Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 3

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October 8, 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 3

This is the third installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.

The second straw man I want to dismantle is the naïve “believer” that Coyne insists represents religion. Like Dawkins in The God Delusion and other New Atheists in their various screeds Coyne seems to think that the “majority view” held by uninformed believers with a haphazard collection of ideas from Sunday School is the true definition of religion. The religious ideas of these believers are then contrasted with the scientific beliefs of well-educated scientists. And—big surprise—they don’t fare too well in the comparison.

Coyne speaks dismissively of "theologians with a deistic bent" who he thinks have no business speaking for religious believers in general, for they do not share the naïve theology of the “faithful," who pray for nice weather for their picnics, or parking spots when they are in a hurry. The implication is that the "faithful" are the more authentically religious and the theologians are an aberration.

This is a straw man comparison for several reasons. Rank-and-file believers are not one-dimensional caricatures whose entire existence is summed up in their religious commitments. They are also bankers, teachers, lawyers, carpenters, and Wal-Mart clerks who hold a variety of beliefs on many subjects. Only a small fraction of their time has been spent learning about religion and only a small part of their lives is focused on their religion.

Let us suppose by analogy that we attached the label “science believer” to everyone who passes the standard roster of science courses in high school and affirms that, in general, they accepted what was taught in those courses. Now we have a group that is genuinely analogous to “religious believers.” Suppose now that a well-educated theologian was describing the beliefs of these “science believers,” and using the results to evaluate the credibility of science. The theologian would note that these people really were “believers.” They loved their iPhones and thought highly of the engineers and scientists who made them possible. They are excited about space travel and encountering aliens some day. When they get sick, they look to medical science for help. Sometimes they watch the Discovery Channel and they all loved Avatar.

But what would "science" look like, were it defined by these "believers"? From actual polls and other sources we know that the physics would be an incoherent mix of Aristotelian and Newtonian ideas; most of them would accept astrology and think that a “dowser” with a stick should be consulted before you drilled a well. UFOs and aliens would be accepted as real; some would report having been abducted by aliens. General Relativity, the most important theory in cosmology, would be completely unknown; quantum mechanics would be perceived as a way to influence the world with your mind and the scientific proof of free will.

Suppose that Keith Ward or Alister McGrath critiqued the scientific community for the collection of irresponsible things accepted by their followers, the “science believers.” Suppose they wrote books with titles like “The Science Delusion,” “Science is Not Great,” and “How Science Ruins Everything”? Coyne and company would cry foul immediately and say that the “science believers” were not authentic representatives of science, because they didn’t understand it very well.

And yet all of the “science believers” would have had far more education in science than the typical religious believer has in theology. Science as "lived and practiced by real people" is quite different than the science promoted by the intellectuals like Coyne and Dawkins.

When the intellectual leaders of the religious community complain that the New Atheists are working with caricatures, their concerns are dismissed. Watch the video of my USA Today conversation with Coyne and you will see exactly what I mean. But this is because they prefer to do battle against an army of straw men, rather than real soldiers.

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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Chet - #34086

October 9th 2010

No, this is stupid. Everyone understands science as something scientists do. Theology is what theologians do. Religion is what the religious do.

The atheist critiques are directed at religion, not just theology. It makes sense to examine religion as practiced by the religious. It would make no sense at all to examine “science” as “practiced” by non-scientists.

When the intellectual leaders of the religious community complain that the New Atheists are working with caricatures, their concerns are dismissed.

Because they’re false. Dawkins devotes several chapters of his book to dealing with so-called “sophisticated theology.”

Jonathan V - #34087

October 9th 2010

I guess I should include a link for the “muppet babies” reference in case there are some non-americans or americans that didn’t grow up in the 80s.


BenYachov - #34094

October 9th 2010


>But scientists do not, I think, start, as you seem to suppose, BY, from the assumption that there is only material nature and then build the scientific edifice upon that questionable assumption,

I reply: Well I don’t recall saying they did.  Some Atheist Scientists may do that but certainly not all Scientists who are Atheists and some Scientists are Agnostics or Theists etc.  My actual words are posted above for all to read.  You need to read more carefully.  I don’t say that to be a jerk or too embarrass you(there is enough of that around here) but as a friendly correction.  Scientists do Science.  Philosophers do Philosophy.  Both are valid ways using our natural intellectual powers to explore reality.  Philosophy has to come first IMHO.

BenYachov - #34096

October 9th 2010

>Metaphysics and the supernatural can only make completely unverifiable claims, giving it as much credibility as the “muppet babies”.

I reply: Metaphysics has nothing to do with the supernatural(another New Atheist mistake).  If I claim for example only Matter, Energy and Natural Phenomena exist then I am making a Metaphysical claim but logically I am not making a Supernatural one since I am clearly denying the supernatural with said claim.  Hope this helps.


BenYachov - #34097

October 10th 2010

>What scientists like Dawkins and Coyne are first of all doing is pointing out that explanations along the lines of ‘GODDIDIT!’ 

I reply: FYI As a Thomist I reject the “God-of-the-Gaps” neo-Paleyish falsely called “Deity”, which is based on faulty post enlightenment machinist philosophy.  I would not sacrifice a maggot to honor such a fourth rate “god”.  I’m a Classic Theist.  Classic Theists have a radically different view of teleology then Paley’s followers.

see here



and here info on Classic Theism

Another problem with the New Atheism is it’s pretensions in trying to create a “one size fits all” polemic against religion in general.  Objectively that is simply not possible.

I am going to resist answering any further posts because correcting people is a bit tedious and people for some reason take it personally.  My advice is…don’t.  It doesn’t make me right about God & you wrong if I think you make a mistake.


BenYachov - #34098

October 10th 2010

Maybe one more comment to @Tim,

>I note your touching faith in philosophy (or theology?) as the queen of the sciences, and in her being in a position to put the unruly sciences in their place, but unsupported assertions of faith don’t convince me either.

As someone once said on the Maverick Philosopher’s blog QUOTE"There is a big difference between being anti-religion and being anti-philosophy.  To oppose philosophy is to do philosophy.  Any attack on philosophy is a philosophical attack.  Anti-philosophy is just more philosophy.

Philosophy is not Theology.  In philosophy I start with reason & intellect to search for truth & wisdom.  Faith comes later.

Now I am going to make myself go.

Tim Harris - #34105

October 10th 2010

The claim that reality is only physical, material and natural(sans the supernatural) is not a scientific claim it is a philosophical claim.
An Atheist has a burden of proof to prove his Metaphysics (i.e only matter & Nature are real). 

Your words, BY: you ought to recognise that the fundamental claim that is being made by atheists is not that reality is ‘only physical, material and natural’, but that supernatural explanations of natural phenomena are arbitrary and unprovable and therefore not valid as explanations. As for the second canard, the atheists I know do not have the metaphysical belief, or make the metaphysical claim, that ‘only matter and Nature are real’; they simply say that there is no evidence for the supernatural, but that they would be willing to change their minds if presented with such evidence. As for the arguments of philosophical apologists for the existence of a supreme being, they are so much floundering about in a void and certainly come nowhere proving their metaphysics. It’s a pity you didn’t cut your philosophical teeth on Hume instead of the Angelic Doctor.

BenYachov - #34110

October 10th 2010

I’d thought I take a break from watching movies and briefly comment. 

>It’s a pity you didn’t cut your philosophical teeth on Hume instead of the Angelic Doctor.

I reply:  IMHO Hume’s sophistry on causality has been rebutted by G. Anscombe(the woman who famously debated CS Lewis) she called him a brilliant sophist(Hume not Lewis).  Feser(a Philosopher & former Atheist) references Anscombe’s criticism ion Hume in his book The Last Superstition.  David Stove is an Atheist critic of some of Hume’s errors in his book Scientific Irrationalism .  Your faith in Hume’s sophistries are noted. 

If your views on Aquinas have been colored by those of Sir Anthony Kennedy might I suggest David S. Oderberg response as the cure?  Indeed you could stand to learn a little more classical philosophy and the true meaning of metaphysics.

It could only improve your worldview and Intellective knowledge.

Cheers to you. I wish you well.

BenYachov - #34111

October 10th 2010


Metaphysics simply means “that which is above physics” .  If one denies anything exists beyond the material or nature then for them “that which is above physics” is nothing.  But it is still a metaphysical claim.  I get the impression you are defining metaphysics using it as a vulgar non-philosophical synonym for Magic or mysticism.  That is hardly the classical understanding.

Cheers!  I’m gone again.

Tim Harris - #34116

October 10th 2010

Perhaps you might inform us, BY, on what Miss Anscombe had to say about Hume’s arguments regarding miracles. But, no, please don’t. I’m sorry, but I am unimpressed and uninterested in your impressions, your throwing about of names, your sophomoric assertions about metaphysics, and your silly evasiveness. Yes, begone!

Papalinton - #34118

October 10th 2010

Gilberson says, “But what would “science” look like, were it defined by these “believers”. 
This is nonsensical and a classic strawman argument.  Science is a tool, not a system of belief. 

People have confidence in science largely because the products of science work, cell phones, internet/computers, planes fly, medical science and surgical techniques work, satellite communications work, even the development of digital/electronic bionic eyes will bring back sight for some categories of blindness.  People trust science in the main because the evidence and the benefits are on the record plain for all to see [no pun intended].  Science delivers.

What does theology deliver?  Aquinas, St Augustine, NT Wright,  William Lane Craig, Pope Ratzy, Jerry Falwell, Rick Warren and all their cutting-edge studies in books that will transform the world into a christian theocracy.  Give me a break.

The latter portion of Gilberson’s article is a scattergun approach in venting his frustration at not being able to land the knock-out punch he feels he rightly deserves.

Unfortunately, Gilbo,  theology is little more than a bag of words tumbling in the winds of change.


Dunemeister - #34126

October 10th 2010

I think what makes the claims of scientists different from those of Christianity is that there is an easily identifiable scientific community and their representatives. Not so with Christianity, where matters of authority and method are still undecided, with everyone from Quakers at one end to Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox on the other end (assuming only two “ends”). Which group, an outsider might reasonably ask, has the right to say they “speak for” the “Christian community”? However, it’s fairly easy to identify who are the authoritative witnesses in the scientific community. I’m a layperson in science, so I’ll never be able to have firsthand knowledge of anything. My math is terrible, so all my understanding of science will have to rely on testimony. It wouldn’t take much for me to find out which authorities I should talk to about science? Christianity? Much trickier.

Barry - #34130

October 10th 2010

Dunemeister - #34126

There are no clear authorities in Science absent from authoritative research. It is the practice, pubication and potential flasification of science that enables us to regard some scientific discoveries as authoritative. It isn’t just about the individual scientists who could be proved wrong at any point.

The reason religion has so many problems in this respect isn’t that they lack authority figures, but that they have so many of them…all pointing to wildly or slightly varying forms of “truth”. All stating that theirs is the only way and others are in error…or worse. That there is no adjudication is because there is no evidence. It is simply claim and counter claim with all manner of mind games to account for why one is closer to the “truth” than another. They do, however, seem to have one unifying feature - they all reject Poseidon. I’ve never been able to figure out why.

BenYachov - #34133

October 10th 2010

>Perhaps you might inform us, BY, on what Miss Anscombe had to say about Hume’s arguments regarding miracles. But, no, please don’t. I’m sorry, but I am unimpressed and uninterested in your impressions, your throwing about of names, your sophomoric assertions about metaphysics, and your silly evasiveness. Yes, begone!

I reply: Such is the “open mindedness” of Fundamentalist Dawkinite Atheism!  Give me the Atheism of a Sobel or Jack Smart any day.

Dunemeister - #34135

October 10th 2010


I think we may be saying the same thing from different points of view. Science DOES have authorities. I’m inclined to believe a qualified, university-trained scientist when he explains to me something counterintuitive yet true in physics or chemistry (or whatever their discipline). How do I know this scientist has the chops to speak authoritatively to the topic? Well, I can see how his work has been publicly responded to by others in the field. And so long as we keep to hard sciences, that’s a pretty safe bet. (Things get murkier with politically enmeshed sciences like psychology, sociology, and environmental science.)

But who are the authorities for Christianity (no name but one religion—I identify as Christian, by the way)? That’s not so easy to determine. Why isn’t Jimmy Swaggart an authority? Why not Dr. Spong? Why not N. T. Wright? Why not Pete Enns? Why not me? As a Christian, are we experts because we have alphabet soup after our names or because we embody something, live something? I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, but that doesn’t settle the question. Round and round it goes.

Pete D - #34138

October 10th 2010

Well Karl, if there was a coherent picture of religion as described by the experts of theology as there is in science as described by the experts of science you might have a point.  Curiously, the the disagreements between theologians are as numerous as the disagreements between the laypeople of religion, so you don’t have much of a point.

Barry - #34142

October 10th 2010

Dunemeister - #34135

With the distinction between “explaining” things and “discovering” things we clearly agree on “authority” in science.

“...who are the authorities for Christianity?” - Anyone who claims to be an “authority” is. No end of individuals have discovered that simply inserting “Reverend” in front of your name automatically claims authority for the person to speak. Those misguided woo-pedlars Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are two more visble as waspish examples. More vicious individuals like Falwell, Robertson and Haggard are others. Of course, the “sophisticated theologians” (they are also self-declared by the way) on this website are dismissive of these lowly individuals, but on what basis are any of them right? If you don’t know what would disprove your beliefs, how do you know when you are right? I see so many “authorities” on Christianity. I am puzzled to explain what it would take for one person to become a sole authority for all Christians.

Tim Harris - #34145

October 10th 2010

A principal reason for the bloody internal history of Christianity, the schisms, the heretic-hunting, etc, , has been the need to establish authority in the absence of any genuine criteria as to what that authority might consist in. Eric MacDonald, in a thread following Jerry Coyne’s response to Dr Giberson’s lucubrations on his blog Why Evolution is True, gives a wonderful example of how authority funcions in the Roman Catholic church today, taken from a fairly recent decree as to what truth consists in in the RC church. It makes salutary reading.

Barry - #34162

October 10th 2010


I just wanted to amplify this point again - ” ...in the absence of any genuine criteria…”

I think that absence is permanent.

Dunemeister - #34219

October 11th 2010

Another question to consider is how the authority of science is achieved and maintained. Let’s take, for example, a high school student. He learns XYZ in science and comes to believe it. How? Essentially, he trusts the textbook and his teacher. Yeah, in high school we do some experiments, but these are all simply to confirm what is in the textbook. They come out right, but we all remember how we had to fit the curve and fudge a little to have our experiments validate the data. None of this was considered a great sin, for the scientific principle was considered correct even if our data didn’t quite measure up.

And so now this high schooler goes on to university, has a family, and lives life without ever taking another serious look at science again (why should she?). She still believes the Einsteinian physics and evolutionary biology she learned in high school. Again, why? She trusts the source. Why? Because they wore white lab coats and spoke/wrote in a certain style. In other words, she believes on faith.

For most believers in science and believers in religion, THIS is exactly equivalent. It gets different for professionals (in both fields).

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