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 - #34983

October 16th 2010

nedbrek - #34906

“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).”

So what way are we taking this? Is the bible literally true in these areas?

“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?”

I’m aware of that, but idioms are rooted in real life…they approximate in meaning to the derivation of the phrase. I’ve read a lot of theology and early bible history and textual analysis. The arguments between different researchers into the very identity of idioms in the bible is far from a “settled” issue. This hardly adds weight to your claim. So it’s an argument that suits your purpose, but it still causes huge problems for the claim that everything in the bible is “objectively true.”


Barry - #35061

October 17th 2010

nedbrek

I earlier stated - “I should add as context, that I have repeatedly been told by “liberal” as well as “nut case” (YE)christians”

I checked your blog when I clicked your name link. Seems I called you a “nutcase”. How do you feel about that? You didn’t respond.


nedbrek - #35065

October 17th 2010

Hello Barry, I am still working on your earlier posts…

I have no problem with you calling me a “nut case”.  I’ve been called worse by people far more important to me!


Barry - #35088

October 17th 2010

nedbrek.

I have a very dear friend of fairly recent standing who is also YEC…a fact that I discovered by accident only a few years ago. I call her a nutcase too. I don’t intend it to be offensive. However, we are polar opposite by virtue of YEC. My own mission is to make such beliefs bear a social and professional cost…i.e. completely unacceptable. So we will be in complete opposition. This discussion about truth takes an interesting meaning in the context of the contortions you have to put yourself through to believe in a young earth. Here we are on an acommodationist website where most old earth christians see you on the fringe, and where you have to make the greatest accommodation of all by wilfully ignoring or baselessly rejecting scientific evidence - and I mean “baseless’ in evidentiary terms, not theological terms. I look forward to hearing how you balance this, although I fully expect a line of circular reasoning…with the bible as evidence of absolute truth, the source of the truth being god, and we know that god is the source of truth because the bible tells us so. I really hope you can do better than this.


nedbrek - #35111

October 17th 2010

Barry, I admire you’re dedication to truth.  However, I don’t think you are acting consistent with your beliefs…  If there is no God, then nothing has any meaning.  By that I mean, (eventually) everything everywhere will die.  Your battle for the truth will have no impact on anything.  Not that this is an argument for God, but it is an argument against your crusade.

Does that make sense?  How do you justify your mission?


Barry - #35260

October 18th 2010

nedbrek, “If there is no God, then nothing has any meaning.” That’s a belief proposition and you will not be surprised that I don’t accept it. What do you mean by “meaning”? A purpose? A reason for being and then not being? I define meaning by my life and the interractions and experiences I share with others. That is more than enough for me. “Truth” in this context is also easy for me to define in purely naturalistic terms - “truth” being essentially that which can be known based on reason and evidence. This truth has a direct impact on my stated life meaning so you have no basis for a declaratory statement - ” Your battle for the truth will have no impact on anything.”

I understand your comments. I know your “argument”. But the idea that life has no meaning without god is the equivalent of a space in search of a gap. Attaching “meaning” to what cannot be evidentially established is as far away from “truth” as I think it is possible to get.

The earth is 6000yrs old - is that a statement of truth?


nedbrek - #35287

October 18th 2010

“I define meaning by my life and the interactions and experiences I share with others.”

Ok, so why can’t I live my life so as to fulfill the meaning I define for myself?  What gives you the right to interfere?


Mondo - #35357

October 19th 2010

Regarding Heddle, he had a reputation for trolling at Panda’s Thumb (not just expressing disagreement). Coyne calls him a troll here: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/rosenhouse-and-blackford-on-sullivan-on-evil/ That’s probably the explanation for the banning.

Heddle is on the “Scientific Dissent From Darwinism” list at the Discovery Institute. http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?id=660

Just looking at the second comment on Heddle’s blog I was directed to this proclamation by Heddle:

The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God.

http://helives.blogspot.com/2002/05/what-is-christian-well-there-is-not.html

Biblical literalism is truly evidence-averse. Look at Heddle flop when he encounters a biblical scholar: http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/06/hes_gonna_be_gay_too.php

So in addition to a reputation for trolling, there are the factors of ID proponent and biblical literalist. I don’t think anyone should be banned, but also I don’t see why the ban should be surprising.


Mondo - #35362

October 19th 2010

Correction: I meant biblical inerrantist, not biblical literalist. Biblical inerrancy is truly evidence-averse. The correction does not affect my comment otherwise.


Barry - #35453

October 20th 2010

nedbrek - “Ok, so why can’t I live my life so as to fulfill the meaning I define for myself?  What gives you the right to interfere?”

If you are causing no harm to others I don’t think I have the right to interfere.


Barry - #35457

October 20th 2010

Mondo

On Heddle, I posted this response to his “things that would make me stop believing” blog, but didn’t get a reply - http://helives.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-many-times-must-man-be-wrong-before.html

Seems there’s little difference between Mike Gene and Heddle in their onslaught on Coyne. Neither answer the questions they are asked.


nedbrek - #35678

October 21st 2010

Barry (35453) sorry for the delay,

nedbrek - “Ok, so why can’t I live my life so as to fulfill the meaning I define for myself?  What gives you the right to interfere?”

If you are causing no harm to others I don’t think I have the right to interfere.

While reassuring, it does seem arbitrary to me.  Who decides what is harmful?  How did you come to this decision?  What prevents you from changing policy?


Barry - #35756

October 22nd 2010

nedbrek - #35678

I’m happy answering questions justifying what i think and why, but you have shifted the burden from your statement that the bible is entirely true to questioning the basis of my morality. I do come across this tactic a lot and want you to know that I still want to knowwhy you maintain this when you have no evidence for doing so.

“While reassuring, it does seem arbitrary to me.  Who decides what is harmful?  How did you come to this decision?  What prevents you from changing policy?”

There is no absolute definition of “harm” just as there is no absolute definition of “truth” or “morality”. It is based on judgment and common experience. 50 yrs ago it was relatively comonplace for parents to “slap” and even beat children. Today the law seeks to protect children from violent parents and this behavior is rare. This doesn’t indicate that morality is “arbitrary” but that cultural change has shifted values against this behavior. The bible has had zero influence on this change and if we believed it was an absolute standard we’d still be stoning adulterers and enslaving african-americans. What virtue do you see in a static iron age text that justifies all manner of brutal and inhuman behavior?


nedbrek - #35779

October 22nd 2010

Barry, I question the basis of your morality, because I want you to see that your position makes it impossible for you to question mine.

I don’t need to defend the Bible, because you cannot attack it.  If you believe there is no absolute truth or morality, then what I say might be true and right - in which case, there actually are absolutes, which you are simply ignoring.

You suppose “evidence” should be the standard.  Why?  What is the evidence that evidence can determine truth?  How can you ignore all the evidence that “evidence”, in fact, cannot determine truth (as you are unable to do).


Ted Davis - #35831

October 22nd 2010

Replying to a comment by dave - #30843, as follows:

“In addressing these ideas, my goal is not to ‘win’ the argument about whether God exists. “

But that is the only argument that matters. If there is no convincing evidence that your God exists, then all the theology in the world, sophisticated or not, is meaningless. The question of the existence of gods - yours and others - is the question “new” atheism has been asking since the first new atheist, Diagoras of Melos, starting espousing his views 2500 years ago.

If you can’t provide convincing evidence for the existence of your God, then you’re just wasting our time.

******

Dave, some time ago I challenged Jerry Coyne to a debate, on his own turf (the U of C), on the proposition, “Is Nature All There Is?”  I issued this challenge on his own blog.  He ignored me.  I repeat my challenge here.

I agree with Karl Giberson, that there is evidence to support belief in a traditional theistic “God.”  This is a far cry from claiming anything like “proof,” but it’s an equally far cry from claiming that religious people have no rational basis for their faith.


Barry - #35989

October 23rd 2010

nedbrek - #35779

” I question the basis of your morality, because I want you to see that your position makes it impossible for you to question mine”

I am questioning your view that there is absolute truth and asking you to give me an example of one. The fact that you have failed in this task does not equate to crticisms of my position invalidating my questionig of yours.

“I don’t need to defend the Bible, because you cannot attack it.  If you believe there is no absolute truth or morality, then what I say might be true and right - in which case, there actually are absolutes, which you are simply ignoring.”

But I have attacked it and you can’t defend. You haven’t identified any absolutes at all. The fact that what you might say (and you haven’t yet said anything) could be true or false is not evidence that there are absolute truths. I can’t ignore what you have not stated.

“What is the evidence that evidence can determine truth?”

Truth is relative and alsways will be. Our experience shows this to be true. Unless you can show an absolute truth your comments are empty.


Barry - #36159

October 24th 2010

Ted Davis - “Dave, some time ago I challenged Jerry Coyne to a debate, on his own turf (the U of C), on the proposition, “Is Nature All There Is?”  I issued this challenge on his own blog.  He ignored me.  I repeat my challenge here.”

Why should Coyne debate you?

“I agree with Karl Giberson, that there is evidence to support belief in a traditional theistic “God.””

Go ahead. I’m waiting in jawdropping expectation. I hope it is evidence that is outside of the confines of your own imagination.


nedbrek - #36459

October 25th 2010

Barry, “Truth is relative and always will be. Our experience shows this to be true. Unless you can show an absolute truth your comments are empty.”

I agree that we are unable to know absolute truth in and of ourselves - it must received (given to us).  That’s why I say the Bible contains absolute truth.  It is an assumption I start from; just as you assume that truth is relative - no evidence can convince you otherwise, because you interpret the evidence through that lens.


Barry - #36519

October 26th 2010

nedbrek - “That’s why I say the Bible contains absolute truth.  It is an assumption I start from; just as you assume that truth is relative - no evidence can convince you otherwise, because you interpret the evidence through that lens.”

The good thing about your statement is that we can actually study the bible and consider it as the basis for absolute truth (as opposed to a relativist position which, as it argues, is relative). So you might operate on the assumption that the bible is absolutely true, but we can consider that statement against what the bible actually says. We would only have to find one statement that is not absolutely true for your claim to be completely disproved. I thought I’d already done that.

So you can continue to make the claim, it just doesn’t mean anything.


nedbrek - #36733

October 26th 2010

Hmm, looking back, I see:

Barry - #34982

“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 inaccurate on such basic matters of fact. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

The words are exactly what those people at that time needed.  They didn’t need a lecture on insect anatomy.  They needed to know which animals were clean and unclean.

(or was it another case?)


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