Anti-Atheism is Misguided

I’m not sure whether to blame Dawkins for his radical atheism or anti-atheists who use his arguments to make stuff up about Western atheists that a simple look at the history of 19th century socialism would refute. PZ links to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that is the religious equivalent of calling everyone who’s not an anarcho-capitalist a communist.

For a start, take op-ed author Sam Schulman’s contention that,

There are many themes to the atheist lament. A common worry is the political and social effect of religious belief. To a lot of atheists, the fate of civilization and of mankind depends on their ability to cool—or better, simply to ban—the fevered fancies of the God-intoxicated among us.

Naturally, the atheists focus their peevishness not on Muslim extremists (who advertise their hatred and violent intentions) but on the old-time Christian religion. (“Wisdom dwells with prudence,” the Good Book teaches.) They can always haul out the abortion-clinic bomber if they need a boogeyman; and they can always argue as if all faiths are interchangeable: Persuade American Christians to give up their infantile attachment to God and maybe Muslims will too. In any case, they conclude: God is not necessary, God is impossible and God is not permissible if our society—or even our species—is to survive.

Currently, the most radical well known atheists in the Anglo-American world are Dawkins and Harris. To my knowledge, neither of them has ever said anything that could be construed in terms of Schulman’s caricature. My knowledge may be flawed, but an article that creates a strawman without sourcing it is always flawed.

In almost five years of participating in atheist websites, forums, and blogs, the closest comment to Schulman’s “can argue” I’ve seen was a contention by an Orthodox Jew that the best way to combat Palestinian terrorism was to deconvert Muslims. The secularists, whose views on the I/P conflict spanned the entire gamut of possible opinions, responded uniformly negatively.

Nontheists are united by nothing except their lack of religious belief. In the US, they’re likelier than theists to be culturally liberal and vote Democratic, but hold very divergent opinions on other issues, including those about radical Islam. The new atheist movement Schulman talks about is a bit more unified in opposing American foreign policy, but only in the imaginations of ultra-conservative Christians does that equal thinking deconverting Christians is the best response to Jihadism.

For the new atheists, believing in God is a form of stupidity, which sets off their own intelligence. They write as if they were the first to discover that biblical miracles are improbable, that Parson Weems was a fabulist, that religion is full of superstition. They write as if great minds had never before wrestled with the big questions of creation, moral law and the contending versions of revealed truth. They argue as if these questions are easily answered by their own blunt materialism. Most of all, they assume that no intelligent, reflective person could ever defend religion rather than dismiss it. The reviewer of Dr. Dawkins’s volume in a recent New York Review of Books noted his unwillingness to take theology seriously, a starting point for any considered debate over religion.

Replacing a few keywords in the above paragraph can produce any run-of-the-mill dismissal of progressive movements: civil rights, feminism, labor liberalism, gay rights. To take an anti-libertarian analogy, it’s generally accepted that people like Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and David Friedman are/were intelligent. It’s also accepted among serious economists that believing a single non-trivial thing they said about economics or society is a form of lunacy.

In the 19th century, the best known socialist was by far Karl Marx, a radical whose economic predictions have repeatedly failed to come true. By Schulman’s method, we must immediately dismiss any union activism, such as the strikes that convinced the US government to adopt an 8-hour workday.

Further, since Schulman insinuates that atheism is detrimental to society, we must conclude that to uphold society, unrestricted capitalism is necessary. Of course, history shows otherwise: capitalist countries that regulated the excesses of capitalism did not undergo a communist revolution or insurgence, while capitalist countries that did not either became living hells like most of Latin America or underwent destructive revolutions like most of East Asia.

Demanding that theology be taken seriously is in itself enough to stifle any discourse. It hasn’t always been so; but since the late Enlightenment and especially since Hume published his works, taking theology seriously has been akin to taking phlogiston theory seriously.

Critics of the scientific method always insist that factless assertions and discredited theories be taken seriously. It’s their way of leveling the enormous advantage secular humanism has, namely that it’s true. Given that no modern debate has produced any constructive results without making some kind of (non-deconstructionist) naturalist assumption, it’s safe to conclude that they’re wrong.

17 Responses to Anti-Atheism is Misguided

  1. Cat lover says:

    You write: “…since the late Enlightenment and especially since Hume published his works, taking theology seriously has been akin to taking phlogiston theory seriously.”

    First of all, the assertion that theology and phlogiston theory are of similar status is simply false. Phlogiston theory was a brief interlude in the devolpment of modern chemistry; theology is a branch of study which is older than recorded history. Furthermore, I know of no one (scientist or otherwise) who seriously belives phlogiston theory today, whereas many people are actively studying theology.

    Second, even if one grants this point, one *must* take phlogiston theory seriously if one wishes to debate the fundamental nature of combustion. Of course, such a debate is no longer necessary, because (as pointed out above) no one actually believes phlogiston theory anymore. The difference between a debate and a shouting match consists precisely in taking the opposing point of view seriously. (One can be forgiven for forgetting this, considering that the vast majority of “debates” in the media are in fact shouting matches.) As Schulman points out, modern atheists (or at least those in the public eye) have an irritating tendency to avoid real debate by baldly asserting that anyone who disagrees with them is a fool.

    Finally, your last paragraph is an excellent example of what Schulman is talking about, and why many people find atheists so hard to stomach. The sort of arrogance you display reminds me of religious fundamentalists. Care to support your argument about “no modern debate?” With references to every public debate since Hume?

  2. Sam says:

    You might take a look at Sam Harris’s latest Letter to a Christian Nation to check the justice of the Journal piece’s characterization -and also at Dan Dennett’s new atheist book. You’ll see that the characterization is fair. I don’t think that the piece is pro-theist – just makes some observations about the tone and intelligence of recent atheist apologegtics.

  3. Tyler DiPietro says:

    So Cat Lover, am I too understand that your argument for theology boils down to “it’s valuable because people still waste time on it”?

    Theology and phlogiston theory are not alike in every detail (I always love the implication that relatively trivial analogies destroy an entire argument if they’re not perfectly isomorphic). They share the trait of being false, and if you’re not willing to put forward an argument instead of going bonkers over criticism of your beliefs, I see no reason to take you seriously.

  4. Tyler DiPietro says:

    You might take a look at Sam Harris’s latest Letter to a Christian Nation to check the justice of the Journal piece’s characterization -and also at Dan Dennett’s new atheist book. You’ll see that the characterization is fair.

    I’ve read both of them, front to back. And I have them at arms length right now. Care to point out to me where this material is in either book that justifies the load of crap Alon quoted?

  5. Cat lover says:

    @ Tyler:

    You write: “So Cat Lover, am I too understand that your argument for theology boils down to ‘it’s valuable because people still waste time on it’?”

    Er, no, that’s not what I was saying. In fact, I wasn’t intending to make an argument for the *validity* of theology at all. What I was arguing was that, since a lot of people presently believe in it, it needs to be considered seriously. If you happen to think its a waste of time, fine by me. If you give it serious consideration, evaluate it on its merits and reject it, that’s fine too. Just don’t ignore/dismiss it out of hand if you intend to debate the topic of religion in modern society.

    I am quite aware that analogies don’t need to be perfect in order to be useful, by the way. This does not mean, however, that there is no such thing as a bad analogy. My main point was that, even if you grant the analogy, the argument fails. Also, what part of my comment did you think was “bonkers,” pray tell?

  6. MTran says:

    Cat Lover,

    I’ve read numerous commentators demand that atheists take theology “seriously.” I have yet to see any good reason to do so. Perhaps it’s supposed to be more “polite” to do so, but theological arguments are not what has typically caused the great majority of become believers. And I have seldom found anyone outside of academia who can make a coherent theological argument.

    But why, exactly, should an atheist have to address any number of theological arguments about god when the threshhold issue — whether there is any evidence to support a belief in god — is their only concern?

    Yes, I realize that some claim that there are theologically “convincing” proofs of god. But those “proofs” crumble upon scrutiny and fail to convince anyone but other believers.

  7. Cat lover says:

    @MTran:

    The issue isn’t so much politeness as fairness–theology represents the attempt of those who believe in the existence of God to explore the logical consequences of that belief. To ignore theology in a discussion of religion is a little like ignoring science in a discussion of atheism–it tends to make the other side appear completely irrational, and therefore much easier to argue against. Although I’ll agree that most people who can speak coherently about theology are either clergy or academics, the same could be said of, say, physics.

    Asking whether there is any evidence (in the materialist sense) to support a belief in God is a bit of a moot point, IMHO. Many non-atheists, myself included, would be willing to concede that there is not any such evidence, whence the need for faith. The question then becomes what attitude we should have about beliefs unsupported by evidence. Atheists would like to keep the number of such unsupported beliefs as few as possible; this is (ironically) a concern shared by fundamentalists.

    Finally, I must say that I (along with most other Christians I’ve spoken to) don’t find the classical “proofs” of God particularly convincing either. Aquinas’ arguments show (at best) that there is some sort of supernatrural agency, which bears no necessary resemblence to any particular God or gods, while Anselm’s argument boils down to playing with words.

  8. whig says:

    I think many arguments boil down to a problem in definitions, a different meaning may be held by the person who believes in God and the one who does not. To even attempt a direct comparison would be impossible, and even to say that one’s conception of God is thus and so does not require that it is fixed and unchanging, unless your view of God is precisely as some sort of inflexible rule like inexorable gravity.

    My perspective is that everyone believes in God but some don’t believe in using the name or any particular scripture or other description.

    If there exists at least one consciousness, your own, you could say that God is present by virtue of being consciousness. That definition might be insufficient, but perhaps it would be enough of a common ground whereby we could then discuss the nature and attributes of God.

  9. Simen says:

    Whig, you have just presented a common argument for God that I don’t know of a name for, which basically involves watering down the definition of God until there is no way to deny it, becuase it is so general and vague. Are you saying that God is consciousness? Then by all means, God is real, but the word “God” carries way to much historical/cultural garbage to use. Please, before you go on implying that we all believe in something, define that something. I don’t appreciate people saying I believe in something that I don’t by virtue of some extremely vague, abstract concept that they’ve built and refuse to share with anyone.

  10. whig says:

    Simen, that’s the thing, we don’t have a common definition of God. We never did, because language isn’t capable of expressing what we believe when it involves concepts and ideas that cannot be represented photographically. Only a metaphor can be made, and some will understand the metaphor but to others with no point of reference will simply be confused.

    So if you ask me to define God then you ask me to write for you a scripture. You’re welcome to read my blog, of course.

  11. Sam Harris’s The End of Faith is vigorously anti-Moslem, more so in fact than it is anti-Christian. The WSJ isn’t even bothering to make things up, just cutting and pasting from a different argument.

  12. [...] -Abstract Nonesense Blog No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> [...]

  13. [...] I Take Seriously Commenter Cat Lover responds to my post about anti-atheism by saying I must take theology seriously to have a non-shrill [...]

  14. [...] Nonsense commenter Cat Lover responds to my post about anti-atheism by saying I must take theology seriously to have a non-shrill [...]

  15. Rockadayjohnny says:

    I like MTran’s post that says that theological proofs crumble and the only people whom they convince are believers. You know, if proofs convince someone, hasn’t he become a ‘believer’ by definition? The only people who believe are believers, eh?

    I enjoy what I see of your site. I found you as a result of a Google search for bloggers who self identify as autistic or diagnosed with asperger’s syndrome, and self-identirfy as atheist. (Yours was a link from one such site, not a direct hit for those search terms.) There was, by the way, a quite strong correlation. Is there a hypothesis lurking somewhere?

  16. Bronze Dog says:

    I like MTran’s post that says that theological proofs crumble and the only people whom they convince are believers. You know, if proofs convince someone, hasn’t he become a ‘believer’ by definition? The only people who believe are believers, eh?

    Completely missing the point: Those proofs only “convince” people who already believe. They don’t convince nonbelievers into becoming believers.

  17. Definitely, what a magnificent blog and revealing posts, I definitely will bookmark your website.Have an awsome day!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: