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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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nedbrek - #33247

October 4th 2010

Barry (32838) (thank you for your patience)

“Rather than “an innate desire”, I would say that the only consistent stand is that we are logical, orderly, and capable of meaning because God is all these things.  Without God, there is only nihilism, hedonism, and variants of that.  Logical atheism is self refuting.”

But you do realize that these words don’t actually mean anything? “...because god is all these things” - says who? God? The bible? Logic isn’t the preserve of atheists or theists. What is logical in claiming to know what you cannot know? I will absolutely accept that you are consistent, but there is a world of difference between consistency and logic.

Which words?  (I am describing the God of the Bible)

Can you know something that is told to you?  That is how I know.  Things told to us by God, written in a book (the Bible).

Can you defend the atheistic use of logic?


nedbrek - #33248

October 4th 2010

Barry (32839)

And exactly what does “...without god’s intervention” actually mean? You just pluck these utterly meaningless phrases from nowhere and assume they have some profound value. How does god intervene in my mind? How would I know? How would I not know? If I think he is intervening does this actually mean that he is intervening? If I want him to intervene, will he? Will he intervene if I don’t want him to?

I understand these simple questions are just examples of my utter stupidity, but I need you to help me attain the more natural and logical position of knowing that an imaginary being is controlling my mind and my thoughts. I guess I’m searching for your level of sanity.

Sorry, it is easy to get caught up in Christian jargon.  Many Christians urge people to “make a decision for Christ” or “ask Jesus into your heart”.

These phrases are not consistent with Biblical conversion.  We are “dead” due to sin, what can a dead man do to raise himself?

That said, yes, it very much seems like it is a decision you make (and that you can resist).  You are mostly the same before and after.  You can also tell that a change has occurred.


Barry - #33274

October 4th 2010

nedbrek - #33248

“We are “dead” due to sin, what can a dead man do to raise himself?”

I regard vicarious redemption to be a repellant and morally obnoxious man-made construct. It sounds like it is a foundational belief for you with the reference to “sin”. How do you square vicarious redemption with assertions that “free will” and “morality” are god-given?

I should add as context, that I have repeatedly been told by “liberal” as well as “nut case” (YE)christians that god would receive a “redeemed” rapist and murderer into “heaven”, yet never an unbeliever. Personally I couldn’t care less, but I always thought it a perverse value set that would lead to and support this kind of judgment. What do you think?


Barry - #33275

October 4th 2010

nedbrek - #33247

Which words? These words…

“Without God, there is only nihilism, hedonism, and variants of that.”

Assuming your behavior is social, are you really saying that the presence of a celestial influence is the only thing stopping you from inflicting a life a crime and nuisance on the world? I’ve had some christians spuriously (and seriously) assert that my (relative) good behavior as an atheist is due entirely to god’s broader influence in the world. Do you accept this? If so, why doesn’t god extend this influence to making me believe in him? Or does that get me back to the circular “free will” argument?

My point is that your words above mean absolutely nothing.


nedbrek - #33292

October 4th 2010

Barry (33274)

I regard vicarious redemption to be a repellant and morally obnoxious man-made construct. It sounds like it is a foundational belief for you with the reference to “sin”. How do you square vicarious redemption with assertions that “free will” and “morality” are god-given?

A lot packed in there!  Let me focus on one issue, which I haven’t seen you answer (forgive me if I missed it somewhere).

What is “morally obnoxious” without God?  Hitchens has an excellent phrase, “above us only sky”...

I should add as context, that I have repeatedly been told by “liberal” as well as “nut case” (YE)christians that god would receive a “redeemed” rapist and murderer into “heaven”, yet never an unbeliever. Personally I couldn’t care less, but I always thought it a perverse value set that would lead to and support this kind of judgment. What do you think?

Salvation is a gift from God, given without regard to merit.  If there was merit, it would not be a gift, rather wages.

Re. your scenario, from outward appearances Jeffrey Dahmer was saved.  This probably offends you.  To me, it demonstrates the overwhelming power of God’s grace.


nedbrek - #33293

October 4th 2010

Barry (33275)

“Without God, there is only nihilism, hedonism, and variants of that.”

I’ve had some christians spuriously (and seriously) assert that my (relative) good behavior as an atheist is due entirely to god’s broader influence in the world. Do you accept this? If so, why doesn’t god extend this influence to making me believe in him? Or does that get me back to the circular “free will” argument?

(This conversation is going four or five directions, we need threaded conversations, ala Usenet 1980…)

Our will is not truly free.  We are born into a system dominated by sin (rebellion against God).  We _are_ free to select what sin(s) we indulge in.

Yes, I agree that what good is in the world is the result of God (“common grace”).  Perhaps God will grant you the grace to believe.  Or not.  That is His decision.  Many Christians believe God’s ultimate goal is our salvation - that is man centered.

However, I do know, that if you call out to Him, and turn from sin - He will save you, you have His promise on that.


BenYachov - #33302

October 5th 2010

@Barry

>“In-volatile” means “unable to be vaporized”. Is that really what you meant?

I reply: Sorry about that I meant inviolate. I need to update my spellcheck.  Grown ups acknowledge their mistakes.  Second Grade Children ignore their mistakes & act like they never make them.  It’s most immature don’t you agree?

>So you duck the issues and respond with another ad hominem.

I reply: Look who’s talking. LOL!

>So, where have I been nasty as opposed to direct?

I reply: So in other words if I reproduce the numeral examples of your nastiness on this thread you will simply dismiss it as “being direct” or “forceful rebuttal”(i.e which really was mere “whiny nay-saying”)?  Right? I Gotcha!;-)


BenYachov - #33308

October 5th 2010

>Feser’s arguments against science as a poor a strawman… He starts his second paragraph by highlighting his strawman (“The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim…”) and spirals ever on downward.

I reply: Your reading comprehension ability is horrid for someone who claims to have read & understood Aristotle (& yet you didn’t seem to recognize terms like “pure actuality” or potency but claimed they “didn’t mean anything”? Funny, your like a guy who claims to have read Darwin but says “Natural Selection” doesn’t mean anything.).  Anyway I can’t resist one more correction of your questionable reading comprehension skills. Newsflash!  Feser didn’t write an essay against science.  He wrote an essay against scientism.  Scientism - is the view that all real knowledge is scientific knowledge—that there is no rational, objective form of inquiry that is not a branch of science.  The problem with scientism is that it is either a self-defeating concept or trivially true.  Scientism is a philosophical view not a scientific one.  You seem to have a major inability to tell the difference.


BenYachov - #33309

October 5th 2010

@barry continue from #33308

For example as a Catholic I deny the Protestant doctrine of Scripture Alone.  I believe in Scripture & Tradition.  It does not logically follow because I deny Scripture Alone I deny the authority of scripture.  Sadducee Jews in ancient times believe in the Pentateuch alone (sans the Prophets & the Writings) it doesn’t logically follow Rabbinic Jews or Christians who reject that narrow authority reject the authority of the Pentateuch. In a like manner rejecting scientism does not equal rejection of science!  That is just common sense.  Even if you believe in the philosophy of Scientism you can say people who deny Scientism deny science.  More common sense!

Your pretense of being a learned individual is unconvincing as will be whatever misdirection type response you cook up in order to avoid admitting this obvious mistake on your part.


BenYachov - #33310

October 5th 2010

@barry
BTW here is the quote from Dennett I cited too you on the other thread which you have forgotten.

“Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995, p.21”

I have all the science I need to know.  You OTOH seem to know little philosophy.  My unsolicited advice remedy that!


BenYachov - #33311

October 5th 2010

edit:Even if you believe in the philosophy of Scientism you can’t say people who deny Scientism deny science.  More common sense!


Barry - #33363

October 5th 2010

BenYachov - #33302

“Grown ups acknowledge their mistakes.  Second Grade Children ignore their mistakes & act like they never make them.  It’s most immature don’t you agree?”

Goodbye.


Barry - #33364

October 5th 2010

nedbrek - @33292

“What is “morally obnoxious” without God?”

At risk of opening a longer discussion, any behavior where the intent is to threaten or remove the natural rights of an individual. By natural rights I am referring to the choices individuals are free to make regarding how they live their lives.

” from outward appearances Jeffrey Dahmer was saved.  This probably offends you.  To me, it demonstrates the overwhelming power of God’s grace.”

Indeed.


Barry - #33365

October 5th 2010

nedbrek - #33293

“Our will is not truly free.”

I agree, but for very different reasons.

“We are born into a system dominated by sin (rebellion against God).”

I’ve never fully understand why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity would have an ego requiring such base acts of servitude. If I “call out to him” in the way I think you imply, I will have surrendered myself to the unknowing and unknowable.

It does seem, however, that you believe an individual who denies/rejects god to be in far greater sin than a “saved” serial murderer. By the way, how do we know that god saved Dahmer?


BenYachov - #33378

October 5th 2010

@Barry
>Goodbye.


I reply: See you around.


nedbrek - #33390

October 5th 2010

Barry (33364) “At risk of opening a longer discussion, any behavior where the intent is to threaten or remove the natural rights of an individual. By natural rights I am referring to the choices individuals are free to make regarding how they live their lives. “

I understand natural rights in the terms of imago dei.  Barring that, isn’t this an arbitrary optimization target?  Why not allow the strong to rule and dominate the weak?  Or apply some selection for fitness?


Barry - #33428

October 5th 2010

nedbrek - #33390

“Why not allow the strong to rule and dominate the weak?  Or apply some selection for fitness?”

What applies to individuals applies collectively.

How do we know god saved Dahmer?


nedbrek - #33430

October 5th 2010

We cannot know if God saved Dahmer, that is a transaction between them.  If I said President Obama and I shared a secret, only he could disprove it.  And God isn’t saying anything new today.


Barry - #33466

October 6th 2010

nedbrek - #33430

“We cannot know if God saved Dahmer, that is a transaction between them.”

But earlier you said (#33292)...

” from outward appearances Jeffrey Dahmer was saved.  This probably offends you.  To me, it demonstrates the overwhelming power of God’s grace.”

Clearly you don’t know, because it can’t be known. But this doesn’t prevent you from claiming that this unknowable claim “demonstrates the overwhelming power of God’s grace.”

It’s a strong claim. I’m just wondering on what basis you feel able to make it? You would have to accept that it clearly demonstrates nothing…wouldn’t you?


nedbrek - #33482

October 6th 2010

I did qualify it “from outward appearances”.  When you become a Christian, there is a change inside.  This is apparent on the outside.  Of course, outward signs can be faked.  Confessions can be lies.  That is where the doubt comes in.


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