Thursday, March 17, 2011

Atheism and philosophy

TheEvangelicalLiberal is fairly stupid, and a liar very deeply mistaken, but his (?) recent post brings up some interesting issues.

First, the purely procedural. If you are going to criticize a philosophical point, it's really really useful to mention examples of the point, in the words of its proponents. Lib inveighs against "dogmatic philosophical Atheism", which he asserts "a priori rules the supernatural out of court, which is violently opposed to religious belief and which I think goes way beyond the reasonable grounds for not believing in God. To my mind this kind of Atheism – as practised by Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins and friends – is strangely akin to religious fundamentalism." When you're naming specific people and accusing them of violence it's especially important to take great pains to support your point with quotations and citations. Lib simply fails to do so; his slanders against Dawkins et al. are, while probably not malicious, definitely grossly negligent. [Update: Lib has since backed away from these assertions.] It is only his inability to cause them harm that shields him from legal action.

I really don't know any "dogmatic philosophical Atheists," as Lib describes them; not only do Dawkins et al. fail to show any of the features Lib accuses them of, I don't even know anyone like that on the fringes of atheism. Atheism is a big tent, and I suppose there must be someone like that, but one swallow does not a summer make. Again, without any sort of specific citation — other than the negligent mention of Dawkins, Hitchens and Atkins and... friends? WTF? — we have to see Lib as tearing down a straw man.

Lib makes additional mistakes. He fundamentally misunderstands the argument from the evils of the Biblical God: "To my mind the most ludicrous is the claim that the God of the Bible is a monster, as if character assassination could ever provide grounds for non-existence!" Nobody uses this argument as a primary means of proving God's existence. (Similarly, Hitler was a pretty nasty guy, but few skeptics doubt his reality.) This argument is used instead as a rebuttal to the argument that we should believe in the God of the Bible because of the moral status of Yahweh (as well as other primarily moral arguments (e.g. without God there is no morality). Not only is the inference fallacious, but the premise is patently false. It's no crime to point out multiple flaws in an argument.

It's ironic to the point of hypocrisy that later in the post Lib endorses the very same kind of argument that he ridicules in atheists: "I would argue that atheism – as a philosophy – offers less coherent grounds for such philanthropy and wonder at nature than theism." If "character assassination" is not a valid reason to infer the nonexistence of God, that it supports what we want to believe is not a valid reason to infer existence.

He seems to erroneously believe that skepticism is a belief formation mechanism, and chides some atheists (again, without quotation or citation) as well as theists for adopting atheism on a non-skeptical basis:
However, I suspect that most of us – religious believers and atheists alike – do not actually come to our beliefs for purely intellectual reasons in the first instance. It’s often only after we’ve adopted a position that we start to seek solid intellectual grounds to justify it; emotional, experiential and cultural factors often play a large part in initially adopting or rejecting a particular belief.
The primary statement is uncontroversial: some, perhaps many, atheists do indeed come to their beliefs for other than purely intellectual reasons. But so what? Skepticism is not a belief formation mechanism: it is a belief rejection mechanism. His phrasing ("we start to seek solid intellectual grounds to justify" a newly acquired belief) as well as the juxtaposition of the quoted passage with the rant against dogmatic philosophical Atheists seems to imply that once a belief is acquired, all we do is try to support it.

But skepticism is just not like that. It's really irrelevant how we come to a belief. What's important to a skeptic is to examine one's beliefs, hypotheses, guesses, biases, etc. against reason, logic and evidence and reject or modify what doesn't fit. Indeed most atheists who have come from religious background simply applied skepticism to their notions of God; when those notions failed the test of reason and they rejected their belief in God, atheism was what was left: literally the absence of a positive cognitive belief in God.

I'm a closer example of what Lib is talking about. I more or less drifted into atheism, by virtue of a mostly "apatheist" upbringing. I wasn't raised as an atheist per se; when I was growing up, rather, the topic of religion just didn't come up in any meaningful and significant way. When I started actually being interested in the topic, however, I subjected my beliefs (or lack thereof) and number of alternative propositions to critical scrutiny. I can't claim it was entirely neutral; I am, like everyone else, biased to some extent by my intuitive or unexamined assumptions. On the other hand I have changed many of my beliefs on critical examination of the evidence (I'm now a communist, for example, having formerly been a liberal Democrat) so I can change my mind. And basically, the alternative propositions didn't even come close to satisfying critical scrutiny. Even conspiracy theorists, 9-11 truthers and UFO nuts have better, more eyebrow-raising evidence than theists, especially Christians.

Finally, Lib gives us a preview of his argument: atheism is OK, agnosticism is better, theism is best. Aside from the ridiculously fallacious argument mentioned above, I predict Lib will follow the tired old schema: We cannot be certain of atheism, so we must be agnostic. But if we're agnostic, we should use the evidence to come to the best conclusion. Since we have already eliminated atheism, the only possible conclusion is the existence of God. Stated so baldly, the fallacy (fallacy seems such a weak word to describe this kind of intellectual dishonest) is obvious.

I'm an atheist because my best critical examination of logic, evidence and philosophical argumentation leads me to believe that at best no god exists and at worst the concept of god is incoherent or infantile. I'm an anti-religious atheist in no small part because theists who attempt philosophy, even the professionals, botch the job so thoroughly that they constitute a clear and present danger to intellectual integrity and competence. Even though they are probably sincerely doing their best, their incompetence makes us all a little bit stupider.

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