Monday, April 30, 2012

Why all the bad philosophy?

The article in Psychology Today, which I'm informed, perhaps unreliably, hardly stands as a bastion of careful, logical thought. So perhaps that might explain why Dr. Steven Reiss's article, "Why All the Atheists?," displays such a profound misunderstanding of atheism.

Reiss starts by previewing his upcoming book, How God Inspires Us: Religion, Personality, and the Contradictions of Human Nature. In this book, Reiss promises that he will "suggest that religion's sacred role in society is to help people experience their life as meaningful." Because Reiss sees religion in this way, however, he goes on to assume that atheism, in setting itself up in opposition to religion, must therefore take the opposite view. "Meaning arises from purpose," Reiss asserts, and a "true" atheist, according to Reiss, is one who rejects any meaning or purpose for life: "Is the meaning of life real or an illusion? Does your life have meaning? If you say 'yes,' you are a believer. If you say 'no,' you are a true atheist."

Curiously, however, Reiss undermines his own point. Instead of showing us how atheists actually do reject real meaning, he makes two dubious criticisms of atheism. First, he claims, without support, that atheists oppose a straw man, and fail to explain mysticism. "Many atheists think the word 'god' refers to a grandfather in the sky looking down on us. They then reject this god. What they do not do is explain mystical experience, which many serious scholars take as the true origin of religion."

He then goes on to complain he does not understand why the atheist agenda promotes some sort of intuitive/analytical dichotomy. "It is claimed that religious people are presumably not analytical. I don't understand the point." He even quotes (without attribution) the claim that "smart people are atheists." Reiss does not believe that claiming a positive correlation between intelligence and atheism is insulting and does not provide insight.

While these might be interesting claims, even if they were precisely true, they utterly fail to support his thesis, that the debate really is between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. But are these points true?

First, it is ever the claim of atheists that large numbers of theists define a god as what is in essence a "grandfather in the sky," indeed what often seems a malevolent and sometimes insane grandfather. We atheists are simply responding to that conception of a god. If Reiss wants to dismiss this claim as a misreading of any kind of religious thought, then let him do more than simply mention that it fails to address how he himself views religious thought.

Second, I vaguely recall reading about some study that measured analytical and intuitive thought compared between religious and nonreligious people. Since I have not examined this study at all, much less in detail, I'm unable to offer an opinion about its conclusions or the quality of its methodology. But so what? If Reiss refers to this study, it is incompetent and dishonest to attribute the opinions of specific individuals to a group; it is proper to name the individuals and criticize them directly. If Reiss is not referring to that study, then his charge without support is reprehensible.

Finally, Reiss charges that atheists fail to explain mysticism. But what, precisely, is to be explained? Yay, William James was "a Harvard professor and a brilliant observer of human behavior." So what? Brilliant people are wrong, albeit brilliantly wrong, perhaps more often than mundane people. To see the world in a new way requires genius; to determine whether that new way is accurate, or to understand what that "new way" actually means requires more mundane critical thought. Simply accepting statements of truth at face value ignores half the intellectual work that always needs to be done.

Furthermore, there's a curious contradiction in Reiss's piece. On the one hand, he makes a sharp distinction between theism, which is about meaning, and science, which is about cause and effect: "The theist holds that life has meaning, and that science, based as it is on cause and effect, cannot explain meaning." Yet he charges that atheists have failed to explain something other than meaning; we have failed to explain "mystical experience." If Reiss does not believe that mystical experience provides scientific support for a theistic meaning, then atheists would not fail to explain mystical experience; we would simply fail to include meaning in our explanation. After all, Reiss does not say that atheists (scientists) have failed to explain mundane experiences, such as seeing things fall, even though we have not included any sort of "meaning" in our explanations. If Reiss does believe that mystical experience provides scientific support for theistic meaning, then he would not draw the sharp dichotomy between theism and science. Reiss seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Of course, atheists do not deny meaning; we merely deny that meaning is supernatural. Meaning and purpose are definitely present, but they are entirely human. The project of humanity is not to discover some meaning that is "out there", presumably in Reiss's opinion in the mind of a god. Our project, rather, is to create meaning, create purpose. Yes, science cannot discuss meaning, because every particular conception meaning is neither "true" nor "false"; it is neither an accurate nor an inaccurate description of objective reality. But just because it a particular meaning is not a representation of the world as it is does not make it without value.

Indeed, the atheist project is not against meaning, but against the claims that specific, particular meanings are supernaturally privileged. We are against the idea that, "My idea of meaning is better than yours because God says so," and we are against the "because God says so" part. (We do support the idea that some ideas of meaning are better than others, but on the basis of how well they conform to our scientific, sociological, political, and (ironically) psychological understanding of human minds.

If Reiss wants to promulgate a particular theory of religion, then do so: he should expect that criticism be addressed to him discuss his theory of religion. But by making the implicit claim that anyone criticizing religion in any way is necessarily criticizing his particular kind of religion, and by writing unsourced, straw-man slanders against atheists as a class, Reiss displays himself as incompetent and dishonest.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Some people say

I really dislike the Fox News "some people say" move. It's almost always illegitimate. In the typical Fox News sense, it's used to introduce a criticism of a point of view without having to specify the details of that criticism. To paraphrase the probably apocryphal Lyndon Johnson story, The point is not that anyone believes one's opponent is a pig fucker; the point is make him deny it. In another sense, it can be used to ascribe to an opponent a position that is at best in the minority, and at worst is a complete straw man. In essence, the "some people say" is a classic framing device.

Like any device, it can be used legitimately. If it really is uncontroversial common knowledge that a position is widely and explicitly held, then "some people say" can be used simply to provide context for an argument. "Some atheists say," one might note, "that no god exists." Or, "Some Christians say that Jesus is the son of God." Another legitimate use is to simply introduce a specific argument. "Some philosophers argue," for example, "that ideas are the highest reality."

But even when the use is technically legitimate, however, there are better ways to use it legitimately, ways that do not facilitate dishonest framing or blatant straw men. So when I see "Some atheists say," I usually whip out my bullshit meter, and I'm rarely disappointed.

If philosophy has any value at all, it is the investigation, use, and promotion of good argumentation. One reason I dislike philosophy is that good argumentation seems to be not the rule but the exception. In "Common Atheist Mistakes," Luke Muehlhauser constructs a criticism of atheism that consists of nothing but logical fallacies, all introduced with the "some people say" fallacy noted above.

First, Muehlhauser asserts that "Religion is not the root of all evil, but some atheists like to think it is." The assertion that some atheists actually do think religion is the root of all evil of course requires support. But Muehlhauser's support is deceptive. First, he cites Richard Dawkins' documentary, The Root of all Evil?. However, Muehlhauser buries in a footnote the concession that Dawkins himself denies the absolutist sense that Muehlhauser criticizes:
To be fair: in an interview with Reginald Finley, Dawkins said that he wanted to call it The God Delusion, and that "no one thing is the root of 'all' anything; religion is not the root of all evil." Still, many atheists think all or most evil comes from a single source: religion. To me that is absurd.
Muehlhauser is intentionally using the denial of a position to support his assertion that the position is common. We can count this only as intentional dishonesty.

One instance of obviously intentional dishonesty is enough to discredit not only the writer but also the publisher as unreliable, but I enjoy piling up the score against liars. So I'll continue to highlight the complete vacuity of Muehlhauser's argument.

Muehlhauser then tries to support his assertion that atheists believe that religion is the root of all evil by appealing to the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens' book, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. We should hold self-styled philosophers, even amateur philosophers, to a pretty high standard of logical validity. And of course, the idea that "religion poisons everything" is logically different from the idea that "religion is the root of all evil.*" A logical fallacy is a logical fallacy, and as Muehlhauser is nitpicking atheist claims, it's hardly unfair to nitpick his.

*If you need help with the logic, as in comments; I'll be happy to explain in detail. But my readers are usually more competent in simple logic than Mr. Muehlhauser.

Additionally, Muehlhauser commits the fallacy of uncharitable interpretation. A more charitable way to read Hitchens' title would be to read it as, "Religion poisons everything [it touches]," which would render invalid Muehlhauser's trivial criticism that religion has not poisoned math, Renaissance art, sailing, or hats. And even his argument against the uncharitable interpretation is just an argument from incredulity: Muehlhauser simply finds it "hard to believe that religion poisons everything."

What is especially irritating is that a lot of atheists really do make a strong claim, a claim that deserves serious critical examination: religion is absolutely useless. Religion per se gives us nothing good; anything good that happens to be somehow attached to religion would always be at least just as good, and usually better, without the religious part. In his haste to commit the fallacy of uncharitable interpretation, Muehlhauser misses a chance to make an actual substantive contribution to the discussion.

Wow... a lot of fallacies in just one paragraph. But the fallacies continue.

Muehlhauser's next claim is that atheists use myths as facts. He cites specific atheists claims: atheists comprise less that 1% of the prison population, in contrast with 10% of the general population; that "Muslims destroyed the library of Alexandria"; and that "the idea of Jesus as God did not arise until 300 years after Jesus’ death. at the Council of Nicea."

Muehlhauser might well be factually correct on the second two points; if so, certainly no one should use these arguments.

First, I at least skim a fairly large sample of atheist writing, and I rarely see any of these elements in atheist writing. I could be wrong, but Muehlhauser makes no effort at all to establish that these errors occur with enough frequency to constitute a common atheist mistake. Again, it seems dishonest to call a criticism of a few historically naive commenters as a common mistake.

More importantly, we have to be very careful to distinguish between people taking one or another position on a controversial topic with intentionally ignoring evidence from bias. Intellectual inquiry is a social process, and we have to look at any difficult issue from many sides to come to agreement about the truth. Muehlhauser fails to make this distinction. According to Muehlhauser:
Every people group retells history in a way that favors itself. Liberals and conservatives, socialists and anarchists, Christians and Buddhists, hockey fans and NASCAR nuts – we all have some myths that make us look good. Atheists are no exception.
Clearly, Muehlhauser is going beyond the give-and-take of controversial intellectual inquiry. But is this position justified?

Muehlhauser charges that atheists' assertion that atheists comprise 1% of prison population is "either made up or based on a questionable 1925 study." But a quick Google search reveals, for example, Percentage of atheists, which cites a 1997 study by Denise Golumbaski of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. What's worse, Muehlhauser asserts that atheists are more or less obviously wrong, the "truth", according to Muehlhauser, is found in this study, Prison Incarceration and Religious Preference. The problem is that Muehlhauser's "truth" is a non-peer-reviewed study published by an obviously biased source,, hardly proof positive. The issues regarding Muslims burning the Library of Alexandria and the divinity of Jesus are similar: these are controversial claims, with intellectuals exploring all sides of the issue. I'm not saying that Muehlhauser is necessarily wrong, but saying that one side of an unresolved controversy is evidence of bias is again prejudicial and dishonest.

This article is getting long, so I'll cover Muehlhauser's remaining errors briefly. First, he accuses atheists of "bad scholarship" in calling the Hebrew word elohim a plural. This is such a narrow, technical issue of Biblical scholarship that calling it a "common" atheist error is simply ridiculous. Muehlhauser weighs in calling assertions that the Jesus stories are unfairly compared to other myths "simply false. [emphasis original]" But parallels are definitely a live controversy in academic scholarship, as historian Dr. Richard Carrier has been recently discussing on his blog. And finally, Muehlhauser condemns atheists' "dogmatic materialism" without offering any evidence whatsoever that this is a common theme.

Just because one disagrees does not mean that they are stupid, lazy, or dishonest. But using egregiously bad argumentation, unsourced assertions, faulty logic, and unjust pejoration does make Muehlhauser stupid, lazy and dishonest.

Friday, April 27, 2012

You stupid douchenozzle. You truly don't fucking get it, do you? You poor motherfucker. You're gonna miss everything cool and die angry.

— Patton Oswalt

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (burden of proof edition)

the stupid! it burns! Unveiling Atheism

Mohamed Ghilan tells us that John Stewart Mill argued that "In circumstances in which the great majority hold a belief of any kind, what the dissenting voice must do is bring forth their case and prove it." Ghilan concludes, therefore, "The proposition that the believer must provide evidence for God, and until then we should remain either atheists or agnostic is problematic when we have had, since the beginning of history records, humans having engaged in some form of religious rituals and having acknowledged the existence of God."

Sigh. I so hate to belabor the obvious.

The atheist program is precisely to bring forth our case and prove it. One element of our case is that the existence of God, when considered as a neutral proposition, outside its social context, is a positive assertion that demands the burden of proof.

Furthermore, atheists really don't much care about the purely private beliefs of others; what we do care about is the positive religious assault on science, law, and secularism. The religious themselves are dissenting to the beliefs of a great majority, and we demand their burden of proof. God wants us to subjugate women, oppress and marginalize gays, keep the races separate? All these positions, at least in the United States, dissent from beliefs that are if not in the great majority at least widely held.

When it comes to the issue of evidence, it seems to be a word that is used in an unrestricted fashion by atheists to support their final conclusions. If anything, this reflects either a simpleton mind, or an ulterior motive driving atheists. The broad term “evidence” is defined as a body of information that points towards the validity of a claim. However, because there are several types of evidence, we cannot simply make the broad request of anyone to provide “evidence”. Depending on the matter at hand, we must define the type of evidence we need in order to be convinced. At the very least, we should qualify whether we want direct evidence, or can be persuaded by indirect evidence if it is strong enough.

The sentences are grammatically correct, but there's no actual meaning there.

Can any evidence, irrespective of type, be sufficient to prove that God exists? It would seem that from the atheist perspective the answer to this question is a simple “No”. Regardless of what type of evidence they are provided with, atheists will always have some response to it, which can be frustrating to the believer as they list all the reasons why a belief in God is actually the more rational position to hold. The problem is not with the evidence from an empirical sense. The problem is with the rationalization process that comes after being presented with the evidence, which leads us into a discussion about the nature of knowledge, which we can address elsewhere. [emphasis added]

Ah. "Elsewhere." Short for, I think, nowhere.

Evidence must be examined. That's why we have two advocates at a trial. If you think your evidence is being unfairly dismissed, you should provide evidence for such a claim.

The interesting question for the science-worshipping atheist to answer is whether it is about the belief in God, or the consequences of believing in God that are a problem. In other words, is it a matter of acknowledging God’s existence, or a matter of acknowledging what it means to their life after acknowledging God’s existence?

It's the former.

Moreover, what these science-worshipping atheists failed to recognize is that in their rejection of God, they have taken their own egos to be gods and became autodeists. Now they are organizing to form their own brand of religion full of moral theory and even practices, which they began to call people to so they can be “saved”. How ironic?


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sacking the City of God

It's interesting to contrast PZ Myers upcoming speech, "Sacking the City of God," with timberwraith's recent diatribes against atheism: Agnostic and A Movement of Disappointment.

It's hard to see Myers speech as anything but precisely that which timberwraith finds objectionable about atheism. From the title to the conclusion:
I have a different metaphor for us, my brothers and sisters in atheism. We are not sheep; there are no shepherds here. I look out from this stage and I see 4000 pairs of hunter’s eyes, 4000 hunter’s minds, 4000 pairs of hunter’s hands. I see the primeval primate hunting band grown large and strong. I see us so confident in our strength that we laugh at our enemies. I see a people thinking and planning, fierce and focused, learning and building new tools to conquer new worlds.

You are not sheep. You, my brothers and sisters in atheism, are a fierce, coordinated hunting pack — men and women working together, and those other bastards have cause to fear us. So let’s do it: make them tremble as we demolish the city of god.
Myers exudes confidence, even perhaps arrogance. We are right, we atheists, and we know we're right, and being right gives us power. It's the power to demolish the "City of God," the edifice of superstition, the idea that we can privilege this or that moral or even scientific belief, good or bad, by an appeal to private knowledge of the mind of God.

Instead, we know we can learn about the universe, of which the human mind and the human "spirit" are fully a part, and we can use that knowledge to make a better life, not just for those who hold the same arbitrary superstitions out of tribal identity, but for everyone, for only reason and knowledge are truly universal. And since we can do so, we must do so: to remain silent is to sit idly by while a fellow human being drowns; to protect religion from criticism and, yes, mockery, is block others from rescuing the drowning man.

Contrast this with the core of timberwraith's diatribe:
I am one small person, facing the inscrutable vastness of a universe that is beyond my full comprehension. What I see is nothing more than a window’s breadth of existence. I can not say with certainty that no aspect of this realm is aware in a way that is beyond human understanding. Nor can I claim with certainty that such an awareness exists.
Timberwraith frames her position around certainty, but that's just a cop-out. One does not need certainty to know, and atheists do not claim certainty. We do claim knowledge, so it must be the knowledge she claims we have only pretension to. She accuses us not of unjustified certitude but actual ignorance and blindness. Timberwraith does not seem to like knowledge: "And so, I prefer the unknown. I walk through a land without boundaries. I cast my destiny into the void of formlessness…"

In a sense, she's absolutely correct: what she doesn't like about atheism is not just a few "bad apples" but what atheism (and New Atheism even more so) is all about.

Like the religious, atheism has a moral vision, a vision of things ought to be, not just for ourselves as individuals, but for society as a whole. Like the religious, we claim to know our moral vision is correct. Like the religious, we are willing and able to use social tools to bring about that moral vision. If you want to tell me that there are some deep similarities between the religious and atheists, especially the New Atheists, I will happily admit the similarity.

But similarity is not identity. We are the same in many ways, but there is a crucial difference: when we claim to know, we claim to know not by private faith or authority but by public reason. When we, as humanists, say our moral vision is that everyone ought to be as happy as we can manage to be, we say that because we know by reason that people want to be happy. When we say that men and women, Black people and white people, gay people and straight people, ought to be treated the same, it's because we know by reason that there are no morally relevant differences between these categories. Those who say there are differences rely on either outright lies or unreasonable, irrational bullshit.

Timberwraith has a moral vision too, I think. It's hard to say what it is, but she must have one because she does not say merely that atheism is not her cup of tea; we are wrong and bad. You have to have a moral vision to make that kind of distinction. And she's willing and able to use social tools — mockery, insult, appeals to emotion, a condemnation of ideas that are at the core of many people's identity — to promote her moral vision. Good for her: she is a human being, and having and promoting a moral vision is what people do.

I can't know, but I can speculate, and I suspect timberwraith's moral vision is a deep abhorrence of conflict. What seems to incense the soi-disant "moderate" critics of New Atheism is just that: we have abandoned our bland "why can't we all just get along" secularism and embraced the conflict as a conflict, and we intend to win. We have abandoned the mode of "let us reason together" because we know that religious belief is unreasonable; we would rather embrace conflict than unreason.

If that's not your moral vision, you must, like timberwraith, set yourself at odds with atheism and the New Atheists. If it is, though, if you want a reasonable society, you should join us.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Stupid! It Burns! (the show about nothing edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheism: Much Ado About Nothing :
The atheist convention is quite odd in many respects. They will insist that atheism is not a belief to be proved, but a non-belief. They will argue that they simply do not believe in God – so there is nothing to prove, nothing to argue for. Yet they will have a full three days celebrating this. They will be carrying on about nothing.

All this raises the obvious question: why bother? Why spend so much time, money and effort on, well, nothing? We recall that the hit TV show Seinfeld was “a show about nothing”. But these international atheist shindigs seem to be simply much bigger versions of shows about nothing.

The Stupid! It Burns! (no good atheists edition)

the stupid! it burns! No Good Atheists:
There are actually no good atheists. ...

If you could look into the secret places of many of [atheists'] lives, I’m sure you would see a pattern of behavior that is far from moral. ...

Atheism is actually a form of idolatry. The idol in this case is man himself. ...

I would argue that there is no such thing as an atheist. Atheists demonstrate the highest form of deception and hypocrisy, denying outwardly what they cannot avoid inwardly. Years ago when I was an atheist, I thought about God all the time. I couldn’t get away from the overwhelming evidence, both inwardly and outwardly, that my Creator existed. It’s the same with all atheists. ...

Think about it—what could be more immoral than denying the existence of the being who created you, gives you health and food and opportunity, and even the very breath you use to deny his existence? ...

The next time an atheist says, “You don’t have to believe in God to be moral,” look at it as an open door to share the gospel. Tell him he can’t be moral at all and deny the existence of his Creator. Walk him through the arguments I’ve given in this article and the Bible passages I listed. And then tell him about the work of Jesus Christ on the cross on his behalf.