An Atheist Reads I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist
Chapter 1: Can We Handle the Truth?
What Is Truth? The Truth About Truth
- Geisler and Turek begin the chapter by quoting the “You can’t handle the truth!” exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. They observe that Nicholson’s Col. Jessep could have been yelling at America in general when he delivered that line, since although we expect to hear the truth in almost every area of life (from loved ones, from doctors, from the courts, from the news, etc.), we aren’t interested in the truth about religion or morality.
“Why do we say ‘That’s true for you but not for me,’ when we’re talking about morality or religion, but we never even think of such nonsense when we’re talking to a stock broker about our money or a doctor about our health?” (Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST, p. 36)
- Careful, fellas; questions like that are why I’m an atheist.
- Geisler and Turek assert that most people reject the notion of religious and moral truth because they don’t want to be held accountable. They paraphrase Augustine, saying we love the truth when it enlightens us, and hate it when it convicts us.
- They propose four questions to resolve concerning religious and moral truth:
- What is truth?
- Can truth be known?
- Can truths about God be known?
- So what? Who cares about truth? (p. 36)
The Road Runner Tactic
- Geisler and Turek begin the section by referencing the New Testament, specifically Pilate asking Jesus “What is truth?” Truth is defined as “telling it like it is,” or when a description of something matches the actual state of that something.
- “Pilate’s judgment was true because it matched its object; it described an accurate state of affairs. Jesus really was innocent.” (p. 37)
- Yes. According to the account written decades after the fact by people who worshipped him as a god, Jesus really was innocent.
- “Contrary to what is being taught in many public schools, truth is not relative but absolute. If something is true, it is true for all people, at all times, in all places.” (p. 37)
- There’s more of that anti-education attitude. In the introduction we read of Turek’s dim view of the university, now Turek and Geisler take a shot at another favorite target of evangelicals — public school. I attended public school and I was never taught that truth is relative. I don’t expect that my experience should stand for everyone, but it certainly contradicts the impression Geisler and Turek are giving here.
- Geisler and Turek share some truths about truth:
- Truth is discovered, not invented.
- Truth is transcultural.
- Truth is unchanging.
- Truth is not affected by belief.
- Truth is not affected by the attitude of one professing it.
- All truths are absolute truths. (pp. 37-38)
- This concept of truth strikes me as a bit narrow, particularly the notion of all truths being absolute. Doesn’t it depend on the subject of the claim? For instance, 2+2=4 is true, and will be true forever, but what about truths that describe circumstances that may change in time? Sixty-five million years ago, the statement “dinosaurs are the most dominant group of animals on Earth” was true. Today, that statement clearly is not true.
- Maybe that’s an unfair comparison. Geisler and Turek aren’t arguing that a description of one moment in time has to hold for all other moments in time in order to be true. They seem to be talking more about moral truth. So let’s take a widely accepted moral truth: that it is wrong to steal. I think most people would agree with this as a moral principle. It’s wrong to take something that doesn’t belong to you without permission. But is this an absolute truth? Is it true for everyone, in all circumstances? Is it wrong for a starving person to steal food so they can survive? And if you say that it is, is that starving person who steals food the same as someone who steals not out of desperation but out of greed? Is a starving person who steals food just as morally culpable as a bank robber or a car thief? I think even most people who would draw that black line and say “Yes, even in desperate circumstances, stealing is wrong,” would still make a distinction between the thief who steals to survive and the thief who steals out of greed or some other, less urgent motivation. And that tells me that even the simplest, most obvious moral judgments can be made difficult by certain circumstances. Not all truths are absolute, and certainly not all moral truths.
The Road Runner Goes to College
- The Road Runner tactic is the identification and refutation is self-defeating statements, and Geisler and Turek declare it to be the most valuable thing they have learned in all their years of education.
- For example, the statement “There is no such thing as truth” can be refuted by pointing out that the statement itself is a truth claim. Or the statement “There are no absolutes” can be refuted by pointing out that the claim that there are no absolutes is, itself, an absolute claim.
- Geisler and Turek call this the Road Runner tactic because it reminds them of the classic bit during the Wile E. Coyote cartoons when the coyote would run off a cliff, pause in mid-air to realize that he no longer had ground to stand on, then plummet.
- “Well, that’s exactly what the Road Runner tactic can do to the relativists and postmodernists of our day. It helps them realize that their arguments cannot sustain their own weight. Consequently they crash to the ground in a heap. This makes you look like a super genius!” (p. 39)
Can Truth Be Known? Knock, Knock . . .
- Turek and Geisler spend another page punching their university strawman, declaring that “many of our university professors” teach students that there is no truth, or that all truth is relative. Again they speak only in generalities and weasel words that would get this book flagged if it were a Wikipedia article, and again their portrayal of college runs contrary to my own experience.
- Turek and Geisler also blame the teaching of moral relativism in public schools and universities for school shootings and teenage mothers abandoning their children in trash cans.
- How long until they blame Hitler on secularism? Any guesses?
- Before we move on, here’s what’s wrong with the Road Runner tactic. First and foremost, it’s designed to end a conversation, not to begin one or continue one. If someone says to you, “There are no absolutes,” and you respond with “Is that an absolute?”, you’re resorting to a rhetorical trick rather than attempting to understand what the other person believes and why he/she believes it.
- Imagine that I say to you, “You’re in denial.” And you respond by telling me, “No, I’m not.” And then I say, “See? You’re even in denial about being in denial!” Is this any way for adults to have a serious conversation?
- Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s no value in recognizing and pointing out the contradictions in a statement or a belief. Atheists do it to theists all the time. One of the most common examples of this is the question of where God came from. If everything had to come from somewhere, and the universe came from God, where did God come from? But when you point out a contradiction like that, you can’t just drop it on the table like a dead fish. You have to use it as a pivot point, not as an end point. If all you want to do is stump the other person, I have to question your motive for engaging them at all.
Can All Religions Be True?
- Or do I? The motive of a Christian who starts a conversation with a non-Christian about the nature of truth is usually the same as the motive of Geisler and Turek when they address skeptics in this book: to convert the other person to Christianity. They aren’t interested in understanding where the other person is coming from. They want to shut the other person down so they can begin their sales pitch — a pitch we get a good look at in this next section, which consists mostly of Geisler’s recollection of his conversion of an atheist named Don.
- As Geisler tells it, he began by asking Don what he would say if he died and stood before God, and God asked him “Why should I let you into my heaven?” Don eventually identified himself as an atheist, though he admitted he wasn’t absolutely certain that there was no God. This meant he wasn’t an atheist but an agnostic, Geisler informed Don, who then clarified that he was an ordinary agnostic (one who didn’t know for sure whether there was a God or not), not an ornery agnostic (one who held that the existence of God was unknowable). (These are Geisler’s terms, by the way.) Don then shares that he’s an agnostic because he’s never been shown any evidence for God. Geisler hands Don a book by Frank Morison, and a few weeks later — presto! — Don was a born-again Christian, and today he’s a deacon at a Baptist church in St. Louis.
- Leaving Geisler’s manipulative mangling of the definitions of “atheist” and “agnostic” aside, let me share with you how I would have handled this conversation had I been in Don’s place. This is the same basic pitch used by most evangelists, including Ray Comfort, who likes to trick people into admitting that they’re sinners and then ask them why God should let them into Heaven. I have found that the most interesting response to the question “Why should God let you into Heaven?” is to tell the evangelist that I don’t want to go to Heaven. The usefulness of that question to an evangelist depends on the assumption that the person being asked wants to go to Heaven, given the choice. You’re supposed to say “I should get into Heaven because I’m a good person,” or something like that, to set up the next part of the pitch. But the pitch becomes useless if you make it clear from the start that you aren’t interested in the product being sold. Hopefully, it knocks the evangelist off-script enough that you can begin to have an actual conversation about your respective beliefs at that point. I always prefer a conversation to standing there answering loaded questions, waiting for the other guy to get to the excruciatingly obvious foregone conclusion.
- It also happens to be the most honest response I could give to that question: if Heaven is as most Christians describe it, I don’t want to go. I’ll take Hell. Better company, and not a God in sight.
- We now return to the mangling of the definition of “agnostic.”
- “. . . complete agnosticism or skepticism is self-defeating. Agnostics and skeptics make the truth claim that truth claims cannot be made. They say that truth can’t be known but then claim that their view is true. You can’t have it both ways.” (p. 44)
- Who defines agnosticism and skepticism this way? Agnostics hold that the truth about the existence of god is either unknown or unknowable, not that the truth about everything is unknown or unknowable. And skeptics dispute specific truth claims, not the concept of truth itself.
- Also, in a sense, you can have it both ways, so long as you aren’t an absolutist. You can say that you believe truth can’t be known because you find that to be the most reasonable position. It doesn’t have to be an absolute declaration. In fact, only a fool would make such a statement. Only a fool would claim 100% certainty about anything, let alone something as debatable as the nature of truth or the existence of God. Despite what Geisler said to Don, an atheist is not one who believes with total certainty that God does not exist. An atheist is one who assumes God does not exist, who has concluded that God does not exist. You don’t need to claim absolute knowledge to be an atheist. And defining agnosticism in absolute terms is one of the most ridiculous, not to mention wildly misleading things I’ve ever heard — the acknowledgement of uncertainty is the very essence of agnosticism. To define an agnostic as someone who makes any sort of absolute claim is to misunderstand the term.
- Anyway, Geisler and Turek point out that every religion cannot be true, because the claims of various religions contradict each other. They dispute the idea that all religions teach basically the same thing.
- On these points, we agree.
- Geisler and Turek complain about religious tolerance in America today:
“You’re supposed to be ‘tolerant’ of all religious beliefs. And in our culture today, tolerance no longer means to put up with something you believe to be false . . . Tolerance now means you’re supposed to accept every belief as true.” (p. 46)
- Again, a point of agreement. They have a problem with this, and so do I. Though I think they are grossly exaggerating the problem. I don’t think this form of “everybody’s right and nobody’s wrong” thought about religion is nearly as prevalent as Geisler and Turek are making it sound.
- Geisler and Turek spend the next two pages huffing and puffing and throwing their shoulders against this open door, arguing for religious freedom, but against the idea that religious beliefs should not be questioned. I agree completely, and I daresay so do most people who will read this book, regardless of their personal beliefs. Religious tolerance means you have the right to believe what you wish, not the right to have those beliefs go unquestioned or unchallenged. And I must say — again, this is just my experience — that most of the people I have known who have bristled at having their religious beliefs challenged have been Christians, who probably have beliefs more or less identical to those of Geisler and Turek.
- Geisler and Turek argue that the plurality of religious beliefs tells us not that the truth about religion cannot be known, but rather that there is a truth that can be known, if only we are able to see it from the right perspective. They mention the parable of the blind men and the elephant. This was also used as an example in the introduction, though I didn’t mention it in my commentary. The parable goes that six blind men are examining an elephant, and each one thinks the elephant is something different based on the part of the elephant he is touching. The man holding the tusk thinks the elephant is a spear, the man holding the trunk thinks it’s a snake, the man holding the leg thinks it’s a tree, etc.
- Geisler and Turek suggest that the best person to ask about the elephant is not any of the six blind men, but rather the person telling the parable, who has an objective view and can see what the elephant is.
- “We too can see the truth in religion. Unfortunately, many of us who deny there’s truth in religion are not actually blind but only willfully blind. We may not want to admit that there’s truth in religion because that truth will convict us. But if we open our eyes and stop hiding behind the self-defeating nonsense that truth cannot be known, then we’ll be able to see the truth as well.” (p. 49)
- I really don’t think the biggest barrier standing between skeptics and Geisler and Turek’s version of religious truth is the notion that truth is unknowable. As an atheist, I believe that truth is knowable, within a reasonable doubt, and I have never personally known anyone who thinks otherwise.
Next: Chapter 2: Why Should Anyone Believe Anything At All?
- I also think “you don’t believe because you don’t want to believe” is not a very persuasive argument. It may be true in some cases — no matter what the belief in question. I think it’s probably true for many people who profess a religious belief, that they only cling to that belief out of wishful thinking, or the fear they have of it not being true. I know that’s certainly where I was for a long time. But if I were writing a book for the purpose of persuading religious believers to let go of their faiths and accept atheism, I wouldn’t bring that up in the first chapter, before I had even begun to make my case.
- Geisler and Turek declare the elephant story to be a bad parable because it fails to account for the objective perspective of the narrator. I agree that it’s a bad parable, but for a different reason. It’s a bad illustration of religious truth because there is an actual elephant in the parable. True, the six men are blind, and they don’t know it’s an elephant, but nonetheless they know there really is something there.
- I was reading over the chapter yesterday when I realized this about the elephant parable. It reminded me of a comment someone left on the first video in this series. YouTube user vryc said this:
- “If religion had anything to do with ‘fact’, over time, it would reach consensus. This is the nature of ‘facts’: that they associate with reality and therefore truth.” (vryc, comment on “An Atheist Reads I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST: Introduction,” 3/8/2013)
- In other words, if there really was an elephant, it would only be a matter of time before the six blind men figured it out and came to an agreement about what it was they were touching. The guy holding the trunk would say to the guy holding the leg, “Come here, does this feel like a tree to you?” The guy holding the ear would say to the guy holding the tusk, “What I’ve got feels like a leaf, not a spear, come feel for yourself.” Eventually, even if these blind men had no idea what an elephant was, they would realize that they were not holding a rope, or a leaf, or a spear, or a snake. They would discover that they had been touching a creature with aspects reminiscent of those things, but that was not actually any of those things, and they would discard their old beliefs about what it was. Because they were all dealing with the same, real elephant, this would not only be possible but, given enough time, inevitable.
- So, yes, the elephant parable is a bad parable — not because it fails to account for the objective narrator, but because it claims to be an illustration of how we perceive religious truth while missing what seems to be the ultimate religious truth: there is no elephant.
- So what is the guy who thinks he’s holding a snake actually holding? I’d let go of the snake, if I were him.