Emotional Problems

We all have reasons why we believe the things we do, ranging from what we would admit to being vacuous, to what we believe to be well grounded — and varying degrees in between.  Of course how others view our reasons is often very different from our own assessment.  Every once in a while, however, a double standard sneaks in when making our assessments.  We all try to avoid creating double standards, but often it goes unnoticed and must be pointed out.

In a recent post at SomeMusician.wordpress.com, Oscar Rivera laments the failing health Christopher Hitchens, a prominent outspoken atheist whom he admires.  Hitchens is said to be by Rivera, “the main reason why I am an atheist today”.  I’m sure Hitchens is the main reason a lot of people are atheists today.  What is so persuasive about Hitchens?  “[I]t was his use of rhetoric, his prose, his syntax, his ability to strike at the heart of any issue and equivocate it to a layman” says Rivera.  In the comment section I noted my criticism of Hitchens style, that he argues to emotions.  To which Rivera responded, “The appeal that I find in Hitchens is his pure use of rhetoric…I’m starting to become of the mindset that the only way to convince (or at least plant a seed of doubt in whatever you believe) people on religious topics is to appeal to emotion.”

Please be assured, I am not suggesting Rivera is an atheist solely for emotional reasons, but rather is one arrow in his quiver of reasons, as he himself notes, “[I]f I want logical inferences, I read Hume, Russell, Spinoza, and even Rousseau (sometimes). If I want scientific knowledge, I merely pick up my genetics/biology/chemistry textbooks or read articles that are published.”  I actually respect Rivera, and admire his decorum and charitable attitude when discussing issues with those with whom he disagrees.

But his post got me thinking.  The majority of the arguments Hitchens makes for rejecting theism are appeals to emotion.  Hitchens and the rest of the “New Atheists” are notorious for their disdain of religion, which generally rest on emotional dismissals. 

  • The existence of evil in the world–natural and man caused
  • The existence of Hell
  • The moral atrocities recorded in the Bible or other Holy writ at the behest of God
  • The moral atrocities committed by religious adherents in the name of their God
  • The idea of religious exclusivism–monotheistic arrogance
  • The idea of moral objectivity–religious adherents being morally judgemental

These are but a few of the reasons a large swath of skeptics give for rejecting God.  And Hitchens is known for his rhetorical ability to convey the message ‘God makes me sad, therefore he does not exist’.  Consider this famous quote by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion:

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. (pg. 31)

However, what I find suspicious is that appeals to emotion is a complaint skeptics have for why people believe in God.  Claims by those who believe in God are often dismissed by the skeptic because it is often thought that Theists only hold their belief because:

  • Belief is due to upbringing–Parent, church leader influence
  • Belief in God is comforting, consoling, gives meaning and purpose to life
  • Fear of Hell
  • Superstitious–believe claims of supernatural events
  • Need to believe in something
  • An emotional crutch

It would seem there is a double standard at work.  It is acceptable to reject a belief in God for emotional reasons, but unacceptable to accept belief in God for emotional reasons.  In most of my discussions with skeptics about the existence of God, the line of argumentation regularly reverts back to a version of one or more of the emotional rejections listed above.  It is safe to say none of the reasons above, either for or against belief are valid reasons for either position.  The important question is: Is what you believe true.  Not: how does your belief make you feel.


  1. It is interesting that the atheist conceded the rhetoric / emotion bit. I like to point out how the 13 Gospel presentations in the book of Acts don’t even mention the word love, they just present facts and reasons for the physical resurrection of Jesus and why we should trust in him for salvation.

    • I bring this up whenever I discuss evangelism with Christians who evangelize with the dreaded “Ask Jesus into your heart”, and other such emotive witness techniques. I’m not a fan of referencing emotions at all. I don’t trust them, and I don’t trust people who trust them to think clearly no matter what their worldview.

  2. Yep. Pastor James MacDonald had a good phrase: Emotions make a great caboose but a lousy engine. Major life decisions — and what could be more major than your view on eternal life? — should be based on reason.

  3. I think I may have cleared up some of the disconnect in my latest reply, but I would like to write it here as well.

    As I have previously said, Hitchens does not proffer anything new. To be sure, there has not been really any new arguments for the validity of a non-belief for quite some time. I fully submit that Hitchens’ popularity stems from his appeal to emotion. A distinction must be made, however, between admiring philosophers like Hume and Russell and debaters like Hitchens; they belong in separate categories.

    If you would permit, I can demonstrate in a somewhat belabored illustration:

    Say a theist goes to a debate. I have already said before that people, irrespective of religious/non-religious affiliation, do not normally go to a debate to hear the opposition. We go to a debate to get affirmation of our world view. Now, this theist goes to a debate that Hitchens is participating in. Under normal circumstances, the logical approach that most atheists use of logical reasoning will not cause the theist to question. Hitchens understands that one must appeal to emotion in order to draw that first step of questioning. Once this is started, then I would suggest that the theist read Russell, Spinoza, etc. You see, though, that the two categories serve separate functions. If it were not for Hitchens, many theists, like myself in another life, would not have even begun to question the beliefs. I would merely try to find a justification. This appeal to emotion is especially important in those that do not have rational justification for their beliefs. It is clear that one who has not thought logically about what he believes will simply ignore the logic and reason that is presented in it’s opposition.

    Now, for those who think they have philosophical/evidentiary justification and for those who have actually thought about what they believe, Hitchens is merely someone who appeals to emotions. This person would do well to simply read the great thinkers. However, the vast majority of cases will need this appeal to emotion in order to simply start this process of questioning.

    Most of the arguments you provided that atheists use do not serve to disprove a deity, they serve to show apparent contradictions in the character of said deity. In fact, most of the arguments you provided (evil in the world, hell, atrocities in O.T.) I don’t even use unless the theist brings up the morality of an atheist.

    “The important question is: Is what you believe true. Not: how does your belief make you feel.

    I completely agree. I recently wrote that even if the god of the Bible existed, I would have a hard to submitting myself simply because of the character. I then admitted that I would probably follow out of fear of hell. I try not to revert to emotions in a debate on the existence of a god, but it is almost unavoidable when a theist tries to argue the point of objective morality.

    To be absolutely clear: the appeal to emotion should not be used with regards to solidifying a world view. One needs evidentiary and logical affirmations. The appeal to emotion should only be used to either a) begin a process of questioning or b) when arguing the point of morality (which is the whole point of that topic, anyway)

    • I fully understood your position and included your quote about thinkers you’d reference for “reasoned” argumentation as well as text books. I think I also mentioned that you were not an atheist because of emotional reasons. I only used your blog content because it was the “inspiration” for my post, and was not trying to suggest there are only emotional appeals made by you or atheists as a whole. This was a general treatment of one tactic among many Atheists use when arguing against the existence of God.

      I also realize that Atheists generally do not officially argue the emotional objections to disprove God. However, though their words concede the objections do not disprove God, they argue the points as if they do. I have noted in the past that in my dealings with Atheists, they procede through the discussion as if “Christianity is false, therefore God does not exist” as well as “the Bible is unreliable, therefore God does not exist” are true statements.

      I further understand Atheists in America will predominantly encounter Christians, and therefore the Judeo-Christian idea of God will be the one on trial. But Atheists tend to argue as if the Judeo-Christian worldview is the only one they need to defeat in order to justify their atheism.

  4. But Atheists tend to argue as if the Judeo-Christian worldview is the only one they need to defeat in order to justify their atheism.

    Who argues this?

    The people telling us that we shouldn’t be atheists are, by and large, Christians. We address Christianity predominantly to address or preempt their points. In majority-Muslim countries, there are atheists arguing against Islam. (I can point you to a couple blogs of this sort, if you’d like.)

  5. John,
    I’d like to preface this by saying that I am not a huge fan of Hitchens from the point of view of giving good evidence. I also freely admit that his many “Hitch-slaps” are amusing on an emotional level. Yet I think that Hitchens is far too course, and his arguments are far too simplistic, to be considered useful. His brand of argument is what leads many atheists into the depths of self-satisfied arrogance that many find so distasteful; and I want to clarify this point by saying that this attitude of arrogance is liberally borrowed from religion itself.
    This is not to say that all religious people are arrogant, but one must, on honest inspection, admit that this attitude is pervasive in religious circles.
    I find that the “Hitchens atheist” is the most likely to give ammunition to that camp of theists who insist that atheism is a “religion”, or a “faith position”. I have read “God Is Not Great” as well as listened to many of his debates and lectures. I would not want any person to “become” an atheist because of Hitchens. I also don’t think that many people do. Just as Oscar alluded to, many people do get the first sense of inquietude from the arguments of Hitchens, and through the works of philosophers and others come to see the reason behind atheism.

    Just as you, John, would not want someone to come to God on emotion and end their journey there, content that they have all the answers; I wouldn’t want someone to be a skeptic based on appeals to emotion and end their journey there; content that they are justified.

    There is no double-standard here. Unless the atheist claims that there are no bad reasons to be an atheist. Yet they do not. Atheists are free to claim there are bad reasons to be a Christian or a theist, and theists are free to claim there are bad reasons to be an atheist. Surely you can grasp that point, John?

    I have to assume that if any theist can understand that emotional appeals are both a necessity and neither here nor there in regards to whether a claim is true, it is John Barron Jr.. Don’t prove me wrong here John.
    Hitchens can be a personality that “breaks the chains”, but you still have to run for freedom.

    • I think I may not have been clear given the responses. This commentary is not a criticism of Hitchens per se, but is rather a general treatment of atheists who argue their position of atheism is justified because of some of the reasons above, but also criticize theists for their belief because of some of the reasons on the flip side.

      I’m not trying to suggest atheists as a whole argue this way, but there are many who do. Appeals to emotion have their place, but I think those appeals are better made “in house”.

  6. I think you have been very clear John, unless you would like to clarify.

    You are saying that not all atheists accuse theists of emotional reasoning but those that do are wrong to do so because some atheists use emotional reasoning.

    That is what you are saying. And I’m telling you you’re wrong.

    • Not exactly. What I am saying is there are some atheists who argue using emotional reasons and many of the same argue that christians hold to their beliefs for emotional reasons and do so invalidly, thus holding a double standard, either unknowingly or unashamedly.

  7. Emotions are obviously a spark to reflect on your beliefs. I think that all anyone is claiming here is that Hitchens and others like him provide that spark. Upon feeling inspired to examine their beliefs, they then looked at evidence and logic. Where is the double standard?

    Many Christians will talk about how Christianity changed their life, how the Christians they know are such nice, caring people, how sermons or hymns feel emotionally powerful, etc. … and then they stop. These are not mere inspirations for them to examine the evidence. They are the “evidence,” to them. Emotional impact = truth, according to their argument. (Not all Christians argue this way. But the atheists you speak of are criticizing this approach.)

    • The double standard is when the emotional objections are used by atheists in support of their view, then reject a theists emotional argument as invalid.

      I am in full agreement with you that many, perhaps even most Christians believe their emotional experiences are actual evidence, and those christians are wrong. They are also the most likely to be susceptible to the atheists emotional arguments.

  8. How Did I Get Here? says:


    Leaving the emotional content/discontent of believers and the non-believers to one side, how do you deal with the logical fallacies surrounding the tenets of Christianity?


    • Let me see if I understand you. It sounds to me like you are saying, disregard this particular commentary, and address a conpletely different topic. Is that correct?

      I don’t go off topic like that. Perhaps you either have a comment dealing with this particular issue, or contact me by email using the contact info and we can discuss your concerns there or perhaps you would suggect a specific issue that I might post about. Otherwise, stay on topic.

  9. How Did I Get Here? says:

    That is correct, in part, though it also a segue into a realm within the same category or critiquing.

    ‘The important question is: Is what you believe true. Not: how does your belief make you feel.’

    It reads that you think appeals to emotion are of no consequence. As if you still feel the meat of the subject has as of yet not been reached.

    Can you elaborate more on the above, and express where you think the true debate lies in regards to anyone taking an opposing stance to belief in God?

    • I think the atheist has an uphill battle as far as arguing for their position. But like any subject matter which is up for debate, one must offer evidence–be it physical or philosophical–for their position and against their opposition. Simply using rhetotic to elicit a picket line like reaction just doesn’t cut it when debating a particular issue.

  10. John,
    You claim that there is a double-standard, that atheists appeal to emotional arguments yet will not accept those same kinds of arguments from Christians.
    Yet look at your examples:
    >The existence of evil in the world–natural and man caused
    > The existence of Hell
    > The moral atrocities recorded in the Bible or other Holy writ at the behest of God
    > The moral atrocities committed by religious adherents in the name of their God
    > The idea of religious exclusivism–monotheistic arrogance
    > The idea of moral objectivity–religious adherents being morally judgemental

    These are all valid arguments against an omni-benevolent, omnipotent, omni-present God. Which is a very specific claim made by Christians. Are you saying that an atheist ought not to argue against these assertions? That they should just accept the twisted, unintelligible, and unreasonable theology used to square these competing concepts, because talking about the absurdity is too emotional?

    compared to the other atheist “appeals to emotion”:
    > Belief is due to upbringing–Parent, church leader influence
    > Belief in God is comforting, consoling, gives meaning and purpose to life
    > Fear of Hell
    > Superstitious–believe claims of supernatural events
    > Need to believe in something
    > An emotional crutch
    I’ll freely admit that numbers 2,3,5, 6 are all neither here nor there, but 1 and 4 have some merit if claim #1 is addressing appeals to popularity and claim #4 is addressing a theist who is claiming that their epistemology is entirely rational and grounded in reality.

    You are making it sound like atheists can’t address certain arguments because those arguments appeal to emotion when the claims being made are by the theist and not the atheist.

    This appears to be your universal pet peeve because I’ve seen it in almost every post now- that atheists shouldn’t argue against bad Christian arguments that you personally wouldn’t use, but other use with wonton disregard.
    Not every argument is against you John, and those are not emotional appeals unless they are leveled for no reason instead of addressing the theist’s own words.

    • Listen, I am not suggesting atheists may not offer these objections when discussing Christianity, I believe there are valid rejoinders, but when discussing Christianity I have no problem at all. In fact christians should be able to answer these objections.

      However, what I am saying is there are those atheists out there who will offer these emotional claims as valid reasons against belief WHILE dismissing a theists/Christians claims because the particular atheist believes the christian only holds their belief for emotional reasons.

      Is this clear? I am addressing the specific situation when some atheists argue with the double standard (I can argue from emotion, but you can’t. I can use emotional reasons to refute your view but you can’t use emotional reasons to defend your view.), not that all atheists do this, or that those subjects are untouchable.

  11. John, I think the problem is that you are arguing against a straw man. Even the atheist who provided inspiration for your post, you and he are both careful to say, does not actually present emotions as an argument (except in the case where intuitive “good” and “bad” are at stake). Can you provide us with an example or two of an atheist who actually uses emotion as an argument, and then condemns the theist for relying on emotions? Can you provide us with any reason to think that this is a common, or even statistically significant, issue?

    • Unfortunately its an experiential thing. It happens more to some and less with others. Not every atheist authors a blog and most encounters are personal face to face interactions. I hope you weren’t under the impression that I was arguing that it was a wide spread epidemic.

  12. If you could even say, “I was talking to someone last Thursday who…” or something like that, it would have supplied what I was looking for. I wasn’t necessarily looking for links, though that would obviously be nice.

    In your post you referred to “a large swath of skeptics” and to “most of [your] discussions with skeptics about the existence of God.” Maybe that’s not an epidemic, but it sounded like it was common enough that you’d be able to come up with a single example.

    The straw man isn’t just about how often this occurs, though. It’s about the point that’s actually being made. Are you sure that these atheists you’ve debated with were actually using emotional appeals as evidence that gods do not exist? It seems to me much more likely that they were describing, for example, their deconversion process — the moment of realization that things didn’t add up, that something was rotten in the state of Denmark, and so on. That might be a very emotional thing (an ill family member prayed over but not healed, a lack of a testimony while all your friends claim to have had awesome spiritual experiences, etc.) but, in all the stories I’ve heard, it sparks a deeper investigation, as I said before. I’m not saying you’ve got it wrong in whatever these discussions with skeptics were about, necessarily … mostly I’m just asking you to please pay attention to this in the future. There might be more to the story than what you are picking up on.

    • You’re right, I should have Included at least my anecdotal experience. And perhaps my experience is not representative seeing as I inject myself into conversations (politey of course), so who’s to say how often this would arise naturally.

      As far as my recent experience, my father is one of these atheists, 2 people where I currently work, 3 people where I used to work (including my boss) and, one in Borders while I was in line buying Sam Harris’ new book.

  13. rautakyy says:

    I have grown in an atheist family. I have never read any of the famous atheistic thinkers mentioned in the article or conversation. I am shamed to admit, I had to look up from wikipedia, what does the term “new atheists” mean. In conversations about christianity I repeatedly lean on the claims John Barron Jr lists as emotional, by atheists.

    “The existence of evil in the world–natural and man caused”
    “The existence of Hell”
    “The moral atrocities recorded in the Bible or other Holy writ at the behest of God”
    “The moral atrocities committed by religious adherents in the name of their God”
    “The idea of religious exclusivism–monotheistic arrogance”
    “The idea of moral objectivity–religious adherents being morally judgemental”

    To all these questions there is one quite logical conclusion. There is nothing emotional about the simple fact that a supreme creator type of god should be responsible for all created. Especially so, if that god is described by the believers to be “benevolent” and “omnipotent”, but what we can wittnes from history, and the holy book of said particular religion, tells a totally different story.

    John Barron Jr refers theists are being critisized by atheists as emotional by the following list of argumentation. Theists are not wrong on these issues because they are being emotional, but because they are being illogical.

    “Belief is due to upbringing–Parent, church leader influence”
    “Belief in God is comforting, consoling, gives meaning and purpose to life”
    “Fear of Hell”
    “Superstitious–believe claims of supernatural events”
    “Need to believe in something”
    “An emotional crutch”

    We all learn our values originally from our parents. I did. As adults we may assume a nother kind of perspective to life, sometimes the change is a result of running into a charismatic person, but institutions like the church has many more or less subtle ways to keep paying members as part of the machine. We may draw the meaning to our lives from where we want, even from fairytales. (There are “trekkies”, who are more profoundly inspired by a silly tv-series, than most christians are about the bible.) Adults should choose between right and wrong as result of ethical reasoning, not out of fear for imaginary punishment, like the Hell. There are a lot of claims of supernatural events, but none proven by science. There can not be, if it is scientifically proven, it no longer is supernatural. The “need to believe in something” is obviously an emotional response to previously instilled preconditioning. Even a person under such influece should be aware of it. A persons faith may serve as much needed crutch to get over a trauma, but it does not prove existance of anything supernatural. This is all quite natural human behaviour, and there is no supernatural presented in there anywhere.

    Having lived most of my life in a basicly christian culture, I mostly when dealing whith religious people end up in debates about christianity, but I have had wery interresting conversations with representatives of other religions too. The final hideout of all religious people is in general theism, like that was anything they believed in. It is false that they expect atheists to argue against anything as vague as their own beliefs do not support. Yet, there are claims against that form of supernatural being also. As I said before there may be gods, but none that were plausible have ever crossed my way. If it makes you feel better you may call me a pagan rather than atheist. I may call myself as both.

  14. Differences aside… You write very well.
    We agree on emotions. One of my wifes complaints has been that I’m not emotional enough. I told her she should have married a women.

    Good job.


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