14 Jul 2013

Atheists Can Mock Religion With Half Their Brain Tied Behind Their Back

Religious, Steve Landsburg 36 Comments

I debated whether making this post, but what the heck. First, a disclaimer: I know Steve Landsburg “was just kidding” with this recent post about John Paul II being canonized. I’m not bringing it up to pout; I’m not even Catholic (anymore). But I still think it epitomizes an ironic trend among very confident atheists. Here’s Steve:

So if I have this right, it is now the official position of the Catholic church that:

1. The late Pope John Paul II has the ongoing power to cure brain aneurysms.

2. As far as we know, he has chosen to employ this power exactly once. (He also once cured a case of Parkinson’s.)

3. While hundreds of thousands of others have suffered and/or died from brain aneurysms, John Paul has not been moved to intervene.

4. The one victim he troubled himself to save was selected not because she was particularly deserving or particularly valuable to society, but because she chose the right guy to pray to — sort of like having to suck up to the teacher to get a good grade.

5. All of this makes John Paul II particularly fit for veneration.

For God’s sake (you should pardon the expression), if you’re looking to make the case that John Paul II was capable of performing (or at least catalyzing) genuine miracles, isn’t the defeat of Soviet Communism good enough? That right there makes him a saint in my book — though if I ever come to believe that he can cure aneurysms and has been holding out on us, I might have to retract my endorsement.

Look, I get it: If you are committed to an atheistic “scientific” worldview, then the popular religions seem absurd, particularly among people who really believe stuff in the Bible rather than just hoping in some vague thing out there that’s “bigger than us.”

Yet look what Steve had to do, to make his joke work. The initial premise is totally wrong. Not only is that not the “official position” of the Catholic Church, but the link Steve gives doesn’t even have a sentence that could be misconstrued to make one think that. So why did Steve put that as plank #1 in his argument? Because he needed it, in order to mock Catholics. If he had accurately reported their view, the particular joke he wanted to make wouldn’t have worked.

(Steve could have said, “Religious folks believe that if they pray to God, sometimes He miraculously cures them of illnesses. Huh, what a jerk, why doesn’t He always do this?! And why would an omnipotent Being let the prayers of little puny humans affect His wise decisions? This is ridiculous.” That would have made sense. But then, it wouldn’t have had the news hook of the John Paul II story, which is why Steve had to invent all the steps in his argument above, out of whole cloth.)

Incidentally, this guy in the comments walks through and points out that Steve’s joke makes no sense at all, and I think Steve agrees with him.

So, what’s my point? It’s this: Isn’t it a little ironic that a lot of atheists in effect say this, “Hey, when we mock religious people, cut us some slack, OK? We can’t be expected to actually get inside their worldview and try to critique them fairly. It’s fine to set up a strawman to knock it down, when it comes to religion, because they’re so illogical anyway. Remember, we’re the paragons of reason and empiricism.”

This is why atheists can simultaneously criticize theism for

(A) believing in a sick God that would let little kids die, and

(B) believing in a sick God that forces us to stay in a painful existence on Earth instead of being with Him in heaven.

And there are plenty more examples where that came from.

36 Responses to “Atheists Can Mock Religion With Half Their Brain Tied Behind Their Back”

  1. Major_Freedom says:

    Murphy, serious question:

    Why is it that “very confident”, and other like adjectives, are used to describe atheists who make their arguments, so often on this blog?

    Don’t you think that it takes a gigantic amount of confidence to think oneself able to think clearly and coherently about a super-powerful mind that does X, Y and Z?

    I mean, given the nature of our finite brains, I would posit that making theological arguments about super-human beings and minds is perhaps the most confident set of arguments possible! It’s two extremes. Finite minds, and infinite beings being described. That’s quite a juxtaposition.

    If you asked me, I’d say that religious minded people tend to be far more confident in their convictions about the world, than your average scientist who is taught to question conclusions made within their sphere of methodology. I mean, how many scientists have been so sure in their convictions that they were willing to slaughter women and children, and fight bloody wars, over their disagreements about the world? Sure, there are scientists who are arrogant, sure of themselves, and so forth, but their method officially calls for skepticism, whereas the Christian is taught not to question God.

    I guess what I am saying is that I sense very high confidence in your Christian faith, because it’s still there despite the many reasonable, serious challenges to it. I kind of feel like I’m being told from a kettle that I, the pot, am black.

    But I guess I can understand where it might be coming from. In order for an atheist to become a theist, he is going to have to become unsure and skeptical of science in particular. So to the theist, the atheist seems to be uniquely certain, confident, sure of themselves, and so on. But the flip side of this is that to the atheist, theists have to become unsure and skeptical of their convictions concerning super-natural phenomena in order to become atheists, so from the atheist’s perspective, theists tend to seem very confident as well. Yet I would still say that more confidence is required in the theist camp, given the subject matter.


    This is why atheists can simultaneously criticize theism for

    (A) believing in a sick God that would let little kids die, and

    (B) believing in a sick God that forces us to stay in a painful existence on Earth instead of being with Him in heaven.

    Murphy, it’s not inconsistent for an atheist to criticize two separate, mutually inconsistent points being made by theists. It’s not the atheist that has put themselves in that contradictory position. It’s the consequence of responding to two separate, internally inconsistent points by theists. That seemingly inconsistent position atheists are in, is contingent upon the theist’s claims. If the theist’s claims evaporate, so will that inconsistent position of the atheist.

    You can’t really blame atheists for this. It would be like someone accusing you of being in a contradictory position after you criticized two separate and mutually incompatible points made by Krugman, the result of which has you holding two separate statements that don’t gel with each other either. It would be unfair for someone to accuse you of holding mutually incompatible positions, when you were just responding to two separate claims made by Krugman.

    When one starts on an illogical basis, it’s very hard, nay, it’s impossible, to come out of it logically consistent.

    • Bob Murphy says:


      I think you are misunderstanding the “confident” thing. I’m not saying, “Man, atheists are so confident, I wish they would reconsider.” Rather, I’m saying, “Hey, when I criticize an atheist move in this post, understand I’m complaining about the smug atheists who are so sure they are right, that they mock anyone who believes in God. I’m not talking about the guy who thinks we can never know about this stuff, and so reserves judgment.”

      Regarding the inconsistency MF, I still think my complaint is valid. If I wrote, “Keynesians are idiots! What kind of messed-up central bank would interfere with the money supply? And also, what kind of heartless Keynesian central banker would sit back and not help the economy by tinkering with the money supply?” then Krugman could rightly object.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        OK fair enough.

        What about the other side of the fence? Do you accept the notion that theism obligates one to be confident and sure, in order to even qualify as a theist? If one is skeptical and reserving of judgment, that to me would make a person an agnostic. Theism, I think, is just as “smug” as atheism is, in terms of how one has to think in order to qualify as a member.

        I mean, it’s easy to say atheists who mock believers are smug and so on, since, well, many are smug about it, and I would say rightly so, but it’s not like skepticism and reserving of judgment are taught to those raised in a theistic environment, or constantly communicated by pastors and reverends in churches. There is no room to be skeptical in Christianity. These are the rules and metaphysical claims and so forth, and you ought to hold them as true, etc.

        Would it be fair then for me to use “smug” or “confident” to describe theists who mock atheists and atheism?

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Would it be fair then for me to use “smug” or “confident” to describe theists who mock atheists and atheism?

          Of course it would. Those people bother me more than they bother you.

          The reason I use the term “confident” rather than “smug” is that the latter is more aggressive, and I’m trying to raise these concerns without provoking hostility. It would have been clearer, in retrospect, had I called Steve a “smug atheist” but that would have come across as too combative.

          • James says:

            I think MF is getting at an important point here unrelated to choice of language.

            Let C denote the sum of all the truth claims of Christianity (Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead & Moses staff turned into a snake & Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus & …) and let E denote everything known to man, including all the evidence for and against C (Aunt Margaret’s cancer did not go into remission following her prayers in Jesus’ name & God seems not to heal amputees & The universe had a beginning & The universe appears fine tuned for life & …). By Bayes’ theorem it follows that P(C|E) = P(C)*P(E|C)/P(E). Clearly, for any plausible values of the terms on the left hand side, P(C|E) < 1.

            This, I think is the actual disagreement between Christians and atheists. Most Christians seem to believe it is a moral failing to say P(C|E) << 1 but for atheists like Landsburg, P(C|E) << 1 is just a consequence of a perfectly valid process for assimilating information.

            Most Christians can't even admit that there are facts in the world that give them reason to be less confident in their faith than they potentially could be. For example, ask if medical recoveries after prayers warrant an increase, a decrease or no change in confidence about Christianity. Then ask the same about deaths following prayers for recovery.

            So when atheists see that Christians don't even share a common view on how to reason, it's not surprising that they give up on being reasonable and resort to the types of fallacies you frequently document here.

            • James says:

              To be clear, what I’m trying to say is that while you can correctly point out where atheists fail to even engage with Christianity, you are also failing to fully engage with atheists by only pointing out fallacies rather than addressing the actual root cause of the disagreement.

              • Richard Moss says:

                This is a rather odd critique.

                You seem to be saying it is understandable that so many atheists engage in straw man arguments against Christianity given the basis for it is so tenuous.

                Well, ok, so why not criticize Christianity based on what it actually says? That might make it harder for Christians to avoid addressing the ‘root cause of the disagreement.’

              • James says:


                I don’t care if my critique is odd or commonplace. I care if it is accurate. Christians can do a better job than “you missed,” if they would consider what the atheists are actually aiming at and where they are aiming from.

                I have no disagreement with your second paragraph. Both sides generally argue poorly and talk past each other.

              • Richard Moss says:


                Sorry – if atheists attack a ‘straw man’ I don’t see why Christians should be expected to get where atheists are “really” coming from and respond accordingly. It doesn’t make sense – whether that request is commonplace or not.

                If you want substantive response, make substantive critique.

              • James says:


                “Sorry – if atheists attack a ‘straw man’ I don’t see why Christians should be expected to get where atheists are “really” coming from and respond accordingly. ”

                One reason is that to do otherwise is to fail to engage with the atheist position. This is true no matter how bad the argument some atheist just made.

                When I disagree with others and have good reasons for my beliefs, I generally try to address where they are actually coming regardless of the quality of their arguments. I do so because it’s honest and has the greatest probability of helping others see their own errors. If Christians have arguments that directly address the root cause of their disagreement with atheists, why should they wait until the atheists make a good argument?

        • Bob Murphy says:

          MF wrote:

          but it’s not like skepticism and reserving of judgment are taught to those raised in a theistic environment, or constantly communicated by pastors and reverends in churches.

          Well you’re right that skepticism of theism is hardly pushed in church, but reserving of judgment should be.

    • JFF says:

      “I mean, how many scientists have been so sure in their convictions that they were willing to slaughter women and children, and fight bloody wars, over their disagreements about the world?”

      Um, the Eugenicists? I mean, they didn’t engage in outright war per se, but their game was sterilization for the most part, no? If that’s not an aggressive act, based on iron-clad conviction, I don’t know what is. Moreover, didn’t some of the nastiest political tyrants use racial purity, the idea of undesireables, mentally inferior, etc., as excuses, backed by solid “scientific” evidence, to murder millions in the last 100 years?

      As a non-believer, this “religion likes to kill people” deal is less and less credible every time I come across it.

      Also, most scientists are anything but “skeptical.” They love to defend the status quo which I see as the antithesis of skeptical inquiry.

      • Matt Tanous says:

        Science has its own “God of the Gaps” problem, anyway. The whole “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics is based on a failure to be able to describe or mathematize the wavefunction’s “collapse” to a point particle.

        Can’t explain it? It must be the result of a multiverse that we can’t see, interact with, and only affects this one thing. Obviously. Can’t possibly be that we just don’t fully understand the probabilistic nature of this sort of thing, and there is a completely rational and scientific explanation we could discover. Nope. Not a chance.

    • Innocent says:

      “the Christian is taught not to question God.” – well it depends on what religion you are in. However lets place it another way. Do scientists question why someone who falls off a 1,000 foot cliff dies on impact? Or do they understand the mechanisms that took place that caused the death and make a summery judgement based on the observational evidence? A Christian who has taken the time ( I hope ) to know God understands what He means and in general how He operates. Why would they, like the scientists, question something they understand as a confirmation of faith when they know how He ( like science understands gravity ) works? For instance when Christ was on the Earth there were many, many people who could not see, or hear, etc. Did he heal all of them? What did he say to those that were healed, what was the purpose of those healings? To what end when a man was lowered before Christ on the Sabbath and Christ healed him? Why not simply set up a triage unit and have people line up and enter through one door and go out the other getting healed. I am sure this would have fixed any question about his divine nature, correct? I have asked all of these questions and found answers. Christians who know and love God QUESTION THINGS ALL THE TIME…

      It amazes me that people believe that Christians believe what they believe out of anything less than experience. The ‘Bible’ is a testament or witness of God, what this means is that it expresses the working relationship that God has had with people who have sought to know Him. Now you can either IGNORE this evidence or you can act upon it in order to discover if the people in it were right or wrong. To be honest I would suggest that coming to know God is a scientific process. That there are many steps along the way and MANY questions that you have to ask as you move through coming to a knowledge that God exists – or not.

      Actually the Atheist is typically confident of one thing. That people who believe in God are wrong. Which is ironic as that would mean that they are making a null hypothesis…

      Additionally I would argue that scientists by making arbitrary decisions have caused more deaths than any religious war ever could. Think about the people who banned DDT and how many millions of lives have died from malaria that could have been saved. Think of the fetuses discarded as ‘not alive’ or children that had their brain stems cut due to a ‘botched abortion’ or the million other aberrations that are caused by a scientist making a choice and then getting the rest of the world to agree with them. Are eggs healthy or bad for you etc and so on.

      My point being science has as much if not more blood on its hands than any religion. Just my thought about it however.

      Finally, people can see something right before their eyes. Something miraculous, and explain it away. How often do we have ‘facts’ laid out before us and yet still disagree. I mean economics is a perfect example of this. I see how it works, I understand the macro economic principles involved, I still shake my head in wonder that people think a perpetual Keynesian model is a ‘good’ thing. Yet it seems to work and when it doesn’t I am simply told by people like Krugman that it is because it is not being done enough right now…

      Darn it all I had to work hard to gain a testimony of God. I had to question and search for answers and it is sad when an atheist or other person simply discounts it as ‘belief without thought or questioning’

      Just saying…


      • Tel says:

        If God is perfect then why do we need DDT in the first place? Unless God sent disease to test us and see if we were smart enough to make DDT to kill the mosquitoes that carry the disease to prove to God that we were smart enough to destroy the things that God created, thus proving our love of God. Which is all very possible I grant you.

        • Innocent says:


          Because this life is temporary in the first place. What I am saying is that if you compare scientists to religion ( not God ) then you are looking at a very different equation. You want to know why God does not ‘save’ everyone from sickness, go and ask Him and accept the answers he gives to you. If you want me to explain it I will but unfortunately the response I give will be inadequate as the understanding that comes along with it, the base of the answer itself will not be in you. Go to God an learn line upon line and precept upon precept WHY he does the things he does.

          Why does cancer exist? Why is life temporary? Give me a scientific reason why we MUST die. Is it not a genetic feature that exists in our own DNA? Yet does it have to be that way?

          Honestly I would suggest you make a study of who and what God is rather than make snide remarks about WHY he does what he does until you have a base understanding of what is going on behind the scenes.

          You see there is wisdom in the allowance of suffering. Let me ask you this in turn. If God exists why does he not simply make it simple on everyone and sit in the middle of the earth for all to see Him? Why not force people to know that you exist?

          Do you have children? Have you tried to force them to do or believe something? I could go on and on. Until you understand the Nature of God through knowing Him little by little any answer I give you would simply be as the ringing of tin in your ears. Noise that was meaningless as you do not have the base knowledge to understand the layers of meaning. Imagine attempting to teach Calculus to a child who still does not understand basic addition or subtraction. It is meaningless and all it does is add additional questions to the childs mind as to, ‘Why is it like that’

          You start with bread for the child before you move to meat. So it is with your question. Until you have a basis of understanding any answer I give will simply be as a child attempting to comprehend a complex mathematical equation. This is not meant to belittle you for you have the capacity to understand, we all do, nor is it to simply dodge the question, which actually is REALLY important to understand. It is simply not something that can be answered and understood without a great deal of back knowledge as to who God is and how he operates. Nor do I know EVERYTHING. I am more like a math student in the eight grade attempting to school a student who is in kindergarten. There are many question I am still learning and growing from.

          • Ken B says:

            I know it’s rhetorical but this “Why does cancer exist?” is an interesting question. It exists because mistakes happen. Cancer is a disease of information processing deep inside cells. That’s not my phrase; I glommed it from a noted cancer researcher. Cancer happens when some of the instructions in DNA cease to be followed. This is because no machinery, not even cellular machinery, is perfect. And fundamentally that’s the answer to most of your questions. We die because evolution hasn’t figured out a way for us not to. When you look at life properly, as the workings of entropy expelling machines, the wonder is not why things die but why they don’t die sooner.

            • Tel says:

              Can you explain how you deduce that evolution is attempting to figure out how to make us live forever?

              • Ken B says:

                Since I don’t claim that, no I can’t.

                Can you explain how you deduce that green is a flavor not a color? I doubt you can, since you don’t claim that.

              • Richie says:

                “We die because evolution hasn’t figured out a way for us not to.”

                So, evolution hasn’t figured out a way to us not to die because you claim that it is not trying to figure out a way for us not to die. Got it.

              • Ken B says:

                You confuse and and so, and a few other things. We have teeth because we evolved to have teeth. Evolution figured out a way to give us teeth. We do not have helicopter blades because we have not evolved to have helicopter blades. Asking why we do not have immortality is like asking why we do not have helicopter blades.

                In short, if you are not capabale of understanding the usual way people talk about evolution, in shorthand, that is in terms of selfish genes etc without implying any actual thought desire or purpose in nature or evolution, you need to read more biology books.

  2. DD says:

    Not knowing the intricacies of sainthood, it seems to me a reasonable interpretation of that article that this is the official position of the Church.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Can you point out the specific part?

    • Tel says:

      Not knowing the intricacies of sainthood…


      Fortunately, there’s a for-Dummies article on it, and you can view it for free. It is wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t know what a saint was either. Being fair minded, I’ll say that Bob’s understanding of the official church position is better than Steve Landsburg on this particular issue. I would know, I read the for-Dummies (most of it).

      Personally, purely out of gut feeling, they might be rushing John Paul through a bit fast. Give him a century to settle, he has eternity after that, which is longer. Then again he was rather popular.

  3. razer says:

    The sainthood process is hilarious.The church wants to canonize you and then looks for evidence of the supernatural, which, luckily, it will always find. Funny how the organization that believes in the supernatural can always find evidence of the supernatural when it wants to find it. Of course, science hasn’t been able to find such evidence, but the church, oh yeah.

    Talk about confidence, or better yet, a confidence scheme. Bob, you desperately want to believe in the magic sky fairy of your youth. Now you’re just looking to justify it rationally. It can’t be done. Just accept you like the idea of a magic sky fairy that looks down on you from an invisible cloud and likes you personally know matter how stupid that sounds to the rational set amongst us that know this is total BS.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      razer wrote:

      The sainthood process is hilarious.The church wants to canonize you and then looks for evidence of the supernatural, which, luckily, it will always find.

      razer, are you saying that there has never been an example of a candidate for canonization who was subsequently denied sainthood by the Church? I am not familiar with the history on this, but I suspect neither are you. Surely you wouldn’t just make up stuff over which to mock the Church?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Just accept you like the idea of a magic sky fairy that looks down on you from an invisible cloud and likes you personally know matter how stupid that sounds to the rational set amongst us that know this is total BS.

      Just to clarify, I don’t believe in invisible clouds.

      And what kind of God wouldn’t like me a lot?

      • Ken B says:

        “And what kind of God wouldn’t like me a lot?”

        Lord Krugman.

  4. Yosef says:

    Brian’s (the commenter on Landsburg’s blog) says that it is not the saint himself who is responsible for the cure, but rather it is God. But God is also responsible for the disease. So God is like a man who sets fires so he can be a hero who rescues people from fire.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      OK that’s fine, Yosef, I at least understood your objection. But Steve invented an official position of the Catholic Church that it didn’t hold, in order to mock it.

      • Yosef says:

        Bob, I really enjoy your Sunday posts, since you tend to be generally responsive and engaging in the comments. I really wish you would one day write up how you square your (admirable) pacifism with your religious belief (given that God quite often directly, or through his prophets/kings, commands killing)

  5. Steven Landsburg says:

    Well, for what it’s worth, I saw this elsewhere on the web before I saw it here, and (since the other one didn’t have your name on it) the first thing I said was: “Well, the guy’s got a point. Along with Bob Murphy, maybe this will make a total of *two* religious guys whose views I can respect”. Then I came here and was proved wrong.

  6. John says:

    There is no possible way to find any evidence for any view on religion or god using scientific methods. I can only think of two reasonable (“scientific”) statements about religion.

    1. Given a nearly infinite list of possibilities about the existence of a god and their characteristics the odds of any religion made up by people being correct is virtually nil.

    2. Without an active brain there is no experience of anything. Therefore after death the experience is the same as being knocked out or unborn.

    I’m starting to think that economics is almost as bad as religion. There is no way to settle anything through conventional scientific and statistical methods so arguments about very basic things go on forever. Even a priori reasoning can go astray although it is definitely the best method for studying the subject.

    • Tel says:

      I agree, in the case of macroeconomics, we can’t run a control experiment, so we can’t isolate any factor from any other factor. This essentially throws away the most fundamental tool of empiricism.

      Every year, technology changes, resources get a bit more depleted, population grows, and new ideas turn up, political parties win and lose and impose their viewpoints. Also, the majority of human activity is not measured by government, so it doesn’t turn up in the macroeconomic statistics.

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