Tag Archives: Atheism

Quick review: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

The Atheist Who Didn't ExistThe Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science is the only sure method for knowing things.

Faith and reason are opposed.

People believe in God because they’re needy.

Atheism is not a belief at all – it’s just non-belief.

You can discover goodness without God at all.

If you’ve heard statements like these then you and I are living in the same world. They’re relatively common in the so-called ‘New Atheism.’

But if you’re convinced by any of these statements, then you’ve been duped. These arguments, and others like them, are all bad arguments, according to Andy Bannister. Note the alternate title for his book Or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments.

This book is all about the arguments of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens. And written in an accessible and light style. If you like quirky British humour – and I do – then you’ll find it even better (as well as find plenty of jokey distraction in the hundreds of footnotes).

Bannister is a Christian, but this book does not aim to present the Christian Gospel, I think. The news of Jesus is there, in brief snatches (especially the last chapter on Jesus and history). But the aim of this book seems to be what comes before presenting the Christian message: to convince us that it is worth looking at the message.

That is, Bannister urges readers not to prematurely write off the question of God and Jesus. And if it’s Dawkins and his buddies who have convinced you not to go near the God question, Bannister’s warning is that you’re really a victim of empty argument.

So The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist is apologetic and pre-evangelistic. Apologetic: for it gives reasons why it’s worth considering Jesus. Pre-evangelistic: because it opens the door to an honest reading of the Bible.

I loved the humour (except for Bannister’s disdain of goat’s cheese – he’s definitely wrong there). And I’d definitely give this book away to people entrapped by the empty arguments of Krauss, Dawkins, et al.

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Modern conservative atheism

There was a time, it seems, when atheism tried to build new things. I think atheism has given up, and now tries to conserve old ideas from other people.

Nietzsche (1844-1900) railed against the Christian values he both understood and loathed – and he strongly urged a new way. He wanted strong people, not the Christian softness of humility. For him, Jesus’ meekness ‘as a lamb before his shearers is silent’ was pathetic weakness.

Likewise, Marx (1818-1883) was not only against religion, but actively for a new social order. He argued the need for fundamental change.

Nietzsche and Marx illustrate the line of atheist intellect that argued for something, and for something new.

In this early part of the twenty-first century, I don’t hear that kind of atheist argument. Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all – they are usually Christian (or ‘religious’, if you like).

Atheist arguments are no longer for something new, but for old values. And these old values are not atheist at all

These values include: justice, living with difference, and listening to the other. I hear atheists argue for them (great!). And when I seek to find why, there’s no answer. These ideas are assumed as good and important. ‘They’re obvious, they are common-sense.’

Even more, there’s the refrain that Christians don’t own justice, love and mercy.

But Christians do own these things. Our belief – right or wrong – is that the whole creation springs from the eternal, loving God who will bring justice to bear. In consequence, those who trust God should also live these values.

But if the material world is all there is, it is very hard to argue for universal and enduring values. Mercy might make us feel good – but hormones are a sufficient explanation for that. It’s a big stretch to suggest our emotions infer universal moral order.

(Here’s an example, in a fascinating article. The author views religion or atheism as not really important. What counts is a liberal social and political system. But why? It just is, that’s all.)

Why point this out? Two reasons.

First, if I am right, it’s handy to know the change in feel and argument that has happened over the last century. When any person makes any point it’s polite to listen. I am trying to listen to what’s being said today.

Secondly, I think the change indicates a number of underlying issues. It may be a sign that creative and constructive atheism has failed. It might also indicate that atheism’s important intellectual problem right now is the problem of good (the mirror of theism’s problem of evil). These two require argument, of course, but they arise from a real observation.

So, over to you. Is there any merit in my observation? Could things be explained differently? Does it really matter?

 


 

On the existence of eggs

Opinions vary. Here is a representative range of voices.

1

I’m just not sure about the existence of eggs and all that. Obviously I’ve seen shells, and I know how useful they are, but the whole story of yolk and egg-white … I mean, how can you know? I personally know people who are convinced that eggs exist, and I’m cool with that. I can see how it helps them face up to eggshells.

2

Eggs don’t exist, that’s certain. We all know about eggshells and the shape they give to life. Once we think with maturity, we know that’s all there is – just a shell. The whole egg-myth is a creative back-story. Perhaps it was originally used to explain the need to look after the eggshell, or to explain it to the young. But now the egg-myth is a means of control: ‘You must believe in the egg to explain the eggshell.’ Baloney!

3

I am convinced that eggs are real. For me, it’s not that the shell forced people to create the idea of ‘eggness’. No, it’s that the existence of eggs gave rise to the shape of eggshells. I’ve heard people say that the simplest explanation is better – that the shell is all there is – but that sounds like a claim that half-reality is better than whole-reality. Anyway, I’m sure about the historic account of the broken egg. I know I didn’t see the yoke run out, but others did.

4

I’m part of a group of egg-believers, yes. Though I think it’s more out of habit than strong conviction. I certainly like the way we treat the eggshell. I find that my view of the egg itself varies: perhaps there is an egg, perhaps just an egg-white, perhaps nothing. In my heart of hearts, I think it probably doesn’t matter, as long as we all behave nicely about the eggshell. I don’t want to offend the strong egg-believers I hang around with, yet I feel they’re a bit over the top at times, even embarrassing.

 


 

Intelligent atheism

Here is a report of a meta-analysis (a gathering of many individual studies) that establishes a “reliable negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity”.

That is, atheists are smarter than believers.

Go ahead and read it – it’s an article with nuance. I worried that it might simply crow about superior IQ, but it avoids that. It recognises the cringe factor in raising the issue, the potential to be smug, or the possibility of defensiveness. It also touches on the complexity of finding causes for this association.

Intelligence

Credit: flickr user cjbaker4

I won’t repeat the points of the article here. Instead my starting point is the conclusion of this study, that higher intelligence correlates with agnostic or atheist beliefs. Given this, what can I say to atheists, and to Christians. (I limit myself to Christians, rather than the broader ‘religious’ group.)

Something for atheists
Firstly, intelligence does not automatically make for good arguments. An intelligent person can (and will) hold to crazy wrong ideas.

I am amazed that so many intelligent atheists have dumb ideas about Christianity. Richard Dawkins is the perfect example. When I’ve seen his input to science shows he’s interesting and engaging. When he talks on God-stuff, I scratch my head. He would lose a schoolyard debate with 12 year olds. He simply does not seem to get it. Similarly, sports writer Peter Fitzsimons likes to poke fun at God-botherers. No problem there because he writes to entertain, and being a stirrer is the persona he adopts. But, again, his writing comes across as clueless. When I read these guys, I feel like I’ve been threatened by an angry drunk, who proceeds to swing his fists at an imaginary image of me.

My request: if you are ‘on the side of intelligence’, please come up with real thought.

Secondly, intelligence is an excellent path to self-deception. I’ve seen clever thought and sophistry used to justify the ridiculous. ‘Of course I should leave my spouse and kids because of the psychological damage we’re causing each other.’ ‘I’m not doing this with any hubris, it’s purely a rational decision for the sake of my career.’ Yeah, sure!

As a rule, I’ve found those with less pretension to be deep thinkers are less likely to believe their own crazy rationalisations. (Actually, this applies as much to believers as to unbelievers.)

My request: if you think you’re smart, be humble enough to see that smarts are often misused.

Something for Christians
Firstly, we can admit that Christian folk sometimes peddle senseless ideas. We can be illogical and paranoid. We can speak out of misunderstanding. We can repeat arguments that are effectively urban myths, but sound convenient to our position.

Perhaps – and I sure am guessing here – but perhaps churches are liable to greenhouse such ideas because we don’t make intellectual rigour our top priority. It should not be top of the priority list, but that’s no excuse for a brain shut-down.

Just to get myself into trouble, I’ll say that I often find arguments of young earth creationists to be incredible. Too often the arguments go one of two ways. Either, ‘This is so important theologically that I will only talk about science.’ (Huh?) Or, ‘You are wrong because you are a fear-filled compromiser of truth.’ (Ad hominem.)

I have to say, sadly, that poor Christian thinking is not limited to a single area. It can crop up anywhere: creation, politics, family, church practice, music, …

My request: take time to think, and not to pass on half-baked thoughts.

Secondly, and most personally, I know I flinch at the suggestion that the average intelligence of atheists is higher than that of the religious. Perhaps you flinch too. We Christians want our people to be better than them.

We want to be better at thought, at work, at marriage and sex, at enjoying culture, at giving thanks to people, at contributing to the community. If we somehow fall behind in these areas we reckon we’re letting the side down. Or letting God down.

To be honest, we want to boast in ourselves. But God’s people are intrinsically un-boastworthy. Our only boast is in the Lord.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:23-29

When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor’ he spoke of more than mere money. In all ways, Jesus’ disciples admit poverty. Including in the ability to impress God by high IQ. The measure of Christian truth is not my vocabulary. The only measure is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

My request: Christians, remember our gospel, that we are saved by the grace of God.

 


 

Science of the gaps

There’s a long-standing criticism of Christians that goes like this: whenever there’s something humans can’t explain, you say ‘See! That’s God at work’.

And fair enough too. What a silly argument. How does ignorance on the part of Person Y (me!) provide evidence for the existence of Person X (God)? All it proves is that there’s a hole in human knowledge – and that is not breaking news.

Honestly, though, I have only heard this argument for God a couple of times. The places it has come up have been informal chats among church folk. It’s is usually followed by an uneasy polite silence as everyone else considers how to change the subject.

Mind the gapIn contrast, I hear essentially the same argument more frequently against God.

Like this: there are holes in scientific knowledge, but we know that science has capacity to provide the answers. It’s science of the gaps. There’s a strong faith that the ‘scientific method’ is the single method capable of finding truth and certainty.

In my experience, the fields in which this mantra tends to appear are: ethics and society; the nature of mind, consciousness and personhood; questions of ultimate reality and purpose.

The weaknesses of Science of the gaps are many. Here are three:

  • Lack of knowledge is empirical evidence that science doesn’t (yet) know everything. It’s against evidence to counter by saying, ‘But science can know everything.’
  • It doe not allow for complementary true explanations. When a family wants to know why a car accident happened, the laws of physics don’t help. Yes, physics gives a true picture of momentum, force, etc. But the family wants to know about drunk drivers, blinding sun or illegal mobile phone use.
  • It’s impossible to prove the basic assumption. We only prove that science can know all things after science knows all things. In other words, the starting assumption is itself non-scientific.

In science (as in Christianity) it pays to ‘Mind the gap’.

 


 

Religion’s biggest enemy

Melbourne just hosted the Global Atheist Convention. While I have not been a keen follower of these events, I have the distinct impression that the discussion has been a whole lot more constructive than previously. Of course that may reflect the sources of information I gravitate towards.

One stream of comment in the New Atheism is the ridicule of religion. Much of the ridicule, unfortunately, holds dearly to a false premise: that atheists the only ones to ridicule religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The greatest mocker of religion is God. The strongest words against religion are in the Bible. The human heart longs for religion – and it is a terrifyingly simple move to twist real life with the real God into religious life with a ridiculous god.

Before looking at some of the Bible verses that prove this, here’s my very brief take on the nature of religion. Religion is untrue and irrational (comparing the real God with imagined gods is farcical). Religion is human-centred (what we can do, not what God has done). Religion is, ironically, dehumanising (allowing ritual or idols to overrule human dignity). Religion is enslaving (the demands of ritual never end, for achievement is never guaranteed).

God’s ridicule includes:

Their [the nations’] idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Psalm 115:4-7

He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!”  And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
Isaiah 44:14-17

I also think of Elijah’s ridicule of the prophets of Baal in their religious frenzy. “Surely he is a god! Rave harder, that will get him out of the toilet to answer your prayer” (1 Kings 18:27).

God is not comfortable with religion. He does not tolerate it. He is not generous or welcoming to religious ideas. These things offend him, and belittle all of his creation. In consequence, God moves beyond mockery to judgement. He acts against religion. God’s searing indictment strikes fear into the heart of the religious:

Those who make them [idols] become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
Psalm 115:8

It’s a most fitting and most awful prospect – to follow a false god is to become like that false god. This process, and God’s active part in it, is seen in Romans 1.

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up …
For this reason God gave them up …
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.

Galatians trumpets the view that religion is slavery and deadly. To insist upon non-essentials (in Galatia, it was circumcision) is astonishingly against the grace of Jesus Christ. Religion is anathema, accursed by God (Galatians 1:8-9). Paul knew what he wanted for those who peddle religion as a way to God. I can assure you what he wanted was not tolerance (Galatians 5:12.)

Religion’s biggest enemy? It’s God.

 


 

Telephone support line

Caller: Hello?

Voice: You’ve reached the Selfish Gene Support Line, 1800 ATHEISM. Can I help you?

Caller: I saw your number on a telegraph pole. I said, ‘I can’t believe how lucky I am to see that. I trust these guys.’

Voice: Thank you. We believe we’re offering a necessary service.

Caller: The thing is, though [pause] … I just feel so down. It’s all so empty, and I can’t find the answers.

Voice: Let’s talk about some of that. What kinds of questions trouble you?

Caller: If it’s worthwhile at all. I guess ‘it’ is life. And life means my family and job and fun times and … everything. I just feel a hollowness there.

Voice: Do you have any break from the feeling.

Caller: If I do, it’s fleeting. The beach – beautiful! But I ask ‘why?’ Dinner with friends – a laugh a minute, but I still feel trapped inside my skin. It’s always, ‘What’s the point? Who am I anyway?’

Voice: How serious is this for you?

Caller: You’re wondering if I’m suicidal, aren’t you? And you ask so nicely! Thanks. But yes, I’ve wondered if I should end it all. There just seems to be no hope, no answer to my questions.

Voice: Let me assure you, you have great questions. And as we always say Science has all the answers. This is what will set you free, Science has all the answers. [Sound of disconnect.] Hello? Hello?

 


 

A false syllogism

Here’s a false syllogism I keep seeing assumed behind various comments (usually, comments from those who concur with what is being called New Atheism).

  1. Science has discovered many truths about reality
  2. Science will discover many more truths about reality
  3. Therefore science alone is sufficient to explain all reality

1. and 2. are true. Still, 3. does not follow. The conclusion, statement 3, introduces ideas not at all part of the two initial statements – science alone, and all reality – and therefore not valid logical inferences.

This is not a new mistake: witness the logical positivists (brief & free definition here). This blog suggests it’s a mistake that will recur, and then be followed by the obvious rebuttals.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Even in anti-God rhetoric.