Engaging Today’s Militant Atheist Arguments

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March 2, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Ian Hutchinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

In November 2010, a small group of leading pastors, scholars, scientists, public intellectuals, and informed laypersons gathered in New York City to consider several pressing questions at the interface of science and faith (see summary statement ). Three papers, each addressing a different question, provided the framework for our discussions at the meeting. These were presented by Faraday Institute Director Denis Alexander (see paper), Oxford theoretical biophysicist Ard Louis (see paper), and MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson. Hutchinson's paper addresses the question of how to engage arguments put forward by the New Atheists by offering a critique of scientism, the assumption that scientific knowledge is all the real knowledge there is.

Editor's Note: After some discussion surrounding the use of the world "militant" in the last video from Ian Hutchinson, we've asked him to clarify his use of the word in the accompanying paper. He responds in this video:

What do I mean by Militant? Nothing different from what the dictionary says. 'Vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause' (Free Online Dictionary). The Pocket Oxford Dictionary says 'engaged in warfare (Church militant, Christians on earth), combative,' So this ephithet has not historically been considered an insult and is not intended by me as one. Militant atheists is a factual description of those who are active and aggressive in support of their atheist cause. If they wish to return the compliment by referring to militant Christians, they will have some historical precedent and I shall not complain, but I am personally less aggressive, even if perhaps not less vigorous, than the likes of those who are often called New Atheists!

For more, see Ian Hutchinson's full paper Engaging Today's Militant Atheist Arguments


Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Papalinton - #53625

March 8th 2011

@ Louis
“I say this because your coments come across as “targeted rants” rather than dialogue/debate/arguments.”

How predictable your response.  Then again why should I have expected you to say anything else?  Louis, you know that I know that you know that five billion others on this planet know, that the biblegod of your choice is simply mythological bunkum.  The attribution of the creation of the universe to a creator-god is none other than a response driven by our genetic survival mechanism through which teleological intentionality was ascribed to things we did not know or could not explain,  during our early days of species-hood.  Sheesh, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.  And the greater the discoveries in neuro-science becomes, the theory of mind that cogently and evidentially explains this predisposition, to conjuring up gods and other supernatural, metaphysical entities, becomes ever more likely.

Louis, you too read a pre-modern eastern text through modern Western eyes, and choose [deliberately] I might add]  to gloss over these ‘god’ inspired words as though they are meaningless and less intentional than they really are.  Well, tell that to a whole bunch of your theist compatriots that read them just as I do, just as they were originally meant to be read.  They are, after all, the very words lifted directly from your ‘sacred’ text.  The god that you seem so keen to peddle is only a recent invention, to make religion palatable to the modern gullibles.  Such contrivance is the work of Apologetics.  And an historical reading of Apologetics clearly shows, not new information or knowledge developed, but simply a change in interpretation, a re-imagining of what the words mean, a three-point turn in a theological cul-de-sac, or a U-turn, based on the exact same words that have been around for 2,000-plus years.  Interpretation and re-interpretation of ancient texts in the modern world is called, ‘marking time’ or ‘marching on the spot’. 

I add again, remember jesus did not invalidate any of these with his teachings. They were never to be cast aside. “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill the law” [Matthew 5:18]  That is, Louis, the law as set down in the OT along with the range of punishments to be metered out.

If you are going to incorporate science into christian thinking, as indeed the BioLogos mission states, then you cannot pick and choose which bits of science to be selected.  That just becomes an exercise in Apologetics.  One is obliged to accept all of science wherever that science is establishing testable and verifiable knowledge and information.


Papalinton - #53626

March 8th 2011

I should add the list preceding was from Jason Long, from his book , Biblical Nonsense’.


Louis - #53644

March 9th 2011

Papalinton, hmm, your response is typical.  How did I expect anything else?

Really, though, there are some big assumptions there:

I’m not a staf-member here at Biologos. There is nothing in any one of my responses calling for an integration between science and religion, selectively or otherwise. Your rant regarding apolegetics and reading and lifting words and modern inventions - seems a bit incoherent. Also how that ties in with my previous response to you is a bit of a mystery.

BTW, I do not have a problem with the findings of cognitive neuroscience, though I’m quite far removed from that field. However, if religion is merely a “response driven by our genetic survival mechanism through which teleological intentionality was ascribed to things we did not know or could not explain,  during our early days of species-hood.”, why the violent reaction against a natural process? It does seem to me that the violence of your responses here, with a tendency towards ranting and incoherence, seems driven by its own specific set of psychological processes. You see, calm reasoning and debate would produce a different result.

It is evident here though that the “new” atheism attracts people that would likely quite often fit the psychological profile of angry young men (though of both sexes and different ages), the sort which in previous times would have gravitated to reading Nietzsche.

In ahort, it is the violence and passion of your arguments, leading to near-ranting and incoherence, more than their substance, which tell most about you and your argument. Go hgave a beer and think it over, and when you have calmed down, and expunged the hate, rational debate could begin.


Papalinton - #53685

March 9th 2011

Hi Louis
That’s right, attack the man and not the ball.  If what I am saying seems angry, you should be so lucky.  All your wonderful epithets of my ‘ranting’, ’ incoherence’,  ‘violence’ and your wonderful notion of psychologizing my character, are simply delightful.  I am pleased to have had an effect on you.

Of course, to challenge and disagree so robustly with the utter nonsense that constitutes the foundation of your worldview, must come as a tear to the quietude you so long for.  But unfortunately, Louis, the ugly medusa’s head of the christianities arising about the parapet of public policy must be seriously challenged and brought to account for the shamanic nonsense it is. 
Theism has not been, has never been challenged and held to scrutiny at the level currently being maintained.  And theism has been found wanting.  Catholic involvement in the Rwandan massacres, the worldwide clerical child rape scandals, the shameless attempted secreting of Haitian children by a christian group following the earthquake, are all testament to the temporal malaise of a belief system gone awry. 

Incidentally, how does one have a rationale debate with someone who’s belief system is based on everything but rationality?

Louis, you really must look beyond heaven’s gate if religion is to play a purposive role in society into the future.


Mike Gene - #53692

March 9th 2011

Papa: “But unfortunately, Louis, the ugly medusa’s head of the christianities arising about the parapet of public policy must be seriously challenged and brought to account for the shamanic nonsense it is.”

Papa,  You never did answer my question.  Do you want to monitor what is said in the pulpit so that pastors can be punished, penalized, or harmed for “misinforming” their congregations?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #53693

March 9th 2011

Papa wrote,

I add again, remember jesus did not invalidate any of these with his teachings. They were never to be cast aside. “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill the law” [Matthew 5:18]  That is, Louis, the law as set down in the OT along with the range of punishments to be metered out.

You are exactly right, Jesus came to fulfill God’s Law that people must pay for their sin.  (Of course there is nothing wrong with paying for one’s sins or mistakes.  Do you advocate that no criminals be punished?)  Shouldn’t Kim Il Sung pay for his brutal regime?

Jesus did this two ways, 1. He lived a perfect life without sin according to the Law of God including the Torah, Jewish religious law; and 2. Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of humanity and nature with His death upon a Roman cross, so that those who sincerely desire to live for God and to love all of the people of God (which includes everyone) do not have to pay the penalty for their sin and will live together eternally in the presence of God.  Thus Jesus came so those prophecies did not have to take place.  They probably will, not because God wants them to, but because people prefer war to peace, prefer human hate to God’s love. 

If evolution is nature’s program for survival, the good news of Jesus Christ is the promise of eternal life, which is survival plus peace, joy, and love.  Thus Jesus is also the fulfillment of natural law.

If materialism and atheism can produce a world without crime and war, fine.  Thus far they have been singularly failed in doing so.  WW2 and the Cold War are brutal monuments to their efforts.


Louis - #53706

March 9th 2011

Papalinton,

I’ve been pondering our little interchange here. A couple of things struck me. You are apparently arguing against Christianity, but I’m not engaging in that argument, actually nowhere in our exchange did I enter into a defence thereof. I’m not even arguing against atheism per se. The only thing that I’m doing here is to question the assumptions and motivations and modus operandi of the specific brand of atheism you seem to deal in.

I’m not interested in “but such and such a Christian did a bad thing”-arguments, because they are essentially “guilt by association” arguments, which are bad form and worse dialectic. Not to say that many theists, or religionists as some atheists cal them, can and do make the same type of argument against the atheists. It is all bad form.

I thin the issue which is at hand here, especially concerning your brand of atheism, is that you do not see that you are epistemologically in the same boat as the rest of non-atheist humanity, namely that you must accept the improvable to make the rest of your argument, nay, your whole philosophical system work. Thus you are not above the rest of non-atheist humanity as it seems you think you are (please correct me here if I’m wrong).

As such, I would like to invite you to respond to my earlier question, namely that if religion is merely the evolutionary artefact, a coping mechanism of the human organism within a complex environment, why the hostility? Also, how is atheism then not a different variety of the same coping mechanism?


Alan Fox - #53743

March 9th 2011

Mike Gene asks Papalinton:


Do you want to monitor what is said in the pulpit so that pastors can be punished, penalized, or harmed for “misinforming” their congregations?

Xcuse butting in, but,

I would consider a sermon from a pulpit published speech. Certainly if such were inflammatory, such as an incitement to violence, then the speaker should be charged with the appropriate offence. I think speeches by radical imams in some UK mosques are routinely monitored. You disagree?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #53906

March 10th 2011

Louis,

In sympathy to Papa I think that I should point out some basic problems he has. First and formost, he is defending a negative, not a positive.  Atheism itself means no Godism.  Thus it should be no surprise that he attacks Christianity or the idea that there is a God, but is unable to come up with a positive alternative.  

Science of course is positive, but it is unable or has been unable to address many of the basic problems of the world.  It really does not have an answer for war, or hate, or crime, or injustice, so Scientism only has a negative anti-God position.

Marxism, which thought it had a positive response to the problems of the world, based on materialistic atheism is rejected by those who are also materialists and atheists without even a farethewell.  Someone like Dawkins doesn’t even try explain how and why Marx with apparent good intentions and ideas went wrong. 

It is sad that people with intelligence and knowledge are sucked into a negative world view seemingly without being aware of it. 


jeff b - #54286

March 14th 2011

So, if I understand this article correctly, and there was a lot of meandering talk to wade through, Mr. Hutchinson is saying that because there may be limits to scientific knowledge there’s always the possibility of finding evidence for God.  That is a good argument for why all views about God are equally plausible, or implausible as it were.  It doesn’t get us anywhere.  

Shouldn’t something substantial have surfaced by now though?  And second, even if some sort of evidence in support of God is found, he would be nothing at all like the God that Christians imagine.  Would Christians be able to accept that?  After all, the fossil, genetic, and archaeological evidence we have now pretty much demolishes the stories in the Bible as any kind of literal, factual history.  Once Genesis is discredited the whole of Christian theology comes unravelled, for it was because of Adam’s sin that Jesus had to die.  If the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and our human ancestors lived 7-8 million years ago, then Adam never was.  And if Adam never lived, then he never sinned.  And if he never sinned then Jesus didn’t have to die, etc..   Well, anyway, it seems that playing with definitions of science is merely wishful thinking. 

And on the subject of militant atheists.  Have you ever encountered insulting, militant language used in the Bible against unbelievers by men of God?  I have.  Paul says, “You foolish Galatians.”  Jesus compares unbelievers to swine and dogs.  May I say, “You foolish Christians”?  Would that be considered unpolite?  May I call a Christians “ravenous wolves” like the inspired authors of the Bible call us unbelievers?  I have written an article that walks Christians through their scriptures and shows that their complaints about rude, obnoxious atheists are hypocritical.  The language in your sacred texts are much more offensive than your complaints of us atheists indicate.  You can visit my blog and read it here:   http://whirledbulletin.blogspot.com/2011/03/christian-remove-plank-from-your-own.html .  I hope to see you there. 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #54576

March 16th 2011

Jeff B,

In case you haven’t noticed sin is a reality in today’s world.  Jesus didn’t die because of the sin of Adam and Eve.  Jesus died for your and my sins.

If you have a cure for sin, please share it with us and the world.



Roger A. Sawtelle - #54622

March 17th 2011

Jeff B. wrote:

And on the subject of militant atheists. Have you ever encountered insulting, militant language used in the Bible against unbelievers by men of God? I have. Paul says, “You foolish Galatians.” Jesus compares unbelievers to swine and dogs. May I say, “You foolish Christians”? Would that be considered unpolite? May I call a Christians “ravenous wolves” like the inspired authors of the Bible call us unbelievers? I have written an article that walks Christians through their scriptures and shows that their complaints about rude, obnoxious atheists are hypocritical.

Jeff, before you publish your research, you should make sure that it is correct.  For instance when Paul called the members of the church in Galatia foolish, he was not talking to unbelievers, but to believers who unwittingly turned from true faith in Jesus back to a form Jewish legalism.  Since most people would agree that rejecting truth for a falsehood is foolish, I would say Paul is telling the truth which the best defense againist slander.

Many people characterize those who reject evolution as foolish and I tend to agree, because they reject the facts.  However you make clear the primary reason why Christians reject evolution by equating evolution with atheism, which is also false.  So while rejecting evolution may be foolish, I think that equating evolution with atheism is foolishness squared or cubed.  Thus while anti evolutionists are foolish, atheist evolutionists are many times more foolish. 

The false prophets who pretend to be sheep, but are really ravenous beasts are not necessarily atheists either, but it is true that some atheists like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, and Nicholae Ceausescu  do fit the description of ravenous beasts.  If you want to associate yourself with then, be my guest.  Certainly Hitler was also a false prophet and a ravenous beast, but he represents a slightly different situation.  

As for Jesus comparing people to dogs, this story is about reversing the “curse of Canaan” and nothing else.  In terms of His use of the saying, “Do not cast your pearls before swine,” the meaning is clear, do not share your pearls of wisdom with those who are not prepared to appreciate them.  

If I call some people pig headed, it does not mean they are pigs, but they stubbornly refuse to accept facts.  Many people are this way, including “Christians” and non-Christians.

I am surprised you did not bring up what Jesus called the Pharisees and the Saducees, white washed tombs and children of the Devil.  He was not PC.  He was much harder on believing Jewish leaders than pagans and non-believers, but maybe that does not fit in to your ideology.


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