Friday, November 6, 2009

Frank Schaffer takes on the "New Atheists"

Frank Schaffer's article tries to claim that the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens) are just as fundamentalist as Religious Right Christians.  Its a ridiculous argument that has been made many times before, but his is especially specious.  Its full of ad hominem nonsense that has nothing to do with their belief systems, as well as a bizarre love-fest for Dan Dennett.

A fundamentalist holds her beliefs regardless of evidence, and there is no criteria which would cause her to even question, let alone change those beliefs.  Schaffer even describes Dawkins' explanation of this from The God Delusion (TGD):

In the preface to the paperback edition, Dawkins responds to the criticism that he is just as much of a proselytizing fundamentalist as those he criticizes. Dawkins answers, “No, please, it is all too easy to mistake passion that can change its mind for fundamentalism, which never will . . . it is impossible to overstress the difference between such a passionate commitment to biblical fundamentals and the true scientist’s equally passionate commitment to evidence.”

But notice how he responds:

As a scientist Dawkins claims that by definition his passion can’t be like other, lesser people’s passions, because as a scientist he is above such things.

This is nonsense.  Dawkins says no such thing about "lesser people".  He gives examples in the rest of the book of how his beliefs about God, evolution, etc. could be changed.  It has nothing to do with some natural superiority of scientists, it has to do with the scientific method, which values evidence over personal conviction.  This is one of many examples of Schaffer trying to make Dawkins seem like the token smug asshole atheist.

Even if Dawkins did feel this way, it doesn't change the fact that he is capable of changing his belief system given evidence, and lays out how that might be done.  No reason is given to suggest that Dawkins is lying/mistaken about this, and I can't think of one.  Even if he is a smug atheist with a vast superiority complex, this ad hominem still has no bearing.

The other way Schaffer tries to bolster his position is to act as if because he has nice things to say about some atheists, like Dan Dennett, his criticism of other atheists is somehow more balanced.  Unfortunately, the only difference he claims between Dennett and Dawkins is about presentation and personality:

One reason I find Dennett so appealing is his decency. His humility, wit, and empathy speak volumes to me and lends a solid gravity to his wisdom.
Being humble, witty, and empathic has no bearing on whether one's arguments are good or bad.  Not to mention that nothing he presents about Dennett is vastly different from Dawkins' and Hitchens' positions on religion:

[Dennett] seems fair and knowledgeable about religion, acknowledging that all religions have a toxic component and yet that they also have a good side.

Dawkins has clearly stated positive elements of religion, including feelings of consolation and inspiration in chapter 10 of TGD.  He discusses whether its possible to derive these from sources other than religion, but he acknowledges that these positive effects of religion are real and useful to many people.

He brings up an instance where Dennett apparently publicly disagrees with Dawkins:

Dennett also wrote a review of Dawkins’s The God Delusion for Free Inquiry, saying that he and Dawkins agree about many ideas, “but on one central issue we are not (yet) of one mind: Dawkins is quite sure that the world would be a better place if religion were hastened to extinction and I am still agnostic about that.”

Whoa.  Dennett really gave it to Dawkins there.  Notice that Dennett doesn't even disagree.  His claim is essentially that he does not have enough evidence to make a decision.

The rest of his article presents two more tactics for labelling Dawkins as fundamentalist.  First, Dawkins' website has a store were people can buy atheist pins and t-shirts.  Anyone who would wear an atheist pin/shirt must be a fundamentalist preacher of atheism, therefore Dawkins is a fundamentalist.  I don't think I have to explain why this is ridiculous. 

Second, he blantantly misrepresents Dawkins arguments from TGD (or perhaps he's too stupid to understand them).  For example, take a look at what he has to say about Dawkins' discussion about the anthropic principle:

Instead of God, Dawkins says he’s discovered “the anthropic principle.” So Dawkins has invented a theology with a scientific-sounding name. He even has doctrines, what he calls the “six fundamental constants of nature,” which for him fill in the “gaps.” Believers could say that God chose these six “laws” to encourage the evolution of life, but Dawkins won’t buy this, because God can’t be explained by Dawkins. Apparently the origin of life, however, can be explained by Dawkins. Dawkins says that the chance that a God exists who was able to figure Dawkins’s six rules out, and thus create the “just right” conditions for life, is as improbable as these rules being “created” by chance.

He couldn't have even read this section of the book.  Dawkins didn't make up these six "laws", they come from Martin Rees' Just Six Numbers, which Dawkins states (directly in the text, no less, not even in a footnote).  This was also clearly just an example, that there might be more or less numbers that define fundamental constants of the universe.  Schaffer is either claiming that physicists are fundamentalist because based on all evidence, certain forces (e.g., the strong force) are the same throughout the universe, or this concept was too complicated for him to even begin to understand.

Dawkins also didn't discover the anthropic principle.  Its a standard principle used to explain why it appears that a place seems well suited for whatever exists there.  For example, its clear that if the Earth wasn't well suited for human life, then we wouldn't have arose here.  Dawkins also never claims the explain the origin of life, but he does explain why its much more probable that God was not involved than if he was.  Schaffer tosses in some more ad hominem, to make it sound as if Dawkins is just making stuff up without any explanation.  The rest of his discussions of TGD are equally obtuse.

Schaffer never addresses any of the actual arguments made in TGD, he just flaunts his blatant ignorance of the arguments made.  He would prefer to cater to those who are proud of their ignorance, and know, without even reading Dawkins' book, that its much too complicated for common folk to understand.  I can't claim that all the arguments made in TGD are simple enough for anyone to understand, but if Schaffer wants to write about this stuff, he should at least make an effort.

I could go on to the section on Hitchens, but I can't bring myself to read any more of this drivel.  Wake me up if he says something interesting or even partially accurate.


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