Tag Archives: new atheism

Lying in the Name of Reason

blind-to-truthIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, the philosopher Bertrand Russell is completely willing to state wild fiction as if it were sober truth:

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.

If this were true, historians would report that the nineteenth century deists led the abolitionist movement, rather than Christians. We’d find that charities in our present time would be overwhelmingly secular, rather than overwhelmingly religious. We’d find that the early Christians were less, rather than more, open to racial mixing than the pagans. We’d also find that no real social progress was made until secularism became a notable force in society, rather than finding otherwise.

That such a blatantly, factually false statement can be made (and continues to be made) by persons who claim to base their positions on facts and reason is something of a scandal. As much as cultural stereotypes lend enough rhetorical plausibility to this claim, no one doing so can be relying on science or following the evidence where it leads.

But, even granting the highly dubious claim that churches are inherently resistant to change in the moral consensus (which seems to be Russell’s position), three issues remain:

First is the question of whether “opposition” can be assumed even when it is a tiny minority of churches. That seems to be Russell’s basis for making this claim, but this would definitely open him up to accusations based on the behavior of a tiny minority of atheists.

Second is the fact that Russell offers no standard of “progress”. He needs to explain why his view of progress is superior to the view of the churches he criticizes. He does not do so here, and I’ve not heard an answer to this problem from the New Atheists.

And third is the simple point that there is no logical way to get from “churches have impeded progress” to “Christianity is false”. If anger at the wrongs of churches is truly a reason why Russell rejected Christianity, then he is simply admitting to a certain amount of irrationality. Christ is not judged by the actions of the church. Rather, we are judged by him.


Civil Rights Violations

civilrightsAtheist Stephen Bond has written a wonderful critique of the New Atheists as a social movement. He points out many of the flaws with their “oppressed supporter of science” narrative:

That’s right: the nerds won [the struggle for power], decades ago, and they’re now as thoroughly established as any other part of the establishment. And while nerds a relatively new elite, they’re overwhelmingly the same as the old: rich, white, male, and desperate to hang onto what they’ve got. And I have come to realize that skepticism, in their hands, is just another tool to secure and advance their privileged position, and beat down their inferiors. As a skeptic, I was not shoring up the revolutionary barricades: instead, I was cheering on the Tsar’s cavalry.

While I’m sure that this doesn’t apply to all, I think the idea of New Atheism appeals to many from the comfortable classes who want to see themselves as part of a put-upon minority. The group has been completely unable to point to any real oppression being directed at them.

Setting footage of the followers of Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi being beaten by police next to an image of Richard Dawkins grinning beside a snippy anti-religious billboard ought to give us some perspective. It bothers me that a group of privileged people draw on the mythos of real suffering in order to demand the right to be rude to others without being called mean-spirited.

Looking to that which is noble in our culture means more than pinning a name on our banner. It means having enough respect and empathy to be grateful for what one has. Gratitude for their immense amount of power and wealth is definitely not a common trait among the New Atheists.

It seems that, to them, atheism is mostly a handy label one can stick on in order to declare oneself oppressed. Of course, this is human nature. Some have rightly pointed out that some Christians in wealthy and tolerant nations have a tendency to do very similar things, but I hope that both groups will come to have more respect for those who have actually suffered than this.

Indeed, I’m beginning to suspect that this is so close to the emotional core of the New Atheism that, if we could make their privilege obvious to them, the movement would simply dissolve.


Dumping the Baggage of Logic and Science

img_trashTreasureA fairly common objection to theism is the idea that appeals to God to explain the universe actually explain nothing because (so it is claimed) God himself cannot be explained. This is the core of Richard Dawkins’ famous “Boeing 747 Gambit”, for instance.

Of course, several problems have been pointed out with this: that the concept of God is far better understood by theologians and philosophers than this, and that constantly demanding an explanation of the explanation is not a valid argument, among others.

But atheist Alex Rosenberg inadvertently gives us an even more fundamental reason why modern atheists are in no position to make such complaints. From his view as an atheist:

Why is there something rather than nothing? Physics, especially quantum physics, shows that the correct answer to this question is: No reason, no reason at all. (“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”, p. 38)

For modern atheists, the universe (or multiverse) is simply a “brute fact”. That is, it is something that just exists, which has no apparent explanation. Surely, this is an appeal to magic in all but name. Proponents of it certainly should stop throwing rhetorical bricks.

Nor does trying to appeal to authority help. Rosenberg would have us believe that he wasn’t led into this corner by his atheism, but by science. Of course, this is contradicted by the actual facts.

Quantum mechanics has not remotely shown that anything (let alone everything) comes into existence for “no reason at all”. And this is only one more example of the New Atheists being more in love with science fiction and bad science documentaries than actual science.

I’ve often been frustrated with the New Atheists that, in the name of science, so many of them have been willing to jettison the fields of Sociology and Anthropology in order to cling to the (false) idea that religion causes great evil in people. But I now think it is time to add Quantum Physics to the list of sciences they reject.

That is to say that Rosenberg, like the other New Atheists, is completely willing to horribly distort the findings of Quantum Physics if it will serve their purposes. Every time a field of study opposes their platform, they have no scruples about doubling down and denying or distorting the facts.

One begins to wonder, then, what will be left of science once the New Atheists are done with it.


“Reject This Idea, Because I can Make Unfair Accusations About It.”

Handling-the-Stress-of-RejectionIn arguing against religion, Bertrand Russell turns to the claim that religion should be supported on the grounds that it encourages good behavior.

Initially, I found myself ready to agree with Russell, as I thought he’d make the perfectly valid point that a belief system isn’t true simply because it gets people to behave. Instead, he said this:

One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.

That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked.

While I’d quickly agree with anyone who claimed that religious people are not nearly so good as we know we should be, studies on the effects of religion have not turned up anything like what Russell and others claim. Quite the contrary, it has more often been a positive influence on believers and communities.

This is especially problematic for the New Atheists, who tend to put such stress on trusting and respecting science. The fact that the findings of the relevant sciences run counter to their arguments here does not seem to have phased them. In fact, many of them seem to have developed a selective deafness on this point.

But, of course, none of this addresses the question of whether God exists.

Saying that we should reject God’s existence on the grounds that Russell (or anyone else) can make the unsupported claim that religion makes people bad should not make anyone question religious belief. In my view, there is only one interesting thing about this idea: that it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone that it is a worthless argument.


Russell XX: “I Don’t Think I Like Your Tone”

keep-calm-and-be-politeIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, Russell makes a point of his distaste for the tone of certain passages:

It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

While one couldn’t accuse this speech of hypocrisy in criticizing harsh tones, the New Atheists have made harshness their calling-card. It is odd, then, that arguments about the “horrors” of guilt-inducing passages are still popular.

But, if it really is the New Atheists’ intent to convince religious people that our source of hope in life should be scornfully dismissed as an unparalleled evil, then it is their intent to invoke horrible feelings of guilt and shame in countless individuals.

Such people could, I suppose, make the case that guilt over what one has done is sometimes appropriate, but this would serve at least as much to defend the offending passages of the Bible as anything they have written.

Of course, I’m not convinced that these passages are so offending. Russell has given us no good reason to think that “an unspeakable amount of misery” has been caused by this teaching. Religious young people consistently show higher self-esteem than their secular counterparts. I’d wager that, among more significant reasons, this is because it is impossible to be disturbed by a correct understanding of the quoted passage.

It seems to be a pattern that any passage in the Bible which can be reinterpreted to sound evil will be used as “proof” that religion of any kind is evil. A real desire to understand is, of course, conspicuously absent from such tactics.

As for Russell, I’d merely suggest that what counts as the proper tone in twentieth century British academia may not be the same as what was proper in first century rural Palestine. It seems deeply culturally narrow, almost to the point of imperialism, to dismiss a moral teacher from another continent, and another millenium, based on a personal reaction to tone.


Russell XIX: Sticking Up for the Pharisees

PhariseeAfter misrepresenting the doctrine of Hell, Russell goes on to misrepresent Christ’s reasons for teaching on it:

Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching.

Russell seems confident that he knows exactly how to interpret Christ’s motivations. This dubious assumption seems to be at the heart of so much of New Atheist thinking. In fact, most theists agree that we’d consider Christianity to be false if the straw man presented by the New Atheists was much at all like actual teachings of Christ.

In attempting to criticize religion, Russell opposes Christ for criticizing the religion of his day. Russell is so confident that Christ uses the phrase “generation of vipers” simply out of anger at those who don’t accept his teaching that he fails to notice that Christ reserves this kind of talk for corrupt religious leaders. He is consistently gentle with those who aren’t smugly self-righteous.

Anyone who is deeply angry at corrupt religious practices, as Russell and the New Atheists claim to be, ought to love these words of Christ. He made it clear, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of judgmental religious attitudes. And, yet, the bombastic, anti-religious writings of the New Atheists have complained that Christ should have been gentler toward the self-righteous religious bullies of his day.

Unintended though it is, I think it is fitting that Russell and the New Atheists end up attempting to defend the Pharisees from Christ, in that they act so much like Pharisees themselves. To me, they stand as an excellent reminder to constantly turn the finger of accusation inward. Failing to do so, on a long enough timeline, will allow self-righteousness to fester and, indeed, drive us away from the love and truth of Christ–Hell by another name.


Russell XIV: Bats Don’t Believe in Rainbows

rainbowIn addition to indoctrination, Russell offers one more reason why people might believe in God:

Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people’s desire for a belief in God.

I’ll skip over the inherent jugmentalism in this. I can’t, however, resist pointing out Russell’s lack of understanding of the subject of God. In telling religious people what we find attractive about our own belief, he is completely blind to such issues as spiritual experience, mortality, and the meaning of life.

In fact, Russell (like the New Atheists) never touches on any of most common reasons theists say they believe, even to disagree with those reasons. This strikes one as less like a rebuttal than a simple failure to address the topic.

If the most obvious problem with the New Atheists is their inability to present scientific data, the second (and more significant) issue is their inability to understand which questions Christianity is meant to answer. Listening to the New Atheists speak on religion, in fact, sounds more like how one might imagine a bat would describe a rainbow than anything like a real engagement with the concept of the divine.

It’s no wonder, then, that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in the God he argues against. I don’t believe in that God either, and I don’t know anyone who does.


Dawkins Promoting Science?

scientism

Prominent New Atheists Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have released a trailer for an upcoming film, which seems to follow the same pattern as previous New Atheist productions: Documenting one or more of the New Atheists travels as they interview and debate people on the subject of religion.

Quite a few things struck me about this, actually. But my key issue is this:

The film claims to be promoting science

I don’t see how there can be people in western culture who are convinced that science’s main difficulty is a lack of trust being placed in it.

For my money, the biggest obstacle to a clear understanding of what science is and does is the scientistic philosophy being promoted by Dawkins and Krauss themselves.

That they have put so much energy into convincing people that science addresses spiritual questions, gives us an approach of how to live life, and is somehow advanced through political activism puts them more in league with the Scientologists than anyone doing legitimate research.

Personally, I’d be very interested in a film that promotes good science, rather than the creator’s personal philosophy masquerading as science.


Russell XIII: Indoctrination Envy

brainwashAfter (not) giving an argument against the idea that justice will prevail, Russell touches on a tangent about why people believe in God:

Of course I know that the sort of intellectual arguments that I have been talking to you about are not what really moves people. What really moves people to believe in God is not any intellectual argument at all. Most people believe in God because they have been taught from early infancy to do it, and that is the main reason.

This is the oft repeated argument from indoctrination. A favorite argument among the New Atheists has been the idea that people believe in God for no other reason than that they were told this in childhood.

At this point, I think it has become clear that this argument is so beloved of those that use it because it allows them to explain why clearly intelligent people disagree with their position without admitting to the fact that there are good arguments on the theist’s side.

My main trouble with this isn’t that it is almost entirely fictitious (though it is), nor that it completely overlooks the very large end to which these same people have been indoctrinated into their own beliefs (though it does), but that “you’re indoctrinated” has become a common excuse to avoid seriously engaging with theists’ questions.

In fact, Richard Dawkins seems to have abandoned arguing with adults altogether. He refuses to debate not only William Lane Craig, but presumably anyone else described by the long list of reasons he gave for not debating Craig. Instead, he’s written a book promoting materialism to children. The American Humanist Association, likewise, has launched a website designed to inculcate children in an atheistic worldview.

When these same people are recommending that we use ridicule, sarcasm, and other playground tactics to “promote reason”, this sounds less like disgust with the idea that children are being indoctrinated and more like outrage that they are not the ones doing the indoctrinating.

Looking at their behavior, it is hard not to conclude that “the champions of reason” are interested in any means of promoting their agenda – save logical engagement with the relevant questions.


Why Russell was Wrong IV: The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Relative

moralContinuing on in my discussion of Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, we now get to an argument from morality. This is of particular interest in considering Russell as the intellectual grandfather of the New Atheists, in that it is a group of such strong moral pretensions.

As to the issue of morality, theists have often said that, while belief in God is not required to behave morally, the existence of God is required to explain how any objective morality could exist.

Russell’s response is, essentially, a version of what is typically called the Euthyphro Dilemma:

[B]ecause even supposing that there were [objective morality], you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those laws and not others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary.

So, is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because its good? Proponents of this argument would say that this shows that either God’s morality is arbitrary or God is irrelevant to what is moral. This seems a very good argument, so long as one does not consider it too closely.

I, of course, intend to do just that:

Monotheists have never maintained that God selects moral law the way a shopper selects a box of cereal in a grocery store. The first option can easily be set aside.

The second option can likewise be set aside, at least unless the atheist can give some argument in its favor (which Russell has not). Theists have no more maintained that there is some ethical standard, somehow existing above God, than that God arbitrarily decides on morality.

In fact, I have no idea where Russell gets this idea that most orthodox theologians claim that God’s morality is based in creating the best possible world. There is simply no standard of “best” until we already have a basis of moral law. Theologians, ancient and modern, understood this point–which is why none of them, so far as I can tell, ever took this position.

Rather, what Christian theism has always claimed is that the moral law flows from God’s nature. It is neither a whim nor something external to him, but God himself that is the standard of goodness. To ask whether something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good is completely wrong-headed. God wills the good because he is goodness itself.

In other circumstances, we understand this point. No one would ever ask if you look like your reflection because you had altered it to look like you (arbitrary) or because you had plastic surgery to look like it (you are subject to the reflection). Here, it is perfectly obvious that you look like your reflection because it is an image of your physical nature. Likewise, morality is a reflection of God’s ethical nature.

This also answers the question as to why God didn’t will some completely different set of morals. Any “God” who can will any set of morals has no set moral nature and, therefore, is not the God Christians actually believe in.

It is also very significant that proponents of this dilemma so rarely offer a foundation for morality of their own. On the contrary, I get a lot of claims of moral relativism, or simply refusals to take a position on morality, from those who claim to be morally indignant at God. This, of course, begs the question “why should those of us who don’t accept your relativistic (or unnamed), anti-theistic morals be concerned?”.

This is why Russell (like the New Atheists) needs to do more than criticize theistic moral systems; he needs (and they need) to present and defend a system as superior to theistic morality–that we might see if it is immune to the criticisms leveled here.

Russell closes the point with this:

The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.

Of course, I don’t think he’s shown anything like a definite fallacy in the traditional arguments. Really, this description reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheists themselves. In this case, actual arguments have very quickly given way to political activism.

After all the bombastic claims of intellectual superiority, the scorn, the ridicule, and, yes, the blatant moral posturing, it’s become clear that the group is far more interested in which slogan is persuasive in a freshman dorm room than what is logically defensible.

In the form of the New Atheists, a devoutly secular form of Pharisee has come to roost in our culture. And I feel that Russell shares part of the blame for this.