Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book Review: The Truth Behind the New Atheism

The last three years have witnessed a dramatic rise in outspoken atheism. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have led this surge, each penning one or more best selling books. Whether atheism is actually experiencing significant growth may be arguable. But there can be no question that atheists have become more bold and prolific in their attacks upon belief. The rejuvenation of atheistic polemics, fueled in part by the ever-mounting evidence for naturalistic evolution, has been variously dubbed anti-theism, militant atheism, evangelical atheism, and the new atheism. What sets this new atheism apart from other manifestations of atheism is its combativeness. An atheist simply disbelieves in God. A new atheist is hostile to belief in God. To an atheist, it may be immaterial that the world is filled with theists. But to a new atheist, belief in God is something to oppose, something to stamp out, something to wage war upon in the arena of ideas. I recently met David Marshall online, and immediately ordered a copy of his new book. I offer the following review in hopes that many of my readers will also read this very useful work.

The rising tide of anti-religious, militant atheism in our day calls for a strong, reasoned response. David Marshall has provided just such a response in The Truth Behind the New Atheism (Harvest House, 2007). Marshall answers and challenges various contentions of Harris, Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchens. But the book is weighted toward responding to Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. For the Christian reader, Marshall’s work will confirm belief, reassuring believers that they have not “lost their minds”, are not “delusional”, nor are they afflicted with “a kind of mental illness”, as Dawkins would like us to think. To the skeptic, Marshall offers a challenging set of well documented, rational lines of argument.

As a student of history, philosophy, science, and religion, Marshall helps his reader to take a step back from the current battles of the theism debates and examine which, if any, of the new atheism arguments hold up to the facts. Many of the arguments of atheists suffer from historical, geographical, and philosophical myopia. An example is the general assumption (often cited by atheists who dub themselves “brights”) that the more learned a person is the more likely he will be an atheist. Is this true? Some statistics point to this possibility in our Western culture. But having spent much of his life in the Far East, Marshall is not boxed in by the observational boundaries which confine so much of our Western thinking. Marshall’s own observations in East Asia suggest that there the exact opposite may be true. In this far more populous region of our world, belief in God rises with education (see pages 40 and 41).

Marshall devotes two chapters to discussing evolution. Evolution has inspired many skeptics, fueling their atheism. Evolution, in their view, has eliminated the need for a Creator. And the views of literalist young earth creationists (with whom Marshall takes exception) have provided atheists with easy targets. In the chapter 3, Marshall acknowledges evolution as the best framework for understanding the history of life on our planet. But he contends that evolution has hardly eliminated the intellectual viability of theism. “For some”, he writes, “evolution has shouted down the voice of God. For others, it allows them to hear that voice in a new and more subtle way” (page 59). This has certainly been my experience. In chapter 4, Marshall argues that evolution is hardly the slam-dunk many believe it to be. Marshall navigates the many “riddles” and unsolved problems with evolutionary theory. Marshall builds a satisfying case that there remains plenty of room within evolution for the handiwork of a Creator, and it seems likely that some riddles may never find naturalistic answers. Those who would level the charge of “god of the gaps” reasoning should pay special attention to Marshall’s critique of how the rules of this argument have been framed (pages 61-66).

Many of the arguments of the new atheists are based upon false assumptions about what Christians believe, and how the Bible should be read and understood. Marshall devotes the middle section of his book to a reexamination of the Bible, and the claims of Jesus, in light of these atheistic arguments. Atheists would do well to develop arguments against the views of thoughtful believers like Marshall, instead of picking off the easy targets of literalist believers, or theists of their own imaginings.

Any analysis of worldviews ought to include a look at the fruit of competing belief systems. While they cannot be used as arbiters of truth, outcomes do strongly suggest the validity of any given view. History renders a laboratory full of data for such an analysis. However, each side of the God debates is often guilty of using selective history. In the final five chapters, Marshall helps us to set the history of theism, and Christianity in particular, into broader terms. New atheists love to cite the moral and ethical failings of Christianity. Indeed, the record includes no lack of atrocities and embarrassing black spots in the history of belief. This fact lines up well with the Christian teachings on the nature of man. Christians (and so-called Christians) have not been immune to abuses of power and other human frailties. But do the Inquisition, the Crusades, the moral failings of Christian leaders, do such blemishes outweigh the remarkable career of Christian Faith? Indeed, are our modern histories of the Crusades, for example, complete and fair? Marshall asks if Christianity has been a blessing to the world, or a curse. He leads the reader on a walk through history building a strong case that, on balance, Christianity has yielded impressive fruit. The correlating question, of course, is what fruit atheism? “Can atheism make the world a better place?” he asks. Certainly, many good and moral people are atheists. Many of these strive to leave the world a better a place. Marshall’s question has more to do with the natural social consequences of an atheistic worldview. And the evidence suggests that atheism does not possess anything like the intrinsic dynamic of Christian belief to move societies in a positive direction. And that fruit which has actually arisen from materialism is dubious at best.

Heavily annotated (there are 16 pages of end notes), and yet easily read,
The Truth Behind the New Atheism offers readers up-to-date apologetics, a well-reasoned answer to the brand of atheism that is attracting so much attention in our day.

63 comments:

Samuel Skinner said...

I need to petition google- the dregs keep seeping through.

First paragraph "blah, blah blah". Just in case you have forgotten, the term for someone vermantly against religion is antitheist. It has been around since the French Revolution, at least.

Third paragraph. Bright is from Dennet... who also wants to call religious people supers. Yes, it is as stupid as it sounds- I stick to the old nomenclature.
As for the increase in religious belief with education, that is true... to a point. In Japan and India I believe it isn't, while for the rest I'm not so clear on. Of course, given historically that many of the Easts brightests have trained in Western schools and thus picked up Christianity would seem a fairly reasonable explanation, as well as the large amount of missionary work. It is interesting to note that compared to certain other religions, Christianity comes accross as more logical if you ignore the problems God piles on. You have forms of Buddism where you get into heaven by repeating sutras!

Fourth paragraph... evolution makes God unnecesary for the diverstiy of life. It would be nice if you actually stated the argument he used. As it is, there is NO way that the God of the bible used evolution as a method to create humanity- it is too slow, brutal, random. As Obi Wan would say "Nasty thing- not the tool of a jedi".
What riddles have no naturalistic answers? Again, you don't give examples.

Fifth chapter. Apparently Marshall believes in a nonliteral interpretation of the bible...as do I. All atheists interpret it nonlierally- we don't think it is true. If he could establish how his method is superior to ours, that would be fantastic.

Little do you know that legalism was far more accurate on this than Christianity. Sorry- I just find legalists... interesting. The problem I have with the Inquisiton, the Crusades and the like isn't that they were bastardizations- but symbols of devotion in their purist form.

I mean, think about it. The Crusades involved the Pope blessing a war to retake the holy ground where our Lord and Savior set foot on this Earth and cleansing of the infidels, establishing kingdoms to protect pilgrims who wished to visit the holy sites. It was fought for glory, for gold, and for God. You might point out secular motives, but the fact is the men really believed they were on a holy crusade. Their leaders probably believed it too- they gave up the comforts of home for years, large sums of money, their families... all this to do the lords work.

To the best of my knowledge Christianity is responsible for the ban on gladiators and the crackdown on infanticide. The rest of its boon is probably from other sources.

Can atheism make the world a better place? Sure. More specifically antitheism can make the world a better place just like fighting racism can make the world a better place.
http://friendlyatheist.com/2008/07/15/untouchable-boy-killed-over-a-poem/
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/dec/09/tracymcveigh.theobserver
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honor_killing
Lets not forget homophobia, and (my personal favorite) the war on drugs. There is nothing like empowering criminals and terrorists across the globe!

That is all? Your summary is bad, or these apologetics are getting weaker!

Cliff Martin said...

Welcome Samuel, thank you for your comments.

You note that it would be nice if you actually stated the argument he used. Restate the arguments in a book review? My reviews are already long enough! The purpose of my review is to whet your appetite to read the book. I may have failed to do that in your case, my apologies. But a book review is not about "making the case", it is about offering a general overview. These comment threads are just not the place to debate the contentions of a third party author, particularly if one of the debaters has not read the book.

Stephen Douglas said...

Heh, another "new" atheist shows his ethics of discourse. Can't wait to see the benefits of that kind of arrogant attitude filter throughout our race - we're going to be so much better off!

For the most part I enjoyed this review and it has made me interested in reading the book. I must say I'm disturbed that Marshall as a non-scientist should somehow think he has enough familiarity with the ins and outs of evolutionary theory to be able to seriously challenge it in a small part of a small book, something the Discovery Institute has been failing at doing for years. (I'd be interested to know if you were persuaded by his arguments.) In any event, unless I misread the review, I wouldn't dare recommend this book to Christians already skeptical of science, because it sounds as though he were throwing them a bone: "Oh, atheists aren't so scary - there's the possibility that science" - as practiced by the majority of Christians - "is off the mark." Am I misunderstanding something, Cliff?

Recognizing that there are phenomena as yet unexplained, that need more research - that's science. Using those current unknowns as an argument for the existence of the supernatural - well, any way you slice it, no matter how much you critique it, that's God-of-the-gaps. Perhaps his argument is more nuanced than I am giving him credit for. I would welcome clarification.

Stephen Douglas said...

It just occurred to me what Marshall's thrust may have been. Was he saying that atheists cannot claim the ultimate triumph of atheistic evolution until the ToE has all its ducks in a row. It's an interesting philosophical argument that sort of functions on the flip side of the God-of-the-gaps argument, pointing out the fallacy of the no-God-if-no-gaps argument, at least untilall the gaps are filled in. Is this about it, Cliff?

Cliff Martin said...

Stephen,

I'd be interested to know if you were persuaded by his arguments.

Well, I am persuaded of nothing new. Remember, Marshall accepts evolution. He is friendly with Discovery Institute people, but he is not one of them. And in fact, he is critical of their approach. My impression is more that the two sides of this debate are so entrenched that they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge each others arguments.

Take irreducible complexity, as an example. Did not Darwin throw down the gauntlet? He said that if anyone could find an organism which could not have developed gradually, his theory would be disproved. And yet, it is considered "unscientific" to conduct the very search Darwin himself seems to allow. Rather than stomping their feet claiming that irreducible complexity is not a scientific approach, evolutionists should defend Darwin on the very terms Darwin prescribed.

Personally, I am not convinced by Behe. But I'm not convinced that his argument should be disallowed.

At the bottom of page 68 and on to 69, Marshall contrasts his own views with a God of the Gaps approach.

Is Marshall guilty of throwing a bone to Creationists? Perhaps. Is that always a bad thing? In my view, the discourse is advanced when the participants acknowledge the weaknesses of their own position, or concedes the strength of an opponents argument. But such concessions are very rare in this entrenched debate.

Absolutely, nothing should prevent science from investigating every mystery. Yes, the political wing of the I.D. movement is anti-science. But there should be no hesitancy in acknowledging the mysteries of abiogenesis, evolutionary surges, and other questions about gradualism that continue to haunting biology.

Cliff Martin said...

Stephen,

Just read your second comment. Yes, I think your assessment is accurate.

Samuel Skinner said...

My tone has nothing to do with being a "new" atheist- I'm an asshole.

The reason I asked for arguments is because theists seem to never put up the arguments used in books. Now, you can do that for alot of books given that most of the arguments have a name already (for example if he claims that atheism borrows from Christianity to get logic and reason that would be part of the transcendental argument).

I just wanted to know if any where new or if it was just a rehash.

Arrogance isn't necessarily a bad thing- entitlement is a much worse personality flaw. Unlike arrogance, it can't be justified.

As for evolution... they actually did do the search for "irreducible complexity". They did an experiment where the beneficial change required to mutations required to unrelated mutations. Needless to say it took twenty years for those petri dishes to produce a mutant capable of doing that.
http://bbs.stardestroyer.net/viewtopic.php?t=124398

In case you are curious, situations like this are why sex evolved- shuffling traits increases the likelihood of good combos.

Except in cases where your opponents are entirely wrong. Than you should never "throw them a bone". Either evolution by natural selection is correct, or it isn't. There isn't a "third way".

Gradualism isn't required for evolution. The only reason they stick to it is because uniformitarianism was the basis for the idea. Of course, life moves in spurts (of at least one trait at a time), but that is more chaotic and harder to model.

Abiogenisis is a problem for chemistry. Yes, it is passing the buck, but given that biology is the study of life and abiogenisis deals with things that aren't alive, it is justified.

Aside from the black smoker vents and primordial soup they also have a new theory- life developed in the ice. It is... interesting.

Cliff Martin said...

Samuel objects to "throwing bones" in cases where your opponents are entirely wrong. Agreed. However, controversies in which either view is "entirely wrong" are somewhat rare. I find many atheistic arguments intriguing, and valid. Many theistic arguments do not hold water. There, did I just throw you a bone? Yes. Are you entirely wrong, in my view? No. But your underlying atheistic assumptions are entirely wrong, IMO.

So, are Creationists entirely wrong? Many Christians I know do not object to evolution per se. They object to the notion that evolution could have happened without intelligent superintendence. Is that view entirely wrong? Who could say for sure? But there are some parts of evolutionary theory, as it stands today, that would appear to benefit from such help. Of course, those riddles may disappear in the future ... or they may not. Is there any harm in acknowledging that, for the present, they exist? And, just possibly, they may persist for a very long time? Maybe for all time?

Marshall never contends that we should, ergo, stop looking for answers to the riddles. But some riddles (e.g. abiogenesis) become more difficult the longer we look at them (whether a chemistry or biology problem!)

Please, I am not endorsing I.D. or God of the Gaps. I endorse Gould's NOMA premise, and the idea of intelligent design has no place in the science classroom, and should never encumber the mandate of science to solve riddles. But when we a priori discard the notion of intelligence in the development of life, we do so on the assumption that science will someday solve every riddle. What if it never does?

Many Christians might be more amenable to evolution if 1) they could see that evolution is not inherently atheistic, and 2) evolution, while nearly 100% certain as a framework, still has many unanswered questions. I think Marshall is trying to reach out to such believers. These believers already know about the gaps in our knowledge. Defenders of YEC are quick to point them out. The trouble is, Christians often confuse gaps in knowledge with evidence that evolution cannot be true. For Marshall to say "yes, there are significant gaps in our knowledge" while at the same time declaring, "evolution is the best framework for the history of life" may just help some believers to come to grips with the facts. I hope so.

Stephen Douglas said...

But Samuel, Christianity does place a check on the acceptability of being an asshole where atheism does not. ;)

Cliff, fair response as usual. I think we would agree that the questions ID advocates are asking are not the problem; it's the wrong-headed motivation and, worse, the answer they presuppose. Or to put as Steve Matheson does, for true science, design is not the answer but the question.

Cliff Martin said...

I always feel a bit uneasy when defending the views of another. In this case, this morning I emailed the author of this book, David Marshall, and asked him to comment on my representation of the positions he takes. The following comment is the result ...

David Marshall said...

Interesting posts, gentlemen. Cliff asked me to check and see if he was representing my views correctly (which he did, pretty much). I enjoyed reading the rest of the conversation as well.

What I'm trying to do in the chapters on evolution is something that seems a bit unusual in ID arguments -- follow the facts where they lead, regardless of dogmas and social pressures on either side. Chapter three explores what I think evolutionary biologists get right; chapter four what they have not (so far as I can tell) yet managed to explain about origins -- whether or not they ever will. The title of that chapter -- ¨some riddles of evolution¨ -- gives a clue I hope to my tone. This is how the chapter begins: ¨I agree that the clearest evidence for God may not lie in biology. But I'm not quite prepared to admit Darwin entirely solved the mystery of life, and will now explain why.¨ At the end of the chapter, after listing ¨things we can be fairly sure of,¨ I conclude, ¨Biology doesn't provide a knockout blow for or against God.¨ I'll be happy to read serious critique of the meatier arguments between these two rather cautious statements, if having read them, you find me in error on any important point. (I already have critics who are zealously covering the trivial ones! And those chapters were vetted by serious scientists and critics of ID who work in relevant fields at major universities.)

Someone once summarized the Christian message as 'we're all bastards, but God loves us anyway.' Samuel describes himself as an ¨asshole.¨ Perhaps he is closer to salvation than he realizes.

I won't defend my arguments about the Bible or the influence of Christianity, aside from saying I hope the book will expand what you know of these subjects, Samuel, should you choose to read it; but I think Cliff's summary -- as a summary -- was fair.

Stephen: If it's any consolation, one thing that disturbed my mother about this book was my argument for common descent. As Cliff said, I also find the whole debate about ¨God of the gaps¨ poorly conceived on both sides. But I wouldn't advise anyone to recommend any of my books until they've read them themselves.

Best to all of you.

Tom said...

Cliff,

Way to get the author himself to validate your review! Before I read the comments, I was interested in this book. The reason I'm interested is that I think both sides of the theist / atheist debate have interesting things to say, whether or not they are true or validated. They are interesting to me in terms of human psychology and the state of affairs surrounding belief. So I like to pick up a book I agree with and hear how the author tears down the other side. I also like picking up another book and hearing how another author wants to tear down my stance. This tit-for-tat results in an inward conversation. It sounds like Marshall's book is more of a conversational work.

As for myself, I have to recognize that my atheism is belief. I say this because I believe the Christian world I was raised in is wrong. I guess that labels me as a new atheist. I'm not overtly active about it aside from having a blog that gets a tiny number of hits, and the discussion of religion comes up more frequently than many other topics in social situations.

I think you struck on a point, however. Atheists have only recently been emboldened to express themselves. The theme from the authors you cite is not really that theists are mentally handicapped. It is that atheists can and should unite to keep (or have more) religious liberty. Faith is frequently put on a pedestal as something to respect, revere, and promote. This is frustrating for the atheist who does not want his tax dollars going that way and sees how religion can abuse humanity.

While these new atheist authors are against theism, I do not think any of them are advocating the removal of religion, per se. They are advocates of freedom from religion, where belief can be made apart from the culture of entrapment that is religion. (Same thing Jesus did! Oh, but wait, since Jesus already did it, they must be the antichrist, so I guess they are bad dudes.)

Stephen,
Atheism places more of a check on being an asshole than Christianity does. We have built a system of accountability that is about the here and now. To say that you are making your guardian angel cry when you misbehave has little sway with those of us who appreciate justice.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate how your mind works! And your thoughts are always welcome.

When you write I do not think any of them are advocating the removal of religion, per se, it leaves me wondering ... have you read Dawkins lately? Unless I mistake him, he most certainly does advocate for the removal of every last vestige of religion. "Faith is an evil" he writes, and one that he would gladly exterminate.

Stephen Douglas said...

Cliff,

I appreciate you posting Marshall's comments. He sounds like a very reasonable and likable fellow.

Tom,

(Mine was a light-hearted, off-handed comment, so I don't want to get embroiled in a debate over it...) I don't follow your logic here.

Atheists: Don't be a jerk because (insert any number of practical reasons here).
Christians: Don't be a jerk because (insert any number of practical reasons here) plus your guardian angel will cry. :D

So at very least, it appears Christianity places more of a check, and the only absolute moral check on having a caustic personality. :P

Tom said...

No, I have not read The God Delusion yet. I suspect that Dawkins probably wants to rid the world of religion in the sense that if people are "free from religion" to look at it objectively and rationally, then they will (obviously according to Dawkins) cast it away. I can see all new atheists believing this because this is their belief. It would be similar to the Christian who wants to spread the Good Word and knows in his heart that if everyone could just see things they way he does, then everyone would surely become Christian. Same thing could be said for one's political views.

Point is, extremists tend to get air time. In many cases, by getting us out of our comfort zone, we may disregard them as wackos and nobody that we can really converse with. However, their ideas have emboldened me at least to go seek conversational challenges with theists rather than keeping my world all nice nice and to myself.

Stephen,
I can't believe I set that trap for myself! You've one-upped me with the crying angel argument, but you won't win the next one!

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

It would be nice if Dawkins’ approach were so passive as you think. But this is not the case. Dawkins considers a Christian parent's training of his children to be a form of child abuse. He would favor, I’m sure, the forceable removal of children from homes where they are being so indoctrinated. The gradual move away from faith which would theoretically follow setting people “free from religion” (as you describe) would be far to slow to suit Dawkins. He wants the world purged of the evils of religion, the sooner the better.

I agree with you assessment of extremists. And your personal approach to safeguard yourself from the narrow-mindedness of extremism (i.e. visiting with theists) is, in part, my approach as well. Were you trained in debate in H.S. or college?

Stephen Douglas said...

I don't fault someone with world-changing beliefs for being evangelical. It only makes sense. So I don't in any way begrudge atheists' attempts at deconverting Christians or making sure the cultural and political landscape is less tilted toward theism. But doing so in a way that doesn't befit the "free marketplace of ideas" is as much anathema to me as is the idea of a theocracy. By all means, raise your kids to be atheists, or Muslims for that matter, but don't try to make me raise mine that way.

Simply pushing dialog - even rigorous debate - on the issue is not the "new atheist" that Cliff is talking about, I think. Instead it's those preoccupied with vitriolic talk of keeping Christianity and religion away from the stupid humans gullible enough to believe it - the kind of philosophy so attractive to most college age, know-it-all atheists - that's the "new atheism" as I perceive it. And yet I encourage it to be discussed: I simply think Christians need to be better at mounting up defenses and rational offenses without getting vitriolic about it. Maybe we'll win "best of show", if nothing else. ;-)

Tom said...

Sadly, I did not have debate in high school or college. We had many discussions surround morality and theology, but it was not structured argument.

Like you've mentioned before, Cliff, there seems to be two sides to Dr. Dawkins -- one where he is sporting his zoological/evolutionary cap and the other where he is antitheist. I found his Climbing Mt. Improbable one of the best books on evolution through natural selection primarily because his voice sucks you in. In that book, he speaks with the same awe of evolutionary processes as the creationist pastor uses to illustrate God's Hand. I suppose in The God Delusion his voice is impatient, angry, and demeaning. This is obviously going to be offensive to anyone not in his choir. At the same time, atheists also sharing his emotions (including me to some degree) will promote him as their voice because of his command of English. That being said, I remain unaware of new atheists actually working through means other than rational argument and protection of separation of church and state to tear down religion. There are no crimes against churches or churchgoers or other coercive tactics like handing out paraphernalia in front of churches. With respect to susceptible college kids, I would guess that religious clubs on campus are much more united and zealous than atheist organizations.

I guess what I'm asking--and perhaps I should read Marshall's book--is "What is the threat of the new atheism currently?" I know one can speculate that it can go the way of public ridicule of theists and take away freedom to practice religion, but that is not in any way the current state of affairs and it is paranoid to think that it would go that way. So, what's at issue here that really needs addressing?

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

I, too, enjoy Dawkins' mastery of English, and his personable writing style. I'd enjoy reading one of his non-argumentative books on evolution. I don't know if I could handle The Selfish Gene; but I might enjoy The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mt. Improbable. Of these two, which would you recommend?

Tom said...

Climbing Mt. Improbable is sort of a sequel to Blind Watchmaker, so if you are going to read both, you may want to do so in the proper order. If you're only going to read one, though, I'd recommend Climbing Mt. Improbable.

Steve Martin said...

Cliff: Nice review. All: Thanks for the comments. I loved Marshall's:

Someone once summarized the Christian message as 'we're all bastards, but God loves us anyway.' Samuel describes himself as an ¨asshole.¨ Perhaps he is closer to salvation than he realizes.

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Folks,

Nice little debate.

Cliff - don't be hard on yourself - and don't put Selfish Gene on a pedestal either.

It really is a classic. Get the new edition if you can - he has updated many of the chapters to allow for 25 years of additional evidence.

Regards,

Psi

Gordon J. Glover said...

Cliff,

I'm currently reading Tim Keller's "Reason for God" while on vacation in Michigan. Have you had a chance to pick this book up? I'm enjoying it very much.

Keller's approach to the new atheism has a way of resonating with my own skepticism without giving up any traditional orthodoxy.

Cliff Martin said...

Gordon,

Thanks for the recommendation. I just went to Amazon and read several reviews, positive and negative. It sounds like a traditional approach to apologetics, similar to the brand I used to teach 30 years ago. I have come to the conclusion that fresh lines of apologetics are needed in our day, and are possible. However, based on your recommendation, I will pick up a copy and read it.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Your initial impression is fundamentally right, but what makes this book worth reading is the way that Keller presents the arguments. I found this to be very refreshing, and worth the time invested to read the book.

Also, unlike what we usually find, Keller has no issues with the scientific consensus on origins and seems very knowledgeable on what science is and what science does, and even uses this same approch when examining the "clues" that might lead one to a rational faith in God. He recognizes that theistic "proofs" are both unecessary and impossible, but he also recognizes that this threashold of belief is not unique to religion. Even a scientific theory with loads of supporting data from various converging lines of evidence can be rationally avoided -- but that doesn't mean scientists are wrong to make reasonable assumption and move forward with them. This same level of consideration is all he asks for those wrestling with theism. I found it very refreshing (Not finished with it yet).

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Folks,

What does this mean?;

"Even a scientific theory with loads of supporting data from various converging lines of evidence can be rationally avoided "

Thanks

Psi

Cliff Martin said...

Psi,

I understood Gordon to mean that science proceeds upon theories without certainty; when all the evidence seems to line up to support a theory, we move forward with the theory even though we cannot prove it beyond reasonable doubt. It is done all the time. “Can be rationally avoided” is the equivalent of “room for reasonable doubt”.

There will always be room for reasonable doubt when it comes to the question of God. You are one of the most reasonable and rational persons I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. Your skepticism is not irrational or unreasonable. But theists observe many reasons to hold onto faith, even though we cannot prove God’s existence beyond reasonable doubt. So we make what is for us a “reasonable assumption and move forward with it.”

Psiloiordinary said...

I see.

That doesn't seem to follow.

What I mean is - take evolution. Loads of evidence in it's favour, no single fact proving it. No significant contradictory evidence.

It does not seem to follow that it would be sensible to decide not to accept it as our best thinking so far.

Let alone to decide to go for another theory with no supporting evidence which is falsified by some of the evidence for evolution.

Is this making sense?

So why use the fact that it is not 100% proved to "rationally avoid it" i.e. either say it isn't true or propose an alternative theory?

Can you see my problem?

Or perhaps this is in some other context?

Psi

PS looking forward to discussing what you see as "reason to believe".

Cliff Martin said...

Maybe I should let Gordon defend his own statement. But I will say this much. When I think of a scientific theory which can be "rationally avoided", evolution does not come to mind; that one is a little difficult to avoid on any rational basis. But there are pieces of evolution, such as punctuated equilibrium, or theories on the chemistry of abiogenesis, that can be "rationally avoided"; or maybe string theory. Some are sufficiently convinced of these theories to move forward with them even in the absence of proof. Others have reasonable doubt.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Hi Psi,

Evolution is probably NOT a good example of an argument that can be rationally avoided. There are too many independent lines of supporting evidence that all converge on a single coherent narrative of natural history.

A better example from science would be the small minority of cosmologists who reject big bang theory in favor of steady state theory. There are alternate explanations of hubble redshift and the cosmic background radiation. This "rational avoidance" of BBT obviously has nothing to do with thesim.

An exmple from the theism question might be how different scientists approach the fact that we live in a "finely-tuned" universe. There is absolutely no evidence that supports the idea that we just happen to occupy a single universe out of a "multiverse" of billions of universes that have paramaters imcompatible with the evolution of intelligent life from a singularity. But there is no evidence against a multiverse either -- so the argument for an intelligence that transcends the cosmos (theism) can be rationally avoided. It ultimately proves nothing.

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi,

Well first of all you did quite specifically say;

"Even a scientific theory with loads of supporting data from various converging lines of evidence can be rationally avoided "

Now you are backing away from this and quote the multi-verse.

Quantum theory provides supporting evidence for the multi-verse - just not unambiguous evidence. The measurements due from the BMR could possibly provide unambiguous evidence of the ekpyrotic version of the multi-verse.

None of the supporters of this rationally avoid the big bang theory. They think that BB does explain the evidence we have - they simply think that their pet theory can explain more evidence (in theory) - time will tell. They do not "rationally avoid" bog bang at all.

In the same sense that Einstein did not rationally avoid Newton.

Have you got another example?

Perhaps you would like to re-state what you mean?

Thanks & Regards,

Psi

Psiloiordinary said...

BTW my reading of the popular books on evolution would suggest that PE is and was part of the mainstream all along.

It was calling it "a revolutionary new thought about to overthrow Darwinian thinking" was what generated the resistance from evolutionary biologists.

Politics in science is unavoidable and makes good science journalism in that it sounds good and sells stories. It doesn't often bear any resemblance to the actual scientific thinking though.

Regards,

Psi

Gordon J. Glover said...

First of all, evolution -- like any paradigm that can't be rigorously proven (in a hard rationalism sense) can be rationally avoided, it's just not the best example because of great lengths one must go through to explain away the mountains of supporting evidence.

A better example of such "hand-waiving" might be the scientific consensus for a 13.7 billion year-old universe. This evidence can be rationally avoided with appeals to special creation (ie: the appearence of age). Such alternate theories can neither be proven or disproven, but neither can "something from nothing" -- an idea that cosmologists are quite comfortable with.

In the end, none of us has access to all of truth, so we proceed according to what assumptions we find the most reasonable, and avoid those arguments that we find incompatible with the way we think things should be.

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Gordon,

I am afraid I agree with the others in that you can't rationally avoid evolution.

Your "great lengths" would not be rational.

I'm sorry but I really can't see how any evidence can be rationally avoided. Not unless you can point out some problems with the observations or methods.

Appeals to non-falsifyiable explanations are not rational by definition.

Most cosmologists would shake their head at your characterisation of them. Have you been reading creationist material? ;-)

The something does in fact appear to be an equal balance of the positive and the negative so to speak i.e. it is nothing from nothing.

Can you give is an example of evidence which can be rationally avoided without the aid of more evidence i.e. errors in observations etc?

Thanks,

Psi

Cliff Martin said...

Psi,

If I could interject a couple of comments ...

1) I don't think Gordon suggested that evidence can be rationally avoided; rather that theories can be rationally avoided when the evidence is inconclusive, even though the evidence may be extensive. The underlying issue here seems to be epistemological. Psi tends to see black and white, evidential truths, or non truths. Gordon is suggesting a range of gray, in which various theories and ideas may have various level of evidentiary support. I'm reading Mike Gene's book, The Design Matrix in which he discusses his idea of "Inductive Gradualism" and how that relates to what he calls "the Explanatory Continuum" which ranges from impossible > possible > plausible > probable > certain. I'll review the book in a few weeks (I'm a slow reader!!) and may have more to say about that. But he is emphasizing how various concepts do not fit neatly into true and false boxes, but are positioned along a continuum.

2) My understanding of Punctuated Equilibrium is that it is a fairly late model popularized by Gould, first suggested in the 1950s. While it is true that strict gradualism has never been the consensus, various degrees of gradualism, such as Dawkins' "variable speedism", are arrayed against the popularized versions of P.E. So I do not know of a widely held historical general consensus as you suggest, though the scientific community may be closer than many people think. Do you know something I do not?

Gordon J. Glover said...

I already gave you one. The evidence that our universe was "set up" from the beginning to support the emergnece of structure and ultimately intelligent life. To quote Hawking, it's as if "the universe knew we were coming."

It is not unreasonable to suggest that clues such as these point us towards an intellignece that transcends the physical cosmos. Yet many would rather avoid this conclusion and posit a multitude of alternate realities that are not so finely tuned (to avoid the statistcal improbability of our universe). They are avoiding one non-falsifyable argument by appealing to one (eaqually non falsifyable) argument they like better.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Using Cliff's epistemological continuum, any theory short of "certain" could be rationally avoided.

Psiloiordinary said...

. . . but surely not any of the evidence?

That is the point I am rather clumsily trying to make.

Do you agree?

Psi

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

I don't claim any revelations. But reading Dawkins and Gould and reading many of the commentaries on their "dispute" tells me that they were not very far apart at all.

Dennett (Darwins Dangerous Idea - I have almost finsihed it) dismisses the whole media controversy by pointing out that the two trees of life that Gould himself uses to illustrate the differences are actually identical if you change the scale.

Perhaps I am sensitive to this "dispute" being blown up and used disingenuously by creationists to try to manufacture a controversy where non exists.

PE is dead long live TOE (which included PE all along)

Regards,

Psi

Cliff Martin said...

Psi,

Let's revisit this matter of "rationally avoiding evidence." Why are you so defensive of evidence? Evidence is rationally avoided every day in courtrooms. Evidence does not always convict the accused, nor should it. Innocent people are often trapped by what appears to be incriminating evidence. But some of the evidence could be circumstantial. It is still evidence. It still appears to point toward guilt. But if the defense attorney does his job properly, he will convince the jury of reasonable doubt, and thus ask them to "rationally avoid the evidence." What is wrong with this picture?

Cliff Martin said...

Yes, I concede that some form of punctuated equilibrium always existed in the ToE. And you are right, the controversy is overblown. All evolutionists agree that the speed of evolution has fluctuated dramatically; they only disagree about details. My point was that two scientists can look at the same evidence and come away with different (albeit slight) conclusions. Gould, that the switch turns on and off. Dawkins, that the rheostat turns up and down.

I also agree with you in that I see no foothold for Creationists in a supposed controversy, and those who would capitalize on such a controversy are indeed disingenuous. But I do see in all the permutations of PE one of the many unsolved mysteries in the ToE. It should be okay to acknowledge such mysteries. In my opinion, it is also disingenuous of biologists who paint evolution as a finished product, as a history that dispels any need for God (as Dawkins so brashly proclaims). It is fair to say that we may someday find naturalistic causation for everything. But that day has not arrived, and it is also fair to say that it may never arrive. So is there still "room" for divine agency in evolution? Most certainly there is.

Now I do not hang my hat on any God of the Gaps argument. IMO, God could have taken an entirely background role in evolution. The process of evolution may be so perfect that God never raised a finger to control it or direct it. My point is that the data we now have does not dispel the possibility that he did actively superintend and at times intervene. And we may never uncover the data that dispels that possibility, because such data may not exist.

Marshall appeals in this way to the unsolved riddles of evolution (even though he does not appeal to PE per se). He is not in the ID camp. His faith is not supported by God of the Gaps arguments. He is appealing for honesty on all sides. Yes to evolution! Yes to significant unsolved mysteries!

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

Thanks for clarifying. We were talking about scientific evidence not courtroom evidence.

I got the impression that Gordon thought that evidence can be rationally avoiding without proving the contrary to it using evidence but by logic alone. I repeat that I can't see how this can be done.

Your courtroom example does not do what I thought was being claimed and anyway eye witness evidence is massively unreliable, leaving aside simple lying even honest witnesses - and I of course include myself and Dawkins - are pretty useless.

I got the impression that Gordon was saying that if the evidence is not proof then we can ignore it. This does not follow.

I like it when we talk past each other like this because with patience we can (well I certainly do) learn something.

- - -

Now I will really annoy you again;

" unsolved riddles of evolution" = any kind of conclusion about god, is PRECISELY (excuse me) a god of the gaps argument.

Best regards,

Psi

Cliff Martin said...

Psi,

No, I'm not in the least annoyed!

"unsolved riddles of evolution" = any kind of conclusion about god, is PRECISELY (excuse me) a god of the gaps argument.

Not so. I (and Marshall) make no theistic claim based upon any specific unsolved riddle, nor upon the basis of the many unsolved riddles.

My argument (and I think Marshall's) is against Dawkins' bold proclamation that evolution has eliminated the need for God. That is simply not true on two basis.

1) To successfully eliminate the need for God, one would need to show the logical progression that life arising from chemical pools quite on its own means that God does not exist, and is not still a viable explanation for the Big Bang, for example. And,

2) To successfully argue that evolution has filled all the gaps and thus eliminated the need for God, one would have to fill all the gaps, something evolution has not done.

Now, if Dawkins wants to attack god of the gaps arguments in general, he is free to do so. I will even applaud him, on many counts. But to suggest, instead, that evolution has simply filled all those gaps is not true. Agreed?

Now, I suspect you will still accuse me of using a God of the Gaps approach. That is fodder for another discussion. For while I reject the Intelligent Design agenda, and I consider it foolish and anti-science when believers stake their faith upon gaps, I do not entirely dismiss the possibility that we will never fill all the gaps due to the possibility that God is responsible for some mysteries which we will never solve!

Psiloiordinary said...

To your first point I say fair enough.

To your second. I say I have read all of Dawkins books and have not seen this claim - can you clarify for me. Can you give the context of such a remark?

Thanks,

My point 0.5 i.e. before your point one is - we don't have a need for god.

Your two points are irrelevant.

Dawkins does not believe in god because he sees no evidence for one, let alone your particular one.

Neither do I.

Who exactly made the two points your two points are answering?

Regards,

Psi

Psiloiordinary said...

Oh and yes absolutely agreed - there are plenty of gaps out there for future scientific research, philosophical debate and all 3,000 or so human gods to live in.

Psi

Cliff Martin said...

I have read all of Dawkins books and have not seen this claim - can you clarify for me. Can you give the context of such a remark?

Dawkins frequently makes the claim the Darwinism “renders God unnecessary as an explanatory device”. A google search brought up numerous similar phrases, one being in a debate with Michael Poole. Once you find the debate, search for the words “God unnecessary”. Perhaps the words “as an explanatory device” help to clarify what he means, and helps you and I to get on the same page. It is in the context of that fuller quote that my two numbered points do have relevance, IMO.

My point is that I believe Dawkins has jumped the gun a bit in declaring victory in this war. I will state the exact opposite: “Darwinism has not rendered God unnecessary as an explanatory device.” Do you agree with me, or Dawkins?

Now before you answer, I understand that neither you nor Dawkins ever considered God necessary. That is beside the point. Some people do consider him necessary, or at the very least, a reasonable way to resolve certain mysteries. Dawkins claims that evolution has buried that argument. I’m only saying that, no matter what you think of the argument, evolution is not its death knell.

Dawkins has, IMO, oversold the impact of evolution upon theistic belief. All of us evolutionists could use a little more humility, and acknowledge that there remain many unsolved riddles in the ToE. That is Marshall's point, I believe. Some of the mysteries become more mysterious even as we try to solve them (abiogenesis, for example).

There now, have we succeeded in pushing this little point far beyond its importance in the overall discussion of Marshall’s book?

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

Yes indeed I have induced my usual random walk away from the actual topic of conversation ;-)

I see your point now. In the context of TGD Dawkins talks about the fact that the "design argument" of Paley et al is seen as very strong evidence for a god but that TOE makes god unnecessary to explain the diversity we see around us. I think all three of us agree with that.

Neither Dawkins nor I see God as necessary, neither do we see Father Xmas, the tooth fairy or any of the other Gods humans worship as necessary a priori so it is hard to see how you think your argument applies to either of us given that. I think Dawkins is talking in the context of other people's reasons for belief (as you point out) and so I am sure it will vary from person to person depending upon exactly what they see as god being necessary for - we are back to those elusive "reasons to believe" aren't we?

So to know if I agree with you or Dawkins then we first need to agree on what the "necessary" bit refers to - I think that perhaps you and Dawkins have slightly different meanings for this, so I would think I could probably agree with both of you.

;-)

Sorry for the wandering off topic but I always enjoy our little debates - even if sometimes they might appear as two separate debates that only just overlap somewhere in the middle.

Kind Regards,

Psi

Arizona Atheist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arizona Atheist said...

Despite much of the good reviews by theists, this book, while not as deluded as some others I've read, certainly has its problems. Just about each chapters' premise is fatally flawed. I did a large chapter by chapter refutation on my site to point out most of the errors.

I would hardly call this book a "strong, reasoned response." More like weak, illogical, and more often than not, just plain wrong.

The review can be found here:

http://arizonaatheist.blogspot.com/2007/10/review-of-book-truth-behind-new-atheism.html

Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Arizona. I will check out your review.

It is an interesting phenomenon that believers (like me) can read books by Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. and shake their head (as I did mine) over the glaring factual and logical errors, and see only truth in this book my Marshall. And of course, Atheists will likely have the exact opposite response. We each see though our own paradigm tinted glasses. I'm trying to get past that by reading folks like you with an open mind. I'm trying.

I sometimes think that on both sides the cases for or against belief in God are oversold, over-hyped. On this, one of the most fundamental of all questions, none of us knows much (in the sense of verifiable, empirical knowledge). More humility would serve us all well, and perhaps enable us to hear each other better.

I would be interested in your response to my own essay which I am posting in sections for comment. I am trying not to say more than I know, to prove the unprovable, or to oversell my belief.

Arizona Atheist said...

Well, to be honest, what all this really boils down to is if one either accepts the existence of the supernatural and ones who do not. Obviously people will disagree, but there has been no evidence of anything supernatural, and everything once thought to be supernatural, we are discovering natural causes. So, I think it's pretty obvious that until the supernatural can be proven, none of the claims of theists, intelligent design advocates, etc. stand on solid ground because they cannot even prove the very foundations of their beliefs.

I don't think it's an issue of being close minded or being open to hearing the other side. I have several books on christian apologetics, intelligent design, etc., and I understand their arguments, it's just that they do not make any sense. Once again, it's all about believing in things that have no evidence and that's that. The burden of proof lies completely with the theists.

By the way, which essay are you referring to?

Take care.

Cliff Martin said...

Arizona,

"I have several books on christian apologetics, intelligent design, etc., and I understand their arguments, it's just that they do not make any sense."

Actually, I think you would find many knowledgeable atheists who would disagree with that statement. I quote some in the essay I spoke of earlier.

You can find that essay by finding the sidebar "Other Posts of Interest and clicking on "Reasons for My Belief (Full Essay). Then, if you will click on the masthead title, "OUTSIDETHEBOX", you will be taken to the current sections which are open for reader comments.

Arizona Atheist said...

Looks like your reasons for belief in religion has much to do with the "fine tuning" idea and seem to believe in a deistic type god. The fine tuning doesn't necessarily point to any god, and I wouldn't even say it's an "indicator." Just as human beings have learned about how nature works (rain, wind, etc. which used to be thought of as magical no doubt), science may figure out how such "fine tuning" came into being. I would consider this a "god of the gaps" argument.

You also seem to think that god helped to craft the mechanism of evolution. There is an even greater problem with this, than with your other "indicators." The bible says nothing of evolution so where are you getting your information from? Theists, because of science, are rewriting their "holy" book in a sense, and claim that god developed evolution to craft his creations, but this severely contradicts genesis and creates hypocrites out of theists. If this bible was inspired or even written by god, whatever your personal beliefs about that, than it should have these facts in it, but it doesn't.

If you take the bible very liberally, then I'd say you were still a hypocrite because you're making things up about your religion as you go, based on the FACTS that science finds, and not on the scriptures which your belief system is based upon.

If you're a christian, do you believe that jesus rose from the dead? Do you believe he was crucified? If so, you're like many theists who believe some parts of the bible literally, while tosses out others, ALL BECAUSE OF SCIENCE. So, if genesis was wrong, then how can you be so sure that the resurrection actually happened?

I don't really say how "many atheists" would disagree with me. Most atheists I know think the same thing of theistic arguments. But just because someone is an atheist doesn't automatically make them clear thinkers.

By the way, any comments about my review of David Marshall's book?

Arizona Atheist said...

Typo:

I don't really see how "many atheists" would disagree with me.

Cliff Martin said...

Arizona,

I looked at your review, but did not read all of it; I am short on time today. But I think I read the earlier version on Amazon, and I believe you and I have discussed some of those points over there.

A couple of comments. I am wary of anyone who starts out using ad hominem name-calling. It doesn't further healthy intellectual exchange when you begin by calling Marshall an idiot. If his book is actually full of idiocy, why give it the time of day? If he is an idiot, why dignify his review with your own response?

I try hard to avoid attacking people who disagree with me. I find it simply stops conversation. This may explain why Marshall has never bothered to respond to you. Try changing your tactic.

There is a commonality in 1) your last comment above, 2) Dawkin's book, The God Delusion, and 3) your review of Marshall's book. All three are based upon what you and Dawkins assume Christians like me think. You build easily assailable straw men, ideas that you think are absurd or manifestly false, and then ridicule them, or show how irrational they are. The trouble is this: I do not know of a single thoughtful believer who (for example) would subscribe to Dawkin's definition of faith. I have responded to this approach in this post on “Dawkins’ God”.

Your last comment reveals that you have not taken time to understand the epistemology of Christians like myself. You assume a view of the Bible (which is held by many fundamentalist believers) to be the only view, or the only one that you will accept as consistent. Then you call be a hypocrite based upon your assumed view of the Bible. If you want to identify me as a hypocrite, you should first read my own approach to divine revelation. Then tell me where I am inconsistent with my own approach. If you care to do this, read my post on General Revelation and the follow-up post on Progressive Revelation. You may also find it helpful to check out this short post on Genesis and Mythology and its link to an excellent article by Stephen Douglas.

Or, if you prefer, you can go on imagining that you understand all Christians, and that we are all a bunch of simple minded dweebs incapable of seeing our own inconsistencies, inconsistencies created by your own assumptions.

Cliff Martin said...

Arizona,

btw, Re: your contention that fine tuning is merely evidence for a deistic god ...

If you would read the comment sections on my recent posts on Reasons for My Belief, especially the comments following "Reasons II, Ordered Universe", you would find that I readily admit the first three evidences cited in my essay do not point specifically to a personal God, but could indicate only a deistic one. Atheists deny both. So a good starting point for discussing the personal Christian God would be for all of us to agree that there is at least a Creator of some kind.

Arizona Atheist said...

Actually I create no strawmen. Mine and Marshall's discussions have been going on for a year now and more often than not he has avoided answering many of my objections. The fact is that he wouldn't even debate me at first and simply insulted me, which I responded in a slightly hostile manner in response. I explained this in my review but I guess you glossed over all that. Another non-strawman is the idea of faith. I do understand what Marshall is saying about faith, my point is simply that this evidence christians cite is not real evidence. Therefore, faith is belief without evidence simply because the evidence cited is not reliable evidence. I explain why this is.

I'm afraid your critique fails and I know I am correct in understanding and rebutting Marshall's arguments. Even after all the work I did he doesn't even want to read it. I believe he is running scared that someone finally gave him a real challenge to his book. But either way, my review is there for anyone to critique it.

I know that not all christians take the bible as THE word but if you don't (as I clearly explain in the review) you are contradicting yourself, because there have no been real examples of revelation and so where else are you going to get information about your belief system? It must be the bible - christianity IS the bible, as I clearly explained. But because of science it's eroding your beliefs so you have no choice but to adapt with the new undeniable evidence. Once more undeniable evidence is found christians will once again have to change their beliefs and possibly some time in the future there will be more more room for a personal god, and a deistic god will be the only hope, which I think is where you're already at. You better not hope that scientists find out how the universe became "fine tuned" (if they ever do) or else you may have to give up that god too. All these are simply "god of the gaps" arguments. God is used to plug gaps in our current understanding and that's that.

If you have any other comments about my review, please don't hesitate to contact me. I'm always looking for serious discussions of my critiques.

Cliff Martin said...

Atheist,
You write, "Actually I create no strawmen".

Actually ..... you do.

Arizona Atheist said...

LOL Believe what you want. You have no evidence for your beliefs, and that's a fact, no matter how much you want to deny it.

I am even open to Marshall's argument and state that I agree that christians sometimes cite evidence for their beliefs, I just say that the evidence they do cite is not good evidence. Clearly, you did not read my review carefully enough.

Arizona Atheist said...

I figured I would add...

I find your false claim of "strawman" to be a cowardly ploy you're using to cover up the fact that you have no argument to counter the fact that you have no legit evidence for your beliefs. Thus, faith can be said to rely on unreliable "evidence."

Cliff Martin said...

Arizona,

I find your false claim of "strawman" to be a cowardly ploy ...
... Sorry. You are mistaken.

And you are quite correct: I have not read your review of Marshall in full, and I have no intent to do so. Any review that starts out calling the author an idiot is not a review that merits further consideration. Beside, I really do not have the time nor the interest to enter into a debate (or lack of debate) between Mr. Marshall and you. If you have any substantive comments on my own writings, I'd be far more interested in that.

Thank you for you comments.

Arizona Atheist said...

I'm sorry but I must disagree. But it's your choice if you read my destruction of Marshall's book.

As I said to Marshall, regardless if you read it, you're still wrong about your idea of "faith" and Marshall's book is still an excellent example of christian mental gymnastics, when you twist your beliefs to fit the findings of modern science and history.

Thank you.

Arizona Atheist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.