More Misleading Atheist/Theist Surveys

July 4, 2008

Tiny Frog has an excellent post taking a look at a recent poll being shopped around by several Christian news outlets purporting to show that atheists are less moral and sociable than theists.

Putting the subject matter completely aside, it’s a very insightful look into the way that survey results can give highly flawed or misleading pictures of people’s attitudes, both depending on what data you choose to report (and the sociologist in question, Reginald W. Bibby, does seem to make some rather suspicious choices), how you present it, and the questionable implications one might want to draw about causality (as far as I can tell, the survey doesn’t even include any statistical controls, making the claimed social implications nigh meaningless).

I actually wouldn’t be surprised to find that atheists and theists differ significantly in many respects (though I doubt this sort of uncontrolled study, even sincerely undertaken, could reveal much about them). Given Western society’s mixed and highly diverse attitudes about religion, theists and atheists likely have some fairly different experiences. Might be nice if theists and atheists spent more time comparing notes, rather than comparing statistical flufferies.

NRO’s Mary Eberstadt Pouts in the General Direction of Atheism

June 24, 2008

Thanks to Ed Brayton, I’ve recently been made aware of a rather sad spectacle. Apparently National Review scribe Mary Eberstadt has been laboring away in obscurity for the last month or so, penning what her editors seem to think is a clever take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (in which a demon instructs his nephew in the business of inspiring human sin).

I’m not a fan of Lewis’ quaint, preening writing style to begin with, but at least the man gave off the air of erudition (even if he did indulge in embarrassing apologia like the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” gambit). Eberstadt, on the other hand, very literally (perhaps even intentionally) writes like a gossipy teenage girl from the 80s gushing about Corey Haim. Except of course, that she employs hip-to-be-square terms like “BFF” and “Oh snap!”

Lewis’ Letters worked because he employed the creative conceit of professional demon tempters to expose and explore universal human failings… and, by amusing proxy, revealed how human beings could actually avoid the demonic designs on their souls. Screwtape, the narrative voice of the tale, was a master manipulator. It was a satire, to be sure, but Screwtape himself was not played as a fool: he was meant to illustrate precisely how dangerous sin and temptation could be.

Eberhardt, on the other hand, has no higher purpose than to first pretend to be an atheist then act as mindbogglingly stupid as possible. It’s the literary equivalent of a schoolyard “you’re all like this: duhhhhhh.”

Like Brayton, I feel compelled by my profession to dissect the sorry affair point by point, but I can’t quite bring myself to actually read more than a shuddering gasp at a time. What few coherent points she does appear to be making are either trivial straw men, endless harping on substance-free matters like “Brights,” or bringing up classic controversies to which she adds nothing new. So if anyone can please extract a coherent argument from this right-wing bestseller-to-be so that I can address it directly, I’d much appreciate the service.

And while I won’t have much credibility in saying so, I honestly don’t see any comic wit or incisive satire at work here. Maybe someone a little more patient than I can point some out. Because here’s an example of the sort of stuff you have to endlessly wade through in search of a point…

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

Whooooaaa! Girlfriend went there!

And it just goes on and on like that: in this case, pages of that sort of stuff all essentially to make the single, exceedingly bland non-point that believers have made a lot of great art and that Sam Harris (a non-artist) hasn’t. Great. Thanks for the five minutes worth of literary agony.

I’m honestly embarrassed for her. If this is really a “serious work of Christian apologetics” then atheists have quite little to fear.

Christians often complain that atheist critiques of religion are simplistic and carelessly dismissive. But as Eberstadt aptly illustrates, atheists are a model of polite, interested commentary compared to how they are often treated in return.

Atheists Should Stop Believing in God So Much

June 24, 2008

Seriously, what’s up with this?  According to a new Pew study on religion, 21% of atheists believe in God: either a personal or impersonal force.  And 8% are absolutely certain that a God exists. 12% even believe in heaven, and 10% in hell!

Either we have here a very lousy study, a heck of a lot of joke answers, or a fair number of people who are remarkably confused about what “atheist” means.  I very much doubt that the bulk of these contradictory responses represent the sort of sophisticatedly confusing theologies of people like Paul Tillich.

“Theophobia” in Academia and Elsewhere

June 19, 2008

A number of thoughtful interchanges today between Rick Hills at Pawfsblog and the Volokh folks.

Hill starts everything off by recounting an exchange with a former colleague that disturbed him: his colleague seemed shocked to hear that a mutual friend was a Christian. The friend goes as far as to worry that “if a serious academic could believe in God, he was capable of believing in, or attempting, anything — attempting to walk across the East River unaided by a water taxi, gunning down students in hallways, speaking in tongues at a faculty meeting, you name it.”

Hill thinks that this reaction is a sign of, well, mental illness:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.

Are Some Liberal Christians Just Atheists?

May 7, 2008

Over at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath and others, including others elsewhere on Larry Moran’s Sandwalk, are mulling over the question of whether various brands of Christian believers who reject the supernatural (including supernatural Gods) to varying extents are just atheists afraid of the name (or who define it differently), or atheists who happen to just like Christ a whole lot, or something else entirely: a sort of post-theism theist.

McGrath also quotes Liberal Pastor trying to explain the distinction: which as far as I can tell, comes down to a sense of understanding why concepts of God were (and perhaps still are) needed to capture something important about decidedly non-supernatural lives and teachings of great religious figures.

Plenty of atheist writers quite deliberately ignore these more “sophisticated” takes on religion and Christianity in particular, both because they seem to be a minority view with little political influence, and because they often seem either substantively impenetrable or lacking in the sort of objective claims one would have any reason to critique in the first place. I think, for the most part, this neglect is legitimate, at least in the context of the particular assaults on faith and positive arguments for belief that these atheists are mounting.

But that doesn’t mean that these perspectives have no place in the larger debate over the role of religion in society and philosophy. And I wonders whether churches full of such liberalized believers would leave people like Dawkins or Harris with anything left to object to.

Florida Believers are Not Stupid, But the State Issuing the Liscence Plates Is

April 14, 2008

When it comes to defending science and rebutting creationist claptrap, biologist blogger PZ Myers is second to none. He’s rude, crude, and controversial, but by and large when it comes to debates over things like framing (i.e. “shut up, atheists, selling science would be easier without you”), I’m on his side. But not always. In his recent post on a proposal to offer cross-bearing “I believe” license plates in Florida, he steps over the line:

Look at it this way: the stupid people in Florida are going to be conveniently self-labeling themselves with the Mark of the Buffoon.

It almost makes me feel worse to know that if someone called him on it, he’d probably actually defend this language. I almost don’t want face how disappointing that would be.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a believer, and I spend a lot of time arguing against religious claims that I think are anything from pernicious to pathetic. But I don’t think believers are stupid: not even stupid to believe. As I argued, I’m in the skepticism game against bad ideas, bad arguments, even bad people. But belief isn’t itself an argument: it doesn’t even always claim to be supported by arguments, good or bad. So I just can’t justify the attitude of someone who runs around calling believers qua believers stupid, or saying that by wearing their belief on their sleeves that they are marking themselves as buffoons.

This isn’t about Myers inconveniently “mis-framing” some issue. He’s just wrong.

And it muddles the issue. The problem with these plates is not at all what they say, but where they say it. It’s simply yet another example of the government trying to get into the message business (and the especially dicey religious message business) when there’s simply no need or justification for it.

Citizens are perfectly capable of decorating their cars with messages about their religious convictions, political party, opinions on world peace, and attitudes towards fat chicks. They simply do not require, in any way shape or form, the aid of the government in expressing their views. Government issued materials should be strictly functional: serving some legitimate regulatory purpose and then getting out of the way. They have no business being promotional, and certainly not promotional for just one religion.

In the case of Florida, this has gotten particularly pernicious, because while there are many different plate designs to choose from, the range of messages allowed by no means open forum. Each design must be approved by the state legislature: i.e. politicians rule on what messages they like or don’t like. And the process for citizens to even nominate a design is both arduous and expensive, with a $60,000 application fee on top of market research costs and so on.

And while most of the selections are relatively banal, there’s an unavoidably political and sectarian slant to the selections. There’s the notorious “Choose Life” plate (I don’t see any corresponding pro-choice plate), and if the current lawmakers have their way, things like “In God We Trust” and the Christianity-themed “I Believe” will soon follow. The closest comeback to any of these I can see the is ambiguous John Lennon “Imagine” plate.

But even that’s sort of beside the point. If the range of plates really was wide and free enough to encompass all sorts of different messages, I’d still oppose this sort of thing. There’s just no reason for the government to play this game. Space on cars for promotional messages is hardly at a premium. Dull license plates are hardly a high price to pay for a government that knows its place, and leaves expression wholly up to the people, rather than trying to get in on the game.

Richard Carrier on Atheist Morality & Theist Fears of Depravity

April 7, 2008

I’ve argued that theism cannot provide any demonstrable advantage over the lack of it in regards to justifying “meaning,” including moral meaning. More recently, I’ve started to flesh out the reasons why I find the specifically Christian version of theism morally incoherent (from, of course, my own conception of what is moral: i.e. fairness, rational principles, concern for others, etc.), specifically the idea of salvation (as well as a response to a cumbersome critic).

Richard Carrier, up and coming historian and philosopher, has some more to say on the subject of morality that I think is worth a look. As he notes, when believers insist that non-believers are always a frightening inch away from rape and pillage, they are looking for a very specific set of answers, which are not always provided by atheists, perhaps because we’re missing the real point of the question.

As I noted in my first essay on meaning, one important key to this debate is to ask how exactly believers really come to their own moral justifications, which they purport to be satisfied with, or at least think superior to all comers. I think they, and perhaps even the rest of us, might be surprised at just how flimsy and often strangely indirect those justifications for moral behavior are.

On a side note, Carrier is also looking for patrons, of sorts, to sponsor him in his writing of a book on the historical Jesus. When the vast majority of Biblical scholars (though perhaps not the ranks of best) are devoted believers or even glorified salesmen like William Craig, it is always worthwhile to have a contrary perspective, especially from someone who is qualified to give one (as Richard is). I know I don’t have a devoted set of wealthy readers, or else you’d have already given ME all your money by now. But its certainly a cause worth passing the word around about.