"Did they see something I don’t?"

February 16, 2007 | Atheism | 27 comments

I just got back from a trip to Barnes and Noble which was, with two young children, an advanced exercise in the art of multitasking. On the way out I paused for a moment to check out the display table of featured books, and I came across Victor J. Stenger’s latest book where he denounces the concept of God, called God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. I believe it’s part of his series called I Don’t Believe in God. Seriously! I SO Don’t! I’m Going to Write Another Book About It.

Since I had my own personal circus in tow I wasn’t able to spend much time flipping through it, but I did read through the reviews on the back cover (spoiler alert: Richard Dawkins loved it), which were as follows:

Darwin chased God out of his old haunts in biology, and he scurried for safety down the rabbit hole of physics. The laws and constants of the universe, we were told, are too good to be true: a set-up, carefully tuned to allow the eventual evolution of life. It needed a good physicist to show us the fallacy, and Victor Stenger lucidly does so. The faithful won’t change their minds, of course (that is what faith means) but Victor Stenger drives a pack of energetic ferrets down the last major bolt hole and God is running out of refuges in which to hide. I learned an enormous amount from this splendid book.

~ Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion

Marshalling converging arguments from physics, astronomy, biology, and philosophy, Stenger has delivered a masterful blow in defense of reason. God: The Failed Hypothesis is a potent, readable, and well-timed assault upon religious delusion. It should be widely read.

~ Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

Richard Dawkins is contractually obligated to make derisive jabs at “the faithful” in every statement he makes, so that one wasn’t too remarkable. But what did strike me is Sam Harris’ quote (which echoes many Dawkins quotes), and his reference to “religious delusion”.

Obviously, these guys don’t speak for everyone who does not believe in God. But they are representative of certain types of atheists who are making their voices heard more and more, the kind who heap scorn upon the mere concept of belief in a higher power, often referring to people of faith as delusional, irrational, ignorant, and even stupid.

I can’t call them out too much since I used to be one of these people. But what jumps out to me about these sorts of statements now is the lack of wonder and curiosity about what made such a large percentage of the great minds of history believe in God or some sort of other spiritual realm.

Socrates, Plato, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Michelangelo, Einstein, and all the other brilliant minds who believed in the soul, in God or gods, in a designed universe: these people were not idiots. They also don’t strike me as delusional, irrational, or the type of people to unquestioningly swallow fairy tales just because it was their culture or the way they were raised. And though they didn’t have electron microscopes or the Hubble telescope, they had good heads on their shoulders when it came to understanding the world and weren’t timid wallflowers who feared questioning things. I really doubt that any of these men believed in a “God of the gaps, ” where they decided that God must exist simply because they didn’t know where the stars came from. Many of them are the founders of the modern sciences that we prize so much today. I can’t picture any one of them reading The God Delusion or God: The Failed Hypothesis and renouncing their beliefs after being dizzied by the intellects of Dawkins and Stenger.

This, of course, does not mean that God does exist. It doesn’t prove anything either way. It just seems that this new crowd of book-writing atheists is glossing over a lot of human history and insulting the forefathers of their fields to denounce all believers as irrational or foolish. It seems like they’ve never taken the time to sit back on a dark, starry night and gaze at the heavens, thinking for a moment of the great minds of science who came before them and wondering, “Did they see something I don’t?”

27 Comments

  1. Paul, just this guy, you know?

    Hey. Show some respect. These are the smartest guys in the world. The smartest in world history.

    The bravest, too. Just ask them.

    Given the worldwide trends in the growths of the major religions, one wonders why it is that they spend so much time debunking the God of Christianity. In most places, Christianity is pretty much on the rocks.

    If they could write something about Allah, and get it translated into Arabic and published in Moslem countries, maybe they could do some good.

    It might dissuade many otherwise-would-be terrorists from trying to kill us.

    Or it might inspire the terrorists into issuing a fatwa on them, to force them into hiding or kill them.

    These possibilities would constitute what we call a “win-win” situation.

  2. melanie b

    It just seems that this new crowd of book-writing atheists is glossing over a lot of human history and insulting the forefathers of their fields to denounce all believers as irrational or foolish.

    You know Pope Benedict’s address at Regensberg, the one that was only mentioned in the press in terms of one aside he made about Islam, was focused on just this question of the compatibility of faith and reason.If you haven’t read it yet, you really should.

    Though he mentions Islam as a belief system that doesn’t seem to be interested in reconciling faith and reason, his real attack is on the West which has increasingly divorced faith and reason. My favorite line: A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.

    The text is on the Vatican radio site: http://www.vaticanradio.org/en1/Articolo.asp?c=94807

  3. proud to be an atheist

    “But they are representative of certain types of atheists who are making their voices heard more and more, the kind who heap scorn upon the mere concept of belief in a higher power, often referring to people of faith as delusional, irrational, ignorant, and even stupid.”

    And people of faith don’t say the same about Atheists? Also I believe you are mistaken about Einstein. And not all of the forefathers believed in religion either.

  4. Mike J

    Paul:
    Regarding your “win-win” situation – LOL 🙂

    Atheist:
    Einstein believed in a God, but not anything like the one in the Bible. More like a “New Age”, cosmic consciousness sort of a god.

    Jen:
    Dawkins and Stenger represent one of the extreme ends of atheism. Sort of like Fallwell and Swaggart represent one of the extremes of Christianity. Unfortunately it’s often the extremists who get all the attention. After all, who wants to read a paper that has the headline, “30,000,000 Iraqis Do No Harm At All To 8000 US Troops In Iraq”? Nah! We’d much rather read, “Iraqi Suicide Bomber Kills 2 US Soldiers”.

    To borrow (and modify) a quote, “The angry and bitter you will always have amongst you.”

  5. Jason

    Hey, it’s funny you should mention this. I saw an article about modern atheism in OpinionJournal not too long ago. It wasn’t complimentary:

    “What is new about the new atheists? It’s not their arguments. Spend as much time as you like with a pile of the recent anti-religion books, but you won’t encounter a single point you didn’t hear in your freshman dormitory. It’s their tone that is novel. Belief, in their eyes, is not just misguided but contemptible, the product of provincial minds, the mark of people who need to be told how to think and how to vote–both of which, the new atheists assure us, they do in lockstep with the pope and Jerry Falwell.

    The atheists say that they are addressing believers. Rationalists all, can they believe that believers would be swayed by such contumely and condescension? They seem instead to be preaching to people exactly like themselves–a remarkably incurious elite.”

    My comment was, “There are two reasons that people argue about something: a) To try to persuade those who disagree, or b) to make themselves feel superior to those who disagree.” I think most modern atheists are satisfied with (b).

  6. Professor Chaos

    First off, a correction: Einstein did not believe in God.

    Secondly, you’re using the word “delusion” to build your strawman, but I believe you’re taking offense at an innocent word. Delusion is defined as, “a false belief or opinion” (dictionary.com)

  7. proud to be an atheist

    Jason, you said

    My comment was, “There are two reasons that people argue about something: a) To try to persuade those who disagree, or b) to make themselves feel superior to those who disagree.” I think most modern atheists are satisfied with (b).

    You can say the same damn thing about people of faith, try it by refilling it with christian, or catholic, or muslim…
    My comment was, “There are two reasons that people argue about something: a) To try to persuade those who disagree, or b) to make themselves feel superior to those who disagree.” I think most modern CHRISTIANS, CATHOLICS, MUSLIMS… are satisfied with (b).

    Huh, funny how that works.

  8. lyrl

    I agree with Mike’s comparison of Dawkins and Stenger to Fallwell (though I don’t know who Swaggert is).

    Just as the belief system of Christianity should not be judged by Fallwell, the belief system of atheism should not be judged by Dawkins.

    Stenger and Dawkins seem to be intent on making money by insulting most of the world’s population, and I find that wrong no matter what belief system you start out with, atheism included.

  9. Professor Chaos

    I’ll never understand where this Dakwins-scarecrow comes from. He’s been built into this raving lunatic, hurling insults at anyone religious, strictly so that the religious have someone on our side to attack, it would seem. It’s preposterous.

  10. Mike J

    Prof Chaos:

    I can’t agree with you about Dawkins.
    You said, “He’s been built into this raving lunatic, hurling insults at anyone religious”
    Just do a search on his name and see what he says. You could search “Richard Dawkins quotes” to get some good examples. He is hurling insults at anyone religious. He holds them in contempt.
    There are some atheist/agnostic/nonreligious types who can be considerate and decently mannered in their disagreements, but Dawkins is not one of them.

  11. Mike J

    Just thinking on great scientific minds.
    Marie and Pierre Curie
    Linus Pauling
    Isaac Asimov
    Alan Turing
    David Baltimore
    James Watson
    Francis Crick
    Thomas Edison

    Guess what they all had in common?

  12. Darwin

    Mike J,

    They were all non-believers, as I recall, though actually my first reaction to the list was to spot Isaac Asimov and think: “One of these is not like the others.”

    Chaos,

    Whether Dawkins is in any sense representative of mainstream atheism, I’m not sure that there’s any mystery as to why the guy gets talked about a great deal. Being a famous scientist and a firebreating author of best-sellers who’s still respected enough to be a staple of the BBC and NPR, he’s a perfect media opportunity. All the excitement of a Franken or a Coulter and respectable to boot.

    I will say, however, that with the publication of The God Delusion a number of fellow atheist (including some good scientists) have _finally_ started to write in large venues that the guys is simply getting sloppy and unhinged. Which is gratifying to see.

    proud to be an atheist,

    It may be that somewhere out there is a religious/philosophical text put out by a major figure in Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or what have you which has blurbs on the back saying “Finally a brilliant and concise on the delusions of the unbelievers.” or “Unbelievers may remain blind to his arguments — is not all unbelief blindness? — but here at last we have the refutation of any last doubts a thinking person could have as to God’s existence.”

    Because most major world religions place a premium on conversion and continued striving for spiritual perfection, you don’t usually get quite the same “Ha, ha, look at those guys” attitude in specifically religious works. (You do see it in political polemics, or which I suppose Coulter’s work is an example, if one can bring oneself to read such stuff. But the sense of religion in people like her is more tribal than creedal.)

  13. Scott

    I just recently stumbled on your blog somehow (I don’t remember from where), but I’m glad to have found it.

    Personally, I pray for and anticipate the beautiful day when Dawkins announces that he is joining the Catholic Church (and the delicious irony of it, I will admit). Even he is a man loved by God, with a soul worth saving…

  14. proud to be an Atheist

    Scott,

    Don’t hold your breath! He is too smart for that.

  15. SteveG

    DD:
    You missed a pretty glaring difference between Cowell and Dawkins.

    Cowell actually has expertise in evaluating talent; whereas, when it comes to understanding religious thought, Dawkins has almost no clue what he’s talking about.

    Hey, if Dawkins wants to talk biology, I’ll cede to his vastly greater understanding, but in general when he talks religion he is entirely out of his area of expertise and it shows in a big way.

    A true comparison between what Dawkins and Cowell do would only be possible if Cowell spent vast amounts of time and energy writing books and critiquing something of which he obviously not well educated in…biology for instance.

  16. Darwin's Dagger

    steveg,

    Have you read The God Delusion? Dawkins seems pretty well versed in religious thought to me, but what do I know? It’s possible to know stuff without being the absolute authority, after all.

  17. Michael Joseph

    Darwin’s Dagger,

    I have read both Dawkin’s The God Delusion and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. I’ll tell you right away that there is something deftly wrong with both of their approaches: the formal logical fallacy known as the strawman. I think what Dawkins is successful at is refuting the concept of God as causa sui, that is, as the perfect infinite being who stands at the top of a long, static metaphysical chain of being. This “god of the gaps” is the god described by the likes of Descartes, Spinoza and Hegel. This god, however, is not the God of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Thus, while Dawkins successfully recycles old arguments against the “god” of modern philosophy, he entirely misses the target he so desires to hit: the Triune God of Christianity. Alas!

    Since you like posting links to your blog on this comment thread, here are two links to posts I have written on Dawkins and Dennett. Read at your own risk:

    “God vs. Science”: A Match Made in…

    The Atheist Onslaught

  18. SteveG

    Have you read The God Delusion? Dawkins seems pretty well versed in religious thought to me, but what do I know? It’s possible to know stuff without being the absolute authority, after all.
    DD:
    What do you know? Certainly the results of a less than rigorous internet quiz (which btw, I have no way of knowing if you completed without using google) tells me very little.

    I can assure you that I’ve read and heard enough of Dawkins in his own words to be convinced that he deals almost exclusively in strawmen (though I confess I have not yet read The God Delusion).

    You can assure me in return that he ‘seems’ knowledgeable, and that you yourself are knowledgeable about serious religious thought.

    Now who will judge between us? Is there any way around such an impasse? Is there a way for us to decipher which of us is more qualified to pronounce on Dawkins’ level of knowledge?

    I am asking this sincerely. Would you be willing to take some questions that would probe your level of understanding? Would you be willing to offer a brief list of books you’ve read that are written by those not hostile to faith (i.e. listen to believers tell what and why they believe)? Any other suggestions? I am just winging it here, but I am curious if we can do something other than a tit for tat exchange.

  19. Darwin

    Not to dogpile, but yeah, Dawkins pretty clearly shows he’s out of his depth. For instance, his “unanswerable” proof against the existence of God is his “747 argument” which basically goes like this: Some Christians say that the likelihood of life resulting from evolution is the same as that of a tornado blowing through a scrap yard and spontaneously assembling a 747. However, we know that it takes a more complicated thing (a human) to design a complex thing (a 747) therefore if God can create life, there has to be some even more complex thing that created God. Thus the God hypothesis answers no questions, it simply puts the question one step farther back.

    However, far from being a novel contribution to religious/philosophical debate, Dawkin’s 747 argument instead displays a basic ignorance of not merely Judeo-Christian religious belief but even pre-Christian philosophy dating back 2400 years. Plato and Aristotle both grappled with the idea that you could not have an infinite chain of causes — an yet physical objects are never seen to be without a cause. Thus, both philosophers posited some eternal, uncaused cause which was fundamentally different in nature from physical objects.

    Dawkins mentions the idea of essence/accidence/nature, etc. briefly, but only to ridicule the making of such distinctions in the first place. Which is an example of how the fellow is essentially philosophically tone deaf.

    Fellow biologist H. Allen Orr (to my knowledge also an atheist) pinned the tail on him for this in the New York Review of Books.

  20. Anonymous

    If Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in God, why does he say this in his review of the Stenger book?

    “but Victor Stenger drives a pack of energetic ferrets down the last major bolt hole and God is running out of refuges in which to hide.”

    If God doesn’t exist how can He run and how can He hide? Maybe I’m just too literal. And delusional. And irrational. And ignorant. And even stupid. You can tell by my captial H’s.

  21. Ersza

    I have read some stuff from some of the famous yet toxic atheists. I don’t remember if it was Dawkins or what. Why would I do him the favor of remembering his name? What I came away with was the feeling that he thinks almost everybody is stupid. Christians come to you with casseroles and habitat for humanity houses and bingo nights and support groups and visits for the home bound and so on and so forth. Atheists offer one thing: the opportunity to feel superior to others. Which belief system is the more attractive? Those guys really have a PR problem.

    For a breath of fresh air, check out Francis Collins, who has a very good grasp of the relationship between faith and reason. I believe he has a book out on the subject, but I found an interview with him in Wired recently. He is a world renowned scientist who quotes St. Augustine. You’ve got to love it.

  22. Darwin's Dagger

    What do you know? Certainly the results of a less than rigorous internet quiz (which btw, I have no way of knowing if you completed without using google) tells me very little.

    This is why you don’t argue with Theists. They assume that because their integrity is imposed on them by some lighting throwing, angry God, that if you don’t believe in that God than you must have no integrity.

    Thus, while Dawkins successfully recycles old arguments against the “god” of modern philosophy, he entirely misses the target he so desires to hit: the Triune God of Christianity. Alas!

    But the philosopher’s God is the one who gives Dawkins the most grief as a scientist, being founded in the “logical” arguments of those who invented it. They never even pretended to support the existence of the Christian God, because let’s face it, that guy is way beyond either proof or logic.

    However, we know that it takes a more complicated thing (a human) to design a complex thing (a 747) therefore if God can create life, there has to be some even more complex thing that created God.

    Dawkins error here would’ve been to suggest that this was proof against the existence of God, it is not. But it is proof against the Intelligent Design argument. The foundation of ID is that complexity requires design. Any intellect capable of designing would be necessarily complex and therefore would also have to be designed. I’m sure you’ll argue that it is the nature of God’s complexity that it did not require design, but once you’ve established that complexity can exist without design, you’ve essentially destroyed the ID argument. But that doesn’t prove that God does not exist, merely that one of the most popular arguments for his existence is faulty.

    And yet I’ve said too much. The point of my post on the atheist’s dilemma was that its pointless to argue with theists.

  23. SteveG

    This is why you don’t argue with Theists. They assume that because their integrity is imposed on them by some lighting throwing, angry God, that if you don’t believe in that God than you must have no integrity.

    DD: You’ve imputed quite a bit there to me that I never intended. I did not at all mean to insult you or question your integrity. And I never said, nor implied anything about my own being superior.

    I was earnestly asking the question, and trying to point out that it’s really difficult to asses via cyberspace. You may very well have completed the quiz with no help (I assume you did). My point was that I have no way of knowing that, nor of gauging either your integrity or lack thereof.

    There was no rancor meant in the comment, and I thought the rest of my commen clarified that I had sincere intent in trying to see what you really do know and if we could actually answer that question with some degree of satisfaction. It was not meant as an accusation or a put down.

    In truth DD, I found it totally laughable that you offered such a quiz as somehow giving you credibility to speak on Dawkins’ own religious understanding. I actually seriously considered the idea that you must be joking, but realized that was not so. I tried hard to refrain from belittling that offering the first go round, and I am still trying. I will confess that your condescension on ‘why you don’t argue with theist’ is making that difficult.

    Without in insinuation about your integrity, let me say again…that you scored well on such a quiz tells me next to nothing.

    So, let me plainly ask, would you mind sharing with us what your experiences with religious thought are? What books by those not hostile to religion have you read? Can you give us a sense of your own understanding and why/if we should trust your assessment of Dawkins?

    Again, I am not sure how to approach this, but I am trying to find a way.

  24. Darwin

    Dawkins error here would’ve been to suggest that this was proof against the existence of God, it is not. But it is proof against the Intelligent Design argument.

    I have no disagreement that intelligent design movement has some deeply flawed reasoning at its root. (Though I’d strongly disagree that the modern ID movement has anything to do with any philosophically rigorous discussion of God’s existence.)

    However, I think Dawkins’ problem goes rather deeper than you suggest. His 747 argument suggests a basic failure to realize his assumptions (that an object requires a creator more complex than itself) and even more deeply troubling (from a philosophical point of view) a failure to grasp the idea of something being different in kind from physical objects. It’s basically a variant on the “who created God” argument, which displays of a basic mis-understanding about what the philosophical discussion is even about that it would seem more in place coming from a college freshman than a reputable author.

  25. Darwin's Dagger

    a failure to grasp the idea of something being different in kind from physical objects.

    Perhaps. But Dawkins is a scientist, he deals in physical reality, that is what he knows. I will concede that there may be a reality that transcends the physical reality that I experience, and the physical reality that science can measure from the quantum foam to the largest galactic cluster, but I have no reason to believe that some carpenter’s son from Galilee had any more insight into that transcendent reality than Siddhartha did sitting under the Bodhi tree or I do just sitting at my desk. Dawkins may be arrogant in his dismissal of realities that he can not disprove, but how much more arrogant are the true believers who write doctrine and make law based on that unknowable reality. Bunch of silly hairless apes who think they know the mind of God.

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