About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Michael Bachelard's story on the New Atheism - a response

In today's Sunday Age, Michael Bachelard has a feature article on the world-wide trend towards outspoken atheism (the so-called New Atheism that we hear so much about), which he relates to the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. (I am scheduled to speak at the Melbourne Convention along with far more celebrated writers and thinkers such as A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins ... and many others from Australia and elsewhere.)

Human faces of atheism

Most of Bachelard's article tells the stories of various individuals who have turned away from religious belief: Damian Coburn, who was raised in an extreme offshoot of the Catholic Church; Anne Robinson, who began as a Christian but went through a spiritual quest that included dabblings with Buddhism, New Age magic, and Wicca; "Aam" (a protective pseudonym) who comes from a Bangladeshi Muslim family; Leanne Carroll, who was schooled by nuns, but had an atheistic moment of epiphany at the age of 12; and Joe Kilgour, who lapsed from the faith of his very religious Uniting Church family.

These are all interesting stories, and I'm grateful to Bachelard for making them public. I could recommend the article just for these stories, which give contemporary atheism not just one but several human faces.

However, some of the other commentators quoted in the article make observations that require a response. Strangely enough, I am more concerned about a couple of reactions from fellow atheists than the more-or-less predictable ones from various theologians and religious leaders.

Guy Rundle and "missing the point"

I'm most concerned by the comments from hardline political leftist Guy Rundle, who seems of late to have become a walking, talking cautionary example of how not to be guided by reason and reality. Not content with his naive, illiberal, and spectacularly wrong comments about the Bill Henson debacle a couple of years ago, he now blunders in - just as crudely - on the topic of contemporary atheism:

WRITER and former editor of Arena magazine Guy Rundle, an atheist, believes the Dawkins-Hitchens version of atheism is "the most shatteringly empty creed to come along for many a year". It misses the point, he says, goes out of its way to hurl insults, misunderstands how belief systems work, uses straw man arguments and is boring because it "takes the least sophisticated form of theism and beats it around the head". It also fails to grapple with sophisticated theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth; and it is blind to the fact that, when science (quantum physics and cosmology) try to explain the origins of the universe, its materialist, atheist account is as mysterious and improbable as that of any religion. New atheism also, he says, refuses to concede that many people have feelings of transcendence that must be expressed.

This is so ill-informed and thoroughly wrong-headed that it's hard to know where to start in straightening it out. How do you unscramble an egg? For someone who accuses others of missing the point - suggesting that he imagines he knows what the point is - Rundle appears awfully obtuse.

For a start, the trouble with religious explanations of the world is not so much that they are implausible, for their implausibility becomes apparent to many people only after a great deal of thought and against a background of accumulated scientific knowledge. Over the centuries, indeed, religious explanations have proved to be all-too-plausible for people who are attracted to them by their rhetoric, their association with wealth or power, or the comfort they provide ... rather than by actual evidence. Conversely, it is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that anyone thinks of quantum theory or cosmological theories as plausible in themselves. On the contrary, these theories, taken in isolation, are difficult and highly counterintuitive.

The entire history of modern science, from Galileo, through Darwin, to the present day, has been one of replacing the common sense of medium-sized earthbound creatures such as us with explanatory theories that defy commonsense intuitions - but are superior in their explanatory reach and conformity to the evidence. Scientific evidence, of course, does not fall from the sky without labour, like so much manna; instead, it is gathered painstakingly and incrementally, year by year, drawing on the professional efforts of many highly-trained individuals. Eventually, some of the evidence converges so powerfully as to support highly successful bodies of theory. Some of these are never likely to be overthrown, such as the theoretical finding that human beings descended from apelike creatures, that the Earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the Sun (while rotating on its axis), that many diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, and so on. None of these claims, taken in isolation from the evidence and from the rest of science, is especially plausible.

In the scientific context, of course, "theory" does not mean "conjecture" or "speculation" - as it tends to in most everyday situations. It refers to a body of explanatory propositions, usually involving entities and other phenomena that can't be observed directly with the naked senses (since science deals with the very small, the very distant, and the remote past). Sufficiently well-evidenced theoretical propositions can quite rightly be accepted as facts.

To somebody who is untutored in the relevant evidence, and ignorant of the rest of science, it may be far more plausible that diseases are caused by the activity of evil spirits than that they are (often) caused by micro-organisms. But that is in no way an argument to abandon the micro-organism theory of disease in favour of the evil spirit theory. Nor is it a reason to respect the rationality of someone who lives in a modern Western society, yet still favours the evil spirit theory. The micro-organism theory is superior, not because it is more the sort of explanation that human beings find plausible when considered in isolation, but because it has survived all attempts at falsification, proved highly fruitful in scientific and medical practice, obtained support from observations with scientific instruments, cohered successfully with other scientific findings, and so on.

In all, it is Rundle's comments about the implausibility of science that are beside the point. Yes, science is implausible to untutored human common sense. It was already so 400 years ago when Galileo argued that the Earth rotates. That in no way casts doubt on the correctness of well-established scientific findings.

What Rundle does not admit is that only the most non-literalist kinds of theology – together with rarefied views such as eighteenth-century-style deism – are readily compatible with such parts of the scientific picture of the universe (and ourselves) as are now well-established. Obviously there are many religious claims that are plainly incompatible with well-established science, among them the claim that our planet is only six to ten thousand years old (the kind of age that can be deduced from the Old Testament genealogies, when calibrated against well-established dates in the secular historical record). However, even more sophisticated and supposedly "moderate" theologies (moderate about what?) are difficult to reconcile with the emerging scientific picture. When theologians make claims about human exceptionalism, divine providence, contra-causal free will, and so on, they paint a picture contrary to anything in the scientific one. Scientifically-minded atheists who point this out are not attacking a straw man. Rather, they are challenging mainstream Abrahamic theology - with all its centuries of accumulated prestige and influence.

It may well be true, as Rundle notes, that "many people" have "feelings of transcendence" (whatever, exactly that means; Rundle, of course, doesn't tell us), but no one is arguing that the expression of these "feelings" should be suppressed. Most modern atheists are all for freedom of speech and expression (unlike Rundle, who would have been happy to restrict Bill Henson's artistic freedom). It might, however, be beneficial if more people recognised their feelings of transcendence for what they are: i.e, they are feelings. As such, they have no capacity to reveal truths about a world external to the people who have them. Express away with all your heart, but don't be surprised if you're disbelieved when you attribute your feelings to contact with an unseen spiritual agency.

Of course, Rundle totally omits the central point - that religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social and political power, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian (and now Muslim) moral concerns. Here in Australia, we are confronted by the pathetic sight of our Boy Scout prime minister, Kevin Rudd, sucking up to the sanctimonious killjoys of the Australian Christian Lobby.

The situation is even worse - far worse - in the religiose US, where the popular forms of religion have nothing especially subtle about them. I hate to break the news to Rundle and his fellow accommodationists of religious faith, but the names of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth are not household words in the American Bible Belt.

In a different world, without the many religious leaders, organisations, and lobby groups that claim moral authority and exert actual political influence, contemporary atheists would feel less need to be outspoken. However, we don't find ourselves in that world. Instead, the religious sects, even those that give lip-service to a separation of Church and State (a concept which they self-servingly misinterpret), typically lobby for their specifically religious moralities to be imposed by the secular law. When the religious do that, it is only natural for us to reply by asking what moral authority they really have. Are their holy books and traditions really repositories of supernatural moral wisdom, dictated or inspired by a higher being, or are they all-too-human constructs, reflecting the limited moral visions of their times? Surely it is the latter, and surely we perform a public service when we point this out - supported, where necessary, with evidence and argument. Which brings me to the comments attributed to David Nicholls.

David Nicholls and the herd of cats theory

Bachelard reports Nicholls' view as follows:

But it's to the accusation that they are establishing a new, fundamentalist faith called atheism that the unbelievers react most strongly. They are free thinkers. Individualists. They will change their mind if the evidence changes. The only thing atheists agree on, says David Nicholls, the president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, is the lack of a God, "everything else is up for grabs". "Atheism itself doesn't say what it's got to do … there's no push, or movement or anything like that - it's certainly not anything like [the] women's liberation movement. ... [Atheists are] not good joiners, they don't mass on ovals and wave copies of Darwin around."

To this, Bachelard responds:

This makes for an odd lobby group. The most pressing questions regarding religion and society in Australia are political ones - tax exemptions for the religious, school funding, exemptions from discrimination law, public funding, religion in state schools. The Atheist Foundation of Australia and other humanist groups have long made their views known on these subjects, but there's no evidence that more and louder atheists have made any difference to their power - they could not, for example, secure public funding for the March convention, even though the Parliament of World Religions was given $4.5 million.

Here, I totally see the point. Nicholls is absolutely correct that contemporary atheists are not "fundamentalists". Indeed, this word and its cognates are thrown around by opponents in a manner that is both inaccurate and irresponsible. A fundamentalist atheist would be one who believes in the inerrancy of an atheist text – perhaps The God Delusion or God Is Not Great – even in the face of results from rational inquiry. However, no such people exist. There are no contemporary atheists who display the equivalent of a Young Earth Creationist's insistence, against all the genuine evidence, that the Earth is only six to ten thousand years old. Or if there are, their fundamentalism relates to something other than mere atheism - perhaps to a political quasi-religion of some kind (with Das Kapital or Atlas Shrugged as the holy text).

Sometimes when I make this point it's replied that I am using an unreasonably narrow definition of the word "fundamentalism", but that's a specious argument. You cannot legitimately use a word in some broad or extended sense while at the very same time relying on connotations from the word's so-called "narrow" sense. It's an equivocation; it's an anti-rational and unfair style of argument. What makes fundamentalism so wrong in the first place is a certain kind of literal-minded, irrational dogmatism. This may be shared by some Marxist or Libertarian idealogues who happen to be atheists, but it is not a feature of contemporary scientifically-based atheism such as espoused by Dawkins or Grayling. If you are going to use the word to mean something like "forthright" or "outspoken", or even something like "interested in persuading others", you have to put up with the fact that there is actually nothing wrong with being "fundamentalist" in those senses. Of course, the effect of using the word in these ways is to destroy its usefulness (in some cases, no doubt, that is the desired effect).

So far, I'm with strongly with Nicholls, but is it really true that there's no atheist "push" or "movement", however loosely structured? I think that's going too far. Atheists may be freethinkers, more like cats who walk alone than like herd animals, but it seems obvious that something of an atheist movement really has developed in the past few years. It may not be an internally-coherent movement, or a hierarchical one, or one with a rich body of structured dogma - and the latter, especially, is all to the good. But there's a strong feeling among many non-believers, tapped into by Dawkins, Hitchens, and others - and now becoming widely identified, shared, and discussed - that, well, we've had enough.

If religious leaders and their organisations were prepared to stay within the private sphere, worshipping their gods as they choose and performing works of charity, we would have no great problem with them - live and let live! Unfortunately, they tend to lobby for government actions that would impose their moral views on the rest of society - whether it be views about homosexuality, abortion, artistic freedom, end-of-life decisions, blasphemy and vilification laws, or a raft of other issues involving precious individual liberties.

Against that background, there is at least a loose, minimalist movement to challenge the authority of religion. Individual atheists within this unstructured feline community may have widely differing philosophies and priorities, but one thing we could almost all agree on is that religion continues to obtain far too much deference in government decision-making, including when the decisions involve coercion and police powers ... and when they involve large sums of public money. An obvious topic for discussion at the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention will be exactly what should be done to counter this political deference to religion.

Bachelard is, of course, correct, that Australian atheists and humanists have been weak, to date, as a lobby group. As he says, one might well judge by the failure to obtain public funding for the Global Atheist Convention itself. Still, it's very early days, and this is the first such large-scale convention for a nascent and ill-defined movement. My hope is that broad consensus will be achieved on at least a lowest common denominator of goals. In particular, we can agree that our freedom of speech and expression is constantly threatened in Australia, usually with religious morality lurking in the background - whether it be attempts to suppress Henson's photography, religious vilification laws, or the federal government's dangerous plan to censor the internet. Our colleagues in other countries have similar problems.

A good start for future lobbying would be cohesive, active agreement that free speech and artistic expression are non-negotiable, and that we cannot trust governments to legislate wisely on what we may lawfully say, hear, and see. Except in absolutely compelling cases, freedom of speech should not be abridged.

This is a good time for atheist cats to gather and voice their disbelief, but it's more than that. We should not accept intrusions on our freedoms, based on antiquated, often irrational, religious moralities ... and it is oppressive when these are imposed on us in such forms as extended government censorship. Atheist cats are not herd animals - that's true - but we do need freedom to live the lives we choose, based on reason. In particular, we need guaranteed freedom to express ourselves, including through satire of religion and so-called blasphemy.

On something as important as that, we can have a collective voice, and we should be proud if we get it heard loudly this coming March, in Melbourne.


Richard Wein said...

You cannot legitimately use a word in some broad or extended sense while at the very same time relying on connotations from the word's so-called "narrow" sense. It's an equivocation; it's an anti-rational and unfair style of argument.

Well said. Equivocation seems to be by far the most common type of logical fallacy.

I've sometimes considered (but haven't yet tried) reponding to such accusations with, "If I'm an atheist fundamentalist, then you're an anti-atheist [or accommodationist] fundamentalist."

J. J. Ramsey said...

"You cannot legitimately use a word in some broad or extended sense while at the very same time relying on connotations from the word's so-called 'narrow' sense."

So are you suggesting that atheists stop using the words "delusion," "delusional," etc., since that usage borrows connotations from the narrower, more clinical sense of the word "delusion"?

Robert Newson said...

From WP:

"A delusion, in everyday language, is a fixed belief that is either false, fanciful, or derived from deception. Psychiatry defines the term more specifically as a belief that is pathological (the result of an illness or illness process)."

The first definition feels apt when referring to religious belief.

Anonymous said...

My instant beef with the Bachelard article:

"The new atheism... [is] based on the belief that science explains everything we need to know about the world so there's no need for religion."

WRONG. No one is claiming that science "explains everything". Rather, atheism merely claims that religion and faith explain nothing.

jhm said...

Saying that currently atheists are individualists, et cetera, says more about the rest of society than it does about inherent qualities of atheists. It is precisely because most people take religious beliefs as normal, that open atheists (at least in the beginning) are to be described as outside.

I was raised outside of any religious observance (aside from Christmas and Easter family meals, but this was as secular an observance as can be imagined), but never one which was specifically atheist. God simply never came up as a topic of conversation, and I considered those who congregated in the town's various churches with vague curiosity and benign neglect (although I was fairly curious about the idea of confession, and tried on occasion, without success, to interrogate Catholics about this).

My point here is that I had no strong feelings about gods till I started to read about what was written in the Bible; hence my more vocal atheism. It seems to me that the greatest argument against religions are their various sacred documents. Any campaign to spread what these writings actually say can only be to the detriment of their followings' numbers, especially as it is hard for them to argue that it is unfair to use their own words against them (not that this will stop the practice).

Theo Bromine said...

Quoth JJ Ramsey:

So are you suggesting that atheists stop using the words "delusion," "delusional," etc., since that usage borrows connotations from the narrower, more clinical sense of the word "delusion"?

I am not a psychologist, but I think it is fair to say that the term "delusion" is not itself clinical - it depends on whether the person accused of having the delusion is "delusional" (which could be a clinical assessment), or simply "deluded" (which can be properly applied to someone who simply holds a mistaken belief, while being otherwise normal and functional in other areas).

Unknown said...

@defaithed Yes I completely agree, that sentence is so wildly inaccurate it almost offended me :P It's practically suggesting that atheism is a religion, and detracts from what started as quite a good article.

Bill Garthright said...

Great post! The whole thing was superb.

I've been an atheist as far back as I can remember, but throughout my childhood, I never knew anyone else who even expressed doubts. Although I wasn't overly secretive about my disbelief, I never used to advertise it, either. It was my business, and no one else's. (And for many years, it seemed like religion was dead or dying, anyway.)

But after 9/11, I started speaking out. I don't much like the "New Atheism" label, especially as I've discovered the outspoken atheists of the 19th Century (this really isn't all that "new"), but I really like to see atheists speaking out. As the gay community has done, we need to show people that we're their friends and neighbors, their coworkers and their relatives.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Theo Bromine: "I am not a psychologist, but I think it is fair to say that the term 'delusion' is not itself clinical"

It is, however, a good example of a word that retains the connotations of its narrow clinical usage even when it is used in a broader, colloquial sense.

J. J. Ramsey said...

BTW, there was an old comment thread on the Friendly Atheist blog where I discussed the equivocation that I saw in the use of the word "delusion".

Back to the original issue of using the phrase "atheist fundamentalist," I'm not sure that it is that good an example of "relying on connotations from the word's so-called 'narrow' sense." The negative connotations of the word "fundamentalist" (which aren't much different from the connotations of the word "delusion"!) don't come from the idea of strict adherence to a text, but rather from the reputation of fundamentalists as prone to thinking in black-and-white terms and unfairly demonizing their opponents.

Now you are right in saying that even such an expanded idea of fundamentalism "is not a feature of contemporary scientifically-based atheism such as espoused by Dawkins or Grayling." The key word here, though, is "espoused." If one wants to talk about the kind of atheism exemplified by, say, Grayling, then one deals not just the "scientifically-based" stuff, but also with, for example, citing the Jesuits as an example of those who "think that the hows and whys of the universe are explained to satisfaction by their faith, or smugly embrace ignorance," which is largely bullshit, and a pretty good example of unfairly demonizing one's opponents.

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, the word for what you describe isn't "fundamentalist"; it's "simplistic". If critics of the New Atheism said, "Some of these modern atheists are very simplistic in their approach" we'd at least have something to debate. But the emotional urge seems to be to accuse atheists of the worst possible sin in their own eyes, i.e. "fundamentalism".

Still, you raise an interesting issue. It's possible, I suppose, that some people do actually have a meaning such as "simplistic" in mind, which creates yet another possibility for confusion.

The real fundamentalists are not necessarily simplistic in their theology. Their attitudes to morality may be simplistic, I suppose, since they rely on absolute moral rules that fail to engage with the complexities of real-world situations. But fundamentalist theology can form a quite complex, nuanced, well-integrated system that makes appropriate distinctions and so on.

It's not oversimplifying something that it kinda has a point about. The problem is more that the system as a whole is thoroughly false. It's not implausible taken in isolation (history shows that many people find such systems all-too-intuitively-plausible). But it plainly contradicts much of what we now know from science and reason.

Your point about "deluded" is interesting, but I mainly disagree with it. I'll have to address it separately, so feel free to remind me.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"JJ, the word for what you describe isn't 'fundamentalist'; it's 'simplistic'."

Not quite. Sure, a tendency to be intellectually sloppy or demonize one's adversaries could be called simplistic, but that hardly captures the gist of that tendency.

Russell Blackford said...

I see we have a troll (and no, I don't mean JJ). Just a moment while I zap it.

Simon said...

Great article mate!

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, JJ, "simplistic" may not quite capture what you have in mind, but it's the nearest word - much nearer than "fundamentalist". I'm just not buying the excuse that the latter is the closest word they can find. If they can't find a word that's closer than that, let them spell out their criticism (they can actually say, if it's what they think, "The New Atheists use sloppy arguments and are too quick to demonise opponents").

I can't prove it of course, but I see, in the use of the word "fundamentalist" to attack the "New Atheists", various unsavoury motivations. Take a useful word away from them; say something that might be hurtful/provocative of anger; try to be clever with a tu quoque rejoinder ...

I'll go on contesting this usage.

As for the word, "delusion" ... it's not one that I use. However, note that I don't object to the word "fundamentalist" to apply to a dogmatic Marxist who treats Das Capital as inerrant holy writ, or a to a dogmatic Randian who treats Atlas Shrugged in the same way. These are useful extensions of the idea of fundamentalism. They say that such Randians, etc., are not fundamentalists in the sense of believing in the Christian fundamentals (such as Christ's sacrificial atonement), but that what is actually wrong with them is pretty much what is wrong with Christian fundamentalists: the same kind of dogmatism, being closed to new information, etc. They don't just share a characteristic such as being forthright or wanting to proselytise; they share the very characteristic that makes fundamentalism a bad thing in the first place, so it's salient to point out what they have in common with people who are fundamentalists in the narrowest sense. Hence, "fundamentalist Randian" makes legitimate sense in a way that "fundamentalist New Atheist" doesn't (unless someone really does start to act as if Dawkins or The God Delusion can basically do no wrong).

I think that Dawkins is putting an argument as to why religious believers are, in an important way, like individuals who suffer more idiosyncratic delusions. Indeed, on a definition that captures much of what is actually wrong with being idiosyncratically deluded (e.g being importantly mistaken about the world and being resistant to all contrary evidence), it's really a kind of contrivance that the religious are not counted as deluded. Dawkins' title conveys that point, and he does actually take the trouble to argue, in the early part of his book, why the term is revealing, rather than just obscuring or just an attempt to hurt or a provocation to anger.

So, I think Dawkins handles it pretty well; it's a piece of legitimate, supported rhetoric. He's trying to provoke thought rather than anger, even though it might also provoke some of the latter.

At the same time, I think that the term gets thrown around a helluva lot and that we could all be a bit careful about it. I don't like it when it's just used to provoke believers for the sake of provoking them, or as a kind of coded way to act tough in front of peers. Still, I certainly don't think Dawkins is doing those things.

babrock said...

Another great post/artical whichever Mr.Blackford.
On ocasion I have been called a fundementalist atheist. I think nothing more is meant than non middle of t road or non moderate. This is not an acurate uuse of this term but there it is.

As to "delusional"; I think it would be acepted if used to describe someone who believed in faries. How is this different than believing in god, other than in how many people believe either one and when they did. Used to be more people believed in animist spirits like faries than an entity that would be charactorised as a god.

mace said...

Why do atheists need to "grapple with sophisticated theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth"? This is just another version of reference to a sacred text as an authority. Theology is patently ridiculous,despite many attempts,no one has demonstated that the object of study even exists,so it has no value as a methodology.

I agree that Rundle misses the point,religion is easy, science is difficult and some science like quantum physics is very dificult indeed,only a small percentage of the population will ever understand it as a discipline.However counterintuitive quantum physics appears to be,it "works",unlike theology.
I don't understand what Rundle's argument is, (1)for religious tolerance-fair enough, or is he suggesting (2) that religious beliefs have the same logical base as scientific theories-this is a very strange proposition from an atheist.Is it some sort of post- modernism?

JohnB said...

"exactly what should be done to counter this political deference to religion"

Here is what I am doing - but before that I must say that is one of the most eloquent pieces of writing I have read in a long time - leaves me in awe of your ability with English.

Only at draft stage - hope to finish it later today and get it off. I would be honored if you gave this perspective some thought and if of value present it at the Atheist conference.

Unable to post due to character limit email me and I can send john@september12009.com

Julian Tol said...

Don't worry so much about deference or diplomacy. Speak the truth loudy and clearly and let the consequences be damned. If your truth is atheism, then celebrate it. Shout with joy, No God No God No God for me!!! And I'll sing back to you No God No God No God for me tooo! Happy Day.

Sean Og said...

Hi Michael & all,
I'm new here so please excuse my inexperience, firstly yeah, I didn't get Rundle's point either. I don't see how the criticisms he makes are valid, of course modern athiests are engaging with the supposedly sophisticated theists. If it doesn't exist, then surely the theological arguments are moot. I mean I enjoy a theological discussion the same way I enjoy classics like Shakespeare and the insightful stuff that Terry Pratchett writes, but I don't have to believe their characters exist to enjoy them. In fact I'd enjoy them a lot less if i thought they did, which is mostly my beef with theists, I'm sort of offended that they'd think me so stupid as to be taken in by their nonsense and let alone use it as a moral barometer or fail to oppose it when it impinges on my freedom. I think their irritation with Dawkins' word choice is mostly hubris, it's hard to admit that you've been deceived, it's much easier to attack the messenger than engage with the message.
My I ask what is a "troll"?
I really enjoyed your piece and will be sure to visit again.
Slan abhalie, Sean

MosesZD said...

So are you suggesting that atheists stop using the words "delusion," "delusional," etc., since that usage borrows connotations from the narrower, more clinical sense of the word "delusion"?

The word "delusion" was around a lot longer than the psychiatric profession's co-opting of it.

Etymology: Delusion -- "act of misleading someone," early 15c.; as a form of mental derangement, 1550s. See delude.

Technically, delusion is a belief that, though false, has been surrendered to and accepted by the whole mind as a truth; illusion is an impression that, though false, is entertained provisionally on the recommendation of the senses or the imagination, but awaits full acceptance and may not influence action. Delusions of grandeur, the exact phrase, is recorded from 1840, though the two words were in close association for some time before that.

delude -- c.1400, from L. deludere "to mock, deceive," from de- "down, to one's detriment" + ludere "to play"

So I have no problem using the word correctly. Christians are deluded. They wholly accept a fixed, false belief regardless of the overwhelming evidence against their beliefs and the complete lack of credible evidence for their beliefs.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Moses: "The word 'delusion' was around a lot longer than the psychiatric profession's co-opting of it."

But it has been co-opted enough that Dawkins discussed in The God Delusion whether he was using it in the psychiatric sense, even though he was ambiguous about using the word that way.

Russell Blackford: "I think that Dawkins is putting an argument as to why religious believers are, in an important way, like individuals who suffer more idiosyncratic delusions. Indeed, on a definition that captures much of what is actually wrong with being idiosyncratically deluded (e.g being importantly mistaken about the world and being resistant to all contrary evidence), it's really a kind of contrivance that the religious are not counted as deluded."

Trouble is, resistance to contrary evidence is very much a part of the human condition, so discussing it in terms more suggestive of an abnormal mental illness is misleading, even grossly so. It also doesn't help that the case against religion isn't as trivial as pointing out the emperor's hanging genitalia. Rather, the case against religion is a cumulative one, and parts of it, such as the dismantling of the arguments from design, are counterintuitive. Hume's argument against miracles, one of the more crucial parts of the case against religion, is frequently misunderstood even by atheists. It's not as if the religious are rejecting an open-and-shut case. These issues are probably what Julian Baggini was getting at in his criticisms of the New Atheists, especially his criticism of the New Atheists' "error theory."

"Hence, 'fundamentalist Randian' makes legitimate sense in a way that 'fundamentalist New Atheist' doesn't (unless someone really does start to act as if Dawkins or The God Delusion can basically do no wrong)."

I don't think that things have quite gotten to the point where Dawkins can do no wrong in the eyes of his admirers, but it is telling how responses to criticism of New Atheists have involved the kind of distortion that would not be unknown to fundies. It's telling that the attempted rebuttal of Baggini by George Williamson rhetorically asks whether he wants the New Atheists to "Check it twice, à la Santa Claus," as if it were a bad idea to which Baggini would say "no," and then puts words in Baggini's mouth by saying, "it seems to me that his complaint in sum is this: tactless and harsh comments in the media by new atheists have soured the otherwise benign, friendly atmosphere in which believers and non-believers usually meet." Or take PZ Myers' mangled rebuttal of Jonathan Haidt's discussion of the New Atheists, where he writes, "Haidt starts treating the New Atheist arguments as an assault on moral systems," which again has nothing to do with the facts and seems to be a scrambled reading of Haidt's question, "Do these new atheist books model the scientific mind at its best? Or do they reveal normal human beings acting on the basis of their normal moral psychology?"

I wouldn't call the New Atheists "fundamentalists" outright, but some of their behavior gets uncomfortably close.

Unknown said...

I think Blackford's argument against atheist fundamentalism is flawed: "A fundamentalist atheist would be one who believes in the inerrancy of an atheist text." Surely a lower-case fundamentalist is one who follows fundamentals - being or involving basic facts or principles - which does not necessarily require a text. I think this is knee-jerk reaction from a generalisation of what the current major Fundamentalist religions do. The act or practice of following fundamentals is mixed up with the type of fundamentals followed by these religions.

As a scientist I am a fundamentalist following known facts of physics, chemistry, biology, etc and current evolving principles of scientific method including skepticism and falsification. Fundamentalism does not have to follow set-in-stone rigidity nor be "literal-minded, irrational dogmatism" if it is based on fundamentals such as evidence-based skepticism.
I don't just tick the box to be an atheist because I don't like the other options (as some do I guess). I am antitheist and I fundamentally believe atheism is better than religion for the future of humans and our planet even if religion did have a useful function in the earlier evolution of humans. Re-claim 'fundamentalism'. Atheists can be far better fundamentalists than the righteous religious.

Anonymous said...

The point about grappling with sophisticated theologians is an attempt at security by obscurity. The idea is that criticism can be deflected by citing a book the critic hasn't read. The actual contents of the book are not relevant to this rhetorical device. If the critic reads book X then you just cite book Y instead, and so on. This tactic is easily detected by the absence of any reference to the contents of the book when it is cited, as that would mean using an argument and arguments can be met. Any number of reviews of books by atheists use this technique - "I have a knockdown argument that proves your are wrong, but there isn't space for it here so you'll just have to trust me".

Theo Bromine said...

Here's my shibboleth question for followers of "sophisticated theology": An evangelistic organization is sending to Haiti solar-powered audio bibles in Creole

What is your response:

1) The organization and its donors have their hearts in the right place, as it is very important to provide spiritual care for the immortal souls of the Haitians

2) The organization and its donors are sadly deluded. The money, time, energy, and transportation resource should be spent on food and other physical supplies. It is a complete waste (not to mention an insult) to send these audio bibles.

Mark Erickson said...

Nailed it! Great thoughts and prose. Congrats from an atheist cat who thinks only his own meow is soothing.

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