Exposing the Straw men of New Atheism: Part 1

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September 16, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Exposing the Straw men of New Atheism: Part 1

In the past several months I have been sparring a bit with Jerry Coyne, in The Huffington Post, on USA Today, and here on The BioLogos Forum. Jerry is a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, author of a great book titled Why Evolution is True and an uneven blog of the same name. He is also a leading New Atheist and vigorous champion of science as a guide to real truth.

I am not sure how much energy Coyne is putting into being a “New Atheist.” He doesn’t appear to be reading widely in this role, and has recently been lampooning the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci for scolding him for being philosophically uninformed. His interactions with ideas seem to be generated by dropping in here and there on BioLogos, the Discovery Institute, or The Huffington Post and then reacting to the brief popular comments he encounters there.

Somewhere along the way Coyne got some really simplistic ideas about religion—perhaps from the same Sunday School pamphlet as Richard Dawkins—and he seems perturbed when he is challenged on these ideas. He is a champion of science, to be sure, but it often appears that he also has a simplistic view of science—not in the sense that he is not a good scientist but in the sense that he has a parochial insider’s view of science that does not seem adequately informed by its history, philosophy, and an awareness of how science works in investigations far from the kind of science he does.

Because Coyne’s arguments are so universal I want to address some of them in my next blog series. In addressing these ideas, my goal is not to “win” the argument about whether God exists. I think belief in God is incredibly complicated and that there are solid and defensible reasons to reject belief in God. I am turned off by simplistic apologetics arguments that presume that any open-minded thinker, when confronted with the evidence, will certainly have to accept belief in God, if not fundamentalist Christianity. I lost interest in the “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” genre of apologetics partway through my first philosophy course.

I am also put off, however, by the endless straw men arguments that populate this conversation. If we want to engage the conversation, then we need to put some effort into understanding the issues. And the New Atheists rarely do that. Dawkins is the most famous offender. His book, “The God Delusion,” was so riddled with adolescent confusion about philosophy and “village atheist” commentary that the world’s leading philosopher of biology, Michael Ruse, commented that “’The God Delusion’ made me ashamed to be an atheist.”

This series of blogs will address the army of straw men with which Jerry Coyne and the other New Atheist generals wage their war on religion. The phrase “straw man,” for those who are interested in such things, probably originated with the mockup “enemy soldiers” made of straw that were commonly used for practice. Who would not prefer to fight an army of straw men than real men? (Women have happily managed to escape this unflattering metaphor.)

If we compare a physical battle to a logical battle—an argument—then the “soldiers” of the logical battle are the “claims” or the “positions” in the argument. A verbal war against an enemy with strong claims and defensible positions is harder to win. So we often choose to wage such wars against a different army—one with weak claims and easily dismantled positions, but one that might be confused with the real army. We wage our war against straw men, rather than real men, and hope that nobody notices.

The straw man is an example of what is known as a logical fallacy, studied in introductory logic courses. The straw man fallacy is closely related to a number of similar fallacies, which have various names, including some ponderous Latin ones. Here are some examples of the sort that I want to look at in this series:

  1. Cherry picking: the act of choosing examples, as if they were typical, ignoring equally valid examples that contradict your position.

  2. False analogy: making an error in the substance of an argument—the content of your analogy—even though its structure seems acceptable.

  3. Hasty generalization: when you use a few inadequate examples and then generalize about the whole.

  4. Spotlight fallacy: This is a specific form of hasty generalization that occurs when we assume that all the examples are like the most famous ones getting media attention.

These fallacies are related to each other and are all examples of the straw man style of argumentation. I am frustrated that Jerry Coyne and the New Atheists spend too much of their time on straw man arguments, instead of engaging with the “enemy” where they are strongest.

The most profound thinkers always engage opposing arguments where they are strongest. Charles Darwin, to take one famous example, scrupulously avoided straw man arguments in “The Origin of Species.” He would carefully lay out the objections to his new theory as strongly as possible. He knew that his radical new ideas would be subjected to intense scrutiny and that there was simply no point in pretending that the counterarguments were made of straw.

Some of the arguments I want to examine include:

  1. The tendency of the New Atheists to lambast laypeople who acquired some wrong ideas in Sunday School studying religion, but to let them off the hook for the wrong ideas about science they acquired in the public schools. Most Americans spend way more time studying science in school than they do studying religion in church. So why is “religion” to blame for bad religious ideas but science gets off the hook for dumb science ideas?

  2. In our debate on USA Today, Jerry Coyne contrasted the complicated theological doctrine of the incarnation—the most mysterious idea in all of theology—to the function of penicillin—one of the best-understood ideas in biology. This is not an appropriate juxtaposition at all.

  3. The phrase “philosophical consistency” is tossed around like it represents some simple set of rules that allow us to see how religion is cheating. If only it were that simple. Science all by itself has issues with philosophical consistency that Coyne apparently doesn’t see because, if I may hazard a guess, he hasn’t spent a lot of time wrestling with the deeper issues of science.

As I take a hard look at Coyne’s army of straw men, I will do my best to not prop up a set of countering straw men. I am sure, however, that he will call me out on his blog if I do.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Barry - #36900

October 27th 2010

Written “for” peole at the time, or written “by” people at that time? Which? And is this your argument? God was just using the colloquial language of the day so as not to confuse people? So the acts of genocide he commanded, the stonings…they were just examples of god conversing in a way that made sense to people at the time. What absolute moral truth to these admonitions establish? Surely you have just advanced an argument for relativism?


Buck - #37115

October 28th 2010

Atheism is not only a belief system - it is a faith-based belief system.  To suspect there is no God is an intellectual idea or theory.  It lacks definitive proof.  To embrace the conclusion with the certainty entailed in adopting it as a guiding paradigm, that there is no God, is to go beyond the evidence to a metaphysical conclusion.  Since the conclusion goes beyond what is known, as the Atheist is not omnicient (if he were, it would prove God’s existence - the atheist being God), it is a faith-based belief.


nedbrek - #37164

October 28th 2010

Written “for” peole at the time, or written “by” people at that time? Which? And is this your argument? God was just using the colloquial language of the day so as not to confuse people?

For and by (although God breathed).  The first meaning is the one for those people at that time.  It must make sense to them (even apocryphal literature makes some amount of sense) for their use.

So the acts of genocide he commanded, the stonings…they were just examples of god conversing in a way that made sense to people at the time. What absolute moral truth to these admonitions establish? Surely you have just advanced an argument for relativism?

Not relativism, context.  Whatever the writings meant to those people, that is what we must understand.  Perhaps it is of little use to us today (such as all the ceremonial laws and history).  It does tell us about God’s character and plan.


Barry - #37509

October 30th 2010

nedbrek - “Not relativism, context.”

So that’s why the bible is so morally and ethically inconsistent and contradictory? It was only reflecting the contextual ethicas and morality of the time? How do you get from there to absolute moral truth?


Barry - #37510

October 30th 2010

Buck - #37115

“Atheism is not only a belief system - it is a faith-based belief system”

Buck, are you a troll? If not, please define the “atheist belief system”. And when you fail to do this, please write your apology.


nedbrek - #37650

October 30th 2010

I’m not sure what you mean by “morally and ethically inconsistent and contradictory”...

If you mean, why don’t Christians conform to the OT laws, that is because those laws were for that people at that time.  They demonstrated God’s requirements for perfection (what we must do to earn our way into heaven).

As Christians, we believe that Christ has fulfilled those laws on our behalf (part of the substitutionary atonement you are so aggrieved by).


Barry - #37809

October 31st 2010

nedbrek

“If you mean, why don’t Christians conform to the OT laws, that is because those laws were for that people at that time.  They demonstrated God’s requirements for perfection (what we must do to earn our way into heaven).”

So how do you know what laws are appropriate for today?


nedbrek - #37821

October 31st 2010

For a Christian?  We live our lives to serve God.  In this, the Ten Commandments serve as a “curb” (like on a street - so that we don’t “run off the road” so to say

For society?  Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, I say (well, I repeat what He said).  I am no theonomist.

If a law contradicts a command of God (generally, a command to worship or not worship), then a Christian is required to disobey (and suffer the civil penalties with humility).

Similarly, in a democracy, to attempt to use the law to enforce God’s standard is impossible.  Obedience comes from a change of heart, not external measures.


Barry - #38518

November 4th 2010

nedbrek

“If a law contradicts a command of God (generally, a command to worship or not worship), then a Christian is required to disobey (and suffer the civil penalties with humility).”

How do you know that the ten commandments weren’t just “...laws for people at that time”?


nedbrek - #38759

November 6th 2010

To some extent, they are.  God gave those commands (including all the ceremonial laws), and said “Keep all these laws perfectly, and it will go well with you - fail, and it will go poorly”.  This is an analogy for us.  If we want to get into heaven on our own, we need to keep all those laws perfectly (we need to integrate ourselves into the ancient kingdom of Israel, which is doubly impossible, since it no longer exists - and there is no temple!).


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