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how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 9, concluding remarks

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Rise-of-Atheism

Now I want to make some final remarks about the debate process and the way it can be manipulated, and some general remarks about the growth of atheism.

I’ve taken some time to respond to Dr Craig’s arguments, and I could’ve taken longer, but I didn’t consider all of them worthy of an elaborate response. In any case I’ve taken a lot longer than twenty minutes for my overall response, and that’s as it should be. To make a claim is generally easier and less time-consuming than to refute a claim, and it has always been thus, and Dr Craig knows that very well. This is probably why Dr Craig insists on setting the agenda and why he always claims that, if every one of his points isn’t refuted in 20 minutes, he wins.  This is essentially a modified version of the infamous ‘Gish gallop’, in which the opponent has little hope of addressing all the erroneous elements embedded in every point in the allotted time, so he or she (but actually I don’t recall a female ever debating Dr Craig) has no choice but to select two or three points to focus on. This allows Dr Craig to claim a very dubious ‘victory’ for the points that aren’t addressed. Hopefully in pointing this out, I’ve helped you to see the limited relevance of the time-constrained debate format in answering these big questions.

Now, I want to focus finally on the growth of the non-religious trend in the west. I recall hearing Dr Craig in an interview stating that only 2% of the US population was atheist. He probably got this figure from the 2009 ARIS report, the American Religious Identification Survey, which did indeed find that some 1.6% of surveyed American adults self-identified as atheist or agnostic. However the same report found that some 15% of Americans identified as having no religion. Make of that what you will. That same report also found that, in 2008, some 76% of Americans identified as Christians, compared with 86% in 1990. The report concludes that:

‘The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion’.

A more recent 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

The USA, however, is a lot more religious than other western nations. My own country, Australia, is I think more typical in its profile. In Australia’s 2011 census, the non-religious category amounted to 22.3% of the whole, the fastest-growing category by far, and considering that 8.6% of the population chose not to answer the question, and that a substantial proportion of those would be non-religious, it probable that more than a quarter of the population would identify as non-religious. Some 61% of Australians now identify as Christians, compared to around 84% in the early seventies, and it’s been falling more rapidly in recent years. Figures from Great Britain and Canada are much the same, with rapid growth in the non-religious categories in recent years.

Yet in spite of all this evidence, Dr Craig scoffs at the challenges to his theism and dismisses atheists as intellectual lightweights. He even likes to make the claim that atheists have been using the same arguments for the last 300 years and that all their arguments have been quashed. This amuses me, because this is exactly what any number of atheist philosophers have been saying about theists and their arguments. And I have to say, having read a few essay collections on the existence of god, I’ve always thought that atheists had by far the best arguments – but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

The difficulty that Dr Craig and his cronies must face is this. If he has all the best arguments, why are the majority of philosophers – trained analytical thinkers – non-believers, even in his own country? Why is it that non-belief is growing far more rapidly among the most educated than among the least educated? Why is it that millions and millions and millions of people, in Australia, Europe, North America and Japan, are comfortably rejecting Christianity and religion? Is there a virus going around? Have people dumbed down from the glorious days of pre-Enlightenment Christendom? Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shake Dr Craig out of his smug complacency – not that this would be possible – but I do want to pose that question to you, the audience. What has changed over the past half-century? I’m not saying that I know the answer myself, though I have my speculations on that question, which I won’t share with you today. But let me be clear that there is a change under way.

Dr Craig, as I say has spoken of 300 years of atheism. The writer Jack Miles has written about how galling it must be for atheists that the term has been around for a couple of thousand years, with still only a minority of followers. But Miles has misrepresented the situation. A couple of thousand years ago there were very few people, mostly intellectuals, who scoffed at the religious superstitions of their fellows. Epicurus, Seneca, Lucretius, these were largely isolated individuals, islands in a sea of theism, or at least deism. The term atheist in fact began to be bandied about with the rise of Christianity. The Christians called the Pagans atheists, and the Pagans called the Christians atheists, and in a sense both sides were correct, because each side refused to believe in the only god or gods worth worshipping, according to the other side. Of course to modern observers, neither side was atheist.

Atheism as a ‘movement’ is of far more recent vintage. Isolated individuals cropped up again in the eighteenth century – Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach, Hume, Diderot and a few others – but many of the Enlightenment and early nineteenth century critics of Christianity, such as Voltaire, Paine, and the American founding fathers, were deists. Even in the late 19th century, the great voices of atheism, such as Robert Ingersoll, were largely voices in the wilderness, though the intellectual claims of atheism were forwarded by many philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill who simply ignored the ethical claims of religion completely, as have most moral philosophers since their time.

But it’s really only in the twentieth century, and the later half of it, that atheism has become common-place. This is a trend that I cannot see being reversed, in a world where knowledge – of our universe, of our psychology, and of our human origins – expands on a daily basis. Religious belief is becoming out-moded and, to many, positively embarrassing in its simplistic claims about good and evil, sin and redemption, and gods as lords over us, to be worshipped and feared and so forth. Of course we live in a multi-speed polity, as far as the absorption of new ideas is concerned, and we will long continue to have our backward-facing Islamists, our Haredi Jews and our Amish-style Christian sects, but they will not be among the world’s movers and shakers.

So to return to Dr Craig and his crusade against the world’s atheists. None of his arguments withstands much scrutiny but he will never admit this and he will go on repeating them, unbent and unbowed until, if I may quote the bard, ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’ puts a stop to the farce. I mentioned earlier the flat-earthers who filled halls only 150 years ago with their speeches against the round-earth conspiracy. Not one of those flat-earthers ever admitted he was wrong. Every last one of them went to their deaths proclaiming their ‘truths’ with just as much confidence as when they started out. Creationists never change their minds either, or very rarely. They just die. And they’re not replaced, or the replacement rate is unable to match the death rate, and so the species eventually dies out. This has been the fate of the flat-earthers. It will happen to the creationists too, though it’ll take a little longer, and as to those who in future want to take up the cause of Dr Craig or his later incarnations, you’ll no doubt find the going increasingly tough, and the potential audience increasingly indifferent. The real world is becoming just too interesting to keep focusing on rehashed arguments about done and dusted worldviews.

Go in peace, and thanks for listening.