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A Lesson Learned

Once upon a time in the land of Oregon, I was known as an atheist philosopher. As such, I was militant and challenged theists and apologists on YouTube, in e-mails, and on the street regarding their God(s) and their religious beliefs. In this essay, I will argue that a lesson can be learned from my experiences.

My form of atheism follows George Smith’s definition: “An atheist is one who rejects belief in a god. This deliberate rejection of theism presupposes familiarity with theistic beliefs and is sometimes characterized by anti-theism.”[1] My philosophical stance came about after several years of undergraduate and graduate studies in philosophy with an emphasis on philosophy of religion and religious studies. Most of my conversations with the faithful were about theistic beliefs, such as in discussions of the ontological, cosmological (“first cause”), and teleological (design) arguments. I studied the modal ontological argument and the argument from contingency. I was well grounded in refuting the premises and conclusions of these arguments. And then my brother, in an e-mail, said that he was praying for me.

I knew that my brother was a Bible-thumping fundamentalist from Oklahoma. But, because of our age difference and the physical distance between us, there was not much that we had in common. So there had never been any discussions between us regarding Jesus and the Bible. The reply to my brother’s e-mails followed Daniel Dennett’s “Thank Goodness!” Dennett cited a Harvard study that, in Dennett’s words, provides “quite solid grounds … for believing that intercessory prayer simply doesn’t work.”[2] In addition, I noted that I appreciated that my brother had been thinking of me, but that his concern did not require a supernatural intervention. Well, to make a long story short, this started a war between “good” (my brother) and “evil” (me).

To start was the dialectic between faith and reason. Of course, my brother thought that faith was a perfectly good source for knowledge. I tried to explain to him from the study of epistemology that knowledge was at least justified true belief. When I asked him to define faith, he quoted the Bible (Hebrews 11). I tried to explain to him that believing without evidence was not knowledge, and that it was also unethical (per William K. Clifford’s Gifford Lecture “The Ethics of Belief“). He was not moved; he put his faith in God’s knowledge. How can you reason with an attitude like that?

The number one atheistic argument is the problem of evil. I am well grounded in the theistic defenses and theodicies written in response to the problem. I asked my brother to reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of a loving God. To my surprise, his answer was to invoke the work of Satan! What? Scripture makes it clear, he explained, that the Devil (Satan) is currently in charge of planet Earth. Even Jesus Christ himself, shortly before his arrest and crucifixion, acknowledged Satan’s authority: “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me” (John 14:30). My question to my brother, then, became more pointed: if God is all-powerful, why does He allow Satan to be the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4)? His answer: because of the voice of God himself, and because God rules Heaven.

Those of us that have taken a college-level class in formal logic or critical thinking understand the fallacy of circularity. I asked my brother what guarantees he had that his holy book was a revelation granted by the Almighty. His only answer: because God himself tells us so. I suppose the concept of begging the question is not applicable to faith-based reasoning!

My next inquiry concerned Christian ethics, particularly the application of divine command theory to it. I tried to explain the Euthyphro dilemma: are pious acts loved by the gods because they are pious, or are they pious because they are loved by the gods? My brother’s response appealed to Genesis 22, where God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Because God had no intention of letting the burnt offering happen, God was virtuous, and therefore was ethical. In other words, whatever God says is OK. I tried to discuss Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, but my brother was having nothing to do with philosophy BS.

Philo of Alexandra (15 BCE-50 CE) should be regarded as the forerunner of Christianity. Philo’s Platonism, ideas about Logos-Wisdom, and his concept of God directly influenced Paul (that is, Saul of Tarsus) and the Gospel writers of John. He probably inspired all of the New Testament writers. Philo is completely silent about Jesus. The distance from Alexandria to Jerusalem is 312 miles, while the distance from Tarsus to Jerusalem is about 355 miles, yet Philo is completely silent about Jesus. Like Paul, Philo had mystical experiences. But Philo didn’t invent an anthropomorphic deity based on a Jewish preacher named Jesus. My brother never heard of Philo, or that the word logos was directly from the Greek philosophy invented by Heraclitus.

My brother avoided answering many of the questions that I asked regarding the Bible. For example, he avoided addressing questions about the documentary hypothesis and the dual-source theory of Matthew and Luke. These questions were beyond what he wanted to understand, and were not important to his reading of the Bible. He also ignored prima facie contradictions. For example, the natural/unforced reading of 1 Kings 7:23 gives as the dimensions of a circle (i.e., Pi = 30/10) a nontrivial error. However, he would not agree that the Bible was in error. Anyone grounded in science should be familiar with the concept of Pi, and would use 22/7.

My brother tried his best to defend the Bible and Christianity. However, my long-time experience refuting all of the points made by my brother made him madder than hell. After several months and many e-mail exchanges, he was humiliated and threw in the towel. We did not speak or have contact for two years thereafter.

Fundamentalists live in a bubble. Within the bubble they (1) do not care about theistic arguments, (2) are not interested in academics or critical biblical scholarship, and (3) believe that God’s truth (the Bible) is their truth, and that what is true for them is true, full stop. These precepts make having an intellectual conversation frustrating at the very least. In other words, “epistemic peers can agree to disagree” does not apply.

The bottom line is that the bubble cannot be penetrated from the outside. John Loftus presents us with the concept of the “outsider test for faith.”[3] The test is a simple challenge to step outside of the bubble and test your beliefs. This seems like a good thing to do among atheists, but it is not something that any Christian would be likely to do.

The lesson I learned is threefold: (1) the fundamentalist bubble cannot be burst from the outside; (2) minds cannot be changed by arguments; and (3) it is best to live and let live. Given this understanding, it seems impossible for anybody to change the beliefs of the faithful. So unless you enjoy arguing, showing off your intellect, or merely poking fun at someone, do like I did—call your religious family members and show respect for the believers. They may be misguided, but they are not bad people.

I thought that this was the end of the story until my wife was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (bone cancer). Once again, our friends and family were sending prayers. These words were meaningless to her, and she just let them be. However, as an atheist philosopher, I wanted to know the purpose of prayer.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “prayer is the raising of the heart and mind to God. An act of the virtue of religion which consists in asking proper gifts or graces from God. The words used to express it in Scripture are to call up (Genesis 4:26); to intercede (Job 22:10); to mediate (Isaiah 53:10); to consult (1 Samuel 28:6); to beseech (Exodus 32:11); and, very commonly, to cry out to. The Fathers speak of it as the elevation of the mind to God with a view to asking proper things from Him.”[4]

Dealing with “the ultimate reason of things” gives us “sense to the life of prayer,” we are told. As philosopher Roger Scruton elaborates, “we do not suppose God can be summoned to our aid at every instance or waiting in the wings of nature dealing out the cards. But this does not mean God is beyond our reach. He is in and around us, and our prayers shape our personal relationship with Him. We address him as we address the ones we love.”[5] It seems that even philosophers can be in touch with a mystical experience. The Catholic Encyclopedia recounts the purported effects of prayer:

In hearing our prayer God does not change His will or action in our regard, but simply puts into effect what He had eternally decreed in view of our prayer. This He may do directly without the intervention of any secondary cause as when He imparts to us some supernatural gift, such as actual grace, or indirectly, when He bestows some natural gift. In this latter case He directs by His Providence the natural causes which contribute to the effect desired, whether they be moral or free agents, such as men; or some moral and others not, but physical and not free; or, again, when none of them is free. Finally, by miraculous intervention, and without employing any of these causes, He can produce the effect prayed for.[6]

For someone like my brother, then, praying is just the natural order of the universe.

Prayer presupposes faith in God and hope in his goodness. If taken literally, prayer is a ritual to keep in touch with the divine. However, saying “have a good day” or “I’m praying for you” are just terms of endearment that should be taken as metaphor. Christians derive a mysterious comfort in prayer. In other words, prayer is just another form of mediation and a vehicle for hope. Therefore, in place of “you’re in my thoughts and prayers,” I encourage my brother to say “you’re in my thoughts and I hope for you to get well soon.” But for the fact that he strongly believes that a Heavenly Father can bring about miracles, he is simply expressing empathy. Then my lesson learned is “no harm, no foul” because he does not know a better way to articulate his feelings. My brother is still a good person.

When my little sister sent me a Easter card with some Scripture and signed Jesus loves you, I responded with the following: St. Paul said (1 Corinthians 15:14) “and if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” All I had to do was show that the resurrection account was false to refute her. The Easter narrative in the Bible is so inconsistent that it cannot be true. The who, what, and when of the empty tomb, for example, cannot be harmonized across the canonical Gospels.

In conclusion, arguing with someone about his/her deeply held theism is very frustrating because the person rejects logic. I do not think for a moment that I have changed the minds and hearts of my brother and sister. My arguments are above their comprehension. Trying to educate someone with a closed mind is impossible. Therefore, it is best for maintaining family harmony to let praying at the dinner table stand as a ritual that is necessary for them and that does not need to be challenged.


[1] George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989), p. 17.

[2] Daniel C. Dennett, “Thank Goodness” in Philosophers without Gods: Meditation on Atheism and the Secular Life ed. Louise M. Antony (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007): 113-117, p. 113 [Kindle edition].

[3] John W. Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008), p. 66.

[4] John Wynne, “Prayer” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 12 ed. Charles G. Herbermann, Edward A. Pace, Condé B. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan, and John J. Wynne (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company, 1911).

[5] Roger Scruton,I Drink, Therefore I am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine (London, UK: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2009), p. 111.

[6] John Wynne, “Prayer.”