Thursday, December 18, 2008

They're So Predictable

When you read a theist's denunciation of atheism, one thing is certain: you are not likely to find any original criticisms. Instead you'll find the usual nonsense:

  • Atheists are "dogmatic" and their criticisms are "shrill".
  • Deep down, atheists really believe in a god.
  • Atheists have mental problems.
  • Atheists are hateful.
  • Atheists have no moral code.

etc., etc. For more along these lines, see my account of Tim Kenyon's talk last January.

Now look at this silly opinion piece by Dow Marmur, a "rabbi emeritus" at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. How many of the atheism myths can you find?

The wonder is that the Toronto Star found this drivel suitable for publication. At least the letters published in response, including one from Larry Moran, uniformly disagree with the good rabbi emeritus.

Hat tip: Ed Barsalou.


Anonymous said...

Do you think that religions are a result of genetic and/or memetic evolution? If so, do you think they have survival value?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

There is definitely a selection process applied to different kinds of religions -- for example, we don't see too many Shakers these days.

As for whether religions have survival value, it could well be. I don't think we have enough evidence one way or the other yet.

I tend to think Pascal Boyer's probably the closest to the truth.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for yielding to the temptation exerted on me by the title of your weblog...

When you read an atheist's denunciation of theism, one thing is certain: you are not likely to find any original criticisms. Instead you'll find the usual nonsense:

When you read a theist's denunciation of atheism, one thing is certain: you are not likely to find any original criticisms.

Etc. But seriously, aren't you reading too much into the good rabbi emeritus's piece (whence the scare quotes?)? You could just as well argue that according to Marmur,

- Religious writers resort to dogmatic and passionate assertions in defence of faith.
- Shrill denunciations are characteristic of true believers.
- Only 56 per cent of theists feel closeness to God.
- Exponents of dogmas and norms are flawed.

The letters in response highlight some of the tiring atheistic arguments known to anybody familiar with e.g. the Internet Infidels. No original criticisms there.

There are enough non-believers who are puzzled by the repetitive, vociferous, and often ill-informed campaigns of atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Myers and yourself. Just like there are many believers who feel puzzled by similar sentiments from religious fanatics, I might add.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Parallelism is a good technique, but then the onus on you is to show that the parallelism is real and not imagined.

For example, if you think there are some good, original critiques of atheism that are not based on false stereotypes, then feel free to point us to them.

If you feel that Dawkins, et al. are "ill-informed", then feel free to point out some specific criticisms of their work, instead of making unsupported allegations.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute, you pointed out that believers rarely come up with new criticisms of atheism. I didn't dispute that, and I actually think you're right; it's just that original arguments from the atheistic side are just as hard to find.

As for Dawkins et al. being often ill-informed: the new atheists seem to think that believers view religion (unconsciously) as a kind of primitive scientific hypothesis, or at least that religion should be viewed in that way so that it can be judged by scientific standards. This is actually not so bad as a first approximation to the question of how to treat religion. However, the parallels between science and religion fail (already on a very fundamental level) insofar as religion demands a much greater personal involvement. A fault of many atheists is, I think, that they see this as a sign of the emotional and/or intellectual weakness of believers, and therefore feel justified to dismiss the efforts of believers to understand - on its own terms, so to say - the divine reality they believe to be there. Concrete examples are for example in this review of The God Delusion.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Actually, I think there are a lot of new and original arguments from the "New Atheists". Dawkins, for example, turns the argument from complexity on its head and uses it against theists; I had not seen that one before.

I'm not impressed by the review you cited. To name just one flaw, it is certainly not true that "A vision shared by thousands of people must have an external cause and cannot be a trick of the mind." Your reviewer has evidently never heard of mass psychosis.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, to my knowledge there is little rigorous work on mass psychosis, as you're using the term (i.e., to refer to "shared visions" of many people).

The more telling reply is that any such claimed phenomenon is incredibly hard to verify. Again, to my knowledge, there are zero cases of demonstrably shared visions between thousands of people (nor dozens, for that matter). The claimed examples are such informationally porous situations, with alleged witnesses having ample opportunity to share information about what they thought had occurred, in ways that are experimental demonstrated to result in convergence of stories. The primary reporters/investigators of such alleged incidents are never disinterested experts in (e.g.) the social psychology of testimony, moreover.

In short, rather than supposing that shared visions are explicable via mass psychosis, it's far more plausible to think that there are no strictly shared visions of the claimed variety.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Sorry, I misspoke. I had in mind "mass hysteria", where dozens or even hundreds of people suddenly develop acute health symptoms, even though there is no pathogen or toxin causing them.

For example,

If many people can be suddenly convinced of that false belief, I see no reason why hundreds of people at Medugorje couldn't be convinced of nonexistent phenomena in the same way.