Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thoughts on the So-called New Atheism

Atheism has, of course, long been with us and given the nature of Free Will, there will always be those people who deny the existence of what we Christians place our faith in.

However, there has been recently a rise of what has been termed (perhaps pejoratively) the "New Atheism."  Championed by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and PZ Myers have come to the forefront with their attacks on religious belief, and particularly Christianity.

Looking at the "New Atheism"

The New Atheism movement has gained notoriety on account of certain individuals who have sought to attack the arguments in favor of the existence of God.  This is an important distinction.  Belief in the Divine is still rejected by these individuals, but the focus is on attacking the Christian belief as illogical, stating directly that those who believe are ignorant, foolish and so on (this is the ad hominem argument, by the way).

These individuals who champion the movement are not philosophers however.  Dawkins is a Biological Scientist.  Harris has a degree in Neuroscience.  Hitchens is a journalist.  Myers is a Biology professor.  They may be quite competent in their fields of course, but what they are doing is to attack something outside of their field of knowledge.

This is important to remember.  If I wished to attack certain assertions of Einstein for example, people would (justly) want to know on what authority I could speak on science.  Since I do not have a degree in science, people would be justified in wondering whether the problem was due to my misunderstanding of the topic.  Indeed, in such a case, people would find it more probable that my ideas were based on error and not those of the best minds in science.

The Fallacy of Irrelevant Appeal to Authority

However this works both ways.  When someone who is an expert in a field speaks on a topic outside of their expertise, the appeal to their expertise is an irrelevant appeal to authority.  A biologist may be quite schooled in biology, but is no more qualified than any other untrained individual when it comes to speaking outside the area of expertise.

When it comes to the champions of the New Atheism, their expertise is likewise irrelevant when speaking on something beyond their field of expertise.  In dealing with something which is not physical in nature, the investigation requires something other than a physical science.

They confuse their expertise in a subject with understanding all that is necessary to deny the existence of God.  Such a view overlooks the possibility that if the required area of knowledge is outside their specialty, their specialty is inadequate to judge things.

This doesn't mean that science is worthless of course.  Just that, when applied to things which are not physical, it is like using a microscope to study astronomy.

The Flaws of the Attack

With this fallacy of Irrelevant authority going unchecked, the champions of atheism seek to attack the philosophical basis of the existence of God, counting on their expertise to allow them to understand the arguments in favor of God and thus refute them.

The problem is, if they err in their understanding of the argument, or fail to consider all the authoritative arguments (that is, arguments made by the considered experts in the field) made on behalf of a subject, the attempt to refute the argument is more often than not going to be a straw man argument.

For example, Richard Dawkins takes Thomas Aquinas' "Five Ways" from the Summa Theologica and attempts to rebut it.  The problem is, the version found in the Summa Theologica is more of a summary of the arguments found in the Summa Contra Gentiles, where it is handled in greater depth.  By failing to understand what it is that Thomas Aquinas is saying, his attempts at rebuttal must necessarily fail to prove their point.

Just as an individual who is an expert in biology is not, because of that fact, qualified to practice medicine (because the disciplines are different), so too the scientist, who is an expert in a certain field, is not qualified to take on an argument based on philosophical knowledge outside their field.

The Error of the Undistributed Middle

Another error (this one tends to be championed by Sam Harris) is to reject all religious claims on the basis of one religion's errors.  Such a view has an unspoken premise that all religions are equally valid or invalid.  The pointing out of the errors in one religion (in Harris' case, Islamic extremism is invoked) is used to lead to the conclusion that all religions are bad.

The form I have read in Harris' writings or in transcripts of recorded addresses tend to go this way:

  1. All [Islam] is a [Religion] (All [A] is [B])
  2. All [Islam] is [Violent] (All [A] is [C])
  3. Therefore All [Religion] is [Violent] (Therefore All [B] is [C])

The problem is, just because [Islam] may be a part of both groups (though I think that before the minor premise can be asserted to be true, one needs to prove that mainstream Islam embraces the actions of the extremists), it does not prove that [Religion] is a part of the group [That which is violent].  If there is any part of [B] (religion) which is not a part of [C] [That which is violent], then it cannot be said that ALL religion is violent.

This refutation can also be used to show that, just because one religion is false it does not prove all religions are false, by changing what [A], [B] and [C] stand for:

  1. All [Scientology] is a [Religion] (All [A] is [B])
  2. All [Scientology] is [Manmade] (All [A] is [C])
  3. Therefore All [Religion] is [Manmade] (Therefore All [B] is [C])

No matter how many [manmade] [religions] there are, it does not prove that ALL religions are manmade.  Just because [A] is a part of [B] and [C], does not prove that because [D] is a part of [B] that [D] must be a part of [C].

You can't get an "All [B] is [C]" conclusion from the premises "All [A] is [B], All [B] is [C]" because even if it is proven that All [A] is both a part of [B] and [C] (which it isn't, by the way) does not mean that everything in [B] is also in [C].  This can be demonstrated in figure 1.


(Figure 1: If [A] is both [B] and [C], does it mean all [B] is [C]?)

The diagram shows that even if [A] is both [B] and [C], it does not prove all [B] is [C].  This is the fallacy of the Undistributed Middle.

In figure 2, any group which is colored are areas where this sort of argument by new atheists would not prove the conclusion:


(Figure 2: Colored portion shows conditions where attacking all religion on the basis of one is false)

The Practical Problems With the New Atheism

If this form of Atheism was merely limited to the person following it saying "I don't believe in God" then the only problems would be regarding that individual's belief and refuting that individual.  However, when the application of this aggressive form of atheism seems aimed at actively attacking religion (such as PZ Myers' attack on what Catholics hold most sacred) and seeking to strip rights away from groups which hold religious beliefs on the basis of assuming their belief is truth and seeking to impose their views on others (which is what they accuse religions of doing).

If one says it is wrong to impose a "religious" belief on others (the term "religious" is usually invoked as an appeal to fear fallacy), then it follows that it is wrong to impose other beliefs as well.  So if it is wrong, because it is imposing a "religious" belief, to teach a possibility of Intelligent Design (for example), it seems to follow that it is wrong also to teach a form of evolution which actively denies the role of an outside agent as well.

In the case of the New Atheists (and this seems to be the main part of how they differ from the so-called "classical" atheists) are projecting on to religion what they themselves practice: Intolerance based on their personal beliefs.

Practicing What One Preaches

If the New Atheists believe that religion ought not to be imposed on others, it requires that they not impose their beliefs on others either.  Yet that doesn't happen.  PZ Myers desecrated what he claimed was a consecrated Eucharistic Host publically.  If true, this was an attack on what Catholics hold to be sacred, and even if one does not believe what Catholics do, it is still would be an attack against the religious freedom of Catholics to practice what they believe unmolested.

Since PZ Myers' action was based on what he believed to be true (If I recall correctly, he wrote "it's a fracking cracker"), and his belief imposed itself on others who did not believe what he did, it follows that his actions denied the religious freedom others practice.

Let's look at it another way.  I don't believe Mormonism is true, or Islam is true but I would not attempt to force my way into the Mormon Temple in Utah (only a Mormon may enter if I understand it right), nor would I attempt to force my way into Mecca (only Moslems may enter if I understand it right) because such an action would be forcing my views on another.

This is basic human respect, to not violate the boundaries another has set.

Now, this is not to say there cannot be a debate about what is true.  The entire idea of disputing between agnosticism and knowledge; atheism and theism, monotheism and paganism and so on is over establishing what is true.  Clearly the different systems of belief or unbelief need to present their claims for evaluation.

However, we also need to remember that thinking one set of arguments does not convince does not mean the opposite is automatically true.  These discussions must all remember that all human persons have rights which another may not take away, and just because person A thinks the Christian beliefs are unconvincing does not give them the right to deprive the Christian of his rights as a person.

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