Atheists don’t own reason

The new atheists–participants in the contemporary anti-religion movement led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, among others–are … Continued

The new atheists–participants in the contemporary anti-religion movement led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, among others–are working overtime to tell the world that reason favors atheism, and atheism alone. Richard Dawkins leads his Foundation for Reason and Science. Sam Harris is founder and chair of Project Reason. The upcoming March 24 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. is the new atheists’ latest and most visible attempt to send the message that reason belongs to the atheists.

For years, though, knowledgeable critics have been calling attention to new atheist’ rational fallacies, emotionally loaded rhetoric, and illegitimate, selective use of evidence. It’s time now to add that up together and recognize what it means: the new atheists have no business proclaiming themselves the defenders of reason, simply because they don’t practice it competently.

Nikki Kahn

THE WASHINGTON POST

“Far from being the defenders of reason, atheists are among the chief offenders against it,” writes Tom Gilson.

Of course that’s not what the new atheists want us to believe. It is religion, they say, that is the antithesis of reason. Sam Harris assures us in “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason” (p. 55) that “faith is what reason becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse-constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.”

What happens, though, when we examine the new atheists’ own “reasonableness” and “internal coherence”?

Sam Harris debated William Lane Craig last April on whether atheism or theism (roughly defined as the belief in one God) provides a better explanation for the existence of moral truths (transcript here). Opinions may differ as to which of them held the more defensible position. What can hardly be disputed, though, is that Craig showed up with logical arguments, at least one of which, if sound, would completely destroy Harris’s atheistic explanation for morality. Harris conspicuously ignored this, and indeed virtually all of Craig’s logic. He devoted one 12-minute segment to rhetoric depicting Christianity in the most negative light possible, and suggesting that we should therefore conclude that Christianity is wrong. It was what logicians would describe as a fallacious appeal to emotion with respect to the question being debated and to the points Craig had raised.

In his best-selling “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins devotes an entire chapter to unscientific anecdotes supporting his belief that a religious upbringing is abusive to children. (See also “Religion’s Real Child Abuse.”) Actual science shows exactly the opposite: spiritually engaged teens are healthier than others on multiple dimensions. Such abandonment of science is surprisingly irrational for the man who was formerly Oxford University’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.

But rational and logical errors are pervasive throughout “The God Delusion,” so much so that University of Florida philosopher Michael Ruse, an atheist, would endorse Alister and Joanna Collicutt McGrath’s “The Dawkins Delusion?” by saying, “‘The God Delusion’ makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.”

These are, unfortunately, not isolated examples. The American Atheists, for example, co-sponsored a billboard in Harrisburg, PA juxtaposing half of a sentence from the Bible with an inflammatory, racially charged image of slavery. In doing so they combined at least two rational errors: the fallacious appeal to emotion and imagery, and the “straw man” fallacy of misrepresenting their opponents’ position; for although the quoted phrase, “Slaves, obey your masters,” is troubling on the surface, the Bible’s supposed endorsement of slavery is not what atheists allege it to be.

As Glenn Sunshine shows in his chapter in “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” Christianity has in fact been history’s major force for the freeing of slaves. Immediate abolition was realistically impossible in New Testament times: The Romans would have treated it as insurrection, and the inevitable bloodshed to follow it would have produced greater evil than would have been alleviated by abolition. The injunction to “obey” was thus temporary and contextual. It was also tempered with instructions to masters to treat slaves reasonably, as fellow human beings. Eventually slavery “virtually disappeared” from Europe under Christianity’s influence, as social historian Rodney Stark stated in “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery” (p. 299).

Failures in the practice of rational reasoning such as these are all too common among the New Atheists. They charge Christianity with being unreasoning or unreasonable, but too often they do so as they have done with slavery: use incomplete evidence or demonstrably invalid reasoning.

From my observations, it adds up to this: the new atheists’ difficulty with valid, responsible reasoning is widespread and systemic. Far from being the defenders of reason, they are among the chief offenders against it. It’s time we called them on that.

Tom Gilson is a writer and missions strategist blogging at www.thinkingchristian.net, and the managing editor of the collaborative e-book “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism.”

More On Faith:

Richard Dawkins: Who would rally against reason?

Fred Edwords: The great atheist ‘coming out’

David Silverman: Why we need a Reason Rally

About

  • swift_driver

    Atheists have been aiming to eliminate Christian crosses, prayer, religious symblos in every corner of the hemisphere. They’ve sought to remove crosses that have marked roadside accidents were a life / lives have been lost. For a group that professes “tolerance”, “compassion” along with a kitbag full of other contemporary buzz words including peaceful coexistence, they show and continue to demonstrate an amazing LACK of what they preach.

  • SODDI

    I don’t speak for anyone else, but I am intolerant of those who are intolerant of me. I will not be “compassionate” to those people

    Christians have been trying to use government to shove their religion down peoples’ throats, from school prayer to the 10 Commandments on public property.

    They are increasingly desparate to make Christianity MANDATORY, mainly because they are rapidly losing ground.

    Why don’t you just keep your religion to yourself.

  • catatonicjones

    Atheists don’t own reason any more than anybody else. It’s just the religious believers refuse to take their share of it.

  • mccusker

    The assumption of atheism is actually a scientific position, and is therefore the reasonable one. Since it is impossible to prove that something like god doesn’t exist, but you can prove it does exist, the falsifiable hypothesis is that it doesn’t exist, because a test that disproves the non-existence of god is that he shows himself. This is generally true for any cryptic (hidden) creature, like unicorns, faries, angels, the Loch Ness monster, etc. This is why the burden of proof is on the person who seeks to convince others that crypic creatures exist, because believing that it doesn’t exist is falsifiable by evidence that it does.

  • chuckbarb23

    Mr. Gilson dodges the central question by attacking Harris and Dawkins for being, in his view, impolite. Christianity has, through hospitals and centers for learning, been a force for good. It has also been a terribly destructive force — child abuse by priests, the Inquisition, the stifling of scientific inquiry, the enthusiastic support of slavery by clergymen in the pre-Civil-War South, to name only a few. When people such as Dawkins or Harris bring up the fact that the existence of god cannot be proven, and in fact that by any measure of logic and reasoning, cannot exist, they are attacked on entirely irrelevant grounds.
    Disease is being conquered by science, not “faith.” Clergymen have been notably unsuccessful at it. They haven’t been very good at preventing war, either. Take a look at the Crusades, to cite just one example. Lots of people killed in the name of religion and “faith.”
    Mr. Gilson’s statement that “Failures in the practice of rational reasoning such as these are all too common among the New Atheists” is preposterous from someone who is concluding a tissue of twaddle such as his piece.

  • Jerry_R

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    - Epicurus [341–270 B.C.]

  • gibsonpolk

    Tell that to Galileo.

  • Catken1

    You have the right to pray, put up religious symbols with your money on your land, and believe and worship as you like.
    What you have not got the right to do is force or coerce my child to pray to your god, use tax money or public land to put up your religious symbols without allowing equal money and space for other religious symbols and affirmations of atheism and agnosticism, or pass laws requiring others to abide by your religious dogma (as in selection of spouse, or decisions concerning others’ use of their own internal organs). Clear?

  • jokert

    Excellent analysis, Tom. Hitting several nails on the head. How arrogant and fallacious the insinuation that reason belongs to atheism, especially given so much in the way of unreasonable statements and antics by those associated with the new atheism, filled with mockery, contempt, intolerance and an inflated sense of self-importance and intelligence simply because they choose not to believe in a god (regardless of their actual level of education, intellect, or reasoning regarding anything else).

  • jokert

    That’s your rebuttal to this entire article? Interesting.

  • jokert

    What a poor analysis. “Dodging the central question”. What question? You’re going to have to be more clear.
    “…attacking Harris and Dawkins for being…impolite”. No, that is not why. Read it again, critically, please.
    You then proceed on a tangent of how religion has caused violence and does not solve some questions as well as science. There is no quarrel with that here, and Gilson was not talking about this, nor does it affect the point of the article.

    Next time you wish to be so critical, you’d do well to at least critically (in the analytical sense) read and understand a piece before putting fingers to keys.

  • jokert

    “The assumption of atheism is actually a scientific position”

    Incorrect. The scientific position would be best defined as agnostic. It doesn’t say anything one way or another, and does not know. It is incorrect to imply that science disbelieves everything until proven. Rather, it simply has no opinion (though people certainly do…).
    You also make the false assumption that scientific reasoning leads to the conclusion that there is no god. To many, it does exactly the opposite. Though ultimately, it remains untestable either way. So you can not simply declare the nature of science or atheism to be what you want it to be to support your position. This is unreasonable.

  • jokert

    Ironic statement.

  • pbamma

    Atheists do not choose to not believe in god, rather we have no evidence to believe in a god(s). This is rational.

  • Jerry_R

    “filled with mockery, contempt”

    Belief in a superstition by an adult deserves “mockery, contempt”. Action based on that superstition in terms of public policy and violence deserves “intolerance”. Indoctrination of children by said adults deserves scorn and ridicule.

  • Jerry_R

    jokert – you are incorrect. Theism is the belief in the existence of a god or gods. All one needs to do is not believe in god to be an atheist, and since there is no evidence for a god or gods, that position can be reached and supported scientifically.

  • Rongoklunk

    If we stopped indoctrinating our children to believe in a great invisible skygod, they wouldn’t believe in a great invisible skygod.
    There is no reason to believe in such a being. God is simply what the ancients figured was behind everything. But they were clueless and wrong. Nobody ever saw a God, ever. He’s a figment of our collective imaginations.

    Listen to the majority of scientists who don’t believe a god exists. It’s a childish idea, from the days when our species knew nothing about the world they found themselves in. WE know better now, and no longer tell our children such nonsense. There are no gods, and never were any.

  • Rongoklunk

    And lets not forget 9/11 when 19 believers went to meet their maker in the sky, and took 3000 folks along with them. Who today believes they are alive and well and having a ball up there in Paradise, each with 72 celestial virgins? Anybody?

    Remember, these guys were college educated and had total faith in Allah. Where are they now? The scientists say nowhere, just plain dead. Many religious folks would have different ideas, and may even envy them…up there in Paradise with all those girls.

  • Jerry_R

    “Atheists don’t own reason”

    Since we are in otherwise unoccupied space, we should have squatters’ rights.

  • JUSTACOMMENT

    Freestinker, a couple of anecdotal evidences should not be used to arrive to conclusions. If you just look at religious adherents by country you will find a pattern that will tell you that most of the children follow the parents’ religion.

  • SODDI

    “Agnosticism” would be semantically and technically correct, since no one can know absolutely everything. The fact that there is and has never been any proof of god, gods or a supernatural world is moot.

    However, given the semantics, technically we should mark down all believers as agnostics as well.

  • gibsonpolk

    All these discussions go away if we would only study Christian mythology as the literature that it is. We learn profound and enduring lessons about our humanity from a close study of Sophocles, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dostoesvsky, without it ever occurring to us to ask if these stories are actually true or not. That is not the point of these stories, and it only becomes the point of religious myths when the priests, preachers, and imams become involved. They need you to “believe” that they have a monopoly on the truth. Otherwise they would have to get real jobs.

  • ThomasBaum

    Some atheists, not all by any stretch, seem to get very upset if others don’t believe in what they believe and that is that there is not a God or gods.

    Some even go so far as to get a “look down their nose” attitude toward anyone who believes in a God or gods, similar to a “holier than thou” attitude that some believers have toward those that do not believe.

    And, if one were to honestly look at this phenomenon, one would observe that what one finds offensive in others is just a mirror image of what they do not seem to see in themself.

    Seems to be very much a human condition irregardless of whether one believes in God or gods or doesn’t believe in God or gods.

    Do you think that there is a reason that we have reason besides using it to belittle others?

    Does belittling others make one bigger or smaller?

    And I do not mean in physical stature.

    It sure doesn’t make what one believes true or false.

  • Chip_M

    Atheism is not scientific unless someone has devised an experiment to test for the non-existence of gods. That’s not possible. Science can and has been used to test certain claims of theism like the power of prayer (it has none), but the god question is beyond its purview. It’s more accurate to say that atheism is an empirical position.

  • Chip_M

    You are welcome to have your religious symbols anywhere you like in your home and your churches or on your person. Tattoo them on your bum for all atheists care. Just keep them off of public tax-payer owned land and out of public schools. Why is that so difficult?

  • Rongoklunk

    Freestinker;
    Your sibling and your best friend were raised in a christian country, where most folk believe in a god. It’s contagious. It’s an influential situation – where most people one knows believe in a supernatural skygod – it’s very difficult not to be influenced by it.
    Muslim countries create people who believe what other Muslims believe. Few atheists are produced by such an environment. Ditto India and Hindus. Not too many Hindus born in Saudi Arabia, or Mormons either.
    One’s early environment is the great determinator in what one grows up believing. Of course one can always find exceptions, but
    that is obviously the rule.

  • Rongoklunk

    By the way, I raised five nonbelievers who are now married with children, and are raising their kids the way they were raised themselves…Godless. I brought them up without mentioning a god.
    It was a piece of cake. There is no god.

  • Rongoklunk

    Yeah, it’s as foolish to believe that whatever was behind the bigbang and the creation of the universe was an all powerful GUY in the sky – as it is to believe that mother nature is a little old lady in a headscarf and clogs.

  • SimonTemplar

    Then again, the materialists have yet to come up with a convincing alternative.

  • SimonTemplar

    Rongoklunk, you can’t possibly believe that all the Christians in the world were indoctrinated as children in Christian countries. Yet more proof of the main point of Mr. Gilson’s article.

  • ccnl1

    Here he is again, Thomas, “Talker to god” and “the Mohammed of the 21st century” Baum. How fortunate are we all.

  • GeniusPhx

    teaching 5 and 6 year old’s that they must believe in Jesus or be thrown into a lake of fire is abuse. telling your kids they must believe something or you won’t love them anymore, is abusive. making your kids believe things that will take them the rest of their lives to sort out fact from fiction, is wrong.

    religious people who have to find holes in science in order to keep believing myth, is wrong.

    atheists who use divisive and demeaning language to make their points, is wrong.

  • Chip_M

    Simon, just look at the demographics. The biggest determining factor for religious belief is where someone is born and the prevailing beliefs in their geographic location. Ergo it is reasonable to assume that people tend to believe what they’re taught and follow the herd.

  • Secular1

    What convincing alternative? Do you have a convincing alternative to Unicorn? Well NO. So there must unicorns somewhere in the universe. Same goes for Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, and of course “THE KING” is still alive.

  • adifferentpointofview

    I would like to see if any Christian readers of this blog can answer the following two questions rationally:

    1) why to Christians go to doctors or take their children to doctors? Christians believe that they, by virtue of being Christians, go to heaven when they die. If heaven is better than earth, then dying is preferable to living. Doctors keep people alive, so technically they do Christians a disservice. Moreover, if a child grows to adulthood, there is some probability that s/he may decide not to be Christian, which means s/he goes to hell. A child who dies in childhood doesn’t have this opportunity. So taking a child to a doctor potentially keeps him/her from an immediate heaven and risks having the child convert to another religion and go to hell. It would seem that rationally, letting a child die is in his/her best interest.

    2) Why the apple? Christianity is predicated on the notion that God told Adam and Eve not to eat the apple, but they listened instead to a talking snake and ate the apple, for which they and we are born into sin. The Bible also says that Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between good and evil. So how could they have known it was wrong to disobey God? How could they have known that God was good and the snake evil? We who are evil don’t punish children who don’t know any better, nor do we punish adults who commit crimes if they are incapable of understanding that they did something wrong (a public defender told me this). So why would God who was good put the apple in front of Adam and Eve in the first place, knowing full well that Adam and Even had no way of knowing that eating it was wrong? why would God punish everyone for this crime, knowing that billions of people are not Christian? Why would an all knowing and all powerful God stand by and watch while Adam and Eve ate the apple, knowing how much suffering that would cause billions of people? We would call any parent who put poison in front of a child who has no id

  • adifferentpointofview

    I would like to see if any Christian readers of this blog can answer the following two questions rationally:

    1) why to Christians go to doctors or take their children to doctors? Christians believe that they, by virtue of being Christians, go to heaven when they die. If heaven is better than earth, then dying is preferable to living. Doctors keep people alive, so technically they do Christians a disservice. Moreover, if a child grows to adulthood, there is some probability that s/he may decide not to be Christian, which means s/he goes to hell. A child who dies in childhood doesn’t have this opportunity. So taking a child to a doctor potentially keeps him/her from an immediate heaven and risks having the child convert to another religion and go to hell. It would seem that rationally, letting a child die is in his/her best interest.

    2) Why the apple? Christianity is predicated on the notion that God told Adam and Eve not to eat the apple, but they listened instead to a talking snake and ate the apple, for which they and we are born into sin. The Bible also says that Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between good and evil. So how could they have known it was wrong to disobey God? How could they have known that God was good and the snake evil? We who are evil don’t punish children who don’t know any better, nor do we punish adults who commit crimes if they are incapable of understanding that they did something wrong (a public defender told me this). So why would God who was good put the apple in front of Adam and Eve in the first place, knowing full well that Adam and Even had no way of knowing that eating it was wrong? why would God punish everyone for this crime, knowing that billions of people are not Christian? Why would an all knowing and all powerful God stand by and watch while Adam and Eve ate the apple, knowing how much suffering that would cause billions of people? We would call any parent who put poison in front of a child who has no id

  • agripp87

    Gilson is wrong.

    Atheists do own reason. In his debate, Harris said that if I told you that I believed saying a few words over my cereal turned it into the body of Elvis Presley, you would say I was crazy. But if I said I thought saying some Latin words over a cracker literally turned it into the body of Jesus Christ, you would call me a Catholic. Transubstantiation is unreasonable.

    The historical claims of the Bible are laughable. Archaeology (see: The Bible Unearthed) has totally falsified the historical “events” in Genesis, Exodus, etc. And I’m sorry but people do not live to be 900 years old.

    The Quran, which claims to improve on (plagiarize) these already spurious holy books contradicts itself, and the hadith are not without their miraculous claims.

    Buddhism is unflinching on the idea of rebirth – an unfalsifiable claim. However, Stephen Batchelor in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist shows what happened when he questioned Buddhist dogma. Some things ARE off limits.

    And to Gilson’s awful argumentation. The Bible does say awful things about slavery, like you can beat your slave but only so that he is able to walk a day or two later. Muhammad also expected people to have slaves. And if these moral claims are “contextual” or “of their time” then these religions cannot claim to offer timeless moral truths. Can’t have it both ways. What the books say is a wholly separate matter from what some Christians like Wilberforce did 1800 years after the supposed messiah returned. Don’t forget, Jesus did say he came to uphold the law, and that if people believed Moses they should believe him (John 5 I think). So you are saddled with the barbarism of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and its wonderful ethics.

    The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

  • SimonTemplar

    Secular, can you read? The comment I was responding to did not mention unicorns or monsters. It mentioned the Big Ban and the creation of the universe. So I reiterate, the materialists have yet to come up with a convincing alternative.

    As a lesson to you in reasoning, you can not compare the beliefs of Christianity with unicorns and monsters as unlike the latter, the former is based on historical events.

  • Rongoklunk

    There is no such word as ‘irregardless’. There is only ‘regardless’.

    You are just as devout as the 9/11 religious terrorists who did what God wanted them to do – destroy heretics. They were as devout and as totally accepting of the God-hypothesis as you are. They didn’t “think” there was a God – they “knew” there was a God. Just like you only moreso -..they gave up their lives for what they believed. They exploded their planes into the WTC for God. Now theyre dead. Not in Paradise with virgins, but D.E.A.D. Dead.

    Religion makes folks believe the craziest things. One day some religious wacko just may blow us all to hell for some imaginary God. That’s why atheists really fear religion, where once upon a time they tolerated it. To me, your beliefs are just as irrational – just as deluded, as the Muslim bombers. No more, no less.

  • BlackFormic

    Well I had typed a response, the Washington Post promised me it would save my response while I created my account, but it lied. I should have known better and coppied it to my clipboard first, but I didn’t, so now I am affraid you will never get your answer. Sad face.

  • Secular1

    Siman Templar, there are more books written about Loch Nexx monster, Yeti, and Unicorns than about JC. Those books also claim historical facts. So there you go.

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