Category Archives: New Atheists

What Else You Got?

Man-Weighing-OptionsWhat is the evidence that relativism is true?

And, for that matter, what is the evidence that materialism is true?

What is the evidence that a materialist demanding evidence on the internet is a good and fair judge of what should be considered evidence?

It seems to me that there are basically three ways that the materialist who is used to asking for evidence for God can answer these questions:

First, we can look at the matter, applying the same standards of evidence that are routinely taken toward theism.

Under this method, materialism and moral relativism fail abysmally. They aren’t remotely supported y anything like the kinds of evidence regularly insisted upon by the same people defending materialism.

Second, we can revise the concept of evidence so that the reasons people give for believing materialism and relativism count as evidence.

This option comes the closest to my own approach. Of course, its drawback for the materialist is that theism has a great deal of evidentiary support under this system. Most  who defend atheism on the internet would lose their main (and, often as not) only argument if we take this approach.

This brings us to option number three. We could try to give some reason why the same standards of evidence don’t apply to the atheist’s philosophy of life as are being applied to religious philosophies of life.

In my experience, this is the  direction most atheists take. It is the home of the (very poor) “I simply lack belief”, and “we’re not talking about my view” arguments. For all that is said about religious views by this group, on would think they’d be eager to prove that their life-approaches and moral systems meet higher standards of evidence.

But I don’t find this to be the case. In fact, I find the opposite. Very few want to talk about specific options to theism at all. But simply refusing to discuss the issue does nothing to show why it shouldn’t meet the same standards of evidence as theism. It simply ignores the issue.

And this is where we always end up, I think: the insistence that there is some view out there which is better than theism, along with a complete refusal to hold that view up to any scrutiny at all.

Once we do start taking a serious look at materialist views, however, theism is clearly the more plausible option.

But Would a Buddhist Agree With You?

out_of_left_fieldAn argument in favor of Islam or Hinduism is not an argument for atheism.

I make a point of this because so many people I’ve encountered seem to think otherwise. Specifically, arguments showing the frailties of materialism are often met with statements to the effect of “But that doesn’t prove that your religion is the right one.”.

Well, no. It doesn’t.

But that’s a separate conversation. It seems completely odd to me that many seem to think this is a point in favor of atheism. I know of no logical series of steps,  for instance, that will take me from “I don’t know whether Christianity or Islam is more likely.” to “I suppose I should just accept materialism, then.”.

So, unless the materialist in question is giving up on supporting his position, and admitting that we should move on to discussing which religion is the true one, this objection doesn’t make any sense.

Rather, it seems to be one more case of the completely unfounded belief that materialism is some sort of “default” position, to be embraced so long as there is reason to doubt any particular religion. Even if there is more reason to doubt materialism.

But this is no more reasonable than my demanding that, until the materialist can disprove platonism, Christianity is true. Arguments for God (like many other things) frequently begin from the general and get more specific as they advance. One can’t reject the more general arguments simply on the ground that they aren’t getting to the conclusion of Christianity fast enough for one’s personal tastes.

Or, at least, one can’t rationally do this.

This, along with the fact that the “there is no evidence” argument is without any logical force, means that the two most common objections given to theists’ arguments are completely invalid. This sets a pretty low bar for the theist who wishes to show that her position is better supported. Thoughtful atheists do what they can to distance themselves from these arguments.

But this, if one follows the argument far enough, means offering good reasons why materialism is true. And, so far, I’ve been completely unable to find such reasons.

The Most Straightforward of Evasive Arguments

1pokerbluffpageI think I need to revisit the fact that bold demands for evidence of God aren’t so much serious challenges to belief as refusals to think.

It seems to have gotten to the point that insisting on evidence for God is a telltale sign that one isn’t interested in considering the subject, but simply looking to score rhetorical points in debate. More thoughtful atheists never seem to press this “argument”.

As a case in point, just over three weeks ago, I wrote a post pointing out that those who demand evidence for God are consistently unable to provide a standard of evidence when asked for one. This is a key problem, as the entire point of insisting that there is no evidence for God hangs on knowing what evidence is.

Since then, I’ve received at least forty demands for evidence (I may have missed a few in counting) and, in spite of asking quite a few times, have never actually been given a definition of “evidence”.

But this is not to say that such people aren’t confident that they know what the term means. They are quick to tell me that the things I present are not evidence, and nearly as quick to tell me that my own definition is wrong. But this leaves me wondering why such people won’t simply state their definition. It seems they’d rather keep it secret, and simply inform me when I’ve said something that doesn’t fit.

This goes beyond the “he who defines unchallenged wins the debate” tactic. Indeed, opponents aren’t even allowed to know how terms are being defined. Thus, it is hard to see how this is anything but an attempt to stack the deck in favor of the materialist.

At the very least, this feels like trying to bluff one’s way through a debate. One wonders, for instance, if all this has something to do with the fact that any reasonable definition of evidence would fail to support the claim of “no evidence”.

But, if one’s position isn’t meant to be a sort of mystery religion, in which people are allowed to know what is actually being claimed only after they’ve demonstrated loyalty to the cause, then we need to know how one is defining terms. (Is it me, or are there quite a few parallels between the New Atheism and Scientology?)

But, even as a non-initiate, I’ve managed to get one key piece of information out of these individuals: evidence is strictly empirical (some prefer the word “tangible” or the phrase “sharable through the senses”).

And the glaring problem with this is the fact that Christians have never claimed that an empirical God exists. We have specifically claimed the opposite (that God is not empirical). To demand empirical evidence for the non-empirical is simply a category error; treating it as if it has blown the lid off of metaphysics is like thinking the “chicken or the egg” question is a devastating refutation of biology.

A slightly less glaring (but equally significant) problem is the fact that, by this standard, there is no evidence for materialism. This demand, if it had any weight at all (which it doesn’t), would do as much damage to the speaker’s own position as any religious claim. This is doubly true given that there are, in fact, physical events which are better explained by theism than materialism. But that is an altogether different point.

In the end, I see nothing in this at all, and the thoughtless way that it is parroted on the internet strikes me as every bit as dogmatic as its proponents accuse theism of being.

For far too many, this terrible argument is the only reason at all to reject the much better arguments supporting Christianity. Whether one finally does that, of course, is as much a personal as an intellectual matter. But a real engagement with the issue would preclude an approach as intellectually shallow as demanding empirical evidence.

Aiming at the Wrong Target

cosGodI’ve never actually been given evidence that materialism is correct. But I like to think that, if I were, my reaction wouldn’t be to complain that the person offering the evidence didn’t simultaneously disprove every non-theistic life philosophy that I could name.

This may be, however, the most common response I get when offering support for my own position. Certainly, it is the New Atheists’ modus operandi. There seems to be a certain type that, upon hearing an argument for God’s existence, can’t resist naming off every god that comes to mind and proclaiming that there is “just as much” evidence for them.

I have to admit that I can’t understand this except in terms of rhetoric and slogan-style debating. The number of times that Quetzalcoatl’s name is mentioned (as if this were a serious point) stands as evidence that there are many out there who have no idea that the First Cause argument does absolutely nothing to support his existence.

Likewise, there isn’t the slightest thing that moral arguments for God’s existence does to support Zeus, Osiris, or Moloch. Nor have I seen anything about the fine-tuning argument which lends any credibility to the existence of Isis, Marduk, or Thor.

What’s going on here? To ask the question is to answer it. Those who delight in throwing out names of nearly forgotten deities as if that were somehow an argument against monotheism are almost always more interested in scoring rhetorical points than in getting at truth. There is a world of difference between the finite beings which were said to inhabit the physical cosmos by ancient temple religions and the transcendental, metaphysical God of modern book religion.

Really, only a near complete ignorance of what monotheism actually is, coupled with a hostility to learning, could lead one to think that asking about Poseidon has any bearing whatsoever on the debate between Christianity and materialists (except, I suppose, to explain the reasons why it isn’t relevant).

God, that is the God believed in by monotheists, simply isn’t an old man with a long beard flying around in space somewhere. If this seems tediously obvious to you, you may not realize that there is a large and growing body of evidence that many, many non-theists on the internet don’t realize this fact.

This is the reason why physical evidence is, at best, only marginally relevant. Christians have proposed a metaphysical concept outside the physical realm. One can consider that concept, debate it, believe or not believe it. But to respond by demanding that no one has ever seen God in a telescope is simply to misunderstand the most fundamental terms of the discussion.

And references to these other gods is no different than this, because they are exactly the sort of entity we should be able to spot with a telescope.

I am aware, of course, that there is a large and growing belief in materialism–of people who believe that there couldn’t possibly be anything that can’t be spotted with a telescope (or some other tool of science). Edward Feser has aptly titled this mentality “the last superstition”. It is as unsupported, both scientifically and philosophically, as Hades, Sep, or even Santa Claus.

Yet, somehow, this idea is proclaimed to be right on the grounds that, if we completely throw out all real understanding of what we are looking for, we haven’t found God. At the end of all the slogans and one-liners, it remains to be seen even the slightest reason why we should embrace the materialism that has so enchanted modern culture.

Divine Simplicity and Simpletons

simpleton-universityRichard Dawkins abandoned Christianity at the age of nine. And, by all accounts, he hasn’t learned anything new about what Christians believe since then.

This is to say that his “Boeing 747 Gambit” is an excellent case study in why one should read on a topic before making vast declarations on it in print.

What is the Boeing 747 Gambit? For those that don’t already know, it could be summarized as follows:

1. Because God has control over the universe, he would have to be an extremely complex being.

2. Complex beings always evolve from simpler beings.

3. The probability that something this complex could evolve is vanishingly small.

4. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

I first picked up “The God Delusion” looking for a real challenge to my faith, and was very disappointed to find, among other things, this being presented as the book’s central argument. Not only are these claims dubious at best, but I had to rewrite it just to make it coherent. Dawkins’ own summary was, demonstrably, logically invalid. If this was the best the New Atheists could present, it is no wonder theologians didn’t feel that books like this one were worth attention.

But theologians should pay attention, and not only because a post-graduate student could write a doctoral thesis on everything that is wrong with this argument. By stirring up controversy, Dawkins has given theologians the perfect excuse to discuss, say, divine simplicity.

That is the problem with Dawkins’ first statement here. God has traditionally understood as a simple being (not as in “easy to understand” but as in “not composed of parts”). As spirit, this is rather straight-forward. Dawkins misses this point, presumably because he believes that God has successive thoughts like we do (rather than holding all knowledge simultaneously), and otherwise thinks that a mind’s knowledge counts has adding to its physical complexity.

But this is nonsense. The only way to say that a mind’s thoughts make it more physically complex is to assume that there can’t be a mind without a brain. But this is, of course, the very thing Dawkins should be trying to prove. To assume it here would be to argue in a circle.

This is one of many reasons why experts don’t take the argument seriously. The real debate among theologians is whether God has metaphysical “parts” (as many Protestant theologians claim) or not (as Catholic and Orthodox theologians claim).

I think many would be interested in reading “Personalists” and “Classical Theists” defend their respective concepts of God. Why think God would be simple? How is the concept of the trinity explained if God is simple? How is God’s unity described without simplicity? This is a great way to deepen one’s own understanding of the divine.

But Dawkins simply isn’t interested. He “knows” this thing called “God” doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t have to bother learning what the word “God” actually means. But, if he had bothered, he would have noticed that his argument doesn’t disprove the God that monotheists believe in, but only the sort of God’s believed in by the ancient Pagans.

I’d say that Dawkins is a bit late to be proving that Zeus doesn’t exist (and there are far better arguments, even then). Really, his “central argument” has nothing to say about a God who is above nature, rather than part of it.

In the words of Stephen Barr, “Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point.”

Why Think When You Already ‘Know’?

little-girl-wearing-big-round-glasses-14230209Quite a few of the objections I hear to theism are based in a particular understanding of theology. It amazes me how many of them come from people who insist ardently that we shouldn’t engage in theology. Alex Rosenberg is a good example; after arguing that all knowledge is scientific (and, consequently, that theology should be ignored as a source of knowledge), he writes this:

A version of theism worth believing must at a minimum attribute to God the intention to produce us and not just some intelligent creature or other (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 88)

I have no idea how, without undertaking some theology, Rosenberg can reasonably claim to know this. Is it really crucial the teaching of every religion, and even the concept of God, that God meant to produce humans specifically? Is it completely unbelievable that he’d be willing to create (or even did create) different species elsewhere in the universe? Whether one answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’, one has gotten into theology.

This is a common problem. In fact, it is not unlike the oft-heard complaints about the idea that God would have created the whole universe “just for us”. It wasn’t until I heard this complaint that I’d ever even considered the idea that humans are God’s only reason for creating the universe. I’d always assumed that there were many things about creation which God intended. Again, we’re discussing theology whether or not I’m correct.

It is also worth mention that, even if we accept Rosenberg’s position, this is no discredit to theism. He goes on to claim that God couldn’t have seriously intended create us because our coming into being was so improbable. Of course, one would think that doing the improbable would be within the capacity of an omniscient and omnipotent God.

But Rosenberg doesn’t stop to consider such an objection. Doing so would be to partake of the forbidden fruit of studying theology. Never mind that his own position is every bit as theological–the only difference is that it is terrible theology.

This is the reason why so many have argued that an understanding of theology is needed in order to refute God’s existence. It is the only way to know whether or not God, as he is actually defined, is even being addressed by one’s argument.

The Blindfolded Leading the Blind

thRichard Dawkins is willfully ignorant.

In reaction to the suggestion that he actually learn something about the subject on which he presumes to justify a total rejection, he simply demands that he needn’t learn “fairyology” to know that fairies don’t exist. But, presumably, one first needs to know what fairies are before one can make that call.

And that is precisely what theists keep trying to explain to Dawkins–that he fundamentally misunderstands what the word “God” means.

But Dawkins isn’t hurting for people to rush to his defense. I’ve heard many people claim that there is no such thing as the New Atheists. But, whatever we’re calling them, there is a large group of self-identified atheists out there who agree that Dawkins doesn’t have to know what he’s talking about in order to know that he’s “almost certainly” correct.

P.Z. Meyers is another member of the supposedly non-existent New Atheists, who created what may be the most famous of their defenses for willful ignorance. In what he dubbed the “Courtier’s Reply“, he compares theists to defenders of the emperor’s imaginary clothes (from the famous Hans Christian Anderson story) who complain that one needs to study the intricacies of fashion before insisting that the man is nude.

This all seems rather like intellectual seppuku. It never seems to occur to Meyers (or Dawkins, who quoted the piece approvingly on more than one occasion) that the theists aren’t saying anything like “you don’t know enough about fashion”. We are saying something much more like “that guy’s not the emperor, try the palace”.

But Dawkins is having none of it. He doesn’t need to read books about God, or even listen to the reasons he’s been given why his critiques are completely off the mark, in order to know he’s seen through the great deception. To actually look into the matter before proclaiming intellectual superiority would apparently be as silly as studying “fairyology”.

But the problem isn’t that these two men demand the right to remain ignorant. The problem is that so many listen to them as if they actually knew what they were talking about. Whether or not we choose to call the fans of Dawkins, Meyers, and others “the New Atheists”, they’ve long since abdicated any claim they may have had on being champions of reason.

“These are Not the Atheists You’re Looking For”

these_are_not_the_droidsIn past entries, I’ve been very critical of the New Atheists. There’s good reason for that; they represent something of a (far too large) fundamentalist fringe of atheism. Much of the response to my comments was essentially what I’d expected, but there are two elements to it that I find interesting:

First is the frequency with which some challenge the idea that the New Atheism even exists. Some even seem to think that I’m discussing all atheists (and, otherwise rightly, think I’ve been unreasonable toward atheism in general).

I find this astonishing. While I agree that the name is very misleading, it is entirely valid to point out that the recent popularity of atheist groups, meetings, books, and activism centered around a small set of individuals is deeply out of step with many other atheists. Yes, social groups are never tightly defined, but to say that there is no such thing as the New Atheism is to say that there is no difference, for example, between Richard Dawkins’ fans and atheists who have a positive view of religion.

Saying that there is no difference is, in effect, saying that a few writers speak for all atheists, which strikes me as entirely strange.

Second is the fact that none of the writers I’ve mentioned as being New Atheists have been defended by the same people who deny the existence of New Atheism. To me, this would only underline the fact that there are different kinds of atheists, and that those I’m criticizing under the ill-conceived moniker “New Atheism” are indeed consistently saying things that not all atheists believe.

I’d think that most atheists would be eager to distance themselves from such people. As a Christian, I’m eager to distance myself from the lunatic fringe. I’m left assuming that those who want atheism treated monolithically simply aren’t aware of what these people are saying–or with what vitriol they’re saying it.

But I hope that more people see this. The New Atheists have managed to avoid a great deal of well-deserved criticism by insisting that we cannot speak about them unless our words also apply to the genteel and thoughtful atheist. They seem never to tire of trying to avoid being defined in order to avoid being held up to scrutiny.

And open-mined atheists should be at least as bothered by the lumping of them together with the New Atheists as I am.

Shredding the Paper Maché God

Kid Hitting PinataWhen I first read Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, I was surprised that his arguments bore so much similarity to the New Atheists’. Of course, he  doesn’t fall into most of the more obvious fallacies one will spot in books like “The God Delusion”. Still, he makes the same fundamental error:

He doesn’t understand the thing he’s criticizing.

That is not to say that he doesn’t understand some particular denomination’s theology, or that he doesn’t address my personal interpretation of specific scripture. That is to say that he fundamentally misses the point of any talk at all about God and religion.

Russell, like the New Atheists, seems to think that religion is some sort of pre-science. Most obviously, he thinks scientific theories, rather than secular philosophies, are the alternatives to theological beliefs. That is, he never seems to realize which questions religion is meant to answer. In rebuking Christianity, he never tries to offer a source of morality, explain spirituality, address the possibility of an afterlife, consider the need for grace, discuss transcendence, or ponder the meaning of life.

Rather, he spends several pages explaining to us that anachronistic readings of the Bible make for terrible scientific theory, then falsely asserts that religious belief causes harm to society. He rips apart notions of an “ally in the sky” that no Christian thinker has ever endorsed, dutifully informs us that Christianity would be silly if it were to teach that God were a created being, reinterprets Jesus’ teachings in strange ways to make insulting him easier, and insists both that we are too good to need saving and that people are too evil to for Christianity to be true.

All of this is less like hunting down the real animal than putting on a blindfold and whacking at a piñata. 

Not that there aren’t interesting points in the speech (mostly in the first half). But, as glad as I am to have gone through it, I am left at the end with a very simple question:

When will he get around to talking about Christianity?

It’s “Just” One More God

1=0If one follows the debate between theists and atheists, one isn’t likely to go a week without hearing someone declare “we’re both atheists, I only reject one more God than you”.

This has always struck me as the logical equivalent of a solipsist (who thinks all of reality is an illusion) claiming “we’re both a-universists, I only reject one more universe than you”, or even a religious person saying “we’re both a-secularists, I only reject one more secular philosophy than you”.

Part of me can’t quite accept that this is meant seriously, but the passion with which it is often pressed seems undoubtedly sincere. The only support I get for these kinds of claims is the statement that things like the universe are supported with evidence (apparently, this is why the “a-universist” doesn’t apply).

The first thing to note here is that this makes the whole “one more God” point moot. It really doesn’t add anything to the discussion, and we should just skip to the “no evidence for God” argument (and discuss why it is a demonstrably bad one).

The only real reason to proudly assert a claim that shows such blatant disregard for basic philosophical distinctions is, I think, because it sounds good so long as you don’t actually think about it too carefully. It makes for an excellent sound-byte in the dorm room or on the internet. This is the level of nearly all of the arguments against theism I hear.

But all positions have weaker, as well as stronger, points. And this leaves one to wonder, if a position does this poorly in the areas it chooses to bring up as its strengths, what must be the problems when we get to the truly weak points?