The Intellectual Dishonesty of Atheists

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Atheism

As an academic sending papers out for publication, it is interesting how atheism is held to a lower standard than theism. That is, if theists used the same poor arguments some atheists use, their papers would be immediately rejected. For example, if a theist were guilty of using the genetic fallacy to attack atheism, the paper would be rightly rejected. A theist might try to argue, say, that atheism had its origin among moral libertines (which is a questionable assumption); therefore, it must be false. This is a terrible argument since it is illegitimate to argue from the alleged origin of a belief to the truth or falsity of that belief. Even if it were true that atheism originated among moral libertines, it would not follow that atheism is false. If a theist is to successfully attack atheism, the theist must first of all defend the rational nature of belief in God. Thomists would go further and use the Cosmological Argument to attempt to prove God’s existence, and rationalist theists might make use of the Ontological Argument. The theist can also answer critics of theism on such points as the problem of evil and suffering. Such debate is difficult and takes a great deal of intellectual effort on both sides.

To be fair, most atheist philosophers believe that a naive genetic argument against the existence of God, such as Sigmund Freud’s “religion as wish fulfillment” hypothesis, which states that religious people want to create a powerful father-figure, is not cogent. They admit that Freud commits the genetic fallacy. But the same atheists might appeal to religious wars or damage done to society by certain theistic religions as evidence against God’s existence. Theists, on the contrary, could appeal to the positive moral influence of theistic religions. Neither argument works to prove or disprove God’s existence. But some atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, continue to make such a poor argument, which is basically a repetition of Bertrand Russell‘s argument in his book Why I am Not a Christian. I have seen college and university students fooled by the wonderful writing and rhetoric of both Russell and Hitchens–and then they are unwilling to see the vacuity of Russell’s and Hitchens’ arguments. If a theist were to make a similar argument, I have no doubt that Russell would have, and Hitchens would, call the theist to task. There is a double standard here–and a double standard that is intellectually dishonest.

No matter how sophisticated a genetic fallacy is, it remains a fallacy. An analytic philosopher can dress a bad argument up in enough Ps and Qs to write ten logic textbooks, but if the argument is fundamentally unsound, all the alphabet soup in the world will not turn a bad argument into a good one. When an atheist analytic philosopher rejects a theist for calling him on what he is actually doing, the atheist is being intellectually dishonest. The atheist may even question the competence of the theistic philosopher or accuse the theist of misrepresenting him. Now it is possible for a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or any other philosopher to misrepresent an opponent’s argument or set up a straw man to attack. But I become angry when atheists try to hide their bad arguments in a sea of rhetoric and symbolic logic, and then accuse theists of being ignorant and misrepresenting them.

It is easy to become cynical toward my own field of philosophy. More and more I see philosophers, including myself, holding cherished positions first and then trying to back them up through philosophical argument. Perhaps these great world-view issues are so emotionally powerful that one cannot avoid prior nonrational commitments that are later putatively supported by arguments. I do not want to go the postmodern route–I do believe in “Truth” with a capital “T,” but the more intellectual cheating I see in the field, not only among atheists, but among some theists and philosophers of every stripe, the more I see faith commitments as guiding people’s lives, even the lives of philosophers, whether theist, agnostic, atheist, pantheistic, panentheistic, Platonic, or Aristotelian. But if someone is intellectually cheating and is caught, he should have the intellectual balls to admit it (and this does not exclude myself).

Private Manning’s Detention

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Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

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Private Bradley Manning is the solider who allegedly leaked documents to Wikileaks. Whether or not he is guilty of a crime, his present treatment at the hands of the United States government is reprehensible. I had hoped that Mr. Obama would have reversed the barbaric Bush administration policies authorizing torture. Torture is evil in itself whether it involves foreign nationals or American citizens, but it should be particularly disturbing to all Americans that a citizen of the United States would be treated in a barbaric fashion. Mr. Obama, unfortunately, has only given lip service to stopping torture by American law enforcement and military officials. In practice, his administration has been every bit as brutal as the Bush administration. One positive development is that there are a number of critics from all sides of the political spectrum who have opposed the brutal treatment of Private Manning; see the link at http://balkin.blogspot.com/2011/03/statement-on-private-mannings-detention.html. With sufficient public pressure, perhaps Mr. Obama can be moved to reverse this atrocious treatment of an American by his own government.

Gilson and Maritain: Still Worth Reading

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Jacques Maritain

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Aside from the Thomistic community and scholars of medieval philosophy, the names of Etienne Gilson (1884-1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882-1973; his photo is the one posted) may not be familiar to contemporary philosophers. Perhaps their names were mentioned in graduate school a few times, or perhaps students encountered them when studying for comprehensive exams. Yet despite a philosophical climate in the United States largely divided along analytic/Continental lines, Gilson and Maritain are well worth reading even if they are out of current philosophical fashion.

Gilson was one of the great historians of medieval philosophy; his History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages and his classic book on Aquinas’ philosophy, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, are well worth reading today. Readers will not only find writing of beautiful clarity, something missing from so much philosophy, both analytic and Continental, today, but also an excellent survey of both medieval philosophy as a whole and of Aquinas’ philosophy in particular. Gilson’s greatest contribution to general philosophy is probably his book on epistemology, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, which, in attacking Transcendental Thomism, presents a strong case for direct realism. He also wrote books on St. Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, aesthetics, and the relationship between Abelard and Heloise. Whether or not a person accepts his arguments, reading Gilson’s writings is a pleasure, something to be done over a cup of Earl Gray on a rainy day. His arguments may not be in symbolic form, but they are careful, thorough, and beautiful—I know of no other word that is fitting. If truth and beauty are Transcendentals that ultimately have the same extension in God, this may bode well for the soundness of Gilson’s arguments. Gilson also has a book, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again, that is relevant to contemporary debates over whether there is teleology in the evolutionary process.

Maritain is less clear, but he is a deep thinker who will reward the patience of the reader. His classic work on epistemology is The Degrees of Knowledge, a book that argues for different epistemological approaches to science, philosophy, art, and revealed religion. Although I disagree with his (and Gilson’s) sharp separation between metaphysics and the physical and social sciences (both were, ironically, close to positivism in their philosophy of science), the idea that different disciplines require different ways of knowing preserves the ability of science, metaphysics, art, and religion to present different aspects of the truth about reality.

Maritain’s work on metaphysics focuses on the “intuition of being,” the sense of utter contingency when we realize that we are held out of nothingness as if by a thread. This intuition of our radical contingency and of the radical contingency of all things is the beginning of the road toward the noncontingent, necessary being, God.

Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry is the finest book on aesthetics I have ever read. Maritain’s connection of Aquinas’ notion of “connaturality,” a “knowledge by love” (person-person, person-animal, person-plant, person-thing) with the artist’s intuition of the fullness of reality is profound. It is similar to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “inscape” and “instress” as well as with Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” relationship. Maritain was also more open than Gilson to abstraction in art.

Maritain’s ethics and political philosophy were based on natural law theory, which puts it in tension with both classical liberalism and social democratic liberalism in contemporary American. Some forms of classical liberalism would accept “natural rights”—how close that idea is to “natural law” is widely disputed among political philosophers. Maritain used natural law to defend the inherent dignity and worth of the individual (rather than use rationality alone, as Kant did). He helped draft the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Good philosophy is never out of date. Although the works of Gilson and Maritain are older works, philosophers should be open to reading them. Better yet, they should read and study them—both philosophers leave much food for thought.