David “theology isn’t about God” Dunn responds

On November 10, I criticized a HuffPo article by theologian David Dunn, who argued that theology is not about God, but about people. That is, studying theology is supposedly a valuable exercise because it gives us insights into the religious views (and behaviors) of our godly ancestors.  Well, there may some truth in that if you conceive of “theology” as “religious studies,” and I do see a place in the halls of the academy for the history and doctrine of religion. But I see no use for entire schools devoted to theology, nor for most courses in theology.  If you read Alvin Plantinga, for example (I seem to be obsessed with the man, perhaps because he’s so clever yet so misguided, and was once a president of the American Philosophical Association), you’ll find a lot about God and reasons why we should accept the Christian deity and his ways, but not much about human psychology. The same goes for John Haught, who bangs on endlessly about embracing the Reality Beyond Reality, but doesn’t show keen insight into the human condition. (By the way, Dunn’s Ph.D thesis was called “Symphonia in the Secular: An Ecclesiology for the Narthex”.)

Dunn responded the next day with a post on his own website (“David J. Dunn”), called “Three reasons why New Atheism is freak’n adorable!!!

It’s snarky—so much for the politeness of theologians—and somewhat incoherent. He misspells Daniel Dennett’s name as “Daniel Dennet,” but that’s the least of his errors.

But what are the reasons why we’re so “freak’n adorable”? (He’s trying to be funny here, of course, but fails.) I would think it’s because we love cats, because we (unlike theologians) have a sense of humor, and because we remain upbeat despite constant vilification by the religious masses. But no, Dunn has other reasons, and they’re quite familiar to us all:

1. We completely lack irony. That is, we’re just as fundamental as religious fundamentalists. Sound familiar? I quote Dr. Dunn directly

Only two kinds of people have told me about their religious beliefs within two minutes of speaking with them: Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists. Only two kinds of people have ever met me outside a convention center with some kind of tract about religion: Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists. When it comes to religion, two kinds of people troll blogs and leave the same kinds of comments over and over again. Do I have to say who those kinds of people are at this point? The thing about being anti-something is that you need the thing you oppose in order to be what you are, and you also end up replicating a lot of the behaviors you find so despicable in others. But it’s okay, you tell yourself, because you are the good guys. New Atheists have tracts, radio programs (that discuss conversion techniques), blogs, conferences, and even churches. I mean…come on!

What expertise in psychology he’s attained from his studies of theology! If you oppose something, you end up replicating the behaviors you oppose! That’s why civil rights advocates in America used dogs and water hoses against segregationists, and why atheists issue fatwas and try to kill the Muslims whose faith we decry.

No, we’re not the “good guys” (we had no choice in that matter), but we have the good beliefs—the ones that aren’t delusional. And exactly what is wrong with atheist bl*gs, conferences, and radio shows? (The churches I could do without, but I doubt many of us go to atheist churches.) Don’t we have a right to say what we think? Why does he make fun of those outlets?

Finally, Dunn needs to learn what “fundamentalist” really means.

2. We lack philosophical gravitas.

One of the things I say in a recent critique of the prominent New Atheist and evolutionary scientist, Jerry Coyne, is that New Atheism seems to confuse philosophy with science. This leads to a kind of intellectual hubris and conceptual naiveté. Why pay attention to actual philosophical questions if you think you already have an expertise in that area? Thus New Atheism fails to do what Marx and Nietzsche did so well: take religion seriously. Otherwise, New Atheism might be less prone to act so fundamentalist.

Sorry, Dr. Dunn, but you’re dead wrong here. We do take religion seriously, and that’s why we have all those bl*gs, radio shows, and conferences. If we thought it was a joke, we wouldn’t do those things. What Dunn really means, of course, is that we’re not sophisticated enough to deal with the Serious Arguments about God (which, of course, aren’t convincing at all). We’ll start paying more attention to actual philosophical (he means “theological”) questions when we get evidence that the subject of that inquiry really exists. Why engage in endless lucubrations about a deity for which there’s no evidence?

3. Our atheism depends on faith. (What Dunn actually says is that atheism “requires a leap of faith.”) There, you have it—three old chestnuts in a row, and this is the third—and most ridiculous.  No, our atheism depends on a lack of faith—an unwillingness to accept things for which there’s no good evidence. In all his blathering about the virtues of theology, Dunn never mentions that the evidence for the subject of theology isn’t there.

What he proffers instead is a word salad. Get a load of this:

New Atheism likes to tout itself as being reasonable, but a New Atheist is no more reasonable than a Christian who takes science seriously. It might seem logical to conclude that religion is false because religions have similar myths. The idea of a virgin birth and resurrection are repeated in various paganisms. But that is reasoning by analogy. It is to say that if x is false, and y is like x, then y must also be false. Resemblance is no basis for judgment, especially when it comes to “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” That is how St. Anselm of Canterbury defined God. We are dealing with an inherently unthinkable “being” here. So no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make God appear at the end of a scientific experiment anymore than you can make God appear at the end of an argument about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the birth of Jesus (Christian apologetics is another form of atheism). “God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself. It is an inherently impossible concept. Therefore, agnosticism is the only philosophically defensible position. Anything else, whether belief in God or atheism, is an act of belief. No logic. Just faith.

No, there are far better reasons for thinking that religion is a man-made fiction than the resemblance of some religions to others. (And, by the way, there are striking and profound differences between the tens of thousands of religions practiced on this planet.  How does Islam resemble Scientology?)

And Dunn’s definition of God is what’s really adorable here: “Whatever we think must always be transcended by itself.” What the bloody hell does that mean? What is the sweating professor trying to say? What Dunn doesn’t realize is that agnosticism, defined as “lack of belief in Gods”, really is the kind of atheism that most of us embrace. I suspect that Dunn’s “agnosticism” means something like this: “Well, we don’t know there’s a God, and we don’t know that there’s not, so let’s call it a tossup, say that there’s about a 50% chance of God existing and call that agnosticism.”  Does Dunn think that agnosticism in that sense should also apply to belief in Xenu, Thor, UFOs, and the Loch Ness Monster? What Dunn fails to realize is that this kind of stuff, both its weaselly redefinition of God and its terrible use of logic, is the very reason why theology is so lame.

What is “philosophically defensible” is not what is reasonable, for you can philosophically defend anything on the grounds that it’s logically possible. But you can also defend beliefs on whether there are good reasons for them, and that’s where we have the advantage over people like Dunn, sworn to defend not what’s true, but what appeals to them.

He ends his article like this:

I am posting my thoughts today because, for various reasons, I am exacerbated. Now I plan to shut-up and keep holding out my olive branch. What happens next is not really up to me.

I think he means “affronted” or “angry” rather than “exacerbated.” And, of course, “shut up” is not hyphenated. All the more reason to abjure those theology classes and head over to the English Department.

And pardon me if I don’t accept that olive branch, for taking it means giving credibility to harmful delusions.

158 Comments

  1. Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    //

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      ///

  2. Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Maybe this is a quibble, but I would take issue with the claim that anything logically possible is “philosophically defensible.” Normally, showing that x is logically possible is only a defense against the claim that x is logically impossible.

    This appears in some debates over the Problem of Evil, since it used to be thought (following Mackie 1955) that God’s existence was logically impossible given the facts of evil in the world. In response, people such as Plantinga offered stories according to which God was logically compatible with evil. This doesn’t mean that God in general is philosophically defensible, just (if Plantinga is correct) that God’s and evil are logically compossible.

    Interestingly, Dunn seems to have mischaracterized Anselm. Anselm did not think God was completely “unthinkable”; indeed, he thought that the concept of God entailed many particular truths about God, such as that He was necessarily existent, omnipotent, omniscient, and so on.

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      Tom, surely you know the many claims that equate logical possibility with philosphical defensibility. One that I mentioned recently is Eliott Sober’s quasi-defense of theism based on the argument that God COULD have tweaked certain mutations. That’s logically possible but there’s no evidence for it. And equating logical possibility with philosophical defensibility is the modus operandus of one Alvin Plantinga. In fact, I’d say that’s one of the deepest flaws of theological apologetics. Plantinga, however, does equate logical possibility with rational belief. Have you not been reading theology? One often sees the claim that “this COULD be true” to support the fact that X IS true.

      • Dale
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        It seems like there are too many things that are “logically possible” but not apparent or likely to become apparent.
        A universe of that which can be philosophically defended but are also very unlikely to exist, especially given their apparent nonexistence. The only problem I ever had with labeling myself an atheist is because I can’t really define myself by the universe of things in which I don’t believe.
        I say, screw belief altogether, it just takes one away from being here now.
        Thanks for the eloquent take down Dr. Coyne.

        • Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

          I confess that I checked the Wikipedia article on “agnostic,” (which is pretty good by the way). I thought that David Hume had coined the term, but it was our friend, Thomas Henry Huxley, who first published the term and concept in 1869, though he had developed it earlier. And there is always Pascal’s [cynical?] Wager, of course: Live your life as if god exists, and try to believe in god, because if god doesn’t exist you have lost nothing and if god does exist you have benefitted. [This is cited as an early example of probability theory.]

          • darrelle
            Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

            RE Pascal’s Wager, in addition to its most discussed flaw, I have always found the premise that “living your life as if god exists has no significant negative consequences,” to be the most glaringly obvious problem with it.

        • gluonspring
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

          In face of the infinite collection of logically possible things that I reject I suppose that it makes sense to single out theism on the premise that it is so widely, in many places almost universally, accepted. I am also an aghostist, aufoist, aleprecaunist, and so on. Empirically these are all on the same footing, but these and many others just don’t have the clout to get the special mention that theism does.

      • Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for your response–I see what you’re saying.

        The problem, I think, is that philosophical arguments are often presented as deductively valid. Here’s a caricature:
        1. Evil exists.
        2. Therefore, God does not exist.

        For that argument to be deductively valid, it must be impossible for (1) to be true without (2) being true. So all Plantinga et al. have to do is to show that it’s possible for (1) to be true without (2) being true, and that argument is successfully refuted.

        You might argue, of course, that atheologians should explicitly present their arguments in terms of probabilities, not reach for deductively validity. Many do this, but that often gets us into other tricky territory.

        I haven’t read a lot of theology, so maybe you’re right that theologians tend to argue ‘p is possible; therefore, p is true,’ but I’m much more used to seeing appeals to possibility intended as refutations of arguments with the conclusion that something (e.g. the combination of God and evil in the world) is impossible.

        • Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          If the Epicurus’s Riddle really was as simple as your caricature, Plantinga would have a chance.

          But, as simple as Epicurus’s Riddle is, it’s not quite that simple.

          Rather, it takes something closer to this form:

          1) The religious claim that their favored god (Jesus, e.g.) is amazingly powerful and the most virtuous being ever to walk the Earth, and he has a great and abiding passion for ending evil.

          2) A young child with a cellphone is not especially powerful or virtuous, yet innumerable young children with cellphones have called 9-1-1 and thus done something real, significant, and meaningful to stop or ameliorate some form of evil.

          3) Jesus (etc.) has never been observed to do even as much as a young child with a cellphone in the fight against evil, despite overwhelming opportunities to do so.

          4) Therefore, either Jesus is either (or both) neither as powerful nor as virtuous as a young child with a cellphone, and the initial premise is demonstrated false.

          Plantinga might be in a position to argue otherwise if Jesus was observed as often in the real world as Superman is in comic book newspapers; you could then at least get into arguments over conflicting goals and balancing threats and what-not. But with Jesus bested not merely by the best humanity has to offer, but by the least powerful, most vulnerable, and most immature…well, it instantly becomes painfully obvious that Jesus and Superman are in the exact same class of fictional characters, and that nothing in any branch of theology makes any sense whatsoever outside of the fictional context of the stories themselves.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

            Hi Ben,

            Again, I think it’ll depend on whether the argument you’re describing is supposed to prove (instead of just render it extremely plausible) that God does not exist. If the latter, then the “logically possible” replies don’t work, as we agree. If the former, however, then just telling a story (however implausible) about why it would be morally wrong for, e.g., God to intervene, is enough.

            • Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

              I’m not sure I follow. Jesus is simultaneously claimed to be supremely powerful and loving, and yet he’s somehow excused from even the most trivial of basic social requirements in time of crisis. This isn’t some sort of obscure opaque exception in the midst of overwhelming evidence; it’s a case of the entire emperor — not just his wardrobe — being not just invisible but insubstantial and inaudible and, indeed, perfectly undetectable in any and every conceivable manner.

              Just how much leeway are we supposed to give people who still buy into that sort of bullshit?

              People who make up, say, girlfriends who don’t exist and then make up excuses for why they never show up and why none of their effects can be found in the apartment…well, we don’t let them get away with “just telling a story (however implausible) about why” she’s nowhere to be found; we (hopefully) get them treatment from a competent mental health professional.

              How is it any different when the imaginary friend is thousands of years old?

              b&

              • teacupoftheapocalypse
                Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

                Sadly, the difference in the case of the millennia-old imaginary friend, is that anyone saying they have such a friend will have any number of other acquaintances who will claim to have met him too, and seen them out together, despite the lack of a toothbrush in the bathroom.

                And, of course, none of them want to be the first one to say they can see the emperor’s dangly bits.

              • Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

                All too true, alas….

                b&

      • Posted November 14, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately this cannot work on its own terms: he needs a theory of logic to justify which logic he’s using.

        (Logical possibility is also normally a property of propositions, not states of affairs or events, etc.)

  3. Hempenstein
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I’m confused. I thought it was Intelligent Design that wasn’t about G*d.

    • teacupoftheapocalypse
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      ID is *all* about g*d. It’s the theists’ riposte to evolution.

      • Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

        I took Hempenstein’s comment as pointing out the irony that ‘theology is not about god’ and ‘ID is not about god’ – both seem bollocks.

        • teacupoftheapocalypse
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

          Both are demonstrably complete bollocks of the highest order.

          • Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

            Yes, I should have dropped “seems” :-)

      • Hempenstein
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, all the road salt they’ve been spewing up here the last days in response to a mere dusting of snow musta had an adverse effect on my irony (which, I gather now from Dunnce that we’re not supposed to have, anyway).

        • Diana
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

          :D There was a lot of road salt here too!

        • teacupoftheapocalypse
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

          It’s probably more a case of me being too obtuse to spot your irony.

  4. peltonrandy
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    sub

  5. Michael Fisher
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I think the word Dunn is searching for [& missed] is “exasperated”

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Yes, you are certainly right; I didn’t think of that. He could say that his exasperation was exacerbated, though!

      • Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        Hmmm… this has all the marks of using a spelling checker, and then not checking that the spelling checker didn’t bugger up the actual meaning. This implies that Dunn violated Howies first rule of grammatical correctness – “Don’t use big words if you don’t know how to spell them”.

      • Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

        It’s possible that “shut-up” (with a hyphen) is correct usage. Perhaps he’s in a hidey-hole somewhere, with the door closed behind him… extending an olive branch to the unlucky cricket caught inside there with him.

        • Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

          e.g.: one could shut-up in one’s bunker, with curtains drawn until one has completely shut down, shutting out all reason and becoming a complete shut-in.

      • Taz
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Dictionary.com has under “Exacerbate”:
        2. to embitter the feelings of (a person); irritate; exasperate.

        I didn’t know they could be synonyms.

        • Scote
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

          Seems like a non-standard use.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          In my view…

          They’re not synonyms in the sense that it’s people that get exasperated [irritated] while situations get exacerbated [made worse]. Thus one can feel exasperated, but one can’t feel exacerbated.

          Oxford Dictionary
          Exasperate:- “irritate or annoy to an extreme degree”

          Exacerbate:- “increase the bitterness or severity of”

        • beyondbelief007
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

          I have to believe that the exacerbated/exasperated “synonym” is a result of dictionary “curators” including “how the word is being used” as a part of legitimate definitions.

          I have no qualms with including the fact that people are misusing a word, but please, please label it as “MISUSE”

          Like the recent additiona of a new definition of “literally” which is defined as “not literally, but meaning strong emphasis.”

          Label it common, but MISUSE! rant over.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

            +1

            Emphatically.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted November 14, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

            Just like the comprise/compose confusion…

          • Posted November 14, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

            For better or for worse, language changes, so if enough people say something originally a “misuse”, it becomes correct.

            (I say that and I still hate the confusion between “raises the question” and “begs the question”, but I am losing the fight … :()

    • TJR
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Maybe he was just channeling Mrs Malaprop.

      Mind you, lots of word processor or predictive text type thingies seem to.

    • jeffery
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      I think he started spelling, “exasperated”; misspelled it, and spell check fed him the other term.

  6. gbjames
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Well, I can take a stab at “How does Islam resemble Scientology?”

    Both are comprised of ludicrous concepts that, when accepted as true, lead believers to behave stupidly.

    Probably not what Dunn had in mind, though.

    • Pete Cockerell
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      They both take a very dim very of apostates, too (or “bitter defrocked apostates” as Scilos tend to label anyone who leaves the “faith”).

      Actually, even though $cientology is clearly a cult rather than a religion, it is interesting to note the number of ways in which it’s successfully aped the worst of all possible religious practices, and then made them even worse (Catholic confession vs. auditing, tithing vs. endless regging, for example).

  7. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    The thing about being anti-something is that you need the thing you oppose in order to be what you are, and you also end up replicating a lot of the behaviors you find so despicable in others. But it’s okay, you tell yourself, because you are the good guys.

    That has got to be some of the most ignorant drivel I’ve read from this guy.

    Surely he isn’t that dim.

    I’m anti-a-lot-of-things… slavery, racism, genocide, misogony, homophobia etc. etc., but hey, if it’s bad being anti-something I better re-evaluate my stance.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      Well, what else would you expect from an Anti-New-Atheist attacking that which he needs?

      To call this a self-defeating argument is charitable.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but ffs the oxymoronity never ceases to amaze me.

      • Mike in Barcelona
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

        Or as Dunn´s spellchecker would have him put it: a self-defecating argument.

        • Chris
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

          Hehehe, exactly!

        • Kevin
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          That is funny.

    • Scote
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      “The thing about being anti-something is that you need the thing you oppose in order to be what you are”

      Yeah, lots Christians love to use that one against atheists, even as many of those Christians are anti-abortion, anti-Islam, anti-atheism.

      It’s pretty clear that lots of people don’t think there arguments through, but it is really galling when someone who claims to have expertise in philosophy does it.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        On the bright side; If this is the level of theological “sophistication” universities can provide, then I won’t lose any sleep.

        As a philosophical layman even I can smell the bullcrap from a mile away.

        • Pete Moulton
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          Actually, being a philosophical layperson helps one to smell the bullcrap.

          • Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

            No, the theologians smell the bullcrap just fine. They just think their shit smells better than roses.

            This likely has something to do with their horticultural practices in which they constantly over-fertilize everything, to the point that everything they produce always smells like bullshit, for the simple reason that it’s covered in the stuff.

            The veggies as well as the roses….

            b&

    • TJR
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      You mean like all the pregnant women who go to anti-natal classes?

      You’d think they’d be pro-natal really.

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      most excellent post. But I fear Dunn is that dim. That is the problem of these people making up their deepities, they fail to think through their nonsense.

  8. Sastra
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    So no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make God appear at the end of a scientific experiment anymore than you can make God appear at the end of an argument about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the birth of Jesus (Christian apologetics is another form of atheism). “God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself. It is an inherently impossible concept.

    Oh, dear. If God finally chooses to reveal Himself to all and there is no longer anyone who doesn’t understand — on the appropriate level – Who and What God really is — won’t Dunn’s face be red?

    Or does he plan on denying Him under those circumstances?

  9. Charles Jones
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    It would be useful if theologians like Dunn took their subject seriously: Systematically go through the beliefs of each religion searching for evidence in support or refutation of specific beliefs. E.g., God answers prayers. Instead, this job is left up to atheists such as physicist Victor Stenger. Theologians could thus whittle away all of the demonstrably false beliefs, leaving behind, well, probably nothing like a god or gods people would take any comfort in believing in. But at least theologians would be actually trying to discern the truth, instead of just building fairy castles on untested assumptions that are unlikely to be true.

  10. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I think there is a reasonable argument that if you know of no evidence for god(s) then there is no need for a philosophy to explain that.

    You only need philosophy to grapple with the contradictions of believing in something even though no evidence exists.

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      yes, indeed, another +1

    • darrelle
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      Like, but would slightly amend.

      . . . even though no supporting evidence exists, while an enormous amount of counter evidence does.

  11. Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    It’s people like Dunn that make me glad I left Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

  12. Michael Fugate
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    It is like Spufford and feelings – have a certain feeling and interpret it as a god’s presence. I have asked numerous believers how he or she knows that a god has either communicated with him or her or with someone else. How does one know a god spoke to Abraham or to Mohammad or to Joseph Smith or to Oral Roberts? I have yet to get any response that could distinguish a random meeting with a stranger or a thought in one’s brain from an encounter with a god or its messengers. One guy even claimed that if the thought seems like it could come from his understanding of god then it was from god. Wishful thinking.

    Why not just study psychology, sociology, anthropology and the like – that is putting the human first – but theology will get you nowhere.

  13. Observer
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    He writes, “God…is an inherently impossible concept.” I suppose only a theologian would find this a feature rather than a bug.

    I think what annoys me most about theology is the expectation that I should be awed by the “sophistication” of what are really incoherent ramblings.

    • darrelle
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      It’s the big words they invent. They spend a lot of time inventing new silly ass big words, and they want props for that.

    • eric
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      The thing that annoys me most with theologians is that, very often, after proclaiming God to be an impossible concept or beyond our understanding or ineffable or what have you, they will then spend the next 20 minutes telling you what God is and how God wants you to behave.

      I am not necessarily accusing Dunn of doing this. AFAIK he hasn’t yet. But when other theologians do it, its extroadinarily annoying.

    • Another Tom
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Looking at the definition of impossible (merriam-webster):
      1a: incapable of being or of occurring

      Doesn’t that make “God…is an inherently impossible concept.” a statement declaring the non-existence of God? Funny thing to say if you’re arguing that the existence of God is something of a toss up.

      I also like this other definition:
      2a: extremely undesirable : unacceptable

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      It’s numerology, without the numbers.

    • Chris
      Posted November 14, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

      A million bucks in my bank account is an inherently impossible concept.

      I believe that I’m a millionaire though!

  14. John K.
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    It is far too early in the morning for a triple shot of Tu Quoque.

  15. NewEnglandBob
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Why would you accept that olive branch?

    Dunn is so confused in his thinking that he would expect you to use it to make cheese instead of olive oil.

    His response is another example of “Sophisticated Theology” actually being a muddled, cognitive dissonant string of words.

    • Marta
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      What “olive branch”?

      He’s not asking for peace. Dunn wants to write what he wants, the way he wants, and for the subjects of his writings to accept what he’s written quietly and without complaint. (Dunn characterizes push-back as “trolling”.)

      This is the sort of passive-aggressive bullshit up with which I will not put.

      • Old Rasputin
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        I agree wholeheartedly, and was duly amused by the last sentence. I want to play too:

        But as with most word salad devotees, I find it hard to believe that Dunn will be the sort of person up whom is content to shut.

        • Old Rasputin
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

          Damn. I used “shut up” intransitively, so the joke doesn’t work…

      • Scote
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I think he sharpened the end of the “olive branch” and thinks poking Jerry with it is an example of him offering “peace.”

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Maybe it’s an attempt at irony?

          • beyondbelief007
            Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

            No, no irony, I fear. It’s an amazing rhetorical tactic of pre-framing your opposition: “I’m acting peacefully…. let’s see how the attacking other side attacks me when he inevitably attacks and isn’t peaceful like me.”

            When someone offers an olive branch like this, look very closely for the razor blade embedded.

      • Kevin
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Well said. Dunn is championing passive-aggresive senselessness.

      • Diana
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, usually people looking for peace tone down the snark.

  16. Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Poor Mr. Dunn. He is a great vagueness, who has to worship a great vagueness.

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      The great (or useless) thing about being vague is that you can always say the same thing and then translate it to mean whatever you want depending on the circumstances. That’s the power of theology, keep it vague so you’ll never be wrong.

  17. Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    ““God”…. is an inherently impossible concept. “

    Besides the fact that, by definition, his definition of God just logically disproved itself, has he not just invented, by his own definition, an infinite number of unfalsifiable defenses here? His God is now impossible to disprove in as many ways as he has the inclination to blithely swat away?

    He is like a childhood neighbor of mine, who never lost a game of softball on his home field, because he simply added or deleted new rules in his favor whenever he pleased. Justified, of course, by the fact that it was after all, his field and his ball! ;>D

    • AdamK
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Did he by any chance carry around a stuffed tiger?

    • Kevin
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      Dunn is hiding, provincially, behind his own agenda, which I can assume is wrought with the paramount desire to have a super-entity that looks after him and will care for him in his afterlife. His super-entity is untouchable by others, but he too fears he may never touch his super-entity as well….what a morbid fantasy to live one’s whole life and to addle one’s reasoning.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, but he does get paid for it.

  18. Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    “We’ll start paying more attention to actual philosophical [...] questions when we get evidence that the subject of that inquiry really exists.”

    I’m glad you made this point. It was my immediate thought. It’s almost as if he’s trying to drag you down to his level and engage in pointless pontificating on the unsubstantiated.

    Is there evidence for it? No? Then there’s no reason to believe in it. Come back when you have evidence.

    • beyondbelief007
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      You have heard the Twain quote, no doubt?

      “Never argue with an idiot: he’ll drag you down to his level and then beat you with experience.”

      • Posted November 15, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        Yeah! That’s an excellent one. Cheers for the reminder.

  19. Marta
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    “I just don’t like fundamentalism, smugness, and superiority complexes, either in “defense” of God or against God.”
    David Dunn, Ph.d(oofus)

    It is catgorically impossible for any critic of “new” atheists to resist the use of the word “smug” in any part of their critique.

    This is now Dr. Dunn’s eleventybillionth article he’s written attacking “new” atheism, and it’s damn exacerbating, dueling with all those nasty, smug new atheists, who keep mucking up all his lovely posts and articles with their persistent refusals to be straw-manned, ad-hommed, mischaracterized or misattributed.

    Dr. Dunn would so very much like to say what he has to say, without the need to defend what he’s written from the presumptuous trolls who pick on him.

    ps. “Symphonia in the Secular: An Ecclesiology for the Narthex”? Pardon?

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      It sort of makes a little sense if you know what a narthex is, but it’s still awful.

  20. Alex Shuffell
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    His belief of his god is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” still doesn’t say anything about whether it’s true or not, has no connection to anything with a personality like most of the goddy descriptions in the Bible, it doesn’t make sense to connect it to the character of Jesus, and most of all it defines god as something man made by using the word conceived.

    When we atheists make the analogy of your belief of god with the thousands of other god ideas and the many more mythical or openly fictitious idea we shouldn’t be saying those beliefs are false therefore your beliefs are false. We’re saying we view your beliefs in a very similar way you view the beliefs of the other gods and myths.

    Agnostics and atheists are the only ones to take religion seriously. We are the only ones who can take it seriously because we see them all as equal in their truthfulness. That’s all that matters to us, whether it is true or not. If you think your god is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” then I can’t see a point in worshipping something like that or respecting it, or praying to it or sticking it with Christianity. Believing in something like that makes no difference to how I view the world, whether it exists or not doesn’t matter. If it can’t be tested, measured or experimented on to find out anything interesting that is because it has no effect on reality.

    “The thing about being anti-something is that you need the thing you oppose in order to be what you are, and you also end up replicating a lot of the behaviors you find so despicable in others” … That explains why I find him so freak’n adorable.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I’ve often wondered:

      As a thought experiment, take two hypothetical universes, each alike in every way EXCEPT

      -In one of them there is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”

      –And in the other one, there isn’t.

      Now: how would we distinguish one from the other? What would be the differences? Please point them out. Explain … and then explain how you know this.

      If you can’t even get off the ground with some sort of answer — or if your answer is a simplistic form of question-begging like “if there is no That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived (or Ground of Being or “whatever we think must always be transcended by itself” or whatever word salad we can concoct) THEN there would be no universe/ there would be no people/people would be God” — why then ought we to take you seriously? Why should we take “God’ seriously? Even as a freakin’ concept, this is thin gruel indeed.

      Yeah, don’t tell me; let me guess. This is a “foolish” question because I’m thinking about God the wrong way. I’m being too literal and focused on trying to understand. Instead, I should just think about if it were true and then go from there.

      Whatever “it” is.

      • eric
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        An initial answer would be to say that in U1, every inhabitant can directly perceive this ‘greatest thing.’ Because if they couldn’t, then the thing is not as great as something which could be directly perceived by everyone.

        So if you happen to exist in a universe where God is not directly perceivable and obvious to everyone, you must live in a universe without God.
        ;)

        • TJR
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          Indeed. Or has a theologian explained why a god which is completely hidden is more perfect than one which is completely obvious?

          • Sastra
            Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

            The hidden God is “more perfect” because people who believe in God anyway are now more special and to be commended.

            God is never “completely” hidden. It’s just hidden enough to set the believers apart in some meritorious way.

          • eric
            Posted November 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

            As Sastra points out, the standard conception of God is neither completely obivous nor completely hidden. So whichever side of the hidden/not hidden coin the theist invokes as being ‘greatest,’ the standard monotheistic God falls short.

            To make the Yahweh peg fit in the logic hole, you have to arbitrarily decide that “a little bit hidden, but not entirely” is ‘that which is greater than either more hidden or less hidden.’ And at that point, the theist is really just indulging in post-hocery or circular reasoning. Using their preconceived theology to decide what counts as greatest.

      • H.H.
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

        You know how Einsteinian relativity is quite accurate at quantifying physical reality, except at extreme boundaries where things tend to break down? How things like black holes give “impossible” answers when certain values are set to infinity? The equations become useless.

        I suspect something very similar is going on with language. It’s quite accurate for describing everyday experiences, but certain linguistic formulations return “impossible” answers. We see these sort verbal paradoxes as errors, yet the theologian marvels at the incoherence and thinks they have found something divine. What happens when we describe a being as encompassing all possible superlatives? An inconceivable mess. Or “God,” if your definition of that being is “those things that makes my brain hurt when I try to think about them for too long.”

        • Sastra
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          I have a Catholic friend who thinks the existence of God is a lot like String Theory. From what I can tell he likes the part about how String Theory may be untestable.

          Yeah — what Jerry says about faith being a vice in science and a virtue in religion. Apparently it’s a virtue in science, too… if you’re trying to feel good about being a Catholic.

  21. Barry Lyons
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Love that closing sentence. Perfect!

  22. Bob J.
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    As for Dr. Dunn’s word salad as mentioned in point 3, and certainly for the works of Alvin Plantinga and many other Sophisticated Theologians, post a paragraph of their writing and let the unholy wordsmith their gibberish to determine an unambiguous rendition.

  23. Steven Obrebski
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Following upon Gingerbakers comment above, transcendent, as defined on Google, means to be or go beyond the range or limits of something abstract, typically a conceptual field or division. So Dunn’s “Whatever we think must always be transcended by itself “ must mean that whatever we think must always be beyond the range or limits of whatever we think and that which we think, being transcended, must also be beyond the range of what we think, and so on. Perhaps it means that whatever we think is transcendent to the power of infinity.

    This might be a concept that could be called “infinite transcendence”. If I am correct, this is a good example of Abysmal Nonsense, infinitely transcended way below its lower depths.

  24. DrBrydon
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I had something to contribute, but I just transcended myself.

    • Chris
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Oh dear. I hope that it doesn’t leave any stains.

  25. Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    So basically his response to the “theology is not about God” issue is to just rehash some poor arguments about atheism?

  26. Don
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Small point, but let me suggest that it’s a mistake for us to define atheism as a “lack of faith” or a “lack of belief in gods.” That’s the theists’ definition. It appears in many dictionaries–but dictionaries are largely written by theists who fail to recognize their implicit bias. The word “lack” carries the connotation of deficiency, the sense that what is lacking is something to be desired. By definition, to lack something is to be in want of it. Atheists are not in want of theistic belief. To hold no belief in gods is not a deficiency. “Absence of faith” and “absence of belief” are more accurate and less (unwittingly) condescending.

    • Scote
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      I don’t think absence is really any better. You can lack a conscience or it can be absent in you. Either word can have a pejorative connotation based on the idea that atheists are missing something that they should have. And it is awkward to try to use absent.

      One can simply say that Atheists do not believe in any gods.

      • Don
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Yes, one can (and should) say plainly that atheists do not believe in any gods. The phrase “lack of [theistic] belief,” however, is often used in defining atheism, even among atheists. Again, “lack” unambiguously suggests a deficiency, while “absence,” a more neutral term, fairly suggests bareness, even a clean slate.

        • DiscoveredJoys
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps:

          Atheists accept that there is no evidence of the existence of gods.

  27. truthspeaker
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    First he says we don’t take religion seriously, then he comes out with this:

    “God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself.

    Does he really expect us to take a nonsense statement like that seriously?

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      No, because you’re not the audience. The audience is believers of various stripes. He’s doing his job providing them with cover.

    • Richard Olson
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Deepak said something just like this about a quarter million times or so, except he puts “quantum” in there just in front of transcended.

  28. eric
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make God appear at the end of a scientific experiment

    Mr. Dunn doesn’t seem to realize that (1) opening oneself to divine revelation is a type of scientific experiment, and that (2) his statement therefore undermines practically all of religion.

    • Bob J.
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      I have a friend who, no matter how hard she tries can make unicorns appear. She does however have a nice collection of unicorn art.

      • Bob J.
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        pops left out the word “not”. In “can not make unicorn appear”.

  29. eric
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    That is how St. Anselm of Canterbury defined God. We are dealing with an inherently unthinkable “being” here. So no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make God appear at the end of a scientific experiment anymore than you can make God appear at the end of an argument about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the birth of Jesus (Christian apologetics is another form of atheism). “God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself. It is an inherently impossible concept.

    But remember, theology isn’t about God.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Right. If you read the paragraph you discover that theology is about DEFINITIONS of God. I guess.

      I do, however, love how he tells us that “Christian apologetics is another form of atheism.” That explains why Jerry’s complaint about theological apologetics being about God is baseless. Giving reasons to believe is an atheist approach. You need to just grok your way to God and not try to convince others, for they are incapable.

      Which, ironically, is Plantinga’s argument, more or less.

      • eric
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        IIRC Plantinga is also a proponent of Dunn’s #3, which is really nothing more than Hume’s problem of induction delivered with more snark and less thought. “You can never be absolutely philosophically certain I’m wrong, so nyah.”

      • beyondbelief007
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

        But you gotta marvel at what an exquisitely evolved defense mechanism this kind of thinking is for their side, no?

        Brilliant defense mechanisms, memes that have survived every atheist attack… not because they’re good arguments, but because they propagate and hold on to a new generation of believers before they can be stomped out.

        Sad, yet marvelous.

  30. darrelle
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    It is frustrating that our society rewards people like Dunn for studying, and devising even more of, the crap that is theology. Dunn has a Doctorate degree in a discipline that is supposed to specialize in reasoning, logic and their application, and yet based on his recent articles he can’t reason any better than my 8 year old children.

    Such is the bounty reaped by idolizing a committment to Faith.

    • gbjames
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Perhaps he attended a university where philosophers are allowed to use “because my mommy said so” as a form of reasoning.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      More than frustrating!

    • Kevin
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      I do not want to see the humanities go away, but it would beneficial to society if people like Dunn, particularly when granted academic standing, disappeared or at least were left un-respected by their ‘own’ historian, philosopher, artists, sociologist, and psychologist peers.

  31. Steven Obrebski
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    The web definition of transmogrification is the act of changing into a different form or appearance (especially a fantastic or grotesque one); “the transmogrification of the prince into a porcupine”. So the statement “God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself.”
    means that God is transcendence transmogrified.

  32. Pete
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne said: “I suspect that Dunn’s “agnosticism” means something like this: “Well, we don’t know there’s a God, and we don’t know that there’s not, so let’s call it a tossup, say that there’s about a 50% chance of God existing and call that agnosticism.””

    This is also my take on more “sophisticated” theology. I can see how someone might arrive there in the following way. First: since we’re dealing with a supernatural being or beings, there is an infinite number of combinations of properties [insert creed here] that this “God” can have. Therefore, you’re almost certain to be correct to assert that a God with a given set of properties doesn’t exist. The leap of faith for the atheist (or the agnostic assigning probabilities correctly) is, in this sense, actually a very small step over an unnoticeable puddle. For the theologian it’s quite a problem.

    This, I suspect, leads to the “sophisticated” second possibility – some amorphous notion such as:

    ““God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself. It is an inherently impossible concept.” If you do this, then you haven’t specified a set of properties. Then again, you haven’t really said anything. But, hey, now we’ve got believing in the impossible concept vs. not. 50-50 right?

    I am ok with others having this type of pantheistic religious belief as long as it does no harm to anyone else. I do not because I would like to think there are many more productive ways to spend my time and mental energy than contemplating an “inherently impossible concept.” I would also challenge the notion that pontificating about inherently impossible concepts leads to the accumulation of knowledge. Flowerey language (or word salad) perhaps, knowledge no.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      The most important benefit of contemplating an ‘inherently impossible concept’ is that it allows you to sneer at atheists — and be very smug about it when you do so.

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Theology is two things:

      For (most) practitioners it’s a feather bed to land on when you reason yourself out of your childhood faith but haven’t the courage to accept the conclusions. “I know my childhood faith is ridiculous, but I’ll avoid the existential fear by making up a god who isn’t demonstrably inconsistent with the world!” This is hard and ultimately futile work, like sandbagging a house in a raging flood, but if you’re good you can hold off the inevitable for one lifetime and never have to grow up.

      For everyone not actually employed as a theologian, the purpose is the same as fancy architecture on a courthouse. The idea is that if it looks impressive everyone will assume that what goes on inside makes sense. This feature works best if you never have a reason to actually go inside and learn the horrible truth. Mainly they just want reassurance of the form, “Someone smart has thought about this and says I don’t have to feel stupid because I believe in an invisible guy who listens to my thoughts”. They neither read nor care what theologians actually have to say and carry on looking for the Virgin Mary in toast, praying for parking spaces, or whatever else it was they were doing without the theologians input.

      Our role, as unbelievers, is that of foil. This role worked best when no one had any contact with unbelievers, when atheists wrote in books no one read and the atheists in your life never dare say so, so that the straw men could be seen to be roundly defeated every time. The internet is probably making that job a lot harder.

      • gbjames
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        Well stated.

      • Old Rasputin
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

        Very.

  33. Diane G.
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    In addition to misspelling Dennett’s name, Dunn call him an evolutionary scientist.

  34. gluonspring
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    “He’s Ineffable, Suckers!”

    http://www.jesusandmo.net/2012/09/28/dust2/

  35. Diane G.
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Clicking on a link at Dunn’s website led me to this post of his:

    “The Manliest Church of All?” http://www.davidjdunn.com/2013/08/19/the-manliest-church-of-all/

    …in which he criticizes author Frederica Mathewes-Green’s article “explain[ing] why Orthodoxy is especially attractive to men.”

    In what seems to be a critical comment on the article Dunn writes, “Rather than speculate about why men might like the Orthodox Church, she asks them, and then arranges their answers topically. But her suggestions for why Orthodoxy might appeal to men are illogical, silly, dangerous to the heart of Orthodoxy, and maybe even a little bit sinful.”

    So, never ask people for their reasoning when you can make it up yourself, then.

    Convincingly (because he says so) he concludes that post with, “Sociological research is not relevant to our theology. It is possible that a man might come into the Orthodox Church because he was captivated by the priest’s glorious beard, but facial hair cannot create faith. Faith is falling in love, and the church is nothing more than the school of love. Everything else is window dressing.”

    Glad to know all those orthodox men are really hippies at heart.

    • ichiban
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      “Sociological research is not relevant to our theology”

      Huh? I thought theology was about people. .. lol

    • Michael Fugate
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

      I tried tracking down his dissertation on my library’s database, but got no hits. His CV says 2011 and Vanderbilt – I wonder why it is not in the online abstracts. I did learn what a narthrax was? I guess that is something.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

        Ha ha, I looked that (narthex) up earlier myself; and have since mostly forgotten! If you ever find the thesis I hope you’ll distill it for us, as I can’t imagine getting through it myself. ;)

        • Posted November 13, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

          You know, I wouldn’t at all rule out the possibility that he simply never did a dissertation….

          b&

  36. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    This:

    The idea of a virgin birth and resurrection are repeated in various paganisms. But that is reasoning by analogy. It is to say that if x is false, and y is like x, then y must also be false.

    Is rick considering if follows this:

    New Atheism likes to tout itself as being reasonable, but a New Atheist is no more reasonable than a Christian who takes science seriously.

    He does exactly what he accuses us of doing! A Christian may be reasonable in other facets of his/her life but when it comes to science and empiricism he/she is completely illogical at least when it comes to believing in a magical sky god without proof. The same could be said of an atheist who may be logical in rejecting the sky god but illogical in accepting big foot.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Rich not rick….I couldn’t stop it after I clicked the post comment button! D’oh!

  37. Observer
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    In theologospeak, “mystery” is a nicer way of saying “incoherent,” an “ineffable” is a more pleasant way of saying “vacuous. “

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      To us, yes. To his audience of believers, “mystery” and “ineffable” are fancy ways of saying “stop asking.”

  38. gravityfly
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Jerry!

    Tell it like it is, brother!

  39. Hempenstein
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    All the more reason to abjure those theology classes and head over to the English Department.

    And, ref the word salad & (breathtakingly inane) reasons for rejecting a virgin birth, some time at the Bio Dept would be well-spent too.

  40. chrissimonite
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m really liking the term “word salad.” Is the ‘converstation’ with Chopra the first time Dawkins has used it? Jerry’s use of it in this post is perfect! There is nothing more word salady than ““God” means that whatever we think must always be transcended by itself.” Perhaps a new meme has started? I’m going to use it! I’ve even written a little tongue in cheek word salad!

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Dunno about Dawkins’s usage, but the term itself has been around for a while. I guess a lot of folks find it useful!

    • gbjames
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Read all about “word salad”.

      • chrissimonite
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for that! It’s funny that I hadn’t run into it before.:)

        • gluonspring
          Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

          It’s very apt. In a cognitive neuroscience class I took we watched a number of films of patients with various kinds of aphasias. “word salad” was used in that class like a term of art and was applied especially to the cases where the speech was mostly grammatical and the words were chosen out of some thematic pool that made them seem frustratingly close to meaning something but… no. Ever since then I have wished that I could speak in word salad on whim in order to befuddle the people around me. It’s quite hard to do, though. Try it.

          The other great word I got out of that class was “confabulation”.

  41. Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what the next step in the procession is. Here’s what we have so far:

    1. Atheist criticises faith as he sees it practiced by a majority of believers.

    2. Atheist is criticised for being simplistic and fundamentalist and other nasty things; demands are issued to read various Sophisticated Theologians™ in order to educate self about Real Religion.

    3. Atheist reads some or all of the recommended theologians; points out terrible, vapid, facile arguments; points out that the rationalisations employed by theologians are not employed by the majority of believers – i.e. atheist criticises theology as he sees it practiced by a majority of theologians.

    4. Atheist is criticised for being simplistic and fundamentalist and other nasty things with regard to theology; theologian attempts to educate atheist about Real Theology (and throws in passive aggressive snarky crabbiness to boot).

    5. etc

    It is at this point that I conclude the following: theologians are little more than used-god salesmen who use larger words than their barking-mad fundie preacher brethren but play the same silly games.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      theologians are little more than used-god salesmen who use larger words than their barking-mad fundie preacher brethren but play the same silly games.

      True, but. Dunn/Plantinga types don’t fly planes into buildings, bomb abortion clinics, lynch gay teenagers, refuse medical treatment for their children, or agitate for creationism to be taught in the schools. For my money, crazy but harmless is a whole lot better than crazy and violent.

      Besides, if you squint just right, Dunn and his arguments are just *adorable*!

      • Posted November 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        Theologians might not participate in or condone the vile acts carried out by extremists (they might even vocally oppose them), but they’re cheerleading for the same core system of belief that justifies or even commands the vileness. They’re attempting to provide intellectual justification for believing implausible, ludicrous and contradictory things and they have a patina of academic respectability supporting them.

        The problem is that both a sophisticated theologian and a violent or neglectful extremist are working from the same source text and both think their interpretation is correct; obviously, the next problem is that there’s no reliable way to tell which of them are interpreting the source correctly. There’s no yardstick for deciding which course of action carried out in the name of a god is wrong.

        The fact that theologians may not be directly causing harm to others doesn’t mean they’re harmless. The fact that they defend the religious enterprise on any level essentially provides cover for any religion-based harm, intentional or otherwise.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted November 14, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

          Agreed at every point; Dawkins and/or Harris made a similar argument. I should have used some term other than “harmless”.

          • teacupoftheapocalypse
            Posted November 15, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

            “Corrosive”?

  42. Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I think you are right to take David Dunn to task about his weak arguments but attacking typos in a blog post just dilutes your argument and makes you look a little petty. (Published articles by journalists are another matter!)

    • gbjames
      Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      Tone troll alert!

    • Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      I think correcting the spelling of someone whose entire argument is about how everyone gets the details of his hobby-horse wrong is entirely appropriate.

  43. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    It is to say that if x is false, and y is like x, then y must also be false.

    If you can’t deal with the logical arguments New Atheists actually do make, then by all means, invent straw-man arguments to knock over. Mr Dunn grants that “It might seem logical to conclude that religion is false because religions have similar myths”, but he just can’t bring himself to face the actual form of the argument being offered: If x is false because x asserts that y is true when y is actually false, then if z also asserts that y is true, z is also false – just like x.

  44. Posted November 13, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Biofin and commented:
    Feel free to read until the end of page :)

  45. Mark Joseph
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    “Only two kinds of people have told me about their religious beliefs within two minutes of speaking with them: Fundamentalist Christians and New Atheists.”

    I am puzzled, even shocked, nay flabbergasted that no one has linked to this xkcd yet: http://xkcd.com/774/

  46. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 14, 2013 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    The thing about being anti-something

    That atheism is anti-theistic is an strawman, a person doesn’t need to be in order to be atheist.

    More generally the idea that atheism is “negative” is a strawman on clay feet, to mix the metaphors. Nature is clearly pro-atheistic, or theologians wouldn’t need to retreat to gap arguments or postmodernism.

    And in the end an atheist is only more consistently against religion than a certain believer, who nearly to a person dismisses all other religions. (There are always exceptions, like hinduism.)

    So no matter how hard you try, you will not be able to make God appear at the end of a scientific experiment anymore than you can make God appear at the end of an argument about the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in the birth of Jesus (Christian apologetics is another form of atheism).

    So Dunn admits religion is “not even wrong”.

    But the point is that we consistently find not-gods at the end of experiments. That is all the information we need.

    agnosticism is the only philosophically defensible position

    This is also “not even wrong”, because it is defined to be untestable. But of course we don’t need to consider such unsupportable belief in NOMA or Dunn’s “impossible concept”. What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.

    Whether a person choose to be “5 % undecided agnostic” or “3 sigma atheist”, it is the acceptance of bayesian belief update that distinguish an ‘agnostic’ atheist skeptic from an agnostic believer.


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