Sunday, April 18, 2010

On trying to get things right: Why I think the New Atheism is bound to backfire

A redated post.

When I was a young Christian I read some anti-religious writings like those of Bertrand Russell, and I found that as brilliant as he might have been in other respects, he made no attempt to get anything right about his believing opponents.

Dawkins seems to be proud of not taking his opponents seriously. See here.

I went onto the Dawkins site and found that people who write books critical of the New Atheists referred to as fleas, and my book was mentioned as one of Dennett's fleas.

Look, I went through an entire Ph.D level education in philosophy from undergrad on up in secular philosophy departments. I can tell you that the failure to take theistic perspectives seriously in response to them left me unimpressed with the religious skepticism of many of my professors. Some, of course, were notable exception. When you read a book by Russell on why he isn't a Christian and he can't get Aquinas' cosmological argument even close to right, it makes you think that a lot of unbelief is fueled by personal hostility rather than careful evaluation. In some classes the impression I got was everyone was supposed to assume that the case against religious belief was made on the day you were absent. "Well, of course, we've grown up." "Everybody is a materialist." Etc. Etc. Etc.

At the same time, I encountered Christian after Christian of undeniable intellect and intellectual fairness. They may not be right, but I found it hard to believe that refuting them was a slam dunk.

Going around saying that the emperor has no clothes on is quite different from providing real arguments. For this reason I think the New Atheists' strategy is bound to backfire. They don't have to be nice, they do have to take the time and effort to understand positions they don't like.

People who take completely opposed positions to my own have praised my fairness. How many Dawkins opponents have said that about him?

P. S. I put the link on the title.


Steven Carr said...

Dawkins goes so far as to accuse William Lane Craig of justifying genocide.

mattghg said...

Well, Steven, that's an improvement insofar as he now knows who WLC is. He did, after all, say he'd "never heard of William Craig" when challenged to debate him, and this after having written a fat book in which he claims to have refuted the cosmological argument - without apparently ever having heard of perhaps its foremost contemporary public defender.

I agree that Dawkins is a sufferer from what James Hannam has dubbed "Russell’s syndrome":

this condition afflicts men and women of high intelligence who are, in most respects, indistinguishable from their fellow members of the academic elite. However, the sufferer of Russell’s Syndrome (first identified in the third Earl [Bertrand] Russell), looses all his common sense, discrimination and reason when his mind turns to religion.

Steven Carr said...

'They may not be right, but I found it hard to believe that refuting them was a slam dunk.'

Is it a 'slam dunk' to refute Craig when he claims that he *knows* that God knew that allowing Canaanite children to love would wreck his plans for Israel?

Craig's God seems to be like a villain in a Scooby Doo cartoon. First thing to do is kill those pesky kids, who always spoil your plans.

Anonymous said...

I have a funny feeling that things might be changing, that is if Mark D. Linville and others are right when they wrote blurbs for my book.

I'd like your honest evaluation of it, Vic. Get a free review copy and let us know if you can say the same things about it.

Anonymous said...

Just in case you don't follow the link Vic, Dr. Linville wrote: “Of the spate of books coming from the so-called “New Atheists” that have appeared in the past few years—Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et al—John W. Loftus’s critique of Christian theism is by far the most sophisticated. Where, say, Dawkins might be found attacking a man of straw, Loftus understands and assesses the arguments of today’s premier Christian apologists and philosophers. Evangelicals cannot afford to ignore Why I Became an Atheist.”

Anonymous said...

The link to Dawkins's website isn't working. I get a 404 error.

Anonymous said...

"The link to Dawkins's website isn't working. I get a 404 error."

If you copy and paste the following into your browser you should be taken directly to the forums:

As with any discussion group on the net, there is a lot of fluff to be found there. But some very good stuff also.

Edward T. Babinski said...


What do you mean by "backfire?"

There may not be a helluva lot more atheists due to such book, but those that are doubters, agnostics, atheists, are coming out of the closet due to the recent spate of bestselling atheist books, and also via agnostic/atheist blogs, and the formation of agnostic/atheist meetup groups, and agnostic/atheist campus groups as well. One new campus group is forming at the university where I work, the first ever on this campus. A Junior here applied for the group totally on her own, and began a blog and there's 18 students interested in joining the group. This university never had such a group before.

I think it's all part of an increasingly widening diversity in American religious and non-religious life.

See the PEW report. Heck, more than 50% of all Christians admit they believe that you don't even necessarily have to be a Christian to get to heaven. And the U.S.'s two centuries-long Protestant majority has slipped to very nearly below 50% if not below it by now.

The diversification of religious and philosophical views continues.

Victor Reppert said...

What I mean is that Dawkins and his type of dismissiveness turns me off from atheism in much the way that television evangelists turn people off from theism.

Edward T. Babinski said...


On the topic of Dawkins and Russell, I think they both made some challenging points in some of what they wrote. Russell was more the agnostic however.

However my own doubts began with the Bible itself. And since neither Dakwins nor Russell ever delve very deeply into the Bible I would sooner read works by those who do when it comes to my own list of questions.

Dr. Robert M. Price's BEYOND BORN AGAIN is worth reading. It's free and online and due to be republished by Prometheus.

And after that I'd recommend Price's latest book that points out all the questions that STILL remain after the so-called "answers" have been given by Lee Strobel's inerrantist Christian experts in his CASE FOR CHRIST book.

Also, I've never been as hung up on the question of God's existence as I have on the question of exactly what kind of God we are talking about, how and what has this God communicated to us, how can I be sure such commmunications are from this God, etc.

So even granting God's existence, it's the rest of the questions that led me away from being a Christian. And according to Christians it's THAT which damns a fellow, even if I DO believe in God.

By the way, I recently read about a Christian philosopher who has hypotheized that at the moment of death God replaces the body of Christians with a simulacrum that dies and rots, while the body of the Christian is moved into some other eternal realm and does not die nor rot but probably is made youthful again, restored. I thought that kind of weird. It's kind of like a materialistic version of substance dualism. *smile* I'll have to check the name of the Christian philosopher, it was in a recent theology journal reviewing his latest work.

Steven Carr said...

Will there be 30 times more Christian responses to Dawkins book than to Loftus book?

To answer this question, we need to consider the following points :-

1) It is simple bigotry not to discuss the strongest case put forward by your opponents

2) Dawkins does not put forward the strongest atheistic arguments.

mattghg said...

It depends what those Christian responses are claiming to do. If they're claiming to refute Dawkins, then obviously it's acceptable for them to limit themselves to to Dawkins' arguments (such as they are). But if they're claiming to refute atheism by refuting Dawkins, then that's no good.

Victor addressed this point before when he said "Some Christians are developing a cottage industry of doing Christian apologetics by Dawkins-bashing. I think this is making life too easy for Christian apologists."

Steven Carr said...

What I mean is that Dawkins and his type of dismissiveness turns me off from atheism in much the way that television evangelists turn people off from theism.

As can be seen from the Richard Dawkins forum, and the Debunking Christianity blogspot, what turns people off from theism is Christian apologists like Paul Copan and William Lane Craig writing articles justifying genocide.

When did Dawkins bash Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar the way he bashed Craig?

Victor Reppert said...

Steven: Did I miss something, or did you post a link to Dawkins' remarks about Craig?

My first published paper was a rebuttal to J. L. Mackie, then considered the most formidable atheist philosopher. Generally Christian philosophers do respond to what they think is the good stuff on the other side.

Anonymous said...

Vic said...Generally Christian philosophers do respond to what they think is the good stuff on the other side.


Steven Carr said...

If Dawkins is so easy to refute, why did a Real Philosopher like Alvin Plantinga make such a pigs-ear of his response to Dawkins?

Why were people like Eagleton reduced to saying that listening to Dawkins talk about Christianity based on his knowledge of the Bible was like listening to somebody talk about biology based on a knowledge of the British Book of Birds?

Is Christianity really so terribly complicated that nobody can read the Bible and then be qualified to speak on the subject?

Is there a footnote at the back saying 'Alving Plantinga explains all this much better than Jesus?'

Anonymous said...

Vic, scholars mainly talk to themselves. They like the feel of another scholar's palm patting them on the back. Marx said something to the effect that the goal of philosophy is to change the world. Who's J.L. Mackie, anyway? Not a household name, right? The arguments of the scholars must be translated down to the average person. Someone's got to do it. The writer who does this is important in the whole chain of reasoning. Most of the dangerous books in the history of the world have been the ones that the masses could understand. Baysian analysis? Come on. When Swinburne uses it to show that if God exists then it's 97% probable Jesus arose from the dead, only a dimwit would think understanding Bayesian calculations alone gets us to the truth about things.

Anonymous said...

Vic, name me one atheist scholar who understands the philosophical writings of a J.L. Mackie and who also has a good grasp of science and of Biblical studies/theology? I know of none. Correct me if I'm wrong, and I might be. But atheist scholars either know a great deal of science, or of philosophy, or of Biblical studies (as in the SBL).

Since it's practically impossible to be a scholar in the philosophy of religion, science, and Biblical studies all at the same time, then the person who knows enough about all three disciplines who combines the results of these scholars into a readable book has done the world a real service. That's what I attempted to do.

Steven Carr said...

Dawkins , of course, has read Swinburne, and quotes him in 'The God Delusion'.

Dawkins was appalled by the callousness of Swinburne who relegated human suffering as something to be explained away as not touching his precious god.

mattghg said...


I take it what you're saying doesn't go for Russell, though, seeing as, being a philosopher and all, he presumably could've got Aquinas' cosmological argument right if he'd wanted to?

Victor has made a similar complaint against Dawkins in the past, namely, that he makes a hash of the trilemma. Popularising is one thing, but it doesn't give anyone the excuse to misrepresent their opponents.

You may be different; I don't know, I haven't read you book. But that doesn't make the charge of bigotry against Dawkins go away.


Perhaps you could shed some light on why it is that Dawkins repeatedly refers to Swinburne, a philosopher in a chair of philosophy at Dawkins' own university, as a "theologian"?

Steven Carr said...

Swinburne is not theologian?

Why then does he write books about theology?

Steven Carr said...

How was Dawkins misrepresenting Craig when he said that reading Craig's justification of genocide was 'dumbfoundedly, staggeringly awful' and that people should rub their eyes to make sure they are not having a bad dream?

geoffrobinson said...

Just an FYI. I found audio of Dawkins trying to respond to the Argument from Reason:

Anonymous said...

Does WLC not try to justify genocide? I thought he thought that God's command to commit genocide was the justification. Maybe someone could clarify.

David said...

I spent my time cranking out mathematical and chemical equations at the university without delving much into philosophy. However when I did have some philosophical questions that troubled me on my walks from chemistry lab to English Lit., I found professor's with belief much more fair to my questions than the atheist.

My atheistic professors were smarter than me, had more facts, but left me somehow, in a human sense, unimpressed. Perhaps it was like asking questions about marriage from someone smarter than you and recently divorced. They can outwit me about the value of marriage, but, after losing the argument, going home to my wife who I have been through the ups and downs, the doubts and strains, the financial and health problems with, and thinking that the depth of experience in keeping my vows is something the divorced person will never know.

Sorry for those who lost their faith. I’m glad my remains through the doubts and strains.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Even the atheist philosophers that take the arguments too seriously as a scholary topic are looked at as a bit dull-headed, like they are playing in the nursery rather than with the adults.

It is assumed that refuting theist arguments is shooting fish in a barrel. Perhaps it is OK to do public service and teach philosophy of religion, or write a popular book like Kitcher did for Creationism in response to those kooky creationists. But to make such work a serious endeavor is to admit you aren't good enough to do real philosophy.

I'm not defending any of the above, just noting common psychosocial factors that will tend to block people from taking the theists too seriously.

Of course it implies that you will end up with somewhat superficial atheistic philosophy of religion. Know enough to educate your smarter undergrads about the main issues, and to point them in the right direction if they are interested in further study, and then get back to your real work.

Will this backfire? I doubt it, it's been like that for a very long time is my impression.

The problem is that most people on both sides don't know the details of the arguments. It isn't just the village atheist that is unfamiliar with Craig's most recent volley in the cosmological argument. The folks on the pulpit, the teachers, the parents, the people that actually help folks decide on the issues, are providing the same arguments that Dawkins and others are refuting! Tht's why Dawkins work resonates with people so much.

The New Atheists just need to refute High School theism, not PhD theism.

Blue Devil Knight said...

The Courtier's Reply is hilarious. To anyone that has suffered through an upper-level philosophy course, it will strike a chord.

I usualy don't like PZ Myers attitude, but that's just funny.

Gordon Knight said...

The comments about genocide illustrate a feature of the atheism debate.

It is assumed that theism=conservative, nay fundamentalist christianity, the sort that leads WLC to justify genocide.

But all Christians are not conservative theologically, and all theists are not Christians.

I should have said "try to justify genocide" Of course I think he fails.

Regarding Dawkins/ I read his book and it made me wince, it was so embarrassing.

If Dawkins wants to argue against Craig's belief that God is in favor of genocide (or was , in the past) then he should argue for that and not claim he is arguing for atheism or against theism.

Dawkins makes atheists look ignorant. So, ironically, by being the face of atheism Dawkins encourages people to take theism seriously. It is akin to the television pastors, who did incline me towards atheism as a kid.

unkleE said...

Contrary to you, BDK, I thought Myers' piece was about as intellectually dishonest and arrogant as anything I have ever seen. There is a world of difference between the technical arguments of academic philosophers and popular apologetics a la WL Craig and co, just as there is a world of difference between a technical paper on cosmology and the popular writings of Paul Davies. But Davies does his readers the service of understanding the technical writings and explaining them in laypersons' terms rather than just dismissing them.

Courtier's Reply? I think we should call it the "I'm Ignorant Because We All Know I'm Right Evasion."

Imagine if someone responded to Dawkins' Selfish Gene or The God Delusion by saying: "I read the preface and I could tell it was all wrong, so I didn't read any more." They would be greeted with hoots of derision by the atheists. Myers' and Dawkins' comments ought to receive the same treatment from fair-minded unbelievers - and to some degree they are.

Nathaniel said...


... nailed it.

PatrickH said...

The Courtier's Reply is especially hilarious when it's used by fundamentalist creationists to justify their not having to know anything about evolutionary theory.

Isn't it great to have an excuse to not have to do all that reading?

Blue Devil Knight said...

UnkleE: I agree for the most part.

I couldn't even finish Dawkins' book, frankly, as he was playing so fast and loose with the arguments. I got through his section on Aquinas, and was just like "Are you F-ing kidding me?" and I stopped there.

Steven Carr said...

So Victor still can't put a single argument of the New Atheists on his article, even after redating it.

While he complains that the main problem with New Atheists is that they do not understand the sophisticated theology behind Christian beliefs, such as presumably the Christian belief that Jesus told Peter how to get free money by looking in the mouth of a fish.

Why don't Christians simply produce somebody who named himself as seeing Jesus do a miracle instead of whining constantly about Dawkins?

Steven Carr said...

the trouble with Dawkins is that he has not taken the trouble to read those Christians who claim that the bread and wine have changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Or taken the trouble to read those Christians who deny that the bread and wine change into the Body and Blood of Jesus.

As Christians have no actual facts, they can write endless books making up anything they like or denying it, as takes their fancy.

That is one trouble with Christian theology.

it is as soundly based as Islamic theology, or the theology behind Odin.

Anonymous said...

Boy this is an old post.

Tom Flynn recently argued there isn't anything new about the New Atheism. I emailed him with some objections, that the New Atheism has a defining characteristic of alarm about religion in an era of nuclear weapons and he told me about an atheism symposium that took place after the release of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth.

He argues there isn't anything new about the New Atheism.

chocolate dynamite said...

When you're talking about actual arguments there is nothing new about the new atheism John. You are correct in stating that it's what makes them stand out from the rest of the atheist crowd, but I would argue that it's hardly a substantial conotribution, and CERTAINLY not a positive contribution if that's the point you intend to make(that would be a strange argument... I thought you were turned away from the fire-and-brimstone preaching of some Christians, why would you then appreciate it on the flip side?).

Clearly they are known more for their rantings on the "stupidity of belief" than raising matters about the threats of religiously-inspired nuclear war(this was also the supposed goal of Bill Maher's turd of a movie, but I might say he didn't make it very well by pissing away 75% of the movie going around interviewing the religious fringe about their sillier beliefs). In fact, I'm raising the stakes on this and stating that "revealing the evils of religion" is not truly the goal of their work... seriously, what does insult do to irrational people? It makes them even angrier. Have the NAs concocted some psychologically proven method of converting through insult, or are they just trying to have their cake and eat it by being able to mock and accuse at the same time? Methinks the latter.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous person named chocolate:

For me this is purely an item of interest, not an argument I'm advocating. But if the defining characteristic of the NA's is "insult" and railing against the "stupidity of belief," then take a good look at Joseph Lewis's pamphlet An Atheist Manifesto and then tell me what is different from him and Hitchens or Dawkins? I see no difference, except that Lewis doesn't seem concerned about weapons of mass destruction in a world with religion precisely because times have changed. Check it out!

Again, this is a matter of interest to me, that's all. It's a historical question, not a polemical one.


Shackleman said...

BDK: "The problem is that most people on both sides don't know the details of the arguments. It isn't just the village atheist that is unfamiliar with Craig's most recent volley in the cosmological argument. The folks on the pulpit, the teachers, the parents, the people that actually help folks decide on the issues, are providing the same arguments that Dawkins and others are refuting! Tht's why Dawkins work resonates with people so much.

The New Atheists just need to refute High School theism, not PhD theism."

-quoted for truth

Victor Reppert said...

Why don't Christians simply produce somebody who named himself as seeing Jesus do a miracle instead of whining constantly about Dawkins?

I think we had some people on here make those sorts of claims a couple of years back.

M. C. Evers said...

I agree with your point in principle. Unfortunately I think we are becoming a culture that really does embrace such nastiness in the public discourse, both left and right. (I notice you allude to this yourself in one of your responses, with your remark about televangelists.)

If you look at the tenor of debate on the news and on the Internet--sadly, it most often consists of people "flaming" each other rather than making substantive points and respecting each other as people.

I am seeing it on both sides, unfortunately--and I think it is furthered by the anonymity of the Internet and the vitriol some people feel excused to unleash under those circumstances. And if the public discourse as a whole remains as acrimonious as it now...honestly, what hope do we have of bringing the tone back down?

I do a lot more writing on this subject--nothing anywhere near as erudite--on my own blog. And maybe I have a few ideas...but I'd like to see what role you think that we as Christians can play in not just criticizing but bringing down the tone of the rhetoric.