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How Dare You Atheists Make Your Case! Or, The Fisking of Armstrong, 123

Why are so many believers so strongly opposed to the mere act of atheists making our case? Why is so much anti-atheist rhetoric focused, not on flaws in atheists’ arguments, but on our temerity for making those arguments in the first place?

Case_for_godI was recently directed to this screed against the so-called “new atheism” by Karen Armstrong: In search of an “ultimate concern”: How the new atheists fail to understand what religion really means, an edited excerpt from her book The Case for God. I was directed to it by an old friend on Facebook (btw, if you’re on Facebook, friend me!), who posted the link with the comment, “I hope some of my atheist friends will read this. (Granted I’ve given up on reading a lot of theirs…)”

Now, given that he himself acknowledged that he wasn’t paying attention to our ideas anymore, I certainly was under no obligation to follow his link. But I was curious. This is not a stupid guy, and I wanted to see what he considered a nice knock-down argument against the “new atheists.”

And I was struck, not just by how bad and tired Armstrong’s arguments were, but by the degree to which they were entirely focused on trying to get atheists to shut up. I was struck — as I am often struck lately — by how much anti-atheist rhetoric has been focusing, not on why the case for atheism is incorrect or inconsistent or unsupported by the evidence, but on why atheists are bad people for making our case at all.

So let’s take this a step at a time. Let’s proceed with the fisking of Armstrong.

Scarlet letter1: It is simply not the case that the so-called “new atheists” believe that “religion is the cause of all the problems of our world.” Many of us believe religion does harm, even great harm; but I’ve never yet encountered an atheist who thought religion caused all our problems, and that a world without religion would be a blissful utopia. Of all the straw men I’ve seen in critiques of atheism, this is one of the most absurd. That’s just a way of making our case look ridiculous… so you don’t have to deal with the actual case that we’re actually making.

Make your argument2: I’ve said before, and I will say again: Thinking that you’re right about something, and making a case for it, does not make you “hard line,” “intemperate,” “ideological,” “fundamentalist,” or someone who believes “they alone are in possession of truth.” It makes you… well, someone who’s making their case.

It’s called the marketplace of ideas.

Why are so many believers so resistant to it?

Why do so many believers critique atheism, not by saying “Here’s why we think we’re correct and atheists are mistaken,” but by saying, “It’s bad for atheists to even make their case at all. How dare they that they think they’re right? How intolerant and dogmatic!”

3: It is simply not the case that atheists only critique fundamentalist religions. I, and many other atheists, have read and critiqued both progressive religion and modern theology. And we have found both to be very much wanting. They either make the same bad arguments apologists have been making for centuries… or they define God out of existence, reducing God to a metaphor (or a “symbol,” as Armstrong puts it), and reducing religion to a philosophy.

Not that there’s anything wrong with metaphors and symbols and philosophies. I just see no need to call them religion.

I can’t help but notice that Armstrong doesn’t actually make a case here for her “modern God.” (As if there were only one, which all theologians agreed on.) I can’t help but notice that she subtitled her piece, “How the new atheists fail to understand what religion really means”… and yet somehow neglected to explain what religion really means. All she says is, “There’s a better version of religion out there, and you mean old atheists aren’t paying attention to it.” All she does is carp at atheists for making our case… without actually making hers.

4: It is not the case that atheists see reason as an “idol,” and we do not see reason as our “ultimate concern.” We’re not Vulcans. We see the deep value in powerful subjective emotional experiences of art, love, etc., as Armstrong describes. We simply see reason, and the careful investigation of evidence, as the best way to evaluate what is and is not likely to be true in the external, objective world.

And that includes the question of whether God does or does not exist. The God hypothesis is not a subjective experience like art or love. It is a question about what is or is not true in the real world. Why shouldn’t be apply rational thinking to that question? Why shouldn’t we make our case for why our conclusion is more likely to be correct?

And atheists do not “deny the possibility of transcendence.” I, for one, have written about atheist transcendence at great length, many, many times. We simply don’t see that transcendence as having anything to do with a supernatural world. I find it fascinating that Armstrong speaks so rapturously of curiosity and seeking outside one’s self… and yet wants to shut off an entire avenue of inquiry and possibility: the possibility that the physical world is all there is.

Again: Why is she arguing that people shouldn’t apply rational thinking to this question? Why is she arguing that it’s “hard line,” “intemperate,” “ideological,” “fundamentalist,” and believing that we alone “are in possession of truth,” to come to a conclusion based on a rational evaluation of the evidence… and to then make a case in the public forum for our conclusion?

5 (and finally, for now):

Armstrong shows a gross misunderstanding of the process of science. She seems to think that, because scientific hypotheses rely on some assumptions and can’t be proven with 100% certainty, that therefore it is “faith” in the same way that religion is faith. This is flatly untrue. Science doesn’t say, “This is absolutely true, no matter what.” Science says, “This is probably true, based on the evidence we currently have.” Science is always provisional. But saying, “This hypothesis is consistent and supported by all the available evidence, and until we see different evidence contradicting it we’re going to proceed on the assumption that it’s true”… that isn’t faith. Not by any useful definition of the word.

And that’s exactly what the so-called “new atheists” are saying about atheism. We’re not the ones saying, “We have faith in atheism that cannot be shaken; no possible argument or evidence could make us change our mind.” We’re saying, “The atheism hypothesis seems to be the one that’s best supported by the available evidence. The God hypothesis doesn’t make sense, and there isn’t any good evidence for it… so we’re going to proceed on the assumption that it isn’t true. If we see better evidence or better arguments for God’s existence, we’ll change our minds.”

And again, I ask: Why are so many believers so strongly opposed to the mere act of atheists doing that? Why is so much anti-atheist rhetoric focused, not on flaws in atheists’ arguments, but on our temerity for making those arguments in the first place?

I can only assume that it’s because, on some level, they know they don’t have a case.

If they had a case, they’d be making one.

They don’t have one.

And so they’re reduced to trying to get us to shut up about ours.

Comments

  1. says

    Excellent posting, as usual.
    It’s not surprising that we atheists and agnostics get criticized just for existing. We have a terrible habit of remarking that the emperor is butt-naked.

  2. says

    Armstrong’s persistent criticism of atheists is particularly ridiculous because, according to a vast majority of religious believers the world over, her own 100% postmodern theological bullshit position – apophatic theism – amounts to no more than atheism in a cheap tuxedo.
    Then again, I guess she has to criticize atheists so no one mistakes her for one when she goes on to explain that to even talk about God “existing” is to miss the point – a point that she then goes on to bury under tons of ephemeral verbiage that amounts to exactly nothing. Semantic content => null.

  3. jstep77 says

    It’s probably because you can’t have a rational argument with someone has has an inherantly irrational worldview. My mother (who is of course a fundamentalist) will get get angrier and angrier when I attempt to have a calm discussion with her. She will finally spit at me that she can’t have a discussion with someone who is always “so rational”, as if she can’t imagine anything more contemptable.
    Besides, we’re morally bankrupt, you know. They have a duty to dismiss us out of hand.

  4. Bruce Gorton says

    The thing that gets me with Armstrong is this: She basically says god doesn’t exist. Boil down the rhetoric to basic English, and God, to her is a symbol, a metaphor, and a mythos.
    In other words it is an ancient fiction she likes with no greater value than the Eddas when it comes to evaluating truth.
    It is one of the big warning signs in evaluating ideas that if someone over-uses complex language they generally either don’t know what they are talking about, or don’t want you to know what they are talking about.
    And that is the core of Armstrong, and Swinburn for that matter, she wants the people she is selling books to to feel very intelligent without actually getting her arguments. She is a conartist, taking religious people’s money.

  5. says

    Not seen Armstrong’s stuff around for some time. Her autobographical stuff regarding becoming a Nun, and then stopping being a nun were some of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read.
    Reading her strengthened my atheism, but I could never understand her being so drawn to “mysticism” which seemed such a lot of garbage to me. She also had a peculiar brand of feminism which I couldn’t get my head round as a man – I’m not sure that women could either.
    Have always had soft spot for her, she discusses things I want to discuss even if she discusses them in ways I don’t particularly like or agree with.
    I thought her description of St Paul having an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus was inspired.

  6. Claire B says

    The other thing I find interesting about her extract is that, at the end, she says all this stuff about physics and the sense of awe and wonder you can get from it, and how physicists don’t need to feel they have all the answers, they just really enjoy asking the questions. Which is all true, but from her context, it seems like she’s trying to use that as an argument against atheism somehow. And I totally don’t see how any of the things in that final paragraph are in any way inconsistent with atheism. In fact, I’ve used those very points myself to defend atheism, when religious people have been saying or implying that atheism is all about thinking you know everything about the universe, or that it leaves you without any sense of wonder or blah blah whatever.
    I mean, attacking atheists by saying “Hey, physicists get a sense of awe and wonder from the universe even if they can’t answer all its questions, y’know!” is kind of like attacking Brer Rabbit by throwing him in the briar patch. Anyone who does the latter doesn’t know a whole lot about rabbits; and anyone who does the former doesn’t know a whole lot about atheists.

  7. JL says

    It took me a long time, as an atheist, to sort out some of these arguments (not just hers specifically, but the common ones that they are an offshoot of). As an atheist, I never wanted atheists to sit down and shut up, but when I was surrounded by a critical mass of atheists for the first time, I did feel like there was something deeply wrong with what they were saying, and it took me a while to separate in my head what was right about it from what was wrong.
    Making a case for atheism: Good and right, if done well (and in appropriate contexts, e.g. the public arena or serious discussions with your good friends, as opposed to trying to convince your religious grandmother over Thanksgiving dinner).
    Making a case that atheism is not only right but that the world would be a better place if everyone accepted that: Unlike many atheists, I don’t actually agree with this (I think it’s possible, but not necessarily true), but I think other people making that case is reasonable.
    Being condescending or deliberately insulting to theists, making sloppy, oversimplified arguments about the impact of religion on the world, aligning oneself with pernicious social phenomena (e.g. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism) because it is politically expedient or because you think that religions being wrong means that their followers deserve to be the targets of bigotry, reducing a religion to its fundamentalist branch in your argument, using the actions of fundamentalists to smear moderate believers, etc: These things are bad.
    And Greta, YOU pretty much don’t do them. That’s one of the reasons that I read this blog. You actually helped me to separate the good aspects of modern atheist arguments from the bad, because you engage in the good and refrain from the bad.
    But many of the atheists I know who are not you (as well as some atheist public figures), who want to bother engaging in the good, or the neutral, do NOT refrain from the bad. They mix it in with the good, and it gets so intertwined that people don’t separate them, and become hostile to the good as a result. I have seen/heard examples of every single one of the bad things I mentioned above.
    Finally, and partly thanks to you, I realized that the bad didn’t necessarily have to be there with the good, and that it was possible to vocally make a case not just for atheists’ political rights (which, having grown up as an atheist in the Bible Belt, was always a big concern for me and one that I was active in starting at age 8), but for atheism itself, without being a jackass.
    Unfortunately, not everyone reads your blog, and not everyone who perceives that some atheists around them are being jackasses while they make their case, already has the friendliness toward atheists and atheism (whether from already being an atheist or agnostic or simply being openminded) that would serve as an incentive to bother to separate the good from the bad and then consider it.

  8. J. Allen says

    JL,
    Don’t be too quick to call atheists ‘jackasses’ because they don’t argue to your standards.
    For example, fundamentalism is one of the best arguments against religious belief in the same way the best argument against smoking is lung cancer.
    When you understand the cognitive processes necessary for fundamentalism to form, you can draw a parallel to moderate believers. The difference between fundamentalism and moderation is key to understanding what supernatural thinking is.
    As Greta said, atheists attack all sorts of believers, from Armstrong to Falwell. And while we don’t want to imply that they are just as bad as each other, I don’t believe it is out of bounds to argue that they both have the same evidence for their God.
    The Crusades were always a problem for me, because they were evidence that Christianity was not inherently good by the standards I had. If his message could be interpreted in multiple ways, then the system was flawed. The system is flawed because God is a delusion, and people are subjective about what it means.
    I don’t think we should designate ‘proper’ ways to argue atheism. Each situation can warrant a different tact. Some atheists will choose poorly, but that same strategy may have worked wonders on a different group.
    Criticizing the fundamentalists is only a straw man if you don’t explain how it ties in to the larger picture of the god delusion.

  9. says

    “Making a case” implies an appeal to rationality. Theism cannot compete on this battlefield and most believers know that at least intuitively. The arena in which they have a chance is on an emotional (or at least non-rational) one.

  10. John the Drunkard says

    Butterflies and Wheels posted this link a few days ago. In it a southern baptist honcho declares Armstrong an atheist. A stopped clock is right twice a day!
    Armstrong’s “we don’t really believe anything that you have demonstrated to be absurd…while anyone is watching” version of religion is so radically empty of content, so perfectly evasive of taking an clear stance on anything, that it really can stand as an example of ‘sexed up athiesm.’
    Take a look at the link, and at B&W while your not too busy.
    http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/mohler/11608516/

  11. Bruce Gorton says

    Posted by: JL | September 18, 2009 at 08:56 AM
    Actually, I think you are wrong in not tying the moderates to the extremists.
    Because you see, JL, the moderate Catholic who uses condoms, funds the Pope who covers up child molestation while blaming atheists for global warming.
    The moderate born again, funds the fraud who demonises everybody that isn’t a member of the Church.
    The moderate ulimtately teaches his or her child that faith in an of itself is valuable, and that skepticism is, not really.
    The Democrats don’t thump the Bible for the religious right, its for the moderates.
    The moderates, are where you get the fundementalists from, because there is no truth check in faith.

  12. says

    Actually, while I agree that it’s valid to connect moderate believers with fundamentalists (at least to some degree), I do think JL has a point about civility.
    I’m not an accomodationist, and I don’t think we need to pull our punches when it comes to critiquing religious ideas and behavior. But I do think some atheists aren’t careful about distinguishing between critiquing ideas and behavior on the one hand, and insulting individuals on the other. And even when we are critiquing ideas and behavior, I think we need to be conscious of context when we’re deciding what tone to take. A tone that’s appropriate on, say, Pharyngula isn’t necessarily appropriate in a forum meant for atheists and believers to connect.
    If nothing else, snark and hostility isn’t always good strategy. It can be useful when trying to draw attention to your issues in a broad public forum like the media; but in one- on- one discussions with believers, it’s more likely to alienate them and entrench them in their beliefs than it is to get them to stop and think.

  13. Rieux says

    Besotted John:

    Armstrong’s “we don’t really believe anything that you have demonstrated to be absurd…while anyone is watching” version of religion is so radically empty of content, so perfectly evasive of taking an clear stance on anything, that it really can stand as an example of ‘sexed up athiesm.’

    Oh, please: atheism is so much sexier than Armstrong-ish theism.
    Exhibit A is this blog, by far the sexiest theology-related site on the Internet.

  14. says

    Exhibit A is this blog, by far the sexiest theology-related site on the Internet.
    True. Who among us wouldn’t drool at a poster of Greta’s cerebellum to hang on the wall?
    Coming soon: Playbrain, with centerfolds of hot, naked brains.

  15. John the Drunkard says

    Someone described ‘spiritual’ meathy-mouthism as divisible into ‘sexed-up pantheism’ and ‘sexed up deism.’
    I was echoing this idea, not claiming any sexiness for Armstrong.

  16. says

    Another good post. Karen Armstrong has been an enigma to me. I guess I’m just too much of a rationalist to see the appeal of mysticism. I get the affective part of human nature – the stuff that makes us laugh, cry, love, etc. I just don’t think that mysticism is an essential part of the affective experience; it’s rich enough without adding a layer of hooey to it.

  17. says

    “And I was struck, not just by how bad and tired Armstrong’s arguments were, but by the degree to which they were entirely focused on trying to get atheists to shut up. I was struck — as I am often struck lately — by how much anti-atheist rhetoric has been focusing, not on why the case for atheism is incorrect or inconsistent or unsupported by the evidence, but on why atheists are bad people for making our case at all.”
    Somewhere on the Internets, I was told — with what I think was the electronic equivalent of a straight face — that atheists, skeptics and advocates of science education should not criticize Twilight, because that would alienate a large, available demographic.

  18. says

    “I mean, attacking atheists by saying “Hey, physicists get a sense of awe and wonder from the universe even if they can’t answer all its questions, y’know!” is kind of like attacking Brer Rabbit by throwing him in the briar patch.”
    Another thing I’ll probably never understand about people is how a theist accuses atheists of arrogance — “You think you have all the answers!” — and then, in the next breath, turns around and claims to have a personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe. I’ve seen this happen, but it leaves me puzzled, which I guess just goes to show that my precious science can’t explain everything yet.
    (Or does admitting that make me not a real atheist?)

  19. says

    Armstrong makes a bizarre assertion in her recent WSJ article — that through most of history, God has been a symbol, and that only with the advent of modern philosophy did people start believing in a physically existing deity.
    This is so absurd as to demand immediate dismissal of Armstrong’s ideas as quackery, but for some reason, she gets to put her opinion next to Richard Dawkins’ in one of the country’s most popular papers.
    As for the rest, you’ve hit it on the head. Armstrong’s arguments are (like every anti-atheist argument I’ve ever heard) tired, limp, and not worthy of refutation.
    The thing is, we have to keep refuting her and her ilk. I get where she’s coming from — she’s an ex-nun, I believe — and she grew up in a universe where humans need “something greater.” I know that it’s a shocking paradigm shift to re-examine everything we believe without the umbrella of “greater purpose.” But the irony is that Karen and others like her are functioning on emotion. They really, really want for atheism to be a bad idea because they really, really want religion to be good for you. And that’s really all they’ve got. They just have to find ways to make their emotion seem intellectual.

  20. JL says

    But I do think some atheists aren’t careful about distinguishing between critiquing ideas and behavior on the one hand, and insulting individuals on the other.
    Yes, this. I think Greta understands what I was getting at.
    As Greta said, atheists attack all sorts of believers, from Armstrong to Falwell.
    No, atheists (ideally – if this were reality, I would have had no cause to make my previous comment) attack all sorts of beliefs. This is an important distinction.
    And while we don’t want to imply that they are just as bad as each other, I don’t believe it is out of bounds to argue that they both have the same evidence for their God.
    And I never said otherwise. I’m arguing against arrogance, condescension, racism, the silence libel, straw men, support of societal bigotry, gratuitous insult. I’m not arguing against making our case to moderates (probably more useful than doing it to extremists), or against arguing that moderates are wrong.
    I’m a fan of the idea of different groups using different tones and tactics, but that doesn’t mean that I think all possible tones and tactics are ethical or useful.
    I am also not against all connection of moderate religion to fundamentalist religion, but I think it has its limits. There is a world of difference between pointing out to a moderate that some members of their religion’s hierarchy are doing bad things and their dues are supporting it, or that some point of their faith bears resemblance to a fundamentalist’s point of faith, and saying that some Islamist terrorists did bad things, therefore all Muslims are bad. The latter was the sort of thing that I was complaining about when I complained that some atheists use the actions of extremists to tar moderates. Sorry if that was unclear.

  21. Liz Highleyman says

    “we don’t really believe anything that you have demonstrated to be absurd…while anyone is watching”
    …or until someone gets sick or dies…

  22. GOD says

  23. says

    “[R]educing God to a metaphor (or a ‘symbol,’ as Armstrong puts it)” isn’t “reducing religion to a philosophy,” it’s elevating religion to a philosophy. I don’t often quote Ayn Rand, but her assessment of religion as “a primitive form of philosophy” rings true.
    In addition, Armstrong’s comment about “the latest discussions and the new insights of biblical scholarship” sounds like a variant of the ploy known as The Courtier’s Reply…

  24. Ian Darling says

    To be fair to Karen Armstrong she does include a Dawkins quote which DOES rather sound like he thinks that without religion the world would be a much better place.
    I can see the point that Armstrong’s own position would radically alienate very many religious believers -but that is surely part of her point that both radical atheism and religious fundamentalism are products of modernity and that all of the major religions have theoligies that are far more profound.The likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris do need to try to become more theologically literate-however tedious that process might be to them.Without such literacy surely a lot of new atheist anger is no more than rant?

  25. says

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