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Old 12-26-2010, 02:32 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Lack of Philosophical Grounding in Modern "Pop" Atheism

Since we have so many atheists on the forum, I thought I'd stir the pot a little bit.

Since the popularization of modern atheism at the start of the 21st century (largely after the combination of a rise in terrorism fueled by Islamic fundamentalism and, more long term, the rise in Christian fundamentalism in the United States) there have been a number of books presented that appeal to modern atheists. The problem is this:

Atheism used to be a position held largely by privileged, educated members of societies with substantial infrastructure and so it had a strong grounding in the philosophical and theological traditions, who were familiar with both the theological arguments (ontological, cosmological and teleological) and the logical or epistemological structures said arguments violated.

While atheism is still, largely, a movement that has its roots among more educated individuals, the popularization of the movement and the texts produced by less philosophically grounded individuals (especially Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitches; though I have to admit that I personally have a major soft spot for Hitchens and totally understand the appeal of Dawkins and Harris) totally lack critiques of (a) the theological propositions that they actually want to attack and (b) miss the mark in terms of the fundamental flaws in the modern practice of theology.

This is not a critique of popular atheism becoming "like a religion." That's horsesh*t.

This is not a critique of tact of writers as confrontational. There's plenty of great literature attacking theological arguments that is written in a confrontational style. Agitation is often necessary.

The problem is that (especially) Dawkins and Harris don't seem to ever have read Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Antony Flew's Theology and Falsification or even Bertrand Russell's Why I am Not a Christian. Often Dawkins, in critiquing teleology, is making arguments that existed (more eloquently) in the work of David Hume some 250+ years ago, and he doesn't bother to establish the philosophical grounding of his critique, which is immense and worth writing about.

It seems to me if one is going to argue for a position, it can be really, really helpful to know the history of the position.

If I'm going to argue that evolution is a substantial theory, I should read Darwin through Watson and Crick through Gould through Dawkins. You don't have to reference it. You don't have to look like an ivory tower, inaccessible intellectual (though I relate to those folks better, personally; and Hitchens and Dawkins and Harris appear that way, anyway) but these guys should know the arguments that they're dealing with, so that they can see the variations and identify the core of the argument. Otherwise, it looses so much of the force that really well established atheists have been building since the invention of God.
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Old 04-10-2011, 12:40 AM   #2 (permalink)
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I have two thought for you which are completely unnecessary.

1) I agree that most modern Athiests have no idea the history of their "theory". Therefore, it is amateurish at best. If that is what you were saying, I completely agree. I'm half in the bag so I may be misreading your post though

2) I'm thoroughly impressed, after reading several of your posts on religion and philosophy, at your intelligence and base knowledge on the subject. I'd resigned myself to debating Mormons I work with on philosophical arguments of religion. Thank you.
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Old 04-10-2011, 12:41 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Davisty69 View Post
I have two thought for you which are completely unnecessary.

1) I agree that most modern Athiests have no idea the history of their "theory". Therefore, it is amateurish at best. If that is what you were saying, I completely agree. I'm half in the bag so I may be misreading your post though
That is my point. But there are larger implications. If you don't understand the grounding in Hume or Russell, then it's hard to understand exactly how the arguments work. Context, historical and philosophical, matters.

Quote:
2) I'm thoroughly impressed, after reading several of your posts on religion and philosophy, at your intelligence and base knowledge on the subject. I'd resigned myself to debating Mormons I work with on philosophical arguments of religion. Thank you.
You're more than welcome.
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Old 04-10-2011, 01:42 PM   #4 (permalink)
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I have a buddy at work that was taking a philosophy of Religion class in college. We would debate the classical arguments for the existence of God all the time e.g. cosmological, ontological.... Every now and then a different guy at work, usually one of the younger Mormon kids that haven't done much independent thinking on the subject, would chime in with a response based upon their religious teachings such as the existence of the bible as proof of God's existence. To which I would have to say to them that their arguments are practically invalid because they already presuppose that God exists.

This to me is the same thing that bugs you about "Pop" atheists, only coming from the other end of the spectrum. It is just as weak to claim to be an atheist without any philosophical grounding as it is to claim to be a theist without any philosophical grounding.
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Old 09-30-2011, 10:03 AM   #5 (permalink)
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burdeon of proof

So...what if you where just born in an Atheist household and just never believed in God? That's where I'm coming from. I don't know anything about the history of Atheism I just remember having friends believing in God and asking my mom "what God is and her saying something along the lines of like, oh those people are just part of a religion. They believe a guy exists who made the world. We don't believe that though."

I believed in God for a litlte bit cause my best friend did but later on without going to Church and without really practicing at home, it became like Santa Clause. Just didn't feel right to believe.

My position is less though of an unbelief in God and more of a we don't know everylthing so let's not make up stuff to help us figure it out kind of a position. That's how my mom is.

So are you saying I should not call myself an Athiest till I give Christianity or Theism a shot? I do notice that most Athiests are Christians who are rebelling against their parents. And they tend to have a more "Dark" and "life is meaningless" type of attitude with their Athiesm than I do. I'm more a happy go lucky athiest. lol
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Old 10-03-2011, 12:38 AM   #6 (permalink)
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This was a whole year ago, but seems to be interesting so I am going to respond.

While it may be good as an exercise, one does not need to understand every single philosophical position which underlies their beliefs. Just like one does not need books of philosophical discourse to justify their lack of belief in Santa, the same applies for religion.

It is only because religion is popular and there is strong social pressure in many countries for theism is there even so much argumentation for one side or the other to begin with!

On the religious side:
When religious philosophers talk about metaphysics I can never help but roll my eyes. The ontological justification for the existence of a being which none greater can be conceived? Give me a break. There is absolutely no reason to be well read in arguments against the position of atheism as they either end in infinite regress, such as any argument which states that the universe needed a creator. (response: Well who created that which created the universe?)

Or they just try to twist words and concepts such as analyticity to try to 'trick' their way into proving God's existence. (Looking at you Kant!)

On the philosophical justifications for doubt:

While I do like Hume and Nietzsche and other philosophers who justify agnosticism or atheism, respectively in this case, it seems in no way harmful for one to hold atheistic beliefs without being well read in arguments that help justify their belief.

Atheism is a healthy belief that one holds because it saves them the hassle of going through cognitive gymnastics to justify all the inconsistencies of theism with the reality of their everyday lives. (Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force) If someone holds the belief that fruits and vegetables are healthy and one ought to eat a couple servings of each a day for well being, does the fact that the individual in question is not educated in the physiological processes involved on how the metabolized food provides nutrients to the hosts system bare any relevance?

Perhaps if it was controversial that fruits or vegetables are in fact good for you, like it is often contested is the case with atheism, one may have a reason to do some digging to figure out whether or not he should eat them regularly. However, there is very little doubt for the greater epistemic community that these food sources do provide great health benefits. Similarly, there is strong empirical evidence that atheism is in fact healthy. (Less percentage of atheists in prison for example!) Maybe it is because of the fact that many atheists in the past were more educated, as you mentioned, that there are less significant figures in prison and once the "pop atheist" masses find their way into society those rates will change, but until then, I feel the need to say atheism, or agnosticism, is intrinsically healthy and we do not need extensive justification for our beliefs!
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Old 10-10-2011, 04:42 AM   #7 (permalink)
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I see where you are coming from...I haven't read all those books either.

Logically speaking though, couldn't Dawkins assume that his readership has "evolved" thinking the things you discussed are well-known...or couldn't he just write the way he does because he has the knowledge...and is "proving" more scientifically than logically or philosophically?
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Old 10-30-2011, 11:22 PM   #8 (permalink)
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The religious view is so patently absurd that true philosophical grounding is not necessary to refute their claims.
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Old 12-02-2011, 02:33 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TearyEyedTrista View Post
So...what if you where just born in an Atheist household and just never believed in God? That's where I'm coming from. I don't know anything about the history of Atheism I just remember having friends believing in God and asking my mom "what God is and her saying something along the lines of like, oh those people are just part of a religion. They believe a guy exists who made the world. We don't believe that though."

I believed in God for a litlte bit cause my best friend did but later on without going to Church and without really practicing at home, it became like Santa Clause. Just didn't feel right to believe.

My position is less though of an unbelief in God and more of a we don't know everylthing so let's not make up stuff to help us figure it out kind of a position. That's how my mom is.

So are you saying I should not call myself an Athiesm till I give Christianity or Theism a shot? I do notice that most Athiests are Christians who are rebelling against their parents. And they tend to have a more "Dark" and "life is meaningless" type of attitude with their Athiesm than I do. I'm more a happy go lucky athiest. lol
To label yourself something means you understand what that label means or implies, however without the proper context you are labeling yourself out of ignorance (not derogatory; definition - lack of knowledge in given subject). That was the point the OP was making (at least that's what I got out of it). Most people that label themselves Atheist are really agnostic meaning not sure either way (overall main theme though there are variations).

There are different types of Atheism just like there are different branches of Christianity, but generally when people say they are Atheist it is taken to mean that they believe there is no God. To come to that conclusion you would have to be able to explain philosophically what lead you there. Agnostics have more flexibility in that they can simple state "There is not sufficient enough evidence either way to say that God or any supernatural being exists or doesn't exist".
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Old 12-02-2011, 03:16 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Davisty69 View Post
This to me is the same thing that bugs you about "Pop" atheists, only coming from the other end of the spectrum. It is just as weak to claim to be an atheist without any philosophical grounding as it is to claim to be a theist without any philosophical grounding.
I think there's a lot of truth in that. Certainly, the mainstream advocacy for theists is similarly weak.

Quote:
Originally Posted by TearyEyedTrista View Post
My position is less though of an unbelief in God and more of a we don't know everylthing so let's not make up stuff to help us figure it out kind of a position. That's how my mom is.

So are you saying I should not call myself an Athiest till I give Christianity or Theism a shot? I do notice that most Athiests are Christians who are rebelling against their parents. And they tend to have a more "Dark" and "life is meaningless" type of attitude with their Athiesm than I do. I'm more a happy go lucky athiest. lol
This is the inane sort of stuff I'm talking about. Did you even read my post?

I am not saying that you shouldn't be an atheist until you give Christianity a shot. I'm saying that if people want to stand in the public square, as intellectuals, and argue about religion, they should know the history of these arguments and be aware of the historical forms that are philosophically superior to the arguments that they are making.


Quote:
Originally Posted by mawrestler125 View Post
While I do like Hume and Nietzsche and other philosophers who justify agnosticism or atheism, respectively in this case, it seems in no way harmful for one to hold atheistic beliefs without being well read in arguments that help justify their belief.
My point is not about the general acceptance of the belief so much as the advocacy of the belief without the capacity to defer to the relevant history.

If you and I were arguing about evolution or health sciences, I would be expected to refer to relevant data in the field, and arguments supporting particular interpretations of that data within the context of certain theories.

To advocate the positions of atheism without deference to the preexisting literature on the subject is harmful to the polemic and, as a result, to the position.


Quote:
Originally Posted by ZZtigerZZ81 View Post
I see where you are coming from...I haven't read all those books either.

Logically speaking though, couldn't Dawkins assume that his readership has "evolved" thinking the things you discussed are well-known...or couldn't he just write the way he does because he has the knowledge...and is "proving" more scientifically than logically or philosophically?
The issue is not simply that Dawkins and Harris (in particular) don't refer by name to great thinkers like Hume and Nietzsche. It is that their ideas and arguments overlook relevant elements of the work of Nietzsche and Hume.

It's that they don't use the ideas; they aren't aware of the content. That's a real serious problem.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Soakked View Post
To label yourself something means you understand what that label means or implies, however without the proper context you are labeling yourself out of ignorance (not derogatory; definition - lack of knowledge in given subject). That was the point the OP was making (at least that's what I got out of it). Most people that label themselves Atheist are really agnostic meaning not sure either way (overall main theme though there are variations).
To clarify: I happen to think that if you adopt a label to identify yourself in a particular way you should know what that label entails. But the fact is that most people don't.

It's not simply that most of these folks are agnostics. It is that the relevant literature on the subject doesn't appropriately reflect the wealth of philosophical thought that has been gifted upon it over generations.


Quote:
There are different types of Atheism just like there are different branches of Christianity, but generally when people say they are Atheist it is taken to mean that they believe there is no God. To come to that conclusion you would have to be able to explain philosophically what lead you there. Agnostics have more flexibility in that they can simple state "There is not sufficient enough evidence either way to say that God or any supernatural being exists or doesn't exist".
I'll be honest, I actually think that the agnostic position is pretty weak, when it is articulated that way. The absence of evidence, when one has constructed a reasonable philosophically valid argument, is generally excepted as reason to reject the antecedent claim.

I mean, I think that modus tollens does a lot of heavy lifting in those sorts of cases.
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