Atheism a worldview?

by Brian 31. December 2009 19:13

I just finished watching the April 4th, 2009 debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens at Biola University. I must say Craig gave Hitchens such a serious beatdown it was truly embarrassing by the end of the DVD (the photo hints at the juxtaposition.) In fact Hitchens ran out things to say and forfeited his time during the concluding remarks. Even though this was not a fair matchup, (Craig is a top-notch philosopher and Hitchens simply isn’t) the debate generated excellent material for discussion. I hope to cover some of it in the coming days. For now I want to focus on the statement: Atheism is a worldview. Craig alluded to this in his rebuttal by stating one should not judge a worldview, Christianity or atheism, by its social impact. Rather one should judge a worldview by whether or not it is true. Hitchens agreed. Yet in the exchange portion of the debate when Craig pressed Hitchens to clarify his position as an atheist, you saw an angered opponent trying to backpedal. Hitchens was clearly trying to have his cake and eat it too and show atheism as a positive assertion (i.e. "there is no god") without the use of sound argumentation. When arguments are lacking, the best one can do is retreat into atheism as a default position (i.e. "you have not convinced me there is a god, therefore we should assume there isn't.") Unfortunately the later leaves a lot to be desired for such a debate.

So which form of nontheism does Hitchens fall under?

1.       A-theist - one who positively asserts the nonexistence of God (i.e. one who claims to know there is no god)

2.       Agnostic – one who has no net belief in the existence or nonexistence of God, in other words, no decisive knowledge on the matter due to balanced-belief or ignorance

3.       Skeptic (new atheist) – one who has no belief or insufficient belief in the existence of God to justify the extraordinary and momentous implications resulting from affirming said belief

Now clearly #1 is a worldview as much as theism is. It makes foundational claims about ultimate reality - such as the material universe being the initial brute fact by which all existence is based. There is no objective morality. There is no ultimate justice. Life ends at the grave, etc. As for #2 and #3, their relation to worldview is unclear. But, I have yet to meet an honest agnostic. Those who claim to be one usually live their lives as #1-atheists and reveal the doubt of #3 far more than honestly required to null out any positive belief. So apart from the truly ignorant, most nontheists are honestly in camp #1 or #3. However, based on my once self-proclaimed skepticism and my experience with others; under the cover of #3 is usually a closet #1-atheist. For the most part, nontheism is a worldview or foundational to one's worldview.

During the debate Hitchens claimed to be in camp #3 – which was not really fitting. After all, the title of the debate was “Does God exist?” Craig's opponent really needed to present a valid argument for the nonexistence of God and rebut the arguments for the existence of God. Craig prepared himself for this approach to only be disappointed. Since Hitchens did not rebut Craig or offer anything resembling an argument (apart from several assumptive ones with appeals to emotion), he showed he was not prepared to answer the question. By using the cover of #3 he exempted himself from having to take on Craig substantively and deal with the real debate - Does God Exist?

If Hitchens claims to be a #3-skeptic, why does he vehemently fight theists? Why did he debate Craig? He said during the debate that he didn't want a bunch of fellow primates telling him what to do in the name of God and basically he is on a mission to free us all from the shackles of religion. Fair enough, I do believe this is his real motivation. But it sure seems to me a genuine worldview clash between Hitchens and theist is key to that motivation, and such a clash only seems reasonable if Hitchens were a #1 atheist with a good degree of certainty about the nonexistence of God. But if he has that sort of certainty, he sure didn't substantiate it at the debate. Interestingly, he said to the audience multiple times during the discourse, “you are perfectly free to believe” as a backhanded way of saying “if you are an idiot, I cannot stop you.” Hitchens would like for you to think he cannot stop the believer because of their dogmatic ignorance, but the truth is; Hitchens is ill-equipped to defend atheism and it is a lot easier to simply bash the believer.

Finally, Hitchens commented on how he does not like to argue with liberal protestants because, in effect, their worldview is so watered down there is not much left to clash with his. I completely relate, but would point out it cuts both ways. Hitchens ought to come out of the closet as a rip-roaring #1 atheist and boldly proclaim what he already believes and not hide behind default #3 atheism. But if he does so, and decides to debate Craig again, he should come prepared. 


Ad Hominem

by Brian 10. December 2009 17:08

One is properly guilty of committing the ad hominem fallacy when one tries to refute an argument by going after the character of the proponent of said argument. A refutation based on this approach is invalid – even if the argument turns out to be false. But what about when one distrusts the supporting claims of an argument based on the proponent’s character such that one remains unconvinced? Is one properly guilty in this case of the ad hominem fallacy? Surely not! 

During the recent ClimateGate scandal you hear proponents like Dr. Andrew Watson claim their detractors are guilty of character assignation. The implication is obvious and deceiving:  opposing skepticism is unreasonable if detractors are going after the character of scientists at the CRI. However, it is perfectly reasonable to consider an individual’s dishonesty when assessing an argument based on their claims. When a climate scientist holds up a chart showing temperatures over time as supporting evidence in their argument for manmade climate change, our trust of those numbers is relevant to said argument. 

Courts of law have long held a witness may be impeached resulting in suspect credibility. When the credibility of a witness is suspect, an argument based on their testimony is undermined. In other words, it is acceptable to “go after the person” (ad hominem) to undermine their claims and weaken an argument based on those claims. That is precisely what has happened in the recent ClimateGate affair. The arguments for manmade climate change have not been refuted by this scandal, but they have certainly been undermined by dishonest action.

On the other hand, an area I have witnessed ad hominem proper is in the vilification of the intelligent design community. Here the detractors of ID say their science is bogus because many of the leading proponents are theists. I am guessing these critics would point to bias as a qualifier for impeachment. And if the credibility of some ID proponents is in question, then their science must be as well - so their reasoning goes. However, there is a major difference here when compared to ClimateGate. In the case of climate change we rely on the scientists at research centers like CRI to provide the data (or compiled data) for the formulation of theories. Climate scientists may disagree on which model best fits the data, but if the data is tampered with, the whole enterprise is undermined. In the case of ID, scientists on both sides of the fence are working from a common dataset. If an ID proponent were caught doctoring an electron scan of a bacterial flagellum, then an “IDGate” would be justifiable. But these folks are dismissed a priori because some are theists, not because they have tampered with data. Their dismissal is typically accompanied by claims of refutation, or that ID theories are simply rubbish from the get-go. Not only is this ad hominem, but ironically it cuts both ways. Should we not also dismiss neo-Darwinian theorists on the basis of their philosophical naturalism and atheism?



by Brian 23. October 2009 17:42

Growing up I often listened to the band Rush. And, having a worldview based on scientism, philosophical naturalism, and being downright skeptical about God, I related to most of the songs written by Neil Pert - the band's drummer. Now that I am a Christian, I cannot say I agree with much of Pert's philosophy. But I still love the music! I was listening to the song "Limelight" the other day and I realized this song has a very important message and one that fits nicely within my Christian worldview. On top of that, I think it is relevant to apologetics. The lyrics go like this...



Living in the limelight
The universal dream
For those who wish to seem

Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme

I beleive these words reflect a real problem in western culture today. We are a culture "who wish to seem" instead of "be." A person who is driven by wonder and fascination must be prepared to deal with alienation, or put it aside. Now I may disagree with Pert on what the "underlying theme" really is. But we would agree on the priority of fascination, seeking, searching over keeping up appearances. In my apologetic conversations and studies, I have witnessed a near-absolute: For those who wish to seem, the underlying theme simply doesn't matter. It is not until our sense of wonder kicks in we even care about how things really are. Unfortunately there is little going on in our day to day activities to help us get on with the fascination. We are becoming more and more a culture of sound-bites, fashion, fads, entertainment, and self-absorption. It's getting harder each day to sell Paul's words in Romans 12:2 - "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." It seems to me such a transformation is necessary for us to even care about the real underlying theme.


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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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