Irrational Rationalization

I had a conversation with a friendly atheist recently that leaves me scratching my head.  The reason is that, as I have found so often to be the case, he wouldn’t play by his own rules.  This young man wanted to only address what was “provable” as true, but kept using his own personal and subjective experience as evidence in support of his “proving-a-negative” thesis (there is no God – proven by the absence of proof).  He even, at one point, said that the growing number of educated people who don’t believe in God is evidence that there is no God.  This after denying my assertion that the billions of people who believe in God gives credence to a “something” “out there” that people experience in a meaningful way.  I spoke of the great good that his been done in the name of God throughout the centuries.  He countered that the acts of humans in the name of God does not prove God’s existence, but then he proceeded to number the great atrocities done in the name of God as proof that God doesn’t exist.  I talked about the transformative encounters with the divine in every generation of human existence through recorded time, but he argued that these were mere “hiccups” in our brain chemistry, and besides even more people did not have such experiences, so based on the weight of numbers, the “proof” was against, not for — and anyway, subjective experience should not be allowed.  He told me he had prayed, and nothing had ever happened to him, which “confirmed his suspicions” that there was no God.  Apparently, only his experiments are objective.  We talked about the power of prayer.  He explained that the connection between prayer and any tangible outcome was unprovable, and besides, even if a causal connection could be proven, it would do nothing to indicate that God has anything to do with it.  I brought up the distinction between the physical and the metaphysical — the difference between proving what and how versus why, and he patiently explained that there is no why, only what and how — that why presumes a source and intention, and that is the very thing that cannot be proven.  So I asked him what evidence exists that disproves source and intention, and he scoffed that there is no evidence, therefore it is untrue.  (in his mind, you can prove a negative…).  I asked, “So if I say – if I’m lying, may God strike me dead where I stand! – and I am not struck dead, this proves there is no God?”  “Well, it certainly raises the question,” he replied.

I have read Dawkins.  I have read Hitchens.  I have read Harris.  It always perplexes me the double standards they employ to make their points, tossing out scientific method or journalistic integrity in order to make their points.  They resort to the very kind of “sloppy” thinking they attack.  They twist and misuse “evidence” to make subjective and conditional points.  They state as “truth” that which they feel no responsibility to “prove.”  They won’t engage in any kind of philosophical inquiry — they only want “scientific” debate, defined by their own personal set of rules.  Consistently, the rely on irrational approaches to attack the irrationality of religious belief.

The saddest thing to me is that they make some excellent points.  They go after the “low-hanging fruit” of religious hypocrisy, fanaticism, duplicity, materialism, corrupted values, poor scriptural interpretation and application, and human fallibility and shine the light of reason on our many foibles and failings.  They document the one-thousand-and-one-ways that imperfect humans live out imperfect faith.  Then they make the spurious leap that our inadequacies prove the absence of a divine creator God.  They gleefully pick apart the ignorant creationist views of a lunatic fringe of Christianity — apply it to the entire theological spectrum — and use the flawed arguments of flawed people to show that a “perfect God” would not allow such idiocy (therefore, there is no God…).  They will only engage in a discussion of the grand-old-white-guy-in-the-clouds-with-a-flowing-beard image of God, because this childhood/childish image is so ludicrous that is makes Christians seem credulous and vapid.  They won’t regard the serious academic theologians in their arguments, preferring instead to attack featherweights like Warren and McLaren.  If you launch your attacks against the most simplistic and superficial thinkers, you are guaranteed of winning every time.  But all this “attack” energy results in debate rather than dialogue, and adversity rather than collaboration.  Outside eyes are needed to raise questions about the failings and weaknesses of religious practice, and God knows (I am still assuming God’s existence…) we need improvement.  Faith can always benefit from the rigors of critical thinking.  If it can’t, then it isn’t worth much to begin with.

But I also realize that not everyone feels this way.  Here is an excerpt from a letter I received this week from a friend in Nashville.  I was her advisor at Vanderbilt University about five years ago when she began her Ph.D. work in genetics.

As you know, I taught a young adult Bible study at <my> United Methodist Church since 2002.  I love the class and the discussion we have and the openness to deal with new and sometimes controversial ideas.  I have always felt safe there.  But when I got my Ph.D. and announced that my intention is to do research in genetic re-engineering, the pastor of the church asked me to step down from teaching my class.  He told me I was sending the wrong message and that he and others in the church are not comfortable allowing someone to teach who is knowingly violating the sanctity of life and disrespecting the will of God.

I am what you called a “religious rationalist.” (A person who holds scientific knowledge and spiritual knowledge in two spheres — the physical and metaphysical — balancing an empirical way of knowing with a trans-rational way of knowing.)  I have found no contradiction between what I have learned in science and what I believe about God.  Certainly my way of believing is not 100% compatible with others in my church, but I am still a Christian, and I am a person of faith when I do my work.  Why can’t I be a person of science when I worship and teach?

Why, indeed.  If we are created in the image of God, then the development of our minds and intellects is holy work.  As stewards of our bodies, minds, and spirits, we should be doing all we can to develop and improve all three.  All three are gifts to us from God, and our faith teaches that God expects that we will employ excellent stewardship of all our gifts.  We should care for our physical bodies.  We should sharpen and improve our minds.  And we should deepen our relationship with the divine and open ourselves to the mysteries of
God.  The good, the beautiful, and the true should be attended equally.  Ethics, philosophy, and science are all equally legitimate pursuits.  To preference one at the expense of the others is self-defeating, and ultimately irrational.

48 replies

  1. “Yeah, the graphic is a joke, and other atheists are entitled to their “beliefs.””

    The quotes do you no good here – in fact they indicate that you agree with the illicit assertion in your “joke graphic” that atheism is a belief system (if you don’t believe what it says, why is it there?) And as I said, if you’d really read the authors you’ve said you have (particularly Harris) in full honesty, you would understand that this assertion is simply completely wrong.

    “you’ve adopted a position as open as fundamentalism”

    Explain what you mean here – how is atheism “as open as fundamentalism”?

    “and you’ve abandoned reason”

    Explain. In what way have I “abandoned reason” by pointing out a basic error in your understanding of the atheist position and how that indicates you’ve either misread or didn’t read Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens?

    “Your narrow-mindedness makes any conversation problematic”

    On the contrary, I’m open to any reasonable support for the theist position. Namely, how do you define your god? What evidence do you have to support your claim that it exists? You know the drill (or you should).
    I’ve simply already heard the fallacious arguments you’ve made in your article enough times to immediately recognize them as worthless – that’s not narrow-mindedness on my part.

    You OTOH, seem to have dismissed a perfectly good response by grammarking as “oversimplification” with no other commentary or explanation at all. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose….

    LS

  2. Does this become more valid with God’s name attached to all the “nothing” and “something?” I think it makes just as little sense, and had just as little reason.

  3. I think my original post was munged by improper use of angle brackets. I’ll try again, hopefully this won’t confuse the editor

    Since I’m still getting email responses on this, I’ll go ahead and point out some of the errors here:

    “I’m just not willing to give your beliefs more credence than the beliefs of others.”

    This is the primary error you continue to make that gives me the very strong impression you don’t know anything about the position you’re trying to attack (which leads me to the conclusion you haven’t read the authors you’ve cited, at least not honestly). The assertion that atheism is a belief system and that it’s therefore a peer of theism with it’s own theology, etc..

    Again:
    – atheism is not a belief system.
    – simple beliefs (notions held in the mind based on nothing else) are NOT equivalent to beliefs based on evidence. The primary distinction is that the truth value for one can be evaluated, but not for the other (you should be able to figure out which is which). For example “belief” that a god exists is NOT a peer of the “belief” that the world is round or that organisms evolve by evolution through natural selection. And etc.

    So you’re already irrecoverably off in the weeds here, working on incorrectly defined terms.

    “You and I are influenced and convinced by different sets of what we accept as evidence”

    This in probably the most egregious error theists typically make when they try to mash religion and science together and make them peers. Namely, the implicit assertion that standards of evidence are simply matters of mere personal opinion and interpretation. They’re not, and the entire history of science (and religion’s efforts to suppress it) is the main lesson in this regard. It details the establishment of objective and verifiable standards of evidence (and how religion has been forced to adapt). Again, if you’d honestly read the authors (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens) you say you have, you should have a basic understanding of this point (but you clearly don’t).

    “I know way too many people in the stratosphere of I.Q. and academic acumen who are religious to accept that religion is the playground of the simple, the stupid, and the unenlightened.”

    This is a permutation of the fallacy of the Argument from Popularity, an error you commit over and over again in your original article:
    – lots of (smart) people believe X
    therefore:
    X is true (or here specifically, X is not a stupid conclusion)

    This fails right away of course, and the rest of your commentary does too by transitivity. Just because a belief is popular does NOT imply that it’s _true_. It only demonstrates that the belief is widespread and _that’s all_. The prevailing IQ of the group is irrelevant. Look this argument up – it’s in Wikipedia, ironchariots.org and in lots of other places. If you really do have the IQ you claim you have, this shouldn’t be a difficult thing for you to figure out (or maybe it is).

    “And I know way too many people who defend their lack of faith in illogical and with deeply flawed thinking. This is a loser’s game if we try to make any clean divisions.”

    Again, atheism is not a _claim_ so it’s vacuous to propose it needs to be “defended”. _Theists_ are the ones making actual claims to knowledge – atheism is simply a skeptical orientation towards that claim (based on lack of evidence).

    The rest of your commentary here is pretty much based on these fallacies, so it can be safely disregarded.

    LS

    • LS,
      Sadly, this is where, in one of many places, you totally undermine one thing you say with another:

      “The other fundamental mistake you make throughout the entire article is assuming that atheism claims that no god exists.”

      and then you add this little gem:

      This is the primary error you continue to make that gives me the very strong impression you don’t know anything about the position you’re trying to attack (which leads me to the conclusion you haven’t read the authors you’ve cited, at least not honestly). The assertion that atheism is a belief system and that it’s therefore a peer of theism with it’s own theology, etc..

      Again:
      – atheism is not a belief system.
      – simple beliefs (notions held in the mind based on nothing else) are NOT equivalent to beliefs based on evidence. The primary distinction is that the truth value for one can be evaluated, but not for the other (you should be able to figure out which is which). For example “belief” that a god exists is NOT a peer of the “belief” that the world is round or that organisms evolve by evolution through natural selection. And etc.

      You first say, incorrectly I might add, that atheists do(?) believe in some god, just not the Christian God? How does that work? Since you like to answer questions with other questions, please tell me what god I believe in, because I am an atheist.

      http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheist

      atheist (noun): One who believes that there is *no deity*

      I don’t care what any authors write as their personal definition, that is THE definition of an atheist. And that is my belief. It is a belief. I don’t just not believe that God exists, I DO BELIEVE (actively) that there are NO gods at all. That is a religious belief of mine. Yes I said religious. Why? Because it is a belief of which I have substantial faith in to think it true. Given evidence, that might change.

      My original point, though, from which I clearly digressed, is that in the second quote you totally contradicted yourself by–incorrectly–stating that atheists have no beliefs at all, at least not that fall into a category with the belief that God exists. First sentence you say that we clearly believe in, or at least have the option to believe in, other deities, which would fall under religious beliefs, then contradict yourself by saying we never have any religious beliefs. Both of which, just so we are clear, are wrong statements by the way.

      So maybe it is you who should formulate your opinions clearer so that people don’t mistake what you are saying, and don’t see obvious contradictions from post to post. And, after reading all I have of you, other than knowing you are huge fans of fundamentalist atheists which are as bad as any religious fundamentalist, I know nothing of your opinion. Quote/ask repetitive questions less, state opinion more if you want it to be known.

      • “You first say, incorrectly I might add, that atheists do(?) believe in some god,”

        Please point out where I say this? This is, of course, completely wrong – atheism is the lack of belief in the claims to knowledge of the existence of a god or gods made by religions and other belief systems.

        “And that is my belief. It is a belief. I don’t just not believe that God exists, I DO BELIEVE (actively) that there are NO gods at all. That is a religious belief of mine. Yes I said religious”

        While I don’t doubt that you really do believe that, asserting that that is an accurate representation of the atheist position is completely wrong.

        At this point I usually just suggest Google to the confused theist, but to speed things up I’ll let you off the hook this time and cite a couple of good resources for you.

        Probably the best available discussion on atheism is at Austin Cline’s blog at about.com:

        http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutatheism/p/atheism101.htm

        Please read this and the references cited there carefully; should clear up your confusion. And it addresses exactly your messy idea about belief too.

        Here’s another excellent source of information about atheists and our position:

        http://www.atheist-community.org/faq/

        For more information after that, Google is your friend.

        “My original point, though, from which I clearly digressed, is that in the second quote you totally contradicted yourself by–incorrectly–stating that atheists have no beliefs at all, at least not that fall into a category with the belief that God exists”

        Please show me where I said atheists “have no beliefs at all”. The discussion I presented about belief introduces a very particular point about the definition of the term “belief”, but it’s crucial with respect to the atheist position. You need to reread it carefully.

        The rest of your commentary is based on these two mistakes, so it deserves no further comment.

        LS

  4. “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion. I just wish you understood it as such.”

    No, you’re the one with the misunderstanding of the term “opinion”, not to mention the terms “evidence” and “atheism”. That’s what our entire exchange has been about.

    More to the point, these also happen to be central, crucial themes in the writings you claim to have read – that you continue to display a basic ignorance of the terms used and the arguments is what makes me highly suspicious that either your memory or your sincerity (or both) is faulty.

    So, assuming the former, I would encourage you to (re)read those authors and acquaint yourself with some more of the basics about the position you’re trying to attack.

    If the latter, there’s not much hope for you to really be taken seriously. If that’s what you want, you have a lot of homework to do.

    LS

  5. Come on (derisive snort). Anyone who says that their lack of belief isn’t a belief is fooling him or herself. You have a position that you are unwilling to admit is nothing more than your best attempt at making sense of your own reality. You choose what to believe. You choose what you accept as true. You formulate your own position, but refuse to call it an opinion? Well, good for you. Must be nice in your reality.

    I am also glad you have a particular slant on Mssrs. Dawkins, Harris, etc. I read them and believe Dick has a valid point. Much of their arguments are not well reasoned, not well written, not overly persuasive, and full of holes. Perhaps you might want to try reading them thoroughly instead of insulting others because they choose to disagree with you.

    You really make Dick’s point for him. Yes, a lot of religious people are rigid, pedantic, narrow and err to the side of certainty about uncertain things. So do you.

    • THANK YOU. I don’t believe in God and I absolutely HATE the church, but please don’t think this bozo LS speaks for anyone but himself. The anti-religion books are embarrassing and simplistic, and the “believing in nothing is not a belief” argument makes no sense at all.

      People who don’t believe in God do believe in something. I guess I am a humanist, and as a humanist I share many beliefs in common with Jews and Christians. It doesn’t make me religious. There are some basic universals like justice that don’t belong to any one group or belief system. I appreciate many things I have found on this website, even though I choose not to subscribe to the core values espoused here. But I would never lower myself to insult the authors or call them deluded or ignorant. Religious or not, decent people don’t act this way.

      • “people who don’t believe in God do believe in something.”

        I guess it falls to you too: Please explain what you mean here. What is it exactly that we who lack belief in any gods must necessarily also believe? And how does that follow?

        “But I would never lower myself to insult the authors or call them deluded or ignorant. Religious or not, decent people don’t act this way.”

        Willful ignorance and stupidity is not respectable. So, it’s not reasonable to expect respect if you belligerently stick to falsehoods and nonsense. If you refuse to even lift a finger to try to inform yourself about even basic facts of a position before trying to attack it, as doroteos2 has, you leave yourself open to all kinds of ridicule.

        If that’s really a bother, go do some study and inform yourself on the basic facts. Then you’re much more likely to garner some respectability. Sorry, that’s just how it is!

        LS

    • “Anyone who says that their lack of belief isn’t a belief is fooling him or herself.”

      Explain, please. Exactly how is lack of belief a belief?

      “You have a position that you are unwilling to admit is nothing more than your best attempt at making sense of your own reality.”

      Explain. How is atheism an “attempt at making sense of your own reality”?

      “You choose what to believe.”

      Explain this. What do you mean by “choice” and “believe” here? Be specific – what does “believe” mean, what do I “believe” and what does it mean that I’ve made a “choice” to believe it?

      “You choose what you accept as true.”

      Actually, no I don’t and neither do you. Do you know why I say that?

      “You formulate your own position, but refuse to call it an opinion?”

      You also seem to be confused about the atheist position and what an opinion is in that context. Please clarify (what you think is) my position. Also what do you mean by “opinion” here?

      LS

  6. LS, I agree that willful ignorance and stupidity are not respectable. Neither are arrogance or intolerance, all of which you excel in. The idea that anyone would have to explain answers to any of the questions you ask is proof of your own ignorance. You pretend to be superior, but alas, your little mind is revealed through your defensiveness. The more you write, the more you prove you don’t know what you are talking about.

    • Okay, one thing I really would rather not see is this to devolve into an insult festival. Nothing I have read changes my mind that people are swapping opinions here. There is ample support for a variety of positions. Those who say “there is only one true way, and it’s mine” have to live with it, and so do the rest of us. There will always be those who think anyone who disagrees with them are stupid. It is apparent that religion isn’t really the issue here. There is even division among the unbelievers! Let’s let this rest with an agree to disagree. It is clear that Christians and atheists alike are in disagreement with one person’s opinion/position/truth. I don’t think we’re going to change any minds, and slipping into personal attacks certainly won’t get us anywhere we need to be. Sorry we couldn’t hold a more civil discourse, but maybe in time we will. Peace.

      • Too bad, I just started in here, and would have liked more civil discourse. Alas, some other time maybe.

      • “Sorry we couldn’t hold a more civil discourse, but maybe in time we will”

        Well I hate to say this, but you’ll notice the resort to Ad Hominums here has come only from your side, not mine. In fact, I’ve noticed it to be a pretty common phenomenon that theists’ tempers seem to flare when their beliefs come under scrutiny and targeted questioning (no matter how polite or gentle) – and that definitely appears to have repeated itself here. And that’s really a sad commentary on theists and theism.

        Simply asserting over and over that there are “divisions among the unbelievers” and that truth is just a matter of opinion, etc., doesn’t make those statements _true_. It only makes them repeated statements and that’s all.

        I’ve provided you with references that should have cleared up those false ideas, but neither you nor any of the others here seem to be interested in uncovering the truth on these matters. Good info is just a mouse click away; but you know what they say about horses and leading them to water.

        Unfortunate!

        LS

      • You are a true evangelist for your gospel, I will give you that. I haven’t found your links overly persuasive — same old, same old, but I do respect your beliefs. I’m not as comfortable dealing in absolutes as you seem to be. I am glad you have found “truth” that works for you. I can’t quite fathom your defensiveness and rigidity, but it has been a sterling illustration of the insensibility that often defines this debate.

    • “Neither are arrogance or intolerance, all of which you excel in”

      Explain – in what way am I being arrogant and intolerant? Please be specific.

      “The idea that anyone would have to explain answers to any of the questions you ask is proof of your own ignorance”

      Please explain: How is _your_ refusal/inability to answer _my_ questions “proof of _my_ own ignorance”? That should indicate the reverse, should it not?

      You’re the one making the claims – all I’m doing is asking you to substantiate those claims.

      LS

      • “haven’t found your links overly persuasive — same old, same old,”

        I see no evidence that you’ve even read them, much less honestly or carefully. And that’s the true character of the debate between theism and atheism.

        Only one side seems to be interested in informing themselves about the truth about our world and ourselves. The other side, OTOH, seems content to remain steeped in ignorance and stupidity, in endless rehearsal of their own fantasies with one another and engaging in fights with others who attempt to scrutinize their mythology.

        It’s pretty obvious who is who, and who really has a fighting chance to really learn something important and interesting.

        Truly sad….

        LS

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