Stephen E. Parrish analyzes atheism with the sharpest tools of analytic philosophy in his latest book, Atheism? A Critical Analysis. After an introductory chapter looking at the issues at hand (circularity, the meaning and extent of worldview, definitions of key words like faith, and the specific type of atheism he’s analyzing–the most prominent one in contemporary philosophy today, naturalistic atheism), Parrish takes up the task of inspecting atheism from all sides, with chapters on competing theories of existence, the existence and order of the universe, the existence of the mind, ethics, and beauty and evil.
The chapter on competing theories of existence is insightful as it both helps divide different worldviews and categorize them and offers a fuller look at what Parrish calls ‘perfect being theism’ which is essentially classical theism sans a strong view of divine simplicity. With definitions under the belt, Parrish then dives into the critical analysis of naturalistic atheism.
The first question explored is that of the universe’s existence and order. Here, Parrish surveys the various possibilities. On naturalistic atheism, the universe may either exist by chance or necessity. He then offers deep analysis of each possibility. The concept of brute fact–that the universe just exists as it does by chance–is, frankly, brutalized in Parrish’s analysis. For example, the idea that our universe is the way it is and ordered because it just happens to be the one in an untold trillions chance that we exist and observe it, and that any other universe would have been just as likely, so we just happened to be likely, does not stand up to scrutiny when one also factors in the selection of an orderly, life-permitting universe like our own. As Parrish’s example points out, if we roll one trillion fair/unloaded dice, what is the likelihood of getting a six on every roll? Each additional sequence would be exponentially less likely. Then, if one rolls the trillion dice a trillion times, the odds of getting this sequence is remote in the extreme. That is, unlikely dice rolls are much, much, much more likely than lucking out and selecting the desired sequence of all 6 rolls. So even if there are an infinite number of possible universes, there is still a set of universes within that overall set of possible universes which would be infinitely less likely to exist, for we’d be trying to select a specific universe with a specific set of circumstances (eg. our own, as opposed to one in which no life is possible, or all that exists is a single star, or a black hole or something of the sort). So brute fact theory still has not accounted for the unlikely nature of our own universe. It is, effectively, equivalent to hand waving and saying the odds don’t matter, we just exist. Calling that an explanation for the existence of the universe is a misnomer at best (see Parrish’s analogy on p. 118). The universe as existing with necessity is analyzed by Parrish in a similar, thought-provoking fashion.
The existence of mind is the next question, and Parrish has done significant work on this question from a philosophical perspective in another work of his, The Knower and the Known (see my two part review: part 1, part 2). Here, Parrish offers a more succinct but nevertheless thorough analysis of the major philosophical positions on the mind from a naturalistic perspective. After a survey of the main options (eg. eliminativism, identity theory, supervenience, and more), he turns to pointing out problems with materialism such as the relationship between the brain and consciousness (146-147), the notion that consciousness is an illusion (147-148), and intentionality–that thoughts sem to be about things (148). Dualism, Parrish notes, has its own set of difficulties, but theism is able to offer a better explanatory power than naturalism because theism has reality as fundamentally personal due to the personal nature of God, thus allowing for an explanation for mind that does not reduce it to nothing, make it illusory, or any other position that suffers from the problems of effectively making consciousness a fiction, or, minimally, a non-intentional state (163).
The next two chapters cover ethics, value, and beauty and note how though these things seem to be observable aspects of our universe, naturalistic atheistic attempts to explain them fail on a number of levels. In particular, they struggle to explain how they can either exist or be objective. Two appendices at the end of the book provide a look at atheism’s ideological development and the social impacts of atheism. The latter appendix is particular aimed to be an answer to those that charge religion specifically is the cause of the worst of society’s ills.
Of the admirable aspects of this book, there is a noted effort to both present the strongest arguments atheists have to offer, including such noted names as J.L. Mackie and Graham Oppy, and an effort in tandem to avoid making arguments that not all Christians could agree with (eg. avoiding making something like ID theory a primary pillar of analyzing atheism in regards to natural order).
It should be noted that this work is intended for a more general audience, with more analogies and basic information presented than in Parrish’s other work. Nevertheless, it still remains deep and incisive in its reasoning and analysis, and readers of any level of expertise in relevant areas will find parts of interest. It would be hard to find a more well-reasoned, deeper look at analyzing atheism in the analytic tradition in a way that is written with accessibility to a more general readership in mind. Words and phrases like “worldview” and “probability structure” are utilized throughout the text, but Parrish defines them in the introductory chapters in such a way that readers will be able to grasp them. When it comes to the analysis itself, because of his engagement with major thinkers and positions in modern atheism, the book will be useful to any reader who finds the topic of interest. Atheism? A Critical Analysis comes recommended without reservations. Any reader can benefit from this extraordinary work.
Full Disclosure: I am named in the acknowledgements of the book, read an early draft, and provided some feedback on the early draft as well. I received a review copy from the author.
Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)
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Says the Madman, “Humanity is Dead, and We Are Its Murderers”– An insightful post which argues that naturalism has undermined the worth and value of humans.
Zombies of Christianity– I really enjoyed this discussion of the diversity of doctrine in Christianity and how to approach it.
My latest post on abortion generated some controversy, but I’d like to point out that scientifically, the unborn simply is a human being. One can find this not only in numerous medical textbooks on embryology, but also in the words of abortions-rights advocates themselves. Check out this phenomenal post which outlines the fact that the unborn are human beings, period- Medical Testimony.
C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian Apologists of all time. Check out this post which brings us Beyond Mere Christianity. Interested in literary apologetics? Check out Holly Ordway’s guest post on my blog here.
A Response to the Problem of an ‘Evil God’ as Raised by Stephen Law.– An excellent article, which I don’t fully agree with (I think Edward Feser answers the challenge correctly, for example), but which provides a thorough critique of Law’s position.
The Artist: A Film Review and Reflection- Holly Ordway shares her thoughts on “The Artist.”
How Many Atheists in America? Fewer than You Might Think– Pretty self explanatory.
The phrase initially has some kind of shock value, and then it gets you thinking. As a Christian, it may have you thinking, “Wow, I never thought of it that way… maybe there is something to this ‘atheism’ thing.” As an atheist, it may have you saying “Yeah, you Christians are just as rational/skeptical as we atheists about other religions, why not just apply that same logic to your own?”
I’ve addressed this statement/argument/quip/whathaveyou before: here. Yet I keep seeing it pop up in everyday conversation and even from people like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in his debate with William Lane Craig.
There’s a problem though, in fact, there’s more than one problem:
1) The statement is false
2) The statement is irrational
3) The statement–as with many false or irrational statements–proves too much (or too little).
Let’s examine to each of these in turn.
The Statement is False
The idea that Christians are atheists to all other religions is simply false. As I’ve explained elsewhere, to other religions, I am not an atheist, I am a rival theist–an adherent of another religion. I’m not an atheist to a Hindu, I am a theist of a different tradition. To the Muslim, I’m not an atheist–I’m a rival theistic believer. So, simply put, the statement is false.
Atheism, by definition, is the belief that there is no God. Therefore, because I believe in a God, I am not an atheist, by definition. William Lane Craig addresses this statement here. The person who brought up the question curiously counters Craig by saying “That’s semantics.” Funny, considering that’s what the atheists are doing: making up semantic word games. Redefine terms to win a debate: atheism at any cost.
The Statement Is Irrational
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the statement is simply irrational. The atheist is literally saying that the theist is an atheist:
necessarily, for any human b, b is either theist (T) or ~T. But Christians are T, therefore they are necessarily ~~T. In English, it is true that any human being is either an atheist or a theist. Christians are theists, therefore, they are necessarily not atheists. (here)
But then what the atheist is saying is that the b who is T = ~T in regards to T`, T“, etc. This is simply false, however, because the b who is T is necessarily ~~T. So the atheist is claiming that a contradiction is true.
The Statement Proves Too Much
Consider the following statement:
there are a theoretically infinite number of possible answers to the equation “Two plus two,” but only one actually true answer. To say that “Two plus two equals four” is to automatically make me an unbeliever in all the other possible answers. It’s not rational, however, for the atheist to say, “Well I just go one step further and choose to disbelieve that four is the answer either.” (Dean Todd)
The same type of argument could be made for any true statement. Therefore, the type of reasoning employed in the “we’re all atheists” statement would undermine all true belief.
But it’s just a quip
In regards to my previous post on this statement, several respondents said variations of “You’re taking it too seriously, it’s just a phrase meant to inspire discussion” or “It’s just a quip”. As one respondent put it:
The original formulation didn’t use the word “atheist.” It simply said, “You disbelieve in all the gods of all the religions other than your own. Well, we godless folks only disbelieve in one more than you do. We disbelieve in them all.” Stated this way, your hair splitting over the poetic use of “atheist” becomes irrelevant and the central point stands
But it can be seen that this falls victim to the same difficulties already pointed out above. For it could be said that “You disbelieve in all the possible answers to the statement 2+2=? except one , I just disbelieve in them all.” It’s simply positively irrational to even use it as a talking point. That, or it’s trivially true and therefore pointless.
Finally, consider the reasoning behind the statement that “it’s just a quip.” Does using a phrase as a mere expression excuse it from being contradictory or false? Suppose I were to go around saying “atheists are theists too, they just don’t know it!” After all, in the Bible it says God’s existence is plain and can be easily discerned (Romans 1:18-20). So it follows that atheists are theists! Obviously, if I were to use this as a “quip” or “expression” it would be seen as an insult or a jab. Not only that, but it would be seen as obviously false “I’m not a theist,” the atheist would respond. “But it’s just a quip!” I could reply. That doesn’t excuse it from being utterly false. Or again, many Hindus claim that all people are really Hindus, they just don’t know it. After all, Brahma is all, so anyone is really Brahma and part of Hinduism, whether they know it or not. But this is clearly false. I am not a Hindu. I think the concept of Brahman is self-referentially incoherent. To assign a label to me that is false is not to make a quip, but an insult; to assign a label that is incoherent is irrational.
I present a dilemma:
Those who assert the “We are all atheists” phrase are either:
1) Making an argument for atheism from the phrase, which is irrational and contradictory
2) Being disingenuous and actively making ad hominem jabs at theists (and therefore being irrational)
To maintain the use of this phrase is to live in a world of either irrationality or insult: either way, it is to disrespect ourselves and our fellows.
The Underlying Reasons For Making the Statement
In discussing this statement with atheists, I’ve found that often it is seen as a simple attempt to try to point out to Christians their “inconsistency.” The reasoning is that Christians use their cognitive abilities when rejecting other faiths, but they apparently don’t in regards to their own. Following from this, it is argued that if Christians were to just be as skeptical about their own faith as they were about others’, they’d be atheists too (or at least understand atheism).
There are problems with this reasoning. The first is that it begs the question against Christianity by assuming that there are no good reasons to be a theist (i.e. if you examined Christianity, you’d reject it too). There have been many who have examined Christianity and found it to be epistemologically robust; so the reasoning of the atheist is question begging. But it also assumes that atheism is a kind of epistemic neutral ground (something I examined here): if one is an atheist, he/she can examine all worldviews without bias. Again, the problem is that this is false. Atheism is grounded upon the idea that “there is no God.” As such, that doesn’t make in unbiased–rather, it makes it biased against the existence of a God(s). So to assume that atheism is an unbiased viewpoint through which all religions should be viewed is to once more beg the question.
Therefore, it appears as though we are once more left wanting any good reason to use the phrase. The statement that “we are all atheists” is false, irrational, insulting, and epistemically question begging.
Edward Feser has a phenomenal discussion of this same topic in his post: “The ‘one god further’ objection”
Dissecting the ‘One Less God’ Meme– Prayson Daniel takes on a meme based on this argument which has been recently circling the web.
William Lane Craig discusses the definition of atheism in writing. Interestingly, Anthony Flew, the renowned atheistic philosopher (who turned deist late in life) admits that atheists have twisted the meaning of atheism so as to weaken it and allow for agnostics to enter the fold of atheism (and therefore they don’t have to argue for the position that “there is no God”). Craig quotes him herein.
Craig also discusses it in another video here.
Another interesting post on this topic.
The featured picture is a poster featuring Soviet Anti-Religion Propaganda.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
I watched a video of Sam Harris talking about morality in February this year (here) and was quite interested in what he had to say on morality.
I was excited to see what Sam Harris had to say. He is one of the so-called “New Atheists”, and thus I expect him to be on the absolute cutting edge of the philosophical debate between theism and atheism. My excitement built because the video was called “Science Can Answer Moral Questions.” I think there are insurmountable problems with such a claim, but this video claims Sam Harris answers this very question.
After some initial comments in which Harris remarked that people often think science doesn’t have much to say about values, Harris did not wait very long to show how it is that science can indeed interact with values and morality. He states, “Values are a certain kind of fact [sic]; they are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures.”
This is literally his argument. I’ve watched the video twice, trying to see if I missed anything, but I haven’t. This is what he says “Values are… fact[s]…”
I read the comments underneath and I noted that one commenter said “I do not see how the speaker used science to understand morality.” The next commenter replied, “I agree that his current argument is unscientific, and that his examples were somewhat extreme and not well presented.” Okay, so I don’t think I missed anything.
One commenter did say that Harris made (sort of) the following argument:
“-science can tell us what makes people happy
“-a moral decision will increase happiness
“-therefore, we can use science to determine if a decision is good or not”
Now obviously these comments are not authoritative on what Harris was saying, but from this video I see no actual argument. Harris managed to prove nothing. What does it mean to say a moral value is a fact? This is something that most (I’d say all, but there are always exceptions) theists would absolutely agree with. Moral values are facts. So what?
How is it that suddenly declaring moral values facts means that science can now discover moral values? It seems to me as though this is impossible. Construct an empirical test that demonstrates “Rape is wrong” or “Murdering people for one’s own pleasure is wrong.” It seems to me as though this cannot be done. Perhaps the one comment did make some headway, however. On atheistic naturalistic science, consciousness is reducible to brain states. These can be detected by science. Throw in the assumption that what makes people feel good is right and what makes them feel bad is wrong, and we now have a way to determine objective morality!
Well, not so much. One immediate objection is that murder or rape, it could be argued, make the perpetrators quite happy. Who decides which happiness trumps which happiness? Is it a group effort? Gather enough test subjects around when a murder happens, measure their brain waves to determine how many people are happy or sad, check off a box “right” or “wrong” depending on the happiness levels. Repeat as many times as needed for empirical validation, and now we have an objective moral values? I think this view is utterly bankrupt. How can we determine morality by mob?
Not only that, but isn’t it possible that at different time periods in history (or the future) such measurements would come up differently? Suppose that in the future the majority of people believe murder is a happy thing, or at least it is acceptable. Well, on this same test, there would be completely different results. Suddenly, objective morality has changed its mind!
There are other problems, however. How exactly can a moral value even be testable. We can do as above and simply measure happiness in various moral situations, but that doesn’t do anything to test the moral value itself. Instead, it tests how people feel about the moral value. How do we test the value with science? I don’t see any possible way to do so.
One final problem is that Harris, on this argument, seems to take what is “right” to be what people like. This is a huge assumption. How fortuitous it would be that naturalistic evolution managed to line us up exactly with the self-existent moral values such that we would like what is “right”! No, the problem with this is that equating “right” with “pleasure” allows for things like the Nazis. Get enough people who take pleasure in exterminating a populace that is a huge minority, and you have suddenly changed “objective” “right” to be exterminating that populace. Say there are 1,000,000,000 people who each get +1 happiness to exterminate a population of 10 people, who would each get -100 happiness (the maximum!) for being exterminated. Clearly, +1,000,000,000 is better than -100. But is it objectively right to say that exterminating people for +1 happiness is right?
Speaking of the well being of children, Harris says: “Is there any doubt that this question has an answer and that it matters?” Indeed not. I am absolutely astounded that someone like Sam Harris seems to be arguing that there are objective moral values. He has nothing on which he can base them. Dawkins states that “there is at bottom no… evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” In contrast, Harris states that moral values are fact! But he has no grounds to do so. Science cannot show objective morality. It can show the feelings of individuals. These feelings are not objective.
At best, all the atheist can do is distill the feelings of the mob into a general recommendation for morality one way or another. I’m not saying atheists cannot be moral people (indeed, I think often many atheists are extremely moral individuals, with much to commend them in this regard), rather, I would argue that atheists have no basis for their morality. Such morality can be based on the feelings of the majority, but it can never be stated that these are objectively right or wrong.
It is telling, further, that someone like Harris admits that there are indeed objective values such as right and wrong. It is quite unfortunate, however, to have to watch him fumbling to try to explain them. The atheistic universe is exactly as Dawkins portrays it, “there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Thankfully, theists have something on which to base objective morality: God. The universe, on theism, has such things as objective moral values, it has design, it has purpose, it has good and evil, and instead of blind, pitiless indifference, it has a God who cares specifically about each creature in this universe.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from cited material which is the property of its respective owner[s]) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.
The Making of an Atheist by James S. Spiegel is a dangerous book. The subtitle illustrates this well: “How Immorality Leads to Unbelief”. Spiegel’s thesis is that “Atheism is not at all a consequence of intellectual doubts. Such doubts are mere symptoms of the root cause–moral rebellion. For the atheist, the missing ingredient is not evidence but obedience” (11, his emphasis). Just above this statement is this similarly strongly worded proposal: “Perhaps we should consider the possibility that skeptical objections are the atheists’ facade, a scholarly veneer masking the real causes of their unbelief–causes that are moral and psychological in nature” (11, his emphasis).
I call the book dangerous for a few reasons. It is dangerous because Spiegel dares to assert something that Scripture holds to be quite true: there are cognitive consequences of sin. It is dangerous because the book unapologetically argues that atheism’s core tenants can be turned about; rather than atheism being a rationally superior view to theism, Spiegel argues that atheists are subject to the very objections they often raise against theism: it arises from psychological and moral deficiencies. Spiegel knows this book is dangerous. He writes “My thesis is an uncomfortable one. To suggest that religious skepticism is, at bottom, a moral problem will likely draw the ire of many people” (16).
Anyone who makes claims like these had better be prepared to back them up. Spiegel points to the oft-quoted passage from Thomas Nagel as a beginning for this discussion. Nagel writes “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I’m right about my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (quoted in Spiegel, 10-11). This powerful quote serves as a backdrop for much of the book.
Spiegel starts off with an analysis of atheism. He points out that the “objection from evil” (the problem of evil) may not be so strong after all. He (rightly, I think) notes that “from a naturalist standpoint the objection from evil is incoherent” (27). This is because naturalism cannot have objective right and wrong. For this and other reasons, the most “powerful” objection to theism is dismissed and avoided.
This chapter has an important concession on Spiegel’s part. He notes that some of the things atheists point out (immoral activity in the church is one example) are indeed problems. Malpractice of believers is indeed something to point out and condemn. But the point is that these things are not objections to theistic belief, rather commentaries on the believers (38).
After a brief argument against atheism and an introductory level explanation of the teleological argument, Spiegel gets into the meat of his book: the causes of atheism. Following Paul C. Vitz, Spiegel argues that one psychological reason for the rejection of theism is a broken relationship with one’s earthly father (64). Spiegel forwards this as a kind of psychological argument against atheism. Just as Freud (and others) would like to argue that theism is mere wish-fulfillment put into practice with the “father figure in the sky”, so, here, Spiegel argues that atheism could be (in some cases) due to a rejection of that true father figure in the sky, as broken relationships are projected onto (and against) the Heavenly Father. “Human beings were made in God’s image, and the father-child relationship mirrors that as God’s ‘offspring'” (69).
Spiegel follows this interesting argument with an equally enlightening discussion in the (im)morality of many top atheistic scholars. He quotes Aldous Huxley, who states “Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because… it suits their books that the world should be meaningless” (73). This rejection of meaning allows immorality. If God exists, there is clearly an objective moral standard. Thus, by rejecting God, this standard doesn’t exist. Immorality can proceed freely.
There is another important point later in this same chapter: “one may willfully refuse to believe certain truths, even when there is strong evidence for them” (83). This is followed by an exploration of what this can mean. He quotes William James, who states, “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one” (84). Ultimately, Spiegel argues, atheists choose not to believe (86).
This choice is made against a presupposed backdrop. Simply put, everyone has a kind of “paradigm” of background beliefs that filters and limits their selection of propositions to believe. Spiegel demonstrates that this happens even among the venerated field of science. There is no such thing as a truly objective human being (92-93). What this means to his thesis, then, is that by selecting a paradigm in which the standard of truth is such that it excludes theism, an atheist will never accept theism on any amount of evidence. Rather, they must make a complete paradigm shift that allows for such a reality (100ff).
This section of the book ends with Spiegel’s assertion that the descent into atheism is a willful rejection of God, made apart from evidence (or a perceived lack thereof). Further, sin can harden one’s heart against God, thus enforcing a paradigm that is anti-theistic in nature (113-114).
The Making of an Atheist closes with a section on the “Blessings of Theism.” Here, Spiegel simply lays out the blessings spelled out in Scripture that are ours in theism. He argues we should live a virtuous life. We have the right to thank and praise God. We can live as humble believers in Christ. I wish that Spiegel had included some of the blessings of Christ in this section, but I suppose that’s not the thesis of his book. One final important point Spiegel makes actually takes place in the endnotes in this last section. Spiegel states that “we should constantly examine and reform these beliefs in light of Scripture and sound reasoning” (141). I think this is an excellent point.
Overall, The Making of an Atheist is a fast read. It’s definitely written for the lay person, though it has enough philosophy in there to keep those looking for a bit of a deeper read engaged. It’s short (less than 150 pages), so it won’t take long to finish. Spiegel’s points are solid and I will explore his conclusions further. Spiegel’s “dangerous book” is very successful.