The Circular Reasoning of Atheists

circularreasoningA common idea is that Christians are particularly prone to circular reasoning. For instance, Winston Wu pulls no punches at DebunkingSkeptics.com, saying, “Christian beliefs are based on 100 percent circular reasoning that lack any valid initial basis or foundation, which Christians do not see due to brainwashing and mind-control.” (Keep Winston in mind – we’ll return to him in a minute). At de-conversion.com, a similar line: “I’m always fascinated by the circular reasoning of Christian scholarship. In fact, some of the more entertaining reading on the web are Christian Apologetics sites.”

There’s no doubt about it: circular reasoning is illogical and irrational. So when Christians use this fallacious method to establish their points, that is unpersuasive, embarrassing, and worthy of criticism.

Let’s look, briefly, at what circular reasoning is in general, and then consider some ways that atheists can also practice this irrational method. This discussion will serve to clarify how we approach questions about the ultimate issues of life. I hope it will also encourage a mutual humility, because the fact is that everyone, whether secular or religious, is liable to make intellectual errors. No community has a monopoly on the ability to reason.

What is circular reasoning?

Dictionary.com defines it as, “a use of reason in which the premises depends on or is equivalent to the conclusion, a method of false logic by which “this is used to prove that, and that is used to prove this”; also called circular logic.”

A common example:

  1. The Bible says it is the Word of God.
  2. God only tells the truth.
  3. Therefore, the Bible is entirely true.

Even though these three statements look sorta, kinda like an argument, it is really just restating the same thing over and over again in different ways. The conclusion (“the Bible is entirely true”) is required to affirm the premises (statements 1 and 2). Now, there are good reasons to think the Bible is true, but this argument isn’t one of them.

Circular Reasoning From Atheism

First, a necessary disclaimer: many, many atheists avoid circular reasoning. Many atheists reason well. This article is not a personal attack on all atheists. If it was, this post would amount to an “ad hominem” logical fallacy. If you attack a person instead of an idea, you are failing to engage with their arguments. It is a weak and irrational method of conversation.

But just as it is good and right to criticize Christians for circular thinking, it is good and right to criticize any atheist arguments that are circular. Anyone who loves reason and truth has no respect for circular reasoning, no matter where this sloppy thinking originates.

Example #1:

In conversations with atheists, here is a chain of thinking that I have often heard:

  1. There is no God.
  2. Miracles are the supernatural work of God.
  3. Therefore, miracles are impossible.
  4. The Bible contains reports of miracles.
  5. Therefore, the Bible contains legendary material or historical misrepresentations.
  6. Therefore, the Bible cannot be trusted.
  7. Therefore, there is no evidence for God.
  8. Therefore, there is no God.

This is a circular argument. (In addition to other flaws that the reader may notice).

Example #2:

  1. God does not exist.
  2. Therefore, God does not personally reveal His existence to people.
  3. When people think they are having experiences of God, this experience can be fully explained in terms of naturalistic causation, using scientific terms (particularly through neurological studies).
  4. Therefore, people do not have experiences of God.
  5. Therefore, testimonies of God’s existence do not prove that God exists.
  6. Therefore, God does not exist.

In both examples, instead of an open-minded consideration of the possible evidential value of miracles or religious testimony, the atheist assumes the truth of their worldview, uses that presumption to reject even the possibility that there is evidence which counts against their beliefs, and then concludes that the lack of evidence for another worldview is further evidence for their starting point.

Example #3:

Ironically, here’s an example from Winston Wu at DebunkingSkeptics.com, who we know is opposed to circular reasoning (feel free to read the entire article for more context):

  1. “The Evangelical Christian has two powerful things controlling his/her mind and emotions – the fear of eternal punishment in hell and the reward of eternal paradise in heaven.”
  2. “They [the fear of hell / reward of heaven ideas] are the ultimate brainwashing tools ever designed.  No question about it.”
  3. “Regardless of church doctrine, it is natural for a born-again Christian to have a natural fear that challenging his faith might result in the loss of his/her eternal life, or at least the discovery that it was never real in the first place.”
  4. “Hence, it is UNTHINKABLE for them to question or challenge this theology or religion.  And even if they do have doubts deep down inside, they would not dare declare them, but instead try to suppress them.”
  5. “As a result of those two powerful forces mentioned above controlling the Evangelical Christian’s mind, his/her sense of reason no longer rules, but instead serves these religious beliefs.”
  6. “And that’s why using reason to appeal to them doesn’t help.”
  7. “It gives them the crutch they need to get through life.  It validates them, makes them feel special, and gives them a definable sense of purpose.  And that’s another powerful factor that keeps their belief system in place.”
  8. “After giving in to the plea to accept Christ, you subconsciously without knowing it, give up your reason and intellect, in order to “be saved and have eternal life.””
  9. “The good news about all this though, is that there is protection from the extreme fear imposed upon people by the Evangelists and Fundamentalists, and that protection is from knowledge.”

In fairness to Mr. Wu, it sounds like he has endured an absolutely terrible experience with churches and Christians. I have no desire to affirm cultures ruled by fear, irrationality, and psychological control. It is a tragedy that any church might ‘function’ in this way.

Still, we can summarize this chain of thinking as follows:

  1. Evangelical Christians are controlled by irrational forces.
  2. Therefore, they are no longer able to reason.
  3. Therefore, their beliefs are not based on reason.
  4. Therefore, we can reject their beliefs as false.
  5. Therefore, their belief in the existence of heaven and hell is irrational.
  6. Therefore, evangelical Christians are controlled by irrational beliefs.

Is Winston’s ‘argument’ all that different from standard lines from Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins? Not really.

Here’s Sam Harris: “It is time we recognized that this spirit of mutual inquiry, which is the foundation of all real science, is the very antithesis of religious faith.”

Here’s Dawkins: “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

It is astonishing that Harris and Dawkins are unable to see (or admit) that Christians can and do love mutual inquiry, ‘real’ science, ordinary science, and evidence. Both Christians and atheists use the same rational methods of pursuing truth. The difference is in our conclusions, not our methodology. But instead of a reasoned response appropriate to the Christian’s arguments, these ‘rebuttals’ amount to no more than self-confirming circles of selective definitions.

This kind of lazy question-begging is hardly rational. Loudly and frequently they keep shouting, “Atheism equals reason! Religion equals unreason!” That is: Why is atheism true? Because it is reasonable. Why is it reasonable? Because it isn’t faith. What happens if you reject faith? You think atheism is true. What a beautiful circle.

If you are an atheist, please join me in continuing to criticize such terrible thinking. If you are a Christian, I certainly encourage you to avoid circular reasoning and to oppose any “Christian” arguments that are circular.

No matter what you believe, I hope that we can all agree that circular reasoning is illogical.

And if some atheists want to define their brand in terms of ‘reason,’ then it is imperative they stop arguing in circles.