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After their vexing habit of raising daughters who believe they shouldn't have sex with me unless I buy them an engagement ring first, the single most obnoxious trait of devout Christians is their insistence on converting me to their system of belief. I do appreciate that they are trying to spare me an eternity of hellfire though, so I tend to be polite in my refusal to hear them out.
Recently, however, I have been exposed to the endless preaching of a young man who's missionary zeal is inspired not by the teachings of Jesus or Brigham Young, but by an atheistic dogma apparently inspired by UseNet postings inspired by Carl Sagan. As my young friend refuses to accept the existence of demons, much less the idea that he is sparing my bottom from the prongs of their infernal tridents, I can only assume that his motive is to annoy.
My first impulse was to dismiss this bold young disbeliever as an ass and an idiot - particularly after he claimed to be able to "logically disprove theism." Unfortunately my initial stream of profanity did little to dampen his spirits. In fact, it only encouraged him to demand that I consider his arguments on merit rather than resorting to ad-hominem attacks.
This is a frequent demand of half-wits who know full well that the boredom resulting from thumbing through their misspelling laden screeds will overwhelm all but the most determined foe. I was willing to concede the argument in exchange for his silence, but he showed no signs of letting up. I had no choice but to offer up a quick prayer to Cthulhu and plow right in.
I managed to wade through his collection of misstatements and fallacies (which can be found here) and am posting a review so that others can understand this bastard breed of Atheism. I do so in the hope that it will increase our understanding of this strange new brand of evangelical disbelief and allow us to develop a cure.
Our fundamentalist non-believer was good enough to put his real name at the top of the essay, so I will be able to refer to him as Mr. Zebrowitz rather than using his online handle "kitten." Unfortunately this is the high water mark of the essay and it goes down rapidly from there.
Mr. Zebrowitz has seen fit to title his essay "Whither Atheism" for reasons known only to himself and (presumably) Allah. With a title like this you would assume that he'd discuss the state of Atheism and the directions it might take in the future. You'd be wrong. The essay is actually an introduction to Atheism as defined by Mr. Zebrowitz. My hunch is that he's actually doing a bit of foreshadowing - giving out a hint that he will be using more words incorrectly later on.
The essay then begins with Mr. Zebrowitz informing us that not only has he purchased a copy of "Atheism: A Reader," but that the purchase of such "tomes" on "the subject of theological studies" (as opposed to mere theology) is not uncommon for him. Without giving us pause to recover from the awe these words engender he proceeds to inform us that he engages in discussions "with both laypersons and those schooled in Theology alike." The "alike" is presumably included just in case we missed his earlier use of "both."
Although he doesn't mention it anywhere in the essay, it seems likely that Mr. Zebrowitz is an American residing in either the South or the Midwest since he goes on to describe the negative reactions he receives when carrying a book on Atheism. This is reinforced by his reference to ignorant people who consider Atheists to be pagans or devil worshippers.
Most intrepid, hell-bound young men in Mr. Zebrowitz's position would likely move to the Pacific Northwest which boasts the lowest levels of church attendance in the nation and where my brother managed to read Nietzsche's "The Antichrist" during Mormon services without exciting comment. No doubt Mr. Zebrowitz considers this an inferior solution to writing an explanation of Atheism and posting it on a site that boasts "Violence, language, adult themes, sexual content. Parents strongly cautioned." (Where devout Christians are sure to find it.)
With this impressive introduction out of the way, Mr. Zebrowitz's proceeds to get down to the business of explaining exactly what he believes Atheism to be. As foreshadowed in the title, he defines Atheism as being a combination of the prefix "a-" meaning "without" and "theism" meaning "a belief in god or gods" concluding that "anybody who, for whatever reason, does not subscribe to a positive theistic belief, may be called an atheist."
It's a pity that while he was looking up "a-" and "theist" he didn't bother to look up "atheist" and see "one who denies or disbelieves in the existence of a god." For that matter, it's a pity he didn't bother to look up "a-" which my copy of the OED lists as meaning "opposite, away from" among its 15 entries. It's possible though that he did look it up but decided not to let the actual usage of a word stand in the way of a definition that claims agnostics as well as atheists and thus makes his position more moderate and easier to defend.
Actually it's more than possible that this is what he did as in the next paragraph he takes his brand spanking new definition of Atheist and attempts to lay waste to his opponents with it:
The distinction is an important one in understanding the burden of proof when it comes to theological discussions. Because the atheist is making no claims or assertions, he is not obligated to defend himself. Rather, it is the claimant - in this case, the theist - who is obliged to produce arguments and evidence supporting his claim. If he is unable to do so, reason sides solely with the atheist, who need not argue his own side, but only point out that the theist has failed to support his claim.
Poppycock. Even if we accept my beloved Mr. Zebrowitz's definition of an Atheist as anyone who does not actively believe in God rather than the standard definition of one who actively disbelieves, his argument simply does not hold water. It seems that Mr. Zebrowitz picked up just enough logic to join to junior varsity policy debate squad and now considers himself superior to the likes of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.
The core of his argument is that the Atheist makes "no claims or assertions." This simply is not the case. Mr. Zebrowitz starts by assuming that other conscious individuals exist and follows it up by asserting that Theists must present an ontological argument. Both these assertions are eminently debatable. Let us consider a hypothetical solipsist named "Rusty." Rusty does not believe in the existence of others. He considers the universe to be a product of his own imagination.
Now Mr. Zebrowitz and Rusty bump into each other. (Actually Rusty imagines that his imaginary body bumps into Mr. Zebrowitz.) Mr. Zebrowitz asks Rusty if he believes in God and Rusty says "yes." (Rusty of course believes he is God.) Now Mr. Zebrowitz demands proof. In retaliation, Rusty points out that Mr. Zebrowitz is a figment of his own imagination and demands proof of Mr. Zebrowitz's existence.
What's our dear little atheist to do? I believe that the rules of junior varsity debate require Mr. Zebrowitz to hang out with magic elves and unicorns if he cannot successfully argue the affirmative. But can he argue the affirmative? No more than he can logically prove the existence of space and time. The existence of other minds is something that we know intuitively and something that is backed by experience; it can no more be proven logically than the existence of God (or in my case the existence of the Black Goat With A Thousand Young).
So Mr. Zebrowitz is in six-fathom water and shoaling fast with his assertion that the burden of proof lies with the bible thumper when his own system contains similar unproven assertions, but is he right in assuming that the existence of the Olympians requires a rational (as opposed to empirical) proof?
Here the situation is even clearer. Those of us who have better things to do with our time than debate metaphysics with Southern Baptists while riding the bus have long since come down on the side of empiricism. If I wish to assert that my desk is dark cherry and someone demands proof, I simply drag him into my home office and show him the absence-of-God damned desk.
This winds up being considerably faster and less wanky than starting from a set of a priori assumptions and deducing both the existence and the inevitable dark cherry-ness of my desk. Tragically, if we adopt Mr. Zebrowitz's standards, my claim to have a dark cherry desk is no different from a claim to have a dark cherry desk at which a magic elf is writing a letter to a unicorn. I think this says more about Mr. Zebrowitz's so-called logic than it does about my desk.
This raises the question as to whether the existence of Horus, Ra and Isis is an "I have a dark cherry desk" claim or an "I have a magic elf sitting at my desk claim." Mr. Zebrowitz would no doubt argue that it is the latter, but it really isn't. Magic elves and unicorns live in the forest. To test for their existence, we need only to take a virgin into the forest and wait for her to be approached by a unicorn while keeping a sharp lookout for magic elves dancing around a toadstool patch.
If we compare the number or magic elf and unicorn sightings by sober individuals of good character to the number of hiking trips taken by such individuals it seems more than reasonable to conclude that there aren't any magic elves or unicorns.
So how do we test for God? One method is to die and see if we either appear before the throne of judgment or simply cease to exist. While I'm more than willing to shoot Mr. Zebrowitz, he wouldn't be able to report back his findings in either event.
The best method seems to be that advocated by the Theists themselves. Search, ponder and pray and see if you have an experience that convinces you of the existence of a true and living God. This method is quite popular and is attempted by people all over the globe on a daily basis. A great many of them have a religious experience of such power that they cannot logically reconcile it with the absence of a God or Gods.
Others feel nothing in particular and conclude that there is no good reason to suspect the existence of a God. Enough sober individuals of good character come down on one side or the other, so there is no reason to assign to burden of proof to either hypothesis. Whether or not there is a God seems to be something that can only be judged based on personal experience.
Well this review is already getting quite long and we're only on section II (out of VII) of Mr. Zebrowitz's essay. Fortunately he shot his wad early and the remainder of his essay does not require half as many words to debunk.
Section III begins with several paragraphs about the importance of defining God before debating his/her existence that must have taken Mr. Zebrowitz several minutes to copy out an carefully change the word "blark" to "zook" so that he didn't have to attribute it to a source. I think he deserves an A for effort, but the hint that he's about to define God in terms that favor his argument is a bit too obvious.
He then defines God in negative attributes and proceeds to argue that it's meaningless to use negative attributes to describe something. I tested this by walking down to the local 7-11 and buying a cigarette lighter that was "not blue." Not only was the clerk able to produce such a lighter, but he managed to put a price on it as well.
Mr. Zebrowitz goes on to criticize the common Christian concept of an infinite and unbounded God as unintelligible, a point that 11 million Mormons will happily back him on. Then he argues that this negates the existence of God, something those 11 million Mormons will no doubt find puzzling. Mr. Zebrowitz hedges his bet by assuring us that those Theists who believe in a finite and bounded God have their own special problems, but he doesn't bother explaining what those problems are.
Section IV explains that the presence of questions that cannot currently be answered without introducing the concept of God is not sufficient to prove the existence of God. Hume dealt with this topic at length, and it's one of the reasons he is considered the father of modern thought. This simply justifies Atheism as a logically valid system of disbelief rather than disproving the existence of God.
Section V contains the most half-assed treatment of Paley's watchmaker analogy that it has ever been my privilege to encounter. Mr. Zebrowitz falsely characterizes Paley's argument as an attempt to explain the apparent design of the universe rather than the organized complexity of organic life, a point Paley makes quite clear by using the human eye as his first example.
Mr. Zebrowitz then proceeds to argue that order is simply a natural consequence of existence. The main thrusts of Paley's argument are completely ignored and Mr. Zebrowitz seems to believe that the presence a watch in a rural meadow is simply a natural consequence of the existence of the universe that in no way implies the existence of a watchmaker to make the watch and a careless hiker to drop it. This is absurd.
If you care to read a counterpoint to Paley's "Natural Theology" that actually addresses his arguments, you would be well advised to pick up a copy Richard Dawkins' "The Blind Watchmaker."
Section VII is Mr. Zebrowitz's summing up and contains a marvelous plea for tolerance. He expresses the hope that "the next time I am reading a book that may run contrary to popular theistic views, that I am not looked down upon."
I can assure Mr. Zebrowitz that his plea for tolerance has not gone unheard. On behalf of all Adequacy.org readers I would like to assure him that his Atheism has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we look down on him.