Some Observations on Atheist Books

The other day, my wife asked me why I have so many books written by atheists on my nightstand where I keep my reading material. I told her that I like to read through the atheist materials to better understand what they think. After all, I reason, how can one counter an argument effectively if you don’t understand it?

Yet, the opposite is exactly what I find on the atheist side. I’m not saying that they haven’t read the Bible. Many have read the Bible. Many are well versed in what the Bible verses say. They can sometimes find Bible passages quicker than I can. The problem with these atheists isn't that they are not reading the Bible, it's that they lack understanding of the material.

For example, one of the atheist books I am presently reading (although I am about to put it down because it is so bad) is a book by David Mills (who has no accomplishments in his bio other than authoring atheist books) entitled Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism. Now, I could tell by the title of the book alone that this was not going to be a worthwhile read. Anyone who conflates Christianity with fundamentalism as Mr. Mills apparently decided to do is not being sufficiently careful to draw appropriate distinctions in his thinking.

Regardless, in Atheist Universe Mr. Mills opens chapter one with the ultimate softball interview between himself as interviewer and himself as atheist-interviewee. Of course, this is merely a literary device attempting to keep the reading interesting (which seems to be a clear indication that the material being presented really isn't all that interesting), but it results in easy questions without any difficult follow up (at least, nothing more difficult than the interviewee can handle).  In the course of this discourse, Mr. Mills spells out the following spellbinding exchange:

Interviewer: In looking at all the wonders of the universe, how can you possibly say there’s no God. Even the Bible says, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.”

Mills: Whenever someone quotes that Bible verse to me, I usually recite to them another Bible verse, Matthew 5:22 – “But whoever shall say ‘Thou fool’ shall be in danger of hell fire.

Interviewer:  And what do Christians think of an atheist quoting the Bible?

Mills: They’re unprepared. Christians imagine that I, and other atheists, know nothing about the Bible or its history. When you respond in kind they tend to be taken aback. I was on a talk show in the 1970s and a woman stood up in the audience and quoted the verse, “The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God.’” When I humorously quoted Matthew 5:22, which threatens eternal damnation for calling someone a fool, she angrily resorted that “Even the devil can quote the Bible, and I think you are the devil.” The fact is that most Christians know next to nothing about the Bible which they carry proudly to church ever Sunday. I would be happy and confident to take a standard Bible-knowledge test against any churchgoer you might arbitrarily pluck from a pew next Sunday morning.”
Rhetorical point to Mills. He obviously has rocked this poor woman back on her heels because she didn’t know how to answer his question. But winning a rhetorical point is not the same as winning the argument, and Mills falls well short on this latter ground. Many careful thinking Christians have also noticed this same little inconsistency that Mills uses to make his rhetorical point, but a mere inconsistency is not the equivalent of a contradiction. In this case, one can look to Answers in Genesis, for an answer to Mills' challenge.
When studying Scripture, one of the first principles to keep in mind is the context. Therefore, let us consider the entire context of what Jesus said while considering this alleged contradiction.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21–22)
Jesus referred to the generally understood fact that murderers will be judged; however, He revealed the deeper issue by saying that not just murderers but anyone “who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Furthermore, Christ continued by mentioning that those who insult their brother or call their brother a fool would be held liable for those words.

Jesus did not focus just on an individual’s actions such as murder but also on the heart and attitude behind those actions. A heart full of anger toward someone can lead to insults, name calling, and even murder. In other words, murder is not the only symptom of a corrupted heart, which is the main point Jesus made.

Does this mean that calling people foolish is always wrong? Jesus emphasized the fact that not just murderers will be judged by saying that those who call people fools will also be judged. He demonstrated that sin is an issue of the heart rather than just the actions.

If you were to study each biblical example where God calls someone a fool, you will find a righteous reason behind it. When Jesus called the Pharisees and scribes fools in Matthew 23:17, He explained that they were satisfying themselves instead of giving glory to God. They glorified the gold in the temple rather than the temple of God that housed the gold, which is foolish.
You see, Mills knew the Bible, but he didn’t understand the Bible. He sees an inconsistency and stops reading. He's found what he's looking for: a reason to say that the Bible is "a jumble of fanciful myths" (as proclaimed on the back cover of Atheist Universe). I find this same problem to be true of a lot of atheists with whom I have sparred over the years. They've read the Bible. They can quote the Bible. They know where to find certain texts in the Bible. But what they lack is an understanding of the Bible. They read the words, but they lack insight into what those words mean. And they lack this understanding primarily because they don’t want to believe what the Bible says or because they don’t want to accept the ramifications of what the Bible says. You see, it took me fifteen seconds to do a web search to find the explanation from the Answers in Genesis article that I quote above.  Mills, who seems relatively bright, can certainly find the same answer if he would take the time to look for it; he simply chooses not to do so or (worse yet) chooses to disingenuously ignore the information because it fails to align with his thesis.

A second rather mundane atheist book I picked up entitled Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte, a past lecturer on philosophy at Cambridge University, suffers from the same malady. In his chapter on a logical crime that he calls “Prejudice in Fancy Dress,” Mr. Whyte claims that mystery is a way to avoid recognizing logical errors. In the process, he decides to use the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as his foil. In the book, he says:
The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are three distinct entities – as suggested by “Trinity.” Yet each is God, a single entity – as suggested by “Unity.” The doctrine is not that each is part of God, in the way that your FM tuner is part of your three-in-one home stereo. Each is wholly God. And there’s the problem. It takes only the most basic arithmetic to see that three things cannot be one thing. The doctrine of the Unity of the Trinity is inconsistent with the fact that three does not equal one.

It is also inconsistent with the fact that identity is a transitive relation: that if A is identical with B, and B is identical with C, then A is identical with C. If the Son is identical with God, and God is identical with the Holy Ghost, then the Son must be identical with the Holy Ghost. They are one and the same thing. But those who assert the Unity of the Trinity deny the implication; they deny that Jesus is the Holy Ghost.

The Catholic Church – its pope, cardinals and priest – agree that three does not equal one and that identify is a transitive relation. So, they have a problem. How can the doctrine of the Unity of the Trinity be true when it is inconsistent with these obvious facts?

Well, it’s a mystery. That’s how. Indeed, it’s a strict mystery. Strict mysteries are those that are of the very nature of the thing, and which it is both hopeless and sinful to attempt to resolve.

This answer may satisfy the sheep of the congregation, but it should satisfy no one with their critical faculties intact. For it simply acknowledges the problem without solving it. The incantation “It’s a mystery” does not wash away the intellectual sin of contradiction. It remains impossible both that three does not equal one and that the Trinity is a Unity.  If you hold both beliefs, you contradict yourself. One belief must be wrong, and because it is necessarily true that three does not equal one, we know which it is. Cry mystery all you like, it won’t stop you being wrong.
There is so much wrong with this that it boggles the mind. The biggest problem is that Christian thinkers are very careful to distinguish between three gods (which is what Whyte is claiming) and three persons in one God (which is the Biblical teaching). When Christians speak of mystery, it doesn't mean that we are closing our eyes and ignoring basic mathematics.  It means that the teaching is difficult or nearly impossible to understand given our limited, human frame of reference. (Although, I do suggest that anyone wanting a visual tool to see how three things can be one thing should see my earlier piece entitled “A Simple Illustration of theTrinity.”)  

But while Christians aren't ignoring basic mathematics in accepting the Trinity, Mr. Whyte is ignoring what Christianity actually teaches. Why? Because he can make a rhetorical point. Although a footnote he cites suggests he has read material on the Christian understanding of the Trinity, he chooses to ignore what Christianity really teaches because it is so much easier to knock down a straw man.

That’s the problem. Both of these authors appear to be relatively bright individuals. But they have a problem: they are what the Bible would call men of the flesh. They may be wise in the eyes of the world, but they demonstrate their lack of understanding of Christian teachings or an unwillingness to consider what Christianity actually says.

1 Peter 2:7-8 speaks of Jesus as the cornerstone of God’s kingdom, but He is a stumbling block to the world. Verse 8 uses a very interesting phrase to describe those who don’t accept Jesus: “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” As I read through these atheist works, I see one way this verse applies. These atheists disobey the word of God and are, in fact, in rebellion to God. This leads them to stumble in understanding Jesus and His work – it is what a person who is in rebellion to God is destined to do.  Mr. Mills and Mr. Whyte like all atheists are in rebellion. They do not understand because they are living a life away from God. They are destined to get it wrong. I guess I should expect nothing less.

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Note: this is a blogpost I wrote in October 2013. I have been thinking lately about how many Atheists are fundamentalists in their approach to Christianity. Think about it. Fundamentalism is defined as: "a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture." As the books quoted in this article illustrate, when many Atheists quote the Bible, they quote it in a "strict, literal interpretation" when the Bible itself has never been intended to be read in such a fashion, and the vast majority of Christians don't read it in that way. The Bible is a book filled with deep meaning on many levels, and in all sincerity I have grown rather weary of sparring with Atheists over the Bible when they are reading it like it has no more depth than Harold and his Purple Crayon. But what else should I expect from those who the Bible rightfully calls fools (and not in the shallow sense that most Atheists take that to mean)? 

Comments

Kristen said…
I think it mostly has to do with the common human failing called confirmation bias. It's not just atheists, of course, who only really look carefully at one side of an issue -- the one they themselves hold to. They choose a fundamentalist-type reading of the Bible because there's no need to look further: this reading supports what they already believe. If presented with evidence that contradicts what they believe, they'll do what we all do (if we're not careful)-- they'll look carefully into it in an attempt to make it fit into their existing paradigm, and if they can find a way to do that, that's where they'll stop.

The difficult thing, in my mind, is not so much showing how a more nuanced, educated way of reading the Bible refutes the atheist's wooden reading. It's getting them to actually consider that the nuanced, educated reading is a more accurate understanding of what the text actually means. To do that is to allow a real challenge to their paradigm, and that's something very hard to do.
Hey Bill thanks for your brand new post, very good.
The Pixie said…
Kristen: I think it mostly has to do with the common human failing called confirmation bias. It's not just atheists, of course, who only really look carefully at one side of an issue -- the one they themselves hold to.

It is certainly true of Christians too; I see plenty of arguments that are convincing if you are already a Christian. A great example is this lecture by John Lennox:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eUKqrVSrSc

I do not doubt his sincerity, but his arguments all assume Christianity/the Bible is true to begin with. It is much easier to peach to the choir.

I suggest that besides confirmation bias another aspect is that it is much easier to sell books this way. Authors on both sides are writing books for their own side, not for their opponents, because that is the audience that will buy the books in bulk. It is much easier to make money writing books like this than to actually present an argument that will actually persuade someone to convert (in either direction).
BK said…
Pixie's observation is just hilarious to me. First, I don't even know what video he is referencing because the link is dead. But apparently he believes that because John Lennox doesn't begin every lecture with a robust defense of the truth of the Gospel and the Bible, and because he doesn't respond to every objection, his arguments are untrue because they assume the truth of Christianity/the Bible. Lennox has made his case in other places, and he has defended the viewpoint that God exists in debates with Richard Dawkins and others. So, he doesn't just make an assumption that the Bible is true -- he has made a case for it in several places and several ways.

On this blog, we have made the case for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible in many ways on many occasions. I don't believe that I have to open every blog entry with a complete defense for the Gospel. In this particular post, the books I am referencing are making the case for their atheistic positions. As such, don't you agree that ignoring the Christian answers to the questions is at least a little disingenous?
The Pixie said…
BK: First, I don't even know what video he is referencing because the link is dead.

Sorry about that. I copied it from my blog, and should have checked it first. It also seems to have disappeared from Lennox's own site (because it was so stupid?). It was cited here a couple of years ago, so the best I can do is give a link to that:

http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2017/12/dr-john-lennox-video-christmas-for.html

BK: But apparently he believes that because John Lennox doesn't begin every lecture with a robust defense of the truth of the Gospel and the Bible, and because he doesn't respond to every objection, his arguments are untrue because they assume the truth of Christianity/the Bible.

Not quite what I said.

Lennox was attempting to prove the Virgin Birth, in a video called "Christmas for Doubters", so he was definitely claiming to target non-Christians. But his argument was founded on the Gospel of Luke being true. His evidence for that? Well, Luke says it is true in the first verse!

See, that might convince you, because you think the Bible is true, but no doubter is going to think, Oh, yeah! It must be true if it says it is true!

BK: On this blog, we have made the case for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible in many ways on many occasions.

Well, the case has been made that you have "warrant" to believe it is true. That is a long way from proving it is true.

BK: I don't believe that I have to open every blog entry with a complete defense for the Gospel. In this particular post, the books I am referencing are making the case for their atheistic positions. As such, don't you agree that ignoring the Christian answers to the questions is at least a little disingenous?

My bad. I should have said "Authors on both sides are writing books for their own side, not for their opponents".

Oh wait. I did.

Now can you stop being "at least a little disingenous" and concede that some Christian authors are also guilty of this?
BK: On this blog, we have made the case for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible in many ways on many occasions.

PX;Well, the case has been made that you have "warrant" to believe it is true. That is a long way from proving it is true.

Pix you are still doing that "you can;t prove it" stuff. What is that? That's your only recourse You lose every argument you have to retreat to evoking absolute proof,
The Pixie said…
Joe: Pix you are still doing that "you can;t prove it" stuff. What is that? That's your only recourse You lose every argument you have to retreat to evoking absolute proof,

I do it because you guys swing between "here is proof of God" to "we only claim warrant" so frequently.

It looks to me like you are pulling a con, by showing you have "warrant", and then pretending that that is proof, and I want to expose that BS.

Joe: Pix you are still doing that "you can;t prove it" stuff. What is that? That's your only recourse You lose every argument you have to retreat to evoking absolute proof,

I do it because you so often demand proof from your opponents, but seem to think "warrant" is all you have to provide for your argument. You are doing exactly that in the multiverse argument we are having, insisting I prove the multiverse, whilst you only have to have "warrant" that God exists.

It looks to me like you are pulling a con, by gaming the argument. You set the bar high for your opponents, and low for yourself, so you can pretend some easy wins, and I want to expose that BS.
The Pixie said...
Joe: Pix you are still doing that "you can;t prove it" stuff. What is that? That's your only recourse You lose every argument you have to retreat to evoking absolute proof,

I do it because you guys swing between "here is proof of God" to "we only claim warrant" so frequently.

I never argue real demonstrative proof. If I use the language of proof its only out of habit I am awre it;s not proof in the strong sense,

It looks to me like you are pulling a con, by showing you have "warrant", and then pretending that that is proof, and I want to expose that BS.

I don't do that, There's a distinction between warrant and person conviction. warrant is what i can show others and personal conviction is what i think is true based upon my experience but i can;t prove it to others,

Joe: Pix you are still doing that "you can;t prove it" stuff. What is that? That's your only recourse You lose every argument you have to retreat to evoking absolute proof,

I do it because you so often demand proof from your opponents, but seem to think "warrant" is all you have to provide for your argument. You are doing exactly that in the multiverse argument we are having, insisting I prove the multiverse, whilst you only have to have "warrant" that God exists.

I do expert proof on arguments that can be proven, God can't be proved or disproved he's beyond our understanding he's not given in sense data. But there are arguments we make that must be proven,and can be. Fine tuning for example. we have to have scientific evidence of fine tuning or we can;t make the argument, But it;s a different matter to say this proves God.

It looks to me like you are pulling a con, by gaming the argument. You set the bar high for your opponents, and low for yourself, so you can pretend some easy wins, and I want to expose that BS.

You are looking for the feeling of wining instead of following the logic carefully.

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