Tuesday, November 3, 2015


I enjoy discussions about religion with my Christian friends, even though I realize that the chances that I will change anyone’s beliefs about matters of faith are close to zero.  And the older I get, the more remote the odds become.  But in discussions regarding the basis of beliefs my goals are broader than that.  Listening to what others have to say has helped me not just to understand better what I think but to refine those views and in some cases to change them.  But while I enjoy the repartee, there are some things that my Christian counterparts do and say that I find very frustrating.  Let’s call them pet peeves.  Here are a few:

1. Claiming that Christianity is under attack.

While I think it is a matter of respect to be sensitive to others’ beliefs, I’ve never had a problem with anyone saying “Merry Christmas” to me.  And I don’t know of any fellow secularists who are bothered by that either.  In fact, if someone greets me with “Merry Christmas,” more than likely I am going to say “Merry Christmas” in return.   

No one is out to attack Christianity.  And no one is out to secularize America.  That’s because America already is and always has been secular.  The First Amendment simply states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  It’s as simple as that.  Atheists have no problem with crosses, creches, the ten commandments, or other Christian symbols on private property.  It is when they are on government property and are promoted by government authorities that a problem arises.  

Bottom line: Just because someone disagrees with you over an issue that you think is a matter of faith does not mean that they are persecuting you; it just means that they disagree with you.

2. Stating “Scientists think that they have all the answers.”

The claim that scientists think they have all the answers couldn’t be further from the truth.  And when someone says this, usually in connection with a subject in which science and (at least some brands of) religion clash, it simply points up a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works and the vast difference between how those persons of faith and those in the scientific community approach the acquisition of knowledge.  

Scientists consider all of their points of view, all of their research findings to be provisional, challengeable, and subject to disconfirmation.  Every scientific statement is subject to refutation.  If it is not, then it is not a scientific statement.  That qualification is extremely important to the scientific community.

That is not to say that scientific statements are never to be classified as scientific facts.  In the vocabulary of science, a statement becomes a “scientific fact” when it has been so thoroughly established by such a vast amount of objective evidence that the likelihood of its being refuted becomes highly remote.  Someone could (and apparently there are those that do) claim that the earth is flat, but the evidence that it is a sphere is so overwhelming that the round earth hypothesis is treated as a scientific fact.  There are other concepts that were originally disputed but that by reason of the massive amounts of subsequent confirming observation and research should now be considered scientific fact.  Those include the heliocentric model for the solar system, the germ theory of disease, the big bang theory, and the theory of evolution, among others.

Bottom line: The whole point of scientific research is to test propositions about the nature of the world, propositions which by design are subject to disconfirmation.  To argue that scientists claim to “have all the answers” is to reveal a total misunderstanding of how science works.

3. Stating “Belief in God may require faith, but so does belief in science.”

Let’s be clear.  Faith can have several meanings.  When I refer to “faith” and when a person makes a statement such as the one above, both of us are referring to faith as belief despite inadequate (or the absence of) evidence.  For many Christians, including such apologists as C.S. Lewis, belief despite the absence of evidence goes to the very heart of Christianity; it is one of God’s conditions.  And of course there’s Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The problem occurs in claiming that belief in science is also a matter of faith.  That is simply not the case.  The whole point of science is to limit belief to those things for which there IS evidence not those things for which there is not.  The strength of one’s belief in matters scientific is and should be based on the strength of the evidence, not on faith.

Ah, the Christian apologist will say, atheists are willing to accept statements made by scientists, even though those atheists have not done the research themselves.  Aren’t they just placing their faith in scientists?  There is some validity to that point in the sense that if a noted scientific authority makes a statement, there is a tendency to give credence to his or her statement on the basis of reputation.  Under the scientific model, ideally every statement made by a scientist must be and must continue to be backed up by observation, rational analysis, and experimental results.  On the other hand, I have had Christians argue that evolution is wrong because some of the statements that Darwin made have proven incorrect.  To me that’s a laughable argument in the sense that no statement, whether made by Darwin or anyone else, should be accepted as true simply because of who said it.  And the truth of a scientific principle rests not on the authority of who proposed it but on whether it holds up under ongoing scientific scrutiny.

Perhaps a better argument might be to state that atheists place their faith in the scientific method.  The problem with this argument is that we have come to rely on the scientific method because it has proven so phenomenally successful.  Think about it.  The advances in our understanding of astronomy, biology, weather, and virtually every other field of knowledge about the world have come through the application of the scientific method broadly defined.  None is the result of religion.

Bottom line: Our so-called “faith” in the scientific method is based not on a lack of evidence but on an abundance of evidence.

4. Stating that “Evolution is just a theory.”

This points up a fundamental difference between how the term “theory” is employed in a vernacular sense and how it is used in a scientific sense.  In general parlance, the term theory means one of possibly several different explanations for an event or related set of events:  “I have a theory about who the murderer was and how he did it.”  Because a theory as used in this context may be one of several competing theories, it may carry no special status.  Hence the modifier “just” is appropriate.

On the other hand, the term theory in the context of science has an entirely different meaning.  A scientific theory is a well substantiated explanation for some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.  Thus the heliocentric model of the solar system is a scientific theory, but no one talks about the belief that the earth revolves around the sun as “just a theory.”  That is because religion caved in on that question several centuries ago.  The same analysis applies to the theory of relativity, the germ theory of disease, and the theory of plate tectonics.

Bottom line:  Yes, evolution is “theory.”  But it is not “just” a theory.  Rather it is a scientific theory that over the past 150 years has enjoyed overwhelming confirmation.

5. Arguing that without belief in God there is no basis for a moral code.

I have addressed this elsewhere, but it bears repeating here. Nearly all Christians receive indoctrination in Christian dogma at an early age by well meaning parents, church leaders, and teachers.  And at the same time they are taught a moral code by this same general set of authority figures.  Importantly, the two sets are linked:  The moral code is seen as God’s set of rules.  We have a particular moral code because God has prescribed it.  So it is natural to believe that the one (the moral code) is derived from the other (God).  But this is not the case.  In fact, the reverse is true.  

Moral codes are the natural product of the social order.  Living in groups requires that there be a set of rules to maintain and enhance the group’s well being and functionality.  Without such rules the social order would start to collapse.  Religion is simply a convenient, if sometimes simplistic, rationale used to justify that set of rules, that moral code.

Bottom line: I know of no evidence to support the notion that nonbelievers have lower moral standards than do those of faith.  Why is that?

6. Cherrypicking scripture.

Virtually all Christians maintain a hierarchy of scripture: (a) that which they consider fundamental and “true” (e.g., Christ’s resurrection) (b) that which they regard as metaphorical—not historically true perhaps but true in the sense of embodying an enduring principle (e.g., Jesus’s parables)—and (c) that which they explain away as being for another time (e.g., approval of slavery) or “fulfilled” and no longer prescriptive (e.g., God as a vengeful mass murderer) or simply ignored.

The fact is that the Bible is a massive collection of writings authored by dozens of men over a period of at least a thousand years.  It is hopeless to think that it could be internally consistent, and, of course, it is not.  This is painfully obvious to an objective reader, particularly as it concerns the nature of God and the confusion of conflicting—and in some cases outrageous—moral rules that are scattered throughout the text.

Bottom line:  For those who pride themselves in reading the Bible through, the question to ask is, Are you reading everything with a critical eye or are you reading just to comfort yourself with the familiar passages and simply skimming over those sections that, inter alia, portray God as a petulant tribal deity?

7. Responding to a question with a scriptural quote or a testament of faith.

Quoting the Bible in response to a question regarding religious belief might be acceptable as between two persons who agree that scripture is the word of God.  However, an argument based on scriptural text carries no weight with a nonbeliever.  A rule of thumb is to treat a quote from the Bible simply as a signal that the individual doesn’t have a reasoned response.  Worse is to launch into a testament of faith rather than with a comment that is germane to the matter under discussion.  At best it is a non sequitur; at worst, trolling. 

Bottom line: If you don’t have a response based on rational analysis, it is better to acknowledge that and move on.  That happens occasionally.  It should happen a lot more often.

© 2015 John M. Phillips


  1. Number 1: I know you were referring to America, but it is in fact a reality in many parts of the world and goes beyond the benign "difference of opinion."
    Number 7: You are correct . To prove your point I will offer myself as an example of your #7 pet peeve by quoting what Jesus said, "Do not give to dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to the swine. If you do they may trample them underfoot and turn and tear you to pieces."

  2. Yes, I was thinking of the situation in the US. I realize that Christians are persecuted in a number of theocratic regimes, primarily Muslim, as are atheists in those countries. That is why the First Amendment separation of church and state is so critically important in the US.

    I am hoping your response to no. 7 was facetious. If you are trying to explain and support your position, there is nothing better than to use clear, logical writing that is germane to the discussion. So often scriptural responses are metaphorical, which may be familiar and sound good but really just repeats platitudes that introduce ambiguity and can be a cover for lack of clear expression and logic.

  3. Yes, it was tongue in cheek John, but perhaps not totally. I certainly don't think you are a dog or swine, but the real point was that sometimes there is no point in trying to convince anyone of a view point particularly when it comes to belief in God or not believing in God.....I'm including myself when I say, sometimes we try to justify ourselves only. Metaphorically speaking: Never the twain shall meet.That doesn't mean I haven't looked at or thought about others arguments for or against God, just as you have thought thru the same..we come to different conclusions. I likewise, have experienced varying degrees of frustration when I see something as "plain" or obvious - but the other person doesn't.

  4. It's interesting that the scriptural quote could also be interpreted to mean that if you state your point of view to nonbelievers, the latter may prove them wrong and destroy your beliefs ("trample them underfoot and tear you to pieces"). This is the problem with metaphors. They work well where ambiguity is intended, such as with poetry or literature, but can create problems with expository writing.

    As I've said before, it comes down to what one accepts as support. For whatever reason, early on I discounted arguments based on authority--"it must be true because it is in the Bible or because EG White said it"--and limited my beliefs to what could be substantiated by objective evidence and rational analysis. I'm still not sure why that happened, but I think it has served me well. This approach--essentially the scientific method--has been supremely successful in gaining knowledge about the world. relying on authority has not advanced knowledge. Again, it's not what one believes but how he or she comes to that belief.