May 5, 2009

Is Christian Terry Eagleton the New PZ Myers?

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Personal Experiences, Worldview tagged , , , , , , at 10:23 am by Andrew

One response by religious people to the rise of the so-called “New Atheist” movement has been to wade into the trenches and ratchet up apologetic arguments in an effort to convince the wavering that religion is at least as well-supported as atheism. Evaluating those arguments is the bread and butter of this site.

But, as Stanley Fish reminds us in his review of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, the religious can take a different approach as well:

When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” [Terry] Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Oddly, this reminds me of PZ Myers’ off-the-cuff remark — played to ominous music in the schlock propaganda film, Expelled, of course — that he would like to see religion reduced to the role of knitting in American society:

If only PZ had said “ballet” instead of “knitting” — perhaps we would have been spared that awful movie. 🙂

Seriously, though: both PZ and Eagleton are essentially advocating for the same thing, even if neither of them realize it. When religion is thought of as a personal preference, those who hold it and those who don’t occupy roughly the same social and political space; nobody thinks that you need to appreciate knitting or enjoy the ballet to hold elective office in this country, for example. Thus, the more we see theists move to Eagleton’s position, the more we atheists are accepted in the social, political and cultural mainstream. And that’s primarily what even the most vocal “New Atheists” (like PZ Myers) want.

May 1, 2009

How to Give an Atheist Eulogy

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , , , at 11:50 am by Andrew

One of the interesting challenges about being an atheist in a culture that is suffused with Christian heritage is how to handle moments where common courtesy typically calls for a religious-y sentiment. On the one hand, you don’t want to be a hypocrite and mumble something that you don’t believe; on the other hand, those situations aren’t typically about you, and it’s awfully self-centered to start a religious debate at, say, someone else’s funeral.

Now, I don’t know anything about the religious beliefs of one of my favorite sportswriters, Joe Posnanski — I always sort of assume that American writers with undisclosed religious beliefs are generically Christian — but when I read his eulogy for a former co-worker, it struck me that this is exactly the model for how we atheists can pay our respects to those with whom we profoundly disagree.

April 25, 2009

The Other Side Speaks!? Freepers (Try) to Defend the ICR

Posted in Atheism, Creationism, Law tagged , , , , , , , at 9:59 am by Andrew

In the interest of full disclosure, defenders of the ICR are out — if in somewhat less than full force — at FreeRepublic. You can see the comment thread humming along nicely, brimming with “how-dare-those-atheists-make-fun-of-our-font-size”… until a freeper who also happens to be a lawyer shows up. Oops! 🙂

I don’t care how much you hate atheists — and for these guys, it’s a lot — there simply aren’t glasses rose-colored enough to make someone believe that the ICR is going to come out on top of this dispute.

My favorite bit:

Wow, I just read though the article. For ranting and raving it wins a gold medal. For actually providing a discernable argument it fails utterly. ICR won in Federal court when California tried to do the same thing some years back, so one would expect they know exactly what to do to win again. This critic is going to look very foolish, I expect.

Since the ICR settled out of court in California in exchange for a religious exemption from the law, this is actually a pretty strong point… for the atheist. Of course, you wouldn’t know this if you only read ICR’s own ridiculous account of the lawsuit.

April 21, 2009

Richard Dawkins Address to American Atheists

Posted in Atheism, Creationism tagged , , , at 1:48 pm by Andrew

The full hour-length video is below:

HT: Debunking Christianity.

February 10, 2009

Subjective Personal Experiences

Posted in Atheism, Personal Experiences tagged , , , , , at 1:51 pm by Andrew

1. Subjective Personal Experiences Do Not Justify An Objective Belief in God.

This post summarizes the first set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that personal revelatory experiences provide sufficient direct evidence for belief in God. My ongoing, in-depth treatment of this issue is hyperlinked to the right and can be found here.

As a threshold matter, when one person claims to have had a direct, revelatory experience of God, that claim is direct evidence only for that person. From my perspective, it is hearsay. I can’t evaluate your experience; all I can do is evaluate the fact that you’ve claimed to have such an experience.

Now, I have no doubt that religious believers who claim to have experienced God in some subjective or visionary way are, on the whole, generally sincere about those claims. But those claims are, of course, not restricted to Christians. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – people of every religion claim such subjective experiences, and they can’t all be true.

One particularly compelling counterexample comes from Mormons, who believe that seekers should pray about the Book of Mormon to see if they receive a “burning in the bosom” – a subjective verification – that it is true. Here’s how an evangelical Christian apologist evaluates that argument:

What we must understand is that Latter-day Saints (LDS) believe these things for the same reason that people everywhere believe the things they do: they want to believe them. … This should come as no surprise to evangelicals who have read the Apostle Paul’s revelation of the roots of human idolatry in the first chapter of Romans. Fallen humans have affections and inclinations that they then prop up with beliefs, convincing themselves that their systems are true.

Another evangelical is a bit more direct:

Remember also that Paul never asked any potential converts to pray about his message. What he taught was found in the Scriptures and they could verify it and join the group of wise people, if they would repent and submissively place their faith in Jesus Christ to follow him. See Acts 17:11,12 cf. Acts 20:21; etc. … Yes, the devil can duplicate peace. That is what he does in transcendental meditation (TM) and also in Catholicism after one receives the Eucharist. The devil uses these and other experiences to deceive.

Thus, Christians themselves concede that personal, subjective experiences – particularly of the kind promoted by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the like – are insufficient to warrant a belief in God! When someone claims to have been visited by God, it is more reasonable to believe that that person is sincerely mistaken, engaged in wish-fulfillment, and so on.

In the most extreme cases, we think people who hear divine voices are suffering from paranoid delusions. Consider the sad case of Andrea Yates, who (apparently) sincerely believed that she heard the voice of God commanding her to drown her five children. On face, her case isn’t any different from what Abraham claimed to have heard directly from God in Genesis 22:1-10. Why, then, does virtually every Christian have no difficulty concluding that Ms. Yates was insane?

I submit that whatever our “worldview” — in day to day life, we are called upon to evaluate claims like this from a variety of religious, spiritual, and other sources. Uniformly, we reject these sorts of experiences, standing alone, as being sufficient justification for the truths of the beliefs asserted in those experiences. For these – and for the other reasons discussed on the in-depth “Subjective Experiences” page, I conclude that this first set of arguments is insufficient to warrant belief in God.