Category Archives: Hitchens

Confronting accomodationism

Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

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Defending science and reason

Book Review: The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor Stenger

Price: US$12.92
Paperback: 282 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (September 22, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1591027519
ISBN-13: 978-1591027515

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This book is timely. The “New Atheism” hit our awareness in the mid-part of the decade when Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith became a best-seller. This was quickly followed by more best-sellers from the authors Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger (the author of this book). And then there was the response. Many books have been written, mostly be theists, attacking the “New Atheists.” Although none of the later was a best-seller they did suggest that a new stage in the religion-atheism debate was underway.

Stenger’s new book is also useful because it helps put this whole debate in context. He summarises that nature of the “New Atheism movement” (although it is hardly a movement as there was no coordination in publishing these books). He briefly summarises the arguments of the “New Atheism” and the arguments employed by those attacking “New Atheism.” Then he shows the fallacies in the arguments employed by the “New Christians.” In some cases he reveals the way many of the “New Atheist” positions have been distorted and misrepresented. In others he deals with the substance of these arguments – particularly those dealing with scientific issues.

As an Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Stenger is an ideal person to write on this subject

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Do you believe in a god?

EagletonSeems a simple enough question. Easy to answer yes or no. But apparently not.

Terry Eagleton, author of Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, claims it’s a meaningless question. He goes so far as to claim that no respectable theologian he knows would answer yes to that question!! Strange! I thought that’s what theologians spent their time doing – trying to justify the answer yes!

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Hitchens in the lions’ den

I have never seen debates as a way of improving understanding. They are basically a sport – producing more heat than light. Michael Ruse once commented that he found he was a good debater because he could crack jokes. This just underlines that debates are about techniques, personality, turns of phrase, etc., not about facts.

Similarly the current preoccupation with the religion/atheism debates and who “won” them (eg. Craig v Hitchens: Dissecting the Debate UPDATE 2). Frankly I think a panel or one on one discussion is  a far better way of producing understanding. Richard Dawkins has recently been promoting this discussion format (eg. Lawrence Krauss – Richard Dawkins discussion).

However, for those wanting to treat the whole god debate as a spectator sport I can recommend this video for a bit of fun. Christopher Hitchens was invited to participate in a debate with four Christian apologists (five if the chairman, who participated freely is included). And in front of a motivated Christian audience. The subject: Does the God of Christianity exist, and what difference does it make?). Christopher Hitchens debated Lee Strobel, Douglas Wilson, William Lane Craig and Jim Denison at the Christian Book Expo in Dallas Texas during March. The discussion was “moderated” by  Christianity Today’s Stan Guthrie

It was a bit like a one against five tag wrestling match. And Hitchens clearly showed them all up. But, as several speakers admitted, Hitchens was brave to take up the challenge.

He certainly comes across as fearless. One can’t help but admire his skills.



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Arguments against atheist morality

Benjamin O’Donnell seems to be writing a series of articles on the ‘new atheists.’ His one on dogmatism (see New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?) was refreshing. His latest article Morality and the ‘new atheism’ is also well worth reading. In this he points out that the “problem of morality” is commonly used to criticise the “new atheists” (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens):

“how, many religious critics ask, can we be good without God? Isn’t the fact that people are good, that people can tell good from evil, evidence for the existence of God? Even if God is a myth, isn’t He necessary to inspire people to acts of goodness and to keep them from falling into immorality? And in any case, don’t we get our morals from our religious traditions?”

O’Donnell breaks down the criticisms into five arguments:

  • The argument from scripture
  • The platonic argument
  • The argument from the mysterious origin of morality
  • The role of religion in moral progress.
  • The sanction argument

Discussing moral progress he says:

“The story of moral progress seems to me to be the story of the marriage between our evolved capacity for empathy and our evolved capacity for reason. As we apply our reason to our urge to be altruistic, and as we become more interconnected with strangers, we see fewer reasons to put people into the “out group”. Our psychological “in group” expands until in some people it covers not just the whole human race, but sentient non-human animals too.”

But he does accept a role for religion in moral development:

“religion in general (and Christianity in particular) has helped enormously. Just as alchemy made many discoveries that were built on by chemistry, and astrology made some discoveries that were built on by astronomy (mostly in the field of cataloguing astral bodies, but still useful discoveries), Christianity made or widely propagated several moral innovations that modern secular moral philosophy has built upon. (Similar claims can be made for several other religions.) Not for nothing did Richard Dawkins once write an article entitled “Atheists for Jesus”.

“But religion has also contaminated the stream with some very strange and unfounded ideas. Just as there is no evidence that one can turn lead into gold and there is no evidence that the movements of the planet Venus affect my destiny; there is no evidence that there is a “soul” that enters the human zygote at conception, or that there is an afterlife in which kindness is rewarded and cruelty is punished. And it is religions’ reliance on the dogma of faith that makes it so hard to use reason to sort the good ideas from the bad.”

Related Articles:
New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?
Moral authority
Christian problems with morality
Religion and the “New Atheists”
Morals, values and the limits of science
Is religion the source of morality?
Crimes of Communism and Christianity
Religion and morality

New atheists or new anti-dogmatists?

There has been a strong reaction to the recent books of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). These authors have been labeled as the “New Atheists” and their books have received many angry (and defensive) reviews and attacks from religious believers (and some non-believers). However, those I have read seem to be attacking “straw men,” reacting to imagined insults or even to be based on ignorance – the reviewers appearing to have read no more than the titles.

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Religion and the “New Atheists”

The New Republic recently interviewed Booker Prizewinning novelist Ian McEwan. Although the interview covered his books and the internet I found his comments on religion and atheism particularly interesting. So often we hear religious beliefs justified today with the claim that they have arisen naturally in all societies and this demonstrates they are an inherent part of human nature. As McEwan points out this claim is simply refuted by the evidence that so many people don’t have these beliefs.

I reproduce the relevant sections of the interview below:

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Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand

This is the first of a four part series. The complete series was originally published as one article in the AEN Journal special issue on Faith and Ethnic Communities and will also be published in Open Society, the journal of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists. I will post Parts II, III & IV over the next few days.

Part I: Religious diversity in New Zealand.

Efforts to develop understanding and cooperation in New Zealand are concentrating on ethnic and religious groups. The third of the population with non-religious beliefs are mostly ignored and this undermines true acceptance of diversity. We need to widen our horizons beyond the “Interfaith” approach if we are to address problems underlying suspicion and conflict between people of different beliefs.

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For the glory of God

Many of the critics of the “New Atheist” books claim they attack a “straw-man” religion – that they describe an extremist, minor religious faction and then use this to characterise and attack all religion.

Bishop Randerson in New Zealand, for example, said that the beliefs criticised by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are not his (Randerson’s). Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says: “Whenever believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens we may feel as we turn the pages: ‘This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it’s not actually what I believe in’.” Many Christian spokesperson reject fundamentalist beliefs and biblical literalism and claim it is unfair to criticise religion for these beliefs.

A fair comment. But the problem I have with these sort of rebuttals is that actions and word often differ. Bishop Randerson may claim he believes in a god as the “God of love” rather than the biblical god. However, he then spoils it all by officiating at Christian ceremonies which do imply belief in a biblical god and goes so far as to hold conversations (prayer) with this god.

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Sources of evil?

Since September 2001 we have become more aware of how religious belief can promote evil deeds. This is not new, however. The history of evil perpetrated in the name of religion has been discussed by authors such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) and Michael Jordan (In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World’s Religions).

One would have to be blind to disagree with these authors. However, I think the problem of their analyses is that it is restricted to considering only religion. This doesn’t help us understand the origins of evil in secular situations or evil activity carried out by mankind in general.

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