The white-bearded red herring...or YES, I'm talking to YOU, Lisa Miller

by Dale McGowan
Author/editor of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion

pythongod340909The world is full of ignorant nonsense, and that's okay. Well, it's not okay, but it seems to be part of the unavoidable deal, what with unequal access to education and a thousand other things. What I've had quite enough of is ignorant nonsense from people who really have no excuse.

Newsweek Religion Editor Lisa Miller (who interviewed me for a Beliefwatch column in July 2007) set me off with a recent column ( "Arguing Against the Atheists," October 6) regarding her irritation with "the new generation of professional atheists."

She begins with a variation on the ad populum fallacy ("If 90-odd percent of Americans say they believe in God, it's unhelpful to dismiss them as silly"), but it's her second "argument" that had me shaking my head in frustration at the confident sloppiness of someone with the chops to know better:

When they check that "believe in God" box, a great many people are not talking about the God the atheists rail against—a supernatural being who intervenes in human affairs, who lays down inexplicable laws about sex and diet, punishes violators with the stinking fires of hell and raises the fleshly bodies of the dead.

Generally phrased as "I don't believe in a white-bearded man in the sky either," this shameful dodge is the current favorite of religious moderates. It neatly sidesteps all challenges by saying, "Sorry, wrong number" and thereby avoiding the messy business of meeting those challenges. One small detail: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and the rest of those whose persistence Miller dislikes have all made it achingly clear that their critiques are NOT limited to literalists. But even aching clarity must be read to be understood. At best, Miller must have skimmed this passage from The God Delusion:

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort to the book, one that would otherwise—as sure as night follows day—turn up in a review: ‘The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don‘t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.' That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker really believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 36)

A good effort, Richard, but I'm afraid Lisa Miller only read the dustcover.

Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett have also gone out of their way, again and again, in writing and in interviews, to make it abundantly clear that they are talking to moderates as well, Lisa. Harris built it right into the opening pages of The End of Faith and, when that was ignored, Letter to a Christian Nation. They all voice two different but related critiques for moderates and extremists. They think religious belief itself, in however attenuated a form, is unworthy, undesirable, even harmful. They offer not just the statement of this opinion, but reams of evidence and argument.

After placing moderate religion safely out of harm's way, Miller offers a thought that demonstrates precisely the confident nonsense Dawkins, et al. are concerned about among moderates and literalists alike:

Submitting faith to proof is absurd. Reason defines one kind of reality (what we know); faith defines another (what we don't know). Reasonable believers can live with both at once.

If there's a single thrust and focus of the "professional atheists," it is challenging the unsupported declaration that faith "defines a reality" and yet is immune to the requirements of proof. She couldn't have created a better encapsulation of the dangerous nonsense of faith if she had tried. That the nonsense itself occurs in the process of simply saying "nuh-uhhh" to the arguments against it is as ironic and unworthy a retort as I can imagine.

You may legitimately disagree with Dawkins and the rest, Ms. Miller. But they've worked ever-so-hard to frame clear and concise arguments. Would it be okay if we all read them, then discuss those arguments on their actual merits instead of pretending they are talking to someone else about something else?

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Tags: Dawkins, atheism, media

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Comment by Фелч Гроган on October 14, 2008 at 8:41pm
Dale, she cites studies from Baylor University -

Baylor University is a private, Baptist-affiliated research university located in Waco, Texas. It is the largest Baptist university in the world by enrollment.

Her quote -

but according to a new survey by Baylor University, just about half of Americans believe that God intervenes in worldly affairs

At best, it's sloppy journalism. At worst, its open collaboration. That this is ignored means that your media watchdogs are not doing their jobs.

There is a forum thread here.
Comment by Фелч Гроган on October 14, 2008 at 8:12pm
Michael Edward Davis: "Increasingly I am of the opinion that people of "faith" are probably actually physiologically different from non-believers, that they are actually incapable of hearing or accepting rational arguments for or against religion"

I go further than that - they have entered a state of voluntary insanity that is impenetrable to reason. They are cultists, no different to Scientologists or Moonies. When placed into a position from which there is no counterargument or defence, the reactions range from simple dismissiveness (I know better) to contempt to aggression, rage and violence. To try and win these people over with dialectic is futile - pushing diarrhea uphill with a toothpick. No amount of eloquence from Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins et al will make any difference - they're shooting peas at the door to the vault at Fort Knox. There is no possible way to win. I have no answers, neither do the heavyweights. It is futile. Atheism can only come personally, from within. External influence is powerless.
Comment by Dale McGowan on October 14, 2008 at 1:00pm
I agree. That's why I don't engage in argumentation across belief lines anymore. But I am no less frustrated when intelligent, literate people like Lisa Miller show this kind of childish inability to read.

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