16.7.08

The Irrational Atheist

Irrational Atheist – Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris and, Hitchens, by Vox Day

This is one of those books that has gotten polarized reviews. Some of those reviews are based on the first three chapters (in some case only pages), and nothing more. The reason for these not-so-indepth reviews is the tone in which Vox Day, a pseudonym, obviously, starts describing the Unholy Trinity. Calling names and hurling alphabetical excrement is never a good way to draw in the reader. Even if one's opponent – The Dreaded Unholy Trinity – does it, there's no need stoop to the same level. Of course, some will find it extremely entertaining.

Irrational Atheist is available for download on Vox Day's site.

*prepares for consternation and uproar*

To the great shock of many who have not read Day's book, it must be said the he does make valid points. That is, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens have made baseless assertions in their books. I'll offer one of many, hopefully to encourage others to read and cope with the others.

Since I live in Finland, I don't know much about US's crime rates and justice system, nor social wealth. That didn't prevent me from seeing that the next point is valid. Vox addresses, among other things, an argument from Sam Harris:

"While political party affiliation in the United States is not a perfect indicator of religiosity, it is no secret that the "red states" are primarily red because of the overwhelming political influence of conservative Christians. If there were a strong correlation between Christian conservatism and social health, we might expect to see some sign of it in red-state America. We don't. Of the 25 cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in "blue" states and 38 percent are in "red" states. … Of the 22 states with the highest rates of murder, 17 are red"


-Sam Harris

To which Vox offers a detailed explanation. Harris has committed Ecological Fallacy. When one looks at _counties_, not states, one can see that blue counties have higher murder and robbery rates. The dangerous cities Harris lists as examples of dangerous places residing in red states, are in fact in blue counties.

"District of Columbia, which voted 91 percent blue in 2004, also happened to possess the highest murder rate in the nation, which at 35,7 per 100´000 was nearly seven times the U.S. national average of 5,5."


21 of the top 25 Most dangerous cities are in blue counties. 12 of the top 25 Safest cities are in blue counties.

"By applying his metric to the state-wide voting instead of the more precise and relevant county, Harris exaggerates the number of safe blue cities by 20 percent and minimizes the number of dangerous blue cities by an astounding 70 percent!"


In the end, this and several other points are irrelevant to atheism and the existence of God. But this is not Vox Day's fault. Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens themselves offer these arguments as justification on the dangers of religion. Those arguments are exaggerations. To call religion a poison is to paint with too wide a brush. Religious belief can justify both good and bad behaviour, depending on how good and bad are defined. The real danger comes from fundamentalism, secular or sectarian version of it.

I'm not the best person to describe the problem, since I've had very little contact with dangerous belief. Finland has one of those cultures where talking about one's ”personal relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour” causes embarrasing pauses and coughs. ”Normal” people don't talk about issues like that with other people.

Fundamentalism, a strict maintenance of the doctrines of any religion or ideology, encompasses political ideas as well as religious interpretations of sacred texts. Fundamentalism should be the target for Unholy Trinity as well as an serious thinker.

Vox's greatest axe-grinding comes from the fact that atheism does not offer a foundation for a moral code. Thus atheism spirals down to either moral paratism or amorality. In my view this is partly a correct observation. A lack of faith in God (or however you want to define atheism) does not, in itself, explain how one should behave. Morality and ethics are separate systems from atheism.
This is why blaming atheism for the multitudes of horrors in Asian communist countries just doesn't work. I'm prettaay, prettaay sure that the people listed in Appendix A (Murderer's Row, p. 289) didn't think: ”Gosh, there is no God. Let's kill loads of people.”

This is why there are atheist who wave banners for war, while other atheists are pacifists. Atheists can be pro-communism, while other atheists enjoy capitalism. These mixed signals can confuse critics of atheism. The situation is not, however, any different for theists. Religious arguments can be, and have been, made for slavery and against slavery, for war and for peace, for killing babies and saving them.

Vox Day seems to be those kind of theists who can't understand how anyone can find meaning outside God. This lack of belief in God creates a moral vacuum, where rational and consistent atheists have to be sociopaths or commit suicide. I have never understood this line of reasoning.

This is not to say there are no atheists who are rational, that there are none who are true to their godless convictions. Friedrich Nietzsche is the foremost example, but there are certainly others who do not fear to determine their own moral compass. Today, we call them sociopaths and suicides.


I personally detest hurting other people. I try to be help those who need help. I don't need an order from a deity or any authority outside myself to behave. My system is far from perfect, I'm ready to admit that, but so far I've managed to avoid suicide and murder.

Implications of belief and theistic morality, or lack of them, have little to with the central issue: the existence of God.

Nowhere does Vox offer evidence for the existence of God. He reserved the issue outside of his book right from the start. A pity, since revealing how irrational atheists are would have been so much easier.

At times Vox does set up a glaringly wrong caricatures of his opponents. For instance, on page 146 he writes:

”Richard Dawkins is perhaps one of the last men on Earth who should be discussing what is the right and proper wau to rise children, given that the number of his wives outnumbers his offspring. But while he can accept both child abandoment and childhood sexual abuse with dispassionate fortitude, it is the horrible crime of raising children in the faith of their fathers that upsets him due to his belief that the fear of Hell is more psychologically damaging than childhood sexual abuse in the long term.”


What's wrong with this picture? Does Dawkins really approve of sexual abuse? I beg to differ. Dawkins does think that one of the two is more damaging, but claiming that he accepts the less damaging is a bit of a stretch on any standard. Hopefully I have misunderstood Vox Day.

The good and informative chapters deal with Inquisition (Spanish version didn't kill as many as popular media claims), Crusades (more politics behind the facades than religion) and tackling Hitler's mind – or lack of it. To my great relief, Vox isn't one of those theists who tries to push Hitler into the atheists' camp. Hitler was neither a christian nor atheist, but a mix-match of pagan ideas. He did say a lot of things, but clearly to appeal to the audience of the moment. This explains why nazis were building their own churches while at the same time undermining christianity.
When Vox Day writes of these issues the text is rather good and certainly educational to Average Joe. One of the best mindgames deals with virtual reality and artificial intelligence, where Vox Day explains how omnipotence and omniscience are not really a contradiction. More of that later.

Less informative issues circle around atheists' social autism, where data is collected from the commentors of Pharyngula-blog. The Irrational Atheist varies greatly in context, but at the end of the day (no pun intended), it is still worth the invested time. This is a book which will be quoted in countless online religion vs atheism debates, so it is better to be prepared than shoving your head in the sand.

The book also underlines the need for atheists to come up with a easy to understand and positive basis for secular humanism. Just criticizing theism doesn't build atheism's base.

----------------

Vox Day has commented on this review on his own blog.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

"One of the best mindgames deals with virtual reality and artificial intelligence, where Vox Day explains how omnipotence and omniscience are not really a contradiction."

His argument is quite lame: The human programmer in his scenario is not really omnipotent.

Anonymous said...

Nor is he omniscient.

wrf3 said...

Whether or not the human programmer is omniscient or omnipotent isn't relevant. From the point-of-view of the character in the game, the human is.

Markku said...

Ok, I posted the link where Vox will pick it up probably pretty soon. Expect a slight increase in traffic shortly.

I notice that Vox Ilk are already arriving.

-Markku Koponen

Paholaisen Asianajaja said...

I'll dive deeper into the whole Programmer-scenario in a separate blogpost later this week.

Paholaisen Asianajaja said...

Oh yes, Markku. I saw what you did there:

Advocatus Diaboli (Paholaisen Asianajaja) did as he said he would, and finished his TIA review. And. He. Read. The. Whole. Book.

Can you imagine?


Is it really that rare a phenomenom? :)

Markku said...

Is it really that rare a phenomenom? :)

This is what always happens: They say they'll do a chapter by chapter review. And then they stop after the third chapter, with various excuses.

Now, Kelly from the Rational Response Squad has actually done a first part of a two-part review of the fourth chapter. Needless to say, we are excited.

Markku said...

Here's how I would describe the problem with atheism and morality. Note: This is not an argument for believing in God, it is simply an explanation for why, already believing in God, I am alarmed by atheism.

I am programming firmware for a certain client-server -type of device. Here's what we ran into running the first proper tests.

There were about a hundred clients. Then one dropped down for one reason or the other. So, it started the registration process. But this overloaded the server, since there were so many clients, and the registration causes more traffic than normal operation.

So, another device dropped down since the server couldn't serve it in time. And it started registering. From here, every programmer can guess what happened. Soon there were no registered devices at all. The system completely crashed. These systems are what we call unstable systems.

Now, to me, atheism seems like an unstable system. The only motivation not to commit crimes that can be given by atheism is that you don't like to commit crimes. But this is closely linked to the kind of society that you grew up in. We pick these morals largely from the society around us.

What if its crime rate went up? Now its capacity to produce morality decreases. This causes more crime, which decreases the capacity and so forth. This can only end in the laws of the jungle. And we do see crime rates going up.

What about religion? It gives absolute dogmas. Its commandments to be moral are unrelated to other people's morality. In fact at least Christianity gives reason to believe that it is MORE commendable to be moral in an immoral society than in a moral one. Christianity provides negative feedback to increasing crime rates, whereas atheism provides positive feedback.

And based on the statistics that I find in The Irrational Atheist, this seems to be exactly what happens.

Anonymous said...

"Whether or not the human programmer is omniscient or omnipotent isn't relevant. From the point-of-view of the character in the game, the human is."

One simple example: If the game character were to ask the programmer: "Can you give me life eternal", the answer would be no. Hence, from the POV of the character in the game, the human is not omnipotent. And if I am not mistaken, life eternal is THE thing people expect an omnipotent God to be able to provide.

MrKAT said...

Very interesting article !

Vox makes very good statistical point and Harris et al are really in bad trouble.

Does he give any explanations to those strange stats ?

Well, I've hypothesis: Red states in south are in "countryside of US". (More Religious + conservative) farmes prefer reds , but workers in (more violent than in countryside) cities prefer to vote blue. This might explain most of those statistical pecularities..?

Markku said...

"Does he give any explanations to those strange stats ?"

That would be a strategic mistake, since he would be assuming burden of proof if he did. Vox is very careful to only show the specific arguments of the Unholy Trinity wrong, and do nothing more.

Then there are of course the last chapters, where he tells a bit about his own views. But if I recall correctly, Vox said that the publisher requested those to be written so that the book would be a little more interesting. He wasn't going to write them originally.

He also has said that he is starting, or has already started, to write a book that takes the opposite approach: To positively argue for the truth of Christianity. Or maybe just the existence of a god, I'm not sure.

Markku said...

He also has said that the extremely aggressive tone of the book was a strategic choice. Polite books, written by others, have already been written, and always been mostly ignored.

He tried a different approach. And it seems to have worked, since this one has raised much more awareness than any of those previous books.

Paholaisen Asianajaja said...

He also has said that he is starting, or has already started, to write a book that takes the opposite approach: To positively argue for the truth of Christianity. Or maybe just the existence of a god, I'm not sure.

That sounds promising. I'd read that. The problem with TIA was that so many of the chapters were irrelevant to me. I was an atheist before I read the Unholy Trinity Books (still reading Dennet). I am an atheist after reading TIA.

Markku said...

Dennett is not part of the Unholy Trinity, by the way. I've read Vox's columns at WorldNetDaily for years, and when he was writing TIA he said that he originally meant to include Dennett, but came to the conclusion that he is not crazy like the other guys.

Vox has said that although he likes Harris best as a person, he respects Dennett intellectually the most. The Unholy Trinity plus Dennett equals The Four Horsemen of Bukkakelypse.

Markku said...

The one part of the book that I was uncomfortable with was the game programmer analogy. I thought it had a specific error that might render the analogy useless in practice.

I don't mean completely useless, since it would still be suggestive. But it's something that would probably come up when used with an atheist who knows how to program. And analogies that fail in a relevant point aren't nearly as effective in convincing someone.

I'm very interested in whether or not you'll bring up the exact point that I'm thinking. I'll tell it afterwards.

Paholaisen Asianajaja said...

Vox Day's comments on Dennet made me shuffle Breaking the Spell to higher priority on my To Read-list.

Markku, I remember that you said something about the programmer-scenario years ago on Pelit.fi, but can't really recollect what it was. I'm getting old.

Markku said...

What I probably said was that programming is the best, and possibly the only source of analogies for the creation, because it is our only chance of creating worlds or realms from scratch. I mean, we even decide and control the laws of "nature" in that world.

In all other scenarios where we create something, we are working within the laws of this world. And exploiting phenomena that are already in place.

Markku said...

Vox responds Here

Paholaisen Asianajaja said...

Thanks! Writing a comment to it now.

wrf3 said...

anonymous:

[wrf3]"Whether or not the human programmer is omniscient or omnipotent isn't relevant. From the point-of-view of the character in the game, the human is."

One simple example: If the game character were to ask the programmer: "Can you give me life eternal" ...

Your counterexample fails from the start. The game character cannot ask anything the programmer does not want it to ask.

Paholaisen Asianajaja said...

Damn. coComment server doesn't like me. Maybe I'll write a comment on my blog later. Now off the the shops.

Markku said...

As far as I know, Vox Popoli was the first page to use CoComments. It has its problems.

What happened? Did the comment simply fail to be displayed, or were there any errors?

Anonymous said...

"Your counterexample fails from the start. The game character cannot ask anything the programmer does not want it to ask."

I humbly suggest that you reread what Vox actually wrote. Let me quote for you: "Ironically, considering the topic of this book, we
made use of a genetic programming approach in developing these
16 Like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, in other words.
17 Combining speech recognition with synthetic text-to-speech technology provided the verbal interaction
with the AIs.
18 Happily, this is beginning to change with the AI middleware from AI Implant, Kynogon, and my
own third-tier PsyAI system.
280 the irrational atheist
artificial intelligences, a technique that makes use of evolutionary
algorithms in an unnatural selection scheme favoring the survival of
the optimally performing, or if you will, the fittest. ... And while it would have been incredibly interesting had these artificial
intelligences become self-aware and begun worshipping him, the
project unfortunately came to an end before that could happen thanks to
circumstances beyond our control."

See, Vox freely admits what is widely known: Genetic algorithms are unpredictable and they evolve. Thus the game character can ask whatever it decides to ask.

The use of genetic algorithms is by the way the reason the programmer of the example is not omniscient either. Genetic algorithms are unpredictable, thus it is impossible for the human programmer to predict in advance what the game character will do exactly, even if he wanted to do this prediction. Thus the programmers understanding of the world he has created is limited, not complete.

So is Vox trying to say that God is not Really omnipotent, but we just perceive Him to be? Or that His omniscience does not allow Him to predict the actions of a genetic algorithm (humans) in advance? If so, we better hope that the funding of God's universe project is not suddenly cancelled.

Anonymous said...

This is what the quote should have looked like:

"Ironically, considering the topic of this book, we
made use of a genetic programming approach in developing these artificial intelligences, a technique that makes use of evolutionary
algorithms in an unnatural selection scheme favoring the survival of
the optimally performing, or if you will, the fittest. ... And while it would have been incredibly interesting had these artificial
intelligences become self-aware and begun worshipping him, the
project unfortunately came to an end before that could happen thanks to
circumstances beyond our control."

Paholaisen Asianajaja said...


What happened? Did the comment simply fail to be displayed, or were there any errors?


This:

An error occured while registering.
You must enter all the required information!
You were NOT registered. Please correct the missing or invalid information and try again.

But nevermind. I'll write comments here during the weekend. Now I have to entertain someone.

normdoering said...

Watch out for Vox. I caught him in a rather bald faced lie when I read his sample chapter on Sam Harris.

Details here on my blog post.

Don't be so sure he is using the full quotes, he quote mines and takes things out of context. Don't rely on him to get the real views of Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens.

Markku said...

The suicide bomber issue seems like a valid criticism. The present edition says:

1) Factual error. Harris begins The End of Faith by strongly implying
that almost all suicide bombers are Muslim.

Now, it is indeed worth noting that this statistic is extremely biased by one particular conflict, which makes Harris's point much weaker than if the ratio was consistent. But I think Vox makes too bold a claim to call it "factual error".

I brought it up in the comments. Let's see how this plays out.

Tuomo "Squirrel" Hämäläinen said...

"In all other scenarios where we create something, we are working within the laws of this world. And exploiting phenomena that are already in place."

Actually, the computer's working is strictly under the laws of nature. There is not situation, where we can create work in "empty". So, if making hammer or something else like that is just manipulating nature's already existing phenomenons - like I think - there is not basic difference between.

And I don't like analogies are "strong enough" in making cases. It is like those fractal programs, which make pictures, which look like leafs and trees: Yes, they might look like tree and leaf, but their "birth history" and "mechanism which make them" are quite much different.

And second question is that IF there is operator, and an competing operator, call them "first" and "second"; and the "second" operator is adveretising so the just now more popular "first" is losing it's client. Off course in "first" they are concerned: They actually do more than "crash" under the process which handle the stopping of the clients. They might come pancrupt.

So I don't wonder that religious people are concerned. I just think that there is no reason to think about them. It is like "first" just says to the competition ministeries and politicans, that "second" must stop, becouse clients like it more.

And what comes in morality: I don't believe that killing all other is just "culture". It is more like "human nature". Religious just are ad homineming all other - and behind this nazism is thought of "primal sin". And that is basicly saying, that all people are bad - if they are not christians. I am thinking more that peoples are not basically evil - they are mostly ignorant and goodwilling - and reason behind this is our feelings, which are not controllet by culture - actually I think that it is more like the feelings control which kind of cultures are possible. (Westermarck's effect and many more are actually global, not "in one culture".) So my point is that peoples are not at all so rational in moral cases. They claim themselves otherwise, but they are actually under kognitive dissonanse and optimism bias when they rationalize that to themselves.

And if religious people are right, then atheism should at least stop wars: If atheist are really selfish, they are not ready to die for "bigger cause" like country. (I think that it is not true, but if things are like religious people believe = culture is everything and atheists think only themselves and lose moral and helping becouse they have not under influence of right religion, that is what should happen.)

And I think that religious USA have death penalty. Why? Becouse they believe in "primal sin" = their "ad hominem all other kind of thinkin when ever it is possible" -invention, make them rationalize that it is right to kill them. (And for them life after death is so cool, that if they accidentially kill someone, who have not make the crime, Jesus would raise him/her up, so there is not so big fuss about it.)

Tuomo "Squirrel" Hämäläinen said...

PS: I still admit that "Just criticizing theism doesn't build atheism's base." -stuff.

It is just like those "evolution critics", if they have not positive cases for them, it is all just empty japping.

But I'm sure, that religious people and atheist don't see it. They easily see that half, where "their enemies" are doing stupid claims, and not seeing where they themselves go wrong - even if it is done exaclty the same way..

normdoering said...

It appears Vox saw my comment and wrote a blog post on it.

I respond to it here.

MrKAT said...

I continue my analysis..

Harris et al and Vox may play tricks with lousy statistics of counties and cities to the end of the world, but power+laws+atmosphere are the most important factors and eventually Harris et may have right point. The "red" states (also around the world) are the most conservative and violent in spite blue spots because the (more stupid) laws are determined by "red" majorities..

AncientOne said...

Suosittelen tutustumaan George blockerin kirjoituksiin :) Sivaltaa ateisteja oikein asenteella x)