“Dawkins Is Not A Priest”: A Heated Facebook Exchange

Last spring a friend asked me to come over to her Facebook wall where she had posted a Sam Harris video (on his views on science’s ability to answer moral questions, which I will get around to analyzing here some day).  Though not an outspoken atheist herself, she had received a lot of anti-atheist fervor from one of her other Facebook friends.  She was interested in having me weigh in.  Here is his last comment before I weighed in, followed by my first retort, followed by his first reply to me and then my last volley before he just resorted to personal attacks and I decided to not waste any more time.  In what follows he is in the quote boxes and my writing is, as usual on my blog, not in the quote boxes.  His first post is about Richard Dawkins.  Enjoy:

The man presents more like a school boy reciting forbidden curse words in front of giggling friends than he does a man of any real wisdom.

Warmongering doesn’t always actually result in violence. In this case, he’s advocating aggression from his church by eliciting aggression from the type of Christian he equates Christianity to.
He certainly doesn’t express the same enthusiasm in speaking to people like Chopra or Pim Van Lommel.

His hopes to force dialogue into the acceptable social sphere are unfortunately completely contradicted by his behavior. What dialogue is he so open to discuss if he has already declared his belief to be unshakable?

The man’s just a televangelist in a nanotech suit,
handing out beliefs to suckers willing to take his
word on things. Just like a lot of his opposition.

How degrading to humanity.

You can’t be a warmonger if you’re not advocating war and Dawkins is advocating no wars I know of (and I’ve read and seen quite a bit by him in the last year). I have no idea how to follow your convoluted logic when you say: “In this case, he’s advocating aggression from his church by eliciting aggression from the type of Christian he equatesChristianity to.” He’s advocating aggression from “his” church? What church is that exactly? Dawkins is an atheist, he has no church. And how is he “advocating aggression” FROM his church by “eliciting aggression from the type he equates Christianity to”? What does that even mean to advocate one person to have aggression by eliciting it from another? And where is he “eliciting aggression”? This is just gibberish as far as I can see.

And what does this mean, “His hopes to force dialogue into the acceptable social sphere are unfortunately completely contradicted by his behavior. What dialogue is he so open to discuss if he has already declared his belief to be unshakable?” What’s the acceptable social sphere? How is he hoping to force dialogue into it? And what belief is he taking to be unshakable? The only beliefs that either Dawkins or Harris claim are “unshakable” are that all our beliefs must be subjected to evidence and rational investigation, be it scientifically or philosophically grounded in reasons accessible to all members of the discourse. How does that contradict a call for dialogue? It’s simply a rule necessary for rational dialogue. If I am going to have a dialogue with you, we have to share common terms. You are not allowed to just assert by blind fiat things which flatly contradict the laws of nature or which have no evidence from common experience or scientific investigation. You cannot just make stuff up or grant arbitrary authority to texts which you allow to trump all other evidence and reasons. That’s not reasoning, it’s bald assertion. And there’s nothing wrong with Harris or Dawkins insisting that discussion of religion obey the same rules of discourse of every other field of learning—rules which demand reasons for positions, not bald assertions. Neither Harris nor Dawkins have declared their atheism “unshakable”, they say over and over, they have seen no sufficient evidence and that without such evidence, belief is unwarranted. “Faith” is an intellectual vice, it’s not a reason. You are not allowed where you have no reasons to just believe anyway. That’s prejudice and stubborn willfulness in the face of counter-evidence. It’s not rational. And it requires no respect in a sphere of rational discourse. That’s not closed-minded, it’s the only way open-minded discussion can happen—to reject our unsupported faiths and only believe that for which we have sufficient reasons.

Opposing logic always seems convoluted to those who take immediate offense to their beliefs being subjected to scrutiny.

Let’s start with the church. The man (Dawkins), for all intents and purposes is a preacher. Just as a priest has his or her church, a rabbi his or her temple, he has his book readings and speaking tours. They (preachers) represent a belief in a place where people gather to hear words of encouragement towards their belief.
Atheism is an ism. It’s a practiced philosophy. Belief in no God. A belief without faith…arguably a faith that there is no such thing as faith without material proof. But it is a belief nonetheless.
Dawkins has the god delusion. Arguably the modern bible of Atheism.

I think the parallels there are beyond any accusation of me just being a clever shit.
So there’s your church.

Warmongering…this thing again…Am I apart of a mass hallucination or something? Is there not a very popular cold war taking place between Atheists and Religion? This is the war that people like Dawkins and
religious zealots worldwide constantly feed with this
stupidity of division between Spirituality and Science.

Dan Fincke: “how is he “advocating aggression” FROM his church by “eliciting aggression from the type he equates Christianity to”? What does that even mean to advocate one person to have aggression by eliciting it from another? Blah blah blah please hold my hand”

Well Dan, if I call you a fucking moron cause God says it’s true. And you say “No, YOU’RE a fucking moron cause there is no God”. And we go back and forth about it till we basically storm off angrily. What happens if say Caroline, let’s just say she’s an Atheist,
jumps in and starts it back up again with a rousing “God is a delusion!” The fighting continues. And it’ll be the same dumb childish argument “God will punish thee!” “Prove it!”

This is the war that rages on with absolutely no point of dialogue. There’s no mutual respect between the two sides. And Dawkins non-talent for tact isn’t exactly screaming “Hey guys, let’s talk about this ok?”
The side most heavily opposing Dawkins (as far as Christianity is concerned) are also largely unqualified fucking hypocrites and misinformed creationists.
Again: not ripe atmosphere for dialogue.

So lemme ask you Fincke, how does this create an atmosphere of dialogue. Rules of organized speech or not, you need amicable grounds to even operate on in the first place to have any real dialogue that will result in a point. Or at least a fucking lesson in communication.

Is that clear enough or should I get into examples of Military psychology practices in WW2 or Mutually Assured Destruction techniques to explain how this
type of provoking works?

As for the rest:

“all our beliefs must be subjected to evidence and rational investigation”

As someone who doesn’t separate God and Science,
I don’t necessarily disagree. But can you provide evidence and rational investigation, beyond mere astute observation, for the faith we
share that the Higgs Boson is not just a hypothetical particle field? It’s literally a theory with ugly mathematics but extremely logical physic concepts.
The concept of faith in the existence of God is not so different. Hence half the reason for the Higgs Boson nickname “The God Particle”.

So for Dawkins and Harris to “insist that discussion of religion obey the same rules of discourse of every other field of learning” is not necessarily a correct action or assumption. It’s an insistence based on
an inability to understand the concept of faith and
accepting faith-based religion to be only as credible as its worst representatives.

Where is the irrationality in faith here?

If a man were to look at the moon, know that the moonlight is evidence that the sun still exists
even without it being seen, why is it irrational to have faith in the unseen? A natural allegory for God exists
in nature. Why is it irrational to feel it’s a sign of an omni-presence?

To end with a quote by a man who sits between atheism and belief in God:

“The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? …Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”
-Stephen Hawking

No, I wouldn’t call you clever for making a facile comparison that Dawkins is the head of an atheist “church”—it’s a common and idiotic parallel. Obama is not the “high priest” of the Democratic party, Milton Friedman wasn’t a “prophet” of free market economics, and Albert Einstein was not the seer of the theory of relativity. Not every influential thinker or leader within a movement is like a religious leader. The substantial difference is that most thinkers and leaders of cultural movements do not say things like that they have the secret of the universe which was given directly to them or others for whom this secret knowledge was specially revealed.

Dawkins does not promise special access to God through his priestly ministrations, any more than Obama or Einstein or Friedman or any other non-religious thinker or cultural leader. Dawkins also claims no special allegiance and atheists worldwide have an entirely voluntary interest, disinterest or ignorance of his very existence. Until last year I’d never bothered to read any of his books and I had plenty of atheist ideas. In fact there were and have been atheists freely thinking before him and after him and none of us depend for any sacrament on him, none of us who agree with him do so because we have any special faith in any special powers of his to discern truths which he cannot justify to us. Many people learn about evolution from him because he is a good writer. But assent to the propositions biologists offer about evolution is not based on faith in the special authority of Dawkins, Darwin, or any other scientist. It is simply based on the evidence and the power of the explanation for accounting for the evidence and making predictions about future discoveries.

So, no, he’s not a priest. He is a cultural mobilizer, sure. That’s called an activist, not a priest. He’s also a scientist and a popularizer of science and atheistic ideas. But, I assure you, I belong to no church and I have no “faith”. My beliefs are apportioned as best as I can manage to the degree of my certainty. To the degree that I may erroneously believe a particular proposition too strongly, I do not do so intentionally, like a person of faith does, but unintentionally like a fallible reasoner does. In other words, if I hold a particular belief too strongly and this is demonstrated to me, then I soften the extent to which I hold to it. This is the opposite of faith, which intensifies deliberate belief in the teeth of counter-evidence or missing evidence.

And you use the word “warmonger” rather cavalierly if you call the non-violent insistence that religious institutions and beliefs be subject to the same standards of rational investigation and criticism as any others making “war”. It’s a philosophical disagreement and a non-violent political and cultural challenge to presumed authority who do not deserve the tremendous deference billions give them. No more, no less. No guns or bombs or calls for anyone’s death involved. To call him a warmonger is just careless indifference to the truth on your part.

If you call me a “fucking moron because God says so”, you’re just expressing a baseless viewpoint. However much you want to insist on it, I have no reason to believe it’s true and so there’s no reason to think I might be wrong. Should you provide reasons that I might be wrong on the point, I will gladly consider them. You might prove I’m a moron by demonstrations of my behavior or the clear falseness of my beliefs. If you could ever demonstrate this God and produce conclusive evidence of his opinion, then I guess I would accept that I was a moron. But without such evidence, it’s not an “endless circle” of debate just because you keep disagreeing with me. You keep asserting a baseless opinion and I just keep shrugging it off as irrelevant and formed based on insufficient evidence to be warranted. And that’s it, no epistemic problems, no reason for me to doubt I’m right just because you opt to be petulant and believe whatever you want even if it’s unsupported.

Finally, the difference between the belief in God and whatever physicists believe about hypothetical particle fields is that the physicists’ theories are believed in to the proportion that there is mathematical and physical conceptual support. And that’s it. Physicists do not try to influence politics or whether or not I eat pork or have sex with a particular person or consider myself intrinsically good or intrinsically evil based on their theories. To the extent that their theories can ground engineering safely, they are vindicated and they make possible i-pods and airplanes and trips to space.

And beyond that, the inconclusive theories are not the cause for any undue worship, any undue government policy, any undue adoption of a moral code that is not amenable to independent reason. So, in all of these ways, physics is completely different than faith, with its utterly bullshit and insupportable claims about cosmic propitiations, demonic possessions, divinely revealed texts, etc.

And to conflate genuinely scientific theory where it is inconclusive with superstitious bullshit is just crappy inability to make clear epistemological distinctions.

That does not mean that there is no room to discuss intelligibly a metaphysical or postulate of God. And as I have argued elsewhere in a post inspired by remarks from Daniel Dennett, if God as a physical postulate could be coherently defined and proven, then there’d be every reason to believe in that entity. But thus far, there is no such evidence and as long as there is not there is no reason to believe in such a posit as somehow comparable to the Higgs Boson.

And even if we could establish a physical source of all being in a single entity or metaphysically concede the necessity for some sort of “ground of all being”—there is no reason to think that that entity is any more interested in our “spirituality” than gravity or electromagnetism are. In other words, the leap from “constitutive feature of reality that serves as its fundamental cause” to “personal being who loves me and writes books through nomadic prophets” is entirely unjustified. Again, to compare the inconclusive or paradoxical nature of aspects of quantum physics to such unwarranted thinking is simply sloppy.

There is no reason to think that just because some philosophical or physical accounts of a being-generating entity are not entirely laughable that there is any justification either for religious faith or for the religious traditions which presumptuously claim to be gatekeepers of the mysteries of the universe. They’re simply not. Everything profound in theology was stolen from philosophers like Plato and Plotinus or done in the philosophical, not the allegedly “spiritual”, writings of religious thinkers like Averroes or Aquinas or Maimonides, etc.

And finally, Hawking provides a puzzle, there is no reason to think that religious guesses or the religious traditions which speculate and worship far beyond evidence have any insight into the answer that cannot be gained by temperate philosophical and scientific speculation.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    You can cherry pick quotes from anyone to claim they are a theist. Here’s Stephen Hawking specifically on the degree of his spirituality:
    I’m not religious in the normal sense. I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” -New Scientist (26 April, 1997)
    There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works.“-Interview with Diane Sawyer, ABC News (07 June, 2010)
    We shouldn’t be surprised that conditions in the universe are suitable for life, but this is not evidence that the universe was designed to allow for life. We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There’s not much personal about the laws of physics.“-”Leaping The Abyss”, Reason Magazine (April 2002)

    Those do not strike me as the quotes of someone who “sits between atheism and a belief in God”.
    Language is a funny thing. There are finite words we can string together to form ideas and concepts; there is good evidence to suggest that language evolved as a string of metaphores and similes.
    The “God of Physics” is no exception.
    The only credit I can give theism is that they infused the word “God” with enough rhetorical imagery as to make it a useful descriptive word for unknown quantities.
    God is not a proper noun in the realm of these scientists.

    To the discussion of God and Higgs Boson particles being of comparable liklihood I offer 2 simple questions:
    What mathematical/scientific proofs necessitate the existance of God?
    What testable hypothesis or observation do you purport to validate His existance?

    These questions are obvious in the case of Higgs Boson particles; very much not so for God. That’s just Bad Poetry….plain and simple.
    What more can you expect from someone who conflates advocacy of reason with proselytizing?


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