Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Abusing Atheists

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays)

Earlier this month, Jeff Lowder posted an open letter to theists about abusing atheists.[1]

This is what he said:
In his contribution to Philosophers Without God (ed. Louise Antony, Oxford University Press, 2007), Walter Sinnott Armstrong describes the sort of bigotry he encountered after his debate book God (co-authored with William Lane Craig) was published. One theist sent him an email calling Sinnott-Armstrong

a "small minded" "egotist," "an arrogant fool," and a "pompous PhD," then added "it is pathetic that the College allows you in a classroom," and "That you don't [believe in God], I am sorry to have to inform you, calls into question your intelligence." Then it concluded, "Please be assured that this theist will impartially consider any persuasive response you can offer and, as such, I look forward to continuing this dialogue with you."

Commenting on this email, Sinnott-Armstrong writes:

This exchange indicates a larger problem: Many theists feel perfectly justified in abusing atheists. I would never consider writing such a diatribe against a theist who argued for belief in God. I would remain calm even if a theist misrepresented atheism. Most atheists I know let ridiculous religious views go unchallenged.

I'd like to pose the following question to all theists, especially evangelical Christians:

What are your thoughts about the email sent to Sinnott-Armstrong? Do you condone the email? Do you condemn it? Or are you indifferent? Do you agree with Sinnott-Armstrong that "Many theists feel perfectly justified in abusing atheists"? Why?

In raising this issue, I recognize that there have been atheists who have been guilty of committing the same kind of abuse against theists. Nevertheless, I'd like to focus the discussion on the treatment of atheists by theists. Please share your thoughts with me.
Among others, Victor Reppert responded. Among other things, he said the following:
I dislike Richard Dawkins, but I don't envy him his hate mail…I have no idea as to why Christians send these things to atheists.
This raises a number of issues.

1.I don’t think that Christians should send “hate mail” to Dawkins. On the other hand, Dawkins writes in a deliberately offensive and provocative style, so he richly deserves whatever hate mail he gets.

2.I don’t know why Reppert is jumping to the conclusion that a Christian sent this “hate mail” to Sinnott-Armstrong. Maybe it was a Christian. But Sinnott-Armstrong doesn’t say that. And neither does Lowder.

It could also have been sent by a Muslim or Mormon or Hasidic Jew, among others. The fact that Reppert instantly assumes that it must have been sent by a Christian reflects a prejudicial stereotyping on his own part. One wonders if even Reppert bothered to read the book before he clambered onto the bandwagon.

3.Unfortunately, neither Sinnott-Armstrong nor Jeff Lowder defines what they mean by “abusing atheists.”

Maybe Jeff’s question is an invitation to Evangelical Christians define such abuse. Here are some examples of what I would consider an improper response:

i) It is wrong to knowingly speak falsehoods about an atheist.

ii) It is wrong to disrespect a respectable argument.

4.On the other hand, there are atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who willfully misrepresent the Christian faith through their studied ignorance of Christian theology and Biblical scholarship.

Likewise, I’ve found that Darwinians such as Ridley, Futuyma, and Kitcher presume to critique creationism without making any good-faith effort to acquaint themselves with the standard creationist literature.

They also pass over in silence the secular critics of the standard evolutionary paradigm, thus leaving the reader with a very inaccurate or lopsided impression of the state of the evidence.

That flagrant misbehavior deserves to be denigrated. It’s especially egregious when an atheist is posing as a rationalist, lecturing the rest of us on the rational superiority of atheism, at the very same time he resorts to patent sophistries and pig-ignorant aspersions.

5.As to the specifics of the email sent to Sinnott-Armstrong, I do not condone the email. It’s derogatory to no good purpose. There is no attempt to present a counterargument to his stated position. So it’s a gratuitous putdown.

6.So that is roughly how I’d distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate Christian rhetoric. But I still don’t know how they define “abuse.” For example, what does Jeff think about the stream of invective which his coeditor, Robert Price, directed at William Lane Craig in TET? Does he condone it or condemn it?

By definition, an atheist has a more favorable view of atheism than a Christian. So there’s no value-free standard to invoke. In the same volume that Jeff referenced, we encounter this complaint:
Within this climate, skeptics and atheists are viewed with suspicion. We are presumed to be arrogant, devoid of moral sentiments, and insensitive to a wide variety of human goods. Indeed, according to the authors of a recent survey from the University of Minnesota, “Atheists are at the top of the list of groups that Americans find problematic in both public and private life.” Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said that they would “disapprove” if their child “wanted to marry a member of this group.”…these opinions…linked disbelief with egotism, consumerism, and ethical relativism.”[2]
i) Does Jeff regard that as an example of abusing atheists? Up to a point, I can understand, from their perspective, why an atheist would resent this “suspicion.” On the other hand, it would be unreasonable of an atheist to expect a Christian to view atheism favorably. These are, after all, opposing positions. They find fault with each other.

Indeed, the very volume in question operates on the principle that the best defense is a good offense. It goes on the offensive by attacking Christian ethics in a very in-your-face manner.

A number of the contributors clearly view Christians with suspicion. They view many Christians as arrogant, devoid of moral sentiments, and insensitive to a wide variety of human goods. They view Christian ethics as deeply problematic in public and private life. They wouldn’t want their child to marry a devout, Bible-believing Christian.

ii) Moreover, is this an inaccurate impression of atheism? In the very same book, one of the contributors makes the following admission:
This is not to insist on moral realism, the thesis that moral discourse is objective. Moral non-cognitivists from Hume to Simon Blackburn insist that moral assertions, such as the wrongness of killing innocent children, do not express matters of fact, or have truth conditions.[3]
Not all atheists take this position, but for those that do, why wouldn’t a Christian be well-warranted in viewing them with suspicion? In this case there is a direct link between disbelief and ethical relativism.

iii) There’s also the bloody track record of secular regimes like Stalinism and Maoism.

iv) Furthermore, is secular moralism necessarily an improvement over secular nihilism? The average secular humanist takes positions on abortion, infanticide, eugenics, euthanasia (whether voluntary and involuntary), sodomy, pedophilia, organ-harvesting, homosexual adoption and marriage, as well as other social issues that are diametrically opposed to Christian ethics.[4]

Just consider Richard Dawkins’ social blueprint for a secular technocracy:
Yet the book [The God Delusion] ranked number two in Amazon’s worldwide sales list, and is fueling an antireligious campaign in Britain, which Dawkins himself is leading, canvassing government ministers and promoting atheism in state schools. This effort has already notched successes in restricting religious rights, most notably in a new British law requiring Catholic adoption agencies to place children with gay and lesbian couples.

The National Secular Society (NSS), of which Dawkins is an honorary associate, has campaigned for a godless Britain since the nineteenth century, and devotes its Web site to decrying and ridiculing religious faith. The NSS, whose associates include twenty British parliamentarians, as well as such establishment cultural figures as the playwright Harold Pinter, vows to combat “religious power-seekers” and “put them in their place once and for all.” For his part, Dawkins has said he would remove all financial support from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim schools and make them teach atheism; prohibit hospital chaplains from solacing the ill; and undertake other measures to combat the “infantile regression” of religious belief. And what about parents who persist in telling their children about religion? “It’s probably too strong to say the state should have the right to take children away from their parents,” Dawkins told an interviewer. “But I think we have got to look very carefully at the rights of parents-and whether they should have the right to indoctrinate their children.”

Asked why the twentieth century had witnessed so many atrocities, he insisted Hitler and Stalin had been “quite mild” compared to the religious “monsters of the Middle Ages.” In a series on Britain’s Channel Four TV, he equated elderly pilgrims at Lourdes with suicide bombers on the London Underground. “Far from being beaten, militant faith is on the march all across the world with terrifying consequences,” Dawkins told TV viewers. “It’s something we must resist, because irrational faith is fuelling murderous intolerance throughout the world.”

Language like this would sound familiar to those who remember the campaign against religious faith in Eastern Europe, where claims about religion’s social divisiveness were used by totalitarian regimes to justify savage repression. Under such regimes, scientific atheism was a requirement for teachers and educators, legislators and ministers. Schools and colleges were seen as the frontline in a struggle against religious belief, a struggle that included removing Christian symbols and place names and disrupting Christian influences in marriage and family life. These were political systems in which just being a Christian was enough to attract the cold glare of suspicion and hostility. The utilitarian morality favored by Dawkins was given free rein.
His atheist campaign, with its chilling eugenic undertones, appeals to many people raised with little knowledge or understanding of religious belief-people for whom the fear of Islam touched off by September 11 has metamorphosed into a public phobia about all religion. Such people may be tempted by Dawkins’s Darwinist notion of religious belief as a virus that infects inferior genes and needs “quarantining,” as well as by the summons to defend society against a rising tide of “religious fanaticism.”

For another, Dawkins has influential friends and formidable resources. Hostility to religion has a long tradition in the United Kingdom, where “organized religion” often sits uncomfortably alongside Anglo-Saxon empiricism and individualism, and anticlerical sentiment reflects the impatience of an antireligious elite that resents alternatives to its own way of thinking. Welcoming Dawkins’s new book, the veteran BBC broadcaster Joan Bakewell said the professor was right to be “not only angry but alarmed” at the spread of religious faith. The liberal peer, Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, who scrutinizes all legislation passing through the British Parliament, has also deplored threats to the “secular commitment” of Western societies. “The return of religion to politics-and to public life in general-is a serious challenge to the rule of democratically enacted law and the civil liberties that go with it,” Dahrendorf wrote in the Guardian, and he appealed to “enlightened communities” to respond accordingly.

Britain itself may already be feeling the effects of such “enlightened” thinking. A recent Education Bill amendment would have required Catholic schools and other church-owned colleges to reserve at least a quarter of their places for nonreligious children (it was reluctantly withdrawn by Britain’s education minister, Alan Johnson, after Catholic and Anglican leaders said they would create such places voluntarily). And an upcoming debate this month will center on the new Equality Bill, which threatens to deny religious organizations the right to follow conscience in dealings with homosexuals. Meanwhile, social services in several counties-including Dawkins’s native Oxfordshire-are reported to have denied adoption rights to Christian couples, after claiming the children in question could be “brainwashed.”

One church leader, Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, has warned that the controversy over Catholic adoption agencies is just the “tip of the iceberg.” If enacted, new regulations “could compel religious organizations to renounce their activities or be removed from public life,” Conti warned. A new Charity Law is expected to withdraw tax-exempt status from religious bodies that fail to reflect “modern morals and existing orthodoxy,” even as Christian Union societies at British universities have had to resort to legal action after being denied facilities and having their bank accounts frozen. Meanwhile, Edinburgh University has banned copies of the Bible from student dormitories after condemning the Christian Union for violating its “equality and diversity policy” by claiming that “any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage is not God-ordained.” And religious leaders have resisted attempts by secularist local councils to “de-Christianize” Christmas and Easter and remove Christian place-names from towns and cities-literally wiping religion off the map.

As for Dawkins, a new Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason was unveiled in December to fight the “scandal” of religious teaching in schools, and to prevent children from being “labeled with their parents’ religion.” With a Labor Party Humanist Group launched in Parliament earlier this year to “oppose faith schools,” Dawkins can be confident his campaign is flourishing. Britain’s crusading atheist looks set to fight on for his ideal utilitarian society, a brave new world in which secularism reigns supreme, while lives, values, and freedoms are ruled by scientists.[5]
Is it any wonder if Christians distrust militant unbelievers in positions of power? Why wouldn’t we view secular humanism as a mortal menace to our civil liberties? What is Jeff’s position on Dawkins’ sociopolitical vision?

7. It’s also amusing to see Sinnott-Armstrong cast himself in the role of Mr. Nice Guy—brimming over with tolerance. You’d never know from Lowder’s excerpts that Sinnott-Armstrong has some very choice comments about Bible-believing Christians, in the very same chapter from which Lowder excerpted his quotes:
You had to go along with whatever the Bible said, even when it was puerile.[6]

My quietism ended when current events taught me the dangers of religion. I had always known how religions, including Christianity, led to wars in the Middle East, Ireland, and so on.[7]

On a more personal level, I was not prepared for the death of Matthew Shepard. When bigots kill defenseless homosexuals, they do not always cite religion as their reasons. Christianity still fuels their bigotry. If Christians did not broadcast their condemnation of homosexual, then the bigots would be less likely to kill. Christianity is at least part of the case. I came to see why Christianity should be held responsible for these deaths. The dangers of religion are even more evidence when abortion doctors are killed by openly religious groups.[8]

Of course, atheists kill, too. Russian and Chinese communist governments are famous examples. However, these atheists killed in the name of communism, not atheism.[9]

Other deaths are caused by religious views in less obvious ways. One such case was brought to my attention by a conference at Dartmouth College on stem-cell research…our government was restricting it.[10]

Most atheists I know let ridiculous religious views go unchallenged.[11]

This defeatist attitude means that fundamentalists get away with spouting harmful nonsense…If atheists let themselves be cowed, our country’s policies will continue to be distorted by ancient religious myths. More religious wars will arise. And there will be more suffering among people who need abortions or stem-cell treatments or just sexual freedom.[12]

Professors don’t put up with beliefs in ghosts, even in student papers. Why should we have to treat religion differently?[13]
This raises a number of apt questions:

i) Why does Sinnott-Armstrong take such offense at the email when he himself is so harsh and denunciatory in his characterization of Christian ethics?

ii) How does Jeff feel about Sinnott-Armstrong’s description of Christians and Christian ethics?

iii) Notice that Sinnott-Armstrong is threatening to downgrade the term papers of his religious students. Isn’t that a way of saying that Christian students need not apply? Why is it wrong for the email correspondent to say that he has no right to be in the classroom while he insinuates that Christians have no right to be in the classroom?

Incidentally, there are well-attested case studies of “ghosts.”

iv) The gov’t does not restrict stem cell research. It only restricts gov’t funding of stem cell research. At even that only holds for the Federal gov’t.

If successful, stem cell research would be immensely lucrative. If private companies are not prepared to invest R&D capital in stem cell research, it must not be a very promising research program. So why should gov’t fork the bill?

v) Does he have any hard evidence that stem cell research will save lives?

vi) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that it would save lives, is it ethical to extinguish some human lives to save other human lives?

vii) Christians don’t oppose stem cell research. What they oppose is embryonic stem cell research.

viii) How many women actually need abortions? Is Sinnott-Arnold prepared to restrict abortion to women who actually need them? Would he legalize therapeutic abortions, but criminalize eugenic and elective abortions?

ix) Which is worse, to verbally abuse a tenured professor, or kill a baby?

x) Does he have any hard evidence that unbelievers murder homosexuals due to Christian preaching?

If anything, I’d suggest that Christian preaching restrains violence against homosexuals. Normal men are ordinarily contemptuous of homosexuals. Left to their own devices, normal men would be more likely to assault or murder homosexuals.

xi) To say that atheists kill, too. Russian and Chinese communist governments are famous examples. However, these atheists killed in the name of communism, not atheism is a lovely piece of special pleading inasmuch as these are militantly secular ideologies.

xii) Why does he think it’s wrong to kill homosexuals, but right to kill babies? Given how he’s cheapened the value of life, what does it matter who lives or dies?

xiii) Is the civil warfare in Ireland due to religion or colonialism?

xiv) What “openly religious groups” assassinate abortionists?

If nothing else, Sinnott-Armstrong is very loose with the truth. And just in case you think that he is over the top, Sinnott-Armstrong is downright charitable in comparison with another contributor to this very same volume. David Lewis thinks that Christians are even worse than Nazis, and he treats Christianity like an infectious disease:
Many Christians appear to be good people, people worthy of the admiration of those of us who are non-Christians. From now on let us suppose, for simplicity’s sake, that these Christians accept a God who perpetrates divine evil, one who inflicts infinite torment on those who do not accept him. Appearances notwithstanding, are those who worship the perpetrator of divine evil themselves evil?[14]

Consider Fritz. Fritz is a neo-Nazi. He admires Hitler. Fritz’s’ admiration of an evil man suffices, we might think, to make Fritz evil…Fritz is evil, it seems simply because it is evil to admire someone who is evil. Or more exactly, it is evil to admire someone evil in full recognition of the characteristics and actions that express their evil.[15]

Many other Christians…are sincerely compassionate; they genuinely forgive their enemies. Yet they knowingly worship the perpetrator…They endorse the divine evil. And that’s bad enough. [16]

We admire religious people famed for their selflessness, their courage, or their scholarship—Mother Teresa, Father Murphy, Jean Buridan. Yet we know that they worship the perpetrator. Moreover, since they worship the perpetrator, endorsing his judgments about the propriety of eternal torment for some (including us), the perpetrator’s evil extends to them.[17]

What attitude should we non-believers have toward our Christian friends? Can they avoid contagion? Can we admire them and not be infected?[18]

They genuinely think that their God will commit those who do not accept him to eternal torment. They may prefer not to dwell on the point, but when they consider it, they accept his judgment. Of course, they do not see this as divine evil. Instead they talk of divine justice and the fitting damnation of sinners. If Fritz is clear about Hitler’s actual deeds, he will tend to use similar locutions. He won’t talk about evil and genocide but will praise the proper purification of the highest form of culture and the justified wiping out of a disease.[19]

Modest Fritz isn’t disposed to persecute the Jews in his neighborhood. Nor are our Christians friends inclined to rain suffering and humiliation upon us. Yet if Hitler, or one of his appropriate representatives were there, beside Fritz and his mates and the potential Jewish victim, Fritz would approve of the persecution’s being carried out by the proper authorities. So, too, with the worshippers. If the day of judgment were to arrive now, and they were to stand by and observe God’s decision to punish us—their unbelieving friends—they would endorse it…in the end, they would worship the perpetrator; they would label divine evil as divine justice.[20]

We can admire their compassion, their perseverance, their selflessness. But can we admire them, despite their preparedness to worship the perpetrator?…Over all, it seems, our evaluation must be negative. They are like the tyrant whose many small contributions to his subjects’ welfare pale in contrast to the monstrous repression he will countenance.[21]
Incidentally, yet another contributor also compares Christians to Nazis.[22]

Does Jeff agree with this comparison? Surely what the email correspondent said about Sinnott-Armstrong is pretty tame in relation to this. For that matter, what does Sinnott-Armstrong think of the Nazi comparison? Are Christians the moral equivalent of Nazis—or worse?


[2] L. Antony, “Introduction,” L. Antony, ed. Philosophers Without Gods (Oxford 2007), ix.
[3] Ibid. 15.
[4] For some concrete examples, go to http://www.wesleyjsmith.com/blog/
[5] http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/print_format.php?id_article=1914
[6] Ibid. 73.
[7] Ibid. 76.
[8] Ibid. 76.
[9] Ibid. 76.
[10] Ibid. 76.
[11] Ibid. 78.
[12] Ibid. 78.
[13] Ibid. 79.
[14] Ibid. 238.
[15] Ibid. 238-39.
[16] Ibid. 339.
[17] Ibid. 239.
[18] Ibid. 240.
[19] Ibid. 240-41.
[20] Ibid. 241.
[21] Ibid. 241.
[22] Ibid. 277.


  1. xii) Why does he think it’s wrong to kill homosexuals, but right to kill babies? Given how he’s cheapened the value of life, what does it matter who lives or dies?

    It's worth noting that I was able to watch a debate between Sinnott - Armstrong and Dr. Bruce Little (of SEBTS) this past February on the campus of Wake Forest University.

    A. Dr. Little "wiped the floor" with Armstrong. Armstrong was unable, when asked by a member of the audience, to give a non-arbitrary epistemic warrant for his ethical standards, to produce one. He's deriving his ethics from some sort of "consenus" standard, at best.

    B. He wound up deliberately misrepresenting Christian ethics by deliberately misrepresenting the Law of God in the Penteteuch by citing several disjointed passages without exegesis or context. Nothing said has not been answered before, and he gave no indication he had ever or was willing to interact with those answers. So, his "ethics" are on a sliding scale. It's okay for him to misrepresent us, but not okay for us to misrepresent him - since he opened his presentation with a list of theistic "misrepresentations" of atheism.

    C. Finally, his ethics reduce to "do no harm." Apparently, it's not okay to harm the homosexual, but it is okay to harm the unborn child. One is mass of cells in the womb; the other is a grown person. The problem is, of course, that if his atheism is true, there is no real difference between them.e

  2. "Armstrong was unable, when asked by a member of the audience, to give a non-arbitrary epistemic warrant for his ethical standards, to produce one."

    Proof positive that God exists! Hallelujah!

    Can we move on now?

  3. Actually, that would qualify, for what is it that gives morality and ethics their authority?

    If Sinnot-Armstrong is right, then morals are just a product of consensus. However, if consensus is something he disfavors, like a law that says all atheists should be herded into concentration camps, surely he would protest.

    My worldview can provide a non-arbitrary epistemic warrant. Yours results in a never ending string of regression.

    I can account for the laws of logic as well. You cannot, without assuming the truth of my worldiview in the process.

  4. "I can account for the laws of logic as well. You cannot neener neener neener!"

    There you go then! You've proved God's existence! And as a meager bonus, you've solved the problem of universals, the problem of induction, the problem of absolutism in ethics, etc., etc., etc., all just by saying "My God can account for that and you cannot!" If you think that's sufficient, good for you.

  5. "Likewise, I’ve found that Darwinians such as Ridley, Futuyma, and Kitcher presume to critique creationism without making any good-faith effort to acquaint themselves with the standard creationist literature."

    Regarding Kitcher, what are you referring to? His _Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism_ (1983) and his debate against Duane Gish at the University of Minnesota in February 1985 were based on actual creationist claims. In fact, in his debate, he presented some standard young-earth and flood geology claims on behalf of Gish, since Gish always declines to make any positive creationist claims in debates. I'm not sure whether Kitcher has engaged in any more recent creationist critiques, but he was definitely familiar with ICR-style young-earth creationism in the mid-eighties. The main changes to creationism since then have been to drop specific positive claims (e.g., intelligent design, "exploring evolution"/"teaching the controversy") and accept more evolution (e.g., many creationists now accept the entirety of the horse series as related species, the result of "microevolution" within a kind, whereas 20 years ago that would have been unthinkable and it was common to attack the horse series as a fabrication, often by misrepresenting statements from Eldredge and Gould).

  6. Jim Lippard said:

    "Regarding Kitcher, what are you referring to?"

    I'm referring to his Living With Darwin, which he published this year, which I recently reviewed. There's a link to that review in my review of Futuyma.

    I'm acquainted with his earlier work. But that's 25 years out of date—and he's done nothing, to judge by Living With Darwin, to bring himself up to speed on contemporary YEC.

  7. Hey,

    I posted an article about Dawkins on Digital Journal that I think you'd be interested in:


    I also have a series of posts on Dawkins and The God Delusion on my blog at