Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Albert Mohler on the New Atheism

"What sad times are these when passing ruffians, sorry, I mean Christians, can say 'Ni!' at will to old ladies, oops!, I mean distort and malign at will the works of eminent atheists with no regard for accuracy in reporting of facts or cogency of reasoning. Oh, for the days when Christians bestrode the land like the colossus with the courage of John the Baptist, the intelligence of Thomas Aquinas, the humanity of Reinhold Niehbur, and the eerie vigor and peculiar beardedness of Rasputin. The Christians were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

Now the culture of Christianity is reduced to the paranoid, insipid rantings of ignorant boobs whose inability to think rationally is matched only by their influence with their followers. Seriously, this guy has no idea what he's talking about. (Also, see the famed PZMeister here.)

Mohler begins with a pocket history of atheism and tries to show the shortcomings of atheism if it lacks a scientific basis for an understanding of human existence. He writes,

The early atheists [mid-second millenium CE] were usually notorious, as were well-known heretics. Their denials of God and the Christian faith were well-documented and understood. But the early atheists had a huge problem –- how could they explain the existence of the Cosmos? Without a clear answer to that question, their arguments for atheism failed to gain much traction.

How does he know that early atheists were notorious? Probably lots of atheists said nothing for fear of execution, or were executed with no notice or debate. Probably Mohler forgot to mention this for some reason. In any event, one cannot deny that the famous atheists were notorious.

Also, heretics were well known. Or maybe the atheists were well-known heretics. Either way there is some connection between atheism and heresy. No doubt child molesters were also notorious in their day. Just like atheists!

But we do get to the nub of the biscuit: atheists, he says, do not have an explanation for why everything exists. He continues,

As even the ancient Greeks understood, one of the most fundamental philosophical questions is this: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Every worldview is accountable to that question. In other words, every philosophy of life must offer some account of how we and the world around us came to be. The creation myths of ancient cultures and the philosophical speculations of the Greeks serve as evidence of the hunger in the human intellect that takes form as what we now call the question of origins.

Got it. We want to explain things, including especially the origin of the universe and humanity. Lots of people made stuff up the try to explain these things. I'm with him so far. I'm not really with the grammar, but the idea is sound enough. I doubt I'll continue to agree with him for long. So, after a little redundancy, we get,

Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the larger dogma of evolution emerged in the nineteenth century as the first coherent alternative to the Bible’s doctrine of Creation.

This is only the first sentence of the paragraph. Whew! Where to begin? The implicature, but not outright logical implication, of the sentence is that the Bible's doctrine of Creation (why is this capitalized?) is coherent. This is wrong for two reasons, starting with "the" and ending with "coherent". There are two creation stories in Genesis, and they are not consistent. So, you cannot say that there is one doctrine of creation. Even if you pick only the first one, the more coherent one, you've still not necessarily got a coherent account. For one thing, it's not an account of creation from nothing; it's an account of creation from a watery chaos. That ain't nothing! If I had a watery chaos at my command, there's no telling what I could do with it. But even putting aside the factual inaccuracies in the account, I'm not sure whether it is coherent to say that God created light before God created anything that could emit light. I suppose this is coherent in the strictest logical sense in that there is no contradiction in saying that there just is an ambient light in the universe that has no direct source. Not exactly likely, however.

I also take issue with the claim that Darwin's theory was the first alternative. If you are looking for accounts of creation that are at least as coherent as one of the Biblical narratives, you don't need science. You could look at any of a number of other myths. For example, the story of Atum's creation is at least as plausible as the Judeo-Christian story. Or you could suppose that chaotic matter could, over an infinite amount of time, come to form complex organisms. Not exactly likely, but more coherent than the Bible's accounts.

Moreover, Darwin's theory of natural selection is not a theory of how the cosmos came into existence. It's a theory of biological organisms, how they came to be as they are from other living organisms, and why they have the features they do. And, of course, Darwin's theory is not a dogma.

Mohler quotes Dawkins's memorable claim that before Darwin it was impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Then Mohler makes the mistake of trying to explain what Dawkins meant:

His point is clear and compelling. Prior to the development of the theory of evolution, there was no way for an atheist to settle on any clear argument for why the cosmos exists or why life forms appeared.

Again, he just doesn't seem to know what evolution is a theory of. It's not an explanation for why the cosmos exists. Why does he think this? Has he read even an introductory biology textbook?

Moving on, Mohler has to misrepresent some more atheists before he's reached his quota. This time it's Dennett:

Dennett is honest enough to recognize that if evolutionary theory is true, it must eventually offer an account of everything related to the question of life. Thus, evolution will have to explain every aspect of life, from how a species appeared to why a mother loves her child. Interestingly, he offers an argument for why humans have believed in the existence of God.

Look, I talked to Dennett just yesterday, and I'm sure he wouldn't say that evolution has to explain "everything related to the question of life". We need an explanation of the basic drives and capacities humans have, including why they love their children or why they love their mothers, but it doesn't need to explain why Mohler cannot even hire someone to get his basic research right. We need explanations of broad capacities in evolutionary terms, but historical contingency and the development of the organism in interaction with its environment can explain the vagaries of particular existents. I suppose I should let this one pass because he doesn't go on to butcher anything else based on it; all he does is butcher the next point:

As we might expect, the theory of evolution is used to explain that there must have been a time when belief in God was necessary in order for humans to have adequate confidence to reproduce. Clearly, Dennett believes that we should now have adequate confidence to reproduce without belief in God.

Seriously, I'd look into Dennett's actual view is on this if there were any way one could think that Dennett might have said something as idiotic as this. I think Mohler thinks that the only way for a capacity to evolve is if nothing can reproduce if it lacks that capacity. But if a capacity or tendency to think religiously could provide some selective advantage in the environment of our ancestors, then it could evolve even if atheists in the past could somehow soldier on and reproduce without that belief. I would have to read Mohler's mind to know why he thinks this has anything to do with confidence. How long would it take me to read that mind? Is it a dime novel or is it a William Burroughs "story" with pieces cut up and pasted together from other stories that actually made sense?

But it is not enough to distort Dennett's views. Mohler must continue to Sam Harris and distort his views as well. Mohler writes,

Sam Harris, also a scientist by training, is another ardent defender of evolutionary theory. Pushing the argument even further than Dawkins and Dennett, Harris has argued that belief in God is such a danger to human civilization that religious liberty should be denied in order that science might reign supreme as the intellectual foundation of human society.

Does Harris think that we should deny people the right to their religious beliefs? Only if teaching people sound reasoning and showing them why their reasons for belief are inadequate constitutes denying religious liberty. Harris says that one's belief in religion should give us reason to doubt their rationality overall, but he does not say that we should prevent people from practicing their religion or believing as they choose. (Sometimes, he thinks, we should stop people from acting on dangerous beliefs. Oh, noes! I cannot commit religiously inspired genocide! My freedom of religion is denied!) I looked this up on his wikipedia page in about five minutes. Does Mohler just make things up or does he have an infallible source feeding him this? Perhaps his criticisms are part of one of the more obscure works of the Old Testament because they don't seem to have much to do with anything Harris has written.

Since this farce has continued long enough, I will close with Mohler's last paragraph:

The New Atheists would have no coherent worldview without the Dogma of Darwinism. With it, they intend to malign belief in God and to marginalize Christians and Christian arguments. Thus, we can draw a straight line from the emergence of evolutionary theory to the resurgence of atheism in our times. Never underestimate the power of a bad idea.

Clearly belief in evolution is an important part of understanding why humans exist and why we have the qualities we have. And atheists do want to argue that Christians are wrong and that their arguments are inadequate. Is that maligning Christian arguments? Only if the New Atheist arguments are bad ones. Is New Atheism marginalizing Christians? Sure, anyone who continues to make claims of infallible knowledge on the basis of the writings of pre-agricultural, nomadic shepherds, then that person's words should be given special consideration before we accept them. It should go without saying that when your crazy uncle shows up claiming to have been abducted by aliens, you might look a little more closely at some of the other things he says.

Does Mohler have some reason to think the atheistic arguments are inadequate? If so, I wish he'd written down what's wrong with them (rather than with his fantasies about what he wishes they had said). But he's right, you should never underestimate the power of a bad idea. The bad idea Mohler believes in has gripped humanity for two millenia. Maybe soon we will outgrow it.

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