Friday, July 13, 2007

Open Letter to Theists about Abusing Atheists

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:

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.
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?


Victor Reppert said...

There's lots of abuse to go around on all sides. But no, it's not acceptable. I'm surprised the theist didn't throw in a threat about the fires of hell.

I dislike Richard Dawkins, but I don't envy him his hate mail.

I hate to say it, but I think the level of courtesy in online religious discourse has gone down over the past 12 or so years that I have followed it. I'll never forget Jeff's willingness to include two papers of mine on Infidels in 1998--in fact they were made available at his request.

I have no idea as to why Christians send these things to atheists. Does anyone really think that this serves the Kingdom of God? A certain amount of "in your face" goes with the territory. The Bible teaches that we should give an answer for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect. What part of that don't some theists understand? I suppose there is nothing in the writings of Bertrand Russell saying that atheists should given an answer for the atheism that is in them with gentleness and respect. But I think they can absorb that Scripture without signing on to anything like inerrancy.

Darek Barefoot said...

Abusive, insulting or rude language violates so many Biblical injunctons and Christian principles that I would hardly know where to begin in listing them. It cannot be condemned too loudly or too often. If a Christian is commanded to love their enemies (as in, those who physically assault them) and bless those who persecute them, how could a Chrsitian justify abusive language employed in what should be a civil discussion with an atheist? As a Christian, that's my take on the subject.

Unknown said...

My opinion as a theist differs none to my opinion as a human being. The email in question was nothing more than an ad hominem diatribe and should simply be dismissed as such.

My concern is that it exposes a deep problem among what in my opinion is the majority of Christians--the inability to rationally defend their beliefs or to expose the flaws in opposing beliefs without employing a plethora of logical fallacies. It is shameful.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...

As Reppert points out, there's "lots of abuse to go around on all sides." In particular I should like to observe that there is a vocal subset of atheists who blame theism for many if not all of the world's evils, lose no opportunity to accuse theists of being mentally defective, etc. As a Christian attending science fiction conventions I have frequently been the target of such "banter."

This does not excuse the resonse by Christians, who (after all) are supposed to hold themselves to a higher standard, regard persecution as a badge of honor, etc., ... but it does help to explain it more than somewhat.

Brian Trapp said...

Jeff, as far as answers to your questions go: I condemn the behavior, and I think that to some extent Sinnott-Armstrong is right.

Some atheists imply that there is something in the intellectual or rational makeup of Christians that makes more of them engage in this sort of behavior. There is some truth in that, but that's simply because Christian beliefs are sacred beliefs, and it seems to me that in any group that holds sacred beliefs there will be a significant subgroup who takes said beliefs to be axiomatic. I think it's human nature to get reactionary when our sacred axioms about ultimate reality get challenged. I really can't see it being any different with thinking and feeling creatures. That's just part of who we are and how we act. Our cherished beliefs are insulted, and we want to insult back, especialy if we've simply accepted our axioms as axioms and never questioned our reasons for accepting them.

But of course all this proves nothing about the truth of those beliefs. At best it might just say something interesting about the people who hold the beliefs.

This topic got me thinking today, and I've posted much more at on this subject.

- Brian Trapp

pseudonymouse said...

Obviously fallacious ad hominem attacks do not constitute refutation of a disputed position. In fact such nastiness merely detracts from the attacker's message.

Historically,some Christians have directed vitriol such as this at members of other faiths (now politically incorrect) and other denominations (also politically incorrect). However, atheists are infidels, so attacking an atheist is not only not politically incorrect but it is applauded by fellow theists.

Atheists consider theistic beliefs to be unfounded from a rational perspective, whereas many theists feel attacked by rational arguments that dismiss the supernatural.

I think that the key word is *feel*. Religions are formulated so as to appeal to the emotions. Notwithstanding the nastiness displayed by some believers, this is mostly beneficial. I believe that the nasties would probably have acted the same way even if they had not been raised to be religious. That is, religious dogma is merely their justification of choice.

Science, and its often accompanying atheism appeals to the mind. I find science fascinating, but it does not pretend to offer comfort. I am an atheist partly because I do not need religious comfort. Besides, religious comfort does not *work* if one cannot get around the rational barriers to belief. I am too much a scientist not to have rational reasons to dismiss the supernatural.

I think that atheists understand theists, but that many theists simply cannot understand why everyone does not feel as they do. For example, I stumbled across a ridiculous theist theory that atheists are atheists because they suffer from Asperger's Syndrome. The idea was that those with AS lack empathy for others, so they cannot feel God's Blessing.

I know may atheists (and many believers) but I can think of only one atheist (a computer programmer) who could be considered mildly Aspy and I know that his atheism was based on logic and not on lack of empathy.

It is that sort of illogical, blaming nonsense, combined with ludicrous assaults on scientific knowledge that is exciting atheistic backlash.

Anonymous said...

Christians and religious people have had such a poor image of atheists that they haven't even bothered interacting with philosophical atheism.

As a Christian, I've noticed the church has spent tons of energy against non-Christian cults, the New Age, and Satanism. But atheists? "They're just fools - not worth the time! That's the Madalyn Murray O'Hair crowd!".

While it is unwarranted, there is certainly a remnant of that attitude. And there is no excuse to treat someone badly.

BTW, Psa. 14 says, "The fool has said in his heart there is no God". A person with genuine intellectual (rather than merely emotional) response to God is not the biblical definition of a fool.

Kevin H

Frank Walton said...

What are your thoughts about the email sent to Sinnott-Armstrong?

The person who sent it is a nincompoop.

Do you condone the email?


Do you condemn it?

Yes. Armstrong is a stand up guy and not like some idiotic atheists I've encountered. So, I don't think he deserved that sort of treatment. I enjoyed his debate with Dr. Craig.

Do you agree with Sinnott-Armstrong that "Many theists feel perfectly justified in abusing atheists"? Why?

They may feel that way, but it doesn't make it okay. I'm glad you "recognize that there have been atheists who have been guilty of committing the same kind of abuse against theists" too.

People have accused me of being very unkind and mean towards my opponents. I have a simple tactic though. You act like a jerk, you'll be treated like one. If you're cool, you'll be treated with respect.

Christine Skelly said...

Before responding I think it would help to mention that not all Theists (individuals who believe that there is a God) are Christians or would call themselves Christians. I am sure you are probably aware of the difference. I simply mention it because it is an important distinction.

Nevertheless, from what I understand you did ask evangelical Christians in particular to reply...

So...speaking as a Christian, I am coming from the mindset that such a thing as right and wrong exist because God exists and has revealed His will through the written Word, the Holy Bible. What this means is that the answer is objective to me. On the other hand, I find myself supposing that the answer is subjective to you, since it is not based upon empirical evidence but only upon what I believe to be the case: that God's Word is authoritative. So, while I really do appreciate the question, I also puzzle a bit over how an atheist can accept the answer (even though I would be very happy if you did).

On a brief side note, one thing that I learn from the question is that you have not yet been able to make the leap from a mere denial of the existence of God (or perhaps the belief that God does not exist) to the rejection of what some are calling "contra-causal freedom" ( found in each of us as individuals. (We would probably refer to this as the image of God in man.)

My point would be that it seems you would still like to believe that human beings "ought" to behave in this way or that and that "right" and "wrong" apply equally to everyone. Again, I have no problem with that because of my faith, but it seems like an atheist should probably regard these things as a non-concern (not that I want you to).

All that said, to answer your question I would have to agree with those who quoted passages explaining what the attitude of a Christian "should" be.

On the other hand I would also like to say that evangelical Christians are/can be wordy individuals who sometimes lose track of the tone they are taking (particularly in writing) because of a sense of urgency they may feel about sharing "the truth" with others. In fact, sharing that truth is often considered by evangelicals to be an act of love even if it is not taken as such, because we believe that a person must face the reality of their own personal sin, and deal with the guilt of their consciences if they are to have any hope of coming to grace.

Unfortunately, some of us, whether through immaturity or inexperience in dealing with those of opposing beliefs forget to take care that we not seek to destroy the person along with whatever is keeping them from acknowledging their sin.

Truth be told, abusive behavior is not the testimony that we ought to have, but on the other hand I do hope you are able to understand that it comes from a passion for the truth and an earnest desire to reach those who would be willing to embrace it.

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