Mistakes in my Oklahoma Atheists Interview

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 6, 2010 in General Atheism

In an attempt to counteract my brain’s powerful cognitive biases, I’ve made a habit of tracking all the things I’ve been wrong about, and all the intellectual mistakes I’ve made. I’d like to share some recent ones with you, so that I can correct some mistaken things I’ve written on this blog.

One. In my interview for the Oklahoma Atheists Godcast, I said that Daniel Dennett attacked a straw man by critiquing a version of the cosmological argument that no theologian I know of has ever defended. Now I think it’s better to say that Dennett was really presenting an argument as it often occurs over dinner between non-scholars, and showing that everyday religious arguments can quickly raise obscure issues about which none of us should be confident. So I no longer think it’s fair to say Dennett attacked a straw man in his one-paragraph discussion of the cosmological argument in Breaking the Spell. Thanks to John D for pointing this out.

Two. In the same interview, I said that Bart Ehrman in Misquoting Jesus badly misrepresented the level of confidence we can have in the text of the new testament, because he did not explain that the number of manuscripts we have is a blessing not a curse. The only reason we can reconstruct the New Testament so accurately is because we have so many variants, and we can track the corruptions as they occurred. Since then, someone pointed me to a paragraph on page 87 of Misquoting Jesus, where Ehrman writes:

…one would expect to find a multitude of textual variants whenever one uncovers a large number of manuscripts. If there were only one manuscript of a work, there would be no textual variants. Once a second manuscript is located, however, it will differ from the first in a number of places. This is not a bad thing, however, as a number of these variant readings will show where the first manuscript has preserved an error. Add a third manuscript, and you will find additional variant readings, but also additional places, as a result, where the original text is preserved (i.e., where the first two manuscripts agree in an error). And so it goes—the more manuscripts one discovers, the more the variant readings; but also the more the likelihood that somewhere among those variant readings one will be able to uncover the original text. Therefore, the thirty thousand variants uncovered by [John] Mill do not detract from the integrity of the New Testament; they simply provide the data that scholars need to work on to establish the text, a text that is more amply documented than any other from the ancient world.

So I was wrong about that, because Ehrman does make this point right here on page 87. My greater complaints about Ehrman’s conclusions in his final chapter, though, remain standing.

Three. In that same interview, I said that Erik Wielenberg had shown that Richard Dawkins’ main argument against God failed to attack the God of classical theism because God was defined as necessary. Though this may be a valid complaint, Wielenberg’s actual point was that Dawkins seemed to argue against a God who came into existence, but of course God is not thought of as a being that came into existence – whether because he is necessary or merely eternal. So I slightly misrepresented Wielenberg’s argument. Thanks to reader TaiChi for pointing this out.

That’s all for now.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Evan April 6, 2010 at 2:51 pm

Filed away under:

“Something you will never see on Triablogue”

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Justfinethanks April 6, 2010 at 3:01 pm

“Something you will never see on Triablogue”

Oh man, that blog’s a pit of unhinged Calvinists. Their most recent post covers something that was debunked by snopes in 2008.

Don’t hold your breath for a retraction.

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g April 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm

No disagreement about the general character of Triablogue, but that most recent post doesn’t make any of the claims that are debunked by Snopes. (It doubtless insinuates some sort of stupid criticism of Obama, and what Snopes has to say about the book is relevant to that.)

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Bill Maher April 6, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Luke, your a good guy. Keep up being honest :-)

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Beelzebub April 7, 2010 at 1:03 am

A second to Bill Maher. If everyone were as intellectually honest as you, the world would be a much, much better place.

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Haukur April 7, 2010 at 6:12 am

Luke, I do think you strive to be intellectually honest and I would still appreciate a reply to my criticism of your masthead quote and your exegesis of it.

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lukeprog April 7, 2010 at 6:20 am

Haukur,

Alright. I’ll do it. But do me a favor. Summarize your entire case against my exegesis of the masthead quote in a single comment on this post, and I’ll reply. I don’t have time to dig through a dozen older comments to figure out what your objection is. Thanks.

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Haukur April 7, 2010 at 6:29 am

All right, Luke, that’s a reasonable request. I may or may not have time to do this today, depending on when my daughter wakes up.

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Haukur April 24, 2010 at 5:36 am

Sorry for taking so long to reply. The following is mostly a mix of my previous writings on this subject, edited to try to form a reasonably coherent (and not super-long) whole.

Basically it comes down to what sort of blog you want this to be and what sort of message you want to send people about it when they first come across it.

The current quote comes across as arrogant and condescending. It’s basically saying: “Hey, believer, you’re so stupid and unreflective that you don’t even understand why you reject the gods you reject. If you were smart like me you’d be an atheist.”

Why would Luke, the sympathetic atheist, lead with that kind of attack? How about something that will make believers think without immediately putting them on the defensive? How about something that will give people pause? You’re a smart guy, Luke, I’m sure you could dig up something way more thought-provoking and useful than this. Something that would do a better job of setting an appropriate tone for this blog (a blog which I find frequently thought-provoking and usually not just composed of knee-jerk attacks).

The majority of atheists who have commented on this quote on this blog seem to like it. Not all have. No-one who is a believer has commented that he likes it – in fact many have argued that it doesn’t make any sense. But it’s addressed at believers!

I, too, don’t think the quote makes sense as written. You say that this is what it means to you:

What I mean is that if you apply the same reasoning to your god as you do to every other god (your “common” sense) then you’ll see that your god doesn’t exist, either.

But believers don’t disbelieve in the existence of ‘other’ gods in anything like the way atheists do and not for the same reasons. Believers rarely have a naturalistic way of other religions – they typically chalk large parts of them up to demonic or divine inspiration.

In an earlier thread I suggested there are four basic attitudes Christians can have towards other gods – let’s use Ganesha as an example.

Christian 1: Ganesha exists but he isn’t who the Hindus think he is – he is a demon and not God-the-creator nor an aspect of God-the-creator. A Hindu praying to Ganesha is endangering his soul and possibly doing something demonic. This is a venerable Christian position.

Christian 2: The idea of Ganesha is an imperfect understanding of the true God. A Hindu praying to Ganesha is in error about the nature of God but it may still do him some good. “They know God, but not well.” This is also an old position and it is fairly popular today, especially among liberal Christians.

Christian 3: I don’t know exactly what to think about other religions – in fact I mostly try to avoid thinking about them. Instead I concentrate on being a good Christian and bringing people to Christ. This was basically where you were, Luke, if I’ve understood you correctly.

Christian 4: I dismiss all other gods as nonexistent because science and history and reason and critical thinking (heck, maybe even “common sense”) shows that they are totally wrong and have a completely naturalistic basis, developing basically out of the propensity of the human mind for certain types of bad thinking. Ganesha is just a figment of people’s imagination. Someone praying to Ganesha is just engaging in fantasy and wishful thinking.

Now, this fourth position is of course the atheist position. Atheists often think that Christians have this attitude towards other religions and while I’m sure that some do I don’t think it’s a common attitude at all. The Christians that have been pressed on this question on this blog all seem to fall into category 1. When John H. was asked about Ganesha he said “there are “principalities and powers” other than God”. Vox Day seemed to have a similar outlook. Of course Christians think any such ‘powers’ are not true gods and are to be rejected by Christians. But they don’t reject them for the same reasons (or even in the same sense) that atheists do. Kyle put it like this:

The present issue is how I can believe in one God while rejecting the others. It seems perfectly reasonable to respond to that by saying that since the God I believe in is the one God, then other gods cannot exist.

But perhaps you think that Kyle may say that this is why he rejects other gods but in reality he rejects them because of his common sense. If so, that’s kind of a condescending position to take and one that doesn’t seem to be based on any particular evidence. I’d take the Christians at their word for why they reject other gods until I’ve got some solid reasons to think otherwise.

Note that nowhere am I complaining that the quote doesn’t make sense to me as a pagan. I realize that it is mostly aimed at Christians and that’s fine. What I’m arguing is that it doesn’t make sense to Christians.

What you seem to want to express is something like Loftus’s outsider test of faith. How about quoting that instead? Here’s a short and sweet version that seems to make the essential point fairly well:

Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating. If your faith stands up under muster, then you can have your faith. If not, abandon it.

I think this would be a reasonable masthead quote that would make something quite close to the point you want to make with your current one. But it does so without being condescending. It challenges believers and makes them think but it isn’t flawed and confusing in the way the Roberts quote is. You seem to like Loftus a lot and I’m sure he would be happy to have you quote him up there. How about it? If not, there are lots of other great quotes that are thought-provoking and appropriate. You have a Michel de Montaigne quote here that I think would also be a great fit for the masthead.

Anyway, I’m just some guy who sometimes reads what you write. Ultimately, this is your blog and you can do with it whatever the heck you like. Good luck and have fun.

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