Notes to a Christian Professor July 15, 2009

Notes to a Christian Professor

It’s always nice to see Christians and atheists (and others) reaching out to each other to have conversations about religion and the nature of God.

But don’t do it the way Christian theology professor Randal Rauser does it.

Some advice to him is below.

Tip #1) Don’t begin a note to atheists like this:

I must say that as a general rule I like the atheists I meet. Oh sure, there is the odd mean fundamentalist atheist out there, just like in every other belief system. But most atheists I talk with are intelligent and thoughtful, if at times overly defensive.

I tend to like Christians I meet, too.

Except the ones who believe in Christ.

But the rest of them are intelligent and thoughtful.

(What is a “mean atheist fundamentalist” exactly? He never explains. I’d like to know…)

Tip #2) Explain the problem at hand:

Sadly, I have found that atheists often misunderstand both the nature of atheism and of Christianity…

That’s a good start. Put the blame on the other side.

But if you do that, don’t imply that Christians know better especially when you yourself misunderstand the nature of atheism (see Tip #3).

Tip #3) Don’t you yourself misunderstand the nature of atheism:

The problem here, in short, is that atheists often are not clear either on what atheism is or on what its rational defense requires…

Go on…

Problems begin when atheists confuse atheism with agnosticism (a confusion which in my experience happens quite often). Atheism is the affirmation of the proposition (1) “there is no God”…

*sigh* No, that’s completely wrong.

Strangely enough, Rauser goes against his own definition in the comments:

Okay, here is the single definition provided in Merriam-Websters: “one who believes that there is no deity”. And here is the Longman dictionary’s single definition: “the belief that God does not exist.”…

Let’s be clear on this: Atheists don’t believe a god exists. That’s very different from claiming that one absolutely, positively doesn’t exist. I don’t believe in a god for the same reasons I don’t believe in unicorns, Santa Claus, and ugly-looking-Swedish-people.

Might they exist? Maybe. Do I think they do? Nope.

Tip #4) Don’t try to converse with atheists and then call them agnostics:

Agnosticism is the stance where one affirms neither (1) “there is no God” or its negation, (2) “there is a God”. Agnosticism is a respectable position. One may very well believe there is inadequate evidence either way to settle the question. But I have encountered a number of people who took the agnostic position, and yet persisted in calling themselves atheists.

How dare you…

We’re not agnostics. We are not in the “middle” when it comes to god’s existence. We’re clearly leaning in one direction.

Frankly, I’m not a fan of people who call themselves agnostics. It’s the more politically correct position, perhaps, since atheist has a stigma attached to it, but it’s weak.

As the popular example goes (work with me here), we can’t say that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists nor can we say He doesn’t. Are we agnostic about the FSM? No. We’re atheists regarding Him.

Tip #5) Stop the attempt at conversation until you can stop digging the hole you’re already in:

Good try. It’s a worthwhile thing to do. But this is a bad start. Maybe some other time.

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  • I am going to direct Professor Rauser to my post and diagram demonstrating what all these terms and identities are really about. 🙂

  • Ya know, when I first read this post’s title, I thought for sure that you were talking about this topic instead.

    It’s very interesting, this sudden trend of re-defining atheism to make it easier to argue with….I wonder which one of the Big Christian Thinkers came up with this one?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic?
    by Bertrand Russell

  • Reginald Selkirk

    You may recall Rauser receiving previous mention on this blog. After he ran an article, “Atheism: A Cost/Benefit Analysis,” he got reamed by actual atheists in the comments. Following which, Christian Post suffered a convenient computer glitch in which all those comments were deleted. In addition, the accounts of some atheist commenters were revoked.

  • Everyone in the entire world is agnostic. Not a single one of us knows if there is a god or not, as this is an impossible question to answer.

    Since none of us can know if there is a god, the only question is if we believe in one or not. I don’t, so I’m an atheist. This douche does, so he’s an idiot.

  • The Wikipedia article on atheism is actually quite thorough at discussing the broad definition of atheism, and the subsets thereof. Yes, there are atheists who assert the belief that God does not exist. No, that is not what being an atheist means.

    Of course, I wish more people would understand that agnosticism isn’t incompatible with atheism – the former being a position regarding epistemology, the latter regarding metaphysics (or more specifically, ontology).

    Having a background in philosophy, this kind of thing really irks me. Props, Hemant, for calling him out on it.

  • Veritas

    Speaking as someone who dates a Swede, I can assure you, ugly ones do not exist.

  • stephanie

    What John said.
    I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in any gods, not even ones so popular they’ve taken on the whole general noun title as their own.
    But I’m not smart enough to know everything in the universe. I will never know how the universe works beyond what our little monkey brains can parse through science and mathematics. I will never completely wrap my brain around distances or numbers in excess of a billion. There is much I don’t and will never know about the universe, and I consider such things to be the ultimate truths. Therefore I am agnostic.

  • Indigo

    I will be perfectly happy to cede the point that there *might* be a god of some description about, and therefore I’m agnostic on the question, as soon as theists concede that if a divine being is fundamentally unknowable and its existence perpetually uncertain that religion is therefore gibberish. It’s like saying, “You can’t prove that aliens *don’t* exist…so therefore we must build them a giant landing pad.”

  • Epistaxis

    His note seems like it’s really written for fellow Christians and just addressed to atheists as a literary gimmick. Surely he doesn’t believe that the best way to start a dialogue is to argue pre-emptively with a strawman and tell the other party that they may only represent one of his pre-approved stances. In a dialogue, you actually let the other person tell you what he or she thinks. This is a monologue.

  • *sigh*

    Atheist: a person who does not believe in gods.

    Agnostic: a person who claims that they cannot have true knowledge about gods.

    Theist: a person who believes in gods.

    See how atheist\theist centre on a question of belief. Agnostic can apply to both theists and atheists.

    I do not believe in gods but I am aware that I do not know everything and so reserve absolute confidence in my position by applying the modifier “agnostic” to the descriptor. Usually I don’t bother because I assume a basic understanding of the term “atheist”.

    As for the nature of Christianity I think we get it far more than most Christians do. It’s just that we find the arguments for Christian belief to be weak, easily refuted and prone to unfounded assumptions. Present a good argument for the Christian position and we’ll give it the appropriate level of attention.

  • His note seems like it’s really written for fellow Christians and just addressed to atheists as a literary gimmick.

    That is exactly what he is doing.

    As others have said, he just takes a term “atheist” and redefines it to make it more rigid to suit his purposes and then attacks the straw man he invented. Typical behavior from someone with an agenda.

  • bronwynm

    I find the back and forth comment section after Rauser’s article distasteful. The comments on this blog are so much more . . . intelligent, thoughtful, accepting, considered, “friendly,” etc, etc. Keep it up everyone! And Zackford, I love your diagram!

  • mikespeir

    The problem here, in short, is that atheists often are not clear either on what atheism is or on what its rational defense requires…

    Atheism doesn’t need a rational defense. Belief in unseen beings needs a rational defense.

  • Atheist: a person who does not believe in gods.

    Agnostic: a person who claims that they cannot have true knowledge about gods.

    Theist: a person who believes in gods.

    One could refine the term “theist” as a belief in interacting god(s) to differentiate Theism from Deism. Then an atheist is a person that does not believe in interacting god(s).

    The point still stands that Rauser’s characterization of atheism is too rigid.

  • I’m kind-of partial to this diagram defining (a)theist and (a)gnostic.

    Of course it isn’t a four-state diagram but a continuum along each axis.

    Also see

  • SarahH

    It’s always a bad sign when someone claims, when *starting* a dialogue (or pretending to, at any rate) that the people he’s addressing are “defensive.” I mean, how do you reply to that kind of assertion? Any disagreement with the author is automatically painted as defensiveness, which is taken as a sign of weakness. When something has a legitimately good defense, people are going to use that defense, plain and simple.

  • SarahH

    Oh, and @bronwynm

    I find the back and forth comment section after Rauser’s article distasteful. The comments on this blog are so much more . . . intelligent, thoughtful, accepting, considered, “friendly,” etc, etc. Keep it up everyone!

    I mostly feel the same way (I do come to FA for calm rationality and to PZ’s when I want a dose of entertaining in-your-face snarkiness), but the very first reply to the article WINS the discussion as far as I’m concerned:

    And I look forward to your subsequent post in which we can find out if you are an a-unicornist, or merely an agnosticorn.

  • I’d postulate that most of us are technically both atheist and agnostic.

  • unTheist

    I would actually go slightly further than most of you have gone regarding the relationship between atheism and agnosticism.

    I would say that most agnostics, are also atheists by simple fact that they dont hold a belief in god. If you consider 3 possible simple answers to the question “Do you believe in (a) god(s)?: 1. Yes | 2. No | 3. I Dont Know

    Anything other than a Yes, seems to me could be could be considered atheism.

  • It kinda makes you wonder how someone this dense about religious definition could make it to the position of professor of theology.

  • Todd

    Agnostic: A person who believes indecision is the only virtue.

  • I always find it funny that the primary characterization of “fundamentalist atheists” is that they’re “mean”. When we talk about fundamentalist Christians, we’re characterizing their beliefs and political positions, not how “mean” they are. A lot of fundies are nice people. A lot of moderates are jerks.

  • I love when atheists call agnostics “weak.” Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Sort of like when I hear a Christian say “you never were a real Christian” upon admitting de-conversion. But you know, as long as we don’t “misunderstand the nature” of atheism, who cares if we cast aside philosophical agnosticism in one stroke of a brush.

  • Miko

    Agnosticism is an epistemic belief, not a metaphysical one. Someone who says “I’m not an atheist; I’m an agnostic” is either using a non sequitur or is unfamiliar with what the words mean.

    It’s also worth distinguishing the weak agnostic position (“I don’t possess evidence to give an unassailable argument either for or against the existence of deities”) and the strong agnostic position (“Evidence does not exist which would give an unassailable argument either for or against the existence of deities”). I’ll accept the weak agnostic position, but I’m less certain of the truth of the strong agnostic position.

  • John Morales


    Nice one, Hemant.

    You have regained much respect in my estimation with this post.

  • This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 7/16/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • Kiera

    Excellent post, as per usual 🙂

    Only change I would make in your critique– I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “believe” when it comes to me and the G-O-D. It’s not really that I don’t believe in God. It’s that there is currently no evidence that leads me to think he exists. Belief, in it’s traditional sense, doesn’t even factor into it.

  • A number of commenters here brought up the issue that being agnostic refers to believing that you can’t have knowledge about gods and atheism is the lack of belief. It’s refreshing.

    To many people seem to think agnosticism means “I don’t know if a god exists” and then put atheism in contrast, thinking it means “I believer no gods exist.” That drives me nuts. 🙂

  • stogoe

    To my point of view, most agnosticism is all about special pleading. Are you really agnostic about the pre-islamic persian deities? What about the celtic pantheons? Or are you just agnostic about the existence of Yahweh and his merry band? Clearly you’re capable of deciding that some belief systems are just scary campfire stories, so why does the Jesus myth get protected above all others? Oh, right – because it’s inescapable in our culture.

  • AJ

    I don’t consider myself an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. That’s one reason why I never use the word “atheist”.

    That’s partly because I’m just not very good at believing in anything. As a kid, I didn’t believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, etc. Without evidence, I just lacked belief.

    On the other hand, I feel like I’m still settling my question about god/gods. Quite in contrast to what stogoe just wrote, I don’t hold any special belief system above any other. If a god/gods does exist, than I certainly think that no group has actually figured out the truth of god/gods yet.

  • Heidi

    How dare you…

    Thank you! I had a conversation a few days ago where some woman told me I was “really” agnostic, whether or not I was bright enough to realize that. Yeah, I’m sure I’d be much brighter if I just had some of that woo.

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