Monday, March 19, 2012

Are Atheists Redefining "Reason"?

As many are likely aware, in one week, there will be a gathering of atheists in Washington, DC. They have dubbed this the "Reason Rally". The idea is to promote the idea that atheism is more reasonable than religion. However, if you read this blog and other blogs like it (see the sidebar), you are also aware that there are many reasons that people believe Christianity is true, and atheism is not. But are the organizers of this event actually promoting "reason"?


If this rally was going to consist of mainly atheist scientists and philosophers offering their reasons and encouraging Christian peers to critique and engage their reasons, I could understand the title of "Reason Rally". Unfortunately, the organizers are doing no such thing. Instead they have chosen to appeal to improper authorities, resist peer review, and encourage an atmosphere of personal attacks- all pointing toward a deliberate rejection of reason and possibly even an intentional redefinition of the word "reason". This all reminds me of my school days...


Improper Authorities
One of the first things that I learned in Philosophy 101 was the proper and improper way to appeal to authorities. Simply put, a proper authority is someone who is speaking in the context of the discipline they are trained in. An improper authority is one who is speaking in the context of a discipline they are not trained in. To find an improper appeal to authority, a person needs to look no further than TV commercials. Celebrities sign contracts to promote many different goods and services. If a basketball player promoted a toothpaste, this is not a proper appeal to authority; however, if a dentist (not an actor) promotes a toothpaste, it is a proper appeal to authority. There is much more about dealing with appeals to authorities in my post "Do You Rely On Authorities?".

Please notice that the organizers of the Reason Rally are using people not trained scientifically to provide conclusions about scientific data. They are also using people not trained in philosophy or metaphysics to support metaphysical claims (that God does not exist). Science can be used to support philosophical conclusions, but it cannot be used to draw them. What is needed is the combination of both scientist and philosopher. The philosopher to provide the argument and support the philosophical premises, and the scientist to support the scientific premises.

Instead, the organizers give us a few scientists (covering biochemistry, astrophysics, and psychology- okay coverage), yet a large number of singers, comedians, a TV show host, activists, and...politicians?! I will give them that they do have one philosopher of bioethics on board, but bioethics is not metaphysics- though that does not mean that the philosopher cannot handle metaphysics.

People should take notice that many atheist philosophers (more likely to make a "reasonable" case for atheism) will not be speaking at the event. These would include Michael Ruse, Stephen Law, and Peter Millican (to name a few). Please note, rather, the overabundance of "authorities" who are not trained in the areas they will be speaking "authoritatively" about. This stands in direct contrast to "reason".


Peer Review?
The atheist community is very big on peer review. They tend to believe that content being given to the public or the academic community should always be reviewed by peers of the authors or those trained in the topic of discussion (if the author is an improper authority). I address the issue of the demand for peer reviewed content in my post "Peer Reviewed Only, Please".

I would like people to notice that the organizers are acting quite against their own claims that content needs peer review at this meeting. Two particular actions stand out like a sore thumb: they deride the Christian apologetics community for saying that they will be present to engage in reasonable dialog, and they have invited the known-to-be-highly-unreasonable group Westboro Baptist church in lieu of true peers. William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantiga, Ravi Zacharias, Paul Copan, Hugh Ross, Fazale Rana, and J.P. Moreland all have earned Ph. D.'s in their respective disciplines. These scholars certainly would be able to offer reasonable discussion and dialogue.

The fact that the organizers have invited people who are not trained to "critique", but rather to ridicule the atheists, seems good evidence that the organizers prefer both sides to ridicule the other, instead of actual reasonable discussion. I don't see how this can be interpreted as anything short of the refusal to accept reasonable critique and peer review. This also stands in direct contrast to "reason". (More on the Westboro Invitation from Nick Peters, Tom Gilson, and Carson Weitnauer.)

Ad Hominem Fallacy
With the invitation of people who tend to protest by providing personal attacks, the people at the Reason Rally will be in a very good position to show how unreasonable some Christians are and project that onto the rest of the community (including the Ph.D.'s mentioned above). No matter how "nice" the exchanges may appear to be, each side will be either explicitly or implicitly calling the other "evil", "dumb", "stupid", and "naive" and concluding that the other's worldview is wrong because of that. These are nothing short of the ad-hominem fallacy. The truth of a conclusion is not based on how "evil", "dumb", "stupid", or "naive" the person presenting the argument is; it is rather based on the truth of the premises and the validity of the logic. By the fact that the organizers have invited those with fuel (and not water) to pour on the fire started by the organizers, they demonstrate their love for the ad-hominem fallacy- also in direct contrast to "reason".



Rejecting or Redefining "Reason"?
It baffles my mind to think that certain adherents to a worldview that claims to promote "reason" are actively doing things at their "biggest gathering of atheists in history" that are diametrically opposed to their own claims. How can "reason" include such blatant improper appeals to authorities? How can "reason" exclude the very people trained to think reasonably? How can "reason" so blatantly refuse peer review? How can "reason" prefer to deal with those known to be unreasonable than those trained to be reasonable? None of these actions promote reason; in fact, they are an explicit rejection of reason. If I was the "conspiracy type", I'd be tempted to say it seems that the use of the word "reason" is simply an existential convenience or  purposeful deception, until an intricately designed plan is executed to achieve the end-goal of redefining the term "reason" to mean its current opposite. But since I'm not the "conspiracy type" (and that claim has way too much design and purpose in it), its not likely a valid conclusion...

Back In Junior-High School
Way back in the day, when I was in junior-high school, I remember being forced to participate in gatherings that were of little intellectual interest to anybody. One such type of gathering was to support the school's sports team right before a big (or not-so-big) game against a rival school. There were people shouting about how great our players were and how the other teams sucked. Cheerleaders waved pompoms in the air and repeated catchy chants to get everyone's adrenaline levels high, in order to drum up support for the team. It didn't matter that the team had lost every game up to this point and were clearly inferior to the rival team; what mattered was that the other students supported their team to offer emotional support. Every now and then, an event would have the students' favorite coach (delusional) or teacher (no sports experience at all) get up and say something "inspiring", and everyone cheered. There was not a single thing intellectual about such a pep rally. The closer we get to the actual event, the more this "reason" rally looks like my junior-high school's "pep" rallies of old.

I will accept the criticism that this is an unfair analogy. However, we need to see where, actually, the analogy fails: The organizers of my school's pep rallies were not putting it on under the guise of "reason"- it was about "school spirit", and they were not being coy about that one single bit. Based upon the actions of the organizers (evidence of my conclusion being possible) of the Reason Rally, the same must be called into question. If this is, in fact, not the case, the Reason Rally organizers need to provide a reason for excluding their own philosophers and critical peers, and inviting the most unreasonable group to "represent" the other side.

Recommended Websites:
True Reason
Reasons to Believe
Reasonable Faith
Stand to Reason

Other posts (not already mentioned) regarding the Reason Rally:
Atheists Don't Own Reason- Tom Gilson
Let's Set Up Our Own Straw Man- Blake Anderson
Misunderstanding Atheism?- Greg Reeves
A Brief Follow Up on the Reason Rally / An Exhortation to Pastors- Austin Gravely
Does the God Delusion Really Lead to Rationality?- Eric Chabot

1 comment:

  1. The idea of atheists getting together to discuss their reasons for atheism is perfectly reasonable. The idea of them getting together to try and "preach" atheism to theists is also perfectly reasonable, (based on the fact that it's ok for theists to do it, so in my opinion, should be perfectly reasonable to do the other way round.

    What I am against, it things like inviting WBC along. This proves that it isn't about reasonable people, putting forwards reasonable opinions. It is about generating arguments, rather than reasoned debate.

    That is why I wouldn't be attending, even though I am an atheist, if I lived right next door to the venue. As it happens, I live on a different continent, but that is not relevant

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