Is the Problem Faith?

December 12, 2012

Jerry Coyne recently posted a video which he puts up as a reasonable argument from Richard Dawkins as to why religious belief is ‘bad’:

Dawkin’s arguments in this video (like those of most New Atheists, for whom he is Dear Leader) are a typical string of straw men, Red herrings and ad hominem attacks.

In his first claim Dawkins contends that religious folk are an incurious lot that don’t question or consider anything beyond what is written in their Holy book or as he characterizes it, “This is how it is. It is all written in the Holy Book. It was written 2000 years ago and that’s the end of it”. It’s rather obvious he is referring to Christianity here since Christianity is about 2000 years old. Of course this is a straw man version of Christianity since historically Christianity is anything but incurious. From the Apostle Paul to Augustine and Aquinas, to Newton, Pascal and Mendel, Christianity is filled with folks who pursued knowledge and understanding about every aspect of life. Christianity’s contributions to theology, philosophy, science and culture are undeniable.

But Dawkin’s claim makes even less sense when one considers the Christian view of nature and the universe. For Christians historically Scripture wasn’t the final Word but the launching pad for intellectual development. The Bible’s picture of our world as an orderly place that is conducive to rational comprehension is a greater impetus to explore and understand the universe than is the atheist’s perspective is. To see why this is one need only consider the following scenario:

Imagine for a moment I told you about an incredible art gallery. Not only incredible, but this particular art gallery was filled with artwork by the greatest artist that ever existed. The works of this artist were so intricate and so vast that generations of people had devoted their lives to the study of his productions and never come to the end of them. Now imagine further that I told you not only was this the greatest artist ever, but this artist was so wise that he had anticipated those who would study his work and had worked into them wisdom and truth that would benefit those who took their time to gaze upon his handiwork. Would you be curious about such an art gallery? Would you devote time and effort, perhaps even pay something to see such a place? If after a little effort you began to see that indeed what was there opened your mind to greater truths and understanding would you perhaps consider it your life’s work to study the works of this artist? I would think most would.

Now imagine I told you about another gallery. The works of art in this gallery are unusual – because no artist produced them. The art is incidental – it exists merely as the result of a series of unplanned events that began no particular purpose in mind. You could spend your life studying the art, but in the end the art has nothing for you, it just is. The very notion that you are seeing ‘art’ in it – that is design, purpose and beauty – is an illusion you have projected upon the objects in this gallery. You may glean some understanding of the processes that produced the art but in the end you always come to the same dead end – it’s just there, there is no ultimate explanation for why it exists. And we know the end result of these works – they are decaying, and in time they won’t exist at all, and neither will anybody’s memory of them. They began without purpose, and they end without any permanent value.

This explains the absurdity of Dawkin’s characterization of faith. The Christian’s faith in the order and meaning of nature gives him confidence that he can explore and understand it. The greatest motivation for exploring the universe has been to understand more about God – which is why so many scientists, including some of the originators of science, were also men of God in one way or another. It is a pursuit that is purposeful and fruitful; in the Christian perspective nature is a reflection of the mind of God.

The second contention by Dawkins is that faith is potentially lethal; it has been used to turn men into weapons because religious people are particularly vulnerable to mindlessly do acts of violence due to their unquestioning belief. At this point he does a bait and switch, referring to the Islamist suicide bombers instead of the Christians he previously targeted. For New Atheists, such details “don’t matter” as Dawkins puts it. Of course they don’t matter for his purpose, which isn’t to discern the actual causes of violence but to besmirch religious. This latter contention is more ridiculous than the first.

The ‘religion incites violence’ argument fails in two major ways. The first is that while religious belief is virtually a universal human attribute, the particulars of religious belief vary widely. Tendencies to religious violence seem almost wholly dependent on the particular beliefs of a religion. No one can contend that the Quakers, Amish and Mennonites, who are among the most devout believers, are in any way violent. Buddhists and Baptists don’t seem particularly inclined to strap bombs on themselves. And the most religious cultures aren’t necessarily the most violent. So there is no necessary connection between religion and violence.

This isn’t to say religious belief can’t incite the worst human behaviors – but the second reason the argument fails is that men are capable of atrocities quite apart from religion. Men have killed millions in the name of eliminating economic classes, attempting to breed a master race, even murdered in the name of equality and liberty – all perfectly secular considerations.

So if religion doesn’t necessarily incline men to violence and secular interests may, what are we to conclude? The Christian understanding makes the most sense here – men on the whole are corruptible, given to selfish ambition, desires for power and wealth and dominating others. In short they are sinners. This why the New Testament emphasizes the need for the transformation of human nature. And for a society as a whole it takes generations to internalize the moral behaviors we take granted now, and a few tragic choices to undue those same behaviors. Dawkin’s naturalism has no power to accomplish this.

So Dawkin’s arguments fail completely here. What is amazing to me is that Dawkin’s arguments are held up as the pinnacle of reason by Jerry Coyne and other New Atheists when his logic is so transparently fallacious. If this is the best of atheist reason, then the movement is bereft of any intellectual vigor whatsoever.

Advertisements

The Death of Recent Myths

November 21, 2012

There was an illusion, oh sometime around 14 years ago during the reign of Bill Clinton that certain behaviors by leaders no longer mattered, that we could parse one’s ‘private life’ (usually meaning one’s sexual proclivities) from one’s public performance. Of course, that was in the midst of the last economic boom, and many were willing to trade integrity in their leaders for some cash in their pockets.

But the times change, particularly when so many pockets are empty. The recent spate of high level adulterous affairs hasn’t been met with the same yawning indifference that Clinton’s was. Jonathan Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and now of course General Petraeus and General George Allen have all garnered resignations and reprobation. This is particularly the case in the latter two, given these men fell not only under the ethical considerations of political leaders (presuming some exist) but the auspices of military regulations as well. Perhaps the thought of our Generals engaging in sexual dalliances while boys die on battlefields is too much even for our promiscuous culture.

This is one of the great divides when Christians and secularists speak about ‘morality’. Atheists are fond of saying that Christians have no corner on morality, that one doesn’t need to believe in God to be good. More recently they seek to demonstrate this by highly publicized works of charity in order to demonstrate they can ‘be good without God’. When saying that, they are defining the ‘good’ to be those behaviors that have outward effects, not necessarily those behaviors traditionally understood to be good in Western society and by Christians. Adultery is one such behavior that seems to fall outside of the atheist prevue of morality.

New Atheist Richard Dawkins made this exceedingly clear in his essay on the subject, Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster . As he boldly asks:

Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place? Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected — or fear — that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is “cheating on them”. “Cheating” really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?

—————————————————————————————

Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?

Given his casual indifference to marital vows I guess we shouldn’t be surprised there have been three Mrs. Dawkins – he appears to be, to paraphrase the character Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, “always on the lookout for a future ex-Mrs. Dawkins”.

Dawkins’ assurances aside, adultery obviously has many victims. There are the bereaved spouses, the loss of trust in a community, and not least of all the pain of any children that might be involved. In the case of General Petreaus there was the opening of himself to blackmail and the communication of sensitive information, not to mention the damage to the trust the public had invested in him as the head of one of the most important national security agencies. If not in reality, people in powerful positions convey the perception of coercing those with less power into relationships with them.

For the Christian of course there is no distinction between public and private morality. Morality for the Christian is primarily an offense against God and His intended purposes for human life. In fact being moral for public purposes is considered hypocrisy, as Jesus plainly teaches concerning the Pharisees of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. – Matthew 23:27-28

For a Christian being moral isn’t merely about what one does in public, but what one is when the public isn’t watching. At least for now our society, if not secularists, appears to agree with this standard.


Atheists Eat Their Own

September 24, 2012

New Atheism, the movement that holds that religious belief should be strongly criticized and countered because it is dumb, delusional and dangerous burst on the scene early in the 2000’s with a flurry of best-selling books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Motivated in part by the perceived religious motivations of the 9/11 attacks and George Bush’s overt religiosity and fueled by the easy communication of blogs and discussion boards, New Atheism quickly grew into something of a movement. Foundations, conferences and rallies have since provided a sense of community and identity to the nascent cause. And yet, while there has been much fanfare about the growth of New Atheism, at nearly a decade out the movement appears to be employing the same attacks against itself that it once leveled against the religious and with greater effect.

Overt acts of sexism and harassment by men in the movement against participating women have recently splintered the movement. New Atheism has also dividing over what it means to be an atheist; whether the movement is merely skeptical of religion or obligated to advance certain social and political concerns like feminism, gay rights and social and economic justice. In short, some want to offer a progressive agenda, or what has been dubbed ‘Atheism+’. Atheist journalist Nelson Jones gives a good overview at the NewStatesman:

A number of incidents have served to crystallise the sense that all is not right in the world of unbelief. Most notoriously, there was “Elevatorgate”, an late-night incident in a lift during an atheist conference in Dublin during which the blogger Rebecca Watson was propositioned. Her subsequent public complaint about the man’s behaviour and sexual harassment within the Skeptic movement drew criticism from Richard Dawkins himself and fuelled an ugly flame war. She received, and continues to receive, rape and death threats…

…The first item on the Atheism+ agenda, then, is a cleansing one. [Jen] McCreight [A founder of the movement at PZ Myers Freethought blogs] herself says: “We need to recognize that there’s still room for self-improvement and to address the root of why we’ve been having these problems in atheism and skepticism.” Greta Christina has gone so far as to devise a checklist of goals to which atheist organisations should aspire, including anti-harassment policies and ensuring diversity among both members and invited speakers. “To remember that not all atheists look like Richard Dawkins.”

Not long after this article was published skeptic Jen McCreight ceased blogging at FreeThoughtBlogs over the harassment she received from her criticism of her fellow atheists. Beyond the blog wars, major players in the atheist movement like Dawkins and PZ Myers and Sam Harris are vociferously at odds over all sorts of issues. While the blog comment sections and discussion boards of atheists have always been offensive and irrational places for believers, they are now verbal torture chambers for fellow atheists.

As a Christian I would normally avoid commenting on the internecine battles of groups that don’t include me. It is no skin off my nose that atheists are attacking each other. But I think the current state of affairs is instructive when it comes to understanding the modern atheist movement and human nature.

The first thing to understand is that ‘New Atheism’ is primarily the domain of young white males. And not ordinary young white males, but the sort whose lives consist largely of the consumption of video games, pornography and internet trolling. Psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo described this group recently in his book The Demise of Guys. While many of the leaders of New Atheism appear to be respectable enough folks, New Atheist leaders like PZ Meyers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne have been idolized by troops of young men because they justify their chosen lifestyles. Whereas it was once expected that a man in his twenties would do something productive and profitable like advancing a career or starting a family, now we have millions of young men who feel completely content to squander their lives engaging in artificial combat to conquer digital worlds while satisfying themselves with virtual relationships. They are ripe for the picking by folks like PZ Myers who created a legion of trolls by whipping fan boys into a frenzy against imagined evil religious hordes. There is little wonder then that the fun was spoiled when real women started showing up at the party, with all their expectations of social maturity and common decency. Their presence, and the insistence by certain atheist leaders that the some of their followers need to grow up was like Peter Pan telling the lost boys to leave Neverland and get a life.

While this was true for the minions, for leaders of New Atheism it has never been about mere skepticism. New Atheism is closely allied with progressivism because they share a common enemy. Progressives see atheism as useful to diminish the power of conservative faiths that are the primary bulwark against leftist agendas. Of course the fan boys in the atheist movement aren’t nearly so high-minded – they see religion as bulwark against their chosen lifestyles. As much as this mindless passion causes young men to rail against religion, they are useful to leaders on the left. That is why the movements in the sixties could encompass both the high-minded feminist notions of ‘equality’ alongside the ‘free love movement’ which consisted mainly of mainstreaming sexual promiscuousness. To advance, both required diminishing traditional and religious beliefs about family even though they shared little in common with regard to actual goals. They were literally strange bedfellows.

The reason conflicts have arisen in the atheist movement is the reason conflict inevitably arises in all human movements – the selfishness and hubris that is inherent to human nature. This comports with first and foremost truth advanced by Christians that all men are sinners – that is by nature we are selfish, proud and corruptible creatures. This is why the very atheist hordes PZ Myers used to command against the religious now clog his inbox with messages of contempt. It is the reason the very folks Richard Dawkins inspired to be rationalists now label him a misogynist. And it is why Sam Harris, whose books partly inspired the New Atheist movement, is now labeled among the ‘5 Most Awful Atheists‘ by some of his peers. Atheists imagined that religious belief itself exacerbates conflict and once it was done away with reason would reign – now they prove that a devotion to reason is no remedy for the inherent human tendency to advance one’s ambitions over the interests of others.

Atheists often cast aspersions on the Church because there are multiple Christian denominations. ‘How can there be one truth with so many different variations?’ goes the reasoning – all the while ignoring the basic creeds that Christians overwhelmingly adhere to and the fact that the Church experienced no significant splits for over a thousand years of its existence. They tout their movement as one motivated by reason and thus immune to the vagaries that plague many religions; yet they can’t deal with basic matters amongst themselves with common civility.

If we can test the truth of a proposition by the consistent agreement about its basic tenants among its proponents, then New Atheism, a small movement that is splintering almost as soon as it has begun, is almost certainly false.


Observations

May 15, 2012

“For all the great founders of modern science – Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Robert Boyle, John Ray and their Muslim predecessors – their research was itself an act of reverence. The list continues through the 19th century, with Faraday, Babbage and Kelvin. From our present age, Lennox quotes Sir Ghillean Prance, former director of Kew: “All my studies have confirmed my faith.”

Contrast this with Atkins, more hardline even than Dawkins: “There is no reason to suppose that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence. Only the religious – among whom I include not only the prejudiced but the underinformed – hope that there is a dark corner of the universe that science can never hope to illuminate.” And: “Humanity should accept that science has eliminated the justification for believing in cosmic purpose.”

Yet Atkins, as a professor of science, must be aware of Sir Peter Medawar’s famous adage, adapted from Bismarck, “Science is the art of the soluble”. Scientists study only those aspects of the universe that it is within their gift to study: what is observable; what is measurable and amenable to statistical analysis; and, indeed, what they can afford to study within the means and time available. Science thus emerges as a giant tautology, a “closed system”. It can present us with robust answers only because its practitioners take very great care to tailor the questions.”

Colin Tudge reviewing Oxford mathematician John Lennox’s book God’s Undertaker.


The Nonsense of the Reason Rally

March 23, 2012

I have to say up until now my reaction to the ‘Reason Rally’ (other than, “Did it happen yet?”) is one of mild bemusement. This reaction comes in part from my years of interacting with atheists on and off the internet and being told repeatedly as one someone did recently in my combox that, “atheism entails nothing. It’s the rejection of a particular belief because there is insufficient evidence to affirm it.”

The regular definition of atheism as the simple lack of a belief in a God or gods is a useful meme because it doesn’t require one to actually defend atheism. In addition one can claim the theist has the burden of proof when arguing that God exists. Of course if it were really a “Rally For Unbelief” as the Huffington Post recently put it, then there wouldn’t be anything to rally for. Given the purpose of a ‘rally’ is to organize people to accomplish something, unbelief alone obviously isn’t in and of itself sufficient for this cause. So it’s obvious that for the purposes of this event atheists will be putting aside their minimal definition for the day.

Thus it’s called the ‘Reason Rally‘. This is better than the name of the previous gathering of atheists in D.C. in 2002 which was called, “The Godless March on Washington“. No seriously, that is what it was called. It attracted about 2000 people, or roughly the population of homeless people on the National Mall. But these folks are no dummies so it took them just ten years to come up with a new name. No Godlessness this time, now they will be championing the worthy cause of Reason. Everyone loves reason – as Dawkins recently asked, “Who would rally against reason?” I agree, no one would, sign me up! Of course no one really believes that is the purpose of the rally. If it were there would be lectures and studies and maybe debates on issues of concern instead of bad rock bands, bad comedians and politicians. An event centered on reason would totally alienate the Occupy crowds, who have been looking for a place to hang out since they were evicted from their camps. Who would pad the crowd numbers then?

So if it isn’t about ‘Reason’, then what is it about? We know based on the participation of folks like Dawkins and PZ Myers, it will be a ‘Religion is Deluded, Stupid and Evil‘ rally. Of course, they won’t be attacking all religions this way – the New Atheists are generally indifferent to the existence of Buddhism and Hinduism in large segments of the world. And it won’t be an anti-Muslim rally because that would be dangerous. It also won’t be anti-Jewish because that would be politically incorrect – though in all fairness, this may be changing. So it will mostly be an anti-Christian rally.

And the atheists that will be welcome there represent a particularly narrow segment of the secular population. As detailed recently in a New Statesman article, The God Wars, all atheists are equal, but some are more equal than others. You won’t see ‘accommodationist‘ atheists speaking there. People like John Gray and Alain de Botton, Penn Jillette and Ayaan Hirsi Ali who despite being atheists don’t seem to see religions as perniciously evil. As de Botton experienced, it only took him suggesting that not everything about religion is bad to become the object of the ire of the ‘Reason Rally’ crowd:

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, “You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die.”

Like any Christian who has discussions on the internet I am of course rather used to that sort of thing from New Atheists, but it is interesting to see it applies to atheists who don’t fall in line with the approved dogma as well.

This isn’t to say no one will be there – as John Stewart showed us last year if you throw together some music, comedy and food on the National Mall a few thousand people will come and ‘rally’ for anything. I am simply pointing out this all has nothing to do with ‘reason’, but rather it is an attempt by a small and cultishly dogmatic group of people to paint those who don’t agree with them as insane, irrational and evil. Of course if this group was more organized and efficient, they wouldn’t need a whole day to do this, they could do it in two minutes:


Is New Atheism Antagonistic to Scientific Research?

June 7, 2011

 

One of the main arguments of New Atheism against religious belief is the supposed detrimental effect religious belief has on the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Religious faith is portrayed as being a viral delusion which undermines reason and contradicts that which gives us the only source of reliable knowledge – scientific research. And yet, when one considers the record of New Atheists on scientific research, it would seem being a New Atheist leader is quantitatively antagonistic to scientific research. Consider for a moment the research publication record of various New Atheist leaders:

Richard Dawkins – Last date of publication, 2004

Jerry Coyne – Last date of publications, 2007

PZ Myers – Last date of publication, 2002

Sam Harris – Last date of publication, 2011, the only paper in the last three years.

And of course Christopher Hitchens, not being a scientist, has never published research.

It seems the pattern with New Atheists is to get a degree in some scientific field, write a few popular books on a scientific subject, and then abandon scientific research all together to pursue the advocacy of atheism. In fact these folks aren’t particularly notable for their ground breaking research in a field of science; they are more notable for their popular books and their strident advocacy of atheism.

Of course nothing prevents them from pursuing what they consider to be the most reliable form of truth, scientific knowledge. Amongst the myriad of blogs advocating New Atheism there is a constant din concerning the value of scientific knowledge –and very little attempt to actually acquire such knowledge or utilize it in any practical way. Instead there is mostly a critique of religious belief (mainly Christianity) and practicing scientists who don’t throw in with the New Atheists. New Atheists spend as much time or more discussing religious beliefs as do religious people; certainly more time doing so then they do discussing hard science.

In the end the objective reader is forced to conclude that pursuing scientific knowledge is not nearly as important as wrangling over metaphysical issues; a conclusion with which I would heartily agree.

This is however unlikely to be the conclusion the New Atheists desire.


Is Richard Dawkins A Coward?

May 17, 2011

For refusing to debate Christian philosopher William Lane Craig? Some of his fellow atheists appear to think so. From the London Telegraph:

Some of Prof Dawkins’s contemporaries are not impressed. Dr Daniel Came, a philosophy lecturer and fellow atheist, from Worcester College, Oxford, wrote to him urging him to reconsider his refusal to debate the existence of God with Prof Craig.

In a letter to Prof Dawkins, Dr Came said: “The absence of a debate with the foremost apologist for Christian theism is a glaring omission on your CV and is of course apt to be interpreted as cowardice on your part.

“I notice that, by contrast, you are happy to discuss theological matters with television and radio presenters and other intellectual heavyweights like Pastor Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals and Pastor Keenan Roberts of the Colorado Hell House.”

Prof Craig, however, remains willing to debate with Prof Dawkins. “I am keeping the opportunity open for him to change his mind and debate with me in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford” in October, he said.

As I have said elsewhere, I don’t think debates are very useful for learning about a subject. But as a means of testing the rigorousness of ideas, they are wonderful venues. I suspect the reason Dawkins and other New Atheists are so fearful of debating Craig is because their means of attacking Christianity relies primarily of ad hominems, straw men, and Bulverisms. When held up to the light of scrutiny and placed side-by-side with Christianity, materialistic atheism comes off quite silly. As a result Craig has cut quite a swath through the field of atheist advocates, and come out looking quite formidable in the process.

Given those facts, perhaps Dawkin’s fear is the most rational response.