What is Atheism? A Socratic Dialogue


Sarah: “I’m an atheist, debate me”? Cute/confrontational shirt, dude.

Brad: Yeah, got it online. Glad you like it.

Sarah: I’m Sarah.

Brad: Brad . . . Aaaaannnnd now I feel awkward ’cause you’re reading the Bible.

Sarah: Haha! Yeah, I come here for a Bible study once a week. It looks like I’ve been stood up.

Brad: Do you mind if I join you?

Sarah: I’m hesitant, given your ridiculous shirt, but sure.

Brad: Thanks. Look what I’m here to read!

Sarah: Wow! Dawkins. How original of you.

Brad: I could say the same about you—The Bible?

Sarah: touché.

. . .

Is this the part where you get all confrontational?

Brad: In it he says . . .

Sarah: I’ve read it.”

Brad: Really?

Sarah: Really. He’s as sophisticated an atheist as Ray Comfort is a Christian.

Brad: Them’s fightin’ words!

Sarah: Maybe I need a similar shirt.

Brad: Do you remember what he said about the God of the Old Testament?

Sarah: Yeah, but I have a hunch you’re gonna to read it to me anyway.

Brad: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Sarah: It’s well written. Why are you an atheist?

Brad: Well, partly because . . . Let’s see here . . . “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant . . .”

Sarah: I get it, I get it.

Brad: You asked.

Sarah: How does that follow though?

Brad: How does what follow?

Sarah: This religion’s account of God is terrible, therefore God does not exist.

Brad: It’s not just that it’s terrible, it’s that it’s contradictory. In the Old Testament he’s a malevolent bully, in the New Testament he’s a peace loving hippie.

Sarah: Well, as formidable as you’re exegetical skills are, so what? Let’s say you’re right. Maybe the Bible is false.

Brad: I’m glad we agree. . . . My Latte’s ready. One sec. . . . Sorry about that. Continue.

Sarah: Seriously? The great atheist debater said yes to sprinkles.

Brad: Hey! Sprinkles are cool, okay? So, what were you saying?

Sarah: I was saying maybe the Bible is false. Obviously I don’t think that, but let’s suppose I’m wrong. How would that prove God doesn’t exist?

Brad: It’s not just the Bible, every formulation of God’s existence from every religion I’ve studied—and I’ve studied a lot!—amounts to nothing more than anthropomorphic twaddle.

Sarah: Okay. Let’s say you’re right. That’s hardly a good reason to think God does not exist. That would be like me saying, “I’ve studied the history of alien abductions. I have interviewed every living claimant, and have found all their stories to be bogus. Therefore aliens do not exist.” Do you see how that’s a non sequitur?

Brad: Sarah, I think it’s important to remember that you’re the one who has the burden of proof here. You’re the one who claims God exists.

Sarah: I agree I have a burden of proof, but so do you, unless you’re not an Atheist after all!

Brad: This is a common misconception. An atheist is not one who says God does not exist, he just lacks belief in the God you claim does.

Sarah: I’m not interested in what you believe.

Brad: Ouch?

Sarah: Look, what I mean is, If you’re going to redefine atheism to mean a “lack of belief,” then what you’re doing is trivializing what has traditionally been meant by “atheism.” This definition of yours would make atheism, not a belief, but a state of mind. And I’m not interested in your state of mind, I’m interested in what’s true.

Brad: It’s not a redefinition. That’s what we’ve always meant by it.

Sarah: See, I know enough to know that that isn’t true. I study philosophy, one of the standard encyclopedias of philosophy is The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It says that, “Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.” What you’re talking about is Agnosticism, from the Greek word, agnostos, meaning “without knowledge.”

Brad: Look. I think that if I’ve made the sincere effort to discover the truth about something, and have found all the evidence in favor of that thing lacking then i’m justified in saying that that thing doesn’t exist. Besides, you’re an atheist with regards to every other god humanity has postulated. I just go one step further. I’m consistent.

Sarah: Okay, two points. Let me address the “you’re an atheist about other god’s” one first. You’re right, I don’t believe in Zeus, Thor, Horus, etc. but that doesn’t make me an atheist. An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God. I do believe in God, therefore I’m not an atheist. Do you think that monarchy is a good form of government?

Brad: No.

Sarah: What about a Kakistocracy, where the government is lead by the least qualified to govern. Do you think that is a good form of government?

Brad:  Hmm. I thought that was what we were in now, No. No, I don’t think that is a good form of government; what’s your point?

Sarah: My point is, I’m no more an atheist because I reject some versions of god than you are an anarchist because you reject some forms of government. Now, your first point about having made a good effort to see if a thing is true. *Sigh* Now we’re going round in circles. Remember what I said about the aliens? Suppose I make a sincere effort to discover the truth about extraterrestrial life and find all the evidence in favor of it lacking. That doesn’t warrant the conclusion that aliens don’t exist. They may still exist even though we have no good evidence to think that they do.

Brad: What reasons do you have to think that he does?

Sarah: Wait a minute. Before we get to that we need finish defining our terms. Trent Horn, who wrote a book called Answering Atheism—you need to read it—says that since there are three ways in which a person can respond to the question, “does God exist?”—yes, no, or, maybe—It makes the most sense that we have three terms: If you say yes you’re a theist, if you say no, you’re an atheist and if you say maybe you’re an agnostic. If you want to say no, then that’s a claim to knowledge which you need to give reasons for.

Even one will do.

This is the first conversation between Sarah and Brad. Read their second one here.

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31 thoughts on “What is Atheism? A Socratic Dialogue

  1. Are there supposed to be three “Sarah”‘s in a row there at the end?
    Or is one of those supposed to be a Brad?

    Good article though

    1. Thanks, Brad. The ad hominem fallacy is committed when one rejects an argument based on the one making the argument. I didn’t reject the argument (that atheism is a lack of belief) based on the one making it, I engaged it and showed why I thought it was false.

      …keep smiling, Brad. 🙂

      1. Oh ok, well I noticed when debating atheists on the internet, they would often use unflattering words or images to frame or characterize Christians and their beliefs on youtube. I usually would point that out as an Ad-hom attack, where they are attacking the character rather than the merits of the argument. Maybe I was wrong. Thank you for pointing that out. I’ll look into that further. 🙂

  2. Not sure what the point is of debating the correct ideation of atheism might be. Certainly not evangelical. That’s not an intellectual exercise, is it? Mushy thinking is endemic to both believer and non believer. Challenging someone to “prove” their point is exactly what atheists do to believers and it’s got to be just as pointlessly annoying to them as it is to us. I’ve been taught that the best way to engage an atheist, and to engage for the purposes of the Holy Spirit, is to at all times demonstrate and manifest grace, and to identify that grace in your life with the Lord. We have what everyone wants. They just need to see it. Cheers!

  3. If only emotions could be suspended so easily as to actually attain a conversation like this. Great article though! I plan on getting Trent’s book – and yours, as well!

  4. It would appear to me that Sarah lost the argument before it even began. She seemed to be off guard for someone who studied philosophy. If you’re going to a Bible study, might be nice to learn a bit more indepth as to how the God of the Old Testament relates to the New Covenant… I mean, she basically let him get away with calling Jesus Christ a hippie. I’d say it’d be an interesting conversation. Now, also I’ve never really debated atheists, Pentecostals are so much more fun ;), and I’m no expert… but also to compare believing in God to believing in Aliens existing, just doesn’t seem like the smartest move to make really. I’d say she really needs your book

  5. I disagree with the definitions proposed for “atheist” and “agnostic” at the end of the article. The question “does god exist?” has only two answers: yes and I don’t know. Positive proof is possible if the god reveals itself, and negative proof is impossible. So, until god reveals itself to someone, the only logical answer that he/she can give to the question “does god exist?” is “I don’t know”.

    “Atheist” answers the question “do you believe in god?”. That question has three answers: yes, no and I don’t know. A person who answers “yes” is a theist. A person who answers “no” is an atheist. I don’t think there’s a word for someone who answers “no” to this question.

    So, I am an agnostic atheist. I don’t know whether or not there is a god, but I don’t believe that there is one.

    1. The text is right about the definition of agnosticism is different from atheism.
      See one of the best phylosophy dictionary Ferrater Mora about this subject. It doesn’t make sense to be an atheist and agnostic in the same time. They have both different meaning.

  6. I was an atheist from the age of 15 to the age of 32. I would only like to interject that I was converted to atheism by the witness of Christians. Atheism is very often a situation were one has a dual diagnosis; one is not just stating a disbelief in God often hurt and anger caused by a small number of agents cause one to find a solace in the rebellion of the very “anti-” nature of atheism. If you are a Christian then I am an atheist. One doesn’t as much find evidence as validation. One doesn’t argue a position as much as try to fight perceived bullies. So don’t be afraid to lose, maybe not so much lose as digress from, an argument with an atheist because you can’t really win. Because it’s not actually an open exchange of ideas as much as a pissing contest; in which case even if you “defeat” your “opponent” that opponent will only become further entrenched in an emotional sense of victimization at the hands of the historical oppressor who couldn’t possibly understand my deeply personal and highly evolved worldview. So my brothers and sisters just as faith without works is indeed dead, evangelization is very rarely done with wise words and very often won by heroic works of love and self sacrifice. Our deep knowledge, fervor, and love for the Church can best be utilized after the intended is interested in us as individuals. Just a thought about my own experience. Thank you and God Bless You.

  7. What I take away from this is that Matt is “agnostic” with respect to the pink unicorns that frolic on my lawn at twilight (which only I can see, they’re invisible to everyone else). After all, if he was “atheistic” with respect to my unicorns, he’d have to give reasons they don’t exist. Which he can’t do, after all, “They may still exist even though we have no good evidence to think that they do.”

  8. It seems that Sarah has not taken the time to read The God Delusion, despite being so readily to denigrate Dawkins.

    On the exact same page as the quote: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character…….” , he also says: “it is unfair to attack such an easy target. The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation…..”

  9. The problem with the “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character…….” , he also says: “it is unfair to attack such an easy target. The God Hypothesis should not stand or fall with its most unlovely instantiation…..” is that it is anti-Semitic. There is the Talmud and the Midrash to consider, in which God has been contemplated with beauty and depth for thousands of years. Otherwise Dawkins is simply making the same mistake which persists under Sola Scriptura and everyone decides their own doctrine for themselves. Dawkins implication must be “poor simple Jews they just don’t know what they are doing, look what they worship.” Which is anti-Semitic under any rubric.

    1. I don’t think you should use the term “anti semitic” in these arguments, it’s too loaded. Dawkins is anti-religious; you could replace “poor simple Jews” with “poor simple ” . Anti semitism is a serious allegation and should not be bandied about.

      1. So you are splitting hairs in order to deflect the issue. Because being “anti-religious” is perfectly acceptable. If one said “I’m not bigoted against gay men; I’m bigoted against homosexuals.” Would that make any sense? I used the anti-Semitic language specifically because it means something and it is accurate. If I used the same language Dawkins used only about Dawkins it would rightly be seen as slander. “The God of the Old Testament” is real to a very many people. Dawkins language is both anti-religious and anti-Semitic because he slanders their belief, they know God is real and are not clinically insane. Dawkins is not espousing something positive but simply slandering real people. This is bigotry. Sorry to use harsh, abrasive, Dawkins-like language.

  10. This is wonderful, and very enjoyable to read! It reminds me of the book “The Great Idea” which I loved very much!

    I tried to follow the link to part 2, but it says I don’t have permission to read drafts 🙁

  11. As I ponder the question of God, I’m struck by a couple of things.

    First, “does God exist”? This is a deep question, and to avoid facile answers you first have to answer “What is God”. It usually refers to the Christian idea of God, but even that’s pretty vague, ranging from an old white guy with a beard (at the facile end!) to some sort of ill defined immanent presence that Guides All. But it God is immanent, how can God be transcendent? It quickly becomes “God moves in mysterious ways and is not understandable by mere humans”, us being created in His image notwithstanding. I find this deeply unsatisfying and reeking of intellectual laziness.

    Second, there’s disagreement on the meaning of “atheist” even (maybe especially) amongst atheists. Sure you can look it up but common use tends to lead dictionary definitions. As more people self identify as atheist or “none of the above” this disagreement will increase.

    So, I’m an atheist in that I am a-theist and don’t accept the idea of or belief in some sort of supernatural superpower that created everything and continues to guide it. I used to call myself agnostic but now I find that lazy too – one should examine one’s beliefs and see where they lie. I’d only accept agnosticism from someone who’s really uninterested in these matters and just doesn’t care enough to find out more. Which is lazy!

    I am very interested in why a lot of people do believe in God (however you want to define the term). I strongly suspect that for a majority of people it’s force of habit and upbringing. Which is also lazy!

    1. Hi again! So from a Christian perspective, Jesus is “consubstantial, begotten not made, one in being with the Father, true God and true man.” God became man, so God is not antagonistic towards human nature. This is important as to the nature of both God and humanity. Humans have an awareness of self, a consciousness. Christians believe this is seated in the soul, as an atheist I took great pleasure in assuring people that they had no soul. The easiest way to see the separation of the idea of body and self is to realize that people can be made to move involuntarily. If this were to happen one might say, “I’m sorry, that wasn’t me it happened involuntarily.” That would indicate a sense of self which is not fully predicated upon a physicality, I’m sure that that is not going to satisfy you as an explanation, but if we don’t recognize something immaterial in our selves the alternative is that we are simply material. If we are wholly material our ethics are based upon the utility of that material and we become our own gods, thus not really an a-theist more often a socio-path. So there are good pragmatic reasons to believe in God not just answering “lazy” emotions.

      1. Actually, all you’re demonstrating is evidence of our subconscious and/or autonomic systems. This has nothing to do with mind-body duality or the existence of the soul. The idea of “self” is a deep question and I think most people spend their whole lifetime figuring it out, often without coming to a complete understanding of what their Self is. Whether self can be equated to soul is yet another question. It’s also interesting to note that physical injury to the brain can cause deep changes to personality and what the sufferer thinks of as their self. Further, it’s self evident that one’s (anyone’s) idea of their self changes over time. As an aside, much of sufi practice is dedicated to discovering one’s essential self. Perhaps that’s the soul?

      2. Yes, I have worked with post traumatic brain injury patients on a Neuro-behavioral unit when I was an atheist. I was very much into B.F. Skinner. What I want to express is not so much the autonomic response, but the idea that we are aware of ourselves as an identity. We have a sense of self. That doesn’t change even though our brains are injured. It illustrates the point that we are not totally in control of our “selves” but we can know that we are not in control of ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can will our actions at any given moment but we can contemplate ourselves, we can contemplate those contemplations, etc. This is unique it makes us human. I was once interested in contemplating my essential self, but now I just want to give myself to others and this is where I find myself. It’s in the gospels and it’s true, does this make it supernatural or theistic? Maybe, maybe not, but it is very hard not to focus on the materialism of our natures and thus draw a conclusion based upon it’s relative utility; this is where Dawkins insists that every Down’s Syndrome baby should be aborted. They are a drain upon our resources; but humanity needs to be humane or else we lose our selves, we kill our souls. We degrade our “natures” this is intangible in many ways until we believe, that was my experience anyway. Thanks, Aaron

  12. Hi

    You are misrepresenting atheism. Atheism and gnosticism are two different things. Atheism/theism relates to what we believe, while the expression gnostic/agrostic relates to what we know.
    Atheists don’t assure, that no God exists or could ever exist. The claim is: “There is a God”. If you say: “I believe that”, you are a theist. If you say: “I do not believe that.”, you are an atheist. Atheist do not have a burden of proof. You also don’t have a burden of proof for things, which you don’t believe in, like unicorns, griffins, orcs or other claims without enough evidence.
    So, it’s on the theist’s side to provide evidence for the existance of their God, not to avoid it by chicking out or by changing the topic. That shows me, that many (professional) theists even don’t trust their own claims. And first, it’s on the theists to define their God, before anyone can even talk about that. But again most theists even fail in that task.


  13. Why did you choose the government analogy to refute Brad’s claim that “you’re an atheist with regards to every other god humanity has postulated”? I agree that Sarah is not an atheist, but she admits herself that she does believe in one god and not others. Brad can claim that some aspect of a particular system of government causes him to prefer that system. What does Sarah cite that causes her to believe in one god and not others?

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