Friday, October 9, 2015
Walter Mitty atheism
While writing up my recent post on Jerry Coyne’s defense of his fellow New Atheist Lawrence Krauss, I thought: “Why can’t these guys be more like Keith Parsons and Jeff Lowder?” (Many readers will recall the very pleasant and fruitful exchange which, at Jeff’s kind invitation, Keith and I had not too long ago at The Secular Outpost.) As it happens, Jeff has now commented on my exchange with Coyne. Urging his fellow atheists not to follow Coyne’s example, Jeff writes:
If I were to sum up Feser’s reply in one word, it would be, “Ouch!” I think Feser’s reply is simply devastating to Coyne and I found myself in agreement with most of his points.
As Jeff also writes:
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, that often the same atheists who are so dismissive of theism tend to use such awful arguments and objections against it. In a sense, this is understandable. If you’ve concluded that belief X is not only false but stupid or even irrational, then you’re unlikely to spend much if any time trying to understand the best arguments for X.
Now, the irony of this situation is that in every attempt to justify their dismissive attitude toward theism, New Atheists like Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins and myriad others only ever succeed in demonstrating conclusively that that dismissive attitude is unjustified. For you cannot rationally reject a position, dismissively or not, unless you first understand what it is. And every time they open their mouths, these New Atheists show that they very badly misunderstand the central claims of, and arguments for, theism. Indeed, it is amazing how the very same crude misunderstandings recur again and again and again, even after they have been patiently, clearly, and repeatedly explained.
Consider, for example, that Coyne and I first had an exchange on the subject of cosmological arguments for God’s existence over four years ago. Coyne claimed at the time that he really wanted to know what the best arguments for theism are, and insisted that he was “dead serious here, and not looking for sarcastic answers.” I recommended that he study the arguments of Aquinas, with the help of some serious commentators who could explain the metaphysical background to the arguments. (Unsurprisingly, I recommended my own book Aquinas, though I also cited some other authors.) Coyne said he would do so. Very soon thereafter I posted an article explaining in detail the various common misunderstandings of cosmological arguments, including the versions of the argument presented by Aquinas. I explained, for example, why the argument does not rest on the premise that “everything has a cause”; why, accordingly, the argument does not make of God some arbitrary exception to a general rule; why the argument nevertheless does not make of God a brute fact who just exists without any explanation (since not all explanations are causes); why versions of the argument like the ones defended by Aquinas and Leibniz (and by me, for that matter) are not concerned to show that the universe had a beginning; and so forth. Coyne commented on that article. In the course of doing so, he accused me of “intellectual dishonesty” -- on utterly preposterous grounds, as I showed here. But if Coyne himself is as intellectually honest as he would like us to think, he presumably read the article before commenting on it. In which case he would know that the kind of cosmological arguments I defend do not argue for a temporal beginning of the universe, do not rest on the premise that “everything has a cause,” do not make of God a brute fact who just exists without explanation, etc.
Flash forward four years to our current exchange. As I noted in my recent response to Coyne, despite all the back and forth of four years ago, despite his purportedly “dead serious” intention to find out what the best arguments really say, despite his commitment to study Aquinas in particular -- despite all that, he still falsely attributes to me a version of the cosmological argument that “insist[s] that that world had to have a beginning,” and still falsely attributes to me the thesis that God is “just there” without explanation!
But it is worse even than that. Even after my recent response to Coyne appeared, he posted a further comment in his combox still asserting -- wait for it -- that my “main argument… is that everything has a ‘cause’” and that I “rely on everything having a cause -- except God” (!) And he said this in reply to an atheist reader who complained about atheists like Coyne misrepresenting what theists really say!
Could it get worse even than that? Well, on Jerry Coyne’s blog it sure can, and it does. In yet another post two days later, Coyne claimed that the cosmological argument’s answer to the question “Why does God exist?” is: “He just does,” without explanation (!) This despite the fact that -- as I explained in my response to him just days before (and as I explained in my exchange with him four years ago) -- that is precisely the opposite of what Aristotelian, Thomist, Leibnizian, and other defenders of the argument actually say! And when a reader pointed out in Coyne’s combox that this is a caricature of the argument, Coyne banned him from posting any further (purportedly on the grounds that the reader was being rude)!
Needless to say, there is something truly pathological going on here. And that, by the way, is one reason Coyne, Krauss, and company are worth at least a little of our attention. Some readers have asked me why I bother replying to people who are so extremely irrational and dishonest, and therefore unlikely to respond well to serious criticism. Part of the reason is that though Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and many of their fans are indeed impervious to rational argumentation, there are onlookers who are not impervious to it. And those people are reachable and worth trying to reach. After all, Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and some of the other better known New Atheists are, though irrational and dishonest, not stupid. In their own fields, some of them even do interesting work. For that reason, some people who know as little about philosophy and theology as they do but who are rational and honest might falsely suppose that these New Atheists must have something important to say about those particular subjects. Hence it is useful now and again to expose Coyne et al. for the frauds that they are, so that well-meaning third parties will see that they are not to be taken seriously on philosophical and theological questions. The more they make fools of themselves, the more they should be discussed rather than ignored, at least so long as there is any intellectually honest person who still somehow thinks the New Atheism is anything but a bad joke.
Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities. Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit. And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence. They exhibit exactly the sort of stubborn, bigoted closed-mindedness and ignorance that they smugly condemn when they perceive it in others. What exactly is going on here? What makes these weird people tick? That is a question of real intellectual interest.
The answer, I would suggest, is sentimentality. I use the word in a semi-technical sense, following the analysis offered in The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton (who was in turn building on some ideas of Michael Tanner). A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.
For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental. “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him. What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!” His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue. His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers. This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it. Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people. Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.
Now, the New Atheism, I submit, is exactly like this. The New Atheist talks, constantly and loudly, about reason, science, evidence, facts, being “reality-based,” etc. Equally constantly and loudly, he decries dogmatism, ignorance, wishful thinking, whatever is merely “faith-based,” etc. And he relentlessly denounces “religious” people, whom, he imagines, are central casting exemplars of the latter vices. But it is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him. Nor is he really moved by what religious people actually think. After all, he not only doesn’t trouble himself to find out what they actually think, but often will expend great energy trying to rationalize his refusal to find out what they actually think. (Consider e.g. P.Z. Myers’ shamelessly question-begging “Courtier’s reply” dodge.) Rather, what moves him is the self-righteous delight he takes in his belief in his intellectual and moral superiority over “religious” people. His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.
Here too, we have a kind of moralistic onanism which requires a rich fantasy life to support it. Finding out what thinkers like Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. actually said would completely destroy the fantasy, because they simply don’t fit the New Atheist’s caricature of religion. Hence the New Atheist nourishes his imagination instead with made-up examples of purportedly theistic ideas and argumentation, which he typically derives from reading other New Atheist writers rather than by reading what religious thinkers themselves have written. He repeatedly calls these examples to mind when he wants to reassure himself of the stupidity of religious people and of his superiority over them -- especially when he encounters some religious opponent who doesn’t seem to fit his stereotype. He thinks: “First cause arguments start from the premise that ‘everything has a cause’; all such arguments founder on their inability to answer the challenge ‘What caused God?’; theism is incompatible with science, or at least presupposes outdated science; theism always ultimately rests on appeals to faith, or the Bible, or emotion…” and so forth. None of this is true, and it is all easily refuted simply by consulting the actual writings of religious thinkers. But the New Atheist is able to keep himself from seeing this by translating everything an opponent says into something he pulls from his mental bag of clichés about “what theists think.”
Hence, in response to my recent articles about Krauss and Coyne, we have Coyne saying the Bizarro-world things cited above. We have an irate Krauss fan asking: “Why do you believe in God? Because the Bible told you to, right?” We have one of Coyne’s readers saying: “I'll admit I haven't read your entire response to Jerry here” -- and then going on nevertheless to attribute to me outdated scientific ideas I not only have never endorsed, but have many times explicitly rejected. We have other Coyne readers simply refusing to get over their fixation on the stupid “Everything has a cause” argument that no philosopher or theologian has ever defended, even in the face of other, more sober atheist readers’ begging them to stop attacking this straw man. We have Krauss, in the New Yorker article to which I replied in Public Discourse, deluding himself into thinking that it is his impoliteness, rather than his incompetence, that prompts other atheists to criticize him. We have the breathtaking chutzpah of Coyne accusing, not just critics of the New Atheism, but even atheist critics of the New Atheism, of “distortion” of the New Atheists’ views.
It is as if these people are so lost in their delusions that they literally cannot see what is really there on the page or the computer screen in front of them. All they can see is the New Atheist Fantasyland they’ve constructed, where every ticket is a scarlet-A-for-atheist ticket, and Coyne and Co. keep going on the same rides over and over and over again. The New Atheists like to think that they win every argument, and indeed they do, though only in the way Walter Mitty wins every battle.