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Saturday, February 8, 2014

You Do the Math

Much of this blog is dedicated to cataloging atheist quotes according to four core arguments against God's existence that have persisted since ancient times: (1) the argument from reasonable nonbelief, (2) the argument from inconsistent revelations, (3) lack of empirical evidence, and (4) the argument from evil. This thread of blog posts began as a test of Daniel Dennett's musing that ontological arguments had reached the point of diminishing returns and that nothing new was likely to emerge from either side.

Using these four arguments as a point of departure, I observed that each underlies one of four atheistic movements, (1) freethought, (2) skepticism, (3) secularism, and (4) humanism, respectively. I've also observed parallel distinctions between the four horsemen, Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, respectively, and designated several generations of horsemen.

My efforts have been largely motivated by the desire to keep the most compelling arguments in circulation. Atheism does demonstrate a willingness to challenge entrenched beliefs, but it's no guarantee that the same stale arguments won't become tedious eventually. Below, I've condensed the atheist wisdom of the ages to a compelling expression of each basic ontological argument juxtaposed with a parallel statement by one of the Four Horsemen.

The argument from reasonable nonbelief is the very essence of freethought. If the existence of the gods were self-evident, extraordinary efforts to indoctrinate children and persecute heretics would be unnecessary. Everyone would just believe. Freethought subverts the very notion of the sacred and rejects the obligation to take anything on faith. The burden of proof is on religion. The freethinker rejects dogmatism, religious authority and charges of blasphemy. Daniel Dennett's (2006) Breaking the Spell is an argument for freethought. The spell he proposes to break is the sacred status of religious claims.

Lack of empirical evidence distinguishes skepticism from other atheist movements. By definition the supernatural is not measurable by natural means. Rational proofs succeed where absence of evidence fails to establish evidence of absence. The supernatural is a spurious category to which existence simply does not apply. If the supernatural has a natural manifestation, it ceases to be supernatural. If it exists only in an abstract sense, it is mere metaphor. Believers' arguments fail when they try to have it both ways. Naturalism is not a bias--contrary to what post-modernists will claim. It is the inevitable conclusion of intellectually honest inquiry. To stop short of naturalism is to stop asking questions once you've arrived at an explanation from magic. Richard Dawkins' (2006) The God Delusion is an argument for naturalism.

The argument from inconsistent revelations underlies the case for secularism. All religions can't be right, so who's to say they're not all wrong. This argument is also known as cosmopolitan doubt and it is the undoing of religious dogma and theocracy. Theocrats consistently fail to consider the diversity of opinion even among followers of the same religion--to say nothing of religious minorities and secularists. Sam Harris' (2004) The End of Faith connects inconsistent revelations to the secularist cause.

The argument from evil. Divine command theory--that good and evil are defined by God's judgment--is simply untenable. There is either an objective good that an omniscient God cannot fail to recognize, or there is an arbitrary good that an omnipotent God establishes by fiat. If the former is true, God is unnecessary. If the latter is true, God is a tyrant. Humanism rejects the notion of a divine will dispensing reward and punishment. Christopher Hitchens' (2007) god Is Not Great makes the case for humanism as autonomy from supernatural authority.

The above are among the most compelling arguments for atheism that I have encountered. This post is the result of an extensive search for support for Dennett's assertion about diminishing returns on ontological arguments. The four horsemen distinguish themselves from each other in much the same way that freethought, skepicism, secularism and humanism diverge. Even the titles of their books hint at each author's particular contribution. The way they complement each other speaks to the way that different arguments resonate with different people.

If this post demonstrates anything, it is that even the "New Atheism" offers very little that is new. The New Atheism is often charged with alienating religious moderates, but even this is nothing new. Supernatural presuppositions--if sincere--make religious moderates dogmatists. If insincere, religious moderates are still apologists for dogmatism. If a call for intellectual honesty alienates religious moderates, they differ from fundamentalists only in the point at which they deem reality inconvenient. 

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