How not to respond to atheists, if you care about conversation

Plenty of thoughtful religious people and atheists have criticisms of the modern atheist movement. I want to improve my own criticism. So, when a Facebook friend shared a link to a free e-book by Bishop Robert Barron, I gave it a look.

The book is “Answering the atheists” and Barron is the auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Through his Word on Fire ministry he is, according to Wikipedia, one of the most followed Catholic figures on the internet including with more than 3.2 million Facebook followers. I say this not wanting to be accused of picking a weak strawman, the equivalent of a 13-yearold twitter atheist.

I’m always willing to listen to good faith social or political criticism of the atheist movement – that’s kind of my thing. Although I find apologetics absurd and usually irrelevant, they are fun to play around with. The point is that I didn’t know what to expect going in.

It turns out that the e-book was mainly an extended sales pitch. Signing up to receive the PDF enters you into an aggressive email marketing campaign that is absolutely not made clear or GDPR compliant. Perhaps it’s harder to get to over 400,000 subscribers playing nicely.

Barron opens with a discussion of the existentialist movement, Sartre and Camus. A bit strange to think that this is the philosophical foundation of atheism, but you have to start somewhere. However, Barron’s purpose is to introduce early on the idea that these ‘good’ atheists “to their credit, they saw the deep sadness and feeling of emptiness that result from atheism”. To which I say, “Fuck you Bishop.”

This is a bigoted and dehumanising view of atheists that is all too common among religious apologetics, though very much diluted among most religious people. Imagine replacing that with any other religious group: ‘The Hindus, who don’t accept the existence of my particular god must have a deep sadness and feeling of emptiness, because after all my god is the only reason not to.’

Imagine the arrogance of an atheist who would assert that ‘As the Christian believes this world is a meaningless blink of an eye compared to the eternity of the next all Christians if they are really honest must be filled with a deep sadness and feeling of emptiness.

It is only religious privilege that means we are expected to tolerate such a view of atheists. It may not irk most of us in the same way, but Barron’s view of atheists is as dehumanising as any other form of bigoty. Homophobes believe that deep down gay people feel as broken, miserable or disgusting, because that’s how they imagine being gay to be. This worldview is threatened when confronted with gay people living happy fulfilled lives. They could respond be to modify their worldview, or maintain that view by claiming this happiness is only a pretence, or seeking to make them feel broken, miserable or disgusting. This is Barron’s approach to atheists: assert that they must feel lesser than him, asserts that they really do feel lesser even if they pretend otherwise, and treats them as lesser.

He says of the existentialist, being sure only to mention dead ones unable of responding, that “Even as they denied Him, they knew that God, by definition, is what the human heart desperately needs.” Except in his simplistic understanding of existentialism, even he seems to half understand that this isn’t true. Existentialists argue that the absence of absolute meaning allows space to create our own and to acknowledge it as our own creation.

The vast majority of atheists I have encountered in 15 years of engagement with atheist groups and thinkers don’t believe that there is a grand purpose to the universe. I have only read a tiny number of atheist, and have never encountered any in the movement, who believe their atheism necessitates this hopeless view of life. The bishop says that it “is important that we Christians are able to answer the atheist’s best objections to God’s existence”. So why does her start with a dehumanising caricature of a position with virtually no traction in atheist culture and very little within atheist philosophy?

He criticises the “condescending and often snarky dismissal” of atheists. Again, I came to this book looking for a critique of toxic aspects of modern atheism I’d be happy to discuss atheist snark. Nothing in this introduction suggests good-faith engagement with these issues on Barron’s behalf.

The rest of the short book is an edited transcript of a podcast episode. It would be even shorter if he could go a few minutes without promoting another of his products.

Barron starts by pointing out that “there’s not anything particularly new in terms of the arguments” of the ‘new atheists’. One could point out that this is because all the theistic arguments have long been debunked. I’m not sure there are many new arguments against the flat earth. Barron correctly points out the role of 11 September 2001 on modern atheist discourse and how this can be distorting.

Barron’s second critique is of the “vitriol” and “meanness” of atheist discourse. I’d be happy to discuss these if he hadn’t already demonstrated bad faith and wasn’t smearing all atheists. Perhaps he could point out a book by an atheist with similar prominence to his within the Catholic hierarchy which opens with a dehumanising caricature of all religious people.

He deploys a common rhetorical trope of holding up past atheist like “Sartre, or even Freud or Feuerbach” and claiming they were “highbrow” and they “took religion seriously” to imply the opposite of today’s atheists. He longs for his critics to be deferent to him, an expectation borne from privilege and entitlement.

“What do you say to someone who says there’s just no evidence?” asks the interviewer. The bishop is pleased the hear this is “the number one” argument from atheists because “it’s very easy to refute that”. By presenting any evidence? Of course not, by redefining it. Barron is correct to say that evidence is “a loaded term”, in the sense that evidence can encompass bad evidence such as a personal feeling or fourth-hand testimony. I would agree with him that a term like “rational warrant” may be better.

However, Barron’s problem is that the term “evidence’ implies that his god is a scientific hypothesis that can be empirically tested, which he finds absurd. Barron defines his god as not being “subject to the norms of the scientific method, because God is not a being in the world”. Here’s the problem, the existence of a god is an hypothesis, whether or not we are currently able to test it.

If a god existed and interacted with the universe then this could theoretically be demonstrated through the scientific method. Barron is correct that science does not prove a god doesn’t exist and that any atheist who says it does is silly. But science does prove that there is currently no evidence for the existence of a god and it’s a little bizarre that theists aren’t more concerned about that.

To be consistent, Barron would also have to refrain from attempting to make any scientific claims for the existence of his god and to refute the history of such claims within his own intellectual tradition.

I feel compelled to ask, if the bishop continues to hold his god belief despite accepting that empiricism does not support this, why not go a step further and hold the belief while accepting that philosophy doesn’t support the belief either?

He goes halfway to doing that when he argues that the existence of a god is “ontologically basic”. Nope. If you remove a genuinely ontologically basic concept such as #A equals #A or #A does not equal #Not-A, then ontology falls apart, they must be presupposed. That simply isn’t the case with the claim that a god exists, even if the claim were true. He uses a similarly bull-headed approach in the next question, responding to atheist criticisms of first cause arguments by asserting that his god simply isn’t subject to those logical contradictions, because… he says so.

Barron goes on to respond to Occam, whose argument he fairly summarises as “if all things can be explained through an appeal to natural causality then we don’t need God.”. It seems that if the bishop were really interested in the best naturalistic arguments against theism, then he would have started with this rather than the strawman scientism above. His response is to again assert that his god is more ontologically basic than discussions of nature.

Barron reveals that he thinks the problem of evil is the best argument against the existence of a god. Though he is quick to “clarify, it’s more emotionally compelling than intellectually compelling”. Don’t worry if that sounds like those “snarky” atheists, after all he also says “I don’t mean that in a condescending way at all.”

Given that he almost certainly scripted the questions – the interview is taken from his own podcast and most of the questions are stunted attempts to set him up with a plug for one of his courses thrown in – why didn’t he start with this?

Also, if he thinks that this is the most compelling argument atheists have, why does he (1) misunderstand it as an argument against god’s existance rather than an argument against a benevolent god and (2) not do the intellectual courtesy of quoting an actual atheist’s framing of the argument? I suspect the answer to both is the bishop’s desire for easy strawmen.

He argues that his god allows suffering for the greater good, after all “No Hitler, no Maximilian Kolbe” I don’t swear a lot, so this is only my second “Fuck you bishop” of the book. Oh, and also ‘No Catholic Church’s two millennia of anti-Semitism, no Hitler, no Maximilian Kolbe.

Barron goes beyond arguing that if a god exists, they might have some reason for suffering, besides indifference or cruelty, or that there may be some reason that this god cannot use their powers to achieve these ends without the suffering. He asserts there is a reason, without demonstrating it.

He attempts to address this with a couple of analogies comparing our understanding of his god to children’s understanding of adults: “That’s like a beginning math student in sixth grade looking at Einstein’s most elaborate formulas and saying, ‘This is a bunch of nonsense. They’re just silly symbols on the page.’”

Barron argues that we cannot use our finite human understanding to criticise a god. A child may not understand everything a parent does, but that parent can demonstrate their own existence, and can attempt to demonstrate or explain their reasoning to the child. Barron is not just a generic theist, he is a bishop of the Catholic Church so feels comfortable making all sorts of very detailed and specific claims about his god, based on his finite human understanding.

I was pretty disappointed with this book. It was not in anyway a meaningful response to or critique of modern atheism. But perhaps I was just the wrong audience. I will attempt to untangle myself from the Bishop’s mailing list and move on. But when I write my next article for aimed at religious people seeking productive conversations with atheists, at least I will have a good example of what not to do.

Thanks for reading

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Photo information: A picture from the atheist bus campaign by Dan Etherington, also illustrated on the front cover of the book

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