Thursday, March 29, 2012

Making a mockery of reason

“Mock [believers], ridicule them in public, don’t fall for the convention that we’re far too polite to talk about religion,” Richard Dawkins exhorted an estimated 10,000 atheists near the end of Washington, DC’s “Reason Rally” on Saturday.  “Religion is not off the table.  Religion is not off limits.  Religion makes specific claims about the universe, which need to be substantiated.  They should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.”

As the inestimable Bugs Bunny was wont to say, “Of course you realize this means war.”

Since we’re all presumably adults, we all know that neither mockery nor contempt demonstrates intellectual superiority.  Especially if one’s preferred form of ridicule relies heavily on four-letter words and sexual references; then you’re just demonstrating your immaturity.  And Dawkins himself has a penchant for an exaggerated incredulousness (“Do you really believe that?”) that has long since become tiresome.  Yes, Rich, we really believe that; prove it false or just get over it.  As I said yesterday, if you’re gonna claim to be more rational, it would help your credibility if you behave like a rational adult instead of like a middle-school bully hazing the geeky-looking wimp.

But more to the point, neither does atheism sit in a privileged place, exempt from the need to prove its assumptions about the nature of the universe.  Indeed, it’s impossible to prove that something does not exist; the best you can do is point out that its existence hasn’t been irrefutably demonstrated.  We can cut the atheist position a little discount: the atheist doesn’t need to prove the non-existence of gods or of a supernatural order so much as make a coherent, convincing case against.

But if you want to play rough ….

Of course, Dawkins et al. encourage their fellow atheists to mock believers because we hold as facts things we can’t prove to be true through the methods of Science.  In other words, we take these things on faith, and faith is (presumably) irrational.  But because of the empirical impossibility of proving something doesn’t exist, atheists claim for atheism a “default position” — that is, we must assume it’s true without need of proof.  Which means we must take God’s non-existence on faith. And this exercise of faith is supposed to be rational.

The problem with such a “default position”, as I’ve written before, is that it’s an ad ignorantiam fallacy.  Failure to prove that p is true doesn’t mean that p is necessarily false; it can be true for reasons that aren’t yet apparent.  “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence” is the same fallacy reworded for maximum cleverness; in fact, it presumes our scientific knowledge and technological tools are sufficient to the task, much like presuming you can use a metal detector to find a unicorn in your sock drawer.  “Innocent until proven guilty” is good jurisprudence; “false until proven true,” on the other hand, is simply bad logic.
January 20, 1998

I’m not saying religion is rational because irreligiousness is irrational.   Nor am I saying Christianity in general, Catholicism in particular, is true because atheism makes unproven and unproveable assumptions.  I am saying that, if you define faith as believing something you can’t prove, and if you hold that asserting as a fact that which you can’t prove is irrational, then atheism is as irrational as any religion … either that, or your ideas about faith are mistaken.

So what do we have?  We have a claim that the non-existence of the supernatural doesn’t need to be proven to be presumed true.  Moreover, the non-existence of the supernatural is not only presumable, it’s so certain to be true that anyone who believes otherwise can be considered an idiot, and that anyone who claims to have had contact with supernatural entities must be considered either a fool, a liar or a delusional maniac.  It’s so obviously true that right-thinking people need no longer persuade others of its truth; faith-heads must be harassed and hounded out of their primitive religious beliefs or pushed to the margins of society … perhaps even sterilized so they can no longer pollute the gene pool.

To say such assertions are a tad arrogant is like saying Keith Richards experimented for a little while with controlled substances.  Certainly I don’t need to prove that God doesn’t exists to presume it as a fact.  I also don’t need to prove that Hillary Clinton was born a man to presume it as a fact, either.  But convincing me that the no-God position is more likely to be true is going to take a bit more than foot-stamping insistence and inane, inapposite comparisons to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  (I can just hear Bob from Sesame Street singing, “One of these things is not like the others ….”)

Look, I respect a person who says to me, “Nothing I’ve read, seen or heard is convincing enough to make me believe in God, and I just don’t feel a need to believe.” I also don’t believe Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) means “sharing the Gospel” with someone against their will; I’d get just as cheesed off if someone tried to “share” a plate of liver and onions with me like that (there’s simply not enough ketchup in the world to make that edible).

However, there’s no home court advantage in philosophy. If believers don’t get to make assumptions without proof, then neither do non-believers. And this is a position that stops reason in its tracks, because reason requires we take some basic principles as facts without proof. Put differently, that we can use reason to draw correct conclusions about the universe from what we sense is itself a conclusion using principles that we must assume are true but which we can’t prove, such as that “a thing cannot both be and not-be at the same time and in the same manner”.

If assuming as a fact what you can’t scientifically prove is an act of faith, then all reason is based on a leap of faith. By the lights of certain idiots, this would mean reason itself is irrational, because it’s based on the unproven and unproveable.

Or maybe it’s time such idiots admit they don’t know jack about faith?

Addendum: April 18, 2012
Thanks to S_Cobbler  for the link to the Dilbert cartoon I referenced.  To paraphrase Eliot, good bloggers borrow; great bloggers steal.  Also, my apologies to Scott Adams and United Feature Syndicate: I couldn't get the embedding to work, so I just copied and pasted.