This is the second article in the November AWAKE! that deals with atheists, following “IS ATHEISM ON THE MARCH?” Current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses may notice that atheism isn’t a topic that the Watchtower Society covers very often. I guess we aren’t their typical bread and butter when it comes to making converts, as most Witnesses are trained to convert believers rather than nonbelievers. So it’s always interesting when the Society breaks out half a magazine that talks about atheists or atheism generally, especially if you’re a Jehovah’s Witnesses turned atheist like I am. Thanks go to P.Z. Myers for jumping on this one, too. Atheists across the web are all over this issue of the AWAKE! because of him. Including me.
Still, I have to wonder, will this be another one of those condescending “aren’t atheists silly” articles? Also, will the Society resort to its old habits, like quote mining, leaving out important details, and generally skewing the facts in subtle (and not so subtle) ways to shore up its arguments? Or have they improved their style since my days at the Kingdom Hall and learned to give readers everything they need to truly make up their own darn minds about “the truth?”
Read on and find out.
Quoting Antony Flew and Paul Davies
This AWAKE! article starts out fairly predictably, citing Antony Flew’s infamous conversion from atheism to deism and asking, “What made Flew change his mind? In a word, science.”
I’m pleased to say that this is at least half true, as Flew does claim that science was the reason for his change of heart. It would have been nice if the society had pointed out some of the problems with Flew’s position, including the fact that real scientists don’t agree with Flew’s interpretation of the data (he’s not a scientist himself), or that some have suggested he’s gone a bit senile. But these points bring Flew’s judgment into question, which ruins the whole appeal to authority thing.
There’s also the fact that Flew claims to have become a deist1, not a theist2. Converting to deism is very different from converting to a theistic belief system like the Society’s. Historically, deists were often thought to be no different than atheists because a deistic god might as well not even exist as far as humans need be concerned. Unlike the Society’s view of Jehovah, deistic gods don’t really do anything. Having already performed their act of creation, they mostly sit on their laurels eating popcorn while we slug it out on mother Earth. So Flew’s conversion isn’t as big a deal as many apologists want us to believe.
At any rate, I’m sure the Society and its readers are salivating at the opportunity to tell atheists like myself that it was science that gave a prominent nonbeliever like Flew his change of mind rather than blind faith. All I can say to the authors of the AWAKE! article is, “Down boys. Don’t let it go to your heads.” Hey, I had never even heard of Antony Flew before his infamous change in beliefs. Neither had a lot of atheists. So this was hardly a crushing blow to me.
The article makes another small misstep when it tells us that Flew “became convinced that the universe, the laws of nature, and life itself could not have arisen merely by chance.” Actually, this is something that theists, deists, atheists, and scientists can all agree on. To my knowledge, the scientific community has never told us that these things came about “merely by chance.” That’s a huge (and convenient) oversimplification. The real truth is that scientists still aren’t sure how the universe began, so no one is saying too much definitively about it at this point. Except creationists, that is.
To be fair, I must point out that the magazine is only quoting Flew here when it talks about life arising “merely by chance.” But I think the article makes it clear that the authors of AWAKE! agree with him anyway. Anyone who’s read the Creation Book already knows that one.
The article also cites Paul Davies as another authority figure we should heed.
“When it comes to . . . questions such as ‘Why are there laws of nature?’ the situation is less clear. These sorts of questions are not much aﬀected by speciﬁc scientific discoveries: many of the really big questions have remained unchanged since the birth of civilization and still vex us today.”
The paper being quoted can be found here, but I think it’s important to note that Davies also said this in the same paper:
To be sure, we don’t know how life began, and we are almost completely ignorant about the origin of consciousness. But just because science doesn’t have all the answers at this time doesn’t mean that there is no satisfactory scientific account available. Curiously, the origin of the universe, which might seem to be the hardest of the three origin problems, is possibly the easiest. Cosmologists actually have a credible theoretical framework based on quantum mechanics and gravitational theory that can describe how a universe might originate in a big bang.
Also, at Wikipedia, we’re told the following:
Some scientists are critical of what they see as Davies’ theistic agenda. Davies’ article in the New York Times, Taking Science On Faith, was criticised by Jerry Coyne, Nathan Myhrvold, Lawrence Krauss, Scott Atran, Sean Carroll, Jeremy Bernstein, PZ Myers, Lee Smolin, John Horgan, Alan Sokal Davies’s response begins I was dismayed at how many of my detractors completely misunderstood what I had written. Indeed, their responses bore the hallmarks of a superficial knee-jerk reaction to the sight of the words “science” and “faith” juxtaposed.
Basically, the quote in the AWAKE! article would probably lead most readers to believe that Davies–as a physicist–thinks that these problems cannot be explained by science, or that he–as a physicist–thinks the only way to answer them is to say “God did it.” From the other quotes I found, it would seem that this is not the case, or at least that it’s an oversimplification of Davies’ real position. It may also be that his position on intelligent design is partially based on his personal religious beliefs, not just on scientific ones. But we can’t be sure. The article doesn’t give us much to go on, it simply cherry picks a few quotes from Davies and tells us that he’s a scientist as if that’s all we need to know. In reality, we need far more information to evaluate his opinions for ourselves.
As we’ve seen so many times in the past, the authors have left out important nuances about Davies’ opinions, just as they did with Antony Flew’s, which certainly have an impact on the case they are trying to make–a case they are making by quote mining various authority figures. Old habits really do die hard, don’t they? Note that the opinions of those in authority do not make a case for an argument by themselves. They are interesting, but they don’t really prove anything without the evidence that goes with it. The Society presents none of this for our consideration.
Sigh. Oh Watchtower, you’re so adorable. Don’t you ever change, you ornery little dickens you.
Back on topic, the article ties all these quotations into the conclusion that the universe must have an intelligent designer.
Indeed, many highly respected scientists do not consider it unscientific to believe in an intelligent First Cause. [Which gives us permission to feel the same way, right? I’d rather find out what the real fist cause is than to have permission to indulge in whatever assumptions I’ve already been offered. Thanks anyway.] On the other hand, to say that the universe, its laws, and life just happened is intellectually unsatisfying. [Yes it is. Just like throwing up your hands and saying “God did it!” is intellectually unsatisfying. Of course, it’s not as if atheists or scientists are really saying that these things “just happened.” These words are being put in our mouths. But it sure makes it easy to make your point if you pretend we did!] Everyday experience tells us that design—especially highly sophisticated design—calls for a designer. [If you’re a creationist, maybe. Scientists disagree. Don’t bother mentioning their opinion about your conclusion in your article, which asks, HAS SCIENCE DONE AWAY GOD? That would be absurd. One scientist out of the many thousands on planet Earth should do.]
That last statement about everyday experience telling us that complex designs require an intelligent designer seems to really sum up the Society’s position here. Yet they haven’t really proven anything to us at this point. They simply quoted a couple of people–one a physicist who seems to have some theistic leanings, the other a deist who was once a prominent atheist decades ago–and that’s about it. Then they tell us what the obvious conclusion is without really earning it.
Still, the article leaves you feeling like the authors accomplished something if you don’t bother to fact check it. This, in my experience, is what most of the Society’s writings are truly all about. Making you feel good about being a believer, a creationist, or a Jehovah’s Witness. For many people, if it feels true then is true. But that’s not how reality works, now is it?
I’d like to be nice for a moment and make a concession here–making readers feel good about their beliefs isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it certainly doesn’t do anything to boost the truthfulness or honesty of your argument, either. Atheists who read the article–and they will, since it’s about them–will expect something much more if they’re to be swayed. The authors have failed to deliver on that so far. So I think we can safely conclude that the Society has written this article about atheists for theists who don’t like us. Business as usual, I guess.
What Faith Will You Choose?
That’s an interesting question. Usually, this is the part that comes at the end of an article or magazine, the part that tells you how to contact the Watchtower Society for a free Bible Study. But this time, the article is comparing two specific faiths: Christianity and atheism.
Ah, like we’ve never heard the accusation that atheism is just another religious belief before. ::GASP!:: Don’t get too worked up about it. Anyway, here’s the quote.
Although the new atheists like to wave the banner of science over their camp, the fact is that neither atheism nor theism rest purely on science. Both involve faith—atheism in purposeless blind chance; theism in an intelligent First Cause.
Actually, I’m willing to give them a small point for stating that neither atheism nor theism rest purely on science. That’s true. There are other philosophical underpinnings for both. I will even go against the grain here and concede that atheists do hold to a certain level of faith when it comes to scientific methodology and critical thinking skills.3 I don’t think these leaps of faith are nearly so great as a religious believer’s–more like tiny little hops of faith without a lot of hard data, which is hard to obtain in this case–but many of us do find these methods to be useful and we trust them (or have faith in them) without always being able to cite much in the way of clear, indisputable reasons for doing so. Even men like Richard Dawkins fumble to support our “faith” in these methodologies rationally. I still think we’re in a better position here that most believers, but this is a point where I’m willing to meet believers halfway. (For now, at least.)
If you’re an atheist or (even better) a real scientist who’d care to enlighten me about real, solid reasons to discount this as an example of atheistic faith, please leave your comments below. I might change my mind.
Back to the article, the Society’s last statement about how atheism puts its faith “in purposeless blind chance; theism in an intelligent First Cause” is a huge oversimplification. Entire books have been written about the many differences in viewpoint between theists and atheists. The Watchtower Society is trying to pin this entirely on a single issue, which it thinks it can win … by using it’s usual methodology of skewing subtle details, selectively including facts that are favorable to its case while leaving out those that are not, etc. etc. The reality is that the differences between believers and atheists are far wider and more varied than that.
Is it just me, or do the Society’s articles seem way more formulaic and predictable once your out of the Kingdom Hall? Anyway…
Next, the article talks about problems in discerning the origin of life. They go with the usual arguments that most atheists/evolutionists are accustomed to and completely ignore the rebuttals offered by scientists. Ironically, when later citing “luck” as the atheist’s first cause of creation and life, they quote Davies’ comments about atheists where he says that this is an easy position to hold–“easy to the point of being a cop-out.” Then the authors tell us this is “a convenient way to avoid facing the issue.”4
Avoiding the issue, are we? Then what do you call it when you leave out all the scientific, philosophical, and all around factual problems with your own teachings, guys? Or is that just adding a little salt to make your spiritual food tastier? Seriously, I think it’s high time the Society created an irony checker department or something before they hurt themselves.
Then they roll out a quote from molecular biologist Michael Denton’s book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (more quote mining) about evolution being bunk. Note that Michael Denton is credited as helping to launch the Intelligent Design movement, so he’s a creationist. With that in mind, it seems unlikely that his views on evolution would typify those of other biologists. Not that the Society mentions any of that, of course. It sure would have been nice, though.
I found it interesting that they chose to go with Denton as his book was published back in 1985. Maybe the authors thought that fewer people would know who Denton is? That would mean less eye rolling if a Witness presented this article to an atheist than if they’d chosen to quote someone like Michael Behe or William Dembski. Could the AWAKE! authors really have thought that far ahead? I’ll leave you to speculate on that one for yourselves.
Next, we get this gem:
To be sure, the appeal to luck as the ﬁrst cause does smack of myth.
The Society is obviously trying to turn the tables on those of us who claim that Genesis is just a myth. Yet they’re the ones who are citing luck as the first cause that atheists believe in (along with a couple of scientists with creationist leanings) not us. The reality is that scientists don’t have a clear explanation of what the first cause even is. So no one knows if it was luck or simply inevitable. Of course, if you buy into the parallel universes concept of M-Theory, then the first cause really wasn’t pure luck. You could say that it was inevitable that a universe like ours would come to exist at least once, if not a countless number of times! That would shoot down the Society’s whole point, I think. But only if you buy into M-Theory. Stephen Hawking certainly does. Otherwise, that one’s still up in the air.
From there, the AWAKE! article shoots itself in the foot again by comparing the universe to a house or a bust5. The problem with this one should be obvious: the universe isn’t like a house or a bust. These are things which were clearly designed by someone with a specific motive or intent. Yet it isn’t clear that the universe was made for any specific purpose. All we really know for sure is that it’s here and we’re in it. Asserting anything more than that without evidence is pure conjecture.
Finally, the authors segue into their next article: A WORLD WITHOUT RELIGION—AN IMPROVEMENT?
Hmm. I think I’ll save my comments for later. But I wonder which way the Society will go on that one? I’m sure the suspense is killing you. Check back for my comments soon!
NOTE: This is part of a series of posts about the this issue of the AWAKE!
- A deist believes that the universe was created by a god, but that this god does not interfere in human affairs. In other words, a deistic god is simply a first cause and may not even care what humans do. ↩
- A theist believes in a god that created everything, answers prayers, punishes the wicked, and so forth. Jehovah’s Witnesses are theists, as are Catholics, Muslims, etc. ↩
- Hey, stick with me here. ↩
- Dudes … seriously. Do they even have an irony meter over there? Cause they really need one. ↩
- I like busts. But I’m not thinking of the kind that the Society is talking about. 😈 ↩