The Discovery Institute Asks New Atheists What They Believe

In case you haven’t heard of them, the Discovery Institute is an organization that pushes the idea of intelligent design creationism. They have a blog and it’s pretty hilarious to read…anyways today they had an article that caught my eye called “What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?” I’m always interested to see what theists are telling us we believe, because sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised to see myself accurately represented by somebody who doesn’t agree with me.

Well in this case the author of the article (Michael Egnor), instead of telling people what New Atheists believe, decided to ask us instead! I think that’s a great approach, although I’m suspicious of its sincerity, coming from the Discovery Institute. Nonetheless I think It’ll be fun to answer the questions, so here goes! You can read the article here to get some context for why he’s asking these questions.

Egnor says:

I want to learn more about what New Atheists really believe. So I’m asking Moran a few questions, although other atheists (Myers, Coyne, Novella, Shallit, etc**) are invited to reply on their blogs, and I will answer.

**etc, that’s me!

And he has some rules for the answers:

1) Answers can’t be limited to the shortcomings of theism (e.g. ‘So who caused God?’). I’m looking for an exposition of New Atheist belief, not a criticism of theist belief. Mutual criticism will come once all beliefs are on the table. If New Atheist belief can only be expressed by negation of the beliefs of others, just say so.
2) Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” gambit is fine. If you think that a question is nonsense, say so.
3) No changing the subject. New questions are welcome, once the old questions are addressed.
4) The Law of Snark Conservation applies; thoughtful courteous answers get thoughtful courteous replies.

Number 1 is just silly, Egnor must know that atheism is entirely a response to theism, it’s not a belief system. To try to stay within this rule I’ll just talk about what I believe, but I’m not going to pretend that I’m speaking for New Atheist beliefs, because there’s no such thing. Number 2, I don’t know what the Courtier’s Reply is so I’ll just ignore that one…and 3 and 4 sound fine. Now, on to the questions:

1) Why is there anything? *shrug* dunno. Does there have to be a reason? I’m just glad I’m here!

2) What caused the Universe? Good question…I’m sure it was some kind of quantum something or other.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature? I don’t know the answer to this one either, but I assume that if there weren’t regularity in our universe, we wouldn’t be around to ask the question.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist? I had to go on Wikipedia for this one and they all seem alright to me, but I’m not so sure about the final cause. I don’t really see the point of it, as it’s pretty subjective and there isn’t even a final cause for everything…I don’t understand what it’s supposed to imply, but I only spent 5 minutes on Wikipedia reading over the description.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence? I’m not sure I get the question, but I suppose it may be because there are so many variables that we’re faced with every day that it’s not possible to be completely objective. We have to form opinions and biases to survive otherwise we’d be paralyzed with indecision. (I have a feeling that question went right over my head, but whatever).

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something? Huh? Is this asking why do humans have intentions? I guess because it makes us more likely to survive…I have no idea what this is supposed to be asking…philosophy mumbo-jumbo just does not penetrate my thick skull. Why is this relevant to atheism anyways?

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.) There’s no such thing as “Moral Law”, but I think that morality is an artifact of nature – humans are social beings, and because we live in groups and cooperate it has made us a very successful species. We need our social ties, so it makes more sense for us to be good to each other. Our sense of right and wrong would have arisen through natural selection, because anti-social behaviours would lead to someone being less likely to reproduce. That’s how my simple mind sums it up, but there are some fantastic books out there about  evolution and morality. I just finished Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner, I recommend that one.

8) Why is there evil? Because there’s no benevolent god out there keeping us from harm.

None of those questions addressed the difference between the “old atheists” and the “new atheists.” All atheists don’t believe in god, but the new atheists feel like atheism is something worth sharing. The above questions have nothing to do with atheism, they just strike me as an attempt to bait atheists into answering in the wrong way so that Egnor can come back with “that’s where god fits in.”

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6 Responses to “The Discovery Institute Asks New Atheists What They Believe”


  1. 1 Mom October 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Hi Lindsay,
    I like your replies to those questions. I have to say the questions do seem rather pointless and not very thought provoking, so it will be interesting to see where it leads.

    With regards to question 3, I think the regularity in the universe has mostly to do with chemistry and physics. I’ll just mention a bit about the chemistry. Certain chemical reactions occur because of the way different elements react with each other and due to the way electrons and protons are attracted to each other. That’s a very simplistic answer (and since I’m not a chemist I’ll leave it at that) to a very complex question but it makes a point I think. There ARE expicable reasons for the regularity of the universe.

  2. 2 The Pick Man October 22, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    From the Richard Dawkins Wiki page:

    Oxford theologian Alister McGrath (author of The Dawkins Delusion and Dawkins’ God) maintains that Dawkins is ignorant of Christian theology, and therefore unable to engage religion and faith intelligently.[97] In reply, Dawkins asks “do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?”,[98] and − in the paperback edition of The God Delusion − he refers to the American biologist PZ Myers, who has satirised this line of argument as “The Courtier’s Reply”.[99] Dawkins had an extended debate with McGrath at the 2007 Sunday Times Literary Festival.[100]

    And from the Pharyngula Wiki page:

    The Courtier’s Reply
    Myers has voiced the position that many of the responses to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion are what he calls “Courtier’s Replies”. Replying to critics who felt that Dawkins ignored sophisticated versions of modern theology, Myers compared them to courtiers fawning on the legendary emperor who had no clothes:
    I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.[17]
    Dawkins himself quoted the Courtier’s Reply in a debate with Alister McGrath.[18] He also referenced the Courtier’s Reply in the preface to The God Delusion’s 2007 paperback edition.[19]

    In esscence, as Egnor says, “If you think that a question is nonsense, say so.”

  3. 3 Shamelessly Atheist October 22, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Really, Egnor is being dishonest about the whole thing. The questions are obviously coming from Argument from Ignorance vantage point. But I’ll have a go.

    1) Why is there anything? “Why?” in this context has not been established as a valid question. A better question would be “How did the universe come to be?” We have good hypotheses (one is given by Stephen Hawking in his latest book), but we do not know. Neither does Egnor, no matter how fervently he believes his god is the cause. Belief is not knowledge, no matter how strongly held. Definitely an Argumetn from Ignorance type of question.

    2) What caused the Universe? Again, we do not at this point know. Our lack of knowledge on this, however, is not an excuse to shove in any fairy tale that strikes one’s fancy. Again, definitely an Argumetn from Ignorance type of question.

    3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature? Because of the guage symmetry of the universe and the fact that there is no absolute frame of reference. See Vic Stenger’s writings in The God Hypothesis, etc.

    4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist? I had to look this up too. And I also fail to see the relevance. If it is to point out that all things have a cause, he is wrong. Virtual particles, for instance, have no cause for their formation. Radioactive decay does not have a cause. It is allowed by quantum tunnelling, but that is not the cause whereby an alpha or beta particle is ejected.

    5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence? Because we do not share brain states and vantage points. I think he’s going in the direction of “why is there consciousness?” The answer is that intelligence is evolutionarily advantageous and we happen to be one of those species that is self-aware. How could the ability to predict occurances in the future not be advantageous? Again, an Argument from Ignorance question.

    6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something? Same as above. And it’s another Argument from Ignorance question. Theory of Mind – the recognition that other minds exist – is well known from a computational theory of mind standpoint.

    7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.) No. There is no such thing as “moral law”. That is not to say that morals are relative. We generally agree on what is right and wrong, but not always. And morals have changed drastically over the centuries, something they could not do if they were governed by a law. And a Law is something which can be written down that succinctly describes the phenomenon in question, like E=mc2. If natural selection could be written like that, it too would be a Law.

    I find the whole “moral law” argument of CS Lewis to be utterly preposterous. All social mammalian species demonstrate empathy and moral behavior to varying degrees. Ours is the species that just happens to do it best. This – and many other evidences from primatology and animal behavior – point to a purely evolutionary source for morals based on the development of empathy and reciprocal alturism, and a common psychology amongst individuals.

    Why is there evil? Evil is a human judgement of actions and intent. It is not something that exists outside of a human mind. We judge something to be good or evil on its effects. If someone did X to me, would I benefit? If yes, then it’s good. If not, it’s bad. We usually reserve the word “evil” for those actions which are especially bad, like his god ordering the slaughter of the Canaanites. I’ve heard some pretty immoral attempts at justifying that one (e.g., William Lane Craig’s bizarre and disgusting apologetics on the subject). But evil as a tangible thing does not exist. So the question itself is again presumptious, not having actually answered that there is such a thing as evil. And, again, it smacks of an attempt at an Argument from Ignorance.

    I find the whole set of questions and his pretext for asking them to be utterly dishonest. But what else is new from the Disco Institute?

  4. 4 Brianne October 22, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    From an atheist biologist’s point of view (the two are obviously not mutually exclusive):

    1) Why is there anything?
    Seriously? My cousin who is a reformed Catholic says she has a hard time believing that the universe doesn’t just hit a wall somewhere like in The Truman Show. In scientific terms the Earth and other planets are living things. I don’t know why they are, but they are. Life supports life and there were particles which made atoms which made molecules which made acids which made genetic material which evolved into what we are today and everything in between. Still don’t believe that there’s some maestro in the sky conducting it all. Oh I’m also a musician.

    2) What caused the Universe?
    The Big Bang. And not the television show. Though for all we know, that was just one in a series of happenings that caused death and rebirth for all of us lowly organisms. The history of what exists could go back much further than we even realize. But we’ll never know.

    3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
    In order for nature to thrive, there must be balance. Speaking from an environmental science point of view, if one species becomes overpopulated it can kill off other species and set off a chain reaction. In our current environment, man is often an external influence which corrupts what is natural in our quest for Hummers and corner offices.

    4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
    Material – Real. Atoms form material. They form everything.
    Formal – Real. Everything in nature is made to be as efficient as possible in subsequent generations.
    Efficient – Crap. Chopping down a tree to make a log cabin doesn’t mean that the purpose of the tree was to make a log cabin.
    Final – Crap. In nature there is no real thought process to this. Humans and their cognitive thinking have now explored the existential questions of life and applied them to that which may have no cognitive recognition. It’s the equivalent to someone saying their cat is mad at them.

    5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
    Because we are sentient beings. In order to exist objectively, we’d need to remove any feeling and emotion from existence and that is not how nature works. Nature is all emotion and gut instincts. It’s man that has civilized (if you can call it that) its existence that is the abnormality. We’ve tried to inject civility into what is human nature and then we guilt people into complying with what we deem correct. As long as there is a collective society with feelings and emotions, there will never be objectivity.

    6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
    I feel like I should be drunk or high to answer this question. I THINK what he is asking is why we are cognitive and why we have what essentially are “human emotions” of sympathy, empathy, advanced thought processes, etc. Who the hell knows? All I can say is that my brain has folds in it that help me remember crap. Well, on a good day.

    7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
    I liked your answer very much. Organisms in general, not just humans, are generally social in nature. Even if they are solitary within their own species they know how to use their surroundings and neighbors sustainably. As far as moral law goes, I do not believe moral law exists because that would infer that there is someone higher than us doing the judging.

    8) Why is there evil?
    When you monetize a society via cash, land and religion, you introduce greed, jealousy and survival instinct. If we lived in a barter community where you paid services for services instead of seeing who can collect the most cash before they retire and then spend it all before they die, we might be more peaceful and objective even. As long as there are wars over land and money and political bragging rights that are masqueraded as killing in the name of a god, there will be evil.

  5. 5 EnlightningLinZ October 23, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Pick Man – thanks! I get it now 🙂

    I like your responses to the questions Shameless & Brianne!

    There’s a response to Egnor’s blog post on Pharyngula now with some fun comments – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/fusty_nonsense_from_a_creation.php

  6. 6 Shamelessly Atheist October 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Yes. PZ noticed the dishonest slant to the questions, too. (How could anyone not? The tactic is obvious and par for the course with IDiots and creationists.)


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