Saturday, April 16, 2011

Does Google Make Atheists?

Richard Dawkins, John Loftus, and a certain "research" mentality.

"To know what you know, and know that whatever you got from Google you do not know, this is knowledge." -- Confucius 2.011

Noting an uptick in unbelief in the United States, at least unbelief in God, some atheists optimistically suggest that the Internet might deserve some credit. In the bad old days, they argue, it was hard to locate resources that rebut that great cloud of loopiness rising into the cognosphere from the world's religious propagandists. Now,with skeptical answers to every conceivable question available at the click of a mouse, more and more young people are ditching the naive, befuddled superstitions of their youth.

The skeptics may have a point. It's not that the Internet encourages deep contemplation and serious scholarship. But that mouse, like the Pied Piper, lures young and some old into practicing a form of "research" (also known as "web search") that may encourage cynicism about the Christian faith.

Type a word into a search engine, left click, and presto! You can now pose as an authority on the Constitution, mongooses in Oahu, or Medieval witch-burning, without ink staining your fingers. You can bad-mouth St. Matthew, Aristotle, or Augustine, without going to the tiresome trouble of reading them.

Reversing Confucius' aphorism, we now know what we manifestly do not know. Knowledge has become like a snake eating its tail: a cyber meme is believed because it is believed because it is has thousands of unique page visits. Only a few old-fashioned readers who maintain a fondness for fiber know you're bluffing, and you can vote they don't add to the discussion.

By "you," of course I mean me, too. But mostly I mean the New Atheists.

I'll give four examples of how this works. The first two come from the Grand Mousequetter himself, Richard Dawkins, taking on (think "The Mouse that Roared") Tertullian and Pascal. The third is a criticism of Justin Martyr, ubiquitous on the Internet. The fourth, on witchhunting, comes from a recent article on John Loftus' popular "Debunking Christianity website."

(1) Did Tertullian promote blind faith? In a chapter called "Viruses of the Mind" in The Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins rebukes Tertullian for the following two comments: "It is certain because it is impossible."

"It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd." (139)

Taking religious comments like this as a kind of competition in absurdity (perhaps like peacock feathers), Dawkins warns: "That way madness lies."

But did Tertullian really say or mean what Dawkins cites him as saying? Alister McGrath flatly denies the second quote:

"It is a misattribution, and has been known to be such for some time. So at least we can reasonably assume that Dawkins has not read Tertullian himself, but has taken this citation from an unreliable secondary source . . ."

Tertullian did, indeed, write "it is certain because it is impossible." In context, though, he was not arguing for "blind faith," nor was he talking about faith and reason, or the evidence for or against Christianity. Rather, he was arguing against the Gnostic ideas of Marcion, who denied that Jesus was born into a physical body. He is echoing Paul's words about the "foolish things of the world" overcoming the wise -- wise in this context somewhat sarcastically referring to a consensual Gnostic contempt for physical reality. (Though stories of Zeus coming to mate as a bull remained the rage.)

In a sense, in arguing for the Incarnation, Tertullian was laying the ground for all the physical sciences so dear to Dr. Dawkins. What he certainly wasn't doing, was arguing for Dawkins' fervently believed definition of "blind faith."

McGrath explains: "The point being made is that the Christian gospel is profoundly counter-cultural and counter-intuitive at this point. So why would anyone want to make it up, when it is so obvioiusly implausible, by those standards of wisdom? Tertullian then parodies a passage from Aristotle's Rhetoric, which argues that an extraordinary claim may well be true, precisely because it is so out of the ordinary. It was probably meant to be a rhetorical joke, for those who knew their Aristotle." (99-101)

I doubt the Aristotle reference: the connection seems weak to me. But certainly
Tertullian's true views on faith and reason are better explained elsewhere:

"For reason is a property of God's, since there is nothing which God, the creator of all things, has not foreseen, arranged, and determined by reason. Furthermore, there is nothing God does not wish to be investigated and understood by reason."

Why would Britain's most renowned public intellectual falsely assert things about a man he has never read, based on one fake quote and another taken grossly out of context? As I show in The Truth Behind the New Atheism, Dawkins often relies on Internet web sites for his atheist "research," often with disasterous results. Perhaps that is the problem here, too.

(2) In The God Delusion, Dawkins calls Blaise Pascal to the witness stand. He cites Pascal's Wager as an example of how Christians justify "blind" faith:

"The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God's existence might be, there is an even longer assymetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You'd better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won't make any difference anyway."

Dawkins goes on to claim Pascal "wasn't claiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds." Maybe the man was even joking.

This is a common way to represent Pascal's argument on the Internet. It probably deserves a name -- let's say, Pascal's Beat Long Odds Meme (PABLOM).

In fact, Pascal is not guilty of PABLOM. Read the whole book, and it is clear Pascal thinks Christianity enjoys excellent odds. Much of Pensees gives evidence for the Gospel from miracles, the life of Jesus, and prophecy. What is he doing in the Wager, then? Again, one must read the whole passage. He is comparing life to a game of blackjack or poker in which one "must wager." The hypothetical skeptic in the passage is no objective bystander:

"But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?' Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. 'Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free . . . '"

By "the rest," Pascal means all that has gone before in his argument so far -- not, apparently, anticipating (despite his own role in creating machines that think) that search engines would one day render the concept of reading a book consecutively outdated.
But being a sophisticated observer of human nature, Pascal recognizes that our choices are not purely rational: "Endevour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions . . . "

Why did Dawkins so badly misrepresent Pascal? Why do so many other skeptics speak so glibly and narrowly about "Pascal's Wager," as if that were the only thing in the book? The answer is obvious: they haven't read the book. Most likely they simply "quote-mined" PABLOM off some dang-fool web site.

(3) Justin Martyr

Skeptics often have fun with the 2nd Century philosopher, Justin Martyr. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin did make a silly argument. He claims there that Satan performed counterfeit pagan signs, planting them into pagan literature just to preempt the Gospel story:

"Be well assured, then, Trypho, that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the Devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah's days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by [Jupiter's) intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? . . ."

Quoting this theory is supposed (a) to make Justin look silly, and perhaps (in isolation) it does. It is also often used to argue that (b) early Christians were so gullible, no wonder they believed such an absurd religion, and (c) if even Justin could see how close the parallels between Jesus and these myths were, why should modern Christians deny it? One skeptic combined (b) and (c):

"Entertainment value aside, this bizarre claim about demons/the devil planting virgin birth, resurrection, etc. in early pagan stories is valuable as evidence that at least one early Christian writer thought his audience would buy into a very convoluted, supernatural "explanation" for why Christian story elements were so similar to pagan story elements."

Justin's point, to be sure, is not quite grasped when taken out of context like this. He is not saying these stories resemble the Gospel that closely. If he were, one might justly accuse him of a lack of exegetical and literary sense. But granted, in this case, that
Justin did offer a silly argument.

The real problem I have here is that I like Justin, and am sad to see skeptics quote mining him without reading, first. I'm sorry that, in their eagerness to scoff, they miss his courage, cheerful enthusiasm, and also his better ideas. Among those are a more genial theory of religions: that various schools of Greek philosophy are "tutors to Christ." This is an idea that would be developed by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and that I have in various places argued remains an enlightening interpretation of world religions. Instead, we get of Justin something a lot like what Chevy Chase offered of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live: an atheletic thinker forever defined by a single misstep.

(4) Witches in Africa

I have a lot of sympathy with this fourth example, so I'll try to be fair in how I critique it.

On his popular Debunking Christianity website, John Loftus posted a link to a horrifying video about children in Africa who are abused, and often killed, as supposed witches. The men who do the abusing are described as Christian pastors. Loftus noted:
"My heart breaks when I consider the harm Christianity does to children accused of witchcraft in Africa. This is how religion evolves as it comes into contact with a different culture. Since Christianity is growing exponentially in the Southern Hemisphere and in Asia this just might be the Christianity of the future. Watch this video. It makes my blood boil. I hope this barbaric idiocy can be eradicated in the future."

Having myself worked to prevent child abuse in Taiwan, I share John's horror. In my humble opinion, hanging is far too good for people who abuse kids. And yes, Christians have a particular obligation to fight against such abuse, especially when evil men abuse children in the name of God.

But John, too, fails to look at these crimes in context. They seem to have come to his attention on the Internet, and not knowing much more about it, apparently, he doesn't put it fairly into context. The context shouldn't change how we see these acts themselves, but what we should conclude from them.

Four contexts must be taken into account here:

(a) First, what are human beings? We are animals who evolved by showing our rivals the hungriest teeth and the reddest claws. Life demands dominance: a douglas fir shading ferns, a lion eating a gazelle, beavers flooding a valley with scant regard for whatever else lives in that valley. Nurturing and cooperation and affection also help us survive. But killing the weak is not foreign to our nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, just as a male lion kills cubs that don't share his genes, "pastors" who murder children should be no surprise. And indeed, look into the tombs of Alpha males and Alpha females of the ancient world, and you often find the skeletons of those they dominated, laid to rest to serve them in the next world.

(b) Second, why are we surprised? Westerners (even Richard Dawkins) have been conditioned by the Judeo-Christian faith to expect more of homo sapiens, and especially more of religious homo sapiens. How conditioned? By tens of thousands of hospitals with crosses on their walls. By tens of thousands of schools founded by missionaries, nuns, priests. By great reform movements against slavery, sati, foot-binding, child labor, polygamy, infanticide, poor jail conditions, and human sacrifice, led by zealous Christians. By soup kitchens. By elders who visit widows, fix toilets, patch up roofs.

(c) John also omits the context of African witchcraft. A common practice in Nigeria was to kill twins at birth. It was assumed they were devils in human form. If an important person died by accident, say by falling out of a tree, it was assumed witches were responsible, and sometimes several people were killed in reprisal. When an important person died, little people were killed as sacrifice. Mary Slessor, and other missionaries, boldly, and sometimes dramatically fought against these practices, saving many lives directly and probably millions of lives long-term, beginning to transform African cultures by doing so. Given these contexts, how absurd to blame Christianity for the small-scale resurgence of these ancient practices that is was, in fact, responsible for overturning!

True, this shows that we still have a ways to go. It is, as John said, heart-breaking that adults are still allowed to abuse children in this way.

(d) The fourth context we must recall is the life of Jesus, who reached out to the weak and marginalized, warned that anyone who causes a child to stumble risks the wrath of God, listened to cries on the side of the road, fed the hungry, and cured the sick. This, not evolution, and not world history, is the context that explains why John Loftus and I are shocked at the murder of small children in the name of God, or Race, or Class, or Caste.

So, does Google make atheists?

Truth be told, I have no idea. Correlation really does not, of itself, prove causation. Type "google make atheists" into your search engine, and see what you find!


Anonymous said...

An interesting read. I've saved it for future reference. Some of these things I already knew to be the case.

Neil Bates said...

Wikipedia in particular is a powerful miscreant. Their article on the Anthropic Principle is very biased against any purpose-based interpretation. I plan to fix that (yes, I can make a worthy effort.)

David B Marshall said...

John: Thanks. Perhaps you'll do us a favor and point out cases in which we make the same mistake; it is a hard temptation to avoid. I've even found myself wanting to quote Wikipedia in my dissertation!

David B Marshall said...

Neil: Lots of luck. Their anti-ID bias is especially palpable. Don't they have a sub-editor who "fixes" anything that doesn't toe the party line on those subjects?

Dr H said...

How odd... I actually find myself in agreement with your basic premise. :-)

Over-reliance on internet sources has been responsible for a huge upsurge in bad scholarship. Even in the very early days of the Web, when the number of websites could be counted in the millions, rather than the hundreds of bilions, I discovered that Web research wasn't all the digital pundits were trying to sell it to be. There always seemed to be far more chaff than grain to wade through. But it's not the use of internet sources, per se, that's the problem.

As a certified bibliophile I can attest that the same is true of fiber-and-pasteboard research. The fact is that before you can do good Web research, you need to know how to do good -research-. The skills that are required to dredge pearls of wisdom from the garbage heap of opinion and prolific ignorance to be found neatly shelved in any sizable brick-and-mortar library, are the same skills necessary to sift through the cyber-spew.

The skill of critical thinking plays no small part in this process. There are no editors on the internet, or rather, everyone is an editor, whether or not they have the requisite skills to be one. Wikipedia is both a blessing and a curse. As a starting point for following links which may lead to original sources, it has definite uses. But as a primary source? ... I'd be as well off asking the guy on the next barstool at the local pub for his authoritative opinion.

David, I think you know me well enough by now to realize that I hate bad arguments /for/ a position I support more than I hate arguments against the position. Debating the latter is how we hopefully advance the sum total of human knowledge and experience. The former simply paints a target inviting an off-hand dismissal of the position as ridiculous. Unfortunately I see more and more of the former kind of argument every day, all over the web.

I don't know if Google is making any atheists. But a fundamental misunderstanding of what Google is, and what it can and cannot provide, seems to be making a lot of faux-experts energetically persuing bad scholarship -- and broadcasting it daily from an international soapbox.

Dr H said...

OK, I tried really, really hard, but I couldn't go away without commenting on this statement:

DM: Life demands dominance: a douglas fir shading ferns, a lion eating a gazelle, beavers flooding a valley with scant regard for whatever else lives in that valley.

I don't disagree, exactly, but the fact that you chose to express yourself in this particular way may highlight one of our fundamental differences. To describe life as "demanding dominance" is very much the short-term single-human-lifetime view.

The Douglas fir did not spring into being one day and viciously destroy all the ferns. In fact, the two evolved together to fit different niches in the same ecosystem. Ferns thrive in the shade, and they breakup the more complex ground components so that the firs can take in nourishment from the soil. Each needs the other.

Beavers don't build Grand Coulee-size dams over the span of a few months, drowning or driving out all the upstream forest life in the resulting flood. The gradual nature of their progress allows time for an ecosystem to develop that is in fact -dependent- on the presence of the beavers, and which in turn assured the beavers of a continuous food supply.

And yes, the lion eats the gazelle. But if a lion eats the -last- gazelle, there won't be any lions around to worry about, next year.

Species can and do displace each other over time, but in general we are looking at hundreds, if not thousands of years. Only Man can wipe out an entire ecosystem in a day -- and /that/ is more in the character of what the word "dominance" conjures up for me.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: Yes, I know you hate bad arguments for your positions -- when someone else gives them. :- )

Of course it's true that the problem I'm pointing to here is broader than the making of atheists. My tongue is partly in cheek. But I am often struck by the sheer arrogance and pigheadedness of some people, often radical skeptics, but sometimes Christians too who, in normal contexts, would not I hope pretend to be experts. Some need to learn basic English. Most need to learn logic. All of them need to learn humility -- among other things. Yet they taunt and mock and lecture on topics they found about by surfing the Web, and call people who could teach them something names. I don't take this too personally, but like you I am a teacher, and I find this apparent increase of apparently incorrigable stupidity distressing.

Yes, I've heard of coevolution. Matter of fact, I just looked the word up on Wikipedia, to make sure I'm using it right. :- )

Dr H said...

DM: Yes, I know you hate bad arguments for your positions -- when someone else gives them. :- )

It's always someone else.

I try to be responsible for myself, at least. ;-)

Dr H said...

DM: Some need to learn basic English.

DM: Most need to learn logic.

DM: All of them need to learn humility
Yeah, good luck with that one.

On the World Wide Web, everyone can be an arrogant bastard without fear of being punched-out. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree that doing research on the internet can lead to some wrong conclusions but this is hardly the problem. Books if not wellresearched can have their problems so I think it's unfair of you to criticize the internet. Take your books or a host of other Christian apologist's books and examine them and you will most definitely find many factual issues. I've perused many of these responses to the new atheists and they are rife with poor scholarship, dubious claims, and straight out falsehoods. You ought to address yourself with this post and your fellow Christians.

The issue isn't the internet it is poor research and the Christians are light years ahead of any atheist in that department and that's a fact.

David B Marshall said...

Anon: If you're the same "Anon" who posted two vacuous, snarky comments ("so that's your excuse!")on other threads, please do read the guidelines before posting again. And if you have the guts to criticize, show the guts of giving your name.

No one has found any such thing in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. You're not engaging my specific arguments in this thread at all, though, not surprisingly.

Finally, I didn't "blame the Internet," except with tongue in cheek: the real problem is people who do "research" on the cheap, as the examples I give show. Your response is vacant of any concrete substance, almost as much as the two posts I deleted.

Paul said...

I must agree with Anon's comment. David you didn't answer him either. You actually believe no one has found fault with you book??????!! Are you serious??!? Read AA's rebuttal I mentioned in another comment. It's not a matter if there are issues with your book but how many issues.

David B Marshall said...

Paul: What's to answer? There's no substance. Nor does Anon deal with the substance in this post. It'd be like battling a bank of fog.

And no, I didn't say no one has "found fault" with my book. I said no one has found, as "Anon" put it:

"Poor scholarship, dubious claims, and straight out falsehoods."

Unless you call a typo or other micro-error a "straight out falsehood," which I of course do not.

AA is a good example of what I am talking about in this post. If you take his critiques seriously, then you're in the muck up to your eyebrows.