Friday, April 06, 2007

More garbage from DI fellows

David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute has an opinion piece in The Seattle Time

Prophets of the new atheism

Unsurprisingly, much of it's content is pure garbage, as anything that the DI is connected to in any way is wont to be.

While the American cultural landscape includes many religions, it's still fascinating to watch closely when we have the chance to observe a new faith being born. Consider, for example, a religious phenomenon that has been dubbed the "new atheism," prominently represented by some bestselling books.

The first paragraph, and the atheism as religion shows straight up. Atheism, be it called "new atheism" or otherwise, is not a religious faith. It's the exact oposite - the lack of faith. Anyone who fail to udnerstand this fundamental difference should not be in any position to make their opinion on the subject known.

Can disbelief in God be considered "religious"? Sure. Just ask Zen Buddhists, who worship no deity. By religion, I mean any faith-based set of values that makes exclusive claims for its truth and explains the mysteries of the universe. Yes, atheism begins with a faith, namely that only material and physical (not spiritual) causes make the world run.

Many Zen Buddhists would claim to belong to a philosophy, rather than a religion, but aside from that, Klinghoffer is quite right, a religion doesn't require a deity. It does however require a belief in something unobservable. In other words, it requires "faith" as the word is commonly understod.

Atheism doesn't begin with, or require, a faith in anything. Instead it's the logical consequence of the lack evidence. Does Klinghoffer also think that lack of belief in conspiracy theories is some kind of religion? That the lack of belief in fairies is some kind of cult?

Two recent atheist gospels, by Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") and Sam Harris ("Letter to a Christian Nation"), are the country's top two bestsellers among "religion" books, according to Publishers Weekly. The books are outselling even a Christian megahit like Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life."

These leading lights contend that traditional religions are not only false, but dangerous and morally grotesque. The title of another hot atheist tract, by journalist Christopher Hitchens and forthcoming in May, says it all: "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

I wasn't aware that Hitchens is coming out with a book - that explains why he has been mentioned so much lately when talking atheism. I hope it's better than much of his recent journalism and opinion pieces.

Who are the new atheists? While only 5.2 percent of Americans identify themselves as atheists, according to 2006 Baylor University polling data, it's a privileged demographic category, disproportionately college-educated and affluent. Atheists tend to live on the West Coast or East Coast. In its polling sample, the Baylor study found not one atheist African American. Meanwhile, those of us from Jewish backgrounds are represented well out of proportion to our national numbers, with 8.3 percent rejecting belief in God.

The Baylor University study (.pdf), which was funded by the John M. Templeton Foundation, surveyed 1,721 individuals, and spetacularly fails to include any information about methodics for their sampling, except for stating that they used a mixed-mode sampling design (telephone and self-administered mailed surveys). They also fail to give a confidence interval for their results.
In other words, as surveys goes there are some problems - as a matter of fact, most social scientists would probably dismiss any study lacking such basic information out of hand.

When looking a little closer at the survey results, I find some other troubling trends. The population is divided up into two groups "White" and "African-American" (with no numbers given for how many are in each groups) - no mentions of "Asians" (3.6% of the US population in 2000), "Hispanic" (12.5% of the population in 2006) or even "Other" (totalling 8.9% in 2000, including mixed races and Native Americans).

Also, when looking at the numbers for African-Americans it seems like they are undersampled. Of all respondends, 5% are self-described "Black Protestant", but 62.5% of all African-Americans are so. Since there is 0% of the White who desribes themselves so, it can be concluded that African-Americans makes up 8% of the people surveyed. Since African-Americans made up 12.3% of the population in 2000, it would seem like a undersampling of more than 5 percentage points.

In other words, I wouldn't trust the Baylor University study's numbers on anything.

The numbers for the population is from the 2000 US census (.pdf)

Now back to the opinion piece. Klinghoffer of course ignores the many atheists living outside the US, but I guess that's only to be expected.

You can see how influential atheism has become by noting how the media and academia deal with traditional faith. A recent New York Times Magazine cover story detailed the big debate among academic psychologists: Did God-centered religion evolve in prehistoric man as a useful adaptation or as a surprising byproduct of other evolutionary processes? The possibility that it developed in response to a living God was not considered.

Doesn't that make you stop up and wonder? No? Well, maybe it wasn't considered because these people are dealing with science, not religion. There is no evidence of any "living God" giving any kind of input into the process, so the scientists naturally don't consider this an option. If such evidence would show up, they would certainly take it into consideration. Much like when scientists debate the causes of thunder and lightning they don't consider the possibility of Thor riding through the sky.

Also, which living God are we talking about? Ra? Odin? Zeus? Baal? There have been quite a few candidates through history, many before the Christian God.

The new religion has a scientific appeal, with orthodox evolutionary theory recruited to provide a rationalistic "proof" for atheist teaching. For this reason, Oxford University biologist Dawkins devotes the "central argument of [his] book" to an attempted refutation of intelligent design (ID), the alternative to neo-Darwinian evolution that has been spearheaded by Seattle's Discovery Institute (where I work).

Unfortunately, Dawkins does not grapple with the latest arguments for intelligent design as formulated by their chief proponents. Harris is similarly preoccupied by ID, which evidently provoked the new atheism's present evangelistic push.

Science is atheistic in nature. It doesn't require any gods or other supernatural powers. As a matter of fact, it explicitly rejects such things.

What are the latest arguments for intelligent design? All the arguments I've heard are (wrong) arguments against evolutionary biology.

The books by Dawking, Harris, and others are probably somewhat due to religious movements like Intelligent Design which tries to push religion into the class-rooms, however they are likely more due to the simple fact that religion has become more and more dominating in debate and politics both inside and outside the US. One example of this can be seen in the policy for US sex-ed.

Darwinism, of course, is hardly new. The novelty here lies in the new faith's missionary fervor. Dawkins writes explicitly about making "converts."

Darwin also talked about converting Huxley to his idea of natural selection, yet he didn't imply anything religious in this. It's a common English phrase used to explain winning people over to your side of the argument.

Another novelty: In the 18th and 20th centuries, respectively, the atheist French and Russian revolutions sought political power above all else, with terrifyingly violent results. Luckily, far from being politicians, the new atheists seek religious influence for its own sake.

At least he didn't wake the Zombie Hitler.
Something that's worth considering is that the groups of people he is speaking about are generally not remembered for their atheism, so it was perhaps not their defining characteristica.

Despite these novel features, in other ways the new atheism will be familiar to historians who have studied the trajectory of upstart faiths. A favorite strategy of such groups has long been to attack cartoon versions of older rival religions.

Actually, if the Bible is anything to go by, the traditional strategy has been to (literately) demonize the older faiths. See for example Baal.

And again, the lack of faith is not a faith in itself.

Dawkins, for his part, mocks the God of the Hebrew Bible as "arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Such a wild caricature will be unrecognizable to any believer (like me) in the God of Israel. But Dawkins and Harris seem unfamiliar with religious tradition as biblical monotheists know it from personal experience and deep study. Frankly, the success of the new atheist faith would be hard to imagine without today's soaring levels of societal religious illiteracy.

Obviously Klinghoffer hasn't read the Bible very closely. Dawkins provides specific examples of the behaviour he describes. And perhaps Klinghoffer is not aware of teh very public experience many of us have with religious leaders speaking about their religion. Think about a Ken Ted Haggard, a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson. The later have made it real clear that the God he believes in is a vengeful one indeed.

Oh, and repeating that it's a faith doesn't make it so. Just like clapping your hand and believing in fairies doesn't make Thinkerbell come alive.

Which might sound like the new religion has a promising future. I doubt it. For one thing, God gives objective definition to our ideas of right and wrong, crucial for civilization. Equally important, he provides meaning to life itself.

Given the religious rifts within the Christian religion because of different stances on what's rigth and wrong, I find it funny that anyone would claim that "God gives objective definiton" to any idea of what is right and wrong. Indeed the presumed existence of a God has been used to justify terrible evils, which obviously goes against any claims of such objective definitions.

Since Klinghoffer is an Orthodox Jew, he believes in many Kosher laws that defines what is right and what is wrong. Yet other religious people, believing in religions based on the same fundamental book, doesn't believe in the Kosher laws (here I am speaking about the other relgions of the Book, Christianity and Islam).

And as I've said before, you must have a sad, sad life if you require a god to have a meaning to your life. Isn't living meaningful enough in itself? Religion can add something to some people, but I would sincerly hope that it's not the only meaningful thing they can think of in their life.

Oh, and if you haven't noticed, there are plenty of atheists outside the US.

Certainly, you can have an ethical individual atheist, an instinctively caring, generous person who happens to disbelieve in God. But an atheist society could not survive. It would first live on the fumes of ancient moral traditions. In the end, racked by despair at life's apparent meaninglessness, its members would return to more nourishing faiths.

What a load of bullshit. I dare Klinghoffer to provide any shred of evidence for his claim. It has been repeatedly shown that the more religious the society, the more amoral it is. Does this in any way lend credibility to his claims? I don't think so.

That's what we see happening now in formerly communist Russia, with its Christian and Jewish revivals. The evaporation of atheist communism is a lesson worth pondering, and a sobering one, for the new atheists.

What lesson is that? A personality cult can only survive as long as the person lives? That totalitarian repression of religion is bad? That Communism is not a viable form of rule?
I think most atheists already knew that.

So what is the point of this opinion piece? Klinghoffer obviously tries to redefine atheism as a sort of religion, but is that really of such relevance that The Seattle Times find it worthwhile to publish his garbage? No, rather it seems like it's just another hit piece on atheism (look, the big bad communist racist atheists are coming to get you). Isn't it getting a little old? Shouldn't the DI people be out and do some of that research they have promissed us? Of course, Klinghoffer can't really help with that, given his only qualifications seems to be that he is an Orthodox Jew who used to be an editior at National Review.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, Dawkins doesn't tell the worst story in the Hebrew bible. The worst story is the incident of Sauls' visit to the witch at Endor where he is informed by the prophet Samuel that he is going to lose the next days battle and that he and his sons will leave the field feet first. Why? Because he previously defied Yahwehs' orders to slaughter the Amalekites after a previous victorious battle against them.

April 06, 2007 9:31 PM  
Blogger Blake Stacey said...

Edit: "Ken Haggard".

April 09, 2007 9:53 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Thanks Blake. I considered using Kent Hovind as an example, but went with Haggard instead, and somehow screwed up the names.

April 09, 2007 10:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is yet another well-structured and thorough response to an idiot's ramblings (or rather, regurgitation of someone else's incorrect thoughts) on atheism.

To your question of the lack of arguments for ID, you see, creationists/IDers don't feel the need to prove anything themselves. They seem to think they only need to prove others wrong. So, in their mind, they are (by proxy) making the case for ID by finding all of these supposed "proofs" of evolution's (again, supposed) vaccuity. It's god-of-the-gaps by policy and procedure.

This opinion piece by Mr. Klinghoffer is a perfect example of what happens in societies that profess to hold a religion or religions. We get all kinds of hand-wringing advocacy for why they're right and the reasonable wrong, without evidence, without first-hand knowledge, without acknowledgement of fact. This of course leads to the very kinds of evils Klinghoffer is laying at the feet of atheism. But it's rather obvious he apparently doesn't trust himself. Why have a god that tells you how to live your life if you cannot glean how to do so from society?

To be sure, atheists have historically been reviled far and wide, and so it is patently ludicrous to claim they've held sway in any measureable form over any large group of people. His contention (or rather, the religious right's contention) that communism was atheistic is a non-starter upon examination. The Soviets suppressed religion, however the Russian people themselves were not largely atheist in the slightest. The Soviet government of Lenin and Stalin, and their political descendents, required deference to the state in all things. To my mind, this is still a form of worship, official religion or not. Tojo was a supposed divine emperor of Japan that people worshipped; was Tojo and his Japan "atheist"? Doubtful. China's support for religion has in the past been oppressive, but has been loosening, even with a very active communist base for the country's politics.

Atheism simply describes lack of a god. It is not anything other than that, and it requires a strictly religious view of the world to see atheism as a religion. Atheists have only one precept: that evidence does not show that there exists a god in the universe, or as having designed it. That's where it begins and ends. There is no worship (its very name says so), there are no rituals (unless thinking is one), there is no hierarchy of administration, there are no holidays, there are no prayers. It is only one thing.

It's perhaps the single simplest thing to understand, yet so many do not. Perhaps many find it silently expedient they do not...

April 09, 2007 11:34 PM  
Blogger melior said...

I would be intrigued to see how many African-Americans Mr. Klinghoffer can count at Baylor University.

April 10, 2007 12:29 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You know, someday I would like to see a study done which correlates religious beliefs to political positions. The reason why is because atheism is not communism, and it's tedious to have to explain this over and over again. If this study was done and revealed that something like .001% of atheists are pro-communism, or that it approximately matches up with the rate of pro-communist persuasion among the general population, it would then be easy to point to this study.

As matters stand now, it is an argument by anecdote: there exist atheist communists, therefore if you're an atheist then you support communism. Oh sure, YOU'RE not a communist, but how do I know you're not just the rare exception? -they might say.

April 10, 2007 12:41 AM  
Blogger Andrew Wade said...

Obviously Klinghoffer hasn't read the Bible very closely.
Klinghoffer hasn't read Klinghoffer very closely:
It would be a presumption to assert that God caused the Holocaust, or allowed it to happen, in order to punish European Jewry for their increasingly widespread devotion to secularism. In any given historical event, we can never know God’s true intention. But it would also be a presumption, and a worse one, to assert that such a punishment was not what He had in mind.
(As quoted by tristero)

April 10, 2007 1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Klinghoffer writes:

You can see how influential atheism has become by noting how the media and academia deal with traditional faith.

CNN just spent the week showing "What is a Christian?" and "What Would Jesus Really Do?" and is advertizing an upcoming series of specials called "After Jesus." It isn't even the Fox Noise Channel. I don't think the fundies need to start worrying about being ignored yet.

April 10, 2007 2:31 AM  
Blogger melior said...

It's worth reiterating:

Saying atheism is a religion is like calling bald a hair color.

April 10, 2007 3:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Religion unless one wants to use the word as a placeholder (in which case why not simply use a word like, say, jabberwocky) is dogma with absolute claims to the truth, everything flows from that. And that, Zen (derived from the word dhyana in Sanskrit), Buddism, Taoism, Jainism, Hinduism are not. It has been a habit with the earlier religions of the Book to cast all others as inferior variants of the one true faith. In more recent times, during the last 4-500 years, the Church has gone about painting all other traditions as inferior variants of itself. Klinghoffer who cannot define the term religion coherently is blabbering. Science makes no claims to the truth and certainly being inductive does not claim to prove anything whatsoever.

Klinghoffer shd curb his enthusiasm about the revival of religion in the former USSR. Has he forgotten Fiddler on the Roof and the troubles the Jews went thru in Czarist and Communist Russia? The Hare Krishnas have for the last two years faced hostility and violence in Russia and Kazakhstan. Is this what religious revival and the absolute right and wrong is about?

April 10, 2007 4:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This notion that there is a necessary relationship between the new atheism and religious or biblical ignorance is false. I am an atheist because of the Bible, first and foremost, plain and simple. I received a degree in Biblical Studies from Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN, a college where Billy Graham was once president. For two decades starting in my late teens I was a devoted student of the Bible and a committed believer. I will put my Bible knowledge and understanding up against 90% of evangelical Christians (to be fair, there are some out there who are scary-good at memorization, something I'm less adept at). And it was very distinctly the BIBLE that made me first question God and Christianity. Dawkins's quote about the nastiness of the fictional Jehovah is right on the money. The fact is, one can only hold a good opinion of this bastard by making an endless list of excuses for his behavior and our understanding of it. Nothing true requires such limitless apologia. Facts are solid, stubborn things; one finds in the biblical God a facade of intractable meanness over a mist shifting features. Hitchens is right--God is not great.

April 10, 2007 6:48 PM  

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