A critique of Atheist literature

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A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Mon Oct 19, 2015 12:56 pm

I am opening this thread with the idea of discussing atheist literature, and considering the weaknesses of its arguments.

Later, I intend to post a critique of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian. Also, I have been challenged to read books by Dawkins. I will find, read, and critique "The God Delusion," putting my thoughts on that book into this thread.

I invite you to tell us things you have found in atheist literature, and the flaws that you see there.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Rian » Mon Oct 19, 2015 2:12 pm

Why not share the good things that we have seen in atheist literature, too? A critique means a detailed analysis and assessment. One thing that started a great deal of growth in my Christian life is when I got past the fundy idea that you just look at atheists for the bad stuff.

I think it's very important to be able to recognize and analyze the weak arguments (and there are plenty!), but why not go for a more balanced analysis?
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby mitchellmckain » Mon Oct 19, 2015 7:37 pm

Og3 wrote:I am opening this thread with the idea of discussing atheist literature, and considering the weaknesses of its arguments.

Later, I intend to post a critique of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian. Also, I have been challenged to read books by Dawkins. I will find, read, and critique "The God Delusion," putting my thoughts on that book into this thread.

I invite you to tell us things you have found in atheist literature, and the flaws that you see there.


The God Delusion is not very good -- except maybe for a laugh. Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher or theologian. But I suppose it was particularly uninteresting to me because he spends most of it trouncing proofs for the existence of God which I have never been inclined to take very seriously anyway. But even if you are interested in that sort of thing it is a quite amateurish example.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Mon Oct 19, 2015 10:07 pm

mitchellmckain wrote:
Og3 wrote:I am opening this thread with the idea of discussing atheist literature, and considering the weaknesses of its arguments.

Later, I intend to post a critique of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian. Also, I have been challenged to read books by Dawkins. I will find, read, and critique "The God Delusion," putting my thoughts on that book into this thread.

I invite you to tell us things you have found in atheist literature, and the flaws that you see there.


The God Delusion is not very good -- except maybe for a laugh. Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher or theologian. But I suppose it was particularly uninteresting to me because he spends most of it trouncing proofs for the existence of God which I have never been inclined to take very seriously anyway. But even if you are interested in that sort of thing it is a quite amateurish example.

So would it be fair to say that it might bore one to tears, and could be characterized as meaningless drivel?

I only ask because... well, you know... :smt005
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Mon Oct 19, 2015 10:14 pm

Rian wrote:Why not share the good things that we have seen in atheist literature, too? A critique means a detailed analysis and assessment. One thing that started a great deal of growth in my Christian life is when I got past the fundy idea that you just look at atheists for the bad stuff.

I think it's very important to be able to recognize and analyze the weak arguments (and there are plenty!), but why not go for a more balanced analysis?

There is literature which, while not atheist in nature, was written by atheists, and some of it is very good. Franz Kafka certainly had atheist leanings, if he wasn't one himself, and he wrote some excellent, if depressing, introspective essays. At the time that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, he was an atheist. And so forth.

But atheists writing about atheism... well, imho, there's not much that's good in it. I once wrote a five page essay on Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, in which I remarked that he seemed entirely unacquainted with the Christian religion. And if Chesterton is right about it, no atheist can avoid this trap, because atheists are too near the subject, or else too far. They are but ruined Christians, and they are neither near enough to feel its power nor far enough away to see it objectively.

But if you can find a good writing by an atheist, and wish to critique it here, it would be interesting reading.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby mitchellmckain » Mon Oct 19, 2015 11:33 pm

Og3 wrote:So would it be fair to say that it might bore one to tears, and could be characterized as meaningless drivel?

I only ask because... well, you know... :smt005


Yeah I suppose I can understand how his worst books might evoke such a reaction. In addition to "The God Delusion", I didn't think much of "The Selfish Gene" either. But even these are worth talking about, though I would be quite critical. Still the words "meaningless drivel" is too much when you have an interest in discussion with atheists. An example of a book by him which I approve of is "Climbing Mount Improbable."
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby sayak » Tue Oct 20, 2015 4:37 am

I am quickly posting here to point out that a critique of atheist literature thread should preferably be in the General Section. Otherwise, atheists will not be able to contribute any response. Hopefully that is not the intention?
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby spongebob » Tue Oct 20, 2015 7:31 am

sayak wrote:I am quickly posting here to point out that a critique of atheist literature thread should preferably be in the General Section. Otherwise, atheists will not be able to contribute any response. Hopefully that is not the intention?


Maybe some of the Christians just want to be able to bash atheist writers unabated.

At any rate, I can say that I've read only a few books by atheist writers that were specifically about religion or atheism. I don't find them to be particularly interesting because most of what they say can be summed up in a few pages, so you have 400 pages of repetition, which is just boring. Any introspection I've gotten of any value from atheists generally came from their autobiographies. People such as Piers Anthony, Isaac Asimov, Bill Bryson, Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson have written eloquently and efficiently about their beliefs. That last one might seem a little contradictory, but read about him and you'll understand. When you read a book by Richard Dawkins, you aren't just reading an atheist's book, you are reading an anti-theist's book, which is something different.
Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby humanguy » Tue Oct 20, 2015 2:49 pm

mitchellmckain wrote:
The God Delusion is not very good -- except maybe for a laugh. Dawkins is a biologist, not a philosopher or theologian. But I suppose it was particularly uninteresting to me because he spends most of it trouncing proofs for the existence of God which I have never been inclined to take very seriously anyway. But even if you are interested in that sort of thing it is a quite amateurish example.


Please pardon my intrusion here, but I absolutely agree with this.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Wed Oct 21, 2015 12:40 am

sayak wrote:I am quickly posting here to point out that a critique of atheist literature thread should preferably be in the General Section. Otherwise, atheists will not be able to contribute any response. Hopefully that is not the intention?

Actually, my goal is to equip Christians -- this is the "Christian Section" -- so that when the subject of atheist literature comes up in the General Section, we are not bogged down in the present moment's controversy. One might think of this as "How to respond to Atheist literature," and it would be analogous to the threads in the Atheist section which outline issues in biblical literature or within the Bible.

I would not call it a place for "Bashing," so much as critiquing from a Christian perspective, with an eye towards educating and equipping Christians.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Wed Oct 21, 2015 12:45 am

spongebob wrote:
sayak wrote:I am quickly posting here to point out that a critique of atheist literature thread should preferably be in the General Section. Otherwise, atheists will not be able to contribute any response. Hopefully that is not the intention?

Maybe some of the Christians just want to be able to bash atheist writers unabated.

Seriously? you think we don't know that you guys lurk here?
At any rate, I can say that I've read only a few books by atheist writers that were specifically about religion or atheism. I don't find them to be particularly interesting because most of what they say can be summed up in a few pages, so you have 400 pages of repetition, which is just boring. Any introspection I've gotten of any value from atheists generally came from their autobiographies. People such as Piers Anthony, Isaac Asimov, Bill Bryson, Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson have written eloquently and efficiently about their beliefs. That last one might seem a little contradictory, but read about him and you'll understand. When you read a book by Richard Dawkins, you aren't just reading an atheist's book, you are reading an anti-theist's book, which is something different.

Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is utterly hilarious and found its way onto my bookshelf. It is very irreverent and uses strong language, so I do not list it as a book I recommend to others without at least a few caveats. Also, it makes assumptions that it does not defend; but as you point out, it is not an anti-theist's apologia.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Wed Oct 21, 2015 12:53 am

Regarding Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, I would like to offer some selected excerpts from a review of that work, which I wrote a couple of years ago.

Note: Reference is made to both the essay, Why I Am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell, and also to the introduction, by Russell, of the 1957 collection of his essays, of the same name: Russell, Bertrand, _Why I Am Not a Christian and other essays on religion and related subjects_, edited by Paul Edwards, Simon and Schuster, New York City, 1957 (ISBN: 0-671-20323-1)


Part 1
Introduction to the 1957 edition:

In this introduction, Russell affirms his staunch atheism, and makes several points in favor of this opinion. In summary:

1. Logically, no more than one religion may be true, since they are contradictory.
2. Ancient proofs of the existence of God (e.g. Augustine, Spinoza) are based on false logic.
3. Russell finds it unlikely that an omnipotent, omniscience, and benevolent God would create the universe for the purpose of producing Hitler, Stalin, or the Hydrogen bomb.
4. Religions are harmful:
A. Because they promote fanaticism and closed-mindedness, and
B. Because nearly all contain specific harmful doctrines.
5. A truly religion-free society is a laudable goal, and a dream of Russell’s.

Russell’s first point is obviously true. This will disappoint, I think, no one except Unitarians and New-Agers, who like to “mix and match” so that religion may be tailor-made to fit. Those who would believe that “All religions are the same” may do so only if they would add, “And are all false.” However, the realization that, at most, one religion may be true, should surely lead us to ask which, if any, is this “true religion.”

So point one does not affect the larger question of whether God does or does not exist, for weal or for woe. Furthermore, C. S. Lewis, an Anglican Professor and, in later life, amateur theologian and writer, makes this exact same point in his book, _Mere Christianity_ . Since both sides agree, we may take it to be stipulated.

Moving to Russell’s second point, we find that it is commonly acknowledged that the ancient “Classic” arguments for the existence of God are flawed. Even so, this does not disprove His existence. At best (or at worse, depending on one’s views), we are left uncertain.

Next we come to an opinion of Russell’s. An unsubstantiated opinion should not be given credence, but in the spirit of the discussion, let the reader ignore this nicety for now.

Any philosophy student or amateur theologian should recognize this point, as a variant of the Problem of Sin. And, let it be said, if Russell were attempting to disprove Calvinism, this point would be near the mark, and possibly fatal. But he is attempting to disprove all religion, or at least denounce it, and therefore we must present the most common, and best, theodicy: Free Will.

Free Will is too great a subject to be plumbed in depth, but to simplify: It states that all humans have the choice to do good or evil. That God already knows which we will choose, and that He has set events into motion that are based upon the choices which He knows that we will make, is no contradiction.

Foreknowledge is not predestination . I know with certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I can not claim that I am in any way causing it to happen.

In a free will universe, the rise of Stalin, or of Hitler, is not caused by God, but rather, is a result of human frailty and failure. Suffering comes not because of God, but in spite of Him. A universe in which Hitler cannot arise is a universe in which Dietrich Bonhoffer or Corrie Ten Boom cannot defy him. We also err to think that divine benevolence leads to our personal happiness above all; divine benevolence makes us holy, not necessarily happy.

Moreover, to those who believe in God, there is no need for human life to balance on this side of the grave. Those who hold to eternal reward also believe that things left unbalanced here may be set right beyond. The belief system is thus still internally consistent, even with the Problem of Sin.

With that, we come to the question of Right and Wrong. Russell’s fourth point is that religion is harmful. The harm mentioned here refers to Evil done by religion under the guise of Good. Unfortunately, Russell fails to provide a reference point for any analysis of Good or Evil.

...

Another point that must be addressed is this: Russell assumes that all religion is false. Thus, he would surely agree with the undeniable statement, “False religion is harmful. ” This leaves a very large loophole, however. True religion, if there were such a thing, would not be harmful. Russell denies the existence of true religion, but has said nothing yet to preclude it.

Russell claims that the harm falls into two categories: That of general fanaticism, which prevents one from choosing religion (or the lack thereof) based upon logic; and that of specific harm done because of religious beliefs, such as the refusal of Indians to use beef as a food-source, despite the overwhelming starvation found in that land. In short, religion seems, to Russell, both generally and specifically shortsighted.

But Russell fails to consider one scenario: A person who has carefully weighed his or her belief system, and has chosen to believe based upon logic, is, a priori, not closed-minded. The young may be blocked from outside opinion, but, even so, Truth – the arcane Logos – will inevitably be found by those who seek it. And if this Logos points to religion, then that is where the true follower of logic must go.

Fanaticism, and the bloody-minded clinging to foolishness for foolishness sake, is, in fact, evil. But if there exists a true religion, then the beliefs of that religion are intrinsic, and therefore a higher good than that social good that might result, should the religion be abandoned. That is to say, if Hinduism were the “True Religion,” of which, at most, one may exist, then the non-consumption of beef would be proper and correct, regardless of the circumstances.

If there exists a true religion, then Good and Evil, and therefore “harm”, must be defined in terms of that religion. So even the “Specific Harm” done by the doctrine would be over-ridden by the “greater good” done by submission to the True religion.

Finally, Russell expresses a dream of a society free of religion’s bonds. And here again, the question of Moral Standards raises its head. For Good and Evil, in a society without gods, must be based upon something other than gods. But that too becomes a religion; as Shinto has become the worship of Japan, so likewise a moral but godless society must adopt a worship system of its own. The core of the worship system may be “societal moral convention,” but we have seen, in our own times, social conventions crumble.

There too, this would necessarily put the social conventions of the Mayans, who ripped out the beating hearts of their enemies, or a par with the social conventions of modern Norwegians, as a definition of Right or Wrong. And this is surely absurd. As for me, I would prefer to live among people who have a faith, whether it is my own, or other; for those who have a rigid standard for their morality are less likely to kill me in my sleep than those who admit no authority higher than themselves.

In conclusion, I find Russell’s introduction to be invalid and merely a statement of opinion.

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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Wed Oct 21, 2015 1:02 am

Part 2
The Essay Proper

My first impression, on reading the essay proper, is that Russell was not more than noddingly acquainted with Christianity. He speaks of it in the sort of terms that I might use if I were to attempt to debunk, virtually sight-unseen, the religions of the Australian Indigines. He makes blanket statements at which the most uninformed churchman would surely snort, or else guffaw loudly.

Russell begins by defining “Christian.” He points out, correctly, that the word “Christian” is a noun, and should not be used as an adjective. C. S. Lewis has said this same, and has sternly objected to any use of “Christian” other than this , so Russell is not breaking any new ground here.

Russell then presents his two main theses: That God does not exist, and that men can not be immortal; and that Christ was not the best and wisest of men.

The first bold thesis is supported by refutations of ancient and outdated arguments for the existence of God. Since we have already conceded that these arguments are weak and ill-formed, and since we have already come to the logical conclusion, from the remarks concerning the introduction, that these arguments are not necessary in order for God to exist, then Russell’s entire argument collapses.
On writing this, I had not yet read Orthodoxy, by Chesterton, wherein he makes the point that atheists are, for the most part, ruined Christians, and thus remain too near it to judge it objectively on its merits (as they might do if it were new and foreign to them), and yet stand to far from it to judge it subjectively on the experience of being within it.

He compares such atheists to people living near a ranch in a valley. From the valley floor, they cannot see the ranch as it is, nor participate in it: They must either enter the ranch and see it from within, or climb the hillside to see it in proper perspective from without.

Russell's Why seems to bear out Chesterton's point.
Turning to his second thesis, Russell, almost as a side note, states that it is doubtful that Christ ever existed, and that if He did, we know almost nothing about Him. This statement can only be ascribed to intentional ignorance on the part of Russell.

...

But this is merely a sideswipe in Russell’s second thesis.

Russell claims that Jesus of Nazareth was, indubitably, a good and moral teacher , but that He can not be placed on a par with Socrates or Bhudda. Once again, we find ourselves in opposition to logic.

As C. S. Lewis so aptly states in _Mere Christianity_ , q.v., “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people sometimes say about Him, ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher; but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ … A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says that he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was – and is – the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.”

...

Russell goes on to present a series of Objections about Christ:

1. That He told His followers to “Take no care for tomorrow” because He would return while some of those present were still living.
2. That He cursed the Pharisees as “vipers” and preached hellfire and damnation; that he was spiteful towards those who disagreed with him; that he killed a herd of pigs; that he cursed a fig tree.
3.That people are defensive of Christianity on improper grounds, namely, that it defends morality.
4. That churches hold doctrines which are contrary to human temporal happiness.
5. That all religion is based on fear.

Russell concludes with the thought that Science is better than religion, and that in an ideal world, all humans would be free of religion (a la John Lennon’s Imagine), and would instead work towards knowledge, kindliness, and courage.

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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Wed Oct 21, 2015 1:03 am

I have since been informed that Lennon did not intend to abolish all religion; but merely religious denominational rivalry and violence.

I leave it to others to determine the truth value of that statement.
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Re: A critique of Atheist literature

Postby Og3 » Wed Oct 21, 2015 1:05 am

Continuing on Russell's Why
Taking these objections in their given order:

Context, as one knows, is everything. For me to tell someone not to “worry about the details,” with regard to a mutual project, would mean that I was taking that responsibility upon myself; for me to tell someone not to “worry about the details,” with regards to their personal safety, would be criminal negligence.

Russell doesn’t give specific texts in reference to his objections, so we must first find a verse that appears to support his argument, and then show that it doesn’t. Russell has taken quite a liberty with his sources, and assigned a heavy task to defenders. But that is to be expected of those who would “debunk” Christianity.

We find, in the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus tells his listeners to “be anxious for nothing,” and uses the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as an illustration; but the context is clearly the rejection of materialism in favor of reliance upon God’s providence.

In Matthew 16:28, Jesus does, in fact, tell his disciples that some of them present shall not taste death until they see Christ come into His kingdom. In the first verses of the very next chapter, Peter, James and John see Jesus glorified by God, speaking with Moses and Elijah, and hear God speak, expressing His pleasure with Jesus.

If one is reluctant to consider that event to be fulfillment of Jesus’ words, these same disciples also saw Jesus after his death and resurrection, and watched him ascend into Heaven.
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