Philosophers like Victor Reppert and Keith Parsons long for the good old days, when they could sit in their ivory tower and have cordial debates about esoteric philosophical arguments. As long as the atheists in the room remained duly respectful and didn't push their own beliefs too hard, everything was fine. And the atheist philosophers among them played the game. Being educated in the intricacies of high-brow theistic philosophy, they could hold their own in these debates while being careful not to offend their religious counterparts. The trick to this is pretending that all arguments deserve equal respect, as long as they are made by a member of the elitist club in the ivory tower.*
Philosophy of religion (POR) is quite unlike science or mathematics, where a hypothesis or proof of a theorem can be shown to be false, and once that is done, the community converges on an agreement that it is false, and abandons it. In POR, when an argument is shown to be logically invalid, or its premises are unsupported by factual knowledge, there is no consensus in the community. They simply divide themselves into camps that either agree with the argument or disagree with it. But the cordial debate goes on in the ivory tower. So while science and mathematics have made solid and beneficial contributions to the knowledge of mankind, POR really hasn't contributed anything tangible. They just keep debating the same tired arguments, endlessly.
There was a time when belief in God was reasonable as an explanation for what we could observe about nature. But science, with its vastly superior explanations and its consistent record of success, has made it far less reasonable to cling to such beliefs. Even atheist PORs agree on this. Yet they are reluctant to openly declare that belief in God is unreasonable. They prefer instead to keep the old theistic arguments alive, and debate them without bringing science into the discussion. They have managed to refute most, if not all, of the theistic arguments on their own logical deficiencies. Graham Oppy's book Arguing About Gods groups these arguments into categories and then systematically refutes each category on logical grounds. A few years ago, Keith Parsons wrote an essay stating that there were no good arguments for god, and he didn't want to teach them to students of philosophy any longer. He has since backed off from his desire to leave the ivory tower, but he still believes that there is no convincing theistic argument. Yet he continues to give those arguments respect.
And now the barbarians are at the gate. People who are not trained in POR are joining in the discussion, and the ivory tower elitists don't like it. It rocks their comfortable little world. If a mathematician calls out the blatant mathematical errors in WL Craig's theistic arguments, Parsons is quick to defend Craig. Scientists like Dawkins, Coyne, and Krauss are writing popular books that attempt to refute God belief, not so much from a philosophical perspective, but from a more scientific perspective that embodies factual knowledge and scientific reasoning rather than esoteric philosophical concepts. The POR elitists are outraged by this. "You can't do that," they cry. "You don't understand it." And the elitists in the ivory tower, both theist and atheist alike, proceed to attack them and label them "New Atheists" or gnus, and declare that their arguments are not worth listening to. That's what Feser did in his review of Coyne's latest book, which I examined in an earlier post.
Feser's review was loaded with juvenile invective and ad hominem attacks, but it failed to address the main issues that Coyne discussed in his book. That's why I was quite surprised to read Parsons' response to it, which said, in part
If what is done by Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Coyne is the “new” atheism, then I am an unapologetic advocate of “old” atheism. That is, I favor atheist advocacy that is argument-dense and skips the invective. Lampooning your opponents as ignorant Bible-beaters may be lowbrow fun, but it is bad manners, and, more to the point, ineffective. Don’t call them names. Defeat their arguments. That is the worst thing you can do to them. However, defeating your opponents’ arguments requires (a) taking their best arguments seriously, and (b) doing your philosophical homework. “Old” atheism is therefore hard. Caricaturing with broad strokes is easy, but it cannot be said to advance rational debate. - ParsonsPlease note that Parsons is praising Feser's juvenile review, which contains all the elements that Parsons claims he despises when New Atheists use them. Invective? Check. Lampooning your opponent? Check. Failing to take their arguments seriously? Check. Is this not hypocrisy?
When the New Atheists attempt to address the traditional theistic arguments, it invariably lands them in hot water, because they are deemed to be unqualified to answer the arguments of the elitists. If Richard Dawkins took his argument straight from Oppy's book, it wouldn't matter. The elitists would still reject it as being ignorant. When Jerry Coyne takes on Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism (which is based largely on a lack of understanding of real evolutionary processes), Feser steps in to declare that Coyne is stupid and doesn't understand the argument. This is an argument about evolution. Feser scores some valid points by nitpicking at the periphery, but he misses the bigger picture altogether. The EAAN is a philosophical fantasy that ignores what actually happens in nature. Feser even attacks Coyne for the crime of using the dictionary as a source of definition for words. His use of ad hominem is de jure.
Note that this kind of attack from the ivory tower is waged against those who are perceived as gnus. They would never engage their fellow elitists in such a manner as this, nor would they tolerate such behavior from anyone. Reppert decries the supposed lack of civility in internet discussions these days, which he blames entirely on the gnus.
Let me make something clear. There are ways on the atheist side of keeping things civil. Before I ran into new atheists I had many, many, respectful discussions with nonbelievers, and that includes passionate nonbelievers. What I have noticed, and it's something I trace back to Dawkins, is a shift in the nature of the discussion. I remember being surprised by it in a couple of discussion groups I got into before I even opened this blog. There are people on the other side who see the disagreement between belief and unbelief to be not just a debate but a war, and who want to mobilize a people who use ridicule, not in a offhanded way, or a way that is aimed at entertainment, but aimed at providing people with a social, not an epistemic, motivation for abandoning belief based on fear of ridicule. This ridicule is not for the benefit of the believers they are debating. They are written off as hopeless. No, it is used as a tool to demotivate religious belief amongst the low-information believers in the flock, who might be influenced by "naked contempt." Your debating partner is a pawn in a game, the end justifies the means. - ReppertThe elitists in the ivory tower have a comfortable little gig. They make a living by politely debating each other, endlessly, without ever coming to a conclusion that is useful to the rest of the world. They defend each other, even when they believe the arguments of their fellow elitists are bad. They believe that even the worst of those arguments are equally worthy of consideration. But they are uninterested in hearing views from the barbarians outside, even when those views are well-reasoned and have the support of scientific consensus. Any argument made by a New Atheist that touches on the topic of God or God belief is deemed to be a matter of philosophy, which they are not qualified to discuss without earning the scorn of the elitists.
I have a suggestion for the POR elitists that will make us all happy. Lock yourselves away in your ivory tower. Close the curtains and don't ever look outside. Most of all, turn off your internet access. You can go on politely debating each other and accomplishing nothing for eternity. You won't ever have to listen to anyone like Coyne or Krauss. Meanwhile, the rest of us will carry on, and we'll manage somehow to survive without you. In fact, I dare say most of us won't miss you a bit.
*Please note that I do not consider all philosophers of religion to be elitists ensconced in the ivory tower. This is about the ones who display that elitist attitude.