the alt.atheism FAQs:
1. Overview for New Readers
2. Introduction to Atheism
3. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
4. Constructing a Logical Argument
5. Atheist Resources
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Subject: Alt.Atheism FAQ: Overview for New Readers
Date: 18 Jun 1994 10:00:03 +0100
Organization: Mantis Consultants, Cambridge. UK.
Summary: Hi. Please read this before you post.
Keywords: FAQ, atheism
Last-modified: 3 June 1994
THE ALT.ATHEISM FAQ WEB
This is the ASCII version of the FAQ files for the Usenet newsgroups
alt.atheism and alt.atheism.moderated. The FAQ files are regular
postings aimed at new readers of the newsgroups.
The hypertext version of the FAQ files is available on the World Wide
Web at the following addresses:
For information about WWW, try the FAQ for the newsgroup
Many newsgroups of a 'controversial' nature have noticed that new
readers often come up with the same questions, mis-statements or
misconceptions and post them to the net. In addition, people often
request information which has been posted time and time again. In
order to try and cut down on this, the alt.atheism groups have a
series of five FAQ documents:
1. Overview for New Readers
2. Introduction to Atheism
3. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
4. Constructing a Logical Argument
5. Atheist Resources
Each item is reposted to the newsgroups at least once a month, with
"Alt.Atheism FAQ" at the start of the subject line.
This is Part 1, the Overview. Please read Sections 2 and 3 before
posting to the newsgroups. The others are entirely optional.
You might be impatient to post, and you might not want to read a
lengthy document. If that's the case, take a look at the Quick Index
of FAQ topics to see if your posting is covered somewhere.
If you are new to Usenet, you may also find it helpful to read the
newsgroup news.announce.newusers. The articles titled "A Primer on How
to Work With the Usenet Community", "Answers to Frequently Asked
Questions about Usenet" and "Hints on writing style for Usenet" are
particularly relevant. Questions concerning how news works are best
asked in news.newusers.questions.
Credits, corrections and copyrights
Please send any changes or corrections to mathew
The plain ASCII text versions of the alt.atheism FAQ files are free;
you may distribute them to anyone you wish. The hypertext (HTML)
versions are not free (yet), so please ask before distributing
copies or mirroring them.
Please do not re-post copies of the ASCII documents to alt.atheism; it
does nobody any good to have multiple versions of the same document
floating around the network.
People sometimes ask whether the FAQ documents are original, and if
so, who wrote them. It's not an easy question to answer. Some parts I
wrote myself; many others were contributed by the readers of
alt.atheism and of other Usenet newsgroups. The articles are therefore
a massive collaborative effort, of a sort which would not have been
possible without electronic networking.
I have written, rewritten and edited a great deal of material, but
these FAQ files would not have been possible without the efforts of
hundreds of people. In particular, I'd like to thank the following
people for their contributions (in no particular order):
email@example.com (Karl Kluge)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Jim Perry)
NETOPRWA@ncsuvm.cc.ncsu.edu (Wayne Aiken)
email@example.com (Toby Kelsey)
jkp@cs.HUT.FI (Jyrki Kuoppala)
geoff.arnold@East.Sun.COM (Geoff Arnold)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Torkel Franzen)
email@example.com (George Kimeldorf)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Greg Roelofs)
email@example.com (Ken Arromdee)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Maddi Hausmann)
J5J@psuvm.psu.edu (John A. Johnson)
email@example.com (Douglas Graham)
firstname.lastname@example.org (William Mayne)
email@example.com (Andy Rosen)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Achim Stoesser)
email@example.com (Bryan O'Sullivan)
firstname.lastname@example.org (James J. Lippard)
email@example.com (S. Baum)
firstname.lastname@example.org (York H. Dobyns)
email@example.com (Wayne Schroeder)
firstname.lastname@example.org (J.D. Baldwin)
D_NIBBY@unhh.unh.edu (Dana Nibby)
dempsey@Kodak.COM (Richard C. Dempsey)
jmunch@hertz,elee.calpoly.edu (John David Munch)
email@example.com (Paul Crowley)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Richard Zach)
email@example.com (Tim Chow)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Simon Clippingdale)
PHIMANEN@cc.helsinki.fi (Pekka Himanen)
MINER@kuhub.cc.ukans.edu (Ken Miner)
email@example.com (Rob Mayoff)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Harold Hallikainen)
email@example.com (Michael Wang)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Larry Loen)
email@example.com (Dr J. R. Partington)
Andrew.Martin@prg.ox.ac.uk (Andrew Martin)
firstname.lastname@example.org (David Wood)
email@example.com (Mark Mestern)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Dirk Roorda)
email@example.com (greg erwin)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Taner Edis)
dt650@cleveland.Freenet.Edu (David J. Mullenix)
email@example.com (Mark McCullough)
firstname.lastname@example.org (John Pinto)
email@example.com (Jerry Schwarz)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Sharon Roy)
email@example.com (Niall McAuley)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Matt Barry)
...and countless others I've forgotten.
The editor of these FAQ documents has attempted to verify the accuracy
and correctness of the information contained in them, as far as is
metaphysically possible. Mistakes can and do happen, and so far it
seems no omnipotent beings have intervened to correct them. If you use
the information in these FAQ documents, you do so at your own risk.
However, the editor hereby guarantees that reading these documents
will not cause your soul to perish in eternal damnation. Offer void
where prohibited by natural law.
If you are on Usenet, the ASCII versions of all the FAQ files should
be somewhere on your news system. Here are some suggestions on what to
do if you can't find them:
1. Check the newsgroup alt.atheism. Look for subject lines starting
with "Alt.Atheism FAQ:".
2. Check the newsgroups alt.answers and news.answers for the same
3. If you don't find anything in Steps 1 and 2, your news system
isn't set up correctly, and you may wish to tell your system
administrator about the problem.
4. If you have anonymous FTP access, connect to rtfm.mit.edu
[184.108.40.206]. Go to the directory /pub/usenet/alt.atheism, and
you'll find the latest ASCII versions of the FAQ files there.
FTP is a a way of copying files between networked computers. If
you need help in using or getting started with FTP, send e-mail to
in the body.
5. There are other sites which also carry news.answers postings. The
article "Introduction to the news.answers newsgroup" carries a
list of these sites; the article is posted regularly to
6. If you don't have FTP, send mail to email@example.com
consisting of the following lines:
7. There's a small FTP site at ftp.mantis.co.uk [220.127.116.11] which
carries articles relating to alt.atheism. Look in the directory
/pub/alt.atheism/faqs, and please READ THE README FILE.
8. (Last resort) Mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or post an article to the
newsgroup asking how you can get the FAQ files. You should only do
this if you've tried the above methods and they've failed; it's
not nice to clutter the newsgroup or people's mailboxes with
requests for files. It's better than posting without reading the
FAQ, though! For instance, people whose email addresses get
mangled in transit and who don't have FTP will probably need
assistance obtaining the FAQ files.
AN INTRODUCTION TO ATHEISM
Written by mathew
with help from Michael Wang
This article attempts to provide a general introduction to atheism.
Whilst I have tried to be as neutral as possible regarding contentious
issues, you should always remember that this document represents only
one viewpoint. I would encourage you to read widely and draw your own
conclusions; some relevant books are listed in a companion article.
To provide a sense of cohesion and progression, I have presented this
article as an imaginary conversation between an atheist and a theist.
All the questions asked by the imaginary theist are questions which
have been cropped up repeatedly on alt.atheism since that newsgroup
was created. Some other frequently asked questions are answered in a
Please note that this article is arguably slanted towards answering
questions posed from a Christian viewpoint. This is because the FAQ
files reflect questions which have actually been asked, and it is
predominantly Christians who proselytize on alt.atheism.
So when I talk of religion, I am talking primarily about religions
such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which involve some sort of
superhuman divine being. Much of the discussion will apply to other
religions, but some of it may not.
[i01] "What is atheism?"
Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of
gods. Some atheists go further, and believe that particular gods do
not exist. The former is often referred to as the "weak atheist"
position, and the latter as "strong atheism".
It is important to note the difference between these two positions.
"Weak atheism" is simple scepticism; disbelief in the existence of
God. "Strong atheism" is a positive belief that God does not exist.
Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are
Some atheists believe in the non-existence of all Gods; others limit
their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than
making flat-out denials.
[i02] "But isn't disbelieving in God the same thing as believing he
Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not
believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not
equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea
whether it is true or not. Which brings us to agnosticism.
[i03] "What is agnosticism then?"
The term 'agnosticism' was coined by Professor Huxley at a meeting of
the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an agnostic as someone
who disclaimed ("strong") atheism and believed that the ultimate
origin of things must be some cause unknown and unknowable. Another
way of putting it is an agnostic is someone who believes that we do
not and cannot know for sure whether God exists.
Since that time, however, the term agnostic has also been used to
describe those that do not believe that the question is intrinsically
unknowable, but instead believe that the evidence for or against God
is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue.
To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it
is recommended that usage based on the original definition be
qualified as "strict agnosticism" and usage based on the second
definition be qualified as "empirical agnosticism".
Words are slippery things, and language is inexact. Beware of assuming
that you can work out someone's philosophical point of view simply
from the fact that she calls herself an atheist or an agnostic. For
example, many people use agnosticism to mean what is referred to here
as "weak atheism", and use the word "atheism" only when referring to
Beware also that because the word "atheist" has so many shades of
meaning, it is very difficult to generalize about atheists. About all
you can say for sure is that atheists don't believe in God. For
example, it certainly isn't the case that all atheists believe that
science is the best way to find out about the universe.
[i04] "So what is the philosophical justification or basis for
There are many philosophical justifications for atheism. To find out
why a particular person chooses to be an atheist, it's best to ask
Many atheists feel that the idea of God as presented by the major
religions is essentially self-contradictory, and that it is logically
impossible that such a God could exist. Others are atheists through
scepticism, because they see no evidence that God exists.
There are a number of books which lay out a philosophical
justification for atheism, such as Martin's "Atheism: A Philosophical
Justification" and Smith's "Atheism: The Case Against God". A few such
books are in the document listing "Atheist Resources".
[i05] "But isn't it impossible to prove the non-existence of
There are many counter-examples to such a statement. For example, it
is quite simple to prove that there does not exist a prime number
larger than all other prime numbers. Of course, this deals with
well-defined objects obeying well-defined rules. Whether Gods or
universes are similarly well-defined is a matter for debate.
However, assuming for the moment that the existence of a God is not
provably impossible, there are still subtle reasons for assuming the
non-existence of God. If we assume that something does not exist, it
is always possible to show that this assumption is invalid by finding
a single counter-example.
If on the other hand we assume that something does exist, and if the
thing in question is not provably impossible, showing that the
assumption is invalid may require an exhaustive search of all possible
places where such a thing might be found, to show that it isn't there.
Such an exhaustive search is often impractical or impossible. There is
no such problem with largest primes, because we can prove that they
Therefore it is generally accepted that we must assume things do not
exist unless we have evidence that they do. Even theists follow this
rule most of the time; they don't believe in unicorns, even though
they can't conclusively prove that no unicorns exist anywhere.
To assume that God exists is to make an assumption which probably
cannot be tested. We cannot make an exhaustive search of everywhere
God might be to prove that he doesn't exist anywhere. So the sceptical
atheist assumes by default that God does not exist, since that is an
assumption we can test.
Those who profess strong atheism usually do not claim that no sort of
God exists; instead, they generally restrict their claims so as to
cover varieties of God described by followers of various religions. So
whilst it may be impossible to prove conclusively that no God exists,
it may be possible to prove that (say) a God as described by a
particular religious book does not exist. It may even be possible to
prove that no God described by any present-day religion exists.
In practice, believing that no God described by any religion exists is
very close to believing that no God exists. However, it is
sufficiently different that counter-arguments based on the
impossibility of disproving every kind of God are not really
[i06] "But what if God is essentially non-detectable?"
If God interacts with our universe in any way, the effects of his
interaction must be measurable. Hence his interaction with our
universe must be detectable.
If God is essentially non-detectable, it must therefore be the case
that he does not interact with our universe in any way. Many atheists
would argue that if God does not interact with our universe at all, it
is of no importance whether he exists or not.
If the Bible is to be believed, God was easily detectable by the
Israelites. Surely he should still be detectable today?
Note that I am not demanding that God interact in a scientifically
verifiable, physical way. It must surely be possible to perceive some
effect caused by his presence, though; otherwise, how can I
distinguish him from all the other things that don't exist?
[i07] "What if I managed to logically prove that he exists?"
Even after centuries of effort, nobody has come up with a watertight
logical proof of the existence of God. In spite of this, however,
people often feel that they can logically prove that God exists.
Unfortunately, reality is not decided by logic. Even if you could
rigorously prove that God exists, it wouldn't actually get you very
far. It could be that your logical rules do not always preserve truth
-- that your system of logic is flawed. It could be that your premises
are wrong. It could even be that reality is not logically consistent.
In the end, the only way to find out what is really going on is to
observe it. Logic can merely give you an idea where or how to look;
and most logical arguments about God don't even perform that task.
Logic is a useful tool for analyzing data and inferring what is going
on; but if logic and reality disagree, reality wins.
[i08] "OK, you may think there's a philosophical justification for
atheism, but isn't it still a religious belief?"
One of the most common pastimes in philosophical discussion is "the
redefinition game". The cynical view of this game is as follows:
Person A begins by making a contentious statement. When person B
points out that it can't be true, person A gradually re-defines the
words he used in the statement until he arrives at something person B
is prepared to accept. He then records the statement, along with the
fact that person B has agreed to it, and continues. Eventually A uses
the statement as an "agreed fact", but uses his original definitions
of all the words in it rather than the obscure redefinitions
originally needed to get B to agree to it. Rather than be seen to be
apparently inconsistent, B will tend to play along.
The point of this digression is that the answer to the question "Isn't
atheism a religious belief?" depends crucially upon what is meant by
"religious". "Religion" is generally characterized by belief in a
superhuman controlling power -- especially in some sort of God -- and
by faith and worship.
(It's worth pointing out in passing that some varieties of Buddhism
are not "religion" according to such a definition.)
Atheism is certainly not a belief in any sort of superhuman power, nor
is it categorized by worship in any meaningful sense. Widening the
definition of "religious" to encompass atheism tends to result in many
other aspects of human behaviour suddenly becoming classed as
"religious" as well -- such as science, politics, and watching TV.
[i09] "OK, so it's not a religion. But surely belief in atheism (or
science) is still just an act of faith, like religion is?"
Firstly, it's not entirely clear that sceptical atheism is something
one actually believes in.
Secondly, it is necessary to adopt a number of core beliefs or
assumptions to make some sort of sense out of the sensory data we
experience. Most atheists try to adopt as few core beliefs as
possible; and even those are subject to questioning if experience
throws them into doubt.
Science has a number of core assumptions. For example, it is generally
assumed that the laws of physics are the same for all observers. These
are the sort of core assumptions atheists make. If such basic ideas
are called "acts of faith", then almost everything we know must be
said to be based on acts of faith, and the term loses its meaning.
Faith is more often used to refer to complete, certain belief in
something. According to such a definition, atheism and science are
certainly not acts of faith. Of course, individual atheists or
scientists can be as dogmatic as religious followers when claiming
that something is "certain". This is not a general tendency, however;
there are many atheists who would be reluctant to state with certainty
that the universe exists.
Faith is also used to refer to belief without supporting evidence or
proof. Sceptical atheism certainly doesn't fit that definition, as
sceptical atheism has no beliefs. Strong atheism is closer, but still
doesn't really match, as even the most dogmatic atheist will tend to
refer to experimental data (or the lack of it) when asserting that God
does not exist.
[i10] "If atheism is not religious, surely it's anti-religious?"
It is an unfortunate human tendency to label everyone as either "for"
or "against", "friend" or "enemy". The truth is not so clear-cut.
Atheism is the position that runs logically counter to theism; in that
sense, it can be said to be "anti-religion". However, when religious
believers speak of atheists being "anti-religious" they usually mean
that the atheists have some sort of antipathy or hatred towards
This categorization of atheists as hostile towards religion is quite
unfair. Atheist attitudes towards theists in fact cover a broad
Most atheists take a "live and let live" attitude. Unless questioned,
they will not usually mention their atheism, except perhaps to close
friends. Of course, this may be in part because atheism is not
"socially acceptable" in many countries.
A few atheists are quite anti-religious, and may even try to "convert"
others when possible. Historically, such anti-religious atheists have
made little impact on society outside the Eastern Bloc countries.
(To digress slightly: the Soviet Union was originally dedicated to
separation of church and state, just like the USA. Soviet citizens
were legally free to worship as they wished. The institution of "state
atheism" came about when Stalin took control of the Soviet Union and
tried to destroy the churches in order to gain complete power over the
Some atheists are quite vocal about their beliefs, but only where they
see religion encroaching on matters which are not its business -- for
example, the government of the USA. Such individuals are usually
concerned that church and state should remain separate.
[i11] "But if you don't allow religion to have a say in the running
of the state, surely that's the same as state atheism?"
The principle of the separation of church and state is that the state
shall not legislate concerning matters of religious belief. In
particular, it means not only that the state cannot promote one
religion at the expense of another, but also that it cannot promote
any belief which is religious in nature.
Religions can still have a say in discussion of purely secular
matters. For example, religious believers have historically been
responsible for encouraging many political reforms. Even today, many
organizations campaigning for an increase in spending on foreign aid
are founded as religious campaigns. So long as they campaign
concerning secular matters, and so long as they do not discriminate on
religious grounds, most atheists are quite happy to see them have
[i12] "What about prayer in schools? If there's no God, why do you
care if people pray?"
Because people who do pray are voters and lawmakers, and tend to do
things that those who don't pray can't just ignore. Also, Christian
prayer in schools is intimidating to non-Christians, even if they are
told that they need not join in. The diversity of religious and
non-religious belief means that it is impossible to formulate a
meaningful prayer that will be acceptable to all those present at any
Also, non-prayers tend to have friends and family who pray. It is
reasonable to care about friends and family wasting their time, even
without other motives.
[i13] "You mentioned Christians who campaign for increased foreign
aid. What about atheists? Why aren't there any atheist charities or
hospitals? Don't atheists object to the religious charities?"
There are many charities without religious purpose that atheists can
contribute to. Some atheists contribute to religious charities as
well, for the sake of the practical good they do. Some atheists even
do voluntary work for charities founded on a theistic basis.
Most atheists seem to feel that atheism isn't worth shouting about in
connection with charity. To them, atheism is just a simple, obvious
everyday matter, and so is charity. Many feel that it's somewhat
cheap, not to say self-righteous, to use simple charity as an excuse
to plug a particular set of religious beliefs.
To "weak" atheists, building a hospital to say "I do not believe in
God" is a rather strange idea; it's rather like holding a party to say
"Today is not my birthday". Why the fuss? Atheism is rarely
[i14] "You said atheism isn't anti-religious. But is it perhaps a
backlash against one's upbringing, a way of rebelling?"
Perhaps it is, for some. But many people have parents who do not
attempt to force any religious (or atheist) ideas upon them, and many
of those people choose to call themselves atheists.
It's also doubtless the case that some religious people chose religion
as a backlash against an atheist upbringing, as a way of being
different. On the other hand, many people choose religion as a way of
conforming to the expectations of others.
On the whole, we can't conclude much about whether atheism or religion
are backlash or conformism; although in general, people have a
tendency to go along with a group rather than act or think
[i15] "How do atheists differ from religious people?"
They don't believe in God. That's all there is to it.
Atheists may listen to heavy metal -- backwards, even -- or they may
prefer a Verdi Requiem, even if they know the words. They may wear
Hawaiian shirts, they may dress all in black, they may even wear
orange robes. (Many Buddhists lack a belief in any sort of God.) Some
atheists even carry a copy of the Bible around -- for arguing against,
Whoever you are, the chances are you have met several atheists without
realising it. Atheists are usually unexceptional in behaviour and
[i16] "Unexceptional? But aren't atheists less moral than religious
That depends. If you define morality as obedience to God, then of
course atheists are less moral as they don't obey any God. But usually
when one talks of morality, one talks of what is acceptable ("right")
and unacceptable ("wrong") behaviour within society.
Humans are social animals, and to be maximally successful they must
co-operate with each other. This is a good enough reason to discourage
most atheists from "anti-social" or "immoral" behaviour, purely for
the purposes of self-preservation.
Many atheists behave in a "moral" or "compassionate" way simply
because they feel a natural tendency to empathize with other humans.
So why do they care what happens to others? They don't know, they
simply are that way.
Naturally, there are some people who behave "immorally" and try to use
atheism to justify their actions. However, there are equally many
people who behave "immorally" and then try to use religious beliefs to
justify their actions. For example:
"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Jesus
Christ came into the world to save sinners... But for that very
reason, I was shown mercy so that in me... Jesus Christ might
display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would
believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the king eternal,
immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and
The above quote is from a statement made to the court on February 17th
1992 by Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious cannibal serial killer of
Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It seems that for every atheist mass-murderer,
there is a religious mass-murderer. But what of more trivial morality?
A survey conducted by the Roper Organization found that behavior
deteriorated after "born again" experiences. While only 4% of
respondents said they had driven intoxicated before being "born
again," 12% had done so after conversion. Similarly, 5% had used
illegal drugs before conversion, 9% after. Two percent admitted to
engaging in illicit sex before salvation; 5% after. ["Freethought
Today", September 1991, p. 12.]
So it seems that at best, religion does not have a monopoly on moral
Of course, a great many people are converted to (and from)
Christianity during adolescence and their early twenties. This is also
the time at which people begin to drink and become sexually active. It
could be that the above figures merely indicate that Christianity has
no effect on moral behaviour, or insufficient effect to result in an
overall fall in immoral behaviour.
[i17] "Is there such a thing as atheist morality?"
If you mean "Is there such a thing as morality for atheists?", then
the answer is yes, as explained above. Many atheists have ideas about
morality which are at least as strong as those held by religious
If you mean "Does atheism have a characteristic moral code?", then the
answer is no. Atheism by itself does not imply anything much about how
a person will behave. Most atheists follow many of the same "moral
rules" as theists, but for different reasons. Atheists view morality
as something created by humans, according to the way humans feel the
world 'ought' to work, rather than seeing it as a set of rules decreed
by a supernatural being.
[i18] "Then aren't atheists just theists who are denying God?"
A study by the Freedom From Religion Foundation found that over 90% of
the atheists who responded became atheists because religion did not
work for them. They had found that religious beliefs were
fundamentally incompatible with what they observed around them.
Atheists are not unbelievers through ignorance or denial; they are
unbelievers through choice. The vast majority of them have spent time
studying one or more religions, sometimes in very great depth. They
have made a careful and considered decision to reject religious
This decision may, of course, be an inevitable consequence of that
individual's personality. For a naturally sceptical person, the choice
of atheism is often the only one that makes sense, and hence the only
choice that person can honestly make.
[i19] "But don't atheists want to believe in God?"
Atheists live their lives as though there is nobody watching over
them. Many of them have no desire to be watched over, no matter how
good-natured the "Big Brother" figure might be.
Some atheists would like to be able to believe in God -- but so what?
Should one believe things merely because one wants them to be true?
The risks of such an approach should be obvious. Atheists often decide
that wanting to believe something is not enough; there must be
evidence for the belief.
[i20] "But of course atheists see no evidence for the existence of
God -- they are unwilling in their souls to see!"
Many, if not most atheists were previously religious. As has been
explained above, the vast majority have seriously considered the
possibility that God exists. Many atheists have spent time in prayer
trying to reach God.
Of course, it is true that some atheists lack an open mind; but
assuming that all atheists are biased and insincere is offensive and
closed-minded. Comments such as "Of course God is there, you just
aren't looking properly" are likely to be viewed as patronizing.
Certainly, if you wish to engage in philosophical debate with atheists
it is vital that you give them the benefit of the doubt and assume
that they are being sincere if they say that they have searched for
God. If you are not willing to believe that they are basically telling
the truth, debate is futile.
[i21] "Isn't the whole of life completely pointless to an atheist?"
Many atheists live a purposeful life. They decide what they think
gives meaning to life, and they pursue those goals. They try to make
their lives count, not by wishing for eternal life, but by having an
influence on other people who will live on. For example, an atheist
may dedicate his life to political reform, in the hope of leaving his
mark on history.
It is a natural human tendency to look for "meaning" or "purpose" in
random events. However, it is by no means obvious that "life" is the
sort of thing that has a "meaning".
To put it another way, not everything which looks like a question is
actually a sensible thing to ask. Some atheists believe that asking
"What is the meaning of life?" is as silly as asking "What is the
meaning of a cup of coffee?". They believe that life has no purpose or
meaning, it just is.
Also, if some sort of mystical external force is required to give
one's existence a "meaning", surely that makes any hypothetical god's
[i22] "So how do atheists find comfort in time of danger?"
There are many ways of obtaining comfort; from family, friends, or
even pets. Or on a less spiritual level, from food or drink or TV.
That may sound rather an empty and vulnerable way to face danger, but
so what? Should individuals believe in things because they are
comforting, or should they face reality no matter how harsh it might
In the end, it's a decision for the individual concerned. Most
atheists are unable to believe something they would not otherwise
believe merely because it makes them feel comfortable. They put truth
before comfort, and consider that if searching for truth sometimes
makes them feel unhappy, that's just hard luck.
[i23] "Don't atheists worry that they might suddenly be shown to be
The short answer is "No, do you?"
Many atheists have been atheists for years. They have encountered many
arguments and much supposed evidence for the existence of God, but
they have found all of it to be invalid or inconclusive.
Thousands of years of religious belief haven't resulted in any good
proof of the existence of God. Atheists therefore tend to feel that
they are unlikely to be proved wrong in the immediate future, and they
stop worrying about it.
[i24] "So why should theists question their beliefs? Don't the same
No, because the beliefs being questioned are not similar. Weak atheism
is the sceptical "default position" to take; it asserts nothing.
Strong atheism is a negative belief. Theism is a very strong positive
Atheists sometimes also argue that theists should question their
beliefs because of the very real harm they can cause -- not just to
the believers, but to everyone else.
[i25] "What sort of harm?"
Religion represents a huge financial and work burden on mankind. It's
not just a matter of religious believers wasting their money on church
buildings; think of all the time and effort spent building churches,
praying, and so on. Imagine how that effort could be better spent.
Many theists believe in miracle healing. There have been plenty of
instances of ill people being "healed" by a priest, ceasing to take
the medicines prescribed to them by doctors, and dying as a result.
Some theists have died because they have refused blood transfusions on
It is arguable that the Catholic Church's opposition to birth control
-- and condoms in particular -- is increasing the problem of
overpopulation in many third-world countries and contributing to the
spread of AIDS world-wide.
Religious believers have been known to murder their children rather
than allow their children to become atheists or marry someone of a
[i26] "Those weren't real believers. They just claimed to be
believers as some sort of excuse."
What makes a real believer? There are so many One True Religions it's
hard to tell. Look at Christianity: there are many competing groups,
all convinced that they are the only true Christians. Sometimes they
even fight and kill each other. How is an atheist supposed to decide
who's a real Christian and who isn't, when even the major Christian
churches like the Catholic Church and the Church of England can't
decide amongst themselves?
In the end, most atheists take a pragmatic view, and decide that
anyone who calls himself a Christian, and uses Christian belief or
dogma to justify his actions, should be considered a Christian. Maybe
some of those Christians are just perverting Christian teaching for
their own ends -- but surely if the Bible can be so readily used to
support un-Christian acts it can't be much of a moral code? If the
Bible is the word of God, why couldn't he have made it less easy to
misinterpret? And how do you know that your beliefs aren't a
perversion of what your God intended?
If there is no single unambiguous interpretation of the Bible, then
why should an atheist take one interpretation over another just on
your say-so? Sorry, but if someone claims that he believes in Jesus
and that he murdered others because Jesus and the Bible told him to do
so, we must call him a Christian.
[i27] "Obviously those extreme sorts of beliefs should be questioned.
But since nobody has ever proved that God does not exist, it must be
very unlikely that more basic religious beliefs, shared by all
faiths, are nonsense."
That does not hold, because as was pointed out earlier in this
dialogue, positive assertions concerning the existence of entities are
inherently much harder to disprove than negative ones. Nobody has ever
proved that unicorns don't exist, but that doesn't make it unlikely
that they are myths.
It is therefore much more valid to hold a negative assertion by
default than it is to hold a positive assertion by default. Of course,
"weak" atheists would argue that asserting nothing is better still.
[i28] "Well, if atheism's so great, why are there so many theists?"
Unfortunately, the popularity of a belief has little to do with how
"correct" it is, or whether it "works"; consider how many people
believe in astrology, graphology, and other pseudo-sciences.
Many atheists feel that it is simply a human weakness to want to
believe in gods. Certainly in many primitive human societies, religion
allows the people to deal with phenomena that they do not adequately
Of course, there's more to religion than that. In the industrialized
world, we find people believing in religious explanations of phenomena
even when there are perfectly adequate natural explanations. Religion
may have started as a means of attempting to explain the world, but
nowadays it serves other purposes as well.
[i29] "But so many cultures have developed religions. Surely that
must say something?"
Not really. Most religions are only superficially similar; for
example, it's worth remembering that religions such as Buddhism and
Taoism lack any sort of concept of God in the Christian sense.
Of course, most religions are quick to denounce competing religions,
so it's rather odd to use one religion to try and justify another.
[i30] "What about all the famous scientists and philosophers who have
concluded that God exists?"
For every scientist or philosopher who believes in a god, there is one
who does not. Besides, as has already been pointed out, the truth of a
belief is not determined by how many people believe it. Also, it is
important to realize that atheists do not view famous scientists or
philosophers in the same way that theists view their religious
A famous scientist is only human; she may be an expert in some fields,
but when she talks about other matters her words carry no special
weight. Many respected scientists have made themselves look foolish by
speaking on subjects which lie outside their fields of expertise.
(The Constructing a Logical Argument FAQ has more to say about this.)
[i31] "So are you really saying that widespread belief in religion
Not entirely. It certainly indicates that the religion in question has
properties which have helped it so spread so far.
The theory of memetics talks of "memes" -- sets of ideas which can
propagate themselves between human minds, by analogy with genes. Some
atheists view religions as sets of particularly successful parasitic
memes, which spread by encouraging their hosts to convert others. Some
memes avoid destruction by discouraging believers from questioning
doctrine, or by using peer pressure to keep one-time believers from
admitting that they were mistaken. Some religious memes even encourage
their hosts to destroy hosts controlled by other memes.
Of course, in the memetic view there is no particular virtue
associated with successful propagation of a meme. Religion is not a
good thing because of the number of people who believe it, any more
than a disease is a good thing because of the number of people who
have caught it.
[i32] "Even if religion is not entirely true, at least it puts across
important messages. What are the fundamental messages of atheism?"
There are many important ideas atheists promote. The following are
just a few of them; don't be surprised to see ideas which are also
present in some religions.
* There is more to moral behaviour than mindlessly following rules.
* Be especially sceptical of positive claims.
* If you want your life to have some sort of meaning, it's up to you
to find it.
* Search for what is true, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
* Make the most of your life, as it's probably the only one you'll
* It's no good relying on some external power to change you; you
must change yourself.
* Just because something's popular doesn't mean it's good.
* If you must assume something, assume something easy to test.
* Don't believe things just because you want them to be true.
and finally (and most importantly):
* All beliefs should be open to question.
Thanks for taking the time to read this document.
ALT.ATHEISM FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
This document contains responses to points which have been brought up
repeatedly in the Usenet newsgroup alt.atheism. Points covered here
are ones which are not covered in the "Introduction to Atheism"
document; you are advised to read that article as well before posting
to the newsgroup.
These answers are not intended to be exhaustive or definitive. The
purpose of FAQ documents is not to stifle debate, but to raise its
level. If you have something to say concerning one of these questions
and which isn't covered by the answer given, please feel free to make
your point in the newsgroup.
Overview of contents:
01 * What is the purpose of the alt.atheism newsgroup?
02 * Adolf Hitler was an atheist!
03 * The Bible proves it
04 * Pascal's Wager (Why God is a safe bet)
05 * Lord, Liar or Lunatic?
06 * What is Occam's Razor?
07 * Why it's good to believe in Jesus
08 * Why I know that God exists
09 * Einstein and "God does not play dice"
10 * Everyone worships something
11 * Why there must be a causeless cause
12 * The universe is so complex it must have been designed
13 * Independent evidence that the Bible is true
14 * Gvdel's Incompleteness Theorem
15 * George Bush on atheism and patriotism
16 * I know where hell is!
17 * Biblical contradictions wanted
18 * The USA is a Christian nation/state
19 * The USA is not a Christian nation/state
20 * How come nobody has answered this point?
21 * The Bible says 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'...
22 * What does "xian" mean?
23 * The Bible says pi is 3!
What is the purpose of the alt.atheism newsgroup?
"Why have a newsgroup about atheism? Why do atheists organize in
groups? What is there to discuss?"
Many things are discussed in alt.atheism, including:
* Whether it is reasonable to pretend to be religious in order to
avoid upsetting one's family
* Prayer in schools
* Discrimination against atheists
* Sunday trading laws
* The Satanic Child Abuse myth
* Whether one should be an overt atheist or 'stay in the closet'
* How religious societies prey (sic) on new college students
* How to get rid of unwanted proselytizers
* Whether religion is a danger to society and/or the individual
* Why people become atheists
Of course, inevitably alt.atheism tends to attract evangelical
Christians looking for someone to convert. Most readers of the
newsgroup don't want to be preached to, although a few seem to derive
perverse pleasure from tearing apart particularly ill-considered or
Adolf Hitler was an atheist!
"Hitler was an atheist, and look at what he did!"
Adolf Hitler was emphatically not an atheist. As he said himself:
The folkish-minded man, in particular, has the sacred duty, each in
his own denomination, of making people stop just talking
superficially of God's will, and actually fulfill God's will, and
not let God's word be desecrated. [original italics]
For God's will gave men their form, their essence, and their
abilities. Anyone who destroys His work is declaring war on the
Lord's creation, the divine will. Therefore, let every man be
active, each in his own denomination if you please, and let every
man take it as his first and most sacred duty to oppose anyone who
in his activity by word or deed steps outside the confines of his
religious community and tries to butt into the other.
Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will
of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am
fighting for the work of the Lord. [original italics]
-- Adolf Hitler, from "Mein Kampf", translation by Ralph Mannheim.
Hitler certainly believed that he was a Christian:
The F|hrer made it known to those entrusted with the Final Solution
that the killings should be done as humanely as possible. This was
in line with his conviction that he was observing God's injunction
to cleanse the world of vermin. Still a member in good standing of
the Church of Rome despite detestation of its hierarchy ("I am now
as before a Catholic and will always remain so" [quoting Hitler]),
he carried within him its teaching that the Jew was the killer of
God. The extermination, therefore, could be done without a twinge of
conscience since he was merely acting as the avenging hand of God --
so long as it was done impersonally, without cruelty.
-- John Toland (Pulitzer Prize winner), from "Adolf Hitler", pp 507,
talking about the Autumn of 1941.
The "I am now as before a Catholic..." quotation from Hitler was
recorded in the diary of Gerhard Engel, an SS Adjutant, in October
1941. Hitler was speaking in private, not before a mass audience, and
so it is difficult to dismiss the comment as propaganda lies.
Of course, someone bad believing something does not make that belief
wrong. It's also entirely possible that Hitler was lying when he
claimed to believe in God. We certainly can't conclude that he's an
The Bible proves it
"In the Bible it says that..."
Most atheists feel that the Bible is of questionable accuracy, as it
was written thousands of years ago by many authors who were recording
oral tradition that existed many years before. Thus, any claimed
'truth' in it is of questionable legitimacy. This isn't to say that
The Bible has no truth in it; simply that any truth must be examined
before being accepted.
Many atheists also feel that because any passage is subject to
"interpretation", any claim that a passage 'means' one thing and one
thing only is not legitimate.
Note that this feeling tends to extend to other books.
It is also remarkable to many atheists that theists tend to ignore
other equally plausible religious books in favour of those of their
Pascal's Wager (God is a safe bet)
"If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost
nothing -- but if you don't believe in God and turn out to be
incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an
This argument is known as Pascal's Wager. It has several flaws.
Firstly, it does not indicate which religion to follow. Indeed, there
are many mutually exclusive and contradictory religions out there.
This is often described as the "avoiding the wrong hell" problem. If a
person is a follower of one religion, he may end up in another
religion's version of hell.
Secondly, the statement that "If you believe in God and turn out to be
incorrect, you have lost nothing" is not true. Suppose you're
believing in the wrong God -- the true God might punish you for your
foolishness. Consider also the deaths that have resulted from people
rejecting medicine in favour of prayer.
Another flaw in the argument is that it is based on the assumption
that the two possibilities are equally likely -- or at least, that
they are of comparable likelihood. If, in fact, the possibility of
there being a God is close to zero, the argument becomes much less
persuasive. So sadly the argument is only likely to convince those who
Also, many feel that for intellectually honest people, belief is based
on evidence, with some amount of intuition. It is not a matter of will
or cost-benefit analysis.
Formally speaking, the argument consists of four statements:
1. One does not know whether God exists.
2. Not believing in God is bad for one's eternal soul if God does
3. Believing in God is of no consequence if God does not exist.
4. Therefore it is in one's interest to believe in God.
There are two approaches to the argument. The first is to view
Statement 1 as an assumption, and Statement 2 as a consequence of it.
One problem with this approach, in the abstract, is that it creates
information from no information. This is considered invalid in
information theory. Statement 1 indicates one has no information about
God -- but Statement 2 indicates that beneficial information can be
gained from the absolute lack of information about God. This violates
information entropy -- information has been extracted from no
information, at no "cost".
The alternative approach is to claim that Statements 1 and 2 are both
assumptions. The problem with this is that Statement 2 is then
basically an assumption which states the Christian position, and only
a Christian will agree with that assumption. The argument thus
collapses to "If you are a Christian, it is in your interests to
believe in God" -- a rather vacuous tautology, and not the way Pascal
intended the argument to be viewed.
The biggest reason why Pascal's wager is a failure is that if God is
omniscient he will certainly know who really believes and who believes
as a wager. He will spurn the latter... assuming he actually cares at
all whether people believe in him.
Lord, Liar or Lunatic?
"Did Jesus exist? If not, then there's not much to talk about. If he
did, he called himself Lord. This means that either:
* He was Lord,
* He was a liar, or
* He was a lunatic.
It's unlikely he was a liar, given his morals as described in the
Bible, and his behaviour doesn't sound like that of a lunatic. So
surely we must conclude that he was Lord?"
Firstly, note that this argument hinges on the assumption that Jesus
did in fact exist. This is at least debatable.
Secondly, the argument attempts a logical fallacy which we might call
"trifurcation", by analogy with "bifurcation" (see the Constructing a
Logical Argument FAQ). That is, the argument attempts to restrict us
to three possibilities, when in fact there are many more.
Two of the more likely alternatives are:
1. He was misquoted in the Bible, and did not claim to be Lord.
2. The stories about him were made up, or embroidered with fictitious
material by the early Christians.
Note that in the New Testament, Jesus does not say that he is God. The
claim was first made after the death of Jesus and his twelve
Finally, note that the possibility that he was a "lunatic" is not
easily discountable. Even today in the western world there are
numerous people who have managed to convince hundreds or thousands of
followers that they are the Lord or his One True Prophet. People like
L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones and David Koresh continue to
peddle their divinity. In more superstitious countries, there are
literally hundreds of present-day messiahs.
What is Occam's Razor?
"People keep talking about Occam's Razor. What is it?"
William of Occam formulated a principle which has become known as
Occam's Razor. In its original form, it said "Do not multiply entities
unnecessarily." That is, if you can explain something without
supposing the existence of some entity, then do so.
Nowadays when people refer to Occam's Razor, they often express it
more generally, for example as "Take the simplest solution".
The relevance to atheism is that we can look at two possible
explanations for what we see around us:
* There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there,
which came into being as a result of natural processes.
* There is an incredibly intricate and complex universe out there,
and there is also a God who created the universe. Clearly this God
must be of non-zero complexity.
Given that both explanations fit the facts, Occam's Razor might
suggest that we should take the simpler of the two -- solution number
one. Unfortunately, some argue that there is a third even more simple
* There isn't an incredibly intricate and complex universe out
there. We just imagine that there is.
This third option leads us logically towards solipsism, which many
people find unacceptable.
Why it's good to believe in Jesus
"I want to tell people about the virtues and benefits of my
Preaching is not appreciated.
Feel free to talk about your religion, but please do not write
postings that are on a "conversion" theme. Such postings do not belong
on alt.atheism and will be rejected from alt.atheism.moderated (try
the newsgroup talk.religion.misc).
You would doubtless not welcome postings from atheists to your
favourite newsgroup in an attempt to convert you; please do unto
others as you would have them do unto you!
Often theists make their basic claims about God in the form of lengthy
analogies or parables. Be aware that atheists have heard of God and
know the basic claims about him; if the sole purpose of your parable
is to tell atheists that God exists and brings salvation, you may as
well not post it, since it tells us nothing we have not been told
Why I know that God exists
"I know from personal experience and prayer that God exists."
Just as many theists have personal evidence that the being they
worship exists, so many atheists have personal evidence that such
beings do not exist. That evidence varies from person to person.
Furthermore, without wishing to dismiss your evidence out of hand,
many people have claimed all kinds of unlikely things -- that they
have been abducted by UFOs, visited by the ghost of Elvis, and so on.
Einstein and "God does not play dice"
"Albert Einstein believed in God. Do you think you're cleverer than
Einstein did once comment that "God does not play dice [with the
universe]". This quotation is commonly mentioned to show that Einstein
believed in the Christian God. Used this way, it is out of context; it
refers to Einstein's refusal to accept the uncertainties indicated by
quantum theory. Furthermore, Einstein's religious background was
Jewish rather than Christian.
A better quotation showing what Einstein thought about God is the
following: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the
orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with
fates and actions of human beings."
Einstein was unable to accept Quantum Theory because of his belief in
an objective, orderly reality; a reality which would not be subject to
random events and which would not be dependent upon the observer. He
believed that QM was incomplete, and that a better theory would have
no need for statistical interpretations. So far no such better theory
has been found, and much evidence suggests that it never will be.
A longer quote from Einstein appears in "Science, Philosophy, and
Religion, A Symposium", published by the Conference on Science,
Philosophy and Religion in Their Relation to the Democratic Way of
Life, Inc., New York, 1941. In it he says:
The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events
the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the
side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature.
For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists
as an independent cause of natural events. To be sure, the doctrine
of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be
refuted [italics his], in the real sense, by science, for this
doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific
knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.
But I am convinced that such behavior on the part of representatives
of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a
doctrine which is to maintain itself not in clear light but only in
the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with
incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the
ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up
the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear
and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of
priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those
forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the
Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult
but an incomparably more worthy task...
Einstein has also said:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious
convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not
believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have
expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called
religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of
the world so far as our science can reveal it.
The latter quote is from "Albert Einstein: The Human Side", edited by
Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, and published by Princeton University
Press. Also from the same book:
I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider
ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman
authority behind it.
Of course, the fact that Einstein chose not to believe in Christianity
does not in itself imply that Christianity is false.
Everyone worships something
"Everyone worships something, whether it's money, power or God."
If that is true, everyone is a polytheist. Theists care just as much
about those things that atheists care about. If the atheists'
reactions to (for example) their families amount to worship then
so do the theists'.
Why there must be a causeless cause
"Sets of integers that have a lower bound each have a smallest
member, so chains of causes must all have a first element, a
The set of real numbers greater than zero has a definite lower bound,
but has no smallest member.
Further, even if it is true that there must be a causeless cause, that
does not imply that that cause must be a conscious supernatural
entity, and especially not that any such entity must match the
description favoured by any particular religion.
The universe is so complex it must have been designed
"The presence of design in the universe proves there is a God. Surely
you don't think all this appeared here just by chance?"
This is known as the Argument From Design.
It is a matter of dispute whether there is any element of design in
the universe. Those who believe that the complexity and diversity of
living creatures on the earth is evidence of a creator are best
advised to read the newsgroup talk.origins for a while.
There is insufficient space to summarize both sides of that debate
here. However, the conclusion is that there is no scientific evidence
in favour of so-called Scientific Creationism. Furthermore, there is
much evidence, observation and theory that can explain many of the
complexities of the universe and life on earth.
The origin of the Argument by Design is a feeling that the existence
of something as incredibly intricate as, say, a human is so improbable
that surely it can't have come about by chance; that surely there must
be some external intelligence directing things so that humans come
from the chaos deliberately.
But if human intelligence is so improbable, surely the existence of a
mind capable of fashioning an entire universe complete with conscious
beings must be immeasurably more unlikely? The approach used to argue
in favour of the existence of a creator can be turned around and
applied to the Creationist position.
This leads us to the familiar theme of "If a creator created the
universe, what created the creator?", but with the addition of
spiralling improbability. The only way out is to declare that the
creator was not created and just "is" (or "was").
From here we might as well ask what is wrong with saying that the
universe just "is" without introducing a creator? Indeed Stephen
Hawking, in his book "A Brief History of Time", explains his theory
that the universe is closed and finite in extent, with no beginning or
The Argument From Design is often stated by analogy, in the so-called
Watchmaker Argument. One is asked to imagine that one has found a
watch on the beach. Does one assume that it was created by a
watchmaker, or that it evolved naturally? Of course one assumes a
watchmaker. Yet like the watch, the universe is intricate and complex;
so, the argument goes, the universe too must have a creator.
The Watchmaker analogy suffers from three particular flaws, over and
above those common to all Arguments By Design. Firstly, a watchmaker
creates watches from pre-existing materials, whereas God is claimed to
have created the universe from nothing. These two sorts of creation
are clearly fundamentally different, and the analogy is therefore
Secondly, a watchmaker makes watches, but there are many other things
in the world. If we walked further along the beach and found a nuclear
reactor, we wouldn't assume it was created by the watchmaker. The
argument would therefore suggest a multitude of creators, each
responsible for a different part of creation (or a different universe,
if you allow the possibility that there might be more than one).
Finally, in the first part of the watchmaker argument we conclude that
the watch is not part of nature because it is ordered, and therefore
stands out from the randomness of nature. Yet in the second part of
the argument, we start from the position that the universe is
obviously not random, but shows elements of order. The Watchmaker
argument is thus internally inconsistent.
Independent evidence that the Bible is true
"The events of the New Testament are confirmed by independent
documentary evidence. For example..."
The writings of Josephus are often mentioned as independent
Early versions of Josephus's work are thought not to have mentioned
Jesus or James; the extant version discusses John in a non-Christian
context. Many scholars believe that the original mentioned Jesus and
James in passing, but that this was expanded by Christian copyists.
Several "reconstructions" of the original text have been published to
Much information appears in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius
(about 320 C.E.). It is worthless as historical material because of
the deliberate falsification of the wily Eusebius who is generally
acknowledged as 'the first thoroughly dishonest historian of
antiquity.' It is Eusebius who is generally given the title of
authorship for this material.
Aside from the New Testament, the biographical information about Jesus
is more well-documented. For further information, please consult the
Frequently Asked Questions file for the newsgroup
Gvdel's Incompleteness Theorem
Gvdel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrates that it is impossible for
the Bible to be both true and complete.
Gvdel's First Incompleteness Theorem says that in any consistent
formal system which is sufficiently expressive that it can model
ordinary arithmetic, one can formulate expressions which can never be
proven to be valid or invalid ('true' or 'false') within that formal
system. (Technically speaking, the system must also be recursive; that
is, there must be a decision procedure for determining whether a given
string is an axiom within the formal system.)
Essentially, all such systems can formulate what is known as a "Liar
Paradox." The classic Liar Paradox sentence in ordinary English is
"This sentence is false." Note that if a proposition is undecidable,
the formal system cannot even deduce that it is undecidable.
The logic used in theological discussions is rarely well defined, so
claims that Gvdel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrates that it is
impossible to prove (or disprove) the existence of God are worthless
One can trivially define a formal system in which it is possible to
prove the existence of God, simply by having the existence of God
stated as an axiom. (This is unlikely to be viewed by atheists as a
convincing proof, however.)
It may be possible to succeed in producing a formal system built on
axioms that both atheists and theists agree with. It may then be
possible to show that Gvdel's Incompleteness Theorem holds for that
system. However, that would still not demonstrate that it is
impossible to prove that God exists within the system. Furthermore, it
certainly wouldn't tell us anything about whether it is possible to
prove the existence of God generally.
Note also that all of these hypothetical formal systems tell us
nothing about the actual existence of God; the formal systems are just
Another frequent claim is that Gvdel's Incompleteness Theorem
demonstrates that a religious text (the Bible, the Book of Mormon or
whatever) cannot be both consistent and universally applicable.
Religious texts are not formal systems, so such claims are nonsense.
George Bush on atheism and patriotism
"Did George Bush really say that atheists should not be considered
The following exchange took place at the Chicago airport between
Robert I. Sherman of American Atheist Press and George Bush, on August
27 1988. Sherman is a fully accredited reporter, and was present by
invitation as a member of the press corps. The Republican presidential
nominee was there to announce federal disaster relief for Illinois.
The discussion turned to the presidential primary:
RS: "What will you do to win the votes of Americans who are
GB: "I guess I'm pretty weak in the atheist community. Faith in God
is important to me."
RS: "Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of
Americans who are atheists?"
GB: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as
citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one
nation under God."
RS: "Do you support as a sound constitutional principle the
separation of state and church?"
GB: "Yes, I support the separation of church and state. I'm just
not very high on atheists."
UPI reported on May 8, 1989, that various atheist organizations were
still angry over the remarks.
The exchange appeared in the Boulder Daily Camera on Monday February
27, 1989. It can also be found in "Free Inquiry" magazine, Fall 1988
issue, Volume 8, Number 4, page 16.
On October 29, 1988, Mr. Sherman had a confrontation with Ed Murnane,
co-chairman of the Bush-Quayle '88 Illinois campaign. This concerned a
lawsuit Mr. Sherman had filed to stop the Community Consolidated
School District 21 (Chicago, Illinois) from forcing his first-grade
atheist son to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States as
"one nation under God" (Bush's phrase). The following conversation
RS: "American Atheists filed the Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit
yesterday. Does the Bush campaign have an official response to
EM: "It's bullshit."
RS: "What is bullshit?"
EM: "Everything that American Atheists does, Rob, is bullshit."
RS: "Thank you for telling me what the official position of the
Bush campaign is on this issue."
EM: "You're welcome."
After Bush's election, American Atheists wrote to Bush asking him to
retract his statement. On February 21st 1989, C. Boyden Gray, Counsel
to the President, replied on White House stationery that Bush
substantively stood by his original statement, and wrote:
As you are aware, the President is a religious man who neither
supports atheism nor believes that atheism should be unnecessarily
encouraged or supported by the government."
For further information, contact American Atheist Veterans at the
American Atheist Press's Cameron Road address.
I know where hell is!
"I know where Hell is! Hell is in Norway!"
There are several towns called "Hell" in various countries around the
world, including Norway and the USA. Whilst this information is mildly
amusing the first time one hears it, readers of alt.atheism are now
getting pretty fed up with hearing it every week.
Biblical contradictions wanted
"Does anyone have a list of Biblical contradictions?"
American Atheist Press publish an atheist's handbook detailing
Biblical contradictions. See the accompanying posting on Atheist
Resources for lists of other such books.
There are also files containing some Biblical contradictions available
The USA is a Christian nation/state
"Because of the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, shouldn't
the United States be considered a Christian nation?"
Based upon the writings of several important founding fathers, it is
clear that they never intended the US to be a Christian nation. Here
are some quotes; there are many more.
"What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on
society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual
tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they
have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no
instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the
people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found
an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government,
instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not." -- James
Madison, "A Memorial and Remonstrance", 1785.
"I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal
example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has
preserved -- the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of
grief has produced!" -- John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson.
"History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people
maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of
ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders
will always avail themselves for their own purpose. " -- Thomas
Jefferson to Baron von Humboldt, 1813.
"I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father,
expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is
even infinitely above it." -- Benjamin Franklin, from "Articles of
Belief and Acts of Religion", Nov. 20, 1728.
The USA is not a Christian nation/state
"Is it true that George Washington said that the United States is not
in any sense founded upon the Christian religion?"
No. The quotation often given is in fact from Article XI of the 1797
Treaty of Tripoli (8 Stat 154, Treaty Series 358):
As the government of the United States of America is not in any
sense founded on the Christian Religion, -- as it has in itself no
character or enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of
Musselmen, -- and as the said States never have entered into any war
or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by
the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall
ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two
The text may be found in the Congressional Record or in treaty
collections such as Charles Bevans' "Treaties and Other International
Agreements of the United States of America 1776-1949", vol. 11 (pp.
The English text of the Treaty of Tripoli was approved by the U.S.
Senate on June 7, 1797 and ratified by President John Adams on June
10, 1797. It was recently discovered that the Arabic version of the
treaty not only lacks the quotation, it lacks Article XI altogether.
The person who translated the Arabic to English was Joel Barlow,
Consul General at Algiers, a close friend of Thomas Paine -- and an
opponent of Christianity. It is possible that Barlow made up Article
XI, but since there is no Arabic version of that article to be found,
it's hard to say.
In 1806 a new Treaty of Tripoli was ratified which no longer contained
How come nobody has answered this point?
"Since nobody has been able to refute this point, it must be true."
Ignoring the obvious logical flaw in such statements, it could be that
nobody saw whatever comments were made.
Because of the high volume of alt.atheism, it's a safe bet that many
readers have "kill files", sets of instructions for their newsreader
programs to perform automatically when they enter the newsgroup. Kill
files can be used to perform all kinds of useful tasks, such as
picking up replies to your own articles, picking out subjects you're
interested in, or skipping articles about things you find boring.
Sometimes someone will manage to annoy the readership of alt.atheism
enough that many people will program their newsreaders to discard all
his postings. It's even possible to get some newsreaders to skip over
all articles which even mention a particular person.
For this reason, never assume that silence in response to a Usenet
argument means that it cannot be refuted. More likely, it means nobody
is even reading it. Very few arguments presented on alt.atheism pass
Please do not re-post entire articles with a note saying "Please
refute this, somebody". If everyone skipped the article, the chances
are they did so because they didn't want to see it. Watch the
newsgroup for a while, and you'll get a pretty good idea of who's in
lots of kill files.
If you want to know how to set up a kill file, consult the manual page
for your newsreader. If you use rn, trn or strn, you can look at the
"rn kill file FAQ", posted to news.answers regularly.
The Bible says 'Thou Shalt Not Kill'...
"The Bible says "Thou shalt not kill", yet many Christians serve in
the military. What hypocrites!"
The commandment is more properly translated as "Thou shalt not
murder". Most modern translations of the Bible express it that way.
What does 'xian' mean?
"What does the abbreviation 'xian' mean? Is it an insult?"
"Xian" is short for "Christian", in the same way that "Xmas" is short
for "Christmas". The letter X represents the initial letter chi of the
Greek 'kristos', meaning "Christ". It's not an insult.
Another variant often seen is "Xtian".
The Bible says pi is 3!
In I Kings 7:23, the Bible says:
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other:
it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line
of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
If you make a molten sea with a circumference of thirty cubits, you'll
find that the diameter is 30/pi or 9.55 cubits. Or ten cubits, to
round to the nearest integer.
In short, the Bible does not say that pi is three, unless you are
going to assume that the numbers given are accurate to more than two
significant figures, which is unjustifiable given the wording.
Constructing a Logical Argument
Although there is much argument on Usenet, the general quality of argument
found is poor. This article attempts to provide a gentle introduction to
logic, in the hope of improving the general level of debate.
Logic is the science of reasoning, proof, thinking, or inference [Concise
OED]. Logic allows us to analyze a piece of reasoning and determine whether
it is correct or not (valid or invalid). Of course, one does not need to
study logic in order to reason correctly; nevertheless, a little basic
knowledge of logic is often helpful when constructing or analyzing an
Note that no claim is being made here about whether logic is universally
applicable. The matter is very much open for debate. This document merely
explains how to use logic, given that you have already decided that logic is
the right tool for the job.
Propositions (or statements) are the building blocks of a logical argument. A
proposition is a statement which is either true or false; for example, "It is
raining" or "Today is Tuesday". Propositions may be either asserted (said to
be true) or denied (said to be false). Note that this is a technical meaning
of "deny", not the everyday meaning.
The proposition is the meaning of the statement, not the particular
arrangement of words used to express it. So "God exists" and "There exists a
God" both express the same proposition.
An argument is, to quote the Monty Python sketch, "a connected series of
statements to establish a definite proposition". An argument consists of
First of all, the propositions which are necessary for the argument to
continue are stated. These are called the premises of the argument. They
are the evidence or reasons for accepting the argument and its conclusions.
Premises (or assertions) are often indicated by phrases such as "because",
"since", "obviously" and so on. (The phrase "obviously" is often viewed with
suspicion, as it can be used to intimidate others into accepting suspicious
premises. If something doesn't seem obvious to you, don't be afraid to
question it. You can always say "Oh, yes, you're right, it is obvious" when
you've heard the explanation.)
Next, the premises are used to derive further propositions by a process known
as inference. In inference, one proposition is arrived at on the basis of
one or more other propositions already accepted. There are various forms of
The propositions arrived at by inference may then be used in further
inference. Inference is often denoted by phrases such as "implies that" or
Finally, we arrive at the conclusion of the argument -- the proposition which
is affirmed on the basis of the premises and inference. Conclusions are often
indicated by phrases such as "therefore", "it follows that", "we conclude"
and so on. The conclusion is often stated as the final stage of inference.
Every event has a cause (premise)
The universe has a beginning (premise)
All beginnings involve an event (premise)
This implies that the beginning of the universe involved an event (inference)
Therefore the universe has a cause (inference and conclusion)
Note that the conclusion of one argument might be a premise in another
argument. A proposition can only be called a premise or a conclusion with
respect to a particular argument; the terms do not make sense in isolation.
Sometimes an argument will not follow the order given above; for example,
the conclusions might be stated first and the premises stated
afterwards in support of the conclusion. This is perfectly valid, if
sometimes a little confusing.
Recognizing an argument is much harder than recognizing premises or
conclusions. Many people shower their writing with assertions without ever
producing anything which one might reasonably describe as an argument. Some
statements look like arguments, but are not. For example:
"If the Bible is accurate, Jesus must either have been insane, an evil liar,
or the Son of God."
This is not an argument, it is a conditional statement. It does not assert
the premises which are necessary to support what appears to be its
conclusion. (It also suffers from a number of other logical flaws, but we'll
come to those later.)
"God created you; therefore do your duty to God."
The phrase "do your duty to God" is not a proposition, since it is neither
true nor false. Therefore it is not a conclusion, and the sentence is not an
Finally, causality is important. Consider a statement of the form "A because
B". If we're interested in establishing A and B is offered as evidence, the
statement is an argument. If we're trying to establish the truth of B, then
it is not an argument, it is an explanation.
"There must be something wrong with the engine of my car, because it will not
start." -- This is an argument.
"My car will not start because there is something wrong with the engine."
-- This is an explanation.
There are two traditional types of argument, deductive and inductive. A
deductive argument is one which provides conclusive proof of its
conclusions -- that is, an argument where if the premises are true, the
conclusion must also be true. A deductive argument is either valid or
invalid. A valid argument is defined as one where if the premises are
true, then the conclusion is true.
An inductive argument is one where the premises provide some evidence for the
truth of the conclusion. Inductive arguments are not valid or invalid;
however, we can talk about whether they are better or worse than other
arguments, and about how probable their premises are.
There are forms of argument in ordinary language which are neither deductive
nor inductive. However, we will concentrate for the moment on deductive
arguments, as they are often viewed as the most rigorous and convincing.
It is important to note that the fact that a deductive argument is valid does
not imply that its conclusion holds. This is because of the slightly
counter-intuitive nature of implication, which we must now consider more
Obviously a valid argument can consist of true propositions. However, an
argument may be entirely valid even if it contains only false propositions.
All insects have wings (premise)
Woodlice are insects (premise)
Therefore woodlice have wings (conclusion)
Here, the conclusion is not true because the argument's premises are false.
If the argument's premises were true, however, the conclusion would be true.
The argument is thus entirely valid.
More subtly, we can reach a true conclusion from one or more false premises,
All fish live in the sea (premise)
Dolphins are fish (premise)
Therefore dolphins live in the sea (conclusion)
However, the one thing we cannot do is reach a false conclusion through valid
inference from true premises. We can therefore draw up a "truth table" for
The symbol "=>" denotes implication; "A" is the premise, "B" the conclusion.
"T" and "F" represent true and false respectively.
Premise Conclusion Inference
A B A=>B
F F T If the premises are false and the inference
F T T valid, the conclusion can be true or false.
T F F If the premises are true and the conclusion
false, the inference must be invalid.
T T T If the premises are true and the inference valid,
the conclusion must be true.
A sound argument is a valid argument whose premises are true. A sound
argument therefore arrives at a true conclusion. Be careful not to confuse
valid arguments with sound arguments.
To delve further into the structure of logical arguments would require
lengthy discussion of linguistics and philosophy. It is simpler and probably
more useful to summarize the major pitfalls to be avoided when constructing
an argument. These pitfalls are known as fallacies.
In everyday English the term "fallacy" is used to refer to mistaken beliefs
as well as to the faulty reasoning that leads to those beliefs. This is fair
enough, but in logic the term is generally used to refer to a form of
technically incorrect argument, especially if the argument appears valid or
So for the purposes of this discussion, we define a fallacy as a logical
argument which appears to be correct, but which can be seen to be incorrect
when examined more closely. By studying fallacies we aim to avoid being
misled by them.
Below is a list of some common fallacies, and also some rhetorical
devices often used in debate. The list is not intended to be exhaustive.
ARGUMENTUM AD BACULUM (APPEAL TO FORCE)
The Appeal to Force is committed when the arguer resorts to force or the
threat of force in order to try and push the acceptance of a conclusion. It
is often used by politicians, and can be summarized as "might makes right".
The force threatened need not be a direct threat from the arguer.
"... Thus there is ample proof of the truth of the Bible. All those who
refuse to accept that truth will burn in Hell."
ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINEM
Argumentum ad hominem is literally "argument directed at the man".
The Abusive variety of Argumentum ad Hominem occurs when, instead of trying
to disprove the truth of an assertion, the arguer attacks the person or
people making the assertion. This is invalid because the truth of an
assertion does not depend upon the goodness of those asserting it.
"Atheism is an evil philosophy. It is practised by Communists and murderers."
Sometimes in a court of law doubt is cast upon the testimony of a witness by
showing, for example, that he is a known perjurer. This is a valid way of
reducing the credibility of the testimony given by the witness, and not
argumentum ad hominem; however, it does not demonstrate that the witness's
testimony is false. To conclude otherwise is to fall victim of the
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam (see elsewhere in this list).
The circumstantial form of Argumentum ad Hominem is committed when a person
argues that his opponent ought to accept the truth of an assertion because of
the opponent's particular circumstances.
"It is perfectly acceptable to kill animals for food. How can you argue
otherwise when you're quite happy to wear leather shoes?"
This is an abusive charge of inconsistency, used as an excuse for dismissing
the opponent's argument.
This fallacy can also be used as a means of rejecting a conclusion. For
"Of course you would argue that positive discrimination is a bad thing.
This particular form of Argumentum ad Hominem, when one alleges that one's
adversary is rationalizing a conclusion formed from selfish interests, is
also known as "poisoning the well".
ARGUMENTUM AD IGNORANTIAM
Argumentum ad ignorantiam means "argument from ignorance". This fallacy
occurs whenever it is argued that something must be true simply because it
has not been proved false. Or, equivalently, when it is argued that
something must be false because it has not been proved true. (Note that this
is not the same as assuming that something is false until it has been proved
true, a basic scientific principle.)
"Of course the Bible is true. Nobody can prove otherwise."
"Of course telepathy and other psychic phenomena do not exist. Nobody has
shown any proof that they are real."
Note that this fallacy does not apply in a court of law, where one is
generally assumed innocent until proven guilty.
Also, in scientific investigation if it is known that an event would produce
certain evidence of its having occurred, the absence of such evidence can
validly be used to infer that the event did not occur. For example:
"A flood as described in the Bible would require an enormous volume of water
to be present on the earth. The earth does not have a tenth as much water,
even if we count that which is frozen into ice at the poles. Therefore no
such flood occurred."
In science, we can validly assume from lack of evidence that something has
not occurred. We cannot conclude with certainty that it has not occurred,
ARGUMENTUM AD MISERICORDIAM
This is the Appeal to Pity, also known as Special Pleading. The fallacy is
committed when the arguer appeals to pity for the sake of getting a
conclusion accepted. For example:
"I did not murder my mother and father with an axe. Please don't find me
guilty; I'm suffering enough through being an orphan."
ARGUMENTUM AD POPULUM
This is known as Appealing to the Gallery, or Appealing to the People. To
commit this fallacy is to attempt to win acceptance of an assertion by
appealing to a large group of people. This form of fallacy is often
characterized by emotive language. For example:
"Pornography must be banned. It is violence against women."
"The Bible must be true. Millions of people know that it is. Are you trying
to tell them that they are all mistaken fools?"
ARGUMENTUM AD NUMERUM
This fallacy is closely related to the argumentum ad populum. It consists of
asserting that the more people who support or believe a proposition, the more
likely it is that that proposition is correct.
ARGUMENTUM AD VERECUNDIAM
The Appeal to Authority uses the admiration of the famous to try and win
support for an assertion. For example:
"Isaac Newton was a genius and he believed in God."
This line of argument is not always completely bogus; for example, reference
to an admitted authority in a particular field may be relevant to a
discussion of that subject. For example, we can distinguish quite clearly
"Stephen Hawking has concluded that black holes give off radiation"
"John Searle has concluded that it is impossible to build an intelligent
Hawking is a physicist, and so we can reasonably expect his opinions on black
hole radiation to be informed. Searle is a linguist, so it is questionable
whether he is well-qualified to speak on the subject of machine intelligence.
THE FALLACY OF ACCIDENT
The Fallacy of Accident is committed when a general rule is applied to a
particular case whose "accidental" circumstances mean that the rule is
inapplicable. It is the error made when one goes from the general to the
specific. For example:
"Christians generally dislike atheists. You are a Christian, so you must
This fallacy is often committed by moralists and legalists who try to decide
every moral and legal question by mechanically applying general rules.
CONVERSE ACCIDENT / HASTY GENERALIZATION
This fallacy is the reverse of the fallacy of accident. It occurs when one
forms a general rule by examining only a few specific cases which are not
representative of all possible cases.
"Jim Bakker was an insincere Christian. Therefore all Christians are
SWEEPING GENERALIZATION / DICTO SIMPLICITER
A sweeping generalization occurs when a general rule is applied to a
particular situation in which the features of that particular situation
render the rule inapplicable. A sweeping generalization is the opposite of a
NON CAUSA PRO CAUSA / POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC
These are known as False Cause fallacies.
The fallacy of Non Causa Pro Causa occurs when one identifies something as the
cause of an event but it has not actually been shown to be the cause. For
"I took an aspirin and prayed to God, and my headache disappeared. So God
cured me of the headache."
The fallacy of Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc occurs when something is assumed to
be the cause of an event merely because it happened before the event. For
"The Soviet Union collapsed after taking up atheism. Therefore we must avoid
atheism for the same reasons."
CUM HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC
This fallacy is similar to post hoc ergo propter hoc. It asserts that
because two events occur together, they must be causally related, and leaves
no room for other factors that may be the cause(s) of the events.
PETITIO PRINCIPII / BEGGING THE QUESTION
This fallacy occurs when the premises are at least as questionable as the
CIRCULUS IN DEMONSTRANDO
This fallacy occurs when one assumes as a premise the conclusion which one
wishes to reach. Often, the proposition will be rephrased so that the
fallacy appears to be a valid argument. For example:
"Homosexuals must not be allowed to hold government office. Hence any
government official who is revealed to be a homosexual will lose his job.
Therefore homosexuals will do anything to hide their secret, and will be open
to blackmail. Therefore homosexuals cannot be allowed to hold government
Note that the argument is entirely circular; the premise is the same as the
conclusion. An argument like the above has actually been cited as the reason
for the British Secret Services' official ban on homosexual employees.
Another example is the classic:
"We know that God exists because the Bible tells us so. And we know that the
Bible is true because it is the word of God."
COMPLEX QUESTION / FALLACY OF INTERROGATION
This is the Fallacy of Presupposition. One example is the classic loaded
"Have you stopped beating your wife?"
The question presupposes a definite answer to another question which has not
even been asked. This trick is often used by lawyers in cross-examination,
when they ask questions like:
"Where did you hide the money you stole?"
Similarly, politicians often ask loaded questions such as:
"How long will this EC interference in our affairs be allowed to continue?"
"Does the Chancellor plan two more years of ruinous privatization?"
The fallacy of Irrelevant Conclusion consists of claiming that an argument
supports a particular conclusion when it is actually logically nothing to do
with that conclusion.
For example, a Christian may begin by saying that he will argue that the
teachings of Christianity are undoubtably true. If he then argues at length
that Christianity is of great help to many people, no matter how well he
argues he will not have shown that Christian teachings are true.
Sadly, such fallacious arguments are often successful because they arouse
emotions which cause others to view the supposed conclusion in a more
Equivocation occurs when a key word is used with two or more different
meanings in the same argument. For example:
"What could be more affordable than free software? But to make sure that it
remains free, that users can do what they like with it, we must place a
license on it to make sure that will always be freely redistributable."
Amphiboly occurs when the premises used in an argument are ambiguous because
of careless or ungrammatical phrasing.
Accent is another form of fallacy through shifting meaning. In this case,
the meaning is changed by altering which parts of a statement are
emphasized. For example, consider:
"We should not speak ILL of our friends"
"We should not speak ill of our FRIENDS"
FALLACIES OF COMPOSITION
One fallacy of composition is to conclude that a property shared by the parts
of something must apply to the whole. For example:
"The bicycle is made entirely of low mass components, and is therefore very
The other fallacy of composition is to conclude that a property of a number
of individual items is shared by a collection of those items. For example:
"A car uses less petrol and causes less pollution than a bus. Therefore cars
are less environmentally damaging than buses."
FALLACY OF DIVISION
The fallacy of division is the opposite of the fallacy of composition. Like
its opposite, it exists in two varieties. The first is to assume that a
property of some thing must apply to its parts. For example:
"You are studying at a rich college. Therefore you must be rich."
The other is to assume that a property of a collection of items is shared by
each item. For example:
"Ants can destroy a tree. Therefore this ant can destroy a tree."
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE ARGUMENT
This argument states that should one event occur, so will other harmful
events. There is no proof made that the harmful events are caused by the
"If we legalize marijuana, then we would have to legalize crack and heroin
and we'll have a nation full of drug-addicts on welfare. Therefore we cannot
"A IS BASED ON B" FALLACIES / "IS A TYPE OF" FALLACIES
These fallacies occur when one attempts to argue that things are in some way
similar without actually specifying in what way they are similar.
"Isn't history based upon faith? If so, then isn't the Bible also a form of
"Islam is based on faith, Christianity is based on faith, so isn't Islam a
form of Christianity?"
"Cats are a form of animal based on carbon chemistry, dogs are a form of
animal based on carbon chemistry, so aren't dogs a form of cat?"
AFFIRMATION OF THE CONSEQUENT
This fallacy is an argument of the form "A implies B, B is true, therefore A
is true". To understand why it is a fallacy, examine the truth table for
implication given earlier.
DENIAL OF THE ANTECEDENT
This fallacy is an argument of the form "A implies B, A is false, therefore B
is false". Again, the truth table for implication makes it clear why this is
Note that this fallacy is different from Non Causa Pro Causa; the latter has
the form "A implies B, A is false, therefore B is false", where A does NOT in
fact imply B at all. Here, the problem is not that the implication is
invalid; rather it is that the falseness of A does not allow us to deduce
anything about B.
CONVERTING A CONDITIONAL
This fallacy is an argument of the form "If A then B, therefore if B then A".
ARGUMENTUM AD ANTIQUITATEM
This is the fallacy of asserting that something is right or good simply
because it is old, or because "that's the way it's always been."
ARGUMENTUM AD NOVITATEM
This is the opposite of the argumentum ad antiquitatem; it is the fallacy of
asserting that something is more correct simply because it is new or newer
than something else.
ARGUMENTUM AD CRUMENAM
The fallacy of believing that money is a criterion of correctness; that those
with more money are more likely to be right.
ARGUMENTUM AD LAZARUM
The fallacy of assuming that because someone is poor he or she is sounder or
more virtuous than one who is wealthier. This fallacy is the opposite of the
argumentum ad crumenam.
ARGUMENTUM AD NAUSEAM
This is the incorrect belief that an assertion is more likely to be true the
more often it is heard. An "argumentum ad nauseam" is one that employs
constant repetition in asserting something.
Also referred to as the "black and white" fallacy, bifurcation occurs when
one presents a situation as having only two alternatives, where in fact other
alternatives exist or can exist.
PLURIUM INTERROGATIONUM / MANY QUESTIONS
This fallacy occurs when a questioner demands a simple answer to a complex
A non-sequitur is an argument where the conclusion is drawn from premises
which are not logically connected with it.
This fallacy is committed when irrelevant material is introduced to the issue
being discussed, so that everyone's attention is diverted away from the
points being made, towards a different conclusion.
REIFICATION / HYPOSTATIZATION
Reification occurs when an abstract concept is treated as a concrete thing.
SHIFTING THE BURDEN OF PROOF
The burden of proof is always on the person making an assertion or
proposition. Shifting the burden of proof, a special case of argumentum ad
ignorantiam, is the fallacy of putting the burden of proof on the person who
denies or questions the assertion being made. The source of the fallacy is
the assumption that something is true unless proven otherwise.
The straw man fallacy is to misrepresent someone else's position so that it
can be attacked more easily, then to knock down that misrepresented position,
then to conclude that the original position has been demolished. It is a
fallacy because it fails to deal with the actual arguments that have been
THE EXTENDED ANALOGY
The fallacy of the Extended Analogy often occurs when some suggested general
rule is being argued over. The fallacy is to assume that mentioning two
different situations, in an argument about a general rule, constitutes a
claim that those situations are analogous to each other.
This fallacy is best explained using a real example from a debate about
"I believe it is always wrong to oppose the law by breaking it."
"Such a position is odious: it implies that you would not have supported
Martin Luther King."
"Are you saying that cryptography legislation is as important as the
struggle for Black liberation? How dare you!"
This is the famous "you too" fallacy. It occurs when an action is argued to
be acceptable because the other party has performed it. For instance:
"You're just being randomly abusive."
"So? You've been abusive too."
AUDIATUR ET ALTERA PARS
Often, people will argue from assumptions which they do not bother to state.
The principle of Audiatur et Altera Pars is that all of the premises of an
argument should be stated explicitly. It is not strictly a fallacy to fail
to state all of one's assumptions; however, it is often viewed with
As was stated earlier, if we're interested in establishing A, and B is
offered as evidence, the statement "A because B" is an argument. If we're
trying to establish the truth of B, then "A because B" is not an argument, it
is an explanation.
The Ad Hoc fallacy is to give an after-the-fact explanation which does not
apply to other situations. Often this ad hoc explanation will be dressed up
to look like an argument. For example:
"I was healed from cancer."
"Praise the Lord, then. He is your healer."
"So, will He heal others who have cancer?"
"Er... The ways of God are mysterious."
ARGUMENTUM AD LOGICAM
This is the "fallacy fallacy" of arguing that a proposition is false
merely on the grounds that it has been presented as the conclusion of a
fallacious argument. Remember always that fallacious arguments can
arrive at true conclusions.
Addresses of Atheist Organizations
and Other Groups of Interest
FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION
Darwin fish bumper stickers and assorted other atheist paraphernalia are
available from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the US. They
also publish a journal, "Freethought Today".
Write to: FFRF, P.O. Box 750, Madison, WI 53701.
Telephone: (608) 256-8900 / (608) 256-5800
Evolution Design sell the "Darwin fish". It's a fish symbol, like the ones
Christians stick on their cars, but with feet and the word "Darwin" written
inside. The deluxe moulded 3D plastic fish is $4.95 plus $0.50 shipping
in the US. They also sell Darwin fish lapel pins (same price), and a
range of T-shirts.
Write to: Evolution Design, P.O. Box 26336, Austin, TX 78755.
Telephone: (512) 338-9671
People in the San Francisco Bay area can get Darwin Fish from Lynn Gold --
try mailing . For net people who go to Lynn directly, the
price is $4.95 per fish.
Atheist stickers, T-shirts and books.
Write to: Set Free, P.O. Box 3065-192, Garden Grove, CA 92642.
AMERICAN ATHEIST PRESS
AAP publish various atheist books -- critiques of the Bible, lists of
Biblical contradictions, and so on. One such book is:
"The Bible Handbook" by W.P. Ball and G.W. Foote. American Atheist Press.
372 pp. ISBN 0-910309-26-4, 2nd edition, 1986. Bible contradictions,
absurdities, atrocities, immoralities... contains Ball, Foote: "The Bible
Contradicts Itself", AAP. Based on the King James version of the Bible.
Write to: American Atheist Press, P.O. Box 140195, Austin, TX 78714-0195.
or: 7215 Cameron Road, Austin, TX 78752-2973.
Telephone: (512) 458-1244
Fax: (512) 467-9525
Sell books including Haught's "Holy Horrors" (see below).
Write to: 700 East Amherst Street, Buffalo, New York 14215.
Telephone: (716) 837-2475.
An alternate address (which may be newer or older) is:
Prometheus Books, 59 Glenn Drive, Buffalo, NY 14228-2197.
In the UK:
Write to: Prometheus Books, 10 Crescent View, Loughton, Essex. RG10 4PZ.
Telephone: 081 508 2989
AFRICAN-AMERICANS FOR HUMANISM
An organization promoting black secular humanism and uncovering the history of
black freethought. They publish a quarterly newsletter, AAH EXAMINER.
Write to: Norm R. Allen, Jr., African Americans for Humanism, P.O. Box 664,
Buffalo, NY 14226.
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
Publish a journal "The Humanist".
Write to: American Humanist Association, 7 Harwood Drive, P.O. Box 146,
Amhearst, NY 14226-0146.
Write to: Atheists United, P.O. Box 5329, Sherman Oaks, CA 91413.
Telephone: (818) 785-1743
CHURCH AND STATE
Write to: Church & State, 8120 Fenton Street, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
Telephone: (301) 589-3707
SKEPTICAL INQUIRER MAGAZINE
The journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims
Of the Paranormal, CSICOP. An excellent publication which discusses
Creationism and other pseudo-scientific beliefs, as well as New Age
religion, the paranormal, and so on; all from a sceptical viewpoint.
Sometimes a little too conservative and reactionary, but generally
Write to: Skeptical Inquirer, Box 703, Buffalo, NY 14226-0703.
FREE ENQUIRY MAGAZINE
Write to: Free Inquiry, Box 664, Buffalo, NY 14226-0664.
Telephone: (716) 636-7571
THE AMERICAN RATIONALIST
Write to: The American Rationalist, P.O. Box 994, St. Louis, MO 63188.
Write to: National Center for Science Education, P.O. Box 9477, Berkeley,
Telephone: (510) 526-1674
Humanist Association of Canada,
P.O. Box 3769,
[ Also the address for the local Ottawa group. ]
Publish a magazine "Humanist in Canada". Have local groups in Toronto,
Victoria, Hamilton-Burlington, Alberta and elsewhere.
Rationalist Press Association National Secular Society
88 Islington High Street 702 Holloway Road
London N1 8EW London N19 3NL
071 226 7251 071 272 1266
British Humanist Association South Place Ethical Society
14 Lamb's Conduit Passage Conway Hall
London WC1R 4RH Red Lion Square
071 430 0908 London WC1R 4RL
fax 071 430 1271 071 831 7723
The National Secular Society publish "The Freethinker", a monthly magazine
founded in 1881.
Prometheus Books seem to have a distributor in the UK now.
Write to: Prometheus Books, 10 Crescent View, Loughton, Essex. RG10 4PZ.
Telephone: 081 508 2989
Internationaler Bund der Konfessionslosen und Atheisten
Postfach 880, D-1000 Berlin 41. Germany.
IBKA publish a journal:
MIZ. (Materialien und Informationen zur Zeit. Politisches
Journal der Konfessionslosesn und Atheisten. Hrsg. IBKA e.V.)
MIZ-Vertrieb, Postfach 880, D-1000 Berlin 41. Germany.
For atheist books, write to:
IBDK, Internationaler B"ucherdienst der Konfessionslosen
Postfach 3005, D-3000 Hannover 1. Germany.
Books -- Fiction
THOMAS M. DISCH
"The Santa Claus Compromise"
Short story. The ultimate proof that Santa exists. All characters and
events are fictitious. Any similarity to living or dead gods -- uh, well...
WALTER M. MILLER, JR
"A Canticle for Leibowitz"
One gem in this post atomic doomsday novel is the monks who spent their lives
copying blueprints from "Saint Leibowitz", filling the sheets of paper with
ink and leaving white lines and letters.
Post atomic doomsday novel set in clerical states. The church, for example,
forbids that anyone "produce, describe or use any substance containing...
PHILIP K. DICK
Philip K. Dick Dick wrote many philosophical and thought-provoking short
stories and novels. His stories are bizarre at times, but very approachable.
He wrote mainly SF, but he wrote about people, truth and religion rather than
technology. Although he often believed that he had met some sort of God, he
remained sceptical. Amongst his novels, the following are of some relevance:
A fallible alien deity summons a group of Earth craftsmen and women to a
remote planet to raise a giant cathedral from beneath the oceans. When the
deity begins to demand faith from the earthers, pot-healer Joe Fernwright is
unable to comply. A polished, ironic and amusing novel.
"A Maze of Death"
Noteworthy for its description of a technology-based religion.
The schizophrenic hero searches for the hidden mysteries of Gnostic
Christianity after reality is fired into his brain by a pink laser beam of
unknown but possibly divine origin. He is accompanied by his dogmatic and
dismissively atheist friend and assorted other odd characters.
"The Divine Invasion"
God invades Earth by making a young woman pregnant as she returns from
another star system. Unfortunately she is terminally ill, and must be
assisted by a dead man whose brain is wired to 24-hour easy listening music.
"The Handmaid's Tale"
A story based on the premise that the US Congress is mysteriously
assassinated, and fundamentalists quickly take charge of the nation to set it
"right" again. The book is the diary of a woman's life as she tries to live
under the new Christian theocracy. Women's right to own property is revoked,
and their bank accounts are closed; sinful luxuries are outlawed, and the
radio is only used for readings from the Bible. Crimes are punished
retroactively: doctors who performed legal abortions in the "old world" are
hunted down and hanged. Atwood's writing style is difficult to get used to
at first, but the tale grows more and more chilling as it goes on.
This somewhat dull and rambling work has often been criticized. However, it
is probably worth reading, if only so that you'll know what all the fuss is
about. It exists in many different versions, so make sure you get the one
Books -- Non-fiction
PETER DE ROSA
"Vicars of Christ", Bantam Press, 1988
Although de Rosa seems to be Christian or even Catholic this is a very
enlighting history of papal immoralities, adulteries, fallacies etc.
(German translation: "Gottes erste Diener. Die dunkle Seite des Papsttums",
"Atheism: A Philosophical Justification", Temple University Press,
A detailed and scholarly justification of atheism. Contains an outstanding
appendix defining terminology and usage in this (necessarily) tendentious
area. Argues both for "negative atheism" (i.e. the "non-belief in the
existence of god(s)") and also for "positive atheism" ("the belief in the
non-existence of god(s)"). Includes great refutations of the most
challenging arguments for god; particular attention is paid to refuting
contempory theists such as Platinga and Swinburne.
541 pages. ISBN 0-87722-642-3 (hardcover; paperback also available)
"The Case Against Christianity", Temple University Press
A comprehensive critique of Christianity, in which he considers
the best contemporary defences of Christianity and (ultimately)
demonstrates that they are unsupportable and/or incoherent.
273 pages. ISBN 0-87722-767-5
"Without God, Without Creed", The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore,
Subtitled "The Origins of Unbelief in America". Examines the way in which
unbelief (whether agnostic or atheistic) became a mainstream alternative
world-view. Focusses on the period 1770-1900, and while considering France
and Britain the emphasis is on American, and particularly New England
developments. "Neither a religious history of secularization or atheism,
Without God, Without Creed is, rather, the intellectual history of the fate
of a single idea, the belief that God exists."
316 pages. ISBN (hardcover) 0-8018-2494-X (paper) 0-8018-3407-4
GEORGE SELDES (Editor)
"The great thoughts", Ballantine Books, New York, USA
A "dictionary of quotations" of a different kind, concentrating on statements
and writings which, explicitly or implicitly, present the person's philosophy
and world-view. Includes obscure (and often suppressed) opinions from many
people. For some popular observations, traces the way in which various
people expressed and twisted the idea over the centuries. Quite a number of
the quotations are derived from Cardiff's "What Great Men Think of Religion"
and Noyes' "Views of Religion".
490 pages. ISBN (paper) 0-345-29887-X.
"The Existence of God (Revised Edition)", Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford
This book is the second volume in a trilogy that began with "The Coherence of
Theism" (1977) and was concluded with "Faith and Reason" (1981). In this
work, Swinburne attempts to construct a series of inductive arguments for the
existence of God. His arguments, which are somewhat tendentious and rely
upon the imputation of late 20th century western Christian values and
aesthetics to a God which is supposedly as simple as can be conceived, were
decisively rejected in Mackie's "The Miracle of Theism". In the revised
edition of "The Existence of God", Swinburne includes an Appendix in which he
makes a somewhat incoherent attempt to rebut Mackie.
J. L. MACKIE
"The Miracle of Theism", Oxford
This (posthumous) volume contains a comprehensive review of the principal
arguments for and against the existence of God. It ranges from the classical
philosophical positions of Descartes, Anselm, Berkeley, Hume et al, through
the moral arguments of Newman, Kant and Sidgwick, to the recent restatements
of the classical theses by Plantinga and Swinburne. It also addresses those
positions which push the concept of God beyond the realm of the rational,
such as those of Kierkegaard, Kung and Philips, as well as "replacements for
God" such as Lelie's axiarchism. The book is a delight to read - less
formalistic and better written than Martin's works, and refreshingly direct
when compared with the hand-waving of Swinburne.
JAMES A. HAUGHT
"Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness",
Looks at religious persecution from ancient times to the present day -- and
not only by Christians.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 89-64079. 1990.
NORM R. ALLEN, JR.
"African American Humanism: an Anthology"
See the listing for African Americans for Humanism above.
"An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism", Prometheus Books
An anthology covering a wide range of subjects, including 'The Devil, Evil
and Morality' and 'The History of Freethought'. Comprehensive bibliography.
EDMUND D. COHEN
"The Mind of The Bible-Believer", Prometheus Books
A study of why people become Christian fundamentalists, and what effect it
has on them.
GEORGE H. SMITH
"Atheism: The Case Against God", Prometheus Books
Describes the positions of atheism, theism and agnosticism. Reviews many
of the arguments used in favour of the existence of God. Concludes with an
assessment of the impact of God on people's lives.
"Asimov's Guide to the Bible", Outlet Book Company, Inc
2 volumes, 1988, ISBN 0-517-34582-X
Asimov surveys and describes contemporary Biblical scholarship on the
Bible, book by book, coupled with his own very interesting asides and
speculations. Especially worthwhile are his descriptions of the
apochrapha and many Christian and Rabbinical legends and traditions,
some of which the general public only knows as idioms of speech. Also
available as two paperback volumes:
"Asimov's Guide to the Bible: Old Testament" and
"Asimov's Guide to the Bible: New Testament" Avon Books, 1971
ISBN 0-380-01031-3 and ISBN 0-380-01032-1
"In the Beginning"
A book describing the differences between science and the Bible vis a
vis the first several chapters of Genesis. Different in outlook,
content, and purpose from the same chapters of his "Guide". The intent
is to present an even-handed explanation of each side, but science
comes off rather better overall, since the focus is on the science of
the book of Genesis.
"Why I Am Not a Christian & Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects"
Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster, 1967, ISBN 0-671-20323-1
This book has many essays (some clearly transcriptions of lectures)
with Russell giving religion in general and Christianity in general a
much harder time than is ordinary in common discourse. However, many
of the discussions in alt.atheism have recognizable echos in these
essays and Russell's lucid arguments, whether one agrees with them or
not, are worth reading for their succinct description of the atheist
position on issues that are taken up almost daily on alt.atheism.
"Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds"
Crown Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN 0-517-53919-5, Harmony
Most of us give too short a shrift to the reality of fad, fancy, and
its serious side-effect; mob-think. This classic book describes witch
trials, slow poisoning (a fad where Italian and French nobles were
socially sanctioned to murder each other provided a sufficiently subtle
poison was used) and the various forms of "Ponzi" schemes such as the
South Sea Bubble and the Dutch Tulip Mania. One gets the feeling the
US' Founding Fathers were familiar with this book. Those who assume
they will always be on the same side as the majority or that the
majority can be counted on to be rational would particularly profit
from reading it. Besides, it is enormously entertaining as it
highlights human folly in an engaging way.
"Lucifer's Handbook", Academic Associates
A compilation of all the arguments for the existence of God, condensed
and simplified into one neat volume.