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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Lisa Bourne

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Pressure mounts as Catholic Relief Services fails to act on VP in gay ‘marriage’

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By Lisa Bourne
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Rick Estridge, Catholic Relief Services' Vice President of Overseas Finance, is in a same-sex "marriage," public records show. Twitter

BALTIMORE, MD, April 24, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) -- Nearly a week after news broke that a Catholic Relief Services vice president had contracted a homosexual “marriage” while also publicly promoting homosexuality on social media in conflict with Church teaching, the US Bishops international relief agency has taken no apparent steps to address the matter and is also not talking.

CRS Vice President of Overseas Finance Rick Estridge entered into a homosexual “marriage” in Maryland the same month in 2013 that he was promoted by CRS to vice president, public records show.

Despite repeated efforts at a response, CRS has not acknowledged LifeSiteNews’ inquiries during the week. And the agency told ChurchMilitant.com Thursday that no action had been taken beyond discussion of the situation and CRS would have no further comment.

"Nothing has changed,” CRS Senior Manager for Communications Tom said. “No further statement will be made."

LifeSiteNews first contacted CRS for a response prior to the April 20 release of the report and did not receive a reply, however Estridge’s Facebook and LinkeIn profiles were then removed just prior to the report’s release.

CRS also did not acknowledge LifeSiteNews’ follow-up inquiry later in the week.

“Having an executive who publicly celebrates a moral abomination shows the ineffectiveness of CRS' Catholic identity training,” Lepanto Institute President Michael Hichborn told LifeSiteNews. “How many others who hate Catholic moral teaching work at CRS?”

CRS did admit it was aware Estridge was in a “same-sex civil marriage” to Catholic News Agency (CNA) Monday afternoon, and confirmed he was VP of Overseas Finance and had been with CRS for 16 years.

“At this point we are in deliberations on this matter,” Price told CNA that day.

ChurchMilitant.com also reported that according to its sources, it was a well-known fact at CRS headquarters in Baltimore that Estridge was in a homosexual “marriage.” 

“There is no way CRS didn't know one of its executives entered into a mock-marriage until we broke the story,” Hichborn said. “The implication is clear; CRS top brass had no problem with having an executive so deliberately flouting Catholic moral teaching.”

“The big question is,” Hichborn continued, “what other morally repugnant matters is CRS comfortable with?”

While the wait continues for the Bishops’ relief organization to address the matter, those behind the report and other critics of prior instances of CRS involvement in programs and groups that violate Church principles continue to call for a thorough and independent review of the agency programs and personnel.

“How long should it take to call an employee into your office, tell him that his behavior is incompatible with the mission of the organization, and ask for his resignation?” asked Population Research Institute President Steven Mosher. “About thirty minutes, I would say.”

“The Catholic identity of CRS is at stake,” Hichborn stated. “If CRS does nothing, then there is no way faithful Catholics can trust the integrity of CRS's programs or desire to make its Catholicity preeminent.” 

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Thousands of marriage activists gathered in D.C. June 19, 2014 for the 2nd March for Marriage. Dustin Siggins / LifeSiteNews.com
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Watch the March for Marriage online—only at LifeSiteNews

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WASHINGTON, D.C., April 24, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) -- At noon on Saturday, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and dozens of cosponsors, coalition partners, and speakers will launch the third annual March for Marriage. Thousands of people are expected to take place in this important event to show the support real marriage has among the American people.

As the sole media sponsor of the March, LifeSiteNews is proud to exclusively livestream the March. Click here to see the rally at noon Eastern Time near the U.S. Capitol, and the March to the Supreme Court at 1:00 Eastern Time.

And don't forget to pray that God's Will is done on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court hears arguments about marriage!

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Hillary Clinton: ‘Religious beliefs’ against abortion ‘have to be changed’

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By Ben Johnson

NEW YORK CITY, April 24, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Speaking to an influential gathering in New York City on Thursday, Hillary Clinton declared that “religious beliefs” that condemn "reproductive rights," “have to be changed.”

“Yes, we've cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health,” Hillary told the Women in the World Summit yesterday.

Liberal politicians use “reproductive health” as a blanket term that includes abortion. However, Hillary's reference echoes National Organization for Women (NOW) president Terry O’Neill's op-ed from last May that called abortion “an essential measure to prevent the heartbreak of infant mortality.”

The Democratic presidential hopeful added that governments should throw the power of state coercion behind the effort to redefine traditional religious dogmas.

“Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources, and political will,” she said. “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”

The line received rousing applause at the feminist conference, hosted in Manhattan's Lincoln Center by Tina Brown.

She also cited religious-based objections to the HHS mandate, funding Planned Parenthood, and the homosexual and transgender agenda as obstacles that the government must defeat.

“America moves ahead when all women are guaranteed the right to make their own health care choices, not when those choices are taken away by an employer like Hobby Lobby,” she said. The Supreme Court ruled last year that closely held corporations had the right to opt out of the provision of ObamaCare requiring them to provide abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization to employees with no co-pay – a mandate that violates the teachings of the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies.

Clinton lamented that “there are those who offer themselves as leaders...who would defund the country's leading provider of family planning,” Planned Parenthood, “and want to let health insurance companies once again charge women just because of our gender.”

“We move forward when gay and transgender women are embraced...not fired from good jobs because of who they love or who they are,” she added.

It is not the first time the former first lady had said that liberal social policies should displace religious views. In a December 2011 speech in Geneva, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said perhaps the “most challenging issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens.” These objections, she said, are “not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation.”

While opinions on homosexuality are “still evolving,” in time “we came to learn that no [religious] practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.”

Her views, if outside the American political mainstream, have been supported by the United Nations. The UN Population Fund stated in its 2012 annual report that religious objections to abortion-inducing drugs had to be overcome. According to the UNFPA report, “‘duty-bearers’ (governments and others)” have a responsibility to assure that all forms of contraception – including sterilization and abortion-inducing ‘emergency contraception’ – are viewed as acceptable – “But if they are not acceptable for cultural, religious or other reasons, they will not be used.”

Two years later, the United Nations' Committee on the Rights of the Child instructed the Vatican last February that the Catholic Church should amend canon law “relating to abortion with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services may be permitted.”

At Thursday's speech, Hillary called the legal, state-enforced implementation of feminist politics “the great unfinished business of the 21st century,” which must be accomplished “not just for women but for everyone — and not just in far away countries but right here in the United States.”

“These are not just women's fights. These have to be America's fights and the world's fights,” she said. “There's still much to be done in our own country, much more to be done around the world, but I'm confident and optimistic that if we get to work, we will get it done together.”

American critics called Clinton's suggestion that a nation founded upon freedom of religion begin using state force to change religious practices unprecedented.

“Never before have we seen a presidential candidate be this bold about directly confronting the Catholic Church's teachings on abortion,” said Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.

“In one sense, this shows just how extreme the pro-abortion caucus actually is,” Ed Morrissey writes at HotAir.com. “Running for president on the basis of promising to use the power of government to change 'deep seated cultural codes [and] religious beliefs' might be the most honest progressive slogan in history.”

He hoped that, now that she had called for governments to change religious doctrines, “voters will now see the real Hillary Clinton, the one who dismisses their faith just the same as Obama did, and this time publicly rather than in a private fundraiser.”

Donohue asked Hillary “to take the next step and tell us exactly what she plans to do about delivering on her pledge. Not only would practicing Catholics like to know, so would Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and all those who value life from conception to natural death.”

You may watch Hillary's speech below.

Her comments on religion begin at approximately 9:00. 

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