Saturday, August 07, 2010

Alan Lurie's Anatomy of an Angry Atheist

In Huffingtonpost, Alan Lurie has written a post on the Anatomy of an Angry Atheist..

In this condescending, arrogant, and ultimately bigoted piece of work, Lurie will present his theory on what makes an the nature of the angry atheist.

He begins with a meeting in which his stated objective was to defend the claim that

"It's important to realize that, in spite of the popular conception that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion - between, in particular, the theory evolution and the Bible account of creation - these two actually support each other, and can be easily reconciled." I said.

In making this claim, he reports that he was confronted by an angry atheist who insisted that:

The Bible was written by men, not some invisible super-being, and is simply a collection of superstitions and tribal stories, meant to control others.

We can leave Lurie at his word that there really was such a meeting with such a person and that this is not some character he invented in order to introduce his post (a technique that I abhor for its dishonesty but find all too common). The point remains that there is a fundamental philosophical problem with Lurie's conception.

It is not enough to show that A is compatible with or can be reconciled with B - because there are two ways that this can be done. One way is to claim that A is the same as B, while the other is to say that A has no content relevant to B.

One of the first implications of the first option is that if you claim that A has substantive content, and that substantive content is the same as B, then must also be saying that A is incompatible with not-B.

So, if the Bible has substantive content, and this substantive content can be reconciled with the theory of evolution, then the Bible must be unreconcilable with the theory of non-evolutionary creation. That is to say, it would be unreasonable to interpret scripture as saying, for example, the Earth was created in 6 days and that light came into existence after the Earth was created.

If, instead, you want to argue that scripture is compatible with and can be reconciled with that view, then you either have to give up the position that it is compatible with evolution, or you must hold that the Bible contains no relevant content on the subject matter.

The proposition "my car is red" can be reconciled both with the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism because it has no content relevant to that subject matter. However, any statement P that has relevant content must be taken to be incompatible with any statement that not-P. You cannot reconcile a proposition with its denial.

So, Mr. Lurie, are you saying that the Bible cannot be reconciled with the idea that the Earth was created in six days and that light came into existence after the formation of the Earth (which I hold is such an absurd claim it can only be defended by somebody who has completely abandoned reason and embraced utter nonsense).

Or are you saying that the Bible is void of relevant content on the matter, and that anybody who attempts to attribute relevant content to the statements made in the Bible is making a mistake?

Which is it?

In general, any time somebody makes the claim that the Bible is compatible with P, then ask them whether they are going to also claim that the Bible is incompatible with not-P, or if, instead, they are asserting that the Bible has no relevant content.

Because there is no sense to be made that the Bible has relevant content, that relevant content is reconcilable with P, AND, at the same time, that relevant content is reconcilable with not-P.

If we use Lurie's theory of reconciliation, we can reconcile any written text with any other written text. We can reconcile the Constitution with Marx's Communist Manifesto, or Charles' Dickens A Christmas Carol with Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. There is nothing said or written that cannot be reconciled with everything else said and written because Lurie's method of interpretation is fundamentally incoherent.

This is an ethics blog, which means that I have a moral interest to tie in with Lurie's irrationality. This rests with Lurie's decision to use this irrationality in a condescending, arrogant, and ultimately bigoted piece of writing against angry atheists.

It is arrogant because Lurie's posting is utterly dripping with an attitude of superiority over those atheists who simply refuse to recognize these simple ideas that Lurie has presented us with. "Those poor pathetic atheists simply cannot grasp that this incoherent babbling that I am engaging in is the ultimate in wisdom. Tsk. Tsk. Tsk."

If you are going to be arrogant and condescending then, please, accompany it with a sensible argument that is worthy of arrogance and condescension.

Ultimately, when Lurie gets to talking about what motivates these new atheists, he decides to present the thesis that they are ultimate childish and immature.

Like Jackson Pollack peeing in Peggy Guggenheim's fireplace at a dinner party, or a little boy yelling "poop" in a classroom assembly, the New Atheists seem to want to think of themselves as bad boys...

Here's where the charge of bigotry comes in. Bigotry, as I have defined earlier, is the intellectual crime of making derogatory overgeneralizations in order to put down whole groups of people. That is to say, instead of writing that Lurie is arrogant and condescending, I decide to write instead that Christian compatibalists are arrogant and condescending, perhaps using Lurie's article as an example.

I do not make those types of claims because I hold that it is morally objectionable to make derogatory overgeneralizations. I have evidence that Lurie is arrogant, condescending, and bigoted and I address my conclusions to Lurie specifically, not Christian compatibalists in general. As far as I know there are Christian compatibalists who do not share Lurie's moral failings, and it would be unfair of me to assign these traits to them simply because there is at least one Christian compatibalist who is arrogant, condescending, and bigoted.

However, Lurie, it seems, has no moral qualms against making derogatory overgeneralizations. Instead of applying his claims specifically to those for which he has evidence, he decides to brand all "new atheists" - and to do so with smug assertions about his own moral and intellectual superiority.

This gives us all the evidence we need to also throw in the moral charge of hypocrisy. In the middle of an article in which Lurie condemns new atheists for lumping all theists together and and making derogatory claims about the whole group, he lumps all new atheists together and makes derogatory statements about the whole group.

If respecting individual differences is a virtue, and Lurie is such a great and noble individual, the why is not the case that Lurie is not respecting the possibility of individual differences among individuals.

I wish to state that some new atheists are guilty of these crimes. I have given examples myself and argued that they are representative of bigotry and hate-mongering. I have argued that being an atheist does not mean that one is more rational or morally superior to others. Convincing an evil person that God does not exist does not make him a good person - it makes him an evil person with one more true belief.

So, his bigotry is not to be found in condemning some of the things some new atheists have said. The bigotry comes from taking some identified wrongs and using them to denigrate a whole group of people as if they are all alike.

Lurie could try to escape this trap by saying, "By new atheists, I mean those mean-spirited atheists who make wildly inaccurate claims about theists."

Well, great. Then by "theists" I mean those people who hold entirely unfounded beliefs on the basis of "faith" and use it as a justification for social policies and private actions that do significant harm to others."

We still have a hypocrite here who allows himself to take certain liberties with definitions that he does not permit the people he criticizes to take.

Then, why are "new atheists" so angry?

Because the world is filled with people who are actively pursuing social policies with religious fervor that do a great deal of harm. And it is absurd and irresponsible to hide their immorality behind the mere presence of a handful of people who are not pursuing harmful social policies with religious fervor. What we need to do is end those harmful social policies pursued with religious fervor.

And it's not just strapping on bombs and flying airplanes into sky scrapers. It is teaching mythology in science classes, banning homosexual marriage, holding that no atheist is fit to hold public office, forcing women to wear full-body burlap sacks and forbidding them from truly living the one life they have, muddying the waters around issues such as climate change (exploiting the anti-science attitude that surrounds evolution), and the like.

But Lurie, it seems, would rather throw manufactured mud at new atheists than address these types of issues, and invent some other reason why the new atheists are angry that is easy for him to belittle and attack. Thus, actually, providing a convenient smoke-screen these other evils and harms.

That, I would wager, is why some new atheists are angry.


mojo.rhythm said...

I really like your analysis of reconciliation. Puts it into a new light I never thought of.

Atique said...

I like it. thanks.