Christopher O. Tollefsen

Dismantling the new atheism

Christopher O. Tollefsen
By Christopher Tollefsen

July 5, 2012 ( - 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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Pelosi asked: Is unborn baby with human heart a ‘human being’? Responds: ‘I am a devout Catholic’

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By Dustin Siggins

Tell Nancy Pelosi: No, supporting abortion and gay 'marriage' is not Catholic. Sign the petition. Click here.

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 2, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Top Democrat Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, won't say whether an unborn child with a “human heart” and a “human liver” is a human being.

Pelosi, who is the Minority Leader in the House, was asked a question about the issue by CNS News at a press conference last week. The conservative news outlet asked, "In reference to funding for Planned Parenthood: Is an unborn baby with a human heart and a human liver a human being?”

Pelosi stumbled over her answer, saying, “Why don't you take your ideological questions--I don't, I don't have—”

CNS then asked her, "If it's not a human being, what species is it?”

It was then that Pelosi got back on stride, swatting aside the question with her accustomed reference to her “devout” Catholic faith.

“No, listen, I want to say something to you,” she said. “I don't know who you are and you're welcome to be here, freedom of this press. I am a devout practicing Catholic, a mother of five children. When my baby was born, my fifth child, my oldest child was six years old. I think I know more about this subject than you, with all due respect.”

“So it's not a human being, then?” pressed CNS, to which Pelosi said, “And I do not intend to respond to your questions, which have no basis in what public policy is that we do here.”

Pelosi has long used her self-proclaimed status as a “devout” practicing Catholic to promote abortion.

In response to a reporter’s question a proposed ban on late-term abortion in 2013, Pelosi said that the issue of late-term abortion is "sacred ground" for her.

"As a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this," Pelosi said. "This shouldn't have anything to do with politics."

In 2008, she was asked by then-Meet the Press host David Gregory about when life begins. Pelosi said that "as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue I have studied for a long time. And what I know is that over the centuries, the doctors of the Church have not been able to make that definition....We don't know."

The Church has always taught that unborn human life is to be protected, and that such life is created at the moment of conception.

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New video: Planned Parenthood abortionist jokes about harvesting baby’s brains, getting ‘intact’ head

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By Ben Johnson

I interviewed my friend, David Daleiden, about his important work exposing Planned Parenthood's baby body parts trade on the Glenn Beck Program. David urged Congress to hold Planned Parenthood accountable and to demand the full truth. He also released never-before-seen footage showing a Planned Parenthood abortionist callously discussing how to obtain an intact brain from aborted babies.

Posted by Lila Rose on Monday, October 5, 2015


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WASHINGTON, D.C., October 5, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) - In the newest video footage released by the Center for Medical Progress, a Planned Parenthood abortionist laughs as she discusses her hope of removing the intact "calvarium," or skull, of an unborn baby while preserving both lobes of the brain.

She also describes how she first dismembers babies up to twenty weeks gestation, including two twenty-week babies she said she aborted the week before.

Dr. Amna Dermish, an abortionist with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, told undercover investigators she had never been able to remove the calivarium (skull) of an aborted child "intact," but she hopes to.

"Maybe next time," the investigator said.

"I know, right?" Dr. Dermish replied. "Well, this'll give me something to strive for."

Dermish, who performs abortions up to the 20-week legal limit in Austin, then described the method she used to collect fetal brain and skull specimens.

"If it’s a breech presentation [in which the baby is born feet first] I will remove the extremities first - the lower extremities - and then go for the spine," she began.

She then slides the baby down the birth canal until she can snip the spinal cord.

The buyer noted that intact organs fetch higher prices from potential buyers, who seek them for experimentation.

"I always try to keep the trunk intact," she said.

"I don't routinely convert to breech, but I will if I have to," she added.

Converting a child to the breech position is the first step of the partial birth abortion procedure. The procedure has been illegal since President Bush signed legislation in 2003 making it a federal felony punishable by two years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

According to CMP lead investigator David Daleiden, who debuted the video footage during an interview with Lila Rose on The Blaze TV, Dr. Dermish was trained by Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola.

Dr. Nucatola was caught on the first CMP undercover video, discussing the side industry while eating a salad and drinking red wine during a business luncheon.

Between sips, she described an abortion process that legal experts believe is a partial birth abortion, violating federal law.

“The federal abortion ban is a law, and laws are up to interpretation,” Dr. Nucatola said on the undercover footage. “So, if I say on day one that I don't intend to do this, what ultimately happens doesn't matter.”

Daleiden told Rose he hoped that Congressional investigators would continue to pressure the organization about whether the abortion technique it uses violates federal law, as well as the $60-per-specimen fee the national organization has admitted some of its affiliates receive.

Trafficking in human body parts for "valuable consideration" is also a federal felony carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

"That would be enough to construct a criminal case against Planned Parenthood," Daleiden said.

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Nancy Flanders


He used to be an abortionist; now, he fights to save the lives of the preborn

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By Nancy Flanders

October 5, 2015 (LiveActionNews) -- In 1976, Dr. Anthony Levatino, an OB/GYN, graduated from medical school and was, without a doubt, pro-abortion. He strongly supported abortion “rights” and believed abortion was a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor.

“A lot of people identify themselves as pro-life or pro-choice, but for so many people, it doesn’t really touch them personally; it doesn’t impact their lives in the way that I wish it would. If nothing more than in the voting booth, if nowhere else,” said Levatino in a speech for the Pro-Life Action League. “But when you’re an obstetrician / gynecologist and you say I’m pro-choice – well, that becomes rather a more personal thing because you’re the one who does the abortions and you have to make the decision of whether you’ll do that or not.”

Levatino learned how to do first and second trimester abortions. Thirty to forty years ago, second trimester abortions were done by saline injection, which was dangerous.

"For the first time in my life, after all those years, all those abortions, I really looked, I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table that used to be somebody’s son or daughter and that’s all I could see."

At that same time, Levatino and his wife were struggling with fertility problems and were considering adoption. They knew however, how difficult it was to adopt a newborn.

“It was the first time that I had any doubts about what I was doing because I knew very well that part of the reason why it’s difficult to find children to adopt were that doctors like me were killing them in abortions,” said Levatino.

Finally, in 1978, the couple adopted their daughter, Heather. Right after the adoption, they discovered they were expecting a baby, and their son was born just 10 months later.

Levatino describes a “perfectly happy” life at this time and says that despite those first qualms about abortion, he went right back to work performing them.

In 1981, after graduating from his residency, Levatino joined an OB/GYN practice which also offered abortions as a service. Saline infusion was the most common method for second trimester abortions at the time, but it ran the risk of babies born alive. The procedures were also expensive, difficult, and required the mother to go through labor. Levatino and his partners trained themselves to perform the D&E abortion procedure, which is used today.

In his speech, he describes what it’s like to perform the now routine procedure:

You take an instrument like this called a sopher clamp and you basically – the surgery is that you literally tear a child to pieces. The suction is only for the fluid. The rest of it is literally dismembering a child piece by piece with an abortion instrument […] absolutely gut-wrenching procedure.

Over the next four years, Levatino would perform 1,200 abortions, over 100 of them D&E, second trimester abortions.

But then everything changed. On a beautiful day in June of 1984, the family was at home enjoying time with friends when Levatino heard tires squeal. The children were in the street and Heather had been hit by a car.

“She was a mess,” he explained. “And we did everything we possibly could. But she ultimately died, literally in our arms, on the way to the hospital that evening.”

After a while, Levatino had to return to work. And one day, his first D&E since the accident was on his schedule. He wasn’t really thinking about it or concerned. To him, it was going to be a routine procedure he had done many times before. Only it wasn’t.

“I started that abortion and I took that sopher clamp and I literally ripped out an arm or a leg and I just stared at it in the clamp. And I got sick,” he explained. “But you know something, when you start an abortion you can’t stop. If you don’t get all the pieces – and you literally stack them up on the side of the table […] your patient is going to come back infected, bleeding or dead. So I soldiered on and I finished that abortion.”

But by the time the abortion was complete, Levatino was beginning to feel a change of heart:

For the first time in my life, after all those years, all those abortions, I really looked, I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table that used to be somebody’s son or daughter and that’s all I could see. I couldn’t see what a great doctor I was being. I didn’t see how I helped this woman in her crisis. I didn’t see the 600 dollars cash I had just made in 15 minutes. All I could see was somebody’s son or daughter. And after losing my daughter this was looking very, very different to me.

Levatino stopped performing second trimester abortions but continued to provide first trimester abortions for the next few months.

“Everybody puts doctors on a pedestal and we’re all supposed to be so smart but we’re no different than anybody else,” he said.

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He realized that killing a baby at 20 weeks gestation was exactly the same as killing one at nine weeks gestation or even two weeks gestation. He understood that it doesn’t matter how big or small the baby is, it’s a human life. He has not done an abortion since February 1985 and says there is no chance he will ever perform one again.

Adamant that he would never join the pro-life movement because of the media’s portrayal of pro-lifers as crazy, he was eventually invited to a pro-life potluck dinner where he met people who he realized were intelligent volunteers who spent their time defending preborn humans.

After that, Levatino began speaking out against abortion specifically with young people, graphically describing for them what an abortion really is.

Levatino has also testified before Congress, asking our government to end legal abortion.

Reprinted with permission from Live Action News

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