You’ve all heard the claim that we aren’t really atheists, we are just mad at god. (Or you will see such things as “so and so claims to be an atheist.”)
Today I saw an argument in an atheist chat room between a couple of atheists and a theist, and in a forum post on the same site, I saw someone else’s account of an argument they had out in public. What I saw made me stop and wonder if we aren’t sometimes encouraging this line of bullshit, albeit unwittingly.
What happened in both cases was the atheist began recounting all the sorts of horrible things Yahweh is portrayed as doing or believing or commanding. In one case, I saw the atheist say, “Why should I love god when he won’t love me back?”
Now what is happening here is we are uttering statements that “Yahweh does this” or “Yahweh did that.” Which is a normal thing to do, even when talking about a fictional character. For example, when you are talking about something Winston Smith (from George Orwell’s 1984) did in the novel, you will simply say “Winston Smith had an affair with Julia.”
In the case of Winston Smith, both you and your audience understand you are talking about a character in a fictional work (and fortunately it is still fictional). You don’t have to say, not even once, that Winston Smith isn’t real. (But some third party who never read the book could walk up to you while you are having this conversation, and figure you are talking about a real person.)
But when you are talking about god with a Christian, you don’t both share that understanding. The Christian is assuming that god exists, and your phrasing is matching his assumption. So it is entirely possible he will think you share it, even if unknowingly.
To us it seems absurd that someone could argue with someone he knows is an atheist, yet still assume the guy he is arguing with thinks god exists. But remember, he has a hard time wrapping his brain around that notion in the first place. (Many Christians do not actually know what the word atheist means, though they have some idea that it’s really bad blasphemy or heresy or something like that.) Plus, as often as not, he has been told everyone believes in god deep down and atheists are only claiming to be atheists for some reason–satan worship, anger at god for letting the atheist’s puppy die when the atheist was a kid, rebellion against parents, or whatever.
And by engaging in the “fictional character talked about as if real” shorthand, you are giving him no reason to disabuse himself of those notions. This is especially bad if your line of argumentation is to talk about how atrociously Yahweh behaves in the bible.
Here’s a perfect example of this, a story someone told me. He argued about how bad god was, didn’t say it was a fictitious god often enough, and was answered as follows: “I don’t believe in gremlins but they’re jerks for stealing all my forks. That’s why I don’t believe in gremlins.” The Christian had basically done what we do when we substitute “Flying Spaghetti Monster” for “god” to try to show how absurd they are being, and in doing so turned my friend’s argument on its head. He wasn’t being dishonest; that’s how my friend was truly coming across to him by talking about god like he’d talk about a character in fiction.
Do you now begin to understand that we run the risk of looking stupid to the Christians when we argue like this? At worst, we aren’t really atheists, at best we aren’t being consistent with ourselves and we are choosing to pretend to be atheists because god did something to us.
If you’ve ever had the experience of telling someone you are an atheist, and having him almost start by arguing that you are a sinner and need to accept Jesus so he will forgive your sins, it’s possible you accidentally convinced him that deep down you really do believe god exists. (It’s also possible he is one of those who really can’t imagine disbelief.) Frankly you would probably both be happier discussing the real issue (god’s existence) than this: You because discussing salvation through Jesus is like discussing the weather forecast for Atlantis, and him because he can’t possibly convert someone who doesn’t believe in god, so he needs to convince you of that first.
What I’d like to suggest when talking to a theist about god, is to make sure you phrase it in such a way as to make it clear you think god is a fiction. You might say something like, “I don’t believe god exists, but if the god of the bible does exist, then he…” or something like, “well, according to the bible, this alleged god…”
I’ve seen suggestions that you can just say “your god this” and “your god that” and sometimes that is good enough. But it’s possible the Christian will think you are simply asserting that you worship a different god from his (remember, he is not used to the concept of not worshipping anything at all), and his answer will simply be “he’s your god too!” So if you try this and you get that counterargument from him, you need to take a different tack.
Whatever way you choose to do it, Iurge you to be careful when discussing god in a hypothetical mode. Make it clear you think it’s hypothetical and regularly remind the Christian. You’ll at least have a more-to-the-point conversation.
PS: On a related note, if the conversation is truly about whether god exists at all (and it should be–neither you nor the Christian can accomplish your goal otherwise), then I don’t see much point in bringing up how evil the god of the bible is, at least not right off the bat. Such is not an argument against god’s existence but only his benevolence. “God does not exist because he’s described as an asshole in the bible,” doesn’t cut it. You leave yourself open to the gremlin counterargument I quoted above, even if you take all the precautions I’ve urged. Now if you assert “I don’t believe in god, but if I did, I wouldn’t worship him because according to the bible he is an evil jerk,” you are safe because you’ve separated it into two different statements, one about god’s existence and the other about god’s moral character, one conditional on the other.