Saturday, November 28, 2009

Atheists Have Won So Stop Arguing

Byron linked me to an article by Lisa Miller in a recent edition of Newsweek in which Ms Miller voices a weariness with the argumentiveness of the "New Atheists." It's not that she's unimpressed with their arguments, mind you. Rather, she seems to be persuaded that the atheists have won the debate about the rationality of belief in God, that further argument is tedious and pointless, and that we need to move on and recognize that people are not going to be persuaded to believe one way or another about God by appeals to reason.

Ms Miller gives far too much credit to the work of people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens - as though their books, like a massive artillery barrage, have somehow swept the field, there's no point in continuing the shelling, and all that's left is for believers to retreat into irrelevant, isolated enclaves of nonrational, subjective faith reinforced by the beauties of poetry.

Three statements in particular bothered me in this essay. Miller writes:

Three charismatic men - Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Hitchens - have not just dominated the conversation, they've crushed it.

"Crushed it"? In whose judgment? By what standard? All three of these men have done little beyond embarrass themselves whenever they've either written on, or debated, religion. That Miller isn't aware of this is a poor reflection on how thoroughly she knows her subject.

The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school, each showing off to impress ... whom? Let's move on.

Move on to what? Poetry? She wants to cede the flag of rationality to the atheist when in fact the atheist has lost it everywhere but in popular culture. Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are doubtless very smart, but so are their opponents. Why does Miller give the impression that the atheists simply outshine their competition intellectually? Has she not watched the debates between Hitchens and William Lane Craig? Has she not read any of the scathing reviews of Dawkins' or Harris' books by people like Alvin Plantinga? Guess not.

This week Harvard's humanist chaplain Greg Epstein comes out with Good Without God, a book arguing that people can have everything religion offers-community, transcendence, and, above all, morality - without the supernatural. This seems to me self-evident...

This is a very odd claim. The atheist belief that he can have all those goods without the supernatural may be true - I argue that it's not - but it's possible that it is. What it's not, though, is self-evident. Miller just doesn't know what she's talking about here anymore than she did when she wrote a column sometime back on why Christians should accept gay marriage.

Her assertion that atheists can have morality without God is, I think, either trivially true or it's false. It's true that atheists can live by the same values that theists call "moral" but their choice to do so is purely subjective and arbitrary. It's not grounded in anything but their own feelings. Thus, they can be "moral" in the sense that they live by certain values that Christians also live by. But the claim to "have morality," if it means anything significant, means 1) to have grounds for making moral judgments about the behavior of others and 2) to be obligated to do one thing rather than another. Neither of these can apply to an atheist.

The atheist cannot say that others are wrong if they choose, say, to withhold charity from those who suffer, nor can he say that anyone is obligated to be charitable. What on earth could possibly obligate someone to help another? Our genes? Our shared humanity? The greater good? The most that an atheist can say is that he likes charity and wishes that others did, too, but he could just as "morally" claim to like stinginess. It makes no difference.

The shallowness of Miller's piece reminded me why I stopped reading Newsweek a long time ago, but I'm sure the article will, nevertheless, be a big hit on the cable talk shows.


White Flight

This is an interesting datum - interesting for what it says about our perceptions of how Mr. Obama is doing thus far into his presidency and how those perceptions are influenced by race:

Just 39 percent of white Americans now approve of President Obama's job performance, a steep drop-off of support since he was inaugurated in January, according to the latest Gallup Poll.

In his first full week in office, starting Jan. 26, just over six in 10 white people gave him their approval. Now that number is down to under four in 10, indicating a net drop of 22 points.

Black voters, meanwhile, have continued to support Obama to the tune of approximately 90 percent.

In other words, were President Obama a white man it's very doubtful that he would have held onto black support to the extent that he has. Were he white his approval numbers among blacks would probably be about what they are among whites and he'd be under 40% in his overall approval rating. That's quite a drop in the first ten months of a presidency. It's probably even "unprecedented."

That there is such a gap between how whites perceive the Obama presidency and how blacks do is unfortunate but understandable. As the first black president, he's the repository of so much of the hope and pride of black America. Blacks are heavily invested in his success and are loath to give up on him and admit that the man in whom they had placed so much confidence and optimism is showing himself unable to do the job.

Perhaps the lesson for voters of all races is that one's vote for president should not be cast for the person whose skin is the right color or for the candidate whose gender satisfies some politically correct requirement. The candidate who wins our vote should be the person we think is the best qualified to do the job, and race and gender are not, or should not be, relevant qualifications.