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Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Arrogance of Atheism -- Austin Cline 1

On a quiet Monday evening (February 28th) I was working on the content of the meta data for my blog—altering the description, keywords, configuring the access and permissions of indexing robots, et cetera—and I wanted to check how, or if, things would appear in a Google search. So I typed in "ryft" and "blog" as my keywords in the first run and was quite surprised to discover an unexpected hit at About.com. Wait, what is this? I've never written anything for that website. Yet it was something about The Arrogance of Atheism, which is suspiciously identical to the title of an article I wrote.

Of course I clicked on the link and was taken to the Atheism/Agnosticism section of About.com, which ought to have been expected, edited by one Austin Reed Cline, Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism. There I discovered that Cline was critically reviewing precisely that article of mine. Evidently the influence of my writing has begun to expand into unexpected areas, and without my knowledge because he certainly made no effort to contact me, to either make me aware of his article or ask if I would like to respond.

Perhaps needless to say, I was nevertheless somewhat delighted. And as for a response to his article, that is exactly what I intend to do here.

It is unfortunate that Cline had so grossly misunderstood the context of my article, which could be attributed to both the briefness of my article and Cline's lack of interacting with me about it prior to publishing his. Yet the question which opens and sets the tone of his article demonstrates his misunderstanding rather succinctly, wherein he asks, "Are atheists arrogant for insisting that theists support their claims before accepting them as true? . . . It's a serious sign of weakness, I think, when someone starts whining about having to support their assertions" (para. 1). Disregarding Cline's gratuitous invective, this of course was not the arrogance I was speaking of; I was aiming at something significantly deeper than that. I was talking about how certain atheists "presuppose the truth of their system of belief and then tacitly insist their Christian opponent work within the framework of that system. In other words, the Christian is expected to provide arguments in defense of Christian theism which accord with the atheist's epistemology in particular and world view in general." Another atheist elsewhere had responded in a similar fashion to Cline, wherein he had said the challenge "Prove that God exists" is a "perfectly logical argument" for someone to pose. My response to that atheist may help shed light on the context of my article and prove helpful for Cline:
Actually, it is not a perfectly logical argument. Even if it could be properly considered an 'argument' at all—and it certainly cannot be—we would say it is a perfectly empirical argument, for it is evidence that the speaker is demanding and, typically for claims of existence, those making the demand expect the nature of the evidence to have extension or form in space (i.e. be 'empirical', or apprehensible by sense perception). Additionally, this evidence, as defined by that person's philosophical commitments, usually must posses certain epistemic virtues—such as demonstrating (1) some relationship to the object in question, (2) an absence of internal and external conceptual problems, or (3) some scope of alethic realism—virtues which are likewise defined and whose acceptability is determined by that person's philosophical commitments. The further we explore this demand for proof (or rather, evidence), the more warrant my argument above receives because we expose, exponentially, the rather significant number of presuppositions undergirding the atheist's approach, which the Christian theist is expected to, first, uncritically allow and, second, conform to when meeting his demands. If the Christian theist should refuse to uncritically allow the atheist's presuppositions, his claims are summarily dismissed as 'irrational' (which begs the epistemic question) and the discussion is terminated.

It bears repeating: "If it is permissible for the atheist to presuppose the truth of his system of thought and expect the Christian to work within the framework of that system, then it is also permissible for the inverse of that situation. Otherwise, the atheist would shoulder the epistemic responsibility for explaining why the only presuppositions permitted in the field of debate are his own."
A Christian young lady said about my article, "In all sentiments, true; although the [Christian's] challenge is to be as Paul was—all things to all men. That is to say, Christians must find a way to argue in the atheist paradigm." However, this underscores my very point. Christian theism cannot exist in "the atheist paradigm"—atheism, by design of its own presuppositions, is antithetical to theism of this nature. The only theism that "the atheist paradigm" will permit is the saccharine sentimentalism of pantheism, whose claims admittedly posses no alethic realism and, consequently, no threat to atheism qua atheism. I'm talking about a philosophical prejudice so pronounced that competing systems of thought are required to uncritically allow his presuppositions and conform their argumentation to those, and refusal or failure to do so is prejudicially demeaned as 'irrational'. I am talking about a form of bigotry, which G.K. Chesterton relevantly referred to as "an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition." Herbert Spencer noted wisely, "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

Cline writes, "Ryft doesn't like being held to the standard of having to provide evidence for his claims" (para. 3). In addition to the potential fallacy of poisoning the well, this statement is patently false and fails to reflect the intention of my article. What I actualy dislike is confronting philosophical prejudice that is anathema to free and critical thinking and having to unilaterly conform my arguments to the presuppositions thereof; that is,I dislike having to grant antecedently and uncritically the epistemological structure that undergirds my opponent's system of thought when he is not willing to permit the inverse of that situation, which "would shoulder the epistemic responsibility for explaining why the only presuppositions permitted in the field of debate are his own."

Cline writes, "Actually, though, I suspect that he only objects to being held to that standard when it comes to claims about his god [sic] —I'll bet that he is quite comfortable with that standard in every other situation" (para. 3). Cline would lose that bet for I do not, in fact, share his epistemology and philosophical precommitments. In my view, empirical standards regard only empirical claims; a claim which regards some state of affairs that has extension or form in space would require evidence of the same nature. But evidence need not be empirical to serve as evidence (cf. logic and necessary truths). Cline demonstrates this distinction when in the same paragraph he asks, "Would he, for example, object to scientists having to provide evidence for their scientific claims? Would he object to prosecutors having to provide evidence in support of murder charges brought against him? Unlikely." Correct. However, these claims are empirical in nature, are they not? Of course I am going to hold empirical claims to empirical standards.

Cline writes, "It's fair to question the nature of what evidence is expected in support of a claim, but trying to exempt one's own personal god-claims [sic] from a standard used pretty much all the rest of the time in other situations is an example of the Special Pleading fallacy" (para. 4) . . . "The whole thing strikes me as an admission that one's god-claims [sic] can't stand up to the same critical scrutiny that all other claims are expected to and, so, the only recourse is to try to deny that those standards should be employed. Convenient, eh?" (para. 5) It would be this fallacy if, and only if, one's own personal God-claims are empirical in nature. If one claimed that God was a contingent existent that had extension or form in space, then it would be Special Pleading to exempt said God from empirical standards. But if the God claimed exists transcendent of spatiality, then it would not be Special Pleading; it would, in fact, be appreciably avoiding a categorical mistake.

Cline writes, "If someone really thinks that some particular claim merits being exempt, they'll have to provide a sound logical argument in defense of that claim" (para. 4). Such arguments can be, and are, just so provided; there is centuries' worth of this material, more in the twentieth century than at any time before (I would especially recommend Alvin Plantinga's series on Warrant). There is certainly no shortage of it. However, one has to keep in mind the difference between a logical argument and an empirical one; it would not make sense to complain about the lack of empirical evidence for a logical argument.

Cline writes, "Of course, sound logical arguments is another one of those standards that atheists typically apply to god-claims [sic] —just the sort of thing Ryft is complaining about" (para. 4). As has been amply demonstrated, this is not the sort of thing I am "complaining" about at all.

* * *

[6-MAR-2005, 21:38] I wrote Austin Cline an email, making him aware of my response to his article and encouraging him to provide a link to it from his. The following is his email in its entirety:
Both of your pieces presuppose that there is such a thing as "the atheist paradigm" or "the atheist worldview" which is antithetical to theism. There is, however, no "the atheist paradigm" any more than there is "the theist paradigm." There perhaps as many [sic] atheist "paradigms" or "worldviews" as there are atheists.

This renders both of your pieces incoherent - the real arrogance is in the rash generalizations you make about all atheists. I used your piece as an example of poor reasoning and see no need to inflict yet another on my readers when the errors are all basically the same thing.

(Cline, Austin. "Re: The Arrogance of Atheism." E-mail to David Nesbitt. 6 MAR 2005)
Ignoring once again Cline's gratuitous invective (is this critical thinking skills being practiced?), in point of fact neither of my pieces "presuppose" that there is such a thing as "the atheist paradigm" or any "rash generalizations" of the sort, which is verifiable immediately upon reviewing both of my articles. It can be seen readily enough that I made no reference at all to anything like "the atheist paradigm" (although that Christian young woman did, whom I was quoting), and I confess that I have no idea what that could even be. Atheists are fairly diverse in their philosophies and worldviews and, on the more scholarly level, some even enjoy healthy debate on conflicting views. My articles regarded only a segment of the atheist population, those with a particular epistemology and worldview and notably the ones that enjoy debating against Christian theism. When I talked about how the "Christian is expected to provide arguments in defense of Christian theism which accord with the atheist's epistemology in particular and world view in general," no mention was made as to what worldview that was, nor was mentioning it even relevant to the point being made; insert whatever worldview is relevant at the time and place the discussion occurs. But would it not take quixotic mental gymnastics to interpret that as a generalization about all atheists or positing something like an atheist paradigm? And the end product of such an exercise would amount to a strawman caricature at any rate, so how would that even be productive? Simply put, it wouldn't be.

I leave it to you, the reader, to review his article and email, and my responses to both, and determine for yourself which of us evinces poor reasoning. And keep in mind also that he refuses to provide his readership the opportunity to review my response, whereas I am quite willing. In the final analysis, I believe I am finished with Mr. Cline on the issue of his article.
- - -

NOTE: A question just occured to me. If your opponent truly displayed "poor reasoning" skills, why wouldn't you want your readership to see it? Would that not be exactly what you would want your readership to see? "Look, when he attempted to respond to my article he only evinced poor reasoning skills further." Would not poor reasoning be exactly what you want your readership to witness in your opponent?

Cline, Austin. "Arrogance of Atheism." Agnosticism/Atheism Blog. 9 Feb. 2005. About.com.
28 Feb. 2005 <http://atheism.about.com/b/a/144721.htm?nl=1>.