Absurd Arguments Against Atheism

I recently came across a poorly argued piece in The Huffington Post’s, “The Three Mistakes Atheist Make.” While it is easy for a professional philosopher to find fault with a philosophical piece written by a non-professional, this article was so poorly reasoned and so rife with fallacies of informal logic that I felt obliged to critique it. Certainly, those predisposed to accepting the article’s premises will find it comforting, but any critical thinker, including those sympathetic with the Rabbi’s views, would find it woefully inadequate.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie bases his critique on a brief interview of Philip Kitcher about his forthcoming book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism. The interview was conducted for the New York Times by Professor Gary Gutting, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. So while the book is not yet out, and Rabbi Yoffie has not yet read it, he dismisses it based on one brief interview.  (I briefly summarized and commented on the Kitcher-Gutting interview in a previous post.)

Now Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and one of the most notable and respected living philosophers. Thus it is unlikely that the Rabbi’s brief remarks refute the thorough, subtle, and sophisticated argument of a book that he has not read. Moreover, deeper thinkers than Rabbi Yoffie who have actually read the book have responded differently. To his credit Professor Gutting, a Notre Dame philosophy professor who one suspects would not be sympathetic to an atheistic argument, says: “This is the most philosophically sophisticated and rigorous defense of atheism in the contemporary literature. Life After Faith provides an informed and responsible statement of the secular humanist viewpoint.”

And praise of Kitcher’s erudite sophistication has come from other intellectuals as well. The Jewish author Leon Wieseltier, the child of Holocaust survivors and fluent Hebrew speaker, argues:

Philip Kitcher has composed the most formidable defense of the secular view of life since Dewey. Unlike almost all of contemporary atheism, Life After Faith is utterly devoid of cartoons and caricatures of religion. It is, instead, a sober and soulful book, an exemplary practice of philosophical reflection. Scrupulous in its argument, elegant in its style, humane in its spirit, it is animated by a stirring aspiration to wisdom. Even as I quarrel with it I admire it.

Professor David Hollinger, the Preston Hotchkis Professor of History emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, asserts: “This book is a deeper and more convincing critique of traditional religious belief than anything written by the New Atheists. Kitcher deals conscientiously with every objection to secular humanism and shows why each one fails.”  The Cambridge educated Kwame Anthony Appiah, who holds of a joint professorship in both law and philosophy at New York University maintains: “Philip Kitcher takes seriously the challenge of showing how, without a belief in the transcendent, we can still live lives that are rich with meaning, because they are thoroughly committed to the pursuit of what is good and beautiful and true.”

Now it is true that these rave reviews from intellectuals across a wide range of ideological positions do not count definitely against the Rabbi’s brief arguments, but they do count strongly against his generally dismissive tone. The Rabbi claims that Kitcher makes three common mistakes that atheists typically make: 1)They dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people; 2) They assert that since there are no valid religions but that religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God — or, in other words, a religion without religion; 3) They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms. Let me briefly respond to each of these claims.

Regarding claim #1 – (They dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people.)

Rabbi Yoffie begins by suggesting that religious experience is immune to the classic arguments against the existence of gods. While it is true that such critiques do not refute religious experience, he omits that there are strong arguments against these experiences as well. As Kitcher points out in the interview biological, psychological, and social reasons can be provided to convincingly explain these experiences.

Yet the Rabbi interprets this to mean that Kitcher is “asserting with certainty that no one else is capable of a God encounter rooted in transcendence and holiness.” I assure you that Kitcher is making no such claim. As good a philosopher as Kitcher knows there is nothing logically impossible about the source of religious experience being something supernatural. What he is saying is that an inference to the best explanation makes it much more likely that their origin is some natural, psychological phenomena. As for it being unlikely that the source is a divine entity, the Rabbi says “… on what possible basis can he make such a claim?” Of course, the answer is obvious. Kitcher makes that claim based on the increasing ability of science to explain so-called religious and mystical experiences.

Furthermore, even if such experiences aid the Rabbi in his belief, they provide only soft or subjective justifications for belief. They can never by their very nature provide hard or objective justification. So while religious experience may justify belief for the experiencer, they never justify it for those who don’t have the experience. I am not justified in believing anything based on your subjective, psychological experiences, especially when they claim something extraordinary like “I was talking with Zeus last night.”

Regarding claim #2 – (They assert that since there are no valid religions, and yet since religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God—in other words, a religion without religion.)

Philosophers don’t simply assert that there are no valid religions. Less than 15% of contemporary philosophers are theists  primarily because the traditional arguments for the existence of gods have been found wanting and because science has provided convincing alternative explanations for religious phenomena.

As for the claims of Kitcher, Dworkin, de Botton, and others that we should promote values without fundamentalism and supernaturalism, Yoffie responds that such proposals don’t work. He argues:

Philosophy can do many things, but it cannot create deep loyalty, profound engagement, or a willingness to sacrifice for one’s beliefs. Religion, whether of the liberal or orthodox variety, does precisely that. And it does so by retaining those things that Kitcher proposes to jettison: a community of believers connected to the holy and convictions rooted in both ritual and faith.

This would come as quite a surprise to the citizens of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, France, Germany and other countries where religious belief has virtually disappeared but which are generally regarded as the best countries to live in. Countries with strong social safety nets, little economic inequality, low rates of incarceration, infant mortality and crime, high levels of educational attainment, and generous family leave policies, mandated vacation time, and universal health care. That we need religious belief to have good societies is an absurd claim, one repudiated by the evidence.

Regarding claim #3  (They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms.)

While Kitcher rightly notes that the incredible diversity of religious doctrines makes it unlikely that any one religion is true, (there are about 41,000 denominations of Christianity in the world alone), Yoffie responds: “If there are 10,000 contrary religious doctrines, it does not follow that they all are false.” Well, it doesn’t follow that they are all false unless you are a religious exclusivist. In that case, only one would be true and all the others false. (And I’d bet you think the true one is the one you believe in!) Yet if you are a religious universalist, if you think that all religions are different paths to the same mountaintop, then they can all be (somewhat) true. But Kitcher probably wouldn’t disagree. He is simply pointing out is that the discrepancies about religious beliefs suggest that any particular religious belief is unlikely to be true, and religious claims are dubious.

Now at this point, Yoffie employs the classic fallacy of the straw man—arguing against an easily attacked position that your opponent doesn’t hold. He concludes:

Kitcher, like others in the atheist camp, sees the world in terms of dichotomies: You are a theist or a non-theist, a religious person or a non-religious person. But, of course, this is not the way that most people function. Some religious people are fanatical, but most are not. The world of belief, which includes a majority of the human race, consists of people who believe but are not always sure; who accept God some of the time but not all the time; and who know that theology is a matter of questions and uncertainties, painted in hues of gray.

It is patently absurd to suggest that Kitcher doesn’t realize that a multiplicity of religious views exists. Surely Kitcher wouldn’t be surprised, nor would he recall his book, because the good Rabbi has informed him that there are agnostics, process theologians, death-of-god theologians, fundamentalists and more. But it is Rabbi Yoffie’s conclusion that finally gives away his position:

Professor Kitcher offers a challenging thesis, but in the final analysis, he—and others like him—simply do not understand a central fact of human history: Drawing on their deepest experiences, most people instinctively reach out to God, and God in turn reaches out to them.

There you have it. For the Rabbi, it is simply a fact that people reach out to Yahweh, Zeus, Apollo, and Thor and the gods in turn respond. His argument, it turns out, is circular. He is saying that arguments against the existence of the gods don’t work because the gods exist.

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5 thoughts on “Absurd Arguments Against Atheism

  1. I was just wondering…what if most of the times Philip Kitcher was referred to in this piece, Prof. Messerly referred to him as “the distinguished Professor” or, more demeaningly, as “Mr. Ivy League Professor” instead of by name? What difference in tone? And yet Eric Yoffie is repeatedly treated to this (“the Rabbi,” “the good Rabbi,” though once not capitalized) in what comes across as a rather condescending mock ‘respect’…which also sounds faintly antisemitic. I know, on this site he is preaching to the choir, so to speak ironically, but the slanting disrespect is apparent to me.

  2. There is a cynical argument for atheism:
    the world is filled with unintelligent people and
    the frightened; plus unintelligent, frightened people who need religion. (That’s the short version!)

    A less cynical view is:
    life is difficult enough that not having religion in one’s life reduces incentive of all sorts for all kinds of people. Religion is also defined here as secular religion such as Marxism and Libertarianism– motivating people to do many things.

  3. It is not true for atheists to claim that science has provided convincing alternative explanations for religious phenomena, some explanations are just speculations while others only affirm the Biblical teachings about world phenomena

  4. you may be a history professor but your understanding of philosophical issues is quite simplistic.

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