Saturday, July 28, 2012

Men of Letters and the Age of Hypercriticism

There has been a heated debate in recent years via the book market by intellectuals over the question of God's existence. The last five years or so have seen the appearance of what has come to be called "evangelical atheists"...atheists not content to hold their view privately, but feel the compulsion to proselytize, to win converts away from religion to atheism.

Several "evangelical atheists" have entered this arena and authored best selling books. The two men who have most captured the limelight in this quest are Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Both men authored books that take dead aim at debunking belief in God and urging that, for the good of human progress, religion of all types should be shed.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist from Oxford University, argues primarily from the standpoint that the rise of scientific knowledge and inquiry has rendered religious belief obsolete, even going so far as to categorize it as "superstitious", a term he regularly applies to anyone who believes in God.

Hitchen's, a British journalist and writer, argued from the perspective of the harm caused throughout human history by wars and persecutions launched under the banner of religious zeal. Hitchens prefered to call himself an "antitheist", saying he wished he could support belief in God, but that his intellectual analysis precluded it.

A third entrant has been the American theologian Bart Ehrman, professor of New Testament Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman's journey began as a teenager who became a born again Christian and who entered seminary, devoting himself to the discipline known as textual criticism. It was during this time that Ehrman began to question the veracity of the New Testament, questioning which led him to abandon his faith, first becoming an agnostic and later a full blown atheist.

Although each of these men may sincerely hold their beliefs (Hitchens is recently deceased), a common element of each of their works is that they each resort to what I refer to as hypercriticism. The term is not my own...I've seen it used elsewhere, but cannot cite who originated it. But a hypercritic is one who presents their point of view without regard to balance, integrity, tone and motivation.

Any author on any topic is entitled to reach conclusions and opinions and to present them to their audience. That is to be expected and is perfectly acceptable. Indeed it is the purpose of their writing or speech. But the hypercritic presents these acceptable outcomes in an unacceptable way by distorting one or more of the four qualities above. Often a hypercritic's work will degenerate into a rant: an emotionally charged diatribe oriented toward what they are against more so than what they are for. Their communication is a reflexive spasm of vitriol toward what they are against. A thin veneer of reason is applied for the sake of adding a fig leaf of credibility to what is merely an excoriating rag.

What follows here is a definition of each of the four elements above, how they relate to the topic of Theism vs. Atheism, and why I consider these authors to be hypercritics.

Balance has to do with presenting evidence and the various positions on a topic in a way that gives a fair hearing to each. On the topic of whether or not God exists it would mean that evidences of God's existence or absence be presented fairly from all sides, that presentation of arguments from reason and logic be equally balanced before conclusions are drawn.

Integrity is related to balance and has to do with the author being honest about their presentation. An author may present evidence in an unbalanced way without meaning to mislead, merely being overly zealous for one side and neglecting fair presentation of the other. But integrity has to do with intent, and whether they present unbalanced views in a willfully distorted way. They should present evidence and reasoning truthfully and not lie, distort, manipulate and mislead in order to win their case. Does the person of faith present evidence for the existence of God yet purposely omit or distort evidence that calls it into question? Does the atheist present only evidence that seems to point against theism and omit or distort evidence in support of it?

Tone has to do with treating the position they are against and the people who hold it with respect. Even if your position is achieved through balanced and honest reasoning, demeaning those who believe differently is rhetorical bullying.

Motivation has to do with what fuels the person's beliefs. Often a person believes what they want to believe despite what the evidence may show to the contrary. Their position may be linked to a defining life experience that has shaped them. In this sense, the person is motivated by emotion and willfulness, rather than an honest pursuit of the truth. There is nothing wrong with having motives for one's beliefs and writings. Most people have personal reasons that motivate their beliefs. But do they allow those motivations to steer them toward a belief unsupported by truth and reason and toward an intellectually corrupted presentation of their beliefs?

So why do I believe that Dawkins, Hitchens and Ehrman are hypercritics? I have read the works of each of them and found violations of the four elements I've just described.

Let me start with Hitchens, whose work "God Is Not Great" became a bestseller. Hitchens, I believe, left the door open to belief in God by asserting that he would like to believe in God but thought that intellectual argument precluded it. Hitchens' book, I believe, violated the elements of balance and tone. He spent some time arguing for the non-existence of God, but focused much of his book on the atrocities of religiously motivated movements and wars such as the Inquisition, the Crusades and Islamic jihadism. He argues that shedding antiquated belief in God will help humankind rid much of what has fueled so much bloodshed throughout human history.

These events are indeed an indictment of misguided religious zeal and avarice. But Hitchens violates balance by only presenting these bloody atrocities and ignoring the tremendous good done by religious groups throughout history. From the earliest days of the Christian church, Christian believers were known for their charitable work with the poor and downtrodden. The abolitionist movement against slavery in both the early days of American and in England were fueled by Christian churches. Both Christianity and Islam have medical relief organizations: the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. Medical missions organizations that care for the poor have done inestimatible work around the world for generations. Some of the largest and most far reaching organizations to help the needy are religious organizations. Hitchens not only ignored these, he even dealt backhanded derision to the likes of Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.

Hitchens also fails to even address that the political movement that made atheism official in its fundamental belief system was communism, which slaughtered tens of millions of people in the 20th century. Every single country that has ever become communist has resorted to brutal oppression of its own citizens. Unfettered by the moral judgments of religious conviction, literally every communist government that has existed has ruled as a gangster state, a collossal prison of tormented humanity. Hitchens, in his book "God is Not Great", expressed belief that wide spread adoption of atheism would lead to progress toward respect for human rights, but didn't address the horrors of officially atheist communism. (To be fair, though, Hitchens in other works was an ardent foe of human rights violations in communist countries, although to my knowledge, didn't explore the connection to their official atheism.)

Finally, "God Is Not Great" violated tone, as virtually every page was an emotionally charged rant against religion. Even if Hitchens had presented a more balanced view of the benefits and harms caused by religion, his cynically malicious tone by itself does serious damage to the credibility of his book.

Ehrman approaches his criticism in a more civil tone. His specialty is the area of textual criticism, the assessment and analysis of ancient manuscripts handed down by scribes over the centuries to preserve and transmit the Bible to succeeding generations. These retransmissions by hand were copies done by hand before the age of the printing press dawned. Most traditionalist theologians that hold to the position of biblical inerrancy...that the Bible is the inspired Word given by God with no errors...holding that the Bible as it was originally given to its authors by God was inerrant. They acknowledge that textual errors in retransmission over the centuries occurred, but were by far mostly small and inconsequential to the meaning of the text.

Ehrman makes exaggerated claims as to the significance of the textual variants by the copiest scribes, the vast majority of which were merely punctuation, spelling or syntax errors. A very small percentage of textual variations are more significant, but none make any change to the meaning of the passage in question or deviate from biblical doctrine and teaching elsewhere in scripture.

Ehrman also pays scant heed to the fact that the surviving manuscripts of the Bible, especially the New Testament, far exceed both in numbers and quality,the manuscripts of any other ancient writing. Scholars have discovered over 5,000 ancient manuscripts of biblical text, whereas most other surviving manuscripts of ancient writings from the comparable period number less than a hundred.

In my opinion Ehrman is a hypercritic because he presents an unbalanced argument that greatly exaggerates the importance of the textual variants in biblical manuscripts. He asks how we can trust anything we read in the Bible when the vast majority of variants are of miniscule importance. He doesn't just jump to conclusions, makes huge, sailing leaps to conclusions not warranted by the evidence. I will stop short of questioning the element of his integrity, but I wonder at his motivation, as he definitely presents a lopsided argument excoriating biblical veracity.

Finally there is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins makes the most of arguing that modern scientific methods and inquiry have rendered the notion of the existence of God obsolete. Dawkins, for all of his argument in support of scientific reasoning, does very little actual reasoning in "The God Delusion". His prefered method of argument is to mock, demean and belittle anyone who believes in God. Of the three authors I've cited here, Dawkins, even more so than Hitchens, degenerates his communication to a the level of a tirade. His book radiates hostility toward belief in God and anyone who believes in God is a superstitious idiot. In public appearances he calls for atheists not even to bother debating people of faith with reason, but rather to merely mock and demean them. He feels that they don't even merit the use of reason and are to be publically ridiculed. He uses sneering contempt as a rhetorical tool far more than he does actual scientific reason to present his case.

Dawkins also succumbs to the concept of "scientism", which means to elevate science to a place higher than it is capable of achieving. Science has accomplished incredible marvels for human advancement and benefit, especially in the last century. As magnificent as its accomplishments have been though, science does have its limitations. Science can neither prove or disprove the existence of God, and the claims of people like Dawkins that it can are overstated and place a faith in science beyond its capabilities, a faith known as "scientism". In essence, science itself is elevated to a form of religious faith credited with almost supernatural powers. Dawkins, whether he realizes it or not, is religious, and his faith is scientism.

These men have sold millions of books that hypercriticize faith, presenting unbalanced and unfair evidence and arguments for their case. Again, it is perfectly acceptable to take positions on issues and write books for one's beliefs. But let the reader be discerning and perceptive, and judge the merits of the writer's work by the criteria of balance, integrity, tone and motivation.