Friday, 23 March 2012


Let's re-visit the story I told last time about the hominid who hears a rustle in the grass.  You'll recall that the pressing question was whether the sound was caused by the wind, or a dangerous predator.  This is a crucial distinction, on several levels, but note that there is a key difference present in this scenario that we haven't yet discussed...the wind is inanimate, but a dangerous predator is an intentional agent.

Agenticity="the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency."

"Examples of agenticity abound...Children believe that the sun can think and follows them around, and when asked to draw a picture of the sun they often add a smiley face to give agency to it...A third of transplant patients believe that the donor's personality or essence is transplanted with the organ...most people say they would never wear the sweater of a murderer, showing great disgust at the very thought, as if some of the murderer's evil would rub off in the material of the sweater."

As you can see these two concepts, patternicity and agenticity, are very interesting individually; but together I believe they have huge explanatory power.  Coming to understand their prominence, in our thinking, was a major "aha" moment, for me personally, and I have unwittingly witnessed this cognitive combo in action literally hundreds of times (in those around me as well as myself) since then.

"As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a 'theory of mind'--the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others...we often impart the patterns we find with agency and intention, and believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world.  Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives.  Combined with our propensity to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise, patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms and much more...There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them."  (bolding mine)

Let me bring this a little closer to home, by using the rest of this post to hone in on a small sampling of ways in which patternicity + agenticity are heavily at work in modern day Christianity. I'll start with a really easy example...let's suppose that there is a terrible hurricane and, in the days that follow, Pat Robertson opines that it is more than likely a sign of God's judgement on the homosexuals, who happen to live in the affected area, and those who so brazenly support them. The logic, in Pat's mind, goes something like this:

Patternicity--There are a lot of homosexuals living in the city where there was just a hurricane; this can't be a coincidence!                                                                                                        
Agenticity--The God that I believe in strongly opposes homosexuality; he may have sent this hurricane to warn us to repent and turn from our wicked ways!

In a weird sort of way, this actually makes sense.  It's not a non sequitir, if you grant that Robertson's God exists.  It is however totally unfalsifiable.  There will never come a point where Christians can say, with 100% certainty, that Pat Robertson's hypothesis on hurricanes is incorrect.  Most Christians will reject his assertion out of hand however, simply because they don't like the sort of God it implies.  But there is a much better reason to reject it, and therein lies the rub.  More on that in a minute.

Let's move on to a much more controversial example; answers to prayer.  Are they real?  Let's break down the logic again:

Patternicity--I prayed about something that was worrying me last night and my situation improved today (this can't be a coincidence)!

Agenticity--My God answers prayers, because he loves me!  Prayer works!

First off recall that, as discussed last time, the propensity to find patterns goes up when people feel a lack of control.  Christians tend to pray most fervently when they are feeling precisely this way (ie. stressed about something).  This means they're perfectly primed, ahead of time, to find what they're already looking for and expecting in faith (plus they count only the hits; ignoring the misses).  And here again there is no way to prove, in any sort of absolute sense, that these two items are not indeed connected (the prayer and the improvement in the situation at hand).  So why do I think the connection should be rejected?  Let's move on to a third example, and then I'll answer the question more directly.

Here are some song lyrics, from popular Christian singer (and former American Idol contestant) Mandisa:

Have you ever heard a love song, that set your spirit free?
Have you ever watched a sunrise and felt you could not breathe?
What if it's Him.
What if it's God speaking.

Have you ever cried a tear that you could not explain?
Have you ever met a stranger who already knew your name?
What if its Him.
What if it's God speaking.

Who knows how He'll get ahold of us?
Get our attention to prove He is enough.
He'll do, and He'll use whatever He wants to.
To tell us, I love You.

Have you ever lost a loved one
Who you thought should still be here?
Do you know what it feels like
to be tangled up in fear?
What if He's somehow involved?
What if He's speaking through it all?

Who knows how He'll get ahold of us?
Get our attention to prove He is enough.
He'll do and He'll use whatever he wants to
To tell us, I love you.

His ways are higher.
His ways are better.
Though sometimes strange.
What could be stranger than God in a manger?

Who knows how He'll get ahold of us?
Get our attention to prove He is enough.
Who knows how He'll get ahold of you?
Get your attention to prove He is enough.
He'll do and He'll use whatever He wants to.
To tell us I love you.
God is speaking, I love you.

(If you must hear it click here.)

Notice how this song is absolutely dripping with patternicity + agenticity.  The lyrics even attempt to, in effect, build a cumulative case, for the reality of these patterns.  She begins by saying things like "what if" He's involved and working through it all.  By the end, the lyrics grow more confident; "God IS speaking" (oh, and just in case you weren't sure what He was saying, it's "I love you.").  Remember too that God works in strange ways because, after all, "what could be stranger than God in a manger."  False/anecdotal patterns + agenticity = a nearly perfect (and highly emotional) ballad for believers.  No doubt many of them have been stirred to tears, while listening to this song, imagining all of the (deceptively "normal") situations that God was probably attempting to speak through in their own lives (if only they'd been paying closer attention!).

Let me wrap up by getting to the real point that I am trying to make here.  How do we sort out false patterns from real ones?  The best method we have is science.  The above patterns should all be rejected because they are ad hoc.  There is simply no good reason to believe that an "intentional agent" is involved at all.  Because of our strong inclination to make Type I errors (false positives), and then to further ascribe agency to them, it stands to reason that we should approach such matters with a high degree of initial skepticism.  Prayer, for example, HAS been scientifically tested...numerous times in fact...and it consistently fails such tests.  It didn't have to be this way.  God could have made the prayers of Christians more demonstrably effective than the prayers of Muslims.  Think of what a powerful testimony that would be!  So, unless God is deliberately trying to hide from humankind (and, if so, than how could it be in any way "just" for him to punish unbelievers in an eternal hell?), the conclusion is inescapable...prayer doesn't work.  Unfortunately, we did not evolve what Shermer calls a "Baloney Detection Network" in the brain, to distinguish between true and false patterns.  This is precisely why science, with it's self-correcting mechanisms (ie. peer review), is so incredibly important.

Keep in mind that each of the above are merely examples, of patternity + agenticity in Christianity...there are many, many more areas I could have analyzed (including belief in the existence of a "Holy Spirit", an invisible agent who supposedly talks to Christians inside their heads).

Belief is natural.  Skepticism is difficult.  It can be uncomfortable to not believe things.  I'll close with what is my favorite paragraph in the entire book; the big takeaway, for me, from "The Believing Brain"...

"...research supports what I call Spinoza's conjecture: belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.  The scientific principle that a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly.  Thus it is that we should reward skepticism and disbelief, and champion those willing to change their mind in the teeth of new evidence.  Instead, most social institutions--most notably those in religion, politics, and economics--reward belief in the doctrines of the faith or party or ideology, punish those who challenge the authority of the leaders, and discourage uncertainty and especially skepticism." (bolding mine)

Monday, 19 March 2012


There are a handful of others, who played heavily into my de-conversion, that I have thus far barely mentioned here on the Respectful Atheist blog.  One such person is Michael Shermer. Shermer is precisely the sort of atheist that I desire to be; calm, level headed, friendly, patient, and skeptical without being cynical.  (To see just how incredibly patient Shermer is watch this.)  I honestly can't remember how I first encountered his work.  It may have been that I simply looked him up, after hearing that he was a famous skeptic who used to be a Christian.  I have tended to feel a strong bond, with former Christians, since only they truly "get" what it is like to embrace faith and then to change your mind completely.

Anyway, it's neither here nor there.  I will seek to remedy the situation, over these next few posts, by discussing an admittedly tiny fragment of Shermer's work.  More specifically, I would like to examine the concepts of "patternicity" & "agenticity".   When I am done I will do my best to tie it all together, in terms of how these two ideas have influenced my own thinking on spiritual matters.  For simplicities sake, all of my quotes will come from Shermer's excellent book "The Believing Brain" (where he covers patternicity and agenticity in back to back chapters).

Let's begin with a definition: patternicity="the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise".

We are pattern seeking primates; descendants of those who who were most successful at what's sometimes called "association learning".  In other words, we see patterns.  Lots and lots and lots of patterns.  And we see them everywhere.  It's just part of how we learn.  As Shermer says, "we can no more eliminate superstitious learning than we can eliminate all learning".  Not all of these perceived patterns are real, however, and there are two types of related errors:

Type I Error (false positive)--believing a pattern is real when it's not (finding a nonexistent pattern)

Type II Error (false negative)--not believing a pattern is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern)

We tend to make a large number of type I errors.  Why?  The answer lies in evolution.  Let's suppose that you are a hominid, taking a walk, a few million years ago.  You hear a rustle in the grass.  Is it a dangerous predator?  It could be.  Then again, maybe it's just the wind.  If you determine it's a dangerous predator, but it's not, no real harm is done (a type I error).  However, if you assume it to be the wind, and it turns out to be a dangerous predator, you're lunch (a type II error).  Natural selection has favored strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.  To put it a different way, people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe non-weird things.

With a sufficient amount of information (or time) we could surely determine more accurately the true cause of that rustle in the grass.  Right?  True enough.  "The problem is that assessing the difference between a Type I and Type II error is highly problematic--especially in the split second timing that often determined the difference between life and death in our ancestral environments--so the default position is to assume that all patterns are real; that is, assume that all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not the wind."  (bolding mine)

Have you ever noticed that your first gut reaction, to an unexpected sound in the middle of the night, is to think that an intruder has entered your home?  It is usually only after you take a moment, to allow your rational brain to kick in, that you realize the chances of it being something else (probably much less scary) are significantly higher.  How many people hear weird sounds in the middle of the night, at least from time to time?  (Millions.)  And how many of those weird sounds actually turn out to be dangerous intruders?  (By comparison, only a tiny fragment.) Because of evolution our default setting is to make a type I error (false positive).  This is the same reason that children so often see "faces" in their closet (when it's really just the clothes or a shadow).  We have evolved to see patterns, many of which are not actually there.

This tendency, in the direction of assuming initially that all perceived patterns are real, has been scientifically demonstrated many times over (in both human and non human subjects).  For example, in one experiment, pigeons were taught to peck at two keys to receive grain through a food hopper.  The researchers discovered that if they randomly delivered the food reinforcement, whatever the pigeon happened to be doing, just before the delivery of the food, would be repeated the next time.  The results, as you can imagine, were rather humorous.  Before pecking the key some pigeons would spin around once to the left, others would turn counter-clockwise, or hop side to side, whatever they thought would bring the food.  None of this had the slightest impact on the food delivery schedule of course; which was entirely random.  These odd behaviors were almost always repeated in the same part of the cage, and they were generally oriented toward some feature of the cage.  The birds in this experiment were developing a superstition; or, as Shermer calls it, pigeon patternicity.

Or how about (human) babies?  "When an infant observes the cooing happy face of its mother or father, the face acts as a sign stimulus that initiates the innate releasing mechanism in its brain to trigger the fixed action pattern of smiling back, thereby setting up a symphony of parent-child staring and cooing and smiling--and bonding attachment.  It need not even be a real face.  Two black dots on a cardboard cutout elicit a smile in infants, although one dot does not, indicating that the newborn brain is preconditioned by evolution to look for and find the simplest pattern of a face by two to four data points: two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, which may even be represented as two dots, a vertical line, and a horizontal line.  Facial-recognition software was built into our brains by evolution because of the importance of the face in establishing and maintaining relationships, reading emotions, and determining trust in social interactions."  (bolding mine)

There are dozens of other examples, such as "...the human enjoyment of artificial sweeteners as well as with our modern problem of obesity.  In the natural environment, (A) sweet and rich foods are strongly associated with (B) nutritious and rare.  Therefore, we gravitate to any and all foods that are sweet and rich, and because they were once rare we have no satiation network in the brain that tells us to shut off the hunger mechanism, so we eat as much as we can of them.  On the other end of the taste spectrum, there is the well-known taste aversion effect--one-trial learning--where the pairing of a food or drink with severe nausea and vomiting often results in a long-term aversion for that food or drink."

I think you get the idea.

It's also worth noting that research demonstrates the propensity to find patterns goes up when people feel a lack of control.  Shermer uses a sports analogy to illustrate the point.  Why is it that, in baseball, superstitious behaviors & beliefs always seem to exhibit themselves in batters, but never (or rarely) in fielders?  Perhaps it is because fielders are successful 90% to 95% of the time, but even the best batters fail 7 out of 10 times.  The patternicity (if I wear the same pair of socks every time I go up to bat I will be more successful) is the batter's way of trying to regain control over the situation.  "Lacking control is highly aversive, and one fundamental way we can bolster our sense of control is to understand what's going on.  So we instinctively seek out patterns to regain control--even if those patterns are illusory."

At this point you might be asking yourself, "what's the point?".  "Where is this Respectful Atheist guy going with all of this?"  Somewhere, I promise.  For now though, I simply want to establish the point that patternicity is real.  And it ties in directly with what I will cover next time, "agenticity". As promised, when I am done outlining both concepts, I will connect all of the dots and offer some additional personal reflections.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Atheist Or Agnostic?

Given the topic of my last few posts, now feels like a good time to clarify my current position.  I haven't been trying to hide it, per se, I guess I've just been so caught up in discussing other things that I've not paused long enough to state it plainly.

After losing my faith in Christianity, and with the concept of faith generally, I went through a period of time where I was unsure what I should call myself.  I felt strongly that it would no longer be appropriate to use the term "Christian", but what was the alternative?  Former Christian?  Skeptic? Agnostic?  Atheist?  I didn't know.  

For a while I toyed heavily with the term agnostic.  I liked the fact that agnostic implies a certain humility, in the minds of most people, because frankly I've always considered humility to be one of the greatest virtues (and I still feel this way).  At the same time, there were also things that I didn't like about the word.  When it would come up in casual conversation, that so and so claimed to be an agnostic, I noticed that my Christian friends would automatically have certain impressions.  For one, they viewed an agnostic as someone who just couldn't seem to make up their mind.  A waffler.  Worse still, the additional assumption was made that any and all agnostics hadn't really thought very much about the deeper questions in life.  I knew this wasn't true of me. In fact, in so far as I could tell, I had spent more time thinking about those things than most Christians that I personally knew.  Even still, the hidden implication remained that an agnostic was someone who needed to think more, so they could get off the fence!

I also had problems with the term atheist.  As a Christian, it had always been my belief that an atheist was someone who claimed to know for sure that there was "no god".  I certainly wasn't claiming this.  In fact, at the time, it felt arrogant to me.  With such a vast universe (or even multiverse!) how could tiny peons, like us, possibly claim to "know"?  

As I began to investigate the terminology further, I came to realize that both my friends and I had been mistaken.  Below I would like to share with you, what I learned, and then I will close by telling you where I stand.  

Firstly, it's important to understand (and most people don't) that gnosticism/agnosticism and theism/atheism deal with two different spheres.  The former two deal with the realm of knowledge, and the latter two with belief.  "Getting" this distinction is the key, I think, to a proper understanding.  Once it really clicked, for me, my remaining questions and concerns faded away rather quickly.  Let's break it down...

A gnostic--claims to know whether or not there is a god

An agnostic--claims not to know whether or not there is a god (or that we cannot know)

A theist--believes in a god

An atheist--does not believe in a god

As you may have picked up on, from the above definitions, the terms gnostic & agnostic are not mutually exclusive with the terms theist & atheist.  Let's break it down even further...

A gnostic theist--Claims to know that there is a God and believes in a god

An agnostic theist--Claims not to know whether or not there is a God, but believes in a god

A gnostic atheist--Claims to know that there is not a God and does not believe in a god (sometimes called a "positive", "hard" or "strong" atheist)

An agnostic atheist--Claims not to know whether or not there is a God, but does not believe in a god (sometimes called a "negative", "soft" or "weak" atheist)

Every one of us, whether we realize it or not, falls into one of these four categories (unless you have no position of any kind).  Simply ask yourself, "do I claim to know whether or not there is a god?".  If your answer is "yes", you are a gnostic; if "no", you are an agnostic.  And then, "do I believe in a god?".  If your answer is "yes", you are a theist; if "no", you are an atheist.

Most people don't use this sort of dual terminology, when describing themselves, in everyday discourse (to do so would be a bit clunky).  So when someone claims to be an "atheist", for example, it simply means on its own that they lack active belief in a god.  Nothing more.  Contrary to popular notions, agnosticism is not a halfway point between atheism and theism.  Many atheists are also agnostics and vice versa.

With that said, I am an agnostic atheist.  Where do you fall on the continuum?

I hope I've explained this clearly but, if you're still confused, I would encourage you to check out this link for an even fuller (and more visual) breakdown.  

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Do Atheists Need Faith?

Since becoming an atheist I've been thinking a lot about faith.  As a Christian I was taught that faith is a good thing; a VERY good thing.  In fact, in Christianity, it's one of the three biggies ("faith, hope and love...").

I can still remember what it felt like when I first encountered the mere suggestion, during my de-conversion, that faith might not be a positive attribute after all.  The very thought of it was startling (and deeply disturbing) to me.  You mean there are actually people who think it's bad to have faith?!  Sane people?

As I began to analyze it, more and more, I ultimately came to the conclusion that faith is, by and large, something to be avoided wherever possible.  Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.  To repeat, I now believe that faith is something to be avoided.

Below, I will do my best to explain cogently why I would ever say such a scandalous thing.

First, let's begin with a quick clarification.  I've noticed that discussions about faith have a tendency to get bogged down in semantics.  I think this is partly due to the fact that the word faith itself has several different definitions.  For the purposes of this post I'd like to hone in on definition number 2, according to, "belief that is not based on proof".  To be clear, I have no significant problem with some of the other definitions of the word faith (such as definition number 1, "confidence or trust in a person or thing").  More on that later.

Let's get back to my original it necessary, or even healthy, for any of us to cleave to a "belief that is not based on proof"?  Ever??  No.  Absolutely not.  Christian, can you think of any other area in life, besides religion, where "belief without proof" is beneficial in some way? Just one example?

Take your time.

Now, notice that I did not title this post "do atheists have faith".  I'm certain there are plenty of atheists who hold firmly to all sorts of unsupported beliefs.  My point is that they shouldn't. Faith, in this second sense of the word, is simply not required nor is it helpful.

I once interacted with a Christian who "played the faith card" by accusing atheists of having "faith" in The Big Bang Theory.  To illustrate she linked to a document which contained numerous highly technical, and supposedly unresolved, problems with the theory.  What she failed to realize is that such an objection is completely irrelevant to the atheist.  It can't even get off the ground, because we do not hold to The Big Bang Theory in a manner that is comparable to the way in which she holds to the Christian religion.  If The Big Bang were disproved tomorrow, it wouldn't phase us skeptics.  Our core beliefs would remain fully intact.  I do "believe" in the Big Bang theory, mind you, but only because it's the best explanation we've got (and, despite what she claimed, there is an abundance of evidence in its favor).  I don't have "faith" in it by any means.  She further viewed our unwillingness to debate it point by point as a rhetorical win, for her side, when in fact it was simple humility (and respect for proper scientists) that kept us from taking this approach.  What she should have been doing instead is seeking out a physicist or a cosmologist.  Did she?  I sincerely hope so, but I doubt it.

Also, as I discussed last time, Christianity does not win by default even if our best minds are unable to explain where The Universe came from.  Atheists/agnostics are completely o.k. with answering "I don't know", whenever and wherever necessary; can Christians say the same?

My current belief is that it's perfectly alright to have varying degrees of certainty about pretty well anything and everything.  For example, I feel around 99% certain that I will wake up tomorrow morning.  I am a relatively young man, without any significant health problems (that I am aware of), and it is pretty rare for people like me to die suddenly in the middle of the night.  I am about 75% sure that I won't have to replace either one of my aging cars within the next year.  I feel roundabout 60% sure that it will rain tomorrow.  (Or at least that's what the meteorologist says.) Should I be feeling the need to use faith, to "top up" any of these beliefs?  Let's say someone is 51% convinced that Jesus died for their sins, but 49% of them doubts it (pretending, for the moment, that such a thing could be accurately measured); do they squeeze into eternal bliss by the skin of their teeth?  And what if you flip those numbers the other way?  Does such a person merit eternal punishment, with no chance of reprieve, but "just barely"?  The absurdities, in the Christian worldview, only deepen the more that you allow yourself to ponder on such conundrums.

Some Christians will object to my points above by claiming that they hold exclusively to the "trust" definition of faith.  Atheists need not believe anything on insufficient evidence, they will say, they need only have "faith" (aka "trust") in God.  This is utterly nonsensical, of course, because it's meaningless to ask someone to "trust" in something that they don't even believe exists.  Do you "trust" the Tooth Fairy?  How about Santa Claus?  Bigfoot?  Or perhaps you prefer to "trust" in space aliens?

I'm sure I will wind up coming back to this subject again sometime, perhaps several times, so I'll leave you for now with those initial thoughts.  I'd like to close with the following discussion, from "The Atheist Experience" TV show, since it illustrates quite nicely the difference in perspective between atheists and Christians on this issue (and be sure to stay tuned until the very end for a special surprise...). 

Friday, 2 March 2012

Playing The Faith Card

When you're living as an "in the closet" atheist conversations, on religious matters, are pretty dicey.  I find myself still trying to be as truthful, as humanly possible, without saying too much (so as to tip my hand and accidentally reveal the full extent of my current opinions).

The other day, a Christian friend of mine brought a certain article to my attention.  We had a brief conversation about it and, afterward, I sent him a link that expressed "a different perspective" on the issue (this was how I framed it).  My friend happened to notice that the piece was written by an atheist, which initiated a discussion that went something like the following...

Him: I have to admit, he (the atheist author) did make some good points.

Me: Yeah, I totally get where you were coming from, but I just thought you might be interested in seeing another perspective on it.

Him: It must be really difficult being a public atheist like that.

Me: Why?

Him: Well, because you have so much to explain.

Me: What do you mean?  Can you give me an example of what atheists have to explain?

Him: Like, where we came from.

Me:  As in Adam and Eve?

Him: Yes, exactly.  I mean, I know they believe in the "big bang", but no one really knows what came before.

Me: That's partly true, but Christians don't know what came before God either.

Him: Sure, but that's where we get to have "faith", and they don't have that.

We had another interesting (follow up) conversation, a bit later, but for now I'd like to circle back to my friend's comments about atheists, above, in terms of what he says they have to prove (and how this all ties in with faith) etc.  What follows may seem overly obvious, to some of my atheist readers, but as this conversation with my (University educated) friend reminded me, we can't simply take it as a given that everyone understands the principles I am about to highlight.

Having said that, it seems to me there are a couple of fundamental problems with my friend's line of thinking here...

Firstly, he is confusing an assertion with an explanation.  The two are not the same.  When the Bible says that humanity started with two people, created by God to live forever in a majical garden (had it not been for "the fall"), this is simply an assertion.  Nothing more, nothing less. And it doesn't actually explain a single thing.  (Evolution, on the other hand, does explain plenty of things.)

Secondly, I would be willing to concede that strong/hard atheists bear a certain burden of proof, in showing how the Universe could begin without a god; but this decidedly does not mean that Christianity is true, by default, even if they don't succeed in doing so.  (As it happens, I think that people such as Stephen Hawking & Lawrence Krauss are doing a pretty decent job of it though.) Actually, in this sense, hard atheists are only making one major claim; there is no god.  By contrast, Christians are making dozens upon dozens of major claims; there is a god, that God is Yahweh, Jesus was his son, the Bible is God's special/perfect book, there are invisible beings called angels and demons, there are invisible places called heaven and hell that we all go to after we die, etc. etc. etc.

At the risk of over emphasizing the point let me offer a thought experiment...if I were to suggest that atoms were created by invisible space monsters, would you feel that you need to explain fully where atoms do come from in order to reject that view?  Of course not.  Even if you had no idea, as to the true origin of atoms, it wouldn't matter in the slightest.  You need not offer an alternate explanation at all, in order to be completely justified in rejecting my space monster assertion. The same is true when it comes to atheists & Christians.  Atheists may bear the burden of proof, if they are indeed making a positive claim (there is no god), but they do not bear the burden of proof in the negative (their rejection of your particular religious beliefs).

So, to review, here's how I see it...

(Hard) Atheism: Bears the burden of proof on the claim that there is no god.

Christianity: Bears the burden of proof on several dozen claims that are unique to the Christian religion (some of which just so happen to directly contravene scientific findings).  Each one of these claims, by itself, is implausible, but together their implausibility is magnified many times over.

My friend was playing what I like to call "the faith card" in this conversation.  The faith card says, "I don't have to really justify my beliefs logically, in such and such, because I just have 'faith' in those things".

All of this reminds me of another way in which Christians sometimes play "the faith card"; namely, in claiming that their beliefs are somehow mysteriously validated by the fact that "atheists have faith too".  Is this true?  

But that's another discussion, so I'll save it for my next post.

What do you think, about this conversation with my friend, is there something I could have said or done differently?