by Jesse Galef –
When I came home today I saw a package from Amazon waiting for me. Not sure what to expect, I opened it eagerly. It turned out to have been from a Christian friend of mine in college. The book is “Atheist Delusions” by David Bentley Hart. My friend must have known what my reaction would be…
Now, I’ve had people send me their random Christian books in hopes of convincing me of something. I tend to put those books aside (except the time I unleashed some snark on Conversations with an Atheist.) This is different, as it comes from a friend instead of a random stranger. I feel like I should at least make an effort to read it.
But the beginning is throwing up red flags, warning signs, and every possible metaphor for alarm. The very first words in the introduction are:
“This book is in no sense an impartial work of history. Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians, since the writing of history necessarily demands some sort of narrative of causes and effects, and is thus necessarily an act of interpretation, which by its nature can never be wholly free of prejudice. But I am not really a historian, in any event, and I do not even aspire to detachment. “
Hoo boy. At least Hart got that out of the way to start, so I know to expect an unhinged attack.
What a straw man – who’s demanding absolute detachment? It’s true that perfect detachment is impossible, but that’s no reason to stop trying to get closer. When you start with “Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians …”
- Right way to finish the thought: “but I’ll do my best to be as impartial and accurate as I can.”
- Wrong way to finish the thought: “so I won’t bother even trying, and instead revel in the fact that this book is in no sense an impartial work.”
“I can, moreover, vouch for the honesty of my argument: I have not consciously distorted any aspect of the history I discuss or striven to conceal any of its more disheartening elements.” [emphasis mine]
Bias is typically an unconscious effect. We rarely say to ourselves, “I have confirmation bias, so I’m only going to look at evidence that is likely to confirm my existing belief.” That Hart didn’t make a conscious effort to distort history is good to know, but not fully comforting. It means that instead of being intentionally misleading, he’ll be unintentionally misleading. At least it’s due to intellectual laziness instead of malice?
Even scientists are prone to bias – but that’s precisely why they work so hard to minimize its effect! Much of the scientific method is an effort to work against the innate biases and sources of error that might skew results. Control groups, double-blind procedures, retesting and requiring peer review… instead of them resigning themselves to imperfection, they strive to at least get closer to the truth.
I’ve started reading the first chapter of Atheist Delusions and it’s exactly what I expected. Ad hominem attacks, strawmen, and yes, an unabashedly biased view of events. FSM, give me the strength to finish this book.