here,” you say, pointing at the words on the page, “it says to murder your loved ones if they worship any other god.” “You’re taking that out of context,” comes the reply. Or maybe it’s, “You have to consider the culture at the time this was written.” Or perhaps, “That isn’t meant to be taken literally.”
If objective morality comes from god, then the only way to determine that morality is through scripture. If you are not going to take scripture at face value, then you are admitting that your morals are inherent within you and influenced by the society around you, not handed down from the outside.
6. Labeling god as omnipotent, then blaming evil on the devil.
Is it that god cannot defeat the devil, or is it that he chooses not to? Not that anyone could blame him if it was the latter, seeing as how the devil makes such an outstanding scapegoat. But seriously – if you believe god is omnipotent and you also believe in the devil, then you have to believe that god has made a decision to let the devil do his thing. If god cannot in fact defeat the devil then he is not omnipotent, in which case it makes little sense to worship and pray to him at all. In either case, though, god sure as shit has both the power and inclination to get involved once you’re dead – by sending you straight to hell for doing whatever it was the devil talked you into while god stood by and watched.
7. Seizing upon minuscule inconsistencies in highly specialized scientific disciplines as a failure of science to explain the universe while accepting supernatural explanations for which there is no evidence.
There are mountains of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang. Virtually all of modern biology and cosmology are predicated upon these theories; the elegance of their explanations and success of their predictions continually reaffirm their validity. Furthermore, there is no small amount of evidence to suggest that under the right conditions, complex molecules can become self-replicating – the first step towards the creation of life. Meanwhile, there is no evidence for god. As in, zero. Zilch. None.
It has always struck me as odd that an institution that not only extols the virtue of faith but requires it as a matter of course and as a prerequisite of salvation would turn to science at all to justify its claims; after all, if the religious are so certain they are correct, shouldn’t faith be sufficient to maintain belief? The answer is, of course it isn’t, and their desire to claim the legitimacy of science betrays their understanding (and fear) of this fact. Furthermore, you cannot pretend to be concerned about the quality or weight of the evidence for a natural explanation of the universe while simultaneously advancing a hypothesis for which thousands of years of inquiry have failed to produce a single shred of evidence.
8. Subscribing to religion, then labeling the religious beliefs of others as “crazy.”
Protestants say Catholics aren’t really Christians. Baptists say Pentecostalism is a cult. Mormons say creationists are nutty. And yet all of these people believe more or less the same thing: That an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving deity created the entire universe and was subsequently so displeased with his own creation that he made a virgin pregnant with himself in human form; condemned himself to be tortured and sacrificed to atone for the sins of his creation; rose from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky; and now presides over the affairs of all humans and keeps track of where they put their car keys and whether they masturbate so that he knows who to help while they are alive and who to torture for all eternity after they die.
Anyone who thinks this is plausible forfeits the right to comment on the sanity of anyone else’s ideas.
9. Accusing atheists of cherry-picking scripture to make it look bad.
This one always makes me laugh. For one thing, no one needs to try to make scripture look bad; it does that all by itself with its genocide and rape and slavery and conquest and general bloodthirsty, vengeful douchebaggery. For another thing, scripture is packed with so many mutually exclusive commands and prohibitions that cherry-picking is required if one is to follow or even just discuss it. The only question is which cherries one will pick. Some will pick the ones about love and kindness and charity and claim these are the “real” version of their religion, leaving the others – the ones about torture and violence and cruelty – on the branch, hoping no one will notice them. Perhaps cherry-picking isn’t even the right metaphor. I think a better one is the Tree of 40 Fruit: Some of what it has to offer is sweet, some is bitter, and some may even be poisonous, but it all grows from the same plant.
10. Claiming membership in one of thousands of sects of religion as authority for telling non-believers why our interpretation of religion is wrong.
How often do we hear from theists that we misunderstand, misrepresent, misinterpret, or are ignorant of their scriptures? “What the bible (Qur’an / Torah / etc.) really says is X,” they say, or “When god said that he meant Y.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that many atheists are former believers who are intimately familiar with scripture, what do we make of the fact that other people who also identify as belonging to that religion claim that actually, god didn’t mean Y either, but Z? And what of the ones who say not Z, but A? Theists themselves cannot agree with one another on what god really meant or wants and none of them can produce a single valid reason why their interpretation is more likely to be right than anyone else’s. Why then is the interpretation of a non-believer any less credible – or to be more precise, any more incredible?
What most believers refuse to see, or at least to admit, is that there is no wrong interpretation of scripture. What is “known” about god resides inside people’s heads; there is no objective, external yardstick by which it can be measured, nothing that can be observed, and no source to clarify what was truly intended by any given chapter or verse. Furthermore, even if we could eliminate the ambiguity of scripture we would still be left with the contradictions: For virtually every instruction, elsewhere in the text is its prohibition or the command to do the opposite, and since no one can ring up Yahweh or Allah to ask which one is the right one it is left to the individual to decide. Said another way, scripture is sufficiently ambiguous and contradictory that all interpretations are justifiable – in which case we are left with nothing more than a free-for-all in which religion is whatever any given believer says it is.
In defense of theists, contradictions are the inevitable consequence of belief in monotheistic religion, given its outlandish claims and its incoherence. It is hard not to wonder, though, to what degree these contradictions are the result of intellectual dishonesty and what can be attributed to a mere extreme absence of self-awareness. Whatever the case, now that I have (hopefully) saved myself some time in future discussions, maybe I can at least spend less of the next Groundhog Day trapped in tedious debates and more of it sipping Mai-tais with Punxutawney Phil.