Tuesday, September 15, 2015

An Atheist rebuttal to "5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist"

An article came across my news feed lately entitled “5 Ways to be a Better Atheist” by Michael Patton. I initially thought that the article is either a lesson in critical thinking or a rant against anti-theism.  Typically I check the source before I read something, this time I did not.  It is a happy accident though, because the article has become popular in theistic circles, so I feel as if I must address it as a reference to not only atheists, but also skeptically minded theists.  “Five Ways…” is written by a theist in judgement of atheists.  Imagine if an Atheist wrote such an absurd list as “5 Ways to be a Better Christian.” I can almost hear the theistic outrage now! 

The introduction to the article claims that “Atheism is suffering.” He is writing his article to theists and is only pandering to their emotions.  By claiming that Atheism is suffering, Patton is trying to allay theist fears that they are losing some sort of battle for the souls of man. Furthermore, he claims that New Atheism is evangelical in its nature.  Not quite.  In all fairness, some New Atheists have used the word evangelical – trying to spread the word as it were – but most New Atheists would say they are activists, not evangelicals.  Why the distinction?  Most New Atheists (that is all except for the extremists – all movements have their crackpots) couldn’t care less what you believe, so long as you do not force others to those beliefs.  If you want to believe that that a certain day of the week is special, fine, good for you.  But do not force businesses to close down that day.  If you want to believe that the universe was created in 6 days, fine, good for you.  But, until you can prove it though verifiable and measurable means, do not insist that it is taught as science in schools.

And now for the laundry list:

Claim One: Atheists must make more concessions.

Patton asserts that Atheists must stop making certain claims.  The first is that there is no evidence for god.  Well, there isn’t, and no a religion’s sacred texts do not count.  To claim that a certain sacred text is exclusively accurate without allowing the claims in the text to be scrutinized is the fallacy of special pleading.  This is true for not only material claims (the age of the earth, resurrection etc. but also for moral and historical claims.  A case in point is that there is debate among historians as to whether Socrates was a real person, or a literary device for Plato.  The evidence for Socrates is stronger than that for Jesus (THIS PAGE covers the comparison of evidence quite thoroughly). Briefly, there are three sources for Socrates that were written in his lifetime, the earliest sources for Jesus were written over 50 years after his death, and by non-witnesses. To compound the problem, many “official” books of the Bible have been added to centuries after the earliest copies.  In other words, later authors forged parts of the books.

According to Patton, Atheists must stop saying theism is irrational.  No. We must not. When you hold a belief based on faith and not evidence, you are being the very definition of irrational.  Faith is incompatible with reason.  I will not go further into the matter here, as I have already covered the material in my response to R.R. Reno’s view on critical thinking HERE and in my video on faith HERE.

Next he tackles the correlation between education and Atheism.  Studies show (here’s a few The Independent, Barna, Medical Daily) that the more educated a person is, the more likely that they are an Atheist. This is also true not only of populations within a country, but among nations themselves (most educated countries, most Atheistic countries)  Patton tries to counter these studies by saying that there are many highly intelligent people that are Christian.  This is true.  It is also true that there are those who are as dumb as a box of rocks that are Atheist.  But he misses the point.  The point is that highly educated people are also well versed in critical thinking.  Religions are often found wanting when challenged with the words “prove it”.  Saying that, there are still those that find comfort in the rituals of religion, in the promise of seeing loved ones after death.  No one faults them for holding on to those desires.  But when they try to justify their beliefs through reason, even the most intelligent of people may buy into their own bullshit. 

James Randi, aka the Amazing Randi, is a mentalist and a magician.  For decades he wowed audiences with seemingly supernatural powers until he became fed up with charlatans who were practicing the same tricks to convince people that they had “real” supernatural powers.  So, Randi picked up where Harry Houdini left off, and began exposing these charlatans for what they were (Randi’s expose of Uri Geller).  Randi has offered a million dollar prize (JREF) to anyone who can perform supernatural feats under laboratory conditions.  So far, no one has been able to.  There have been scientists who have claimed to find evidence of ESP or telekinesis, but once Randi’s people evaluated the studies, the ruse was exposed.  The scientists were not the ones trying to con Randi, but it was their subjects that conned the scientists!  Why?  Magic tricks are not a part of science curriculum.  You see, nature does not lie, it does not try to con us; only people do that.  The scientists lacked the proper training in mentalism and the art of illusion.  So even a highly intelligent person, a highly trained skeptic can fall for a ruse.  That’s one of the dangers of having an open mind: those well versed in grift can take advantage of you.  And sometimes we want to believe something so badly, that we twist logic and reason any way we can in order to hold those beliefs.

Patton claims that by not relenting to theistic claims of evidence,the Atheist is committing intellectual suicide.  On the surface, he is correct.  However, what he fails to understand, is that when Atheists are being “dismissive” of theistic claims of evidence rooted in sacred texts, miracles, prophesy, etc. they are dismissive because such things are conjecture not evidence.  Evidence is corroborative, verifiable, and falsifiable.  That means that more than one source can produce the results, that the results can be repeatable, and that there are conditions that, if met, would render the evidence as false.  However, when backed into an intellectual corner, the theist often pleads that if the Atheist only had faith they would understand.  The fallacy of appeal to faith is the last refuge of the theist.  To which, I will invoke Hitchens’ Razor in the late, great Christopher Hitchens’ own words, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

Lastly, Patton, says that there is evidence for god, and we must concede that point.  Go back to the beginning of this post and click the link to Patton’s article.  Read the bit where he says there’s evidence.  Notice something missing?  Yep, this supposed evidence.  Now naturally, his article is not about presenting such evidence but he could have at least listed some types of evidence, or arguments, or even a link or two to those arguments.  Alas, he does not.  He asserts there is evidence for god, but fails to include that evidence.  

However, I would wager dollars to doughnuts that the majority of the evidence has been thoroughly debunked, most of which was so centuries ago.  Here’s the thing, if you make an argument for something and that argument is shown to not only be invalid, but the counter argument is shown to be valid, then your argument is no longer evidence.  Since Patton has not listed is supposed evidence I cannot disprove it.  However, I have already addressed the most common theistic apologetics here, which may include what Patton would consider his “evidence”.

In conclusion to this first little bit, I will say that all ideas must be challenged.  Personally, I care too much about people to allow unfounded, untrue, and often malicious ideas contribute to their misery.  This is doubly true when their false ideas contribute to someone else’s misery.  So no.  No concessions will be made by me or anyone else that place their fellow humans above any notions of imaginary sky-daddies.

Claim 2: The Flying Spaghetti Monster

At first I was going to gloss over this one, because it is silly.  Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Patton, and quite possibly many of his like-minded cohorts are actually scared of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM).  For those who have not heard of the FSM, he is from a children’s book that is written much like the bible, about a deity, the FSM and the religion that follows him.  It’s silly. It’s cute. It is an illustration on how silly the claims of other religions are when viewed outside that religion.  And what I think gets the goat of most theists is when a non-believer in their brand of woo-woo points out that their little religion looks just as ridiculous to the non-believer as the FSM does to them.  No one that follows the FSM think it’s real, it is just fun make believe, but the theists are taking it seriously!

Patton makes it clear that he takes the threat of the FSM seriously when he tries to get philosophical to counter FSM claims.  He claims to be able to invalidate (remember, he is trying to invalidate something that the fans of it say is fiction) the FSM through a two-step process. First, Patton brings up the specter of the necessary being.  It is a tired philosophical concept that it is necessary that some being caused the very first event in cosmic history; an uncaused cause if you will.  This idea is found in the Teleological and Cosmological arguments which are addressed, again, in my God Arguments page.
Secondly, and if we were being intellectually honest, we would say that Patton is still stuck on the first part, he says that there is no historical basis for it.  ALL religions are stuck on this step.  The reason that anthropologists, sociologists etc. are the least religious scholars is that these fields have not only studied various religions, but have even seen the historical record and archaeological evidence of when religions and deities were invented, borrowed and developed.

Claim 3: Admit the weakness of their position

Patton is getting slick with this one.  He makes an indirect ad hominem on Atheists by claiming that those Atheists who publicly debate are similar to used-car salesmen: they dress nice, so they MUST be hiding something!  He then says that we Atheists must admit that our position is a “weak” one (implying his is the “strong” one.) The basis for his assertion is that Atheism cannot explain any basis for morals or existence itself. 

Ok, first, Atheism is not a belief system.  Atheism is simply the lack of belief in any gods.  That is all.  Atheism doesn’t HAVE to explain anything because it is a baseline position.  But, since Patton brought it up, are there any secular theories to morals or existence?  Why, yes.  Yes there is.  There is a whole field of philosophical study (it’s called ethics, by the way) that deals with morality.  As to why there’s something instead of nothing, I say, why not?  Assuredly, science is working on it, and there are some hypotheses as to why we have a universe.  But it is a complex matter and one that cannot accept the lazy-man’s answer: god did it.  You see, if you want to posit an idea as to why there is something rather than nothing, you must prove it.  Claiming one deity or another and resting on it is intellectually lazy, and fraudulent.

Claim 4: Atheists must be more open-minded

Patton claims that Atheists are necessarily closed-minded. He pleads that Atheists cannot claim to be open-minded because Atheists reject religion. When I first read this, I thought, “Oh, he just doesn’t understand what open-minded means.” Now that I’ve read it again, I’m not only sure he doesn’t, but I’m also sure he doesn’t fully understand his own argument. Patton claims that Atheism is so married to naturalism that Atheists cannot think outside the box. Again, Atheism is only a lack of belief in gods. Most Buddhists are Atheists, as are Jains. And yet, they do believe in non-naturalistic things. Again Patton’s attack on Atheism is really an attack on secular skepticism (Skepticism with a capital ‘S’ as it is a sort of movement that fits exactly what Patton is raging against). When a Skeptic says to be open minded, they mean to not clutch your beliefs so tightly that when faced with evidence that nullifies those beliefs, you are incapable of revising your beliefs. The Skeptic uses reason and empirical evidence as their basis for knowledge because it fucking works! Language and math operate on the same logic, in fact the field of Propositional Calculus does just that: it turns logical, linguistic statement into math so computers can compute.  

What people like Patton cannot stand, is that there is no room for faith at the table of reason. Faith is accepting something to be true (believing in it) without evidence.  This is the antithesis of reason!  Now, the most popular theistic dodge to this criticism is that theists do not base their faith on a lack of evidence, but rather on evidence, such as personal revelation, miracles and fulfilled prophecies.  I've already tackled why these do not count as evidence in my god videos.  The video on prophecy and miracles is here, which leaves personal revelation.  It is not evidence. Accepting something on someone's say so is not good evidence of any sort.  It is not that they are lying, though that may be the case, but it is well known that eye-witness accounts are not reliable (even for cops). Not to mention that while an eye witness account of an event will more than likely have corroborating physical evidence, a report of someone's feelings on something, or the voices in their head are most likely attributable to various psychological states, not on the super natural.  One last thing that gets the preachers, used-car salesmen, kings, and other con-men upset with the rejection of faith as evidence, is that THEY have to prove what they say too.  They do not have the authority to dictate "truth."  Take that power away, and they have none.  No religion has ever been able to withstand the words, 'prove it.'  What Patton cannot comes to grips with, is that neither can he prove it.

Another interesting thing, is that many theists will try to commit an amphiboly by interchanging two separate meanings of the word faith to show that their religion is "true."  They will mix the meaning, 'belief without evidence' with other meanings of the word, be it a synonym for some other emotional state like hope or 'confidence', or they will use the synonym 'religion'. I won’t go into it more here, I've already covered faith in the following video, here, and argued against R.R. Reno's idea of using faith instead of reason in education here.

Claim 5: Stop saying Atheism is just a lack of belief in gods.

Oops.  I think I've fully violated that one.  The reason why Patton says this, is because he is convinced that Atheism is more than that.  He makes a claim that the reason why Atheists say that Atheism is a lack of belief is because Atheists are trying to avoid the burden of proof.  There are a couple of things going on here.  The first, is that the reason why no one claims to be a-leprechuanist or a-Thorist is because leprechaun and Thor are not Greek words (though Atheism includes a-Thorists). Secondly, and again, Patton is nor raging against Atheism, but Skepticism.  Now, it is true that many Atheists in the US come to it through Skepticism, but they are not the same thing.  In fact, the man who argued for modern skepticism was very devout indeed!  Rene Descartes formulated the principal of doubt as a starting point to figure out how we could ever know anything. 

Before Descartes, new knowledge was mashed with old preconceptions, and it the new did not fit, it was often rejected.  Copernicus had this problem, as did Galileo, with the authorities at that time.  Descartes said that to gain new knowledge it is best to begin from a state of utter doubt, and let the evidence guide our conclusions.  This one principle has guided scientific inquiry for the past 400 years.  This one principle is the foundation that led to discoveries that feed the world, that prevent and cure disease that got us to the moon.  Now, as devout as Descartes was, he began from is principle of doubt and arrived at a "necessary, and good god" conclusion.  But, that was due to certain assumptions that can easily be argued away today.

So, since Patton is confused on what Atheism is, and he is actually arguing against Skepticism…

What Patton is trying to get at is that people need a world view and that Atheism is a part of it.  He is basically making a Red HerringFallacy, by misusing the term Atheism to distract what he is really against: world views other than his own. While he is correct that Atheism is a part of an Atheist's world view, Atheism itself is not a world view.  Patton proposes the following questions are necessary to answer to have a world view:
• Is there such a thing as morality?
• Does man have free will?
• Why is there something rather than nothing?
• What is the basis for rationality?
For each of these questions, Atheism is an irrelevant concept; meaning that the concept of Atheism does not answer the question. 

Question: "Is there such a thing as morality?"

Answer: "A lack of belief in gods"

See, it doesn’t fit.  So then what is he getting at?  He is railing against modern philosophy and science, which are beginning to answer those questions in a manner that is more in touch with reality than the authoritarian mandates of religion. 

Can Skeptical inquiry answer such questions?  Let us consider some questions then (note: these questions are far from exhaustive):

Is there such a thing as morality?  A skeptic would ask such questions:  What is morality?  Is it universal or not?  Can morality be determined either philosophically or through the eyes of science, say evolution, or sociology?

Does man have free will?  A skeptic would start with, "what IS free will?"  Is free will even possible?  Then the Skeptic would tackle the problem if man has it.

Why is there something rather than nothing?  A skeptic would begin thusly: What do we mean by nothing?  Is nothing even possible?  Does the original question, itself, have any real meaning?

What is the basis for rationality?  The skeptic would then ask, "What is logic?"  What does it mean to know?  How do we know if we know?  What is the best way to use knowledge to find new knowledge?  Can we use knowledge to find knowledge?

Again, the questions above are far from exhaustive, and many a career in philosophy has been made just focusing on one set of questions above.  So, why not just use some sort of variation of "god did it" To answer the above questions?  Because then you would have to prove two things: One that there is in fact a god (more specifically your god) and two, you would have to prove that god did, in fact, do it.  It is the same burden of proof that ANYONE has when trying to answer the above questions.  Do Atheists have the same burden of proof to answer the above? Of course they do.  But, Atheism does not, as it is a concept with a singular meaning and it is a meaning that has nothing to do with explaining anything other than a singular person's acceptance of any gods.

Modern philosophy and science are used more and more to answer the above questions and people are relying less and less on religion for those answers.  Religion is losing its special status, its power, and the shamans of the world's religions are fighting to keep their power.  

The closing remarks of Patton’s diatribe against Atheism is another ad hominem against Atheists.  But, he did offer to pray for us.  I think I can speak for many Atheists by saying, “keep praying.  Want to try to convert us? Stay at home and pray for us.  Want to spread the word at a school?  Stay and home and pray that your god will reveal himself.  Is it the second Tuesday in November?  For the love of democracy, stay at home and pray!”

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