Why I Am An Atheist, My Statement vs Dr. Rauser

This week I have been in Canada debating/discussing atheism vs Christianity with Dr. Randal Rauser. He and I co-wrote the book God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions.Here is my 20 minute statement on "Why I Am An Atheist." It took me over forty years to write it since it's based on all that I've learned in that time. See what you think. I'll be traveling home tomorrow.

Why I Am An Atheist
by John W. Loftus

I’m very grateful and honored to have been brought here to discuss/debate these issues. Thank you so much. This is refreshing, an indicator that you want to seriously examine your faith. I think Randal is one of the best Christian apologists of our generation. He’s brilliant of course, but that’s what it takes to defend the indefensible. He doesn’t think atheists are necessarily crazy, and that’s a plus too! He’s willing to reasonably engage us and to revise his theology, if needed, in response to our arguments. So I am very grateful he chose to co-write God or Godless with me. I look forward to him revising his theology in light of tonight.

I’m going to give reasons why I am an atheist. First, what is an atheist? A-theist. Non-theist. Non-believer. I do not believe.

As a former Christian I examined several major religions and various Christian cults and concluded there wasn’t sufficient objective evidence for any of them. I was a skeptic of all other religions except my own particular evangelical sect. What happened that changed my mind is that over the years I learned to apply the same objective evidential standards to my own faith that I had already applied to the other faiths I rejected. As I did that, I learned to reject them all because of the same reason, the lack of sufficient objective evidence. [You can see this line of reasoning developed in my book, "The Outsider Test for Faith"].

Muslims respond that I willfully refuse to believe in Allah, just as Christians say I willfully refuse to believe in Yahweh. But I am no more refusing to believe in those gods and their religions as I refuse to believe in the Mormon, or Hindu gods and their religions. I just think none of them have sufficient objective evidence for them to believe. That’s all there is to it.

On the topic of this talk I wrote a 500 page book, "Why I Became an Atheist." It’s my magnum opus. If you want to read a detailed answer to this question get that book.

One of the reasons I am an atheist is because I honestly wanted to know the truth. Most Christians do not honestly examine their faith. The overwhelming majority of them will never read that book or one like it. So if nothing else, read God or Godless.

Unfortunately, when we look at Randal’s defense of his faith in God or Godless, it is entirely worthless. [Sorry to be so adversarial, but please consider I edited a book titled, "The Christian Delusion." I do hope his arguments push other evangelicals in his direction since he is closer to the truth.] I am an atheist because even the best and brightest apologists like Randal who take our arguments seriously cannot provide a good reason to believe.

So let’s revisit Randal’s ten chosen topics:

1) If there is no God then life has no meaning. Wrong. No one should ever reject the evidence for a conclusion simply because they dislike the conclusion. If there is no God then we are our own meaning makers. Period. Only after you realize God doesn’t exist will you see this.

2) If there is no God then everything is permitted. Wrong again. The ones doing the permitting are people in their respective societies. Even if Thomas Hobbes is correct that we are at war with everyone else, we must still adopt some kind of reasonable social contract whereby we join together for the common good. If not, a society will collapse into chaos. Since no one desires chaos there are reasonable limits to what any society will permit. By contrast, if God exists there are no limits to what can be permitted when people believe something to be divinely authorized.

3) Science is no substitute for religion. Bogus. If there is one mark of the deluded mind (defined as "believing against the overwhelming evidence") it’s that somewhere along the line he or she must be ignorant of, or denigrate, or deny science. Religion has given us nothing in comparison to science. Faith-based reasoning processes are notoriously unreliable. They do not help us get at the truth. What do they offer as a substitute for evidence based reasoning processes?

4) God is the best explanation of the whole shebang. Spurious. Believers have always said this, even though science has made great strides in answering this question. God of the gaps arguments like this one have failed so many times in the past it’s quite surprising to see Randal still using it. Something exists. So either something—anything—has always existed, or something—anything—popped into existence out of nothing. Those are the choices. The best explanation for our existence is the simplest one. The theistic hypothesis is that a three-in-one God exists who never had a beginning or a prior moment to choose his own nature, who never learned any new propositions, who cannot think because thinking requires weighing alternatives, who cannot even laugh because nothing takes him by surprise, who created this world with its natural disasters, who doesn’t even benevolently act in the midst of our sufferings. This is no explanation at all. So many questions abound. The scientific hypothesis merely starts with an equilibrium of positive and negative energy along with the laws of physics. Grant this and there is a 60% chance something should exist. Given the fact of evolution there is no need for a God, and there’s no evidence he is involved in this process at all. The main thing scientists have not yet explained is the origin of life. If your theology hangs on that gap then you are betting against everything science has solved so far. And once you allow god explanations into your equations then most any god will do, even an evil one.

5) If there is no God then we don’t know anything. False. If so, chimps don’t know anything either. They don’t know how to get food, or mate or even where to live. Without knowing anything they should’ve died off a long time ago. And yet here they are. They don’t need a god to know these things. Why do we need a god for knowledge? We learn through a process of trial and error. Since we’ve survived as a human species, we have acquired reliable knowledge about our world. Period.

6) Love exists only if God exists. Erroneous. This is an empty rhetorical claim devoid of any content at all. Believers have always said this even during the Inquisition and witch-hunts. Randal should look at the evidence of the history of the church. He should consider the other primates who exhibit characteristics of love. He should also take seriously the evidence in the Bible that God is not love either, for he will squash you like a bug if you don’t obey him, which isn’t descriptive of love, much less parental love, or perfect love at all. It’s descriptive of a despotic king, of which Yahweh was modeled after.

7) Everybody has faith. Misguided. This may be true for most people, but it’s the problem, not the solution. Faith is a cognitive bias causing people to overestimate any confirming evidence and to underestimate any disconfirming evidence. Faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities. [When I say this I'm not saying Randal is irrational, only that faith is irrational.] Reasonable people think exclusively in terms of probabilities based on objective sufficient evidence along with sound reasoning about the evidence.

8) Objective beauty exists therefore God exists. Foolish. There is nothing objectively beautiful or ugly in the world. There is just raw uninterpreted stuff. If we could see and hear the whole electromagnetic and sonic spectra then all we could see or hear would be white noise. How is white noise objectively beautiful? Without any objective beauty there is no argument to the existence of his evangelical God.

9) God best explains the miracles in people’s lives. Silly. Given the number of believers in the world and the number of rare coincidences that could occur in their lives I’m actually surprised there aren’t more miracle claims. Extremely rare coincidences happen. It’s what we would expect given the odds. There are no verifiable supernatural agents behind them. People merely see supernatural agents where there aren’t any because we’ve inherited this propensity from the animal kingdom, who thought they heard predators approaching merely at the random sound of rustling leaves. What we need are clinical studies, which are the best kind of scientific evidence for these claims, and nearly every scientific study done on petitionary prayer has shown it works statistically no better than chance.

10) God raised Jesus from the dead. Not true. No reasonable person today should believe 2nd 3rd 4th handed testimony coming from a lone part of the ancient world as we find in 4th century manuscripts written by pre-scientific superstitious people who doctored up and forged many of these texts. Almost all of our questions go unanswered, the kind of questions we have been able to ask of the rise of Mormonism in the modern world, leading us to reject it. What did the early disciples actually claim to have seen? Did they all tell the same stories? Did any of them recant? All we have is Paul’s first person testimony, and if we’re to believe Acts 26:19, he said his Damascus road conversion was based on nothing more than a vision.

If we read in a 2000 year-old ancient Chinese document that a virgin had a baby, then that so-called testimonial evidence is too far removed for us to accept it. It doesn’t matter if the same document tells us others at that time believed in a virgin birth. The evidence is still the same for us, since it comes from that very same document. It also doesn’t matter if it was believed within a religious context. If anything, the religious context would help to discredit it, since miracle claims within religious contexts are a dime a dozen.

Apologists like Randal throw up nothing but smoke-screens to deny the obvious. They will concoct disanalogous hypothetical stories that have no bearing on the need for sufficient objective evidence. No reasonable person should believe that a virgin gave birth to God incarnate in today's world without sufficient objective evidence. Can you even imagine what evidence would convince you that she did? So why should this requirement be different when it comes to the ancient pre-scientific superstitious past? If anything, it should be foremost on our minds. Whether a virgin gave birth to God incarnate is a historical claim about what supposedly happened in the past. There is only one kind of evidence that can show this, if it can be shown at all. Objective evidence. We need a sufficient amount of it to convince us. No amount of intellectual gerrymandering can weasel out of this reasonable requirement.

Alvin Plantinga has even made a sustained case that he is rational to believe without any evidence at all, in his 500 page book Warranted Christian Belief. But it’s of no use. Plantinga’s argument is based on a conditional, “If...then.” “If Christian belief is true, it very likely does have warrant.” Well then, if Mormonism is true then it very likely does have warrant. If Scientology is true then it very likely does have warrant. If Islam is true then it very likely does have warrant. If Hinduism is true then it very likely does have warrant. This is nothing but sophisticated empty rhetoric irrelevant to the real issue of whether these religions are true. It reminds me of what philosophy Professor Stephen Law wrote: “Anything based on faith, no matter how ludicrous, can be made to be consistent with the available evidence, given a little patience and ingenuity.” (Believing Bullshit, p. 75).

Plantinga argues that beliefs based on private subjective experiences are warranted unless there is a defeater to them. The defeater to any private subjective experience is, was, and always will be, sufficient objective evidence. Objective evidence is public evidence, scientific evidence, historical evidence, evidence that convinces reasonable people. Anyone who thinks private subjective experiences count as evidence for the claims of history is not thinking rationally. In other contexts psychics do that. Is Plantinga a psychic? Is that what he considers evidence? This is not how historians do their work, and the tools they use are all we have to know what happened in the past. A trained historian will never conclude that a miracle can be detected with those tools, for it is always more likely than not to be explained as a myth, legend, extremely rare coincidence, or lie, rather than a suspension of the laws of nature. These tales litter the ancient highway. God may even have done a plethora or miracles in the past and will do so again in the future. But the historian’s perspective, the only one available, comes from the modern world where they do not happen.

The number of believers who claim they have had a personal experience with their particular cultural god are a dime a dozen. It doesn’t matter if believers say their religious experience is real and the others are not. You would expect them to say that. The honest truth for honest people is that these subjective experiences provide no evidence at all. The very fact that believers like Plantinga deny the need for sufficient objective evidence is because they intuitively know their faith does not have it, for if it did, they would be the first ones crowing about it. If nothing else, this should serve as a red light warning that one’s faith is a delusion.

Natural theology doesn’t fare any better. When it comes to Jesus there was a large group of believers who were prone to accept the tales told about him by early Christians. The Jews. They lived in the same time period, believed in Yahweh, that he does miracles, and they knew their OT prophecies. If there was ever a testing ground for the claims about Jesus the Jews in his day were it. Yet they didn’t believe. They were there and they were believers and yet the overwhelming number of them did not believe. Why should we? Who inspired these supposed OT prophecies? Yahweh. So let me ask, were the Jews stupid or did God mislead them? Are Christians really willing to say nearly 8 million Jews at the time of Jesus were stupid? Are Christians really willing to say they did not desire to know the truth, that they insincerely preferred to believe a lie, almost all of them, such that Paul had to preach the gospel to Gentiles for converts? And if God misled them to believe a lie, then he also condemned them to hell. Which is it? The fact is there is no prophecy in the OT that is to be regarded as a prophecy that specifically points to the birth, life, death or resurrection of Jesus. None. All you need to do is read the so-called prophecies in their original contexts and you’ll see that the NT writers grossly mishandled them.

Natural theology therefore died a long time ago, before it was born, with the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the resurrected Messiah. If there was sufficient evidence to conclude Jesus was the resurrected Messiah then almost all Jews in the first century would have become Christians. In fact, almost all theists should be Christians since they share the same belief in a creator miracle working God. The problem is that just because someone is a theist does not mean it’s more likely than not that a particular Christian miracle took place. All theism grants you is the possibility of miracles. But I too allow for them. Theists in other religions require sufficient objective evidence before accepting the miracle claims of other theistic religions. The raw uninterpreted historical data must therefore provide the reasonable theist with sufficient evidence that a God did this or that particular miracle before accepting it. So to be consistent without using any double standards, theists within their own religions should require sufficient objective evidence before believing that a theistic God did the miracles within their own religion. They must require this without begging the question or special pleading their own case.

I simply require sufficient objective evidence for them all. Remember, we’re trying to find out what's true. Not what makes us feel good, but what actually accords with reality. Our feelings are only a reliable guide to subjective things, like what kind of music we enjoy, or what type of food we like, and so on. They cannot guide us to the truth about historical events. My position is the most consistent one to adopt, and given that different theists reject each other’s foundational miracle claims, they do the work for me. They don’t believe, just as I don’t believe in any of them.


I developed some questions for Rauser beforehand (whether I get to them in the debate/discussion that follows I can't say):

1) If you wanted to know what happened at Custer’s Last Stand wouldn’t you want sufficient evidence before coming to a conclusion? Why is that different when it comes to the claim that a virgin gave birth to God incarnate?

2) Can you provide any objective evidence for your faith without special pleading or begging the question?

3) Do you reject personal private subjective experience when it comes to other religions? If so, why don’t you reject those same kinds of claims when it comes to your religion?

4) Can you provide any reason at all to think that sufficient objective evidence is not good enough when it comes any historical claim?

5) When it comes to Mohammed flying on a winged horse to visit the heavenly realms, or the golden plates that Joseph Smith supposedly translated into the Book of Mormon, or Scientologist’s claim that an intergalactic emperor named Xenu placed people in a volcano and blew them up, do you require sufficient evidence in order to believe them? Why are your superstitious claims exempt from this same requirement?

6) What is the specific doctrinal content to your subjective experience of God? Does your experience provide any? What is it? If not, how can you claim your experience leads you to believe as you do? If so, what is it and why do other evangelicals who claim this same experience believe differently based on it? Do evangelical witch-hunters in Africa have the same properly basic belief about God?Specifically with regard to salvation. Specifically with regard to the Bible.

7) Can you explain why your so-called properly basic beliefs change with more study? Why does a child have properly basic beliefs about God that an educated Christian adult would deny?

8) Do you believe in psychics? Are you a psychic? Can you know whether or not a virgin had a baby (or any of a number of other purported historical claims in the Bible) based on psychic abilities? Isn't claiming to know you can irrational?

9) Can you read God's mind? Every believer on the planet claims to know God's mind.

10) How do you escape the charge that you're just making stuff up as you go?