Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sense and Nonsense

Atheism is selling a lot of books these days. How good is the thinking that underlies them?

The Irrational Atheist: "

Just when atheists thought it was safe to enter the public square, a book like this comes along. The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day is not a work of Christian apologetics. It is, instead, a merciless deconstruction of atheist thought—or what passes for thought. That’s the gimmick, if you will, of the book: Day does not accept a single assertion made by any one of the ‘Unholy Trinity’—Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens—without first pinning it to a sheet of wax as in a seventh-grade science class, dissecting it until there’s nothing left but a case for anti-vivisection legislation.


(A quick Google search, by the way, will reveal that Day bears a striking resemblance to one Theodore Beale: Christian fantasy and sci-fi writer, computer-game designer, and libertarian. Some would go so far as to say they’re the same person. I will continue to use the name that appears on the book, however, and that also is appended to the blog Vox Popoli.)


Day starts off with the charming declarative sentence ‘I don’t care if you go to hell’—this despite being a Southern Baptist, a group not known for complacency in such matters. But the author wants to make clear that he’s not trying to convert anyone to Christianity, only to ensure that those readers who are susceptible to straw-man arguments, tautologies, clich├ęs, and urban legends understand that the New Atheists—who are on a conversion mission—are not only guilty of all of the aforementioned but also are seemingly incapable of mustering anything stronger by way of Reason in their own cause.


To take just one of many examples, a common trope among atheists is that religion is the No. 1 cause of wars in history. ‘If religion were an important element of warmaking, one would expect to find a great deal of text commenting upon it,’ Day writes. But you don’t. After reading the great war theorists, from Sun Tzu to Von Clausewitz, Day found pages and pages about perseverance, spies, geometry, inspirational music—but virtually nothing about religion.


As for the nature of the wars themselves, talk about specific: Day found 123 wars that could validly be claimed to have religion at their heart—a grand total of 6.98 percent of all wars fought. ‘It’s also interesting to note that more than half of these religious wars, sixty-six in all, were waged by Islamic nations,’ Day offers as an aside.


Of the New Atheists Day examines in The Irrational Atheist, the most irrational, by the author’s lights, is the man who started the atheism bestselling craze, Sam Harris. ‘Harris is an appallingly incoherent logician. He frequently fails to gather the relevant data required to prove his case, and on several occasions inadvertently presents evidence that demonstrates precisely the opposite of that which he is attempting to prove.’ One quick example: Harris asserts that most suicide bombers are Muslims. Yet, ‘the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are not Muslims but a Marxist liberation front that committed 168 of the 273 suicide bombings that took place between 1980 and 200, have historically been the leading practitioners of suicide bombing.’


Dawkins doesn’t fare much better in Day’s analytical meat grinder. Day sics the anthropic principle on him, which Dawkins rejects because any God capable of fine-tuning the universe so as to make possible the advent of DNA is at least as improbable as the universe in question, because he would have to be a being of unimaginable complexity. Day offers as a refutation the existence of the mathematician who calculated the ‘goldilocks values’ (the cosmic fine-tuning that the birth of man would require) in the first place, this ‘despite being less complex than the sum of everyone and everything else in the universe.’ Day, who creates computer programs, is well placed to demonstrate how ‘mass quantities of information can easily be produced from much smaller quantities of information’—as anyone familiar with computer-generated fractals understands.


As for some atheists’ resorting to ‘multiverse theory’ in a desperate attempt to answer the probability problem of a human-compatible Earth, ‘not only is multiverse theory every bit as unfalsifiable and untestable as the God Hypothesis, it is demonstrably more improbable,’ replies Day.


Day then aims his rhetorical guns at Christopher Hitchens. When the latter states that ‘what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence,’ the former lays out quote after quote of unsupported and ‘auto-refutable statements’ culled from the pages of God Is Not Great. Needless to say, Hitchens is dismissed rather quickly.


Day is kinder to Daniel Dennett, whom he dubs ‘the pragmatic philosopher.’ Despite some of Dennett’s more supercilious comments regarding believers’ intelligence, he, according to Day, is willing to at least ‘examine’ religion in the light of science. Day nevertheless rejects Dennett’s ‘claims that ‘brights’ have better family values than born-again Christians,’ a contention based on George Barna’s flawed 1999 study. The fact that ‘half of all atheists and agnostics don’t get married’ turns such a charge into an ‘apples and oranges’ error. Day cites the more reliable 2001 ARIS study and finds that atheists are ‘twice as likely to get divorced and have fewer children than any other group in the United States.’


I could go on and on, but I’m afraid Day’s publishers will come after me for copyright violation. Let’s just say that all this is but a drop in a deep bucket, which, by the book’s end, is so filled with the bad reasoning of the champions of Reason and the blind faith of the Faithless that you cannot believe any religious believer could credit atheism with sufficient explanatory power to deter them from so much as modifying a most rigorous self-mortification regimen.


It was only toward the end of the book that I began to question a few of Day’s own arguments. Here he offers what could be construed as a draft of an apologetic, at least as far as the theodicy question is concerned. Day is a proponent of ‘open theism,’ which ‘chronicles the many biblical examples of God being surprised, changing his mind, and even being thwarted,’ and leaves ‘open’ the future as something not controlled by God but to be determined by his free creatures as they do battle with the true ‘god of this world,’ Satan. As far as I read it, the open theism view of God’s ‘limitations’ bears less resemblance to the kenosis of Christ in his incarnation as it does to a kind of deism in which it is unclear whether God can interfere in the world, rather than whether he simply wills to. Day’s notions of human freedom will definitely irk Reformation types (like me) for whom the sovereignty of God is nonnegotiable and the idea of untrammeled free will has the stink of semi-pelagianism about it. (Whether open theism can be reconciled with a Molonist ‘middle knowledge’ view of God’s omniscience is something that bears further investigation.)


I was also disappointed to find that the subject of evolution over and against a literalist reading of Genesis does not merit attention by the author. Day describes himself, in a footnote, as an evolution skeptic, which may be why he doesn’t get into a subject broached repeatedly by the New Atheists. In any event, the debate over the historicity of the Fall given evolution’s account of the rise of homo sapiens needs to be addressed in a serious yet accessible manner, which is a nice way of saying that someone out there should get off the stick.


Nevertheless, whether you embrace Day’s theology or toss it, there is no avoiding the cumulative force of the author’s counterassaults or the sting of his wit when it comes to the true focus of the book—atheism’s continuing love affair with nonsense. In short, The Irrational Atheist is a blast and will no doubt occasion many a late-night debate. And don’t forget to thank your village atheist when you get the chance. Like heretics before them, atheists are inspiring a steady flow of truly inspired Christian polemic, which may prove to win the world for Christ in ways that must send shivers down the collective spine of that most ‘Unholy Trinity.’

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(Via First Things.)

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