Thursday, 3 November 2011

Theological Flailing

From the archives of Verbose Stoic:
The Courtier’s Argument is precisely the sort of argument that allows those “neoatheists” to ignore theology and all of the more profound thoughts on religion to instead pick on “folk religion” that’s easier to mock.  And even when they engage, so many of their replies are, in fact, shallow readings that are there just to mock the argument without understanding it.

I've been recently thinking along the same lines, and I've seen Daniel Fincke over at Camels With Hammers make very similar points.  Here's what I think the nub of the issue is: atheism, as discussed by atheists, has shifted over time from a philosophical position to a scientific one.  It used to be the case that calling yourself an atheist meant you had certain epistemological and/or metaphysical commitments about the existence of God - now calling yourself an atheist usually means that you consider the empirical evidence for God insufficient, and have reverted to the null hypothesis of no belief at all.  Why is this? One explanation: it's to do with the creationist movement encroaching into science education, galvanizing atheist scientists in response.

The problem is that New Atheists - and I hate using that term unironically - all too often venture into philosophy or theology to 'attack believers on their own turf'. Unfortunately, understanding science does not automatically qualify you for philosophical debate.

(Why do so many of the commenters on atheist blogs assume that it does?  Maybe it's like physicists butting into other disciplines.  If you think that your area of expertise is the only real route to 'how reality is', I suppose you'd think that those who work in other areas would be grateful you took the time to set them right.)


  1. For some atheists, the shift from philosophy to science might be as simple as a power play, since today an invocation of science packs more of a rhetorical punch than an invocation of philosophy.

    This ties in to your last paragraph, regarding the prestige of science and the arrogance of some scientists, or wannabe scientists. The problems come when people fail to think carefully enough—or “philosophically” enough?—to realize when they’ve crossed from doing legitimate science into making illegitimate conjectures and fallacious philosophical arguments.

    You’re probably right that for some, the shift is a reaction against political creationism. But this would be somewhat ironic. Creationists fabricate and misread data to argue that we have evidence of a Creator. Atheists retaliate by misreading data to argue that we have conclusive evidence against any God whatsoever.

  2. I agree, but I'd like to point out that very few atheists argue that we've got conclusive evidence against any God; merely that we've got no evidence for any God. The problem is that many atheists reject out of hand the idea that one might believe something for which one has no evidence. (Not to mention the thorny issue of what counts as evidence for whom.)

  3. Word. I should have qualified that. Most intelligent atheists do not argue that. Many less intelligent atheists seem to.