Saturday, July 24, 2010

The "New Atheists" and the Dawkins Delusion

The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (Veritas Books)This past spring (Apr 11) the Chicago Tribune published an interesting (albeit troubling?) article in the called "Young and Atheist". The article was a multi-page story about the Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers (AAFT) group at Northern Illinios University.

NIU is the primary target of our college ministry at Christ Community Church the university where I am college pastor. It is a university embedded in mid-western farmland with over 18, 000 undergrads plus another few thousand grads and post-grad students. The AAFT group only boasts of meetings of around 10-25 people according to the article, but it is significant that they are getting the attention of a major newspaper like the Tribune. One may be justified in thinking that the Tribune had something of an agenda in devoting so much print to a rather insignificant story. There could very well be an interest in doing more than reporting culture here. This skepticism notwithstanding, the story does raise the issue of Atheism on campuses in the US and I imagine this would true also in universities around the Western world.

The story's primary point is that atheism is on the rise among the young and educated and these are a different breed of atheist than those of a former generation. Far from being belligerent, these atheists are "kinder, gentler religious skeptics". According to the story these young atheists are more interested in joining forces with their theistic neighbors to do humanitarian work than to engage in a debate.

Truth be told, I am no apologist and I avoid debates like the plague. So I’m glad that the new atheists are not generally interested in arguments. Still, the Tribune story points to the fact that books like the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins have emboldened young skeptics to “come out” of the closet so to speak. Now I have not read Dawkins’ book, but I have read Alister and Joanna McGrath’s response to the God Delusion published this year by InterVarsity, The Dawkins Delusion? The main take away for me from this very brief book was that to many, even those who are atheists, Dawkins has written a polemical book that is both thin on evidence and shaky in its scholarly integrity. While I don’t suppose a person fond of Dawkins’ book will wish to read the McGraths, I think it is a useful read for those of us who are uninitiated in these topics.

The most disturbing point raised by the article in the Tribune was the story of a young woman whose faith in the Christian God was shaken by the “non-fiction aspects of the novels ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angles [sic] & Demons’" and by “her Internet research into world religions”. The fact that emerging adults are allowing these things to be the primary influence for their views of the Christian God is horrifying.  We as the church need to do a much greater job of communicating and providing a relevant alternative to this strong cultural propaganda.

8 comments:

G. Kyle Essary said...

These are the things I've noticed:
1. The total number of agnostic/atheists hasn't increased much, and is decreasing internationally (in Asia where I live in particular). Due to the planned movement in late 2006/2007, they received much more media attention than you would think their numbers deserve, but it was good for the church to hear and actually see what they had to offer. Fortunately, the movement didn't have the overall effect that I think many of them expected.

2. The Western agnostic/atheist has become more bold about sharing his perspective and worldview. I think whereas the total numbers haven't increased much, there has been an increase in secular society attendance. Dawkins sort of opened the door for more people to share their perspective. The church on the whole hasn't been too affected by it though, their main target group seem to be either those who were already agnostic/atheist but hadn't "come out" and those who were practically atheist, but still maintained some religious label. I think they have been somewhat successful among these groups.

3. Dawkins shared his perspective in a way where he came across as ignorant to those who are familiar with the topics, but used rhetoric that inspired those already in the camp (or who were in the camp but not admitting it to their friends and family). Unfortunately, this spawned a "movement" of people who are strong on rhetoric and short on substance, especially online (which is the primary community space of agnostic/atheists due to their small size in total population). These New Atheists often cannot defend their own perspective, but have no problem calling yours irrational or dangerous or whatever else. This is unfortunate.

4. As someone who has been somewhat active in apologetics for quite some time, this has caused the overall argumentation level of those who are openly atheist to diminish somewhat drastically. Ten years ago, if you debated online with an atheist they were largely rather well informed. Due to being such a minority, they had to know the data in order to sustain their lack of belief. Today, since the number of people who are open about their atheism has increased, there are more and more less informed atheists who are just as bold (if not more) in their attack. This has been inspired by the poor argumentation, but strong rhetoric of Dawkins, Harris and Stenger in my opinion.

5. My friends who were atheists before the New Atheists (some of which have become theists, but some who remain atheist) are torn over how to evaluate the swell of support for their cause. Dawkins, et. al. do not present strong arguments, but do it so loudly with such strong rhetoric that some feel it actually paints them with a bad brush. For instance, Paul Kurtz, who is a more moderate atheist, recently resigned from CFI due to the swell of New Atheists and their stance that its okay to insult believers without actually understanding their perspective (something PZ Myers takes pride in). There seems to be a growing split between those who are aggressive and those who are friendly.

6. I think in the public eye the movement sort of peaked around mid-2008. The swell of books were read in late 2006 and early 2007 and by mid-2008 there was a great boom for their publicity. Most of the general public grew tired of them quickly though and by last year (and this year), the average person had moved back into their generic Moral Therapeutic Deism as Christian Smith calls it...or their Oprahanity as I think Mark Driscoll has called it. It was good for the church though, because for many it meant that they actually had to learn what they believed and why they believed it...and that's always a good thing.

G. Kyle Essary said...

I found this line from the article you mentioned interesting, while they were discussing atrocities in atheist nations one of the younger students said:

"So it's not even a matter of God," said the freshman. "I just believe humans are inherently evil, once they get enough power to do whatever they want."

From a Christian's perspective this is something we have in common that we could talk about. How do Christians and atheists respond to such evil? How do Christians and atheists account for such evil? What standard do Christians and atheists have to decide what is good or evil? Does explaining the origin of such evil (i.e. evolution/the Fall) tell us anything about how we should respond to such evil?

All of these questions are good opportunities for Christians to open the door for sharing what we truly believe and not the caricature of Christianity that the media and many of these organizations have propagated in the past. It's also worth noting that the majority of agnostics and atheists still come from largely non-religious or functionally non-religious homes and this may be the first time that they hear the Christian perspective from an actual Christian.

Quixie said...

Joel W:"The fact that emerging adults are allowing these things to be the primary influence for their views of the Christian God is horrifying. We as the church need to do a much greater job of communicating and providing a relevant alternative to this strong cultural propaganda."

Why does this "horrify" you? (It just makes me laugh).

Kyle:"Due to being such a minority, they had to know the data in order to sustain their lack of belief. Today, since the number of people who are open about their atheism has increased, there are more and more less informed atheists who are just as bold (if not more) in their attack. This has been inspired by the poor argumentation, but strong rhetoric of Dawkins, Harris and Stenger in my opinion."

They had to know the data? What data? Isn't that the point— i.e. that there IS no data?

Also, since you bring it up: What in your opinion is the best (worst) example of poor argumentation in Dawkin's book(s)? Be specific. Cite him.

Thanks

peace

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G. Kyle Essary said...

Quixie,
First, you ask, "They had to know the data? What data? Isn't the point-i.e. that there IS no data?"

Either I wasn't clear or you didn't understand, because of course there is data.

If you go back and read my comment in context, you will see that I said, " Ten years ago, if you debated online with an atheist they were largely rather well informed. Due to being such a minority, they had to know the data in order to sustain their lack of belief. Today, since the number of people who are open about their atheism has increased, there are more and more less informed atheists who are just as bold (if not more) in their attack."

For instance, ten years ago if you were debating an aspect of Jesus' life, it was fairly common for your atheist opponent to have read up on the issues. Occasionally they would have read from all sides of the issue.

Today, you will frequently get little more than, "You're such an idiot. If you would just read Earl Doherty you would know that Jesus was a myth" (What's amusing? it's not too uncommon that I've read Doherty and they haven't, haha).

So in my opinion, that's changed dramatically as the position has become more accepted. You know have lots of uninformed atheists whereas they used to be rather well informed on the whole.

G. Kyle Essary said...

Second, you ask, "What in your opinion is the best (worst) example of poor argumentation in Dawkin's book(s)? Be specific. Cite him."

That's easy enough. Just so you can compare page numbers, I've got a first printing British edition.

Beginning on page 74 he discusses Thomas Aquinas. I'm no Aquinas scholar, but as someone who has read some Aquinas and some introductions to his thought, it's clear that Dawkins commits "poor argumentation" in this section. For instance, look at his descriptions of Aquinas' first three ways on page 74. These summaries either show that Dawkins doesn't understand Aquinas, or is intentionally misrepresenting him in order to make his attacks against him easier.

Dawkins summarizes the first way as "Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to a regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move, and something we call God."

Aquinas never says anything about temporally prior movers as Dawkins seems to imply. He's talking about change right here and right now. For anything to be moving at this moment, from potentiality to actuality, there must be something sustaining them which is Pure Actuality. That's not the argument in and of itself, but shows that Dawkins is not arguing against the same thing.

Even so, his response to it is this, "Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God."

First, he doesn't respond to the actual argument, instead writing it off as a "dubious luxury" without first addressing it. Second, his response betrays his ignorance of the conclusion (a being of Pure Act). Aquinas isn't merely asserting that this Pure Act is the Judaeo-Christian God, but demonstrates logically over the next thousand pages or so what attributes such a being must logically have.

There are similar errors throughout his representation of the other ways. Another example of Dawkins' "poor argumentation" comes in regard to the fifth way. If you compare Aquinas' teleological argument to Paley's argument, as Dawkins does, then you clearly don't understand either. What's funny is that he doesn't respond to Aquinas here, but goes after Paley's design argument instead. They aren't even that similar and most Thomistic scholars despise Paley's argument due to its assumed mechanistic perspective.

Of course, Dawkins "central argument" of the book is a non-sequitor (i.e. the conclusion doesn't logically follow from the premises). At best, the conclusion to the argument is that Paley's design arguments fail (assuming the premises are all true). It does not logically follow that "if the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion - the God Hypothesis - is untenable." Nor does the following line logically follow from his argument "God almost certainly does not exist." All of his premises could be true and a form of the ontological, moral or cosmological arguments still work. This is but another example of "poor argumentation."

There's plenty more in the book in regards to most topics (excepting evolution), but I think this will suffice. I'm not interested in getting into a debate and will not respond anymore, but hopefully this shows that we are justified in holding that the book has "poor argumentation."

Quixie said...

If it's true (i.e. that atheists used to be more informed back in the day) in your experience (ten years' worth), then that would indeed be an unfortunate trend to note.
It sounds as though you see atheism as a kind of systematic discipline requiring study. It's not. That's what prompted my question regarding data. With regards to matters supernatural, there is no evidence. That is precisely what the problem is in the first place, what inspires many to reject efforts at evangelization from any one of the many world religions out there (some are more missionary than others). To put it very simply (and personally) I need a reason to believe something. Some evidence would go a long way in providing such a reason. Lacking that, I simply don't accept a hypothesis. It's easy.
(Aquinas is irrelevant— *more on next comment).

Your bringing up mythicism is rather confusing. What does it have to do with the topic at hand?

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Quixie said...

That's it? That's what you see as the best example of his poor argumentation?
—that he misunderstands Aquinas?

I have my own criticism of Dawkins' book. To wit:

Dawkins is right to reject classical supernaturalistic theism—i.e. belief in a person-like super-powerful authority figure who's "out there" and separate from the universe. This punitive model of god is easily shown to be indeed a delusion, but Dawkins is actually picking low lying-fruit here. It's easy to dismantle such a simpleton's god. His arguments, however, never address the more challenging Tillichian (or Heschelian, take your pick, I love them both) model of a transcendent, impersonal, amorphous, ground of being.
This is just as well, though, because even if one addresses that more insightful and nuanced model, as soon as you engage this kind of panentheism, you run into a semantic no man's land where words such as "isness" and "otherness" can be molded to fit any mystic notion, causing a modern empiricist sensibility to exclaim, "What the hell are they talking about??"

But that is my only critique of Dawkins . . . . that he recognizes and addresses only one type of god concept, and a simplistic superstitious one at that. I don't know why Dawkins felt compelled to even mention Aquinas. My guess is simply that he rather fancies prolixity. :)

peace be with you

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G. Kyle Essary said...

Quixie,
Thanks for your response. I'm not interested in changing topics or debating right now as there is simply too much else going on in life at the current time. I'm interested in discussing your initial question that dealt with Dawkins' poor argumentation. My goal was to justify that claim, so let me clarify a few points so that you can better understand:

1. I never suggested anything about atheism as a systemized set of beliefs. You read this into my words. Self-described atheists are a very diverse group with all sorts of beliefs. Regardless, despite the diversity, they all self-describe as atheists and thus can be joined in this regard.

2. I never brought up the topic of mythicism, so you are rightly confused. I was discussing a method of argumentation and used a mythicist book as an example. Pick another book if you prefer. If I were to say, "You're such an idiot. If you read William Lane Craig's book Reasonable Faith you would know that Jesus rose from the dead," it would be the same faulty argument from a different perspective. You wouldn't find that "argument" compelling, would you? Instead of discussing the issue and the reasons for their position, the person deflects and often betrays their own ignorance. Suggesting a book is okay, but deferring to a book as justification for your lack of argument is not.

3. You assert that there is no data for supernaturalism. Fine, but nobody was arguing that point, so bringing it up just changes the topic. I was pointing out the fact that the group (ten years ago) who self-described as atheists used to be well informed on the issues in these discussions (whether on theistic arguments or historical Jesus issues as mentioned above), whereas today that is not the case. As I've already suggested, this probably partly comes from the group becoming more acceptable to the general public and partly from the similar methods of argumentation in Dawkins, Harris and Stenger as I showed clearly in regards to Dawkins.

4. You say, "That's it? That's what you see as the best example of his poor argumentation?
—that he misunderstands Aquinas?"
Well, there are plenty more examples throughout the book of "poor argumentation."

The point is not merely his misunderstanding of Aquinas, but his method of argument, which is (supposed to be) what we are discussing. In the passage on Aquinas alone (total of 2 pages), he misquotes Aquinas' position and argument; he misrepresents the conclusion of the argument; he doesn't respond to the conclusion of the argument (concerning God's ontology) and changes topics (by responding about God's characteristics); he attempts to argue against Aquinas by arguing against Paley, et. al. I think these are all very good examples of "poor argumentation" and justify my claim.

Thanks for your question and I hope you have a good evening.