Irrationality: It’s in Atheism’s DNA

By Tom Gilson Published on February 4, 2020

A colleague emailed me a challenge heard from an atheist who’s trying, unsuccessfully, to reason his way away from Christianity. It’s a sad example of atheistic irrationality.

Imagine all the holy books of all the religions disappeared tomorrow, so that all knowledge of religion was gone. Imagine, too, that all science vanished. People would rediscover math eventually. They rediscover science eventually. As for religion? Sure, they’d invent gods again, but new ones. The ones we have now would never come back again.

The idea, naturally, is that science and math are built on timeless and unchanging reality. Religions depend on whatever people might invent, and they’re nothing more than inventions. As an argument against religion, this one’s a non-starter. It’s irrational — which is all too grievously typical of popular-level atheism lately.

Typical Atheist Irrationality

I’m speaking here primarily of popular-level atheism, such as you commonly find in blogs and on social media. The so-called (and fading) “New Atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Lawrence Krauss, and Sam Harris also belong in this group.

There are exceptions to this rule of unreasoning atheism. I’ve been graced with the friendship of a thoughtful atheist; perhaps you have been, too, or maybe you’re one yourself. But these are truly exceptions, hard to find outside academia, and not everywhere even there.

The more you read or engage with atheists these days, the more you’re going to hear them say they’re the rational ones, the reasoning ones. You’ll see it all the time on social media, where atheists follow the line taken by their leading writers.

Richard Dawkins, for example, had his “Foundation for Reason and Science.” Sam Harris was for a time the co-head of “Project Reason.” Search the major atheist groups online, and you’ll find their About pages uniformly insist they’re holding the line on reason against religion.

Christians can’t be rational, they say. We believe in “an invisible magical sky god.” Science is rational, and science “disproves religion.”

This is popular-level atheism staking its exclusive claim on reason.

Defining Reason Wrongly

The claim is thin, though. Very thin. The reason? I hate to say it, but in my experience, atheists don’t reason well. It’s epidemic: Atheists’ arguments are consistently riddled with logical fallacies. So if rational or reasoning means able to follow a line of thought from evidence or premises to a sound, supportable conclusion, popular-level atheists consistently fail to display it.

They think they’re the rational ones, but most often they’re tying one’s rationality to one’s beliefs. They don’t believe in “an invisible magical sky man,” for example. Or Christianity’s “talking snake.” But even true beliefs aren’t always connected to one’s reasoning skills. Imagine the person who believes the world is round “because basketballs are round and I like basketballs.” That’s a really true belief, but it’s really bad reasoning.

If you want to show you’re the reasoning one, show it by how well you carry out the thinking processes that go with it.

In Atheism’s DNA — and Not in Christianity’s

That word applies to Christians, too, obviously. We can get it wrong as easily as they can. I see Christians committing basic logical fallacies online, too.

There’s one great difference between Christianity and popular-level atheism, though. Leading Christian writers and speakers don’t typically commit these kinds of fallacies. As several co-authors and I showed in True Reason, though, leading atheist writers and speakers typically do. It may seem bold to say it, but I’m convinced it’s true, the evidence supports it: This kind of irrationality is in atheism’s DNA, in a way you just won’t find in Christianity.

Examples: Straw Man and Circular Reasoning

Take this “invisible magical sky man” attack on Christianity. It commits a very basic fallacy known as the “straw man.” The straw man consists in distorting your opponent’s position into something you can easily refute or ridicule. Atheists commonly think this kind of attack undermines Christianity, when in fact it’s got nothing even to do with what Christians believe.

Or consider the charge we opened with here: that science would recover from the destruction of all knowledge, because it’s founded on unchanging reality, but no religion would, because it’s all human invention. If the atheist uses that to illustrate his beliefs religion, it’s not fallacious. Only arguments can be guilty of fallacies, and illustrations aren’t arguments. They can be wrong in other ways (as this one is), but not that way.

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If, however, the atheist is using this to try and persuade us that religion is merely a human invention, he’s arguing in a circle. It’s the most basic fallacy of them all. His argument only works if there’s no true God who has established one true religion, and would re-establish it if He needed to.

It boils down to this: Let’s assume no religion is true. If that’s the case, then no religion would survive if all knowledge of it were destroyed. And if no religion would survive that destruction, we can conclude that no religion is true. But there’s a shorter version of the same: Let’s assume no religion is true. If that’s the case, then no religion is true. That’s arguing in a circle, and it’s as bad a fallacy as one could possibly commit.

Errors Piling Up

There are other related problems in this atheist claim. You have to suppose it’s even theoretically possible for one true religion to need re-establishing. In Christianity’s case, you’d have to assume all knowledge of Jesus Christ could be wiped out of history. In order to do that, though, you have to assume Christianity is false. That’s arguing in a circle again.

Then there’s also the difficulty I mentioned last time I wrote on this: How does he know science would arise again without Christianity’s worldview supporting it? Science may be built on reality, but it doesn’t build itself. It requires some real, initial human risk — the investment of hard work, hours, and money — to begin finding out whether reality is the kind of thing you can build scientific knowledge on. Christianity’s worldview supported that initial risk-taking to a degree that none other did.

The Nothing Argument

So this atheist claim turns out to be nothing. As an argument, it’s fallacious and irrational; as an illustration, it shines its dim, dubious light on something the atheist believes for no good reason.

They still go on calling themselves the rational ones, because they don’t believe in an invisible magical sky god. Okay, then; but neither do Christians.

Not all atheist arguments are this bad, but popular-level atheists do tend to argue that badly.

The Take-Away for Christians

I cannot leave without offering two take-aways for Christians.

First, don’t let them snow you with their talk of reason. Make them show it; make them display their reasoning skill. See if they can do it.

Second, learn enough about reasoning skills yourself so you can see what’s going on when they commit these mistakes. And even more importantly, learn it so you don’t make the same mistakes yourself.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream, and was the lead editor of a compilation exploring atheist irrationality: True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.

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