You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

Phil Torres wrote another article entitled, “Beyond “new atheism”: Where do people alienated by the movement’s obnoxious tendencies go from here?”

He suggests what New Atheists can do to reform their movement:

Others suggested that rather than retreating from the “new atheist” label, one should say: “I’m not going anywhere — I’m here to reform the movement.” There’s something to this idea. After all, I decided not to move to Amsterdam after Donald Trump’s election but to stay in the United States and fight the Zeitgeist of anti-intellectualism and bigotry that Trump represents.

So in that spirit, I thought it might be helpful to outline some values that I think our society desperately needs to reaffirm — values that led me away from new atheism in its current manifestation.

So what are the values that the New Atheists are supposed to adopt?

Avoid overconfidence.

Embrace nuance.

Be curious.

Four words – Not. Going. To. Happen.

This is because an overconfident, ham-handed approach with blinders is built into the fabric of New Atheism.  In fact not just New Atheism, but most modern day atheism (at least that which is expressed on the internet).

Start with perhaps the most common of modern atheist claims – “There is no evidence for God.”  This claim is inherently overconfident.  For how can the atheist be so sure there is no evidence for God?  After all, it’s one thing to express an opinion that explicitly states “I don’t see any evidence for God.”  But to make an all-encompassing truth claim that is supposed to be True for all – “there is no evidence for God” – couldn’t be a clearer demonstration of swaggering overconfidence.

Another way to determine that inherent overconfidence is embedded in this position is to simply ask the atheist what would count as evidence for God.  As many here probably know by now, most atheists struggle mightily with this question.  But how can that be?  The question is simple and highly relevant.  It’s a question anyone with even modest critical thinking skills would have pondered before proudly proclaiming “There is no evidence!”   The atheist struggles because the “no evidence” claim is essentially hollow and has been propped up with overconfidence.

It gets better when they finally do try to come up with an answer.  And as we also know, the answer invariably is some demand for some super-duper, stupendous miracle that could not ever possibly be explained by natural causes.  In other words, zero tolerance for nuance.  The atheist needs something Painfully Obvious and Completely Undeniable.   And the complete lack of curiosity is on display in that the atheist will accept nothing less than a super-duper, stupendous miracle that could not ever possibly be explained by natural causes.

So the overconfidence, lack of nuance, and lack of curiosity are traits that serve as foundational pillars for modern day atheism.  Asking the New Atheists to abandon these traits is asking them to abandon their entire atheistic posturing.  Ain’t goin’ happen.

What’s more, if you read Torres article carefully, you’ll detect his own overconfidence, lack of nuance, and lack or curiosity.

Religious people often offer a paradigm case of putting what they want to believe before what is actually warranted by the best available evidence. This is one reason I jettisoned religion in my late teens, subsequently adopting a form of atheism that assigns a high-percent probability to God’s nonexistence.

First, wishful thinking is not unique to religious people.  On the contrary, it’s a universal human trait and atheists are just as good at it as religious people.

More importantly, notice that Torres became an atheist while a teen-ager.  I’m shocked.  Hey, but the same thing happened to Dawkins.  And Coyne.  And Myers.  They became atheists while they were teens.  Yet last time I checked, teens aren’t exactly well-known for avoiding overconfidence, embracing nuance, and being curious about things they don’t like.   What’s even more illuminating to consider is that the teen-logic used by Torres, Dawkins, Coyne et al. to arrive at atheism is the same logic that maintains their atheism decades later.  Nothing changes.  The teen overconfidence, the teen lack of nuance, and the teen lack of curiosity for things that don’t fit props up a lifetime of atheism.

I personally can’t empathize.  Like Torres and Coyne, I too underwent a change when I was in my late teens.  That’s when I became a theist.  But in the many years that followed, I have re-thought and re-analyzed and re-weighed my decisions and beliefs, even going through a couple of agnostic phases along the way.  The result is that the theism of teen Mike is quite different from the theism of today’s Mike.  Along the way, I have abandoned overconfidence, embraced nuance, and allowed my curiosity to explore other ways of thinking.  I have grown.   I just can’t imagine what it would be like to be stuck at the teen-level when it comes to my views about God and reality.  Yet that is where so many atheists are.

When I read the arguments and sermons of various atheists around the internet, it’s hard for me to ignore that I’m reading the rants and/or posturing of teen logic.  It’s a good thing I have my own reasons for doubt.  Because if I had to rely solely on the arguments from atheists, I’m afraid my theism would become saturated with the level of overconfidence so commonly displayed by today’s atheists.

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34 Responses to You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

  1. mechanar says:

    I fully agree with this I remember when I first came in contact with new atheism in 2008 where I saw a video of “the amazing atheist” my only thought was that this person presents a oversimplified version of an infinitely complex reality otherwise I did not think much about it and moved on since I use the Internet mainly for entertaiment as probably most people do.

    Than this year in 2017 by coincidence I stumbled upon another video of his and I noticed that he not only was using the exact Line of thought as he did in 2008 but the exact same sentences. Think about this for a second in 9 long years he has not bothered to expand his horizon one bit has most likely not read a single book that criticizes atheism because If he did that old “Religion fairy tails hurr hurr” would not come out of him. its the same old Religious people = delusional Atheism= rational ego trippin.

    These people are simply closed minded Brickheads havin no nuance is writtin in their DNA I promise you in 10 years from now they wont have advanced intellectually one bit and why should they? If you have reached the end of all knowledge why would there be any need to further progress.

  2. pennywit says:

    And as we also know, the answer invariably is some demand for some super-duper, stupendous miracle that could not ever possibly be explained by natural causes.

    Briefly, what proof (that you consider probative, if not dispositive) would you hand an atheist? The last time theists tried seriously to convert me (back when I was in college), their proofs often seemed were highly subjective,, started from vastly different postulates than I started at, or were premised on my need for socializing or my personal happiness.

    I’m not going to argue back in this thread. I’m just going to listen and keep my further thoughts to myself.

  3. Travis says:

    The “be curious” bit is especially hilarious. The fact that they can’t for a single moment consider that maybe, just maybe, religion is more than superstition or fairy tales or whatever diminuitive view they cling to shows how uncurious they are.

  4. Michael says:

    I don’t have proofs because I don’t think in terms of proofs. I think in terms of clues. A convergence of clues. So I don’t have anything to hand most atheists because to think in terms of clues, one must have a truly open mind.

    What I would do is back it up some. That is, the atheist would have to acknowledge and embrace what surely seems to be true to me:

    1. We live in an ambiguous reality. Just about everything is ambiguous, from people to nature. Science has helped dispel some of the ambiguity, but only when it is closely tied to well-designed experiments that yield unambiguous data. The science that fails to deliver that is really no better than any other form of human inquiry.

    2. Tied to our ambiguous reality is the realization that reason is rarely a guide. Reason usually comes into play afterward, rationalizing and justifying what we believe and don’t believe. Reason can guide us, but we have to be willing to let it do so. Over time. One step at a time. And even then, it gets us only so far. None of this should be controversial if we accept the evolutionary origins of our brains.

    If the atheist cannot accept these truths, and instead thinks Reason is a Powerful Guide that brings Clarity to so much of our reality, even to the point where why bother with mere clues when Reason has long ago Shown the Way, there isn’t anything for me to hand. Such a person has locked themselves up in the Certainty of their own beliefs.

    Anyway, lately I have been pondering whether to further expand the focus of this blog. As I have long and consistently noted, this is not an apologetics blog. But perhaps it would be good to flesh out the clues.

  5. pennywit says:

    2. Tied to our ambiguous reality is the realization that reason is rarely a guide. Reason usually comes into play afterward, rationalizing and justifying what we believe and don’t believe. Reason can guide us, but we have to be willing to let it do so. Over time. One step at a time. And even then, it gets us only so far. None of this should be controversial if we accept the evolutionary origins of our brains.

    Sounds like Wizard’s Second Rule.

  6. pennywit says:

    Anyway, lately I have been pondering whether to further expand the focus of this blog. As I have long and consistently noted, this is not an apologetics blog. But perhaps it would be good to flesh out the clues.

    If I may make an observation. I find that Hemant Mehta’s constant denigration of religious adherents diminishes him rather than ennobles him. I find myself of a similar opinion regarding this blog’s occasionally singular focus on the denigration of certain atheists.

  7. Michael says:

    If I may make an observation. I find that Hemant Mehta’s constant denigration of religious adherents diminishes him rather than ennobles him. I find myself of a similar opinion regarding this blog’s occasionally singular focus on the denigration of certain atheists.

    Fair point. My problem is that I’m extremely busy in real life which is why I only post 2-3 times a week. And even then, time constraints have me reaching for that low hanging fruit.

  8. Kevin says:

    “Sounds like Wizard’s Second Rule.”

    I managed to get through those books, but man the main characters were a bunch of preachy self-righteous pricks.

  9. pennywit says:

    I managed to get through those books, but man the main characters were a bunch of preachy self-righteous pricks.

    I got through the second book, and the third book turned me off. I finally realized that Tad Williams lacked Ayn Rand’s gift for subtlety.

  10. pennywit says:

    Not Tqd Williams. Terry Goodkind.

  11. Featherfoot says:

    Pennywit,

    You’ve asked a fair question, and seem a reasonable sort, so I’ll make a quick answer. Here is the evidence I have found most powerful – though that will vary from one person to another.

    First, I don’t think anyone can absolutely prove God. You can always find some sort of naturalistic explanation for anything, just as you can find some sort of supernatural explanation for anything (see Descartes’ demon). But sometimes you’ll really have to stretch to make the explanation work. For me, I was always just looking for what had the stronger evidence, and didn’t worry about any kind of absolute proof.

    I guess I tend to favor empirical arguments over non-empirical ones. The fine-tuning of the universe shows that our universe is amazingly set up in such a way that life is possible. The margin of error is so ridiculously tiny it makes winning the lottery each week for years look good. The same is true with abiogenesis. I can’t fathom a reason why any random string of DNA proteins would be any more likely to form than any other. But to get life to start, you need many thousands of just-right base pairs to form. A little math shows how unlikely this is. But that kind of information is easily made if someone intelligent is making these decisions.

    Of course, that just gets us to a creator, not to Jesus. For that, I’ve found Gary Habermas’ minimal facts argument to be the strongest available. Christianity is unusual for being a religion that begins with someone supposedly performing miracles in public.

    And some of it, too, is that I didn’t find any alternative worldview that seemed to fit the world better. Christianity has its problems, but so does every other worldview. I just finished studying Mormonism with several missionaries, and found the evidence to be strongly against their beliefs. As for naturalism, I haven’t found any way to have both naturalism and free will. But if we don’t have free will, then our “minds” are driven not by logic, but by firing neurons in our brains, over which we have no control. So we have no reason to trust our own minds.

    I am trying to be as brief as possible, so I may not be entirely clear. Let me know if I’m not. I’m hoping you’re already familiar with such arguments. There are, as well, arguments against everything I have written here. Some are bad, some are good. Thus far, it hasn’t been enough to change my mind. You are free to make up yours. Despite what you said, feel free to ask questions or push back. I enjoy discussing these things, even with people who disagree with me, so long as they can do it respectfully.

  12. stcordova says:

    “I find myself of a similar opinion regarding this blog’s occasionally singular focus on the denigration of certain atheists.”

    Comparing Michael to Mehta is disgusting. Your opinion sucks. I can’t remember anything of value from any of your comments.

  13. pennywit says:

    I am trying to be as brief as possible, so I may not be entirely clear. Let me know if I’m not. I’m hoping you’re already familiar with such arguments. There are, as well, arguments against everything I have written here. Some are bad, some are good. Thus far, it hasn’t been enough to change my mind. You are free to make up yours. Despite what you said, feel free to ask questions or push back.

    Thanks. I’m probably going to evaluate these internally and on my own. These days, I’m ore interested in hearing the arguments themselves than in, well, arguing them. It gets into a frustratingly circular discussion.

  14. pennywit says:

    OK, I will argue a little bit. I have one joke-y argument I use sometimes to argue against the existence of a benevolent god. It goes something like this:

    In a universe administered by a benevolent deity, good things would exist and bad things will not exist. The situation comedies Full House, Fuller House and Blossom all exist, Pauly Shore movies exist, and Carrot Top has a million-dollar contract in Vegas. Therefore, a benevolent god does not exist.

    It’s a joke-y argument, bordering on blasphemous, I guess, but it really points to one of my hang-ups about the notion of a benevolent, active deity. There’s just too much evil, violence, and caprice in the world for me to think there’s a good deity looking out for all of us.

  15. TFBW says:

    @pennywit: The elimination of evil is trivial to accomplish — simply exterminate the human race. Or, from God’s position, simply never create moral agents in the first place. Would a universe with no moral agents be better than a universe with the horrors of Pauly Shore and Carrot Top? In a universe with no life at all, nothing would ever suffer. Would a completely sterile universe be better than a universe which contains beings that suffer?

  16. Michael says:

    It’s a joke-y argument, bordering on blasphemous, I guess, but it really points to one of my hang-ups about the notion of a benevolent, active deity. There’s just too much evil, violence, and caprice in the world for me to think there’s a good deity looking out for all of us.

    I have already dealt with the argument from evil:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Argument From Evil: Toothless and Useless

    Does Atheism Assume We Should All Be Teletubbies?

    Let me try it another way, this time adding a 3rd truth to my list above – Everything in nature is connected.

    It’s a crucially important truth to grasp because many who rely on the argument from evil seem to have this notion that we can strip away all evil from our reality and leave everything else pretty much as is. Not so.

    If the benevolent, active deity is to remove all evil, violence, and caprice from our world, the deity would have to remove all of us. Each and every one. This is because each and every one of us has contributed to the evil, violence, and caprice of our world. Some more than others, but we have all contributed. We have all been part of the “evil problem.”

    Some would deny this, thinking that they have gone through their entire life without causing any other person to experience suffering or pain. Of course, we can’t interview everyone they have ever interacted with, so there is no way to get them to see this if they don’t want to see this.

    There is another way.

    Each and every one of us is dependent on our ancestry for our existence. You only have to remove one member from our entire ancestry to erase our existence. So just how likely is it that not one of our ancestors ever committed an act of evil? I’d say not likely at all. What’s more, I think it highly likely that many of my ancestors not only contributed to the evil of our world, but also made decisions in response to evil that ultimately led to my existence. For example, maybe my great, great, great grandfather decided to spend time feeding the hungry (a response to evil) and, in doing so, met my great, great, great grandmother.

    So it doesn’t matter if people deny their own contributions to the evil of our reality. Because of their ancestry, they would still be erased if God stripped away all evil from reality.

    The simple truth is that our own existence is necessarily connected to the existence of evil.

    Which means, if God wanted us to exist, evil must likewise exist.

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a benevolent deity must necessarily be interested in “looking out for us” to ensure we are all happy and content (like a Teletubbie). That’s a Santa Claus view of God. From the Christian perspective, God is more interested in “fleshing us out,” making us more real, crafting us into a work of art. Or, as the Marines would say, in the fight against evil, “Be all that you can be.”

  17. grodrigues says:

    “@pennywit: The elimination of evil is trivial to accomplish — simply exterminate the human race. Or, from God’s position, simply never create moral agents in the first place. Would a universe with no moral agents be better than a universe with the horrors of Pauly Shore and Carrot Top?”

    A better a question is would a universe without moral agents be better than a universe without the horror of a pennywit. Apparently, pennywit thinks it would. God thinks otherwise. Go figure.

  18. pennywit says:

    Would a universe with no moral agents be better than a universe with the horrors of Pauly Shore and Carrot Top?

    No moral agents, but we can have a world without Carrot Top? Let me get back to you on that one …

  19. pennywit says:

    Michael: I don’t think anybody in his right mind wants the Teletubbies universe. But a great deal of evil in this world — slavery, the Holocaust, and so forth — exists for such a great length of time that I would think a benevolent administrator of the universe would intervene at some point to bring a halt to such evil. Indeed, some evils are justified and even perpetuated in that deity’s name (i.e., the e, with what appears to be little objection from that deity.

    It leads me to believe that if there is something out there, then it is more akin to the deists’ Great Watchmaker than an active deity.

  20. pennywit says:

    A better a question is would a universe without moral agents be better than a universe without the horror of a pennywit.

    Shush. The adults are talking.

  21. TFBW says:

    @pennywit: “… I would think a benevolent administrator of the universe would intervene at some point to bring a halt to such evil.” He’s done it once before, and will do it again. 2 Peter 3 is relevant here. Good enough?

    By all means, consider the Carrot Top conundrum carefully.

  22. grodrigues says:

    @pennywit:

    “Shush. The adults are talking.”

    I do not know what you imagine you have read in my perfectly serious response, but I suppose this means that you should be treated like an idiot with the comprehension of a 4-year old, whose only serious conversation he can stand is about rainbows and unicorns.

  23. pennywit says:

    He’s done it once before, and will do it again. 2 Peter 3 is relevant here. Good enough?

    And this is why the discussion is fundamentally irreconciliable. The atheist and the theist start from radically different postulates: the atheist believes there is no god, and the theist believes there is a god. Here, you’re more or less saying “God punished us once, and he’ll punish us again if we get too rowdy.” The atheist, on the other hand, says, “Right, no god ever really punished us, and since there’s no got to punish us, ain’t gonna happen again.”

    It should not surprise you that I align more with the atheist than with the theist. I have nothing against you, your beliefs, or your right to hold them. I simply disagree.

    PS. I don’t think a worlwide flood is necessary, but I consider Carrot Top proof that there is no justice in the world. The man is a prop comic. A PROP COMIC, and he’s making millions a year on a permanent Vegas residency.

  24. TFBW says:

    @pennywit: “And this is why the discussion is fundamentally irreconciliable.” I was merely pointing out that your hypothetically just God actually coheres with the Biblical description.
    “The atheist and the theist start from radically different postulates: the atheist believes there is no god …” Oh — I thought you were presenting a reason why you thought that God didn’t exist. If you’re starting form that postulate then there really wasn’t any argument for me to engage, was there? The whole argument from evil thing was just a post hoc rationalisation of the initial postulate, I guess.

  25. pennywit says:

    Oh — I thought you were presenting a reason why you thought that God didn’t exist.

    Actually, I was acting in good faith here. I’m not going post hoc anything. I’m just noting that eventually these arguments do lead to irreconcilable postulates. Not meaning to give offense, waste time, or anything along those lines. And this has been a fairly interesting discussion.

  26. TFBW says:

    @pennywit: “I’m just noting that eventually these arguments do lead to irreconcilable postulates.” So, in the end, everyone is closed-minded? I’d agree if it weren’t for the exceptions to that rule.

  27. pennywit says:

    Not everyone is close-minded, of course. But I think that people deeply committed to an idea can be quite close-minded, as they consider the idea a vital part of their identities.

  28. Michael says:

    I don’t think anybody in his right mind wants the Teletubbies universe.

    Agreed. And that’s why I don’t find there to be any challenge from the argument from evil, since it entails and implicitly demands a Teletubbie-like reality as the only viable form of creation. If we reject the Teletubbie world, the argument from evil is defeated.
    For example:

    But a great deal of evil in this world — slavery, the Holocaust, and so forth — exists for such a great length of time that I would think a benevolent administrator of the universe would intervene at some point to bring a halt to such evil.

    Yet if God created a Universe where slavery and the Holocaust did not occur, the argument from evil would still apply, as someone would always find some other evil to point to (the “so forth”). This will hold true again and again until we arrive in Teletubbie land. That’s how the argument from evil is the same as the demand for a Teletubbie-like existence.

    So, from my perspective, the argument from evil is rooted in emotion and not reason.

  29. Michael says:

    And this is why the discussion is fundamentally irreconciliable. The atheist and the theist start from radically different postulates: the atheist believes there is no god, and the theist believes there is a god.

    That’s usually because they have very different views about God. Most atheists rely on their teen-logic, assuming that if a God were to exist, he would be like Santa and interested in keeping us happy and safe. That’s not how a Christian views God. From our view, God is interested in seeing us grow and transform.

    As an aside, I’m not one to complain when atheists use “god” instead of “God.” It makes me no differenc. But I think it does hint that they think of God in small terms. Yet when their arguments target gods, they tend to miss the target (God).

  30. pennywit says:

    As an aside, I’m not one to complain when atheists use “god” instead of “God.” It makes me no differenc. But I think it does hint that they think of God in small terms. Yet when their arguments target gods, they tend to miss the target (God).

    When I’m talking about “a … god,” I’m referring not just to a monotheistic deity, but to polytheistic conceptions of the divine. I can simultaneously say “I do not believe there is sufficient proof that a god exists” and “I do not believe there is sufficient proof that God exists.” I find the Christopher Hitchens “Let’s use a lower-case g when referring to God by a the proper name” thing a little too precious by half.

  31. Michael says:

    When I’m talking about “a … god,” I’m referring not just to a monotheistic deity, but to polytheistic conceptions of the divine.

    I know. But it just occurred to me that when someone lumps gods with God, the former will influence how you see that latter. It’s thinking of God in small terms. That could have something to do with why these arguments for evil are so weak.

  32. TFBW says:

    If I understand Michael correctly, there are key differences between God as envisaged by monotheism and a polytheistic system like the Greeks’, aside from the number of beings. Dawkins in particular seems to treat monotheism as polytheism with N(gods)=1. That kind of failure to engage the subject makes for a weak argument.

  33. Michael says:

    If I understand Michael correctly, there are key differences between God as envisaged by monotheism and a polytheistic system like the Greeks’, aside from the number of beings. Dawkins in particular seems to treat monotheism as polytheism with N(gods)=1. That kind of failure to engage the subject makes for a weak argument.

    Yes. This is a realization that just came to me, so I’m still working it out in my mind. But if you think of God in “god” terms, it stands to reason you’re going to miss something. If I think of a god, I think of a being with super powers. Like Superman. Maybe that is why so many atheists buy into the argument from evil. If we are to believe Superman existed, then it would be difficult to explain why there are not several examples where Superman flew in to “save the day.” We can’t expect Superman to get rid of all the evil, but there should be examples of him being our super hero. This, of course, would also tie into the “teen logic” I mentioned.

  34. FZM says:

    If I understand Michael correctly, there are key differences between God as envisaged by monotheism and a polytheistic system like the Greeks’, aside from the number of beings.

    I think this is a really important point. Dawkins and other New Atheist writers have been concerned to obscure it, for whatever reason (and genuine ignorance, besides polemical and propagandistic intent is always a possibility).

    In the end you seem to end up with types of atheism whose foundation is basically something like the Phoenix analogy discussed in Michael’s latest post; God (refered to by Christians, Jews etc.) must share a nature with anything else called god or a god by anyone throughout history (and the atheist may have a caricatural idea of what was believed about these gods anyway) whose natures must in turn be basically analogous with those of Phoenixes, Unicorns, Leprechauns etc. Things the existence of which is so implausible that it doesn’t need any explanation, in consequence the analogies drawn to reach that point don’t require any justification either etcetera…

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