TIA Tuesday: The Disingenuous Vox DayDecember 16, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Vox Day has assembled Chapter 14 of TIA out of a long series of inadequate and poorly-reasoned drive-by pot shots at atheists, under the rubric of “Occam’s Chainsaw.” Their sole redeeming feature thus far has been that at least they were short. Today, however, we get to a section that is substantially longer, but without (alas) contributing anything of substance. It’s a rehash of the same tired rant Vox has been using all along: that because he (Vox) does not understand the material and secular basis of morality, it therefore does not exist, and atheists have no rational reason to behave morally. Hence the section title: “The Irrationality of Atheism.”
Vox begins with an attempt to twist the facts to make atheists sound both conceited and overly obsessed with reason.
[F]orty-three commenters at the militantly atheist science blog Pharyngula reported the results of an online personality test they had taken. Similar to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator survey, the test was hopelessly transparent and subjective, but provided a useful means of examining how these predominantly atheist individuals view themselves. They reported an average Rational rating of 94 out of 100, compared to an Extroverted rating of 32 and an Arrogance rating of 49. They do not see themselves so much as champions of reason, but paragons!
Sarah Palin be proud, Vox Day is jumping on the anti-elite band-wagon right beside you. At the risk of making a “paragon” of myself, I’m going to try something Vox apparently disdains: I’m going to think logically and reasonably about what the test actually said (as opposed to the fanciful and slanderous interpretation Vox chooses to give to it).
First of all, if you’ve taken an MBTI-style personality inventory like the ones Vox mentions, you’ll know that seeing yourself “as a paragon of reason” is neither a question on the test nor an indicator reported by the test. The test instead measures your personal “style” across four axes: Introvert versus Extrovert, Sensing (i.e. 5 senses) vs. Intuition, Thinking (using analysis to arrive at conclusions) vs Feeling (drawing conclusions based on how you feel about the people/circumstances), and Judging (getting answers now) vs Perceiving (wait and see what develops).
Notice that this has nothing whatsoever to do with atheists holding exaggerated and egotistical views about their rationality being supposedly superior to everyone else’s. What the MBTI tells you is that if a person scores closer to the Thinking end of the axis than the Feeling end, you’re going to have better luck convincing them with verifiable facts and non-fallacious reasoning than you are with appeals to emotional bonds like “if you disagree, you’re only helping the terrorists.” It’s just their personality type. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better at reasoning and logic than others, it just means that they trust facts and logic more than they trust appeals to emotion and social connections.
Vox’s goal, of course, is not to try and understand what the MBTI really means. He just wants to set up a straw man atheist who is a goddamn-elitist-convinced-of-his-own-intellectual-superiority-and-wouldn’t-you-just-love-to-see-Vox-take-him-down-a-notch. But stand clear folks, Vox has Occam’s Chainsaw fully revved up at this point, and he don’t care where it swings.
His first swipe is to confuse being rational with being analytical, so that he can try and chop an arm or two off of science. The beauty of science, of course, is that it draws its answers from reality itself, which is the truth, so no matter how complicated science gets, or how much increasing specialization tends to create new and more difficult niches of scientific knowledge, it’s all consistent with itself and with the real world. There’s nothing unreasonable or irrational about having confidence in an approach that yields coherent, practical, and beneficial results on such a consistent basis. But Vox, in his crusade to blemish the atheists, tries to make it sound insane.
[The atheist] is not without faith, because he puts his trust in the scientific method and those who use it whether he understands their conclusions with regards to any given application or not. But because there are very few minds capable of grasping higher-level physics, for example, let alone understanding their implications, and because specialization means that it is nearly impossible to keep up with the latest developments in any of the more esoteric fields, the atheist stands with utter confidence on an intellectual foundation comprised of things of which he himself neither knows nor understands.
What Vox overlooks is the fact that the atheist, in many cases, does understand how science works and why it is reliable. There may be increasingly specialized subdomains to which the scientific method is applied, but it remains fundamentally the same scientific method, and its answers are reliable for the same reasons. Vox is confusing the detailed researches to which science is applied, with the rationality and reliability of the method itself. It’s a blatant appeal to ignorance: “Everyone must be ignorant about a lot of the knowledge that’s available, therefore no one has any reason to believe the answers.” Please, O Mighty Ignorance, protect us from science! But we do have a reason to trust the answers: we know that they were obtained using reliable scientific technique.
Vox argues that the atheist can “be legitimately criticized when he fails to admit that he is not actually operating on reason in most circumstances, but is instead exercising a faith that is every bit as blind and childlike as that of the most thoughtless, Bible-thumping fundamentalist.” But in fact, Vox is not being what you would call truthful here. It is reasonable to trust that a reliable scientific method, repeatedly demonstrated to be both useful and accurate, would return valid answers when deployed on real-world evidence and facts. The thoughtless, Bible-thumping fundamentalist, by contrast, bases his faith on the fact that somebody told him what to believe, and he believed it, even though (in contrast to science) his approach consistently yields answers that contradict themselves, other fundamentalists, and the real world.
By the way, if there are any “thoughtless fundamentalists” out there with chainsaw wounds, don’t feel too bad. You are by no means Vox’s only intended victims here. Morality is next on the hit-list.
The fundamental irrationality of the atheist can primarily be seen in his actions, and it is here that his general lack of intellectual conviction is also exposed. Whereas Christians and the faithful of other religions have rational reasons for attempting to live by their various moral systems, the atheist does not. Both ethics and morals based on religion are nothing more than man-made myth to the atheist, he is therefore required to reject them on rational materialist grounds.
As we’ve pointed out before, Vox’s worldview apparently interferes with his ability to understand where morality really comes from. It comes from the consequences of the behaviors that people learn to categorize as “good” or “bad.” If a religious man decides to refrain from saying “hell” because he believes that God will punish him for it, he is deriving his morals from a consideration of the consequences of his actions, just like the atheist does. The only difference is that the believer has a superstitious and gullible expectation of what those consequences will be. But real-world morality, where actions have real-world consequences, work for both believer and unbeliever, and in fact work better for the unbeliever, since the gullible and superstitious notions don’t garble the unbeliever’s ability to correctly distinguish between real consequences and imaginary/paranoid ones.
Believers, watch out, here comes that chainsaw again!
So the atheist seeks to live by the dominant morality whenever it is convenient for him, and there are even those who, despite their faithlessness, do a better job of living by the tenets of religion than those who actually subscribe to them. But even the most admirable of atheists is nothing more than a moral parasite, living his life based on borrowed ethics.
Ooo, nasty cut there. Vox was aiming at the atheists, but unfortunately he missed. Morality comes from one of two places: either it comes from secular consequences (valid morality) or it comes from superstitions (invalid morality). When believers excuse genocide on the grounds that God wants certain ethnic groups wiped out, that’s superstition, invalid morality. When believers want to mutilate their babies’ genitals because they think God will like their babies better after they’ve lost certain parts of their body, that’s superstition, invalid morality. The valid morality happens when believers borrow the atheists’ secular consequences as the basis for judging right and wrong. I wouldn’t use the term “moral parasite” myself, but if Vox wants to chuck that chainsaw at the people who are borrowing someone else’s basis of morality, believers ought to be the ones to duck. Especially since, as Vox admits, unbelievers can and do live morally better lives than believers in some cases.
It’s really a very poorly-thought-out argument, and a rather silly attempt to make atheists look bad, but Vox can sink lower, and does so by citing two atheists, Dawkins and Hitchens, as proof that atheism is “childish” because the two became atheists when they were nine years old. I kid you not, he really tries to argue that:
Hitchens and Dawkins became atheists after long and exhaustive rational inquiries into the existence of God, both at the age of nine. The idea that there is any rational basis for atheism is further damaged due to the way in which so many atheists become atheists during adolescence, an age which combines a tendency towards mindless rebellion as well as the onset of sexual desires which collide with religious strictures on their satisfaction.
With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that intelligent men of intellectual repute such as Francis Collins and Anthony Flew should have rejected atheism at the tender ages of twenty-seven and eighty-one, respectively. Atheism is not only irrational, it is quite literally childish in many instances.
So based on the ages of a sample population of four individuals who were specifically chosen to serve as examples of atheists being young and believers being older, Vox uses his own unique brand of statistical analysis to conclude that atheism is both irrational and childish. And just in case there was even a shred of credibility left in his little screed, he tops it off with a footnote which reads, “Is there any doubt that most college-age atheists would have no problem believing in a God who permitted them to get laid at will? This is why even the most idiotic forms of paganism compete so favorably with atheism.” Yes, he’s really suggesting that college-age atheists are all secret worshipers of Aphrodite, Venus, and their sisters.
I dunno, clearly atheism is the intended target here, but it looks to me like most of the blood on that chainsaw is Vox’s own, this time. Fear not, though, the chainsaws reign of errorterror is not over yet. Next on the hit list: all mankind.
But the ultimate atheist irrationality is the idea that Man himself is rational. Despite the fact that many of our behavioral sciences are founded on this principle, including the dismal science so dear to me, almost all of the observable evidence, scientific and casual, forces one to conclude otherwise. Consider how the way in which the educated Western voting class manages to combine total ignorance with fundamental misconceptions to achieve a higher state of irrational consciousness that is breathtaking in its delusionary confidence, the miracle of aggregation notwithstanding.
Vox, being human himself, would no doubt cheerfully agree that his own writings give us a fair sample of “a higher state of irrational consciousness that is breathtaking in its delusionary confidence,” given his misconceptions and ignorance about such topics as the secular basis for morality, etc. Nevertheless, he’s committing a fallacy here by arguing that, because people sometimes behave irrationally, therefore Man is never capable of being rational. It’s the old false dichotomy: either Man is 100% rational 100% of the time, or Man is not capable of rationality, and therefore atheists are irrational when they think that it’s even possible for anyone (e.g. themselves) to be rational.
Predicated on an unreliable human attribute that may not even exist, rejecting the foundation of Man’s most successful civilization, trusting a notoriously quixotic institution for a miracle as a means of replacing that foundation and refusing to learn from its past disasters, atheism is not so much the basis for an irrational philosophy as for an insane one. Attempting to build a society on reason is like waging a war on terror; the effort is doomed to failure because it’s a category error.
So let’s all just reject reason, and build our society on a solid foundation of irrationality! Hooray! Thinking was hard anyway.
Let’s see, so far the chainsaw has chopped down fundamentalists, believers with morals, Vox himself, all mankind, and Western civilization. What else can he hack? Maybe take another whack at himself? He prides himself on his expertise in history, so it’s kind of fun to watch him take a swipe at the alleged hypocrisy of ancient unbelievers, especially after having identified some obscure 18th century author as “History’s first confirmed atheist.”
This irrational, if pragmatic, compromise between a public nod to morality and its private dismissal is an ancient one. When Socrates taught his students that knowledge is the only good and ignorance the only evil more than 2,000 years ago, he was fully aware of the potentially dangerous repercussions of this teaching and argued in The Republic that it was necessary to keep such virtuous knowledge to the ruling elite. The knowledge of the nonexistence of morality was the great secret to which only the rulers were to be privy and the justification for keeping their subjects in ignorance for their own good, lest the herd break out into rebellion.
The ever-practical Romans understood this too. Seneca the Younger described religion as being regarded as true by the common folk, false by the wise, and useful by the rulers. But as an aristocrat in a cruel and brutal culture, he may have understated religion’s importance to social stability, because it is more than useful for the peaceful maintenance of a civilized society, it is a downright necessity.
I dunno, saying that “religion is…false to the wise” sounds pretty atheistic to me. Not sure what Jean Meslier could have said in the 1700′s to “confirm” his atheism any more clearly, especially since Vox seems to want to accuse Seneca and Socrates of having that same lack of moral foundation that he attributes to atheism.
Anyway, we’re done. As I said, a longish section, and yet for all the sound and fury, still no substance. It was a waste of Vox’s time to have written it, and a waste of any else’s time to read it.