This position on truth is to some degree inherent to atheism; the religious, however, have not exactly been passive about making their own truth-claims about religion. Religion is rationally indefensible, thus those who attempt to "rationally" defend religion have to rely on some characteristic logical fallacies. These fallacies have been so often used in religious apologetics that they have become tropes*. It's useful, I think, to explore the use of these tropes in a non-theistic context.
*Were I a better scholar, I would document the use of these tropes in religious apologetics. But I'm an indifferent scholar, and anyone who's done his time on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board will immediately recognize them.
Planet Atheism member Evanescent and one of his commenters give us a clear example of a few of these tropic religious fallacies in a non-theistic context in his post Ultimate Value and Morality.
Poisoning the Well
This fallacy is well-represented in theistic discourse. I've lost count of the number of times a new theistic member will start off his or her first post on IIDB asserting that atheists are closed-minded, dogmatic or just plain stupid. This might or might not be a valid conclusion, but to adopt such a position at the onset is clearly a defensive measure: when one's arguments are rebutted, the theist can say, "See! I told you atheists were closed-minded." Also, a pejorative introduction tends to annoy people, which allows the theist to express shock, dismay and contempt at the hostility of his or her response.
We see the exact same fallacy in Evanescent's original post:
I had a discussion briefly with several atheists on other blog [sic] that [sic] fancied themselves critics of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. ...Note that this exposition precedes the actual argument and does not cite or identify particular instances of clueless or ignorant behavior; its status as a Poisoning the Well fallacy is unambiguous.
[E]very other New Age Atheist feels themselves qualified to attack Ayn Rand on philosophical grounds when they haven’t the slightest clue what they’re talking about. It’s pretty embarrassing.
One point that was raised again and again was: why is life the ultimate value? One commenter even asked me for empirical proof to justify this statement, a question that belies gross philosophical ignorance. ... [W]hat I criticise is those who pretend to know what they’re talking about and cover it in all the usual postmodern philosophical rubbish to make it seem like they do. (If you want an example of this nonsense, wait until one of these philosophy students says something like “but how do you even KNOW you exist??”)
The handwaving fallacy (similar to the Courtier's Reply) is the confident assertion that the substantiation or proof of some assertion can be found in an unspecified place in some large body of work. Theists often employ this fallacy with reference to scripture or commentary. When faced with a criticism that some particular interpretation of scripture is not justified by the immediate text, theists will often simply assert that the justification for the interpretation can be found "in other scripture".
We see the same sort of fallacy in Ergo's comment:
For example, life is not only the ultimate value (thus being at the apex of the value-hierarchy) but also the standard for all values (thus synergestically reinforcing the valuation of all other values). ...Since the issue directly at hand is whether or not life is indeed the "ultimate value", the appeal to the "works of Objectivist philosophers" is clearly a handwaving fallacy.
For a full exploration of this view, read the works of Objectivist philosophers.
Hopping from leg to leg
Alan Sokal said, “When one analyzes [post-modernist and deconstruction] writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous and that can be given two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true.”
DagoodS coined the phrase "hopping from leg to leg"* to characterize this sort of fallacy, a subset of the equivocation fallacy. If an assertion has an ambiguous meaning, the fallacious tactic is to defend the trivially true meaning and equivocate that defense as substantiation of the radical meaning.
*Dagood, I distinctly remember reading this phrase on your blog, but I can't find the post; it was probably in one of your comments (where you shamefully bury some of your best work). Can you help me out?
In comment 22 Evanescent defends the trivially true interpretation that (good?) values enhance one's life, which trivially follows from the definition of "value" as that which enhances one's life.
Because [the absence of pain] make[s] life enjoyable to live. Pleasure is the physical/emotional reward for achieving one’s goals.However, he hops to the other leg immediately afterwards:
But to what are these goals directed? [Life!]Anyone even passingly familiar with Rand's work understands the other leg. The core of her moral philosophy is a supposedly rational evaluation of whether some value is pro-life* or anti-life. The banal and trivially true observation that values by definition are what enhances one's own life is substantively different from the idea that values can be differentiated on the basis of whether they do or do not enhance one's life.
*The similarity to the common label for anti-abortion politics is presumably unintentional.
Framing perseveration is the repeated insistence on a frame or context to a question or assertion after the frame itself has been questioned or controverted. The use in theistic apologetics is rampant, usually in the form of, "Who created the universe, then?" even after explanation that the question itself presupposes the answer.
We see frame perseveration in Evanescent's repetition of demand to name an alternative ultimate value in comments 15 and 19. Admittedly, only two instances is thin evidence for actual perseveration. Comment 15, however, re-establishes the frame specifically in response to my own comment and clarification questioning the frame, and furthermore does so by substantively misrepresenting my own position.
An enthymeme is an unspoken premise in a logical argument. The identification of enthymemes in arguments is one of the most basic skills in philosophy and logical argumentation in general. Enthymemes per se are not very objectionable; all philosophers, even mathematicians, take some premises for granted that they consider too obvious to mention. Any logical argument that explicated all of its premises, however trivial, would be too long and too boring to read. No one is perfect, though, and sometimes a controversial enthymeme is required to make a logical argument work. In such cases, the enthymeme has to be explicitly stated so it can be discussed.
Enthymeme obtusity, however, is the objection that one did not actually explicitly state the premise in question. For example, I observe that the dichotomy between ultimate and infinite regress requires the enthymeme (presupposition) of a strict hierarchy. Commenter Ergo responds with enthymeme obtusity: "*YOU* have added to her words the phrase 'strict heirarchy.' It appears nowhere in her argument."
(A particularly amusing example of enthymeme obtusity can be found in Evanescent's outrage at my use of "singular".)
There are, of course, any number of logical fallacies (appeals to authority, assertions treated as arguments) in this thread but the interesting thing is the similarity to the specifically bad-faith logical fallacies found so often in theistic attempts at logical reasoning. Indeed the study of Randian defenses of Rand's philosophy might prove every bit as useful to develop a philosophical education as is the study of religious apologetics.