Using Polemics to Expose the Fiasco of Firebrand Atheism

david-bentley-hart-on-popular-atheismTo adequately refute a theological or philosophical position, the virtue of epistemic humility must be a central feature of charitable interpretation. Saint Ignatius of Loyola offers this advice,

“In order that the one who gives these Exercises and he who makes them may be of more assistance and profit to each other, they should begin with the presupposition that every good Christian ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another than to condemn it as false. If he cannot give a good interpretation to this statement, he should ask the other how he understands it, and if he is in error, he should correct him with charity. If this is not sufficient, he should seek every suitable means of correcting his understanding so that he may be saved from error.”[1]

I am quite receptive to this instruction, and while I may fail to follow it perfectly I do attempt to keep interpretative charity in mind when critiquing a view. Concerning the latter portion of the statement, one may ask what exactly counts as “every suitable means of correcting his understanding so that he may be saved from error”? How are we to recognize the extent of a suitable means of correction even when humility is exercised yet not sufficient for amending a mistaken understanding of a view? A more direct question concerning the structure of a suitable means for correction is what role, if any, does polemics play when attempting to address what seems to be an impenetrably tenacious invincible ignorance? And if polemics does play an appropriate corrective role, how often should this tactic be utilized?

These are important questions because many of the opposing views the Church faces today have achieved a level of interlocution that reaches far beyond the scope of rational discourse. If the Church’s enemies are incapable of dialogue in the pursuit of truth, another path ought to be traversed. Error cannot be ignored when eternity is on the line. It should come as no surprise that the argumentative arsenal utilized against the Church is often mixed with lies, distortions, misrepresentations, slanders, and cartoon versions of doctrinal teachings. It is my view, then, given the nature of these tactics, that polemics can be used to expose the silliness of some of the arguments made against the faith, and would fall well within the scope of a suitable means of correction recommended by Saint Ignatius. If a reasonable polemics is not able to convince the person standing squarely upon the errors of metaphysical naturalism and epistemological scientism to reconsider their intellectual commitments, it may point others sitting on the fence towards the proper path of truth, while simultaneously edifying those within the faith struggling with doubt.

Another reason why polemics should be considered a suitable means for correction is that it may be the appropriate deterrent from being bullied into silence by the overzealous platitudes of the materialist cudgel. Exposing the vacuously circular claims of the materialist worldview is precisely what a well-aimed polemical counter-attack ought to be used for.

A brief word of caution is useful. Polemics should not be the default argumentative tactic for defending the faith and proclaiming the gospel. Moreover, the polemical impact is only as useful as it is accurate.

This brief excursion into the necessary use of polemics brings me to its application to the new atheist cult of personality. The flimsy foundation contemporary atheism is built upon is heavily guarded by the prestigious personalities of those big names that inaugurated the cultural advocacy of an unabashed materialism. The so-called 4 horsemen of the new atheist movement initially included Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. These original 4 have cleared the way, so to speak, for other atheists in academia to proclaim the message of materialism with Zarathustrian fervor. Individuals such as Lawrence Krauss, PZ Myers, A.C. Grayling, Alex Rosenberg, and Jerry Coyne have joined the new atheist evangel.

In addition to the names in academia, non-academics have advanced “movement atheism” by wielding firebrand tactics in the public square. David Silverman is the president of American Atheists, and his book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto For A Religious World, is an exercise in confrontational methods to argue that, “All religions are lies, and all believers are victims who need and deserve our help.”[2]

Silverman says,

“In this enduring battle for freedom from the Lie of God (a phrase I use to describe all deities and the lies, empty promises, and threats that surround them), we are finally winning, mainly because, thanks to the Internet, we are finally capable of trying. We, the atheists of America, are on the cusp of achieving equality. We have no money compared to religion. We have no power compared to religion. Yet our numbers are growing while theirs are shrinking, because it’s not just about money or power, but about truth. Truth beats money and power, and when it comes to religion, atheists have a monopoly on truth.”[3]

He continues,

“Atheists like me are what I call conclusionary. We have concluded that gods are myths because we’ve seen sufficient evidence and heard or read sufficient arguments to convince us there are no gods. But this is not stubbornness. If any god, anywhere, were proven real even once, I would convert, quit my job, and donate all the proceeds of this book to the correct god’s religion. Of course, that has never happened, and there is no reason to expect that it will. I am convinced this mentality holds true for almost all atheists everywhere – if there were any proof of any god, there would be practically no atheists anywhere. I search for truth, not just preferred belief.”[4]

We can ignore the heavily loaded vocabulary in these paragraphs for a moment in order to focus on Silverman’s claim that he is unconvinced by the evidence and argumentation for the existence of God; by overlooking the inflammatory rhetoric, we can focus on the assertion that he searches for the truth, rather than an artificial confirmation bias. If this is truly the case, there ought to be evidence in Fighting God that Silverman has adequately dealt with the argumentative demonstrations of God’s existence developed throughout the history of theistic philosophical thought. Given the conclusionary nature of Silverman’s atheistic commitment, clear refutations of the best arguments for God should be a hallmark of his treatise.

Silverman begins his examination of the arguments for God’s existence with this introductory note (original emphasis),

“For other ‘proofs of the existence of God,’ numerous other books and online resources give excellent refutations of all of them (without exception – none of the proofs hold water.) But I want to take a moment to point out the same fraud in the most common proofs.

Evidence suggests that Neanderthals invented the Lie of God to explain the things they didn’t understand. Why does it rain? Why does the sun move? Where did we come from? I don’t know, so it must have been God. God made the rain, God made the sun move, God made us. Of course it was a very different god (or gods) from the ones over which we fight and die today, but they were based on the same concept – I don’t know, therefore God did it. I can’t imagine that the first argument for the existence of a god between those early Neanderthals didn’t include this line of thinking.

Then we found out how the rain was really made, and why the sun traversed the sky, so the number of things we don’t know (and therefore the number of things attributed to a god) shrank. God no longer made the rain, but we as species didn’t understand lots of other things, so God did all of those things. Then we learned more and God did less. Now, the set of what we don’t know is much smaller that it used to be, and so the number of things attributed to God has shrunk. This is called the Shrinking God of the Gaps Argument, because as the gaps in our knowledge are reduced by scientific learning, the God who supposedly did all the stuff we still don’t understand becomes smaller and less important.”[5]

Silverman’s asserted vagaries in these paragraphs point more towards the caprice of confirmation bias instead of the pursuit of truth earlier announced. The first paragraph broadcasts the fact that Silverman isn’t interested in doing any of the difficult work needed to refute the arguments of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Scotus, Descartes, Leibniz, Newman, Garrigou-Lagrange, Feser, or Hart. Even worse, the materials Silverman appeals to are left nameless and unreferenced. Where are these arguments and online resources to be found? There is not even the hint of a noteworthy scholarly awareness of the literature on the existence of God. The intellectual dishonesty only increases when Silverman smugly assures the reader that none of the arguments hold any water. Following the unwarranted confidence of his own pronouncement, Silverman then proceeds to build up a rather hefty straw man by associating syllogistic reasoning with an unidentifiable fideism of the Neanderthal. In addition to the straw man fallacy, Silverman erroneously suggests that the arguments for the existence of God are sloppily constructed empirical models attempting to describe how the natural world operates, and then compares these rudimentary pre-modern constructs to contemporary models of scientific discovery. Category errors of this magnitude – comparing metaphysical arguments to the models of empirical sciences – are a common feature among the modern atheistic literary corpus.

The mistakes continue as Silverman struggles to articulate the arguments he earlier claimed do not hold water (original emphasis),

“The arguments have not improved over time, but they have been disguised to cloud the issue. Many of today’s popular ‘scientific proofs’ of God are only the same Neanderthal-era thoughts, dressed differently in an effort to make them look more logical, or more based on reason. Following are some good examples.

The teleological argument – what a great name! I love it when apologists think up complex names to hide the total scam they’re peddling. This is also knows as the ‘argument from design’ and it goes like this:

The name the teleological argument is derived from the Greek telos, meaning ‘end’ or ‘purpose.’ When such arguments speak of the universe being ordered, they mean that it is ordered towards some end or purpose. The suggestion is that it is more plausible to suppose that the universe is so because it was created by an intelligent being in order to accomplish that purpose that it is to suppose that it is this way by chance.

In other words, we start from the assumption that the universe is deliberately ordered and was made for a purpose or according to a ‘design’ (note that no specific purpose/design is posited, just that one must exist because it appears so to the observer, with no factual support given for this blatant assumption.) Whose purpose is it? Nobody knows, therefore it must be (my) God. The argument presupposes a thing, asks who (not what) created the thing, and since there is no obvious rational answer currently available for this presumed thing, answers with “God did it” and calls itself science.”[6]

I will provide one more example of Silverman’s intellectual rigor by referencing his dreadful attempt to articulate the cosmological argument (original emphasis),

“The cosmological argument (another great name) is an even more blatant rip-off of its Neanderthal roots:

The cosmological argument is the argument that the existence of the world or universe is strong evidence for the existence of a God who created it. The existence of the universe, the argument claims, stands in need of explanation, and the only adequate explanation of its existence is that it was created by God.

At least we can save a step this time. We don’t have to invent a ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ about which to ask the question, we can just ask the exact same question about the universe itself that the Neanderthals asked about the rain: Where did it come from? Nobody knows, therefore God created it. Just like the Neanderthal’s rain, God is the ‘only adequate explanation’ (because for some reason ‘we don’t know’ is not an option). There. Science.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” [7]

The analysis offered by Silverman is beyond parody. Even worse is that the vitriolic incompetence clearly illustrated in his handling of the arguments for God’s existence is found on every single page of the book no matter the topic. When Silverman is not clumsily attempting to analyze philosophical arguments that he has never taken the time to familiarize himself with, he is charging religious believers with being perpetually infected with the vices of deception, corruption, dishonesty, bigotry, etc. All of this from a man who is the product of a movement pretending to be the intellectual superiors of those believing in God, while in reality he is not fit to loose the sandals of the saintly friars he would mock as imbeciles. Ironically, Silverman, the alleged exemplar of reason, couldn’t hold a candle to the great thinkers he pretends to understand while mangling the very arguments he vigorously spurns.

Fighting God is a proper representation of what not to do when writing a book about any topic. Imagine that I set out to write a book called “Fighting Naturalism.” I am an activist against naturalism and my aim is to destroy this particular worldview in the public square, and the tactics I will employ to this end are identified as “firebrand.”

I set out to write this book without ever having read anything written by a serious naturalist, whether a philosopher or scientist. The only time I reference a naturalist is when I am quote mining to make them look stupid. I don’t attempt to understand their views, their arguments, or the reasoning that lead to their commitment to naturalism.

Additionally, I am completely unfamiliar with the history of naturalist thought, the problems naturalists were attempting to solve, questions they were attempting to answer, the development of naturalist inquiry, and why they put so much confidence in the methods of science. In addition to my ignorance of naturalist thought, I am completely uninterested and ignorant of the history of science itself; therefore I am ignorant of the tasks and aims of the scientific community and their methods for studying nature.

Despite the fact that I am going to write a book called “Fighting Naturalism,” it is evident that I am going to be utterly clueless when talking about a naturalistic worldview.

In addition to this ignorance, I am unaware of the basic logical fallacies to stay away from when making my case. Fallacies such as begging the question, poisoning the well, false dichotomy, fallacy of equivocation, straw man fallacy, appeal to ignorance etc. are routinely exploited because I am simply not aware of the problematic nature argumentative fallacies create when making the case for or against any particular position under examination. Because I am unaware of these fallacies, and I am not informed enough to know when I am making them, I routinely commit them when discussing naturalism.

Not only am I guilty of not understanding basic logic, but I am also ignorant of the more technical usage of terms used by naturalists when they defend or posit their views to be better descriptions of reality. Because of this deficiency in knowledge, I depend upon dictionary definitions of terms that may actually turn out to be totally irrelevant when applied to naturalism in any serious manner.

In addition to my profound ignorance of naturalism, logic, philosophy, and science, imagine that I am completely consumed with hatred for naturalism and naturalists; I think they are either victims or liars, and that their only reason for believing naturalism is true is because of brainwashing, indoctrination, and evil greedy machinations. Indeed, it is my belief that as soon as a naturalist’s head lifts from the pillow in the morning their every action is infected with diabolical intentions, oppressive imaginations, disgusting moral motivations, and the unquenched desire to rule their neighbor with the iron fist of despotic fairy tales.

To all of this, add a complete and utter lack of humility, dripping elitist condescension, malicious cheap shots, an unearned sense of victim status, and unwarranted confidence in my intellectual abilities.

It is hard to imagine a book being published with so many defects, but if you are going to read Fighting God you will encounter all of these less than noble attributes in the writing of David Silverman.

Fighting God is a painful literary experience. Ed Feser has stated that Jerry Coyne’s latest work, Faith vs Fact, is the worst of the new atheist literature to be released. I would submit Silverman’s work as a strong challenger to that title.

A few things become quite clear when reading Silverman’s book; he seethes with hatred for religion (which he explicitly states), and that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

Unfortunately, Silverman is ignorant of his ignorance.

On the bright side, I think we were able to recognize the importance of polemics when dealing with some of the Church’s most committed enemies.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Pg. 47

[2] Inside Flap of the Book Cover

[3] Fighting God, Pg. 3

[4] Ibid, Pg. 3

[5] Ibid, Pg. 101

[6] Ibid, Pg. 102

[7] Ibid, Pg. 102, 103


One thought on “Using Polemics to Expose the Fiasco of Firebrand Atheism

  1. Pingback: Another Firebrand Failure – A Manuel For Creating Atheists | The Socratic Catholic

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