Category Archives: New Atheists

Mockery and Reason Are Different Things

flat,550x550,075,fIt’s amazing how many seem not to realize this.

As a case-in-point, I’d like to offer Richard Dawkins.  Following up on discussing Chris Hallquist’s failure to offer a secular moral theory in the face of the moral argument for God’s existence, I’ll respond to a recent interchange involving Dawkins making the exact same mistake.

And why he needs to learn more about the reason he claims to cherish.

Dawkins was confronted with the issue of a basis for morality in a recent interview. He launched into a series of attacks on religious traditions. And, as one who knows something about Dawkins, this was unsurprising to the point of tediousness. When asked for a secular basis for morality, Dawkins can be counted on to sidestep the issue and launch in to a gripe about (his deeply uninformed understanding of) the Bible and the Koran.

I mention it, however, for two reasons:

First is the fact that it has become so monotonous. Dawkins has had ample time to come up with a more substantial response than cheap mockery. If he wishes to rant about religion, that is his right. But one would expect him to either present an alternative for examination–or admit that he’s simply emoting without any real case to make.

After all, it is remarkably easy to play the critic (particularly against straw men); the difficulty comes in offering something better.

And Dawkins fails completely in this regard. He not only doesn’t do better, he doesn’t even try. He seems to systematically avoid putting his own concept of morality up for consideration–and that’s a little like challenging someone to a boxing match, but only on the condition that he’s not allowed to throw any punches.

Second is the aforementioned fact that he completely misrepresents theism. But I’ll not spend much time on this, because I think the fact is obvious to any who care to look. Rather, I’ll quote Dennis Prager in his response to Dawkins.

“Dawkins and his supporters have a right to atheism. They do not have a right to intellectual dishonesty about atheism.”

And that is what these rants from Dawkins, Hallquist, and the bulk of their fans seem to be:  a dodging of the question and a gripe about a version of theism that almost no one actually believes in. And that is exactly the kind of response one would expect to hear out of a group that has trouble understanding the difference between mocking a position and answering its challenges.

What it is not is a rational defense of secular morality.

Nor would it defend Dawkins to say that he’s sincere. Personally, I believe that he is. I’d imagine that he’s so focused on inventing clever and vitriolic statements that he’s personally never noticed that he hasn’t answered the question being asked.

If so, then he’s more interested in what feels true (and making something feel true to others) than in what actually is true.

And this is always where I find myself in considering the New Atheism: for all the bluster about reason, they seem much more interested in mockery and other emotional tactics. The fact that Dawkins can’t offer even a single reason in defense of his moral theory hasn’t slowed him down one bit.

And that leaves me wondering how much he really cares about taking a reasonable view of life in the first place.

Ignorance is More Blissful than Theism

ignorance-is-blissIn his article, Believe it or Not, David Bentley Hart eloquently points out the moral and intellectual superficiality of the New Atheism:

“[Nietzsche’s] famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists—those who merely do not believe—to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.”

As different as their views are, Hart and Nietzsche agree on the simple fact that any worldview worth taking seriously is one that answers life’s greatest questions, rather than simply dismissing them or arrogantly declaring that one (safe in the suburban bubble of economic stability and a set of unquestioned cultural values) is strong enough to live without such answers.

The latter approach, for all its bluster, results only in drifting through one’s life without any clear idea what it is about.

And refusing to see the tragedy in that does nothing to make it less tragic.

Courageously Demanding Real Answers to Vague Questions

thriving_on_vague_objectives_coverFrom Chris Hallquist’s “William Lane Craig Exposed”:

Craig writes, “If the Many Worlds Hypothesis is to commend itself as a plausible hypothesis, then some plausible mechanism for generating the many worlds needs to be explained.” To which I reply, “If the God Hypothesis is to commend itself as a plausible hypothesis, then some plausible mechanism for generating the god must be explained.”

Hallquist quickly adds to this that it is “somewhat tongue-in-cheek”, but I’m not sure if this helps him.

After all, it is either a good objection or it isn’t, and his response to Craig assumes that God needs to be generated somehow. And this is to say that he’s refuting a god that no one is proposing.

And, as many know, Richard Dawkins makes the exact same mistake in what he calls his “central argument” against theism. For all the bravado about “reason” and “evidence”, all the actual arguments put forward by this group seem to have been dealt with.

Personally, I find it astonishing that so many people seem to think that “disproving” a god that no one actually believes in is a reason to reject all forms of theism. This is no different, and certainly no more scientific, than rejecting gravity on the grounds that the Earth isn’t flat.

But perhaps Hallquist knows this, and is instead suggesting that the “many worlds” (usually called the “multiverse”) are eternal in the same sense that God is said to be by Craig.

If so, this is still a very poor argument.

Not only are the universes in the multiverse contingent, meaning that they need an external explanation while God is self-explained, but the multiverse cannot be extrapolated to past infinity. That is, it cannot be eternal. More than this, it would be this universe that would have to be eternal to answer Craig’s challenge. 

Either way we choose to take Hallquist, his argument is circular. He should be showing us why there is no significant difference between God and the multiverse in terms of explaining the universe we observe. Instead, he’s simply asserting this, and leaving us to guess at whether he means to say that God is like the multiverse, or that the multiverse is like God.

This leaves one to suspect that he simply doesn’t understand the difference, but that is a far cry from showing us that there is no difference. It is one more piece in a mounting pile of evidence that Hallquist doesn’t understand the idea he’s trying to refute. Far too often, the New Atheists confuse mocking an idea for offering a rational argument against it. 

And this is why they should study theology and philosophy, rather than simply attack them out of ignorance. 

Playground Insults in the Name of Civil Discourse

3tscekThe London School of Economics is facing a controversy this week over it’s insistence that an secularist group not sport offensive t-shirts and signs. Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins has voiced his support for the group, calling the school officials “sanctimonious little prigs”.

I have no idea if Dawkins realized that he was demonstrating the exact sort of mean-spirited behavior the atheist group was accused of stooping to. If not, he can rightly claim to be as ignorant of basic courtesy as he is of theology (and, if so, it is not a compliment to say that he has no problem being mean-spirited).

In fact, the New Atheism (always taking its cues from Richard Dawkins) seems to have a long track record of garnering attention by specifically putting their message in offensive terms–then acting shocked and crying oppression when offense is taken.

And this was the issue with the group: not that the position of atheism (or even of close-minded, ranting atheism that confuses cheap slogans for reason) was unwelcome at the event, but that public discourse requires a certain level of civility in order to function.

The group complains “Our right to free expression and participation in the LSE student community is being curtailed for no other reason than that we are expressing views that are not shared by others”. But this is simply false. Rights to expression and participation were never taken away. The group was neither banned from participating nor hindered from distributing their literature. They were merely asked to remove offensive signs and t-shirts and present their case in a civil way–the exact thing that is expected of every group at the event.

Needless to say, this was not “for no other reason” than their disbelief. It was for the unnecessarily rude methods that characterize the New Atheism. But it seems that the movement, having made incivility its calling card, has trouble understanding the difference between offering reasons for disagreeing and resorting to ridicule.

All this reminds me rather of the behavior of Lawrence Krauss–who recently insisted on an informal debate format with William Lane Craig in order to “have a conversation”, then used that format to shout down and talk over Craig rather than listen to or address his points. This group, following the example of their leaders, seems far less interested in actual conversation or fairness than in using the rhetoric of civil society in order to excuse behavior more appropriate to the Jr. High playground than civil debate.

For all its claims of intellectual superiority, the New Atheism behaves far more like an angry mob than a coalition of thoughtful individuals. Atheists in general should be rushing to distance themselves from this group in the hopes of salvaging what’s left of the stereotype that atheists are a sophisticated lot.

If they’ve failed at dismantling theism, Dawkins, Krauss, and their fans have blown the lid off of the myth that an atheist can be expected to be particularly reasonable.

The Brute and the Philosopher

imagesThough I don’t always agree with him, I rather like William Lane Craig. I think he’s done an excellent job at arguing the case for God’s existence on both the academic and lay level.

I think it is very hard to defend the claim that he is either incompetent or dishonest as a philosopher. One doesn’t have to agree with any of his arguments to say this. Really, it is the civil human being who sees that intelligent people acting in good faith can disagree. Only a form of philistinism would demand that all dissension is the result of dishonesty or stupidity.

The fact that it’s common to make both accusations of Craig, then, has always struck me as more than a little strange.

But popular New Atheist blogger, Chris Hallquist  (aka “the Uncredible Hallq”) has always been willing to jump on that bandwagon. He has written an ebook arguing against God’s existence, and devotes a chapter to Craig. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t establish much in the chapter other than his own close-mindedness.

If this seems like a harsh assessment, I can only say that Hallquist deserves it. He doesn’t take the time to understand clearly what is being said before presuming to judge Craig and his arguments.

And judge he does. He devotes the opening section of this chapter to attacking Craig’s honesty. He then shows some genuine clear-headedness by pointing out that it would be a fallacy to suggest that this makes Craig’s arguments wrong.

He then dives right into committing this fallacy.

It seems that Hallquist is keen to accuse Craig of dishonesty because he thinks that it takes nothing more than the accusation of dishonesty to dismiss Craig’s claims of fact. He doesn’t seem to feel the need to offer us any reason at all why Craig is wrong about the things he points out. There really is no point in even considering Craig’s personal character except to commit this fallacy.

But all this would be moot if Hallquist could otherwise show that Craig is wrong. But it seems likely as not that it is precisely his inability to refute Craig which forces him to resort to personal attacks. I’ve long suspected that this is why so many attack Craig, actually. I don’t see any reason at all for so much energy to be spent on slandering the man other than as a distraction from the inability to refute him.

That said, Hallquist does have some interesting things to say. I’ll be responding to his comments in my next series of posts.

Assuming What One Should be Proving

circularreasoningIf materialism is true, theism is false.

If that strikes you as rather obvious, I should add that many don’t seem to understand the implications of this. I’m speaking, as some of you may have guessed, of those who insist on assuming materialism when evaluating whether or not theism is true. If that’s one’s modus operandi, atheism is a foregone conclusion, and only thing left to be done is to drop the facade that we’re actually investigating theism.

At first blush, this may seem a rather obvious mistake to make–that very few would fall into this trap. I’d probably agree, were it not for the fact that I’ve encountered this approach more often than any other challenge to theism.

Every time someone declares that “science hasn’t found evidence for God” (apparently ignorant of the fact that science only looks for the material) is assuming that the material is the only thing out there to be studied.

When someone claims “belief in God is no different from believing in an invisible unicorn”, the same mistake is being made. Anyone who can’t see that inquiring into the truth of claims about physical things doesn’t automatically settle non-physical questions is assuming that the physical is all there is to study.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the statement “there’s no evidence for God” by anyone who didn’t end up insisting that evidence needs to be physical. If we’re simply throwing out the non-physical from the start, we’re assuming materialism.

There are many more examples, but the point is that all of these arguments rest on the assumption of materialism. This makes every last one of them a circulus in probando fallacy. If one needs to assume that materialism is true in order to make an argument against belief in God, then one’s case against God is only as strong as the case for materialism.

And, as I’ve argued many times in the past, there is no good reason to believe in materialism, and every reason to dismiss it as self-contradictory, lacking evidence, and counter to what we know.

Arguing with Preschoolers

92572265From Smalley’s “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Atheist”:

3. I asked my four-year-old daughter where the stars came from. She confidently said “The moon made them.” I followed by asking “Then where did the moon come from?” She strongly asserted “Daddy, the moon is the boss. Nobody made the moon.” This is an unmistakably familiar mindset; and rightfully embarrassing for an adult to hold such similar thought.

The problem with most arguments from analogy is that their proponents have done nothing to show that the analogy is a good one.

We see this very clearly in the passage above. Smalley seems to be claiming ignorance of the differences between a contingent, finite, material object like the moon and a necessary, infinite, immaterial God. Whether one believes in the later or not, this is the idea being discussed, and merely asserting “the moon had to be made by something, so God (if there were a God) had to be too” isn’t any better an argument than the one Smalley’s daughter made.

In fact, cosmological arguments for God’s existence center around the idea that physical things (like the moon) need explanations. This is a point in favor of these defenses for God, not against them.

But I suspect that this isn’t actually what Smalley is trying to say. Perhaps he’s not really making the case that the causal regress must be infinite (if he was, he has failed). Perhaps he was simply trying to say that theistic reasoning is similar to that of a young child’s, and is therefore wrong.

I hesitate to assume that this is his point, because it is even less rational. To say that something must be false because it bears vague resemblance to something said by a young child is clearly poor logic. Ideas are to be weighed on their merits, not the merits of a vaguely similar comment made by a preschooler.

I doubt very much that Smalley would have abandoned his atheism had his daughter responded with “Nothing made the stars; space just appeared one day”, but there is as much analogy here to atheism as her comment about the moon to theism. Neither statement is a fair summary. The musings of preschoolers simply aren’t a rational basis on which to judge a philosophy.

The most charitable way I can interpret Smalley is to assume that he wasn’t really trying to make an argument here, but simply appeal to pathos: attempting to make religion seem inherently like a childish fantasy that adults grow out of.

He’s free to believe this, of course, but he doesn’t title his list “My Top 10 Personal Beliefs about Religion”. And that is all this last would be: an assertion that atheism is true, not remotely a reason to think so. That theism is anything like what Smalley’s daughter said about the moon is precisely what he should be trying to prove; he can’t simply assume it in order to “prove” atheism. So, why this is listed as a reason, let alone one of his best reasons, to be an atheist is rather strange.

In the end, it’s a cute story. An atheist parable to encourage fellow non-believers, clarify his position, and make his opponents look a little silly. What it isn’t is anything like a logical reason to be an atheist.

It’s All Over?

they_think_its_all_over_1999a-smallThe Spectator has published an article, proclaiming the end of the New Atheist movement, and the rise of a group of atheist thinkers who see religion in a much more nuanced way.

As much as I’d like to believe this, I’m not convinced.

Yes, I’d say that the New Atheism, like any movement, must always face the choice between adaptation or death. And, yes, they will eventually need to acknowledge the complex realities of life, and transition out of this simple atheism-good/religion-bad narrative that they hammer so tirelessly if they want people to keep listening.

But it is a bit premature to say that the movement is dead. Some are starting to realize that its treatment of religion has been unfair to the point of propagandistic, and journalists do seem to feel that the novelty of hearing someone proclaim “the world would simply be better without religion” has worn off (as Coyne laments in his response to the article). But I think we still have a couple of years before taking a sophisticated view of religion is seen as more desirable than declaring one’s self too intelligent to study the matter.

Setting aside the strangeness of using (a claim of) intelligence as an excuse to remain ignorant, I agree with Hobson’s analysis to a point. The shift may not have happened, but it does seem to be starting. If journalists and writers are beginning to declare themselves too sophisticated to side with the simple narrative of the New Atheists, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that many of their readers will follow suit. This hardly justifies “Dawkins has lost”, of course, but is worth noting.

In fact, I noticed that Coyne couldn’t get through his response without reference to the inane “courtier’s reply”. If the choice is ultimately between appearing sophisticated and defending a self-imposed ignorance of the details, it’s obvious what people will favor. Eventually, this will happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s happened yet.

And, from my perspective, the longer the New Atheism lasts, the easier it will be to convince people that unreconstructed materialism is a philosophy for the simple-minded.

As such, I find myself rather ambivalent. I very much prefer my encounters with thoughtful atheists, but the New Atheists make my job quite a bit easier, and it is always tempting to play up the idea that all atheists are like Dawkins.

Apologies in advance, then, if I end up doing that.

Rejecting the Entire Conversation

imagesIt seems that attacking the idea that metaphysics is a valid discipline is a staple response of many in the discussion over God’s existence.

Personally, I find this rather astonishing. When I first began debating, I expected requests for evidence, questions about the existence of evil and suffering, and discussion about how evolution relates to theism. What I didn’t expect is a complete rejection of the topic for discussion.

Rather, I assumed that anyone showing up for a metaphysical debate already agreed that metaphysics was a valid topic to discuss. The fact that so many disagreed on this point, and seemed to feel no hesitation about rejecting (even ridiculing) metaphysics left me with two possible theories:

1. The New Atheist movement is interested only in rhetorical persuasion, and is therefore unconcerned about whether or not its claims are logically consistent.

2. These people don’t actually know what metaphysics is, and are unaware that their own position is every bit as metaphysical as theism.

I tend to suspect that the former idea is more true of people like Dawkins, Krauss, and Harris than their lip-service to reason would have us believe, but I like to think that the latter is the main issue for most (that being the more morally excusable of the two).

As such, I find that most who attack metaphysics get very stumped when one explains what the use of metaphysics actually means. In most of these debates, it is simply applying logic to the question at hand. And, so far, I’ve not encountered anyone willing to respond by dismissing logic.

Moreover, most seem hesitant to dismiss those metaphysical principals that are the basis of science – at least, so long as it is being pointed out that they would be demising science by doing so. As such, the metaphysical concepts of Ockham’s Razor and Sufficient Reason are a little more safe than others.

I say “a little more” because so many have been willing to reject sufficient reason in discussions on, say, the Kalam Cosmological Argument (which asserts that the universe must have a cause). It seems odd that the basis of science isn’t more treasured by this group. But, rather than read implications into that, my point is that the rejection of these principles is deeply anti-science, and should be rejected on those grounds.

I suspect that it is going to become increasingly well-known that a rejection of metaphysics is a rejection of science (not to mention all rationality). If that happens, Those who have based their argument in the rejection of metaphysics will begin to look very foolish.

So, for those who are simply interested in the rhetorical value of sound-bytes, this may not be the wisest choice, even then.

The Unquestioners

anti-intellectualismIn getting back into a habit of posting, I thought I’d jump in on the recent buzz about the Dawkins/Krauss film “The Unbelievers”. Reporters seem to be throwing these men a lot of soft-balls over this, but I personally find it hard to believe that this will be good for their movement in the long run.

That is to say that nearly all of the energy in this movement is focused on promoting the stereotype that intelligent people who think for themselves are atheists, and thoughtless people are religious. While that makes for great PR, an actual study of the relevant issues tells a very different story.

In fact, while there are individuals who are trying very hard, atheists as a group are failing to keep up their end of the conversation Dawkins and Krauss say they want to have. The dismissal of philosophy, science, and even logic itself is fairly common at the moment, and I suspect that future atheists will have a great deal of damage control in trying to deal with the obvious responses this film (and the movement in general) sets itself up for.

Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that Dawkins and Krauss are so disinterested in questioning their own cherished assumptions. If one even asks the question, “Why think that science and scientists are the relevant experts on whether or not God exists?” their entire position begins to collapse. More destructive still would be a public that ventured to ask, “What is the evidence in support of your materialism?”.

Simply repeating the mantra that religious beliefs are false and encouraging the use of ridicule to “promote reason” does nothing to support the demonstrably false view promoted by these men. In fact, the group seems to be resorting to an anti-intellectual approach that will, if it continues, make it increasingly easy for people to dismiss what this group has to say.

As to a response to the film itself, I doubt I could do better than Craig.