The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

2006 December

Atheists Fear Anti-Christmas Strategy May Backfire by Marring Holiday Season

December 18, 2006 | 43 Comments

Montgomery, Alabama, December 18, 2006
Special to The Raving Atheist

Public officials have chosen to tear down public holiday displays to short-circuit lawsuits demanding the inclusion of additional religious symbols, prompting alarm among atheists that their own litigation might dampen the Yuletide spirit.

In Seattle, Washington, airport officials removed all Christmas trees from the terminal when faced with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky’s demand for equal space for a menorah. In Briarcliff Manor, New York, officials similarly removed a menorah and other holiday symbols from a village park after local resident Henry Ritell sued to include a Nativity scene. Bogomilsky said he was “brutally shocked and appalled” that the airport removed the trees; Ritell called the town officials “grinches” for their decision.

In view of these developments, American Atheists President Ellen Johnson expressed concern over the potential consequences of her organization’s pending lawsuit to place an obscenely blasphemous fecal sculpture next to a creche in an Alabama courthouse lobby. “We are hopeful that the judges will opt for peaceful co-existence rather than a spiteful, pack-up-the-marbles-and-go-home approach,” she said. “Our goal isn’t so much to drive the last traces of God out of the public square, as to express our desire to drive them out a few feet away from those traces.”

Observing God

December 15, 2006 | 15 Comments

Atheists err in subjecting God’s existence to empirical inquiry, argues Robert E. Meyer of Renew America. He then gives an example of why this is so, which I will analyze below shortly. First, however, it will be helpful to clear up some confusion in terminology which is identified, and to a certain extent perpetuated, by Meyer’s essay.

Meyer asserts that atheistic appeals to reason and logic in disproofs of theism are “tantamount to empiricism.” Now, it is true that in ordinary conversation people often blur the distinction between logic (or reason) on the one hand, and facts (or empiricism or science or observation or experience) on the other. For example, someone might say “it would be illogical to believe that there is a crocodile in my closet.” But technically speaking, the presence of a crocodile would not give rise to any of the contradictions or impossibilities which are the subject of logic. What is really meant is that finding a crocodile in that place would be inconsistent with the individual’s prior factual knowledge regarding his geographical location, the content of his home or his preference in pets. There might be a crocodile there, of course, but in any event the question would be determined by resort to the five senses rather than pure abstract reasoning or an analysis of concepts. Logic and reason would, however, be effective to evaluate propositions such as “the crocodile is both in the closet and not in the closet” or “the crocodile is both longer than eight feet and shorter than three feet,” which can be dismissed as false based upon the meaning of the words without the need for observation.

Meyer does not employ the concepts of logic and fact in a consistent fashion. Although at first he states that “the very concepts of logic and reason . . . are abstract entities,” he later seems to adopt the purported atheistic misconception that they are a form of “observational analysis.” Thus, although the point of the essay is ostensibly that appeals to reason and logic are ineffective to resolve the God question, the discussion mostly focuses (as I indicated at the outset), on whether empirical means are sufficient.

Keeping the relevant distinctions in mind, let’s turn to the example at the core of Meyer’s argument:

The atheist/empiricist makes the mistake of assuming that all factual questions can be distilled to this simple observational analysis. Let’s test this philosophically with an assumption about my own hypothetical experience. One night I walk out to the mailbox for the mail. As I am about to return to the house I hear the audible voice of God telling me to write this editorial. For a minute, presume this actually happened. Exactly what empirical fingerprint can I show you to verify my talk with God, thus proving I’m not a crackpot? None. That is my point. Empirical methods cannot test for all truth or truth claims, because of the metaphysical nature of the entity subject to investigation. Any truth claim can be philosophically cross-examined for logical cogency, however. I have shown theoretically, that truth can exist outside the parameters of empirical analysis. A denial of this claim is not based on objectivity, but a presupposition and bias toward empiricism.

Although this resembles arguments that “God is beyond science” or “God cannot be tested,” it differs in a number of respects. First, Meyer’s hypothetical is not the usual attempt to justify the existence of God in the face of a seeming absence of direct sensory evidence. To the contrary, it is centered around the apprehension of an “audible voice” — something fully amenable to one of the five senses, namely hearing. So there is very much an “empirical fingerprint,” in the form of a “voiceprint.” Thus, at least part of the truth resides inside “the parameters of empirical analysis” rather than outside as Meyer suggests.

That Meyer might be unable to later present the evidence to a third party does not make that evidence any less empirical. Had Meyer seen a squirrel which ran away, the fact that he did not take a picture of it to verify its existence to others would not make his sighting of it non-empirical. Rather, the evidence of the squirrel — the only evidence — would still be the original observation made with his eyes.

Given Meyer’s premise that he did hear God, his statement that the “metaphysical nature” of that entity precludes its empirical verification is problematic. Once again, the only evidence identified in his hypothetical are God’s audible words. What precluded others from verifying Meyer’s experience was their failure to be present at the mailbox, not the alleged metaphysical nature of the entity involved. By his own admission, that nature did not stop Meyer from making the determination regarding the entity’s existence. And certainly the failure of others to see the squirrel could not be blamed on a metaphysical nature. The blame would lie with the fact that it ran away.

This is not to say that empirical evidence is necessarily sufficient to verify metaphysical claims. Logic and reason must be brought to bear on that question. As Meyer correctly stated, the matter must “be philosophically cross-examined for logical cogency.” In his hypothetical, this would involve examining whether the observational evidence was consistent with his conclusion that God was the speaker. In his case the examination is impossible because Meyer failed to provide his definition of God. But assuming Meyer embraces one of the standard definitions, the data provided is insufficient because all it establishes is the existence of voice with the power to tell people to write editorials.

Is Theism a Religion?

December 13, 2006 | 40 Comments

Pete Blackwell lists various reasons why atheism is not a religion: (1) there is no God, (2) there is no common belief, (3) there are no laws, (4) there is no church or ritual, (5) there is no unified conception of spirituality, (6) there is no scripture, (7) there is no priesthood, (8) there is no tradition, (9) there is no founder, (10) there are no holidays (11) there is no identifying clothing, (12) there is no concept of the afterlife and (13) there is no creation myth. The first commenter however, raises this objection:

It is true that atheism is not a religion. But then, based on your arguments above, neither is theism! Theists believe one thing in common: there is a god (or gods). That’s all. Beyond that, they may have nothing in common.

The commenter is wrong only to the extent that it can be argued that theism is always a religion because God-belief alone is sufficient to make it so. But insofar as the debate over whether something is a religion involves more than merely whether it declares a god-belief — which Blackwell obviously thinks it does, or he would have stopped at No . 1 — the commenter has a point. There are many forms of atheism that contain some or almost all of the elements of Nos. 2 through 13 and can therefore be considered “religious.” To say that none of those elements are necessary to atheism may be technically true, but none of them are necessary to theism either, which is the point I think the commenter was trying to make.

The main reason, however, that people raise the accusation that “atheism is a religion” doesn’t have to do with any of the factors on Blackwell’s list. Usually, the point being made is that “atheism is just another belief” which depends on faith as much as any form of theism. And this may be true with respect to some atheists, particularly those who are uninterested in theology and who disbelieve primarily for political or emotional reasons.

Of course, many atheists assert that their beliefs are based solely on logic and observation and point out that faith is not a necessary feature of disbelief. But this does not mean that a faith versus reason distinction is the primary dividing line between atheism and theism. First, there are many theists who assert (even if wrong) who purport to ground their beliefs solely in logic and science — even Bertrand Russell (as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion) was briefly convinced of the merits of the ontological argument. Second, logic and science aren’t necessary features of atheism, which may rest on no reasons, bad reasons, or, as noted above, faith.

Just Silly?

December 5, 2006 | 27 Comments

Discussing the case of the Portland atheist expelled from art school for questioning a fellow student’s belief in leprechauns, Shelley of Just Shelley (in the comment section of Pharyngula) opined that the guy was just a bully who deserved what he got. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for anyone who aggressively pushes ANY belief on others, and that includes atheists,” she concluded.

This led to a general questioning of Shelley’s atheistic bona fides. Ultimately she confessed that “I don’t believe in a God, I don’t not believe in a God, I frankly don’t care.” Further controversy ensued, some of it focused on whether the law of the excluded middle precluded Shelley’s “don’t believe/don’t not believe” posture (atheist luminary Austin Cline weighed in on that particular question). Martin Wisse of Wis[s]e Words eventually took the discussion in a sociological direction:

The great white elephant in this thread: gender. Shelley started by setting out her position, somebody asserted that no, she was an atheist, she explained why she didn’t call herself that, more people piled in with why she’s WRONG without listening to her arguments, people started to congratulate themselves for how clearheaded they were and she wasn’t, Shelley got angry and in response got labeled “stupid” and “an asshole” and all but hysterical.

It’s an unfortunately typical downwards spiral in online discussions in a largely male context when some female poster disagrees with the status quo.

It doesn’t help that the alpha male here, PZ his own bad self, does nothing to correct the more egregious assholes but instead piles in on Shelley.

Wisse elaborated on these thoughts at his blog, with Shelley concurring at hers.

For my part, I neither agree nor don’t not agree with Shelley and Wisse. On the one hand, rude atheistic bullying was perfected by Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Ayn Rand so it’s hardly a male invention. On the other hand, some men do assume an intellectually patronizing and belittling attitude towards women out of motives not completely related to being correct about the topic under discussion.

But the real elephant in the thread was how no one ever picked up on Wisse’s misuse of “white elephant,” which refers to a kind of sale. An unspoken but obvious truth is just a plain old elephant in the room, not a white one. Although a “white” elephant is occasionally invoked to make a clever point about the role of the race issue in politics, the only color used in other contexts — to emphasize the animal’s conspicuity–is pink. Unless it’s a unicorn, in which case it’s invisible.

  • Basic Assumptions

    First, there is a God.

    Continue Reading...

  • Search

  • Quote of the Day

    • Fifty Random Links

      See them all on the links page.

      • No Blogroll Links