Archive for January, 2011

Apologetics and Strawmen

January 6, 2011 4 comments

Gnu Atheism

People who read this blog may have noticed that I speak about apologetics and Christian authors with a kind of disdain, generally labelling them as dishonest and spreading misinformation. I’ve been reading blogs about the research of the Gnu atheists as Apologianick states:

The new atheists in these works are not interacting with Craig, Geisler, Habermas, Licona, Plantinga, Moreland, Kreeft, Zacharias, and numerous others. The argument is entirely one-sided.

As a student who still writes research papers, one of the first things I do when I have decided on my topic is to go and order books from the other side. I want my opponents to have their views presented in the best possible light so I can show all the more how weak that they are.

These books do not do that at all. Richard Dawkins does not interact with Alister McGrath, for instance, who is one of his strongest critics being an Oxfordian trained in the sciences. I find it hard to believe that Harris is a graduate from Stanford in philosophy when I read a book with such poor argumentation as the one that he wrote.

If I was a professor and a student turned in assignments to me written like these books are, that student would fail that assignment. The poor research and weak argumentation should have these authors being seen as shameful disgraces. Instead, there are actually pastors who apparently wrote to Harris saying they deconverted upon reading his book, enough to convince me that they should not have been pastors to begin with.

When I encounter an atheist who cites these books as authoritative, I already know that this is someone who does not take research seriously. The sad reality is that their works get absorbed by the atheists on the net and lower the quality of the debates. It’s really hard to have a serious discussion with someone when they think the question of “Who made God?” is an ultimate stumper that Christians have never answered.

If an atheist wishes to be an atheist, very well. Take my advice in this however. Distance yourself from the new atheism. Read instead the old atheists like Mackie, Martin, Nielsen, and Flew. (Granted, Flew did deconvert, but he was a giant in atheism in his time) These writers took theism seriously. They were not driven by an emotional hatred of theism and were willing to acknowledge some good Christianity had done for the world. (reference: “The Shoddy Research of the New Atheists” (2007)- ApologiaNick)

Now my first reaction before having interactions with Nick might have been reactionary, to attack back, but I actually agree, somewhat, with what he’s saying. In the sense that we should do our own research and we should reject poor research.

Gnu Atheism Versus Apologetics

This doesn’t mean, that the ‘New theists’ are the well-spring of integrity and knowledge either, your average apologetic author like Craig, Dembski, Strobel, Moreland, Plantinga and Comfort are simply the flip side to the Gnu atheists. It seems what’s really going on is a passion for days gone by, with authors and literary devices long gone; authors of the past like Hume, Descarte, Plato, Artistotle, Augustine, Voltaire,  Aquinas etc were writers who really brought something to the table, based on limited scientific knowledge, and great philosophical knowledge.

It’s a different time now, with authors bringing a different style to the table, more scientific and somewhat less philosophical, simply because science and the discoveries therein have dominated the last 150 years. There is simply less room for the philosopher to hide, perhaps. Even I admit, reading people like Loftus, Sagan, Martin, Dennett, Smith, Russell etc can make the polemic, rhetoric of the Gnu atheists seem somewhat fake, shallow and redundant. But, and I’ve made this argument before, the Gnu atheists are challenging the believer in the pew, not the theologian who sets doctrine, not the philosopher who hides in metaphysics, the Gnu atheists are a response to apologetics, which are empty and rarely meaningful.

Let’s kick down some strawmen.

Atheism Defined

So there’s no doubt, here are the definitions of atheism:

As Michael Martin states:

Well known atheists of the past such as Baron d’Holbach (1770), Richard Carlie (1826), Charles Southwell (1842), Charles Bradlaugh (1876) and Anne Besant have assumed or explicitly characterized atheism in the negative sense of absence of belief in God. Furthermore, in the twentieth century George H. Smith, in Atheism: The Case Against God (1979), maintains, “An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that god does not exist; rather he does not believe in the existence of god.” Antony Flew, in “The Presumption of Atheism” (1972), understands an atheist as someone who is not a theist. Gordon Stein, in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (1980), says an atheist “is a person without a belief in God.” A recent pamphlet entitled ‘America Atheist: An Introduction” says an atheist “has no belief system” concerning supernatural agencies…..Still there is popular meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist not simply holds no belief in the existence of a god or gods but believes there is no god or gods. This use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call this positive atheism, and the type of atheism derived from the Greek root held by the atheistic thinkers surveyed above let us call that negative atheism. Clearly positive atheism is a special case of negative atheism: Someone who is a positive atheist is by necessity a negative atheist, but not conversely. In my useage, positive atheism is positive only int he sense that it refers to a positive belief- the belief that there is no god or gods. It is positive in contrast to negative atheism, which has no such positive belief. Martin M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Pp- 463-4.

As George H. Smith states:

Derived from the Greek atheos (meaning “godless, not believing in the existence of gods”), an atheist is “one who does not believe in the existence of a deity.” Atheism, or the absence of belief, is therefore a perspective, not a philosophy. Although there can be atheistic philosophies that are based solely on naturalistic principles, there cannot be a “philosophy of atheism” per se, because a negative position can never serve as a satisfactory foundation for a philosophical system.

Consider the British atheist G.W. Foote editor of the Freethinker and the author of many books and articles on atheism. Foote’s atheism was scarcely of timid variety; convicted of blasphemy and sent to prison, his case provoked a young John Stuart Mill to write a passionate defense of religious freedom. Yet Foote repeatedly insisted that atheism is properly defined as the absence (or lack) of theistic belief, and not the denial of God’s existence. In a typical exchange, Foote challeneged a critic to “refer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God.” The atheist is a person without belief in a god; “that is all the ‘A’ before ‘Theist’ really means.”

This was the view of Charles Bradlaugh, the most influential atheist in Victorian Engleand. In The Freethinkers Textbook (1876), after noting that the meaning of “atheism” had been “continuously misrepresented,” Bradlaugh went on to say: “Atheism is without God. It does not assert there is no God.” Similarly, in Why I Do Not Believe In God (1887) Annie Besant defined atheism as “without God.”

No historian has yet undertaken a thorough investigation of this negative definition, so we don’t know when it came into common use, but we do see traces of it as early as the seventeenth century. For example, John Locke, in Essays concerning human understanding (1690), cited travel accounts that reported “whole nations” of atheists, “amongst whom there was to be found no notion of a God, no religion.”The negative definition also appears in the first comprehensive defense of atheism, Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature (1770). “All children are atheists,” according to d’Holbach, because “they have no idea of God.”

Christian scholar Robert Flint understood that atheism, as defined for many decades by prominent atheists, is negative rather than positive in character. In Agnosticism (1903), Flint pointed out that the atheist “is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God.” On the contrary, this “positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds…..” The atheist is simply a person “who does not believe that there is a God,” and this abscence may stem from nothng more than “want of knowledge that there is a God.” Flint concludes: “The word atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambigious term. It means one who does not believ in God, and it means neither more nor less.” Smith G. H., (2000). Why Atheism? Pp 18-24.

As Dan Barker states:

Basic atheism is not a belief. It is the lack of belief. There is a difference between believing there is no god and not believing there is a god–both are atheistic, though popular usage has ignored the latter. [Dan Barker. Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. p. 99. Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1992.]

As Antony Flew states:

The word “atheism,” however, has in this contention to be construed unusally. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of “atheist” in English is “someone who asserts there is no such being as God,” I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix “a” to be read in the same way in “atheist” as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as “amoral,” “atypical,” and “asymmetrical.” In this interpretation an atheist becomes: someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels “positive atheist” for the former and “negative atheist” for the latter. [Antony G.N. Flew and Paul Edwards, God, Freedom, and Immortality p. 14.  Prometheus, 1984.]

As Gordon Stein states:

The average theologian (there are exceptions, of course) uses “atheist” to mean a person who denies the existence of a God. Even an atheist would agree that some atheists (a small minority) would fit this definition. However, most atheists would stongly dispute the adequacy of this definition. Rather, they would hold that an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distinction is small but important. Denying something means that you have knowledge of what it is that you are being asked to affirm, but that you have rejected that particular concept. To be without a belief in God merely means that the term “god” has no importance, or possibly no meaning, to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is the lack of belief.

When we examine the components of the word “atheism,” we can see this distinction more clearly. The word is made up of “a-” and “-theism.” Theism, we will all agree, is a belief in a God or gods. The prefix “a-” can mean “not” (or “no”) or “without.” If it means “not,” then we have as an atheist someone who is not a theist (i.e., someone who does not have a belief in a God or gods). If it means “without,” then an atheist is someone without theism, or without a belief in God. [Gordon Stein (Ed.), An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, p. 3. Prometheus, 1980.]

As Sam Harris states:

Myth 3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity’s needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn’t have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” (Harris S., (2006). 10 myths—and 10 Truths—About Atheism.

As Great Christina states:

Myth 1: Atheists are 100% convinced that there is no God, as blindly faithful as religious fundamentalists.

Atheism means different things to different atheists. But for the overwhelming majority, it doesn’t mean being 100% certain that there’s no god. It means being certain enough. It means we’re as certain that Jehovah or Allah or Ganesh don’t exist, as we are that Zeus or Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist. (I’ve read and spoken with hundreds of atheists… and have encountered exactly two 100 percenters.)

Atheists aren’t saying, “We’re 100% convinced that there’s no god, nothing could persuade us otherwise.” Atheists are saying, “We’re not convinced. The arguments for God are weak and circular; the evidence falls apart under close examination. Show us better evidence or arguments, and we’ll reconsider. Until then, we’re assuming that God doesn’t exist.  (Christina G., (2009). Eleven myths and truths about atheists.

As the Freethinker blog states:

A theist gnostic is someone who believes in god/gods and thinks that the existence of gods can be known. This position is usually referred to as just ‘theist‘, since people who believe in gods, usually also think that their existence can be known.

A theist agnostic is someone who believes in gods, but thinks that they could not know for sure that their god exists. Another fairly unusual position, as people who have faith in gods usually also think that their god can be known to be real.

An atheist agnostic is someone who does not believe in gods and also thinks that the existence of gods cannot be known. This might mean that they don’t believe in gods because they haven’t seen any evidence that supports their existence.

An atheist gnostic is someone who does not believe in gods, and who thinks that we can know that gods do not exist. A fairly unusual position, they might think they have found proof of the non-existence of gods, or might have been persuaded by life experiences. (The Freethinker-

So What Are The ‘New Theists’ Saying?

As Gary Habermas strawmans:

As many writers have noted [citations?], this last trend has manifested some very interesting characteristics. For example, leaders of the New Atheism such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have been referred to as atheistic evangelicals, secular fundamentalists, preachers, (emphasis added) and so on [inaccurately, there are no fundamentals to atheism, no preachers, no evangelicals. These are religious icons meant to subtly imply to the reader a specific mentality, and is a common strawman fallacy]. These epitaphs are apparent references to the zeal, fervor, and bombastic methods with which they not only write, but perhaps apply even more to their public presentations, debates, and interviews [as mentioned there are also apologetical authors attempts to subvert what the Gnu atheists say by attempting to make atheism appear as a religion, therefore without merit. Which is ironic considering apologetical authors spend their time attempting to sell the authenticity of their faith]. (reference: “The Plight of the new atheism: A critique.” (2008).- Gary Habermas)

As Alister McGrath strawmans:

Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis [wrong, atheism is not a belief system, or a religious system, or a knowledge one. It merely states your position on a single specific claim, no more. Atheists define why they are so based on different criteria, which are not necessarily tied to any particular basis.]. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain [ presumably you based your atheism on a review of the evidence presented for the claim that there is a God, as no evidence can be provided that God doesn’t exist. If that is the case, what positive evidence was presented to you that made a belief in God tenable? Also, you really found the arguments for the existence of God to be complete, solid and certain? This implies not a fault of atheism, but your fault, respectfully]. The opportunity to talk with Christians about their faith revealed to me that I understood relatively little about their religion, which I had come to know chiefly through not-always-accurate descriptions by its leading critics, including British logician Bertrand Russell and German social philosopher Karl Marx [this suggests that (a) you were an atheist for very weak reasons, it seems you did no research or had no intellectual basis for your atheism, as there has been no break through in Christianity and (b) if you’d talked to Muslims you would have become a Muslim and so on for every religion.]. I also began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naïve and uninformed [if there is a link to be made between nature and science at all it is due to the fact that that is all the cold hard positive evidence suggests, to add anything else is to speculate an inference, with no evidence]. One of the most important things I had to sort out, after my conversion to Christianity, was the systematic uncoupling of this bond. Instead, I would see the natural sciences from a Christian perspective-and I would try to understand why others did not share this perspective [it’s really simple, because there is no reason or evidence to suggest that belief is warranted or rational, to the best of my knowledge].

As many cultural analysts have argued, atheism is the religion of modernity [false, this is such a common strawman it’s hard not to charge the ‘New theists’ with the same charge of shoddy research that the Gnu atheists receive]. But the rise of postmodernity has unseated this settled assumption [false, atheism is not an assumption, but rather the default position to the God claim, we all begin with lack of belief it’s only some that acquire belief]. Atheism now seems a little old-fashioned [then why call it “New atheism”? If they weren’t bringing anything new to the table?], the establishment position of a previous generation [establishment position? Maybe I’m misunderstanding something here, but it seems to me this is the first time ever, or since the enlightenment, where atheists are allowed to peddle their ideas without fear of repercussion and death from Christians. Christianity is the establishment sir.]. And in its place, postmodernity has recovered an interest in spirituality [he uses this word specifically, precisely because it has no meaning. What is spirituality? I doubt any Christian is willing to accept the claims of every person who calls themselves spiritual, this is a word used to collect all non atheists to a specific cause, the problem being of course, Christians do not accept the claims of other religions and in some cases of other Christians].. I have no idea where this trend will take us, but certainly it seems to take us away from atheism. (reference: “Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond” (2005). -Alister McGrath)
As Ravi Zaccharias strawmans:

The emotion-laden question is not nearly as troublesome to answer if the questioner first explains all the killing that has resulted from those who have lived without God, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, et all [that’s like accusing everyone who killed who had moustaches as being related and causal. You don’t kill because of what you don’t believe, you kill because of what you do believe, Zacharias is making the fallacy of cum hoc ergo propter hoc.]. The antitheist is quick to excoriate all religious belief by generically laying the blame at the door of all who claim to be religious, without distinction [that’s a pretty extravagant absolute truth claim, I don’t personally do that and know many who don’t]. By the same measure, why is there not an equal enthusiasm to distribute blame for violence engendered by some of the irreligious? [because it is easy to cite examples of things done in the name of God (inquisition, the crusade, Salem witch trials), yet very hard to identify the same done in the name of atheism, without any on hand statistics, I would be hard stretched to even conceive that happening.] (reference: “Can Man Live Without God” (1994). Ravi Zacharias)

By definition, atheism  is the doctrine of belief that there is no God. (emphasis added) [no it’s not, and this yet again demonstrates that strawman the ‘New theists’ love to erect. This is categorically wrong, and if this is the basis for his argument and his book, then it is dishonest and misinformed.]. It is an affirmation of God’s non-existence (emphasis added)  [no it’s not, it is the lack of a belief in a God or gods, that’s it, it is a negative position which people come to for any number of reasons, but it’s what everyone starts out as.]. This ought not to be confused with agnosticism which claims not to know [it seems no-one but these authors seem to misunderstand the very subject matter they’re writing on, if we can’t trust what they say, why should we listen?] . Postulating the non-existence of God [which atheism does not do] , atheism commits the blunder of absolute negation, which is self-contradictory [no it doesn’t]. For, to sustain the belief that there is no God, it has to demonstrate infinite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying, “I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge. [there are weak, agnostic or implicit atheists, these people lack the belief in a God or gods, this is the default position of all people before they accept the God claim and it is generally what is meant by the term atheist. It derives from the Greek word atheos which literally means without God.  Ravi is discussing strong, explicit or gnostic atheism, which is less common and is a positive belief system that is untenable as Ravi suggests, hence why most atheists don’t use the term. (reference: “The Real Face Of Atheism”. (1994) pp-36- Ravi Zacharias)


You can see from this very brief sample set that apologetics seem to strawman atheism. This isn’t all apologists and every Christian, you can only rationally base your opinion on what I’ve written here. But, I’m going to do more blogs on what the other side says, as I want you, the reader, to see, honestly, what the other side has to say.

References/Further reading:

ApologiaNick. (2007). The Shoddy Research of the New Atheists.

Habermas G., (2008). The Plight of the new atheism: A critique.

McGrath A., (2005). Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond.

Zacharias, Ravi K., (1994). Can Man Live Without God.  Word Publishing. p. 22-24.

Zacharias R., (1994). The Real Face Of Atheism. Pp-36.

Categories: Apologetics, Atheism, Theism
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