"embarrassing incapacity"

A nice piece here on the “new” atheism by Ian H. Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The designation “New Atheists” has been gaining ground as a name given to this century’s best-selling authors, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and company, who attack religion. I greatly prefer the designation “Militant Atheists”. It is far more accurate. There is very little new in their critiques. Their militancy is the distinctive feature of their writings. Calling them “Hysterical Atheists” is funny and makes the same point, but it is a bit too provocative to be useful.

Engaging their arguments has been undertaken already by a very respectable variety of commentators, including both Christians and unbelievers.1 it is not altogether a rewarding task, because while the militants’ writings are fluid and stylish, the arguments are often silly. David Bentley Hart’s tone is more disdainful than charitable when he refers to their “embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning … that raises the wild non-sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method”2, but his criticism’s content is right on target. Terry Eagleton, no Evangelical apologist, begins his blistering critique in the London Review of Books “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology”.3 There is plenty in the militant atheist writings to criticize.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if people from as different backgrounds and educations as Hutchinson, Eagleton, and Hart can so readily see and dismiss the utter and patent nonsense making up the new atheist “reasoning” such reasoning can hardly be described (as my intrepid interlocutor does) as a “universally compelling logic.”

I’m just saying.

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58 Responses to "embarrassing incapacity"

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “It does not mean they were not basing their views and trying to line up their “feelings” with an objective source and doing so because they felt that source to be true in a way that was not subjective but objectively true for all.”

    True enough- that is great. The Taliban has objective truth on its side as well- what are we to make of that? So did the Nazis. This type of claim doesn't really get us very far, and nor does the claim that we are really right this time. I mean, if scientific truth is always tentative. (as you rightly dwell on), how much more so moral truths? We can never be sure that we are “really” right, for very good reasons.

    “You keep citing the notion that “feelings” are primary. How?”

    There are several reasons. Firstly, the desire to deploy so-called objective morals has to come from somewhere. There is an underlying motivation to all this that goes right back to our feelings and emotions.. our reasons for being and striving. One of them comes first.

    Secondly, it is simply incorrect to say that we measure ourselves primarily by an outside objective standard. The original experience is perhaps the love between a mother and infant- hugely positive and full of mutual sensitivity and larger moral implications. Likewise for other forms of sociability and how we generally express our desire to participate in the social system. It is only very late in any kind of cultural development that any of this is made explicit, written down, cast up to the skies, etc. At first it comes entirely from our untutored feelings, and in the form of jury verdicts, still rests there, essentially.

    The failure of the Nazis was not one of not reading the bible closely enough .. they had their favorite parts too, I am sure, as well as their Catholic antecedents. No, it was a failure of empathy, endemic to a few leaders, carefully cultivated in their followers, and finally beaten out of much of the rest of the population. One can't reliably formulate this in an objective way, as a breach of some objective rule or other, whether it actually exists or not. We always find reasons to kill some people and not kill others- for reasons of state, self-preservation, greed, etc. Whether stated as a utilitarian calculus, as as general statements of principle and virtue ethics, each has serious problems. The golden rule always has its conditions and failures.

    So, in the end, I think we have far more to rely on in our feelings, which are biologically inborn and pretty certainly there- in existence, even if unevenly spread over the poplation and subject to all sorts of cultivation and abuse … than we do with objective morals, whose existence is itself rather disputable, and whose function in history has been rather dubious, as propaganda props for royal divine right, patriarchy, and the like. They are routinely claimed without much evidence other than obviousness, tradition, and in the end, an appeal to our feelings.. “doesn't murder feel wrong to you?”

    Sorry to go on…


  2. Darrell says:


    “You say that the Biblical themes, and Christianity in general, are objective. This is true only in the trivial sense that it is written down somewhere. One can say that Harry Potter is objective in the same way.”

    Clearly it is not trivial. Tell us what culture, state, or civilization is founded upon or been influenced by Harry Potter in the way or to the depth that Christianity has done. To make the comparison is silly. If you truly believe they are basically the same you are not a serious person and certainly not ready for a serious conversation.

    “So you can't go around claiming that the Christian narrative is objective-as-text as support for the objectivity of the morals it may portray and how people understand them.”

    Uh, yes we can. And cultures have been doing so for some time now. The key, whether you believe it true or not, is what that narrative and text point to. God is an objective reality. Both the text, the historical record, (Israel, Jesus, the Church, Western Civilization), and what it all points to (God) is objective.

    “Do humans need narratives? Not to understand objective ideas. E=mc2 will suffice for that.”

    Wrong. E=Mc2, or any other “fact” is nothing until found within a greater narrative of meaning. So when books are written about physics, when there is reflection, discussion, and when it is all put within wider contexts of knowledge, it is all done within a narrative (whether philosophical naturalism or another). Whether it is knowledge of the physical universe or any other type of knowledge or learning, discovering, research, and the articulation of that knowledge—it is all being done within a metaphysical narrative.

    “But only to change feelings and bestow “meanings” do we need narratives that deal throughout in feelings. That is the entire point and method of religions, generally- an artistry of the subjective.”

    So aren’t those “religions” objective sources?

    “The better angels of our natures are never stirred by objective morals.”

    First of all, how do you know what “better” is? Second, you are absolutely wrong. The simple historical facts and every person’s experience says otherwise. People have “felt” one way and ran into a narrative (Christianity or some other) that led them to “feel” differently. This is so obvious as to hardly need being mentioned.

    The rest of your responses simply go back to the failure of logic that goes, “because there is disagreement regarding morality or failures to live up to it, therefore…” Really? How many times are you going to trot out something so illogical and irrelevant? Please, don’t waste my time anymore with such a silly argument. I know you believe this, but I’ve heard it a billion times. I get it. But it is illogical and entirely beside the point. A waste of time. (Continued)


  3. Darrell says:

    (Continued) You assert we should just rely upon our “feelings.” Again, the prisons are full of people who did just that. It is pretty easy to assume that we should have “feelings” of empathy and obey the Golden Rule after 2000 years of Judeo-Christian influence. I wonder if you would be such an advocate of just going with one’s feelings if you were transported back to some of the culture in other lands who practiced cannibalism and other such things. No, I’m sure you were rather wait until Christian missionaries had done their work and made it safe for people like you, who I guess would have just said to these people, “Hey, they are ‘happy’ and ‘feel ‘okay with this cannibalism stuff, so, who knows.” We do know from history that atheism has never produced a culture, state, or civilization where empathy or the Golden Rule held sway. Why is that?

    Further, this is a fantasy. Ask most people, and 9 out of 10 will tell you that they make significant moral decisions based upon some objective narrative or abstract idea (like the Golden Rule) and not just because they “felt” like it. If you ask them to give a personal history, I’m sure it would be replete with growing up within some religious tradition, or educational philosophy, economic component (class), and a myriad of other influences. To think that people are just “feeling” stuff without taking into consideration all these objective components is sheer fantasy.

    If we subtract all your arguments that are irrelevant (the majority), it boils down to your faith assertion/belief in no God. That is the only reason you have for believing morality is subjective. The vast majority of the world, historically and in present day, operates differently. You argument isn’t with me. It is with history and the real world.


  4. Burk Braun says:


    This is all great to hear, but the variability remains a central issue. Suppose that Newton had proclaimed an objective alchemical theory of the elements, in contrast to numerous other theories of the time, and had no compelling argument in favor of his own, other than it “felt” right, and had some support from the Greeks. In this case, I am even granting that there is an objective theory to be had, (the periodic table and associated stuff…), but that this theory is simply unknown yet.

    Newton would compete for adherents to this theory, but the basis would be people's intutitions about how the elements behave, or better yet, “ya gotta believe!”. I think you can see that this does not yet constitute a proper basis for anyone to believe anything, let alone a foundation of society. The variability in objective moral programs says that you are, at best, still in a research program phase of moral philosophy.

    This is all an issue of the objective moral claim, whereas the subjective model doesn't have any of these problems- nothing needs to be claimed about the mysteries of the universe, and no research program remains unfulfilled. The only thing we need to do is to keep working hard on our mutual cultivation of feelings and values, of which enough are inborn that it is, in fact, never in much doubt what is “good” and what is “bad”.


  5. Darrell says:


    “The only thing we need to do is to keep working hard on our mutual cultivation of feelings and values, of which enough are inborn that it is, in fact, never in much doubt what is “good” and what is “bad”.”

    Did you miss the 20th Century? Two World Wars? The genocides of today? This morning’s paper? History in general? The above statement is almost laughable. Again, it is a completely a-historical view and one removed from reality. Plus, look at all that is presumed: that we should cultivate some values, but not others. That it should be “mutual.” That we should work “hard.” Why? If it is hardly in doubt, why doesn’t it come naturally or easily? You must have a goal, a teleological view here. And, it is no doubt based upon some objective criteria you believe accessible to all and binding on all.

    If you wanted to say something like, “This is the way I think we should figure out morality…” or “In a perfect world, this is the way we would understand morality…” that would be fine. After all, we all are entitled to our opinion. The fact (some facts you like and some you don’t I guess!) remains that no culture or state has come to their views and practice of morality the way you suggest. Maybe the world is delusional and you and your tiny group of secular believers are correct, but for now the onus is on you to show otherwise while the facts on the ground remain entirely in the corner of an objective morality based upon the existence of God or some transcendent source. This is actually the way cultures, states, and people believe and act in any significant area of ethics or morality.


  6. Burk Braun says:


    “The fact (some facts you like and some you don’t I guess!) remains that no culture or state has come to their views and practice of morality the way you suggest.”

    Actually all come to it in the way I suggest. Tablets, objective claims and the like are all secondary latecomers, after the rules have been in place for millennia. It is you who would be woefully ahistorical to think otherwise. Gods come and go, moral theories come and go, as our feelings and (implicit) institutions remain far more stable. Are fables wheeled in to propagandize the historical laws and codes we know of? Mostly, yes- what does that signify? Very little indeed. No more the related origin stories of the ancestral founder being a god, born of a virgin, suckled on a wolf, etc.

    The problem is that morality is inherently conflicting, putting others before one's self. All good morals are in service of the group, setting up a war within the psyche. It is difficult, but hardly mysterious or even objective- Sometimes our long-term interest in group functioning wins out, sometimes our selfish instincts win out. But we have both, and have the wisdom (mostly) to tell between them. Do we valorize the group with totems and even supernatural fables? Sure- we love stories and narrative, whatever the accuracy.

    You may be interested in the field of legal anthropology:

    And what is it all based on? Our long-term group interest, subjectively judged. If god wants us all to jump off cliffs, would we do so? I don't think so, though throwing virgins off cliffs, under unfortunate theologies of group benefit, is a different matter. It takes something truly theologically twisted, like the Jim Jones cult, to get people to die en masse.

    I am not saying the feelings are reliable. I am saying that they are all we have, the “objective” rules being mere expressions of pre-existing feelings. Our laws (on all topics, from dog catching to genocide) all express the consensus of the polity- that is what democracy is all about, now and in the various more or less democratic modes of past societies. The only real recourse you have here is to state that the majority consensus of the polity comes in turn from each person's view of the objective moral law, leaving us with operationally subjective criteria, cloaked with the fig leaf of unknown putatively objective theories, individually interpreted.


  7. Darrell says:


    “The fact (some facts you like and some you don’t I guess!) remains that no culture or state has come to their views and practice of morality the way you suggest.”

    “Actually all come to it in the way I suggest. Tablets, objective claims and the like are all secondary latecomers, after the rules have been in place for millennia.”

    What? So tell us what culture, civilization, or state had no objective narrative that informed their morality. Please do tell us of this ancient atheist/secular non-religion informing culture you have discovered. And where did these “rules” come from you speak of? They were just “in place?” How convenient. And look everyone—here in the West they mirror Judeo-Christianity! What a coincidence.


  8. Darrell says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.


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