Books on Atheism Raising Hackles?

On a recent trip to the local Barnes and Noble, I noticed a remarkable thing. On the main kiosk, the place where the Stephen King and John Grisham books are located, there were two prominently placed volumes that caught my eye. One was The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, the other was God: The Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger.

I live in Western Virginia. These are not the sort of books you would expect to be popular here. Yet the folks at B&N, who I have no doubt are motivated solely by their desire to sell books and not by any particular political or religious bias, placed them where they would be difficult to miss. Interesting.

It’s all the more interesting in the light of this article from The New York Times. It is a review of the reviews of recent atheist books, especially Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

The article’s author, Peter Steinfels, writes:

Hey, guys, can’t you give atheism a chance?

Yes, it is true that “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks and that “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris can be found in virtually every airport bookstore, even in Texas.

So why is the new wave of books on atheism getting such a drubbing? The criticism is not primarily, it should be pointed out, from the pious, which would hardly be noteworthy, but from avowed atheists as well as scientists and philosophers writing in publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, not known as cells in the vast God-fearing conspiracy.

A remarkable collection of sentences. The drubbing these books are said to be taking is not coming from the reading public, which, as noted above, is buying these books in remarkable numbers. If my local bookstore here in Harrisonburg, VA thinks these books are worth displaying prominently, you know they are things people want to buy.

The drubbing is only coming from a handful of pretentious critics, motivated as much by jealousy, one suspects, as by a desire to say something subtantive. I base this assertion on the facts that (a) All of the critics featured in this article are themselves quick to point out that they are themselves atheists, (b) They have universally failed to raise any significant points against the major claims of Dawkins and Harris, and (c) They have, for the most part, not given any consideration in their reviews to the social significance of these books, over and above whatever faults they find with their arguments.

And apparently Steinfels’ idea of a drubbing is to find four critics who did not like the book. Steinfels mentions only Eagleton in The London Review of Books, Wood and Nagel in The New Republic, and Orr in The New York Review of Books. He doesn’t mention other, mostly positive reviews, such as the ones by Michael Shermer in Science, Steven Weinberg in the Times Literary Supplement, P.Z. Myers in Seed, Daniel Dennett in Free Inquiry, or Kendrik Frazier in The Skeptical Inquirer. A more interesting article might have been to get a fuller survey of the reactions of various prominent atheists to the books by Dawkins and Harris. Instead of hand-selecting four critics and declaring a drubbing, why not explore the reactions of people on both sides?

The most remarkable thing about the excerpt above is that Steinfels makes no attempt to answer his own question. He merely repeats a handful of choice quotations from the reviewers, making no attempt to provide any balance or to assess the merits of the criticisms being raised.

Which is interesting, because the main criticisms levelled at Dawkins in this article, and in other reviews not mentioned here, are variations of “The Courtier’s Reply,” a term coined by P.Z. Myers to refer to the knee-jerk response that Dawkins only considers “man on the street&rduqo; theology and does not get his hands dirty with the sophisticated evasions of academic theologians. “Bah!” sneer the critics, “Dawkins doesn’t even consider the modal logic version of Anselm’s ontological argument. What a hack!” Or, “How can we take Dawkins seriously when he doesn’t even consider the possibility that a being capable of bringing universes into being with an act of its will could nonetheless be simple in a relevant sense?” The fact that you can count on one hand the number of people familiar with modal logic or that Dawkins intention was to consider religion as it is actually practiced (as opposed to the ethereal, metaphorized version of academic theology) does not enter into their considerations.

Dawkins and Harris have performed a great social service through their writing. That they have sold so many books is strong evidence that there is a market for the arguments they are making. They have the thinking world abuzz with talk of atheism, after decades of laying low while the religious right took control of many areas of the government. This is important and highly significant, and you would think that people happy to identify themselves as atheists would take note of this fact before offering whatever criticisms they have.

The main contributions of Eagleton, Orr and Nagel (much more so than Wood, whose review of Harris did contain some interesting points) is to show once again the wide gulf between academic discourse and real life. No one really thinks that Dawkins should have discussed modal logic, or the fine points of the philosophy of Aquinas or Wittgenstein. Such discussions would obviously have been out of place for the book he was writing. They are irrelevant to a consideration of the social force called religion, which has little use for such academic navel-gazing but does happen to be the subject about which Dawkins was writing. These are points critics raise not when they want to make a case against an author, but rather when they want to show-off how much they have read.

It’s funny. As regular readers are aware, I have spent a lot of time here examining the reviews of Dawkins’ book, and dissecting the arguments contained therein. It had occurred to me that it might be worth turning all of that hard work into an article for an outfit like Skeptic, or Free Inquiry or Skeptical Inquirer, which specialize in this sort of thing. So far I haven’t, mostly for lack of time. It never occurred to me that you could publish such an article in The New York Times.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 6, 2007

    David Baltimore had a mostly positive review in New Scientist.

    There are legitimate criticisms which could be made of Dawkins’ book, but the reviews mentioned don’t seem to be finding them. For example, I was surprised not to find mention of the Euthyphro dialogue in the section on ethics. Consideration of that would have made Dawkins’ case stronger though, not weaker.

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 6, 2007

    Sorry, not paying attention. That Baltimore review was in American Scientist.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 6, 2007

    Thanks for pointing out the David Baltimore review, which I hadn’t seen. And I agree with your assessment of Dawkins’ book. Mostly good, but it certainly does have its faults. Other Science Bloggers have pointed out, for example, that Dawkins is a bit cavalier in discussing the religious views of the American Founding Fathers. Ultimately I think these are minor points however, and that the main points of attack used by the critics mentioned in the article are wide of the mark.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    March 6, 2007

    A significant fraction of people question their own religious upbringing at least once in their lives, I suspect. It probably strikes in adolescence, when we start to become aware of the world and all the things wrong with it, wrongs which are so hard to square with the notion of an All-Loving Father in the sky. So, troubled, we seek answers: from friends, siblings, parents, religious figures, teachers, and perhaps even introspection. The questions which trouble us — how could so much evil happen to so many good people? — have pat answers standing on file in the meme pool of religious apologetics. We may receive these answers, variations on the “God works in mysterious ways” motto, from people we trust. Often, we might not seek as far as we are really capable, and in looking for a comforting answer we are likely to stop and tell ourselves we are satisfied. But the memories are there to be recalled, if we are honest with ourselves.

    How many people go through such an experience? Sampling university students, Robert Altemeyer found that “virtually everyone” (over 90 percent) had “questioned the existence of God at some time in her life”. Those who tested highly for psychological measures of authoritarianism prayed for enlightenment, read scriptures, and talked with friends or family — “seeking reassurance,” more or less. Students who tested lower on the authoritarianism scale also discussed their problems with friends and family (who were typically theist), but they also reported talking with nonbelievers or studying up on science. Even though many ended by remaining theists, they tried to make up their own minds along the way.

    So, I’m not too surprised that Dawkins has been selling so well, or that the Barnes-and-Borders-a-Million staff are so willing to put his and Stenger’s books on prominent display.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    March 6, 2007

    Meera Nanda had an interesting essay in the New Humanist (17 May 2006), entitled “Spirited Away“. This is so old, in Interblag terms, that it dates to an age when Daniel Dennett was “the prime mover in American atheism”. Imagine that!

    Anyway, Nanda’s real target is the double standard displayed most prominently by Sam Harris, who is harsh on religion but soft on woollier kinds of mysticism.

    The problem is that rather than subjecting this mystical realm to the same rigourous analysis as that of religion, the new atheism seems convinced by its pseudo-scientific claims, and even acts as a cheerleader for this spurious way of thinking. The holistic world view trades on three core misconceptions. First, that mysticism is a rational alternative to faith and somehow consonant with the scientific method and theories of mind and matter. Second that mystical experience can lead to ‘direct experience’ of the spiritual substance that underlies the visible material world. Third, spiritual practices lead to peace and harmony. By merging your soul with the ‘world soul’, you are supposed to develop a sense of kindred-ness with all beings big and small, and be less inclined to hurt them.

    This thinking has cast its spell even on those who profess to be militantly rationalist and atheist. The hardcore of the new atheists are distinctly soft on holism. A case in point is Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, widely celebrated in America these days as a fearless iconoclast and an uncompromising rationalist. Harris’s Pen Award winning best-seller gleaned approving endorsements from the likes of the New York Times and The Economist, and from prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins (whose quote “Read Sam Harris and wake up” adorns the book jacket). Harris, now a columnist for Free Inquiry, America’s most prominent secularist journal, is the young, reliably militant pin-up for rationalism.

    Yet Harris declares ‘the end of faith’ only to celebrate the beginning of a new age of spirituality. That such a prominent rationalist is prepared to reclaim spiritualism in the name of science matters. When spiritualism, or mysticism, claims the status of rational knowledge or science, it ends up transforming what is essentially an ecstatic emotional experience into a knowledge claim about the nature of reality. These issues are not just theoretical. In countries like India, where spiritualism enjoys the blessings of the highest religious authorities, metaphysical beliefs that follow from mystical experiences exert a great deal of social influence. While India has a fairly large and advanced scientific workforce, science has not succeeded in displacing the authority of metaphysical truths from the cultural sphere. An idealistic, spirit-centered metaphysics continues to structure the worldview of ordinary people, while intuitive and certain knowledge of the ‘absolute truth’ of ‘pure consciousness’ is still the culturally hegemonic paradigm of knowledge and truth.

    It’s worth reading, IMNSHO.

  6. #6 Sergei Shilov
    March 6, 2007

    I didn’t really think much of The God Delusion, which I suppose is a symptom of some repressed jealousy on my part. It’s largest failing I suppose is that it plays fast and loose with things from the homogeneity (or relevance) of the treatment of the United States’ founders to, say, the enlistment of probability to assault agnosticism. It is too eager to lay claim to others, frequently bandying about whether famous people are really atheists or if they would be in such and such time, and I think that sort of discourse is less than rigorous and, even more importantly, unnecessary for establishing a case for atheism. It seems more interested in answering various intellectually bankrupt theists than presenting a clear and concise exploration of the faults of theism. I could continue, but as you are by now discarding my opinion as rubbish because I’m failing to recognize the profound social significance of the book, I will spare us both the time.

    However it should be noted that the sales of Dawkins book do not necessarily represent the manner of interest you assume that they do, anymore than the sales of Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly’s trash indicates acceptance of the source material by its readership. People often seek entertainment that outrages them, while others will purchase the book to “know thy enemy.” Never forget that people will buy Dawkins’ book for no greater purpose than to use its contents as a weapon against the grave secular humanist menace in America. That and to sell ad space within puerile cartoons.

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    March 6, 2007

    Invariably, the godless liberals whom I’ve heard confess that they’ve read Ann Coulter say that they found her books in a relative’s house, browsed them in the bookstore cafe or read them in some other fashion which didn’t require buying any copies. (Apropos of Coulter, here’s my snarky and slanderous quote of the day: “By the way, a woman friend of mine in DC whose favorite color is lavender told me some really interesting things about Coulter, but I can’t say a lot more. I really can’t risk using the phrase “pussy-licking wildcat” in the same sentence as her name without having to go into rehab. Don’t ask, I can’t tell.” That’s Geoffrey K. Pullum at Language Log.) I figure the same ought to hold true for people who want to criticize Dawkins, perhaps even more strongly. After all, as Altemeyer points out, religious fundamentalism correlates pretty strongly with a psychological tendency to follow a leader’s authority. You don’t have to buy Dawkins’s book to criticize it, not if your trusted authority has already done so for you!

    Given all the quote-mining the creationists do, respect for original sources seems pretty foreign to their psyche. The most fervent theistic critics of Dawkins don’t want to dispute his arguments logically, but to make their audience reject him emotionally. Again, to do this, you don’t need to read his book yourself or even represent his thoughts accurately.

  8. #8 T
    March 6, 2007

    Dawkins and Harris have performed a great social service through their writing
    I am new to blogging and in fact at 78 years old only discovered them in July last year. I now have four myself.Up until then I seemed to be the only atheist around so thanks guys. Dawkins and Harris and all the atheist bloggers and their comments.

  9. #9 Pseudonym
    March 6, 2007

    When all is said and done, I’d still love to know what Carl Sagan’s review of the book would have been like.

  10. #10 Stuball3d
    March 6, 2007

    “Barnes-and-Borders-a-Million”

    As a former employee (for three miserable years) of one of those companies I found that particularly amusing; thanks Blake! It’s funny because it’s true for the most part. There is little difference between the companies, and when one tries something new it is quickly followed by the others.

  11. #11 J. J. Ramsey
    March 6, 2007

    “The drubbing is only coming from a handful of pretentious critics, motivated as much by jealousy, one suspects, as by a desire to say something subtantive. I base this assertion on the facts that …”

    Ok, let’s see what you base it on …

    “(a) All of the critics featured in this article are themselves quick to point out that they are themselves atheists”

    How does this lead to a conclusion that jealousy is a motivation? At least one obviously reason to point out that they are atheists is to preempt the obvious ad hominem response.

    “(b) They have universally failed to raise any significant points against the major claims of Dawkins and Harris”

    Well, of course! They’re atheists, so they would agree with the major claims. The issue is how Dawkins and Harris support those claims.

    “(c) They have, for the most part, not given any consideration in their reviews to the social significance of these books, over and above whatever faults they find with their arguments.”

    Why should they? The books shouldn’t be given any special consideration because they help the cause. The arguments stand or fall on their own.

    “… the main criticisms levelled at Dawkins in this article, and in other reviews not mentioned here, are variations of �The Courtier’s Reply,� a term coined by P.Z. Myers to refer to the knee-jerk response that Dawkins only considers “man on the street”; theology and does not get his hands dirty with the sophisticated evasions of academic theologians”

    Funny, I thought the “Courtier’s Reply” was a complaint by the courtiers that Dawkins had to know imperial fashion before calling the emperor naked. The implication is less that Dawkins need not be familiar with sophisticated obfuscations of the emperor’s nudity but rather that he need not be concerned with matters impertinent to the emperor’s nudity.

    BTW, what sophisticated evasions did you have in mind? Eagleton mentioned several theologians, but not in connection with any sort of apologetics for God’s existence, and Orr mentioned Wittgenstein and James, who AFAIK, are only partially sympathetic to begin with. Certainly, discussion of William James would be useful, if not necessary, in a discussion of the reasonableness of believing in things for which the evidence is lacking.

    Also, the “man on the street” argument only takes you so far. Dawkins has a reputation of making books on complex topics that are readable for the “man on the street.”

    “Dawkins doesn’t even consider the modal logic version of Anselm’s ontological argument. What a hack!”

    To be fair to John Lynch, who pointed that out, Dawkins didn’t even handle the non-modal version of it very well, and I suspect that he was bothered at least as much by Dawkins issuing a combination of strong invective and weak argument against the ontological “proof.” Considering that there is no shortage of good argument against the ontological “proof,” there’s no need for Dawkins to have slipped here.

    “How can we take Dawkins seriously when he doesn’t even consider the possibility that a being capable of bringing universes into being with an act of its will could nonetheless be simple in a relevant sense?”

    Why is this a stupid question? If he bothers to claim that God cannot be simple, he should provide reasonable support for that claim and offer something beyond intuition and personal incredulity as argument.

    “Dawkins and Harris have performed a great social service through their writing.”

    Yes, they have. This does not mean that they couldn’t have done better. The God Delusion, in particular, is the book that might have been. It wouldn’t have taken much extra polishing to make it rise from mediocrity.

  12. #12 Scott Beach
    March 6, 2007

    Jason:

    In “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins presented and evaluated a “God Hypothesis”. He concluded that this hypothesis is very unlikely to be true and I agree with his assessment.

    Following Dawkins’ example, I stated intelligent design in the form of a scientific hypothesis. I pointed out that this hypothesis has not been confirmed and that it is therefore incorrect to refer to intelligent design as a theory. Please see my brief essay at http://intelligent-design-hypothesis.com

    I believe that it is very important to stop the IDists from falsely asserting that ID as a theory (a verified hypothesis). ID is at most an unverified hypothesis and, as such, it does not deserve to be included in the curriculum of any biology class.

  13. #13 Userperson
    March 6, 2007

    Just because something is popular doesn’t mean its critics are wrong.

  14. #14 386sx
    March 7, 2007

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anselm_of_Canterbury

    All the actions of men are due to the furtherance of God’s glory; if, then, there be sin, i.e. if God’s honour be wounded, man of himself can give no satisfaction. But the justice of God demands satisfaction; and as an insult to infinite honour is in itself infinite, the satisfaction must be infinite, i.e. it must outweigh all that is not God. Such a penalty can only be paid by God himself, and, as a penalty for man, must be paid under the form of man. Satisfaction is only possible through the God-man. Now this God-man, as sinless, is exempt from the punishment of sin; His passion is therefore voluntary, not given as due. The merit of it is therefore infinite; God’s justice is thus appeased, and His mercy may extend to man. This theory has exercised immense influence on church doctrine, providing the basis for the Roman Catholic concept of the treasury of merit.

    So all that “penalty” “merit” crap up there has exercised immense influence on church doctrine. And they think an all wise God would have a petty “honour” that can be “wounded”. And they think that their “God” paid a “penalty”. And people are upset that Dawkins isn’t “philosophical” enough about all that. Well, maybe if there were something there to be “philosophical” about, then possibly they might have a point. Lol, there ain’t nothing there!

  15. #15 John Pieret
    March 7, 2007

    They are irrelevant to a consideration of the social force called religion …

    So these are anti-religion books, not books about atheism?

    That they have sold so many books is strong evidence that there is a market for the arguments they are making.

    Easy does it. How many books do you have to sell in order to have a “best seller”? If that’s evidence of any great social effect, doesn’t that make Stephen King and Danielle Steele the most important thinkers in America today? And how can you appeal to some supposed buzz in the “thinking world”, while simultaneously dismissing thinkers for doing what they do?

    While I’d say that these books may have had the good effect of making the likes of Paula Zahn a bit more sensitive (but only a bit and only after many complaints by what remains a small minority) to atheists’ sensibilities, to really have a great social effect, wouldn’t they have to be read by more than the 20% or so of the population who are already “secularists” (and those academics you apparently think are wasting their time with all that intellectual stuff)? Is there really any evidence that Dawkins, et al are having an impact on the culture at large?

    Finally, in defense of Steinfels’ article, it wasn’t intended as a survey of the reaction to these books but merely to comment on the fact that atheists were criticizing them at all. The last paragraph sums up:

    So what is the beleaguered atheist to do? One possibility: take pride in the fact that this astringent criticism comes from people and places that honor the honest skeptic?s commitment to full-throated questioning.

    The correct criticism of Steinfels is for his surprise at the quite ordinary event in the academic community, namely: criticism happens.

  16. #16 Tom Jackson
    March 7, 2007

    >>I live in Western Virginia.

    No, you live in a college town in Western Virginia. Get on Route 33 and go one mountain west, and see what books are selling in Franklin or Marlinton, and you’ll see the difference.

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 7, 2007

    Sergei-

    The views of the “intellectually bankrupt theists” you mention happen to be mainstream among religious people, especially in the US. Of course Dawkins addressed himself to them, and not to the mostly irrelevant concerns of academic theology. And you don’t spend 22 weeks on the bestseller lists, as Dawkins has, because of people buying your book just for the pleasure of being outraged. Yes, the large sales of books by Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter do indeed indicate a large audience for their views. Consider for example, that Coulter receives many thousands of dollars for her public appearances, and yet has no trouble finding gigs.

    J.J. Ramsey-

    Orr and Eagleton in particular wrote scathing, poorly reasoned screeds against Dawkins’ book. I don’t think this is how someone behaves when their sole motivation is to correct arguments whose conclusions they endorse but whose reasoning they find faulty. Wood begins his review of Harris with a lengthy section on his own arguments for atheism, as if to say, “Here’s how a serious, thoughtful atheist makes a case against theism, unlike those crass popularizers Harris and Dawkins.” This section had little place in his review of Harris beyond a desire to show how much better things can be done (which is not to say Wood’s arguments were bad, merely that they were unnecessary and don’t really represent an improvement over what Harris himself said).

    The fact is that they did not have to review Dawkins’ book at all. Given the decision to review it, they could have started with some appreciation for the fact that Dawkins and Harris have broken some taboos that needed breaking, and that they have helped advanced a cause they themselves agree with. But they didn’t do that. Instead they reviewed the book in a way that seemed more interested in showing off their own great erudition than it did in making constructive points about the issues Dawkins raises. People like Shermer, Myers, Dennett and Weinberg did not take that approach. They all levelled criticisms at the book, but did so in a constructive way.

    To me this suggests that Orr and Eagleton (and to a lesser extent Wood and Nagel) had motivations other than a desire for logical rigor in writing their reviews.

    Moving on, Eagleton begins his review by chastising Dawkins for not having read seriously in theology. He rattles off a number of obscure sources that Dawkins was supposed to have pondered prior to writing his book. Throughout his review he discusses what he percevies to be sophisticated versions of God and faults Dawkins for not discussing them. He writes things like:

    For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or `existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

    This is the sort of thing I had in mind by my remark about sohpisticated evasions. Whatever Eagleton is describing here, it is not mainstream Christianity. The Bible is quite clear that God existed prior to the universe, and that God created the universe in a series of steps. Even among sophisticated theologians we find things like “process theology,” endorsed by people like Georgetown theologian John Haught, which has as one of its main points that the universe is to be viewed as completely separate from God Himself. The view of God as creator and the universe as His creation is a centerpiece of the views of most Christian denominations. God and the universe do, indeed, add up to two, at least among people who are fond of making sense when they speak.

    At any rate, I think you would be hard-pressed to find many Christians who think there is any sense in which it is meaningful or correct to say that God does not exist.

    The next point is that Dawkins wasn’t writing a book on theology. Rather, he was writing a book discussing the reasonableness of, and the effects on society of, certain widespread religious beliefs. He wasn’t trying to explain sophisticated theological notions to the lay public. His point was to expose the flaws in the most common versions of poular arguments. He did that very well, in my opinion, and people like Eagleton and Orr are prattling about irrelevancies when they criticize him for not addressing more high-falutin versions of theology.

    Concerning the ontological argument, it was Jim Holt in The New York Times who first raised the issue about more sophisticated versions of the ontological argument, though he doesn’t specifically use the phrase “modal logic.&rdquol; And Dawkins discussed the ontological argument by showing the absurdity of a purely logical proof that God exists, and then by referring people to Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism for a fuller treatment of the argument. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable approach.

    As for whether God could be simple, you must be joking. God, we are told, is a being who can bring universes into being with an act of his will. In the course of doing this He has to personally fine-tune numerous fundamental constants and forces, because if He is off by the tiniest degree the whole thing will fall apart. He can manipulate matter down to the level of the individual atom, and cause anything to happen so long as it is not logically impossible. In the Christian version he is aware of what everyone is thinking at every moment of every day. He can process huge quantities of information and make decisions based on that information. He has perfect foreknowledge of everything that will happen from now until the end of time. Simple things can’t do any of that.

    I agree that Dawkins and Harris could have written better books than they actually did. Of course, I think that about most books that I read. I argue simply that both gentlemen wrote good books that made many more good points than bad ones, and that they deserve better treatment than people like Orr and Eagleton have provided.

    Userperson-

    I have argued at great length on this blog that in fact the critics are wrong, about most things. But my point in bringing up the popularity of Dawkins’ book was simply to provide a counter to the assertion in the article that Dawkins was taking a drubbing. Steinfels said Dawkins was taking a drubbing because four critics wrote nasty things about him. I felt it reasonable to point out that the public does not seem to agree with that assessment.

    John Pieret-

    Harris’ books are explicitly anti-religion, and Dawkins makes it clear that his point is not simply to argue for atheism, but also to show that religious belief does far more harm than good, a point I would call anti-religion. Of course these are anti-religion books. I didn’t realize this was news to anyone.

    And when you spend many weeks on the bestseller list, even the non-fiction list, it is because you are selling a lot of books. When you couple that with the fact that virtually every major newspaper has done articles about the recent glut of atheist books and most television news shows have done segments on the issue, I think it’s fair to describe that by saying they have created a buzz in the thinking world.

    I have not dismissed anyone for doing anything. What I have done, over a lengthy series of blog entires, is to show in great detail why most of the arguments made by the critics are not correct. I am not dismissing the critics, I am merely finding their arguments inadequate on their merits, and made with such rudeness that they deserve strong criticism.

    But even if I were in fact dismissive of certain critics, how would that relate to the question of whether Dawkins and Harris have created a buzz in the thinking world?

    I think you’re asking a bit much for Dawkins’ book to be read by a large segment of the population before we can say it has had a significant effect. After all, a book can be highly influential without being read by very many people. The Origin of Species comes to mind. The point is that the ideas raised by Dawkins and Harris are getting discussed in high profile media outlets. The number of people aware of their ideas is doubtless much larger than the number of people who have actually read their book. I think its fair to say that their books have had great social significance, at least in the short term.

    Tom Jackson-

    I have no doubt that their are communities in my region of the country that are even more conservative than the one in which I live. But the fact remains that Harrisonburg is a pretty conservative town, and it is significant that the local Barnes and Noble would display these books so prominently.

  18. #18 John Pieret
    March 7, 2007

    I have not dismissed anyone for doing anything.

    … pretentious critics, motivated as much by jealousy, one suspects, as by a desire to say something subtantive.

    Whew! I’d hate to be around when you do get dismissive! I’m sorry but criticizing people for being more interested in academic discourse than “real life” sounds an awful lot like what people say when they mean ‘forget that snooty intellectual stuff.’ Why do you suppose that people in the “thinking world” wouldn’t be interested in academic discourse?

    And no, it was not obvious that the prime intent of most of these these books (except Harris’) was anti-religious rather than making a case for atheism. Thanks for making me feel less guilty about not having read most of them yet. I see no particular reason to be interested in religion bashing, since the people who set out to do that invariably make sure there are nothing but very weak fish in a very small barrel.

    Dennett’s book, on the other hand (despite some slips), manages to avoid most of that and I’d recommend it to most people for that reason.

    When you couple that with the fact that virtually every major newspaper has done articles about the recent glut of atheist books and most television news shows have done segments on the issue, I think it’s fair to describe that by saying they have created a buzz in the thinking world.

    I’m sorry. By that standard the likes of Anna Nicole Smith is a fixture in the thinking world. I’m not saying that these books and the efforts of Dawkins et al. won’t make a difference in some way, but you’re claiming too much for the evidence so far.

  19. #19 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 7, 2007

    John-

    I am not criticizing people for being more interested in academic discourse than “real life.” I am criticizing them for criticizing Dawkins for not paying more attention to the niceties of that discourse. I have no doubt that there are many people interested in academic discourse (I’m one of them, after all), but if they are then they should seek out a different book. The sorts of problems with which theologians concern themselves simply are not the ones Dawkins set out to address.

    My short excerpt from Eagleton in my previous comment is a good example. The common view of God is that He is the entity responsible for the creation of the universe, that he is personal in the sense of having many of the attributes we associate with human beings, and that he has certain goals, intentions and abilities. Dawkins takes up that notion of God, and shows that there is no good reason to suppose such an entity exists, and that hypothesizing His existence leads to some serious conceptual problems.

    Eagleton then fires back with a bizarre version of God, adhered to by very few one suspects, and faults Dawkins for not discussing that notion. This is unfair, in my opinion.

    You boast that since the books by Dawkins and Harris can fairly be described as “anti-religion” then you are absolved from having to read them. Well, now who’s being dismissive! If you read their books and decide their ideas lack merit, that is fine. But don’t just say that because you feel they can be placed within a specific genre, they suddenly can be ignored.

    I liked Dennett’s book as well.

    Your comparison to Anna Nicole Smith simply makes my point. That is the sort of fare that usually occupies the mainstream media. So the fact that they have taken time out from their usual salacious dreck to give print space and air time to a consideration of ideas about religion, ideas that are generally thought to be very unpopular in this country no less, is highly significant. It indicates that a lot of editors and station managers think that people want to hear about this. I call that “creating a buzz.”

    And I’m not sure what you think I’m claiming about the significance of Dawkins and Harris. All I’ve said is that they have sold a lot of books, given voice to ideas that many people hold but are sometimes afraid to express, and that they’ve created a buzz. Is that really so grandiose a claim?

  20. #20 Another Jason
    March 7, 2007

    John Pieret,

    Religion has been in decline in the west for decades. I’m not exactly sure what your weak fish/small barrel metaphor is supposed to mean, but it appears that the efforts of people like Dawkins and Harris are paying off. I would say that the kind of forceful intellectual critique of religion they make is an important part of a larger movement towards the end of religion as a significant influence on human affairs.

  21. #21 SLC
    March 7, 2007

    Re Western Virginia

    Never having been to Harrisonburg, I am completely unfamiliar with the area. However, some research on the web indicates that the school has approximately 17,000 full and part time students and that the City of Harrisonburg has a population of approximately 40,000. Thus it would seem that the university is fairly dominate in the town so that the presence of atheist books in the local bookstore is perhaps not unexpected.

  22. #22 John Pieret
    March 7, 2007

    You boast that since the books by Dawkins and Harris can fairly be described as ?anti-religion? then you are absolved from having to read them.

    Not quite, only that I feel less guilty. I’d feel that out of sense of owing Dawkins a chance. I thought there was a Very Bad Thing in Dennet’s book but wound up finding it at least worth reading. I did read the article that’s supposed to be Chapter 4 of Dawkins’s book, which has a Very Bad Thing in it too but maybe he recovers as well.

    But touche enough.

    Your comparison to Anna Nicole Smith simply makes my point. That is the sort of fare that usually occupies the mainstream media. So the fact that they have taken time out from their usual salacious dreck to give print space and air time to a consideration of ideas about religion, ideas that are generally thought to be very unpopular in this country no less, is highly significant.

    I’m afraid that the media types just think that atheists are almost as salacious as Anna Nichole and that their audience will think you’re as strange as Howard K. Stern. Still, the Anna Nichole case could have an effect on reforming custody laws. Maybe the media attention of atheists will come to something.

    Maybe I’m just being grumpy because I think someone who can explain complex ideas to non-specialists as well as he did in The Ancestor’s Tale shouldn’t waste his time if he isn’t going to “go all the way.”

    And Another Jason, I suspect the reports of religion’s demise are greatly exagerated. People have been crowing about (and bemoaning) its decline in the West for well over 100 years now. You might want to check out A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral. Anyway, if Dawkins and Dennett are right and the impulse towards belief is part of our genes or is a self-sustaining meme, what takes its place, should you succeed in ousting formal religions, might not be any better and could even be worse … along the lines of the fanaticism of a Pol Pot.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  23. #23 J. J. Ramsey
    March 7, 2007

    “Orr and Eagleton in particular wrote scathing, poorly reasoned screeds against Dawkins’ book. I don’t think this is how someone behaves when their sole motivation is to correct arguments whose conclusions they endorse but whose reasoning they find faulty.”

    Not necessarily. It can also be how someone behaves when they think they recognize BS but can’t quite put their finger on what is wrong. Eagleton’s response, and to a large extent Orr’s, is also consistent with someone who has a much different idea on what religion is than Dawkins does, and expects the attack to be on religion as they are used to seeing it.

    “Given the decision to review it, they could have started with some appreciation for the fact that Dawkins and Harris have broken some taboos that needed breaking, and that they have helped advanced a cause they themselves agree with.”

    That presumes that they think that Dawkins and Harris have advanced the cause. At least in Dawkins’ case, his effectiveness has been mixed. On the one hand, he breaks the ice. On the other hand, he does little to thwart the “arrogant atheist” stereotype, and I can see a few places where he hands Christian apologists gimmes, which he could have avoided simply by researching his opposition. His “Neville Chamberlain atheists” bit turned out to be a hand grenade, and Myers and Moran pulled the pin.

    “And Dawkins discussed the ontological argument by showing the absurdity of a purely logical proof that God exists, and then by referring people to Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism for a fuller treatment of the argument.”

    Dawkins did no such thing. The part of the book to which you appear to be referring, just before he mentioned Mackie, describes his feelings about the ontological argument, but doesn’t demonstrate anything.

    “As for whether God could be simple, you must be joking. God, we are told, is a being who can bring universes into being with an act of his will. In the course of doing this He has to personally fine-tune numerous fundamental constants and forces, because if He is off by the tiniest degree the whole thing will fall apart. He can manipulate matter down to the level of the individual atom, and cause anything to happen so long as it is not logically impossible. In the Christian version he is aware of what everyone is thinking at every moment of every day. He can process huge quantities of information and make decisions based on that information. He has perfect foreknowledge of everything that will happen from now until the end of time. Simple things can’t do any of that.”

    With all due respect, this is just an argument from personal incredulity. You also haven’t laid out what you even mean by “simple” and “complex,” so I have no idea on how any of those features that you mentioned conflict with God being “simple” according to whatever working definition that you are using. If God, for example, is purportedly “simple” because he is an immaterial spirit and lacks discrete parts, then your long list of features is a non sequitur.

  24. #24 Another Jason
    March 7, 2007

    John Pieret,

    Personal suspicions about what is true, and things other people have said in the past, are not very reliable indicators of what is actually going on now. Look at the evidence. It’s pretty unequivocal that religion is in long-term decline in the developed world. It’s in an advanced state of decline in western Europe.

    Your fears of a new Pol Pot also do not seem to be well-founded. The decline of religion in the west is not the result of a top-down imposition of secularism by a tyrannical government, but has occurred organically as free people have become indifferent to religion or have consciously chosen to reject it because it is no longer attractive to them.

  25. #25 Stogoe
    March 7, 2007

    Anyway, if Dawkins and Dennett are right and the impulse towards belief is part of our genes or is a self-sustaining meme, what takes its place, should you succeed in ousting formal religions, might not be any better and could even be worse … along the lines of the fanaticism of a Pol Pot.

    Sweet merciful godlessness on a stick, you frakking nutbag. I expected this ‘teh athiesmists cause hitler and stalin’ bull from a creationist troll, but wow. Just wow. I think you’re done.

  26. #26 John Pieret
    March 8, 2007

    Uh, Stogoe, just how do you get from my noting that evolutionary psychology says that the impulse towards religious belief is a genetic/memetic trait that might manifest itself in other forms of fanaticism to my blaming atheism for Hitler?

    Do you doubt that Dawkins and Dennett say religion is genetic/memetic? Have you read Breaking the Spell? Or do you doubt that Pol Pot was a fanatic who shared many qualities with cult leaders? Certainly, you can’t be extolling Pol Pot as an exemplar of atheist thought. I certainly wasn’t. In fact, I was saying exactly the opposite. Or are you making some bizarre connection that, simply because Dawkins and Dennett are atheists, that appealing to their scientific claims is the same as “blaming” them for … something?

    Now that’s an example of needing weak fish in a small barrel.

    Another Jason:

    I’m afraid you’ve missed my point as well, though not as grossly. I was not suggesting that that Pol Pot’s deprecations were the result of his attempts to impose his version of atheism … if that’s what it was … on society. It was, it seems to me, a manifestation of the same sort of religious impulse that Dawkins and Dennett say are no more amenable to rational thought than your eye color can be changed by thinking hard and wishing.

    Any notion that religion will wither away because “free people have become indifferent to religion or have consciously chosen to reject it” goes against Dawkins’ and Dennett’s account of the origin and persistence of the religious impulse. If my “personal suspicions” don’t carry much weight, does Dawkins’ and Dennett’s scientific claims?

    So, for the supposed “decline” in religion “in the West,” do you have something more than personal assertions? For one thing, how are you defining “religion” and, for that matter, “the West”? Do you have some actual statistics between, say, 1906 and 2006?

    And, of course, all that is subject to the caveat that, in a world that will be increasingly dominated by China and India during the decline of the definitely not religion-free U.S., whatever else that goes into making up “the West,” may not matter much to the world at large.

  27. #27 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 8, 2007

    J.J. Ramsey-

    Show me a definition of “simple” that is actually used that can encompass the things God is said to be able to do!

    That God must be complex is an obvious conclusion drawn from everything we know about agents who can do the sorts of things God is said to be able to do. In every instance of which we are aware, agents capable of forming thoughts and intentions or manipulating matter to bring about desired ends require highly complex systems to be able to do that. And God is said to have these abilities to a much greater degree than any agents of which we are aware. Whatever else the God hypothesis is, it certainly is not a simple extrapolation from anything we have actual experience with. This is significant, since fans of the argument from design, which is what Dawkins was discussing in raising this point, claim that it is.

    You don’t need rigorous definitions of simple and complex to see what is intended here. Any common sense notion of what those words mean will suffice. Simple in this context means that we can reasonably accept it as a brute fact about the world, whereas complex refers to something that needs to be explained. Going back to Paley, a rock is simple. No one raises an eyebrow when they see a rock in a meadow, and no one feels that they have seen something desperately in need of explanation. A pocketwatch is complex. It requires a different sort of explanation.

    If by describing God as simple you are trying to endorse the argument from design while evading the force of Dawkins’ counter, then you must be saying the following, “The universe exhibits a sort of complexity that requires a special sort of explanation. Indeed, we must hypothesize a designer outside of nature to explain it. But that designer, by contrast, is very simple, and is not the sort of entity which itself requires a special sort of explanation.”

    There is nothing logically impossible about this, which is why Dawkins says only that it is almost certain that there is no God. But it does show the vacuity and arbitrariness of design arguments.

    I’m afraid I find little to respond to in your other points. If you think Orr and Eagleton behaved from pure motives, that is your business. But I stand by my interpretation of what they did. If you think Dawkins gave short shrift to the ontological argument that is again your business. Personally, I think he treated it with the contempt it deserved.

  28. #28 Another Jason
    March 8, 2007

    John Pieret,

    Any notion that religion will wither away because “free people have become indifferent to religion or have consciously chosen to reject it” goes against Dawkins’ and Dennett’s account of the origin and persistence of the religious impulse.

    If you really believe that, you don’t understand Dawkins’ and Dennetts’ arguments at all. Neither of them have suggested that religion is an essential or irreducible aspect of human culture. One wonders why you think they would bother writing books arguing against religion if they believed such arguments were ineffective.

    So, for the supposed “decline” in religion “in the West,” do you have something more than personal assertions?

    There is a vast sociological literature documenting the decline of religion in the west. For the United States, see, for example, the American Religious Identification Survey, the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center, and the National Election Studies surveys. The tables at the end of this paper http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/040720.protestant.pdf summarize some of the data from these sources. And this document http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/atheism.html summarizes the findings from many studies about the decline of theism specifically.

    And, of course, all that is subject to the caveat that, in a world that will be increasingly dominated by China and India during the decline of the definitely not religion-free U.S., whatever else that goes into making up “the West,” may not matter much to the world at large.

    The prevailing view among social scientists is that the primary cause of the decline of religion in the west is modernization: the decline of traditional communities and lifestyles, the rise of industrialization, urbanization, mass public education, mass communication, rising living standards, scientific progress, and so on. These same changes are now occurring in India and China.

  29. #29 386sx
    March 8, 2007

    There is nothing logically impossible about this, which is why Dawkins says only that it is almost certain that there is no God. But it does show the vacuity and arbitrariness of design arguments.

    You think it even matters if it’s logically impossible or not? So naive!

  30. #30 J. J. Ramsey
    March 8, 2007

    “That God must be complex is an obvious conclusion drawn from everything we know about agents who can do the sorts of things God is said to be able to do.”

    Except that the agents with which we are familiar can only do a mere fraction of what God is supposed to be able to do, and they do it in a way that doesn’t resemble how God is supposed to do it. That is a poor basis for the inductive argument that you provide.

    “Whatever else the God hypothesis is, it certainly is not a simple extrapolation from anything we have actual experience with.”

    You write this as if it is news!

    “You don’t need rigorous definitions of simple and complex to see what is intended here. Any common sense notion of what those words mean will suffice.”

    And what common sense notion of complexity readily encompasses both bacteria and ghosts? That is really about what we need here. God is supposed to be spirit, and so far closer to a ghost than to an old man in the sky. If Dawkins is going to claim that something like a ghost must be more complex than DNA, or a bacteria, or a sunflower, or whatever organic life you wish to mention, he is going to have to have a common metric of complexity for all those things, or else his comparison of complexities is literally meaningless.

    “Simple in this context means that we can reasonably accept it as a brute fact about the world, whereas complex refers to something that needs to be explained.”

    Those are not common sense definitions of complexity at all. Indeed, they aren’t so much working definitions of complexity as they are redefinitions of the concept altogether. Complexity usually means something along the lines of heterogeny of parts or having intricate patterns, and has it and of itself nothing to do with whether something needs explaining or not. One may feel a need to explain the existence of complexity, but that is not the same thing as defining complexity as that which needs explanation.

    “If by describing God as simple you are trying to endorse the argument from design while evading the force of Dawkins’ counter, then you must be saying the following, …”

    What I am saying is that if you are going to argue that God cannot be simple in some relevant sense, then you have to do better. So far, what I’ve seen has been appeals to intuition and incredulity, and a poor inductive argument.

    “If you think Dawkins gave short shrift to the ontological argument that is again your business. Personally, I think he treated it with the contempt it deserved.”

    If Dawkins wants to pour contempt on the argument, he should demonstrate that it is worthy of contempt.

  31. #31 386sx
    March 8, 2007

    “Whatever else the God hypothesis is, it certainly is not a simple extrapolation from anything we have actual experience with.”

    You write this as if it is news!

    It’s news to Dawkins apparently. I wish he would stop telling everybody what “God” is supposed be, because frankly, nobody ever believes him. Except for atheists, of course. The only thing about that is… they don’t believe in “God” anyway. He did have a big ol’ book to fill up so I guess he can be forgiven.

    So don’t worry, we all know your God can be simple or complex or whatever you want it to be and nobody will ever be able to prove otherwise. That must be a really nice feeling.

  32. #32 John Pieret
    March 8, 2007

    Neither of them have suggested that religion is an essential or irreducible aspect of human culture. One wonders why you think they would bother writing books arguing against religion if they believed such arguments were ineffective.

    So, basically, instead of citing to their actual work, you’re going to make assertions based on your “reading” of their supposed motivations?

    Here’s what Dennett said in Breaking the Spell, p. 309-10:

    Religion is many things to many people. For some the memes of religion are mutualists, providing undeniable benefits of sorts that cannot be found elsewhere. These people may well depend for their very lives on religion, the way we all depend on the the bacteria in our guts that help us digest our food.

    Dennett is quite explicit that he writes what he does in hopes of ameliorating the toxic effects of certain religious beliefs/traditions. I saw no indication in Breaking the Spell that he thought it possible to eliminate religion.

    Anyway, maybe you want to visit Jason’s newest thread.

    I’m not going to spend much time on the rest. For example, from the site you yourself linked to:

    Is worldwide atheism growing or in decline? This is difficult to answer. On the one hand, there are more atheists in the world today than ever before. Additionally, the nations with some of the highest degrees of organic atheism (such as Great Britain, France, and Scandinavia) have been experiencing a steady increase of atheism over the past century, an increase which shows no indication of abating (Bruce, 2001). On the other hand, worldwide atheism overall may be in decline. This is due to the simple demographic fact that highly religious nations have the highest birthrates in the world and highly irreligious nations have the lowest birthrates in the world. As Norris and Inglehart (2004:25) observe, due to basic demographic trends, the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before and they constitute a growing proportion of the world’s population.

    As the other paper you linked to pointed out, the numbers change with how you ask the questions, which was why I asked you how you were defining “religion”. These surveys are evidence of what people in certain situations are willing to say and think about themselves, an inherently unobjective exercise. It is not obvious from surveys that there are more atheists in any one place, just more people willing to think of themselves as one and say so more or less openly.

    Even if there is a trend to more atheism, that does not mean the trend will continue until religion is eliminated or made even a minority position. There is such a thing as diminishing returns.

    Finally, my original point was that the memes (or whatever) that account for the prevelance of religion need not go away even if religion did. They could, as I said, merely mutate into another outlet.

    But if you want to believe that religion is going to disappear, be my guest. As the religionists have amply shown, holding unrealistic beliefs is not necessarily deadly. Have a nice life.

  33. #33 Another Jason
    March 8, 2007

    John Pieret,

    So, basically, instead of citing to their actual work…

    Huh? You claimed that the withering away of religion is inconsistent with “Dawkins’ and Dennett’s account of the origin and persistence of the religious impulse.” I think that claim is nonsense. It’s up to you back up your claim with citations and argument. You haven’t done that.

    I saw no indication in Breaking the Spell that he thought it possible to eliminate religion.

    What you didn’t see in the book is irrelevant. You claimed Dennett’s account is inconsistent with the idea that religion will wither away. Where is the inconsistency? Show it to us.

    I’m not going to spend much time on the rest. For example, from the site you yourself linked to:

    What about that text? What’s your point? It supports what I said: that religion is declining in the west. The author concludes:

    In sum, loss of belief in God has occurred over the course of the 20 th century in Canada, Australia, and various European countries ( Davie, 2000), including Germany (Shand, 1998; Greeley, 2003), the United Kingdom (Bruce, 2001, 2002), the Netherlands (Grontenhuis and Scheepers, 2001), and Scandinavia (Bruce, 1999).

    As the other paper you linked to pointed out, the numbers change with how you ask the questions, which was why I asked you how you were defining “religion”.

    I don’t know what this means. The numbers on what? It’s hard to have a useful exchange when your claims are so vague and you provide nothing to substantiate them. Assuming that by “the numbers” you’re referring to rates of religious identification, the overwhelming finding from the three national studies summarized in the paper is that religious identification has declined dramatically over the past few decades. You can see this clearly in Table 2, Religious Trends By Year. The proportion of the U.S. population that claims “no religion” has tripled over the past three decades, and the rate of increase has been accelerating. And Table 3, Religious Trends by Birth Cohorts indicates that this is part of a longer pattern of religious decline going back to at least the early 1900s.

  34. #34 Another Jason
    March 8, 2007

    John Pieret,

    Even if there is a trend to more atheism, that does not mean the trend will continue until religion is eliminated or made even a minority position. There is such a thing as diminishing returns.

    Yes, no one can predict the future with certainty. But the available evidence overwhelmingly indicates that religion in the west (including the U.S.) is in decline, that it has been in decline for a long time, and that this decline is likely to continue, with no endpoint in sight. In fact, there is evidence that the decline is accelerating. A number of European countries already exhibit very low levels of religiosity. The authors of a 2005 study of the state of religion in Britain, for example (see here), concluded that the nation is “at an advanced stage of secularisation” and that religion in Britain has a “half-life” of one generation, meaning that each successive generation is only half as religious as the previous one.

  35. #35 Michael Glenn
    March 8, 2007

    What I am saying is that if you are going to argue that God cannot be simple in some relevant sense, then you have to do better. So far, what I’ve seen has been appeals to intuition and incredulity, and a poor inductive argument.

    A rather good argument, actually.

    Sure God “can” be simple. The question is how an immaterial spirit lacking complexity can accomplish such complex tasks. (Do ghosts accomplish complex tasks, by the way?)

    The only answer I’ve ever seen, once the theological barnacles are scraped away, is that God–according to those who consider God a “simple” being–can accomplish complex tasks “simply” by an act of will, and can do so because, well, God is God.

    If God is not a complex being interacting with its creation in a complex way, all you’re left with is a self-sealing premise that is as unimpressive as it is irrefutable.

    At that point you’ve left not only induction, but any kind of argument whatsoever, far far behind.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    March 9, 2007

    Michael Glenn: “The only answer I’ve ever seen, once the theological barnacles are scraped away, is that God–according to those who consider God a ‘simple’ being–can accomplish complex tasks ‘simply’ by an act of will, and can do so because, well, God is God.”

    The answers that *I’ve* seen have been more along the lines of “God doesn’t have to obey the laws of physics,” rather than “well, God is God.” I should also add that a very narrow definition of “simple” is in play here, that is, lack of discrete parts, which makes the phrase “immaterial spirit lacking complexity” redundant.

    If you want to argue that this is not a relevant metric of simplicity, or that God must be complex by some relevant metric even if his not obeying the laws of physics is taken into account, feel free. That would be a substantial improvement over what Dawkins offers.

    On a different note, you also still have to get from “God is complex in a relevant sense” to “God is improbable.” If you think that is easy, look at what happens when creationists try to determine the probability of the existence of the eye on the basis of its complexity. Realistically speaking, what the creationists are attempting is impossible, because such a probability depends on the (evolutionary) history of the eye and not its features alone. Notice that this argument doesn’t rely on laws of physics, BTW. (I suppose it would be interesting to find out that the Ultimate 747 gambit fails because it borrows too much of its reasoning from the arguments that it is trying to overturn. :-) I don’t claim to have done that, though.)

  37. #37 Michael Glenn
    March 9, 2007

    J. J. Ramsey,

    The answers that *I’ve* seen have been more along the lines of “God doesn’t have to obey the laws of physics,” rather than “well, God is God.”

    Isn’t that something of a distinction without a difference? We’re talking about a supernatural being who allegedly created the laws of physics. How did this being do it? “Well, God is . . .”

    I should also add that a very narrow definition of “simple” is in play here, that is, lack of discrete parts, which makes the phrase “immaterial spirit lacking complexity” redundant.

    Is it redundant? Jason Rosenhouse requested, “Show me a definition of ‘simple’ that is actually used that can encompass the things God is said to be able to do! [emphasis mine]” A “lack of discrete parts” shows us nothing. Even granting (and assuming meaningful) the assertion that “God’s essence is existence” doesn’t rule out that such an immaterial spirit might be complex in ways utterly incomprehensible to us mere creatures (not to mention theologians who come up with locutions such as “God’s essence is existence”).

    That’s the crux, isn’t it? If God is so Other as to be unknowable, God could be simple, or complex, or pretty much anything. The alternative to absolute agnosticism, in discussing the possibility of such a being, is to start with what we know. And our experience is that complex tasks are accomplished by complex agents. That doesn’t rule out possible unimaginable alternatives, of course, but to say that God “must be complex” is to say that the question of God’s existence can be meaningfully approached, starting with what we know. Otherwise, all you’re left with is that absolute agnosticism.

    And absolutely no case for God’s existence.

    In addition, if nothing can be learned by extrapolating from what we know, then it’s not clear to me how “probability” would enter into it. How would you assign a probability to the existence of an unknowable entity?

  38. #38 Jason Kreul
    March 9, 2007

    John Pieret:

    Wow man, lay off the opiates already dude.

    “Anyway, if Dawkins and Dennett are right and the impulse towards belief is part of our genes or is a self-sustaining meme, what takes its place, should you succeed in ousting formal religions, might not be any better and could even be worse … along the lines of the fanaticism of a Pol Pot.”

    First and foremost…

    Daniel C. Dennett has NEVER made any type of insinuation, remark, or wish, well perhaps wish, that there was any genetic influence, as in a GOD gene coded for religiosity. In Breaking the Spell, he does refer to Dean Hamer’s God Gene book on pp 138-139 and again on pg 317 but not in the context of actually agreeing that he has isolated a God gene (VMAT2). While there is debate about what this locus is good for, Dennett does not rush to Hamer’s aid in defending his particular claim. Frankly on page 317 he says “We did consider one of the relatively straightforward genetic possibilities, a gene for heightened hypnotizability. This might have provided major health benefits in earlier times, and would be one way of taking Hamer’s “God gene” hypothesis seriously.”

    This statement lies very far from an endorsement of the proposed VMAT2 God gene hypothesis in my interpretation. As someone who has literally poured over Dennett’s entire library of literary work. I believe I speak for his interpretation of what he was saying as well. He has contradicted this idea in far too many other venues to about-face on it at this juncture of his career.

    Look, he is one of the first to define religion coherently in memetic terms (a Dawkins meme that has apperently caught on pretty well since 1976), but he is really neither arguing that based on its anatomy as a meme on whether this in itself merits it being considered good, bad, or neutral.

    As far as Pol Pot…come on, let’s have an intellectual discussion.

  39. #39 J. J. Ramsey
    March 9, 2007

    “And absolutely no case for God’s existence.”

    The lack of a case for God’s existence is not my problem. I am not a theist.

    “In addition, if nothing can be learned by extrapolating from what we know …”

    I would never say that nothing can learned by extrapolating from what we know. However, the trick is not to draw the curve too far past the data points. Extrapolate, but don’t overextrapolate.

    The theologians tell us that God is, to put it bluntly, really weird. That’s usually not how they phrase it, unless they are being tongue-in-cheek, but that’s what it amounts to. I pretty much expect that common sense is not going to be a good guide to what God is supposed to be like, and if I am going to argue that God cannot be as the theologians describe him, I had better have better grounds than just “Isn’t it obvious?” or “Oh, come on!”

    One practical problem with the Ultimate 747 argument is that it really involves too much theology. The various takedowns of the classical arguments for God can pretty much treat him as a black box, and tend to focus on errors in the arguments that don’t have much of anything to do with God at all. The Ultimate 747 argument requires more direct argument against the theologians as to what God is supposed to be like, as some of the above discussion shows.

  40. #40 Michael Glenn
    March 9, 2007

    The lack of a case for God’s existence is not my problem. I am not a theist.

    Not my problem either, in that sense . . . :-)

    . . . if I am going to argue that God cannot be as the theologians describe him, I had better have better grounds than just “Isn’t it obvious?” or “Oh, come on!”

    Kind of my point, in a way. It’s not that God cannot be as the theologians describe, but rather that the theologians have provided no grounds for believing that God (assuming God exists) is as the theologians describe. At least no grounds that avoid self-sealing premises and ultimately arguing in a circle.

    I experience a kind of double vision re the Ultimate 747. I think it’s a powerful argument, but only in the context of recognizing that the alternative is absolute agnosticism. Clearly anyone who buys into the style of argument typical of Aquinas et al. is not going to buy Dawkins’s argument.

    Ships passing in the night, so to speak . . .

  41. #41 J. J. Ramsey
    March 10, 2007

    Michael Glenn: “It’s not that God cannot be as the theologians describe, but rather that the theologians have provided no grounds for believing that God (assuming God exists) is as the theologians describe. At least no grounds that avoid self-sealing premises and ultimately arguing in a circle.”

    It’s not so much that the premises are self-sealing so much as they come from sources which we do not accept as valid, such as purported revelation or certain strands of Greek philosophy.

  42. #42 Michael Glenn
    March 10, 2007

    It’s not so much that the premises are self-sealing so much as they come from sources which we do not accept as valid, such as purported revelation or certain strands of Greek philosophy.

    Those certainly are the sources. But don’t the grounds offered for accepting them tend ultimately to fall back on assertions like “there must be an unmoved mover because an infinite series of movers is inconceivable,” which pretty much rules out alternatives by definition?

    It’s kind of like the psycholanalyst who asserted that only psychoanalysis could cure phobias, and that any phobia cured by behavioral therapy was not a true phobia.

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