The world is full of ignorant nonsense, and that’s okay. Well, it’s not okay, but it seems to be part of the unavoidable deal, what with unequal access to education and a thousand other things. What I’ve had quite enough of is ignorant nonsense from people who really have no excuse.
Newsweek Religion Editor Lisa Miller (who interviewed me for a Beliefwatch column in July 2007) set me off with a recent column ( “Arguing Against the Atheists,” October 6) regarding her irritation with “the new generation of professional atheists.”
She begins with a variation on the ad populum fallacy (“If 90-odd percent of Americans say they believe in God, it’s unhelpful to dismiss them as silly”), but it’s her second “argument” that had me shaking my head in frustration at the confident sloppiness of someone with the chops to know better:
When they check that “believe in God” box, a great many people are not talking about the God the atheists rail against—a supernatural being who intervenes in human affairs, who lays down inexplicable laws about sex and diet, punishes violators with the stinking fires of hell and raises the fleshly bodies of the dead.
Generally phrased as “I don’t believe in a white-bearded man in the sky either,” this shameful dodge is the current favorite of religious moderates. It neatly sidesteps all challenges by saying, “Sorry, wrong number” and thereby avoiding the messy business of meeting those challenges. One small detail: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and the rest of those whose persistence Miller dislikes have all made it achingly clear that their critiques are NOT limited to literalists. But even aching clarity must be read to be understood. At best, Miller must have skimmed this passage from The God Delusion:
This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise—as sure as night follows day—turn up in a review: ‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don‘t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.’ That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don’t believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let’s not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 36)
A good effort, Richard, but I’m afraid Lisa Miller only read the dustcover.
Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett have also gone out of their way, again and again, in writing and in interviews, to make it abundantly clear that they are talking to moderates as well, Lisa. Harris built it right into the opening pages of The End of Faith and, when that was ignored, Letter to a Christian Nation. They all voice two different but related critiques for moderates and extremists. They think religious belief itself, in however attenuated a form, is unworthy, undesirable, even harmful. They further suggest that moderates, by offering blanket endorsements of “faith” as a concept and practice, provide ongoing cover and succor to malignant fundamentalism. These authors offer not just the statement of these opinion, but reams of evidence and argument.
Mustn’t look too closely at that, though.
After placing moderate religion safely out of harm’s way, Miller offers a thought that demonstrates precisely the confident nonsense Dawkins, et al. are concerned about among moderates and literalists alike:
Submitting faith to proof is absurd. Reason defines one kind of reality (what we know); faith defines another (what we don’t know). Reasonable believers can live with both at once.
If there’s a single thrust and focus of the “professional atheists,” it is challenging the unsupported declaration that faith “defines a reality” and yet is immune to the requirements of proof. She couldn’t have created a better encapsulation of the dangerous nonsense of faith if she had tried. That the nonsense itself occurs in the process of simply saying “nuh-uhhh” to the arguments against it is as ironic and unworthy a retort as I can imagine.
You may legitimately disagree with Dawkins and the rest, Ms. Miller. But they’ve worked ever-so-hard to frame clear and concise arguments. Would it be okay if we all read them, then discuss those arguments on their actual merits instead of pretending they are talking to someone else about something else?