Saturday, April 12, 2008

Questions Already Answered

One book that keeps surfacing in columns I read is Norman Geisler and Frank Turek's I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. It's a Christian apologetic book aimed at the masses, and judging by the reviews it gets on Amazon, it's doing a pretty good job with them.

It would be interesting to do a survey of Amazon reviews and try to draw generalizations from their distributions, actually. One pattern I suspect we would find useful is a class of books that get a large number of 5- and 1-star ratings (with few, if any, in the mid-ranges) - and I guess what that pattern would mean in the case of pop science books is exactly the kind of book this one seems to be: convincing to anyone unschooled on the subject, an obvious fraud to people with some background.

Alright, but "fraud" is a strong word - so I owe an explanation. If clicking on the link to Frank Turek's website isn't enough (as it turns out, although he's styling himself as a missionary these days, he's actually a sales consultant. Hmmm....), consider the main argument of the book - implied by the title but also available to read here. Scroll down the page a bit and you'll see an essay called "Turning the Tables on the Atheist" that lays out the three basic subparts of the argument. You'll see immediately why I choose my words as I do: these arguments have already been refuted, not once, but repeatedly, and the refutations are so obvious that it's sort of amazing anyone had to bother first time, actually. But this is the stuff the religious are trotting out these days, so let's go through it again.

(1) Everyone is religious. Yes, that's right, the old bait-and-switch technique. We use the word "religious" in a stylized way - a way that differs in important details from the common use - and get our listener to agree that they are "religious" by this specialized definition. Then, later in our argument, we can switch back to the more common useage, tricking the listener into associating himself with qualities implied by the common use that he actualy rejects. Here's how this works in this case:

If we define religion as someone's explanation of ultimate reality - the origin, operation, meaning, and destiny of all things - then everyone is religious, including atheists.

See - the stylized definition. Most fair listeners will be willing to grant this definition for the sake of discussion - but in common parlance we don't use the word "religious" this way at all. It's certainly true that most religious people are concerned (at least superficially) with these things - but when we describe someone as "religious" in common conversation, we are generally refering to the fact that their "explanation of ultimate realtiy - the origin, operation, meaning and destiny of all things" has a supernatural character. What Turek is defining here as "religious" is actually just "having a worldview." The fact that atheists also have worldviews is patently NOT what's at issue in a defense of religion against atheism. No atheist that I'm aware of denies having opinons about "ultimate reality." Rather, we simply choose not to accept a supernatural dimension to this reality until such time as someone can show us it must be there. So already Turek's approach is dishonest.

(2) Everyone is a fundamentalist. Same trick, right? A fundamentalist is apparently now a person who

...has fundamental beliefs about why things are the way they are and how we should live in light of that.

Alright - so yes, by this definition I am a "fundamentalist." But again, this is hugely beside the point. What's at issue isn't whether I have "fundamental beliefs" - again, something no atheist I know of has ever denied having - but rather whether some of my fundamental beliefs are grounded in a random decision to believe everything written in a book of dubious authorship without backing evidence, or whether my fundamental beliefs are exclusively those that express the nature of the universe as I've encountered it. I opt for the latter.

(3) Everyone has faith. And here it is again.

If we define faith as believing something that lacks complete evidence, then everyone has faith.

True. But that's the rub - no one actually defines it that way. Faith, as most people use the term, is belief in something regardless of the evidence for or against it. It's a wilful belief, rather than a belief based on evidence. And indeed, it's a will to certainty. It isn't the same as scientific beliefs, which scientists themselves are the first to admit are always contingent. Some scientists may hold irrational, emotional attachmens to their claims, but this is seen by the scientific community as an individual failing. Science itself is ever skeptical - even of its own conclusions. This isn't the same thing at all as a religious tradition that encourages people to believe in an afterlife despite having been given no solid reason to do so, for example.

Now here's the switch:

Everyone is some kind of religious fundamentalist, and everyone has a certain amount of faith. That means that the seventy-five percent of churched students who reject the Christian faith after high school are implicitly adopting another faith, one with its own set of fundamentals and religious beliefs. Of course, few realize that. They think that they are becoming beacons of rationality by rejecting Christianity.[emphasis mine]

I've put the actual phrase in itallics to pinpoint it. Up to this point, we've been using sylized definitions of the words "religious," "fundamentalist," and "faith" - definitions which imply no conflict with being a "beacon of rationality," indeed are tailored to include purely evidentialist, rationalist worldviews. But here, at the end, we suddenly switch back to the situation where "religious," "fundamentalist," and "faith" conflict with this - i.e. back to their standard definitions. Use one definition to reel your audience in, then switch, having tricked them into associating themselves with things they actually reject.

So yes, Geisler and Turek are frauds, and this is the most transparent of all smarmy salesman tactics, actually.

But it was already obvious from the title, in fact, what line they were going to take - and I honestly don't know why believers bother with this one. The idea, of course, is to claim that atheism places harsher demands on its "believers" by requiring them to affirm a negative. That is, "atheism" is supposed to be "faith in the non-existence of God." Well, so far as it goes, apologetics are right that this belief would take a lot more faith than most of what Christians believe. But of course, that's a moot point because there isn't an atheist alive who holds that particular belief. We all admit the logical possibility of God's existence - we just haven't seen any evidence that it's actually true. Atheism isn't an affirmation of our rejection of God, and God enjoys no priviledged status over all the other things that we don't believe in for lack of evidence. He's on par with unicorns, Santa Claus, ghosts, Atlantis, what have you. It isn't that I categorically deny that there are unicorns in the world - it's just that I've seen no evidence for them, and it seems likely that if they existed that I would have by now, so I proceed under the assumption that there are no unicorns. This isn't a leap of faith, it's just the default position on the subject. Show me a unicorn, and I'm happy to revise my worldview. So it is with God.

What's so frustrating about this line from religious types is that it works both ways. If being an atheist is an absolute belief in the non-existence of God to the exclusion of admitting even the logical possibility of His existence, then being religious must mean having an absolute belief in God that denies even the logical possibility of His non-existence. But there is no such religious person alive. Religious people constantly talk about struggles with their faith. There are whole bookshelves in Christian bookstores devoted to the subject. If they're allowed to conclude from my lack of absolute certainty that I'm one of them, then surely I can conclude from their lack of absolute certainty that they're one of me too, eh? So if we're playing fair here, then all religious people are atheists. But of course we're not playing fair.

And that brings me to my point. The fact that these tired old arguments are being trotted out yet again another time already - but for the bestseller list this time - is actually a hopeful sign. It shows that religion is losing its hold on society. (You didn't think the priest class was going down without a fight, did you?) People who know they're winning generally don't risk cheating. And this argument, simply put, is cheating. It's holding your opponent to a set of rules ("you have to have 100% certainty what you say is true or else you lose") that you yourself don't play by ("of course, if I struggle with my faith I'm still religious").

Childish. and. pathetic.

If this is the best they got, then religion must already be in a state of terminal decline. Mike Adams, whose column I linked above, was recently whining that UNCW wouldn't help him advertise a visit by Frank Turek to campus. At the time I read the column, I agreed that UNCW was being unfair. Universities are, after all, supposed to be forums for open discussion, and so hosting Turek should fall under their mission statement. But that was before I knew much about Turek. Now that I know he's a fraud salesman hocking a book (I wonder if he's actually a Christian at all?), I can see why UNCW declines to help him advertise. That said, I think now more than ever that UNCW should host a debate with this man, advertise it, and encourage students to attend. And this is, indeed, because I am an atheist and would like other people to become atheists too. Because I have enough "faith" in humanity that this will not be convincing to anyone in the long run. Indeed - it will have the opposite effect. It's like a ticking time bomb in people's minds. Turek stands up on stage and feeds them these feeble lines - using "faith" and "fundamentalist" in ways clearly irrelevant to his topic. And either there's someone facing him across the podium who can punch a hole in it right then and there - or else a lot of students walk away honestly thinking that atheism takes more "faith" than Christianity. It's only a matter of time before they try this line on someone who knows better - someone who will calmly point out to them that being skeptical about God takes no more faith than being skeptical about unicorns, and that in any case if any amount of skepticism automatically disqualifies a belief then Christians are every bit as atheist as atheists are Christian. And indeed, the burden of proof is always on the person adding to entites in the universe - always on the person asserting the existence of a non-obvious thing. Atheism is the default position: we don't have to prove our case; they have to prove theirs. All of which, really, is basic philosophy 101 stuff. These are obvious truths, and being such Tureks' new "conversions" will eventually have to admit them - and then what they'll remember about where their Christian beliefs came from is this cheap guy with his scripted mannerisms and snakeoil arguments, and they'll wonder what they were thinking.

So keep it coming. Social change is slow - but if religious types are already trying to make US out to be the "faithful," then they're really running out of con games. Faith was always their schtick - their trump card. In the past, they always presented it as a virtue - a bullwark against the Devil's deception, the cure for rational doubts, etc. If they're throwing out faith like a hot potato - what do they really have left? Nothing. Because you can't believe in the literal truth of a 2000-year-old book of dubious authorship without faith. You can't believe in miracles without faith. You can't, in general, believe in things for which you have no direct evidence without faith. If Christianity is selling off faith, they'll soon have nothing left to prop themselves up with. Interesting times we're living in.Interesting times we're living in.


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