Monday, April 13, 2009

Why People are Atheists, part 4

I've been negligent in posting my fourth installment in this series, but here it is finally. So far I've argued that some are atheists because they are seeking liberation from a moral code, others reject the idea of God because religion has been used as a tool of oppression by the establishment, and still other reject God because they fear faith and see it as a dangerous thing for humanity. I want to offer two more reasons in this post and then move on in subsequent post to think about how we should respond as a believers.

4. Some reject the idea of God because of the overly confident assertions of scientists that science has disproven God. There is a stigma that goes along with faith, especially serious faith, in academia. I must confess that in reading Dawkins' God Delusion I felt stupid. Why? Certainly not because his arguments were particularly strong (hint: there are virtually no arguments, just assertions and plenty of sarcasm). No, I felt stupid because he kept telling me I am stupid for believing in God. He points out several times that scientist are generally atheists (pg. 127), especially the elite scientists. He likes pointing out that the more educated one is, the more likely they will be atheists (pg. 129). He refers to belief in God as superstition and as reasonable as belief in the tooth fairy and Easter Bunny (pg. 75). He argues that a belief in God undermines serious scientific work and compromises intellectual rigor. He actually goes so far as to call intelligent Congressman and Senators liars for saying they believe in God: "There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate. Assuming that the majority of these 535 individuals are an educated sample of the population, it is statistically all but inevitable that a substantial number of them must be atheists. They must have lied, or concealed their true feelings in order to get elected" (pg. 67).

I will grant him, for the sake of the argument, that some may feel pressured to claim they believe in God or hide their atheistic leanings. There is a public pressure in this regard that is undeniable. Yet, I think we should be able to turn this argument around on Mr. Dawkins. Why do so few scientists and intellectual elites profess a faith in God? Could it be because of the peer pressure in the academic community? This is no doubt true also. Ben Stein's movie Expelled chronicles how belief in God or advocacy for Intelligent Design derailed more than one career. Moreover, the number of scientist who claim a personal religious faith of some kind has not changed in the last 80 years. McGrath, "One of the most widely help beliefs within atheist circles has been that as the beliefs and practices of the 'scientific' worldview became increasingly accepted within Western culture, the number of practicing scientists with any form of religious belief would dwindle to the point of insignificance. A survey of the religious views of scientist, undertaken in 1916, showed that about 40 percent of scientists had some form of personal religious beliefs. At the time, this was regarded as shocking, even scandalous. The survey was repeated in 1996, and showed no significant reduction in the proportion of scientist holding such beliefs, seriously challenging the popular notion of the relentless erosion of religious faith within the profession. The survey cuts the ground from under those who argued that the natural sciences are necessarily atheistic. Of those questioned, 40 percent had active religious beliefs, 40 percent had none (and can thus legitimately be regarded as atheists), and 20 percent were agnostics."

5. The last motive for the rejection of God, which I've already mentioned, is the notion that God is a hateful, vengeful monster. This view is expressed by Dawkins, who writes, "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, monomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully" (pg. 51). Both Sam Harris and Christopher Hitches echo Dawkins argument. If you're like me, then 1) you had to look a couple of those words up, and 2) you have wondered about God's character also, especially after reading Joshua or Judges. Of all the reasons for a disbelief in God, this one may be the most difficult to help people over.

I will begin posting responses to these reasons for rejecting God soon. What I will post, however, is not a detailed critique of the arguments (maybe later). Instead, it will be a manifesto of sorts. Many of these reasons for rejecting God are rooted in sins, corruption, false teaching, misunderstanding, etc. within the church (with the exception of reason 5). Part of showing people the reasonableness of a belief in God will be correcting and guarding against these problems.


GeekyAtheist said...

My wife and I became atheists after 24 years of being christians. What drove us to atheism is researching and understanding the bible's history, and then delving into your #4 reason. However, it's not a faith of science that we have partaken. It's an understanding of science that we had been oblivious to.

Ben Stein's movie is a horrible example. As Christians we thought it was a horrible movie, and that was before we found out what underhanded moves he took to produce it.

Let's look at the other side of the coin: Ken Miller and Francis Collins. The first is a distinguished biologist and author of one of the most popular high school biology textbooks. The latter was the head of the human genome project. Both scientists are highly regarded, and guess what: they're theists.

Intelligent design is not science. It is the lack of science. Intelligent design does not ask further questions, it stops questions from being asked. A believer in intelligent design might say, "The flagellum appears to be irreducibly complex." The IDer will then assert that it must have been intelligently design. End of case.

A scientist will ask questions, "How might this have formed?" or, "Is this similar in structure to something we've found somewhere else?" In fact, this favorite argument of Behe was shown that it wasn't irreducibly complex during the Dover, PA trials.

To me, this isn't having a faith in anything. It's telling yourself you're not going to accept an answer without some empirical evidence. If there's no empirical evidence, attempt to find some.

No hypothesis is more valid than any other hypothesis without empirical evidence.

Dan Waugh said...

Geeky Atheist,
Thank you for the comment. I'd invite you to continue following the posts and offering feedback. To this point I haven't tried to really offer response (though I drift into that mode at points). I've simply tried to outline the major reasons that emerged in my recent reading. What I'll post next is a series on why my faith isn't derailed by these arguments.

As far as the details of your comment goes, here's my response. First, I'd be very interested in how you understand science and the role of faith in the scientist. As I see it, science is full of faith commitments. We trust that the world is rational, though we could never prove it. We must take it on faith.

I don't think I communicated my point well and realize the reference to Expelled could have distracted from the point. I have interest in arguing the merits of ID - I'm not a scientist, though I'm an interested observer. My point was to expose Dawkins argument (if we can call it that). He contends that scientists are generally atheists and that this is evidence that atheism must be correct (obviously paraphrased). He employs a mean double standard. When the number of Congressman/Senators who claim to be atheists is below the national statistical average (approx. 1%-3% of the US population according to a 2002 Pew survey) he accuses our government leaders of lying to get elected. When the numbers of scientist who claim to be atheists is higher than the national average he touts it as evidence for atheism. Why not assume they are lying to get/keep their jobs.

I have read a little of Collins and find him wonderful (and he's a critic of ID - again, that wasn't really my point). Polkinghorne is another great scientist who is also a devout theist (Christian). I think this is great, but Dawkins disagrees. He thinks they are intellectually dishonest. Of Stephen Gould he actually writes, "I simply do not believe that Gould could possibly have meant much of what he wrote in Rock of Ages" (pg. 81).

I hope my clarification helps. Again, I welcome the comments and hope you stay tuned for my 'rebuttal' of these reason for rejecting the idea of God.

ps. your website looks awesome. well done. said...

I don't believe anyone who claims to be a theist is dishonest. I believe that Dawkins' view is short-sighted in this regard. I do think there are several atheists afraid to come out. According to a recent gallup poll, the least likely to be voted for candidate is the atheist candidate.

But I don't take the assumption they're liars, I just think they're scared, just as I haven't come out to everyone I know yet either (although the list is shortening).

To me science is the best tool we have to understand this world. It is the only way we have made technological and medicinal advances. It has proven itself to us to be a reliable mechanism for advancing our society.

Science is not taken on faith, at least not my definition of faith. Faith to me is believing something is true without empirical evidence. Science is built upon empirical evidence. If an outrageous claim is made by a scientist, but the scientist doesn't release his data, other scientists become very skeptical of the results. If he does release his data, other scientists will often try to repeat his results to verify that it's correct.

This system does operate on some trust, and it can be misused. For example, Ken Miller's biology book at one point included the infamous Wells and Haeckel's Embryos. These were a fraud, and while originally taken as truth and even taught, science did it's thing by exposing the fraud, and it's no longer taught.

So while I accept that all scientific understanding is not perfect, and I also accept that I do trust the scientific community as a whole (with occasional closer looks in areas that I'm really interested in), I don't think that's really all that bad.

When your doctor claims you have strep throat, do you even bother asking for a second opinion? If not, you're trusting science.

When you touch raw chicken, do you wash your hands? You can't see the bacteria, but you trust science that it's there.

I myself am getting a little long winded. I appreciate your attitude for discussion, and I'll gladly continue discussing things over your coming posts :)

Thanks for the compliment on the site -- it's not my design though, the link is at the bottom to the site that gives it away as a free template.

Dan Waugh said...

Again, thanks for the follow up comment. I think we'll understand each other more clearly as a result.

I'm glad you don't question the honesty of those who claim faith. I really struggled every time I read Dawkins doing that.

I think you are right that it would be very hard to be elected as an atheist. There is a pressure there to claim faith. I do, also, know that in academia there is an equal pressure not to speak of faith. I have two acquaintances who, for fear of the repercussions, will not speak openly about their beliefs until they have tenure (and they are in the social sciences, not the 'hard sciences').

I agree that science is a wonderful tool for explaining the particulars of our universe; yet, it cannot explain the metaphysical questions of life - why am I here, what is my purpose? These kind of questions presuppose a designer. Without design, there is no meaning or purpose. We could disassemble a complicated piece of machinery and study it's components, even its chemical composition. We could explain a lot about how it works, but to understand its purpose we would need to hear from the designer. Science studies the impersonals - matter, energy, etc. Purpose and meaning are words that only have sense in the realm of the personal. If all there is are impersonals (the physical stuff of science), then talk of meaning and purpose are, well, meaningless.

Of course I'm more than happy to admit that scientific/technological advances have made life easier/better (and some that have made it scarier and more dangerous too).

I don't mean to suggest that science is taken on faith (we could discuss that more I guess). My point is that science is impossible without prior faith commitments. Science is utterly impossible if we don's assume the world is rational and contingent (cause and effect). Yet, as Michael Polanyi and others have pointed out, these are faith commitments that cannot be established scientifically (to establish them you need to rely on them).

I am more than willing to trust my doctor when he tells me I need medicine to treat strep, or my mechanic when he tells me I need a new water pump. I don't mean to suggest at all that I don't trust science - at least in some things. On the other hand, I wouldn't trust my doctor if he told me my truck needed a new transmission, nor would I trust my mechanic if he told me I had cancer. These declarations our outside the area of their expertise. So it is with science. I will trust it to explain what is in its purview. I will not trust it when it overreaches, as I believe Dawkins does. I like Gould's comment, quoted disapprovingly by Dawkins, "The net, or magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moreal value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

Talk about long winded. Tag, you're it.

Franck Barfety said...

GeekyAtheist, IDists are not making an argument from ignorance when we say that intelligent design makes the most sense. We infer intelligence by observing the motor of the bacterial flagellum because its engineering ingenuity is what we know comes from intelligent beings. This is done by direct observation, as opposed to random selection/mutation scenarios that bring about the opposite. said...


I didn't claim an argument from ignorance, did I? However, the bacterial flagellum argument has been thoroughly debunked. It was even trotted out in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial in 2005, and it was essentially laughed out of court. Behe's testimony was particularly revealing. I'd be happy to go into more detail if you want, but most of the arguments can be found in the above article. It's long, but Miller is great at expressing complicated ideas in easier-to-understand language.


You're essentially right that with science alone and the rejection of supernatural entities, life can be considered meaningless. However, I would posit that as a Christian my life was just as meaningless -- a pawn in the grand scheme of things. But I want to avoid going down that path just yet since it doesn't speak about truth, it only speaks about the consequences if it were true.

When I went through my long descent from Christianity (took me nearly 8 months of lots of reading and pondering), I really only had to make one fundamental decision. I am going to base my decisions off of actual evidence.

So when I see a claim such as, "God exists where we can't observe him," I reject that definition of a god. For two reasons: 1) if he has no existence in this universe, how could he affect our lives any differently for believing? 2) how do we even know about him if we can't observe him?

The answers to those redefine god as being the god of some holy book -- that he revealed himself to us in some form at some point in the past. However, there are two main problems with this claim also. Firstly, what makes one holy book any more relevant than another holy book? There are people who both believe in the Koran and the Bible, and they'll both assert it as being truth.

Secondly, when looking at the history of the book in question, we can call into question many areas of the book because of inaccuracies, among other problems. I'm speaking very generally because this problem is common with all holy books.

So I find myself confronted with this problem: There could be a god outside of the universe, but we don't know anything about its nature. If we don't know anything about its nature, is it really relevant to our lives? Thus without evidence that we can learn about its nature, I reject this idea of a god. said...

@Franck Sorry for the mispelling, it was unintentional.

Dan Waugh said...

Sorry but I've been very busy and haven't had time to reply.

I'll keep this short. First, if my understanding of the universe is correct that you do have purpose and meaning. You many not feel it or sense it, but if you were designed by God than it whether or not we have a subjective experience of purpose we have an objective purpose. On the flip side, the universe as you describe it without a creator/designer is purposeless. I may come to some subjective feelings of purpose or meaning but they are not based in an objective reality.

I am sorry that you experience as a Christian offered you no more of a sense of purpose than what you experience. My life, to this point, has been vastly difference.

I wouldn't buy into that definition of God - that he exists where we can't observe him. I observe him all the time - subjectively, but still very really. I think the problem is the tools we desire to use to observe him. He cannot be seen with the eye, measured on a scale, yet, either can love. Moreover, he hasn't left it for us to 'observe him', he has revealed himself - yes in the holy book and ultimately in Jesus. I believe the holy book, the Bible, because I believe Jesus rose from the dead. This is getting long and I'll try to get back to it in actual posts soon.

Last, a scientist friend of mine sent me a link the other day to post in response to you claim that irreducible complexity has
been thoroughly debunked. He couldn't figure out how to link it here (go figure, there's somethings phD don't know!). Here it is: