Archbishop Worries That Atheism is “Cool,” and This Makes Atheists Happy


Recent statements by Britain’s Archbishop, Rowan Williams, have provoked some interesting discussion. Williams has said, “Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool.” He’s thinking of books like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.

For news coverage, see the article by Jonathan Wynne-Jones, published in The Telegraph September 19, 2011.

Today I read a post about the Archbishop’s statement at an atheist blog hosted by Martin Pribble

Dr Rowan Williams PC, DPhil, DD, FBA the 104th...

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. I then left a comment in the comments stream, which otherwise appears to be uniformly atheistic in orientation.

Here’s my comment:

Hasty generalization is a blight on much thinking on all sides of most issues. (I hope that statement isn’t an example of hasty generalization!)

In this case, the good Archbishop surely over-generalizes if he claims that a recent bump in the popularity of atheism is due to its “cool” factor. The explanation is far more complex than that, and the weighing of evidence for and against the existence of God is surely a factor for many people.

On the other hand, I think that Martin is a bit hasty in his generalization about theistic responses to current atheism advocacy. To be sure, there are books that pass over evidence and argument in breezy fashion and simply attack the messenger. But Martin implies that this is true of all published responses to Dawkins. He can’t be serious. One might, as he suggests, do a simple Google search to turn up more sophisticated treatments, of Dawkins’ work, yes, but also of the atheistic or naturalistic position more generally. Some are published by prestigious presses that are careful to publish only the best serious and academic work on such topics: Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge, for example.

Also, I notice that ad hominem rhetoric is tossed about on both sides of this issue. In the comment stream for this post, for example, Rowan Williams is chided in uncharitable terms and William Lane Craig is said to be stupid.

I’m new to this website, so I don’t know about its general tenor or the tone of regular commentators. But if the byline is “Attempting to make sense,” then I urge Martin to admonish his readers to take greater care to marshal evidence in support of their claims rather than to make safe and provocative assertions and tender emotional arguments.

If this site seeks to engage readers in meaningful dialogue, I suspect it will attract more thoughtful responses, from a spectrum of positions, if it monitors the discussion and facilitates reasoned debate. A wise proverb says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” In other words, if sophistry prevails, find someone else to talk to.

Last I checked, my comment was “awaiting moderation.”

Update: My comment at Martin Pibble’s site has been approved, so it now appears there, as well. I should note that here at my own site comments “await moderation” until “approved.” I believe a process of screening to be good practice.

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Talk about an Abuse of Power


An Alaska ethics probe concluded today that Governor Sarah Palin did abuse her power in the ordeal surrounding the dismissal of state official Walt Monegan. Monegan had refused to fire state trooper, Mike Wooten, who had been married to Palin’s sister until that marriage ended some years ago. Wooten had, Palin alleged, tasered his 10-year-old stepson and threated to kill Palin’s father. This before Monegan’s departure from his job.

Inquiries into Gov. Palin’s possible conduct in the matter had already begun prior to her nomination to be John McCain’s running-mate. There is evidence, however, that the probe was managed by Obama supporters and was speeded up to result in a decision soon enough to have a bearing on the presidential election.

I don’t know the facts, but if this suspicion is true, or even if the suspicion is well-founded without being demonstrably true, then there ought to be a very speedy inquiry into the ethics of the ethics probe and the possibility that those who conducted the probe are themselves guilty of an abuse of power.

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It’s not surprising that Alan Colmes (of Hannity & Colmes) was pleased with this result. He interviewed Dick Morris, who noted that trooper Wooten had made a death threat on Palin’s father and tasered his stepson. Colmes’s response was interesting. He said that Wooten denies making any death threat. Apparently, Colmes had done his homework and knew that this did not apply to the allegation that Wooten had tasered the young boy.

A few weeks ago, during a televised interview, the officer in question acknowledged that he had tasered his 10-year-old stepson. He said he did it because the boy was curious about tasers and asked to be tasered. He agreed in the interview that it was a dumb thing to do.

I mention this because of the example it provides of the deterioration of public discourse. Morris’s statement was a conjunction: Wooten made a death threat against the father-in-law and Wooten tasered the stepson. To defeat this statement, Colmes challenged the second conjunct and ignored the first. In challenging the second conjunct, Colmes offered as evidence Wooten’s denial of the allegation. This is hardly compelling evidence, especially if the first conjunct is true. And the first conjunct is true. The evidence for that is that Wooten confesses to that.

Now, logically, if the second conjunct of Morris’s statement is false, then the entire conjunction is false. But it doesn’t follow that the first conjunt is false. That part of the conjunction is true. And Morris’s comments clearly indicated that he believed its truth is a sufficient condition for Sarah Palin to have fired Monegan if he refused to fire Wooten.

If the trooper had been anyone else than a former brother-in-law, then an ethics probe might never have been started. Who can say? But the grounds for questioning her ethics would certainly have been different, since the findings in the actual probe are tied to the investigators’ judgment that Palin’s behavior was, in some sense, payback. Again, I don’t know the facts, or the evidence that was produced during the probe. But I wouldn’t imagine that Palin’s previous relationship with Wooten would count as sufficient evidence that this was her motive.

What is of interest—because we are in a position to judge based on observation—is the conduct of the press in this matter and the jockeying that will go on among chieftains of the two presidential campaigns. Barack Obama is under closer scrutiny than ever before because of his financial support of ACORN and his relationship with sundry scoundrels. Treatment of the Palin news will be an illuminating test of the objectivity of the “mainstream media.” I make no predictions about what will transpire over the weekend, but if the several prominent news and commentary shows direct more attention to the Palin issue than the Obama probe they themselves should be conducting, it will be very telling.

Quotes on Culture Warfare


“We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it’s because deep down under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know . . . anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.” —John Patrick Shanley, Preface to his play Doubt: A Parable.

“No matter what side of an argument you’re on, you always find some people on your side that you wish were on the other side.” —Jascha Heifetz

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