Tag Archives: apologetics

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.

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.

If You Redefine Christianity, it’s Ridiculous

redefineIn my time discussing apologetics, I’ve encountered two types of atheists:

1. Those who don’t, at the end of the day, believe religious claims, but consider theism a respectable position worthy of serious consideration.

2. Those who know almost nothing about theism outside of wild distortions and straw men.

One such distortion, that comes up semi-regularly, is the patently false claim that Christianity holds that “God sacrificed himself to himself”. Usually, it is followed with intimations that God threatens people with Hell, as well as the insistence that this is the basis of Christianity.

With all due respect to those who believe such claims, this is borne of a deep ignorance of the facts.

Personally, I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with being ignorant, so long as one is willing to learn. Its entirely possible that the second sort of atheist could become the first sort simply by availing his or her self of the writings of actual theologians.

Those that do will find that, according to Christian theology, Christ was indeed a sacrifice, but not remotely “to himself”. That is, he was not a ritual sacrifice, but rather a sacrifice in the same sense that a soldier might sacrifice his life in battle.

Such a person would not be sacrificing “to” something, but rather “for” something (such as freedom or some other cause).

Christ, according to Christians, sacrificed himself to bridge the infinite gap between a perfect God and a finite, fallible species. This wasn’t remotely because God, personally, wanted a sacrifice, it was because (among other things) the distance was so great.

Bridging such a gap, and forgiving great wrongs, is always extraordinarily painful. It is always an act of sacrifice.

It is also well within mainline Christian teachings that Christ died not merely to suffer for us, but to suffer with us. That is part of bridging the gap in any relationship, after all. I’ve even read essays from black Christians who claim that they love Christ not so much because he died for them, but because he was, in effect, lynched. He knew what it was like to suffer under an unjust socio-political system.

Much, much more could be said, but it already seems obvious enough that the common internet meme is far too glib.

It is less so, however, than the even more common claim about threats of Hell. I can’t imagine that the idea that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness is an obscure fact. Yet I run across people who confidently claim that the threat of Hell is the motivation for good behavior to be found in Christianity.

But, as I’ve already written about the actual motivator, I’ll simply respond by wondering how someone who doesn’t seem even to know that Christianity offers forgiveness can claim to know anything at all substantial about the religion, let alone seen through it.

These kinds of claims are no part of what Christian theologians have claimed. Much less are they the basis of the religion. One can believe, or disbelieve. But, what one can’t do, if one is to be rational, is claim that these silly straw men have anything to do with Christianity.

Question Everything (Except…)

tumblr_m8tq30CQvB1rq27uuo1_500In his “Miracle of Theism”, Mackie discusses the idea that people might believe in God without any rational reason. In fact, he discusses a few ideas under that heading, asking whether fideism (belief without reason) can be an intellectually respectable position.

My position, like Mackie’s, is that it cannot. In fact, I want to do Mackie one better and say that “just because I believe” is not an intellectually respectable position regardless of the content of that belief.

Mackie, it seems, is only interested in this question as it relates to theism. It never seems to occur to him that, if one must give a reason for one’s beliefs, then materialists, neutral monists, non-reductive naturalists, and other non-theists must also defend their views.

It is, I would say, the general approach of the non-theist to appeal to his/her views as a sort of default position, a thing not to be questioned in the same way that other views are.

But, not only does this distort any real attempt at getting at truth, it prevents non-theistic views from really being examined or refined. As one who believes in questioning–in subjecting views to scrutiny, I’ve believe in the value of challenges, and don’t trust a view that I’m not allowed to question.

Of course, there are those who would balk at the idea that one is allowed to question theism (usually seizing the chance to mock it), but their actions betray the lie. They’ve been given the right to question theism, as is evident from the fact that they’re openly questioning it.

And I have no problem with questioning in itself, but simply take the same approach to the assumptions of non-theist views.

But Mackie doesn’t object to this so much as fail to notice that it is a significant point. If he can’t defend his view on the same terms that he asks that theism be defended, then he has not made a case that his view is superior.

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.


Religion, Naturally

Beauty-of-nature-random-4884759-1280-800As with his previous comment on the histories of religion, I largely agree with Mackie when he turns to the question of what the origin of religion says about the truth of theism.

His answer: It says very little.

He rightly sees, as many in our current culture do not, that explaining the appearance of an idea does not tell us whether or not that idea is true. This is the classic genetic fallacy, after all. It may or may not be true that “you only believe in x because of your personal motivations”, but that tells us nothing about whether or not “x” is true. Mackie sees this, and dismisses the idea that natural histories of religion are, in themselves, reasons to reject the truth of theism.

He goes on, however, to argue that these can be used as a counter to the idea that the existence of religion cannot be explained apart from supernatural intervention.

Again, I agree with him, though I’m left wondering who it is that Mackie thinks has given this argument. He does not tell us, and even goes so far as to complain that theists often point out a fact that runs counter to it: that humans have a natural psychological desire for God.

Of course we do. And this should have signaled Mackie that theists, with very few exceptions, have never argued that the natural desire for God is itself in need of a supernatural explanation.

Mackie seems to think otherwise, and Daniel Denett dutifully informs us that the natural desire for God is a desire for God that is natural–as if that were a revolutionary concept.

In this, and many other places, it seems that those who argue against the truth of theism tend to have a very weak understanding of what theists are actually claiming.

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.