Category Archives: New Atheists

New Atheism is Bad Science

Bad Science book coverScientism is pseudoscience.

If that seems obvious, I can only say that there are many who still need to be told. It continues to strike me as incredible that so many people, who claim to be committed to a tough-minded scientific approach, can become so enamored with the idea that this unsupported (and blatantly incoherent) philosophy is the true spirit of scientific thought.

But what is particularly shocking is how often this kind of pseudoscience is promoted by scientists themselves. Richard Dawkins is, of course, the most obvious example, but there are others.

Still, as professor of the public understanding of the sciences, it was (specifically) Dawkins job to clear up muddles like this–rather than exacerbate the problem. The fact that he spent his career arguing for ‘scientific thought’ that was completely unsupported by any kind of scientific evidence did not help.

If Dawkins had understood this, perhaps scientism wouldn’t be running quite so rampant in modern culture. It rears its (vacuous) head every time someone demands physical evidence for a logical principle–or insists that materialism is true on the grounds of (completely arbitrarily) declaring that magic is the only other option.

One of the more popular incarnations is the appeal to the history of science. “We’ve never found any evidence for the non-natural” or so the phrase goes. I suppose there are dozens of responses to that, but the pertinent one is that absence of evidence is only significant if someone has actually looked for evidence at some point.

And there simply has never been a scientific experiment that tested for transcendence. To claim otherwise, or to claim that science shows things without testing for them is at least pseudoscience, if not downright superstition.

Yet this is exactly the kind of thinking being promoted by people who loudly claim to be the true champions of science. An actual understanding of science would be more careful about logical distinctions, slower to extrapolate philosophical conclusions from small amounts of data, and in general have a better grasp of what questions science is relevant to answer.

We see none of this in the New Atheists, and I find it astonishing that they haven’t been asked for evidence for their claims far more often.

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Debating with Caricatures

terry-bennett-006I’d like to start this post by agreeing with the New Atheists. So, please pay attention, this doesn’t happen very often:

I completely agree that the god they don’t believe in is a silly and monstrous concept, and that no one should believe it.

If there are any theists out there who actually believe in the kind of religion the New Atheists attack, I urge such people to abandon those beliefs for a less barbaric, anachronistic, and cartoonishly silly understanding of what Christian theologians have actually said.

And, of course, to the New Atheists themselves, I would urge them to learn something about what theologians have said and address that before making vast pronouncements about religion in general.

We hardly needed Richard Dawkins to figure out that the Westboro Baptist Church has some silly and unethical beliefs. If the New Atheists think they have something to say about the rest of theists, they are free to share, but simply assuming that our beliefs are the same as the Westboro Baptists is more akin to bigotry than rational analysis.

I’ve had it put to me that atheists don’t make claims about the particulars of belief–that they only respond to what theists claim. In response, I offer the bulk of the New Atheist literature. Christopher Hitchens demanding that religious people don’t doubt, Dawkins presenting an argument for atheism which assumes that God is a composite object, made out of physical parts and flying around in space somewhere, Harris insisting that Christians revere death itself (as opposed to respecting those who are willing to sacrifice their lives).

And so on it goes. I’ve been told a large number of things about what I believe by atheists who, by all accounts, haven’t a clue what I actually believe: what it means to speak of the non-natural as something altogether different from the physical, how explanations of the physical traits of systems are distinct from the question of whether or not those same things have traits of a different sort, and why there isn’t the slightest shred of scientific evidence in favor of the New Atheists’ conclusions along these lines.

And trying to correct this misinformation, to explain my actual beliefs, is met only with more demands that I prove the truth of precisely those views that I don’t believe in. That is, the fans of Dawkins loudly demand that I prove that there’s some physical, composite thing in space called ‘god’, or some other such inanity.

Whatever one calls this approach, it is not intellectual, open-minded, or interested in furthering knowledge. It is, to put it gently, mind-numbingly dense. On the one hand, it dismisses anything too difficult or abstract as not to be discussed–not refuted or dealt with, just the sort of thing that’s too hard to think about. On the other, it refuses to give up the adolescent demand that it has somehow found found the answer to all truth claims in a ridiculously simple formula.

Nearly all its attempts at argumentation take the form: “Rhetorically, religion sounds silly by the end of this sentence. Now, let’s quickly halt all thinking right there.”

Those who don’t take such an approach, who are actually trying to understand the claims of the world’s great religions, never fall into the anti-intellectual trap of thinking that repeating an internet meme settles a centuries-old debate.

I appreciate those sorts, whether they are atheist or theist, and urge everyone who engages on these issues to address what people actually believe. Whatever the emotional benefits of shredding straw-men, it accomplishes nothing of value.


Do You Believe in Magic?

Do_you_believe_in_magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Arthur C. Clarke

A good way to show off one’s ignorance of theology is to throw the word “magic” around.

At least, it is if one is implying that belief in God constitutes belief in a kind of magic. This assertion, can only be made if one either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is. Or (and I’m worried that this is far more common than it ought to be) is only interested in the rhetorical value of the word and doesn’t actually care that the assertion is a false one.

That is, if magic is to be objectionable, it can’t simply be something that one, personally, doesn’t understand. If that’s all we mean by magic (as in the quotation above), then I completely agree that almost the whole of theology would be “magic” to the New Atheists–as they understand little to none of it. But this is hardly a point in favor of atheism.

Of course, the word “magic” is often used to reference something that isn’t really an explanation. A word that is used as a kind of filler for a real explanation. But this, too, fails to help the atheist.

First is the simple fact that, in order to make this work, the New Atheist is reduced to arguing against the “god-of-the-gaps”. Which immediately means that we’re no longer discussing the God of any of the great monotheist religions. Again, this is either ignorance or a sloppy appeal to rhetoric, not a point against a religion than anyone actually believes in.

God is an explanation for many things in reality we experience–not an efficient cause under the model of science, but a perfectly reasonable explanation in other contexts. One can try to argue that there is a problem with these explanations. What one can’t rationally do is say that God is not an explanation–which is what appeals to the word “magic” do.

The technical term for “magic”, in this sense, is “brute fact”–something that is true without any explanation whatsoever. And it is no small point that it is typically atheists, not theists, that appeal to brute facts in discussing the explanation for the universe.

That is what atheists have traditionally said, of course: that the universe has no explanation for its existence. And this is, logically, no different from saying “the universe is magic”.

And it isn’t enough to say “well, maybe there really is no explanation” or “I’m okay with not knowing”. Both of these things contradict inquiry–and even show a misunderstanding of the science many atheists claim to cherish. The fact is that theists have offered an explanation (meaning that suggesting that there isn’t one is simply false). No theory is ever overturned by appeals to the idea that some things just aren’t explicable. Nor are they stopped by self-righteously declaring that it is morally preferable to live in ignorance rather than accept the best explanation on offer.

“Planetary orbits are a brute fact” and “I’m okay with not knowing why biodiversity exists” aren’t legitimate responses to Newton and Darwin. These kinds of statements aren’t legitimate responses to any explanation whatsoever. They are appeals to magic in all but name.

As such, it is those who make these and similar statements toward theists who are confessing a belief in a kind of magic.

 


Co-opting Science Shows a Lack of Respect

fiery_preacherThere are few people who disrespect science more consistently, or more flagrantly, than the fans of Richard Dawkins.

A real respect for science, in my view, includes a respect for understanding clearly what science does in general, and what a given experiment  shows in particular.

It makes me uncomfortable to sit in a church and listen to a preacher carelessly speak for God–simply assuming that the divine backs his particular social view without bothering to give a reason.

I have a similar reaction to those who claim to speak for science, insisting that it has shown things that it simply has not. Generally, this involves claims that science has never actually tested, and takes no position on.

As a lover of science, I find this disrespectful.

More often than not, it isn’t even a specific study that is being referenced. Rather, there is simply a vague wave in the direction of “science has shown” or “this is a scientific way of thinking”. It never seems to occur to people that science hasn’t “shown” anything that wasn’t demonstrated experimentally,  and not having tested a thing definitely means that there is no experimental demonstration.

This is typically how co-opting science for one’s purposes starts. When pressed, however, it begins to take a more targeted form: deeply distorting what a particular experiment concluded (or was even testing in the first place).

And sloppiness about what is being tested in an experiment, and, consequently, the wild extrapolations made by the New Atheists, are deeply out of touch with the scientific method.

They are also insulting to real science.

Science is powerful precisely because it is careful not to claim more than it has found. The New Atheists can be heard extolling this virtue all across the internet–yet the attempts to make science claim more than it does are every bit as common.

From glibly asserting that Libet’s experiments disprove free will (though Libet himself pointed out how careful examination of his experiments shows no such thing), to the general claim that God’s existence is somehow a scientific question (that has been tested experimentally) isn’t simply an affront to theology, philosophy, logic, and reason. It is also an affront to science.

By all means, let us enjoy the technologies science provides. And let us not forget to appreciate the hard work and brilliance of those who advance scientific knowledge.

But the fact remains that tacking on glib, untested internet memes as if they should enjoy the respect that real science has earned is worse than non-scientific. It rightly offends those who respect genuine science.

 


Only the Worst Positions Allowed

KwameJoseph-WorstEverThe list of ways in which the New Atheists misrepresent theism has gotten pretty long in recent years. Still, there are some major themes which seem to be at the core of most of the problem.

One would think that it would be a simple matter to clear up a few basic misunderstandings, but it is amazing how often proponents of this disinformation are utterly convinced that they are doing no such thing–even when they are in the middle of spreading it.

Enter the particular misunderstanding to be discussed:

If you’re demanding that the Bible be interpreted literally, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

It is incredibly common for anyone who interprets any passage of the Bible (not just Genesis 1-3) non-literally to be dismissed with a simple “well, you clearly reject real Christianity anyway”.

The first thing that needs to be said, I suppose, is that not even the most fundamentalist believer takes the Bible absolutely literally at every passage. To demand that one is simply not a theist unless one is even more literal than the fundamentalist is definitely a straw man fallacy.

So much has been said by others. What I’d like to add, however, is a note about how quick people are to deny that this kind of demand adds up to a claim about what Christianity is.

I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that atheists don’t try to define God, but merely respond to what the theist claims. I’ve been told this by people who promptly demand that I’m completely wrong to interpret a passage of the Bible differently than they do. This is a blatant contradiction.

Also, it is a false dichotomy.

Whether or not the New Atheist take on the Bible is correct (it isn’t), the point is that this is no reason to be an atheist. And the New Atheists are simply wrong to demand (as most of them do) that the only options on the table are their fundamentalist atheism or a religion even more fundamentalist than Falwell’s.

The simple fact is that none of the arguments for theism I’ve presented here have relied on trusting the Bible as authoritative, let alone literal. Yet attacks on such bad theology are frequently presented as irrefutable counters to them.

All this shows, then, is that one (very silly) understanding of Christianity is false. It doesn’t address theism, or defend the materialism that the New Atheists embrace.

So, let’s agree at the outset that the weird caricature of theism that the New Atheists mock is untrue. It seems reasonable that we should then move on to at least two other ideas:

1. The concept of theism that is actually being defended, and

2. The materialist atheism that has gone strangely undefended.

So far, the response I’ve received to the first is a perpetual bewilderment at what I’m saying. At every point, atheists claim to not understand my actual beliefs (leading me to wonder how they can be so confident that they’ve refuted my beliefs)

As to the second, that’s generally ignored. And, though I count it a victory in debate that materialists are so completely unable to defend their view, I’d hoped for more thoughtful engagement than a skirting of the issue.

That is to say, those who claim that we shouldn’t believe things without evidence should completely reject materialism.


The Blame Game

self-righteous-hippieContinuing on with the ways in which the New Atheists misrepresent the religion they claim to see through, we come to a moral objection.

So the topic this time: If you’re claiming that religion is the cause of nearly all the wars and conflict in history, you aren’t talking about Christianity (or any other religion, or all religion, for that matter).

The most obvious objection to this meme is that it simply isn’t true. Though many atheists like to take us on a tour of the crusades, and put strange glosses on wars that were clearly not caused by religion, these “arguments” only ever reveal an ignorance of the historical facts.

The best evidence such a person could muster here is the crusades themselves, and even they have many socio-political roots that are simply ignored by this popular meme. Once we get out of the Crusades, however, it becomes clear that war (and, really, all human killing of one another) is almost always over land, money, and power. Religion definitely takes a back seat.

This, it seems to me, is so obvious that what is most interesting here is how anyone can seriously deny it. Personally, I expect that the reason is something along these lines:

There have been many times in history that a zealous group decides (on flimsy evidence) that it has found the source of nearly all the evil in the world, and can eradicate most of life’s problems by eradicating that thing.

There are countless examples of such scapegoating, from the rationale behind Jim Crow laws, to the Reign of Terror, to the Holocaust, to the overblown rhetoric of partisan politics. But the point is that it is scapegoating. There is always this curious fact that it is someone “out there” who is the problem, and that “we” don’t have that same weakness–that same evil can’t possibly be in “us”.

I suppose that this is why there is, inescapably, a strain of self-righteousness in these groups that leads them to create the very evils they began by decrying. And I’ve seen a lot of this sort of thinking in the New Atheist rhetoric. It is amazing how similar Richard Dawkins and Jerry Falwell sound. Neither one seems at all aware what happens when an angry “them” hating group actually gets the power they seek. It’s never been pretty.

So much has been said, but let us move on to the second, and much more serious, objection.

Christianity (and many other religions) specifically forbids this kind of thinking. Christ speaks against judgment and self-righteousness, and insists that no one can be his follower unless she first admits to having that same inner darkness that lives in others.

To see others as worse, even to the point of being willing to make war when one is facing no threat to innocent life, is to contradict Christianity.

True, Christians contradict Christianity all the time. But this hardly means that it is “religion” that causes the wars that Christians wage for other reasons.

Nor is it enough to say that people often couch their war cries in religious language. What people couch their war cries in hardly reveals the actual reasons for the war (particularly when so many of the reasons are too shameful to publicly admit). And I highly doubt that couching one’s war cries in the language of democracy, freedom, or safety (which has also been done) will lead anyone to think that those things are an evil cause of war.

And, to some extent, even the battle cries betray the lie. No one ever ran through a battlefield crying “transubstantiation”, because no war was ever primarily about doctrinal differences. War is either a terrible necessity against an unreasonable foe, or motivated by the greedy, prideful, and heartless parts of our nature.

And it is only a self-righteous refusal to admit having such a part that leads one to point to an institution and say “war is all their fault”. One even suspects that this is connected to the frequent inability to understand any need for salvation, but that’s a post for a different time.


The Enlightenment’s Unskeptical Disciples

“The only way, really, to pursue a godlessness in good conscience is to forget history.”

– David Bentley Hart

In context, I found this a deeply penetrating statement about the condition of the current discussion between theists and materialists. What is that context? I highly recommend the full talk, but it can be summarized as follows:

The claim was never true, but it was (in some ways) understandable that Enlightenment thinkers would believe that a society liberated from all belief in transcendence would achieve new heights of prosperity and morality–that enough education, or the right social programs, would do what religion could not.

Now that we are living in the wake of the bloodiest century in all of human history, it takes a deep lack of curiosity (or downright willful ignorance), to believe that a godless society is the unqualified good to be zealously pursued that so many proclaim it to be.

Hart points out that Nietzsche’s fear of the “last men”–of those who have no deep truth to speak, no rational basis for morality, and therefore no meaning in their lives–now seems rather quaint. This idea has gone from a horrific and seemingly wild proclamation to a banal, almost tedious, observation the facts.

The fact that so many, from the New Atheists to an all-too-large group of theists, have such a distorted, shallow view of what it is that Christianity actually claims is only the most recent evidence that ours is an age which has become so used to living without transcendence that far too many of us don’t even understand the meaning of the term.

And we can’t, of course, correct the problems sparked by the naivety of the Enlightenment thinkers simply by insisting that their view of reality was perfectly correct. And, whether they realize it or not, this is exactly what Dawkins and his fans are doing–unreflectively buying into Enlightenment propaganda as if it were a new and established truth they’d discovered themselves. So far, we’ve seen no sign that this group is even remotely aware of the connections between their own ideas and the mass slaughters of the twentieth century.

I, for one, think there are very good reasons to dismiss materialism as false. But, if it is true, it is a catastrophic truth–a bearer of death and oblivion. Those who speak as if it were, in some unspecified way, a glorious triumph have simply ignored the facts.