The Errors of a Rational Atheist

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I’ve not yet read either Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (the paperback edition reviewed briefly in The Independent this weekend) or Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, though look forward to (when I’ve the time) reading both. (Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation also, I note on Amazon, seem to come highly recommended … so much to read, so little time … [sigh].)

One of my two reasons for wishing to read them is, naturally, to gain a broader and better understanding of why, in the authors’ professional views, people are deluded into embracing religion—and I suspect that Dennett, as a philosopher of mind, may of the two turn out to be for me personally, as a cognitive scientist, the more interesting.

Since the purpose of the books is (presumably) not only to offer naturalistic explanations for the emergence and persistence of religion but also, as an ineluctable (though not unintended) consequence, to persuade the reader that religious belief is delusional, the second of my motives for wishing to read them is to scrutinise the books as discourse, as writing, as scholarly argumentation, as reasoned polemic; and to consider, in that light, how likely it is that “true believers” will engage with the texts with open minds and an unprejudiced willingness to reflect upon and weigh the arguments on their own terms. My very strong suspicion is that I already know the answer: “true believers” will trash the books with a prejudicial rhetoric and a welter of counter-‘evidence’ that pay no serious attention at all to the arguments made. And this will, of course, give me—as I wade through the Christian rebuttals on the web and in print—a voluminous body of text that, wearing my discourse analyst’s hat, I can use as primary sources in my ongoing examination of (ir)rationality.

In that spirit, from Richard Dawkins’ web site I followed a link to the delightfully titled site, Why Does God Hate Amputees, also at: Why Wont God Heal Amputees, apparently the work of Marshall Brain (of How Stuff Works fame). The core argument is encapsulated in a simple and ingenious experiment:

For this experiment, we need to find a deserving person who has had both of his legs amputated. For example, find a sincere, devout veteran of the Iraqi war, or a person who was involved in a tragic automobile accident.
Now create a prayer circle [who will] pray to God to restore the amputated legs of this deserving person. … If possible, get millions of people all over the planet to join the prayer circle and pray their most fervent prayers. Get millions of people praying in unison for a single miracle for this one deserving amputee. Then stand back and watch.
What is going to happen? Jesus clearly says that if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. He does not say it once—he says it many times in many ways in the Bible.
And yet, even with millions of people praying, nothing will happen.
No matter how many people pray. No matter how sincere those people are. No matter how much they believe. No matter how devout and deserving the recipient. Nothing will happen. The legs will not regenerate. Prayer does not restore the severed limbs of amputees.

Seems reasonable enough, no? One would have thought so. “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:21), “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14), “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7), “Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24)—Jesus doesn’t beat about the bush. And quite frankly, if you can turn water into wine, raise Lazarus from the dead, and feed 5,000 people with a couple of quids worth from the local chippie, then restoring a pair of amputated legs must be a doddle. Wouldn’t you have thought so? So why no regenerated limbs?

Out of curiosity I did a quick Google search on the string whywontgodhealamputees to see how Christians would respond. Fairly near the top of the list was http://www.questioningchristian.com in which one reads:

it must be outlined that amputees, in fact, can not be “healed”; there is nothing to heal in the first place. A lost limb is a dead limb – it is no longer a part of the body. It is simply not God’s job to regrow lost body parts – it would be as illogical as healing a lost tooth, retrieving lost hairs during a haircut, or banishing demons out of a dead body.

… or raising the dead? or turning H20 into CH3CH2OH? So why, then, would God’s healing of amputees be so much more “illogical” than that? The page continues:

In a sense, this is similar as to asking why does God not commit suicide, or temporary or permanently abolish the laws of gravity. The existing world and the scientifically documented and observed phenomena therein, and what most of the evolutionists/atheists would call a natural world mainly consisting of pure matter, is in fact, a highly sophisticated and complex designed universe, where the existent laws of physics and biology were created by the Creator as a definite set of rules and limits for all the living and non-living matter in our world. In essense, what some may call ‘supernatural’ (ie. an amputated hand re-growing by itself in 24 hour time), as opposed to ‘natural’ (ie. that an amputed hand usually never grows back again), ignores the simple fact that a human hand itself is a miracle, as is the host organism; that the life itself, and the laws of nature are so complex and ordered that it can never be replicated or indeed created by use of human knoweledge alone. In short – our world already is a living miracle – a mystery – bearing all the signs of design, and additionally being the definite creation by God (or whomever/whatever the Designer/Creator must have been). It is therefore obvious, that humans should be cautious being as arrogant as demanding that God should constantly break his own laws, as if they were imperfect because of mere human dissatisfaction and presumed self-righteousness. In reality, we are all bound by the existing physical laws, that simply can not be surpassed by science or “impossible” prayers (ie. preayers that implicitly ask God to violate God’s own fine tuned laws). … We are not in the bussiness of asking God violating his own laws merely to satisfy the ego’s of folks like M. Brain.

Uh-huh (but just read it all again to assure yourself that you really did read what you thought you’d read). So, uhm, miracles (“violating his own laws”) don’t happen after all, then? Shame, though, about the fermented-grape-flavoured CH3CH2OH which, I’m sure most of us agree, seems not only a pretty neat trick but also represents a huge financial saving at the wine store.

I can’t help but feel however that Mr Brain (if he is indeed the author) gives a little too much leeway to the opposition. Take a look at his presentation, “How do we know that Christians are delusional?”, below:

The author proceeds by first showing how the claims made by Mormons are so outrageously fantastical that they cannot possibly be true: Mormons are, to the rest of the world, delusional. He then does the same for Islam: the claims made by Islam are so outrageously fantastical that they cannot possibly be true, and consequently Muslims too are, to the rest of the world, delusional. So far so good. Christians will have no difficulties in accepting that Mormons and Muslims (and Hindus and Sikhs and whoever else) are delusional, since they already believe it to be the case. He then goes on to make the same case for Christianity, summing up as follows:

“How do we know that Christians are delusional? Because the Christian story is just like the stories of the Mormons and the Muslims. … If you are a Christian you should now be able to see what is happening. As a Christian you completely reject the Mormon and the Muslim story. Why? Because they are fairy tales and everyone knows it. You know that every other religion is delusion. Now simply recognize the obvious: the Christian religion is exactly the same. All the people inside the Christian ‘bubble’ are just as delusional.”

The Christian response is predictable: of course Mormons and Muslims are deluded (and they’ll in all likelihood make some reference to the Biblical admonishment to ‘beware false prophets’) but everything that Christians believe is true. Why? because it says so in the Bible. (Take my word for it—I’ve had too many doorstep conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses.)  Can they get away with that? yes, of course they can. For the author (and watch the presentation again if you need to) has been talking about perceptions—”Christians perceive Mormons and Muslims as delusional” and hence anyone who is not a Christian perceives Christians as equally delusional—rather than actualities: “Here is substantive and incontrovertible evidence to support the contention that Christians (along with Mormons and Muslims) are actually delusional”.

One might argue that the author has in effect, for the “true believer”, performed the equivalent of the three cup trick: the glittering prize is concealed under one of the three upturned cups and, they’ll tell you, it ain’t the cups marked ‘Mormon’ and ‘Muslim’.

The fact of the matter (and again I speak from long experience—but I imagine this may well have been your experience too) is in any case that True Believers are impervious to rational argument; the error of the rational atheist is to naively fail to appreciate that fundamental truth. Believers may, however, for a moment be made to feel a little uncomfortable and a tad flustered by being challenged on their own inconsistencies, and that is the moment to go for the kill.


Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press. ISBN: 0593055489. [Amazon]

Dennett, D.C. (2006) Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. London: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN: 0141017775. [Amazon]

Harris, S. (2006). The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. London: Free Press. ISBN: 0743268091. [Amazon]

Harris, S. (2007). Letter to a Christian Nation. London: Bantam Press. ISBN: 0593058976. [Amazon]

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