Tag Archives: New Atheists

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.

 


The Theology of Scientism

If there comes a point when one’s view of an idea is so distorted that one can’t be said to really be talking about it anymore, then Dawkins and his fans have long since reached that point with respect to religion.

But I’m increasingly convinced that it is helpful to go over the reasons why their understanding of Christianity is wrong. The subject is well-worth considering.

The topic for today:

If you’re using the phrase “the God hypothesis” you aren’t talking about Christianity.

God is not a hypothesis for the very simple reason that questions about God are not empirical questions.

This is the most consistent mistake of Richard Dawkins: the unquestioned assumption that the issue of theology is, somehow, a question for science to answer pervades his writings.

It is currently popular, in some circles, to say that all questions are scientific questions. The reasons why this is false have been pointed out many times in the past. Still, there are many in our culture who are so used to thinking of science as the paradigm of all inquiry that they seem to find it difficult to understand the thinking behind logic, metaphysics, or ethics.

But to speak of a “God hypothesis” is no more accurate than to speak of a “Modis Ponens hypothesis”, a “the universe is not an illusion hypothesis”, or a “people shouldn’t be selfish hypothesis”.

God, like many of the things that Dawkins himself takes for granted, is simply not subject to the experiment-observation method employed by science. Rather, God is a transcendent entity who is the ultimate explanation of the universe, not a finite, measurable entity within the universe.

And it is for this reason that God is not a scientific theory. A theory is a general description of a causal chain stretching backward in in time up to the present moment. God, by contrast, is (among other things) an explanation as to why such chains can exist in the first place–why the universe has regular patterns so that it can be studied by science at all.

Nor, to address the tired memetic response, does this make the concept of God untestable or unprovable. It only means that the necessary tests are not lab experiments.

So, whether or not one believes in such an entity, it is no more reasonable to demand scientific evidence for God than to demand scientific evidence that an argument isn’t fallacious. It is the wrong category.

If one starts one’s search with the assumption that everything is scientific, it is no wonder that one only finds the scientific. It would be completely obtuse to conclude that this, somehow, discredits the idea of a transcendent God.

And this is where the New Atheists are often accused of a certain intellectual tone-deafness. They seem to believe that, because they cannot imagine anything other than the scientific (or a test other than scientific tests), there must be no such thing.


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.


Only the Most Fashionable Myths Allowed

greekgoddessFailing to make a case that religion is bad for people in the present, the New Atheists often turn to (their version of) history. Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell does the same:

You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs.

The mention of this complete falsehood makes it all but required that theists point out the mass slaughter committed by officially atheist governments. Richard Dawkins, however, waves the atrocities of Communism off as “old hat” (apparently much “older” than the Crusades, which he cites against religion).

Others try to claim that the gulags were “a breakdown in rationality”, which is not nearly so true as they think. The Communists were being rational, assuming one grants the lack of a God and the absolute power of the state. But, even if one accepts the “breakdown of rationality” theory, all this shows is that secularism does not automatically encourage rationality (which directly contradicts the New Atheist platform).

There are still others (such as Christopher Hitchens) who claim that these governments were religions unto themselves. But, if one can call Stalin’s governing religious, one can certainly call the New Atheist movement a religion in the same sense.

And, of course, Russell has conspicuously overlooked the Reign of Terror in his own warped version of history.

In fact, the idea that periods of great belief in God were somehow particularly cruel rests much more heavily on the Enlightenment era propaganda that helped to fuel the Reign of Terror than actual historical fact. The idea that the peoples of the middle ages, for instance, were simply barbaric makes for excellent movies, but doesn’t reflect reality.

By my reading, the historian finds the New Atheists as exasperating as the theologian and the philosopher. Once one understands more than the glib caricatures popular culture gives to various historical periods, it becomes obvious that their view is a secular myth, rather than reality.

The New Atheists’ version of history, then, affirms their beliefs, but doesn’t fit the facts. For a group that is constantly (and wrongly) accusing others of venerating myths, this is a deep problem with their platform.


Random Moral Pronouncements

judgenot-thumbIn his speech, “Why I’m not a Christian” Bertrand Russell rejects the idea that Christ was the greatest of moral teachers:

I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

The most obvious question one can raise here is to request a standard by which Russell presumes to judge the great moral teachers of history. Of course, he does not say that he is doing this, but is simply stating his opinion. But if he expects anyone to accept his claim as more than an irrational quirk of his own personality, a standard would be required.

I mention this because it is so similar to the New Atheists’ modus operandi. This particular group is quick to make sweeping (and caustic) moral pronouncements while consistently refusing to give any defense of such statements. This is, of course, doubly problematic in that they so often criticize others for failing to give reasons for what they believe.

But, as for Russell, it is clear from his speech that he judges Christ to be inferior because of Christ’s commitment to justice, rather than simply gentleness and compassion.

It seems odd, then, that appreciation for gentleness and compassion is probably the largest change in moral thinking that Christ’s teaching made to the ancient world. This also reminds me of the New Atheists, who’s references to the “historical atrocities of religion” very often reveal a deep ignorance of actual history.

All this may be beside the point, however. None of this counters the argument that Christ, if he were a lunatic or a charlatan, wouldn’t have been both a great moral teacher and willing to die for that teaching.

This means that Russell’s personal ranking of moral teachers can be set aside. The classic “lord, liar, lunatic” apologetic doesn’t actually require that we begin by agreeing that Christ is undisputedly “better” a moral teacher than Buddha or Socrates (though he was). It merely requires one to accept that he was a great moral teacher (in order to scratch of the “liar” and “lunatic” options). And Russell himself affirms the greatness of Christ’s moral teaching.

So, though I thought it worth questioning Russell’s conclusion, there was no valid point being made against the truth of Christianity by comparing Christ to Socrates in the first place.


Russell XVII: The Joy of (Mis)Reading

kids-reading

Now turning to what he finds objectionable about Christ’s teachings, Russell starts with what he considers to be an obvious inaccuracy:

For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that.

This is an old debate. As far as I know, it centers mostly around whether or not the word “come” in one particular verse describes Christ’s final return before the end of the world, or the coming of the spirit at the Pentecost. It takes very little study, however, to see that “great many” and “prove” are clearly overstatements.

I’ll not add more, because choosing between the resolutions of this issue seems a minor point for those who accept Christianity as true. It is not a major objection to Christ’s teachings as a whole.

What is more relevant is that Russell uses the following as one of his main supports for the point:

When [Christ] said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count.

One wonders how Russell knows this is why Christ said these things. Surely, as a sage, it is not out of the question that he felt people were too worried about personal daily affairs? Is the idea that he thought the world was ending when he said “tomorrow will worry about itself” really the only possible explanation?

Russell seems to think so. In fact, he adds this:

The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent.

I don’t know where Russell has gotten the idea that the early Christians refrained from planting trees, nor am I sure why he feels he can extrapolate from this that Christ had committed himself to a specific time-frame.

This is yet another point at which I am reminded of the New Atheists, who often demand, without support, that their own strange interpretations of the Bible are correct. Of course, if one simply takes full license to completely re-interpret a view, it is easy to “refute” it, but I doubt that the New Atheists would submit to others taking this approach to their own writings.


Russell XVI: Evidence has Left the Building

scales

Before getting into some complaints about Christ’s teachings, Russell pauses to question the reliability of the New Testament documents themselves:

Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him

In fairness to Russell, this was cutting-edge (if biased) scholarship in his day. But, if that (somewhat) excuses him, it does not excuse those who, almost a century later, seem completely unaware of what has happened in scholarship since.

This is probably the place at which the New Atheists most blatantly refuse to submit to their own demand that we “follow the evidence where it leads”. I’ve encountered many people who, in the name of reason, quickly accept demonstrably false deconstruction theories about the Bible (such as references to Mithras) while rejecting the good scholarship in defense of it.

The fact that these kinds of conspiracy theories are still being presented on the internet (and television) as powerful evidence against Christianity, when even atheist historians agree that the basic facts of Christ’s life are historically reliable, shows that many are refusing to “follow the evidence where it leads”.

Less obviously false, but no less a contradiction of the aforementioned maxim, is the position that, in reaction to the fact that every non-Christian explanation of the New Testament has been thoroughly discredited, we should simply avoid answering the question “what explanation of the data is most reasonable?”. It is hard not to wonder whether this has anything to do with the fact that the answer would lead one to accept Christianity as true.

There are, in fact, some formidable arguments for Christianity based on the accepted facts of scholarship. These have yet to be answered, even by much more thoughtful people than the New Atheist writers; it is not at all likely that their position would be able to deal with being open-minded here.

The complexities of historical research are far too great for a single post, and there is no absolute proof of anything in this life. Still, as things stand with regard to New Testament scholarship, evidence has definitely left the atheist building where it was once assumed to dwell. Following the evidence where it leads means accepting that the resurrection of Christ is the most coherent explanation of the known facts.