Tag Archives: new atheist

Forget the Experts; What do the Most Ignorant People Think?

bad-teacher-filmI’ll continue to clarify the difference between a transcendent God and the basically physical god that many atheists think Christianity teaches (or try my best to clarify, anyway).

In the mean time, I’d like to move on to another very common misunderstanding among the New Atheists:

If you’re dismissing a more academic version of theism by claiming that “most” Christians see God the way you do, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

There are essentially three reasons for this.

First, it isn’t true.

It may be true that “most” Christians don’t see God in exactly the way I do. In fact, I expect that each of us has our own unique perspective. But I’m not sure how the atheist knows that his/her view is any better a representation of what the average theist believes.

I’ve never heard a theist affirm the idea that God is flying around in space somewhere, that he’s a complex arrangement of physical parts (as Richard Dawkins assumes without giving a reason), that he’s humanoid, or most any of the descriptors that New Atheists delight in mocking.

Really what “most Christians” seems to mean here isn’t actually most Christians. It isn’t even “Jerry Falwell” (bad as that would be), but “what Jerry Falwell’s opponents take him to be saying”.

Yes, if you ask the typical Christian “do you believe in a literal God, heaven, hell, angels, etc?”, she’s likely to answer in the affirmative. But this doesn’t contradict anything I’ve said.

To do that, you’d have to follow up with an “And by ‘literal’, I mean ‘physical’. Do you believe that God, heaven, etc. are all physical parts of the universe, made out of sub-atomic particles?”. The idea that most Christians would agree to that is highly questionable, to say the least.

And, getting to the second reason, it’s irrelevant what most Christians think.

In any field of study, most people are going to be largely ignorant, and have some strange ideas. To demand that we judge a view based on the popular idea of it is completely strange.

No one, for instance, would argue that, while some biologists might have a pretty defensible view of evolution, what’s really important is what “most evolutionists” believe. If you ask the average person who believes in evolution if people evolved from the Cro-Magnon, she’ll probably agree that we did.

That is a fairly easy view to discredit, but it doesn’t refute evolution. And it wouldn’t make any sense to simply assert that all biologists do is, in spite of denying that they believe it, come up with more elaborate excuses for believing that humans evolved from the Cro-Magnon.

The same is true for theism. Of course the average person is going to have a less well-thought-out position than an expert. This doesn’t mean that the expert view can be ignored, or is “really” just a rationale for the average view.

This is why Dawkins, who has confessed to being ignorant of theology, is forced to interact with the lay-level view. He simply doesn’t know enough to engage actual experts. And that would be fine, if he were willing to admit that it is only the crudest forms of theism that he’s refuted. It is when he starts boldly declaring that “religion”, in a much broader sense, should be dismissed that he’s making ignorant proclamations.

That being the case, demanding that theists offer proof of the God that “most Christians” believe in is no better than demanding that Dawkins, as a biologist, should prove that people evolved from the Cro-Magnon because “most evolutionists” believe it.

But for the third, and most important, reason: the New Atheist caricature is not the view being defended. The form of theism I’ve defended simply isn’t the view being attacked.

That leads to the very simple conclusion that the attacks of the New Atheists are simply talking past my actual beliefs, and are therefore irrelevant. In general, I get a lot of arguments being made against things that I’ve never actually believed, let alone said.

And, if that is what it takes in order to have one’s argument work, then it was never a good argument in the first place.

Debating Pseudo-Religions

ScarecrowAs far as I can tell, Richard Dawkins has never said anything about Christianity

This is not simply to say that he’s never said anything true about Christianity. Rather, it is that everything he’s tried to say about “religion” is so distorted, so obviously based on a caricature, that he’s not actually talking about Christianity at all.

Nor is this, I hasten to add, because he has not read some complex theological treatise (though he clearly hasn’t). It is because he gets even the most basic points about Christianity (and Islam, for that matter) flagrantly wrong.

I’ve noticed similar mistakes in his fans, as well as their confusion when they encounter actual theology. In fact I’ve recieved quite a few complaints that my views are not simple enough for some to understand.

I’ve long suspected that there are ulterior motives behind the demand that I state my view in a sentence. Still, I thought it might be good to write the occasional post on some of the things that the New Atheists get wrong about the Christianity they claim to have refuted. It is my hope that this will help to clarify, for theists and atheists alike, why the conversation needs to move past anything simple enough to fit on a demotivator.

There is a lot to say, but let’s start with an obvious one:

If you’re using the phrase “sky daddy” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

I want to be clear: it isn’t that this phrase is pointlessly rude (though it is). It is that it is wrong. As such, using it doesn’t prove that theism is silly. It shows us that the one using it is speaking out of ignorance.

How so? Let’s go through the words. (And, to those eager to debate, please keep in mind that I’m merely outlining Christian views, not making a case for them here.)

1. “Sky”

God isn’t in the sky any more than he is anywhere else. Those that use this term seem to be picturing some physical thing flying around space somewhere.

And this is completely unlike the Christian view of God.

That is, God doesn’t exist as part of the universe–or a thing inside the universe. This is part of what it means to be transcendent. While God is aware of, and causally active at, each point in the universe, this is not a physical interaction. It is for this reason that the ancient Romans charged Christians with atheism–Christianity doesn’t believe in gods in anything like the way that they did.

But it’s a bit late to be arguing that ancient Roman gods don’t exist. Monotheists believe in a completely different kind of God.

2. “Daddy”

Presumably, the physical thing flying around space is roughly humanoid. While the Bible does use the concept of fatherhood as analogous to one part of God’s relation to human beings, there is no implication here that God either has a body, or is a “daddy” in anything like the sense that it is used here.

The phrase suggests that theists think of God essentially the same way that very small children think of their fathers. Of course, the Christian view of God is not a glib picture of some divine caretaker or wish-granter, but a far more nuanced vision–as intellectually complex as it is emotionally potent. It would take quite a few books to explain that nuance, but the point is that is a far more sophisticated view than this silly phrase implies.

Again, the problem seems to be the failure to grasp transcendence. The New Atheist appears to think of God’s activity on the model of magic, reading this into all talk of spirit. But magic is physical; it is failed science. Spirit is non-physical, existing outside of the realm of science. It addresses deeper questions than efficient causes.

Of course, one is free to reject the idea–and even to boldly proclaim that there are no answers outside of science. The point is that, if one doesn’t understand the difference between this view and the “sky daddy”, one can’t claim to have understood Christianity well enough to have rejected it.


The Enlightenment’s Unskeptical Disciples

“The only way, really, to pursue a godlessness in good conscience is to forget history.”

– David Bentley Hart

In context, I found this a deeply penetrating statement about the condition of the current discussion between theists and materialists. What is that context? I highly recommend the full talk, but it can be summarized as follows:

The claim was never true, but it was (in some ways) understandable that Enlightenment thinkers would believe that a society liberated from all belief in transcendence would achieve new heights of prosperity and morality–that enough education, or the right social programs, would do what religion could not.

Now that we are living in the wake of the bloodiest century in all of human history, it takes a deep lack of curiosity (or downright willful ignorance), to believe that a godless society is the unqualified good to be zealously pursued that so many proclaim it to be.

Hart points out that Nietzsche’s fear of the “last men”–of those who have no deep truth to speak, no rational basis for morality, and therefore no meaning in their lives–now seems rather quaint. This idea has gone from a horrific and seemingly wild proclamation to a banal, almost tedious, observation the facts.

The fact that so many, from the New Atheists to an all-too-large group of theists, have such a distorted, shallow view of what it is that Christianity actually claims is only the most recent evidence that ours is an age which has become so used to living without transcendence that far too many of us don’t even understand the meaning of the term.

And we can’t, of course, correct the problems sparked by the naivety of the Enlightenment thinkers simply by insisting that their view of reality was perfectly correct. And, whether they realize it or not, this is exactly what Dawkins and his fans are doing–unreflectively buying into Enlightenment propaganda as if it were a new and established truth they’d discovered themselves. So far, we’ve seen no sign that this group is even remotely aware of the connections between their own ideas and the mass slaughters of the twentieth century.

I, for one, think there are very good reasons to dismiss materialism as false. But, if it is true, it is a catastrophic truth–a bearer of death and oblivion. Those who speak as if it were, in some unspecified way, a glorious triumph have simply ignored the facts.

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.

Learning from the Most Hostile of Teachers

I almost want to apologize, but I entered into an online debate this week with a few self-identified atheists. Though they would deny it, I would classify them as New Atheists.

As someone who’s avoided the group for some time, I found it an interesting experience. Yes, the fallacies are all still there: the refusal to accept any burden of proof, the scientism, the distortion of theists’ actual arguments, the mockery in place of rational argumentation…but this seems rather old news.

I’ve decided that I ought to focus on what I can learn from the experience. Here’s my list so far, but I welcome additions in the comments section.

1. Doubt is a good thing

The New Atheists are right to assert this. In fact, it is not their doubt of theism that is my chief issue with them. It is their lack of doubt in scientism and materialism. 

But I can’t respond to them by digging in our heels and declaring certainty. I need to see this as an example to avoid–to be thoughtful and reflective about my views.

2. You can’t persuade everyone

It isn’t our job to convince others of the truth of theism; only the spirit can convict. Our job is to communicate our beliefs, and the reasons for those beliefs, as clearly as possible.

The rest is between the listener and God.

3. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake

It’s not “blessed are those who are persecuted for obnoxiousness sake”. If I’m irritable, pushy, or defensive in my presentation, then I need to change.

However, it has happened that I’ve been insulted because someone is resorting to mockery for a lack of intelligent response. I’m slowly learning that this isn’t a reason to be upset, but something to expect.

4. Debate sharpens the mind, and clarifies one’s theology

I’ve found no better way to sort out the details my beliefs. I hope to always have someone to challenge me in ways that I don’t think to challenge myself.

5. Theism is an approach for the thoughtful

That’s not to say that all thoughtful people are theists, but that realizing that theism is a formidable position is part of being a thoughtful person. Those who dismiss the debate as if it were over simply don’t understand the reality of the situation.

6. Loving my enemies takes practice

It’s also the only way to free myself from bitterness.

7. One isn’t saved through debate

Part of the reason, I think, why most of us are so eager to convince others is that we think it will help us with our own doubt (and it seems to be worst when we won’t admit to ourselves that we have doubt).

But winning debates doesn’t make me more right, and it definitely doesn’t bring me closer to God. And it is amazing how easy it is to start debating as if it justified my existence.

Those are my lessons. If you have any others, I’d love to read about them.

Courageously Demanding Real Answers to Vague Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If so, this is still a very poor argument.

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

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

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

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

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.

Rhetoric First, Reason if Time Permits

witch_hunt_accusation_crucible_jpgIn the following passage of “Why I’m not a Christian”, Bertrand Russell provides what may be the most sweeping and speculative generalization he makes. It is hard to see how anyone who has had a religious experience could fail to see the problem with this:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.

This is a beautiful rhetorical flourish to place near the climax of his speech. However, it is also false, judgmental, and irrelevant.

It is clear enough that it is false. I’ll not spend time on that. But I will say that anyone who is willing to make such grandiose declarations as this, without any real support at all, has no right to cast his side as the supporters of scientific and rational thought (as Russell does). Indeed, many of the New Atheists seem to have trouble understanding the difference between wild accusations and scientifically gathered data.

Such a harshly judgmental attitude based largely or wholly on ignorance is commonly called prejudice. And there seems to me to be something about this subject which causes people to speak boldly (and prejudicially) outside their areas of expertise. Richard Dawkins can often be found giving us amateur philosophy when he should be giving us professional science. It it strange, then, that Russell here gives us amateur psychology instead of professional philosophy.

And, most significantly, his claim is completely irrelevant to the question of God’s existence. Even if it were true that all spiritual experience is simply a fear reaction (though it isn’t remotely), this is not a logical reason to believe that God does not exist. It does nothing at all to establish that one shouldn’t be a Christian.

Russell XXI: Mercy Without Justice?

33-justice-for-allThere is quite a bit of talk of Hell in Russell’s speech. By my estimation, he includes nearly as much as is in the entirety of the Bible. It is a bit odd, then, that he criticizes the Bible for going on too much about Hell.

Then [Jesus Christ] says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty.

I’ve already discussed the idea that Hell is a natural consequence of abandoning the source of all goodness. Still, I think something should be said for punishment.

As much as I commend Russell’s commitment to compassion, the scorn he casts on the idea of Hell seems to cross the line into a disrespect for justice. The New Atheist writers tend to do the same (with far more ease). And it strikes me that most people in history have had a very high view of justice. Though we from the modern west have lived more comfortable lives than the overwhelming majority of people in history, I think we can empathize with the idea that the unfairness of this world should be set right.

That is why I find it more than a little distasteful that a privileged white male from a rich nation would scorn the idea that oppressive people should be punished.

Those people groups who are complicit in oppression are always less likely to value justice than those who live under the boot of it. And, much to my dismay, I’ve run across many that confidently declare that it is simply a lack of education that keeps the poor from embracing moral relativism–apparently oblivious to their own cultural lenses.

To the end that one hears cries for justice with sympathy, I think, one begins to see the genius of the Bible. It acknowledges the world’s desperate need for justice, while simultaneously pointing out the need for mercy–that none of us could endure true judgement. If God doesn’t care about justice, what hope is there for correcting the oppression in the world? But, if God does seek justice, what hope is there for us?

A philosophy that can endure across time and cultures must, of necessity, be one that can offer powerful resources to cope with suffering, unfairness, and loss as well as success, power, and comfort. This is one of the great strengths of Christianity and, I think, one of the great weaknesses of the worldview put forward by the New Atheist writers.

Where the Christian Gospel builds up the weak with the idea that one is a forgiven child of God, New Atheism tends to embitter the strong with the idea that one is an innocent victim of fools in an unjust world.

Russell XVIII: The Human Self-Destruct Button

Self-Destruct-ButtonIn his speech “Why I am not a Christian”, Russell has quite a bit to praise about Christ’s teachings. However, he asserts that belief in Hell cannot possibly be held by a great moral teacher:

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.

This is a classic, and unfortunate, misunderstanding of Christ. There are, of course, many interpretations of Hell, but any traditional teaching points out (among other things) that it is a natural consequence of separation from he who is the source of all love, life, and goodness.

In attempting to interpret the Bible for us, Russell (and, indeed, the New Atheists) seems to imagine a place in which God directly and vindictively tortures people for all eternity. I agree that this paints God in a terrible light; I merely wonder what this has to do with Christianity as it is actually understood by theologians.

If one understands the severity of the self-inflicted damage caused by separating from the source of all love, it is easy to see why “leaving God” and “hell” are two terms for the same unthinkably awful experience.

One can choose not to believe in Christianity, of course, but to say that it is morally wrong for Christ (or anyone else) to believe that it would be bad for people to reject God is not cogent. It is to say that Christ should not make judgements if they are apt to strike others as negative.

But this seems very strange. This very speech by Russell has told me that the masses aren’t capable of much in the way of rational thought, that it may well be a comfort to think that humanity will be annihilated, that even the most brilliant people are hopelessly indoctrinated, that there has been a severe degeneration in our ability to form rational beliefs, that the horrors of pain and death are natural and irrevocable, that the injustice of this world will never be corrected, and, in some strange inversion of logic, that those who disagree with these claims (i.e. theists) have far too judgmental a view of life and humanity.

Rather than follow a series of cynical statements with the accusation that one’s opponent has been too judgmental, Russell (and the New Atheists) should see what the doctrine of Hell actually teaches: that this path of judgmentalism, of demanding that everyone who disagrees with one’s position is wicked and delusional, will lead one into absolute torment if it isn’t stopped.

That is no easy task, I’ll grant. I speak from experience when I say that it is far easier to judge (and grow bitter in that judgment) than to accept the idea that someone (even God) may be a better judge than one’s self. That this is so natural for us, in fact, is exactly why Christ was morally obliged to warn us. To say that he should have let us suffer without warning is the attitude I find morally unconscionable.