Thursday, June 06, 2013

Response to Brian Blais

A physicist by the name of Brian Blais recently critiqued the comments I made in debate several years ago with Barry Duke, on the Unbelievable radio show in London. 

In most cases, Brian begins with a summary or quote of my comments, then offers his own critical comments.  He refers to the cartoon to the right below; let's set it here, to set the tone of his historical-forgetful style remarks from the start. 

Again, to keep things clear, I put my critic's words in dark green, my own previous comments in brown, and comments by others in purple.    

(A) David – Critical of evolution on social development of religion. Dennett believes that if you can explain religion then you can “explain it away”.

Me – What is the difference between explaining something and explaining it away? I’d say this is just model-comparison with different words. When you have something, like a UFO sighting, and then someone explains it with mundane events, like a trick of the lights, that is typically described as explaining it away – you’ve replaced an extraordinary explanation with one that is more plausible. This is what Dennett typically does – he demonstrates a more plausible description of how certain religious behaviors and experiences can arise from more mundane phenomena. In this way, explaining it is explaining it “away”. It’s just that people who believe the extraordinary explanation don’t like the mundane explanation, so the term “explaining away” has negative connotations for them.

Blais is following his own train of thought here, rather than rebut my opinion. My view (though I don't recall now if this was exactly what I said on Justin Brierly's program) is that Dennett attempts to "explain religion away" by telling how it arose historically or psychologically, but that his attempt fails.  Dennett fails, in part, by overlooking or ignoring important areas of data.   My Amazon review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena, is entitled "Amateur Hour," because on this subject, Dennett does not seem to know enough even to ask the right questions.  A person ignorant of a phenomena is going to have a hard time explaining that phenomena away: the best you could hope for would be a few wild guesses, a few reductionistic mumblings that largely miss the mark.  And that's what happens in this case, in summary:

I see four major problems with Dennett's argument. First, he knows very little about religion. Second, he simply ignores most of the contrary data. Third, often his "new ideas" actually echo orthodox Christian insights, of which he appears entirely ignorant. And fourth, he overlooks a key phenomena -- awareness of God in primitive cultures.

(B) Justin -  Religion more harm than good? That attitude seems to be new. Also, this “militant atheism“. Is it just against fundamentalism?

Me - When I hear the term “militant atheist” I can’t help but think of this cartoon. (Note: Brian links the cartoon at top.)  If you compare what you think of with the term “Miltant Islamist” with “Militant Atheist”, it is quite clear there is a double-standard at work. The only “militant” part of atheists, even the most dogmatic ones, is that they have forceful arguments.

That certainly isn't it.  As many observers have noted, if anything distinguishes this new crop of atheists, it is the weakness of their arguments. 

What causes us to call them "militant," rather, is the refusal to admit the vast amount of good that the Judeo-Christian tradition has accomplished, a determination to dig up dirt even on Mother Teresa (by Christopher Hitchens, widely praised among Gnus), Richard Dawkins' infamous comments comparing teaching kids the Bible to child abuse, the general tone of almost everyone who posts in places like Pharyngula when they really go after someone . . . Those of us who have been on the receiving end, recognize the appropriateness of the term.

As for the cartoon (above), it ought to shame any historically-aware atheist.  The fact of the matter is, even if we forget Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, and that hell-hole called North Korea, all creations of "militant atheists" (in the Soviet Union, they even called one gang the League of Militant Atheists -- that was their term), have more people been killed by angry Christian terrorists per Christian in recent years, or by angry atheist terrorists?  Timothy McVeigh was an agnostic, that would count when atheists take census for the purpose of expanding their ranks.  The Unabomber appears to have been an atheist.  The Tamil Tigers, who do more of this sort of thing than almost anyone, may be as well, according to this report (I'm not that familiar with the group's ideology, myself).

The Tamil Tigers have been influenced by a Marxist/Leninist ideology which is largely atheistic and disavow any connection with the Hinduism practiced by many of the people the  region of Sri Lanka where they operate.

One thing I have to say for Barry Duke, is he was willing to dialogue, even though he really had suffered abuse in South Africa, as a gay man.  Duke had strong opinions, but they seemed as if they were from the heart, not just knee-jerk fanaticism, that seems so common in Gnu circles, and that is exemplified by that grossly hypocritical, historically forgetful, and self-congratulatory cartoon. 

(Note: two readers below helpfully point to this historical accounting of Christian martyrdom, which shows, among many other things, that atheists have murdered more Christians than any other religious group.) 

(C) Barry – No. There is a general feeling that enough is enough or we will get railroaded by religion in government, education, etc… The new atheists want to galvanize those people who are effectively non-believers, bring them to the stand and we can then effect political change.

David – It’s ironic not to have religion in the marketplace of ideas or in education. The university was a religious idea itself. Christianity has informed society mostly for the good. Separation of church and state is a Christian idea.

Me – I believe he is referring to Mark 12:17 – “Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.”. There is a long way from that to “separation of church and state”. If the separation was truly was a Christian idea, then I’d expect a totally different European history from 0 AD to 1700 AD! What a ridiculous claim.

Again, Blais picks on a minor point in support of a major point, bypassing the major point -- as one can do on one's blog.  Christianity ought to be part of the dialogue, including on university campuses.  Ironic, if secularists shout us down and justify it with past intolerance. 

But Blais is again not being reasonable about that history, either.  First of all, Christians didn't attain much power until almost 400 AD.  And secondly, the world in which Christians then attained power had fixed political structures, which transformed Christianity about as much as Christianity changed them.  It is anachronistic to judge the 5th Century by what humanity has figured out since. 

The record is mixed between 400 and 1700.  Brian Tierney tells the complex and fascinating story through primary documents in The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, which actually begins earlier than that.  But the vast majority of Christians have lived since 1700.  And a large percentage have lived in free societies which Judeo-Christian culture created, towards the end of the evolution Tierney chronicles.  Even if Christians have often failed to create a very tolerant society, that would hardly render it a "ridiculous claim" to say "separation of church and state is a Christian idea!"  The Jewish historian of Islam Bernard Lewis cites that very passage to explain one of the differences between Islam and Christianity.  Jesus' words "My kingdom is not of this world" is another important text. 

Jesus also said, "Forgive your enemies."  The claim that this, too, is a Christian idea, is not rendered "ridiculous" by the fact that Christians have often actually cursed and even killed, rather than forgiving, their enemies.  An idea can be a Christian idea, can even come from Jesus' mouth, without thereby determining all subsequent Christian history.  Blais seems to be calling my claim about what Jesus taught "ridiculous," by appealing to negative stereotypes of subsequent Christian history -- a bad argument, even if the historical premises were as Blais (rather simplistically) assumes. 

(D) Barry – Slavery was supported by Christians and then brought down by some Christians.

David – Slavery is a natural idea and has been part of nearly all civilizations. Christians have undermined slavery from early on, not directly but indirectly. Beginning in the fourth century slaves were set free so that by the eleventh century there were areas of western Europe free of slaves. This was not imposed on the rest of society. Sixty percent of anti-slave organizers were Christian pastors.

Me – It is faint praise indeed that the best you can say about the Christian stance on slavery, historically, is that some slaves were freed so that 700 years later (!!!) some small areas in the world, that didn’t feel that they needed slaves anymore, didn’t have slaves. Again, the Bible is quite clear on its perspective with respect to slavery – it either commands it or condones it, both Old and New Testament. There is never even a hint of condemnation for the practice.

Faint praise?  Tens of millions of slaves have been freed, due to the abolitionist movements that began with praying Christians. 

Blais' comments are rather hard to understand.  I show that liberating slaves has been an important part of Christian social reform almost from the beginning here

I'm not sure what Blais means by "quite clear," either.  Most biblical scholars would say the Bible is not that clear on slavery.  It is clear the New Testament condemns the slave trade, though.  It is clear Paul told Philemon he should accept Onesimus back "no longer as a slave, but as a dear brother."  And it ought be clear that "loving your neighbor as yourself" is pretty hard to do if you put chains around your neighbor's neck. 

But it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the Bible to launch a crusade against slavery from the get-go.  Slavery was not, in fact, an unambiguous evil in the ancient world: the alternative (as in Herodotus, and even in Homer) was often to just kill enemy soldiers (or even civilians) whom you captured.  What the Bible did, was slowly create a society, and a set of moral ideals, that made slavery less and less important, and liberation of slaves more and more admirable, even while glorifying labor, and enriching ordinary workers.  (As Stark and others show happened throughout the "Dark Ages" into the Medieval world, and beyond.)  That created the basis for truly free societies to emerge. 

(E) Gordon – Concerns about Intelligent Design (ID) in the classroom.

David – The ID people just want to have an open forum to discuss their ideas and that it is legitimate to question scientific ideas, even parts of evolution. That ID isn’t a problem most of the time, the issues often exaggerated. I don’t see it as standing in the way of any science or progress currently.

Me- David’s view of ID is completely at odds with the facts on the ground about the movement. The clearest description of this was the Judges ruling in the Dover PA case. Here ID had a chance to present its best arguments to a jury, and was found wanting at every level. From the Wikipedia page: “The ruling concluded that intelligent design is not science, and permanently barred the board from “maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID.”" The full ruling showed the ID proponents for what they are: a group of people who do not shirk from lying and distortions to achieve their religious-motivated goals.

Harsh language.  It is strange, yet again, to see a scientist citing a judge, who himself mostly copied from the plaintiffs, to establish the alleged non-scientific character of a set of claims. 

I dare say I probably know more about ID and origins that Judge Jones did.  But I don't go around citing myself on this subject.  That would be absurd.  But Gnu scientists never seem embarrassed at this ridiculous ploy. 

As for "lying," the charge grows tedious.  New Atheists are so eager with this charge -- even against C. S. Lewis, recently, and often against me -- one just wishes they would choose to argue like adults, frankly.   

(F) Justin. Do you believe that raising a child as religious is child abuse?

Barry. There are rare cases where this is definitely a problem. In my own case I was beaten in South Africa for not participating in Christian rituals.

Gordon. My daughter is six years old, and was upset one day when she was told off by a teacher. She said “We all have to say grace, and I didn’t say it.” Then the lady in the lunch room pushed her head down and said “Say your prayers!”

David. Entirely on Barry and Gordon’s side. However, in the US it has been shown that going to church makes people in ghettos less likely in crime. Yes, there are people who use Christianity to abuse people, but this goes against what the gospels say.

Me – I certainly would not call all religious education “child abuse”. Corporal punishment (Biblically motivated, or otherwise), yes. Psychological torture (Biblically motivated, or otherwise), yes. Raising a child to call themselves Christian, not. As for the benefits, I am interested in the truth. I imagine that the reduced-crime benefits described would come from any kind of group membership, regardless of its religious or secular affiliation. It does not speak to the specific truth of Christianity.

Fair enough.  Though I'm a little curious about calling corporal punishment -- what, spanking a bratty child on the behind? -- "child abuse." 

The classics do seem to work. : - )


bblais said...

Here's my response to this:

- Brian Blais

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Thanks for responding.

Probably a simpler way to respond to your criticism of my use of "militant" is to cite Funk & Wagnall:

"militant adj. 1. Combative or warlike in nature or tendency; aggressive."

Notice the little word "or" here. This means that one need not be "warlike" to be described as "militant;" one can also be "combative." The authors then give the further possibility that one is "aggressive."

Now do you really deny that it is reasonable to describe Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, P. Z. Myers, or, say, Hector Avalos, as "combative" or "aggressive?" The last thing they resemble, is the cool, bohemian fellow with the beer in that cartoon you linked to. (I don't think the League of Militant Atheists engaged in any actual warfare, either.)

As for the distinction between killing people for your metaphysics or for some other reason, that really doesn't get you off the hook. The abortion assassinations were conducted to save babies from being killed, not "for God," simply, but for a developed ideology of which belief in God was a part. Same, for the most part, with ideological atheist terrorists: atheism tends to be an important part of the overall ideology, though they also give nationalistic, technological, class, etc reasons for their actions that are also part of that ideology.

I'll respond to the rest later; need to get some work done, this morning.


Stephen Parrish said...

David, have you seen the chart in
"The World Christian Encyclopedia," Oxford Univ. Press, 2000? In vol. II, page 11, it gives statistics on Christian martyrdom. Atheists have killed over 31,000,000 Christians, far more than other groups, such as the Muslims, who killed somewhat over 9,000,000.

It helps to put things in perspective.

David B Marshall said...

No, I haven't seen that. What are the time frames? Does that mean, in all of world history?

Stephen Parrish said...

David: Yes, it gives cumulative data for the last 2,000 years. IIRC (I'm writing this from memory) about 69,000,000 Christians were martyred in all of Christian history, about 45,000,000 in the 20th century.

You should look at it when you have the chance. I find that no one knows about this.

David B Marshall said...

Stephen: Indeed, I will keep an eye out for that. I wonder how they defined "Christian" and "martyred" -- probably most Soviet murders were of nominal Christians who owned one too many horses, or a bit too much horse sense.

Stephen Parrish said...

David: That may be. It tells more on the page with the information, which I do not have at the moment. At the very least, it shows that, contrary to their self-image, atheists have been the biggest killers in history.

domics said...

it is on line:

Billy Squibs said...

David, given that New Atheism is a now a little longer in the tooth I wonder what, if anything, you would say differently to the atheist guests that you talked to?

I'm not asking about your performance insofar as you might think to yourself "I wish I had said X, Y and Z". Rather, do you think that your arguments against New Atheism remain essentially the same (perhaps with some refinement)? Or would you present a different set of arguments? Perhaps along the line of a critique of New Atheism itself?

The interview is some 5+ years old (I think) so surely some things have changed. This said, I'm not sure that Dawkins et al offered us anything other than repackaged arguments.

David B Marshall said...

Great! That is fascinating material. I'm printing it out, and may make further use of it. Thanks to you both.

The end date for this accounting is the year 2000. The definition of "martyr" they use is, indeed, quite broad:

"For the purposes of this volume’s primarily quantitative
analysis of martyrdom, Christian martyrs are
defined as ‘believers in Christ who have lost their
lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result
of human hostility.’ This definition has 5 essential and
indeed indispensable elements which can be stated
as follows:

"1. ‘Believers in Christ’. These individuals include the
entire Christian community including professing
Christians, crypto-Christians, affiliated Christians,
and unaffiliated Christians. In AD 2000, some 2.0 billion
individuals match this description, and since the
time of Christ over 8.3 billion have believed in Christ.

"2. ‘Lost their lives’. Our definition is restricted to Christians
actually put to death, for whatever reason."

Does this include deaths in wars, though? That would be unwarranted.

One other item remains to be considered: how many folk of other faiths or unfaiths "Christians" have put to death without just cause.

David B Marshall said...

Billy: As I recall (it's been a while since I listened), most of my comments in that debate had to do with the impact of Christianity, not its truth, since that was Barry's biggest concern, and I think where Justin's questions must have led us. Also, Justin brought in two other people, one on each side, by phone. I still speak on the New Atheism pretty often, and have added some material to my stock presentation; there may be a few points I've changed my mind on. For example the multiverse seems a more live option these days, so I take that into more consideration when I'm talking about origins, briefly. Hector Avalos and I have gone back and forth on slavery, so I may be a little more careful in how I phrase claims on that subject -- but I still make them. My own Outsider Test arguments, and further examples of how the Gospel has liberated humanity, may also come into the arguments, along with examples from great new books, like Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and Craig Keener's Miracles, also my own study of the theology of religions, from my now-completed doctoral dissertation. I also may refer more to the work of some contributors to Faith Seeking Understanding, including, of course, Alvin Plantinga, as well as to his sparring partner, Timothy McGrew. I've also read quite a few new Gnu books, and refer to them and to my interactions with their authors -- Carrier, Avalos, Loftus, Stenger -- a bit.

An interesting question -- it makes me think. I don't think the critics of The Truth Behind the New Atheism have debunked anything important. But if I could do it over, I might insist that Harvest House include three final chapters that make a positive case more forcefully, in story form, that they decided not to include.

rvntyo said...

What I find bothersome about this cartoon is that militant secularists don't just drown their sorrows at the bar. They engage in frivolous lawsuits to try to cow people going along with what they think is normative. They are too cowardly to confront people directly, but they instead try to oppress them by subverting the very principles of this nation that allowed them to shoot off their mouths in the first place. They are cowardly hypocrites. They have all the rights they could reasonably hope for. They should just shut up and be content, except for the fact that the activist impulse continues to thrash around looking for something to justify it, even if there is nothing left.