Religion is a mind virus and our society needs healing from this faith pandemic?

Viruses

I have commented before about the “atheist-christian wars“, and how courtesy and common sense sometimes seem to be the victims. I think it is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Peter Boghossian

Peter Boghossian is an “Instructor of Philosophy” and educator at Portland State University, and he has recently published A Manual for Creating Atheists. I’ve only read the first two chapters (available on Amazon), so I won’t be reviewing the book, but I want to focus on what some sympathetic readers get from it.

Many prominent atheists are quoted as endorsing the book, and ex-christian John Loftus recently completed a series of reviews of Boghossian’s book with a summary of his take-home messages.

Faith is the target

John begins with the idea that “religious faith is a mind virus” and “a public health crisis”. This builds on Boghossian’s chapter 2 on “Faith”, which uses the ‘definitions’: “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know”, and then claims that faith is dangerous.

A dangerous delusion to be eradicated

And so, they both argue, atheists should plan to “contain” and “eradicate” faith. John suggests “interventions need to be designed that counter the spread” of the virus” and Our “containment strategy should promote the ‘value’ of believing on the basis of evidence”. They encourages a new brave army of street epistemologists to “Speak truth in the place of danger”.

Other atheists who are quoted in support of the book want to “dispel” religion, which they describe as “magical thinking”, “madness” and “poisonous”, and having an “odious grasp on the world” and so doing “profound damage”.

So this is a manual to encourage atheist evangelism. Boghossian says:

A Manual for Creating Atheists details, explains, and teaches you how to be a street clinician and how to apply the tools I’ve developed as an educator and philosopher.

Is this the way to deal with a delusion?

They say that “the exemption that prohibits classifying religious delusions as mental illness” should be removed. But are they serious? Delusions and their treatment have a number of characteristics that don’t and shouldn’t apply to christian belief, for example:

  • “People with delusional disorder experience non-bizarre delusions, which involve situations that could occur in real life, such as being followed, poisoned, deceived, conspired against, or loved from a distance. “ (WebMD). That doesn’t describe christian belief at all.
  • “delusions commonly represent an underlying organic illness that warrants specific treatment.” (Psychology Today). What underlying organic illness is he hypothesising all christians have?
  • If christianity was truly a delusion, then the treatment suggested is completely wrong – ” Avoiding direct confrontation of the delusional symptoms enhances the possibility of treatment compliance and response.” (Psychology Today).

It appears that atheists either don’t really believe christianity is a delusion (they are exaggerating wildly to motivate the masses) or they are wilfully treating the ‘sickness’ in an irresponsible manner.

Assumptions – true or false?

Boghossian states several assumptions, perhaps presumptions, without much supporting argument:

Faith as the opposite of evidence

Faith is defined by Boghossian as “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Believers are said to use faith to believe in “fairytales, comforting delusions and imagined entities”, “a make-believe picture of life – one that is false and misleading” and “positively daft”. This definition of faith is one commonly in use by atheists these days.

Trouble is, it only applies to a small number of christians, at least in my experience. Most christians believe there is plenty of evidence for christian belief, even if they don’t express it philosophical terms – things like:

  • personal experience of God at work in their life, including sometimes miraculous healings for them or people they have read about;
  • belief that only a creator God can explain the universe we live in; and
  • belief in the historical evidence for Jesus, which can only be adequately explained by his being divine.

Sceptics will say these are not “evidence”, or else insufficient evidence on which to base belief, but this is a different point. The atheist rhetoric doesn’t match reality. Even philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argues that faith is a legitimate way of knowing, alternative to evidence, nevertheless offers reasoned argument in support of christian belief.

These atheists also ignore the statement of CS Lewis, perhaps the most influential and widely-read English speaking christian of the last century, who said: ” I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in.” I, and many other christians, believe the same.

Reason and knowledge

It seems to me that John Loftus, Boghossian and the rest assume or believe that we should only believe and act on beliefs that can be established with scientific-like rigour. Everywhere they praise “freethought”, “reason”, “logic and understanding”, “evidence and thought-out positions”, and what is “rational”.

This seems to be a re-appearance of the old and discredited philosophy of logical positivism, that scientific or empirically verified knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge. But this view does not allow many beliefs which almost all of us, including atheists, hold without question – in the external world, or trusting relationships, or the definition of logical positivism itself – because they too cannot be verified scientifically.

It seems to me that many of the statements by Boghossian and John Loftus fail in this way – what empirical support is there for their atheism (see below for more on this), their definition of faith (as above), their view that faith is harmful (when studies show that religious belief is more often personally helpful), and the passion with which they oppose religious belief?

No argument left?

Boghossian makes the amazing and unsupported claim that “not a single argument for the existence of God has withstood scrutiny. Not one. [He then lists a few] All refuted. All failures.”

This is such an untruth that I am amazed that a philosopher would say it. None of the theistic arguments can be considered to have proven God’s existence, but neither have the good arguments been “refuted”. For example, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel says: “whether atheists or theists are right depends on facts about reality that neither of them can prove”.

The plain truth of the matter is that there is no philosophical consensus on these arguments – some think they show God’s existence is more likely than not, others vice versa.

When somebody makes such a misleading ambit claim, it makes it difficult to take anything else they say seriously. I can understand that he is trying to rally the troops, but where is his evidence-based rationality? I think he would have been more honest just to say that these arguments are not persuasive to him.

How might all this work out?

Surprising it didn’t happen sooner?

It’s generally true that, if you want to achieve something, you need a strategy, not just a good idea. With so many intelligent and committed atheists out there, you might expect that they’d think of how they should make the social change needed to achieve their goals. But I suppose atheism is not a cohesive movement and so getting organised doesn’t come so easily. Perhaps coalition around the goal of eliminating faith is a more coherent objective?

Anyway, this manual to train up anti-faith activists is here now, and it will be interesting to see if it makes an impact. My guess is that thoughtful atheists will have mostly worked out this stuff, but some of the less thoughtful will be repeating these arguments without really considering if they are true.

Will it eliminate faith?

Secularists have been predicting for more than a century that the age of faith was over and now is the age of science and rationality. So far they have been largely disappointed, as religious belief continues as strong as ever worldwide – perhaps this is why atheists are now sounding angrier and more purposeful?

I suppose some atheists will be emboldened by this book to be more aggressive in their ‘evangelism’. And undoubtedly some christians, or adherents to christianity, will stop believing in future years, some as a result of Boghossian’s ‘street epistemologists’. To that extent, it will have some success.

But what if (as I would expect) God belief survives the onslaught of the street epistemologists just as well as it survived the ‘Four Horsemen’?

Will it change believers’ behaviour?

I wonder if this book will do more good than harm to christian belief?

There is some truth in their caricature of christian belief as without evidence and harmful, at least in some people and some churches. Western christianity needs a shake up, especially (I believe) in the USA, and the atheist challenge will help achieve this. Churches would benefit by considering how they present christian belief, how they appeal for new converts and how they train them up.

How long will it be before counter manuals appear to instruct christians on how to deal with street epistemologists? Some of them will undoubtedly be silly, but some will be good. The status quo – where the arguments on each side balance each other out, convincing some one way, convincing others the other way – will remain much the same. And christians will be much better equipped in philosophy and apologetics than they are now, which won’t be a bad thing.

Will it generate light or heat?

I can only see relations between christians and atheists, especially on the web, becoming more polarised. Neither side tends to deal well with opponents who refuse to agree – I think atheists play the ‘delusion’ card because they cannot bring themselves to believe that a sensible person could resist their logic. (I must admit that, as a christian, I have sometimes struggled with that myself! 🙁 )

When it comes to converting the neutral, most christians know that evangelism is a tough gig. Most people don’t want to be talked to about religion unless they initiate it – they’d rather control the agenda themselves. Evangelistic atheists will likely face the same reaction.

The battle for the heart and mind of western culture will be won by style as well as substance. Granted all the above, the aggressive and overstated ‘new atheist’ approach will tend to scare off the large uncommitted middle ground, and make atheism and scientism even less popular than now. People tend to mistrust extremists, and the immoderate language of Boghossian and his supporters will (I believe) harm the atheist cause.

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9 Comments

  1. I have not read Boghossian’s book, though I have read some of what John Loftus says about it.

    Delusion

    I agree with you, that we should not be suggesting that religion is a mental illness. If people want to say it is a delusion — I’d say that’s fair game. But they should not call it “delusional”, since that is normally taken to imply mental illness.

    Refutation

    I disagree with you here.

    This is such an untruth that I am amazed that a philosopher would say it. None of the theistic arguments can be considered to have proven God’s existence, but neither have the good arguments been “refuted”.

    I see you as contradicting yourself.

    There is a difference between refuting an argument, and refuting a conclusion. If the arguments have been shown to not succeed in proving that there is a god, then the arguments have indeed been refuted. The putative conclusion of those arguments, that there is a god, has not been refuted.

    The plain truth of the matter is that there is no philosophical consensus on these arguments – some think they show God’s existence is more likely than not, others vice versa.

    I’m inclined to agree with that. An argument can persuade some people, yet fall short of being a proof. Showing that the argument falls short of being a proof would constitute a refutation of the argument, but not of the conclusion.

    To give a non-theological example: I happen to agree with the conclusion that John Searle reaches with his “Chinese Room” argument. But the argument itself fails. I would describe that as saying that Searle’s argument is refuted but his conclusion is not yet refuted (and might even be true).

    Eliminating faith

    That won’t happen. Theists argue against atheism; atheists argue against theism. These arguments are never completely persuasive.

    And a note: I am currently listening to an mp3 of a philosopher’s talk on a related topic that you might find interesting (and perhaps worth a post). The philosopher is T. Rockwell, and his topic is “No gaps, no god?”

  2. Hi Neil, it is nice to think we agree on a number of things. I’ll take up two points.

    There is a difference between refuting an argument, and refuting a conclusion. If the arguments have been shown to not succeed in proving that there is a god, then the arguments have indeed been refuted.

    I understand your point, but wouldn’t it only be true if we regarded proofs as “all or nothing”? Either they work or they don’t. But if we look at an argument from a probabilistic viewpoint, we might say that we regard each premise as more likely than its contrary. The argument would therefore not be successful in proving God’s existence, but we may consider it successful in showing God is more likely than not.

    Another person may disagree, for they think the premises and the conclusion are less likely to be true than not. They haven’t refuted the argument, only disagreed with the probability of it being true.

    The philosopher is T. Rockwell, and his topic is “No gaps, no god?”

    I listened to some of it but I haven’t had time to listen to it all yet. What was it that you thought important about his talk?

  3. I understand your point, but wouldn’t it only be true if we regarded proofs as “all or nothing”?

    But they are all or nothing. They succeed or fail.

    A probabilistic argument, properly understood, does not even claim to prove existence. It only claims to prove something about a probability.

    Of course, you can look at arguments as persuaders rather than as provers. An argument could be somewhat, but not completely persuasive. But, given what you said of arguments for the existence of God, I don’t think that could have been your intended meaning.

    As for the Rockwell talk — I didn’t mean to imply that it is important. Rather, I thought it connected somewhat with your post in that it is also critical of what one might call “evangelical atheism.”

  4. It is highly intriguing how a branch of atheism, historically and ideologically dependent on the Enlightenment, has managed to frame a discourse that is so utterly tantamount to that very same Enlightenment. Arguing that your opponent is so incapable of reasonable thought makes natural reason a sick fiction, as there is no basis for a secular argument. New Atheism then becomes very much a revealed religion with an equally revealed reason. Does it get more counter to the Enlightenment on this point?

    There is an interesting parallel in the often uncomfortable attitude of Protestantism towards natural reason. This is particularly strong within dialectical theology as their doyens also strongly rejected natural reason, but they limited this scepticism to within religion. So several of the most influential thinkers could still be ardent secularists.

    Sorry for these meandering musings! I know I’ve written that before, but it seems part of the problem here.

    Also, not to be provocative, I see little evidence for a relation between Loftus and “freethought”, “reason”, “logic and understanding”, “evidence and thought-out positions” and the “rational”. They are every bit as much buzz words as “hate the sin, love the sinner” are for the more vindictive elements within Christendom.

  5. But they are all or nothing. They succeed or fail. ….. Of course, you can look at arguments as persuaders rather than as provers.

    Hello again Neil, I was looking at them as inductive arguments, which is how I’ve always seen them presented (e.g. by Alvin Plantinga, WL Craig, Stephen Davis). I said as much, and I’m not sure why you thought otherwise – but no matter, I’ve made it clear now.

    Yes, I got that about the Rockwell talk, he was fairly much in the middle between the two “sides”.

  6. IgnorantiaNescia

    I see the problems you are referring to come about because many of the new atheists say they despise philosophy – ostensibly because it doesn’t produce knowledge like science does, but it also allows them to say some things that are ignorant philosophically. If they realised that philosophy is thinking with precision, then they would realise (i) they are doing philosophy all the time and (ii) it is relevant to scientific thinking.

    Thanks for the comment.

  7. Nice job, unkleE. Sorry I’m a bit late in reading it.

    I largely agree with you on this one. In the part of the US I live in, most everyone is a Christian. So much so that it’s assumed everyone must be. As an atheist, I find that irritating, but I get it. So I’m more interested in trying to educate the people in my area that non-Christian positions are possible and should be considered. We’re a real demographic that deserves just as much respect as everyone else.

    What guys like Boghossian appear to be doing is quite different. While some religions truly are dangerous, most are not — not in the sense that they present actual physical danger to others. It can be argued that even peaceful religions can bring about harm since their followers may be motivated by imaginary things; therefore, they may make poor decisions with lasting consequences. But similar statements could be made about the uneducated. Doesn’t mean we should ban them from society or label them with a mental illness.

    In the end, everyone just needs to calm down. Crusades like these rarely win people over. Compassion, patience, and understanding tend to work much better, as evidenced by the reaction people have had to the new pope. Hopefully, clearer heads will prevail in the long run.

  8. Thanks Nate. Your comments highlight an important truth. That whatever can be said by one side can generally be said by the other.

    You think you’re right, I think I’m right, but neither of us can be 100% certain. I could be delusional and make “make poor decisions with lasting consequences”, but the same could be said of you.

    If either side gets too fired up, they can do harm to the other side and society as a whole – the crusades and communism showed that.

    I would think the best way forward is for us to keep discussing whether God exists if we want, but do it with humility rather than hubris, and if we are concerned about bad behaviour, address the behaviour directly.

    Thanks for your comment.

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