Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Deeper" atheism

Over at Friendly Atheist, Pastor Mike Clawson promotes theologian Dr. John Haught's book God and the New Atheism. Clawson endorses Haught's criticism of the New Atheists for not being sufficiently "deep",
that their contemporary brand of anti-theism is not nearly as deep or as challenging as that of past generations, for instance the great atheist-existentialist thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus, and thus presents little challenge to the more noteworthy theologians of our own time.
The problem with Haught's Clawson's criticism is that there is no "deeper" position for atheists to address. Yes, modern atheists are recycling Enlightenment arguments against god because Hume nailed the case in the 18th century and (perhaps other than evolution, although Hume nailed even the argument from design) there's been nothing new and interesting since then.

The "great atheist-existentialist thinkers" Clawson mentions were primarily existentialist thinkers who happened to be atheists; existentialism has only an indirect connection to atheism. (And identifying Nietzsche as an "existentialist" stretches the boundaries of the term.) It's worth noting that Nietzsche, Sartre or Camus themselves added nothing to Hume's refutation of apologetics. These thinkers essentially asked, "OK, God is dead, we can't console ourselves with fairy tales any more, what now?"

Atheists, as slut mentions, are not typically interested in theology; they're interested in apologetics. What little post-enlightenment apologetics we've seen (e.g. Plantigna Plantinga*, Van Til, Swinburne) is such utter bullshit that it's barely escaped the halls of academic philosophy and has found almost no traction whatsoever in the general population of theists, much less atheists. Go on any message board or blog — theistic or nontheistic — which features actual apologetics and you'll get the same arguments, almost in the same order: First Cause, Pascal's Wager, Paley's Watch, and then, "You're not being sincere; if you were sincere you'd be a believer by now."

*I seem to have a persistent mental block about spelling his name correctly.

No prominent atheist has ever claimed that each and every religious person is a violent fundamentalist, so the observation that there are theologies that are not violent or fundamentalist is of no relevance. The actual claim is that violent fundamentalism requires anti-skeptical, authoritarian thinking, and the world's religions (as well as some nontheistic philosophies) all promote that sort of thought. In just the same sense, just the fact that some people, even a lot of people, can remain asymptomatic when infected with some organism does not argue against the germ theory of disease.

The further claim, made explicitly by Harris and implied by Dawkins and Hitchens (Dennett barely condemns religion at all) is that the moderate religious provide intellectual and political cover for the violent fundamentalists. By supplying an irrelevant, fallacious arguments to protect the violent fundamentalists from prominent atheists' explicitly targeted and well-supported criticism, Clawson and Haught are both doing precisely what Harris explicitly condemns.

Has Haught written any books drawing upon theologians such as Tillich, Bultmann, Ricoeur, McFague and Pannenberg explicitly to refute some of the fundamentalists' claims? (That's not a rhetorical question; I don't pay much attention to the intramural disputes of fairy-tale believers.) If so good for him, but I'll have to see it to believe it.

Clemson descends to sixth-grade trash talk:
I honestly can’t see Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens going toe to toe with the likes of NT Wright, Nick Wolterstorff, Miroslav Volf, Jack Caputo, Walter Bruggeman or even John Haught.
Who cares what Clawson (an obviously biased party) can and cannot "see"? We're interested in what he can argue.

Have all the authors Clemson mentions together sold a tenth as many books as the fewest of Dawkins, Harris or Hitchens alone? I could just as easily say I can't see the Pope going toe to toe with me, or Hemant or the sacred slut, or even PZ Myers. So what?

Are these authors apologists? If they're theologians, why should any atheist go toe to toe with them? We freely admit we have no skill whatsoever in fraud, bullshit, mendacity and reconciling the mythology of barely literate savages with a modern humanistic ethic. If we're going to talk about theology, then yes, we cannot compete.

In apologetics, I could take all of these guys on at once, with three beers in me just to give them a sporting chance. I'd take Clawson on himself, but if I drank enough alcohol to give him a chance I'd be unconscious, which makes for a rather boring debate.


  1. Nicely done, Larry! I tried to get Clawson to see reason a year ago around Easter. You can look the thread up on Friendly Atheist.

    The problem with Clawson is that like most theists, he refuses to acknowledge when he's gotten himself into an intellectual corner. He just maneuvers his way out with more rhetoric and continues merrily on his way. Worse, he actually thinks he's being perfectly reasonable while doing it. It figures he'd be defending Haught. These guys get all excited when they think someone on their team has scored some points.

    Clawson doesn't know when he's been beaten in a debate, so I don't see what would change if you were unconscious.

  2. How in the hell are atheists supposed to argue with theologians anyways? Theologians accept certain things as axiomatic that are complete antitheses to atheists. If you have to accept crap like idolatry in order to play the game, you're being asked to play a rigged game!

  3. that their contemporary brand of anti-theism is not nearly as deep or as challenging as that of past generations,

    Why should I go to the trouble of getting deep? When my shallowest argument is still a win?

  4. Samuel Skinner
    Atheists sort of have a problem debating theology. Theology is the study of God and atheists don't believe in God. Of course, some more imaginative people can pull it off- but mostly it bogs down in contradictions.

    It is like treating Star Trek if it was real- the crew is so brain dead it defies suspension of disbelief.

  5. It is like treating Star Trek if it was real- the crew is so brain dead it defies suspension of disbelief.

    If Star Trek were real, all the red-shirted ensigns would have turned their phasers on Captain Kirk long ago.

    End dorkiness.

  6. Bravo, BB. You really ripped Mike. He deserved it. His post was totally offensive.

    For some reason, Xians just don't seem to get this. Does Clawson have to study Islam and Hinduism in depth to determine that they are false? I'm pretty sure he hasn't. I'd guess that he's probably read enough superficially to recognize them for myths that he feels comfortable rejecting.

    The problem, as you noted, is that these Xian philosophers, apologists, etc. universally start with the assumption that Christianity is true and that the Christian God exists. There's really not much point in going there, however "sophisticated" the discussion may appear. They all boil down to the same bottom line.

    And I'll be glad to go toe to toe with the Pope anytime. Fuck debating. I'd love to take a swing at that old pedophile protecting Nazi.

  7. Samuel Skinner
    No, James- they wouldn't have killed Kirk. Janeway on the other hand would probably have a mutiny on the first epissode. (You standed us 22 years away from home?!? Why the hell didn't you use a TIMER?) Sorry- I have been on


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