Best Believe: A Critique of “Disbelieving Disbelief”, Part 2
This is Part 2 of a review of Disbelieving Disbelief, a 2012 book that criticises New Atheism. See here for Part 1.
In Chapter 2 of Disbelieving Disbelief, edited by Phillip Brown, Simon Angus begins with a hypothetical conversation that juxtaposes the views of two scientists, one a believer and the other a non-believer, about the seemingly miraculous recovery of a terminal cancer patient. The believer speculates that prayer was the cause of the cancer patient’s recovery, whilst the non-believer argues that just because we cannot explain the patient’s recovery doesn’t mean divine intervention was responsible for it.
An analysis of the conversation follows that highlights – though there is no explicit reference to it – the issue of non-overlapping magisteria1. It is argued that the reason for the disagreement between the two is that they each start with a fundamentally different premise. Both can use logic to arrive at their conclusions, but the conclusions they arrive at will ultimately depend on how the worldview with which they start informs their process of reasoning (or lack thereof). The suppressed assumption is both starting points are equally valid – they are not. And whilst on the subject of validity, “I can’t explain x therefore God did it” is an invalid argument, because it could well be true that you are unable to explain something, but this doesn’t guarantee that God is the answer. This is the God-of-the-gaps argument, and it’s the crux of every argument for divine intervention that has ever been made. Calling it an argument is to be generous. It’s really more of an uneducated guess.
Leaving no doubt as to which side of the argument the author agrees, the use of the term scientism in relation to the non-believer’s dismissal of miracles is referred to as a “form of atheism” (p21). Scientism is often described as the belief the scientific method is a superior worldview to all others, but the scientific method is not a worldview, it simply informs a person’s worldview. Of course, it is true that many have arrived at the atheist conclusion by applying the scientific method, but that doesn’t make science a form of atheism. Angus’ confusion seems to stem from the belief some scientists argue from the atheist conclusion rather than for it, but circular reasoning such as this is weeded out by the scientific method, which remains the best means we have of understanding the universe.
If you doubt this even for a moment, consider just how much our knowledge has expanded, and technology improved, all because of science. We have among many other things a greatly improved life expectancy, the ability to harness starlight for energy, and have taken, as a species still in its infancy, our first steps into outer space. Science allows us to understand more and more, fear less and less, and live longer, more fulfilled lives. Think about how science has achieved all of this in a relatively short period of time.
Now consider religion, which despite having had millennia to prove its claims and worth has done neither. Instead, we have suffered from thousands of years of breathtaking ignorance, arrogance and ineptitude. Before the science of biology, religion told us life was created, not evolved. Before the science of medicine, religious hospitals were simply places people went to be prayed for until they died. Before geology, astronomy and cosmology, religion told us the world was only six thousand years old, flat, and at the center of the universe. As far as explanations go, it would appear the only thing every religion got right is that every other religion is wrong.
Ignorance would be bad enough, but it is often accompanied by violence and intimidation: sectarian divisions, holy wars, inquisitions, witch-hunts, the subjugation of women, and oppression of minorities, to name a few. And after all this religious apologists have the gall to champion faith as a legitimate means of informing one’s worldview, as different to, but no less equal, or perhaps even better than the scientific method. But religious truth claims are claims to truths no lowly primate can know. They cannot inform, only influence, and that influence never fails to be exerted by a group of hysterical, sinister, dictatorial bigots obsessed with sexual purity.
The metaphysical claims of religion are false. And the argument that it can be shown, by some form of induction, that God intervenes in human affairs and cares about matters of diet, conduct, and what we do whilst naked, is not only preposterous, but has caused the needless suffering of countless people.
Having appealed to the non-believing reader to give up their critical faculties, Angus hones in on their integrity and self-worth. The doctrine of original sin is cited, and ancestral sin implicated as the reason non-believers engage in “biased reasoning against God” (p26). The apostle Paul is then cited, according to whom we all implicitly know God because his “invisible attributes have been clearly perceived” (Romans 1:19 – 25 ESV). I don’t know what Paul meant when he said that, and I doubt he knew either. Whatever he meant the argument is clearly false. We are all born non-believers. It is not until we are indoctrinated into religion that we believe.
Finally, the argument from revelation is cited as the principle evidence for the truth of the Bible’s message (p25). One can’t help but notice the incongruity in arguing we all know God exists implicitly in one breath, and that knowledge of God’s existence needs to be explicitly revealed to us in another. This inconsistency is by no means limited to the author’s argument, but plagues the sub-arguments he relies upon. The argument from revelation ignores that there exist innumerable contradictory and mutually exclusive revelations, and with no way to discern which is true, one can only take them on faith. So we see yet more claims to truths no primate can possibly know, many of them based on texts produced in the less literate parts of the Middle East at a time when the authors, along with the most educated people of the day, possessed a knowledge of the world which was at best today’s equivalent of a primary school student with a learning disability.