Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Atheism Wars

There's a lot of mud-slinging at present between two atheist camps: those who support the Dawkins/Dennett/Harris approach of aggressively criticising religion, and those who think we should be more accommodating. Aside from that rough characterization, I'm not entirely sure what's in dispute here. Here are two possibilities:

1. Religious belief is irrational. (More precisely: given what we now know about the universe, it is generally epistemically unreasonable to believe the truth-claims made by any of the world's major religions. The epistemically responsible agent has every reason to reject pop theism.)

2. We, as public actors, should criticize irrationality -- in general, and in its specific instances -- and seek to promote epistemic virtues (e.g. believing things based on good reasons and evidence) in society.

Personally, I think that both these claims are true. I assume that makes me an "aggressive atheist". To any accommodationists out there, which of the two claims do you reject, and why?


  1. I don't think anyone in the anti-Dawkins camp rejects 1. They reject 2. because they believe that it does not serve the goal of irradicating irrationality (or religiosity). Dawkins' style of argument, they argue, does not help to convince any irrational (religious) people to become rational (atheists).

  2. Could it not be a bit like telling a person (or the group to which they belong) that they are ugly/stupid.

    I might think that for example bob and his family are demonstrably both ugly and stupid and yet oppose the idea of making an excessive amount of effort to prove that to them.

    It is also posible of course that a pure athiest might not put rational thinking or public obligations at the top of their priorities.

  3. I can't speak for the other Chamberlains, 'cause it's likely that my atheism and there atheism are pretty different, but I will say a bit about why I dislike the Dawkinsian positivists so much. First, I don't think of myself as an accomodationist really, because I'm not a big fan of religion. But I do think their style of rhetoric, and its content, are harmful.

    I don't think religion is irrational, but then I'm still not quite sure on what grounds we're measuring rationality here. If it's on some sort of verificationist/scientistic grounds, which is what the Dawkinsians seem to be advocating, then it's pretty clear their position isn't rational either. And that's one of the points I've tried to argue repeatedly.

    However, I'm not really concerned with rationality. I'm a firm believer that our beliefs and our acceptance of reasons are determined largely by social and psychological processes that have little to do with objective reason. So I don't evaluate beliefs by attempting to measure their rationality through some objective measure.

    I reject religion for ethical reasons, and so I criticize it on those grounds. However, since I don't think it's possible to rid the world of religion, or even to make the majority of the people in the world areligious, I think the best approach is to change the society in which religion exists, so that religion has to change with it.

    I reject Dawkinsian not because it criticizes religion, but because a.) it does so on the wrong grounds (on groundless grounds, we might say), and b.) it looks and acts just as dogmatic as any religion.

  4. Not sure where I camp, but I think that there are problems with 2. Maybe I should start by asking you, Richard, whether you (as a man of the armchair) think that it is possible for someone to be overly aggressive in criticizing others' irrationality (in cases where they are actually irrational), and if so, in what ways. Then it is merely an empirical question to what extent Dawkins-style atheists have actually been engaging in these possible excesses of aggressiveness.

    Here's one possible problem. Criticizing specific irrational beliefs that others are especially attached to does not seem like a particularly effective way to help them become more epistemically virtuous. It's liable to make them defensive instead. Borrowing from indirect utilitarianism, it seems like you should be doing whatever will increase the epistemic goods, rather than incorporating the epistemic goods so directly into your decision procedure.

    Attacking religion at its roots might be a hopeless task, and it might compromise your ability to influence how religion is expressed and how religious people live. It's a curious fact that, despite how seemingly important many religious claims would be if they were taken as true, many ostensibly religious people's religious beliefs don't seem to have much of an impact on their behavior or their other beliefs. Increasing the conflict over these beliefs might even increase their prominence and give them a larger role in religious people's lives, in ways that you wouldn't like.

    Aggressive atheists also risk taking on the appearance of warlike arguers who aim at winning rather than a shared pursuit of the truth, in part because they enter the argument with such high confidence and such low receptiveness to the types of arguments that get made on the other side of the issue. Even if they have the correct views on the issue, this can have problems. For instance, modeling arguing-for-winning is unlikely to help others learn to debate in an epistemically virtuous way.

    And of course there are other goals of discourse besides the epistemic ones, like civility and mutual respect, that may be undermined by overly aggressive argumentation, especially when the arguments are targeted at things that others hold dear, and especially when they seem warlike or condescending.

    If you do convince some people to abandon their religion, is that a good thing on moral grounds? Religion could have utilitarian benefits, like helping people to be happier, more socially connected, and more unselfish, that successful aggressive atheists would be undermining. If reducing religious belief is possible and desirable, then atheists should at least try to do so in ways that minimize this kind of collateral damage, which may advise against argumentatively violent approaches (cf. Hilzoy).

  5. Anonymous, I agree that gratuitous insults are bad. But it isn't gratuitous to point out room for improvement in others' beliefs. "Tough love" might be an alternative way of looking at it. I think that many aggressive atheists are motivated by a passion for truth and reason. They act "evangelical" because they want to share these values around.

    Chris -- you're an epistemic nihilist? I agree that the scientistic types have some silly views (mainly because the cultural invisibility of philosophy leads them to confuse empirical science with reason), but I still think that sufficiently careful thinking would lead us to favour some particular conclusions over others. (With Zeus et al. falling firmly in the "others" camp.)

    Isn't there a bit of an is/ought leap in your third paragraph? Even granting your empirical point, wouldn't it still be better if our belief-forming processes were brought into closer alignment with the demands of reason?

    (And of course there's nothing necessarily dogmatic about the aggressive atheist's confident belief, if it's proportional and sensitive to the evidence.)

    Blar -- thought-provoking as always! I definitely think there are social contexts in which attacking irrationality would be inappropriate. But in the public sphere - newspapers, blogs, etc.? That's trickier. I guess I would object to grossly disproportionate vitriol, in part because it's inaccurate, portraying the target as more blameworthy than they really are. So I guess there's a reasonable question [in the vicinity of my #1?] about whether Dawkins et al. have made similar misjudgments.

    Is aggressive atheism self-defeating in practice? It does seem unlikely to yield immediate results, due to defensiveness etc. The hope would be that the proffered arguments might eventually win out in the marketplace of ideas, and so seep into our cultural store of background knowledge. (Others have pointed to the history of social activism as evidence that "rudeness" works.) But I grant this empirical question remains open.

    In any case, I think the public contestation of ideas is too important to be overriden by strategic concerns (though the salience/"impact" point is curious indeed). I can't help but feel that there's something viciously inauthentic about the "ostensibly religious"; that they'd be better off if they gave more thought to their core commitments, even if this ends up making them more religious rather than less. (I have old-fashioned views about the worth of the unexamined life! Could be biased.)

    I'm very sympathetic to the receptiveness and "warlike arguing" concerns, though. The religion issue may be worse than most when it comes to entrenched positions and subsequent arguing in bad faith. I would hope that this can be avoided, but need to think more about it.

    Your last point is important too. It's a pity we can't seem to create a successful humanist "church"/community. But do you think that argumentative aggression is relevantly similar to the sort of violent upheaval Hilzoy discusses? (Hard, honest argument doesn't strike me as inherently distorting or corrupting. Maybe cheap rhetoric is. I guess it depends exactly what we're talking about here.)

  6. Richard, I suppose am a bit of an epistemic nihilist. I go back and forth. It might be better to say that I'm an epistemic flip-flopper. In trying to think of something that lines up fairly closely to my own views in the analytic tradition, the best I can come up with is Goodman's Ways of Worldmaking. There are ways of evaluating ideas, it's just that there's enough uncertainty to be careful about overgeneralizations (e.g., about all religion).

    And you're right, the way I expressed it, there is an is/ought problem in my comment. I hope it's at least clear that I don't mean to say we shouldn't fight against the deleterious effects of religion, of which there are many. I just don't think it's profitable to try to do away with religion altogether.

    Also, when I refer to dogmatism, I mean in their refusal to accept any source of truth other than science.

    And finally, with regards to rudeness, don't make the same mistake that PZ et al. are making. Not all rudeness is the same. This is one of the points I was trying to make in my post, and obviously failed. Just to point to one difference, while the suffragettes were "rude," it's not clear that they were disrespectful. It's quite clear, however, that the "new atheists" frequently are. As PZ has put it before, he has nothing but contempt for any religious belief. Also, don't make the pragmatist mistake of thinking that because it's useful, it's good.

  7. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with contemporary philosophy of religion will realize that (1) is very controversial. I think that it would really benefit everyone (especially Dawkins and Dennett) to read up on these issues.

    You could do no better than to read Alvin Plantinga's trilogy on warrant.

  8. Richard,

    I have a slightly different take, let's call it the good cop-bad cop take.

    But first, just to state my assumptions upfront: I think organized religion and the scientific method are fundamentally irreconciliable. The Stephen Jay Gould statement that religion and science are exclusive magisteria (or something like that) is wrong -- these are two completely opposite sets of values. Yes, there are religious people (or non-athiests, whatever we choose to call them) that are rational but to me, these are, at least "funcitonally" secular, not the least because they have severed the link between the spiritual and the mundane, the core of any organized religion. Or at least , they connect the spiritual and the mundane worlds in their own way, based on the principles of the Enlightenment.

    So people, who think, that secularism and the church-state, or religion-state separation, isn't anti-religion are fooling themselves. As for msyelf, I know which side I'm on.

    So what's the role of Dawkins et al in this? I think of Dawkins as the bad-cop, and his style reveals that he thinks of himself in that way too. Dawkins' book or Harris', for that matter, is not meant for believers. And for that matter, I've only encountered confirmed atheist-types reading Dawkins and screaming "yeah! give it to 'em, Richard". Dawkin's is for us, the non-believers, or the functional secularists. It's a debate, a question, among us all: what's the best way of tackling religion in a pluralistic, liberal democracy, committed to secularism?

    Attacks on Dawkin's book or Harris' come also from people who are confirmed non-believers (H. Allen Orr in the NYRB, Thomas Nagel in TNR, James Wood in TNR, etc). I don't buy Dawkin's style at all or his argument but his main point is one that, instinctually at least, I agree with: that organized religion 's track record is abyssmal and I certainly wouldn't care if it diminished in importance. What I object to is Dawkins' assumption that science is a form of ultimate truth. I prefer to think of science as another form of discourse (a much superior one, of course) but with its own fundamental assumptions.

    And yet. And yet, Dawkins allows us to play the role of the good cop. And it's never too much to re-iterate that hard-core scientism is itself a assumption-ridden discourse, as are liberalism and secularism (again, much superior to other alternatives).

    I also think organized religion is going to diminish in importance, come what may. The only question is how much time that takes. I don't believe for a moment that Dawkins book or Dennet's book is going to have the least bit of effect on organized religion in this country: it's not going to wean believers away from it and it's not going to attract more people to it. What it does -- superlatively -- is encourage debate among secularists. And that's always a good thing to have.

  9. But to answer the question, you posed, I would say I disagree with both 1 but think that 2 is a pragmatic thing to do -- I'm not sure if it's going to be the least bit effective. The reason for rejecting 1 is that when something is rational, it is rational only within certain specific but mostly unspecified and unarticulated assumptions. The reason for 2 is that the values of secularism, liberalism and the Enlightenment are superior, pragmatically speaking, to the values of organized religion.

  10. I subscribe to atheism but find few things more obtuse than vociferous criticism of religion as a whole. I reject #2 because religion is a peculiar exception to it.

    It's clear to me that religion has played an immensely salutary role in innumerable lives, and that the falsehood of certain religious beliefs has quite often had no effect whatsoever on practical interests. Nor has the epistemic incontinence involved in accepting unfounded religious beliefs had a tendency to leak into other spheres of inquiry. There are loads of Christian scientists, engineers and historians who wouldn't dream of disobeying the evidence in their fields; their religious epistemics seem to be nicely hermetically sealed. Furthermore, the lion's share of religious folk I've encountered don't believe the evidence is sufficient for their belief (calling it as they do "a matter of faith"). They keep a tidy epistemic house that is, after these many thousands of years, obviously well-suited to creatures such as us, and their tradition has played a role in creating good lives. This is why the vociferous atheist's attacks are insufferable to me.

    Furthermore, it's no good pointing to atrocities commited in religion's name in order to bludgeon religion as irrational. In every case, either we find the particular religious doctrine in question, unlike the vast majority of religious doctrines, is demostrably morally vile or we notice that the relgion in question has been abused by pretenders and offers no justification for atrocity. In no case is sloppy standards of evidence to blame.

    Richard, I doubt you're an aggressive atheist if, in accepting #2, you nevertheless are courteous and magnanimous when you confront others' religious beliefs. And if you are magnanimous, you'll likely reject #2 due to the special case of religion.

  11. The argument above seems to cover well the sort of reasons for being polite... Although I also see how dawkins might personally see himself as being attacked by extreemists - and that we are just watching a fight from a distance.

    However I suggest such fights should get less regard than they do.

    The impression I have of Dawkins is a bit like that of Noam Chomsky or Robert Fisk or Ann Coulter.

    Any organization that had done a lot of things has done a lot of bad things (whether the target is christians, muslims, the USA or any country). To write a book explaining all their evils is trivial and how people buy into such things seems to just rase the ugly thought that the average man is not equiped to deal with one sided presentations of complex issues, and average men are so easy to fall into mass hatred.

  12. Well as a card carrying agnostic I'm going to reject 1.

    While I personally find the argument from evil compelling as a reason to reject the existence of 'omni-God' I do recognise that there are a significant number of theodicies that, if you are willing to accept their implications (And I'm not) give you perfectly reasonable explanations of why the existence of evil is not a challenge to the existence of God.

    So I think it can be reasonable to believe in Omni-god.

    Then of course we ought not get focused on the Judeo-Christian God, as there are many possible alternative conceptions of God or Gods, most of which I would think the 'evidence' such as it is cuts neither for nor against, hence my agnosticism.

  13. One thing about the aggressive atheist approach (AAA) that has always been curious to me has been the target of their critical efforts, viz., pop theism (as Richard mentions in the post). I think this is problematic for two reasons.

    First, those who endorse the tenets of pop theism are likely to endorse them unreflectively and without little care for things like evidential standards, sound arguments, etc., whereas any reflective religious persons who care about things like evidential standards, sound arguments, etc., are unlikely to endorse pop theism. So the proponents of the AAA speak to an audience who is unwilling to engage with them and fails to engage with an audience who would be willing to speak to them. (I think someone above might have noted a point similar to this one.) This seems singularly unprofitable to me.

    Second, pop theism is a straw man. Indeed, oftentimes, pop theism isn't even defensible on the most internally plausible rendering of the religion it is supposed to represent (which is why reflective religious people are unlikely to endorse the tenets of any pop theism). But to what profit does anyone raze a straw man? This is why the AAA appears so silly to thoughtful religious people--Dawkins et al knock down an intellectual position that can't even stand on its own two legs and then turn around to flex their intellectual muscle to show how tough they are.

    As I see it, Dawkins et al's choice of targets puts them in a lose-lose situation, somewhat similar to the situation a professional athlete finds himself in when he agrees to compete against a high schooler: if he beats the high schooler, he's shown nothing but that he can beat up on someone whose skill level is already supposed to be vastly inferior to his own; if he loses, he's the guy that lost to a high schooler. Perhaps Dawkins et al would be more credible if they took on the most plausible religious positions.

    (How does this address the post's question? I suppose I (conditionally) reject both 1 and 2. I reject 1 because I think Dawkins et al have only shown that a scarecrow is irrational, not that any plausible, reflectively-formed religious beliefs are irrational. I reject 2 because Dawkins et al's choice of target audience relegates their arguments irrelevant.)

  14. David #2, I think it's important for public intellectuals to address the views that are common amongst the actual public. It's not a "straw man" if it's what your interlocutor really believes. And the point isn't to "flex muscles" or win against tough competition; it's to improve the stock of common knowledge in society.

    If most people care little for epistemic virtue, that's all the more reason to kick up a fuss -- perhaps they'll pay attention to social censure.

    Chris - "when I refer to dogmatism, I mean in their refusal to accept any source of truth other than science."

    Putting aside their ignorance of a priori reasons, it seems that what they're really doing is refusing to "accept any [alleged] source of truth" that lacks evidence or epistemic support for the truth-claims being made. That strikes me as entirely reasonable, and indeed the very opposite of "dogmatic". (The open-minded agent remains open to good reasons, not bad ones!) If I've misunderstood your point, perhaps you could explain what other "source of truth" you have in mind.

    And I worry that accusations of "disrespect" typically work as weaselly attempts to silence atheists, and to shield theists from criticism. (Needless to say, I consider that absolutely despicable.)

    I don't respect epistemic vices (and the false beliefs they give rise to), any more than I respect moral vices (and the bad behaviour they cause). Denouncing the flaws that people are vulnerable to is not the same thing as disrespecting the people themselves - their core humanity. (You know, "hate the sin, love the sinner" and all that.) Failure to recognize this would preclude robust public debate and the contestation of values and ideas.

  15. I thought the entire problem with Dawkins and Harris and the like was that they haven't achieved 2). Yeah, they think that religion is irrational, but their arguments against it are just horrible and therefore they aren't promoting epistemic virtues. Of course, if Quentin Smith is correct, they are problem irrational in their naturalism, too.

  16. "...they are problem irrational in their naturalism..."

    Ummm, that should probably be "... they are just as irrational in their naturalism..."

  17. Richard,

    It could be that many--atheists, agnostics, and theists alike--just don't think Dawkins and Company's arguments are good (see here, for example; or the link provided by Macht, above). Moreover, I am not enthusiastic about hearing what someone who treats scientifically a question which is obviously philosophical, i.e., whether God exits or not, has to say on the matter (or who when treating it philosophically, does so poorly). Nor am I interested in hearing from someone who views the facts which only help his case and ignores the others. (For instance, in wanting to call non-theists "brights" and in saying that theism is a stance held by the ignorant or uninformed, one ignores the fact that the vast majority of great thinkers actually believed in the existence of God.) I'd rather read atheists/agnostics like Paul Davies and Robin Le Poidevin and J. L. Mackie, to name but a few. Also, Dawkins seems to often equate belief in God with Christianity, which is silly. And what respectable atheist/agnostic philosopher discusses the evils caused by individuals adhering to Christianity or some form of belief in God as if that has any relevance whatsoever, especially in a philosophical discussion? All that does is prove that evil people exist, period. Dawkins' might be very knowledgeable on scientific matters but elsewhere his thinking seems to be sloppy. This, I would think, is why some disprove of him.

    As an aside, everything I've said here concerning Dawkins is second-hand knowledge on my part since I have never read him (nor intend to), so I admit that could simply be misinformed about Dawkins. In my defense, I have before read a "popular" atheism book, George Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, and was immensely disappointed. I wasn't disappointed because the book was so bad but rather that in spite of being so bad it was so popular. I fear the same thing happening if I were to read Dawkins. So I'll stick to those non-theists (some mentioned above) who I know won't disappoint me.

  18. Harris's "End of Faith" makes a compelling case against religious tolerance, for precisely the two premises stated. We generally do not tolerate pie-in-the-sky nonsense in our empirical world.

    Oh, but we do. Post-modernism reigns in most Anglo-American and French literature departments. It's clearly nonsense, it's rhetoric of indeterminancy defeated by its assertion of it, its structuralist binary-ism defeated by shades of gray, its neo-Marxism defeated by experience, and its Freudianism defeated by lack of verification -- or in Popper's more exacting words, falsification.

    American liberalism, which hails from the Age of Enlightenment, espouses the virtue of tolerance (except for intolerance, which, of course, is self-defeating). While I try to be tolerant of screwy ideas and theories, being a committed liberal, it would appear that English Literature Departments and the Catholic-Evangelical religions, are intensely intolerant.

    If Hegemony and Dominance of An Intolerant Dogmatism were not at stake, I'd permit both irrational schemes, however personally repugnant I find them. But tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance, at least not in an open, free, democratic, and liberal society. But this divide creates a slippery slope. The "right" always insists it is tolerant, while terribly intolerant. Who decides?

    The Liberal Values of the Enlightenment, that is what! Any Ideology that is intolerant of any difference or imposes itself as the "right idea," is wrong. But then, my Liberal Values, which I persist in espousing, would be wrong, too. My Liberal Values, which deplore intolerance, appear to be an Ideology too, born, I admit, of Free-thinking pluralists.

    Maybe, the "line in the sand" should simply be pluralism. Those who favor pluralistic views can exercise their pluralism, while those who exercise their Will to Power of Intolerance are lacking pluralism, by definition, and thus should be proscribed as contrary to the right of free expression, the right to diversity, and be denied their intolerant views. It would exclude most religious dogmatism, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic, but it would also exclude Post-modernism in our Humanities. Is that the price we pluralists have to extract to maintain our freedoms? If so, it's the line I gladly draw.

  19. Don - Why on earth do you say that the question of God's existence is philosophical and not scientific? If God exists in any meaningful sense, he must have some detectable, empirical impact on the world. Searching for such an impact, and measuring it if it is discovered, is indisputably the domain of science.

  20. Ebonmuse,

    For one, "Does God exist?" is a question asked in philosophy books, not science books. And to clarify, I never said, nor believe, that science doesn't have an impact on philosophy. But, even so, that science may impact an issue is altogether different from an issue being scientific. "Does God exist?" is by its very nature a philosophical question since God, if he exists "in any meaningful sense," isn't contained in or confined by nature, which is the scientist's realm of investigation; he studies the physical world. Thus when a scientist attempts to draw metaphysical conclusions he no longer, it appears to me, speaks as a mere scientist. But it seems like we're just going to have to disagree on this one.

  21. don, I think that the line you're drawing between the natural and the metaphysical is suspect. At its root, science deals in the phenomena that manifest in the world. But it is silent on whether these phenomena are natural or metaphysical. By the very nature of science, our notion of the natural is incomplete. We still do not know how quantum binding works, for example. At the moment it is very mysterious; some would say supernatural. But this does not mean that a subsequent and more complete notion of the natural world cannot account for it.

    Basically, I can't think of any meaningful proposition off the top of my head that isn't in some way scientifically tractable. Even if God is a priori beyond space and time [and what on earth does that mean, when you really think about it?], he must be able to exert an effect on the world if he is to be worthy of investigation. But once he is interacting with the world, he is dealing in phenomena with which we can interact and observe. I think that Dawkins' is right--if there is a God [in any meaningful sense] he would have an impact on the natural world. And insofar as he is and does, he seems to be subject to scientific scrutiny.

  22. Ugh. Misplaced apostrophe in the above. Dawkins. But in response to the original post...

    There are lots of things to say here. First, I think that the potential 'points in dispute' [(1) religious belief is irrational and (2) we should criticise irrationality in the public arena] are incomplete. I would like to add (3) points (1) and (2) are not in dispute, but that the Dawkins camp is deploying bad tactics in its critique of religious irrationality.

    I'd like to go through these one by one.

    (1) religious belief is irrational and it's rationally correct to reject [pop] theism.

    This is really really messy. In some ways, I think that philosophy faces a big problem. Yes, it is concerned with big topics which are strongly relevant to the lives of most people, such as ethics and religion. But I wonder if philosophy is concerned with them in the same way. [Some speculative meta-philosophy follows. Any serious phil. of language debate will result in fatal beatings, cf. Plato.]

    For most philosophers, the referents of disputed terms [e.g. God] are abstract concepts, which describe the world in a true way. And once these terms and their referents are defined and agreed upon, they are often considered centrally important to the way we live our lives. Thus, a philosopher's conclusion about God has a direct downstream effect, which may change the way he lives his life. In other words, such concepts are 'online' for philosophers, and have a hot link to their lives and actions.

    However, I don't think that this is true of all people. Specifically, I don't think that the referents of some 'big question' terms are online concepts in the same way. My hunch--and it is a hunch--is that, for many non-philosophers, the referent[s] of 'God' are in some way a set of strong emotional connotations, generated through a particular brand of socialisation in the child's formative years. The term is associated with a feeling or set of feelings, which likely includes a sense that the world would be a much worse place without a God. [Which makes no sense; if you are a theist and you change your mind about God, the world in no way changes. There is no evidence of impending destruction which arises in the absence of God; either that evidence was there before or not.]

    If this is right--or even ballpark--then the question of whether or not it's rational to believe in God is in some ways irrelevant to the role that God will play for many purported believers. I suppose I'm basically saying that many people who claim to believe in God actually don't--at least, not in the way they believe that the sharp knife will cut them if they slip in the kitchen, or don't stop nagging me when I've had a long day--but that it's rather some strange association with a strange, vague, and powerful set of emotions. However, if those emotions are present and the true referent of 'God' for many, then they're probably not subject to truth conditions in the way that a philosophically rigorous belief--term referring to abstract concept with clear definitions--is. From there, it becomes a question of appropriate or right naming of those emotions; it no longer seems to be a question of wrong conclusions bastardised in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

    (2) We should criticise irrationality in the public arena.

    This can be defended in at least two ways, and doesn't seem vulnerable to the semantics of my analysis of (1). First, in the public arena we're doing concrete things with our beliefs. The beliefs we adopt as facts drive our public policy, and it strikes me that public policy needs to be grounded in the way in which we actually best see the world. Second, third parties are involved in the public arena. It's madness to refuse your kid a blood transfusion after an accident on the grounds that you identify as a Jehovah's Witness, because our best grounded knowledge tells us that this is simply neglect.

    I don't think that this point is very controversial, though I got distracted whilst writing this and I'm sure I had more to say. Oh well.

    (3) The Dawkins approach is bad tactics.

    I pretty much agree with this. It's well-known that you persuade no one by shouting at them or belittling them, and it's almost as well-known that you just come across looking like a dick if you try. I do understand the sentiment that a strong response is needed to American Bible-Thumpers who won't listen to reason, but if they won't listen to reason we might as well just shoot them--yelling facts at them won't make a blind bit of difference.

    One of the professors who taught me a little at university reviewed Dawkins' 'A Devil's Chaplain.' He mentioned a policy of "never apologise, always explain." The problem with getting militant about these things is that you actually cover less ground of the debate. You come across as biased and unreasonable, and any omissions on your part come across as weaknesses in your argument/refusal to engage in some areas. Moreover, people will give you less notice because they'll think you're a jerk.

    One of the Roosevelts implored us to speak softly, but carry a big stick. I think that this is the best tactic here, too. Engage in all situations and have arguments to destroy all theistic claims. Do this politely but thoroughly and unyieldingly. This shows that you are willing to engage, that you are willing to reason things out, that atheists aren't all arrogant and horrible; more generally, it comes across as a cooperative action, which can't be used against you and the wider atheist community as slander.

    ...this is a bit more jumbled than I'd really hoped. I do hope that the first section of this, regarding referents, makes some kind of sense. I find it very difficult to word my thoughts on that topic, and the thoughts themselves are still very crude. But I suppose it must all start somewhere.

  23. Wow. How did I miss this thread?

    Richard, clearly I reject (1) since I think one can accept religion rationally. However I actually am sympathetic to the view since there are a lot of reasons for religion that seem epistemologically suspect. I do think one has to distinguish between whether an individual ought reject religious truth claims and whether everyone ought rationally reject religious truth claims. Often the two are tied together but I don't think they ought to be.

    For instance I strongly disbelieve in UFOs because I don't think there's any public evidence for them, there are good reasons to reject testimonial accounts of them, and because I feel their existence violates the known laws of physics. However if I were to see a space ship flying around, I'd be quite justified in believing event though my friend who didn't see it would not.

    Regarding (2) I actually agree with it. I'm surprised some don't.

    It seems to me that what is ultimately in debate by Chris isn't whether one ought criticize irrationality (or at least what one perceives as irrationality) but how one criticizes.

  24. I'd largely agree with Chris and Blar's comments. Religion as typically lived is best seen as a social practice not necessarily that tied to the metaphysical beliefs. We can discuss such theology, of course, but it doesn't really seem to dominate behavior. Further outside social influences seem to trump metaphysics in most people. (Witness American Catholics and their family planning)

    By focusing on the metaphysics I think folks who want a change in behavior are simply going about things the wrong way.

    Michael: Basically, I can't think of any meaningful proposition off the top of my head that isn't in some way scientifically tractable.

    Why is there something rather than nothing?

    There's lots of stuff not in anyway scientifically tractable.

  25. The question, "Does God exist," has been asked and answered by philosophy, whether it is Mackie's "Miracle of Theism," Hume's "Concerning Natural Reason," Kant's "Critiques," or Smith's "Atheism."

    From a strictly philosophical perspective, only six arguments have been advanced for the Proof of the Existence of God: Anselm's "ontological argument," and Aquinas's five "teleological" arguments, and each falls woefully short of proof of anything.

    Smith, at least, also addresses the "revelation" claims and shows each to be deficient.

    Unless someone proffers a better case, the Theodicy of the past is buried in the Ash Heap of Metaphysics and is the rightful domain of religion, not philosophy. Whether or not a god exists is ultimately a matter of faith, not of wisdom.

  26. I am also curious as to the definition of 'rational'. If a 'rational' belief is one that can be empirically verified (tested, whatever), then we all have 'irrational' beliefs, viz., that our cognitive faculties are reliable (for the most part), that events have causes, etc. It seems to me that these beliefs are not 'irrational,' but perfectly rational.

    Perhaps the existence of a deity cannot be proved, empirically or otherwise, but it could still be a rational postulate. For example, science cannot answer the question, 'Why is there something, rather than nothing,' but a philosophically minded theist has some answers worth considering, answers that serve an explanatory purpose. Such a purpose separates them from silly comparisons to unicorns and tea-cups floating around planets.

  27. clark,

    I agree with your emphasis on religion as a social practice, rather than a direct function of metaphysical commitment. That's a *much* simpler way of stating my ramblings above, and I think there's something to it.

    clark and anonymous [popular name, that one],

    I'm a bit suspicious of the idea that 'science answers the how but not the why questions.' I take your point that 'why is there something instead of nothing' doesn't seem scientifically tractable in the way that 'why do I have blood in my veins?' is, but it's not clear that we can answer the former question without literally just making something up... and if that's the case, I'm not sure that it really counts as a meaningful question anyway.

    What does everyone think about this? Do you consider "why is there something instead of nothing?" to be a meaningful question?

  28. I'll be curious to hear what other think, but a quick question first.

    Michael, you write "if that's the case, I'm not sure that it really counts as a meaningful question anyway." Are you using a verifiability criterion of meaning?

  29. Michael, note that I don't buy the whole separation of "why" vs. "how" to demarc between science and religion. Clearly religions make claims about "how" such as fundamentalist Protestants and the young earth claims. So I actually agree with Dawkins that science, to the degree it can, ought take up religious claims.

    However where folks go wrong is in making religion far more monolithic than it is.

    Regarding the existence of God and philosophical proof. I don't think there are any valid proofs from pure logic. (Indeed I'd ridicule any such a priori argument for anything real) That doesn't mean there isn't evidence for God. Just that it isn't of the sort typically engaged with in these debates.

    As for whether the question "why is there something rather than nothing" is a meaningful question. Certainly I can understand the question even if I can't answer it fully. So long as we don't buy into the positivist conception of what is meaningful I don't see any problem with it. I'd argue it's one of the more important questions in philosophy.

  30. Michael, I think it's meaningful. See my post Why does the universe exist?

    I think it could be reasonable to believe in a First Cause. (I'm no verificationist.) But the personal "God" of pop theism is an entirely different matter. That God Hypothesis -- the one most people in society affirm -- simply doesn't square with reality as we know it. There are plenty of orbiting teapots in most religions today.

  31. (To clarify: my second paragraph was responding to Anonymous. P.S. Please choose a unique name if you wish to comment here! Much appreciated.)

  32. Richard,

    Apologies about being anonymous. I think I'll go with 'Ipse' for my uniquely referring expression.

    What features of "reality as we know it" are inconsistent with belief in a personal deity?

  33. Thanks Ipse,

    The pop theistic commitment to supernatural interventions (e.g. intercessory prayer, "miracles", possession, etc.), conflict with the well-supported thesis that natural causes are the only causes operating in the natural world. Further, pop theism often goes along with such dubious views as substance dualism, ghostly "souls", libertarian free will, divine command theory of ethics, etc. We have ample reason to think those views all false. (Though of course some can be reasonably disputed in a philosophy classroom.) Most of all, there's the problems of evil, of bad design (humans are not as free as we could be), and of divine hiddenness, as discussed in the linked post.

  34. Richard, out of curiosity, why couldn't the "supernatural" be grounded as natural? That is it seems that you are taking a de dicto claim and turning it into a de re claim. Now certainly major theologians do make claims where perhaps the "supernatural" is philosophically opposed to the natural. Of course I'd argue both terms are problematic philosophically.

    However relative to regular lay belief I just don't see how they are intrinsically anti-natural. And thus I don't see how your argument works. They may not line up with known laws or entities. But that's a considerably different issue.

    Now one can falsify some claims. (i.e. claims of the effectiveness of prayer on heart attacks) But even there one must be careful.

  35. BTW - while I'm dubious about libertarian free will, I find it odd that you see it as so obviously mistaken. It seems, judging by the literature, that not all or even most adopt those views for religious reasons and further it's not obvious that they are wrong.

  36. Clark, I thought the common understanding placed supernatural beings as somehow "outside the natural order", not subject to scientific study, nor bound by the laws of nature, even as they run around making mischief for us. Even if it's coherent, we have no reason to believe in such exceptional claims. It's like the faeries and orbiting teapots, again -- hard to disprove, perhaps, but still not reasonable to affirm. But again, I should emphasize that my main point rests with the positive reasons for disbelief provided by bad design, evil, and divine hiddenness.

  37. Richard,

    Well, I certainly don't want to make the case for 'pop' theism. I'm a psycho-physicalist of Thomistic persuasion. I think libertarian free will is incoherent. And I believe that the divine law (i.e., revealed commandments) are specific complements to the generic natural law are complements. As for miracles, I've never seen one, but I see no reason to rule them out.

    Concerning the main supports for your position.

    (1) The possibility of evil is a consequence of choice, it seems to me. Choice is necessary for moral agency, and a world with moral agents is better than one without.

    (2) Humans could be more free? In what sense?

    (3) As a Catholic, I believe in the incarnation. Religious experience is also a kind of disclosure.

  38. Ipse, see here for my new post on "the problem of unfreedom".

    For discussion of the epistemic status of "religious experience", see here and here.

  39. This how/why divide mentioned above has always been puzzling to me. Note that why-questions often don't have definite answers; you can’t get to the bottom of it. Observe a child asking “But why?” again and again. The person doing the answering eventually resorts to the brute: “It just is, ok?”

    As for religion having the ‘why’ bits of natural enquiry in its domain, we have “He just is, ok?” Of course, some try to flesh this out in what seem to me to be quite technical ways, and I confess I’m not really sure that I understand the notion of god’s necessity or that sort of thing.

    As for the meaningfulness of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and the above mentions of positivist/ verification criterions, I thought that these sorts of things tested the meaningfulness of propositions. Someone else said that they understand the question, and so it’s meaningful. I don’t think ‘meaningfulness’ is the right thing to look for in a question. Propositions are what have meanings.

    When talking about the nature of the universe, scientists seem to be better at answering “What is the case” than priests. My problem with the alleged sister question: “Why is it the case?” is that while it seems to be understandable, I can’t think of a satisfactory answer which doesn’t make use of a brute proposition. Anyone who can provide such an answer, please do (I don’t mean the right answer, though that would be great too).

    I see natural enquiry (scientific or religious) as the systematic search for the most concise, unified statement of all the brute things we encounter. E.g. the planets move a certain way, apples fall a certain way, but you can restate all this as gravity. Believe in gravity, and you no longer need to ask how planets move.

    The God hypothesis is just one postulate too many for the same explanandum (the world), and I don’t see the benefit of keeping it.

  40. Richard, sorry it too me so long to respond. I sorta forgot about this thread, which is a shame, because it's a good one. In the previous discussions about science as the source of truth, there were a couple views expressed, both of which I would classify as positivism, and one of which as scientism more narrowly:

    1.) Anything that can't be verified by science (using the scientific method) is nonsensical and/or false.
    2.) Anything that can't be verified by empirical evidence is nonsensical and/or false.

    The former is, obviously, scientism, and was a popular position in previous comment sections. The latter is positivism, and verificationism specifically. The problem is, of course, that theory is what interprets evidence, and evidence is meaningless without an interpretive framework. That's why it's perfectly rational for those who buy non-empirical arguments for theism to interpret certain empirical phenomena as evidence for the existence of God, while at the same time it's perfectly rational for those who don't buy those arguments, or buy the counterarguments, to see no evidence for the existence of God.

    My larger point is that whether we buy or don't buy those arguments has less to do with the merits of those arguments than it does with our pre-existing biases, representations, and psychological makeup in general. Verificationism has long been known to be internally inconsistent (even in its most recent incarnations, with sophisticated Bayesian techniques, it's still epistemologically problematic), but even if we accept a weak version of verificationism, we're still stuck with the problem of context and interpretation. That makes questions of the rationality or irrationality of religious beliefs highly problematic, in my mind.

  41. Can't words have meanings independent of propositions? Surely so.

  42. Hi Chris, I wouldn't endorse either of those principles. I think there's a difference between good reasons and bad, but this is separate from the "empirical"/"non-empirical" distinction.

    And again, just because we're often biased and fail to judge arguments on their merits, doesn't mean we shouldn't try. (Though I'm more optimistic about our capability for critical thinking in any case -- given sufficient training and motivation, at least.)


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