I was reflecting on the “Rally to Restore Sanity” that came to D.C. this past weekend. I went to the rally, just to see what it was like, and because my old roommate came in from Philly to see it. The thing I was struck by is that while there were a lot of great people there, there were also a ton of totally insane people smugly asserting their superiority to conservatives because they were the sane ones (since anyone holding a separate political view must be insane). The Daily Caller noted in its liveblog of the event that “Stewart and Colbert encouraged attendees to bring signs with slogans such as ‘Real patriots can handle a difference in opinion,’” and wryly replied, “And if you think it’s insulting for these guys to assume that you can’t handle a dissenting opinion just because you disagree with it, you must be crazy. ”
Atheists, as a group, tend to act the same way: smugly asserting their superiority over theists whose arguments they don’t understand. The number of atheists attached with a movement to try and get everyone else to declare them the “Brights” should be embarassing to their fellow atheists. What makes it worse is that virtually none of the leading lights of modern atheism have a strong grip on logic (formal or otherwise), and make embarassingly silly arguments. Here are three popular ones I find intellectually grating:
Alan Bromwell puts the argument succinctly from an atheist perspective:
“Very few atheists make any knowledge claim whatsoever. Positive propositions require substantiation, and negative claims follow without proof from a lack of substantiation. It is no more a knowledge claim for me to decline to presuppose the existence of a deity than it is for me to decline to presuppose the existence of a celestial being who proofreads Mr. Enns’ articles. We need not disprove the presence of agents for whose preexistence no falsifiable indication exists. This is a simple point. Believers have the burden of proof, no matter how much they may whine about it.”
This is half-right: believers do have a burden to make the case for God: 1 Peter 3:15-16 tells us as much. But atheists also have the burden of proof when they state the conclusion that there is no God: a reasonable conclusion needs some evidentiary support, or it’s just sheer blind faith, of the kind they purport to hate. Bromwell is free to “decline to presuppose” the existence of God, fair enough. But he actively rejects as untrue the existence of God, which is a radically different thing. Instead of a celestial being, let’s take the proposition “Mr. Enns has a dog.” I have literally no idea is this is true. For me to declare “he does has a dog” should be on the basis of some reason or evidence. But so should the claim “he doesn’t have a dog!”
Likewise, the statement “I see no evidence to support the existence of God” is a negative assumption that requires no burden of proof. But when atheists (as they routinely do) go beyond this, and declare “there is no God,” they’re making a positive claim, and that does require evidence.
I was amused by this argument, before I discovered atheists took it seriously. Here’s John Loftus’ version:
There are many religious faiths from which to choose. How does one actually choose to be on the “inside” of any of them if from the “outside” none of them have any plausibility? Unless one is on the inside as an adherent of a particular religious faith, she cannot see. But from the outside, the adherents of a different faith seem blind. This reminds me of what Mark Twain said: “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.” Believers are truly atheists with regard to all other religions but their own. Atheists just reject one more religion.
You might as well say that if there’s a dispute over paternity, that the most logical conclusion is that the child was the product of a virgin birth (after all, this rejects only one more candidate than all the other theories, right?). Now, I don’t think that it’s true that all religions other than Catholicism have no plausibility, so this is starting from a grostesquely distorted premise. From a Catholic perspective, we might say that Eastern Orthodoxy is very nearly right; Protestantism, slightly less so; Judaism, less so still; and Islam, a bit behind that. But while there are errors, distortions, and mistakes in these non-Catholic faiths, there’s also a lot of truth or at least coherence (that is, even if we think it starts from a bad assumption, we can see how the pieces interlock). If a religion were thoroughly false or incoherent, it’s unlikely it’d ever catch on. But I’ll go ahead and adopt this (wrong) starting point, to show that the conclusion Loftus is drawing is still absurd.
Let’s take this one by analogy. There are many theories as to the JFK assassination. and most of these are pretty absurd. There’s the mainstream Warren Commission view, deried by its opponents as the “magic bullet theory,” and then there are a whole slew of other theories. Believers in the Warren Commission’s findings think that the conspiracy nuts are, well, nuts. But the belivers in the various conspiracy theories think both that the other conspiracists are nuts, and that the believers in the Warren Commission are nuts (hence the nickname “magic bullet theory” for the Warren camp’s view). That’s, more or less, what Loftus thinks we religious are like. But then he asserts that since to him, all the explainations he’s heard are false, that there must be no God at all, that the universe and all of its physical laws must have simply gone from non-existence into existence. This is the equivalent of the so-called “No Bullet Theory” from the movie The Wrong Guy, in which a creepy loner (played by Enrico Colantoni) asks a hitchhiker he picked up (Dave Foley):
Colantoni: “Do you know how many gunmen it took to kill Kennedy?”
Colantoni: ” Nope. There were no gunmen at all. His head just did that. I call it the “No Bullet theory.”
Now it’s true that Colantoni rejects just one more theory about the identity of the gunmen than Foley, just as Loftus rejects just one more theory about the identity of God than I do. But that argument is facile. In reality, Loftus and Colantoni both have to posit that an event (the creation of the universe, or the assassination of JFK) occurred simply without a cause: that the physics were just weird. If anything, Colantoni’s theory is actually less crazy, because Loftus requires us to assume that there were physics before the existence of the universe.
Sam Harris, as many of you know, wrote The End of Faith, in which he rails against religion, because of its allegedly violent tendencies. But in one of the book reviews he highlights on his own site, you quickly see how absurd the argument is:
What about Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and other atheist mass murderers? Harris encourages us to think of communism and fascism as religion-like cults, making the case that intolerance is the sine qua non of every authoritarian regime. We should deplore the religious fanaticism of suicide bombers and the secular totalitarians equally.
In reality, as I’ve mentioned before, the largest number of suicide bombers on Earth are the Tamil Tigers, motivated by ethno-nationalism, not religion. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are great examples of devout atheists who commit massacres far beyond the pale of anything a Christian regent has ever done. Hitler’s another obvious candidate for the list: while there’s some dispute over whether he believed in God at all, (he sometimes claimed to, sometimes claimed not to, which is sufficient evidence for me that he didn’t — after all, how many religious politicans pretend to be atheists?), there’s no doubt he rejected and hated organized religiion, destroying seminaries, sending priests to concentration camps, and so forth (the whole notion that Jesus the Messiah is a Jew didn’t sit well with him). The fact is, atheists have been far and away the most dangerous individuals on Earth.
The reason is simple: religion is a motivator, but it’s generally a benevolent one – turn the other cheek and all that. We rarely talk about it in these terms, but most of the world’s charity is done because of religious reasons. The Catholic Church is the largest charitable institution on Earth, bar none, and has helped the most people of anyone, ever… speaking simply as a matter of sheer numbers, here. It feeds more starving people, and teaches more uneducated children, than any other institution, including the US Government. Now it’s true that religion can be violent, some much more than others, but even if you took all the religious wars in history, it’d be nothing near the bloodshed of just the atheists listed above. When religion is out of the picture, other things fill that void, because societies need common motivators to be able to function. And the things that replace religion are generally far more dangerous. Sam Harris notes some of them:
People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.
In other words, in the absence of religion, irreligious systems like fascism and communism fill that void, and religious dogma gives way to “political, racial, and nationalistic dogma.” From this, Harris basically just puts everything, from religion to anti-religious ideologies like Communism, Fascism, etc., into the camp of “religion.” Harris’ book is premised off the idea that if there weren’t religion, people would be reasonable. In fact, without religion, people are on the whole less reasonable and more violent. That’d be death knells for this philosophical proposition, if it were (in fact) reasonable. Instead, he falls back on an absurd variation of the No True Scotsman argument:
- Religion is bad because it’s violent, while “reason” is good because it’s not violent; violence done in the name of reason and atheism. (This is the basic thesis of End of Faith).
- Violence is done in the name of plenty of things besides religion, including atheistic systems like Marxism.
- Therefore, those systems must be religion, since religion is bad because it’s violent, and no true atheist would ever be violent.
The argument is non-falsiable, because it’s circular: “if mass violence is done in the name of x, x is a religion; therefore, religion is violent.” He’s simply redefined “religion” to mean “anything I dislike,” and “reason” to mean “anything I like.” But here’s the thing: it’s easy to consider yourself “reasonable.” The Nazis Harris calls unreasonable found themselves quite reasonable, and spent large amounts of money on ghastly science-at-any-price. Harris, likewise, is a completely unreasonable individual who fancies himself reasonable. By his own account, his “why can’t we all just be reasonable atheists” theory derived from tripping out on ecstasy:
What he’ll say is this: At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. (“I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”) He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months.
Harris is just an angry version of the hacky-sack playing pothead you knew from college, yet he’s convinced he’s oh-so-reasonable, and that society should be built around what he imagines human nature to be like… even if all available evidence suggests he’s flat out wrong. It’s simply not true that all we have to do to achieve world peace is reflexively want it. It’s not true that humans have the power or energy to always (and reflexively!) wish the best for others all the time. Anyone who’s ever tried (including most Christians) knows it’s much harder than it sounds. The anecdotal and the empirical data is against Harris on this one. That is… reason, actual reason, is against Harris’ defense of imaginary-reason.
So there you have it: three of the popular atheistic arguments which fall apart upon on close examination. I’ve outlined more of them in the past (see here and here, for example), but I thought these ones might be worth bringing up, as well. At what point are the leading atheists going to make such fools of themselves that we collectively agree to just stop pretending they’re smarter than everyone else? And can we reach that point soon, please?