“Reason” According to New Atheism

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This is a question based on past observations: what is reason, according to New Atheism?

My question is more specific than that, actually. I’ll need to take a moment to set it up for you, then I’ll state what it is that I’m really asking.

New Atheists trumpet their reasoning. It’s in the names of their organizations, it’s all over their websites, it’s at the heart of their “Reason Rally,” and it’s prominent in their self-descriptions.

Some time ago I did a survey of major new atheist authors to find out what they meant by “reason.” I discovered two general answers:

A.

  1. Refusing to claim knowledge or to affirm beliefs beyond what empirical evidence will support.
  2. Being reasonable in the way one treats others, in contrast to (citing the most obvious example) flying airplanes into buildings.

Here’s what I have not found in my reading of New Atheist authors:

B.

  1. Reason being defined as practicing the skill of drawing sound conclusions by way of valid reasoning from true (or at least supportable/plausible) premises and appropriate evidence, coupled together with
  2. Reason being practiced in that manner.

Peter Boghossian’s Manual for Creating Atheists comes perhaps closer than any other I’ve read to a statement like B1. He misses B2 by a long nautical mile, unfortunately. His arguments are rife with red herrings, straw men, and non sequiturs. He preaches B1 reasoning, but he sure doesn’t practice it.

In other words, based on my admittedly non-exhaustive reading, New Atheists emphasize A1 and A2 reason, but they don’t place much apparent value on B1 in their literature as part of what it means to reason.

So here is my question: are there any New Atheists other than Peter Boghossian who emphasize the importance of B1 reasoning? Do they demonstrate it? If so, I’ve missed them so far in my reading. Please let me know specific sources. I’d like to spend some time studying them.

(Definitional note: by “New Atheist,” I mean atheists who generally align themselves with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the newer “horsemen” John Loftus, Jerry Coyne, Bill Maher, and P. Z. Myers. More descriptively, the New Atheists share a high regard for science, general agreement with A1 and A2 definitions of reason, a conviction that all faith is unreasoning and unreasonable, and very strong antipathy toward religion in any form.)

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44 Responses to “ “Reason” According to New Atheism ”

  1. Hi Tom, thanks for your blogs, I’ve been following on the kindle for a year now, but thought I’d comment after reading your review(s) of Boghossian’s book.

    It is not just ‘Reason’ and ‘Faith’ that New Atheists seem to define differently (or perhaps selectively would be a better word). ‘Evidence’ and ‘Rational’ both seem words that I keep having to define what I mean again and again.

    I do actually find it annoying because, while meanings of words do change, the way most atheists that I debate with have very narrow definitions.

  2. Modern science emphasizes inductive reasoning whereas theistic philosophy tends to follow the Aristotelian tradition that values deductive reasoning.

    Is that a fair summary? I’m certainly no expert, but this is another thing that New Atheists sometimes imply, that theistic thinking is really old whereas atheistic thinking is new and modern (and therefore better).

  3. I don’t think your first paragraph is correct, John, because modern science also emphasizes deductive reasoning where appropriate, and theistic thinkers use induction, too.

    Your second paragraph, though, taken separately from your first one, seems right on the money.

  4. and abductive reasoning as well, especially in the historical sciences.

    Deductive reasoning is used in science when a theoretical framework, constructed by a combination of inductive and abductive reasoning, is applied to a new scenario, i.e. making predictions. A good example is the application of Quantum Theory (constructed initially from observation and experiment with the electronic structure of atoms ( H, in particular )) to diatomic, and then polyatomic, molecules.

  5. Interesting Twitter conversation started up just now:

    Tom Gilson @ThnkngChristian
    “Reason” according to the New Atheists thinkingchristian.net/posts/2013/11/…

    Stu Diligence @StuDiligence
    @ThnkngChristian All of that is based on your assumptions. You built a strawman.

    Tom Gilson @ThnkngChristian
    @StuDiligence There’s no straw man when stating a tentative view & inviting more information. U’re not practicing B1 reasoning so well here.

    Stu Diligence @StuDiligence
    @ThnkngChristian I don’t need to. I’m an “old” atheist. Like your “new” ones, we don’t believe in any gods, based on zero evidence for any.

    Tom Gilson @ThnkngChristian
    @StuDiligence “Old” atheists don’t need 2 draw sound conclusions by way of valid reasoning from supportable premises & appropriate evidence?

    StuDiligence @StuDiligence
    @ThnkngChristian With regard to god claims, no. No conclusions are necessary on our part. Nutcases claiming sky fairy magic need evidence.

    Tom Gilson @ThnkngChristian
    @StuDiligence Thanks for that candid admission. More at bit.ly/1bnA97K
    [that last link connects to this page; don’t bother clicking it]

  6. Dennett isn’t always right, and other philosophers have accused him of fuzzy thinking and fuzzy definitions, FWIW. But it’s kind of unfair that he’s been lumped in as a ‘horseman of New Atheism’ – he’s not obstreperous at all. (Though the rudeness of the ‘Four Horsemen’ has been exaggerated at times.)

  7. By that logic, Ray, the violence of Hannibal Lecter has been exaggerated at times: sometimes he was perfectly gentlemanly.

    In other words, just because someone is not always rude, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to recognize that when they’re being rude, they’re being rude.

    I agree, though, that Dennett is of a different character than the other three. I disagree with his conclusions, but I find his manner of speaking, communicating, and thinking as well to be considerably more reasonable.

  8. It seems Ray thrives on scouring the internet looking for exceptions to every issue you blog about, Tom, as if those exceptions invalidate the point you are trying to make.

  9. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/11/faith_in_science_and_religion_truth_authority_and_the_orderliness_of_nature.html

    Jerry Coyne has an article on Slate where he uses Boghossian’s definition of faith as pretending to know what one does not know. Just an FYI in case it is missed. I wonder if Slate or another similarly left leaning but popular site would accept a response on faith from someone like Mr. Gilson. Really, I cannot imagine it happening but it would be great if so.

  10. Good find, DR84. Coyne is up to his usual ignore-the-evidence tactics. No historical evidence for Jesus actually living, dying and being resurrected after 3 days, Dr. Coyne? What faith you have!

  11. Now in follow-up to my last comment, I’m pre-writing this one to appear on the blog five minutes later.

    Ray, I think I know you well enough to predict your response to what I just wrote. I think you’re going to scope out an exception, an instance where you accepted correction, as if it disproved the general principle. If you do that you’re more likely to prove the general principle: that you’ll resort to the occasional and the exceptional to try to show that what’s usual isn’t usual after all.

    I am completing the writing/editing of this comment at 12:58 pm EST, according to my computer clock. By the magic of admin discretion I am altering the time of its posting so that it won’t appear on the blog until 1:28 pm EST.

    I don’t know if you’ll have time actually to begin composing the response I predict. If not, I predict you’ll at least think about doing it, before you see this.

  12. SteveK –

    It seems Ray thrives on scouring the internet looking for exceptions to every issue you blog about, Tom, as if those exceptions invalidate the point you are trying to make.

    One of the claims of this site is that atheists should address the best arguments and examples of theism, and Christian theism in particular. Should Christians not also address the best arguments and examples of atheism?

    (Oh, and BTW, if you check, you’ll note that I don’t comment on quite a bit of Tom’s posts. The ones commenting on specifically Christian doctrine or practice, for example.)

  13. Whatever the truth about Steve’s comment, Ray, he didn’t actually say that you shouldn’t address theism’s best arguments. I’m not sure where you are getting that from. Rather, he accused you of looking for exceptions for the sake of it. Admittedly when he said “every issue you blog about, Tom” this was hyperbole, but this is obvious, no?

    BTW, Steve, one small point. When you say that Coyne has faith (and he does, of course) I get what you are trying to do. However, I think that overall it’s an unfortunate rhetorical trick much like the book title “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” is in some ways self defeating. We should be trying to rescue the term.

  14. Billy,
    We should – and I’m usually pretty careful to do that – except when the irony presents itself for the purposes of making a point that needs to be made.

  15. Tom Gilson –

    That answer would carry more force, Ray, if you were presenting good arguments. You aren’t.

    Let’s look at that for a minute, using the reason you prize. Saying that the rudeness of some “New Atheists” has been exaggerated is not the same thing as saying they’ve never been rude, is it? A lot of things they’ve said that weren’t rude have been received as such, though. The least charitable possible reading of their words seems to get applied a lot. They don’t seem to ever get credit for speaking in hyperbole, for example.

    I’ve run into that lack of charity myself, even. To wit:

    I’m not sure where you are getting that from.

    I’m not sure where you are getting that from. Please re-read what I wrote. I didn’t say that I (or anyone) “shouldn’t address theism’s best arguments”, nor did I say Steve claimed that. I said that theists should address atheism’s best arguments. It’s really unclear to me how you managed to parse that so strangely.

  16. Ray, you linked to the Four Horsemen not being rude, and in context clearly you wanted that presented as evidence that their rudeness has been exaggerated at times. That’s not a good reason to think that. It’s irrelevant. It’s not a good argument. If there are good arguments to think their rudeness has been exaggerated, they would not consist simply of a single example of them not being rude.

    I’ve run into that lack of charity myself, even. To wit:

    I’m not sure where you are getting that from.

    I’m not sure where you are getting that from. Please re-read what I wrote. I didn’t say that I (or anyone) “shouldn’t address theism’s best arguments”, nor did I say Steve claimed that. I said that theists should address atheism’s best arguments. It’s really unclear to me how you managed to parse that so strangely.

    Here’s where we got it from:

    One of the claims of this site is that atheists should address the best arguments and examples of theism, and Christian theism in particular. Should Christians not also address the best arguments and examples of atheism?

    If you know anything at all about English language and usage, Ray, you know that a question worded that way in that context contains the implication that Christians are not also addressing the best arguments and examples of atheism.

    To pretend otherwise is merely to cavil.

  17. OK, Ray, then why ask the question at the end of #15 in response to Steve? It seems to me that rather than this being a straight fact finding question you meant to imply something by it.

    I would like to think that Steve or just about anyone else here is happy for you to ask the difficult questions. However, the point being made (and Steve can correct me if I’m wrong) was not that you are asking the difficult questions, but you are actively seeking out exceptions in order to torpedo a particular view. I suppose one might call this nitpicking but there might be better terms.

    I don’t know if this is true or not but I thought that your post @15 side-stepped this accusation.

  18. Someday if I had the time I think I could aggregate a long list of Ray’s side-steppings.

    Ray, I don’t understand your purposes here. You keep ducking, bobbing, weaving, evading, not accepting reasoned objections, tossing little smoke bombs in like your link to the four horsemen, as if it were relevant. Why? What’s your purpose?

    (Note: follow-up comment to come in thirty minutes.)

  19. In my mind, the beginning part of the four horsemen video that Ray linked to can be summed up this way.

    “Hey, I’m not being rude, vitriolic or shrill in situation A (my book, for example), so I really don’t understand why people say I’m rude, vitriolic or shrill (forgetting about some unstated situation B where they were, hence the feedback they are getting)”

  20. Here’s my thirty-minute follow-up comment, composed in advance.

    Ray, if I know you, your response to my last comment was to begin immediately looking for an exception to what I said about not accepting reasoned exceptions. I’m sure there are some. I’m pretty sure you’ll want to find one to prove me wrong. But you would actually be proving my point again: finding some unusual exception and trying to make a general case out of it. More general, you focus on minutiae and miss the big picture.

    I challenge you to open your eyes to the world beyond.

  21. Tom Gilson –

    Ray, you linked to the Four Horsemen not being rude

    Actually, I linked to the ‘Four Horsemen’ directly and specifically addressing the ‘rude’ accusation and pointing out that it is often applied no matter what they say (attention SteveK). It’s literally the very first thing they talk about, in the very first few minutes of that video. It’s not merely an example of them ‘not being rude’.

    Feel free to work on rebutting what they say on the merits, if you choose, but it’s odd that you completely ignored the content of their statements and commented only on tone. SteveK at least seems to have listened to the content, but misinterpreted what they were saying.

    (Note, of course, that simply trying to take out ads that say, in effect, “Atheists exist” is considered “disturbing” and garners violent threats. I’m sorry, but I can’t see that as ‘rude’ or ‘offensive’, though it’s labeled as such.)

    Billy Squibs, in #18, you wrote:

    Whatever the truth about Steve’s comment, Ray, he didn’t actually say that you shouldn’t address theism’s best arguments

    (Emphasis added.)

    Did you mean “atheism” there? I think that might account for some confusion. I read that as “Steve didn’t say that Ray (or people in general) shouldn’t address the best arguments of theism.” And I heartily agree, Steve didn’t.

    But if instead you meant, ‘Steve didn’t claim that one (in general) shouldn’t address atheism’s best arguments’, then a single missing letter muddled that message. Of course, I likewise agree that Steve didn’t say that either.

    Nor did I say that anyone shouldn’t address the best available arguments or examples. But by the same token, I don’t feel guilty about pointing out better arguments or examples when I think they exist.

  22. Tom Gilson –

    Ray, I think I know you well enough to predict your response to what I just wrote. I think you’re going to scope out an exception, an instance where you accepted correction, as if it disproved the general principle. If you do that you’re more likely to prove the general principle: that you’ll resort to the occasional and the exceptional to try to show that what’s usual isn’t usual after all.

    Just curious – do you think you were correct in this case?

  23. Billy Squibs –

    However, the point being made (and Steve can correct me if I’m wrong) was not that you are asking the difficult questions, but you are actively seeking out exceptions in order to torpedo a particular view. I suppose one might call this nitpicking but there might be better terms.

    Apparently what y’all see as ‘exceptions’ I see as ‘counterexamples’. Is that a simple enough accounting?

  24. I don’t get it, Ray. If someone says “Dawkins is hostile toward religion – see here, here and here” (imagine hyperlinks), what is the point in citing a counterexample of him being nice when it does nothing to weaken the original point?

  25. I don’t know if he’s written any books, but you might check out Matt Dillahunty.

    He’s the former president of the Atheist Community of Austin and hosts the Atheist Experience TV show. They have a lot of episodes on YouTube and most of the viewer calls they take seem to revolve around your B1 and B2 categories.

    You could even call in and take them on yourself if you want to. 🙂

  26. Counterexamples, Ray, have logical impact when they are brought against universal claims. If we had said the Four Horsemen were always rude, your counterexamples would have disproved our assertion. We didn’t say that, any more than I think anyone would have accused Hannibal Lecter of being violent toward every single person he met in every situation.

    Logic lessons…

  27. And from the beginning of the video you linked to, Ray, I find them complaining that “criticism of religion is taboo and prohibited just because it’s against the rules.” That’s about as demeaning as anything else they say. Maybe I lead a sheltered life, but I don’t know of any situation where that’s occurred. What I’ve observed has not been Christians telling them it’s wrong they criticize; what I’ve observed has been Christians and atheists alike telling them their criticisms are wrong (factually and/or rationally wrong).

    I’m sure you’ll dig out a “counterexample” again, though.

  28. Ray,

    I’ve just followed your billboard links in #27. I’m about to come to the conclusion that you’re not just evasive but a liar, and not just a liar but one who can’t even tell when he’s lying.

    You wrote there,

    Note, of course, that simply trying to take out ads that say, in effect, “Atheists exist” is considered “disturbing” and garners violent threats. I’m sorry, but I can’t see that as ‘rude’ or ‘offensive’, though it’s labeled as such.

    This is the wording on your billboard you linked to, which says (according to you) “in effect, ‘Atheists exist.'” This is what you have trouble recognizing as “rude” or “offensive:”

    Christianity: Sadistic God; Useless Savior; 30,000+ Versions of “Truth;” Promotes Hate, Calls It “Love.”

    You objected to those billboards being removed, since their “in effect” message of “atheists exist” should not be considered “disturbing.” What’s disturbing to me, Ray, beyond the flagrant falsehood, wanton hatefulness, and deliberate distortion on that billboard was your dismissing it as nothing more than, “in effect, ‘Atheists exist.'”

    It’s disturbing enough for me to ban you from this blog. I’m exercising self-control to the extent of asking whether anyone thinks that would be hasty, premature, or overly retaliatory. I’m open to responses on that here.

    You’re not banned yet, but it’s not because you haven’t asked for it.

  29. John Smith, I don’t know if Matt Dillahunty is in the loop on this yet, but what you’ve suggested is not a new idea. My True Reason co-editor, Carson Weitnauer, and I have been discussing doing this when the second edition comes out early next year.

  30. I don’t think that Ray’s behaviour is worthy of a ban. He raises intelligent objections and it might reflect badly on you, Tom. This said, I am beginning to suspect that Steve was correct in post 11 and that Ray has a very deliberate methodology.

  31. Tom Gilson – Actually, you’re right. I was in a hurry and the second link is to the wrong story. This is the one I intended to link to.

    I agree the other one is rude. Don’t see how it’s “death threat” rude, but definitely rude. The one in Cincinnati is not – but it got death threats too. All it says is, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” That’s the same ad that, in the first link, the governor of Iowa called “disturbing”.

    That’s actually kind of the point. Even when atheists aren’t rude, they very frequently are treated as though they are.

    If we had said the Four Horsemen were always rude, your counterexamples would have disproved our assertion.

    Actually, you didn’t – in this thread – say that they were rude. And I didn’t say the ‘Four Horsemen’ were never rude, either. I pointed out that Dennett expressly values reason. And then I noted that, unlike the other three ‘Horsemen’, Dennett wasn’t rude. And then I added that the other three ‘Horsemen’ weren’t as rude as is sometimes claimed.

    In short – I’m pointing out a counterexample to the claim that the New Atheists are rude and unreasonable.

  32. Thank you for that, Ray. I was right in a way, but not much, and for the wrong reasons. I said I was wondering whether you didn’t even know what you were doing, which turned out to be true, but for reasons that were considerably more innocent than what I had in mind.

    I must agree with you, whoever reacted to that sign the way they did was completely wrong. Death threats for the one in Charlotte, as incendiary as its message was, were also totally out of line. That one was both rude and offensive (going back to your comment #27) but the one in Cincinnati wasn’t, in my view.

    I drove through that intersection in Cincinnati, Reading and 12th, six or eight times last week. Of course the sign was long gone. I wish it hadn’t been treated the way it was. I really wish the people who put it there (the originators and the sign company) hadn’t been treated the way they were.

    And I apologize for treating you the way I did.

  33. Tom, I really do apologize for the confusion. I did link to the wrong story, so my words here definitely weren’t in line with the example I pointed to.

    We have some fundamental disagreements, to be sure, but I do prize honest communication. Whether or not I’m mistaken, I’m presenting what I really think. Thanks for being willing to suspend judgment until all the facts were in.

  34. Thanks, C. Carter–and thank you too, Ray.

    It reminds of what my old friend Charlie Scott said when an atheist commenter and I exchanged apologies a few years ago: “Oh no. I think you two just broke the interwebs.”

  35. At the risk of sounding self-serving . . .

    I am an atheist author whose book is far less well known (has not yet been advertised) than others you are familiar with. In my book I do a thorough critique of the reasoning process used by both religious people and atheists, with citations to a good number of peer-reviewed articles to support the positions I take.

    I’d have to note that what I end up with as a conclusion is not consistent with either your A or B categories.

    Note from Siteowner: the link originally provided here was to a book by this author on a completely unrelated topic. I think he meant this one: http://www.amazon.com/Anselms-Gambit-Roger-Talley/dp/1304040372/ . Mr. Talley, if I’m wrong about that please let me know.

  36. Thanks for the link. As I said in the post, I’ve been wondering about this matter of New Atheist reasoning. I didn’t want to draw conclusions without posing the question publicly.

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