Intelligent Apologetics?

As a proponent of Reason it is sometimes really frustrating, and thoroughly unenlightening, to watch debates with religious apologists because they continue to trot out the same lame grade school arguments. Every time I watch the Atheist Experience I’m amazed at the assertions the xtian callers make, seemingly with a straight face. These are your average run of the mill believers that, while they are interested in the subject, they don’t know anything about the 2000+ year history of the debate. They advance arguments that were shot down convincingly by Socrates or Plato. I find debates with such people to be an utter waste of time. They should be told to go do some independent research and come back when they have at least learned the vocabulary. I understand why the guys at Atheist Experience engage these folks, and I value their efforts; I just feel sorry for them for having to do so. It would drive me crazy.

Sorry Justin, I don’t mean to pick on you specifically, I just needed an example of someone convinced by Mr. Comfort’s lamebrain arguments, but…

On a side note to Justin (and others who agree with him), removing the coke can from the video was done for brevity, not to change the argument, which it does not. You are still arguing that the banana had to have been designed, which it does not. The argument is the same with or without the coke can. The fact that you think this changes the argument demonstrates your inability to think logically, nothing more. This is a very elementary mistake. You are exactly the kind of person I am talking about that is a waste of time debating. If you really are interested in this debate go do some more reading and then come back to it. Right now you’re just embarrassing yourself. Sorry.

There are apologists though that do have a grasp of the subject matter and from whom we can actually learn something. One of these is Dinesh D’Souza. Dinesh is well read on the subject and presents his arguments eloquently. By comparing his perspective to that of atheism we can actually see where the difference lies between the believing mind and the non-believing mind. This is quite a breath of fresh air compared to the usual Ray Comfort variety of apologetics, from which the only thing we can learn is the power of brainwashing.

I do believe that early childhood indoctrination is the primary reason that people believe the ridiculous claims of religion, but that’s pretty obvious and therefore not worthy of further study. I think it’s safe when confronted with such arguments as the famous banana proof, or even Ibn Sina and St. Anselm’s ontological arguments, to dismiss them as obviously flawed and move on. Clearly these arguments convince people, such as Justin of “Christian in College” for example, but only those with too little education or too much indoctrination.

The “cure” for people convinced by such garbage is simply better, and more, education in history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, world religions, and science. But what makes someone like Mr. D’Souza, who isn’t convinced by these arguments either, continue to believe in the infinitely improbable? I’m going to go through the following interview with him from FORA, and see if I can find out. Will it be something profound or is he just making the same mistakes the “Joe Six-pack” xtians make, only using bigger words? Anyone taking bets?

Here are the arguments he advances for Christianity, or against Atheism:

Darwin’s ideas were used to justify eugenics

Um, no they weren’t. Eugenics is the just the application of the techniques of artificial selection applied to humans in an effort to improve the species in the same way those techniques had been used for thousands of years to “improve” other species. Artificial selection is just the process of choosing the animals from a group that you most like, having them reproduce, and preventing other animals in the group from doing so. By this process humans have been able to produce dairy cows that produce copious quantities of milk, dog breeds that can perform particular jobs such as herding, draft horses of immense strength, and so on. These techniques were known long before Darwin’s day and it was in part reflecting on the change in species over time via artificial selection that led to his development of the concept of natural selection. As of this writing some Wikipedia contributer has added the bald assertion that one of the early proponents of Eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, was inspired by “the recent works of his half-cousin Charles Darwin”. Ha! Someone else has astutely put a [citation needed] tag on it.

We hear much talk of “Social Darwinism” from people like Dinesh when they are trying to stain Darwin and the rest of the scientific community with the sins of the practitioners of Eugenics, namely Nazi Germany. Darwin never advocated eugenics; he only described the natural processes he observed which would lead to changes in the characteristics of species over time. Using his name in any other way is disingenuous and depends on the audience not being really familiar with “On the Origin of Species”. This is one of the weakest argument we regularly hear from the Christian apologist camp and by making it Dinesh has not elevated himself very far above Ray Comfort.

Human dignity, the sacredness of life, human equality, human liberty are accretions of Christianity and have no place in human society in the absence of Christianity

Wait, what? Has this guy read the bible? This is the same damn assertion that atheists have no morals. The only one I’ll concede is the “sacredness” of life since by definition sacredness is a religious concept. However, I will assert in it’s place that we atheists find all life precious and consider it the responsibility of humanity, because of our position in the global food chain, to protect and preserve all forms of life on this planet. In a real practical sense we tend to treat all life as though it were sacred, while many Christians believe they have “dominion” over all other species and can use them as they see fit.

As for the rest of it it’s just plain garbage. Is he saying that concepts of human dignity, equality, and liberty were unknown before there were Christians, or are unknown today where there are no Christians? In order to believe this he cannot know anything about any ancient cultures or any other non-Christian cultures today. He doesn’t back this statement up with anything; simply calls them “accretions of Christianity” and moves on.

Dumb, not Comfort-level, but close.

The conclusion that the cause of the universe is supernatural is scientifically valid

OK, I’ll give him credit for blowing Ray Comfort’s mind there. It’s way beyond poor Ray to think in these terms but this argument is also puerile tripe. Just before making this assertion at about 18 minutes in he does a very good job of describing why science is methodologically atheistic, meaning that in a scientific exploration of some phenomena it is not acceptable to say “God did it” and leave it at that. Even scientists who are religious, if they’re good scientists, will want to know the natural mechanisms that resulted in an observation, so that they can say that that is how “my god(s) did it”.

“The universe can have a natural cause or it can have a non-natural cause. It seems unlikely that the universe could have a natural cause given that the universe itself is all of nature. We would be in effect saying that nature caused itself. Therefore it seems reasonable that the universe had a non-natural, or we would say, supernatural cause.”

He goes on to say, in so many words, that the “mode of reasoning” demonstrated in the above quote is scientific in nature. This is way too easy! Dinesh, by way of refuting your argument, allow me to refer you to… the words which just came out of your mouth. Methodologically atheistic, remember? Also, allow me to point out that the universe is not “all of nature”, just that region which we are able to observe. The two are not synonymous. Since it is all we can observe it may seem like picking nits to point this out, however mechanically it matters because we cannot say what occurred prior to or spatially relative to the Big Bang. Our universe could exist in parallel with many others, or it could be contained by a larger system of universes. There are astrophysicists today who know far more math than either Dinesh or I who believe both of these things. Dinesh may deride the proponents of the Multiverse hypothesis by claiming that they have very little empirical evidence but I can tell you that they have at least as much as he does for a supernatural cause.

For the sake of argument I’ll grant the synonym for a moment to point out that a supernatural cause of the universe who is thereafter undetectable is not the Christian concept of “God”. Yahweh has to be interested in our daily lives and have to ability and willingness to intercede or the whole guilt trip to heaven thing doesn’t work. The bottom drops out of the whole religion if you assume the deist version of the “watchmaker god”. Whose god are you defending the existence of, Dinesh? It isn’t yours.

Besides, if he’s going to insist on going down the “each effect must have a cause” road I must point out then that his God must also have had a cause. I’m not sure he’s thought it though but this argument doesn’t actually get him anywhere but further away from the Christian conception of Yahweh. He’d be better off to turn around and head for the safety of Gould’s “Nonoverlapping Magesteria” (NOMA), or some similar argument. When a philosopher ventures out into space he’s bound to be at a disadvantage against astrophysicists. It’d be better for him to hide behind the old “well you can’t prove there’s no god” screen.

In the absence of any evidence the supernatural explanation is equally valid with the skeptical poisition

When describing a previous debate with Michael Shermer he takes the position the since neither of them can either prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife then both conclusions are equally valid. He then has the sheer gall to accuse Shermer of holding his non-view of the afterlife as a matter of faith. This is more extremely juvenile reasoning. Shermer is not the one making the assertion of the existence of something, Dinesh is. If one asserts the existence of something, whether it’s an afterlife or a correlation between education and atheism, and one does not want to be laughed out of the room, one must present evidence to support the assertion. Dinesh needs to read up on Russell’s Teapot before his next debate.

Atheists support evolution because it liberates them from “traditional” morality

This is the conclusion he comes to when pondering why the idea that humans are just another animal doesn’t bother atheists. Speaking for myself, I don’t find that evolution makes me “gleeful”, it simply is. Just as gravity simply is. It is how life on the world I inhabit came to have it’s current set of species. This is no more a cause for glee than the celestial mechanics described by Galileo. Although, I must say that both are incredibly beautiful, once you understand them.

I wonder if by “traditional” morality he means the slaughter of innocents, stoning of adulterers and homosexuals, owning of slaves, etc. prescribed by the Old Testament, or maybe something more up-to-date. This is just the same old canard that “atheists have no morals” in another guise. Flat dumb. If you agree with him I suggest you look up the fields of Sociology and Ethics, for starters, and maybe even take a class.

Conclusion?

I’ve followed along halfway though the video and that’s all I can take. I’ll leave it to you to pick out the rest of his gaffes. He speaks well, understands the philosophical issues better than a Ray Comfort-type, and he even understands the value of the scientific method, but that’s about the end of my compliments. Beyond that his reasoning skills are sketchy, his grasp of his opponents’ positions is tenuous, his knowledge of evolution is flawed, his knowledge of history seems strangely narrow, and his conclusions are laughable. After his eloquence is stripped away there’s really very little difference between him and a “lesser” apologist. The arguments are the same, just clothed in more elegant language. Nothing that he said would pose any trouble for one of the “New Atheist” spokespeople such as Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, or Myers. Dinesh would be like a babe in the woods faced with any of these debate opponents. I don’t see any reason for them to consider him a more worthy adversary than Ray Comfort.

His single biggest problem is that he believes that he can successfully defend his position using reason and empirical facts, indeed he believes this is his mission. This is utterly preposterous. He needs to try to understand why Stephen J. Gould went and hid in NOMA-land. He’s no intellectual, or scientific, equal of Gould and should look more closely at why Gould went where he did. It’s a shame Gould is no longer with us because it would have been interesting to see him play dueling lecterns with Dinesh.

In the final analysis I have to say I’m disappointed. I had hoped to be confronted with arguments that I hadn’t heard and thought through years ago. I had hoped to have to stretch some intellectual muscles that have atrophied through exposure to Ray Comfort, Pat Robertson, Ken Ham, William Lane Craig, et al. But it wasn’t to be. Dinesh D’Souza is just more of the same although he has somehow managed to convince himself that he’s different.

Et tu, NatGeo?

The National Geographic channel is running a show now titled “The Real Jesus” in which they discuss in great detail the cause of death and other aspects of Jesus’s life. All of this discussion proceeds on the assumption that he really existed. They never once mention that there is very little evidence that he did actually exist.

I don’t know why, but I expected more from NatGeo. I wish they would spend their money on doing a show surveying the primary source evidence for and against the existence of Jesus. It’s research I haven’t found time to do myself but would very much like to see a show on. I don’t know if I can trust their academic integrity now though. How can you have a show entitled, “The Real Jesus,” without including a discussion about whether or not he actually existed?

True, lack of evidence of existence, is not proof of lack of existence, however given the amazing events that were said to attend his live there is a decided dearth of information regarding him in secular and Jewish records. In fact, as far as I can tell there is not a single piece of contemporary primary source evidence for his existence. The one most often brought up by Christian apologists (those that realize that the Gospels aren’t contemporary) was the mention in Testimonium Flavian. Clearly there are significant issues with that one. We don’t accept the existence of any other historical figure without significantly more evidence than there is for Jesus and I think it’s an important point, if not the important point, to raise when discussing a historical Jesus. In any case, that’s a topic worth exploration. The tripe NatGeo is peddling now though is an insult to the intelligence of their viewing audience.

A Debate I’d Like to See

All the buzz in the online atheist community lately has been about the challenge xtian apologist Ray Comfort has issued to Professor Dawkins for a debate. No, not really. I can’t think of any reason this would be worth watching. Ray doesn’t have a very good grasp of his sides’ arguments and resorts to the sort of trump cards that dead end debates at the slightest provocation. While he does seem to be making a living at being a “Defender of Christianity” his efforts along those lines are laughably amateur. Professor Dawkins on the other hand knows his material backwards and forwards, and the other side’s too. A debate between the two of them would be like a locomotive debating a car stuck at a crossing for right of way, with the car too stupid to realize it had been utterly destroyed. Continue reading