Saturday, March 24, 2012

Atheist and Reason: They don’t own it

Today, the leading atheists are holding a "Reason Rally" on the National Mall in Washington. They will  hold up Reason as the banner that they believe people should rally, and claim that it will lead thinking persons away from belief in God.

This is an assertion that doesn't stand up to the weight of Reason. Today I would like to point out two articles that are worthy of your consideration.

First, from the Washington Post, an article every Christian should contemplate. Atheists don’t own reason by Tom Gilson, a writer and missions strategist blogging at, and the managing editor of the collaborative e-book “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism.” Here are some excerpts from his article. Read it all here.
The new atheists--participants in the contemporary anti-religion movement led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, among others--are working overtime to tell the world that reason favors atheism, and atheism alone...For years, though, knowledgeable critics have been calling attention to new atheist’ rational fallacies, emotionally loaded rhetoric, and illegitimate, selective use of evidence. It’s time now to add that up together and recognize what it means: the new atheists have no business proclaiming themselves the defenders of reason, simply because they don’t practice it competently....Of course that’s not what the new atheists want us to believe. It is religion, they say, that is the antithesis of reason... What happens, though, when we examine the new atheists’ own “reasonableness” and “internal coherence”?
Sam Harris debated William Lane Craig last April on whether atheism or theism (roughly defined as the belief in one God) provides a better explanation for the existence of moral truths (transcript here). Opinions may differ as to which of them held the more defensible position. What can hardly be disputed, though, is that Craig showed up with logical arguments, at least one of which, if sound, would completely destroy Harris’s atheistic explanation for morality. Harris conspicuously ignored this, and indeed virtually all of Craig’s logic. He devoted one 12-minute segment to rhetoric depicting Christianity in the most negative light possible, and suggesting that we should therefore conclude that Christianity is wrong. It was what logicians would describe as a fallacious appeal to emotion with respect to the question being debated and to the points Craig had raised.

In his best-selling “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins devotes an entire chapter to unscientific anecdotes supporting his belief that a religious upbringing is abusive to children. (See also “Religion’s Real Child Abuse.”) Actual science shows exactly the opposite: spiritually engaged teens are healthier than others on multiple dimensions. Such abandonment of science is surprisingly irrational for the man who was formerly Oxford University’s Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. But rational and logical errors are pervasive throughout “The God Delusion,” so much so that University of Florida philosopher Michael Ruse, an atheist, would endorse Alister and Joanna Collicutt McGrath’s “The Dawkins Delusion?” by saying, “‘The God Delusion’ makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.”

These are, unfortunately, not isolated examples.The American Atheists, for example, co-sponsored a billboard in Harrisburg, PA juxtaposing half of a sentence from the Bible with an inflammatory, racially charged image of slavery. In doing so they combined at least two rational errors: the fallacious appeal to emotion and imagery, and the “straw man” fallacy of misrepresenting their opponents’ position; for although the quoted phrase, “Slaves, obey your masters,” is troubling on the surface, the Bible’s supposed endorsement of slavery is not what atheists allege it to be. As Glenn Sunshine shows in his chapter in “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” Christianity has in fact been history’s major force for the freeing of slaves. Immediate abolition was realistically impossible in New Testament times: The Romans would have treated it as insurrection, and the inevitable bloodshed to follow it would have produced greater evil than would have been alleviated by abolition. The injunction to “obey” was thus temporary and contextual. It was also tempered with instructions to masters to treat slaves reasonably, as fellow human beings. Eventually slavery “virtually disappeared” from Europe under Christianity’s influence, as social historian Rodney Stark stated in “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery” (p. 299).

Failures in the practice of rational reasoning such as these are all too common among the New Atheists. They charge Christianity with being unreasoning or unreasonable, but too often they do so as they have done with slavery: use incomplete evidence or demonstrably invalid reasoning. From my observations, it adds up to this: the new atheists’ difficulty with valid, responsible reasoning is widespread and systemic. Far from being the defenders of reason, they are among the chief offenders against it. It’s time we called them on that.

Second, an excerpt from True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism, entitled The Irony Of Atheism that can be found at Gospel Coalition. Read it all here.
One of the great ironies of the contemporary atheistic movement comes from its ubiquitous use of rhetoric, branding, and emotional triggers to advocate for reason. The leading atheists trumpet their devotion to reason in all their public communications, typically featuring the word in bold type across the names of their books, websites, organizations, and events...Throughout their books, talks, and websites, the New Atheists consistently promote their allegiance to the glory of reason. This is not a novel development; the "new" atheists are hardly the first atheists to claim the brand of reason for themselves. In Aristophanes's play The Knights, written in 424 B.C., Demosthenes asks Nicias, "Do you then believe there are gods? . . . What proof have you?" There is a well-established tradition that connects the skepticism of religion with a love for reason. But some of these connections are more dubious than others. For instance, during the French Revolution, a "Cult of Reason" ransacked churches for their silver and gold and "converted" these churches into Temples of Reason. In the government-sanctioned "Festival of Reason" that accompanied this movement, a young woman was presented as the Goddess of Reason. At other times the connection has been presented hyperbolically, without reference to serious historical or sociological research.
How Atheists Unwittingly Honor God
For the New Atheists, as for some of the old, ardent love for reason apparently motivates visceral disgust of religion...Despite such attacks, as Christians we are delighted that those who consider themselves our opponents are such ardent appreciators of reason. After all, Jesus famously proclaimed that the most important commandment includes loving God "with all of your mind" (Mk. 12:30). So, ironically, we believe that atheists honor God unawares when they reason well. Because we desire to honor God, we want to demonstrate why Christianity provides the most reasonable framework for the existence and use of reason.
The contrasts are clear: atheists claim that religion is the main barrier to reason. Christians believe our capacity to reason comes from being created in the image of an all-knowing God, and the active use of reason is an important way to honor him. Atheists brand themselves as a community united by reason. Christians marvel at how this group rallies together even as their most prominent leader, Richard Dawkins, argues that evolution favors the selfish gene, not the reasonable group. Atheists work hard to eradicate religion for the sake of a brighter future. Christians are amazed that atheists so blissfully ignore the scientific fact that, if religion is a false consolation, the future always ends in death.
Atheism Is a Thought Stopper

Leading atheist Sam Harris says "faith is a conversation stopper." Christians reply that Harris has also said that none of us is "the author of your thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose." The reductionistic, deterministic, and materialistic worldview of many atheists seems, to reasonable Christians, to exclude the existence of transcendent, immaterial things like propositions, the rules of logic, and, most important of all, the very existence of minds.
These aren't straw men, but rather, a description of how many atheists see the stakes as well. Consider the famous Madalyn Murray O'Hair's speech on atheism from 1962:
We must look to materialistic philosophy which alone enables men to understand reality and to know how to deal with it . . . Atheism is based upon a materialist philosophy, which holds that nothing exists but natural phenomena. There are no supernatural forces or entities, nor can there be any. Nature simply exists. But there are those who deny this, who assert that only mind or idea or spirit is primary. This question of the relation of the human mind to material being is one of the fundamental questions dealt with by all philosophers, however satisfactorily. The Atheist must slice through all obfuscation to bedrock, to the basic idea that those who regard nature as primary and thought as a property (or function) of matter belong to the camp of materialism, and that those who maintain that spirit or idea or mind existed before nature or created nature or uphold nature belong to the camp of idealism. All conventional religions are based on idealism.
That is the question: do we have minds, or are we neurological processors akin to robots? And which worldview can better account for the existence and use of reason?
In short, [True Reason] directly challenges the goals of organized atheist communities. Our hope is their fear: a revitalization of faith and thinking Christianity. Their identity as reasoning individuals depends upon the truth of our worldview. Their communal ideals of honesty, freedom, love, and justice are borrowed from the Bible. The very existence of reasoning Christians responding to atheist rhetoric undermines their fallacious, straw man depiction of religious people.
Read them both in full, and as you do, remember that as Christians, we should be driven, not to be a-reason, but driven to be more reasonable, more rational, more thoughtful than those who look to reason with hope, because we believe, with all of our heart that we should be, as Romans says, transformed through the renewing our of mind.

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