Dawkins and Atheistic Overconfidence

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Richard Dawkins is often accused of being a fundamentalist atheist. He dismisses theism almost without argument. The arguments he gives are often straw men or miss the point in some other way. He shows little familiarity with the best philosophical representatives of theism, and since his work on atheism is actually philosophy he's really dropped the ball in backing up his views. It ends up looking like mere dogmatism without much allowance for dialogue with the other side, i.e. fundamentalism.

Dawkins' response:

The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that’s overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence – trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost. 

Macht at Prosthesis offers a reply, and I think he's right. What atheists are rejecting when they reject theism is not mere theism. They reject a whole set of beliefs and values, a way of life, a kind of community, a view on the meaning and purpose of life, and so on. They reject the fundamental conception of how most people in the world today and throughout history have seen the significance of their lives and how they live. That does seem to me to be disanalogous with merely not believing in an invisible unicorn that someone else tells you is in the room.

I had to laugh when I read his response to the charge that Hitchens rants. I'm sure this is coming from his being on the receiving end of the same charge. He insinuates that the charge comes from an assumption that anyone speaking against Christianity is ranting. Not so. Many of the people I've seen making this charge are actually atheists themselves, and they think Dawkins,  Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris are embarrassments to the atheist cause for their unhealthy and irrational rhetoric. They rant with fundamentalist zeal, not caring about how fair their arguments are. Many theists who make the charge compare such work with good atheistic apologeticst, e.g. the philosophical work of William Rowe or J.L. Mackie. The new book by Robin le Poidevin may also be in this category. They show an awareness of contemporary theistic philosophy in its best form and explain why they disagree with theism nonetheless.

Saying that Dawkins or Hitchens rants does not in any way come from an assumption that all who criticize theism are ranting. It's simply an observation that they use very harsh language to criticize while hiding behind unfair and ignorant representations of their target rather than dealing with more representative or more reasonable positions or people. Harsh, passionate language directed against a group one is not being all that fair toward isn't all that far from ranting.

Some examples right in this piece:

1. Thinking that someone must be a half-hearted religions apologists for thinking God isn't some old man with a beard.
2. Calling the Bible Belt a reptilian brain, whereas the coasts are the cerebral cortex.
3. Connecting the Bush Administration with something he's calling know-nothing theocracy, which either (a) waters down theocracy to the point of being unrecognizable or (b) amounts to real paranoia and conspiracy theorizing. See also #8 below.
4. Equating the thoughtful with those who would receive Hitchens well.
5. Presenting without argument a view about biblical reporting of events in Jesus' life that shows no awareness of contemporary evangelical views (I don't mean that it disagrees; he couldn't assert what he says and be fair to those who disagree without some awareness of and response to good work by real scholars like Richard Bauckham, R.T. France, Darrell Bock, Craig Evans, and Craig Keener, who are generally recognized by skeptical biblical studies specialists as good scholars).
6. Relying on a pretty hideous straw man version of penal views of the atonement.
7. Presenting those who hold to the Ten Commandments as believing that this was God's first revelation of any moral content to humanity and as thinking that special revelation could be the only source for any moral knowledge, when the Bible itself discusses the particular command he picks out (not to murder) long before the Ten Commandments arrive (explicitly in Genesis 9 and implicitly in Genesis 4), and the Bible itself treats the first murderer as having been responsible despite never being told not to do it (as far as the text reveals).
8. Referring to this view of interaction with God by saying "the President of the most powerful nation on earth takes his marching orders directly from God" and then connecting that point with the worst examples of religious justifications for atrocities.

Now it's true that some of this is merely summarizing Hitchens' views, but Dawkins does so approvingly, and he seems to think that the kind of thing he and Hitchens both do is not ranting. Whatever you want to call it, it's not based on an accurate assessment of the most thoughtful of religious people, and it often uses pretty harsh language indiscriminately in a way that's hard for me to see as remotely fair to those being criticized. If that's not ranting, then surely it's something in the ballpark.

Update: Dawkins the aworldviewist

16 Comments

"They reject the fundamental conception of how most people in the world today and throughout history have seen the significance of their lives and how they live."

Irrelevant. They argue that there is probably "no god" (and certainly not the personal god of Christianity). Whether the majority of people have seen the significance of their lives through the many gods that have been invented tells us nothing about whether or not there IS a god.

"Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris are embarrassments to the atheist cause for their unhealthy and irrational rhetoric."

Again, irrelevant to the point of whether or not there is a god. Also, you might consider that there are many reasons for the embarrassment of some in the atheist community.

Largely the community has been historically confined to the same closet the gays were in. That's not so any more and you will be hearing more and more outspoken individuals. But, to my point, many current atheists grew up in a world where it was impolite to challenge the faith-based beliefs of others. So when some atheists speak strongly, they are quickly dismissed by theists and some atheists as "dogmatic", "shrill", "hateful".

Any reasonable person can read even your cherry-picked examples and see that those accusations don't hold up. Unless, to paraphrase you, one waters down "ranting" to the point of being unrecognizable.

Now, personally, while I think these guys have dozens of terrific points to make, I too wish they would use a slightly different tactic. Only because I recognize how fragile your (the believing community - not you personally) feelings are. I would love to see you all living by reason, common-sense, rationality but I don't think making you angry - even if its unjustifiable anger on your part - is the best approach.

That said, they can say what they have to say any way they want. They do it their way, and I do it mine. But it's just passionately argued responses to religion - it's not ranting.

So I give you every opportunity (though you've had plenty over the millenia) - show me the evidence. We have lots of evidence of how things work in the natural world. Not evidence of everything, but every decade more and more is uncovered. None of it points to a god.

The evidence that we don't yet have is also NOT evidence of god. It's simply things we don't know. The books from 3,000 years ago written by bronze age shepherds is not evidence. Your personal faith and testimony is not evidence. Where is it?

If you want to read some interviews with people not so very different from you,stop by my blog sometime. I'm interviewing folks who only recently "came out" as atheists. They had also been raiesed in various religious traditions.

Irrelevant. They argue that there is probably "no god" (and certainly not the personal god of Christianity). Whether the majority of people have seen the significance of their lives through the many gods that have been invented tells us nothing about whether or not there IS a god.

I wouldn't say that it tells you nothing. See my posts in this series on no-evidence arguments. I'm not going to rehash all that here, but I've spent a good deal of time looking at the kind of claim you're making. I don't think it's quite true.

Furthermore, you've misrepresented my point. I'm not claiming that Dawkins' argument is undermined by the fact that a lot of people have believed. I'm claiming that his argument is undermined because it's not mere theism that's being rejected. He's saying that there's no epistemological difference between someone with no faith values merely adopting atheism as an additional thesis and someone who is a theist abandoning a whole way of looking at the universe. Surely it takes quite a bit more to overturn a whole way of looking at the universe epistemically than it does merely to adopt one claim that fits perfectly well into the views you already have.

Again, irrelevant to the point of whether or not there is a god. Also, you might consider that there are many reasons for the embarrassment of some in the atheist community.

But I didn't connect this with that point. All I said is that Dawkins is misrepresenting the facts by pretending that people who describe him as ranting are doing so because he's attacking Christianity. They're not, at least not the ones I've been seeing. Most of them are atheists who themselves disagree with atheism, and the others have explicitly stated that there are atheists who critique theism or Christianity who do so without the kind of rhetoric and bad arguments they find in Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.

Largely the community has been historically confined to the same closet the gays were in. That's not so any more and you will be hearing more and more outspoken individuals. But, to my point, many current atheists grew up in a world where it was impolite to challenge the faith-based beliefs of others. So when some atheists speak strongly, they are quickly dismissed by theists and some atheists as "dogmatic", "shrill", "hateful".

That's not remotely my experience in today's universities. Atheism is simply assumed in the circles I run in, and theism is viewed as quaint, irrelevant, silly, and spooky by most academics I know. Atheism is much more academically respectable today than theism is, regardless of what was true historically (and in philosophy this was actually even more true when Dawkins was coming of age than it is now; almost no one in philosophy was a theist back then). Dawkins has a persecution complex, but it doesn't fit with reality in the very environment he spends most his time in.

Any reasonable person can read even your cherry-picked examples and see that those accusations don't hold up. Unless, to paraphrase you, one waters down "ranting" to the point of being unrecognizable.

I made some claims. If you think I'm wrong, respond to those claims. I stand by them, all of them. I don't think he's being fair to his opponents. I think he uses unjustifiably harsh language. I think he ignores much of the reasoned literature on the topic that he's chosen to write about. Yet he uses passionate and heated language that makes those who disagree with him look like complete fools and irrational book-burners. I don't see it as a stretch to treat that as ranting.

Dawkins doesn't usually make me angry. I'm much more often laughing in disbelief that someone so educated can be so ignorant about philosophy and yet write a book that basically is philosophy. It does make me sad to see how so many are reading his books and being taken in by ignorance and fear-mongering under the guise of intelligent thinking. I do insist on pointing out his errors and misrepresentations, but I don't see how that's the same as getting angry. You yourself just wanted to distinguish between ranting and passionate, rational argumentation, but now you want to accuse anyone criticizing Dawkins of being angry.

I've known plenty of people raised in religious traditions who became atheists. In fact, a large percentage of my philosophical colleagues are in that category. It hasn't changed my thinking on the truth of Christianity, and I've talked to some of them at great length. I just don't think their rejection of theism is all that motivated. It usually involves disappointment with some particular Christians and isn't really about the philosophical issues at all, but I don't find those philosophical reasons for atheism to be especially motivated either.

As for the no-evidence issues, go ahead and see my series on that, which I linked to above. I put a lot of time into it, and I've taught those issues to classes over several years with probably over 300 students, so the result had to survive all their objections. I'm not going to repeat everything I have to say about it here, since I've already got it in other posts.

Also, only some of the biblical books would have been from 3000 years ago. Many were as recent as about 2000 years ago, and some might be older than 3000 years. Regardless of the age, I've argued in this post that it can constitute some evidence.

But those are points to be discussed on other posts. My challenge to you is to explain how I've gotten Dawkins wrong or how any of my points above are not instances of what I said about them. You didn't seem to want to engage in that discussion, but you were happy to draw a conclusion as if we had. That's not the rational discussion that you say you favor.

Jeremy - Challenge away, but I write about what matters to me, as you write about what matters to you. Whether Dawkins, in fact, is "ranting" is not of interest to me. I think it's a weak ad hominem to even refer to it, rather than the gist of his arguments, but if he is a stark raving loon, it really has no bearing on my interest.

My interest is in your EVIDENCE of god. Perhaps you provide it in the other places you linked me to. I'm hopeful that you have not linked me to your personal apologia for religion. Will I see a shred of scientific evidence in your writing? Just tell me that I will, and I'll read it. But just your statement here that YOU BELIEVE that the biblical texts DO INDEED provide at least some of the proof, is very cautionary to me. I'm just asking you to assure me that I'm not wasting my time. I fully understand you not making all the arguments again here, that you've made elsewhere, but I do want to know that they represent actual falsifiable evidence of a god. That's all I ask.

And you really need not explain to me the actual age of the texts. I'm well aware that some may be based on stories from more than 3,000 years and that some have been written possibly 300 after the time of Caesar. I gave 3,000 years as a very rough number, since we don't know the dates with certainty, and I notice you took no umbrage with my description of the people who wrote it. I think you realized that my point was that the texts represent the religion of ignorant and superstitious middle eastern tribesmen from long, long ago.

You said: "That's not remotely my experience in today's universities."

While it is true that the most intellectual segments of our society have been largely secular for at least 2 generations, this represents but a tiny fragment of the whole. As you well know. The average atheist has tended to keep his/her thoughts to themselves - and STILL do. I'm postulating that you are witnessing a change. Soon, it won't just be among the intelligentsia.

You also said: "I've known plenty of people raised in religious traditions who became atheists. In fact, a large percentage of my philosophical colleagues are in that category."

We agree 100% on something! People have largely arrived at an atheistic default position on the universe through their own efforts at thinking things out, and not because we have a society that does anything except herd the next generation into line. It's wishful thinking on your part that its nothing more than "disappointment" with failed religion or failed individuals. You don't give the people credit!

One a final note, you said: "It does make me sad to see how so many are reading his books..."

As relates to your basic argument in this post, its "book" not plural. Dawkins has been a best selling author for over 30 years. One book is philosophy. The others are all science. Great, hard, decisive science on evolution - not DEFENDING it, but explaining innovating - expanding. It "does make me sad that so many have not read his books" and that an apparent teacher would not be encouraging them to do so. Have you read The Selfish Gene or The Ancestor's Tale? Eye opening reading that anyone proud of their intellect should have read by now.

Whether Dawkins, in fact, is "ranting" is not of interest to me. I think it's a weak ad hominem to even refer to it, rather than the gist of his arguments, but if he is a stark raving loon, it really has no bearing on my interest.

It's not an ad hominem unless I'm claiming that his thesis is false because of it. I'm not.

As for the posts I linked to, they discuss the philosophical issues behind the no-evidence argument. You are assuming that the no-evidence argument is a good argument. I give philosophical arguments against your assumption. My conclusion is that one need have no evidence whatsoever in order to have rational belief in God, even though I do think there is some evidence for the existence of God. But what I'm doing is philosophy, not science.

I think you realized that my point was that the texts represent the religion of ignorant and superstitious middle eastern tribesmen from long, long ago.

Actually, that's not what you said. You said they were written by bronze age shepherds. Well, some of them were, but that says nothing about whether they are superstitious or whether they had a genuine relationship with the actual creator who inspired them to write in a way that reflects reality. Their profession and time period are irrelevant to that issue.

People have largely arrived at an atheistic default position on the universe through their own efforts at thinking things out, and not because we have a society that does anything except herd the next generation into line.

There are reasoned arguments that trace out naturalism and atheism from a set of controversial assumptions that atheists start from, but I'm not going to grant that those assumptions are arrived at by reason. There are lots of possible explanations how people arrive at them, but reason isn't one of the options, because ultimately any view arrived at by argument is going to depend on premises at some point that are unargued but simply assumed.

It's wishful thinking on your part that its nothing more than "disappointment" with failed religion or failed individuals. You don't give the people credit!

I'm just reporting on what they tell me. They give accounts of what led them to begin disbelieving, and it's usually events in their lives.

As relates to your basic argument in this post, its "book" not plural. Dawkins has been a best selling author for over 30 years. One book is philosophy. The others are all science.

Well, his work in evolutionary theory also involves a significant amount of philosophy, and I'd be philosophically at odds with a number of his assumptions in some of that work. But I was mostly thinking of this most recent book, and I was mostly thinking of the lots of copies of it that have sold. But I did mean more generally this book, the articles, interviews, book reviews, and so on that he's done in the wake of the book, and the books he's written earlier that do at some points deal with some of the issues related to it. I would recommend to certain people to read his work on evolutionary theory, but I'd recommend that they read it critically. When I said it was sad, I was referring to those who think he's wonderful and accept everything he says without bothering to see if the philosophical arguments he discusses have more to them.

"I would recommend to certain people to read his work on evolutionary theory, but I'd recommend that they read it critically."

2nd thing we agree on 100% Jer!

That is, as long as you mean that in the sense that they should read EVERYTHING that way...

WOW!!! Have you really had over a half million visitors? Makes me feel kind of bad for taking issue with you. I can only imagine the seething atheistic hordes that have dropped in here and tussled. Good luck. I think you have a tough sell here that gets tougher rather than easier. At least you're doing the best you can. Philosophy (not science), is the only hope you have of at least getting some sort of stalemate.

I addressed the issue of valuing the good and the bad of religion on my site (http://youmademesayit.blogspot.com/2007/08/valuation-of-idea.html). Yes, you can make an argument that Dawkins and Hitchens don't give equal time to the good done in the name of religion but I think you can't just tally a score card and value religion on which side gets more points. The fact that such extreme bad things can be done because of religion makes it's value rather poor.

Now if you say "well there are good and bad theists just like good and bad atheists", I'd have to say then that religion therefore is superfluous if we're going to have good and bad people with or without it. That's best case scenario. Worst case is that there's evil that's done because religion inspires some to do so. If your reply is, "well those people are misguided or aren't true (christians, jews, muslims, etc)" then I have to ask what is the definitive definition of a jew, christian or muslim and let's see. Oh, there's some debate over that? Really? Well there you go then. If a religion is ambiguous to the point that someone could come to the conclusion that god, through his alleged words in a book, says to kill or do similar evil, then the ambiguity of that religion is responsible for what evils get done in it's name.

So I see no problem with just showing the bad results without giving time for the good.

PhillyChief, I don't think this is an issue I even brought up in my post, but I do think there are many things wrong that argument. Only one of them, and not the most important one, is that they ignore the good done in the name of religion. Ultimately you can't judge even a particular religion by the good or bad done in the name of it, since any idiot can come along and claim to be doing what they do in the name of that religion. It's much worse when you factor in the possibility that virtually any belief system can count by some stretch as religion, and so when someone's strongly-held belief system leads them to do things they can easily credit their religion for leading them to do it as long as there's some group who believes that set of things. How should that have any bearing on what other religions believe or do? It seems totally irrelevant to me.

Another difficulty is that the argument is reductionistic about moral value, as if consequences are the only thing that matter. I think that sort of view is helpful for children to assume as they learn morality. It's hard for them to think in any way other than consequences. But it's a stage most kids grow out of as they mature. Consequentialism makes a moral theory out of a children's immature stage of moral development. It ignores character and motivation. It ignores moral constraints that apply independent of the consequences. Its focus is entirely in the wrong direction for most of moral living. It would be much better in my view to evaluate religion in broader moral ways if you're going to insist on evaluating it solely in terms of its morality.

I think even that is reductionistic, though, because the most important question should be whether it's true, not whether it happens to have results that you don't like. If Christianity is correct, for instance, then the fallen state of humanity makes us not like a lot of what Christianity teaches, and our view of what is good is often going to be tainted with selfish or at least earthly perceptions of what's most important. So an argument that assumes such views of how to evaluate religion in some ways begs the question against such a view of original sin and a fallen taint to our moral evaluation.

But the most important problem is that they treat religion monolithically, as if religion is one thing, and you can look at its consequences to determine if religion is monolithically bad. It begs the question against a very common religious view, which is that the path to follow God is very narrow, and most who are religious are not on it. So if much done in the name or religion is bad, it's irrelevant to whether any particular religious practice that isn't like that is bad. It would be like showing all the bad that's happened as a result of sports in terms of injuries while ignoring the fact that people don't injure themselves playing ping-pong, say, and then including ping-pong players in your condemnation of sports.

Now I think your anticipated response is that this makes religion superfluous, but isn't that the point? It's not as if religion is some monolithic thing, with fundamental characteristics that explain everything about religious belief and practice in every case. But this sort of argument assumes that it is like that.

Of course it's true that there's confusion because of the ambiguity in language and the broader notion of Christian-influenced religion as opposed to the more finely-tuned notion of Christianity as faithful to the biblical documents. Religion when it's bad can inspire some to do evil, and some of that falls within the broader kind of Christianity. Some of it falls within the narrower notion, although I would argue that those cases are when people stray from the biblical texts. But you seem to want to blame it on the religion because the religion is ambiguous. Well, the broader tradition that people call Christianity is ambiguous, but you can't blame that on those who are Christian because they follow the biblical texts. It's the others who don't follow them accurately who we want to distance ourselves from. So why blame us if they insist on being called Christians while not following Christ? That's a strange argument.

I'm not sure how even your strange argument gives reason to be immorally selective in your evidence, either. If the evidence is there, present it. If the results are mixed, admit it. If the mixed results are just as true for those not motivated by religion (whether they use religion to motivate others or not), then admit that. Otherwise you're just pretending that the great evils of the world are the result of some monolithic entity called religion that can somehow be blamed for the worst evils without recognizing that the same undefined, monolithic entity can just as easily be responsible for much good, while many who aren't really religious are behind much of the worst of the evils as well.

But the whole argument involves far too many problems even to get to that point. Painting with so broad a brush leads to imprecision, inaccuracy, and the appearance of outright deceit (which I think may be deliberate in some cases and inadvertent in others, but the result is an inaccurate and certainly imprecise understanding of the facts). I can't see such an argument as healthy for the goal of seeking the truth.

I'm seeing this humanist perspective on religion being push more and more.

We're going to sit in the judge's chair and see whether religion is good or bad by our standards.

You can do that but as a Christian I could care less whether Christianity is good or bad by yours or anyone else's standards.

So Dawkins can prattle away but I don't really care. The Crusades or other atrocities aren't relevant.

I have only one questions: Are the claims of Christianity true?

If so then the evil a few Christians do is irrelevant. If not then the good many Christians do is equally irrelevant.

Using scientific views to address Theism also shows faulty thinking.

Science is really useless for anything beyond positive statements about the physical. Science isn't capable of addressing anything else so it can't be used to disprove or to prove if anything exists beyond the physical. It would be as if I denied the existence of microbes because I can't see them with my binoculars. Science likewise can't address what it's blind to.

Econ says: "I have only one questions: Are the claims of Christianity true?"

I absolutely agree, but then goes on to say:

"Using scientific views to address Theism also shows faulty thinking."

No it doesn't. You can make an empirical study of ANY ACTUAL PHYSICAL CLAIM made by a religion. Now, it's true that science can't disprove anything. However, it can take these claims about reality and show to an extremely high degree of probability, whether they are true or false.

And those things that it can't do ANYTHING with (moving out of the physical and into the metaphysical - as long as that metaphysical makes absolutely NO physical claims) then I wonder what is your fascination with it? If it comes down to "faith" (it does) then it's meaningless. Again, there are Muslims in the world whose faith is stronger than yours. Are they "right"? You would say, no. So would I.

John, the metaphysical isn't some realm beyond the physical. Metaphysics is just the study of the nature of reality. Physics is part of that. This is a real pet peeve of mine, but I think it's important. Much of science involves metaphysics, either as assumptions or as components of a network of views.

As for faith, you seem to have a "faith as mere belief" view, where faith can be stronger or weaker with no variation otherwise. But faith as it's spoken of in the Bible is a kind of knowledge, given by God through direct interaction with God in living the Christian life, being in community with other believers, praying, reading the scriptures, and so on. On what's probably the most widely-accepted epistemological model in contemporary philosophy (called reliabilism), you know something when you have a reliable means of acquiring true beliefs about something in a way that ties up with the reasons why those beliefs are true. If God does exist, and Christians genuinely do interact with God in a way that leads to true beliefs about God, then trusting God in such ways and following what God says can lead to actual knowledge that God exists, all without anything that you would probably count as evidence.

This is why I think your assumptions are out of step with contemporary philosophy in many ways. You're assuming an epistemological framework more at home with the logical positivists of the early 20th century than with today's philosophers. This isn't to say that contemporary philosophers don't have something to say about theism, since most aren't theists, but the general form of argument you're giving seems to me to rely on views philosophers have dismissed as extreme decades ago.

John B. insofar as religions make historical claims or claims about the interaction of physical entities, yes, science can address those claims of religion.

For example Mormon history of the Americas can be addressed by science. New Testament accounts of geography can likewise be addressed. Whether there is a God cannot be addressed by science.

What it can't address is the substance of religion (ei the spiritual or supernatural).

It depends on what you mean by "addressed by science". Inferences to the best explanation are a regular part of scientific argument. Common descent cannot be shown by science as a result of deductive arguments. It takes an inference to the best explanation to conclude that humans and apes have the same ancestors. People who question common descent, if they are giving scientific arguments, will have to question whether it is a good inference to what really is the best explanation. That sort of reasoning goes on in science all the time, and it's one of the places that science includes philosophical reasoning.

Now the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God, while a philosophical argument, is also an inference to the best explanation. Its fundamental premise is something scientifically observable, i.e. that the constants discovered through scientific investigation are within the very small range necessary for a universe that allows anything like the kind of rational life we have. Is it as scientific argument? Well, it's a philosophical inference to the best explanation that relies on a scientific premise. But so is the argument for common descent. Are they science? Is one science but not the other? Are they both science, but one is good science and the other not science? I'm not sure I have good reasons to decide this question.

(What this means is that science vague in a way much like religion, by the way, which brings us back to John's questions earlier.)

Now if you accept the fine-tuning argument as science, you also have to accept the biological design arguments as science (which doesn't tell you whether they're good science, just that they fit within the realm of what science in principle could include). It's the same argument form with just a different scientifically-discoverable premise. If you don't count it as science, it raises questions about the extent of science with other inferences to the best explanation, and you either have to explain the difference or remove much of what we think as science from the realm of science.

This also opens up the door, however, for thinking of arguments against God's existence from science. If the best explanation for some set of facts (observable scientifically) is the negative thesis that God doesn't exist, then we'd have a similarly-styled argument against God's existence. The two main arguments against God are the problem of evil (which relies on moral premises not discoverable in science, i.e. that certain states of affairs are good or bad) and the no-evidence argument (which relies on epistemological premises not discoverable in science, i.e. that you shouldn't believe anything without sufficient evidence).

Now maybe we can find similar non-scientific premises for the arguments for God, but I think you can also do that for arguments everyone accepts as scientific. It leaves me thinking that it's going to be very difficult to define precisely what counts as a scientific argument in a way that rules out arguments about God but retains arguments about evolution, say. But at the same time it's going to be difficult to include arguments for God while ruling out the arguments against God. So I'm happy not to worry about what counts as fitting under the vague term 'science', and I just present arguments and discuss whether they should convince us. Whether we call it science seems to me to be a rhetorical tool more than anything else.

If I've been unclear, I'm sorry but you've missed my point. I try to be brief to make points simple but I see the opposite has happened. Let me go through your responses, Jeremy.

Yes people do bad things in the name of many beliefs, but when those beliefs have no direct calls for doing those bad things, you can't fault the belief. I agree. If it does however, then certainly you can, and we all know the major monotheisms have such calls and examples.

Now of course you gave exactly what I said are the typical responses, that the consequences get waved away as the actions of either the crazy or misguided along with an allusion to this mythical correct navigational path through the holy books that avoid the dangerous, unseemly, contradictory, and/or no longer needed passages to reveal the "true" meaning. Well where is this fabled strait of truth? Oh, you have an opinion, but why should that opinion be considered more worthy than another's? Why are there so many different sects of christianity then? How can you say the people who do things which they feel the bible inspires them to do are wrong and you're right with absolute conviction? You can't. You can argue your case but it's opinion. This ambiguity of meaning is true for not just christianity, so yes, I don't have any problem speaking of them all as a whole. If you have a belief system that anywhere within it contains contempt for others and either direct calls for harming them or lengthy examples of them being harmed then that belief system is faulty and dangerous. I also don't see what good deeds or how many good deeds must be attributed to these beliefs to compensate for the bad, which is why I don't bother citing them.

Your sports analogy is faulty because you're citing accidentals as bad, whereas I'm clearly saying that the bad deeds done due to religious beliefs are not accidental. They are willful and inspired by the texts of the beliefs. As for my childish reduction of value of religion on Consequentialism, you've missed my point because that's not exactly what I was saying and I explained that in my earlier article. If I were merely arguing Consequentialism, then Helter Skelter, the White Album, and I guess the Beatles would be bad because Manson cites that song as inspiration for his deeds. Clearly that would be wrong. I'm also not saying that people who read pleasant passages from these belief books and then go do bad things faults the belief books. That would be wrong as well. What I'm saying is there are passages that speak of doing bad things, seem to encourage these things to be done, and when people follow those passages to do bad things then yes, we can use those consequences to fault the belief books. Now to this you raised the issue of a person's character and moral constraints. No doubt you feel that despite these passages being in these books, any sane person would know better than to follow them and therefore once again, it's not the belief books but rather the person at fault. Well I agree, sorta.

Yes, anyone with an ounce of common sense who reads passages about the need for harming or killing others would not be instantly motivated to carry out those instructions. To do so, the person probably would be unbalanced, delusional, or in some way crazy. However we're not talking about simple text, we're talking about text that is believed to be either directly from a god or inspired by a god and the people I'm speaking of wholeheartedly believe in the existence of this god, the supremacy of this god, are completely subservient to the will of this god and of course, believe these passages are the word of and instructions from that god. We can argue whether such belief is crazy or not (clearly I believe it is), but such belief overrides any personal character or moral constraints. This is the foundation of faith for all of these beliefs, and there is no appendix to any of them charting a course through them to highlight which passages to strictly follow and which are something else. Such navigation or cherry picking is highly contentious. So with passages advocating bad deeds, the requirement of the belief system that the book is the innerrent word of a god and that god must be obeyed absolutely, then that belief system can be held accountable for the consequences it inspires; furthermore, these bad consequences, no matter how infrequent compared to good consequences, are so severe that they render the whole as too dangerous to be acceptable.

Yes people do bad things in the name of many beliefs, but when those beliefs have no direct calls for doing those bad things, you can't fault the belief. I agree. If it does however, then certainly you can, and we all know the major monotheisms have such calls and examples.

Only if you take it out of context, at least with Christianity. I'm not going to speak for anyone else. There's no way someone can accept the entire Bible as authoritative and think that the death penalty for adultery is still valid. Not given what Jesus taught.

Now of course you gave exactly what I said are the typical responses, that the consequences get waved away as the actions of either the crazy or misguided along with an allusion to this mythical correct navigational path through the holy books that avoid the dangerous, unseemly, contradictory, and/or no longer needed passages to reveal the "true" meaning. Well where is this fabled strait of truth?

Straw man. If the foundational documents of Christianity are the New Testament works, and those documents give examples of how the old covenant documents apply (and how they don't apply) to the new covenant community, then there's no room for interpretations that allow for putting people to death for adultery, insisting on dietary laws that were operational for the nation of Israel, and so on. This idea that anyone can come to the text and take them however they feel like, even out of context, is irrational and based on postmodernist assumptions about language that just aren't true.

There are areas where Christians might disagree on how to take some particular things, but you're not going to get the wide-ranging disagreements that your argument requires. And it's not some prior commitment to which passages we don't want anymore. We want all the passages, because they're from God. It's just that it's stupid to take a command to a particular person or community who doesn't exist anymore as normative for a group today unless that command is passed on to a group that includes the people still around today (as is the case for a number of commands in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings). Making it out to be pick-and-choose might be accurate to some people who want the Bible to say what they want to preach, but those who take it as normative are by their own view required not to do that kind of thing.

If you have a belief system that anywhere within it contains contempt for others and either direct calls for harming them or lengthy examples of them being harmed then that belief system is faulty and dangerous.

Well, I don't. But of course it matters what it means to be harmed. I think it counts as harming someone if you discipline them or punish them for wrongdoing, then maybe I do, but I suspect you do too. Are you harming a criminal by putting them in jail or making them pay a fine? If so, then there's nothing wrong with it. If not, then I don't see what the complaint with the Bible is, since all it does is recognize that evil carries a penalty.

Of course the sports analogy is faulty. It's an analogy, and what makes it an analogy is that it isn't the same case but is like it in one relevant respect. What makes it analogous is something you've insisted on but are now denying. You're now saying that the wrong done by religion is part of some phantom essence of religion itself, but you've acknowledge just beforehand that people will use religion to justify all manner of things, so how can it have this spooky essence you're assuming it to have that will always lead to evil As for whether they're inspired by the texts of the religion, you claim that nothing can be inspired by such texts, since people can take those texts however they want. It's therefore inspired by what the people want to do. I claim that there's a right way to take the texts and that it doesn't allow for evil. Either way, it's not inspired by the texts themselves but by the evil in the person reading the text a certain way.

What I'm saying is there are passages that speak of doing bad things, seem to encourage these things to be done, and when people follow those passages to do bad things then yes, we can use those consequences to fault the belief books. Now to this you raised the issue of a person's character and moral constraints. No doubt you feel that despite these passages being in these books, any sane person would know better than to follow them and therefore once again, it's not the belief books but rather the person at fault. Well I agree, sorta.

I'm actually not sure I'm with you on this. It depends entirely on what you're talking about. If you're talking about the divine command for the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, I agree that it would be wrong for a contemporary Christian to take that as sanction for wiping out some supposed enemy of Christians, e.g. Muslims, abortion doctors, or gays (all of whom someone or other has claimed such a thing).

But my reason for that isn't because I think such a venture would be immoral. It's because I don't think anyone could reasonably interpret the scriptures in a way that would allow Christians to do that. I don't think the wiping out of the Canaanites was immoral. I would in fact defend it in the context as something that would normally be wrong because it is normally not in our hands to carry out God's judgment unless we're in a legitimate authority position over those receiving justice (e.g. a legitimate government or a parent disciplining a child).

Often God's judgment is through evil nations conquering other nations, e.g. Babylonian conquest of Assyria carried out divine judgment but not because Babylon saw it that way. But sometimes God may choose to work through willing servants, and I don't see how it could be immoral in principle for someone to carry out such a judgment. It would depend on whether God really is behind it. So I wouldn't think any sane person would know not to do something that I believe God did intend for people to do in following him. There were reasons God wanted it done in that context, and it is one of the more difficult points in terms of Christian apologetics, but I don't see it at all as thinking something is immoral and thereby pretending it's not really from God. It's seeing it as not commanded by God most of the time but only in that context, with an actual defense of why it's something God commanded in that context.

So I don't think there's a free-for-all in interpretation. If the Bible says God did something or said something, then Christians who take the Bible as authoritative can't ignore that. But there may be indications within the scriptures about what the purpose of God saying it or doing it would have been. Commands for a partcular nation aren't commands to Christians in the NT period or today. Commands to a particular congregation in the first century might illustrate a general moral principle, or they might be relevant to its particular context. There is a significant body of literature that looks at these issues from within a perspective that wants to be faithful to scripture, and a good deal of it has settled on some general principles that all agree are legitimate for figuring out how to interpret and apply biblical statements today. There are, of course, lots of differences of opinion over the practical result of lots of particular passages, but the general agreement in this literature over general principles is pretty large, and its general import for ethical questions is easily forgotten when you focus on the specific questions that people do disagree on, i.e. the harder cases. You're not going to find people in mainstream evangelicalism arguing that it's ok to lie to someone just to get more money or that it's ok to have adultery just because you don't like your wife anymore. You might find disagreement over whether it's ok to read Harry Potter or whether children should be baptized as infants, but those are hardly the kinds of questions you're thinking about. Only real outliers are going to be radical on those questions.

I do think there's still a consequentialist element in your argument, and your final sentence exemplifies it.

Jeremy, you have my admiration for your dogged perseverance in this and your gifting in being able to pursue the rabbit trails.

May God give you the grace and wisdom you need to accomplish your calling...

In my short version, it goes to one's a priori, which by definition are matters of faith. Even atheists depend on faith, since their "not God" a priori is established by faith.

The thing I find interesting though, is even when evidence points to intelligent design and over-arching architecture, they dismiss it with a wave of the chaos that was. It happened, so we have to accept it as it just is.

Yet that is essentially unscientific, which requires a cause for every effect. However, the reality is that underneath it all is a fundamental nihilism which turns everything, even the science they hold so dear into meaningless drivel, since without an overarching purpose and existence (which God supplies) everything is meaningless, useless, a momentary neuronic flash in the pan, then gone as if never were. From their own position, their own arguments are worthless slobbering with no meaning, beyond the momentary, soon to be extinguish bluster they are.

Essentially all they have to offer is "Eat **** and die!"

At least, following Pascal, I can offer a wager that anyone who takes it at least has some percentage of winning. They are losers forever.

I just thought I would add this fine quote from a comment reply Wretched made to his article on Belmont Club. It seemed apropos.

___________________
That's all very well, but I wonder how long an "enlightened" person can maintain this supreme indifference without becoming slightly imaginary himself. In the last analysis we expect that we ourselves will be taken seriously in a universe in which we declare everything else a joke. And maybe that expectation is even less realistic than Chambers' lawsuit with God. We can't be an exception to our own rule. A world in which nothing is worth standing for is one in which we are not worth standing for either.

http://fallbackbelmont.blogspot.com/2007/09/politician-sues-god-god-claims-court.html#4859500976358773366

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