|The Irrational Atheist - a review
||[Feb. 24th, 2008|06:48 pm]
Prompted by the impressive work put into a review by a fellow poster at richarddawkins.net, I have decided to take up a challenge put forward a short while ago and review a book which attempts to demolish the arguments of the so-called "New Atheists" (Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens). This is the book "The Irrational Atheist" by "Vox Day". As the book contains some strong views, the review will be hidden behind a "cut"... click to expand.
How to approach a review “The Irrational Atheist”? Well, let's consider what the book is supposed to achieve. It's stated purpose is to “dissect the unholy trinity of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens”. This seems somewhat at odds with the content, which covers Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett and Onfray, but I guess the word “Trinity” has a certain ring to it.
I have to say that having read the book, it is still hard to determine what “dissect” is intended to mean. The best I can come up with is “try and show they are wrong about lots of stuff”. Fair enough. No-one should be surprised if three (or five?) atheist writers don't make a mistake or two over the years. The problem for Day is that he is attempting to see dogma where there is none. You don't score points by pointing out fallibility when there has been no claim of perfection, or by showing differences in the viewpoints of people who never claim any kind of unity. This kind of “straw man” approach is common in the book. But, anyway, how is this dissection attempted? If one ignores the ad-hominem attacks that make up close to half the writing, it is by attempts to show that the Trinity are factually wrong in a considerable number of cases. In fact, a very large number of cases indeed. The book is apparently full of facts. There is no doubt that it has required a considerable amount of knowledge and research to write. The question is, is this mountain of facts relevant to the points being made? Well, much of the time, no. The facts are mostly used to very carefully take to pieces straw man arguments. Where factual information is absent or inappropriate, Day attempts logical and philosophical arguments. Do they work? Again, no. These failures are interesting, and I will discuss some in detail.
So, let's now take a look at the book in detail. My approach will be to sum several chapters (anything less than a brief summary would involve a piece equal in length to the chapter), and then discuss in detail anything of particular interest (at least to me). I am not going to deal with all the book, as I believe a sample of the work will reveal its nature.
Don't be misled into doubting your faith by the fraudulent, error-filled writings of these three men. This is not a work of theology, and contains no arguments for the existence of God. This book is an intellectual deathmatch.
One might think there is nothing much to see yet apart from some posturing, however, there seems to be a little inconsistency here, as arguments for the existence of God are scattered throughout the book, especially chapter 15, in which Day discusses the problem of the Contradiction of Divine Characteristics... “confusion of which is also the root of a much more serious theological error”.
A Pride of Atheists
I don't care if you go to hell. You aren't my responsibility. God gives us free will. Does my belief in Jesus affect you? Vox's First Law: Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from insanity. Richard Dawkins accuses me of child abuse because I teach my children than God loves them even more than I do. Harris might want to kill me. Hitchens says I am poisoning everything. Hitchens is drunk and wrong. Onfray is French and wrong. A history of atheism. The New Atheists are attempting to replace religion with.. what?. Harris is a bit of a Buddhist. “High Church Atheism” may be a mental disorder. Agnosticism is reasonable. Atheism of all variants requires a focus on material phenomena. The New Atheists' arguments are invariably involved with science.
And so after some evidence-free statements of theology (in a book that supposedly contains none) the straw man arguments begin.
A belief in Jesus does seem to affect other people. A believer follows a set of principles that they feel are based on that belief. That helps to empower others to do so as well. However, their version of following Jesus may not be the same as a nice, compassionate, gentle version. It may include some very unpleasant bits of the New Testament. It may include oppression of others because of gender or sexual orientation.
Now on to the attacks on the Trinity. Dawkins does not say that raising children in a religion is always abuse (I will refer later to an article where he discusses these issues). However, he says without qualification that labelling children as being of a religion before they are of an age to make that choice themselves is abuse, as it leads to problems such as segregation and stereotyping. Hitchens does not say that Vox is poisoning everything, and Harris does not, I am sure, once mention harming Vox, or, indeed, any typical believer. As as for Hitchens, he is a polemicist, and has a certain style. “Religion poisons everything” is a “get bums on seats” phrase to sell the book. I am not sure “Religion poisons some things, taints others, and has a slight negative effect elsewhere” would have done the trick. And as for Harris, he considers the question of whether some views are so extreme that they should be eliminated. Whatever one's thoughts on this, it is a question that can be discussed. The prospect of a suicidal religious fanatic in possession of a virus-building kit (something that is not too far-fetched) is troubling. I am sure Vox Day holds no such extreme views, and is not a threat to the future of humanity, and neither do the majority of believers. After over-generalising the views of the Trinity, Day takes this approach himself; not content throwing an ad-hominem at Hitchens, he sneaks in a dig at the whole of France, presumably as an attempt at humour. Now, as for the New Atheists wanting to replace religion with something else, it is reasonable to discuss how one finds inspiration in life, and to discuss personal views on ethics without that being taken as an imposition on others. To show the possibility of a life without Gods seems to be taken as preaching only by those afraid that more will manage it. The “accusation” that Harris follows Buddhism is easily refuted, as Sam has written about this in his article “Killing the Buddha” (link) It is typical of Buddhism that this was published on a Buddhist site, but the message from Sam is clear: “Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.”.
The context of Sam's article helps to deal with the issue of atheism and materialism. By no means all atheists are materialists. Atheism means one thing only, the lack of belief in gods, and it can certainly be associated with mysticism and faith. Religions don't have to be theistic. Materialism tends to lead to atheism for obvious reasons, but it is not the only route. Sam Harris clearly isn't even a religious atheist.
As for agnosticism. Well, it is a word that has less meaning the more you consider it. It seems a reasonable term at first, but only because it usually has a context, which is a specific theistic religion. Without that context, what does it mean? What is one agnostic about? A general agnostic would either be a busy person, as having a point of view on all gods currently the object of belief by someone would require substantial research, or would have some vague free-floating feeling of “something more than this”, which is hardly worthy of the word. Agnosticism is really only reasonable if one can be sure of what one is agnostic about, which is close to being a contradiction.
Science is linked to atheism. Dawkins has a problem because he gets too excited about science. Science is about observation and evidence. And falsifiability. “All swans are white” can be falsified, but “all gods speak aramaic” can't. This is a problem with science, and falsifiability. Let's stick with PZ Myer's definition of science, or at least the “science is a process” part. Not even creationists are advocating the willful destruction or reduction of the knowledge base. ID (Intelligent Design) is a testimony to respect for scientific methodology. Science doesn't conflict with religion. The Dark Ages weren't that dark. Science and religion are in a tug-of-war about how science should be used. The Catholic Church wasn't that bad to Galileo. Enlightenment Atheism and science may not be compatible as atheists beheaded the chemist de Lavoisier.
There is so much confusion and misrepresentation here it is hard to know where to begin. That Dawkins (and many, many others) find pleasure in discovery and how science can fuel the imagination should be no reason to critcise. It is in our nature to explore, and science is the best way to do that if you want to understand what you find. The idea that there is a flaw in science and falsification because it can't address the matter of Divine Linguistics is absurd. As Myers says, science is about building on an expanding body of knowledge. We try to falsify attempts to expand that body of knowledge. Science doesn't work on fiction, or statements that have no meaning. “Goldilocks met three bears” is not falsifiable, but that does not threaten the process of science. To claim that creationists aren't wanting to reduce knowledge, and that ID is anything to do with respect for science is simply false, as shown by the Discovery Institute “Wedge Document”, combined with the Dover trial demonstration that ID is based on religion. The strategy is to replace a scientific approach with one that is religious, suppressing scientific materialism. Science and religion aren't in conflict about how science should be used. They are in conflict about when science should be used. Stem cell research? Keep out! Evolution? No way! Religion is trying to stifle the use of science where it conflicts with its view of morality, or when it discovers inconvenient truths, like evolution.
Sam Tzu and the Art of War
The New Atheists attempt to lure religion from from ground where it is strong to where it can be attacked more easily. Atheists have more to lose in war. Religious fanatics don't count for much these days. Suicide bombers are useless in war. No battle has been won by suicides. Harris says religion is uniquely suited to provoking conflict. Not the same motivation for a national leader and raping and murdering troops. Religious conflicts may not be so bad as your opponents can convert. Children are brought up to demonize others for reasons other than religion. A few lunatics kill because they think God wants them to. There aren't many religiously-inspired crimes in the USA. Conflicts that appear religious are mostly ethnic, and geographical. Rome didn't need soldiers inspired by religion, as they were paid so much. Books on military strategy don't mention religion much if at all. Religious faith is not a danger because religion does not cause war. Thousands of people dying for loyalty to one version of religion is insignificant compared to the billions who have been killed for other reasons. Almost no-one in the USA has died in a religious war. Ontological argument not important as rejected by Aquinas and later by Hume and Russell. New Atheist arguments linking religion with war is ontological. These arguments are hypocritical from scientists.
A chapter full of facts, but misses the point by confusing “war” with “conflict”. There have been countless violent conflicts fueled by religion down the ages, recent examples being the Irish troubles and the civil wars in Yugoslavia. These were partly cultural, but religion is a key part of that culture. The conflicts are indeed often geographical, but as religions are frequently segregated geographically, that is not a convincing argument that religion isn't involved. The India/Pakistan situation is one where geographical conflicts are a direct result of segregation because of differences in religion.
But any concentration on the historical role of religion in conflicts is missing the point. We are in a changed world, in which small groups individuals can have considerable power, as was shown on 9/11. Religion-inspired maniacs didn't have that kind of weaponry centuries ago. Although it is not a main argument of the chapter, it is worth dealing with this mention of the ontological argument. It is simply wrong to claim that it had little influence because of a rejection by Aquinas. If this were the case, Bertrand Russell would have not, at least for a while, considered the ontological argument sound.
This, to me, is a key chapter, as it deals with issues of the argument from design – something I have researched in some detail. So, I shall get the section of chapter before that out the way first:
Dawkins is past it. There is a contradiction in a Darwinist being an anti-Darwinist about human affairs. Dawkins won't engage in serious discussion of theology. Even the return of Christ would prove nothing to him. Why is Dawkins attacking theological reasons for belief in God that he claims most people don't know about? How to falsify the God hypothesis (e.g. Christianity disproved by Christ's crucified skeleton). Camile Paglia disagrees that secularism can inspire. Dawkins states that religion is a primary cause of war. Dawkins claims that an atheist wouldn't bulldoze Mecca, or York Minster, but atheist soviets destroyed churches. Dawkins claims that people won't become selfish without God, but Onfray argues for hedonism. Dawkins equates Christian Theocracy with Islamic Facism. Catholicism is more damaging than child abuse; shown to be false by comparing suicide rates. Dawkins has unfounded faith in Sam Harris.
What a chapter. Skipping the personal attack, there is no problem at all with being anti-Darwinist about human affairs, because human culture does not have to act in a Darwinian fashion. This criticism is as absurd as to state that Einstein should be criticised for resisting gravity by flying. Darwinian evolution is almost certainly responsible for the development of minds, but Natural Selection does not plan. It has no way to know what such minds may be capable of. As for the issue of serious discussion of theology. Well first, that was clearly not the purpose of The God Delusion. (As I can't speak for Richard Dawkins, I can only express my views of why I believed the God Delusion was written. These may not be correct, but at least it shows there are arguments against Vox Day's position)
It seemed to me that The God Delusion was to explain Dawkins' view of religion, and to include why, from a scientific viewpoint, he believed that a theistic god was very unlikely, so unlikely that it was not reasonable to believe that such a god exists. Why not discuss theology in detail? Well, because although it may be interesting for some to consider the nature of possible gods, there is little point engaging in such discussions if you don't accept the serious possibility of the existence of a god of some kind, unless you want to research theology, or play word games. Why attack some theological points, even though most people aren't theologists? Because it helps to show the kind of arguments that theologists use, and there are theologists in prominent positions in societies (such as the Archbishop of Canterbury). It is surely useful to expose the nature of their thinking to the public, if only to start a debate about the value of such approaches to truth.
Moving on to the issue of proof of the falsehood of Christianity, it seems to me to be naïve to suggest that the religious views would generally be succeptible to change by proof. There has been little evidence of it in the past. For example, if a tomb was discovered labeled “Jesus”, then I doubt that this would convince some, even if the skeleton had marks indicating crucifixion. Apart from the fact that this was not a punishment uniquely applied to Jesus (as the Bible states), I can imagine the response of some Christians: “That can't be Jesus because he rose from the dead”.
It is worth pointing out an article by Dawkins on the child abuse issue. This will, I hope, reveal Day's tendency to take qualified statements as generalities, and should put other claims of his into perspective. The article is here http://richarddawkins.net/article,118,Religions-Real-Child-Abuse,Richard-Dawkins and I recommend those who are concerned about Dawkins' attitude to read it carefully.
And now on to what is, to me, one of the more interesting sections of the book. The chapter continues:
The anthropic principle is an embarrassment. Dawkins is not suitable to discuss probabilities, as he has issues in this regard. Dawkins' use of the large number of possible planets to allow for the appearance of life even if life is unlikely is poor for an intellectual. The argument from improbability for a designer is wrong. Designers need not be more complex than things they design. The “Ultimate 747” argument is based on information, but information can be easily generated. (here, let me show you with some BASIC code and a fractal). The physicist Martin Rees can calculate the parameters of the universe, but he is less complex that it. Complexity is meaningless here because rice contains more genes than humans. The “sky crane” argument is simply a justification for faith in physics. Multiple universes increase the complexity.
This is wrong. This is not just mildly wrong, it is wildly and extravagantly wrong. It shows profound misunderstandings, not just of the arguments, but of biology and physics. The anthropic principle is not an embarrassment – it is an exploration of gaps in our knowledge. It has been misused, but at its mildest, it says nothing more than that we need to explore models of the origin of the universe which lead to conditions for life, because that is the universe we know exists. That is hardly a controversial statement. Dawkins' use of the vastness of the universe to explain life was appropriate – it was, for me, one of the most powerful messages of The Blind Watchmaker. Most people have little idea of the vastness of the cosmos; it is so immense that it really does defeat arguments from improbability. Dawkins was not necessarily saying that life was improbable, just that if it was, there really isn't the problem that many claim. Day's use of the generation of complexity from simple origins actually works well against his own case. It shows one of the mechanisms for how a complex universe can arise from a far, far simpler origin. Day states that fractals don't require human intelligence to produce their complexity. Well, indeed. I agree. This illustrates the point that a complex universe doesn't require divine intelligence. As for Martin Rees being less complicated than the universe for which he can (or so Day says) calculate the parameters. This is an astonishing sign of Day not realising the power of his own arguments. Assuming it requires any parameters at all, the Universe at its origin would require nothing more than the parameters, and, perhaps, a quantum kick to get it going. Martin Rees (a considerable intelligence) is hugely more complex than the universe – at its origin, which is kind of the point.
Before I close the discussion of this chapter, I would like to deal with the genomes of human and rice. Day actually goes into more detail than I have mentioned in the summary. But it is worth noting that number of genes can actually be quite a revealing measure of complexity. We may believe ourselves to be considerably more complex than, say, a rice plant, or a supposedly “lower” animal such as a frog. But we aren't. In some ways, we are simpler. We regulate our body temperature, so have to produce less variety of enzymes to deal with different environments. It is a mistake to think that evolution always proceeds in the direction of higher complexity, and much complexity is hidden.
Finally, I shall deal with the multiple universe issue. This is, in my view, widely misunderstood. Multiverses can be simpler than a single universe, in fact, so much simpler that there can be no complexity at all. This may sound strange, but let's go back to Day's useful example of a fractal. Consider the example of the Mandelbrot set, a beautiful fractal that is known far beyond the realms of mathematics and science. It is generated from a very simple mathematical procedure. Now, imagine attempting to limit the range of the set, by only generating, say, a quarter of a given area. That involves additional constraints, increasing the complexity of the generating process. It is important to realise we are dealing with how the generation is done, and not the results. According to the controversial view of one physicist, Max Tegmark, it may be that all possible universes exist, and require, in total, no parameters at all – zero complexity at the point of origin.
I feel I have dealt with sufficient chapters to reveal the nature of the book, and how the author's case is put. There is much more to the book, but this is a review, not a full-length response. I shall leave that to others with more time and patience! I think the pattern here is clear. Day has attacked the “Trinity” with vigour, passion and energy. But his aim is poor, and he mostly puts considerable effort into dealing with positions that are clearly straw men, or that he seems to have simply misunderstood. There may be a book to be written about the phenomenon of the so-called “New Atheists” that deals with weaknesses in their arguments and their views. That book may well be useful, to help the debate about religion to proceed productively. “The Irrational Atheist” is certainly not such a book.