27 August 2012

An atheist reads "True Reason": Chapter 2

The introductory chapter didn't instill me with much confidence that this book will be remotely persuasive to anyone who isn't already a Christian. But there are sixteen chapters here, so there's plenty of time for the good stuff to hit. And to emphasize: it's not realistic, just as Richard Dawkins didn't expect to deconvert any die-hard believers with The God Delusion, that I'm going to summarily renounce atheism and go back to being a Christian immediately after reading this book. I'm hoping just to hear some arguments that cause me to rethink some of my key positions, and consider some different points of view.

But if the second chapter, written by Carson Weitnauer (who runs the site reasonsforgod.org) is any indication, that probably won't happen. This chapter is beyond bad. It's truly awful. It's full of so much misinformation, straw men and disjointed arguments that it was truly exasperating and, frankly, disappointing, to read. If they're gonna talk tough about us unreasoned atheists, they can at least get our arguments right first.

Chapter 2: The Irony of Atheism

Weitnauer begins by criticizing atheists for what he sees as their hubris. He mentions things like Sam Harris' Project Reason, Dawkins' Enemies of Reason special and, in a massive facepalmer, the word "brights":
One of the great ironies of the contemporary atheistic movement comes from its ubiquitous use of rhetoric, branding, and emotional triggers to advocate for reason. The leading atheists trumpet their devotion to reason in all their public communications, typically featuring the word in bold type across the names of their books, websites, organizations, and events.

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer have gone so far as to argue that atheists should really be called “brights,” in light of their insistence on a reasoned approach to all knowledge.
Sigh. Really? Because it takes all of a few moments to hit up the Wikipedia page for the "Brights" movement, which details the controversy over the name thusly:
Daniel Dennett has stated in his book Breaking the Spell:
There was also a negative response, largely objecting to the term that had been chosen [not by me]: bright, which seemed to imply that others were dim or stupid. But the term, modeled on the highly successful hijacking of the ordinary word "gay" by homosexuals, does not have to have that implication. Those who are not gays are not necessarily glum; they're straight. Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim.[18]
Seriously. That took seconds for me to find. The term "brights" is meant to be a counter to the often pejorative connotations associated with the label "atheist", not a hijacking of intellect or reason. Now obviously this is a minor complaint, but it's illustrative of the reactionary, uncritical stance that marks this chapter. In several cases, the most trivial research (as in, a Google search) would have stopped this chapter from ever being written.

Weitnauer goes on to suggest that atheists' hubris over reason fuels their contempt for religion:
For the New Atheists, as for some of the ‘old,’ their ardent love for reason is apparently what motivates their visceral disgust of religion. As Sam Harris has said, “Religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit of even the possibility of correction.” 7 Richard Dawkins has even gone so far as to say that molesting children “may be less harmful in the long run” than giving children a religious education.
For a chapter trying to label atheists as emotional and unreasoned, using inflammatory nonsense like "visceral disgust" to summarize atheists' views religion betrays the author's willful ignorance on the matter. And Dawkins' actual quote, by the way, (from this article) is this:
'What shall we tell the children?' is a superb polemic on how religions abuse the minds of children, by the distinguished psychologist Nicholas Humphrey. It was originally delivered as a lecture in aid of Amnesty International, and has now been reissued as a chapter of his book, The Mind Made Flesh, just published by Oxford University Press. It is also available on the worldwide web and I strongly recommend it. Humphrey argues that, in the same way as Amnesty works tirelessly to free political prisoners the world over, we should work to free the children of the world from the religions which, with parental approval, damage minds too young to understand what is happening to them. He is right, and the same lesson should inform our discussions of the current pedophile brouhaha. Priestly groping of child bodies is disgusting. But it may be less harmful in the long run than priestly subversion of child minds.
Poor research, willful ignorance, and flagrantly putting quotes out of context. Not a good start.

The real nutbaggery, though, comes in pearls of wisdom like this:
Atheists brand themselves as a community united by reason. Christians marvel at how this group rallies together even as their most prominent leader, Richard Dawkins, argues that evolution favors the selfish gene, not the reasonable group.
Ummm... what? I don't even know what he's trying to argue here. That we shouldn't want to rally on common causes because natural selection acts on genes? Wikipedia's entry on Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene:
In describing genes as being "selfish", the author does not intend (as he states unequivocally in the work) to imply that they are driven by any motives or will—merely that their effects can be accurately described as if they were. The contention is that the genes that get passed on are the ones whose consequences serve their own implicit interests (to continue being replicated), not necessarily those of the organism, much less any larger level.
Again, rudimentary research here. Can it get worse? You bet it can!
Leading atheist Sam Harris says that “faith is a conversation stopper.” Christians reply that Sam Harris has also said that none of us are “the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose.”
I'm not sure how Weitnauer thinks philosophical discussions about whether human consciousness must obey the deterministic laws of the universe are connected to everyday conversations. I'm not the biggest fan of Sam Harris' views on free will – only because I think there are better ways of explaining the issue – but Weitnauer isn't even stringing together a coherent criticism here. Sam is arguing that by appealing to faith, people's views are not amenable to evidence and, accordingly, change. That shouldn't be such a shocker since William Lane Craig, who wrote the next chapter, had this to say about faith and evidence:
"....even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness."
If your view is not amenable to evidence – if you are a gnostic theist – then there is no conversation to be had with you. What Weitnauer thinks any of that has to do with discussions about determinism, well, who the heck knows.

Should I go on? Probably not. But I will. One more, before I dismiss this whole inane embarrassment of a chapter:
The moral argument seeks to establish that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. However, since objective moral values and duties do in fact exist, therefore, God exists. In response to this argument, atheists have sometimes complained that they are falsely being characterized as immoral.
Again! I'm just completely baffled at how utterly willfully ignorant this guy is. In all my years of books, blogs, and debates, I've never heard an atheist object to the moral argument because they think it paints them as immoral. Rather, across the board, we object to it because theists fail to demonstrate that objective moral values actually exist. That is of course a heavy topic unto itself (one I've written on extensively), but the point is simply that Weitnauer gets it so blatantly wrong. He's making no effort whatsoever to understand what atheists are actually saying, and yet he's the one saying that, "atheists, like people across different religious traditions, are prone to believe things on faith, assume without argument the coherence of their belief system, blindly follow their leaders, accept what they want to be true, and dismiss contrary evidence."

I could keep going with this chapter but I think the point is made. They're going to have to do a ton better than this mess of garbage. Fortunately (or not), the next chapter is by my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig. I don't have high expectations, but I at least expect it to be better than this crap. 

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