Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

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.


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.


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.


Playground Insults in the Name of Civil Discourse

3tscekThe London School of Economics is facing a controversy this week over it’s insistence that an secularist group not sport offensive t-shirts and signs. Unsurprisingly, Richard Dawkins has voiced his support for the group, calling the school officials “sanctimonious little prigs”.

I have no idea if Dawkins realized that he was demonstrating the exact sort of mean-spirited behavior the atheist group was accused of stooping to. If not, he can rightly claim to be as ignorant of basic courtesy as he is of theology (and, if so, it is not a compliment to say that he has no problem being mean-spirited).

In fact, the New Atheism (always taking its cues from Richard Dawkins) seems to have a long track record of garnering attention by specifically putting their message in offensive terms–then acting shocked and crying oppression when offense is taken.

And this was the issue with the group: not that the position of atheism (or even of close-minded, ranting atheism that confuses cheap slogans for reason) was unwelcome at the event, but that public discourse requires a certain level of civility in order to function.

The group complains “Our right to free expression and participation in the LSE student community is being curtailed for no other reason than that we are expressing views that are not shared by others”. But this is simply false. Rights to expression and participation were never taken away. The group was neither banned from participating nor hindered from distributing their literature. They were merely asked to remove offensive signs and t-shirts and present their case in a civil way–the exact thing that is expected of every group at the event.

Needless to say, this was not “for no other reason” than their disbelief. It was for the unnecessarily rude methods that characterize the New Atheism. But it seems that the movement, having made incivility its calling card, has trouble understanding the difference between offering reasons for disagreeing and resorting to ridicule.

All this reminds me rather of the behavior of Lawrence Krauss–who recently insisted on an informal debate format with William Lane Craig in order to “have a conversation”, then used that format to shout down and talk over Craig rather than listen to or address his points. This group, following the example of their leaders, seems far less interested in actual conversation or fairness than in using the rhetoric of civil society in order to excuse behavior more appropriate to the Jr. High playground than civil debate.

For all its claims of intellectual superiority, the New Atheism behaves far more like an angry mob than a coalition of thoughtful individuals. Atheists in general should be rushing to distance themselves from this group in the hopes of salvaging what’s left of the stereotype that atheists are a sophisticated lot.

If they’ve failed at dismantling theism, Dawkins, Krauss, and their fans have blown the lid off of the myth that an atheist can be expected to be particularly reasonable.


The All-or-Nothing Criterion

GUWG-All-or-NothingOf all the objections I’ve heard to the Kalam Cosmologial Argument, one of the most interesting is, surprisingly, that given by Richard Dawkins.

Even if we allow the luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress, and giving it a name, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of human attributes such as listening to prayers, forgiving sins, and reading innermost thoughts. (Dawkins, The God Delusion)

Usually, I don’t think it fruitful to interact with Dawkins, and I’ll limit my focus here. This is because he’s made, in many ways,  a poor objection. We’ve already seen why the idea of a cause of the universe isn’t at all arbitrary, and many of the attributes ascribed to God would be implied by such a cause. Still, I do think he makes a significant point: that quite a bit of what one thinks about, when one thinks about God, is not part of the conclusion of this argument.

William Lane Craig, in defending the argument, points out that the argument was never designed to do what Dawkins complains it does not do. He goes on to point out that this is more concession than rebuttal.

It would be a bizarre form of atheism, in fact an atheism not deserving the name, that believes that there in an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, unimaginably powerful, personal creator of the universe who may–for all we know–have all of the properties listed by Dawkins. (Craig)

I find that I agree with Craig that we’ve clearly left the materialistic atheist view promoted by Dawkins, and that Dawkins’ objection is no defense of that view. But these men agree that we haven’t shown the God of any particular religion to be the correct one.

We need to seek a balance here. First, it is true that the Christian cannot simply leap from this to the conclusion to her religion without additional arguments. But, second, this is no reason to dismiss the argument in the way that Dawkins does.

I’ve seen this pattern in many, and it seems to be a strange variation on the Plurium interrogationum fallacy (demanding a simple answer to a difficult question). At least, Dawkins seems to be reasoning that, if an argument can’t conclude to all the attributes of God, but only some, that’s a good reason to stop thinking about the subject.

Rather, unless something can be shown to be wrong with the argument, we’ve moved to a general affirmation of theism. The question has, therefore, changed from “Does God exist?” to “Which God exists?”.

It is also worth mention that, while this doesn’t show a particular religion to be true, it does point to a rather narrow range of concepts. Those who worry that there will be thousands of religions to sift through can rest at ease. The percentage of gods proposed in human history who fit the conclusion of this argument is razor thin.

So, though he fails to defend his atheism, Dawkins has correctly pointed out that we have further to go before arriving at Christianity. But, rather than use that as an excuse to halt inquiry, I think this is a reason to ask ourselves what further conclusions might be reached.


Divine Simplicity and Simpletons

simpleton-universityRichard Dawkins abandoned Christianity at the age of nine. And, by all accounts, he hasn’t learned anything new about what Christians believe since then.

This is to say that his “Boeing 747 Gambit” is an excellent case study in why one should read on a topic before making vast declarations on it in print.

What is the Boeing 747 Gambit? For those that don’t already know, it could be summarized as follows:

1. Because God has control over the universe, he would have to be an extremely complex being.

2. Complex beings always evolve from simpler beings.

3. The probability that something this complex could evolve is vanishingly small.

4. Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.

I first picked up “The God Delusion” looking for a real challenge to my faith, and was very disappointed to find, among other things, this being presented as the book’s central argument. Not only are these claims dubious at best, but I had to rewrite it just to make it coherent. Dawkins’ own summary was, demonstrably, logically invalid. If this was the best the New Atheists could present, it is no wonder theologians didn’t feel that books like this one were worth attention.

But theologians should pay attention, and not only because a post-graduate student could write a doctoral thesis on everything that is wrong with this argument. By stirring up controversy, Dawkins has given theologians the perfect excuse to discuss, say, divine simplicity.

That is the problem with Dawkins’ first statement here. God has traditionally understood as a simple being (not as in “easy to understand” but as in “not composed of parts”). As spirit, this is rather straight-forward. Dawkins misses this point, presumably because he believes that God has successive thoughts like we do (rather than holding all knowledge simultaneously), and otherwise thinks that a mind’s knowledge counts has adding to its physical complexity.

But this is nonsense. The only way to say that a mind’s thoughts make it more physically complex is to assume that there can’t be a mind without a brain. But this is, of course, the very thing Dawkins should be trying to prove. To assume it here would be to argue in a circle.

This is one of many reasons why experts don’t take the argument seriously. The real debate among theologians is whether God has metaphysical “parts” (as many Protestant theologians claim) or not (as Catholic and Orthodox theologians claim).

I think many would be interested in reading “Personalists” and “Classical Theists” defend their respective concepts of God. Why think God would be simple? How is the concept of the trinity explained if God is simple? How is God’s unity described without simplicity? This is a great way to deepen one’s own understanding of the divine.

But Dawkins simply isn’t interested. He “knows” this thing called “God” doesn’t exist, so he doesn’t have to bother learning what the word “God” actually means. But, if he had bothered, he would have noticed that his argument doesn’t disprove the God that monotheists believe in, but only the sort of God’s believed in by the ancient Pagans.

I’d say that Dawkins is a bit late to be proving that Zeus doesn’t exist (and there are far better arguments, even then). Really, his “central argument” has nothing to say about a God who is above nature, rather than part of it.

In the words of Stephen Barr, “Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point.”


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.