Home / Dialogues and Trialogues / On the Seeming Impossibility of Civil Dialogue with Atheists

On the Seeming Impossibility of Civil Dialogue with Atheists

Has anyone else noticed that civil dialogue with atheists, even more than religious fundamentalists, seems to be nearly impossible?

I left a brief comment to a bitter cartoon that an atheist I know, and care about, posted on FB that compared life to a video game in which you would always be killed no matter what you did. I said something like, "Well, the idea of life as futile is nothing new. Camus recognized this as he traced it back to the Myth of Sisyphus. Given this point of view, what motivates you to work so hard at a number of things (the atheist in question was working his way through law school) ?

 Anonymous Atheist: I don't think your seriously interested in my motives. and I am not interested in entering a philosophical conversation in a quasi-public forum. But for what its worth; Truth, beauty, and wisdom.Tuesday
Jonathan: Fair enough, and I agree facebook is not the right forum. If you are interested in a more thoughtful challenge, and I understand you may not be, I would ask if you would read one chapter from my recent book. It's one one near-death experience. Something that is often paired with atheism, but doesn't need to be is neruorological materialism. Findings from NDE research,and some other areas of research, demonstrate as conclusively as anything can be demonstrated that a functioning brain is not a prerequisite for consciousness.

That throws the atheist notion that belief in an afterlife is foolish into serious doubt. At least read the Pamela Reynolds case in that cchapter. I'll send you a link to a PDF

Anonymous Atheist: Until your speculative musings on consciousness can be reproduced with scientific accuracy that is peer reviewed (and review-able) I am not interested. But I would encourage to search for evidence.

Otherwise, we're merely quibbling about speculative hypothets, which is not something I intend to use my time doing.

(I sent him the PDF of my book)

Jonathan: Many events that science investigates cannot be reproduced on demand, but this case involved some scientific rigor.
(I'm referring to the Pam Reynolds case which can also be found in https://zaporacle.com/life-lessons-from-the-living-dead/ )
The findings of the Dutch prospective NDE studies which can be found in cardiologist Pim Van Lommel's book Consciousness Beyond Life were published in Lancet, a peer reviewed medical journal. I reference Von Lommel's work with the Dutch study extensively.

That you assume they are "speculative musings" (when they are actually empirically based) reveals a common set of prejudices known as "scientism." My challenge to you, when you have time, is to read that chapter and remember that your philosophy is philosophy. It is not peer reviewed science, but closer to a set of musings. What I just asked you to read is far more empirical.

Anonymous Atheist: I did not claim that my philosophy was not philosophy. Nor did I claim it was peer reviewed. Lets not pretend I did.

and I skimmed van Lommel's article in lancet. His finding was the a mere 18% of people during cardiac arrest experienced an NDE, and that most of those died soon thereafter.

No where does is mention the cause of NDE's except that it is an "unknown mechanism." He then goes over several of the speculations that some people have as to what causes NDE. But again, these were, and are, speculations.

and just so we're clear Empirical, according to merriam websters is "originating in or based on observation or experiment" and "capable of being confirmed, verified, or disproved by observation or experiment."

He mentions at the end that there is a "lack of evidence for any other theories for NDE, the thus far assumed, but never proven, concept that consciousness and memories are localised in the brain." In essence, you don't have an explanation so my speculative musing, somehow, wins by default is logically inconsistent. If not outright incoherent.

I understand that this NDE thing really fascinates you, and you think that if I believed it then somehow I would be "cured" of my athiesm. Thanks, but no thanks.

Please do not waste my time by bringing this up to me anymore.

Jonathan Zap: You don't seem to notice the empirical evidence given in the very chapter, the Pam Reynolds case for example, that points affirmatively toward consciousness as nonlocal and not in the brain. That is not a musing, but a well evidenced solid conclusion. I won't bring it up again, but I'll leave you one last thought. What I, and some other well-informed non-religious, non-theist people have consistently observed is that dialogue with atheists is difficult, even painful, because there is a kind of rude dismissiveness, as if anyone with another point of view is some sort of superstitious rube wasting their time. Psychologically, this looks to be me like a fundamentalism (which can be secular or religious) where someone holds an absolutist postion and to even question it is offensive. I won't bring it up again, but I will be available if you should ever want to rise to the challenge of Socratic dialogue, which can certainly be aggressive, but where dismissiveness doesn't shut down a rigorous exchange of ideas.

Anonymous Atheist: I think we can dismiss anything [he’s referring to Pam Reynolds] heard during her supposed NDE, outright. Medical 'brain death' and literal cessation of all brain activity are two different things. It is, at the very least, possible that there was some modicum of brain activity that connected to some deep subconsciousness that she experienced as a near death experience. Or at the very least your paper has not excluded it as a possibility. Aside from a brief bloc quote by a neuro-surgeon (not a neurologist or neuro scientist mind you) who says he does not "think" it could be explained by based on experiences in that surgery room.

The fact that she was able to describe the 'bone saw' warrants a bit more scrutiny. I'll grant, for sake of argument, that she had been under general anesthesia for 90 mins with eyes taped shut and did not see any of the surgical instruments that were used on her. Granted. Do you really expect me to believe that the most reasonable (and logical) explanation for her being able to describe a bone saw is an out of body experience? Is it not possible that she saw such an instrument at some time before in her life? At another hospital with a relative? Was it not described to her before her own surgery? Did she do her own research on it? Did she see it a hollywood movie or television show (plastic surgey is a popular topic among 39 year old women)? Again your paper does not exclude these possibilities aside from a one paragraph bloc quote I mentioned earlier.

If I understand correctly then what you are arguing is that the most likely and reasonable explanation of her ability to describe a "midas rex" bone saw is an out of body, non-localized experienced consciousness? That is what is the most likely explanation. Really?

Her describing it is one form of evidence, certainly, but it is certainly not empirical evidence (see merriam websters definition above). If it were empirical evidence of what you claim it is I would think that this would be a HUGE finding. Effectively ending any speculation of life after death debate. Scholars of many fields would be interested researching this. It seems rather telling that you are spending your time bringing this up to me, someone who is not qualified in neurology, neuro-science, theology, or philosophy.

(I should mention/note at this point that I have brought up quite a few hypotheticals, which I stated earlier I had no interest in quibbling over. Apparently I was wrong about wanting to quibble over them, but I was correct in stating that they would be quibbled over)

Next, you may be right that I am rude, and dismissive. I'll grant you that. But that point is an ad hominem argument, which is to say that it does not address the real criticism; which is that your claim has not met its burden of proof sufficient to make me believe it.

As long as we're trading barbs here, I'll let you know that your point that atheists are the real fundamentalists is not new, nor creative, not interesting.

Fundamentalism (according to merriam websters) is "a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles." Lets not get bogged down in whether or not atheism is a movement or not, for sake of argument and brevity I'll assume it is. I'll also grant, for sake of argument, that it is an attitude of strict adherence to a basic set of principles, namely that you should believe only what the evidence shows and what you can prove. Or if you prefer, a strict adherence to the scientific method

If that is how you want to define fundamentalist athiest fine. I'll own that. But I would point out that if do not need to follow the evidence then you can believe whatever you want, and all beliefs should be treated as of equal value. Which is absurd, and unworkable in practice.

Jonathan Zap: There were many other aspects of the case you didn't take on, the specific things she heard, the technicians standing at her feet talking about finding a vein in her leg, etc. But before I go further, I want to point out a couple of things:

I have no desire to offend you whatsoever, quite the opposite.

Also, I'm not try to "cure" your atheism. I don't personally talk or even think about "God." To me, even the word seems nonsensical and irritating. I have long felt that this word is forever contaminated by anthropomorphisms, historical and cognitive scar tissue and clap trap such that it is a linguistic radioactive tar baby as far as I'm concerned.

I am interested in showing you, and others, that the position of neurological materialism, that consciousness—if admitted to exist at all —many neurological materialists like Daniel Dennett deny such a thing exists— is reducible to an epiphenomenon or secondary effect of biochemical process in the brain is wrong and definitively disproven by a number of findings from NDE research and some other fields. Although many atheists side with NM, there is absolutely no reason why they have to be linked. One of my interests in NDE came from my own spontaneous OBEs and other experiences that gave me first hand encounters with another dimension of life than what materialism can account for. Of course, I don't expect that to prove anything to anyone else; it is just to let you know my position is not merely a theoretical construct. I was raised by scientists, my dad is an atheist, so was my grandfather, I'm fairly anti-religious, and another dimension of life does not require a God.

Something else that an atheist in good standing does not need to team up with is scientism. An aspect of scientism is that it regards certain paranormal phenomena, for reasons too complex to explain here, (see my friend George Hansen's book, The Trickster and the Paranormal) with irrational anger. It steps off the scientific method in its irrational antipathy to this sort of research. It will often do research by proclamation and instead of investigating the unexplained, explains away the uninvestigated. It's unresearched proclamations are often shifting, shoot-from-the-hip notions. A study of parapsychological experiments showed that the majority ( I think it was about 88%) used at least double-blind methodology whereas for all scientific experiments involving human subjects the figure was about 28%. Parapsychologists that I've met, like Garret Modde lhttp://ecee.colorado.edu/fac_staff/personnel_pages/moddel.html a CU professor, physicist and engineer, use better than double-blind methodology and incredible rigor in their paranormal research. You asked for peer reviewed published material and I pointed out that Van Lomel's work is published in the highly prestigious journal Lancet. A top flight neuro-surgeon is quoted by the BBC and you raise doubts because he is not a neurologist? Do you really think that a top neurosurgeon doesn't know about as much or more as a neurologist? From what I understand a neuro-surgeon is like a neurologist who can also do surgery.

What I'm getting at is that if you examine your attitude you'll see that there is an opposition to this material that is not entirely based on logic, reason or science. Whether or not consciousness is reducible to neurological function is a key question that has vast implications. I think I've given you enough evidence for you, or any reasonable person, to conclude that NM is a failed theory, or at the very least needs to be seriously questioned. If you follow through on this one issue, the failure of NM, it may take you to some interesting and liberating places. I propose putting atheism off to the side and focusing in specifically on NM.

Anonymous Atheist: To answer you questions, yes, I question everyone's credentials, thats what a CV is for (evidence). Would you rather I just assume that your assertion that he is a top flight neuro surgeon is exact and true? And that the context of the bloc quote you use was the that of trying to disprove 'neurological materialism'?

Which, by the way, seems to be a concept that you invented. So in that sense I agree its absurd.

Next, it depends on the neuro scientist, and the neurologist he or she is compared to. I'm sure your average, probably even lower performing, neuro surgeon knows more neuro chemistry and neuro science than I do. But what I think and know is NOT THE POINT.

Thats great that you have a single article, that you cite and readily reference. However nowhere in that article by Van Lommen did I see the phrase "neurological materialism" which leads me to think further you made it up.

Thanks for letting me know I should check my attitude, and that you think I'm being irrational. I believe you that those were not intended as offensive.

Please believe me that I mean no offense when I say that your tin-foil hat theory real nifty. But the the fact that your bothering me (and from what I can tell, anyone else on the internet who will listen) leads me to believe this is all you will amount to


[The link leads to a photo of what appears to be a young homeless man holding a cardboard sign that reads "Time Traveler Help! Need money for a new flux capicator"

Good luck getting published somewhere respectable.

And with that the anonymous atheist whom I had met in person two or three times, whom I had dinner with and a great, agreeable one-on-one conversation, who on another occasion had been over to my house for a very pleasant dinner and a movie,  and whose brother I had been close friends with for four years, defriended me from facebook.

Among many of the new atheists, or among many of the materialist skeptics, you often find not the wish to have a debate, and to win the debate, but the wish for there to actually be no debate. The thing I find corrupt is that many of these people  don't want there to be an opposing side. They define their position as illuminated and other positions as delusory. And when you define the other side as delusion, it's almost wishing that no debate at all take place. You don't want to prevail, you simply don't want there to be a debate.  I find that very dispiriting because, in that sense, they've defined a new kind of anti-intellectualism.  —Mitch Horowitz, http://www.realitysandwich.com/state_occult_2013

Note added July 25, 2013: There was a sad, hopeful and meaningful epilogue to this story. The good news: I was refriended by the anonymous atheist. The bad news: We reconnected over the suicide of his brother at age 24. Death and tragedy can sometimes awaken us to what connects us and the flimsyness of what often causes us to become alienated from each other. 

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  1. Jonathan, this reminds of the email exchanges I’ve had with astronomers and Maya scholars. It’s interesting that the three most aggressive and illogical critics of my work are all very probably atheists and definitely all are scientific materialists. Anthony Aveni, for example, made gross errors in his critique of precession research. He actually acknowledged his error when corrected by a Phd-holding colleague. Aveni’s error impinges on correctly understanding my work on 2012, and was blindly adopted by other scholars (Matthew Restall and Amara Solari) in their book which “debunks” my astronomy. I’ve tried to communicate with them about Aveni’s fallacy, and they have refused to respond let alone correct their blind parroting of Aveni. There is a serious failure of rational logic in their behavior.

  2. That atheism is near-synonymous with both materialism (or philosophical naturalism) and scientism (modern empiricism, or the elevation of science to a infallible and exclusive path to truth) is an open secret to any intellectual. Likewise that atheists are usually rude, arrogant, and defensive is common knowledge to anyone who has investigated world-views different from their own. I know that not all atheists are that way, merely that all of them that operate in the public sphere are, but that still means that, statistically, they are probably the majority. To me, though, the big unasked question is not “are most atheists materialists” or “are most atheists of poor character” but rather WHY many atheists, especially the most vocal, are rude materialists. It would be interesting to apply scientific method-style reasoning to that question. All we would have to do is 1) collect and generalize data 2) formulate hypothesis, 3) make predictions based on those hypothesis 4) construct an experiment to test our predictions and either have it validated or falsified 6) rethink or replace our hypothesis (if it was falsified) or publish our results (if it was validated). What would be your first theory? By the way I have never thought that consciousness could be reduced to neurology due to the fact that you perceive the brain through consciousness and also that, to my knowledge, no serious attempt has been made to explain a mechanism whereby consciousness itself could arise from a material system, but plenty of people have tried to explain the senses in terms of consciousness. Anytime I try to explain my philosophical thoughts about consciousness to someone it soon becomes clear that they think consciousness simply means being awake, it’s good to hear someone talking about pure awareness for a change. I have a lot of criticisms of the new age movement but if there is one thing they deserve credit for it’s being impressed by consciousness and the sheer mystery of existence, some things I think are generally missing from both christians and atheists.

    • Extremely interesting and perceptive remarks and I do have an idea of how this phenomenon—the over-the-top rudeness of atheists—could be studied with some degree of scientific methodology. A woman atheist reports on the extreme rudeness and misogyny in the “skeptic”/atheist community in Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/10/sexism_in_the_skeptic_community_i_spoke_out_then_came_the_rape_threats.html One aspect that seems the most obvious is that there is an intense pridefulness that atheists/skeptics feel about their stance, a type of intellectual machismo. We are the tough guy realists pulling the masks off these deluded fools and shattering their idols. It becomes very clear listening to them how much they need straw man adversaries to tear down. I am reminded of the Onion article, “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door to Door Trying to Shock People” http://www.theonion.com/articles/marilyn-manson-now-going-doortodoor-trying-to-shoc,459/. Without foils their aggression and macho stance has no where to go. It needs something to push back on and focus its aggression, because without that, in a world where everyone was an atheist let’s say, they would be left silently ruminating with their existential dread. But so long as there is at least one person to push back on they feel clothed in the coldness and brutality of the universe as they see it and by identifying with it they feel removed from being its victims. It’s like a heavy metal fan who feels empowered by the dark side of the force and ready to mock and shock believers. If they really encountered the dark side, it would eat them alive, but by identifying with it, and dressing themselves up in it in safe situations, they feel strengthened by that which they desperately fear. The oppressed is always in the act of becoming the oppressor. They have a kind of Stockholm syndrome going on where they come to identify with the brutality of the universe and want to be its avatars instead of its victims.
      Their stance is also a type of extreme egocentrism. It is the ego, not the Self, that fears death and is aggressively ignorant of the spiritual dimension. Their stance, and especially if they have comrades-in-arms and people to fight, strengthens egocentrism against the tidal pull of the unconscious, the archetypal Feminine, and the boundary dissolution of death.
      I read recently of experiments where psychologists wanted to determine how people were affected in certain parameters when anxiety about death was stirred up. They had an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group was treated identically except they were shown something or asked something that would invoke whatever it is they felt about death. Perhaps they were shown a picture of a funeral and the control group wasn’t. Then they were asked to judge some fabricated court case perhaps involving a defendant from an ethnically different group then themselves. Those who had had their death anxiety stirred up were much harsher in sentencing an ethnically other defendant from what I remember. Their xenophobia was increased. So the experiment would have to involve people who didn’t realize they were selected for atheism and a similar set up. Then they could be tested to see how death anxiety altered their level of aggression, attitude toward women, etc.

      • Prue the Prune Poodle

        Atheism is a comfort when we fear god
        Perhaps the aggression is a way of banishing these fears
        I once read a book The Tiger’s Fang that said the lord of each heaven must claim absolute sovereignty
        Atheism is another drug in the pantheistic pharmacopia
        it has it’s harmonious and disharmonious aspects

  3. Anonymous Atheist: “and I skimmed van Lommel’s article in lancet. His finding was the a mere 18% of people during cardiac arrest experienced an NDE, and that most of those died soon thereafter.”

    You’ll have to pardon him, he’s going by the classic phrase: “We all know that it takes at least 20% of crows to be white to disprove the notion that all crows are black.”

    I recommend all the books and reading already suggested in this article, and also Robert McLuhan’s recent Randi’s Prize: What sceptics say about the paranormal, why they’re wrong, and why it matters. Here’s McLuhan in an interview I found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wlwCOci_Dg He starts talking about the book itself around the 10:30 mark.

  4. Rupert McWiseman

    Hi Jonathan,

    This is my first contribution to this site, and although this thread is a few weeks old, I found it very interesting.

    In all honesty, I don’t see that “Anonymous Atheist” was being in any way offensive or unreasonable in his (I will assume the male gender) views or in the way he argued his case. There are far more offensive and intolerant individuals than this fellow, who seems to have conducted himself in a gentlemanly manner – albeit that he came over as a tad irritated by the exchange of views.

    However, one area in which he is clearly very confused is that of his atheism, as this quotation shows:

    “Lets not get bogged down in whether or not atheism is a movement or not, for sake of argument and brevity I’ll assume it is. I’ll also grant, for sake of argument, that it is an attitude of strict adherence to a basic set of principles, namely that you should believe only what the evidence shows and what you can prove. Or if you prefer, a strict adherence to the scientific method”

    The “Anonymous Atheist” thinks that atheism is somehow involved with “evidence”. This is not the case at all; atheism is defined either as ‘disbelief in God’ or as ‘the assertion that God does not exist”.

    The reasons for a person adhering to atheism are rarely anything to do with “evidence”. When I question what evidence of God my atheist friends want, they usually say something like “winning the lottery after I pray for it” – they are confusing God with Santa Claus.

    I also point out to them that evidence comes from conducting research, not from a priori assumptions. To date, none of my atheist friends has been able to point me in the direction of any scientific programme, in any research institution, that is looking for evidence of God.

    No, the reasons for being an atheist are usually NOTHING to do with evidence and EVERYTHING to do with psychology. Many atheists were raised in a religious fundamentalist environment; their atheism is a way of asserting their independence from (and superiority to) their overbearing parents or teachers.

    Other atheists are terrified of the notion of life after death – maybe because of a “hellfire” upbringing, or because the notion of being reincarnated as (for example) a one-legged peasant in an Indian slum is not a pleasant prospect.

    Some atheists want to feel hip and trendy and in with the in-crowd; atheism today defines you as smart. ( In my youth, you had to embrace Communism to be trendy.)

    Yet others, with careers in science, feel that a staunchly atheistic persona is essential in order to be accepted by one’s peers, or to be considered for promotion – or even to get a paper published.

    No, atheism is rarely about evidence: indeed most atheists would probably feel quite threatened by evidence.

    • Thank you for such a well-reasoned and eloquent comment which seems to come from a depth of life experience and perhaps the haunted memory of all those unfinished conversations we’ve all had with those who are intelligent, but blinded by apriori assumptions—those who choose to live in cold and lonely realty tunnels which they mistake for all of creation.

      • Rupert McWiseman

        Hi Jonathan,

        Yes, you are quite correct – my views on atheism are not a knee-jerk reaction but the result of many years of looking at both sides of the argument.

        There are several major problems with atheism. The first, mentioned above, is that atheists often feel they hold their belief on the basis of “evidence”, whereas in many cases they avoid looking at evidence altogether and their faith has a wholly emotional basis.

        The second problem is that so many atheists seem to think that if one is not an atheist, the only other metaphysical option is dogmatic belief in an organised religion – i.e. the choice is EITHER atheism OR Christian/Islamic/Judaic fundamentalism – to include all the “crazy stuff” like virgin births, loaves and fishes, burning bushes, 72 virgins etc.

        Other options, such as panentheism or Perennial Philosophy, never seem to get a look-in; atheists commonly refer to God as “the magic man in the sky” – clearly their concept of God is stuck in the Middle Ages.

        The third major problem is the one you address in your closing sentence. I am convinced that most atheists simply haven’t thought their worldview through properly.

        For example, atheists seem to believe that their lives can be “meaningful”, and that they can subscribe to some sort of objective morality, in a universe which – if their worldview is correct – admits of neither.

        An excellent account of this, is the book “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” by hardline atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg. Professor Rosenberg quite rightly takes to task those atheists who believe that they can have a meaningful life in a meaningless universe, or who think that there is any ultimate basis for morality.

        He argues that these notions are delusional – to see “meaning” in a pointless universe – to ascribe some sort of pattern to an accidental, pre-programmed existence – is merely the equivalent of seeing the face of Elvis in a bowl of cornflakes. If it gives you a nice cosy glow, that’s fine, but don’t kid yourself that your idea of a “meaningful life” is anything other than a comfort-blanket.

        Rosenberg is one of the few atheists who tells it like it is. And at the end of the book, he advises readers of his solution to living a pointless existence in an uncaring, mechanical cosmos – TAKE PROZAC!

        Who on earth would want to subscribe to this bleak, nihilistic, black-iron-prison philosophy unless they KNEW it to be an incontovertable fact? Wouldn’t most people in their right minds want to examine all and every piece of evidence pointing towards a purposeful universe, before giving in to hopeless Prozac-fuelled stoicism? Or to admit that evidence of purpose might be available to the scientists of 1000, 10,000 or 100,000 years hence?

        Atheists may argue that just because a purposeful universe sounds nice, it doesn’t mean it’s true. Yes, but neither does it mean it’s not true! And given that we do not, and cannot, know the ultimate answers about our place in the universe; and given that God may be a delusion but atheistic belief in living a meaningful life in a meaningless cosmos is most CERTAINLY a delusion, why not choose the positive, life-affirming delusion?

        “I have set before you both life and death. Choose life, therefore.”

  5. Note added July 25, 2013: There was a sad, hopeful and meaningful epilogue to this story. The good news: I was refriended by the anonymous atheist. The bad news: We reconnected over the suicide of his brother at age 24. Death and tragedy can sometimes awaken us to what connects us and the flimsyness of what often causes us to become alienated from each other. 

  6. Good Afternoon All

    There are two 'hard core' atheists in my life. One of them is a Facebook friend who, like the example in the article, does not want  a debate, responding with platitudes like: 'you're so wrong on every level, Neil'. The other lives over the road so can't escape from debate so readily. He has a keen scientific mind which impresses me, but when we stray on to fringe subjects he starts interjecting words such as 'garbage', 'rubbish', 'hippies' and 'fairy dust' into the conversation. I suppose whenever we debate with someone with a very different world view we are embodying the world view that they originally rebelled against when finding their own – hence the friction. 

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