Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Democratic Underground Gone Wild!
Mind you, I am not saying that atheists are stupid. I’m saying that they may as well be stupid, because they have the ability to use their brains but don’t. Of course, I could say the same thing about quite a number of people. Our ability to rationalize far exceeds our ability to be rational.
As you may recall, this past December my local newspaper published a letter I had written in response to the American Atheists Organization regarding their silly “You KNOW It’s a Myth” Yuletide billboard. The gist of my letter was that their admonition “This season, celebrate REASON” was an exercise in pointlessness, since reason neither leads us to atheism or precludes us from accepting the Nativity as real. Since then, I have written two posts explicating my position regarding atheism’s religious nature, laying out my rationale as logically and methodically as possible.
For no reason in particular, I Googled my name the other day (if you don’t do this from time to time, you should--you find all sorts of dandy stuff that way) and came across a discussion board hosted by the Democratic Underground website (www.democraticunderground.com) in which a member calling himself “cleanhippie” took no little umbrage with my letter, which he reproduced in its entirety. His post may be found here: http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=214x267422#267422.
Democratic Underground, bièn sûr, is a gathering place for left-wing moonbats to reinforce their pre-existing worldviews, carping about right-wing extremism (which, of course, is anything to the right of their left-wing extremism), and which is about as democratic as the German Democratic Republic, where one in three citizens were Stasi informants. I say this not because cleanhippie disagrees with my letter, but because DU’s masthead is rife with moonbatisms, for example:
• Elect Democrats
• Defeat Rick, Scott
• Save Florida
• Texas’d enough already!
• It all traces back to Nov 22, 1963
• DU DU DU what you’ve done done done before.
• In memoriam Martin John Bobby.
• Defeat the criminal Murdoch empire.
I really don’t mind if people want to align themselves with the Democratic Party, but is it really too much to ask that they try to make sense in doing so?
For example: What, in Heaven’s name, traces back to Nov 22, 1963? The date, everyone realizes, is JFK’s assassination. And? Is there some tie-in between JFK’s murder and a clarion call to join the Democrats in defeating the criminal Murdoch empire? If so, what is it? Kennedy, though a Democrat, was a right-wing Democrat, strong on national defense, an avowed anti-communist, and a fiscal conservative who, after declaring “a rising tide lifts all boats”, fought for and won one of the largest tax cuts in American history. Modern Democrats think the military should be shrunk if not disbanded altogether, hate free enterprise, love centralized government, cherish the nanny state, worship Keynes as Gawd-Almighty, and think tax cuts are evil. A modern-day JFK wouldn’t be elected assistant ombudsman if he ran as a Democrat.
Further, Kennedy wasn’t assassinated by a Republican. Lee Harvey Oswald was as left-wing an ideologue as they come, who thought the Soviet Union was just the bee’s knees, and who shot JFK because he was anti-communist. Nov 22, 1963 is a date rife with significance, but absolutely none of it would lead a thinking person to suppose that Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi must therefore have their heads on straight.
If Democratic Underground’s masthead is any indication whatsoever, I’d say DU is a collective of ninnies who think thinking is unthinkable.
And if you read cleanhippie’s objection to my letter, I think you’ll agree. What follows, not including his reproduction of my letter, is his objection: “The stupid..it BURNS! Let’s play a game: How many strawmen and fallacies can you find in this one letter?”
That’s it--not one assertion as to why he thinks my letter is stupid, not one clarification about what aspect of my letter “burns,” not one identification of any straw men, not a single hint as to what he finds fallacious. There is only the assertion, a blunt opinion confused for a brute fact. Ipse dixit. Just so.
Worse yet, though no less than fifty comments follow, no one bothers to participate in his game of find-the-straw-man. Are we then to assume that because no one sees a straw man, the straw man therefore does not exist? After all, that’s often what atheists say about God.
But, no. This is DU, where what’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. Please check your brains at the door.
Instead, the comments that follow either simply echo cleanhippie’s assertion that something in my letter (whatever it is) burns (whatever that means) or is just plain stupid, without any elaboration as to what is stupid about it; or else the discussion turns on the precise meaning of “atheist”. The first eight or so comments are of the first type; the majority are of the second.
In other words, there is no rational analysis of my letter whatsoever, merely the contrary assertion that they’re right and I’m wrong.
As I have written elsewhere, atheism is the belief in the lack of a god; the lack of belief in a god is agnosticism. This is not simply my opinion, but what the words actually mean:
• a “without” + theos “god” = without a god.
• a “without” + gnostos “known” = it is not known
So, an atheist is one without a god, that is, one who believes that there is no god. An agnostic is one who does not know whether there is a god. Big difference. If you ask someone “Does God exist?” the atheist says “No” whereas the agnostic says “I don’t know.” Keep that clear in your head, and it’s easy to tell the one from the other.
Trouble is, the atheist generally doesn’t keep his head clear. Otherwise, he’d have to admit that he’s generally full of baloney. My experience has been that most of the atheists I’ve talked to about God are mere agnostics who call themselves atheists. There’s nothing particularly bad when someone calls himself an atheist (other than that he’s wrong about God’s non-existence), but I think there’s something altogether inappropriate in calling oneself an atheist when one is merely skeptical about God’s existence. Moreover, it’s worse to claim that atheism is true or that it’s a rational proposition if one doesn’t first have a clear idea as to what atheism really means--if you can’t say what the word means, how can you say that you believe in it? And what, for crying out loud, is rational about that?
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what another DU poster, one “Speck Tater” has to say: “Two kinds of atheism: 1. Belief in the non-existence of God. 2. Non-belief in the existence of God. I’m a type-2. I do NOT believe that God exists, and I do NOT believe that god does not exist.”
There is it--confusion between atheism and agnosticism (erroneously identified as a form of atheism). He says he’s of the second type but then immediately contradicts himself by saying he doesn’t believe God exists, which, by his own assertion, is type 1. After all, “I believe in the non-existence of God” and “I don’t believe that God exists” mean the same thing. It is a tautology, and it is utter delusion to pretend that by saying the same thing twice one has proffered two separate definitions. To repeat, the atheist says he KNOWS that God does not exist; the agnostic says he DOES NOT know. “Belief in non-existence” and “Non-belief in existence” is a false contrast.
And even cleanhippie seems to understand there is something fundamentally incorrect about Speck Tater’s claim, though he of course gets it all wrong as well (demonstrating the common Democrat fallacy of asserting that because the one with whom you disagree is wrong, you are therefore right). “Strongly disagree,” he replies. “The word atheist literally means ‘without belief’. Saying that an atheist is one who BELIEVES there is no god is, by definition, not an atheist.”
This, children, is your brain on drugs. Any questions? Cleanhippie actually thinks “theos” means “belief.” Hmm. Left-wing, and doesn’t know what words mean. He must teach at Harvard.
But what else should we expect? The ponce thinks “atheist” means “without belief.” Small wonder, then, that he should think that the very definition of “atheist” is not the very definition of “atheist.” Then again, he seems to think that hippies can be clean. IMHO, “clean” hippie is a Taoist imponderable, like the sound of one hand clapping. Every hippie I’ve met has been a solipsistic moron who equates bathing with capitalist oppression.
The one--and only--commentary that doesn’t adhere to the two types adumbrated above comes from a poster identified as “KaoriMitsubishi,” who asserts “Dictionary definitions and pedantry aside…As one prominent atheist put it, if atheism is a belief/faith/religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby. Try with the same zeal theists use in their atheism=religion hooey to convince the stamp non-collector that not collecting stamps is still a hobby and she'll think you need to quit talking to your crack pipe.”
This is a weak example of the appeal to authority, the assertion that the claim must be right because “one prominent atheist” has made it. Thus it has the Prominent Atheist® Seal of Approval. In the real world, this is called putting a shine on a turd.
It doesn’t matter who makes the assertion; the assertion is either right or wrong based on its merits (or lack thereof) and on the soundness (or lack thereof) of its reason.
First, there is no “if atheism is a belief/faith/religion.” Atheism is a belief, and there is no sense in denying this. That’s why, after all, the word ends in -ism. The word belief is derived from a Germanic word related to the modern term beloved. It is an idea or proposition to which one has surrendered one’s allegiance. Atheists ally themselves with the notion that there is no god. It’s what they believe, pure and simple.
Second, KaoriMitsubishi misquotes the assertion: it is not “if atheism is a belief/faith/religion then not collecting stamps is a hobby,” but rather “atheism is not a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is not a hobby.” (Quibble with my formulation all you wish, but the very nature of the if/then construction is not to assert what atheism is but what it isn’t. After all, KaoriMitsubishi isn’t trying to claim that atheism is a religion, else why call it hooey?) In my post “Atheism is a Religion - No, Really!” I demonstrated the fallacy underpinning the Prominent Atheist® assertion, which I’ll repeat here:
The claim fails in this way:
1. Not collecting stamps is not a hobby.
2. To collect coins is also not to collect stamps.
3. By substitution, collecting coins is not a hobby.
4. But collecting coins IS a hobby.
Third, atheism can be shown to be a religion if we can: 1. Identify the fundamental characteristics that all religions share, and 2. Demonstrate how atheism displays these characteristics. I have done exactly so in “Atheism is a Religion - No, Really!” so KaoriMitsubishi’s point stand refuted, without a single reference to crack pipes.
Still, rather than argue the meaning of “atheist” we should discuss the meaning of “stupid.” Cleanhippie seems to think that stupid means “whatever cleanhippie doesn’t agree with.” He calls my letter stupid and makes no attempt whatsoever of justifying his claim. There is only the weak and addled train of thought: My letter to the editor says atheism is a religion; he does not agree; therefore my letter must be stupid. This doesn’t even rise to the dignity of an argument.
My definition of stupid, in contrast, is this: a stupid person is one who says that something is stupid simply because he doesn’t agree with it; reasons don’t matter.
To quote Forrest Gump: “Stupid is as stupid does.” And no one does stupid like cleanhippie.
Friday, January 14, 2011
Atheism is a Religion - No, Really!
Perhaps over the past few weeks you’ve seen news reports concerning the billboard posted by atheists in New Jersey telling everybody “You KNOW it’s a myth” and featuring a traditional Nativity scene.
If you haven’t seen it, here’s a copy:
Look, if you think that atheism is actually a viable world view and is true, feel free to believe whatever you want. Quod volumus facile credimus. But the irony here is palpable. Atheists have told me they don’t like religious people disparaging them for their atheism. I’m willing to bet that atheists in New Jersey feel the same way, so what makes them think they have a right to disparage religious people for not being atheists? And, clearly, their tone here is derisive. Posting their derision on a billboard is sheer hypocrisy, to say the very least. Had some sect of New Jersey Christians bothered to post a billboard reading “Atheists are in for a big surprise once they go to Hell,” I little doubt the Jersey atheists would rise up in a snit fit the likes of which haven’t been seen since Chris Matthews was asked by Michelle Bachman after the 2010 elections if he could still feel the tingle up his leg.
Worse yet is their addendum: “This Season, Celebrate REASON!” Their train of thought seems to be: We atheists, who are certain that the Nativity is a myth, have reason on our side, so those who celebrate the myth must do so for some reason other than reason, and that reason is faith. Further, reason is reliable and therefore truth, while faith is a mere illusion. Since truth is superior to illusion, we who are reasonable would do well to shock the faith-holders out of their illusory state by posting a billboard reminding them that not only is their cherished Nativity a myth, but that they really KNOW it’s a myth as well. While they may take such a declaration as an insult to their religion, it’s not, because religion is faith and faith is illusion, and so it’s impossible to insult an illusion. In fact, we’re actually doing them a FAVOR, the poor, misguided, unreasonable myth-holders, by reminding them of the error of their ways and inviting them to join us over here under the warm, convivial light of reason.
Then there’s the utterly laughable slogan at the end: “American Atheists. Reasonable since 1963.” Reasonable? Wanna bet?
Now that’s the sort of pinheaded sophistry that really raises my dander, so I penned a quick letter to the editor of my local newspaper, which was published on December 17th. If you care to read it, here’s the link:
Mind you, my local paper prescribes a limit of 250 words for letters to the editor, so I had a lot to say with very little room to say it. Fortunately, I impose no such limitation on my blog, hence this post; my intention is to explain in further detail just what’s so wrong with the billboard in Jersey, as well as to expound a bit on my contention that atheism is a religion.
First, ignoring for the moment what atheists know we know, is the Nativity really a myth? My handy-dandy American Heritage Dictionary defines a myth as: “A traditional story originating in a preliterate society, dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world.” Though I’m hardly one to ascribe supreme definitional authority to a mere dictionary, this definition seems to encapsulate most of the right elements. Applying the definition to the Nativity, however, is not quite so cut and dried—certainly, over the past two millennia, the story of the Nativity has worked its way into tradition; and there are putatively supernatural beings involved in the tale (the angels who herald the birth of the Savior to the shepherds, as well as God, who impregnated the Virgin Mary). However, the story itself is part of tradition not simply because it has been told over and over again, but because it is believed to be true, an actual event that occurred in an actual city (Bethlehem), in actual recorded history (due to an error when the Gregorian calendar was made, Christ is believed to have been born in 4 B.C.), and was witnessed by actual people (one Joseph of Nazareth and his betrothed, as well as wise men from the East, and any number of awed shepherds). Further, the personage of Christ is well attested in historical documents, which implies the simple intuition: if he lived, and if he was human, he must have been born sometime, so the when of it all doesn’t matter.
But even if the Nativity were a myth, that’s still not to say that it’s untrue, because truth or falseness is not a defining characteristic. It’s a common misconception that a myth must by definition be untrue, though this seems to be what the Jersey atheists have in mind. However, to equate a myth with falsehood is an oversimplification. Many myths are untrue, but not all. The real question is: Did the events as ascribed to the Nativity actually take place? This implies a further question: What aspects of the Nativity are known to be true and which are known to be false?
So, let’s run down the checklist: Was there a Bethlehem in 4 BC? Yup. Was it part of the Roman Empire? Also yup. Did the Empire have an emperor, and was he called Caesar? Yup as well. And did he issue a decree that every man return to the city of his birth so he could be taxed? Another yup. These are all events and personages which can be historically verified.
However, there are a number of particulars that can’t be verified in this manner, nor than they be refuted. Our only recourse here is to identify which particulars are at least plausible. We can easily presume that in those days, babies were born in stables all the time; further, there must have been plenty of Josephs and Marys hobbling to and fro, so the Nativity can’t be considered a myth on that account.
The only events which can be argued as implausible are the ones involving the supernatural aspects of the story, but even if their implausibility can be agreed to (and, by the way, they can’t, because some people do not consider an event implausible merely because it can be cast as supernatural), this hardly means they can be considered impossible, and there is no means at our disposal for disproving them. Did a host of angels actually appear before a shocked assemblage of shepherds and begin singing “Gloria in excelsis Deo?” Was Mary really impregnated by the Almighty, and was she really a virgin when she gave birth to Christ? Did an angel speak to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take his wife and newborn son to Egypt? The simple fact is, there’s no way to answer this question definitively, either yea or nay. Both the yea as well as the nay are answers that must be taken on faith. So, unless our atheist pals in New Jersey are in possession of a time machine and have traveled back to 4 B.C. Bethlehem to lay witness to the veracity of the tale, they’re in no better position than any of us to say what’s what.
As for what atheists know about what we know: Just who are they kidding? As I stated in my letter to the editor, the Jersey atheists must possess some special clairvoyance, one that the rest of us don’t have. It must be nice, knowing what other folks “really” believe, that all of Christendom is nothing more than a bevy of chuckleheads laying claim to what they know is a lie. I wonder, if I try really, REALLY hard, I might be able to develop the kind of clairvoyance that Jersey atheists possess.
Let me give it a try: Umm… atheists are… a bunch of nincompoops so fearful of the reality of God that they claim He doesn’t exist EVEN THOUGH THEY KNOW HE DOES, and, despite the fact that they are clearly in the minority in their claim (some 90% of people across the globe believe in God, or a god, or gods, or some other higher power), they’re so oblivious to their idiocy they feel compelled to make idiots out of the rest of us as well. Wow! This clairvoyance stuff is DA BOMB!
Obviously, I’m being a wee bit sarcastic here, but it’s to make a greater point: Atheists do not have a monopoly on reason, neither are they immune from making irrational claims. Further, posting their irrational claims on billboards merely displays (at best) hypocrisy or (at worst) sheer foolishness, and thus cannot exactly be construed as reason-in-action. So their advice “This Season, Celebrate REASON!” merely warrants the reply: “Hey, atheists! You first!”
But forget monopolies on reason, because, as I said in my letter, atheism is fundamentally a contradiction, the antithesis of reason. Anytime I’ve ever talked with an atheist about why he says there’s no God, the answer invariably alludes to an objection about God’s nature rather than his entelechy. God doesn’t exist, so says the atheist, because He is: uncaring, because He fails to intervene in moments of human suffering; or incompetent, because He tells His chosen people at one moment “Thou shalt not kill” and then sends them off to slaughter the Philistines the next; or stupid, because every living being He ever created has died or will die (this last objection comes from George Carlin, who was not so much an atheist as merely an unbelievably bad comedian, which, one may argue, all atheists are at heart).
Yet to examine these claims with even minimal scrutiny brings a glaring contradiction to the fore:
• God isn’t, because He is (uncaring)
• God isn’t, because He is (incompetent)
• God isn’t, because He is (stupid)
It’s a contradiction because in order to be uncaring, to be incompetent, or to be stupid, first one has TO BE. The claim therefore presumes God’s existence in attempting to deny God’s existence, so whatever objection the atheist cares to offer is in most cases simply a slightly refined way of saying “God isn’t, because He is”, or, as I put it in my letter, “God doesn’t exist because He could do a better job at being God.” At best, it is an objection to God’s character. It fails to demonstrate that God does not exist because it doesn’t even address the topic at hand, namely the ontological question of whether or not there’s a God to HAVE a character in the first place.
Now it’s certainly possible to live one’s life despite a glaring contradiction in one’s world view. People do this all the time. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, one of this nation’s founding fathers, and an outspoken proponent of democracy and libertarian government, was also a slave owner. And the atheist George Bernard Shaw once famously defended his vegetarian lifestyle by saying: “Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends!” All well and good, I suppose, but I really have to wonder what that implied about what he DID eat. Were vegetables his enemies? And what exactly did they do to piss him off so?
But a contradiction is one thing; atheists wrapping it in the cloak of reason and pawning it off to the rest of us as the One True Way is downright farcical. Celebrating REASON since 1963? To this, let me proffer a short response, followed by a longer one:
Short response: Ah-Hahahahahahahaha!!!
Longer response: I’ve pointed out the contradictory foundation of atheism to as many atheists as I meet, but more often than not the only response I ever get, if I get a response at all, is an erudite “Nuh-UH!” without any qualification as to why they’re right and I’m wrong. This should hardly be surprising: Having lied to himself about the reality of God, the atheist compounds the lie by lying to himself about the contradiction barking at him at the base of his philosophy, and so despite my claim tells himself that atheism is nonetheless reasonable, and so that therefore there must be something wrong with my argument, even though what exactly is wrong with it never seems to come to mind. In other words, the atheist takes it on faith that his philosophy is on sound footing, despite my objections.
And faith is supposedly a characteristic of…? Anyone, class? Bueller? Bueller? I’ll give you the same hint they get on “Wheel of Fortune”—R, S, T, L, N, and one vowel, E:
R E L _ _ _ _ N
That’s right: religion. And that’s because—all together now—ATHEISM IS A RELIGION!
Now, this too is something the atheist vehemently denies, in the same sort of snit-fest as from the aforementioned Chris Matthews, but I’ve yet to meet an atheist who states his denial in the form of a cogent, rational chain of thought. More often the atheist responds with some blunt bit of sophistry claimed as fact, without any supporting argumentation as to why the claim should be believed.
For example, I recall a blog post in which an atheist claimed: “Atheism is not a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is not a hobby.” This was his entire argument, verbatim.
And mere sophistry. It makes for a good sound bite, I suppose, but immediately begins to unravel upon examination. Allow me to demonstrate. We can’t really say that not collecting stamps is not a hobby; it is merely the opposite of collecting stamps, which IS a hobby but is not the ONLY hobby. “Collecting stamps” is not a synonym for “hobby” but only an example of it, a subset within a larger semantic field. If not collecting stamps is not a hobby, what does that imply about, say, collecting coins? Collecting coins is ALSO not collecting stamps. And if not collecting stamps is not a hobby, and collecting coins is not collecting stamps, are we then to claim that collecting coins is therefore not a hobby?
The claim fails in this way:
1. Not collecting stamps is not a hobby.
2. To collect coins is also not to collect stamps.
3. By substitution, collecting coins is not a hobby.
4. But collecting coins IS a hobby.
We can easily understand, then, ceterus paribus, why the comparison with atheism falls apart: atheism is not the opposite of religion; it is merely a world view that attempts to answer religious questions in a way that is contrary to that of most other religious viewpoints. Atheism is the antithesis of theism; theism is a word that bears a relationship with religion but is not synonymous with religion, in exactly the same way that not collecting stamps is not synonymous with hobbies but only an example of one. So, atheism might still be a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps might still be a hobby.
A further example comes from Steve, one of my dearest friends in all the world—and best man at my wedding. After reading my letter, Steve posted this curt reply on my Facebook page: “Saying atheism is a religion is like saying bald is a hair color.” This, like the blog post above, was the entirety of his rebuttal to my claim that atheism is a religion. The rest of his response consisted of an irrelevant excursion into to whether or not I believe in Santa Claus. But there was absolutely nothing in his reply explaining why calling atheism a religion was akin to calling bald a hair color—only the brute assertion without any explanatory rationale as to why it might be true. And never mind, apparently, that the comparison does nothing to justify itself, nor is anything close to self-evident.
Here’s what’s wrong with his logic: To say that bald is a hair color is to commit a category fallacy; that is, “Hair color” is a term that simply has no meaning within the context of baldness, and vice versa. However, there is no such category fallacy inherent in the claim that atheism is a religion—provided it can be demonstrated that atheism bears certain characteristics commensurate with religion (and since I have done that very thing in my letter to the editor, we have the evidence in hand that such a thing can be done) . In fact, to deny as self-evident that atheism is a religion may be to commit a logical fallacy of another sort:
1. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions.
2. Atheism is not Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
3. Therefore, atheism is not a religion.
4. Fords, Chevrolets, and Hondas are automobiles.
5. An Audi is not a Ford, a Chevrolet, or a Honda.
6. Therefore, an Audi is not an automobile.
7. But an Audi IS an automobile.
8. 7 is a contradiction, and if 3 is comparable to 7, then 3 may be a contradiction as well.
SCOTTISH VERDICT: NOT PROVED
But that seems to be the atheist’s mindset: You say that atheism is a religion. I don’t agree. And that’s why you should do as I say. As usual, the atheist expects the rest of us to accept his claims at face value; they’re true because he says they’re true. Ipse dixit. To which I reply, “Keep the faith, baby.”
Yet one more example is to be found in another letter to the same newspaper, issued in response to mine, from one illustrious Thomas Mackiewicz of Chandler, Oklahoma. Here’s the link:
This is a common response. I have been accused of creating straw men many, many times. This, however, is not to say that the accusations are justified. As I said earlier, the logic that atheists often use to confront me is that because I say things they don’t like hearing, there must therefore be something wrong with my argument, even if they can’t quite identify what that something is. Under atheism, opinions rule—facts are hardly germane.
In this case, the “straw man” claim serves as a generic, all-purpose reply. When in doubt, bark “Straw man! That there’s a straw man argument you got!” A parrot could do as much. While it is true that making false claims and then beating them up is the essence of a straw man argument, note that Mr. Mackiewicz cites no examples whatsoever from my letter as to precisely which claims I have made that are supposedly false. In fact, since the arguments I used in my letter were from my own personal experiences, I know they are true, and since Mr. Mackiewicz knows absolutely nothing about me (other than I write letters with which he does not agree), and since he was never present at any of the discussions I have had with atheists, he has no means whatsoever of assessing even the accuracy of my accounts, let alone decreeing them false.
But what I said in my letter is true: I HAVE spoken with atheists. I HAVE talked with them about God’s existence. And their preferred argument HAS BEEN to say that God doesn’t exist because He does such a lousy job at being God. I know. I WAS THERE! Mr. Mackiewicz, I am quite certain, was not.
Certainly, this is not to say that the “God is stupid” argument is the atheist’s ONLY argument. Sometimes atheists do engage in the “there’s no evidence” argument that Mr. Mackiewicz alludes to, but my experience has been that the “no evidence” claim is made only infrequently; if Mr. Mackiewicz is correct that “the majority of atheists actually come to atheism by way of realizing that there's a complete lack of evidence for the existence of any gods,” why then do so many atheists feel so drawn to the “God is stupid” argument, like flies to a cow patty?
The majority? Really? Is this an empirical fact, drawn from a double-blind survey of atheists, and if so, what were the percentages? Just how many claimed to have come to atheism via the “lack of evidence” route, and how many claimed other routes, and what routes were they? How exactly did the data break down? Is there a spreadsheet available that Mr. Mackiewicz can point to, where he can say “See? Right there! Over 78.9 percent of atheists surveyed said they became atheists because of realizing there’s absolutely no evidence for God’s existence. Five percent said they became atheists because of realizing that God is stupid. Two percent said they were born that way. And the rest all became atheists because they didn’t want to be the object of derision on billboards in New Jersey.” And if such data were available, could Mr. Mackiewicz have at least cited it in his letter? After all, out of a 250 word limit, he used barely 120, leaving a good 130 words available for SOME mention of supporting data. And if he fails to supply any evidence of supporting data to his claim, does that mean such data does not exist? I mean—that IS his argument for why there’s no God, isn’t it? Or is what’s sauce for the goose somehow NOT sauce for the gander?
Otherwise that leaves open the possibility that maybe “the majority” is not a statement of fact, but of opinion, more akin to wishful thinking than any aspect of reality. But I guess it’s a good thing that atheists have a monopoly on reason.
Still, having made one unsupported assertion, he is unhesitant in making more. Per Mr. Mackiewicz, atheism is simply “a rejection of the claim that there is a God — nothing more, nothing less.” If that were so, one might ask just what compelled the New Jersey atheists to erect their billboard. That was no mere rejection of the claim that God exists; it was an assertion that God does NOT exist, and moreover that Christians “know” that the Nativity is a myth, and additionally that instead of celebrating the Nativity, they should celebrate REASON with all the enlightened minority claiming membership with the “reasonable since 1963” American Atheists organization. As is apparently his wont, Mr. Mackiewicz makes his claim about what atheism “really” is, stated as a brute fact rather than merely his opinion. Ipse dixit, end of story.
Worse yet for Mr. Mackiewicz, even if he is right that atheists come to atheism due to the realization that there’s “a complete lack of evidence” for God, once again we find the unsupported opinion stated as a brute fact. Is it true that there’s absolutely NO evidence for God’s existence?
Perhaps he does not realize that the very word “evidence” is meaningless except in the context of the very issue being debated. A bit of data is not “evidence” until it is argued as “evidence for” or “evidence against.” It is not intrinsically evidentiary, but must be interpreted as evidence in light of additional contextual details. A man is dead. A knife is found near his body. Is the knife evidence that the man was murdered? There’s no possible way of knowing without further investigation. Otherwise, all we have is the data: the dead man, the nearby knife, and nothing to show how they might be related.
Nor does he realize the great gaping hole in his logic: By what logical sequence of thought can he say a) data is available for inspection and interpretation, but b) none of the data is evidence for God, and c) the lack of evidence is absolute and complete so that d) no evidence will ever be forthcoming? For one, it is impossible to prove a negative; thus it is impossible to demonstrate the completeness of any purported “lack” of evidence. Only a positive may be proved: one might prove that evidence for God is available by alluding to it or demonstrating it; nonetheless, any failure to present such evidence (or even an inability to present it) does not prove that the evidence does not exist. It might exist but remain unknown at present . Isn’t that what evolutionists claim when they argue for the missing link? Who cares that the missing link is still missing? That doesn’t mean it won’t someday be found! And even if it’s never found, that doesn’t mean that evolution isn’t true!
For another, there IS evidence for God’s existence, a substantial and growing body of evidence that, taken together, provides ample rationale for believing in God; the atheist simply denies that the evidence is valid. Again, to the atheist, facts don’t really matter. Show him the work of astrophysicist Hugh Ross and his “Reasons to Believe” organization, and the atheists brushes him off with an easy “Aww, Ross is a lightweight.” Point to any number of articles and publications supporting the notion that God exists, and the atheist dismisses them with a quick “Aww, they weren’t peer reviewed.” (And after you demonstrate that the articles really WERE peer review, the atheist then claims “Aww, that doesn’t prove anything. The process is flawed.” Never mind that if the process is flawed, there was no reason for dismissing any articles in the first place.) Show him books by Michael Behe, or William Dembski, or Stephen C. Meyer, and he’ll only claim their work has been refuted; by someone, somewhere, at some time or other; or else it is not worth considering. And if you so much as mention the Discovery Institute, the atheist will whip around, point a crooked finger your way, and begin to screech like one of the pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
My! Isn’t reason a wonderful thing? Marvelous are its ways, its mysteries to perform.
The atheist doesn’t come to any rational conclusion that God does not exist. He begins with the idea. It is his starting point, nothing less than an article of faith: Given that God does not exist, there can be no evidence for His existence, either—not because such evidence is not real, but because it cannot be accepted without undermining the Given. Thus any data that comes the atheist’s way is immediately sub-routed to the “Can’t be evidence for God” file. A burning bush? Folktale. A pillar of fire? A metaphor of an ancient phallocentric society. The Star of Bethlehem? Myth. An ordered, lawful universe, despite ubiquitous levels of entropy? An accident. The discovery of DNA, a chemically-based code far more elaborate than any code ever devised by man, containing vast volumes of information, yet smaller than the head of a pin, when any other code we may identify is without exception the product of intelligent design? It made itself, and even if we have no idea whatsoever how it managed to do that, we can state with one hundred percent reliability that You-Know-Who was NOT involved. And if you disagree, we’ll take you to court!
From all this, I say the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that atheism is not based on reason. Its core claims are invariably faith-based, its arguments unreasonable and fundamentally flawed, and yet despite this fact are still held to be true. Further, these claims are not allowed to be questioned, which again undermines the assertion that atheism is based on reason; this is more characteristic of dogma.
No, I am quite certain, and I am more convinced now that I have ever been. Atheism is a religion.
The whole thing hinges, of course, on what we mean by “religion.” It is one of those words that is easy to identify but hard to define. For example, we return to my handy-dandy American Heritage Dictionary, where we find: “Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power recognized as the creator and governor of the universe.”
At this point, the atheist may cry “Aha! Victory!! Atheism claims that a supernatural power does NOT exist, which means that atheism is NOT a religion!” After all, nothing supports atheism better than a good excuse. (And, I would add, nothing else supports it, either.)
But reference my earlier comment about ascribing supreme definitional authority to a mere dictionary. Dictionaries are merely descriptive, not prescriptive, in their approach—the meanings they ascribe to words are only the result of general usage and are purely subjective. And sometimes, dictionaries can be flat-out wrong. In the case of the AHD, the definition seems to center on the notion that religion necessarily means belief in a supreme being. But not all religions display this characteristic. In Animism, for instance, there is no belief in any god or gods, nor even any recognition of the supernatural for that matter. An animist may recognize, for example, some particular stream or pond or rock as having in it some sort of power that other streams or ponds or rocks do not have, but whatever power these things possess, such power is closely associated with the thing in which the power resides. Thus, the distinction between natural and supernatural is never made. Further, there is nothing supreme about the thing’s power—the force resides within the thing but does not rule over all things. So, Animism does not fit the AHD definition of religion, and yet is commonly considered a religion.
Another example would be Buddhism. The Buddha is not a supreme being, nor even a god, but only an enlightened human being. And he has no power whatsoever over the universe. He doesn’t rule, decree, create, or intervene in the affairs of his fellow men—he only advises as to the path to enlightenment and serves as a model for the rest of us to emulate. Buddhism doesn’t fit the AHD definition either, yet is universally recognized as a religion. Thus, the only reasonable conclusion is that the AHD definition is faulty, perhaps too faulty to be valid.
Still, there are other venues. Recently, I had opportunity to take part in a short bit of training sanctioned by the U.S. Air Force on USAF policy concerning freedom of religion. Included in the training was a link to Air Force Instruction 36-2706, which offers this definition of religion: “A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, moral or ethical beliefs and practices held with the strength of traditional religious views, characterized by ardor and faith and generally evidenced through specific religious observances.”
Now this is hardly a perfect definition either (mainly because it uses the very word it is attempting to define as part of the definition itself and is thus somewhat self-referential, which is a bit like trying to stand in a bushel basket and lift yourself ten feet into the air), but it is less problematic than the one proffered from AHD. Although Animism still seems anomalous (the only applicable characteristic is faith), at least the definition doesn’t exclude Buddhism.
Nor, I would argue, does it exclude atheism.
Atheists sometime erroneously define atheism as a lack of belief in God. This is incorrect because the lack of belief in God is the claim of the agnostic. An agnostic, by definition, is “one who does not know.” He cannot say that God exists anymore than that He doesn’t. The agnostic lacks the belief. An atheist, by contrast, HAS a belief—he BELIEVES that God does not exist. So atheism is not the lack of belief in God, but rather is the belief in the lack of a God.
Defined correctly, atheism is a belief system. Seen in this light, the religious overtones of atheistic belief become clear.
The word “Religion” comes to us via the Latin religio, meaning “to bind” or “to tie back”. A religion therefore connotes a grouping together, coupled with a restriction. It is the grouping which allows us to say “We are Baptists” or “We are Muslims.” The restriction is normative in some way—it tells us how we should live our lives, so that the Baptist can insist on certain doctrines, like water baptism or eternal security, or the Muslim on duties like restraining from consuming alcohol or pork, or praying five times a day.
To say that atheism is not a religion is, first and foremost, to say that atheism is not normative.
But what, then, are we to make of the New Jersey billboard? The message was not “We atheists do not believe as you Christians believe, but that’s okay, because everyone is free to believe what he, she, or it wants.” Rather the message was “You Christians celebrate a myth even though you know it’s a myth. Instead YOU SHOULD DO AS WE DO, and that is to celebrate reason.” Such a message is clearly normative, in both its essence and in its intent.
Getting back to the AFI 36-2706 definition of religion, what religious characteristics are applicable to atheism?
A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes: Would participation in an organization with the motto “Reasonable since 1963” qualify as institutional? Does the “dot-org” domain of its website suggest at least the attempt at systematization?
Moral or ethical beliefs: Surely telling people “You KNOW it’s a myth” implies that believing myths is a bad thing. Aren’t bad things supposed to be immoral? Or, if not immoral, aren’t myths wrong things to believe? Surely the admonition “This Season, Celebrate REASON!” is an attempt at encouraging our lost brethren to turn from their wicked ways and enter into the One True Faith, namely, to abandon all this God nonsense and to join all us enlightened atheists. And surely such actions are indicative of an ethos.
Characterized by ardor: Is posting a billboard in New Jersey a sufficient example of ardor in action? After all, someone had to conceive of the idea; someone had to finance it; and someone had to commission it. Or, if one billboard is not enough, how about posting messages on the sides of 800 London buses? Arduous enough for you?
And faith: The atheist holds the belief that God does not exist. Faith tells him so. He says the Nativity is a myth. Faith, again. He says there is zero evidence for God, that any purported evidence is wrong or incorrectly identified as evidence, and that no evidence is forthcoming. Faith, faith, and more faith.
Finally, I should remind everyone that I am not the only one saying that atheism is a religion. For starters, we have this from Michael Ruse, a self-professed atheist, Darwinist, and ex-Christian: “If ‘God exists’ is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is ‘God does not exist’ not a religious claim?” (“From a Curriculum Standpoint, Is Science Religion?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 December 2010).
Per Wikipedia, “There are also online churches that have been created by atheists for purposes ranging from parody, advocacy, education, securing legal rights, to ordaining atheist clergy for atheist weddings.” These include, but are not limited to:
• Atheist Community of Austin (www.atheist-community.org)
• First Church of Atheism
• Christian Atheism
• Church of Reason
• Church of Reality
• Church of Atheism (UK)
• Free Atheist Church
• First Free Church of Atheism
• North Texas Church of Freethought
• Houston Church of Freethought
• The Church of the Apathetic Agnostic
• Church of the Rebar Jesus
• The Church of the SubGenius
• Church of the Latter Day Dude
• Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
• Church of Humanism
• Society for Humanistic Judaism
• Cult of Dusty
• Church of the Smashing Orangey Bit
• The Church of Google 35
• Church of Atheism (U.S.)
Additionally, we have the First Amendmist Church of True Science, or FACTS (surely, this acronym is more than coincidental; if intentional, it is another example of the false claim that atheism is based on reason). Its founder, Michael Newdow, holds that its members are atheists “whose religious beliefs are specifically and explicitly based on the idea that there is no god.” (See Newdow v. Lefevre, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 06-16344 D.C., No. CV-05-02339-FCD)
In 1997, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit declared that atheism is protected as a religion “for First Amendment purposes” (under the “free exercise” clause). The court decided that the Orange County N.Y. Department of Probation could not force Robert Warner, an atheist, to attend religion-based alcoholic treatment programs against the dictates of his own beliefs.
In 2005, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in as well. It ruled Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate's rights because they did not treat atheism as a religion. "Atheism,” the Court said, “is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being.” (See 419 F.3d 678 (2005), James J. KAUFMAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Gary R. McCAUGHTRY, et al., Defendants-Appellees, No. 04-1914, United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.) Additionally, in December 2009, the United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
The SCOTUS did so because it has been saying for the past 50 years that a religion is not based simply on the belief of a supreme being. In the 1961 Case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court stated that “secular humanism” was a religion. In Kaufman v. McCaughtry, the Court affirmed that the practice of atheism was protected under the free exercise clause. It did not directly declare that atheism is a religion, but the precedent has been set: If the federal government is barred from limiting the free exercise of religion, and if atheism falls under that rubric, it will be problematic if not impossible to afford to atheism the full constitutional protection of free exercise afforded to religion, while at the same time holding that atheism is not “really” a religion.
But that’s okay, because atheism “really” IS one.
Monday, September 27, 2010
Thoughts on Philip K. Dick
Ursula K. LeGuin likened Dick to “our own home-grown Borges.” I might agree but for the fact that I’ve never read Borges and likely never will. Still, it’s beyond question that Dick was one nifty novelist. Imaginative, inventive, well-informed, and intelligent—everything that I’ve tried to aspire to as a writer.
Aside: One habit that I’ve tried to develop, largely as a result of reading the über-brilliant and ultra-readable David Berlinski (my hero in all things literary and polemical), has been to read some writer I wish to emulate and make short vocabulary lists from his stuff. Here are some of the snazzier terms I picked up from Dick:
I’ll assume you either already know these, or are willing to look them up in a dictionary and learn them yourselves, or else don’t give a rat’s tokhes WHAT they mean and hence have no need for me to define them for you.
What I find most fascinating about Dick’s work is the extent to which personal experiences influenced his writing, the autobiographical undertones of his work. His novels were almost always centered on the constant conflict between his spiritualism and his mental health (he had attempted suicide a number of times), which was further complicated by lifelong drug abuse, some prescribed by doctors, some purchased from street dealers. He wasn’t particularly religious, but was deeply influenced by his religious studies, which included Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, as well as spiritual excursions into Vedic and Hindu lore, and flirtations with the I Ching. Perhaps his greatest personal influence was James Pike, the Episcopal bishop of California, who served as inspiration for the character Timothy Archer in Dick’s last novel.
Doubtless the single most influential event of his life was what he termed “2-3-74,” a period of some weeks beginning in February of 1974 (2 for Feb; 3 for March). Having undergone oral surgery for an impacted wisdom tooth, during which he was given sodium pentathol, he had phoned his pharmacist for some additional pain-killers. The prescription was delivered by a young woman, who, he noticed, was wearing a gold chain around her neck affixed with an Ichthus character, the traditional symbol of Christianity. Dick asked her what it was; she told him. Not long thereafter he began to have visions which intensified during March and which tapered intermittently throughout the year. At one point, Dick began to claim that a transcendental intelligence had superimposed itself upon his mind, which he identified at times as either Ruah (the Old Testament word for the spirit of God, though to Dick the voice was feminine), Zebra, God, or VALIS (an acronym for Vast Active Living Information System). As the visions intensified, he began to claim a double life, one as Phillip K. Dick, the other as “Thomas,” a first-century Christian persecuted by Romans. He even claimed to have been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah, and believed that one episode from his novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said was a detailed retelling of a story from the New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles, though he had never read Acts.
At that point, Dick began writing what he called his Exegesis, portions of which he reproduced in the novel VALIS. By the time of his death, Dick’s Exegesis had grown to some 8,000 pages. Here’s a sample, culled from the appendix to VALIS:
12. The Immortal One was known to the Greeks as Dionysos; to the Jews as Elijah; to the Christians as Jesus. He moves on when each human host dies, and thus is never killed or caught. Hence Jesus on the cross said, “Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani,” to which some of those present correctly said, “The man is calling on Elijah.” Elijah had left him and he died alone.
38. From loss and grief the Mind has become deranged. Therefore we, as parts of the universe, the Brain, are partly deranged.
47. TWO SOURCE COSMOGONY: The One was and was-not, combined, and desired to separate the was-not from the was. So it generated a diploid sac which combined, like an eggshell, a pair of twins, each an androgyny, spinning in opposite directions (the Yin and Yang of Taoism, with the One as the Tao). The plan of the One was that both twins would emerge into being (was-ness) simultaneously; however, motivated by a desire to be (which the One had implanted in both twins), the counterclockwise twin broke through the sac and separated prematurely; i.e. before full term. This was the dark or Yin twin. Therefore it was defective.
Perhaps a more typical (and illustrative) passage, though, is found in the foreword to Dick’s novel A Maze of Death:
The theology in this novel is not an analog of any known religion. It stems from an attempt made by William Sarill and myself to develop an abstract, logical system of religious thought, based on the arbitrary postulate that God exists. I should say, too, that the late Bishop James A. Pike, in discussions with me, brought forth a wealth of theological material for my inspection, none of which I was previously acquainted with.
In the novel, Maggie Walsh’s experiences after death are based on an L.S.D. experience of my own. In exact detail…
All material concerning Wotan and the death of the gods is based on Richard Wagner’s version of Der Ring des Nibelungen, rather than on the original body of myths.
Answers to the questions put to the tench were derived from the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes.
“Tekel upharsin” is Aramaic for, “He has weighed and now they divide.” Aramaic was the tongue that Christ spoke. There should be more like him.
Though short, the passage clearly encapsulates a number of Dick’s themes: intense intellectual curiosity, spiritualism, substance abuse, and a reverence for certain Judeo-Christian religious figures. Traces of the themes may be found in virtually all of his writing.
One interesting note from VALIS: the narrator, a schizophrenic with two distinct personalities, identifies himself at times as Philip K. Dick (and by this Dick clearly meant himself, even identifying the character as author of a number of Dick’s books), most other times as Horselover Fat. It seemed obvious to me that any writer who goes to the trouble of naming one of his characters “Horselover Fat” does so for a pretty darned good reason, even if that reason isn’t readily apparent. It’s not until towards the end of the novel that Dick reveals where Horselover Fat gets his name, and I have to tell you, as a polyglot I was plenty miffed with myself for not figuring it out on my own. “Horselover Fat” is just another way of saying “Philip Dick.” Dick is the German word for “fat” (Dick uses an awful lot of German in his writing), while Philip is Greek for “lover of horses”—phil from philos, meaning “love”, and ip from hip or hippo, meaning “horse.” Dang it, I shoulda known. Dang it, dang it, dang it!!
I find in Dick something of a kindred spirit. (Ironically enough, “Kindred” was his middle name.) He seems torn between the physical and the metaphysical—or perhaps more accurately expressed, the material and the spiritual—profoundly engrossed with notions of the divine yet deeply committed to intellect and reason. The principal difference between us is that I am willing to cross a line that he is not. For Dick, as he claims in the above quote, God’s existence is an arbitrary postulate; for me, God’s existence is a necessary prerequisite of an ordered, lawful, and surprisingly rational universe in which information is central to its expression, this despite the fact that the universe is also entropic. The claim that an entropic universe ordered itself strikes me as implausible as claiming that you can climb into a bushel basket and lift yourself ten feet into the air—the very structure of immanent reality prohibits it.
In VALIS, Dick makes an interesting observation: the logic of God-denial is insupportable, as it is an example of “the two-proposition self-cancelling structure” (Dick attributes this nomenclature to Sigmund Freud), which goes like this:
1. God does not exist.
2. And anyhow he’s stupid.
The structure is two-propositional because—count ‘em—there are a total of two propositions, and self-cancelling because the second statement does not reinforce the first but only appears to. In fact, the second proposition contradicts the first. Despite the highfalutin terminology, though, the “two-proposition self-cancelling structure” is a simple restatement of my own contention as to the incoherency underpinning atheism: the atheist claims there is no God, because God isn’t as nice as the atheist maintains God should be. A nice God, claims the atheist, wouldn’t be stupid, and therefore God does not exist. (Note that there’s no objective standard as to what constitutes “stupid,” and thus no way of affirming the atheist’s claim that God is as dumb as he says He is, but don’t bother pointing this out to an atheist; you’ll just confuse him with facts.) That Dick and I have hit upon the same observation independently goes a long way, I think, towards affirming that the observation is correct:
1. God isn’t
2. Because God is (just not as nice as I think he should be).
Dick died in 1982 from a stroke following a heart attack, at the age of only 54, not too much older than I am now. He had never been in particularly good health. For most of his life, his blood pressure was dangerously high; that, and his decades-long use of prescription amphetamines, followed by his experimentation with mind-altering drugs (the guy lived in California in the 60’s—of course he used dope!) and his attempts at suicide, ensured that he was NOT going to live to a ripe old age.
Nevertheless, I seriously doubt that Dick intended The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to be his last novel; it’s just the way it worked out. Archer is indicative of Dick’s mindset in his final days—always on the cusp of that gossamer-thin demarcation between unbelief and belief, but never quite able to cross over. Near the end of Archer, the narrator tells us: “I am a professional student and will remain one; I will not change. My opportunity to change was offered to me and I turned it down; I am stuck, now, and, as I say, know but know not what.” The words strike me as Dick’s assessment of his own life.
Sad, really. To be that close to realizing a transcendent truth, to forever straddle that fence. To see the promised land but not take that short step into it. So miniscule, that distance, and yet so vast. Small wonder, then, that we call it a leap of faith.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Speaking of false impressions:
I have to wonder just whom you have in mind when you speak of “the tea-and-crumpets-and-bigotry crowd.” Perhaps it’s the use of the word “tea” that is throwing me. Do you perhaps you mean those anti-intrusionist protestors who commonly refer to themselves as “tea partiers” (or, if you’re a moron, aka Keith Olbermann, “tea-snicker-snicker-baggers”)?
But if that’s so, why does your post begin with a photo of a moron wielding a “God Hates You” sign? Therein, the false impression: so far as I know, there have been no such signs at any of the so-called Tea Party rallies, nor does Franklin Graham aver to such a thing, nor anyone associated with the National Day of Prayer; “God Hates You” is the rallying cry of Fred Phelps and his mindless drones of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Fred Phelps doesn’t attend Tea Party rallies, nor does he buddy up with Franklin Graham; he spends the majority of his waking hours making a pest of himself at the funerals of Marines killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, posting placards like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags”. Are you equating all those (the Tea Partiers, at last count, have grown to a million or more) who scruple at runaway government spending and unread 2000+ page health care bills with a handful (roughly sixty or so, most of whom are members of Phelps's family, the rest from his church congregation) of pseudo-Christian whackjobs who can’t see the inherent contradiction between “For God so loved the world” and “God hates fags”? If so, you would be demonstrating a fallacy of collectivism.
Otherwise, I could point out that you have more in common with Phelps than does the average Tea Partier or anyone associated with the National Day of Prayer. Our Boy Fred earned a law degree in 1962 and for a number of years was a practicing civil rights attorney. I don’t suppose you would argue that all those in search of a law degree are likely pseudo-Christian whackjobs, would you? Should I also mention that on at least 5 occasions he ran for public office? As a Democrat? Or are all Democrats mere whackjobs like Fred?
Virtually everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, has nothing but disdain for Fred and his acolytes, so what does the "God Hates You" photo have to do with the NDOP, other than to taint Franklin Graham & Co. with a collectivist smear? The WBC are a small, obscure, and outrageously extremist outfit who make a mockery not only of Christianity, but free speech itself. Tea Partiers are merely expressing their constitutionally-sanctioned right for peacefully assembly for redress of grievances. The NDOP, likewise, is expressing its constitutionally-sanctioned right to practice their religion; this despite whatever hermeneutics you may attempt in your reference (but not exactly reverence) of Matthew 6. Even Ann Coulter, also possesser of a law degree (who, unlike Phelps, has not been disbarred) and an ardent supporter of the Tea Party movement, has nothing kind to say about Phelps. See: http://townhall.com/columnists/AnnCoulter/2010/04/07/god_hates_judges
True, bigotry is an ugly thing. But you seem to forget that bigotry comes in all sizes and flavors. There is, for example, the bigotry of the anti-Christian zealot. You should try harder not to sound like one.
What I find bizarre is your adumbration of what you find bizarre: “Tomorrow we will have public officials preaching piety on public property in the shadow of the seat of state government.” Which prompts the reply: Yeah? So? Anything wrong with preaching? Or piety? Or that it is public? Or in close proximity with a governmental edifice? What, no? Then why whine about it?
And, yes, I mean “whine”. Your next words are telling: “Yes, it is constitutionally protected free speech, but—”
Sorry, but no “buts” are allowed. The Constitution does not automatically shut off at all points you find inconvenient. If the speech is not only free but constitutionally protected, you have no justification whatsoever for bemoaning it, no matter where it takes place, and no matter what motivations you hypothesize are at its foundation. Free speech is the law of the land, not the law of the land at least 100 meters outside of any governmental building, monument, park, and/or other facility except for weekends and holidays, and only with the expressed, written consent of the U.S. Department of Buttinskyness.
And by the way, freedom of religion is also the law of the land, a point all too often missed by our courts. The “longstanding American ideal of keeping the state out of the church” is only that—an ideal. It is not found in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States, nor even in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of Religion, on the other hand, is. The notion of the separation of Church and State has far too long been used as an instrument for curtailing religious freedom, due to an overarching, misguided (and errant) interpretation of the Establishment Clause. When the federal government steps in and bans even the recitation of a prayer at a football game (that, of all things, the players don’t kill each other on the field—oh, the looming theocracy!), it’s clear that the constitutional emphasis has gone from freedom of religion to freedom from it—the polar opposite of what the Founding Fathers had in mind.
Separation of Church and State comes to us via a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in his later years, long after his presidency, further still from his years as a revolutionary and author of the Declaration of Independence. His emphasis was not that all governmental functions should be devoid of any religious character, but only that the government shouldn’t be in the business of establishing a Church of the United States in the same way that the British had established a Church of England.
His emphasis aside, it is of note that his comments come to us via a letter, and conspicuously NOT from the Declaration of Independence, or the U.S. Constitution, or from any of the legislation he signed into law as president. One would think that had Jefferson been truly of a mind to keep the Church separate from state, he would have had ample opportunity to do so as a matter of American jurisprudence, and would have made some sort of attempt to formalize his ideas into law. Letters are wonderful source materials for understanding the insights and state of mind of important historical figures, but that’s where their usefulness ends; they are not matters of law and thus have no bearing on its interpretation. Nor, for that matter, do they “definitively” settle questions such as whether to hold national days of religious observance.
There is a problem in ascribing to Jefferson the letter-writer the same sort of intellectual authority we ascribe to Jefferson the Founding Father. The former was a private citizen speaking for himself; the latter was a public figure speaking for us all. The private citizen speaks with less authority than the public figure. Saying otherwise is tantamount to saying that because Nicholas Cage won the Academy Award for his performance in “Moonstruck” his recommendation that wolverines make good house pets should be accepted without question.
Idiot-Proofing the Idiot
Ze schuol sant er in gên Paris:
An künsten solt er werden wîs.
(Lit: To school sent he him to Paris/In the arts should he become wise.)
The son attends school for a number of years, completes his education, and returns home.
Dad, of course, is thrilled at his son’s return. Eager to show off the boy’s new academic skills, he invites everyone from the village to a “Welcome Home” soiree, whereupon he asks his son to impart to one and all some bit of wisdom he picked up at the university.
The lad takes a brief look out the window, where the full moon is shining brightly in the night sky, and says:
Eis dinges mich grôz wunder nint,
Des ich mitvlîz mich hab besint,
Daz der mâne sô glîch ûf gât
Dem mânen, den ich in der stat
Ze Parîs sach, des wundert mich:
Einander sint si gar gelîch.
Er muoz sîn gar ein wîser man,
Der si zwên underscheiden kan.
Loosely translated: “Well, in Paris they have a moon that looks exactly like ours.”
The moral, according to the poem, is that education won’t keep a fool from being a fool. However, a more pertinent lesson might be: Don’t send your kid off to school and expect the professors there to educate him just because you’re paying them to do so. Anyone who doesn’t understand that the moon shining over Paris is the same moon shining over every other city anywhere else is certainly a fool, but one really ought to ask oneself: Just what were those egghead professors in Paris doing while that dopey kid was sitting in their classrooms?
I am enamored with the idea of higher education. Though I haven’t seen the insides of a college classroom in some twenty years, I continue to read, to write, and to study, in a never-ending quest to convince myself that my brain has some greater function than merely to keep my ears apart. It’s a quest fraught with anxiety and frustration, because I never seem to learn half as much as I feel I should have learned, and I constantly find myself forgetting far more than I have a right to forget, but inasmuch as I’ve always believed that learning is a lifelong process, it’s something I’ve never been able to put aside. As Samuel Johnson once noted, soon the night comes wherein no man can work. Until then, I’ll continue to crack the books.
Yet one of life’s great ironies is that the least likely avenue of attaining higher education is oftentimes the so-called institute of higher learning. Just like the 12th century Universite de Paris, the modern college or university is no imparter of wisdom, or, for that matter, even of learning. Those parents who place their trust in any secondary school to educate their young are apt to find their trust—as well as their money—has been seriously misplaced.
There are many reasons why this is so, but perhaps the most fundamental reason is the insular nature of academia itself, a consequence of the “publish or perish” mindset of the tenure system. A university professor’s focus is not on teaching his classes but on demonstrating his scholasticism, which means he must publish. The classes he teaches are but a means to an end—they provide the professor with a salary so that he can pay his bills; his class workload is deliberately kept light so that he has enough free time to focus on getting his name in print.
As a result, a kind of academic myopia sets in. The professor’s world is his area of study, not the world itself. As the adage goes, if the only tool at your disposal is a hammer you tend to see the world in terms of nails. Anything that doesn’t fit that preconceived notion simply doesn’t merit the professor’s attention. It’s not simply that there are things in his world that are un-nail-like; that which is not like a nail is that which does not suit his reality, and therefore doesn’t exist, or is at least not worth noting.
Worse yet, the professor has virtually no incentive whatsoever to examine his it’s-all-nails world view and therefore no likelihood of changing it. His view of reality will continue to be what it is, right or wrong, so long as he continues to publish. It’s also what he will continue to bring into his classroom, hence the charge that the university setting’s main emphasis is on indoctrination rather than education.
Everyday experience tells us there is often a discontinuity between theory and application. The average professor, however, insulated from everyday experience, is oftentimes unaware of the gap. His focus is theory, not application, and so, ironically enough, it is the professor who fails to learn the lessons of everyday life.
There is perhaps no better illustration of this fact than a paper I ran across while researching for Killjoy: “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology—An Analysis of the Ocean Crisis Within Capitalist Production” by Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark (University of Oregon), in: Organization & Environment, Vol. 18 No. 4, December 2005, pp. 422-444.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the notion of “metabolic rift,” the giveaway word “capitalist” should clue you in on what sort of focus this paper brings to bear. It’s none other than that of our good buddy, Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto and fictional contestant of the Monty Python quiz show “World Forum.”
Yup, that’s right. Good old Karl “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” Marx. For the rest of the world, Marxism has been formulated, examined, theorized, implemented, found wanting and abandoned; in academia, it not only lives and breathes, it thrives. Nowhere else, with the possible exception of the Obama Administration (though I would argue that BHO & Co. are more Maoist than Marxist), does this queer phenomenon rear its ugly li’l head.
Indeed, Clausen and Clark would give one the impression that the Marxist vision is not only spot-on, it’s the only lens through which a sensible individual would view the world. In their abstract, they write: “We extend Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift to the marine environment to (a) understand the human transformations of the ocean ecosystem, (b) examine the anthropogenic (human-generated) causes of fish stock depletion, (c) study the development of aquaculture in response to the oceanic crisis, and (d) reveal the ecological consequences of ongoing capitalist production in relation to the ocean environment.”
Metabolic rift, must you know, is a term coined by Marx; its central claim, per Wikipedia, is that “the spread of the capitalist node of production results in humans interacting less directly with their natural environment from which they derive their sustenance, which in turn leads to its exploitation.”
And there’s the all-purpose Marxist term of choice: exploitation. Suffice to say, the word appears more than a few times in Clausen and Clark’s paper. We hear of “how the exploited marine conditions” affected the “Cod Wars” fought between Britain and Iceland from 1958 to 1976. “Industrial exploitation” threatens our marine ecosystems with species extinction, the “direct effect of overfishing,” which has created major alterations to marine food webs; this is “the clearest example of capitalism causing a rift in the metabolic processes of the ocean.” Our seas, they write, “are confronting serious environmental stresses that threaten their ability to regenerate… [T]hese ecological conditions must be understood as they relate to the systematic exploitation of nature for profit.”
That’s all commercial fishing is, y’understand, merely exploiting nature in pursuit of the almighty dollar, the “relentless drive to accumulate capital,” as Clausen and Clarke phrase it. Its focus is solely on profit; the idea that capitalist fisheries might fish their stock to extinction and thus fish themselves out of a livelihood never enters their minds. It is the profit motive that has “for the first time made the exhaustion of deep-sea fish stocks a real possibility.” Oh, those—ptooey—capitalists!
This is not to say that Clausen and Clarke’s paper is bad. On the contrary, it’s well-written, thorough, and backed up by a host of secondary sources. At the time of their paper’s publication, C&C were doctoral students; there is not the least doubt in my mind that by now both have received their PhDs, and deservedly so.
But neither can I call the paper good, if only because it's insufferably foolish. It would require volumes to describe what’s bad about Marx’s theory. I’ll suffice with this handy rule of thumb: look at the body count—the greater the count, the worse for the theory. Under National Socialism (a political manifestation of Darwin's theory under the rubric of "social Darwinism"), Adolf Hitler 1) invaded Poland, which started World War II and cost the lives of some fifty million, and 2) murdered some nine million Jews, Czechs, Poles, and Russian prisoners of war in a system of extermination camps; surely this is why we say Hitler was a bad person.
He was not, however, the worst person ever. There are other contenders for this claim, and all of them Marxists. Joseph Stalin, just like Hitler, invaded Poland and started World War II--this, however, under the Marxist mantra of liberating the workers of the world; at the time, he claimed his invasion of Poland was to repel the German hordes, but historians have since demonstrated that Stalin and Hitler were in collusion, the Russian troops no less an invasionary force than the Germans. And while Hitler “merely” managed to murder nine million in his camps, Stalin was responsible for the starvation of over seven million Ukrainians who resisted his attempts to collectivize their farms, ordered the deaths of over fifteen million dissidents and political prisoners, and allowed untold millions to perish in the Gulags of Siberia. Add those millions to the millions that perished under Mao’s People’s Republic and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and we’re talking about the slaughter of easily a hundred million people, all in the name of some Marxist fantasy about uniting the workers of the world and casting off the chains of capitalist imperialism. A hundred million dead is compelling testimony that the proletariat had far, far more to lose than their chains.
But never mind all that, say the professors. At least Stalin meant well.
Further evidence that education is incapable of idiot-proofing the idiot.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Atheistic Incoherency Redux
Like I said: Incoherent.
Needless to say, there are some atheists who take issue with this claim. One such objector was the blogger David B., with whom I enjoyed an intriguing exchange. I won’t reproduce the entire exchange here (if you’re interested, read the comments attached to my post “Mutual of Omaha and the Marlin Perkins Theodicy,”) but I think there are portions worth highlighting.
His first objection: “Loving fathers don’t starve their children to death if they can avoid it.” Applying this objection to God, we get: “A loving God doesn’t starve His creatures to death if He can avoid it.” Look familiar? It should. It’s the “God isn’t as nice as He should be” argument yet once again. This sort of argument pops up so frequently, you’d think this is the only weapon in the atheist’s arsenal. And, most likely, you’d be right.
What intrigues me all the more, though, is the atheist’s propensity for making unwarranted assumptions in order to support his assertions. Here there are at least three. Can you spot them? I’ll give you a moment.
[Theme from “Jeopardy” plays here.]
Finished? Good. Let’s compare notes.
The first is that when one of God’s creatures starves to death, God is the One causing the starvation. But we have to ask ourselves: Is it that He actively starves His creature to death or that He passively allows His creature to starve to death? Or is there any reason for supposing God should be involved at all? Perhaps starvation is merely a logical necessity, born from the fact that there is a practical limit to the availability of foodstuffs, and that this availability is not uniform.
And perhaps it is not God who is to blame for allowing someone to starve to death, but ourselves. As compelling as the image of a victim of starvation may be, the vast majority of us do absolutely nothing about it; we merely mutter “Oh, isn’t that a shame?” or some such platitude and go on our merry way. We see the ads on television virtually every day: Just thirty cents a day to save the life of a suffering child. Yet—and be honest—do you call the 800-number on the screen and send a donation? Do you even know anyone who does?
The second assumption is the qualifier: “If He can avoid it.” This begs the question: How do we know what God can and can’t avoid?
The answer that springs to mind is that if we define God as an omnipotent being, then there’s nothing he can’t do. But does it necessarily follow that because of God’s omnipotence that when one of His creatures starves to death this is something He could have avoided? To avoid is to take steps to eschew the results of a certain sequence of events. Inasmuch as taking the steps or not taking the steps is a matter of volition, the avoidance of the creature’s starvation is then simply a matter of God’s choice. Whatever reasons God may have to choose to avoid or not to avoid, these are not self-evident, and so are known only to Him. To know what reasons God has in mind to avoid or not to avoid the death-by-starvation of one of His creatures is therefore to know the mind of God, which—unless He actually tells us what is on His mind—is something no one can do, atheist or theist. The only way of knowing for certain what God had in mind when one of His creatures starves to death is if He descends from Heaven and says something like, “Yeah, I could have avoided the guy’s starvation, but I didn’t like him very much, so to heck with him.” This would satisfy David’s objection, but it would also kind of toss his whole “there’s no God” thing right out the window. Talk about your Pyrrhic victories!
Okay, so what’s the third assumption? That death by starvation is a bad thing (that is, an unloving one, and hence a bad one). This assumption is less obvious than the first two, but at its base it’s still an assumption because it’s a claim that is made without any effort expended to show how the claim is valid.
Is starving to death objectively bad? Unpleasant, doubtlessly, since having gone hungry a time or two myself, I have an idea what starvation is like (once, for instance, I fasted for forty days; a thoroughly unpleasant experience, I assure you); further, we need only look into the eyes of some emaciated, swollen-bellied victim of starvation to understand the experience is agonizing.
But are we to argue that what makes starvation bad is its unpleasantness? Surely not all things that are unpleasant are necessarily bad. Like pulling an abscessed tooth, or passing a kidney stone. Unpleasant, yes, but better to be rid of the tooth or the kidney stone. So if not all unpleasant things are necessarily bad, how are we so certain about starvation?
Perhaps, then, it’s the severity of the unpleasantness that makes starvation bad. As agonizing as passing a kidney stone might be, surely the agony is nothing in comparison to that of a prolonged event such as starvation. But how much severity is too much? Is there an objective standard somewhere that determines how much severity of unpleasantness is required to make a thing bad, something on a scale of death-by-sex-with-Dallas-Cowboy-cheerleaders on the “not so bad” extreme and death-by-Sarlacc (the creature from Star Wars that digests its victims over a 1000-year period) on the “really bad” one? And where, exactly, would death-by-starvation fall on such a scale? Isn’t this a matter of opinion, then, rather than fact?
As much as we might wish to agree that death-by-starvation surely can’t be considered a good thing, we’re still stuck if there’s no proper rationale for determining what, if anything, makes it bad in its essence. Is it bad in an absolute sense, always bad in all times and in all places? Is it generally bad but maybe sometimes good, depending upon circumstances? Is it merely bad in a relativistic sense, that is, bad in one man’s opinion and good in another’s? Again, how do we know for certain?
Perhaps, though, it’s not the starvation that’s bad but the dying. Maybe it’s bad because death is bad. But this, too, is only an assumption—that death is the end, and when you’re gone, you’re gone. After all, the finality of death is a matter of some debate; just put an atheist and a theist into the same room and listen to them argue about it.
A fortiori, it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether the atheist is right that death is the end or the theist is right that death is only the beginning. If the atheist is right, death can only be bad if living mattered in the first place, but it’s hard to see how living matters if life is only the accidental offshoot of an accidental universe, which is the only means at our disposal for explaining our existence if there’s no Creator. A living being starves to death—so? Did he matter? Who says? And when the atheist retorts “I say he mattered!” this only begs the question: How do we know the atheist matters? He’s only an accident, too. Are we to assume that life matters, even if we can’t explain how it does? Another unwarranted assumption. Or, if the theist is right that death is only the end of our physical existence and not the end of our spiritual existence, then death might actually be a good thing, regardless of whatever horrors might enjoin to bring it about.
Mind you, I’m not arguing that death by starvation is okay. Maybe it isn’t. I’m just asking how for certain we know it’s not only not-okay, but genuinely bad. Additionally, I would ask how we know that because God is surely capable of intervening to prevent the death-by-starvation of one of His creatures, He should intervene to prevent it. Is God morally obliged to prevent the death-by-starvation, and if so, how do we know?
The logic underlying this assumption is flimsy, because, as assumptions go, it’s not particularly well-thought out, being a reaction on an emotional level rather than a rational one. There’s nothing wrong with emotion per se, but I find its presence here rather ironic, considering the argument comes from someone who thinks atheism is a rational enterprise. Perhaps it’s only an emotional one; that certainly seemed to be my state of mind in those days when I was telling myself I was an atheist.
Very possibly, there’s even a fourth assumption: Should we even concede that God is to blame for the starvation or that starvation/death is inarguably bad, there remains one further question: Does this demonstrate that God is unloving?
Consider, for instance, that in certain parts of the Muslim world, when a 14-year-old girl is attacked and raped, not only is her rapist executed for committing the rape, the 14-year-old girl is often executed as well, for the sin of fornication. Oftentimes the means of execution is death by stoning, and even sometimes one of the participants in hurling the stones at her is the girl’s own father.
Please understand that I am not defending this practice. Personally, I find it beyond outrageous—particularly from those who purport to worship a god who is wise, just, compassionate, and merciful. In my view, executing a girl whose only crime was her failure to fight off her attacker is the antithesis of wisdom and a bastardization of justice; it is neither compassionate nor merciful, and manifestly so. But I am not a Muslim. The ones hurling the stones, to say the least, see the matter differently.
But what of the father who participates in his daughter’s execution? In such a case, is he a loving father, or an unloving one? Perhaps he would argue that he indeed loves his daughter, but that he loves his religious faith more, and thus has a higher moral duty to participate in his daughter’s stoning rather than to prevent it. Perhaps, as he hurls the stone towards his child, he reassures himself that this is the right and proper thing to do; that his daughter’s death is the correct atonement for her sin of fornication; and that by participating in this way in his daughter’s death he is actually ushering her into Paradise. Does his heart, then, keen in joy for his child’s deliverance? If so, then, perhaps we should argue that loving fathers actually do allow their children to die, under certain circumstances. However visceral our reaction that this sort of thing simply does not happen, are we stating a fact, or only in our opinion?
But it’s not merely the unwarranted assumption that makes the atheistic world view untenable; there’s also the bad logic. And there’s plenty of it.
One such example comes from baptistmessenger.com, in which an atheist identifying himself as William offers up the following absurdity qua metaphysical claim: “Atheism IS the default position, my friend. Theism is the belief in a god or gods. Add the suffix ‘a’ to the root word and you’ve added ‘without’. So (a) theism means (without) belief in a god or gods. An infant doesn’t believe in a god or gods, so they are atheists.”
(And never mind that “a” is a prefix, not a suffix. Far be it from me to argue that bad grammar is bad logic.)
Honestly, though, I have to wonder: do atheists really think this sort of nonsense is reasonable, or do they just stop at the first bit of sophistry that comes their way and refuse to consider the matter any further? I suspect the latter. After all, atheism is incoherent because the arguments that support it are incoherent.
Meanwhile, those of us who aren’t grasping at straws to hold onto our belief systems can easily see what’s wrong with William’s argument: While it is certainly true that babies are born without the belief that God exists, they are also born without the belief that two and two make four, without the belief that wolverines make good house pets, and without the belief that Parkay has the taste of real butter. Babies don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Yahweh, Zeus, Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, you, me, William, or that natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation is all you need to change a cow into a whale. The reason why babies don’t believe in these things is because babies are born without any beliefs at all.
The problem for the all-babies-are-atheists argument, however, is that atheism is itself a belief, and so is one of the things babies don’t believe in. To say that one particular belief that babies don’t have should be our default position—over all the other beliefs that babies also don’t have—is an arbitrarily selective argument, and is thus absurd; there is simply no conceivable reason for choosing the one sort of belief over all the others. There is only the good excuse: William wants to claim that atheism should be our default position, and it doesn’t really matter to him what argument he chooses to warrant the claim. Perhaps God doesn’t exist because Parkay doesn’t have the taste of real butter, and if God were real, it would, and since babies don’t believe in the great buttery flavor of Parkay, maybe that is why all babies are atheists.
What is at fault here is a poor definition: atheism is not the lack of belief in the existence of God; it is the belief in the lack of a God. The atheist does not simply lack the belief that God is; he believes that God isn’t.
This, in turn, leads us back to my discussion with David, who apparently takes some issue with my definition of atheism. “We atheists,” he says at one point, “are almost never absolutist in our nonbelief in God. I do not claim certain knowledge that there's no God. Nor do most atheists.”
University of Texas philosopher J. Budziszewski comments in his essay “The Second Tablet Project” that the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist is that he won’t even be honest with himself, let alone be honest in the philosophical underpinnings of his world view. David’s comment is a case in point: William’s definition of atheism notwithstanding, or David’s, any atheist who is not absolutist in his belief is not an atheist. Anyone who only thinks that God may not exist is not an atheist, and is only kidding himself by saying otherwise.
Our discussion on this point is worth repeating in some detail:
Yours Truly: And all atheists are absolutists, as are all theists. To the question: Is there a God? There are three possible answers: Yes, absolutely (the theist's position); No, absolutely not (the atheist's position); and I don't know (the agnostic's position). Any atheist who is not an absolutist is not an atheist, but an agnostic who only thinks he's an atheist.
David: Maybe that how YOU define atheism. But it’s certainly not how people who call themselves atheists generally use the term. But I'm not interested in arguing semantics with you. Feel free to think of me as an atheist-leaning agnostic or simply a non-theist if you like.
Yours Truly: I agree. By and large (and this seems to have been the case in my own flirtation with atheism), atheists do not generally use the word 'atheist' to mean someone who says unequivocally that there's no God, but only that there's probably no God. But that's agnosticism, not atheism. I suspect that most people who call themselves atheists are really only agnostics. There's nothing particularly wrong in doubting that God exists (other than that He does), but I do think there's something altogether wrong with calling oneself an atheist when the word does not apply.
This is one of the many reasons I finally decided atheism is wrong. It is a not particularly well-thought-out philosophy. So when guys like Richard Dawkins tell us that Darwin allowed him to become “an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” they're only kidding themselves—and us as well.
This is a crucial point, so it’s worth repeating. An atheist does not say that God probably doesn’t exist, any more than a theist says that God probably does. The theist says “God is”; the atheist replies “No, he isn’t.” These are absolutist positions. The probably-does/probably-doesn’t positions fall under the domain of agnosticism. To borrow William’s strategy of pointing out the meanings of words one root at a time, “agnostic” is derived from the Greek a “without” and gnosis “knowledge.” Therefore, an agnostic is someone who lacks the knowledge to answer the question definitively, hence his use of words like “probably.”
To repeat, atheism’s principle weakness is that its philosophical underpinnings are incoherent. I’ll end this post with a lengthier quote from the Budziszewski essay:
[Both theist and atheist assume] that the universe is causally and rationally patterned: this causes that, that explains this, such-and-such is a reasonable explanation of so-and-so. But what right has the atheist to this assumption? Why should there be any patterns whatsoever? If the universe just is, then why shouldn’t the things in it just happen? There is no reason to expect them to yield to reasoning, no explanation of why they should even have an explanation. Moreover, we are not out of the woods even if we do find patterns in the universe, for if these patterns too just are, then there is no warrant for assuming that they are more than local, accidental, superficial, inconsistent, and ephemeral. The sun may not rise tomorrow morning. Fire may not burn this afternoon. Two plus two may equal now four, now six, now one. For me, conception may not be caused by sexual intercourse (that seems to be how some teenagers think). Even if today I am myself, next week I may be someone else (that is how postmodernists think). So why should the natural law have even the force of prudence, much less oughtness? Why should there even be logic? Why should I “watch out” for anything? How could I?