09 March 2014

Fessing Up ...

Posted by at 10:44 PM
(An Open Response to Mike Dobbins)
“By their fruit you will know them.” This saying, attributed to Jesus as part of what is arguably his greatest hit, the Sermon on the Mount, is in my opinion as true a statement as anyone has ever uttered. The context in that particular passage is that of distinguishing between true and false prophets, but even removed from this specific setting, I think that the statement would be just as brilliant and would ring just as true in virtually any human activity. This includes rhetoric. The methods and style that one uses in one’s rhetoric will always reflect one’s underlying motives. If you have an axe to grind, it will quickly become apparent not only in your content but in your phrasing and in your choice of words and emphases, try though you might to maintain an objective and/or academic posture as you proceed. It’s hard to hide rancor.
Mike Dobbins has written a blog piece called “What Atheism Really Means” that I think illustrates this point very well. Objecting to the simple definition of atheism as a “lack of belief in god(s),” he essentially exhorts atheists to “fess up,” that is, to drop the dishonesty he sees as intrinsic to their position and finally admit that they are deliberately being evasive in their self-identification as atheists. He insists that there is more to atheism than that, that there is a positive claim being made, that it is not just a rejection of a proposition, but that it is a proposition in itself, and further, that we atheists know this. This sounds serious. Those atheists sure do sound like some pretty insincere people. His is, of course, not the first such formulation of what is essentially a “burden-of-proof” challenge.
But it’s not just that one cannot prove a negative (though we can‘t escape that fact). It's also that some such negatives don’t even warrant any attempt to do so. For example, if a claim is made, say, that the moon is made of bleu cheese, for instance, and yet no rational evidence is presented in defense of this idea, then I am justified in simply ignoring this claim, just because it is unsupported. It’s that simple. I need no other reason. It has nothing to do with “proving” it false; who would want to try to disprove what is no more than a speculative proposition, anyway? This goes for ANY claim made in the absence of evidence. If evidence is not advanced, then the claim does not reach the threshold necessary for it to be considered a truth in any meaningful sense. This is akin to Christopher Hitchens’ famous aphorism: “That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” It really is that simple. I can certainly entertain all kinds of ideas as useful speculations in my brainstorms if I find them sufficiently intriguing or esthetically pleasing. Indeed, it is often such abstract speculation that lubricates the mind into insight and into action, and makes possible eureka moments through which history and science continue to progress. I have nothing against speculation. I’m all for it. But it takes evidence to elevate a speculation to the category of a truth. There is no shortcut.
Dobbins knows that one can’t prove a negative claim. He also knows that any positive claim that is made bears this burden of proof it must meet if it is to be considered true in any significant way. Therefore, if he could demonstrate that atheism is a “belief” in itself then it would render the simple definition of atheism as a “lack” of belief invalid, and this would place atheism on the same level that theism occupies: both positive claims, both “unproven.” In other words, if you object to theism’s indefensibility, then you must also object to atheism on the same basis. See how that works? Clever, eh?
But notice that, even if this were correct (it‘s not), Dobbins’ charge entails a tacit admission that he cannot meet his theism’s burden of proof. So instead of trying to meet it, he points his finger at atheists and says, “Sure, okay, I can’t prove my claim, but you can’t prove yours either, so there!” Thus, it is not just a projection of his own erroneous logic onto his opponents, it is a textbook example of a “tu qoque” (“you too”) fallacy.  “By their fruit you will know them.”
But it’s worse than that. He could have really tried to engage this idea seriously, but, instead, in attempting to demonstrate that atheism is a positive claim rationally, he puts forward an argument that is not just erroneous, it is downright facile and embarrassingly naive. Namely, in making his case, he actually appeals to dictionary definitions of the word “atheism.” A word of advice to all students: in almost every subject, no matter what some teacher may have told you years ago, do not ever waste your time or words repeating a dictionary definition in an academic or a debate setting. Dictionaries are descriptive references, not authorities, and almost certainly they are useless for the argument you wish to make. How the Oxford Dictionary defines “discrimination,” for instance, has nothing to do with demonstrating an understanding of the issues and the materials involved in a discourse on civil liberties. There are obvious exceptions (in philology, etymology, etc.), but I have yet to see a paper where a dictionary definition didn’t motivate tooth-grinding or face palming. This tactic is a distraction from what the writer needs to do in a paper, it’s poor debating technique, and it is trite. (Dobbins, his bio says, managed to earn a master’s degree in special education, so he should know better than to try to pull such a sophomoric stunt.)
Moreover, while this bald appeal to authority is bad enough in itself, in making it he implies that atheists all derive their self-identification from a sub-par dictionary (he even specifies which one, the online Urban Dictionary), while he, on the other hand, prefers the definition culled from a more-prestigious one (he cites Webster’s as supporting his case).
Right … right … because people always automatically consult dictionaries when they are working out their metaphysical outlooks, contemplating their mortal souls and meditating on the purpose of their life and on the ground of their being. Worse … when atheists consult a dictionary for this purpose, being the terrible and stupid contrarian people that they are, not only do they reach for a dictionary, they  intentionally  reach for a misleading and inferior one. — It's ludicrous.
This doubly idiotic straw man is Dobbins’ lead-off argument in his blog piece, mind you, his first line of attack (!). He has the audacity to open with this stupid insinuation. It’s somewhat dumbfounding to find that someone would take this approach and yet still wish to be taken seriously as a thinker. “By their fruit you will know them.” Perhaps he’ll have better luck with another reader.  It’s too bad too, because he is pretty good with a turn of a phrase. He could be a decent writer if he weren’t so angry at atheists, angry enough to forego valid (or even relevant) arguments. (“My team, right or wrong! Right?”) That he cannot control himself in this way is embarrassing and it taints and ruins whatever modicum of validity his position may have.
At any rate, his opening salvo may be an ineffectual dud, but it is worth noting that he delivers it (and the rest of his rant) with such defiant and self-assured stridency that it’s as if he imagines that standing his ground with his dukes up is enough, that that can somehow substitute for a valid argument. In this sense he reminds me of scrappy apologists like Dinesh D’Souza. I get the feeling Dobbins (and D‘Souza), presumably offended and inspired to counter-attack by the recent publication and success of a number of books on the irrelevance of traditional theistic religion and perhaps by the resultant growing number of atheists in the world, feel it is okay to fight fire with fire. If the “new atheists” are mean and scrappy (he reasons), why shouldn’t he also be mean and insulting in return? All that turning the other cheek and meekness business is for pussies who are afraid to defend their faith. No, a real apologist comes ready to fight. (O, the irony.)
Since I think that even Dobbins would admit the dearth of evidence in this case, all of his bravado and bluster is no more than his own exercise wheel squeaking along while he runs in place. Maybe he likes the sound of it; maybe it makes him think he’s doing something noble. Me? - I think it’s kinda funny.
We’ve seen that he’s obviously ready, willing and able to use pathetic non-arguments as part of his strident anti-stridency ranting, and so he is not a threat to anyone with half a brain, really.  In fact, I fear that I’ve probably already spent more time on his blog piece than it deserves (chalk it up to my generosity, I guess, or, more likely, to my having the evening off tonight). On the other hand, being more or less one of those pesky atheists that he finds so maddeningly evasive, I’d like to personally respond to the challenge he raises there directly by pointing out some of the places where it fails. I’d like to humor him in the hope of clarifying his misguided ideas even a little.
The main failure of Dobbins’ outlook, from which all others flow, lies in his conflation of two different words: “god” and “God.” To him, these are one and the same thing; they’re interchangeable, and so not being capable of making a distinction between them leads him to treat them both the same, so that what is true for one is also true for the other. When an atheist says that he doesn’t believe in god, Dobbins presumes he means that he doesn’t believe in God, and vise versa. It’s therefore no wonder then that he finds atheists to be so frustratingly obtuse. He doesn’t realize that it’s his own deficient understanding (to be fair, it is the paradigm he subscribes to that‘s at fault, the error is not ultimately his personally, but his culture’s) that is the cause of his frustration.
Let’s first take the case of “God.” The use of the word “God” as a proper noun is problematic even before you try to equivocate it with the lower-case “god.” Dobbins never quite specifies whether he is a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew, so I don‘t know whether he is speaking of Yahveh, or Allah, or Yahveh 2.0 (Abba), or, for that matter of Odúdua, or Ozomatli, or Shiva, or any number of other gods available to us from history‘s rich pageant. I suspect this is intentional on his part, since his bio doesn’t specify his religion either, which is something that an apologist would ordinarily include. He probably wishes to be seen as a champion of all of them simultaneously (at least that is the impression I get). Fair enough. But I think that Seneca was essentially correct when he noted: “If you are everywhere, you are nowhere.” And so I am compelled to ask which God he is asking me whether I believe in or not. One can surely assume that Jews, Christians, and Muslims acknowledge the same God. This has been a proposition (indeed, a presupposition) held by many for a long time now. But it can be shown that in fact what they have in common is their conviction that there is only one God, the creator of the universe and of us, not that their God is one and the same as the others. The god of each respective corner of this would-be Abrahamic triangle is far from identical to the other two. A cursory reading of these three religions’ respective holy texts would show this. But even if for the sake of Jerusalem we were to grant these “Gods” identity, could we also grant it to Kali? To Neptune? One would be hard pressed to show Shangó and Yahveh to be the same personage. If someone is a devotee of Yemayá, queen of the sea and bringer of fertility, are they worshipping “God”? If not, are they “atheists”?
The first point to be gleaned from this is the absurdity of this conflation of sundry deities and divinities into a single term: “theism.” The second is that the recognition of this non-unity of “God” allows me (and anyone else) to compare and contrast these different formulations of “Gods” (with names) and to make certain probabilistic determinations about each accordingly. In this sense, when I (or Mr. Dobbins) “don’t believe in" the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I am employing my rational and critical faculties on some specific claims about a proposed divinity. It’s not that I am claiming knowledge regarding Zeus' ontological status; it’s that since the only data I have concerning this deity comes from a body of literature which I recognize as mythological (and, mythology being one of the most beautiful of human activities, I do not use the word as a pejorative in the least), and since no empirical corroboration of those stories are forthcoming, I am justified in proceeding in my day to day life as though the proposed deity is no more than a mythic construct until some evidence should appear. I am not making a categorical statement about the nature of reality by dismissing it. That would be silly of me since I have no evidence (and therefore no warrant) to make such airy proclamations. No, when I say that I don’t believe in Zeus, or Yahveh, or Thor, or Exu,  my reasoning process is the same as it is when I say that I don‘t believe that the moon is made of bleu cheese. To Dobbins, it feels as though I am making some important ‘positive’ proclamation about the universe when I merely negate an unsubstantiated claim. The difference between the bleu cheese moon and God is the importance he places on the latter. I doubt the cheesiness of the moon would upset him. All knowledge being provisional, his attitude is misguided and unnecessary. In the case of atheism, the rancor he feels is directly proportional to the cavalierness with which a given atheist may express his opinion regarding that which he (Dobbins) feels so very strongly about--i.e. the existence of some God. That rancor, of course, is in his head and is not my problem, except inasmuch as he openly challenges or questions my motives or my honor (in a defiant blog post calling all atheists liars, for instance), which I am ready and willing to engage.
The lower-case gods all exist, of course, in the Jamesian sense that they are part of mythological complexes of scriptures, symbols, metaphors, and archetypes and can be distinguished and described within the sociological and historical contexts of the cultures in which they germinated and developed. In this sense, Zeus exists and the Great Spirit exists, and Ishtar exists and Yahveh exists. It is the only sense I find at all interesting. Like most human creations, gods have evolved over the ages, but this, of course, is not the kind of sense that Mr. Dobbins was hoping for.
In closing I should add that Dobbins has written a pamphlet (136 pages) called “The Case Against Atheism” which is available from Amazon for 99c for the kindle version. He also has a forthcoming one called “Atheism as a Religion,” which I predict will be pretty horrible. If these are anything at all like his blog post, I can make two general statements:

  1. He fancies himself a “new” apologist, a counterweight to the new atheists‘ forcefulness, and to this end he employs more bluster than substance. 
  2. If he’s at all indicative of the “new” apologetics, I think they are already sunk.

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