Saturday, August 4, 2007

Marvin Olasky's not-so-desperate Atheists

Over at Townhall, Mavin Olasky has written a typically clueless analysis of some of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens), the kind we've come to expect from Christian apologists. It remains one of the great mysteries of the universe that the same people wearing WWJD armbands are so comfortable lying about atheists and misrepresenting science to push their theocratic agenda. The Jesus I studied in Catholic school would not approve.

The dishonesty begins right away with Olasky's title. Atheists are desperate? In an an era where the number of nonbelievers is at an all time high, where science has pounded religion into esoteric near irrelevancy, and out-and-proud atheists are populating the bestseller lists like never before, we are desperate? Can anyone say "projection"? This is akin to the Intelligent Designers declaring victory after Dover, and it is no surprise that Olasky dabbles in a bit of ID dissembling in his article (more on that later). But hey, Alister McGrath said so, and so in typically authoritarian religious style, Olasky treats it as fact. Unimpressive.

It is interesting to note how throughout his article, Olasky presents quotations from the featured atheists, but never gets around to providing any evidenciary refutation. He does, however, engage in a lot of equivocating and flawed reasoning:

"Concerning 'The God Delusion,' even Publishers Weekly noted, 'For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe...'

Yes, and Dawkins lays out his reasons for that scorn in excruciating detail. Dawkins' criticism of religious intolerance is based on the sheer arbitrariness of it all. No one, Dawkins especially, thinks we should be tolerant of everything. The question is: does religion deserve that scorn? Olasky gives us no reason to reject that. He simply assumes that all scorn is bad, at least in this one instance where that favors his view.

[more from Publisher's weekly] "Even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is 'psychotic,' Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are 'fatuous' and religion generally is 'nonsense.'"

Notice the intellectually dishonest poisoning of the well with the phrase "confirmed atheist", which is just a slightly nicer version of "admitted atheist", as if it were primae facia something that needed to be hidden in shame. As for his point, so some atheists don't care for Dawkins' style. So what? The willingness to criticize each other is one of the strengths of atheism, and of science. This stands in stark contrast to religious tradition, which is all about eliminating dissent. Thus, evolutionary scientists will do battle over the exact proportions of the influence of sexual selection and natural selection, whereas on Intelligent Design sites, discussion of the vast differences in opinion (among creationists) on the age of the earth are forbidden.

And once again note that Olasky does not offer a counterargument to Dawkins' claims, or of those of Harris or Hitchens. He simple plays the Ad Hominem Gambit over and over again. This is the insipid claim that any inflammatory words used in an argument invalidate the argument. This is a distortion of the Ad Hominem fallacy, which is when one dismisses another's argument based on irrelevant personal failings. "You're wrong because you're an idiot" is ad hominem. "You're an idiot, look at all this evidence that refutes you" is a valid argument, albeit with an unnecessary insult. In doing so, he completely misses Harris' points:

"Harris also prefers exclamatory words such as 'preposterous' to either reason or evidence. He asserts certainty about what he admits not knowing: 'How the process of evolution got started is still a mystery, but that does not in the least suggest that a deity is likely to be lurking at the bottom of it all.'"

Here we see the standard attempt to shift the burden of proof to the atheists. The burden is on those claiming gods exist. All we atheists need do is point out the lack of any evidence. Calling belief in the unevidenced "preposterous" hardly violates reason.

Roll the tape boys: where does Olasky refute Harris' claim about abiogenesis? Nowhere. Olasky misses Harris' point entirely, which is not, as Olasky would have you believe, that Harris is certain no god was involved. What Harris is certain of, and with solid reason, is that the existence of a mystery, any mystery, abiogenetic or not, does not imply the existence and/or involvement of a deity. Olasky's god is one of the gaps, just as the IDers' god, er, designer, is.

On that note, what would an anti-atheist screed be without some creationist ignorance:

"Yet Harris, for all his attacks on Intelligent Design, does not even understand the distinction between macro-evolution -- one kind of creature changing into another -- and micro-evolution. One of his proofs of theistic obtuseness is that 'viruses like HIV, as well as a wide range of harmful bacteria, can be seen evolving right under our noses, developing resistance to antiviral and antibiotic drugs.' No one claims that viruses don't evolve; the debate is whether they turn into something else. "

[Yawn] Learn some basics Olasky. The mechanisms of macro evolution and microevolution are essentially the same. The scientific categorization is in terms of study, the same way one might study local walking vs cross country walking. Both are walking, just measured over different distances.

Were Olasky to actually familiarize himself with bacterial evolution, he would note that the genetic variance among bacteria and viruses are far far greater than that between humans and the apes. So unless he is going to claim that gorillas aren't "something else" compared to humans, he has impaled himself on his spear of ignorance.

And for the uninitiated, speciation (the change in subgroups of a group from being able to successfully interbreed to not being able to) has been documented both in the wild, and in the lab. A visit to is highly recommended for all the "pathetic detail" with which the IDers can't be bothered.

Speaking of theistic obtuseness, Olasky treats us to some in his criticism of Hitchens:

"Hitchens calls 'the whole racket of American evangelism a heartless con' -- but I've met hundreds of compassionate evangelicals who must be dumb, because they've spent their lives in a racket that's yielded them almost no money. They've adopted hard-to-place children, built AIDS orphanages in Africa, helped addicts and alcoholics turn their lives around, and much besides.

The idea that people taken in by cons are by definition dumb is simplistic in the extreme. People are also taken in by cons because they put trust in the wrong people, are desperate, or need a sense of community. That describes classic cults, but to a lesser degree describes a lot of mainstream Christianity. The orphanages also double as recruiting centers to bring in the flock, and as I've already documented here and here, religious drug and alcohol recovery programs basically force the attendees to adopt religious precepts. How noble they are to take advantage of people at their most desperate.

As far as AIDS orphanages go, one can hardly be given great credit for coming to the aid of peope you yourself had a large hand in injuring, and the near universal resistance of religious organizations to even the most cursory and simple of birth/disease control (ie condoms) has been a huge problem with the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Until this changes, the religious groups stand stripped of any claim of moral superiority in these areas.

Finally, as if to hit the Fallacy Trifecta, Olasky concludes with the obligatory, and entirely fictional, claim that he was once one of us:

"So pity the atheists: They're cornered and desperate. But God can break through and change their lives and thinking, as He changed mine in the 1970s when I was saying what Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens say."

Sure you were. That's why your current arguments show no understanding of the atheist position at all. Show me some documentation of that claim and I'll stand corrected. Until then,
you are just another liar for Jesus. It's not we atheists who are desperate. Our epistemology (science) has given us this incredible technological and comfortable society, including the computer on which Olasky wrote his screed. The irony is rich.

Science also keeps refuting religious claims of the material world, to the point where a huge proportion of religious people live indistinguishably from atheists, with the exception of that wasted hour of chanting every Sunday, and their psychological ethereal security blanket of a god. We, not the pious prevaricators, are winning the culture war, slowly but surely, in places like Dover, and every day a child gets on the internet and reads something like Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens. The fact that the arguments presented against them are typically as ignorant and ill-conceived as Olasky's only makes the case that much stronger.


Geoffrey said...

Here Here, I'm going to link to this in my blog if that's ok with you ... I hope it is, because, as it were, I already linked to you.

ScienceAvenger said...

Thank you for the kind words, and the link. It makes me wish even more that I had used spell-check that day.

It never ceases to amaze me how consistent Christian writers are in trotting out all these myths about atheists. That is one of the main reasons it is so important for atheists to stand publicly and be counted - not to persuade, but to counter, in the flesh, all the lies told about us.

Geoffrey said...

... and what's also frustrating, in a more technical sense, is the misunderstanding or confusion between "genetic variance" and structural difference. Creationists play fast and loose with defining animals using the term "kinds", and then complain that evolution "doesn't happen" because animals still look the same, without realizing that, in fact, the genetic change, which may not change the structure of the animal, is huge ...

ScienceAvenger said...

Well, the whole concept of "kind" is nonsense anyway. It's the pseudoscientific version of "I know it when I see it". It is especially amusing to note how they claim kinds are discrete, say humans vs apes, and yet they can't agree among themselves as to which kind our fossil ancestors belong.