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Sunday, March 02, 2008

Erudite critic takes on new atheists

 
A column in yesterday's Toronto Star criticized the position of the so-called "New Atheists" [Erudite critic takes on new atheists]. The column was written by Stephen Scharper who frequently writes columns about religion. Scharper was formerly at St. Michael's College (Roman Catholic) in the University of Toronto where he was a Professor in the Department and Centre for the Study of Religion. He is currently a Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus but he maintains a cross-appointment to the Department and Centre for the Study of Religion.

Scharper's opinion piece begins with what, by now, is becoming a familiar complaint.
A couple of years ago, I was on a televised panel with a man who claimed that religions were to blame for most of the death and destruction throughout history, and that, by extension, religious people were more inherently violent than secular folks.

The implication of his claim was that discrimination against religious adherents would not only be acceptable, but advisable in such matters as job hiring, policy formation, and policing.

Prejudice against people of faith was subtly being proclaimed as an inherent good.

That panelist's view, extreme as it appears, may have some powerful mainstream resonance in a spate of recent publications from the so-called "new atheists."
I don't agree with the extreme view pictured by Stephen Scharper and neither do most atheists. It is simply not true that religious people are inherently more violent than atheists. On the other hand, it is simply not true that believers are more moral than non-believers.

People who believe in supernatural beings are fond of making the association between their belief and superior moral behavior. They often imply—or even state overtly—that atheists must be immoral because they don't believe in God. Many of the "New Atheists" (Scharper mentions Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens) have pointed out that those claims are not supported by evidence. That's the main point. The "New Atheist" stance is a response to centuries of false propaganda and hypocrisy on the part of believers.

Religious apologists need to stop whining about this counter-offensive and start recognizing that their claims of moral superiority just don't measure up. While it would be wrong to deny someone a job just because they falsely claim to be morally superior, it would also be wrong to give them a job just because they say they are morally superior.

Scharper goes on to praise a recent book by John Haught (God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response To Dawkins, Harris And Hitchens). I haven't read this book but from what Scharper says it sounds like the same-old, same-old that we've heard dozens of time before [e.g. Alister McGrath's Defense of Religion, Propaganda Techniques: Shift the Burden of Proof, Alister McGrath].

Here's how Scharper describes it.
Haught, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, adroitly distills the common themes from this troika [Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens], which suggests that outside of nature, "there is no God, no soul, and no life beyond death," that the universe has no overarching purpose, that all life developments can be explained by science, and that faith in God is the source of countless evils and should thus be jettisoned on moral grounds.

What Haught finds ironic is that the new atheists have little interest in atheism at all, and don't engage in the main philosophical debates raised by atheistic giants such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Instead, they base their notion of religion on the creationism of a select band of fundamentalists. In short, they adopt a theologically bereft caricature of religion.
Now, let's be absolutely clear about this argument. It is completely bogus. This is not a debate about religion, it's a debate about the existence of supernatural beings. Atheists are simply not interested in debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They want to debate the evidence for angels. Atheists don't want to debate why God and evil can coexist. They want to debate whether God exists at all. We don't care about the extensive literature on the interpretation of Chapters 1 & 2 of Genesis. It's irrelevant.

We don't need to read up on transubstantiation because we're challenging the divinity of Jesus and not whether wine and bread can turn into blood and flesh. We atheists don't care about the "sophistication" of religious apologetics. (Just as Roman Catholics don't care about ancient Greek texts on how to interpret the Oracle at Delphi or Roman treatises on the entrails of chickens.)

We know that every large religion has tons of literature justifying their particular beliefs. This was as true of the ancient Greek and Roman religions as it is of the modern religions such as Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism. You do not need to be an expert in all the sophisticated delusions in order to question the fundamental issue—do supernatural beings exist?

The form of argument that Haught advances, and Scharper supports, has been called The Courtier's Reply by PZ Myers [see The Emperor's New Clothes and the Courtier's Reply for an explanation]. This needs to be widely known so I'm going to quote PZ once again in case some of the Sandwalk readers are unfamiliar with his response. Here's how PZ describes the Courtier's Reply to the revelation that the Emperor has no clothes.
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.
Here's my challenge to Stephen Scharper: if you know of a sophisticated argument for the existence of God that hasn't already been addressed, and refuted, by atheists, then here's your chance to present it. I notice that you didn't mention it in your column and none of your colleagues have actually presented one of those secret theological debating points that you claim exist in the corridors of seminaries and departments of philosophy or religion.

I'm sick and tied of hearing apologists make false claims about the existence of some sort of deal-breaking point that the "New Atheists" have overlooked because they are addressing a kindergarten version of religion. As far as I'm concerned the rationality behind belief in supernatural beings is kindergarten philosophy. If Professor Scharper disagrees, then lets hear about the killer evidence for God that atheists don't know about because we haven't studied theology.


[Photo Credit: The photograph of Professor Stephen Scharper is from the University of Toronto News]

41 comments :

  1. There's on simple - even trivial - argument for the existence of God. "God" is the name given by some people to their supernatural experiences. "God" is the name given by some people to human kindness. "God" is the name given the the motivation that drives some people to commit mass murder.

    These experiences are real, regardless of whether this thing exists outside of your head or not. So God is real. Similarly, if you name your dog God, and the dog exists, then God exists. And if he bites someone, that's an Act of God.

    The real question is whether these experiences that people call God exist independently of the people who experience them and whether that matters. In my opinion, it doesn't matter.

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  2. It doesn't matter whether a real God exists or not?

    That's a bizarre statement. It matters a great deal to me. If there is a God then my entire life would be changed.

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  3. I get tired of it, too. The idea that you have to sift through the heady refutations of philosophers in order to be qualified to state that there is no justifiable reason claim evidence for is a detour away from the fact that theology is a Seinfeldian science. It's a show about "nothing," no matter how nuanced or fine the stories may be spun, they are, as Avalos says "unverifiable."

    I am also sick of the copycat book jackets that "refuters of the New Atheism" use. If Haught has original ideas, then he can use his own design for a book cover, rather than steal from Hitchens. Hitchens, btw, doesn't rest his case on the shallow claims of fundamentalism. Even within the "B's" he approaches the more theological religions.

    I have to admit that when I saw the title of this post in my feed reader, I originally thought that you were referring to Matthew Nisbett. His new "show" takes on the New Atheists. For someone who is himself an atheist, he seems intent on scoring "own goals" in order to pull religious people into the science "frame."

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  4. That's a bizarre statement. It matters a great deal to me. If there is a God then my entire life would be changed.

    It isn't bizarre to me. It isn't bizarre to many of the people I got to church with. And, quite frankly, it was the subject of the sermon at church a few months ago. (Judging from body language, it wasn't exactly a comfortable topic for some of the people there, but for the most part the congregation took it in stride).

    Whether God exists or not doesn't change my desire to belong to a community which works for social justice, LBGT rights, service to the community and connectedness among the membership.

    More to the point, why would it matter to you one way or the other?

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  5. I guess, Ian, that I am baffled as to why you feel the need to call it a "Church" if that's the case.

    Why not just a social club. Is it just a matter that the God thing is easer to market?

    Perhaps the atheist groups would do better raising funds to build meeting sites would do better if we call ourselves a "church."

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  6. This discussion reminds me of a book I saw in Border's the other day, and I had to just read a few chapters.

    http://www.amazon.com/Little-Book-Atheist-Spirituality/dp/0670018473

    Dr. Moran, I would like to see a post on what you think of this book.

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  7. don't engage in the main philosophical debates raised by atheistic giants such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus

    Um, those philosophers are considered atheistic giants? By theologists content to discuss philosophy, no doubt.

    Now, what about the arguments from "zoologist Richard Dawkins", "neuroscientist Sam Harris", and "essayist Christopher Hitchens"? What about Dawkins argument showing that a religious creator is an improbable explanation?

    When critics stops being meaninglessly erudite and start being meaningfully knowledgeable on the discussed texts matter and arguments, I will start listen to their arguments. Whining caricatures of texts are indeed "not helpful".

    For example, Haught is claimed to say that the texts are "predictable and unconvincing" - yet Dawkins argument is AFAIK new, it is convincing to me, and above all it is AFAIU still not remotely engaged by these self professed "erudite" critics. The predictable action is, I'm afraid, entirely on the side of the intellectually lazy nincompoops.

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  8. I'm curious to know the name of the panelist Scharper complains about, so I can check whether he really said that. If so, I will know never, ever to listen to anything that person says again again.

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  9. It matters a great deal to me. If there is a God then my entire life would be changed.

    Really, Larry? How so?

    I am really curious, not just being a wiseass. I'm certain it wouldn't make any difference in my life.

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  10. I personally have no objection to people jumping the evidential gun on the question of primary ontologies because of the epistemic difficulties here. (that is, the question of the ultimate source of the universe) One might decide, for example, that the complexity inherent in some kind of the multivesre explains our lot, or perhaps one may use the complexity of an a-priori personality/asiety as the foundation ontology. Truly these are rather groping attempts as we are dealing with final explanations – if people want to engage in these far-flung leaps of the imagination I have no objection and as you know for a variety of reasons I favor the theist position. But one must make all due allowance for ontological complexity of this area and its consequent epistemological trickiness – this isn’t as simple as testing Hook’s law y’know. If you have decided, Larry that there is no God and presumably preempt it with an envisaged impersonal primary ontology, I am going to say Fine! That’s a perfectly reasonable position to adopt given the meager/erratic data and the highfalutin nature of the propositions being advanced. I’m not going to go away and tell people how evil Larry is because I can’t foist on him my beliefs about a theistic primary ontology – I’m going say, Yes he has plausible position given what we know. But factoring in the epistemic difficulties here, there are alternatives in this esoteric subject, and I’m going to respect people if they jump either way.

    Look Larry, as you know I happen to believe in evolution. However, I can’t say that I have made a stunningly successful defense of evolution over on Uncommon Decent. Once again you have to factor in the ontological complexity of the subject and make all due allowance. Evolution is a complex interdisciplinary historical object; true it’s a doddle after the even more inaccessible objects of primary ontologies, but even so it’s very easy to become prey to misinterpretations in this subject and that’s why I don’t go into Uncommon Descent throwing my weight around, because I know that there may be alternative interpretations - especially as I’m no expert in the field. I just expect a little bit of leeway to be given by both sides and cognizance taken of the epistemic difficulties.

    Moving into this atheist/theist debate nowadays is like going into a war zone. That seems to be down (as is often the case with wars) to various persons or groups who rate themselves as a ‘big I AMs’ wanting to dominate the field. I suppose the new atheists have been thoroughly spooked by the recent fundamentalist excesses, east and west (and so am I). On the other hand theists like my self are still spooked by the Marxist, Stalinist, Mao and Pol-pot years. Polarization of sides is therefore understandable. Trouble is, when you move into a polarized war zone you may be forced to select one side or other and thereby find yourself shooting down people you don’t necessarily want shoot down and who you would otherwise respect.

    I occasionally put on my atheist head and try my best to view the world from this perspective. Perhaps as a life long atheist you could advise me where I’m going wrong, but my problem is that my atheist head comes up with a celebration problem: I find great difficulty gathering round the social camp fire to celebrate anything successfully unless the ‘God myth’, or whatever, is actually believed in order to celebrate. Moreover, the focus and identification it introduces seems to act as a local social glue (bit like the monarchy here in the UK; it’s no surprise the Jews demanded a king around 1000 BC). It’s a strange thing Larry but humans do seem to require a real belief in the ‘God myth’ before it triggers a cascade of social consequences, and motivations from successful fervent celebration, through strong social identification, to tenacious terrorism. Humans readily respond to this ‘God myth’ whether for good or bad; - it seems to be part of our biological firmware and you can bet your bottom Canadian dollar that atheist functions aren’t anywhere near as vibrant as theist functions. It is significant that during the height of the communist years in China, a religious aura and worshipful focus began to accumulate around Mao; such things seem to increase the octane value of commitment. Yes it might be all based on myth, but it seems to part of our humanity. This anthropological fact should not be trivialized and needs some serious explaining.

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  11. PS Heck! Forget all my rubbish! I'd love to hear your response John Pieret's question!

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  12. John Pieret asks,

    I am really curious, not just being a wiseass. I'm certain it wouldn't make any difference in my life.

    Right now I'm content to view the world in a naturalistic sense. Everything can be explained, I think, in terms of the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry.

    If it could be demonstrated to me that there is a personal God with supernatural powers that worldview would change drastically. I could no longer be sure that the flagellum was not designed by God, for example. It would be a viable possibility.

    I would have to consider the possibility that miracles exist and that I might be able to appeal to God to grant me one from time to time.

    The wishes and desires of God would become a primary concern of mine, both for intellectual reasons and because it might have consequences for my present life and any future life that might exist. I would have to start thinking about what God wants me to do instead of what's good for my fellow citizens.

    John, I am flabbergasted to hear you say it wouldn't make any difference to you. Are you just thinking of an abstract Deist God when you say that?

    Timothy, would it make any difference in your life if you learned for certain that there is no God?

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  13. It seems that many theists and atheists alike care little about the existence or otherwise of God - it appears that they're comfortable in their beliefs and their world-view and simply want nothing to disrupt it.

    Like Larry, I find this attitude hard to understand - for people like this, there's no intellectual curiosity with regard to the world and the nature of the universe, but rather simply unthinking tribalism.

    All very depressing.

    P.S. Ian, reread your first comment and tell me you stand by it.

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  14. Larry said..

    Timothy, would it make any difference in your life if you learned for certain that there is no God?

    It certainly would. I would no longer be doing this:

    The wishes and desires of God would become a primary concern of mine, both for intellectual reasons and because it might have consequences for my present life and any future life that might exist. I would have to start thinking about what God wants me to do instead of what's good for my fellow citizens.

    Hence, the hunt is on for aseity!

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  15. .. not sure why "what God wants me to do" should compete with "what's good for my fellow citizens". You're forgetting your scriptures Larry:

    For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.

    Then the righteous will answer Him saying, Lord, when did we see You hungry and fed you? Or thirsty and gave you a drink? And when did we see You a stranger and took You in? Or naked and clothed You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and came to you?

    And answering, The King will say to them, Truly I say to you, Since you did it to one of these, the least of my brothers, you DID IT TO ME.

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  16. Timothy V Reeves says,

    .. not sure why "what God wants me to do" should compete with "what's good for my fellow citizens". You're forgetting your scriptures Larry:

    No, I'm not forgetting my scriptures.

    Have you read the Book of Job?

    Did you speak to the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah?

    Did you ever wonder why the good citizens of Egypt lost all their first-born in one horrible night?

    If omnipotent supernatural beings actually exist you'd be wise to appease them.

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  17. John, I am flabbergasted to hear you say it wouldn't make any difference to you. Are you just thinking of an abstract Deist God when you say that?

    I'm not John, but yeah, ISTM Einstein's God (not a supernatural phenomenon, but the reason behind the natural phenomena we see) is the only one allowable per the evidence we currently have.

    Wouldn't such a being have to have supernatural powers? Not necessarily. Think of physicists millenia from now who learn enough about how the universe began to create a "baby" universe. You'd have beings who created a universe with particular natural laws and its own history, but those physicists wouldn't thereby become supernatural beings worthy of devotion and prayer.

    Actually, it's hard for me to imagine what would qualify as "supernatural," since anything outside of a pure one-off is simply one more fact about The Way Our Universe Works. From that standpoint, "supernatural" would apply only to a rather arbitrary and capricious deity fond of saying "I'll do it just this once if you really ask nice."

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  18. Smart maneuvering Larry, I like it!

    Perhaps I also should consult the citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the concentration camp inmates and the 50 million plus who died in the last war, or even the presumably conscious citizens who were wiped out at the end of the Permian. Perhaps I ought to ask why RAF pilots in the World War II were required to shoot down innocent and brave German pilots (the elite ‘first born’ of Germany) in order to save this country. Perhaps I ought ask why those Galileans in Luke 13:1 were killed by Pilate and why the collapse of the tower of Siloam killed 18 Jews (Luke 13:4) and yet they were no greater sinners than the rest of us. Perhaps I ought to ask that age old question that Job repeatedly asked about innocent suffering, but only got the answer to the effect that this is the way it is. Yes, this is the way it is and though there is a place for judgment and destruction (presumably you’re a judgment on certain theists and you expect the final terminating destruction of your body), suffering is not always connected with judgment, although human beings, like Job’s comforters, are apt to read judgment into innocent suffering. If the world were a world for angels only I, selfish sinner supreme, wouldn’t be part of the party. However, if the creator has deemed that an evolving suffering world, a world to which my identity is inextricably bound should be brought into a contingent existence I’m not complaining if I have trade that off against my personal existence. After all, I’m a sinner and so I’ m inclined to think of number one first. As they say ‘sin’ is the word with the ‘I’ in the middle!

    If personal supernatural asiety requires appeasement then I am laughing, because as the old story goes appeasement is done and dusted. What more can I say than “For God did not send His son into the world that He might judge the world, but that the world might be saved trough Him.” (John 3:17)

    So, Larry, you’ve maneuvered yourself into theology at last!

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  19. Jason Rosenhouse posted recently about an article John Haught had published in The Christian Century. You'll want to give it a look:
    Amateur Atheists?

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  20. I could no longer be sure that the flagellum was not designed by God, for example. It would be a viable possibility.

    How did you go from being "content to view the world in a naturalistic sense" to being sure? You keep telling me that atheists don't affirmatively deny the existence of god. It seems to me, then, that your "confidence" is either feigned or ill-founded. Of course, there is good reason to go on treating the world as if ruled by natural law even if your confidence gets shaken -- it works most of the time.

    The wishes and desires of God would become a primary concern of mine, both for intellectual reasons and because it might have consequences for my present life and any future life that might exist. I would have to start thinking about what God wants me to do instead of what's good for my fellow citizens.

    In other words, it what's in it for Larry? Sort of how a child tries to curry favor with a parent to get a lollipop by telling the parent how good she or he is and how they'll listen and be good? That often doesn't work out well. Besides, if you haven't already discovered what God wants you to do, why do you think that simply knowing he/she/it exists would make a difference? Indeed, why would you think that impulse to do what's good for your fellow citizens isn't what god wants you to do?

    John, I am flabbergasted to hear you say it wouldn't make any difference to you. Are you just thinking of an abstract Deist God when you say that?

    My own suspicion is that any infinite being (the only kind of "god" I'll recognize) that is conscious would have consciousness so ... well ... infinitely different than ours that we couldn't recognize it as such. Which goes toward explaining my lack of curiosity about the unknowable. But that's not the reason I wouldn't do anything differently. I simply am not silly enough to think I could put one over on a an infinite being by pretending to be other than what I am.

    It's interesting to know that you respond well to threats, though.

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  21. Larry you say,
    This was as true of the ancient Greek and Roman religions as it is of the modern religions such as Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism. The literature that can be classified as Hindu in scope stretches back a very long way, way before the Greek and the Roman, and is by no means modern - if by that you mean relatively recent. And there isn't much, if at all you can find it, in the Hindu literature that attempts to prove the existence of god. Only one of the classical schools of philosophy makes a detour into the question, which forms an almost insignificant part of its topics.

    Roman religio is more concerned with tradition, and Greek thinking too on hte matter spends some time on the possibility of a god. None of htese traditions begins with a dogma and then attempts to prove that it is true.

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  22. Man, it is a sight to behold when believers do their backflips, contortions, and ballet jetes just to rationalize a world where their "God" allows human suffering.

    For myself, I am quite satisfied with the rational purity of the argument that the simple existence of the common flea proves God does not exist. ( Icky fleas!)

    But fleas don't seem to deter the general public - they still believe in a 2000-year old miracle maker. The problem is, all the miracles are 2000-years old now, and the whole act needs constant dusting.

    So, here is my new 21st century proof that God doesn't exist: Any God worth believing in, should be able to show himself in public once in a while.

    And, we'll give him plenty of advanced notice, in case he is tied up somewhere.

    So, let's have an annual New Atheist sponsored "Who Needs a God Who Really IS Dead?" day. Say December 24th in the Vatican Square. Maybe we can have parallel performances in Jerusalem and Mecca.

    And all He has to do is show up personally and do some good Miracle-Making. Like, making all the fleas and mosquitoes disappear - that would be a good opener right there. Or even some of his old repertoire. Part the Red Sea or the locust and boil thing. Or the water into wine thing - that would be better.

    Every year our big media blitz will be like Groundhog day - and every year more and more people might open their eyes and question why they still believe in the GuyWhoNeverShowsUp.

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  23. I suppose Larry is pretty ticked off with theology at the moment, so I'll say no more.

    I've got to backflip my way over to Uncommon Descent where they are giving me a right run around. Wish me well, because I'll be doing some pretty fancy contortions and ballet jetes in favour of evolution - that's until they've converted me to ID! At least that's what they think!

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  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  25. the question of primary ontologies because of the epistemic difficulties here

    The whole point of for example Dawkins TGD is that there is no epistemic question here, it is a simple consequence of observable facts that a creation is improbable. He also disregard the philosophical gods of agnostics as uninteresting of course, but who doesn't? :-P [Myself, I think they are realistically excluded by the same observations, as the limit of interesting interactions cuts them off.]

    "I'll do it just this once if you really ask nice."

    Um, Dawkins discusses this too. He has an adequate model in fact.

    Really, wasn't the point that we should go beyond Scharper's refusal to engage the discussed authors? I don't see any of that yet.

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  26. Torbjörn referred to my satirical description of a capricious God who only performs wonders rarely ("I'll do it just this once if you really ask nice"), mentioning that Dawkins had debunked this in The God Delusion.

    I know, T, I've read the book. :-) The notion of such a deity is to me comedically unbelievable, on the same level as that antic joker who tweaks malaria parasite genes to provide antibiotic resistance. Ha, ha, take that, men, women and children of the tropics!, laughs the inveterate old kidder.

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  27. Torbjörn:

    ... wasn't the point that we should go beyond Scharper's refusal to engage the discussed authors? I don't see any of that yet.

    Okay. Go to Haught's article:

    http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=4497

    ... where he says:

    All three of our soft-core atheists are absolutely certain that the creeds, ideals and practices of religion are essentially evil. In fact, a distinguishing mark of the new atheism is that it leaves no room for a sense of moral ambiguity in anything that smacks of faith. There is no allowance that religion might have at least one or two redeeming features. No such waffling is permitted. Their hatred of religious faith is so palpable that the pages of their books fairly quiver in our hands.

    Whatever you may think of that description, I think, especially listening to Hitchens or watching Dawkins' face in some of recent television outings, that it is fair to describe them as under the sway of moral indignation.

    Then answer Haught's question: "What is the basis of your moral rectitude?"

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  28. We know that every large religion has tons of literature justifying their particular beliefs.

    Just like atheists have tons of literature "explaining" their particular beliefs, specially how everything created itself out of nothing.

    *Mats*

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  29. By the way, there is one good arguement that I haven't seen explained/refuted by atheistic religious believers. But then again, if they try to refute it, they endup confirming it!

    The Transcendental Arguement for the Existence of God, as defended by Van Til and Dr Greg Bahsen.

    http://veritasdomain.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/greg-bahnsen-vs-gordon-stein-the-great-debate/

    Good luck

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  30. @ John Pieret:

    Go to Haught's article: http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=4497

    Oh, that is even worse!

    First Haught (or his editor) calls these established atheists "amateur atheists". Of course referring to what Scharper calls an "erudite" analysis, that doesn't move the religious criticism any further than earlier efforts to not engage the material.

    But secondly he makes explicit the point Larry was pouncing on, an explicit statement that atheists are immoral because of absence of belief. "If you're going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism."

    And on that basis you and Haught put a question on moral foundations?! Now please tell me, why should I bother to answer before you put your own house in order?

    But no, even if you found a small piece of the text that actually discussed a part of, say Dawkins, texts, it doesn't describe the later correctly. Dawkins do discuss why and how he find some practices of religion harmful. He also describes what he considers valuable and why. I have to assume Haught is unable to read Dawkins for some reason.

    @ Mats:

    None of your conflations ('religious atheists') or links deals with the post or the comments but perpetuate the problem: why can't you deal with these atheist authors arguments and facts? It can't be that difficult to either do it or state that you are unable to engage with the material.

    Why the waffling? You must realize that the combination of impotence and subterfuge reflects badly on your respective religions.

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  31. ... he makes explicit the point Larry was pouncing on, an explicit statement that atheists are immoral because of absence of belief.

    Okay, you're not ready to discuss this rationally, since that is exactly the opposite of the point Haught is making. You have read your own biases into what Haught wrote.

    He is actually saying that atheists are claiming moral standards but have not thought through where they come from. A point you just illustrated well.

    Some time when you have control of your emotions, perhaps ...

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  32. John Pieret says,

    He is actually saying that atheists are claiming moral standards but have not thought through where they come from. A point you just illustrated well.

    The irony here is that Haught is praising some older hard-core philosophers like Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre who claimed that the consequences of rejecting God would be traumatic. Haught very much likes this point of view since he believes that morality comes from God and rejecting God would lead to a crisis of conscience that most people would not be able to tolerate.

    This is what Haught teaches his students. Abandoning God is horrible because it leads to nihilism. All the famous old atheists said this.

    Along come the new atheists like Richard Dawkins. According to them—and I agree—giving up God doesn't have much affect on your ethical behavior. This makes Haught furious because all those old guys claimed that giving up God was going to be very hard.

    Haught says that Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are not facing up to the reality of their atheism. They don't realize the consequences of their choice. Here's how Haught puts the question ..

    With the hard-core atheists one has to ask this newer breed: What is the basis of your moral rectitude? How, in other words, if there is no eternal ground of values, can your own strict standards be anything other than arbitrary, conventional, historically limited human concoctions? But you take them as absolutely binding. And if you are a Darwinian, how can your moral values ultimately be anything more than blind contrivances of evolutionary selection?

    I can't speak for Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris but here's my answer.

    I do not believe that there are absolute moral values. I believe that all of our ethical rules are, indeed, often arbitrary, historical conventions invented by human beings. I believe this is true in spite of the fact that religious people believe otherwise. They are simply mistaken about where these values actually come from.

    Over thousands of years our societies have worked out some standard rules of conduct that make it possible for people to get along in large groups. I see no reason to abandon those rules of conduct just because I don't believe in God. They work pretty good as far as I can see.

    I just don't see the problem that Haught sees. I don't have a problem recognizing where our ethical standards come from. They sure as heck don't come from any God. The real problem was with those hard-core atheists who completely bought into the idea that our current rules of behavior were created by religion. That's why they got themselves into such a fix when thinking about abandoning God. They failed to recognize that the priests were lying to them.

    What I'd like is for people like Haught and his fellow believers to stop deluding themselves about where these rules come from. They weren't invented by any of the 1000 or so Gods that people have believed in over the past several thousand years. They were invented by people like you and me. Many of those people were not believers.

    If you are a believer, all you have to do is drop the false belief that ethics is imposed on you by your favorite God and start recognizing that ethics is a human invention. You don't need to pass through a crisis when you abandon God because it's simply not true that morals require supernatural beings. Atheists don't steal and murder because it's not a good way to behave if you want to function successfully in a group.

    What you have to give up is the pretense of absolute moral standards but that's an illusion anyway. More importantly, you have to give up the idea that someone else (God) is watching you and making judgments about how you behave. That's a little more difficult because learning to take complete responsibility for your own actions can be a challenge to those who have always surrendered that responsibility to their pastor and their God.

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  33. I do not believe that there are absolute moral values. I believe that all of our ethical rules are, indeed, often arbitrary, historical conventions invented by human beings.

    Absolutely correct, Larry! Got it in one!

    One slight problem ...

    That means that the Islamic society that imposes Sha'ira is exactly as moral (or immoral) as any secular democracy. To use a metaphor, they are just different alleles of our society gene/meme and there is no "ought" to be gained from the "is". And that was Haught's point. You cannot be (justly, in my mind) a moral relativist AND a crusader against religion ... without some serious mental backflips.

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  34. Firstly, I don't recall any atheist ever suggesting that it is possible to live a life governed entirely by consistently rational principles. One thing that theists seem to gloss over is that their claims are hardly insignificant.

    They seem to, on the one hand, claim that God is the most important fact about the universe, and five minutes later, that it is only as important as many of the small aspects of my life that are not governed by rationality, at all. It simply doesn't wash.

    Secondly, I fail to see how there being a God translates in to a consistent explanation of objective morality? After all, depending on whether we are talking about what God commands - which has now been thoroughly destroyed as an argument - or, as the new argument is framed, concerning the "nature" of God (which is actually no different), the theist is in exactly the same position as an atheist, in terms of morality.

    If morality is based on what God commands, then it would be entirely arbitrary and capricious. If God commanded that eating babies was good, that would be "moral". It was then claimed that it was part of God's nature, and that it was necessary and eternal. But that doesn't change anything. Is something good because it is part of His character, or is God's character that way because it is good? The first interpretation means that morality is arbitrary, and the second suggests that there must be an independent standard of good that God's character exemplifies, and therefore, morality is not founded on religion, but religion on morality.

    Apart from the fact that it is quite a leap to that point, as you should really provide some evidence that He exists, first and foremost, and then that He really is this moral being that He is claimed to be, it is possible to maintain that there are objective moral facts and deny the existence of God and be perfectly consistent. All of the secular accounts of objective morality would have to be defeated to overcome this claim.

    Also, there is no objective basis for picking a reliable source of what God commands between the various religions, and there simply isn't any scriptural authority (in any religion) concerning literally thousands of modern ethical issues. How does the theist decide what to do in this situation? Their answer seems to be that the bible is simply a guide, and that God has provided us with an "innate moral sense". Again, no evidence is provided for such a thing, but then that would apply to all of us, any way, and a basic altruism can be explained better (some would say) in evolutionary terms.

    Is there a better explanation as to why an atheist is in a different position to a theist in terms of morality? Otherwise, we are all in the same boat, as far as I can see. All doing serious mental backflips.

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  35. I do not believe that there are absolute moral values. I believe that all of our ethical rules are, indeed, often arbitrary, historical conventions invented by human beings.

    Absolutely correct, Larry! Got it in one!
    One slight problem ...
    That means that the Islamic society that imposes Sha'ira is exactly as moral (or immoral) as any secular democracy. ..


    You seem to be saying that if a property is not absolute, then it is impossible to choose one value as objectively better than another. This sounds suspiciously like the fallacy of the excluded middle.

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  36. Doesn't Plato and his writings succinctly put the lie to the idea that Judeo-Christian religion is somehow needed to have ethics and morality?

    The Greeks were a tad before Christ, and as far as I know, were not exactly nihilists. :D

    I mean - for crying out loud, already, guys! Ignore the trees!

    I remember an abstract highlighted in Current Contents decades ago. The study appeared to show that the more educated someone was, the more likely they were to be taken in by an eloquent, complex, but completely fallacious argument.

    High school dropouts, OTOH, correctly called bullshit from the get go.

    So, can we get a little stupid and stop feeding the "erudite" troll? :D

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  37. Joh Pieret says,

    That means that the Islamic society that imposes Sha'ira is exactly as moral (or immoral) as any secular democracy. To use a metaphor, they are just different alleles of our society gene/meme and there is no "ought" to be gained from the "is".

    What you say is true to a certain extent. However, we can still have legitimate debates about what sort of ethical rules might be best for most societies. I would argue that stoning women for having sex before marriage is not the best way to create a workable society in the 21st century.

    And that was Haught's point. You cannot be (justly, in my mind) a moral relativist AND a crusader against religion ... without some serious mental backflips.

    There are two reasons for attacking religion.

    1. It is a delusion and therefore a false justification on which to base moral imperatives. Atheists reject the logic behind construction of a formal ethics based on false premises.

    2. It's a delusion plain and simple because there are no Gods. This attack is an attack on superstition and stupidity. There's no rule that say a moral relativist has to ignore stupidity.

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  38. He is actually saying that atheists are claiming moral standards but have not thought through where they come from. A point you just illustrated well.

    No, Who's on first, What's on second. Clearly you haven't understood that religionists claims that religion is the source of morals and that atheists have no morals. This is the primary basic claims that are discussed here, not where atheists morals derive from.

    So I don't agree entirely with Larry's description. But I agree fully with his description of morals. And I learned on old philosophers reasoning.

    Returning to Haught, he is IMO claiming that atheists have no moral values. He asks:

    And if you are a Darwinian, how can your moral values ultimately be anything more than blind contrivances of evolutionary selection?

    So what atheists claims are moral values aren't, they are just "contrivances".

    [And if you want to pursue this on good faith, you will note that he has problems to understand both how populations acquire a set of moral behaviors and how they work. No backflips needed. Just a realisation that secular morals adopted by the society, Dawkins "moral Zeitgeist", are an improvement over fixed religious dogmas based on delusions.]

    So as I noted, neither Scharper nor Haught cares to engage the primary claims. They can but wave old and strawmen as shields to avoid lookingf directly at the threatening arguments.

    How you read any emotional tone in my previous comment, I don't get. Either you projected or you tried to resolve your cognitive dissonance as I outlined it above.

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  39. Bayesian Bouffant:

    You seem to be saying that if a property is not absolute, then it is impossible to choose one value as objectively better than another. This sounds suspiciously like the fallacy of the excluded middle.

    No, I'm willing to listen. What objective moral value do you propose that does not depend in one way or another on your personal values?

    Larry:

    I would argue that stoning women for having sex before marriage is not the best way to create a workable society in the 21st century.

    That would be my preference too, but what metric are you using to measure best? On the basis of stability and cohesion of societies, Islamic theocracies would appear to be quite robust alleles. Do you have any empiric evidence that secular democracies are doing better as societies (not just your preferred type of society)?

    It's a delusion plain and simple because there are no Gods.

    So you are giving up any pretense of uncertainty? Naturally, anyone who thinks that you cannot know that for certain, sees your "morality" as being based on a false premise of knowing that which you cannot know. If you base your morality on a false claim of knowledge, how are you any different that the religionists, who you claim are basing their morality on a false claim of knowledge?

    Torbjörn

    ... you haven't understood that religionists claims that religion is the source of morals and that atheists have no morals.

    You claimed Haught made such a claim, not some unnamed religionists. And the bit you now come up with to "show" that he is claiming atheists can't have morals is nothing but a quote mine. He follows it immediately with this:

    But again, in your condemnation of the evils of religion you must be assuming a standard of goodness so timeless and absolute as to be God-given. Of course, no one objects to your making moral judgments. But if you, your tribe or mindless mother nature is the ultimate ground of your values, why does your sense of rightness function with such assuredness in your moral indictment of all people of faith?

    So he is not claiming that atheists are without morals, he is pointing out what he sees as a contradiction, which is a perfectly fair and aboveboard form of intellectual discourse.

    As for cognitive dissonance, I do not think that phrase means what you think it means. For one thing, as an agnostic, I have no dog in this hunt ... other than that I think bad arguments (including Haught's) ought to be punctured. But so far, you have badly misread Haught's point and tried to cover up by pretending you were talking about religionists in general; said that you wanted to engage in discussion of critics' claims but then said you wouldn't until they put their own house in some unspecified order; and now have quote mined Haught. That you are operating under the sway of emotion is the kindest interpretation.

    As for "secular morals adopted by the society," what the heck do you think religious morals are? By what metric do you measure any "improvement" by secular morals over religious ones? And let's not confuse any moral code adopted by a society with the kind of objective code that Bayesian Bouffant was talking about.

    Damian:

    ... we are all in the same boat, as far as I can see. All doing serious mental backflips.

    That would be my answer to Haught. The godless need not wade through nihilism, we merely need to recognize the moral ambiguity we all operate under. Haught is the type of believer who will acknowledge a lack of certainty about the existence of God or, even if he/she/it exists, a lack of certainty of knowing what he/she/it wants. And on top of that, no religious code is so comprehensive as to be without ambiguity. As a practical matter, any intelligent theists will have to concede suffering from moral ambiguity. It's part of the human condition.

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  40. FWIW, catching up on old threads:


    So you are giving up any pretense of uncertainty?


    I don't read that into Larry's claim. There is always uncertainty in empirics, that doesn't preclude us from effective assertions, say in science.


    You claimed Haught made such a claim,


    You are still confused about the context, as I noted. This is the reason why Haught argues.

    Btw, you yourself describes Haught's characterization as "nihilism".


    So he is not claiming that atheists are without morals, he is pointing out what he sees as a contradiction,


    Huh? He calls secular moral values for "contrivances", and as you continue the text, for "assuming a standard" and making "moral judgements", but not once does he claim that these "contrivances" is acceptable for him as morals.


    As for cognitive dissonance, I do not think that phrase means what you think it means.


    I mean it in the way of John Wilkins model.

    As you still haven't achieved "break even" in understanding what is the basis and what is the context for Haught's claims, and why he writes as he does, I think it is cog dis that characterizes you. You even explain away your confusion, on my emotions.


    By what metric do you measure any "improvement" by secular morals over religious ones?


    I think the fact that religious claims on the absence of a basis for secular morals shows their moral inferiority. Essentially, special pleading instead of egalitarian views.

    But the real stinker at the bottom of the cesspool lies the problem with using dogma instead of empiricism on the matters of the world, such as morals.

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