Observations and inanities by a second-shift assistant supervisor in the Puppy-Grinding division of the Evil Atheist Conspiracy® (our motto: "Sure it's cruel, but think of the jobs!"), your host, Brent Rasmussen.
The Irrational Human
This is my review of Vox Day's new book called "The Irrational Atheist". I'd like to make some things perfectly clear before I proceed with this review. I am still, and barring some pretty convincing evidence that I find personally credible, will most likely always be an atheist. What I mean by "atheist", as I have written volumes about in the past, is someone in whom god-belief of any kind is absent.
I have lately (within the last few years) come to the conclusion that the entire social and political "atheist movement" is a big, fat exercise in futility. Atheists are not, in any way, shape, or form, a "group" in the same sense that Methodists, Shriners, or Republicans are a group. The atheists who blog and organize activist marches and identify themselves as part of this "atheist movement" group are lying to themselves. There is no "atheist group". Rather, a movement has emerged and become politically active lately that has co-opted the perfectly reasonable descriptive word "atheist" and has twisted its meaning into something that I do not agree with, endorse, or really even recognize any longer. Ellen Johnson telling all of us atheists to "Vote your atheism first..." was the last straw for me. I mean, what in the heck does that even mean? I am not a member of your little club, Ellen.
I have my own opinions, political views, and values. I have my own, personal rationale for being a person in whom god-belief is absent (an atheist). I recognize no "atheist leaders" or spokesmen, and I endorse no one who claims to speak for me, or insinuates that they speak for me in any way.
I speak for myself, and myself alone.
I find it troubling that one of the recent trends in the "atheist blogger" community is to label someone who does not seem to toe the party line as an "appeaser" or as a "concern troll". It's complete crap. I didn't sign a fucking "atheist loyalty oath", and my lack of belief in a god isn't dependent on kowtowing to the self-anointed leaders of this misguided abortion of a political movement, whether or not they exist. If after this review someone uses the "no true Scotsman" fallacy on me in this fashion, they can go fuck themselves. With a jagged stick. Sideways. The political and social issues that concern me - personal liberty, civil liberties, honesty, personal responsibility, fiscal responsibility, freedom, justice, the American Way, all of that, don't require my allegiance to some new political movement. I was concerned with those things before I started calling myself an atheist, and I still am today. Atheism has nothing at all to do with any of that stuff. (See my first paragraph above.) Nether does "theism" for that matter.
I evaluate the books I read, the beliefs I come across, and the philosophies I examine fully, and with an eye towards the facts. I have a highly-sensitive bullshit meter, honed through 20-plus years of discussion, research, study, debate, and arguments with theists (that is, folks in which god-belief of any kind is present.) So, when you read the review below, keep in mind that I was really, really trying hard to find something that I could latch onto and argue intelligently and forcefully against. I was positive that it had to be there. I had my BS meter cranked up to 11 as I read through the book twice in an attempt to sniff out something that I could use - and the damned thing only went off a couple of times, and only when Day was explicitly talking about God and/or Jesus and his personal belief in the Christian mythology.
Shit. Double shit.
Ah, well. I am ethically and morally bound to review TIA honestly, and that is what I will do - regardless of how much it hurts me to do so. Heh. ;)
So, hang on to your hats and join me below the fold.
Vox Day is an interesting character. I first encountered him back in 2003 when he wrote his column entitled "The Irrational Atheist". I considered him, in true bombastic, "atheist blogger" fashion, "...an elitist snob with a Christian bias.". Over the years I wrote or commented from time to time about something he had written on his blog, or in his WND column. On UTI I most recently I wrote about his thought experiment demonstrating that in his view, his God's commands would be "moral" by definition, regardless of how horrific us lowly, limited humans considered them to be ("Slaughtering Toddlers For Jesus"). More recently, I have corresponded with him via email in regards to his new book also entitled, oddly enough, "The Irrational Atheist", and sub-titled "Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens" (Amazon link). And indeed the book does contain most of that World News Daily column from 2003.
However, it is so much more than merely that short op-ed column expanded into book length.
In the first chapter Day makes the following audacious statement:
This is not a theological work. The text contains no arguments for the existence of God and the supernatural, nor is it concerned with evolution, creationism, the age of Earth, or intelligent design. It contains no arguments from Scripture; in attacking the arguments, assertions, and conclusions of the New Atheists, my only weapons are the purely secular ones of reason, logic, and historically documented, independently verifiable fact. (TIA, Pg. 2)
Now, he does get quite a bit theological in the late chapters of the book, as I describe below. The theological and philosophical speculation runs deep. (Hah! Gotcha Vox! Take that! Pow! *Biff!*) This was actually the part of the book I enjoyed the most.
But in the beginning chapters where he addresses each author's book, Day proceeds to do exactly that. He scrupulously breaks down many of the arguments and claims made by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Onfray in their books, and then demonstrates, with meticulously detailed footnotes and references, why each one is flawed in some fashion - logically fallacious, historically inaccurate, mathematically incorrect, or statistically flawed.
It was actually painful for me to read. This is due to the fact that that I really do respect Richard Dawkins and his scientific accomplishments, as well as Daniel Dennett's heady forays into philosophical thought. I also absolutely love listening to Christopher Hitchens speak and debate. As for Michel Onfray and Sam Harris? Eh, not so much, but I do appreciate their ability to raise awareness and articulate some of the same things that I have thought about myself over the years and to put them into commercially successful books.
I am not going to go into a point by point review of the various arguments that Day addressed in TIA. Suffice it to say that by the end of the chapters dealing with the individual authors, I was happy that it was over. It was a thorough, detailed, dispassionate (with a little snarky levity thrown into the footnotes for flavor), and completely disheartening take-down of some of the best arguments that the godless have put into print - on their own terms, without using the Bible (in the first part of the book, that is), or any other sacred text to do it with. Amazing. And depressing. It is not my place to defend their books. I truly hope that they do find time to defend and clarify their books, specifically to the counter-arguments and claims made by Vox day in TIA, though, because they really need to. Trust me, it wasn't pretty.
Day talks a lot about morals in TIA, and his assertion that atheists are "moral parasites" using the existing societal morality and co-opting it as their own as if they had just sat down one day, adopted "The Thinker" pose, and thought up a fully-realized set of morals and ethics for themselves.
Obviously this isn't the case. I agree 100% that I have taken my morals, my values, and my ethics from the enfolding society around me. But, I also believe that Christianity has wrapped itself around existing morals and ethics, stamped them with it's own imprimatur, and has fooled itself into thinking that it invented the whole thing. I think it's Christian self-deceit.
Human societal morals and ethics exist, and are broadly consistent and similar throughout recorded history because the are good survival strategies for our species. Basically, if we work together, in a society that we govern with morals and ethics, we tend to do better than if we go around raping and killing each other all the time. The moral and ethical systems we subscribe to as societies and as individuals, allow our species to thrive and successfully reproduce. They have been "in the works", being refined throughout the ages since modern humans appeared on the planet by trial and error. What we see is the end result of millions of years of evolution. Christianity is a Johnny-come-lately to the game, waltzing in and claiming that existing human ethics and moralities are it's own invention - after they were already in place.
In the latter part of TIA Day delves into some of his own personal theology, theodicy, and rationale for believing what he does about God, Jesus, and the nature of reality in general. He talks about an interesting "god as game designer" hypothesis that very neatly accounts for the apparent omnimax trilemma. In other words, one of the most common arguments employed by atheists such as myself has to do with the problem of omnipotence conflicting with omniscience. The old "Problem Of Evil" which demonstrates this conflict, was first articulated by Epicurus in 300BCE, and so well paraphrased by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (book 10):
"Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"
Most Christian theologians and apologists respond to this argument with something having to do with free will. That is to say, they claim that in order to allow human beings to have the free will promised by God, free to choose to do evil or good, free to accept or reject the salvation offered by Christ, then God must allow evil to exist, even if he is perfectly able to prevent it and knows about it beforehand. They never directly address the claim of omnimax powers and their contradictory nature. It is more of a side-step argument than a real answer to the trilemma, usually bringing more questions than answers - I.E., "Is it really free will if God knows beforehand what we are going to do?", and "doesn't that make God evil?"
Vox proposes that an omnimax deity would not necessarily be forced into what he terms "omniderigence" - which is, as Day defines it, "...the infinite use of unlimited or universal power, authority, or force; all-controlling; all-dictating." (TIA - Pg. 276) The ultimate micro-managing pointy-haired-boss, in other words.
This is the type of deity that I argue against when I use the trilemma. However, Day very ably describes how exactly an omnimax deity could be surprised by one of it's own creations - allowing "free will", in other words, while still being omniscient and omnipotent. The deity in this case is a programmer friend of Day's nicknamed "Big Chilly", and the creation is an AI enemy character in a first person shooter game that BC was the lead programmer on:
During the demo, Big Chilly and the three AI-controlled members of his fireteam had successfully taken out both the wide patrol and the guards, and they were just beginning to lay the explosives to blow the door that held the prisoners captive when there was a sudden burst of bright laser fire that caused him to jump in his seat and emit a startled shriek loud enough to make everyone else in the room jump, too. While his AI squadmates shot down the intruder before anyone’s battlesuits took too much damage, what shocked Big Chilly was that for the first time in hundreds of playings, an enemy AI had taken it upon itself to circle around behind the rescue force and attack it from an unexpected direction.
But how could this happen? How could a lowly artificial intelligence surprise a lead programmer who was demonstrably omniscient and omnipotent in the AI’s world? How can the created do what the creator did not will? The answer, when viewed in this context, should be obvious.
Surprise was possible because the programmer was not choosing to exercise either his knowledge or his power at that particular point where real-time intersected game-time. While he could have easily provided that particular character with a scripted path and prevented the character from being able to depart from it, he had already elected not to do so. He could have constructed the character in such a way that its head would have exploded for the sin of attempted deicide, or even as punishment for the sin of merely daring to look upon him in all his pasty geek glory, but he did not do that, either. And finally, while he could have been scanning that particular AI’s “thought” processes and known what it intended to do in the very instant the intention was born, instead he refrained and so learned about its actions through entirely “natural” means.
If it is not difficult to accept that an omniscient and omnipotent programmer can reject omniderigence, why should it be hard to imagine that an all-powerful God might choose to do the same? Even human lovers know that the lover cannot control the beloved, so it should not be difficult to believe that a loving God would permit His creatures to choose freely how they will live. (TIA - Pg. 281)
It is probably the most cogent response to the trilemma I've ever come across.
So, let's sum this up.
When Day calls the atheist "irrational", he's entirely correct. However, he thinks theists are irrational also (TIA Pg. 265). In fact, the entire human race has shown a disturbingly consistent ability to act irrationally throughout it's entire existence, and still, we are flourishing as a species. It has got to have some evolutionary advantage, some survival benefit, or we wouldn't act like we do. It is more likely that we have not been self-aware for a long enough time, evolutionarily speaking, for rationality, irrationality, or indeed, self-awareness itself to be selected for or against.
So, yes, the atheist is irrational. So is the theist. Those two descriptions include every single person on the face of the planet. Humans are an irrational species. We do NOT live in a world of pure reason. As Robert Heinlein wrote, "Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal."
I agree with that. I have rationalized to myself my own personal reasons for being an atheist. I fully accept and admit that they may not be purely rational reasons - but they work for me. Similarly, I believe that Day has irrational reasons of his own that he has rationalized to himself to be able to accept the Christian view about the nature of reality and the existence of his God.
Does this mean that I am wavering in my atheism? Am I "losing the faith"? Am I an appeaser? A concern troll?
Nope. I am still an atheist. Like I said at the beginning of this whole thing, I will most likely be an atheist for the rest of my life.
But over the years I have come to realize that being an atheist is only rather secondary to who I am, and how I choose to define myself. First and foremost, I am a husband, and a father. Second, I am an American. After that, I am a civil libertarian politically. Then, I am an atheist.
Weirdly enough, this doesn't put me very far off from Vox Day himself -- except for the whole God and Jesus thing. Heh.
My advice is to read this book - and then do your damnedest to find something in it that you can argue against. Something beyond "that's stupid!" - which is what always seems to be the first-blush response from an atheist to a theist. (Fucking hell I'm tired of that shit.) I couldn't do it. Maybe you'll have better luck than I did. I hope you do.
I strongly encourage Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Dennett, Hitch, Harris, and M'sieur Onfray to respond to TIA. It is not your run-of-the-mill "flea" book looking to make a quick buck riding on the coattails of The Amber Heard Fan Club*. It's the real deal, it's substantive, meticulously researched, it brings up real problems, and it addresses these problems without falling into the trap that other fleas have fallen into in the past. That is to say, relying on theology or the Bible to make their counter-arguments.
OK. That's it. Have at me in the comments. Be advised that I probably won't take any of you very seriously, and ridicule you without mercy until you've actually read the damned thing yourselves. Fair warning and all that. ;)