December 17, 2003 | 23 Comments
As an ardent advocate of civility in public discourse, I was disappointed (and deeply wounded) to read Austin Cline’s accusation that my last post on atheism-as-metaphysics violated “basic standards of intellectual and ethical honesty.” The gravity of my offense was such that I get compared to the lowest form of religious Neanderthal: “[TRA’s] selective and out-of-context quoting is seen most often among creationists.” Worse yet, I am morally inferior to Mr. Cline — he declares that “the difference between myself and Raving is, at it’s [sic] heart, ethical.” Unlike me, Cline walks among [or at least behind] the giants; he “follow[s] in the footsteps of people like Carl Sagan and [atheist philosopher] George Smith.”
I refuse to reciprocate such calumny. Indeed, I could not, for I consider Cline’s site generally to be the finest, most well-reasoned and comprehensive atheist blog on the web. I will thus confine myself to addressing the flaws in his latest arguments on the narrow issue at hand, i.e., whether atheism is more properly defined as a philosophy with identifiable metaphysical implications (my position) or simply the absence of a belief in God (Cline’s position).
Cline again completely avoids my arguments that 1) atheism necessarily makes the same sort of metaphysical and philosophical truth claims with regard to ontology, cosmology or epistemology as materialism, empiricism or Christianity and 2) the mere absence of belief in God cannot be atheism because atheism requires actual thoughts about the God concept. Ostensibly, he glosses over these issues because he’s “got more important things to do than write that kind of tit-for-tat article, especially when I doubt anyone wants to read it in the first place.” Instead, he reiterates (and accuses me of deliberately avoiding) his point that atheism only has importance when combined with a “habit of reasonableness” through the use of skepticism and critical thinking.
I did touch on this issue in the last paragraph of my post, but I’ll elaborate a bit further here. First, if atheism is a mere absence of belief about God (and Cline asserts it’s “nothing more, nothing less”), trying to apply critical thinking and skepticism will be akin to multiplying by zero. A person (or brick) who’s an atheist because he’s never encountered the God concept has nothing to apply those methodologies to.
Second, introducing critical thinking and skepticism add nothing to the importance of atheism, at least as Cline defines “importance”: the tendency to generate specific and useful metaphysical, moral or political conclusions and convictions. Atheism by itself is impotent toward that end, he says; so let’s take the quote he uses to illustrate that point and add the alleged importance-making ingredients:
Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are objectivists — so are all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists objectivists? No. Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are opposed to abortion — so are all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists opposed to abortion? No. Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists believe in reincarnation and ghosts — so do all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists believe in reincarnation or ghosts? No. Some [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are materialists — does that mean that all [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheists are materialists? No. If you are a [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheist, you can’t assume that any other self-professed [skeptical, critically-thinking] atheist shares anything with you intellectually aside from the fact that they don’t believe in any gods.
Does the addition of skepticism and critical thinking to this analysis change anything? No.
As I noted, the value of atheism is in its specific philosophical content. It’s really nonsense to assert that atheism is anything but the fairly well-defined, metaphysical and philosophical body of arguments against the existence of God. Whether atheism leads to specific conclusions on every aspect of every moral issue is not the point; what’s important is that it eliminates a good number of very poor arguments which form the foundation of some very poor philosophical and ethical religious systems.
Presumably Cline will still find these arguments intellectually and morally bankrupt. But I can’t imagine anything that could more quickly bring atheism into [further] disrepute than the way Cline talks about it. Even creationists would laugh at his response to one Ken Michel, who noted that “[w]hen a recipe for chocolate cake calls for only flour, sugar, water and chocolate, [we do not] call this an “atheist” recipe, simply because it does not say ‘Now add a pinch of God'”:
Now, strictly speaking I would say that Ken is wrong and that the recipe is, technically, “atheistic” because it is lacking any mention of gods (in the same way that a story could be called “theistic” if gods play a role or are characters). But there is a big difference between lacking any mention of gods and promoting disbelief in gods. A recipe can be atheistic without promoting atheism.
“Technically,” indeed. Technically, it’s also “stupid” to call a recipe (or a brick) atheistic. But Cline’s right about one thing: there is “a big difference between lacking any mention of gods and promoting disbelief in gods.” It’s the difference between my definition and his.
Cline has also argued that “a bit of humility” is necessary to give atheism significance. I’d argue that insufferable arrogance is more useful. But I won’t belabor the point, other than to point out that if Cline can humbly argue that he’s combination of Carl Sagan and George Smith, then I can humbly suggest that I’m Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Mahatma Gandhi rolled into one.
Since Cline has “more important things to do” than consider my dishonest and evil arguments, I doubt he’s read this far. But if you have, Austin, and you wanna piece of me, why not apply your formidable super-powers of skepticism and critical thinking to my response to your attacks (here and here) on the Jews for Jesus? Unlike all this wheel-spinning on metaphysics, someone might actually be interested in reading about it. So let’s have an explanation of (1) why what reform, conservative and orthodox Jews teach little babies is the “real” Judaism, as opposed to the fake and deceptive Judaism that the Jews for Jesus teach adults, (2) how Judaism and Christianity are true and/or consistent in a way that Jews for Jesusism is not, (3) how the Jews who convert to JFJ are “harmed” in a way that those who covert to (or remain in) any other religion are not, and (4) why “[i]t’s good to see Jews stand up for their heritage and religion” as opposed to applying skepticism and critical thinking to their own beliefs. A coherent response will earn you a groveling apology and a 500-word essay from me on “The Value of Religious Tolerance.”