Christopher O. Tollefsen

Dismantling the new atheism

Christopher O. Tollefsen
By Christopher Tollefsen
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July 5, 2012 (thePublicDiscourse.com) - Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, collectively known as the “new atheists,” embody one of the most aggressive recent manifestations of both “scientism” and ”naturalism.” This new atheism is characterized by extreme forms of both scientism, a view about knowledge that holds that only what can be demonstrated scientifically deserves to be considered knowledge, and naturalism, a view about reality that holds that only the material world is real. Hence it is hostile to religion in all forms, viewing it as merely a kind of superstition; it is likewise hostile to much “folk” understanding, including traditional claims about the nature and source of morality.

It is thus good news for everyone that Alvin Plantinga, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has addressed and, I should say, systematically dismantled, the claims of the new atheists in his recently published book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Plantinga’s book, generally written at a level accessible to any educated person, is essential reading for anyone concerned not only with theclaims of the new atheists and what can be said contrary to those claims, but also, as I shall discuss below, with their way of making those claims, for they have adopted a style hostile to the very idea of public discourse, a style that now threatens almost every area of contested moral and political discourse in our country.

Plantinga defends two claims throughout his book. One is that there is “a superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion and science;” the other is that there is “a superficial concord and deep conflict between naturalism and science.” The bulk of the book is devoted to the first claim. Plantinga begins by discussing the conflict between theism’s claims that God acts in the world as a creator, sustainer, and guide (claims common to at least the three Abrahamic religions), and Darwin’s claim to have discovered the means—random mutation plus natural selection—by which later species, including human beings, have evolved from earlier species.

The claim of the new atheists is that Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” as Dennett calls it, proves that there is no divine agency responsible for the world. As Dennett explains, “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.” But the claims of Darwin show no such thing: even if Darwinism accurately identifies the mechanism by which evolution has occurred, Plantinga notes, “it is perfectly possible that the process of natural selection has been guided and superintended by God, and that it could not have produced our world without that guidance.”

Moreover, there is a very good reason for thinking that the world as it is would not have been possible but for God’s agency, and that is the existence of creatures with minds. Theists believe, as Locke put it, that it is “impossible to conceive that ever pure incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being.” Mind, theists believe, can only come from mind (or Mind). So, on the basis of this argument and several others, Plantinga concludes Part I of his book by claiming that the conflict between Darwin and theism is only apparent.

The conflict is somewhat greater as regards other scientific claims; in particular, many claims coming from evolutionary psychology and historical biblical criticism are, as far as they go, incompatible with some or all aspects of, for example, Christian belief. That all human action is a result of mechanisms selected because they enhance the power of one’s genes to reproduce is clearly incompatible with Christian normative demands to love one’s neighbor: one is not doing that if one’s actions are really undertaken for the propagation of one’s genes. And to varying degrees, the claims of historical biblical scholarship are either in conflict with revealed religion, if those claims deny straightforwardly the possibility of supernatural action in the world, or fall far short of the claims of religion, if they methodologically abstain from using any but naturalistic assumptions.

Yet none of these claims, argues Plantinga, provides defeaters for religious belief; and the reason for this is that the evidence base against which a Christian, for example, assesses the claims of evolutionary biology or biblical scholarship, includes claims that cannot be known only by science’s methodological naturalism.

Most prominently, Christians hold that some truths are known by faith, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; faith, like knowledge, is thus aimed at the truth. Plantinga writes, “My evidence base contains the belief that God has created human beings in his image. I now learn that, given an evidence base that doesn’t contain that belief, the right thing to believe is that those mechanisms [of faith] are not truth-aimed; but of course that doesn’t give me any reason at all to amend or reject my belief that in fact they are truth-aimed.”

In other words, if we take evidence gathered only from one source of truth, we will fail to have a defeater for a claim that appears true on the basis of all of the possible sources of truth: so even though the witnesses say they saw me slash a colleague’s tires (perceptual evidence), if I remember being out of town that day (memorial evidence), then the witness claims do not defeat my belief that I did not slash the tires.

But can’t the new atheists simply help themselves to the premise that science is the only source of knowledge? We might wonder on what basis they could: surely it is not a claim of science that science is the only source of knowledge. But this, as we will see, is only one way in which extreme naturalism threatens to be its own worst enemy.

In the third part of the book, Plantinga turns to the question of whether in fact theism might be in concord with contemporary science, rather than in conflict. After looking at, and giving a fairly weak endorsement to, some arguments in support of intelligent design and fine-tuning, Plantinga argues that in fact the theistic worldview is as a whole deeply consonant with the goals and successes of contemporary science.

This is because theism holds, as atheistic naturalism denies, that God has created us in his image, as rational beings. But as rational, yet finite, beings, we are truth-seekers, and for the theist it makes perfectly good sense to think that God has also created a world that is available to us to know: “God created both us and our world in such a way that there is a certain fit or match between the world and our cognitive faculties.”

Plantinga then identifies a number of features of our world, and our cognitive relationship to that world, that are much more likely, and make much more sense, on a theistic than on an atheistic picture: the reliability and regularity of nature, and its working in accordance with law; the role of mathematics in the understanding of nature; the possibility of induction; the appropriateness of theoretical virtues such as simplicity; and even the empirical nature of science, which Plantinga argues is underwritten by the contingency of divine creation. In all these respects modern science is deeply compatible with theism, a fact that renders unsurprising the further fact that all the great founders of modern science were theists, working from a deeply Christian background.

So the conflict between science and religion is, Plantinga shows, largely bogus (and I have only scratched the surface of his arguments here). But things are even worse from the standpoint of naturalism, for on the naturalist account, there is no good reason to think that our cognitive faculties are truth-tracking. After all, it is not because those faculties contribute to true beliefs that they are selected for in the Darwinian account; it is because they are likely to contribute to survival.

Can the naturalist expect, as the theist clearly can, that her cognitive faculties are reliable, i.e., that they lead to true beliefs? Since natural selection does not select for truth, or truth-tracking faculties, but for other unrelated properties, we have no reason to expect so given naturalism. Of course, we have very good reason to think our beliefs are reliable; so this claim should not bother most people. And non-naturalistic theists will believe that even if evolution is true, God has overseen evolution with a view to the reliability of our cognitive faculties. The naturalist cannot rely on any such claim.

But since the inability to rely on cognitive faculties as reliably truth-tracking is a defeater for any belief whatsoever, it is a defeater also for naturalism; accordingly naturalism turns out, on Plantinga’s argument, to be self-defeating, and cannot be rationally accepted.

So Plantinga gives a wealth of argument for the theist to use against the claims of atheism. And in this, it must be said, he exercises considerably more intellectual virtue than his opponents. Plantinga’s early chapters are devastating in revealing that the prime architects of the new atheism almost inevitably gravitate toward straw-man characterizations of their opponents’ views, attribute venal motives to their opponents, and fail to investigate the intellectual sources of Christianity, giving no weight, for example, to the classical arguments of Aquinas and Locke, or the arguments of contemporary theists such as Swinburne and van Inwagen. Their rhetoric is inevitably condescending, as the development of the recent cult of the “flying spaghetti monster” makes clear.

But what is worse, some of the new atheists seem to have adopted this strategy deliberately. Plantinga quotes from a blog post of Dawkins in which he says that those unconvinced by the new atheists “are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.”

Plantinga speaks of the “melancholy” with which one should view this spectacle; yet it seems increasingly characteristic of an important strand of intellectual, if the word is appropriate, approach to the most contentious issues of the day. Those who dissent from academically “respectable” views about religion, evolution, global warming, sexual ethics, the nature of marriage, and the value of unborn human life are increasingly addressed with scorn and public shaming rather than intellectual argument and reasoned discourse; and their opponents are often unwilling even to acknowledge their good will and good faith. This is not a strategy compatible with a love of truth or a love of neighbors, and those on its receiving end should not, of course, respond in kind. The wealth of argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies points to an altogether better path.

Christopher O. Tollefsen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, is the editor of Bioethics with Liberty and Justice: Themes in the Work of Joseph M. Boyle. Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse. This article has been republished from Public Discourse with permission.

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PBS defends decision to air pro-abortion documentary ‘After Tiller’

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By Dustin Siggins

Under pressure for showing the pro-abortion documentary "After Tiller" on Labor Day, PBS' "POV" affiliate has defended the decision in response to an inquiry from LifeSiteNews.

The producers of the film say their goal with the documentary, which tells the stories of four late-term abortion doctors after the killing of infamous late-term abortionist George Tiller, is to "change public perception of third-trimester abortion providers by building a movement dedicated to supporting their right to work with a special focus on maintaining their safety.” 

POV told LifeSiteNews, "We do believe that 'After Tiller' adds another dimension to an issue that is being debated widely." Asked if POV will show a pro-life documentary, the organization said that it "does not have any other films currently scheduled on this issue. POV received almost 1000 film submissions each year through our annual call for entries and we welcome the opportunity to consider films with a range of points of view."

When asked whether POV was concerned about alienating its viewership -- since PBS received more than $400 million in federal tax dollars in 2012 and half of Americans identify as pro-life -- POV said, "The filmmakers would like the film to add to the discussion around these issues. Abortion is already a legal procedure."

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"This is an issue that people feel passionately about and will have a passionate response to. We are hopeful that the majority of people can see it for what it is, another lens on a very difficult issue." 

In addition to the documentary, POV has written materials for community leaders and teachers to share. A cursory examination of the 29-page document, which is available publicly, appears to include links to outside sources that defend Roe v. Wade, an examination of the constitutional right to privacy, and "a good explanation of the link between abortion law and the right to privacy," among other information.

Likewise, seven clips recommended for student viewing -- grades 11 and beyond -- include scenes where couples choose abortion because the children are disabled. Another shows pro-life advocates outside a doctor's child's school, and a third is described as showing "why [one of the film's doctors] chose to offer abortion services and includes descriptions of what can happen when abortion is illegal or unavailable, including stories of women who injured themselves when they tried to terminate their own pregnancies and children who were abused because they were unwanted."

Another clip "includes footage of protesters, as well as news coverage of a hearing in the Nebraska State Legislature in which abortion opponents make reference to the idea that a fetus feels pain." The clip's description fails to note that it is a scientifically proven fact that unborn children can feel pain.

The documentary is set to air on PBS at 10 p.m. Eastern on Labor Day.

Kirsten Andersen contributed to this article.

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He defended ‘real’ marriage, and then was beheaded for it

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By Pete Baklinski

A Christian man was executed during the night by a high-profile ruler after making an uncompromising defense of real marriage.

The Christian, who was renowned for his holiness, had told the ruler in public that his relationship with his partner was “against the law” of God. The Christian’s words enraged the ruler’s partner who successfully plotted to have him permanently silenced.

John the Baptist was first imprisoned before he was beheaded. The Catholic Church honors him today, August 29, as a martyr and saint.

While John’s death happened a little less than 2,000 years ago, his heroic stance for real marriage is more pertinent today than ever before.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the ruler Herod had ‘married’ his brother’s wife Herodias. When John told Herod with complete frankness, “It is against the law for you to have your brother’s wife,” Herodias became “furious” with him to the point of wanting him killed for his intolerance, bullying, and hate-speech.

Herodias found her opportunity to silence John by having her daughter please Herod during a dance at a party. Herod offered the girl anything she wanted. The daughter turned to her mother for advice, and Herodias said to ask for John’s head on a platter.

Those who fight for real marriage today can learn three important lessons from John’s example.

  1. Those proudly living in ungodly and unnatural relationships — often referred to in today’s sociopolitical sphere as ‘marriage’ — will despise those who tell them what they are doing is wrong. Real marriage defenders must expect opposition to their message from the highest levels.
  2. Despite facing opposition, John was not afraid to defend God’s plan for marriage in the public square, even holding a secular ruler accountable to this plan. John, following the third book of the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 20:21), held that a man marrying the wife of his brother was an act of “impurity” and therefore abhorrent to God. Real marriage defenders must boldly proclaim today that God is the author of marriage, an institution he created to be a life-long union between one man and one woman from which children arise and in which they are best nurtured. Marriage can be nothing more, nothing less.
  3. John did not compromise on the truth of marriage as revealed by God, even to the point of suffering imprisonment and death for his unpopular position. Real marriage defenders must never compromise on the truth of marriage, even if the government, corporate North America, and the entire secular education system says otherwise. They must learn to recognize the new “Herodias” of today who despises those raising a voice against her lifestyle. They must stand their ground no matter what may come, no matter what the cost.

John the Baptist was not intolerant or a bigot, he simply lived the word of God without compromise, speaking the word of truth when it was needed, knowing that God’s way is always the best way. Were John alive today, he would be at the forefront of the grassroots movement opposing the social and political agenda to remake marriage in the image of man.

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If he were alive today he might speak simple but eloquent words such as, “It is against God’s law for two men or two women to be together as a husband and wife in marriage. Marriage can only be between a man and a woman.” 

He would most likely be hated. He would be ridiculed. He would surely have the human rights tribunals throwing the book at him. But he would be speaking the truth and have God as his ally. 

The time may not be far off when those who defend real marriage, like John, will be presented with the choice of following Caesar or making the ultimate sacrifice. May God grant his faithful the grace to persevere in whatever might come. St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

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The Wunderlich family Mike Donnelly / Home School Legal Defence Association
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German homeschoolers regain custody of children, vow to stay and fight for freedom

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By Thaddeus Baklinski

One year to the day since a team of 20 social workers, police officers, and special agents stormed a homeschooling family’s residence near Darmstadt, Germany, and forcibly removed all four of the family’s children, aged 7 to 14, a state appeals court has returned custody of the children to their parents.

The reason given for the removal was that parents Dirk and Petra Wunderlich continued to homeschool their children in defiance of a German ban on home education.

The children were returned three weeks after being taken, following an international outcry spearheaded by the Home School Legal Defense Association.

However, a lower court imposed the condition on the parents that their children were required to attend state schools in order for them to be released, and took legal custody of the children in order to prevent the family from leaving the country.

In a decision that was still highly critical of the parents and of homeschooling, the appeals court decided that the action of the lower court in putting the children in the custody of the state was “disproportional” and ordered complete custody returned to the parents, according to a statement by the HSLDA.

The Wunderlichs, who began homeschooling again when the court signaled it would rule this way, said they were very pleased with the result, but noted that the court’s harsh words about homeschooling indicated that their battle was far from over.

“We have won custody and we are glad about that,” Dirk said.

“The court said that taking our children away was not proportionate—only because the authorities should apply very high fines and criminal prosecution instead. But this decision upholds the absurd idea that homeschooling is child endangerment and an abuse of parental authority.”

The Wunderlichs are now free to emigrate to another country where homeschooling is legal, if they choose, but they said they intend to remain in Germany and work for educational freedom.

“While we no longer fear that our children will be taken away as long as we are living in Hessen, it can still happen to other people in Germany,” Dirk said. “Now we fear crushing fines up to $75,000 and jail. This should not be tolerated in a civilized country.”

Petra Wunderlich said, "We could not do this without the help of HSLDA,” but cautioned that, “No family can fight the powerful German state—it is too much, too expensive."

"If it were not for HSLDA and their support, I am afraid our children would still be in state custody. We are so grateful and thank all homeschoolers who have helped us by helping HSLDA.”

HSLDA’s Director for Global Outreach, Michael Donnelly, said he welcomed the ruling but was concerned about the court’s troubling language.

“We welcome this ruling that overturns what was an outrageous abuse of judicial power,” he said.

“The lower court decision to take away legal custody of the children essentially imprisoned the Wunderlich family in Germany. But this decision does not go far enough. The court has only grudgingly given back custody and has further signaled to local authorities that they should still go after the Wunderlichs with criminal charges or fines.”

Donnelly pointed out that such behavior in a democratic country is problematic.

“Imprisonment and fines for homeschooling are outside the bounds of what free societies that respect fundamental human rights should tolerate,” he explained.

“Freedom and fundamental human rights norms demand respect for parental decision making in education. Germany’s state and national policies that permit banning home education must be changed.

"Such policies from a leading European democracy not only threaten the rights of tens of thousands of German families but establish a dangerous example that other countries may be tempted to follow,” Donnelly warned.

HSLDA Chairman Michael Farris said that acting on behalf of the Wunderlichs was an important stand for freedom.

“The Wunderlichs are a good and decent family whose basic human rights were violated and are still threatened,” Farris said.

“Their fight is our fight," Farris stressed, "and we will continue to support those who stand against German policy banning homeschooling that violates international legal norms. Free people cannot tolerate such oppression and we will do whatever we can to fight for families like the Wunderlichs both here in the United States and abroad. We must stand up to this kind of persecution where it occurs or we risk seeing own freedom weakened.”

Visit the HSLDA website dedicated to helping the Wunderlich family and other German homeschoolers here.

Contact the German embassy in the U.S. here.

Contact the German embassy in Canada here.

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