There have been numerous anti-atheist articles popping up recently, mostly on Salon but elsewhere too. That’s their right, but you would think they would at least limit their articles to well argued ones. Or at least exclude arguments that have not already been easily refuted numerous times. (Admittedly that might not leave them with much to say, but that’s hardly atheists’ fault.) Case in point, today’s article at The Week by Damon Linker, Why atheism doesn’t have the upper hand over religion. Apparently this is something of a series from him, as he starts:
In my last column, I examined some of the challenges facing religion today. Those challenges are serious. But that doesn't mean that atheism has the upper hand. On the contrary, as I've argued many times before, atheism in its currently fashionable form is an intellectual sham. As Exhibit 653, I give you Jerry Coyne's latest diatribe in The New Republic, which amounts to a little more than an inadvertent confession that he's incapable of following a philosophical argument.
Except he gives us no example of how Coyne can’t follow a philosophical argument. Argument by assertion is rarely convincing, and is a poor start to his article. Regardless, what is Linker’s argument for how religion trumps atheism? It’s altruism. Seriously, get a load of this:
Or consider Thomas S. Vander Woude, the subject of an unforgettable 2011 article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. One day in September 2008, Vander Woude's 20-year-old son Josie, who has Down syndrome, fell through a broken septic tank cover in their yard. The tank was eight feet deep and filled with sewage. After trying and failing to rescue his son by pulling on his arm from above, Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove [sic] under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders. Josie was rescued a few minutes later. By then his 66-year-old father was dead.
This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.
Nonsense. The theory of evolution explains this very well. Those who were prepared to sacrifice themselves for their offspring were more likely to pass on their genes, since their offspring themselves were more likely to live longer and have offspring of their own. Also, our ancestors lived in large social groups, and those who helped other group members were more likely to be accepted by the group, and were therefore more likely to find mates and reproduce.
The funny thing is that Linker has heard of this, but the way he refutes it shows he has not understood it.
But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude's son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude's sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.
Linker seems to think that evolved kin selection (which is what he is talking about) is a rational decision making process. Linker is suggesting that the father’s thought processes would be something like: ‘My son is going to die. If he does I won’t pass on my genes, so I must rescue him, even if I die myself. Oh wait – my son is sterile. No point in risking my life then, I’ll let him die.’ But that is an incredibly naive way of looking at it and not how it actually works. What actually happened in our evolutionary past is that those who developed altruistic feelings, especially those feelings towards their kin, were more likely to pass on their genes (because they were more likely to save their kin from dying young). Consequently, altruism became prevalent in human populations and now many humans are altruistic, especially towards their kin. It doesn’t matter if some of that altruism is “wasted” in evolutionary terms. Altruism has an evolutionary advantage in enough cases, that the few “foolish” acts (ie acts that don’t actually result in genes being passed on), are not significant. Linker would know that if he had spent five minutes researching the subject (and perhaps even reading Coyne’s book).
Those of us who have been debating creationists on the internet for years have heard such silly arguments from commenters numerous times and are not surprised to hear them again. However, I think we have a right to expect better argued articles than this one from a supposedly proper news outlet. Linker has the nerve to say that Coyne can’t follow an opposing argument, and yet Linker shows quite clearly his own inability to follow a well known, simple, evolutionary explanation. Talk about an intellectual sham. Linker’s hubris can not be demonstrated any better than by just quoting the last line of his article:
Don't buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.
You dare me? You moron, I just did. Unfortunately Linker’s article doesn’t allow comments, so his “dare” is just empty posturing. But at least it keeps him insulated from the uncomfortable feeling of learning about his errors. Which is why he will probably keep making them.