Opinion: Honestly Confused

By Eduardo Wilner
Special to the Sun Star

Recently, the Socratic Society, in conjunction with the Philosophy & Humanities Department, sponsored a series of public lectures on objective arguments behind atheistic positions. Most notably, this summer we brought acclaimed Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins to deliver a public lecture that broke all previous records of attendance in the history of UAF (drawing a crowd of about 1,400 people to our campus).

There is a key idea in the previous paragraph that we would like to bring to your attention: that of objective arguments. Academic public lectures are not about opinions. We simply did not care about, for instance, what Professor Dawkins’ personal beliefs about religion were. We only wanted to hear how he objectively reasons this or that conclusion (in this case, about religion). We wanted to hear how, starting only from well-supported facts and reason, we (the public) must with him (the presenter) reach this or that objective conclusion. Academic discussions ensue if other authors challenge either the facts or the reasons. Now comes the problem.

After these lectures, the Campus Bible Ministries sponsored a series of presentations that, naturally, attempted to counter the atheistic lines delivered in the philosophy series. Their latest sponsored lecture, to be presented by Dr. William A. Howard (a UAF Associate Professor of Chemistry), bears the title “The Dishonesty of Atheism.” In his abstract, he explains that the Bible provides ample reasons for believing in God. Unless he is hiding his reasoning from the abstract, he seems to be arguing that what makes atheism dishonest is its refusal to follow Biblical demands (more precisely: that of believing in the existence of God in spite of critical reasoning and following exclusively the word of the Bible). Obviously, the conclusion of dishonesty does not follow. Dishonesty is not the result of sticking to reason. That is critical thinking, and one’s dislike of some piece of critical thinking does not make it immoral (e.g. dishonest).

We are surprised and disappointed by Professor Howard’s character attack in his title and abstract. Espousing our dear academic ideals, we would have welcomed healthy debate through reasoned arguments against our own. University lectures should not be used as venues to vent personal opinions (religious or otherwise). We hope that Professor Howard will provide us with an argument against atheism (instead of a demand to heed the Bible). If he does, he should modify his title to something like “The Unreasonable Nature of Atheism.” But if there is no objective argument in his presentation, then he should clearly announce that this is not an academic lecture. He should clearly announce that he is merely expressing his personal, religious views. Furthermore, if this is the case, he should also refrain from displaying his academic credentials. Displaying his professional title and field of expertise can mislead the unwary to believe that professional and academic constraints bear on the content of his presentation.

In the meantime, we will choose to believe that Professor Howard’s personal attack, calling arguments for atheism “dishonest,” was due to Professor Howard’s confusion, and not a non-academic disparagement for those that do not share his personal, religious opinions.

Eduardo Wilner
Department of Philosophy & Humanities
The Socratic Society

The Sun Star offered Professor William Howard the chance to write a column in support of his position. He declined to.

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37 Responses

  1. John Glenn says:

    You surely have deduced a lot from a provoking title! Why don’t you give Dr. Howard a chance to present before a lengthy commentary on what he says. Be careful, your hostility is showing!

  2. Eduardo Wilner says:

    Sorry, Mr. Glenn, if you read carefully you’ll see that our problem is with the title and abstract themselves, and not with the presentation – that, as you well point out, hasn’t happened yet.
    A more careful read should also show that all we are expressing is surprise and disappointment, and not hostility — that you presume.

  3. frightfan says:

    Be careful, yourself. Your passive aggression has been anticipated and is showing.

    Both the title AND the abstract of Dr. Howard’s presentation have been read and are the subject of this critique. Wilner does allow in his article, for the possibility that there may be objective reasoning yet to be given, but why should that be left out of the title, let alone the abstract?

    No, I suspect you see it as clearly as I do (and as clearly as Wilner evidently does) that objective reasoning is missing. The opinion you hold on whether you *like* to hear criticism of Dr. Howard’s title does not determine whether the criticism is valid or not, and dissent does not equal hostility.

    Now, generalizing a large group of individuals as “dishonest” – that’s hostility.

  4. Joseph Clark says:

    You’ve omitted the fact that the piece also drew from the abstract presented, which should provide a reasonable summary of the content of the talk.

  5. Jason A. says:

    “You surely have deduced a lot from a provoking title! Why don’t you give Dr. Howard a chance to present before a lengthy commentary on what he says. Be careful, your hostility is showing!”

    Not title, title and abstract. You are aware of what an abstract is, yes? Dishonesty is a word that carries actual meaning: conscious intent to mislead. That meaning simply does not fit with the description in the abstract, and comes across as little more than an unsubstantiated slander.

  6. Algeron says:

    Interesting article. Is there a video of Richard Dawkins’ presentation?

  7. Galactor says:

    John Glenn is right.

    Atheists should wait to find out why they are being called liars until Dr. Howard explains just what he means by “the dishonesty of atheism”.

    Let’s hope that it’s not just atheists who he exposes as liars given that there are plenty of other religious believers who reject the bible.

  8. Mark Gordon says:

    John Glenn appears as confused as Dr. Howard is graciously assumed to be by the author.

    The criticism is based not only on the title, but also the abstract, which it is explained, includes no reasoning to support the title’s claim.

    It’s also noted that Dr. Howard WAS given the opportunity to respond by the Socratic Society – but declined. It’s all there in the article.

  9. Saul Till says:

    There’s no hostility in this article whatsoever – it’s an impeccably polite, thoughtful defence against appeals to the subjective on the part of religious people. If the religious are going to make such tendentious and unreasoned claims about atheists(or any other group of people) then don’t try and hide them under a cloak of impartiality. Your opinion is your opinion; it only becomes something more when it has reason behind it.

  10. Nicole says:

    I agree with John Glenn, your hostility is showing through. Additionally, shame on you for getting your feelings hurt because there might be mention of God through discussion of the Bible on a public university’s “holy ground!” Stop throwing dirt, go to the lecture…you might learn something.

  11. Swej says:

    Interesting that Dr. Howard’s supporters are seeing hostility in a perfectly civil, in fact gracious, criticism. Could it be that they realize the weakness of the argument and believe it deserving of hostility? Or could it be that playing victim is simply a ruse to draw attention away from the real issues? In my experience, polite criticism only appears as hostile criticism when you are insecure in your position.

  12. Dave says:

    If the lecture is about dishonesty using the Bible as evidence is prosecutory suicide.

    You see there are a few “inconvenient truth” issues with the Bible, like the fact that the 4 gospels contradict each other on key issues such as the Cruifixion, the fact that its been very obviously edited, which version/translation are you are referring to, etc.

    One shining example is that comparison with the six earliest surviving copies of the Bible shows that the Resurrection and Ascention was added in sometime in the early middle ages. Its not in there at all in the 6 earliest copies. It was added in during the early middle ages to add a bit of pazazz to the story and stick some fire up the backsides of the Crusaders.

    You also have to get around the fact that there are large sections that are DIRECT plagarisms of earlier Roman and Hellenic works of litrature and poetry written hundreds of years before Jesus was supposed to have lived, and even sections of Akhenaten era Egyptian prayers.

    Oh dear oh dear….adding magic tricks and whole new sections in? Plagarising other works?

    Now THERES dishonesty.

  13. Brian Rutledge says:

    It seems that those who are siding with Dr. Howard, sure seem to be extremely, overly defensive. Methinks they doth protest too much !

  14. Cheri says:

    I spoke to Dr. Howard about a lack of his reply to the Sunstar. He was asked for a comment just a day before press deadline – why so late when this talk has been advertised for quite a bit longer than that? He did not decline – he was given insufficient time to compose a reply. Do not presuppose that a lack of comment implies anything!

  15. George says:

    I do hope you were at the lecture. he did his religion a huge disservice tonight. just terrible

  16. George says:

    wow. Howard that was a lecture fit perhaps for Sunday school but to call it a ‘college lecture’ gives college lectures a bad name. truly abysmal Professor Howard. your entire argument was doomed from the start, step 3 on your steps to meet God you tell us to presuppose a belief in God. you are correct in claiming that if these steps are followed one will come out believing in God, one of the steps IS believing in God. I apologize if this is coming across with some confusion, allow me to explain. Howard’s scientific claim is that when these 5 steps are followed one will come out believing in God and if they say they don’t, they are lying. then Howard tells us in step three to start believing in God… ya i was a little confused as well. The logic used here is circular, its similar to saying “I know I’m Human BECAUSE I’m Human,” ya circular logic is invalid and unsound. Nothing can be proved from circular logic. at the end of Howard’s ‘lecture’ he even admitted that circular logic was required for the steps to be followed. I kindly suggested he enroll in Professor Thompson’s Logic and Reason class next semester to clear up his confusion. Howard claimed that this five step process (cut down version 1. make finding God# 1 priority in life 2. hate sin know you should burn forever 3. Believe Jesus is son of God died for you 4. pray to God 5. pray read the bible) is the ONLY way to find God, if this process is Illogical (it is) what does that say about his religion.

  17. Hi Cheri,
    Just to clarify, I made the same offer to William Howard that I made to Eduardo Wilner: 500 words or less, due by 5 p.m. on Friday. Both men were presented the opportunity via email on Thursday morning. Both had the same amount of time to compose an op-ed.

    Andrew Sheeler

  18. George says:

    I hope you were their Nicole, I really do. and yes I did learn something, I learned that all the years of science classes he has taken have done nothing to shake him from the religious bigotry that he is so grounded in. Professor Howard’s argument was completely rubbish. Not only did he not provide a single shred of evidence, but he also didn’t observe the scientific method in his search for God, and his five step process for finding God is illogical (ie. step 3, he is begging the question http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question).

  19. Elliot Clausen says:

    Many people commenting in critique of Dr. Wilner’s actions seem a tiny bit confused about what his retort was based off of, specifically what an abstract is. To quote a quick Google search for the definition, “An abstract is a brief summary of a research article, thesis, review, conference proceeding or any in-depth analysis of a particular subject or discipline, and is often used to help the reader quickly ascertain the paper’s purpose.” Essentially, an abstract is a list of the key points and topics presented in an argument. That being said, anyone could have read that and known precisely what Dr. Howard was going to give his sermon on. That should enlighten those that are taken aback by the articles criticism of the address before it was ever presented.

    I am, none the less, disappointed with Dr. Wilner’s actions. After such a well written and delivered review I had hoped that he would be at the homily with questions procured from a mind frame founded by reasoning and logic. Me, my family, and several friends were looking forward to the kind of questions someone in the Socratic Society could formulate, especially the kinds of questions from someone who clearly does not mind defending his rationale openly, publicly, and freely.

    Ending my bit on the article and my stance pre-discourse, I feel obligated to state that Dr. Wilner’s letter was entirely correct in that Dr. Howard should have stated that it was a presentation of his personal beliefs. About half of the lecture was the telling of two stories, one of the “Ahotelist” in which Dr. Howard relates atheists to lost travelers who blatantly ignore clear directions to a hotel and thus claim that the hotel must not exist. The second story is about how he personally “found God” as a youth. The rest of the lecture consisted of describing a list of ways to meet the God he believes he met and advertising for his personal church and promoting a student religion group he is the faculty adviser on. His lecture was more like a pastoral presentation about his personal religion and less of what a university lecture should be about, that being a logical presentation of ideas based off of research.

    A big controversy I have with Dr. Howard’s presentation is how hypocritical he is in calling Atheists dishonest. Howard defines two types of skeptics in his lecture, the important one being the dishonest skeptic where, as he defines it, the person is given a claim and “a map” to verify the claim. By his own definition and logical process, religious people are dishonest because Atheists claim that there is no God and an embrace of that will lead one to a position equal and opposite of what Dr. Howard believes. His claim also says that people who follow the bible with a different outlook or interpretation what it means and have a different relationship with God are dishonest because they did not follow the map that he provided.

    During the question and answer session, a student asked about the the honesty of people that convert to Atheism after going through Dr. Howard’s process to which a swift, nearly verbatim, response of “they are dishonest liars” was delivered. He backed his claim with, again a nearly verbatim quote, “The process worked for me, so I know that it is true.” This kind of answer is not acceptable by any standards and is not worth the time to analyze.

    Over all, Dr. Howard’s talk represented more qualities of a liturgy than a lecture given at a university. There was an analogous story about faith in the beginning, the main part of the talk was a specific set of religious instructions one needed to take to find God, and the debacle was concluded with a personal story of faith. The service was essentially an hour of Dr. Howard’s personal religious opinion. There was absolutely no academic, objective, or logical outlook offered, used, presented, or invented. Dr. Howard should have given his talk in a church, more over the one he recommended people go to numerous times, where that kind of lecture is championed. That is not to say that religion should be left out of university discussions. Had Dr. Howard given a discourse on the life of a Christian and the mentality they live in, with some sort of professional reference, then his lecture would have been astoundingly more appropriate. As is, he deteriorated the reputation that university lectures carry as a presentation of research or critical thinking to an opinionated religious tirade against people that do not share his theological views opinions. Huston Smith, author of “The Language of God”, would have been a much better counterpart for Campus Bible Ministries to use in response to the Socratic Society bringing up Richard Dawkins.

  20. Jared William says:

    I would just like to state that whether you believe in God or not accept that it is just that, a belief. It cannot be sufficiently or logically argued in either direction. Dr. Howards personal experience with “God” is a perfect example. He says that before the pick three lotto numbers were chosen he saw them in his mind, “613.” This he attributes to god reaching out to him because he later learned that there is a religious significance to this number in the holy book of the Jewish religion. As a religious man he claims it to be God. Had he been a non-believer I suspect it would be dubbed Deja vu or a lucky guess. When asked what he would call the “encounter” had he seen the number 436 his response was “I don’t know.” Because his claim was based on the presupposition he had that there is in fact God. Though it does beg the question how is seeing this number evidence of God? Because the number has religious meaning? But it had religious meaning in the Jewish faith, so why would the Christian God prove himself through such a number? It also brings up whether Dr. Howard has seen the movie twenty three? Just because it can be justified does not mean it has been proven true, nor does it mean it is proven false. Religion is faith, not fact. As is a lack of religion. So stop trying to “prove” what you can only promote. And to accuse all who see differently than you liars is a poor assumption, particularly when you answer the questions of the audience with “I don’t know.” which was the case more than once. Not to mention a poor tactic fir keeping the listeners interested and neutral in your presentation. Perhaps a communication class should be taken along side the logic. Because that is a successful way to push an audience with an open mind to a bias against one as a speaker.

  21. Jared William says:

    And that makes them liars? I don’t think much of anyone would willingly sit through a “lecture,” if you want to defile the word by calling Dr. Howards presentation that, knowing that the goal of the speaker was to call you a liar. Not to mention it shows right off the bat that he will not be open to actual discussion on the matter. He clearly has his mindset and is not going to stray. At least that’s all I draw from the title.

  22. yelena matusevich says:

    As soon as I read an Haward’s abstract I knew it is going to be public disgrace for Christians rather than atheists. His premise was impossible, not to say more. I think such a talk would have never happened in a school with a solid theology department for no self-respecting theologian would even allow himself to present such non-sense. So, although no atheist myself, I entirely support Dr. Wilner’s article.

  23. Elliot Clausen says:

    Out of curiosity, would this happen to be Dr. Howard’s wife Cheri Howard? Also, I would like to think that anyone with a Ph.D. from Berkley has the ability to write, at most, a one page paper in two days. Especially if they claim that they are going to deliver an lecture on it the next day, ie. they actually know what they are talking about.

  24. Stephen Fretwell, PhD says:

    As a professional scientist, resonable successful, I have been following a field of study, scientific theology, introduced by William James about 1904. Since that time, there have been major advances in scientific methodology, involving statistics and Bayesian methods of assessing the effect of evidence on plausibility. And there have been many scientific studies (Professor Koenig of Duke cites 1600) generally confirming that there is significant truth in spiritual hypotheses.

    Moreover, as Dr. Howard notes, the bible describes some very clear “experiments” or “materials and methods” that can be conducted by anyone interested, which result in their finding God. In my years of asking and searching, I have neither found nor even heard of anyone claiming to have done these experiments who failed to find God. I have heard of thousands of reports from persons who did what was specified with a successful result.

    So, I agree with Dr. Howard’s assessment that any atheist who claims to have arrived at their position using responsible scholarship. is a a liar. The biblical proceedures are difficult, and so the atheist position can be justified by laziness. Or, anyone simply choosing dogmatically to refuse to acknowledge God is within their rights to do so. These are examples of honest atheism.

    Scientifically, the “isness” of God has been proved beyond reasonable doubt (usually, p < .01). I will be happy to demonstrate this to anyone honestly interested. By "honestly" I mean anyone committed to abide by the usual scholarly rules for deciding scientific method.

    The biblical method for finding God is to "seek Him with all their might." Each of us knows what that means for us. If you have done this unsuccessfully, please say so. The scientific protocol then is for us to visit each other's "labs" and repeat the experiment under each other's observation.

  25. zygosporangia says:

    Dr. Fretwell –

    Do you have a link to the documentation regarding the experimental method that you or Dr. Howard used to prove your god’s existence? This is the first time that I am hearing about this momentous discovery. Certainly, all of those involved should receive well-deserved lauding from everyone in the scientific community if this proof is verifiable.

    I suspect that the fact that I haven’t heard news of this discovery is probably evidence that your assertion is bogus.

  26. Becky Lee Brenner says:

    Steve Fretwell formerly of KSU and the Bird Populations Institute? I used to work for you back in ’73, ’74, mist-netting birds. Becky Finney

  27. Justin Heinz says:

    I attended the lecture by Mr. Howard, and I was appalled. The intellectual suicide in front of the audience was messy and very, very obscene. Not only did Howard demonstrate that he was a “dishonest skeptic” by his own definition, he actually admitted and embraced logical fallacies (specifically Circular Logic) as a foundation for his point of view.

    How can anyone take people like Howard seriously? I wrote 3300 words in reply to this shocking lecture, and I hope the Sun Star will help me share it when I submit my letter to the editor. I was looking forward to the possibility of an intellectual lecture due to the nature of the presenter, but what I found could have been spoken by any young, angry teenager on YouTube. It’s hard to fathom such a disgraceful mentality still persists today, but then again-exposing and dealing with these embarrassing elements (in an intellectual setting no less) is how we grow on a whole.

  28. C.Swartz says:

    Having attended the lecture along with Justin Heinz, et al, I have to agree that it was nothing more (or less) than a circus act. Circular logic and nonsensical claims of how to become a ‘true believer’ were in abundance. Needless to say, one should not use their SCIENTIFIC credentials (PhD Chemistry, Biology, et cetera) to back up a THEOLOGICAL claim. In fact, I’m not even sure that the lecture in question could even be called theological, as that word implies proceedings a little less fanatical, and at least based on several years’ serious study of various viewpoints, religions, and their corresponding texts.

    As an open-minded atheist (meaning I don’t go around cramming the fact that I don’t believe in a god, and why no one else should, either, down peoples’ throats, but rather, listen to what everyone has to say, and try to have productive, intelligible conversations regarding the matter with anyone that will remain civil), I must say that I have never felt so attacked. Not that that is not a common feeling in this sort of environment, anyway.

    In short, this ‘lecture’ needed more spit and polish, more fact, more of an attitude of openness, to succeed. Conversely, it needed less aggressive dogma, less upholding of the mystic or intangible, and less abusive ‘you’re wrong and I’m right’ rhetoric.

    Howard also needs to do some soul-searching regarding what he believes – that being, anyone professing a belief in Jesus Christ, and accepting him as their personal savior – will get into heaven, regardless of the sort of person they are/were in life. By comparison, even the Catholic Church has limitations on this. Perhaps he should attend a few theology classes before attempting something like this in the future?

  29. JoAnna says:

    I am a dishonest atheist because I refuse to ignore logic? You want me to BLINDLY follow the bible asking no questions-not have an open mind about it -two different things. An open mind means open to any possibilities with no judgement. You expect I take the bible as literal or I am a liar. I spent my entire life seeking god with all of my might. I begged to be given any proof. I really want to have an afterlife. Death is sad and finite. I read the bible, and the more I studied the more I realized a lot of it is made up, or a mash-up of previous literature. The bible itself is proving to be made up by people way after the fact, using the information of their time. It has been edited by powerful people through the years to suit their needs. The bible is very obviously an evolving work of fiction/psyuedo-science. I can only come to this conclusion- if the bible is made up, so is the religion. I cannot be swayed from this. The more I look the clearer it is.

  30. One of his Students says:

    I still can’t believe this actually happened… Total circus act.

  31. Stephen Fretwell says:

    Hi, Becky!

    If this gets to you, after all this time, I’ll be amazed, but God is still God, so who knows! I haven’t gotten on Facebook yet, but maybe we can link up that way.

    Anyway, well and fondly do I remember you and your diligence and work banding birds on my license. Moreover, I get the sense that the truth about spiritual matters has not escaped your search. Perhaps, in these strange times, we can once again be an encouragement to one another, and ours.

  32. Stephen Fretwell says:

    Sorry I missed your query at the time. If you are still interested, I wonder what you made of Koenig’s findings?

    Bible Codes studies and theomatics are both scientific studies that have “proven God is, scientifically, beyond reasonable doubt.” That is, if one abides strictly by the rules of state of the art scientific methodology, especially Bayesian analysis. Prayer studies, and, recently, studies looking for predicted correlations between God’s judgements (usually, acts of God weather or natural disasters, and national acts biblically offending God)(See John McTernan’s work), have also added to the mix.

    There is more, but that should keep you busy, if you really want to know.

  33. Mike Howard says:

    I sit and read all of this about this public speaking and have a belief, no it’s more than that, but a relationship with GOD the Father through his Son and my Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. And in this relationship I have read many prophetic books in the Bible, King James 1611. There are many worldly, deceptive counterfeits, but one Bible. The Bible teaches us in the last days many will have “itching ears”, hearing only the things they desire to hear. Sounds like the case here. It also tells us that if people doesn’t receive us then we are to shake the dust off our feet and leave. I guarantee this is what my brother has done. And yes, I said my brother. Bill, if I were there with you know that I would be with you to stand for Christ Jesus. Since I’m not know that I am very proud of you and Cheri and will continue to lift you both in prayer. And to all the readers that agree with the paganistic dude, just realize that it’s like a game of Russian Roulet that you play, only it’s more than your life at stake, but eternity.

  34. Stephen Fretwell says:

    Good post! One of the tests of trustworthy authority is when someone is commended by someone else who has lived with them. So, your brotherly affirmation carries weight. We can trust that, right or wrong, William Howard is not a hypocrite. Thanks.

    Readers need to compare the love in your post with the vitriol in Williams’ critics, in deciding who to take seriously.

    I reaffirm my assertion that, according to the rules of honest science, atheism has been proved wrong beyond reasonable doubt. No scholarly position in atheism will pass the test of Diogenes’ Lantern. Too much evidence confirming that biblical theology is true.

  35. mike howard says:

    I did not attend this debate over the existence of GOD but I am my brothers keeper. I am proud to say that I am Dr. Howard’s brother, Mike Howard.
    We live in a society that wants to believe in anything but the reality of hell. It’s the scariest thing that anyone could ever fathom. GOD has given just enough scientific facts to realize that, in accordance with His Bible, hell is a reality. Out of fear people want to dismiss thoughts of eternity and GOD. Bottom line is this. Know GOD=know peace. No GOD=no peace. We all have the freedom of choice.
    As for my brothers actions of not submitting any writings of explanation and rebuttal I would tend to believe that he didn’t have adequate time to prepare one. He is a very deliberate and well spoken man. Or maybe he was doing as the Bible instructs us as believers to do and “shaking the dust off our feet”. Not sure, but I am sure that I am very proud of Bill and Cheri, and pray for them daily as I will the attendees that want to throw stones.

  36. Steve! Ken Stephenson here. I too knew you back in Manhattan KS during the 70’s! How are you doing brother? I am interested in getting in e-mail contact with you. I can be reached at Godisatrinity1@live.com.
    I have written a book entitled “How to Explain the Trinity” that is being published by Tate Publishing, and I would very much value your opinion of its content. Hope you can contact me.

    Ken Stephenson

  37. Soiree says:

    Hi, it’s been many years!
    Soiree (formerly in Winchester, VA, later in Iowa, and now in California)

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