Everyone seems to be talking about atheism. The so-called “New Atheists” are out and proud. Their books are in every bookstore, waiting to perpetuate ideas about religion: that it is evil and causes violence, that its adherents are positively irrational or even delusional, and more. Dressed to impress, atheism is sporting “new clothes,” and David Glass, in his Atheism’s New Clothes, seeks to expose them. Glass explores the primary works of the “New Atheism”: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
Glass starts Atheism’s New Clothes: Exploring and Exposing the Claims of the New Atheists by outlining the claims of the new atheism. One problem with this movement is that it rejects theistic belief simply because it is, according to them, simply obvious that theism is false and so they do not bother to interact on a scholarly level with theistic discussions. In particular, the new atheists define faith in a way which is most helpful to their own case and refuse to interact with theologians on the topic. Harris goes so far as to argue that they can ignore what theologians say because they are allegedly irrelevant to the faith of the faithful. However, Harris’ argument is based upon reading Hebrews 11 in “the right way,” which is of course his own reading that is not based upon the Greek or even exegesis of any sort.
Glass counters the contentions of the New Atheists’ by exploring a number of Christian responses to faith throughout history. He notes that the consensus is that “within Christianity it is entirely appropriate to provide arguments and evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity… note that the New Atheists fail to engage with any [view of faith outlined by Glass] or any other well-thought out view on the subject.”
Another prominent aspect of the New Atheism is that science is alleged to undermine belief in God. They rail against a god-of-the-gaps and make it out as though that is the only way religion has interacted with science. Glass, however, notes that “science took root in a monotheistic, and specifically Christian culture, rather than a polytheistic or pantheistic culture… The question here is how such scientists [Christians who were scientists] could really have engaged in their work of science by its very nature removes the need for God as the New Atheists maintain… They thought of their work as expressing how the universe behaves in accordance with the laws God had put in place.” In contrast to the notion that believers propose God to explain what science cannot, Glass stresses that, like Swinburne, it is more a matter of explaining why science explains.
Can miracles occur? The New Atheists immediately appeal to Humean types of arguments, but Glass argues that these fail. In fact, it seems that here it is the atheist being unreasonable, for “it seems that no amount of evidence would be considered adequate to make it reasonable to believe a miracle had occurred.”
Glass then turns to evidence for the existence of God. He outlines over the course of two chapters a cosmological argument—one which argues from the beginning of the universe—an argument from the orderliness of the universe, and an argument from consciousness. The arguments Glass presents are fairly familiar, but by tying them into a discussion of the New Atheists’ responses (or lack thereof), Glass provides a valuable resource for answering the objections of those who use a similar tactic. For example, in response to the fine-tuning argument from the orderliness of the universe, Glass notes that the New Atheists’ “reasoning seems to be that the mere feact that some… scenario might be possible is all that is required to make it preferable to theism as an explanation…” Yet, Glass notes, this leads to some things which the New Atheists would not find palatable, like the notion that “miracles such as the resurrection occur naturally somewhere in the multiverse without God having to bring them about.”
Glass uses a chapter to focus upon Dawkins’ arguments against God specifically. He notes that Dawkins wavers between a Humean argument and a Darwinian argument: on the one hand he seems to argue that miracles are in principle impossible; on the other hand, he argues that Darwinism has undermined belief in miracles. Yet the arguments themselves offset each other. Why argue that Darwinism undermines the miraculous origins of life if miracles are, in principle, impossible? Furthermore, Glass argues that both arguments ultimately fail to challenge belief in God.
The New Atheists all seem to think that they can explain religion by showing how it evolved. By using the concept of a “meme”—an idea which can evolve just as much as any biological organism—they hold that religion has evolved as a useful capacity, but we have outgrown its usefulness. However, Glass points out that even if this could explain how religious belief can arise, it would not explain away religious belief as untrue. In regards to Christianity in particular, the argument would do nothing to explain the historical evidence for the religious practice. More fundamentally, however, the argument could be applied to any area of knowledge, and therefore undermine all belief. It is self-defeating.
Glass goes on to analyze theism as opposed to materialism in regards to morality. Although materialism may be able to explain how we have moral beliefs, “it does not tell us whether we actually have such an obligation [to be moral].” Religion is very often based upon revelation, the notion that God has revealed truths to humans. Glass argues that the New Atheists’ rejection of revelation is based upon a number of assumptions and faulty arguments. A particular problem is their terse dismissal of revelation based upon conflicting revelations. Glass asks, “Is it really the case that there is no evidence to distinguish [the truth claims of various claimed revelations]?” and argues that there are, in fact, ways to determine the truth of a revelation. Atheists also claim that the Bible in particular has a morally reprehensible code, but Glass notes that much of this is based upon a misunderstanding or naïve reading of the text.
Finally, Glass argues that Christianity in particular is based upon a claim which can be investigated: the resurrection of Christ. He argues from a minimal facts perspective; that is, he argues that there are certain historical facts which must be explained by a hypothesis and that no rival theory to the resurrection succeeds in explaining these facts. As he closes his work, Glass notes that only on theism can life have real meaning, purpose, and rationality.
There have been a number of works written to respond to the New Atheists, and interested readers may wonder where Atheism’s New Clothes stands out. Glass provides perhaps the most in-depth look at the specific arguments of Dennett and Dawkins in particular. Furthermore, the book is presented not just as a response to the New Atheists but as an apologetic primer. It contains a number of arguments for the existence of God and an extended defense of the truth of the Gospels as well as the resurrection of Jesus. These qualities make it essential reading for those looking to respond to atheists who make claims similar to the New Atheists’. The thoughtfulness with which Glass approaches the arguments of the New Atheists and his in depth analyses make it a worthy read for those looking to respond specifically to the authors of the four aforementioned books. Christians should not let this book pass by.
This review was originally posted at Apologetics 315.
 David Glass, Atheism’s New Clothes (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2012), 24ff.
 Ibid, 39.
 133, emphasis his.
 151ff, see especially 163 for this apparent problem.
Guest Post: “The Presumption of Popular Atheism” by David Glass– In this post, David Glass, himself an able response-man to the New Atheism, highlights one primary argument atheists make regarding theism: that theists have all the burden of proof on their side.
I’ll admit it: going into Mitch Stokes’ How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough, I was skeptical [har, har]. Any book that claims to discuss “how to be x” where “x” is some worldview to which the author does not describe has an uphill battle. After finishing, I have to say that my fears were premature. In this astonishing book, Stokes does well what few even attempt: relational, witty engagement with those with whom one disagrees. The book is a calling for self-described skeptics to examine their own skepticism and see whether they are being skeptical enough. Throughout the book, key tenets of “belief” that most people share are challenged by means of classical and modern skeptical argument. Few aspects of life are left unexamined. Whether it is the belief in other minds, morality, or the origin of the universe, Stokes encourages consistent skepticism on all counts.
The book is organized around three parts: Sense and Reason, Science, and Morality. Stokes avoids the potential pitfalls of getting bogged down in complex attempts to defend an alternative view and focuses instead upon skeptical inquiry. He takes a microscope to these topics and asks, effectively, “How should we treat this topic if we were really going to be skeptics?” It’s a refreshing perspective, and one that makes the book highly readable. It reads like an inquiry in the best, technical sense of the term.
‘How do the topics of this inquiry fare?’ you might wonder. Under skeptical scrutiny, very little is left for us. This is not an extended apologetic for the Christian faith. No, this book is specifically aimed at seeing where skepticism takes us if we are actually consistent about it. Free will, objective morality, sense perception, and even realism about scientific inquiry are each cast into doubt. None of this is done in a condescending way or through trickery. Instead, Stokes continually utilizes the works of atheists as sources for his points. True skepticism leaves very little to be affirmed in the world, and what is left behind looks rather pale in comparison to what we experience.
How to Be an Atheist is one of those rare apologetics books that could, I think, reasonably be handed to a skeptical, atheistic friend as a book they might be willing to read–and engage with. Stokes’ humorous style is never offputting. Instead, he encourages a consistent, skeptical look at the world. He shows just how bleak such a vision of the world ought to be. Moreover, he does so by using the words and works of atheists themselves. The New Atheists (Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett) are featured throughout, but Stokes doesn’t limit the scope of the work to them. He delves deeper, citing some of the great skeptical minds of all time–people like J.L. Mackie and David Hume. The continued engagement with the best and brightest atheists demonstrates a willingness to engage with the “other side” on the part of Stokes that is admirable and fascinating.
If there is anything to critique in this excellent work, it would be that Stokes, having demonstrated the bleak view of the world through skeptical eyes, doesn’t do enough to dig readers back out of the “hole” of doubt that has been descended into. There are a few moments where this happens, but the book is almost entirely a work of skeptical inquiry–showing what it would look like if people consistently applied their skepticism. It is an endeavor to show the absurdity of life without God.
How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough is an enjoyable read that provides both a mental workout and a bit of fun. It will serve as a valued reference and resource for me for some time to come, I’m sure. I recommend it very highly.
+Engages top skeptical minds
+Valuable resource all-around
-Little direction about where to go next
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
Mitch Stokes, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).
Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)
Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!
I’m pretty sure we’re not going to get nice weather here in MN for anything more than one 5 hour period at a time. Alas. Anyway, I took the chilled days to find you some more good reading. As always, be sure to let the authors know you appreciated what they wrote and let me know what you think here.
Curiosity Rover Update: Diverse Geological Formations on Mars– Not only does this post have some really beautiful imagery from Mars (seriously, it’s like a science fiction story come true!), but it also discusses how the geology of Mars might pose an interesting problem for young earth creationists.
Self-knockout: A Twitter dialogue with a Hindu against Christian Evangelism– The Nepalese Earthquake led to many Christians praying not just for the physical but also spiritual needs of those impacted. This led to major pushback from many Hindus who argued that Christians are “soul vultures” and should not evangelize. Here’s an interesting look at a dialogue with one of these Hindus who attacked Christians for sharing their faith.
The Biology Professor Who Hated our Outreach Exhibit– Pro-Life advocates continue to show how embryology and related sciences help support the case against abortion. Here’s a post about one biology professor who took issue with the use of scientific evidence against abortion.
How “faith” works in the prosperity gospel (Comic)- A nice flowchart depicting the way faith allegedly works according to the prosperity Gospel.
Upon the Ground of Men– There is a lot of anger (I don’t think this word is to strong) towards those who argue for gender-inclusive translations of the Bible and the like. Here’s a post that looks at some of the difficulties gendered translations face.
Bonus Link: Sam Harris’ performance in a discussion with Noam Chomsky left much to be desired. Sam Harris, one of the “new atheists,” has activated wanton violence against Muslims and other peoples of faith. Here, he had a dialogue with a noted activist against state-sponsored violence. How did it go?
Testing The Creationist’s Hyper-Evolution Orchard: Canines, Felines, and Elephants– Young Earth Creationists appeal to the Flood to explain the rock strata and fossil record. Yet in order to fit the animals onto the Ark, they are forced to posit a kind of hyper-evolution wherein only two of each “kind” were brought aboard and later diversified into the life we see now. Here is an in-depth analysis and critical response to this argument.
Off their noodles: The tedium of Pastafarianism– An insightful, thoughtful discussion of the New Atheist trend for comparing deity to the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Here, there is extensive analysis of the alleged analogy and its “adherents.”
Russia Launches Armed invasion of Crimea region of Ukraine– Some interesting analysis of the foreign policy issues at play here. The development of this has implications for people of faith, and we should be praying for those in the region, whatever our political affiliations or thoughts. The acting President of the Ukraine recently spoke of seeing God’s hand in the events in the region. As Christians, we should be seeking for God’s aid and intercession on behalf of the innocent; we should be praying for peace and the freedom of the oppressed.
Dear Sam Harris, It doesn’t matter if others made claims similar to the New Testament authors– It is not enough to say there are parallels to the Gospel claims and thus dismiss them historically. I made a lengthy argument against the notion that parallels can dismiss historical claims as well: Method or Madness?
Maybe Young Christians Leave Us Because They Were Never With Us in the First Place– J. Warner Wallace offers this powerful call to youth education in the faith.
Here we have another excellent round of posts from across the net. Please, if you look at nothing else, look into the Gosnell case. The link I have here really puts the matter well. The other posts this week are just as important and interesting, however. We have posts on the divinity of Jesus, the “King James Only” debate [what’s that? check out the link!], Rob Bell and spiritual reality, the dominion of nature in Genesis, and Sam Harris on morality. As always, pass this post to your friends and let me know what you enjoyed!
The Gosnell Trial and Destroying the Image of God– Who is Gosnell? The horrific details of this trial confirm that the image of God is under assault. But that assault goes beyond the obviously criminal actions of this man. They extend to the fact that we have undermined the image of God in humanity by devaluing human life, period.
Did the divinity of Jesus emerge slowly after many years of embellishments?– Wintery Knight presents a fantastic summary of the evidence that the divinity of Christ was a belief tied to the earliest years of Christianity.
King James Only Debate (VIDEO)– It is depressing to admit that this is a debate, but there are in fact Christians who believe the King James Bible is the only Bible we should use because… well, watch this debate and find out. I think that James White did an excellent job refuting this position.
Rob Bell’s Recipe for Spiritual Disaster– Rob Bell has seemingly prided himself in asking the tough questions that no one is asking. But what about the answers? Are there answers? Check out this thoughtful post on Bell’s theological system. Be sure to also check out my study guide of his book, “Love Wins” which comes with links to a chapter-by-chapter review I did as well.
Does Genesis 1:27-28 authorize exploiting nature?– Dan Story has written a fantastic overview of the issues related to interpreting Genesis 1:27-28 (dominion over the earth) as a command to exploit nature. Be sure to also check out his further analysis. For more on that issue, check out my Caring for Creation: A discussion among evangelicals.
Sam Harris’ Equivocation on “The Good”– Max Andrews offers a brief yet poignant look at how Sam Harris has erred on his attempts to ground objective morality in a non-theistic system.
Having scoured the internet for great posts to commend to my readers, I have turned up this smorgasbord for your reading pleasure.
My Father’s “Eviscerated” Work – Son of Hobbit Scribe J.R.R. Tolkien Finally Speaks out– Christopher Tolkien gives some fascinating insight to the world of the Lord of the Rings as well as Tolkien’s writing process in this interview/overview. I find it unfortunate that he feels his father’s work has been distorted by all the commercializing, and in particular I am saddened by his analysis of the movies. I have enjoyed them greatly and found The Hobbit in particular to be edifying (see my analysis of the first Hobbit movie). Nonetheless, this was a fascinating read.
William Lane Craig: [Young Earth] Creationism is an embarrassment– A Youtube video that is really a picture with an audio file in which Craig discusses the scientific impossibility of the young earth position which is held by the majority of evangelical pastors. The problem is that some have taught that the only Biblical position is that of the young earth interpretation and when youths realize that the earth is not 10,000 (or so) years old, they will fall away.
Much Undead Ado About Nothing– Our recent obsession with zombies and the undead has lead to some interesting philosophical and scientific reflection. Check out Anthony Weber’s excellent post, which relates back to The Walking Dead, among other references.
Bait and Switch– Eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga evaluates Sam Harris’ book on free will. Spoilers: Plantinga is unimpressed. Read on for his systematic refutation of Harris’ work.
The New Apologetics– Check out this fantastic post on literary apologetics and using imagination in the defense of the faith.
‘Going Clear,’ Lawrence Wright’s Book on Scientology– Scientology is fascinating in its ability to continue. Founded by a science fiction author who describes the real world in terms that reflect those writings, Hubbard founded a religion that continues to fascinate. Check out this look at a recent book outlining the beliefs of Scientology.
Time to Tour the Camp– I found this post on the Holocaust and abortion fascinating and convicting. Please, check it out.
William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence (hereafter MRV) examines the oft-perpetuated notion that religion causes violence. Cavanaugh levels an attack against this notion that comes in two primary directions: 1) He argues that “ideologies and institutions labeled ‘secular’ can be just as violent as those labeled ‘religious'”; 2) He argues that the “twin categories of religious and secular” are constructs which are used to “provide secular social orders with a stock character, the religious fanatic, to serve as enemy” (3-5).
Violence in the name of…
Cavanaugh first turns to the analysis of violence. He argues that rather than just declaring “religion” violent, people should engage in an empirical study. In analyzing various “ideologies, practices, and institutions” like “Islam, Marxism, capitalism, Christianity, nationalism, Confucianism, secularism, Hinduism…” “A careful examination of the varieties of each [worldview] and the empirical conditions under which each does in fact support violence is helpful and necessary. What is not helpful is to divide the above list into religious and secular phenomena and then claim that the former are more prone to violence… such a division is arbitrary and unsustainable on either theoretical or empirical grounds” (16).
Next, Cavanaugh analyzes three ways that religion is supposed to be tied intrinsically to violence. These are that “religion causes violence because it is (1) absolutist, (2) divisive, and (3) insufficiently rational” (17-18). MRV follows several important thinkers who argue from each camp. Cavanaugh concludes that:
[T]here is no doubt that, under certain circumstances, particular construals of Islam or Christianity contribute to violence… Where the above arguments [about the intrinsic ties of religion to violence]–and others like them–fail is in trying to separate a category called religion with a peculiar tendency toward violence from a putatively secular reality that is less prone to violence. There is no reason to suppose that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God (54-55).
The Myth of Religion
In a very real sense, MRV could just as easily be titled The Myth of Religion. Cavanaugh argues extensively for the conclusion that “Within the west, religion was invented as a transhistorical and transcultural impulse embedded in the human heart, essentially distinct from the public business of government and economic life” (120).
The attempt to define “religion” has “nothing close to agreement among scholars…” (57). In fact, “[t]here is a significant and growing body of scholars… who have been exploring the ways that the very category religion has been constructed in different times and different places… Religion is a constructed category, not a neutral descriptor of a reality that is simply out there in the world” (58). Following Jonathan Z. Smith, Cavanaugh states, “religion is not simply found, but invented. The term religion has been used in different times and places by different people according to different interests” (58).
Cavanaugh argues towards these conclusion through multiple lines of evidence. First, the concept of religion itself is different across different times and places. The Western notion of religion is not mirrored in other cultures (61). Yet even in the west, the concept of what denoted “religion” evolved. The concept was used simply to mean “worship” in the past (63). Through the medieval period, religion basically just meant “rites” or “piety”: religion was “not a universal genus of which Christianity is a particular species” (64-65).
Thus, religion was “invented in the West.” Now it has come to mean a “universal genus of which the various religions are species” (69). Part of this development was due to a need in the Reformation to demarcate differences between the varying schools of thought (72ff). When moderns use the concept religion in a universal fashion, such as Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) did, the problem “is that it is unfalsifiable. In constructing an a priori religion in the minds of all people, Herbert [and those like him] has made his theory impervious to empirical evidence. All evidence is seen and interpreted through the lens of his religious view a priori” (77). “There was a time when religion, as modern people use the term, was not, and then it was invented” (81).
MRV then outlines two ways to define religion, either through a substantavist–one which focuses on the content of religion–or functionalist–which focuses on how a practice functions–approach. The problem with a substantivist definition is that “even if one were able to come up with a coherent, transhistorical, and transcultural definition of religion which would include things like Christianity and Confucianism and Buddhism and exclude things like Marxism and nationalism and capitalism, it would not tell us anything worthwhile about the cuases of violence. Indeed, to exclude [the latter three] a priori from an investigation of violence in the service of ideology in fact distorts the results of any such study” (105). Functionalist definitions fare slightly better because they define religion in such a way that “‘if it looks like a religion and acts like a religion, then it is a religion'” (109). This approach is capable of including things like the American Civil Religion.
Thus, Cavanaugh states that “there is no transhistorical or transcultural concept of religion. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority… the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it developed in the West (59).
What does this mean for violence and religion? Cavanaugh proposes a test:
The crucial test, however, is what people do with their bodies. It is clear that, among those who identify themselves as Christians in the United States, there are very few who would be willing to kill in the name of the Christian God, whereas the willingness, under certain circumstances, to kill and die for the nation in war is generally taken for granted (122).
The Creation Myth of the Wars of Religion
The story goes that, after the Protestant Reformation divided Christendom along religious lines, Catholics and Protestants began killing each other for holding to different doctrines. The wars of religion… demonstrated to the West the inherent danger of public religion. The solution to the problem lay in the rise of the modern state, in which religious loyalties were marginalized and the state secured a monopoly on the means of violence…
This story is more than just a prominent example of the myth of religious violence. It has a foundational importance for the secular West, because it explains the origin of its way of life and its system of governance. It is a creation myth for modernity (123).
Following the lines of thinking of Voltaire, John Locke, and others, Cavanaugh argues that the myth of religious violence is perpetuated in order to marginalize that which is considered religious and give rise to the nation-state. According to this myth, “All theological religions are to be tolerated, provided they do not interfere with the obligations of citizens to the state…” (129). The myth is that religion is divisive and that they “fight over doctrines or ‘religious creeds'” so that “the state steps in to make peace” (130).
Cavanaugh shows that this myth is indeed false. The “wars of religion” had any number of motivating factors. The use of this story is not so much to tell a truth as it is a means by which to legitimize the nation-state. He argues towards these conclusions by showing that many “wars of religion” were in fact wars of economy, wars of power structures, and the like. He notes four primary factors for this myth to work: that combatants were motivated by religious difference, that the primary cause of war was religion, that religious causes are analytically separable from political, economic, and social causes at the time of the wars, and that the rise of the modern state was not a cause of the wars (141-142). He then analyzes each of these in turn based upon the historical record and shows that these all fail to account for the actual history of the “wars of religion.” In fact, the opposite is true in each case (142-177).
“We must conclude that the myth of the wars of religion is finally incredible, which is to say, false” (177).
The Uses of the Myth
Perhaps the most challenging and paradigm-shifting portion of the book is that which focuses upon the uses of the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh argues that the myth is so perpetuated because of its usefulness.
First, he analyzes the use of the myth in building the “wall of separation” between church and state. He examines a number of supreme courses and how the myth of religious violence was used to favor the constructed notion of “secular” over that of “religious” (183ff).
The myth of religious violence is used to create a religious “other” which can then be exploited, coerced, and denigrated. “[R]eligion–or more precisely, religion in public–is what the liberal nation-state saves us from” (192). History is revised in order to show how religion is that which causes violence, while the secular nation-state is that toward which we should turn for salvation.
Oddly, it is permitted, encouraged, and sometimes even required to give devotion to the nation state, while this is not religious. “We are all Americans, and devotional exercises [the pledge of allegiance, venerating of the flag, etc.] meant to instill love of our country are unitive, not divisive. Such exercises, however, are not religion. Patriotism, in this world view, is defined over against public religion. To allow that patriotism might be a type of religion and might carry its own dangers of violence would threaten the very basis of our social order” (192).
On a functionalist definition of religion, however, nationalism counts as religion. “American religion” has “saints (the founding fathers)… shrines (Independence Hall)… relics (the Liberty Bell)… holy scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution)… martyrs (Lincoln)… inquisition (school boards that enforce patriotism)…” and various religious festivals (Flag Day, the Fourth of July) (117). Nationalism is prevalent in many countries. Religion is privatized, secular nationalism is standardized and enforced. Not only that, but “Only the nation-state may kill” (118).
Again, Cavanaugh’s point ties into his earlier discussion: the ties to violence must be an empirical study based upon ideologies, not one based upon constructed categories of religious and secular. These categories are faulty in-and-of themselves. Furthermore, they undermine the possibility of the empirical study of violence. Nationalism and secularism–ideologies in other words–can be every bit as violent as some ideologies called “religion.”
The myth is also used to hide possible “secular” causes for war. Al Qaeda is specifically religious, and the West is all too happy to use this to ignore the fact that its own mistakes in installing regimes in the Middle East has caused the rise of absolutist, controlling states (202ff).
Worst of all, the myth of religious violence has been used to carry out violence against the religious other. Those who perpetuate this myth often use it in order to legitimize violence against the religious person, who, after all, is irrational and incapable of reason due to their religious beliefs. Sam Harris is a prime example of this notion. He argues that “There are other ideologies with which to expunge the last vapors of reasonableness from a society’s discourse, but Islam is undoubtedly one of the best we’ve got” (HarrisThe End of Faith, 136, quoted in Cavanaugh, 214). Furthermore, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them… Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of peaceful means of persuasion while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others” (Ibid, 52-53, quoted in MRV 213). Notice how this works: the religious other is that which is unreasonable and violent; in order to stop their violence, it may be ethical to kill them for their beliefs. Harris is not the only one who perpetuates this ideology. Cavanaugh cites a number of other thinkers who have utilized the myth of religious violence in this fashion.
Killing for religion is bad, killing for the state is often good (219). As Cavanaugh states, “The myth of religious violence thus becomes a justification for the use of violence. We will have peace once we have bombed the Muslims into being reasonable” (215). This analysis of violence again plays off the myth of religious violence: “Violence labeled religious is always irrational, particularly virulent, and reprehensible. Violence labeled secular, on the other hand, no matter how regrettable, is often necessary and sometimes even praiseworthy for the job it does defending us from religious violence” (216).
Violence feeds on the need for enemies, the need to separate us from them. Such binary ways of dividing the world make the world understandable for us, but they also make the world unlivable for many. Doing away with the myth of religious violence is one way of resisting such binaries, and, perhaps, turning some enemies into friends (230).
It is rare that one comes across a book that forces them to rethink just about everything they have thought about a specific issue. William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence is one of those books which will challenge readers on every level of the discussion. It has an extremely broad scope, but argues convincingly and with a depth that seems almost indefeasible.
The myth of religious suffers a number of serious defects. It assumes an unwarranted division between the constructed categories of “religious” and “secular,” it oversimplifies the justification for violence, it is a clear example of a creation myth used for the founding of the nation state, and most alarmingly it is used to justify violence against the religious other.
The myth of religious violence may live on on the popular level, but Cavanaugh has dealt its death blow. Whether it takes 50 years or never happens, the myth has been destroyed.
The review has been lengthy, but that is due to the importance of this topic. I will be expanding on and elaborating Cavanaugh’s ideas over the course of the next 1-2 months. Check back here, where I will post links to future posts, or be sure to follow the blog to catch the posts over the coming weeks.
Finally, I want to say that this book was a gift from an anonymous donor from this site and I must say Thank you, you have been a huge blessing! It was so delightful to receive a book out of the blue, and to have it be so fantastic was another reward.
William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).
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Louise Anthony did indeed present the case for secular metaethics. The problem is that this case is utterly vacuous.
It will be my purpose in the following arguments to show that secular humanistic theories which try to ground moral ontology fail–and fail miserably.
Recently, I listened [again] to the debate between William Lane Craig and Louise Anthony. Some have lauded this debate as a stirring victory for secular ethics. (See, for example, the comments here–one comment even goes so far as to say “I swoon when someone evokes the Euthyphro Dilemma and frown at the impotent, goal-post-moving, ‘Divine nature’ appeal.”) In reality, I think Louise Anthony did indeed present the case for secular metaethics. The problem is that this case is utterly vacuous.
I’ll break down why this is the case by focusing upon three areas of development in secular and theistic ethics: objective moral truths, suffering, and moral facts.
Objective Moral Truths
Louise Anthony and William Lane Craig agree that there are objective moral truths. Now, this is important because many theists take the existence of objective morality to demonstrate–or at least strongly suggest–the existence of God. Interestingly, other humanist/secular scholars have agreed with Anthony, claiming there are objective truths (another example is Sam Harris–see my analysis of his position contrasted with theism here). The question, of course, is “How?” Consider the following:
Louise Anthony seems to be just confused about the nature of objective morality. She says in response to a question from the audience, “The universe has no purpose, but I do… I have lots of purposes…. It makes a lot of difference to a lot of people and to me what I do. That gives my life significance… The only thing that would make it [sacrificing her own life] insignificant would be if my children’s lives were insignificant. And, boy you better not say that!”
Craig responded, “But Louise, on atheism, their lives are insignificant.” Anthony interjected, “Not to me!”
But then she goes on to make this confused statement, “It’s an objective fact that they [her children] are significant to me.”
Note how Anthony has confused the terms here. Yes, it is an objective fact that according to Louise Anthony, her children matter to her. We can’t question Anthony’s own beliefs–we must trust what she tells us unless we have reason to think otherwise. But that’s not enough. What Craig and other theists are trying to press is that that simple fact has nothing to do with whether her children are actually valuable. Sure, people may go around complaining that “Well, it matters to me, so it does matter!” But that doesn’t make it true. All kinds of things can matter to people, that doesn’t mean that they are ontologically objective facts.
It matters to me whether the Cubs [an American baseball team] win the World Series. That hasn’t happened in 104 years, so it looks like it doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of the universe after all. But suppose I were to, like Anthony, retort, “But the Cubs matter to me! It’s an objective fact that them winning the World Series is significant to me!” Fine! But all the Cardinals [a rival team] fans would just laugh at me and say “SO WHAT!?”
Similarly, one can look at Anthony with incredulity and retort, “Who cares!?” Sure, if you can get enough people around Anthony who care about her children’s moral significance, you can develop a socially derived morality. But that’s not enough to ground objective morality. Why should we think that her values matter to the universe at large? On atheism, what reason is there for saying that her desires and purposes for her children are any better than my desires and purposes for the Cubs?
Another devastating objection can be found with a simple thought experiment. Let’s say Anthony didn’t exist. In such a world, there can be no one complaining that her children matter “to me!” Instead, her children just exist as brute facts. How then can we ground their significance? Well, it seems the answer for people like Anthony would be to point to the children’s other family say “Those children matter to them!” We could continue this process almost endlessly. As we eliminate the children’s family, friends, etc. and literally make them just exist on their own, we find Anthony’s answer about allegedly objective morality supervenes on fewer and fewer alleged moral facts. Suddenly “Those children matter to themselves!” is the answer. But then what if we eliminate them? Do humans still have value? The whole time, Anthony has grounded the significance of her children and other humans in the beliefs, goals, and purposes of humans. But without humans, suddenly there is no significance. That’s what is meant by objective morality. If those children matter even without humans, then objective morality is the case. But Anthony has done nothing to make this the case; she’s merely complained that her children matter to her.
Now, some atheists–Anthony and Sam Harris included–seem to think they have answers to these questions. They seem to think that they can ground objective morality. We’ll turn to those next.
One of the linchpins of humanists’ claims (like Anthony and Sam Harris) is suffering. The claim is that we can know what causes suffering, and that this, in turn, can lead us to discover what is wrong. We should not cause suffering.
But why not?
Most often the response I’ve received to this question is simply that because we do not wish to suffer, we should not wish to have others suffer or cause suffering for others. But why should that be the case? Why should I care about others’ suffering, on atheism? That’s exactly the question humanism must answer in order to show that objective morality can exist in conjunction with secularism. But I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to this question.
Anthony was presented with a similar question in the Q&A segment of her debate with William Lane Craig. One person asked (paraphrased), “Why shouldn’t I base morality as ‘whatever benefits me the most’?” Anthony responded simply by simply arguing essentially that it’s not right to seek pleasure at the expense of others, because they may also want pleasure.
But of course this is exactly the point! Why in the world should we think that that isn’t right!?
The bottom line is that, other than simply asserting as a brute fact that certain things are right and wrong, atheism provides absolutely no answer to the question of moral objectivity. People like Anthony try to smuggle it in by saying it’s objectively wrong to cause suffering [usually with some extra clauses], but then when asked why that is wrong, they either throw it back in the face of the one asking the question (i.e. “Well don’t you think it’s wrong?”) or just assert it as though it is obviously true.
And it is obviously true! But what is not so obvious is why it is obviously true, given atheism. We could have simply evolved herd morality which leads us to think it is obviously true, or perhaps we’re culturally conditioned by our close proximity to theists to think it is obviously true, etc. But there still is no reason that tells us why it is, in fact, true.
Anthony (and Harris, and others with whom I’ve had personal interactions) centralize “moral facts” in their metaethical account. As a side note, what is meant by “moral fact” is a bit confusing but I don’t wish to argue against their position through semantics alone. They claim that we can figure out objective morals on the basis of moral facts. Sam Harris, for example, argues that there is a “continuum of such [moral] facts” and that “we know” we can “move along this continuum” and “We know, we know that there are right and wrong answers about how to move in this space [along the moral continuum]” (see video here).
Now it is all well and good to just talk about “facts” and make it sound all wonderful and carefully packaged, but Anthony and Harris specifically trip up when they get asked questions like, “How do we figure out what moral facts are?”
Anthony was asked “How do you determine what the objective moral facts are”, and responded by saying, “We do it by, um, testing our reactions to certain kinds of possibilities, um, thinking about the principles that those reactions might entail; testing those principles against new cases. Pretty much the way we find out about anything” (approximately 2 hours into the recorded debate).
One must just sit aghast when one hears a response like that. Really? That is the way we discover moral truths? And that is the way we “find out about anything”? Now I guess I can’t speak for Anthony herself, but when I’m trying to find out about something, I don’t test my reaction to possibilities and then try to figure out what my reaction “might entail.” That is radical subjectivism. Such a view is utterly devastating for not just morality but also science, history, and the like. If I were to try to conduct scientific inquiry in this manner, science would be some kind of hodgepodge of my “reactions” to various phenomenon. Unwittingly, perhaps, Anthony has grounded the ontology of her morality in the reactions of people. But this error isn’t restricted to Anthony. Harris also makes this confounding mistake. His basic argument in the talk linked above is simply, “Science can tell us what people think about things, so it can tell us about morality.” This is, of course patently absurd. Suppose I tried to test these humanists’ theories on groups of people by sticking them in a room and having them watch all kinds of things from murder to the rape of children to images of laughter and joy. Now suppose I randomly sifted my sample among the population of the world, but somehow, by pure chance, got a room full of child molesters. As I observe their reactions, I see they are quite joyful when they observe certain detestable images. Now, going by Anthony/Harris’ way to “find out about anything” and thinking about what these people’s reaction entails, I conclude that pedophilia is a great good. But then I get a room full of parents with young children, who react in horror at these same images. Then, as I reflect on their reactions, I discover that pedophilia is a great evil. And I repeat this process over and over. Eventually, I discover that the one group was an aberration, but it was a group nonetheless.
What does this mean?
Quite simply, it means that both Harris and Anthony haven’t made any groundbreaking theory of ethics. Rather, they’ve just made a pseudo-humanistic utilitarianism. They ground moral ontology in our “reactions” to various moral situations. The only way for them to say something is morally wrong if people have different reactions is either to go with the majority (utilitarianism) or choose one side or the other, which essentially turns into a kind of Euthyphro dilemma against atheists. Either things are wrong because enough people think they’re wrong (in which case morality is arbitrary) or things are wrong because they simply are wrong, period (in which case the humanist has yet to provide an answer for moral ontology).
Given the discussion herein, one can see that those atheists, humanists, and/or secularists who desire to ground objective morality still have a lot of work to do. Louise Anthony’s best attempt to ground morality boils down into radical subjectivism. Sam Harris’ account fares no better. Those who are trying to ground objective morality within an atheistic universe will just have to keep searching. The solutions Anthony and Harris have attempted to offer are vacuous.
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