Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we examine a curious claim about quantum mechanics and the creation of the universe.

JH writes:

[How can Christians respond to the] claim that almost every atheist is clinging to right now, namely that quantum mechanics proves something can come from nothing?

JH is referring to the common atheist tactic of explaining how the universe could be created ex nihilo without a cause (aka a Creator) by invoking a phenomenon in quantum mechanics known as virtual particle production.

Virtual particle production refers to particles suddenly popping into existence from the vacuum of space. For those of us used to the decidedly Newtonian appearance of the world, this seems very strange, but it’s a real phenomenon in the quantum mechanical world. Atheists like to invoke it when arguing about who or what caused the universe: the claim is, these particles are uncaused and come from nothing, therefore it’s possible for things like universes to pop into existence uncaused and from nothing, therefore God is superfluous. The problem with this claim is that virtual particles are neither uncaused nor do they come from nothing. Let’s examine the latter claim first.

If you were able to look at the universe at the quantum mechanical level, you’d notice it was a very jittery place, with virtual particles fluctuating into and out of existence. In order for these virtual particles to fluctuate into existence, they must “borrow” energy from the vacuum energy, which is the background energy of space. This is because, according to Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. If you want to make matter, you use energy (the reverse is also true, which is how nuclear fusion works). Even though we’re accustomed to thinking of a vacuum as nothing, in this case it is definitely something. The vacuum energy of space is something, so right away this tells us that virtual particles don’t come from nothing.

But there’s another problem — these particles don’t exist for very long. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle — which tells us that we can’t simultaneously know the precise amount of energy and the precise duration of time for an event — allows virtual particles to borrow energy from the vacuum energy provided they return that energy in a very short amount of time. Here’s the key: the more energy they borrow, the more quickly they must return it.

Let’s look at a practical example using a particle called a meson with a mass about 1/10th that of a proton. (Protons reside in the nucleus of an atom, and have a mass of about 2 x10-27 kg.) For a meson to pop into existence, it could only borrow the required energy for about 10-23 second. Written out in decimal form, that’s 0.00000000000000000000001 second. Remember, the more energy a particle borrows, the more quickly it has to return it. A conservative estimate for the number of protons in the observable universe is 1080 (which I am not going to write out in decimal form), which means that for a “virtual universe” to fluctuate into existence, it would exist for an extraordinarily short amount of time — just 10-103 second, which is far shorter than the 14 billion years we’ve measured for the age of the universe.

Now let’s examine the claim that virtual particles pop into existence uncaused. That’s just false. As theoretical physicist Matt Strassler explains on his wonderful blog, virtual particles are disturbances in space caused by the presence of other particles in that space. They’re not even really particles, which is why they’re called “virtual particles.” The upshot is, if certain conditions must exist in order for something to happen, then that something is not uncaused.

Short-short version:

  • When atheists invoke quantum mechanics to try to explain how the universe could be created from nothing naturalistically, they are abusing the notion of nothing.
  • Virtual particles borrow energy from the background energy of space, therefore they do not come from nothing.
  • For something to fluctuate into existence, the more massive it is, the briefer its lifetime. According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the observable universe could only exist for 10-103 second, far shorter than the 14 billion years we measure.
  • Virtual particles are caused by the presence of other particles, therefore they are not uncaused.
  • There is no physical evidence of anything in the universe ever coming into existence uncaused and from nothing.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which a Twitter exchange exposes the blind faith of an anti-theist.

Here’s a person I think we can reasonably assume is an anti-theist. Last month, he pinged me on Twitter with the following:

By “FT” he means fine-tuning. What followed was an exchange that was more coherent than the one I had with “OpenMind” (see here and here), but no less demonstrative of the main problem many non-scientist anti-theists have, which is blind faith in their beliefs and unquestioned assumptions.

Before we continue, note that the reasoning I described in my testimony doesn’t really fall under what’s called the fine-tuning argument. This argument says that the improbability of our universe having precisely the right values for the many parameters and constants that permit human life to exist — the strengths of the fundamental forces, the masses of subatomic particles, the number of physical dimensions, etc. — is so high as to strongly imply the universe was designed by a personal being. However, in my testimony, I explained that I logically inferred the existence of a rational, transcendental being (God) who created the universe based on the fact that the universe is comprehensible. Not the same thing as fine-tuning. But no matter, I was game to see how exactly the fine-tuning argument for God constituted faith over reason, so I asked.

I don’t know if Joe’s World (JW) thinks the many, many atheist scientists who’ve embraced the multiverse idea on this basis are fools or what, but I suspected he didn’t understand the implications of fine tuning, so I asked him why he made his assertion.

His response surprised me a little, because it differs from the common anti-theist argument that God is merely superfluous to the workings of the universe. JW, on the other hand, believes that order arises spontaneously only in a godless universe and that a God-created universe would be nonsensical. I pointed out to him that this is the opposite of what Christians and even most atheists believe.

There are a number of problems with his assertion, the first of which is the origin of a “clockwork” universe in which complexity just arises. He’s begging the question. The problem is underscored by his metaphorical comparison of the universe to a clock — most of us are reasonably certain that precision instruments like clocks don’t just spring into being on their own, but are rather carefully designed and deliberately constructed by conscious beings.

Another problem is that he presupposes that the God of the Bible is a capricious being who would not create a rational universe with unchangeable laws. Sure, a supernatural being could in principle create anything he wants, but that’s not what’s important here. Since JW is talking to a Christian (me), that means we’re talking specifically about the God of the Bible. It doesn’t matter what anyone personally thinks about the God of the Bible, what matters is what scripture says about God and whether that’s contradicted or corroborated by reason and evidence. When we read the Bible, we see that God is not at all a capricious being, but rather a rational being. We are told throughout the Bible that God didn’t just slap together a whimsical universe, but by wisdom created a lawful universe:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6)

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
(Proverbs 3:19)

Do you know the laws of the heavens? (Job 38:33)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

Note that the Greek word translated in John 1:1 as “word” is logos, which also means logic, intellect, and wisdom. Putting all this together, Gerald Schroeder makes the argument that Genesis 1:1, properly translated, reads as follows: “With a first cause of wisdom, God created the universe.” (See Chapter Two of Schroeder’s book, God According to God.)

The heavens declare his righteousness (Psalm 50:6)

In other words, nature reveals the character of God. We see that nature operates according to knowable laws; God is not capricious.

As for corroboration, there’s a reason the Bible begins with Genesis. It first of all establishes the sovereignty of God as the creator of all things, but it also gives us a testable account of God’s creation. (See here for a discussion of Genesis 1 and modern science.)

What I found even more interesting than the backwards reasoning of JW was the tenacious way in which he clung to one particular belief in spite of the evidence, or rather the lack of it. I reminded him that there are only three options to explain why the universe is the way it is: necessity, luck, or God. I told him there’s no support for necessity, but he really, really wanted to believe it anyway.

It’s not difficult to define chance. The parameters, constants, all the things that make the universe fit for human life, can span a range of values. If there’s no physical theory requiring the universe to have three physical dimensions, the particular strengths of the various fundamental forces, the particular masses of subatomic particles, and so on, and no God to purposefully choose these values, then how did we end up with all of the “right” values? The answer is, a very, very lucky roll of the dice. In the multiverse, there is a mind-bogglingly huge number of universes, all with different parameters, and we just happen to inhabit one that hit the cosmic jackpot. (Incidentally, most physicists don’t seem to delight in this option. I get the impression most atheist physicists would prefer the necessity option, but as there’s no evidence for that, they grudgingly accept the multiverse.)

JW seemed to reject this notion, and he obviously wasn’t big on the God idea, so I challenged him, repeatedly, to show me which physical theories predict / require / necessitate the universe to be the way it is.

After a lot of back and forth, I finally got an answer out of him.

He admits he doesn’t know. The truth is, no one knows, and it’s deeply troubling to a lot of people, because it leaves as the only alternatives luck and God. Yet JW persists in his belief.

JW’s initial statement to me was that the fine-tuning argument was a triumph of faith over reason. But who’s exhibiting faith here? If you accept an explanation for why the universe is the way it is, then you must have evidence in favor of it or at least evidence ruling out the alternatives. Joe’s World has no scientific evidence, no physical theories predicting that the universe must be the way it is. Everything we know about the physical nature of the universe says that its various properties did not arise due to necessity. JW rejects God; I don’t know for certain if he rejects the multiverse, but I suspect he does. If so, then persisting in his belief in necessity is beyond faith — it’s blind faith.

Remember, having faith means holding onto a belief you once accepted through reason in spite of your transitory emotions. Blind faith means holding onto a belief without evidence or in spite of contradictory evidence. If you engage anti-theists long enough, you’ll find that a lot of them are the blind faithful. Christians, on the other hand, have good reasons to believe. If you’re a Christian, just make sure you can articulate what those reasons are.

Encounters with science-fetishist anti-theists

This is the second part of the two-part article about a particular type of atheist I call the science-fetishist anti-theist (SFA). See here for the first part describing the primary and secondary traits of the SFA.

We’ll now go over actual encounters with SFAs to illustrate those traits.

The following examples are from a minor Twitter “debate” I had with someone who calls himself OpenMind. He initiated contact with me after I posted a Tweet about my testimony; more on that here. What ensued was a confusing morass of SFA talking points, most of which served to show without any doubt that I was dealing with a fairly pure example of a SFA. I tried to move the discussion to this blog, because OpenMind was so scattershot and slippery with his responses on Twitter, but to no avail. So instead I’ll categorize his responses in terms of the SFA traits (some fall into more than one category) and provide some commentary.

The stuff in boldface are the traits.

The stuff after the boldface in italics are the Tweets.

The stuff after that in regular font is my commentary.

Here we go…

Almost immediately refers to the supposed conflict between science and religion in any discussion of science and/or religion with a Christian

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander my view is that religion and science parted company as explanatory tools around the time of Galileo.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander before them the two on most issues were almost indistinguishable.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander since then science has provided the best explanation of the natural world and left religion, as a science, in its wake.

Science and religion have never been at odds. That’s an historical lie told by SFAs and other anti-theists to try to divorce Christians from science and science from Christianity. OpenMind does diverge from the SFA script a bit here when he says that science and religion were indistinguishable prior to Galileo, i.e. he seems to concede that they weren’t always at odds; but he frames it as though science was as repressed as religion prior to Galileo’s time, but heroically broke free and left religion “in its wake.” More on this below.

If you beg to differ, brings up Galileo and/or Bruno

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander I think both Galileo and Giordano Bruno would disagree. Truth was suppressed as heresy.

Galileo and Bruno are just buzzwords for the SFA. Most likely he doesn’t really understand the history involved. More on this below.

Denounces faith as anti-intellectual or anti-reason or anti-science

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander you don’t have knowledge, you have a #faith-based belief. #Faith is corrosive to the human mind…..

This is the image he included.


I’d never heard of this person before, but she’s apparently an English atheist and psychologist. Notice how she redefines faith to suit her purpose — she asserts it’s believing something without reason or evidence. This is a secondary trait of the SFA. Whether it’s based on outright deception or ignorance is not always obvious, but my guess is neither this psychologist nor OpenMind have bothered to see what actual people of faith say faith means. C.S. Lewis, arguably the most well-known and respected modern Christian thinker, defined faith as (and I’m paraphrasing here) a belief you’ve accepted on the basis of reason and evidence in spite of your transitory emotions.

The fact is, Christianity is first and foremost a religion of reason and evidence. An atheist may not accept the reasons or the evidence as true, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t offered. If a person has read the Bible, he cannot possibly assert with honesty that Christians are required to believe without reason or evidence. The Bible is filled with reasons to believe, from the opening passages of Genesis to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are provided with arguments and evidence for every claim. Jesus Himself performed miracles with the authority of God before hundreds and hundreds of people as evidence for His claims. It’s ludicrous to assert that faith is belief without reason or evidence, but that’s the only way the SFA can position himself as superior to a person of faith.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander to start with the conclusion in mind as all apologetics does is to force the mind to close, thus rewiring the brain.

Another absurd redefinition. The word apologetic comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning “to give reasons for belief,” not “conjuring up ex post facto reasons for a conclusion I already believe for no apparent reason.”

Uses the word “science” a lot as a catch-all for responses to questions

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander since then science has provided the best explanation of the natural world and left religion, as a science, in its wake.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander your presentation isn’t science.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander your presentation on the other hand is not science. It is christian apologetics, the antithesis of science.

Blah blah blah science blah blah blah I hope you’re sufficiently dazzled blah blah science blah …

Uses the word “science” in nonsensical ways

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander since then science has provided the best explanation of the natural world and left religion, as a science, in its wake.

This is a non-sequitur. Religion is not a science. OpenMind shows how SFAs seem to think that any method of knowing or revealing information is by definition “science,” and some sciences — like religion — are really terrible at science.

Refers to any attempt to demonstrate that the Bible is not in conflict with science as “creationism”

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander wow, more creation nonsense. You’re basing this all on bad philosophy. WLC and other apologist try this trick all the time.

In another Tweet, OpenMind accused me of starting with a conclusion in mind, and then justifying it, but that’s essentially what the SFA does. He holds it as self-evident that the Bible is in conflict with science, therefore any attempts to reconcile the two are automatically “creationism” which is synonymous with “magic.”

“WLC” refers to William Lane Craig, a well known Christian apologist, philosopher, and theologian who debates atheists using robust philosophical arguments to demonstrate that there are very sound reasons for belief in God. Contrary to OpenMind’s assertion, these arguments are not “creation nonsense.”

Notice also how OpenMInd redefines an effective counter to atheist arguments as philosophical trickery. (Those nasty, tricksy Hobbitses!) This is the classic “heads, I win; tails, you lose” framing. If you don’t have an effective argument against an atheist’s claims, then you’re engaging in blind faith (belief without reason or evidence), but if you come up with convincing reasons or evidence, it’s trickery.

Uses the word “superstition” in reference to your beliefs

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101 May 18
@swiftfoxmark2 Our ancestors superstitions fascinate me.

@sarahsalviander @Spacebunnyday

It’s just a way to try to disqualify your beliefs from being taken seriously without taking the time to refute any particular claims.

Despite displaying a near-reverence for science, does not actually know much about science

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander since then science has provided the best explanation of the natural world and left religion, as a science, in its wake.

Sarah Salviander ‏@sarahsalviander
.@MyOpenMind101 Religion was never a science. Modern science is a product of the Christian faith.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander really? I think you’ll find science predates recorded history and our species…. …

Sarah Salviander ‏@sarahsalviander
.@MyOpenMind101 You’ll note I said modern science. And technology != science.

When I point out that modern science (that’s the term used for science that follows the Copernican Revolution) is a product of Christianity, he provides a link to an article about how prehistoric people had stone tool technology millions of years ago. I mean, it’s interesting and all, but even birds with their puny bird brains use technology. Would he claim they’re doing science?

Technology is not synonymous with science. Science and technology often inform each other or make the other one possible, but they are not equivalent. The practice of science involves using the scientific method. If you’re not following the scientific method, you’re not doing science.

Sandy Packer ‏@STPacker915
@MyOpenMind101 @sarahsalviander I have a question. If there was a nothing, then an explosion and life, what exploded? Hawking can’t answer.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@STPacker915 if you read about eternal inflation you might have a better clue. Do engineers still do physics? @sarahsalviander

Someone who appears to be an engineer stepped into the discussion with the above question, and OpenMind’s response was to throw something sciencey at him. (This is related to the frequent use of the word “science” as a catch-all for responses to questions.) Are you dazzled by OpenMind’s response to Sandy’s question? You shouldn’t be. With this response, OpenMind is showing that he is either unaware of or doesn’t care about the limitations of science.

One of the problems with this response is that it’s based on speculation. Inflation is an ingenious idea posited by physicist Alan Guth to explain some otherwise difficult-to-explain features of our universe, and involves a period of extremely rapid expansion just following the big bang. (Personally, I like the inflationary model, and believe that it’s correct, but it remains to be seen whether it stands up to testing.) Eternal inflation was proposed independently by physicists Paul Steinhardt and Alexander Vilenkin not long after Guth first proposed his inflation model, and posits that at least in some parts of the universe, this inflation occurs eternally in the past and the present, giving rise to bubble universes. So, the idea is, what we consider the universe could just be a bubble universe that formed out of another part of a bigger universe. The main problem, of course, is testability. It sounds impressive to answer one of the biggest questions about existence with “eternal inflation!” but we have to consider whether it really answers the question. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring the discussion off Twitter and onto this blog, so we could get into it more in depth. I would’ve asked OpenMind what the predictions of the model were and whether they have they been borne out by observation. The answer, by the way, is no, they have not. It’s really just a speculative idea that’s already possibly being ruled out by other cosmological models. The other problem is that it’s not an ultimate answer. Even if it turned out that evidence supported the idea of our universe being a bubble in a larger universe, it doesn’t answer the question of what caused that universe. (In fact, a lot of these atheist rebuttals to “where did the universe come from?” end up being “turtles all the way down.”)

Is unaware of most of the history of science

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander since then science has provided the best explanation of the natural world and left religion, as a science, in its wake.

Sarah Salviander ‏@sarahsalviander
.@MyOpenMind101 Religion was never a science. Modern science is a product of the Christian faith.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander really? I think you’ll find science predates recorded history and our species…. …

Sarah Salviander ‏@sarahsalviander
.@MyOpenMind101 You’ll note I said modern science. And technology != science.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Bacon, Harvey, Boyle, von Guericke among many others performed science as we would now recognise.

Sarah Salviander ‏@sarahsalviander
.@MyOpenMind101 You are not equipped to debate this topic. You do not even realize that “modern science” refers to science post-Copernicus.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander and ALL the pioneers I mentioned were all performing “science” in the early post Copernican era, your claim is a #fallacy.

This guy has no clue. Modern science by definition refers to the era of science following the Copernican Revolution. It does not by any stretch include prehistorical caveman technology. When I point this out, OpenMind then responds in a way that is so incoherent that I’m not even sure what his point of confusion is. All of the people he listed were contributors to modern science, and all of them were Christians doing modern science in Christian Europe, which supports my claim.

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander I think both Galileo and Giordano Bruno would disagree. Truth was suppressed as heresy.

This is a SFA favorite, but it’s also very easy to refute. A little bit of research reveals that the modern mythologies that have sprung up around Galileo and Bruno are false.

The atheist version of the Galileo story is based on 19th century fabrications by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, and goes like this. Copernicus proposed that the Earth goes around the Sun, and when Galileo promoted this obviously-true belief, he was hauled before the Inquisition for heresy, forced to recant by threat of torture, and then jailed for the rest of his life for promoting a view that was in opposition to Church teachings. However, as Dinesh D’Souza points out in his book, What’s So Great About Christianity, the real story is more nuanced and complex than a simple narrative of the Church vs. Galileo. For one thing, the Church did not originate the idea of a geocentric, or earth-centered, universe, the Greeks did. The philosophy of the Church was largely rooted in Aristotelianism, and so there were efforts to make scripture consistent with it. Contrary to the mythology, the Church was not uniformly opposed to the notion that the Earth goes around the Sun, but was divided on it, in no small part due to the lack of evidence in support of it at the time. There is much more to this story (see here and here for succinct accounts), but the TL;DR version is this: Galileo was kind of a jerk who not only went back on an agreement he made with the Church not to promote heliocentrism, but gratuitously humiliated his friend the Pope in the process; there was not yet good evidence in favor of heliocentrism; he was never tortured or threatened with torture or mistreated in any way; the Church was very balanced in its approach to science at the time.

As for Bruno, who was burned at the stake, he was not, as popular myth has it, executed for his scientific views. Rather, his extreme and heretical views on Jesus (not the Son of God), Mary (not a Virgin), and Satan (destined to be redeemed by God) are what got him into hot water with the Church. But, like Galileo, he was turned into a scientific martyr by 19th century historians eager to give the impression that the Church has always been at war with science.

Quotes Dawkins, Harris, Stenger, or any other number of anti-theist scientists at you

I can’t remember if OpenMind actually quoted one of these guys at me, but his Twitter feed is rife with quotes from guys like this. The quotes are usually pithy-sounding, but they invariably crumble under the least bit of scrutiny. Take this one for example

“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” Richard Dawkins

It’s a ludicrous claim, given that most of the greatest scientists of the Copernican and post-Copernican era were Christian. Consider this quote from Isaac Newton, a biography of the great scientist by Mitch Stokes:

According to metaphor, God has written two books—Scripture and Nature—and He is glorified by the study of either one. This view, this “belief in the sacral nature of science,” was prevalent among natural philosophers of the seventeenth century. As Frank Manuel, one of Newton’s most important twentieth-century biographers, says:

“The traditional use of science as a form of praise to the Father assumed new dimensions under the tutelage of Robert Boyle and his fellow-members of the Royal Society, and among the immediate disciples of Isaac Newton. … In the Christian Virtuoso, demonstrating that experimental philosophy [experimental science] assisted a man to be a good Christian, Boyle assured readers that God required not a slight survey, but a diligent and skilful scrutiny of His works.”

Although Newton’s intensity while pursuing his work ranges from humorous to alarming, it is put into a different light if we see it as a measure of his devotion to God. For Newton, “To be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.” This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians. [emphasis added]

I hope this has demonstrated to my Christian readers that it’s quite easy to puncture the bubble of nonsense surrounding a SFA. Twitter is not a good venue in which to carry on a debate with a SFA. Arguing with a SFA on Twitter is like being asked to dance in a phone booth; I wanted to move the dance to a stage where we had more room to move around. When I asked OpenMind to come over here, he refused, citing my “ignorance.” He did ask me one question repeatedly that I was willing to answer, but only after he answered a question I posed to him first. For whatever reason, he refused to answer my question (typical avoidance), so I never responded to him on Twitter (that’s one of the first rules of arguing with a SFA: if you ask him a question, do not answer any of his questions until he answers yours first). Here is the question he asked me:

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101 May 18
. @sarahsalviander if you’re [sic] claimed god were proved not to exist would you still want to believe?

OpenMind ‏@MyOpenMind101
@sarahsalviander if your claimed god did not exist would you still want to believe?

It’s obvious he’s trying to bait me into saying something he can dig into, which is why I had no intention of answering it as it was framed. There is a modified version of this question that’s more interesting, and I’ll answer that instead. (Let’s never mind that there is no conceivable disproof of God’s existence, and answer it anyway.) The original question, as framed, is like being asked, If it were proved that your mother didn’t love you, would you still want to believe she loved you? My answer to that would be no, I would not still want to believe that she loved me, because that would be a delusion, and I don’t want to persist in a delusion. But if I was asked, Would you still want your mother to love you? the answer, of course, would be yes. Who doesn’t want their mother to love them? So, the modified and more interesting version of OpenMind’s question is, If it were somehow proved that God didn’t exist, would you still wish he existed? The answer is yes, and I’ll expound on that in a later post.

Primary and secondary traits of the science fetishist anti-theist

What this is not: A polemic against atheism in general or a blanket analysis of all atheists. Atheists can be moral, decent, intelligent, productive people who contribute to society, just like anyone else. Now that we have that out of the way…

What this is: An analysis of a particular type of atheist — an anti-theist, really — who is virulently and irrationally anti-Christian and who fetishizes science. We’ll call him the SFA (Science Fetishist Anti-theist).

Let’s say you’re a Christian who’s interested in science, particularly how it relates to your faith. You encounter an atheist who seems willing to discuss this with you, and you’re interested in his viewpoint. (This could be taking place in person, on Facebook, on a blog, etc.) You explain your position on a particular topic, but you’re met with a series of perplexing responses and maybe even some hostility. You try to respond honestly and earnestly, but the discussion is going in confusing directions. He’s attacking your viewpoint, but not really attacking the substance of your argument. You’re being barraged with various claims that don’t seem to have much to do with your position on the topic, but you don’t know how to respond. If this has ever happened to you, it’s likely you encountered a SFA.

This article is a two-parter. In this part, I describe the primary and secondary characteristics useful for identifying a SFA, and offer some general advice on how to deal with them. In Part II, I’ll use examples from encounters with SFAs to illustrate these principles.

Primary behavioral traits of the SFA:

  • Almost immediately refers to the supposed conflict between science and religion in any discussion of science and/or religion with a Christian
    • If you beg to differ, brings up Galileo and/or Bruno
  • Denounces faith as anti-intellectual or anti-reason or anti-science
  • Uses the word “science” a lot as a catch-all for responses to questions
  • Uses the word “science” in nonsensical ways
  • Refers to any attempt to demonstrate that the Bible is not in conflict with science as “creationism”
  • Uses the word superstition in reference to your beliefs
  • Despite displaying a near-reverence for science, does not actually know much about science
  • Is unaware of most of the history of science
  • Quotes Dawkins, Harris, Stenger, or any other number of anti-theist scientists at you

If a person displays at least five of those traits, you’ve got yourself a SFA. The fetish aspect refers to the near-reverence the SFA has for science, almost to the point of worshipfulness. The SFA is aware of the power of science and is attracted to it, but lacks the genuine interest to learn how science works. The SFA will also hold science in unrealistically high regard, causing him to not only ignore the limitations of science but to disdain all other methods of knowing.

What makes the SFA pernicious is that he is mildly adept at giving the impression he is reasonable, intellectual, and knowledgeable about science. However, it doesn’t take much to expose him for what he is. For that, all you need to do is challenge the SFA on a particular point and be persistent in asking direct questions. You will then notice his secondary traits.

Secondary behavioral traits of the SFA:

  • Avoidance: he will simply refuse to answer the question
  • Evasion: he will address it in an oblique way, but refuse to provide a straightforward answer
  • Deflection: he will refuse to answer the question while changing the subject
  • Misdirection: he will pretend to answer the question while subtlely changing the subject
  • Redefinition: he will redefine the meaning of something to suit his purpose
  • Mischaracterization: he will twist your words and your intent to mean something else he can more easily attack

The way to combat these is to persist in holding the SFA to things he’s claimed/admitted and requiring that the SFA answer your questions directly. For instance, if you’ve employed impeccable logic to make your case, and he still refuses to acknowledge the conclusion, ask him which step in the chain of logic he objects to and make him back it up with reason and evidence. Stay focused on the question. Be relentless in pinning him down. One key for keeping the discussion on track is to have a penalty ready if he refuses to answer your questions. Christian writer, Vox Day, who is legendary for his skill and tenacity in debating SFAs, has a rule on his blog: you get three chances to answer his question directly; if you fail, you are not allowed to comment again until you answer. If the argument is in person, you can simply refuse to continue unless the SFA answers your question directly. This tends to work, because SFAs are usually eager to keep the discussion going — up to a point.

If you’re persistent with your questions and pinning the SFA down, there are two possible outcomes. 1. The SFA will concede. This is the more desirable outcome, but it’s also the least likely. It’s possible that, through sheer force of will, you can break through the shell of delusion and help bring the SFA to greater understanding. However, the more likely outcome is … 2. Your persistence will culminate in The Superior-Posture Departure (SPD). The exasperated SFA will announce that you’re too ignorant to merit debate and will refuse to engage you any further. For the moment, anyway. SFAs can reappear from time to time to make provocative statements — often the same statements you’ve already refuted — only to disappear again when met with resistance. They may also snipe at you from a distance while continuing to insist that you’re too ignorant to debate.

The thing to keep in mind here is that most SFAs are dishonest, not only with others, but with themselves. I’ll talk about this more in Part II next week, but this self-delusion is indicative of their blind faith in science. For that reason, you will likely never get an admission that you’re right, but this sort of refusal to engage you directly is at least a tacit admission of defeat.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which an anti-theist mischaracterizes a claim in my testimony and also misses the point.

In response to my recently-posted testimony, OpenMind offered the following

I don’t know exactly what OM meant, so I’ve asked him for clarification. However, he seems busy responding to the flurry of Tweets his comment generated, so I’ll just address it as is.

Generally speaking, when a person is said to be rationalizing his behavior, it means he’s offering a seemingly plausible, but untrue, reason for it. That’s probably the sense in which OM offered his interpretation of how I’ve dealt with the death of my daughter. The problem with this interpretation is that no one can demonstrate that the reason for my behavior — God’s existence — is untrue. Therefore, by definition, it cannot be a rationalization. Furthermore, I offered very good reason to believe that it is true, which I explained in my testimony. OM’s is just a nonsensical claim.

OM also missed the point of my relating how I dealt with the loss of my baby. My testimony was the story of how I went from atheism to theism, partly on the basis of scientific evidence, and from theism to Christianity, largely on the basis of scientific evidence. It seemed a little too coldly logical to me, and so I worried that maybe my faith wasn’t real, that it lacked substance. Jesus talked about this in the parable of the sower. Sometimes people receive the Word, but as soon as they experience any tribulation, they fall away from the faith. I don’t wish to overstate my case, but I think it’s fair to say that I experienced tribulation that year. Yet my faith did not fall away. When the dust had settled, I felt closer to God — I knew what it meant to receive his provision and protection. I knew my faith was real.

There are two takeaway points here for my Christian readers. The first is to always evaluate what an anti-theist (or any other) critic is claiming, identify the error, and then focus your response there. OM claimed I was rationalizing my loss. A rationalization involves an untrue belief, in this case, a belief in God’s existence. Contrary to what strident atheists imply or outright claim, no one has shown that God does not exist. Not only is there is no good reason to assert that God doesn’t exist, but there is good reason to believe that he does. The claim of rationalization is therefore invalid.

The second point is that strident atheists will frequently avoid, evade, redefine, mischaracterize, and misdirect in order to discredit your argument or avoid acknowledging a logical conclusion they don’t like. OM mischaracterized the story of how my faith was tested to claim I was rationalizing my belief. This story had nothing to do with the truth of the reason for my belief, but rather concerned whether my belief even existed. It’s a common tactic; don’t let them get away with it.