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apologetics Atheism Christianity life

Atheism Is Not Endearing

While looking for something else, I stumbled across this quote from the actor/atheist Hugh Laurie.

I find my atheism is becoming more marked with each passing year. I once prided myself on a relaxed and respectful attitude to other people’s beliefs, but I’m finding it harder to keep that up. I might find myself taking a tougher line with people about certain beliefs that are so painfully nonsensical. Because nonsense is not endearing or eccentric anymore – it’s causing death, destruction, and endless torment for millions of people around the world.

What’s funny to me about this is that it describes perfectly my own attitude toward atheism. When I was an undergraduate I thought atheists were generally intellectual powerhouses who had serious and meaningful challenges to the existence of God. Or, perhaps they were deep thinkers who had endured such awful tragedy in their personal life, that no other narrative except unbelief could offer a reassuring explanation of their suffering. For a long time this was the idea that I had about the “skeptics” and the teachers they so enthusiastically emulated.

But over the last couple of years, I too have experienced a shift  from a “relaxed and respectful attitude,” and exactly for the reasons that Laurie mentions: The stakes are too high and the effects of this worldview are too toxic. Contrary to what my undergraduate self imagined, I have discovered that more than a few self-described “skeptics” remain skeptics chiefly because they have taken exhaustive efforts to never be challenged in this regard. The number of atheists I’ve met and corresponded with who will admit to not knowing one historic argument for the existence of God, or not having one acquaintance with a believer who can seriously argue his case, is astonishing.

Beyond this, I’ve seen that the intellectual case for atheism, which I had believed to be so formidable, is not just irreparably deformed from a logical perspective, but also from a humane one as well. To read the latest and most popular volumes of skepticism from people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins is to confront an intellectual system that is nakedly bankrupt in moral and aesthetic value. The efforts of “scientism” to explain away the transcendent phenomenon of beauty, and the personal experience of the numinous, is nothing less than a project to sweep the legs out from under hope and human freedom. The fruits of such a belief system are evident, too: Atheism is the undisputed ruler of the internet, but it reigns alongside the most twisted forms of pornography and human degradation imaginable. There is a reason that Reddit and 4Chan are bastions of sophomore skepticism on one wing, and factories of sexual nihilism and abuse in the other.

I’ve lost my patience with atheism, but I hope I haven’t lost my patience with atheists. I still enjoy very much talking about these things with the unconvinced. And, of course, as a Christian, I have an eschatological motivation in those conversations. But as Laurie succinctly said, I don’t find the whole thing endearing anymore. There’s just too much, and too many, to be saved from it.

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apologetics books Christianity

The Fallacy Kings of New Atheism

Edward Feser, a philosophy professor in California, calls Jerry Coyne’s new book, Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, an “omnibus of fallacies.”

[Coyne] has no consistent account at all of what religion is. On one page, he will tell you that Jainism is not really the sort of thing he means by “religion.” Forty pages later, he’ll offer Jainism as an example of the sort of thing he means by “religion.” If the views of some theologian are clearly compatible with science, Coyne will assure us that what theologians have to say is irrelevant to determining what is typical of religion. But if a theologian says something that Coyne thinks is stupid, then what theologians have to say suddenly becomes highly relevant to determining what is typical of religion. When churchmen refuse to abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is dogmatic and unwilling to adjust itself to modern knowledge. When churchmen do abandon some doctrine, Coyne tells us that this shows that religion is unfalsifiable and desperate to adjust itself to modern knowledge. It seems Coyne also missed that lecture in logic class about the fallacy of special pleading.

This is vintage New Atheism. One of the recurring themes in NA bibliography is the utter inability to talk about religious language in a way that is actually meaningful. Over and over and over again, Dawkins, Harris, and Coyne use the word “religion” to describe base irrationality, while at the same time stacking the deck so that any trace of reasonableness becomes evidence of how elastic and meaningless religion really is.

Feser says Coyne’s book “might be the worst book yet published in the New Atheist genre.” That’s a highly sought-after award, as Feser notes, but Coyne seems up to the challenge:

Coyne’s own method, then, is to characterize religion however he needs to in order to convict it of irrationality. Nor is “religion” the only term Coyne uses in a tendentious way. The question-begging definition is perhaps his favorite debating trick. He characterizes “faith” as “belief without—or in the face of—evidence” and repeatedly uses the term as if this is what it generally means in religious contexts. Naturally, he has no trouble showing that faith so understood is irrational. But this simply is not how faith is understood historically in Christian theology. For example, for scholastic theologians, faith is assent to something that has been revealed by God. And how do we know that God exists and really has revealed it? Those are claims for which, the theologian agrees, evidence needs to be given.

This kind of mistake would be avoided if Coyne were at least marginally conversant with theology. But theology is rubbish, a hoax, so why waste time with it? It is remarkably convenient for these writers that because theology is nonsense and we mustn’t talk about it, we should need to rely on biologists and neuroscientists to explain it, and take their word that it really is turtles all the way down.

Of course, this doesn’t matter if your main objective is to vent your spleen about how stupid religious people are, or how much better the world would be in total secularity. And that is, after all, what the entire New Atheism was about from the beginning. NA’s most glaring fault has always been a severe internal ignorance about religion. There’s no rule that says biologists can’t talk about philosophy, of course, but there is a rule that says people who don’t understand–or even totally reject–categories of thought beyond the empirical shouldn’t embarrass themselves and waste time for others.

If philosopher kings are a bad idea, biologist anti-philosopher kings are an even worse one. At least Plato gave us The Republic, instead of a grumpy Twitter account.

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