Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Atheism and "faith"

Sigh... It's really depressing. Yet again, someone raises an argument that's been raised and rebutted at least twelve years ago (when I started discussing religion on the Internet) and probably much earlier. And it's such a stupid argument, one that is easily dismissed. In his essay, "Atheists and the F-Word," David Lose redefines "faith" as something unobjectionable, outside the realm of what atheists criticize, and uses this redefinition to criticize atheists. Lose wants us to take a "broader view of faith." Our values, according to Lose, are not empirical facts, nor can they be scientifically proven from the facts; therefore we hold our values by faith: "Any construction of a system of values demands at least a modicum of faith, the assertion of and belief in some grounding principles that cannot be objectively and rationally established." As a philosopher, I would dispute Lose's construction — objectivity is gratuitous; we can rationally establish subjective truths, truths about our own minds — but as a New Atheist, I say that even if Lose were entirely correct, he is talking about a topic that has nothing to do with the New Atheist critique of religion and faith.

The title of the essay, referring to "faith" as "the F-Word", gives us a clue as to where Lose goes wrong. Atheists are not against words, we are against specific ideas. Like most people who use natural language, we use words to denote ideas; like most people who use natural language, we understand that words are equivocal: they can denote many different ideas. The argument where different senses of a word are used in different places to construct an invalid argument is so common it has its own name: the fallacy of four terms. Lose's essay does nothing more than expand this fallacy to an entire essay.

Indeed, the sort of faith New Atheist writers argue against is opposite to Lose's construction. We do not argue against values that cannot be "objectively and rationally established." We argue against the idea that values can be objectively and rationally established by grounding them in a supernatural deity, either directly or indirectly through scripture. Some atheists argue that values, even fundamental values, can indeed be objectively and rationally established without a supernatural deity; some atheists, such as myself, argue that values are subjective facts, facts about minds, that are directly perceptible through introspection, and that social ethical systems are the result of negotiation, compromise, and persuasion among individuals who have values. We are united, however, in believing that it is illegitimate and irrational to ground or substantiate any values, good or bad, in the properties, character, or opinions of supernatural deities.

Critics of atheism and the New Atheists seem unable or unwilling to engage the fundamental New Atheist argument, an argument made so often, in so many different ways, that the failure is simply astonishing. Our argument is simple: there is no God, so trying to attach anything to this delusional fantasy is a Bad Idea. We do not argue against everything that has been attached to the delusional fantasy; if Lose wants to attach good humanistic values to his idea of God, we're not going to object to the values. We will, however, say not only that you don't need to attach these ideas to God, but also that attaching them to God undermines the critique of people who attach bad ideas to God. We argue against the attachment itself, not what is attached.

Lose's essay is one reason atheists tend to employ mockery and derision. Lose's fallacy is obvious, hoary, oft-repeated and oft-refuted. Indeed, every critique of atheism and the New Atheists I read is just as intellectually bankrupt, at best based on common, obvious fallacies and at worst packed full of lies and bullshit. Religious apologists and excuse-makers seem to be willing to say anything, however obviously fallacious; their goal seems to be simply to throw everything at the wall, over and over, and hope something sticks. What they cannot achieve by rationality they hope to attain through sheer bloody-minded persistence. The religious appear to be impervious to reason, so I despair that an intellectual, elevated, refined, or dispassionate conversation can even begin to address the problem of religion, one of the most pervasive root causes of evil in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article.
    The repetition of the faithful is the thing I hate the most. They seem to think that if they wait a few minutes and then say the same thing you've just addressed that the meaning has somehow changed. How does that work?

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