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Exposing the Straw men of New Atheism: Part 1

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September 16, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Exposing the Straw men of New Atheism: Part 1

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

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.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Barry - #33601

October 7th 2010

nedbrek - #33482

I included “from outward appearances” in the quote precisely because I wanted to acknowledge the point you have now made. However, “To me, it demonstrates the overwhelming power of God’s grace.” is as definitive a statement as you can give and I am simply asking you to accept that you have zero basis for this.

And I wonder whether “When you become a Christian, there is a change inside.” is a scientific statement. fMri and religious belief is an emerging area of study with nothing like the robustness and explanatory power that we would like. In this sense, your comment is potentially scientifically testable - do you agree? Alternatively, (or additionally) this really might be a construct of your own mind and shared experiences, and there’s nothing to separate those from any number of thoughts that our minds create.

I am trying to point out, as politely as I can, that you have succeeded in convincing yourself of religious claims of truth, have centered and socialized these with other believers, but they amount to nothing more than personal incredulity and projection. You are making claims about knowing what you can’t know.

nedbrek - #33613

October 7th 2010

“your comment is potentially scientifically testable - do you agree?”

Absolutely.  There is some difficulty in that conversion is an act of God, so it is not entirely controllable.

I spent 27 years as a Catholic (very mild, wavering often into agnosticism, even believing Christianity to be a “beautiful lie”).  I also spent 2 years as a false convert - that was the first time I read the Bible.  I got out of it probably about as much as you have.

After I came to repentance, it started making sense.  Even the hard parts and the apparent contradictions.  And I was changed inside too.  Still the same personality, but somehow a little different (hard to explain).  I used to be an introvert, now I talk to total strangers (face to face! not just online

This is an experiment you can try for yourself.

nedbrek - #33620

October 7th 2010

I’m hesitant to respond to the second half, the most important part is my first post…

“I am trying to point out, as politely as I can, that you have succeeded in convincing yourself of religious claims of truth, have centered and socialized these with other believers, but they amount to nothing more than personal incredulity and projection. You are making claims about knowing what you can’t know.”

You haven’t clarified your position, but I assume you believe that no one can truly know anything (thus, the irony that you “know” I can’t know).  I understand that position, and I have been there.  I know what it is to go with the flow, and to believe just because the alternative is distasteful.

Barry - #33898

October 8th 2010

nedbrek - #33613

“After I came to repentance, it started making sense”

And this brings us back to vicarious redemption. I can understand the potential psychological release that could result from repentance, but you have already described this process as a one way street whilst allowing yourself to believe that it is two way. On no evidence outside of your own mind.

“I used to be an introvert, now I talk to total strangers (face to face! not just online “

The question I would ask is whether a plausible naturalistic explanation is more reasonable? We do know a lot more about self-confidence and its behavioral effect than we used to, although we don’t clearly know all of the causes of self-confidence. You seem happy to permit this as personal evidence of belief, but it isn’t difficult to explain absent religion.

Barry - #33901

October 8th 2010

nedbrek - #33620

“You haven’t clarified your position, but I assume you believe that no one can truly know anything (thus, the irony that you “know” I can’t know).”

Ahhh, objective and subjective reality! Maybe we should think of this as a scale of probability. When I accuse you of making claims of knowing what you can’t know, these are so improbable because of the total lack of any supporting evidence that would enable others to verify your claim. Emphasis being on the evidence AND verification. You seemed to acknowledge this earlier when you said (#33430) “We cannot know if God saved Dahmer, that is a transaction between them.” I assume this is because of the total lack of any evidence? In terms of “knowing”, we would classify this as highly improbable. I was puzzled, therefore, why your following definitive statement was made and wondered on what basis you made it?

nedbrek - #33953

October 8th 2010

Ahh!! I understand now.  Our thinking is totally different!  We are truly from two different worlds.

When I say “we cannot know if God saved Dahmer”, it is not because we are questioning whether there is a God who can save - as I take it you are imagining.

Dahmer would “know” if he were saved (just as I know).  We can only know his state from what we see, and what he tells us.  Now, he could be lying.  That is where the uncertainty comes in.

Re. verification:
Once again, this comes down to a question of authority (man centered or God centered).  You believe (or put your trust in - Greek: pistis, usually translated “faith”) what men say is right.  Perhaps men in lab coats.  Or men you have known for a long time.  Teachers or professors.  What you see for yourself.

These things cannot give you objective truth.  I think you would agree?

Barry - #34052

October 9th 2010

nedbrek - #33953

“These things cannot give you objective truth.  I think you would agree?”


nedbrek - #34056

October 9th 2010

The standard one, subjective is what we currently believe to be true; while objective truth is always true.

The language of modern science is “probably”, “we believe”, “our models suggest”, “evidence suggests”.

Barry - #34065

October 9th 2010

nedbrel - #34056

“while objective truth is always true”

Could you give me an example of an objective truth - something that is always true?

nedbrek - #34069

October 9th 2010

Hmm, so many to choose from
One of my favorites:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools”

What this tells us:
1) There is a God
2) God will not always do nothing about injustice (justice is real, not an illusion)
3) People hate God so much, they will prefer anything to honoring Him

Barry - #34119

October 10th 2010

Nedbrek - #34069

OK. You completely lost me with that last post. I asked for an objective truth, something that was “always true.” In what sense was that quote “objective”?

nedbrek - #34201

October 11th 2010

Sorry, I skipped a step

The question is “how do you know what is (objectively) true” (subjective truth is useless, because it is always subject to doubt)

There are two fundamental answers:
1) I am the judge of what is true (according to my reasoning, my senses)
2) I cannot find truth in myself, I must receive it from outside myself

#1 is the most common.  This, despite overwhelming evidence that our senses, and reasoning are flawed (phantom ring tones, optical illusions, etc.).

Are you familiar with Kurt Godel?  He has many interesting things to say about the limitations of formal systems…

Given that #1 is insufficient, we must consider #2.  Some people claim there are supernatural sources of truth.  These sources can be examined for predictions and self-consistency.  You have admitted that I am consistent, my views are based on Biblical Christianity - which uses a supernatural source of truth.

Given #2, anything in the Bible is (objectively) true.

Barry - #34218

October 11th 2010

nedbrek - #34201

It isn’t one step that you missed but the entire journey.

Just square this for me - You are quite right in pointing out that there is overwhelming evidence that our personal “senses and reasoning are flawed”. So, how do you get from this claim - “...there are supernatural sources of truth” - to this claim - “Given #2, anything in the Bible is (objectively) true”?

Isn’t claiming that there are supernatural forces subject to exactly the same kind of subjectivity bias you have correctly identified? Or if multiple people make the same supernatural claim does that add weight to the claim? How can a subjective claim about supernatural sources of truth be evidence for the bible being the source of objective truth?

You said “anything in the bible is objectively true”, does that mean “everything” or something more specific? I’m asking this for clarification before I point you to a whole host of things in the bible that we know aren’t objectively true.

nedbrek - #34357

October 12th 2010

You ask for a lot in 1250 bytes!

Everything in the Bible is objectively true.  We examine it using its own internal consistency (we would do the same for the Vedas and the Qur’an).  We understand that we are fallible, but we trust that the Holy Spirit is instructing us, and look to consistency among believers (individuals can get way off track and become very weird).  This includes the history of the faith, although it is not equal to the Bible.

Again, it is not the majority opinion which determines correctness (see Athanasius versus the world).  Rather one makes an argument for the consistency of their system of Biblical interpretation.  The system is then open to judgment.  In this, we might be uncertain of some things, or agree to disagree with those less mature.

This includes conforming to the requirements for Biblical interpretation.  The most important being that you must be spiritually alive, rather than dead (1 Cor 2:14, John 3:3)

Given that, I am skeptical of your claims

That said, why don’t you list your top one or two, and perhaps I can shed some light on them?

Barry - #34441

October 12th 2010

nedbrek - #34357

Are these statements objectively true? Pick whichever one or ones you wish.
Lev. 11:19, Deut. 14:11, 18
Lev. 11:20-21
Lev. 11:22-23
Lev. 11:6
Lev. 11:5
Lev. 11:4
2 Peter 3:5 RSV
1 Sam. 2:8
1Chron. 16:30
Deut. 14:7
Gen. 9:13
Matt. 13:31-32 RSV
Song of Sol. 2:12
Job 37:3
Isa. 11:12, Rev. 7:1
Lev. 11:21
Gen. 11:6-9
Luke 1:44
Gen 1:16
Isaiah 11:12

Barry - #34888

October 16th 2010



nedbrek - #34902

October 16th 2010

Ok, the third rule of hermeneutics club (the first two both being “Do NOT talk about hermeneutics club!” is “context, context, context” - who is the author, who is the audience, what is their situation.

Lev. 11:19, Deut. 14:11, 18
Lev. 11:20-21, Lev. 11:22-23, Lev. 11:4-6, Deut. 14:7

The dietary laws are perennial favorites.  The author is Moses (writing down what God told him on Mount Sinai), writing for the benefit of the people of Israel as they prepare to move into the promised land.

These laws are intended to “set apart” (proclaim as holy) the nation of Israel.  They are not an extract from Linnaeus.  Think of them more as an “engineering spec” (practical guide).  From their point of view, if it flies it’s a bird (the Hebrew word is related to wings) - if it craws on the ground (maybe having 4 big legs and 2 small, hard to see legs) it’s an insect.  Rabbits/hares/coneys are unclean because they reingest their feces (which is what “chew their cud” is referring to).

(I have notes on all the passages, I should be able to post them later… their are some real interesting ones!  This one is really straight forward.)

nedbrek - #34903

October 16th 2010

Weird, I thought I posted that days ago!  It also ate the post I just made!  Ahh, Usenet, technologically superior to Web 2.0, 20 years ago!

nedbrek - #34906

October 16th 2010

More simple ones, I am saving the best for last! (John 2:10

Creation / The Flood
-2 Peter 3:5 Refers to Gen 1:6
-Gen. 9:13 rainbow
- Gen 1:16 God created the sun, moon, stars

This is why some here believe in a young earth and a real (global) Flood.  The Bible talks about these things very seriously (not in a metaphorical way).

-1 Sam. 2:8 pillars of the earth (prayer of Hannah)
-1Chron. 16:30 earth cannot be moved (prayer before the Ark)
- Job 37:3 ends of the earth (Elihu speaking of God)
-Isa. 11:12, Rev. 7:1 four corners (eschatology)

These are all prayers about the nature of God, or idioms referring to “everywhere”.  Human language is full of idioms, the English translation of the Bible has penetrated our own idioms - you must agree?

Barry - #34982

October 16th 2010

nedbrek - #34902

“Think of them more as an “engineering spec” (practical guide).  From their point of view, if it flies it’s a bird (the Hebrew word is related to wings) - if it craws on the ground (maybe having 4 big legs and 2 small, hard to see legs) it’s an insect.”

“From their point of view”? From whose point of view? I have no difficulty with any of your explanations - they are exactly what we would expect from primitive people with the language and tools of the day. So, I either have to accept these (supposedly infallible) imperfections being caused by colloquial limitations, in which case the bible isn’t just “not true” but cannot be true, or you have to explain why the words of (or inspired by) the creator of the universe are so innaccurate on such basic matters of fact. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

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