Tag Archives: new atheism

Plug: The Confidence of Jerry Coyne

Ross Douthat has been involved in an interchange with Jerry Coyne. I thought this comment was a very good response to the New Atheist position in general.

I tend to agree that, so long as Coyne and others continue to do exactly the things that Douthat accuses him of doing, their movement will do more to foster interest in religion than destroy it.

The Atheist Dogma

pope-dawkinsOverwhelmingly, the most common defense of atheism is the (false) claim that atheism need not be defended at all. It is confidently stated that atheism is simply a “lack of belief in any gods”, as opposed to the belief that God does not exist. It is then said that one need not defend a simple lack of belief.

And, personally, I agree on that last point. A lack of belief need not be defended. But there are two very serious problems with the logic of this approach.

First is the reason why no defense is needed. It is not because atheism is somehow true by default. Rather, it is because (by this rather questionable definition) it is simply not a position at all. Anyone who isn’t claiming the non-existence of God, but simply lacks belief, isn’t advancing inquiry–or saying anything at all. Rather, this is simply an attempt to halt any attempt to discover what the truth might be.

Second is the fact that those who take this approach, just as much as the rest of us, have working answers to life’s big questions. Redefining atheism to mean “a lack of belief” doesn’t change this fact. Really, it simply insulates the atheist’s position from challenges.

Nearly always, the hidden position is materialism: the belief that matter and energy are all that exist. So, if the atheist wants to refute theism, he has to do more than attack theism (or, as is very often done, a horribly distorted straw man version of theism). We need a reason to think that materialism (or some other position) is more likely to be the case.

But, often as not, I encounter “refutations” of theism that would do as much damage to materialism. The “no evidence for God” argument is merely the prime example. While there is evidence for God, the point is that I’ve never encountered anyone who uses this (poor) argument that can offer evidence for materialism when asked for it.

As such, I hope it is becoming clear to more people why claiming to simply “lack belief” is (whether intentionally or unwittingly) an attempt to stack the deck in favor of the atheist. It halts inquiry instead of advancing it.

By all means, let us discuss whether or not it is more reasonable to think that God exists, or that the materialism of atheists popularizers is valid. But let’s examine both of these ideas, rather than pretending that the latter is somehow immune to being questioned or challenged.

That is, after all, just another form of dogmatism.

Plug: Do Atheists Exist?

A great discussion of whether or not humans can really be permanently secular.

In particular, I appreciated the observation that many secular movements can be atheist only by appealing to a very distorted view of what religious belief actually is–then asserting that, because we can live without that distortion, we can live without religion.

Whatever one thinks of the conclusions, it is definitely a thought-provoking read.


End of the Memes

62cafc9cdbea12b5842369d4152da9c30cd0f6b016bc6f232b2c144b67d63efdAtheist Chris Arnade has written an article which has garnered some attention. In it, he talks about the shift in his view of religion.

Though he remained an atheist, he’s come to believe that religion can be a very positive thing–giving hope to those most in need of it. I definitely agree. In fact, I’ve made a very similar case in the past.

But, what interests me is the idea that this may be a sign of a bigger shift. If my personal experience is a good indicator (always a big “if”), then there are many atheists who have moved from zealous anti-theist to something much more resonant with Arnade’s closing words:

I want to go back to [my] 16-year-old self and tell him to shut up with the “see how clever I am attitude”. I want to tell him to appreciate how easy he had it, with a path out. A path to riches.

I also see Richard Dawkins differently. I see him as a grown up version of that 16-year-old kid, proud of being smart, unable to understand why anyone would believe or think differently from himself. I see a person so removed from humanity and so removed from the ambiguity of life that he finds himself judging those who think differently.

I see someone doing what he claims to hate in others. Preaching from a selfish vantage point.

At least, I hope this is where we are headed. It’s easy to respect Arnade’s willingness to change his view. It inspires me to take a look at my own life, and see how I can be a better, more open-minded person.

In fact, I particularly appreciate Arnade’s refusal to dismiss the poor–of those some would label “failures”–as people to be dismissed or mocked. He treats their religion with respect because he respects them as persons. It is this respect for those who lack one’s degree of privilege which, I agree, is lacking in people like Dawkins.

I’ve admitted that, selfishly, I want to see more atheists putting up angry billboards and resorting to mockery and memes in lieu of rational argumentation. It makes them look ignorant and childish to many. But God seems to have a better idea.

I don’t claim to know where all this is going, but I suspect that our culture, theist and atheist alike, is simply getting tired of the nearly content-free platitudes, sound-bytes, and slogans, that make up the whole of our answers to the great questions of life.

As it becomes more obvious that “Christianese” lines and New Atheist memes are simply more of the same sort of fluff, I think we’re going to see more like Arnade–people interested in answers that add up to more than a clever line in a web-debate, that treat these issues with the respect they deserve.

That’s what belief was supposed to be about in the first place.

The Homogenous Group with Nothing in Common

picture-of-molly-ringwald-emilio-estevez-judd-nelson-ally-sheedy-and-anthony-michael-hall-in-the-breakfast-club-large-picture-650x453If one engages in discussion with a self-identified atheist, it isn’t likely to be long before one is told that atheism is simply “a lack of belief in God or gods”. In general, one will be told that each atheist is as unique as a snowflake, and that it is silly to criticize secular philosophies as if that has anything to do with atheism.

In the past, I’ve criticized this view for its over-simplicity; it falsely assumes that the uniqueness of individuals means that there are no general statements to be made about a group.

I’ve also been bothered by the fact that the group seems to lack these scruples when it comes to religion, which is spoken about as if all theists believe the same things, and that these are the things Richard Dawkins thinks we believe.

What I’ve not done yet is point out how limited a view of atheism is held by such people. Many who push the idea that atheists are all different often have no idea how different atheists really are. Such people tend to think that a lack of respect for religion and a belief that there is such a thing as a “scientific” approach to life somehow automatically follows from atheism.

Perhaps the fastest way, then, to convince the New Atheists that they have particular beliefs (which, according them, ought to be supported by evidence) is to point out the things they say that other atheists patently reject.

Let’s start with Micheal Ruse. As an avowed atheist, he had this to say about Dawkins and his fans:

Humanism in its most virulent form tries to make science into a religion. It is awash with the intolerance of enthusiasm. For a start, there is the near-hysterical repudiation of religion.

Ruse goes on to argue that the New Atheism has quite a few of the same characteristics it criticizes in religion. This is not new; many have made such observations. Yet many of Dawkins’ fans have, after reading this, expressed serious doubt over whether or not Ruse is actually an atheist.

If he “lacks belief”, I often ask, what is the problem?

The problem is that he doesn’t, so the New Atheist line of thinking goes, properly understand how “scientific” it is to hate religion, how demanding evidence has shown theists to be silly and deserving of ridicule, or how religion is the real source of suffering that merely looks political and social.

And this strikes me as pure dogmatism. Even if these things were true (they aren’t remotely), anyone wanting to insist that Ruse is less an atheist, or less clear about what his atheism means, than Dakwins is claiming that there is more to atheism than “a lack of belief”.

That being the case, those that do so need to defend that “more”. They need to show, not merely assert, that religion is terrible or that there is a real conflict between science and religion (as opposed to the much more bland claim that certain theories conflict with certain understandings of certain religions).

That is, the group can’t be both sensational about their atheism and insist that it is “merely a lack of belief”.

In fact, if this isn’t a group that has enough continuity to speak of as a group, then it doesn’t deserve recognition in the public sphere. “A place at the table”, after all, is reserved for views popular enough to bother considering on a national level. If atheists agree on nothing to do with policy, then public discourse should ignore them.

And this is one of the main reasons why, traditionally, atheism has been ignored–it isn’t a political position. Certainly, it can affect one’s political position. This is precisely what the New Atheist insists upon in demanding “a place at the table”, but then denies when he demands that theists ought to be willing to vote for openly atheist representatives.

Atheism, traditionally understood, is the belief that there is no god. This is a clear position that is neither political, nor without content. And it is a clear regression to attempt to strip the word of any theological content (i.e. “merely a lack of belief”) while, out of the other side of one’s mouth, assuming that atheists are a united group which has a common set of opinions that need to be considered.

Personally, I sense the pressure turning up on atheists to chose one narrative or the other, and am curious to see which will turn out to be the more popular among them.


We Don’t Need to Defend Our Case

CL_062313_stop_avoiding_criticism_329296110At long last, we’ve reached the end of Chris Hallquist’s“William Lane Craig Exposed”. Hallquist decides to close this chapter with a commentary of Richard Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig.

This issue has become something of a bygone matter, and I doubt that there’s much more to be said about it. Even Hallquist struggles to add anything to the discussion–simply repeating Dawkins own statements, and implying that it was Craig, rather than others (including many atheists), who accused Dawkins of cowardice for not debating.

But I see no point in beating that drum. Any chance of the debate happening is gone, and we all know how it would have gone. An actual debate would have simply been a formality, and the fact that Dawkins refused, I think, turned out to be a bigger victory than a debate would have been.

This is because it showed so clearly that both Dawkins and his fans can pretty consistently be found attempting to insulate themselves from the same sort of criticism they are quick to fire at others, in spite of the fact that Dawkins lists being open to criticism in his own revision of the Ten Commandments.

He refuses debates, his fans refuse to defend their views:

For instance, very few of Dawkins’ supporters will defend his Boeing 747 argument. Nor will they support the materialism they passionately embrace. Even the term “atheism” has been redefined by them as “a lack of belief” in order to avoid having to defend it as a position. Personally, I can’t think of any argument in The God Delusion that the New Atheists are still willing to defend.

This leaves me to wonder why they are still following him.

Really, the only thing that the New Atheists are as consistent about as their hatred of religion is their refusal to offer a logical defense for any actual claim. This seems odd coming from the self-proclaimed champions of reason and science–who complain that religion is holding back the advancement of knowledge and insist that one should have evidence ready on demand for anything one claims.

Not that they don’t make claims. Dawkins publicly maintained that raising children Catholic is child abuse for more than a decade before someone finally asked him for supporting evidence. The best he could do was to say that it was “intuitively very reasonable”.

If these are the kinds of defenses we hear from a man who demands overwhelming support from the opposition, it’s no wonder that neither he nor his intellectual disciples are eager to put their position forward for careful examination.

That being the case, I feel it best to move on from the New Atheists, and interact with a more reasonable opposition to Christian theism. To fail to acknowledge that there are more sophisticated atheists than them is to make the same mistake they make about theists.

As such, I’ll be moving on to some more serious thinkers in my next series.

Historians are Biased: so Trust Conspiracy Theorists

conspiracy-theoriesContinuing on with Chris Hallquist’s “William Lane Craig Exposed”, I waded through several pages of insults and accusations of dishonesty before reaching actual content. In this case, it was a discussion of the argument for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

This discussion, predictably enough, opens with more accusations of dishonesty.

I’ll not comment on that, except to say in passing that it misses the point of whether or not the argument is a good one. Craig asserts that most Biblical scholars accept the following facts to be true:

1. Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, which was later found empty

2. Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive after his death

3. Jesus’ followers came to sincerely believe that he’d been resurrected

Hallquist points out that there are some scholars who deny one or more of these facts. This is both true and entirely consistent with Craig’s claim. After all, he claimed only that the majority agreed with him on these points. In any field of study, there is always a fringe of disagreement about nearly any topic. Even Bart Ehrman, though he emphatically denies the truth of the resurrection, agrees with Craig on these points.

Hallquist, then, simply sides with the minority view. This is his right, of course, but it hardly establishes atheism as the only, or even the most, reasonable position. Much less does it establish that Craig’s position is nearly so unreasonable or dishonest as Hallquist (repeatedly) claims.

Really, one would think a chapter called “William Lane Craig Exposed” would have juicier gossip in it than “Craig claimed that the majority agrees with him, and that’s true, but some people disagree”.

As to Craig’s actual argument, it is simply that the Christian interpretation is the most reasonable explanation of these facts. This is understandable, as there is no competing theory among experts; the positions are “Resurrection” and “We have no idea what happened”. But, while one may or may not agree with Craig, it is no good to take the approach that Hallquist does.

That is, he references several different scenarios, each of which are known by historians to be implausible, in an attempt to use them together against Criag’s position.

For instance, Hallquist suggests that the disciples were simply hallucinating, and completely ignores that this theory has been discredited. He does nothing at all to address the reasons why the overwhelming majority of experts reject this view, but simply throws out other discredited theories. After five or six, we’re apparently supposed to throw up our hands and agree that the resurrection must not have happened.

No good scholar tries to counter a theory in this way. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Hallquist rejecting the cosmological model he defended earlier simply because I can name quite a few discredited speculations which contradict it.

But Hallquist has a reason why his interpretation is dismissed by the experts: they are nearly all Christians, and don’t want to say anything too embarrassing for their religion. Of course, this completely overlooks the fact that it is not merely the Christian scholars who disagree with him (again I reference Ehrman). It also overlooks the fact that making bold claims is how one makes one’s name as an historian. This is how conspiracy theories about the Bible were begun, after all.

As when discussing Craig, the only argument Hallquist seems to have against those who disagree with him is to throw out the accusation of dishonesty. He never seems to realize that, to defend his atheism, he actually has to give us a reason to think that the experts are wrong. Simply implying that one can’t trust a Christian, any Christian, when many of the people disagreeing with him aren’t Christian is a conspiracy theory of his own, not a defense of rational thought.

At this point in the chapter, Hallquist takes a break from attacking the honesty of historians to spend a few more pages attacking the honesty of William Lane Craig. But I don’t think this warrants a response. Really, if conspiracy theories and personal attacks are the best Hallquist has to offer for his position, I don’t think he has any right to accuse others of biased thinking. One would think that, if he had a reason why Craig’s argument was wrong, he’d simply give it, and skip all the pointless and unsupported accusations flung at his enemies.

And this seems a common trait among Hallquist and his fellow New Atheists: loud emotive attacks in the guise of “reason” and “science”. Actual reason and science is fairly slim in this book.

Is Atheism an Ethnicity?

6a00d8341bf68b53ef014e889bb767970d-150wiCanadian journalist Jackson Doughart has written an article in which he argues that atheism should be considered an ethnicity in Canada.

My initial reaction to the idea was, not surprisingly, negative. But, after reading it, his position seemed fairly close to something I’d endorse. That is, he emphasizes that ethnicity is a cultural, rather than a genetic, phenomenon. In effect, he’s simply pointing out that atheists have certain cultural and personal assumptions that they pass (mostly unconsciously) to their children.

Most atheists I’ve encountered are very resistant to being told that they have any beliefs at all. They’ve insisted on this forcefully enough that even the article claims that atheism “has no actual content; it is merely the rejection of religion”. But atheism is the belief, either metaphysical or existential, that God does not exist. In fact, even the rejection of religion entails a certain amount of philosophical content.

As such, it seems perfectly appropriate to look at the culture of the people who believe that content. As much as atheists are protesting in the comments section, I think it is completely accurate to consider atheism, as much as religion, a cultural phenomenon.

What is strange is the idea that groups of people, that often meet together to express a point of view, have a clear leadership, and even repeat particular phrases and slogans, cannot be seen as a social group. There is no good reason to take that view.

What is going on here, I suspect, is one of the major themes of this blog: that the members of the popular movement of atheism seek to criticize religion without putting their own views up for equal consideration.

This is a very big problem for considering the truth of their claims, as I’ve said in the past, but it is also a problem for the New Atheism as a socio-political movement. They don’t seem to realize that “having a place at the table” (which is what they claim to want) means being understood to be a group of people large enough, and with enough ideological similarity, to be worth considering when making social and political decisions.

As I argued yesterday, then, the New Atheism needs to decide whether it actually wants its stated goals, or is more interested in feeling superior to others by playing the critic without offering any position of its own for consideration.

Personally, I suspect that the survival of the movement will depend on their making the former choice.

The New Atheism: A Brief History

New-atheism-colaPZ Myers is attempting to change his image. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he is known for being caustic even by New Atheist standards, but has just released a book titled “The Happy Atheist”.

Apparently, even the book itself gives the lie to the title, and Myers past behavior certainly does. But, since others have already made that point, I want to focus on the fact that even Myers is realizing that the New Atheists have a serious image problem.

The group in general has been beating the “we’re oppressed and angry” drum, right along side the “we should have the right to contemptuously mock your beliefs” drum, for almost a decade. Now that they’ve gotten media attention, they seem to be learning that not all attention is good.

I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’ve long suspected that the group would reconsider their tactics, not after being given a good argument, but when it became obvious that neutral parties saw them less as the champions of peace and rationality than as one more obnoxious group telling us all what we can and can’t do.

But that isn’t entirely right. In fact, I was horribly wrong on one point. I claimed, years ago, that the New Atheism would have the wind kicked out of it, not by an apologist’s argument but by a South Park episode (by which I meant the aforementioned public reaction). It turned out, however, that South Park did release an episode poking fun at Dawkins’ ideas (which didn’t seem to phase him or his fans) just about the same time that Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig became a big focus.

In that sense, things worked out almost exactly opposite of my expectations.

Whatever happens to the group, I think it’s safe to say that Craig was the end of the brazen intellectual posturing. As Dawkins slowly degenerated into saying that he wasn’t willing to debate anyone who disagrees with his view (except, of course, for Bill O’Reilly), the New Atheists had a choice: follow Dawkins away from real challenges and into political campaigning that simply assumes they are right, or stay and debate at the risk of being shown wrong (and without help from Dawkins).

Though there were exceptions, the group has mostly chosen the former path. Even when debates happen, the focus is on who got in the good zingers. Careful construction of a solid argument is simply not high on their list of priorities.

And this is not surprising. From the beginning, it seemed obvious that media attention was the end, and debate the means.

But, now that it’s becoming obvious that grabbing attention through “ridicule with contempt” is simply going to make them look rude and close-minded, the group seems to be facing a second choice: participate civilly in the public square, or return to the debating floor and really deal with the arguments.

Either way, loud confidence and mockery isn’t going to be enough. Simply claiming to be “on the side of reason” is nothing more than a bluff unless the group can logically demonstrate that any reasonable person would share their views. And claiming to be oppressed won’t fly so long as they’re angrily shouting at soft-spoken theists.

So, has the New Atheism finally run its course? I think it’s premature to be saying so. But I will predict that, unless it begins choosing thoughtful (rather than simply clever and confident) leaders, we’ve passed the apex of the movement.

The Religion of Atheism

atheistSunday Assembly (more casually known as “The Atheist Church”) has announced a campaign to spread itself into a global movement. The “Atheist Denomination”, as it were.

The criticism has been that these people are “turning atheism into its own sort of religion”. 

Personally, I think the criticism is unfair. The group is simply not religious in anything like a traditional sense of the term. But, I find that there are a number of interesting things about the fact that many (even many atheists) are making this complaint.

How so? Let me run though some thoughts:

1. This Assumes Atheism is a “Thing”

Atheists have recently insisted that atheism is simply a “lack of belief”. I find it odd, then, that they think that atheists gathering to share there (non-religious) beliefs turns atheism into anything. It could be a slip of the pen (or keyboard), but the same thing happened with the Atheism Plus group. This leads me to think it is more than that.

That, and the emotional force behind some of the complaining (particularly with regard to Atheism Plus).

I suspect that part of what is going on here is that there are at least two senses in which the modern, passionate atheist uses the term “atheist”. The first is used in debates: it’s simply “a lack of belief in any gods”–so no need to prove it or offer evidence in its favor. The second is this: “the socio-political beliefs of those who adamantly oppose religion”. It is this latter sense that seems to give many atheists a sense of community. And it is this sense that “Atheist Church” is most obviously threatening to “turn atheism into a religion”.

2. This Makes the Claims of Atheists More Obviously Claims

But it is also atheism, in the first sense, that may well change if this group spreads far enough. The atheist can, of course, argue that this isn’t really an “Atheist Church” but a “Secular Church”. They are teaching things that are compatible with atheism–other beliefs that their members hold, but nothing that one needs to believe in order to be an atheist.

This is all true, but misses a key point.

The very existence of this church only makes it more obvious that atheists themselves have beliefs. All people do, of course. But the New Atheist movement has adamantly declined any invitation to defend their beliefs, insisting that the entire conversation should consist of discussing theism.

And now a group of them are meeting to proclaim the common beliefs of the New Atheist crowd.

The Sunday Assembly, then, makes it harder to deny that atheists to approach life with a set of beliefs about meaning and ethics as much as anyone else. For a group of them to be publicly admitting this will almost certainly mean that theists will start asking them to defend those beliefs in debate. Even indifferent parties will be aware that they have beliefs–rather than simply “lacking belief”.

And that, of course, will be very uncomfortable for anyone used to taking the New Atheist line of attack in debate.

3. There are Already Humanist Groups in Meeting

But no one has made this complaint of them. Of course, the label “atheism” seems to be a big deal to Dawkins and his fans (who, ironically, argue that labels create tribalism). The more significant point is that these Humanist groups aren’t so intimately connected to the popular New Atheist crowd.

My main thought here is a bit of a tangent, though: Why aren’t these people attending the Humanist meetings?

In the article, the leadership says that they are “fun”, rather than “dour”. But, I suspect that there’s something else. They are a particular subculture that has a particular way of doing things, and want to do things their way.

That’s all well and good, but part of “their way” has always been a bit anti-intellectual.

To be concerned about fun, rather than truth, rather gives the game away. Sartre, Nagel, Mackie, Nietzsche, Camus… These men cared about whether or not atheism was true. Dawkins, Krauss, Coyne, Meyers… These men seem to care much more about what feels true, and rousing the crowd.

I think it’s fitting, then, that it is the fans of the latter circle that have ended up creating something like an evangelical church. After all, this is a crowd that never expresses a shadow of doubt about their views, that likes catchy phrases that communicate their beliefs, and holds rallies and meetings (which are not unlike revivals). They even quote the late Christopher Hitchens like scripture. And let’s not forget how similar “The Quotable Atheist” is to an Evangelism Explosion booklet.

Is it really so strange that some of them want to start a church?

In any sense that “they’re turning atheism into a religion” could be seen as valid, then, the reality is that atheism has already been turned into a sort of religion by Dawkins and Co. This group is simply helping the process along.

I suspect that, if we give it long enough, someone from this group will start building shrines to their dead leaders.