New Atheism, Morality, and Falsifiability

A couple of days ago I argued that New Atheism was primarily a movement interested in advancing a number of moral causes. New Atheists are, in short, very motivated by, and invested in advocating for, a range of moral judgments about the ethical rightness of people thinking both freely and scrupulously for themselves and not submitting to unfounded sources of authority in matters of belief and practice just because of uncritical veneration for traditions. I wrote:

We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.

Launching off of this remark, Beth replied:

This is the same basic argument that true believers in any ism are apt to make. Those who are sincere in their attempts to evangelize others ALWAYS believe that they are spreading truth and combatting falsehoods despite the fact that what they call ‘truth’ is actually an unfalsefiable claim.

First of all, being an “ism” is not intrinsically bad. Or, if it is, Beth does not give a falsifiable reason for knowing that it is. Either there is a test of falsifiability to show “isms” are bad or she is using a standard besides falsifiability to judge them bad. Later in her comment she accused the New Atheists of intolerance. Is there some falsification test that is supposed to tell us that we are not supposed to be intolerant? I don’t know of such a test.

But you know what is falsifiable and falsified? The proposition that all truth must be of the kind that passes tests of falsifiability. Of course, this is not falsifiable experimentally, say, through using the kinds of tests Popper devised for assessing whether a given proposed scientific proposition could be shown false through well designed experiments. But nonetheless, the proposition that truths can only be known if they pass tests of falsifiability has a simple test. If we can find a truth that is true even though it cannot, even in principle, be put to a test of falsifiability, then not all truths are known only because they pass tests of falsifiability.

Here is such a truth: “1+1=2″. That indubitably true. There is no conceivable experiment which could show it to be false. Here is another truth which is unfalsifiable: “A bachelor is an unmarried man.” This is true by definition. No experimental test could prove it false. Here is another one: “A=/=~A”. The law of non-contradiction. There is no test condition under which it can be false. But it is still true.

Falsifiability is a valuable tool for developing scientific knowledge. But not all of our knowledge is scientific (and not even all good science is falsifiable in the strictest sense). Our moral and epistemic knowledge, for another example, draws on formal rational principles, on tests of internal consistency, on experience of the world, and even on some science. But it is not itself scientific and it is not itself falsifiable. Nonetheless, we can have moral and epistemic knowledge. Or, at least, we can have rationally defensible moral and epistemic claims which are justified by their being proportioned to the reasons for them.

Secondly, the point I was talking about in saying that New Atheists argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it was not the narrow and more presumptuous claim Beth imputes to us that people are better off living with any specific pet New Atheist proposition than without it. New Atheists are committed more specifically to arguing for the value of truth and rigorous standards of rationality themselves, than they are actually interested in any specific truth claim in particular. I’m contrasting our proposition that truth itself is an intrinsic good with the view of other atheists (like Beth?) who doubt either that truth is an intrinsic good at all or that truth, even if it is an intrinsic good, can ever be justifiably more important to a person than his pleasure.

Our primary concern is to argue for the value of truth and rationality themselves in response to those atheists who share our disbelief and yet who also think that it is not a bad thing when other (religious) people hold beliefs that we atheists agree are false (and, so, “deluded”). Among us atheists who share this view (that faith-based religious theism is either likely false or at least insufficiently supported by reason and evidence to be believed) we are split only on the question of whether those who we both think are wrong should be told the reasons we have for thinking they are wrong.

Our other main reason to argue for the value of truth itself is that many religious believers explicitly attack the value of reason. They explicitly celebrate believing either without evidence or, even, against the evidence. They both implicitly and explicitly teach people to adhere to their religions more than to their reason. They try to make faith into a virtue. Sometimes they denigrate reason itself and go so far as to advocate outright irrationalism or fideism of the most naked and unapologetic kinds.

If Beth is so committed in principle to rejecting unfalsifiable beliefs on the grounds of their supposed dogmatism, then she should certainly be a New Atheist and oppose religious faith beliefs. When someone believes by faith he not only commits to believing a wide range of unfalsifiable propositions, but he even commits in many cases to believing falsifiable propositions after they have been falsified. Some things the faithful believe can and have been falsified and yet they go on believing. And sometimes they frankly will tell you that they will continue to believe in some of their not-yet falsified beliefs even if they see them falsified.

We New Atheists are not “true believers” in some dogmatic set of propositions that we cannot defend. Our raison d’être is not to dogmatically advance any specific proposition (not even that there are no gods). Our explicit rallying target is the non-existence of gods because that question is ground zero of religious attacks against rationalism. There is no more widespread, dubious faith belief than the belief in gods. There is no more influential lie to buttress real world religious authoritarianism in beliefs and in practices than the lie that their beliefs come from supernatural, divine revelation and that they serve as the mouthpieces of gods. There is no larger or more vigorous group throughout the world defending the supposed value of believing contrary to evidence than the defenders of belief in gods.

So, rationalists who are opposed to faith-beliefs in principle and who argue and agitate for the intrinsic values of truth and reason for their own sake (even in the public square and not just in laboratories or the ivory towers of academia) grasp that faith-based religions and the kinds of gods they promote are the ones who encourage and train people to submit to their cognitive biases as virtues, rather than to expunge them as thoroughly as possible.

Precisely what we are opposing in principle is “true belief” in what is not adequately defensible according to reason. That’s our moral principle. Beth, and other critics of New Atheism, want to blame us for being so adamant about this moral principle but then hypocritically apply it to us when criticizing us. “You’re like a dogmatic true believer!” For what? For arguing that dogmatic beliefs are wrong to hold because they are unjustified, likely to be false, and likely to lead to poor choices due to false information?

Well, either you think there is something wrong with being a dogmatic “true believer”, in which case you really are with us in principle despite your being bizarrely offended that we criticize the real “true believers”, or you think there is nothing wrong with being a “true believer”. But if that’s the case, why exactly are you criticizing us? Is it because we’re somehow hypocrites for having “true belief” while telling others not to? Why is that suddenly a problem whereas dogmatism itself and the systematic training of people to be dogmatic as a routine part of religious training isn’t? Is it that our supposedly dogmatic and evangelizing practices of “true believing” somehow harms others? If that’s true, you’re saying that “true believing” can be blamed for the ways that it distinctly contributes to harms for others when the “true believing” is (allegedly) carried out by atheists, but not when it is done by theists?

Again, we New Atheists are not actually “true believers” in the sense of being committed to any particular propositions beyond rational warrant. Ultimately our only real commitment is just to the principle that people should only believe, even in religious matters, according to reason. That’s really it. The rest—even the atheism!—is in principle negotiable.

The moral commitments that motivate us, which I enumerated at length in my previous post, all stem from that commitment to rationalism itself. Either you are with us in opposing irrationalism as a matter of principle, in which case you should be side by side with us denouncing faith-based believing, or you do not think that irrationalism is an inherently bad thing—in which case, you have no grounds to try to dissuade us of what you allege is irrational in what we do. Maybe you will say that our (supposed) irrationalism is not intrinsically bad in itself but you think it’s harmful. But when we argue that faith-based religious beliefs are on net, in the long term, likely to do more harm than good, Beth accuses us of making (presumably illicit) unfalsifiable claims. Are the allegations that our supposed irrational faith beliefs are in the long run detrimental any more falsifiable?

We who think theists should be challenged over the falseness of their beliefs are not dogmatic fanatics. Our non-belief is no more irrationally formed than is the non-belief of our accommodationist atheist brethren. Our disbelief itself is no more extreme or unjustified than that of atheists who want to “live and let live”. They usually share our basic philosophical and scientific positions on the lack of justification for religious beliefs and the poverty of religious means for forming true beliefs. That we simply try to convince those who disagree with us of the rightness of our shared position does not make us any less rational in the way we come to our positions.

Nor does our confrontationalism make us somehow dogmatic in how we argue for our positions. Just because we want to dissuade others does not mean that we are manipulative, authoritarian, or closed-minded as the most notorious religious proselytizers. Some of us certainly behave badly and succumb to the tribalistic vices all groups are prone to. This is lamentable and something I write against often. But to eradicate the vices intrinsic to group behavior you would have to eradicate all groups. That’s not an option. And New Atheists are no more especially guilty of demonizing or otherwise mischaracterizing or mistreating our enemies than any other group which publicly argues for its viewpoint. We should hold ourselves to high moral standards, of course, but we should not be dismissed as somehow failing to meet even minimal moral standards.

We are simply interested in debating theists in order to dissuade them of what we perceive to be their errors. This does not make us suddenly equivalent to proselytizers who want to bully people into emotionally or illogically accepting propositions which admit of no good rational support but require an emotional and illogical leap of faith.

What we want to do is consistent with what intelligent people are concerned to do in all other areas of life where they have disagreements about truth. You wouldn’t accuse a natural or social scientist of being a pushy proselytizer or of being committed to a dreaded “ism” simply for arguing with other investigators over a contentious issue of fact. Neither are philosophers proselytizing when debating with each other the truth of any number of philosophical propositions, including moral ones.

The only thing “evangelical” about the New Atheists is that both the standards of believing we advocate and the propositions that most people are driven to when they adopt them affect people’s core identities and their core values when they are persuaded by us. In many cases, the stakes are high for people if we dissuade them of their theism or their commitment to faith. If we are right, in many cases they have to drastically reevaluate and reorganize their beliefs and their lives in a number of ways in order to accommodate reason-based (as opposed to distinctively faith-based) truths about reality and values. To the extent that their sense of self, their methods of belief and value formation, their relationships to their families and to religious institutions, etc. are all deeply shaped by certain religious beliefs, the effects of being deconverted can be downright life altering (and, at least temporarily, quite painful.)

We are also controversial because we are driven by a moral fervor and interest in the good and, so, many of the intellectual propositions we advocate are distinctively moral ones. But this does not mean that we are just positing arbitrary beliefs by faith. Moral propositions are rationally defensible and people who care about the good should be willing to debate moral propositions, to submit them to public scrutiny, and to unabashedly scrutinize the moral claims of influential people and institutions. I understand that this often looks ugly and messy. I understand that there are temptations towards emotionalism and tribalism in moral debates. But they have to happen. Working out our values so that they are the best they can be is too vital a concern. Intellectuals with relevant insight into the mistaken beliefs of the public who nonetheless seek at all costs to avoid the unseemly and uncertain gladiatorial arena of values debates out of disdain are not the high minded and restrained rationalists they like to fancy themselves but, rather, just socially irresponsible.

In the meantime, 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://songe.me Alex Songe

    Also, I think it’s good to argue this from the other end of the equation. I would like to stipulate that I don’t even shy away from calling myself an evangelical atheist. I participate conspicuously in the public square regarding my beliefs, and in particular what I consider valid ways of knowing. I want to be convinced about any way of knowing. But I’m also a consumer in the public square. And it’s my interest as a consumer in the public square that makes the highest demands on my evangelism.

    As a consumer, I want to hear if someone has issues with someone else’s beliefs. I want to hear the criticisms, and I want passionate exhortation or condemnation about why something is true or not. If someone doesn’t value the truth, though, there are serious problems where my autonomy is being disrespected! How can I be expected to execute my moral duties when I have the wrong information? By feeding my lies, someone can control me even through my attempts to exercise autonomy, and at the very least my autonomy will be limited. By knowingly ignoring the lies, someone is complicit in that limitation. The link between truth and autonomy has to be one of the ultimate concerns when it comes to the epistemic fabric of the public square itself. I’m allowed to disagree, but I depend on the honesty of others to act morally in the world.

  • seditiosus

    Social responsibility is integral to the morality of the New Atheist philosophy. It’s not only opposition to faith-based beliefs on principle, it’s also opposition to groups who want to trample on others’ rights because their irrational faith-based beliefs tell them to.

    Irrationality is harmful to society as a whole, which is why the New Atheist movement is both socially responsible and socially necessary.

  • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

    I’ve been waiting for someone to wring Beth’s towel dry for a while after seeing her jab at us like that.

    We New Atheists are not “true believers” in some dogmatic set of propositions that we cannot defend.

    Excellent way of putting it. The usual way this is defended is by asking the accuser to point out our holy book, which they can’t because we have none (though they do like to pretend that Dawkins’ book is treated as one by us). But I like your version better.

  • Michael

    I struggle to some degree with ‘new atheism’, and your assertions in your last few posts. I’ll try and elucidate my concerns (and agreements) here.

    I’m someone who called myself a philisophical agnostic/weak athiest for decades, and now just calls myself an atheist. I’m pretty sure you’d call me an accomodationist in some respects, and I think my position is far more morally justified than the one you take. :)

    However, from my perspective, you are setting up a straw accomodationist. I think you’re also missing some of the contradictions and cognitive biases in your own position.

    I think you also don’t distinguish well between faith, and religion and authoritarism.

    You state:

    New Atheists are, in short, very motivated by, and invested in advocating for, a range of moral judgments about the ethical rightness of people thinking both freely and scrupulously for themselves and not submitting to unfounded sources of authority in matters of belief and practice just because of uncritical veneration for traditions.

    I fully agree with that statement.

    Then you quote yourself saying:

    We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.

    This second statement sounds to me like a statement of faith, or at least, a foundational value statement. It seems to me to assume many things; First, despite your punctuation, I read this with the word (T)ruth capitalized. Your implication seems to be that truth is more than provisionally knowable. This statement also comes across to me as an argument from authority, and a claim to know what someone’s internal experience should be better than they may know themselves what that experience should be – and that’s where we part ways.

    And that gets back to definitions of faith, religion and authoritarianism.

    I don’t have a problem with any individual claim to faith or belief. That doesn’t mean I won’t challenge those claims, but I don’t think someone has any obligation to change their individual beliefs because you, or I think they’re wrong. I also don’t think I have, and I don’t think you have the wisdom to claim you know better than any individual what their worldview and should be. That claim is the foundation of authoritarianism – and that’s an ‘ism’ that I think -is- intrinsically bad.

    I’m quite willing to accomodate individuals with faith, argue with them, and listen to them, without necessarily either agreeing with them, or thinking they should change to my skeptical worldview. I would suggest that supporting diversity includes that accomodation … up to a point. (I also hold some foundational values around that acceptance – perhaps another comment). To not make that accomodation is to buy in to the idea that it’s OK to judge individuals based on their internal experience, and dictate what their interal experience should be. It’s the same type of thinking that, when adopted by authoritarian religionists, supports the marginalization, and even demonization of folks who don’t fit within that authoritarian context.

    And it’s that authoritarianism that I’m not willing to accomodate, in the context of religious belief, or in the context of new atheism.

    Now, while I find the claim to moral superiority you make suspect in that context, I’m not really worried about your particular claim to it. I am profoundly worried about how the religionists in my country (the US) are trying to march us back to the 12th century, and marginalize anyone who doesn’t fit within the context of their beliefs. I’m not willing to accomodate those who would claim young earth creationism, or intelligent design as scientific. I’m not willing to accomodate those who would demonize someone like Natalie Reed (who’s become one of my favorite bloggers) because of her internal experience. I’m not willing to accomodate those who would deny a person full agency based on gender, or belief, or any other arbitrary standard. I have very little truck with those who claim authority in the name of belief, particularly when they have no clue about the context of their worldview.

    But, my issue there is with the claim to authority. I think your opposition to faith-beliefs in principle as a moral stance is suspect, because, in the end, it comes down to an assertion of authority (and yes, I know you think it’s based on reason, I think that reason is, in the end, based on non-rational value judgements that are fundamental assumptions that I don’t fully agree with).

    If you based that opposition to faith beliefs as a foundation for a claim to authority, I would be fully behind you.

    As an aside, I want to complement you on the community you’re building at free-thought blogs. I’ve been frustrated and disgusted with many of the online ‘skeptic’ communities online, and in person because of things like, for example, rampant misogyny. You’ve created an place with some incredible bloggers with a diverse set of views, and a place I’m willing to take the time to comment on, something I’m not usually inclined to do.

    • http://polyskeptic.com Ginny

      A couple of responses (to Michael at #4 if it doesn’t nest):

      First, I don’t think the claim that it’s better to live with truth than without it necessarily implies that truth is more than provisionally knowable. “Living with truth” can mean being in possession of the full and absolute truth, or it can mean earnestly and rigorously pursuing truth, and prioritizing truth over pleasant feelings or social harmony or whatever else one might hold as a higher value. There’s a wide gap between believing one can have a grasp on the full, absolute truth, and accepting demonstrable falsehoods.

      Second, there’s a difference between accepting someone’s internal experience, and accepting their interpretation of that experience. As a believer, I felt a sense of discomfort around people whose lifestyles differed dramatically from mine. At the time I interpreted that discomfort as the Holy Spirit speaking within me and telling me those lifestyles were wrong and contrary to God’s plan for humanity. Now I interpret those feelings, past and present, as a simple tribal instinct, and it’s something I strive against rather than accepting.

      Third, I think most New Atheists get into arguments about truth chiefly with believers who are, implicitly or explicitly, making truth claims. Sometimes the argument is “You should care about truth,” but more often it’s “I see that we both care about truth; let me show you why I think my view is closer to it.” As I’ve argued in a recent post of my own, an accomodationist “to each their own” perspective is never going to hold up against a believer who cares about truth and thinks they are in possession of it. Nothing is more frustrating, for someone who cares about truth, than to argue with someone who doesn’t think pursuing truth is worthwhile for its own sake; this is true for fundamentalist believers as well as for New Atheists.

  • Ysanne

    I’d like to nitpick.

    Here is such a truth: “1+1=2″. That indubitably true. There is no conceivable experiment which could show it to be false.

    Hmmm, let’s try it a finite field of characteristic 2, such as Z/2Z. In that case, 1+1=0, and “2″ element doesn’t even exist. Falsified.

    My point? Keep underlying assumptions and context in mind, particularly when using examples from maths. The axioms you’re using may be the standard ones, but you need to be aware of them, since there are other possibilities, too.

    Same for the rest: I think it’s wrong to lump together “faith belief” and with “attacking the value of rationality”. It’s perfectly possible to be a very rationally thinking person, and still hold religious beliefs. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and can be made very easily bearable by dividing the world up into a rational “real world”, and a “spiritual world” that simply does not work according to the fundamental principles of the real one. As long as believers manage to keep these worlds nicely separate, and don’t try to apply spiritual-world arguments to the real world, I don’t really see a reason to oppose faith beliefs.
    (Most believers I personally know get this right. I guess this has to do with being a mathematician and from Europe.)

    I think I have the right to be left alone with stuff out of belief-land unless I ask for it, and they have the right to have their belief-land left alone unless they invite me in. The latter can happen explicitly through discussion, or implicitly by applying faith belief to real-world issues. If that doesn’t happen, a person’s faith beliefs are as much of my business as their musical preferences: I may think they’re crap, but it’s none of my business.

    • http://eulercycle.wordpress.com nick euler

      What you’re talking about isn’t, I think, strictly speaking, falsification. What you’re saying is “You claim 1+1=2? But I can make assumptions that will derive a system in which that is not true.” But that’s not the same thing as being falsifiable. Being falsifiable doesn’t mean it is possible to prove that it is untrue in a completely different universe (or universe of discourse). Being falsifiable means it is possible, in the system in which a theory is proposed, to prove it false.

    • Ysanne

      That a claim is falsifiable means, afaik, that it can be contradicted by evidence, i.e. that at least theoretically there could be a test that could have an outcome that proves it false.
      Definitions and axioms, as Daniel pointed out, are not falsifiable, because they’re what you assume as true and it’s also possible to construct theories that don’t assume them.
      Mathematical statements known as theorems (i.e. the ones that say “In axiom system X, if Y holds, then also Z holds”, not the axioms and definitions) are falsifiable, because there exists the kind of evidence that would prove them wrong: Counterexamples, i.e. instances of Y and Not(Z) being true at the same time. If you find one, you know that the theorem is wrong (or that axiom system X was broken to begin with).

  • John Morales

    Hmmm, let’s try it a finite field of characteristic 2, such as Z/2Z. In that case, 1+1=0, and “2″ element doesn’t even exist. Falsified.

    Such sophistry.

    (As well try it in boolean logic, where 1+1=1)

    The context is clearly necessary truths (or, in the jargon, analytic truths) where Prof. Fincke adduces examples from mathematics, logic and semantics.

    It’s perfectly possible to be a very rationally thinking person, and still hold religious beliefs.

    More sophistry.

    (As well claim an unsound but valid argument is rational)

    I think I have the right to be left alone with stuff out of belief-land unless I ask for it, and they have the right to have their belief-land left alone unless they invite me in.

    So? Proselytisers are asking for it.

    (If you shut up about your conceits, I shan’t critique them)

    • Ysanne

      The context is clearly necessary truths (or, in the jargon, analytic truths) where Prof. Fincke adduces examples from mathematics, logic and semantics.

      Well, that’s the context of the paragraph, but not of the equation. The maths example is not a good one on a couple of levels:
      * This assertion can actually be verified/falsified in the context of a given system of axioms.
      * The correctness of the equation depends heavily on the unstated assumptions about the semantics of its formal notation.

      Bringing up Goedel would have helped. Or picking an axiom.

      It does annoy me when people use maths examples that don’t work as they (seem to be) intended, especially in an otherwise perfectly good argument. It’s not about sophistry — I’m just applying the standards of being precise, nitpicky and correct that form the very basis of mathematics.

      As to the “More sophistry” answer: How is this offhand remark an actual argument? How does it disprove that it is possible for a person to think rationally in general, but just refuse to do apply that to a certain topic?

      So? Proselytisers are asking for it.

      That’s my point. Proselytisers are.
      Believers who don’t proselytise are not. They do exist.
      Belief and proselytising are lumped together throughout the artice. Just as wanting to challenge people’s belief in general is lumped together with challenging people’s belief-based assumptions and arguments in value debates.

    • John Morales

      The maths example is not a good one on a couple of levels:
      * This assertion can actually be verified/falsified in the context of a given system of axioms.
      * The correctness of the equation depends heavily on the unstated assumptions about the semantics of its formal notation.

      Heh. So, for example, Dan should have invoked the Peano axioms and noted he was referring to natural numbers?

      (You do realise this is a blog post using informal natural language, not a mathematical tract, right?)

      As to the “More sophistry” answer: How is this offhand remark an actual argument?

      What makes you imagine I thought it was an actual argument?

      Again: if the premises are unsound, it’s irrational to claim an argument based on them is rational, however valid its inferential process.

      (And, as per your earlier claim, it is not rational not to justify the evidential and epistemic basis upon which one reasons as to the possible existence of a ‘god’ (and at the very least, one should define to what that term refers!))

      That’s my point. Proselytisers are.
      Believers who don’t proselytise are not. They do exist.

      Fair enough; I hereby add that proselytism is not the only meritorious basis for critique: should someone claim that their beliefs mean that women should be subordinate to men, for example, I will certainly address that claim.

      (Vigorously, to boot, because I find it offensive on multiple levels)

  • John Morales

    [OT + meta]

    I loathe nested commenting schemes such as this!

    (Obviously, my #6 was a response to #5)

    • Ysanne

      Full ACK.
      The stupid “Reply” link on your post #6.2 is missing, too, so I’ll answer here if you don’t mind.

      Heh. So, for example, Dan should have invoked the Peano axioms and noted he was referring to natural numbers?

      I actually wanted to suggest one of the classic Euclidean Geometry candidates, such as the parallels axiom, because it’s so extremely intuitively true, yet it has to be assumed as such, and what you get without it is quite appealing, too. But then I reconsidered, seeing that this is a blog. ;-)

      More generally speaking, I think it’s generally better to avoid maths examples and analogies when making philosophical points unless one has a really solid maths foundation (as in equivalent to BSc pure maths or so), or at least checked with a mathematician. The “rigorous proofs, checkable facts and super precision” air that a maths example lends to an argument is nice, but in my eyes it comes off as a bit hypocritical when the example itself is not 100% correct and precisely executed.

      And, as per your earlier claim, it is not rational not to justify the evidential and epistemic basis upon which one reasons as to the possible existence of a ‘god’ (and at the very least, one should define to what that term refers!)

      Yeah, it’s not rational at all. But why would one not be able to think rationally about one thing and not do so for the next? I see all sorts of psychological reasons that would make this seem a good idea.
      The whole god business sits in a nicely separated irrationality zone, if you will, with no rational thought allowed and lots of warm fuzzy feelings wafting around. Maintaining such a zone does not mean that one could not think rationally about most other things.
      Seriously, I do know a number of people who are really good at rational thinking, and still believe in god. They know that it’s irrational (and does seem to bother them a little), and they know that this part of them is not fit for proper reasoning, so they mostly keep it out of discussions and clearly label arguments in which it’s involved as having a non-agreed basis. I haven’t managed to find out yet why they keep this corner of irrationality around.

      should someone claim that their beliefs mean that women should be subordinate to men, for example, I will certainly address that claim.

      That’d be their irration belief spilling over from fairyland into real world issues. So no contradiction there, I’m all with you on this.

  • Sastra

    I like your analysis. I think Beth is falling into the trap of self-refuting definitions, similar to what happens when someone claims that an organization against bigotry is therefore bigoted against bigots, so that there is nothing to choose between them. If being against dogmatism is itself interpreted as a ‘dogmatic’ stance, then the meaning of ‘dogmatism’ loses its meaning. The admittedly dogmatic stance is now put in the place of the one which is open-minded. Slavery is freedom, war is peace, chaos reigns.

    Ysanne #5 wrote:

    As long as believers manage to keep these worlds nicely separate, and don’t try to apply spiritual-world arguments to the real world, I don’t really see a reason to oppose faith beliefs.

    I do. Let me see if I can make my case.

    The difference between a belief which is derived from rational analysis and a belief which is based on faith is not just in the method used: it’s in how one regards the status of the believer — and the doubter.

    If you consider, say, the existence of God as a hypothesis — an explanation inferred from evidence and derived from experience — then you set all the people who seek to answer the question “does God exist?” on the same level. You assume a basic equality of character, of honest inquiry. Differences in conclusions are going to be based on how and what sort of evidence is analyzed and how the chain of reasoning is followed. In theory, consensus is possible. Religious hypotheses are treated like scientific, philosophical, political, social, or other factual questions open equally to all. When people are mistaken, they are simply mistaken. They’ve reasoned incorrectly.

    But this in itself says nothing about their identity or basic worth.

    When you approach religious beliefs not as hypotheses, however, but as “matters of faith,” the assumption of common ground is thrown out. People do not reason their way to a conclusion: they accept, intuit, recognize, seek, or reach out to the Truth. Or they are the type of person … who does not. Or who can not.

    “For those who believe, no evidence is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no evidence is possible.”

    I can think of no approach to “truth seeking” more divisive.

    What we’re dealing with in faith-based epistomology is an assumption of an intrinsic spiritual hierarchy consisting of people who somehow have the capacity to respond to the Source of all Love, Meaning, Purpose, and Truth — and those lower souls on the chain who reject it due to what has to be some basic defect in their character. The doubters are not just mistaken in reasoning: they’re fundamentally deficient in some untestable, irrational, but absolutely significant form of Extra-Sensory Perception … or emotional capacity or … certain special something that compels some people towards the spiritual and others, apparently, away from it.

    How importance is this difference, this one between the people of faith and the people with no faith? Well. How important is God supposed to be?

    I see this as a serious problem, and the difference between approaches a very dangerous one.

    So it’s not just a matter of how reliable the methods of truth-seeking are. That’s important, yes, but there’s more. It’s what happens when a method that divides people according to the intrinsic value of their essential nature is viewed from the point of view of those who lost the faith lottery … but think all people stand together on the solid ground of common reason, evidence, and argument.

    • Ysanne

      Thanks for the long explanation.
      I completely agree with your point that it’s extremely divisive when people judge others based on their (dis-)belief.

      That’s one of the things I meant with applying spiritual-world concepts to the real world: In fairyland, the more you believe the better you are, and this gets applied to non-fairyland people, too. When such an opinion is voiced, I find it more than appropriate to point out how ridiculous and plain wrong the basis of such a judgement is.

      Same with creationism, political issues, etc. When a religious argument is brought into the real world, it (and its foundation) has to submit to the same scrutiny, criticism and rational evaluation as any other argument, and this tends to turn out badly for them. (Not surprising, that’s why the no-rational-thought zone for religion is declared in the first place.)
      There are lots of these absolutely legitimate opportunities to argue against religious ideas because they have been made everybody’s business, and of course this can and does influence people’s inner beliefs.

      But when the beliefs stay where they belong — in the fairytale corner of the believer’s head — I see no problem, and certainly no right for me to try and change them so as to “make them see the truth”.

    • Sastra

      Ysanne wrote:

      But when the beliefs stay where they belong — in the fairytale corner of the believer’s head — I see no problem, and certainly no right for me to try and change them so as to “make them see the truth”.

      Well, yeah — but that’s a general social rule which would apply to any factual belief at all — political, scientific, historical. You don’t jump over the fence and button-hole people who are minding their own business. If someone wants to believe that space aliens built the pyramids and they either don’t bring it up or indicate that they don’t want to talk about it, then it’s only polite to let it be. It’s a variation of what I call “Dinner Table Diplomacy:” don’t get into arguments in inappropriate settings, or with people who for whatever reason want to drop the issue. Ok. Fine. Under the circumstances, you usually be nice let it slide.

      My problem now is that bringing up this trivial ‘correction’ when people are discussing a hot button issue which is routinely denigrated, suppressed, shut down, and negated by the mainstream culture sort of makes it seem like the real underlying problem here is that some people haven’t quite gotten the hang of the little courtesies which are the social glue of harmonious relationships. That’s not what you’re actually saying, no — but by chiming in with the obvious you appear to be unnecessarily shifting ground to the critics who DO want atheists to shut up in the public square. If you don’t mean to do this, then be aware that it could be perceived this way.

    • Ysanne

      Dinner Table Courtesy is way more accomodating than I think is appropriate on this topic.
      For instance, recently, I managed to avoid laughing out loud when an acquaintance at dinner explained how enlightened yogic masters produce magic crystals in their bodies through the sheer power of their will when they die, and preserve their spiritual essence in them.
      (It turns out that in normal people, these “ringsels” are called gall bladder and kidney stones…)
      I definitely would not want anybody to let slide this kind of nonsense in values debates, politics, or simply in any situation where anything besides the atmosphere at dinner is at stake.
      But I think it is also important to keep in mind that the actual problem to fight is that religious BS is being used as an argument, and not the belief itself. For me, it kind of boils down to the difference between “you’re using irrationally founded arguments, which is not acceptable” and “you’re irrational and therefore stupid”.
      Yeah, I might be splitting hairs here, but hey, we’re on a philosopher’s blog! :-)

    • Sastra

      Ysanne wrote:

      But I think it is also important to keep in mind that the actual problem to fight is that religious BS is being used as an argument, and not the belief itself. For me, it kind of boils down to the difference between “you’re using irrationally founded arguments, which is not acceptable” and “you’re irrational and therefore stupid”.

      I’d agree with your last statement, but not necessarily with the first part — so I’m not sure they’re equivalent. In which case I’m not sure if I understand the distinction you’re making.

      If someone believes that a claim is true and they are mistaken, then I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to parse the difference between the problem with “Canada is a part of Mexico” and the fact that someone tries to convince you that Canada is a part of Mexico by telling you to look within your heart and listen to the voice of love. “I wouldn’t mind what you believed if you only shut up about it.” Really? I don’t know about that.

      Actually, the problem seems to be reversed. It’s usually the people who sit smug with the satisfaction of their enlightened and humble faith who want no debate to take place. That Canada is a part of Mexico is already the general consensus. “If you choose not to have faith, then there is nothing to be said about the matter. No, put away the geography book — this has to do with the response and sensitivity of the heart. A sensitivity which you obviously lack, since you are not only a skeptic, but a noisy one — one so crude and rude as to try to argue the issue, change my mind, and not allow me to be me.”

      Shutting down the debate is seldom going to be to the advantage of a despised minority with good arguments to advance. It generally favors the side with power, a lazy majority view with weak evidence and poor reasons on their side — but with the advantage of being able to look like the benevolent keepers of harmony when they hold back the unruly dogs who insist on bringing up disagreements.

      It’s a tightrope, that line between the private and the public. And those who hold it generally try to hold it very high.

  • http://replacinggod.blogspot.com/ Fil Salustri

    It would be interesting (to me, at least) to come up with a list of things in which atheists have ‘faith.’ I take faith as the weakest form of belief – entirely unsupported belief.

    (For the record, I take belief in the face of throughly falsified claims as a mental illness.)

    I’m not sure anyone can escape having faith in some things. I think I’ve got my list down to two:
    * an objective universe exists, of which I am part; and
    * I can perceive, however incompletely and imperfectly, that objective universe.

    • John Morales

      You’re very close to my own, there, except I simplify the first one, amplify the second one and add a third so as to be congruent to scientific epistemology.

      To wit:

      * an objective reality exists; and
      * I can perceive, that reality as mediated by my senses; and
      * that reality is self-consistent and has perceptible regularities.

      (All the rest is just empiricism)

    • John Morales

      [take 2]

      * an objective reality exists; and
      * I can perceive that reality as mediated by my senses; and
      * that reality is self-consistent.

      (All the rest is just empiricism; e.g. it has perceptible regularities.)

    • http://deseng.ryerson.ca/~fil Fil Salustri

      John,

      I include myself (both physically and psychologically) in my first axiom, because too many have suggested that my not doing so I am setting myself up as a supernatural entity. It just avoids bickering. :)

      I take ‘perception’ as the processing of sensory input, so we actually agree on #2.

      I find #3 irrelevant (to me personally). That is, I don’t particularly care what reality is really like, so long as I can predict it in some certain ways (thanks to science and logic). I don’t really care if F=ma, so long as F=ma helps me avoid hurting my foot when something falls on it.

    • John Morales

      #3 is there to account for the problem of induction.

      I put it to you that, when you write That is, I don’t particularly care what reality is really like, so long as I can predict it in some certain ways, you too are making that leap of faith.

      (You sure it’s intellectually-honest not to admit it?)

    • http://deseng.ryerson.ca/~fil Fil Salustri

      I have a real hard time telling the difference between knowledge and belief, and I’ve even taken courses on it. The problem of induction seems to involve, if I read it right, whether induction produces knowledge.

      Begs the question of what is knowledge. True justified belief, modified so as to avoid the obvious problems like Gettier problems etc? (Shrug.) As a good engineer, I’ll let the philosophers sort it out and run with whatever solution they give me.

      I do see induction as allowing a partial order of sorts or beliefs. The more carefully controlled instances are available, each documented and cross-referenced against other related inductions, the more robust the belief.

      Again, due to my own shortcomings, I don’t see what I’m taking “on faith.” (I prefer to refer to them as “axioms” :-)) But if I am, then I’m perfectly fine with admitting it.

    • John Morales

      Again: When you make the claim you can predict future outcomes based on past events (or infer past events based on current events), you are applying that very presupposition (#3); e.g. you presume that fundamental constants shan’t suddenly change, such that radiometric dating is operative.

      (To put it another way, you are in essence looking at a sample of reality, and making predictions as to the whole of it based on an inferred probability distribution. Imagine taking marbles from a bag, and always coming up with a black marble — how sure are you that the next one will be black?)

      As to knowledge, as I noted above, I think it’s pretty clear that Dan distinguishes between analytic knowledge and empirical knowledge — the former is certain, the latter is merely justified.

      (And he raised the issue as a refutation of the claim that true knowledge is not available at all unless that knowledge is in principle falsifiable.

      In his own words: If we can find a truth that is true even though it cannot, even in principle, be put to a test of falsifiability, then not all truths are known only because they pass tests of falsifiability. — the which he proceeds to find!)

    • Sastra

      Fil Salustri #9 wrote:

      I’m not sure anyone can escape having faith in some things. I think I’ve got my list down to two:
      * an objective universe exists, of which I am part; and
      * I can perceive, however incompletely and imperfectly, that objective universe.

      Are those really unfalsifiable beliefs? Consider them as theories, and consider what the opposing theories would then be:

      * There is no objective universe; the only thing which exists is my Mind — which apparently needs no brain or developmental history.

      *Virtually everything I think I perceive, is not really there.

      Two points. First, can you conceive of a science-fiction plot which would have the main character (you) coming to realize that either one (or both) of these claims is true? If so, then I think there is possible evidence which would or could change your mind.

      Second, if both statements are modified by a little cheating clause like “but there is never any possible way to discover this … no, not even if you come up with a bizarre hypothetical storyline out of the Matrix or something” — then I think we’re now dealing with Occam’s Razor. The “alternate theories” are unnecessarily complicated, with too many strained assumptions pulled out of nothing.

      Remember, Occam’s razor isn’t meant to pare down the universe. It’s meant to cut off our hubris, lest we get too big for ourselves, forget our fallibility, and assert untestable hypotheses. That “the universe exists” doesn’t sound to me like an ultimate leap of faith: it sounds like pragmatic reliance.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      Imagine taking marbles from a bag, and always coming up with a black marble — how sure are you that the next one will be black? –John Morales

      Let’s be fair, John. The bag is transparent, you can squish it a great deal though not all the way, and no matter how you poke or prod it, you can see nothing but black marbles inside.

    • http://deseng.ryerson.ca/~fil Fil Salustri

      John,

      Okay, I can see that now. Makes sense.

      Sastra,

      I can’t (at the moment) conceive of a suitable SF story-line.

      As for pragmatic reliance, maybe it is. I’ve just found personally that I’ve never been able to reduce anything down past these 2 (now 3, thanks to John) items. Since it’s abundantly evident to me that I am fallible, I would welcome anyone’s input regarding how I might go further than this.

  • http://deseng.ryerson.ca/~fil Fil Salustri

    John Morales wrote:

    (You do realise this is a blog post using informal natural language, not a mathematical tract, right?)

    Actually, context is, IMHO, essential. So often, it seems, theists take scientific, philosophical, and logical arguments out of context for their own benefit. That “1+1=2″ is falsifiable in some systems and not in others should make this point clear.

    The analogy is this: the theists are working in some other system. I think their system sucks, but I’m unconvinced it can be suitably rendered useless from within our system.

    • John Morales

      Actually, context is, IMHO, essential.

      It’s there; it need not always be made explicit — indeed, it becomes overly-verbose should one attempt that.

    • http://deseng.ryerson.ca/~fil Fil Salustri

      John,

      I understand what you’re saying. Keeping it implicit is very useful if one knows when one is interacting with agents in similar or identical contexts.

      What I meant was that theists aren’t all in the same context as atheists. Interacting with those who hold different contexts requires making much more contextual information clear – and keeping a careful watch out that they don’t mis-contextualize our statements (which I find they enjoy doing).

  • Brian

    Daniel. Doesn’t dialethic logic reject the law of non-contradiction? Wouldn’t it be better to say ‘in systems of logic that hold that the law of non-contradiction is valid (or axiomatic) that it is still true?

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dialetheism/

    • John Morales

      Paraconsistent and multi-valued logics are a compromise; the former are weaker at making inferences, the latter encompass uncertitude as to truth-values.

    • Brian

      John Morales:
      “Paraconsistent and multi-valued logics are a compromise; the former are weaker at making inferences, the latter encompass uncertitude as to truth-values.”
      I believe that is in the SEP article(s). Daniel has said something alike ‘no one seriously doubts the law of non contradiction’. But it appears there are serious philosophers who do doubt it, at least under certain circumstances. I wonder if it is akin to the Liebnizian idea that everything must have an explanation and so the universe must and so (cosmological argument)…

      Aristotle just asserted the law of non contradiction using what I think is termed intuition, that is, it just seems right. But intuition isn’t much of a guide…
      I don’t know. I can see how predicate (and so propositional logic) couldn’t work without it. But those logics are quite restricted when compared to how most people think and act using induction and heuristics…
      But in the end, serious thinkers do doubt the law.

    • John Morales

      But in the end, serious thinkers do doubt the law.

      There is no such law, outside specific formal systems.

      ‘Logic’ merely refers to a formal proof system with self-consistent, well-defined axioms and inference rules. There are many kinds of logic.

      (Take a look at Intuitionistic logic, for example)

  • Steve Schuler

    In the short time that I have been visiting FTB I have found myself largely in accord with Beth’s perspective and sharing similar concerns with her about some aspects of the New Atheist movement. Following your recent article that Beth commented on, and this subsequent series of post generated in response to her thoughts, I have not been sufficiently swayed by your arguments to be moved from a position that regards New Atheism as, well, skeptically. That is to say, I maintain some pretty significant doubts as to the great leap forward anticipated for humaity if religions can only be eliminated.

    While you acknowledge some of the less than desirable aspects of human nature and behaviour that New Atheists are not immune to, and should be cautious of, are expressed within this series of posts (and expanded upon in other articles of yours), I still think that you portray a more favorable image of what New Atheism is ‘about’ than I think is warranted through my very limited exposure to the movement.

    As I expressed in a comment to you the other day, wading through some of the comments threads at Pharyngula, and considering that it may be the ‘premier’ atheist blog, leave me somewhat less than entirely optimistic about the moral and rational integrity of the New Atheist movement. I’ve mentioned to you previously that I regard PZ as the ‘Bill O’Reilly of Atheism’, although PZ’s very strong rhetoric and propensity to employ violent and militaristic metaphors in his writing far exceeds O’Reilly’s tendency to do the same.

    Evidently Jerry Coyne hosted a contest to determine a suitably demeaning pejorative term to use against ‘accomadationist’ atheists. Soliciting input from his followers to assemble a pool of possible terms as candidates for that honor, the final winner of that contest was “Faitheist”. Now, this does not elicit any sense of moral outrage in me, but I do find this sort of thing to be a little discouraging and I do not think that it lends much credence to the notion that New Atheist, on the whole, are as morally progressive as you suggest.

    Even in this comment thread Aratina Cage said, “I’ve been waiting for someone to wring Beth’s towel dry for a while after seeing her jab at us like that.” Being no stranger to the use of sonewhat pointed and crude rhetoric myself perhaps I shouldn’t find fault in this statement, but I think that Aratina may be overreacting to what I thought were pretty mild and well considered thoughts that Beth had expressed with Aratina reffering to those comments a “jab”, as well as conveying a fair amount of hostility towards Beth for not being one of “us”. Dangerous tribalism?

    Anyhow, I appreciate you writing this series of articles and think that you do make many valid points and most certainly cause me to think more deeply than I would without your efforts.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      Even in this comment thread Aratina Cage said, “I’ve been waiting for someone to wring Beth’s towel dry for a while after seeing her jab at us like that.” Being no stranger to the use of sonewhat pointed and crude rhetoric myself perhaps I shouldn’t find fault in this statement, but I think that Aratina may be overreacting to what I thought were pretty mild and well considered thoughts that Beth had expressed…

      Steve, maybe you shouldn’t comment about things you have no clue about. Beth has by no means not restricted her shennanigans to Camels With Hammers, and I know this by her WordPress avatar as well as her handle, “Beth”.

      with Aratina reffering to those comments a “jab”, as well as conveying a fair amount of hostility towards Beth for not being one of “us”. Dangerous tribalism?

      Dangerous idiocy, on your part.

    • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

      Beth has by no means not restricted

  • John Morales

    That is to say, I maintain some pretty significant doubts as to the great leap forward anticipated for humaity if religions can only be eliminated.

    But we gnus don’t seek to eliminate religions; we merely want them to functionally be hobbies that don’t affect society (e.g. by skewing public policy, or indoctrinating children).

    In short, you deal with a straw-dummy New Atheism.

    • Steve Schuler

      I think that your criticism is valid as my statement is a gross oversimplification of the goals of New Atheism. I know that there are many more noble ambitions of New Atheism than the straw version I used. I certainly support the encouragement of rational thinking and as well as encouraging humanity to move beyond primitive worldviews that discourage progress, much of what New Atheism, at it’s best, is about. I am certainly not opposed to New Atheism in it’s entirety, but I think that Beth’s criticism’s, which I largely share, do have validity.

      I also have a number of other criticisms of my comment, but unfortuantely cannot edit it now. Oh well!

  • karmakin

    The real question, I think, is how much moral force we are willing to put behind the concept of strict rationality. For example, are we willing to distance ourselves from friends and family who are believers? Not really. Do we go knocking and doors and tell people they are irrational and wrong and immoral for believing these things? Nope. Does it result in us rejecting out of hand politicians and other opinion leaders who might be religious? Of course not.

    The truth is that strict rationality is something that we try to strictly limit to theism in and of itself. So we write blogs and books about it (targeted largely at other atheists), and if someone comes up to us directly about theism, this is how we respond.

    It’s simply not a problem. It might be if it was something we wanted to try and force through, but there’s little to no interest in doing this.

    • http://deseng.ryerson.ca/~fil Fil Salustri

      Karmakin wrote:

      For example, are we willing to distance ourselves from friends and family who are believers? Not really. Do we go knocking and doors and tell people they are irrational and wrong and immoral for believing these things? Nope. Does it result in us rejecting out of hand politicians and other opinion leaders who might be religious?

      Actually, I do and have distanced myself from family members who are believers. I don’t knock on doors, but I do engage with them on discussion forums and my blog and social networks, and tell them, more or less, that they’re irrational, or wrong, or immoral, depending on the claims they’ve made. And I do reject out of hand politicians who hold certain extreme religious views.

      Does that make me a bad person? :-)

  • Bruce Gorton

    I suspect honesty is the better word, but anway promoting happiness at the expense of honesty is kind of stupid. It never actually ends well.

    Take any contemporary issue outside of religion – like for example climate change.

    In the short term the US was happier with the lie that climate change wasn’t real, or was due to sun spot radiation, or was just some hippy bullshit.

    Now Texas is in one of the worst droughts in its history, and suddenly the fact that driving SUVs makes people happy isn’t such a great argument.

  • Beth

    My goodness, that one sentence I wrote certainly generated a long response from you. Most of it based on incorrect assumptions about my position.

    We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.
    Launching off of this remark, Beth replied:

    This is the same basic argument that true believers in any ism are apt to make. Those who are sincere in their attempts to evangelize others ALWAYS believe that they are spreading truth and combatting falsehoods despite the fact that what they call ‘truth’ is actually an unfalsefiable claim.

    First of all, being an “ism” is not intrinsically bad.

    Correct. Being an “ism” is not intrinsically bad. It depends on the “ism”. You assumption that I think “ism’s” are inherently bad is not correct.

    But you know what is falsifiable and falsified? The proposition that all truth must be of the kind that passes tests of falsifiability.

    Correct. In fact that’s essentially the point I was trying to get across. Some truths cannot be either verified or falsified. I think it is best to acknowledge this rather than insist that one particular belief is correct and all others are false.

    Secondly, the point I was talking about in saying that New Atheists argue that it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it was not the narrow and more presumptuous claim Beth imputes to us that people are better off living with any specific pet New Atheist proposition than without it. New Atheists are committed more specifically to arguing for the value of truth and rigorous standards of rationality themselves, than they are actually interested in any specific truth claim in particular.

    I’m sorry if I misinterpreted your OP, but this is more than a little befuddling to me. You say are advocating that “it is intrinsically better to live with truth” but at the same time you also say that you are not committed to any specific truth.

    Why doesn’t the proposition ” it is intrinsically better to live with truth” qualify as a specific truth claim? Why doesn’t the proposition “no gods exist” qualify as a specific truth claim? Are you not committed to and arguing that people are better off living if they accept those specific New Atheist propositions as truth?

    By the way, I leave off the additional words “than without it” because I don’t see living with truth as an either/or proposition. It’s not like if you reject the truth of the claim of common descent that you must also reject the truth of the claim that 2 + 2 = 4. I think you realize this, but I did want to make it explicit.

    I’m contrasting our proposition that truth itself is an intrinsic good with the view of other atheists (like Beth?) .

    I self-identify as agnostic. I can also be labeled as Atheist or Christian, depending on which definition you choose. I have not sufficient confidence in any proposed definition of god to qualify as belief, so under the definition of atheist = no belief in any god, I am an atheist. On the other hand, by the definition of ‘believes no gods exist’, I am not an atheist as I don’t believe that statement either.

    I was raised Christian so I am culturally Christian. I currently belong to a very progressive creedless Christian church which has no requirements for belief in anything supernatural and welcomes atheists and agnostics among their members, as well as those with more traditional Christian beliefs. So by some definitions of Christian, I qualify, by others I don’t.

    who doubt either that truth is an intrinsic good at all or that truth, even if it is an intrinsic good, can ever be justifiably more important to a person than his pleasure.

    More incorrect assumptions about my beliefs. As far as whether truth is an intrinsic good, in as much as intrinsic goods can be said to exist (another proposition I am agnostic about), I think truth qualifies. I also agree that it is quite often justifiably more important to a person than his pleasure, so those assumptions about my position are incorrect. I was making the far weaker claim that for some people, in some situations, truth may not be the highest priority good. I think I covered this in one of my previous responses to your series of posts.

    Our primary concern is to argue for the value of truth and rationality themselves in response to those atheists who share our disbelief and yet who also think that it is not a bad thing when other (religious) people hold beliefs that we atheists agree are false (and, so, “deluded”). Among us atheists who share this view (that faith-based religious theism is either likely false or at least insufficiently supported by reason and evidence to be believed) we are split only on the question of whether those who we both think are wrong should be told the reasons we have for thinking they are wrong.

    I am not certain I understand your point here. I am not arguing that you should not tell people those reasons ever under any circumstances. Did you think that I was?

    Our other main reason to argue for the value of truth itself is that many religious believers explicitly attack the value of reason. They explicitly celebrate believing either without evidence or, even, against the evidence. They both implicitly and explicitly teach people to adhere to their religions more than to their reason. They try to make faith into a virtue. Sometimes they denigrate reason itself and go so far as to advocate outright irrationalism or fideism of the most naked and unapologetic kinds.

    I have no problems with atheists who are doing this. It is when they conflate those who argue in this manner with all those who hold a faith-based belief that I find them dogmatic. I think I covered this in my response to your first post.

    If Beth is so committed in principle to rejecting unfalsifiable beliefs on the grounds of their supposed dogmatism, then she should certainly be a New Atheist and oppose religious faith beliefs.

    Another incorrection assumption about my beliefs. I don’t reject unfalsifiable beliefs. What I reject is the argument that someone who is arguing for or against an unfalsifiable belief is spreading truth and fighting falsehoods. Unfalsifiable beliefs are, by definition, unknowable regarding their truth or falsity. To claim your principle as ‘truth’ and any competing ideas as ‘falsehoods’ is dogmatic IMO.

    When someone believes by faith he not only commits to believing a wide range of unfalsifiable propositions,

    As you point out above, believing in unfalsifiable propositions is not necessarily a bad thing. I would go further and say it is inevitable. But that is merely one of my own admittedly unfalsifiable beliefs and I could be wrong.

    but he even commits in many cases to believing falsifiable propositions after they have been falsified. Some things the faithful believe can and have been falsified and yet they go on believing. And sometimes they frankly will tell you that they will continue to believe in some of their not-yet falsified beliefs even if they see them falsified.

    This certainly occurs in some cases. It is not universal though.

    We New Atheists are not “true believers” in some dogmatic set of propositions that we cannot defend. Our raison d’être is not to dogmatically advance any specific proposition (not even that there are no gods). Our explicit rallying target is the non-existence of gods because that question is ground zero of religious attacks against rationalism. There is no more widespread, dubious faith belief than the belief in gods. There is no more influential lie to buttress real world religious authoritarianism in beliefs and in practices than the lie that their beliefs come from supernatural, divine revelation and that they serve as the mouthpieces of gods. There is no larger or more vigorous group throughout the world defending the supposed value of believing contrary to evidence than the defenders of belief in gods.

    Despite the disclaimer in the two sentences, the rest of that paragraph comes across as a dogmatic statement of unfalsifiable beliefs.

    Precisely what we are opposing in principle is “true belief” in what is not adequately defensible according to reason. That’s our moral principle. Beth, and other critics of New Atheism, want to blame us for being so adamant about this moral principle but then hypocritically apply it to us when criticizing us. “You’re like a dogmatic true believer!” For what? For arguing that dogmatic beliefs are wrong to hold because they are unjustified, likely to be false, and likely to lead to poor choices due to false information?

    No, the content of arguments is not how I identify dogmatism. I think New Athiests are like acting like dogmatic true believers when they insist that their unfalsifiable beliefs (such as “truth is an intrinsic good” or “it is intrinsically better to live with truth” or even that “dogmatic beliefs are wrong to hold because they are unjustified, likely to be false, and likely to lead to poor choices due to false information”) are true and correct.

    I think you are acting like a dogmatic true believer when you dismiss the arguments of those who disagree by assuming additional aspects of their motivations and beliefs that are not warranted, like the assumption of indifference you attributed to accomodationists that I was originally responding to. For another example, you assumed that I consider happiness an intrinsic good superior to truth in all situations when I disputed your apparent contention that truth is an intrinsic good superior to happiness in all situations. I say apparent, because in one of your later posts you acknowledged that in some situations happiness may be considered a superior to truth.

    Well, either you think there is something wrong with being a dogmatic “true believer”, in which case you really are with us in principle despite your being bizarrely offended that we criticize the real “true believers”, or you think there is nothing wrong with being a “true believer”. But if that’s the case, why exactly are you criticizing us? Is it because we’re somehow hypocrites for having “true belief” while telling others not to?

    Yes. It’s the failure to recognize the characteristics of dogmatic belief in yourself while arguing against it. This is not easy and I often fail to recognized such characteristics in my own behavior. It is only when others point out such lapses to me that I can attempt to correct them myself.

    Why is that suddenly a problem whereas dogmatism itself and the systematic training of people to be dogmatic as a routine part of religious training isn’t?

    Why are you making the assumption that I don’t find religious dogmatism to be a problem? I don’t argue against religious dogmatism here because no one is arguing for it!

    Again, we New Atheists are not actually “true believers” in the sense of being committed to any particular propositions beyond rational warrant. Ultimately our only real commitment is just to the principle that people should only believe, even in religious matters, according to reason. That’s really it. The rest—even the atheism!—is in principle negotiable.

    Why does your commitment to that principle not qualify as a belief in a particular proposition? What does “rational warrant” mean and why should it be the only justification for belief? Does personal subjective experience qualify as a rational warrant for those who feel they have had such experiences? Or are they supposed to reject such an experience as being delusional based on…?

    Further, I would contest that many New Atheists are “true believers” in the unfalsifiable proposition that no gods exist because there is no evidence that they can imagine convincing them of the falsity of that proposition. IIRC, PZ Myers has made that claim and stated that even if he was to have a personal experience with god, he would assume he was delusional, not that god existed. He’s certainly a New Atheist.

    The moral commitments that motivate us, which I enumerated at length in my previous post, all stem from that commitment to rationalism itself. Either you are with us in opposing irrationalism as a matter of principle, in which case you should be side by side with us denouncing faith-based believing, or you do not think that irrationalism is an inherently bad thing—in which case, you have no grounds to try to dissuade us of what you allege is irrational in what we do.

    I do not think that irrationalism is inherently bad. I think it can be and often is in many cases. I’m more than willing to join you in denouncing many faith-based beliefs, but I make that determinination based on the actual content of the belief, not the mere fact that it is faith-based.

    Maybe you will say that our (supposed) irrationalism is not intrinsically bad in itself but you think it’s harmful. But when we argue that faith-based religious beliefs are on net, in the long term, likely to do more harm than good, Beth accuses us of making (presumably illicit) unfalsifiable claims. Are the allegations that our supposed irrational faith beliefs are in the long run detrimental any more falsifiable?

    No. Also, I would like to point out that I made no allegations regarding the harmfulness of your beliefs. I merely pointed out that they were also faith-based since they were unfalsifiable.

    We are simply interested in debating theists in order to dissuade them of what we perceive to be their errors. This does not make us suddenly equivalent to proselytizers who want to bully people into emotionally or illogically accepting propositions which admit of no good rational support but require an emotional and illogical leap of faith.

    I agree that being interested in debating theists does not make you equivalent to proselytizers who bully. Likewise, not all theist debators are proselytizing bullies. It’s bullying behavior that makes atheists equivalent to bullying theist proselytizers. Sadly, there is plenty of that behavior to be found on FTB. If it makes any difference, I do not consider you to be one of those bullies. You work hard to avoid emotional arguments and personal insults.

    What we want to do is consistent with what intelligent people are concerned to do in all other areas of life where they have disagreements about truth. You wouldn’t accuse a natural or social scientist of being a pushy proselytizer or of being committed to a dreaded “ism” simply for arguing with other investigators over a contentious issue of fact. Neither are philosophers proselytizing when debating with each other the truth of any number of philosophical propositions, including moral ones.

    Some natural or social scientists are definitely pushy proselytizers committed to a particular ism. Some philosophers are too. Some aren’t.

    Intelligent people having civil disagreements with other members of society about contentious issues of fact do not accuse those who disagree as being either delusional or deliberately lying or use personal insults to intimidate dissenters into silence. Because when they do, they are no longer having a civil disagreement, but are engaging in bullying behavior designed to get people to either accept their proposition or at least remain silent rather than contribute to the discussion.

    When you say things like “We do not want to just let people have their delusions so long as they do not affect us personally”, I read this as a desire to interfere with other people’s beliefs even when they have not stepped up to the public square and indicated their willingness to participate in the public debate. Perhaps I was misunderstanding you.

    The only thing “evangelical” about the New Atheists is that both the standards of believing we advocate and the propositions that most people are driven to when they adopt them affect people’s core identities and their core values when they are persuaded by us. In many cases, the stakes are high for people if we dissuade them of their theism or their commitment to faith. If we are right, in many cases they have to drastically reevaluate and reorganize their beliefs and their lives in a number of ways in order to accommodate reason-based (as opposed to distinctively faith-based) truths about reality and values. To the extent that their sense of self, their methods of belief and value formation, their relationships to their families and to religious institutions, etc. are all deeply shaped by certain religious beliefs, the effects of being deconverted can be downright life altering (and, at least temporarily, quite painful.)

    These issues that can arise from deconversion are one reason why I am not convinced of your belief/principle that “it is intrinsically better to live with truth than without it”.

    We are also controversial because we are driven by a moral fervor and interest in the good and, so, many of the intellectual propositions we advocate are distinctively moral ones. But this does not mean that we are just positing arbitrary beliefs by faith.

    I don’t think anyone, religious or otherwise, posits arbitrary beliefs. Everyone has reasons for what they believe. However, being driven by a moral fervor is a characteristic I generally associate with dogmatic true believers, not reasonable people defending what they claim is a factual proposition. I feel this way primarily because I don’t feel that a moral principle qualifies as a “truth”.

    Moral propositions are rationally defensible and people who care about the good should be willing to debate moral propositions, to submit them to public scrutiny, and to unabashedly scrutinize the moral claims of influential people and institutions. I understand that this often looks ugly and messy. I understand that there are temptations towards emotionalism and tribalism in moral debates. But they have to happen. Working out our values so that they are the best they can be is too vital a concern. Intellectuals with relevant insight into the mistaken beliefs of the public who nonetheless seek at all costs to avoid the unseemly and uncertain gladiatorial arena of values debates out of disdain are not the high minded and restrained rationalists they like to fancy themselves but, rather, just socially irresponsible.

    I have no objection to such participation in the public square. I’m not sure why you are assuming I do, but it is another incorrect assumption you are making not just about me, but about Accomodationists in general. What I was disputing was your claim that you were arguing for truth and against falsehoods when you were arguing for moral principles and unfalsifiable beliefs.

    • Bruce Gorton

      Why doesn’t the proposition ” it is intrinsically better to live with truth” qualify as a specific truth claim?

      Your assumption seems to be that “New Atheists” claim to know with absolute certainty what the ultimate truth is, whereas in actual fact what we have is more in line with a working hypothesis.

      That is why I prefer the word honesty – it is about valuing whether your beliefs are true or not, not whether they are comforting. As no two human beings has exactly the same experience of exactly the same evidence, we cannot rule out the fact that others may have evidence we are not aware of, and we may be wrong.

      Yes, even on the idea that God doesn’t exist.

      Their “Truth” claims are thus to be taken seriously and considered in light of the evidence they bring forward for them.

      That does not mean we automatically accept their claims when they are unevidenced or run contra to the best evidence that is available to us.

      Someone may say they love you – but if their demonstration of that love involves beating you into a pulp, calling you derogatory names and trying to destroy your career you would be reasonable in taking the evidence as pointing in a somewhat different direction.

      And frankly we are not going to be gentle with people who advocate outright dishonesty ala the pseudo-liberal “false beliefs that seem harmless and make people happy are okay.”

      Would you accept someone knowingly touting an unevidenced medication for imaginary ailments as being morally okay because it seems to make their patients happy?

      Of course not.

      But under your arguments you would accept a priest who is privately atheist claiming that all humans are born in sin and that you must go to church to confess your sins in order to cleanse them, as being morally okay because he seems to make his parishners happy.

      Even if he then takes donations in order to spread the “happiness” of forgiveness to other areas. Where is the moral difference between that, and the quack who sells detoxifying foot baths?

      You wouldn’t accept your line of reasoning in any other field. You would call it fraud. Yet you expect us to hold this massive double standard here – otherwise we are being dogmatic.

      There is a big, huge difference between intellectual honesty, and dogmatism.


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