With a enough provocation, I am willing to take a Sunday to come out of the proverbial closet and shout critiques into the wild aether. In this case, I sat down to watch Richard Dawkins' series Enemies of Reason, which he introduces with the following gem:
There are two ways of looking at the world – through faith and superstition or through the rigours of logic, observation and evidence – in other words, through reason.
At which point I turned it off since Dawkins once more revealed himself to be a mere writer of polemic op-ed pieces rather than a serious contributor to philosophical thought.
The great shock of this comment is not simply in its astonishingly naive view of the world. For some perspective, there are 16 different personality types each in the Myers-Briggs and the DISC systems. In the Keirsey Tempraments system, there are four tempraments with eight roles, and there are six personality types in the Holland Code with most people centering on two apiece. There are nine Enneatypes. In Multiple Intelligence models, there are seven distinct learning intelligence types. Just in Christianity alone, there are over two billion adherents scattered amongst 38,000 denominations and sects. 83% of the world's population is not from the Western cultural heritage. There are over 6.7 billion people in the world overall. Yet, he says, there are only two ways of looking at the world and you have to pick one or the other. It's less of a critique of religion than it is an insult to wonderful, creative, awful, inventive, brilliant humanity.
The greater and deeper shock is what this naiveté says of the person making it and the movement he has come to represent. I should note here that I do not speak of all atheists, the proper, small-a type for whom religion and spirituality are pragmatic non-issues and go about living their lives as civil and constructive members of a multicultural society. I am speaking of verbose, capital-A evangelistic Atheism, for which questions of religion and spirituality are of the utmost importance and for whom different people believing different things than them is a societal problem. If one needs evidence that there is a distinction and that non-belief in deities is not the sole necessary and sufficient characteristic of Atheism, one needs only to invoke the spectre of atheists who have done unpleasant things, at which point it descends into the "no true atheist" fallacy.
But I digress. The shock regarding Dawkins' comment is that a man so intelligent on matters for which he has a degree should show himself to be so profoundly ignorant of matters in which he does not. The shock is that a man who advocates so vehemently for logic should introduce a series entitled Enemies of Reason with a logical fallacy.
G.K. Chesterton addressed this profound - he called it "casual" - ignorance on the part of experts outside their area of expertise. Back in 1910, he observed:
Now against the specialist, against the man who studies only art or electricity, or the violin, or the thumbscrew or what not, there is only one really important argument, and that, for some reason or other, is never offered. People say that specialists are inhuman; but that is unjust. People say an expert is not a man; but that is unkind and untrue. The real difficulty about the specialist or expert is much more singular and fascinating. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it might be all very well — that is to say, all very well for everybody except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique. If a biologist had no views on art and morals it might be all very well. The truth is that the biologist has all the wrong views of art and morals that happen to be going about in the smart set of his time.
Such vulgar sentimentality expresses itself here in the false dilemma, which is a logical fallacy setting up a question in which two propositions are in opposition which may not be in opposition or for which there may be more than two propositions. Dawkins says that one has to choose between his rational, logical, atheistic way or the irrational, illogical, superstitious way. Never mind that there is every possible theological combination in the negotiation between physics and metaphysics, nor that there are vast swaths of human experience for which neither category really applies, nor that people in their psychological and cultural diversity are far more nuanced and complicated than this ultimatum allows.
He, of course, has a ready defense supplied to him by P.Z. Myers, another biologist. The accusation of crafting a false dilemma is dismissed with the accusation of a "Courtier's Reply". The Courtier's Reply-Reply is little more than a dodge attempting to change the subject when one has been exposed as having an inadequate understanding of the debate's particulars.
In Myers' own words:
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.
Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.
Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.
The summary of this parable is that religious people will attempt to distract from the fundamental question of whether or not theism is true by making sophistic theological arguments. In defense of Dawkins' logical fallacy one could reply that the diversity of thought on the integration of faith and reason is irrelevant because the object of faith has not been proven true by reason (thereby making faith by definition dialectic with reason). So long as gods and spirits have not been empirically proven, believing in them is automatically irrational and superstitious. Any further analysis of exactly how irrational and superstitious someone is descends into pointlessness.
Allow me to explain exactly where the Courtier's Reply-Reply fails.
First, it claims to be keeping the debate "on track" and focused on the core issue of empirical evidence for the existence of deities. However, the Courtier's Reply-Reply is frequently invoked to dodge the fact that the issue of proof - for and against - is a vigorous and ongoing theological discussion with numerous different perspectives. There is active debate over what categories of proof are relevant (not all proof is empirical), what would constitute a proof, and the strength of propositions in those categories. There is also vigrous debate over exactly what "faith" is and exactly what kind of discipline theology is. Not only do too many Atheists demonstrate themselves to be uninformed about these debates, but also about debates from epistemology and philosophy of science. That is, not only debates within religious circles about the nature of knowledge and proof, but even debates within science (including the error of conflating logic with reason with empiricism).
Nevertheless, the Atheist in question is certainly entitled to make the argument from personal incredulity: "I have not seen evidence for a deity that is sufficient according to my own criteria of evidence, and therefore no one else has." It is certainly reasonable not to accept the existence of something for which one has not been given convincing proof (and it seems to be that "and therefore no one else has" clause that separates atheists from Atheists). It is also possible to set the criteria of sufficient proof so strictly or inappropriately for the context that it becomes impossible for anyone to provide any proof by definition. For example, that only empirical proof is valid and you would have to show empirical proof demonstrating otherwise. Theologians are then entitled to reply that such a self-assured argument is narrow and has little mileage. If I truly do believe that I have seen what you have not seen, then we are only dancing around the mulberry bush of the obvious: you are an atheist and I am not.
That poor mileage may explain the second point on which the Courtier's Reply-Reply fails, which is that Atheists frequently debate the content of religious beliefs, exactly where being theologically and socio-historically informed would be relevant and beneficial. Not only that, but one would think that it should be a basic requirement.
To give a socio-historical example from my own experience, a frequent argument from Atheists is that liberal-moderate theists are complicit with the problems caused by radical-conservative theists because our "superstitious" thinking abstractly encourages their own. To draw it down from the vaporous abstract, I am a pacifist who arrived at that ethos through reflection on my Christian faith. According to Atheists employing this argument, I am responsible for all theists, be they Christians or Muslims or Mormons or Zoroastrians or Hindus or Wiccans, who do use violence. Because I believe things, regardless of what, I am somehow empowering the Christian Fundamentalists condemning me to Hell or Muslim terrorists who want to kill me. I'm unsure as to whether I'm also responsible for the atheists who have committed genocide on religious grounds, since they are not "true" atheists apparently. However, I have also never had a debate over theistic violence with an Atheist who was a pacifist themselves, so it's all somewhat absurd.
This particular association fallacy is so insipid because it demonstrates such an earnest desire to be angry at all theists on principle and without reason. It is a fallacy that could be easily resolved by having any familiarity whatsoever with denominational, interdenominational and inter-religious politics (Which religions are violent and irrational? "Uh... All of them!"). Yet to say so is to invite the Courtier's Reply-Reply that doctrinal distinctions between theists are irrelevant because the issue is over the existence of deities in general.
Of course, they are not. They are absolutely and immediately relevant. The above example was only peripherally about the existence of a god and practically about whether theism is a coherent enough category that any one theist or school of theistic thought could be made responsible for all the others. It's a sociological issue. When Dawkins claims that there are only two ways of looking at the world, he is not making an argument about whether or not a god exists. He is making a specific theological, socio-historical claim that no philosophy of science or religion can exist which integrates the two. This claim is demonstrably false and they are both problems of accurate representation, which is the prerequisite of effective and logical argumentation.
The same is true of any argument against the existence of God based on the content of a religion, such as the definition of a god, the ethical character of a god, why a good god would allow evil, why and if a deity would withhold incontrovertible evidence of its existence, the logical possibility of a deity - should one exist - incarnating as a human being, the nature of sin and salvation, what worshipping a deity means, proper interpretation of sacred writ, and so on (and on and on). Basically, any argument in which the Atheist assumes for the sake of argument that a god exists in order to catch the believer in a contradiction.
In doing so, the Atheist has become a theologian, attempting to work out the end-point of a theological proposition through logical argumentation. When the Atheist - say, a biologist stepping outside the realm of biology - engages in a theological discussion, then whether or not they are a good and informed theologian becomes a relevant issue. So while Myers may protest that "I don't know what's going on in the world of theology. And I don't give a damn." and proceeds to speak as a theologian on theological topics, he is merely admitting and excusing that he is a poorly-informed one.
The Courtier's Reply-Reply becomes little more than a cheat at this point, the very sort of red herring that they accuse theists of making. After attempting a theological argument, the goalposts shift when theological ignorance has been exposed. Doing so only demonstrates that one is not interested in a serious debate. It then bolsters the other logical fallacies in the Atheist rhetorical arsenal, like false dilemmas, straw men, appeals to ridicule, reductio ad Hitlerum and even the too-common ad hominem:
- "You close-minded bigot Christians believe that your bearded man in the sky says X!"
- Well I'm a Christian and I don't believe that.
- "Yes you do! You have to! The Bible says it!"
- I don't and you evidently don't understand what the Bible says or what we think about God. I believe G, N and J, but not X, and if you knew anything about my religion you would know that.
- "Bah! It doesn't matter anyways! All religions are the same! That's just the Courtier's Reply! Courtier's Reply!"
Beyond the fact that the self-proclaimed defenders of logic and reason find it necessary to rely on logical fallacies, there is a wonderful and tedious irony about the Courtier's Reply-Reply. Long before Myers gave it a name, the tactic has been employed by Christian Fundamentalists to excuse their deplorable lack of knowledge about, well, anything. They know, so they say, that Muslims, Wiccans and evolution are wrong, so of what possible benefit is learning about them? Why not persist in saying that Muslims worship a moon goddess, that Wiccans worship the Devil and that the only sufficient evidence for evolution would be a dog changing into a cat right before their eyes? The foundational premises are perceived to be wrong, therefore there is no need to be accurate in the particulars of other people's views.
Let me repeat that, because that is the crux of the Courtier's Reply-Reply: the foundational premises are perceived to be wrong, therefore there is no need to be accurate in the particulars of other people's views.
Amongst those who have suffered for how Christian Fundamentalists feel no pressing need to be accurate are atheists themselves. One of the key pieces of Atheist social justice arguments is that atheism continues to be demonized and misrepresented by the ignorant who insist on speaking against them without knowing anything about them. The pot calls the kettle black and once more we see evidence that a person, even with a PhD, does not automatically become logical and rational in all things simply because they are not a theist.