Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Prather on New Atheists

I continue to discover articles on the internet accusing New Atheists of all sorts of errors of reasoning. Today's example comes from Paul Prather at the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader.

Prather begins with the standard boilerplate about how sympathetic he is with agnostics, that he himself has doubts sometimes about the truth of Christianity, and whatever happened to the good old days when atheists properly respected and understood Christians and their great contributions to art, philosophy, science, etc. I cannot help thinking that when people write these they are being disingenuous. Would Prather and the others really like Bertrand Russell because he was an expert in the Christian philosopher Leibniz? I suppose that this change in attitude (if it's real) exists because of, rather than in spite of, the increased militancy of the New Atheists. I just cannot help reading this as though "atheist" were replaced by "gay", "lesbian" or "black". I'm not saying that atheism is a special category of people requiring civil protections. However, this nostalgia for a better time in which the proponents of whatever problematic view were quieter about it and did not trouble ordinary, normal people with their demands smacks of the same kind of prejudice. The simple fact is that people with a view, a view that is often not respected in American culture, should argue for it as forcefully as they can, and the feelings of those who might be offended by these demands should not be the primary issue.

Then Prather begins his bill of particulars against the New Atheists. I'll reproduce most of it here.
My objection to the new atheists isn't that they're atheists.

It's that they strike me as hypocrites, which is the charge they unfailingly level, with mixed justification, against the religious. In opposing religion in the manner they do, they betray themselves as possessing the traits they profess to loathe.

They're smug, dogmatic and mean-spirited. They trot out tired, half-truthful stereotypes, and they cherry-pick historical examples of religious wrongdoing while ignoring the innumerable instances in which the faithful have performed great acts of decency and charity.

They pretend that all Christians are bigots prone to violence. They claim that Christians are by definition illogical bumpkins who mindlessly accept fairy tales.

They act as if Thomas Merton and Bob Jones were of one cloth.

As I've said before, I haven't read all the New Atheist stuff out there, and I especially have no desire to defend Christopher Hitchens about anything. That said, this characterization of New Atheists does not seem especially accurate to me. I suspect Prather's problem with this is that, as in any argument, each side brings up the cases that best support their position. But the basic argument against religion is not that all religious people are morally bad or that they all commit bad acts. The basic argument is W.K. Clifford's: dogmatic adherence to a particular world-view is inherently dangerous because one could act or support those who act in harmful ways without any way to know that what you are doing is harmful. Those who value reason and criticism over faith will be able to question their own or others' actions before they harm others, whereas those who believe without sufficient evidence or in the face of evidence, are not able to do that. The faithful have no basis, while remaining faithful, to question their leaders' actions or commands. Hence, the danger of dogmatism is at the heart of New Atheist complaints about religion. This does not mean that atheists are better people than Christians but that fostering questions and criticism enables people to prevent harms (even if people are fallible and do not always prevent them).

Are New Atheists dogmatic themselves? That depends on the atheist and the belief, but there is a difference between a view that explicitly demands unquestioning obedience and one that does not.

Even so, Prather's characterization is a strawman. I really have never read or heard any atheist who says that "all Christians are bigots prone to violence." Shouldn't there be some special penalty for unfairly accusing someone of being unfair? Perhaps it seems that atheists are accusing all Christians of these things to Christians, who identify with that group overall, but I don't really believe the New Atheists are doing this. Moreover, I'm just overwhelmed by Prather's claim: Does he seriously think that New Atheists are unaware of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Obviously he was not a bigot, but he was a Christian. I don't have any problem with him or the myriad others who did good things in the name of religion as moral agents. The point is that people could be equally good if they based their beliefs on rationality and evidence but they would not be prone to the kinds of mistakes that lead to great harms.

I'm less sure that New Atheists cannot be accused of this: "They claim that Christians are by definition illogical bumpkins who mindlessly accept fairy tales." If belief in Christianity is irrational, then all Christians must have at least one irrational belief. But, in all seriousness, no one thinks that all Christians are stupid or incapable of logical reasoning, but in the case of their Christianity, for any number of bad reasons, even intelligent Christians often remain committed to it. To paraphrase something Michael Shermer wrote in Why People Believe Weird Things, intelligent people are about as likely to believe weird things as less intelligent people are. They are just more inventive, and more effective, in their defenses of these weird beliefs. The problem is that people often come to have a weird belief for the wrong reasons and then use their intelligence to find support for those beliefs. This, of course, raises the possibility that atheism is just another weird belief and that those of us who are smart enough to defend it are really just engaging in the same post-hoc rationalization as the smart believers in weird things (e.g. Christianity, religion). I don't think that's the case, but that's a subject for another post.

Continuing directly:
It's absurd, and it's especially grating because it comes from people who flaunt what they consider to be their own relentless logic, superior intellect and brave candor.

Dawkins, for instance, is a retired Oxford University science professor. Hitchens, a prominent journalist, attended Oxford.

No one who presumes to possess grandiose mental gifts should stoop to lumping all believers of all faiths, or for that matter all Christians, or even all Baptists or Catholics, into a single mindless blob.

I wish these atheists would venture, say, into a seminary library. They'd find tens of thousands of volumes written by thinkers great and obscure across two millennia.

They'd find works by scholars who take every word of the Bible literally and works by others who argue that most of the Scripture is made up and that Jesus said almost nothing attributed to him. They'd find every gradation between those extremes.

They'd find the musings of Christians who are pompous, exclusionary and delusional. They'd find Christians who are tolerant and humble and pillars of common sense.

They'd learn that Christians were the driving force behind the establishment of public schools and the abolition of slavery, just as, regrettably, other Christians launched the Crusades.

Christianity is a big, organic, complex system of beliefs with a long, diverse history. It's not just one thing.

I think I've already addressed most of this minus the ad hominems against the atheists. Again, the argument is that dogmatism of the sort fostered by religion in general and Christianity in particular leads to potential harms because it limits the possibility that people might question the decisions of their leaders or the rules they follow. You don't really need to consider the full range of Christian or religious views to understand this argument. And it certainly does no good to consider the good things Christians have done to counterbalance the bad since the argument is not about individual actions or agents. And I really don't understand the logic of committing ad hominems against a group of people whom you are accusing of committing fallacies of reasoning (such as the false generalizations above). We don't have to review all the subtle reasoning of astrologers in order to know that there is nothing to astrology.

The only argument that a Christian (or member of another religion) can make here is that in fact Christianity encourages critical thinking and questioning of the religious text, authorities and all the rest. The problem is that I have never seen a religious group that says this, and it's an explicit part of the monotheistic (esp. Christianity and Islam) religious texts and traditions that one is not supposed to do this, that faith is supposed to be sufficient for belief. In fact, faith is supposed to be a superior reason to believe than is evidence or reason. If there are Christian groups that encourage this kind of questioning of their own leaders, their own texts, etc., then I would think they are mistaken to believe in God, but I would not consider them potentially harmful. But they are at least few and far between.

Most of these arguments about the tone and style of the New Atheists seem to me more directed towards maintaining religion as sacrosanct in that it is acceptable (now, anyway) to doubt religion privately, but one is not supposed to do so publicly or to do so in a disrespectful way. If believers cannot keep their views free from criticism, they want them to be criticized in a way that makes clear that they are still free to continue believing as they do, that belief without sufficient evidence is responsible and respectable. But the New Atheists want to shatter that assumption about faith, the assumption that faith without evidence is worthy of respect. That privileged status for religious belief is the most important part of religion to reject. Only when the light of reason is allowed to illuminate mistaken belief systems, is it possible to come to a more enlightened view.

1 comment:

  1. The irony of a 'good' christian falsely maligning 'evil' atheists never seems to occur, or rarely occurs, to those christians who attack the new atheists.