The Irrational Atheist (notes in the margin, part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 7, 2009 in Reviews

irrational atheistThe Irrational Atheist is a response to the New Atheists written by the ever-controversial Vox Day, with whom I’ve been having an exchange of letters these past few weeks.

Instead of writing a review of  the book, here are my “notes in the margin” to Vox as I read through it. (Index of notes.)

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…my purpose  in writing  this book  is not to… argue for the truth of my particular religious faith.  Instead,  I  intend  to defend  those who are now being misled into doubting  their  faith… on the basis of the fraudulent, error-filled writings of [Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris].1

I think this is a good cause. Their atheistic writings are indeed error-filled.

If the book were  to  solely address Sam Harris,  I  should  likely have entitled it The Incompetent Atheist. In the case of Christopher Hitchens, I could have reasonably named it The Irrelevant Atheist. And given the way in which the eminent Richard Dawkins has apparently decided to  abandon  empirical  evidence,  the  scientific method,  and Reason herself  in  embracing  a quasi-medieval philosophical ontology, The Ironic Atheist would surely have been most fitting.2

LOL, nice.

I don’t care if you go to hell.3

That doesn’t sound very Christian, given the Great Commission, but I think I like it better this way.

New Atheism is a militantly fundamentalist call to arms intended to wake up the wavering, it is a godless jihad…4

What is “militant” about writing books and giving speeches? Is it really fair to call the New Atheism a “jihad,” comparing it to Muslim holy wars that slaughtered thousands of real people? You remind me of this Doonesbury.

There is even evidence to suggest that in some cases, High Church atheism may be  little more than a mental disorder taking the  form of a literal autism. On one of the more popular atheist Internet sites, the  average  self-reported  result  on  an Asperger Quotient  test was 27.9. The threshold for this syndrome is 32.5

Your “evidence” here is that some readers of Pharyngula volunteered their results for an internet test measuring AQ, and they scored much higher than readers of your own blog. But the internet test states clearly “This test is designed for fun. It is not meant to test you for any disorder (real or imagined).” Moreover, if the test indicates anything it may merely indicate that Pharyngula’s readers are more gifted in mathematics than your readers. Winners of the British Mathematical Olympiad scored an average of 24, closer to that of Pharyngula readers than Vox Popoli readers.

By the way, why is the name of your blog “Vox Popoli” (Latin + Italian) instead of “Vox Populi” (Latin + Latin)? The full phrase is “Vox populi, vox dei”, so maybe the spelling change to “Vox Popoli” was used for Google uniqueness just as with the spelling change from “Vox Dei” to “Vox Day”? Also, the full phrase means “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” meaning popular opinion is always right, something you clearly disagree with. Anyway, I’m sure there’s some intricate word game being played here…

Whereas  the  atheist  is always in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative, the agnostic is content to relax, kick back, and wait for others to demonstrate the proof of their assertions.6

First, it is not impossible to prove a negative. For example, I can prove there are no square circles. Depending on how you define “God,” he may be like a square circle.

Second, one can easily be an atheist and be content to kick back and wait for others to demonstrate the proof of their assertions about God. Atheism means “not god belief.” The person who waits for someone to demonstrate the truth of theism probably does not believe in god. He also may not claim to know whether there is a good or not, which would make him an atheist agnostic. The theism-atheism distinction is about belief; the gnosticism-agnosticism distinction is about knowledge.

Third, is it unfair to say we “know” that fairies don’t exist? Is it unfair to say that we “know” unicorns don’t exist? If not, then depending on the evidence it may be fair to say we “know” that magical superbeings don’t exist.

(According to Popper) for  a hypothesis  to be  falsifiable,  it must be  theoretically possible  to make  an  observation  that would disprove  the subject. Atheists are particularly fond of this definition, as the difficulty involved in falsifying a supernatural God allows them to argue that  religion cannot be  science. But can Popper’s concept of  falsifiability  really  be  taken  seriously  as  a  dividing  point  between  science  and not-science?7

Your answer – “no” – is correct. Debate over demarcation has moved far beyond Popper, and many philosophers have given up on the problem. Larry Laudan wrote “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” more than 25 years ago.

Dawkins,  Dennett,  and  Harris,  with  academic  credentials  and standing  as  public  intellectuals,  represent  the highest  of  the High Church atheists.8

Gee, I hope not. They are certainly “public” intellectuals, but they are not scholars in the relevant fields – philosophy of religion, religious history, and so on. For that, I suggest you turn to people like Mark S. Smith, Graham Oppy, and Michael Martin.

To be continued…

Oppenheimer

  1. The Irrational Atheist, pages 1-2. []
  2. Ibid, page 2. []
  3. Ibid, page 5. []
  4. Ibid, page 10. []
  5. Ibid, page 17. Your footnote for this paragraph reads: “I’m mostly normal!” Pharyngula. 1 Aug. 2007. Fifty-nine readers volunteered their results on the AQ test; the average did not include several individuals who mentioned having been medically diagnosed with the syndrome but did not take the test. Obviously, an amount of scientifc research would need to be done in order to establish any causal relationship between Asperger Syndrome and atheism, but it is an interesting hypothesis since a similar poll of 165 readers at my blog, Vox Popoli, revealed an average score of nineteen for theists and twenty for agnostics. []
  6. Ibid, page 22. []
  7. Ibid, page 30. []
  8. Ibid, page 40. []

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk November 7, 2009 at 8:41 am

Your answer – “no” – is correct. Debate over demarcation has moved far beyond Popper, and many philosophers have given up on the problem. Larry Laudan wrote “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem” more than 25 years ago.

In general, scientists are too busy actually doing science to care about how philosophers of science define their activity. But if religious claims are not falsifiable, and they are not verifiable, what else have they got? Do they have some other property which should make me believe they are true? All that remains are epistemological methods which are known to be unreliable, such as argument from scriptural authority, miracles, or claims of direct spiritual experience. These methods are known to be unreliable, and religious people do not respect these methods when they are used by promoters of religions other than their own.

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lukeprog November 7, 2009 at 9:02 am

I agree with you about theism usually being argued for with epistemological methods that are known to be unreliable. And religious explanations are not usually offered in such a way to be falsifiable, but they could be if one formed them as intentional explanations bound by the rationality principle.

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drj November 7, 2009 at 9:10 am

Whereas the atheist is always in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative, the agnostic is content to relax, kick back, and wait for others to demonstrate the proof of their assertions.

Theists always seem to define atheism as absolute rejection of the possibility of a deity, then proceed to argue against the famous new atheists as if they hold such a position. But Dawkins himself doesn’t even go this far, nor does Hitchens, nor does Harris.

Which is surprising, because if theists like Vox were paying attention while reading these peoples works, they should know this all to well. By their definition, they would have to call all three agnostics. Dawkins certainly spares more than a few words explaining his scale of atheism and where he lies on it for goodness sake.

You couldnt find a better textbook example of a strawman.

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Yair November 7, 2009 at 11:58 am

I just wanted to note my utter disrespect and condensation to all the smirking self-congratulatory posturing over Dawkins et al and against Popperism. Take it at the spirit of “nah nah nah nah nah!”, which I think is the level of intellectual maturity being shown here.

Dawkins’ theology, and ontology, is essentially right. Falsifiablity is essentially right. None of the critiques held against either holds water, and the expectation that it be treated with respect because it is done by professional scholars is childish. The demand for philosophical rigor and erudition, and anal attention to precision in terms and concepts, are hopelessly out of place for the medium and nature of the new atheist’s propaganda and scientific work.

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Scott November 7, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Is book worth the read, or is it some generic screed against irreligion? What exactly makes Harris incompotent, Hitchens irrelevant, or Dawkins ironic?

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lukeprog November 7, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Yair,

I tremble in the wake of your… “condensation.”

:)

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lukeprog November 7, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Scott,

Just wait for the rest of this series, then you’ll know better whether you want to bother reading Vox Day’s book.

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Geoffrey of Ballard November 7, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Obviously, condensation is an indicator that the theory holds water.

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Reginald Selkirk November 7, 2009 at 3:59 pm

lukeprog: then you’ll know better whether you want to bother reading Vox Day’s book.

I already have a solid opinion on that.

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Yair November 7, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Geoffrey of Ballard: Obviously, condensation is an indicator that the theory holds water.  

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And when a girl says “no”, she actually means “yes”.

I can stomach obstinate failure to acknowledge the failure of desirism, that’s only human. But this smug condensation is a character trait I will not abide with. You all can keep your pretensions and persist in your errors – I’m leaving. I wish you all the sense to abandon desirism, and its inherent irrationality, naturalistic fallacy, and artificial deity. Fare well.

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Tony Hoffman November 8, 2009 at 6:46 am

I am curious why you think that Dawkins’ atehistic writings (is there anything else besides “The God Delusion?”) are error-filled as well. I hear lots of talk from theists about how Dawkins would fail freshman philosophy, etc., but I think his book is simply honest and straightforward on topics in which he is not a professional scholar. In other words, I think that conceding that Dawkins’ atheist writing(s) is(are) “error-filled” allows theists to ignore the vital point, which is basically that theists have no basis to claim that there is a god who, oddly, doesn’t ever show up in real life.

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Scott Scheule November 8, 2009 at 9:10 am

I enjoyed Day’s book, even as an atheist. There are a number of weak spots in his arguments, I agree, but some of those are just rhetorical bombast, even tongue in cheek — which is where I’d put the jihad statement Luke comments on here.

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Beelzebub November 8, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Anyone who wants to make the labor of reading TIA into a more enjoyable and far more intellectually stimulating venture owes it to themselves to read it in lockstep with Deacon Duncan’s exquisite chapter by chapter review of it that starts here.
VD may not be a Christian fundamentalist in the strict sense but his ideology mimics fundamentalism closely enough, and DD shreds his arguments expertly enough, to make these two readings a awesome exercise in why the emerging Christian hysteria over the dangers of a new “secular enlightenment” are full of it.

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Lee A. P. November 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Beelzebub: VD may not be a Christian fundamentalist in the strict sense but his ideology mimics fundamentalism closely enough

No.

Vox Day IS a fundematalist Christian. He is the Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell of the new millenium — Only he is actually otherwise educated and he is an internet/video game geek. These are essentially the only differences between the two.

Vox Day is a typical, old school Christian fundamentalist in most ways, who is “worldly” and likes video games, computers and NFL football (ignoring their “Satanic” content, refusing to follow his mostly literalist views to their logical conclusion).

Also, Vox Day is a gargantuan douche bag of epic proportions.

So theres that.

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Beelzebub November 8, 2009 at 7:27 pm

No.
Vox Day IS a fundematalist Christian. He is the Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell of the new millenium — Only he is actually otherwise educated and he is an internet/video game geek. These are essentially the only differences between the two.

You’re probably right, but if confronted with that VD would say that he’s not a fundamentalist for reasons x,y, and z and then vehemently reject the label, even though it fits on all the essentials. VD has learned very well one lesson of polemics: if one responds to an unwelcome criticism aggressively enough, hysterically enough, and with enough vitriol and insult, 9 times out of 10 people won’t come back for seconds, and you get your way.

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Gato Precambriano November 9, 2009 at 5:43 am

lukeprog: … they could be if one formed them as intentional explanations bound by the rationality principle.  

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“Coud be” but actually aren’t, or do I miss something?

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lukeprog November 9, 2009 at 7:53 am

Gato,

Right. I’m saying that theistic explanations could succeed in principle, but in fact they do not.

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Rhys November 9, 2009 at 4:29 pm

It really is a testament to the unique efficacy of religious dogma how a member of Mensa, normally a very educated bright insightful person can display a dim whorish willingness to accept any diseased primitive theology which calms his existential angst.

Recently, Sam Harris and a colleague actually conducted an experiment to find wether religious thinking significantly differs from non-religious thinking. The results actually showed that a religious person’s brain tends to light up in the reward and emotional association areas when it evaluates epistemic religious statements, compared with simple memory retrieval for ordinary epistemic statements. I think it is the beginning of a decent explanation as to why some of the most intelligent people can be deeply superstitious.

h t t p : / / w w w . plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0007272

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Beelzebub November 9, 2009 at 5:58 pm

I have to say that if each religious ideation provided select people with a little shot of endorphin each time it happened, that would answer a lot of questions.

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SilverStrings May 23, 2011 at 10:09 am

@Yair:
“I just wanted to note my utter disrespect and condensation to all the smirking self-congratulatory posturing over Dawkins et al and against Popperism.”
“But this smug condensation is a character trait I will not abide with.”

1. That’s either hypocrisy on a grand level, or you meant “condemnation” in the first statement.
2. In the second statement, the word you’re looking for is “condescension,” not “condensation.” Look each one up on dictionary.com for definitions, and you’ll see why people were poking fun at you.

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