How to Confuse an Atheist
(with commentary)

By: Dean Tersigni
2015-06-30

This original document was published as a wikiHow guide. I’ve fixed a few grammatical errors, but left the message intact.

1.) Remember that everyone is entitled to one's own opinions and beliefs, but not to one's own set of facts.

You know you're off to a good start when a religious person is appropriating a saying commonly used by skeptics (although, this quote is attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan who wasn't the world's most capable skeptic). The true irony comes from the fact that most of this guide is bereft of facts, and the few it includes are incorrect.

Use these steps appropriately, perhaps for debating. Don't believe you have a right to change anyone's beliefs.

I would love for the author to tell this to all the Christian missionaries whose entire life mission is to change the beliefs of anyone who believes differently from them. In fact, while the title of this guide is "How to Confuse an Atheist," it's safe to bet the ultimate goal is religious conversion.
        While I generally don't think it is my business to change anyone's beliefs, I reverse that stance when those beliefs impact on others. If you want to believe the world is 6,000-years-old, knock yourself out. If you want to take money that would normally be used to purchase school textbooks and use it to buy Young-Earth Creationist rubbish, that I can't abide.

2.) Confirm with the atheist what is a thought and / or a feeling, and of what consciousness and thought consist. For example, according to M.I.T., a thought is an electrochemical reaction in the mind. Feelings are based on clusters/networks of such electrochemical reactions as well. "The human brain is composed of about 100 billion nerve cells (neurons) interconnected by trillions of connections called synapses. On average, a live-connection transmits about one signal per second. Some specialized connections send up to 1,000 signals per second. ‘Somehow that's producing thought',"... as "billions of simultaneous transmissions coalesce inside your brain to form [one] thought" says Charles Jennings, Director of Neurotechnology at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

If you've had to recite the scientific definition of the word "theory" a thousand times, you know the wisdom of defining terms up front.
        It's nice to see the author quoting an authority on the topic, and while the quote is about the size and throughput of a thought via the brain, it does imply the author's position, of which I agree, that thoughts and feelings are constructs of a functioning brain.

3.) Ask how anything is known to be true, including facts, abstract thoughts, and feelings.

Step 3, ask the atheist to succinctly explain the entire field of epistemology while avoiding any and all internal contradictions. Hey, why not have them also solve the hard problem of consciousness and come up with a grand unification theory while they're at it?

If abstract thoughts and feelings consist of electrochemical reactions in the brain, what chemical reaction tells an atheist that s/he is right about disbelieving in spirit or God? What electrochemical reaction tells the atheist one's own emotion, feeling, or hunch is more or less right or true than that of another person's reaction?

Asking which electrochemical reaction in the brain tells a person they're correct is like asking, which byte in a computer beats me at chess. No one electrochemical reaction in my brain allows me to know if something is correct in the same way that no one byte in my computer beats me at chess. Yet, when they're all put together, my computer does beat me at chess, and my mind does allow me to make conclusions.

If the mind can play tricks on you, why trust it in forming conclusions of what exists in the material or spiritual sense?

Sure, our minds are flawed; one look at an optical illusion will prove that, but that doesn't mean they're completely untrustworthy. If they were, we couldn't trust that we're reading this person's how-to guide, which wouldn't matter, because they couldn't trust themselves to write it, and neither of us could trust that the other person even exists.
        While the mind can play tricks on you, there are ways of reducing or even eliminating those tricks; by measuring, re-measuring, pondering, constructing models, asking our peers, and always and forever re-assessing our conclusions... in short, by doing science.

Why trust what other atheists say, like Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens?

I don't, and neither should anyone else. Unlike religious people, atheists have no dogma, no holy books, and no prophets—nothing is sacred. We encourage people to always seek new knowledge and forever reevaluate established traditions. In science, you don't become famous by agreeing with the status quo, you become famous by discovering something new and counter-intuitive. Of course, we all take shortcuts in our day-to-day; we assume that gravity is still in effect without retesting it each morning, and we usually consult doctors over janitors on matters of medicine.
        Also, why no love for the fourth horseman of the atheist apocalypse: Dan Dennett?

After all, there's no way of confirming their thoughts. The atheist would be operating under a mental framework, illusion, opinion and electrochemical-agreement; so, to believe in anything to be true or exist would take a tremendous amount of faith.

All this leads to a reductionist fallacy. The author's approach is, minds are only electrochemical reactions, but electrochemical reactions can't know things, therefore, your mind can't know anything. What makes the argument fallacious is that is doesn't take into account emergent properties. Complexity sometimes arises unexpectedly out of simplicity. By itself, an electrical switch can do little more than turn a device on and off, but if you string together a couple trillion electrical switches in a specific pattern, you've got yourself a super computer.
        Also, if the Christian really believes that thought is electrochemical reactions (as they argue in step 2), and if electrochemical reactions can't think, the author is inadvertently deducing that he or she is incapable of thought.

4.) Make them question science. All sorts of people appreciate what science has achieved. Just because someone is theist, it doesn't automatically make him or her a disbeliever in science. What one must do is make the atheist question the existence of observable science. Why? Because, some believe that to an atheist science is the "I Ching" as if to do divination of all knowledge.

So, a religious believer is suggesting that atheists are dogmatic and blindly adhere to their cherished books in which they have absolute faith! Project much?
        A good skeptic questions everything, including the scientific method. As for the "existence" of science, well, yeah, it exists! If the author is referring to the accuracy of science, that's only as good as the scientists who employ it, something every scientist already knows.

Ask, how can science prove that science is the only way to know anything? It can't.

This is kind of cute. It's as though a young budding physicist suddenly discovered that the pull of gravity is the same for all objects regardless of weight, and then they haughtily explained it to a crowded room of post-doctorates.
        Scientists already know that, not only can science not prove that it is the only way to know something, science can't "prove" anything in the logical absolute sense. Science uses tests and observation to make tentative models based on the results. If further tests show that these models are in error, they are replaced with better models, but at no point does a scientist say, "I'm finished!"

Science presupposes that it is the way of knowing. That also takes a tremendous amount of faith.

Science presupposes that it is a way of knowing, not the way of knowing. Another way of knowing is deductive reasoning (e.g., Socrates is human, all humans are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal). Science is not based on faith, it is based on inductive reasoning (e.g., every human ever known has needed to eat, therefore, if a new human is born, they'll probably need to eat). And while it does require axioms, inductive reasoning is justified because it yields positive, measurable results. We don't have to have faith that mixing acids and bases will yield explosive results, we know they will (as much as inductive reasoning can be shown to know anything) thanks to centuries of experiments that all agree with each other. And until evidence can be shown to the contrary, no rational person would ever doubt that mixing acid and bases is dangerous.

5.) Analyze your certainty of any moral truism, if you can't know anything for sure. Usually by now an atheist will say, "You can't know anything for sure." That's assumed to be a true statement about fact or knowledge. Are you sure you can't know anything for sure?

That's right, a person who believes in nothing but moral truisms is suggesting that you need to analyze your moral truisms, and they're doing so with a critique that carries the same philosophical depth as, can God make a rock so heavy he can't lift it? The intellectually-honest answer to questions of this type is, "I don't know if anything can be known for sure, but I've never seen evidence to suggest absolute knowledge. However, if credible evidence is made available to me, I will change my mind."

Here's the problem: atheists can be subjective moralists. They will usually say, "to each his own," but then condemn those people who do "bad" things. Well, if you can't know anything for sure, how do you know that the things other people do are bad/good?

That's right, we're tackling both epistemology and normative ethics in a single paragraph; this author doesn't screw around!
        Religious people often tout moral absolutism like, "murder is always wrong," but when you point to the bible where God murders millions of people, their tune suddenly changes to, "murder is wrong for everyone, except for God," because there is nothing subjective about that! ;-)
        Put a room full of moral absolutist through a few ethical thought experiments and you'll see just how subjective their morals really are. For example, you have several Jews taking refuge in your attic during World War II when a dozen well-armed Nazis come to your door and demand to know if you're harboring anyone. Should you lie to the Nazis, knowing the Jews are hidden so well that they won't be discovered or should you tell the truth as the bible demands and be murdered along with them? Most people will admit that lying is morally justified in this situation, even if they first admit that lying is always wrong.

Don't let them use the scapegoat, "Oh, because I see the results." Well, in order to know something is bad, you have to know that there is "bad," or that "good" exists. Remind them, "I thought you couldn't know anything for sure?"

The term "scapegoat" is a biblical term where God commands the Israelites to cast their sins on a goat which they then sacrifice in order to absolve their sins. If the author had actually read the bible, they would know they're using the term incorrectly. I-r-o-n-y!
        That aside, when it comes to morality, it is precisely the results that matter. Morality is based upon the well-being of thinking beings, which is why we talk about morality among humans rather than rocks. In the bible, God gives rules for buying, selling, and beating slaves, which means slavery, at least according to both the Old and New Testaments, is not wrong. But when we look at the results of slavery, we see the horrible unnecessary suffering it causes, so we can safely conclude that it is bad.
        And of course, even if we admit that we aren't absolutely certain that treating human beings as property, beating them, and selling away their children is immoral, we're still justified in believing it is so because all the evidence agrees with our assessment.

6.) Think of choosing/causing an action. There is a question of causality: are cause and effect crucial to material, physical substance? Of course it is said that, "For every action there is a reaction." Ultimately, why or how could a thing/event have no cause. How can nothing come from something (it can't according to conservation of matter) ~ or something from nothing (it can't, unless there is spontaneity of matter). Is there a universal "mind." Do inanimate objects have a mechanical, analog "mind" that parallels that in life, and so do subatomic particles have a facet of a universal "mind." Is there something universal that supersedes, preexists and was the source of known matter? How do you know?

Step 6, ask the atheist to completely solve any and all contradictions among the fields of cosmology, thermodynamics, causality, determinism, and dualism. Then, assert that, because they failed to do so, it proves that your particular god exists and your god solves all contradictions among those fields (even if you can't explain how), then finally conclude that it is the atheists who are confused!
        I wonder if the author has genuinely attempted to square their religious world view with science? He or she says that the universe can't come from nothing, but as a theist, the author must ultimately believe their god created the universe from nothing. The author writes that effects must have causes, but as a theist, they must ultimately believe in a god that is an effect preceding a cause. And sure, the author may try and dodge these contradictions by asserting that their god transcends space and time, and therefore doesn't have to adhere to the laws of physics, but this is a non-answer. All they've done is take the mystery of the origin of the universe and replace it with an even bigger mystery, one with magic and angels and pixie dust.
        Remember that science isn't finished. There are new laws and theories just begging to be discovered, and many recent discoveries are helping us better explain the origin of the universe. For example, science says that there is no such thing as nothing; even the most barren reaches of outer-space are teeming with gravitational fields and black-body radiation, so the idea of "nothing" existing before the universe no longer makes sense. Or what about subatomic particles seeming to randomly appear even in a vacuum allowing us to observe the Casimir effect. Or the counter-intuitive notion that causality itself doesn't make much sense at the quantum level.
        Finally, the author wonders if "minds" can exist among inanimate objects. This is the only part of the how-to guide that I find confusing, but that's because the author doesn't really go anywhere with the question. Perhaps he or she is trying to get an atheist to believe that a mind can exist without matter in the hopes of inserting their immaterial god? Regardless, my answer is pretty similar to my previous answers, and will be the same for pretty much anything. "I'm not sure, but based on what I know about the topic, that seems unlikely. But if you can give me evidence to the contrary, I'll change my mind."


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