How to Build a Well-Stuffed Straw Man

John Shook, director of education and a senior research fellow for the Center for Inquiry – an organization that is typically friendly toward skepticism, critical thinking, and atheism – has written a scathing attack on … someone, I’m not entirely sure who, exactly … in the good ol’ HuffPo.

In his article, pithily titled “For Atheists and Believers, Ignorance Is No Excuse”, Shook states:

Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology. They either dismiss the subject as irrelevant, or, if they do bother to acknowledge it, slim refutations of outdated arguments for a medieval God seem enough. … Challenging religion’s immunity from criticism is one thing; perpetuating contempt for religion’s intellectual side is another. … The “know-nothing” wing of the so-called New Atheism really lives up to that label. Nonbelievers reveling in their ignorance are an embarrassing betrayal of the freethought legacy.

When I read this, I blinked. Just who is he talking about, anyways? Is he making the (baseless and almost certainly false) assumption that the “new” (ugh) atheists are unfamiliar with more complex forms of theology? Is he saying that we only dismiss it because we don’t understand it? Who is this “‘know-nothing wing’ of the so-called New Atheism”?

Yes, there are plenty of fools who claim that religion is false because they’ve accepted simple (and wrong) explanations such as those offered by idiocy like Zeitgeist, but… does he think that most of us are like this?

I didn’t become an atheist because it was the easy answer. There’s nothing easy about giving up indoctrination. I gave up my faith because I was familiar with the more ‘complex’ theology, and I found it just as empty and intellectually unsatisfying as its simpler cousins. Yes, theologians have become very good in the past few thousand years at ducking and weaving around good questions, but their arguments, no matter how complicated, are still centered upon assertions of knowledge about things they couldn’t possibly know. Any defenses of gods they have are based on asserted attributes of gods; in essence, they’ve become very good at defining God into existence, in the absence of any actual evidence of said existence.

Are most of the more vocal atheists ignorant of theology? Hardly! In my experience, the people who are less familiar with theology are the atheists who go along quietly, not making a fuss out of their disbelief. They don’t find the subject of god meaningful, so they don’t bother talking about it. But those of us who do understand theology tend to recognize that it’s a subject in which expertise can’t be demonstrated! If the gods are inscrutable, no one can claim to be more knowledgeable than anyone else, and we have no reason to accept a person’s authority.

If Shook wants to criticize people who dismiss theology as meaningless because they’re not familiar with the more complex thoughts of theologians, he’s asserting that there’s some basis for assuming those theologians actually have something authoritative to say on the subject! What sort of freethinker assumes that a person who is good at disguising sophistry with flowery language actually has the inside scoop on a subject?

Shook continues:

How did know-nothing atheism and lazy theology grab the spotlight? This dead-end trap of mutually assured ignorance was not inevitable. Ironically, better educated classes of believers and freethinkers had emerged over the past 200 years.

Again… what is an educated believer? When you say that a believer is familiar with complex theology, are you actually saying that they know something about reality, or just that they’ve become better able to spin nonsense into gold?

Shook goes on:

Christian theology has come a long way since St. Thomas Aquinas. Under stress from modern science and Enlightenment philosophy, it has explored cosmological, ethical, emotional, and existential dimensions of religious life. Many kinds of theology have emerged, replacing a handful of traditional arguments for God with robust methods of defending religious viewpoints.

In other words: Religion has consistently ceded ground to rational thought. The gaps in which God can be shoved have consistently shrunk, until God can only be described as a mystery. Why, then, should we be concerned with theology, if it’s constantly having to remold itself to fit the reality that science is revealing to us every day? Theology is a discipline in search of a field to explore.

Why is Shook spouting such silliness? Well, you shouldn’t be surprised at all, really…

I expand on these observations from the front lines of the God debates in my new book, The God Debates: A 21st Century Guide for Atheists, Believers, and Everyone in Between. All of the major traditional and contemporary arguments for God are reorganized by these five categories: Theology From The Scripture (can we trust its accounts of Jesus?); Theology From The World (should we supplement science with acts of God?); Theology Beyond The World (does cosmology need supernaturalism to explain the universe?); Theology In The Know (placing religious certainties before any other knowledge); and Theology Into The Myst (letting religious experiences of God take priority over creeds). The final chapter on Faith and Reason evaluates the competition among Western worldviews struggling to balance reason and faith, including fundamentalism, liberal Christianity, panentheism, mysticism, religious humanism, and secular humanism.

Oh, so he has a book to sell! And thus, all of his nonsense can be excused as an attempt to stir up controversy and increase his sales.

If atheists are going to produce a rational worldview capable of replacing religion, they must take religion and theology more seriously.

These are the words of a man who has done very little reading and a whole lot of pontificating lately. How sad. Plenty of atheist writers have taken religion and theology seriously – as natural phenomena. Playing on the theists’ own court is a surefire way to lose at their game. Deny that they have a right to make the rules, and you’ll be better off. This is the Courtier’s Reply writ large.

Shook’s entire article is one big angry-old-man-fist-shaking at a group who supposedly exists, but for which he is apparently unable to cite a single example. Were he able to do so, it would lend quite a bit of credence to his point. As it stands, he seems to be adept only at attacking scarecrows.


Something else I’ve just realized about Dr. Shook’s article: Underlying it seems to be the assumption that atheists, rather than simply being people who don’t believe in a god or gods, instead somehow bear a responsibility for addressing the evidence-free claims made by religious people. Where does this come from? Why does disbelief require us to examine all the claims made by the religious? And which complex theologies should we be prepared to rebut – just those of the mainstream religions, or those of the more obscure sects as well? What if the most convincing and complicated theological position is that of a single person nobody has ever heard of – should we be embarrassed to call ourselves rationalists or freethinkers if we can’t debate that one person on all her finer points and on her terms? Why do atheists need to be philosophers at all?


2 thoughts on “How to Build a Well-Stuffed Straw Man

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