Friday, April 01, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (Abraham Lincoln edition)

the stupid! it burns! In National Atheists Day R. K. Bentley chides atheists for being "brazen and outrageous liars" on the basis of this image:
Atheism: good enough for these idiots
Generally, though, you might want to do just a little, you know, research before you accuse people of being "brazen and outrageous liars." First, this image was created by one person, one unknown person, and its validity is controversial among atheists. A couple minutes with Google reveals that both PZ Myers and John Wilkins find fault with the image... and they did so three years ago. Isn't this sort of thing exactly what Christians criticize when atheists point to the moronic utterances of "fringe" fundamentalists? (Of course, atheists have a different point to make: We're not saying that because one Christian says something stupid, all Christians are therefore stupid. We simply observe that wow! there are a lot of really stupid Christians out there.)

The image might not be accurate (as Wilkins notes, the definition of atheism is a matter of controversy, especially as applied to uncertain cases), but the charge of a "brazen and outrageous" lie requires clear and unequivocal evidence that the assertion is so egregiously false that we can conclude only gross negligence or an intent to deceive. Bentley offers two pieces of evidence to support this charge.

First, Bentley offers Lincoln's call to prayer during the Civil War:
It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.
That seems like pretty hard-core Christianity. If Bentley's evidence stands, the image would indeed be almost as "brazen and outrageous" as naming the Pope as a prominent atheist.

However, a few minutes on Google and Wikipedia reveals some interesting facts. According to Wikipedia, Lincoln's religious beliefs were uncertain and largely private. He was not, as was Hume, unequivocally an atheist, but neither was he so unequivocally a Christian as the quotation would suggest. So where does the quotation come from? According to Judith Prince, the proclamation "was written by William H. Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, a very religious man who on more than one occasion talked Lincoln into giving religious proclamations that he had written for the President." Referring to a similar proclamation written by Seward, Prince quotes Lincoln as saying, "Oh, that is some of Seward's nonsense, and it pleases the fools." This speech cannot be evidence of anything other than that Lincoln was a politician, a profession whose members are not generally known for absolute sincerity in the public expression of their private beliefs. Bentley cannot plead ignorance; five minutes on Goggle and Wikipedia found the facts. It's not enough, I suppose, for Bentley to correctly conclude that Lincoln's religious beliefs are too obscure for us to unambiguously call him an atheist; Bentley has to stretch the truth even farther than does the image to make the charge of a "brazen and outrageous" lie.

Bentley at least quotes Franklin accurately (if incompletely); his characterization of Franklin's speech during the Constitutional Convention as a call to prayer is erroneous, but it is not a substantial error. But his quotation is incomplete and works, I think, against Christianity overall. The full quotation is:
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that "except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest. [emphasis added]
Franklin still fits if someone takes a broad view of atheism as the rejection of superstition and the confidence in human reason and wisdom. A broad view, even an over-broad and naive view, hardly rises to the level of "brazen and outrageous" lie.

Bentley goes on to to characterize the image as an appeal to authority: "It's a logical fallacy that attempts to say something like, 'This brilliant person believes this so therefore this is true.'" But Bentley is flat out putting words into the image creator's mouth. The image does not supply any major premise; it asserts only the minor premise, that some brilliant people had a particular view. The image would constitute a fallacy if and only if there were no major premise at all from which we could draw a sound conclusion. But of course there is such a major premise: if a brilliant person believes something, that belief is worthy of investigation, it is not patently and obviously false. So the charge of fallacy is unwarranted, and the charge of a specific fallacy can be supported only by attributing words to the image's creator that the creator did not actually say. Putting words in someone's mouth is, in technical, philosophical jargon, a brazen and outrageous lie.

We cannot draw any conclusions from this particular post other than its author is grossly incompetent at research and commits fallacies and errors far in excess of the image he criticizes; indeed we can conclude that he himself really is a "brazen and outrageous liar. But, as I have documented in this series as well as many other post, this kind of casual disregard for ordinary standards of scholarship and intellectual integrity — even the looser standards applicable to blogs and message boards — is endemic among advocates of Christianity. At some point we are entitled to connect the dots and conclude the intellectual bankruptcy of religion and belief in god.

8 comments:

  1. Bum... may I call you Bum? Bum, let me start by saying thanks for the link to my blog. Of course, I take exception with your characterization of my post.

    FYI, I did read PZ Myers comments about the image prior to writing my post. Based on my impression, I'm not sure how you can say that PZ Myers found “fault with the image.” He admits his first impression was that most of the people pictured weren't atheists. He then learned the poster was meant to inspire someone to make a better version. He next applauded a person who made another pic featuring Falwell, Bush, Robertson, and some others as Christians with the caption, “Christianity. Good enough for these geenuses [sic].” So the only fault he found with the poster was that it didn't go far enough.

    In the comment section of my post, you will see that I linked the very Wiki article that you've cited. Again, I have a different impression than you. You seemed to have overlooked the quote of Lincoln's widow who said, “When too - the overwhelming sorrow came upon us, our beautiful bright angelic boy, Willie was called away from us, to his Heavenly Home, with God's chastising hand upon us – he [Abe Lincoln] turned his heart to Christ”.

    Finally, concerning the logical fallacy, I'll clear up a couple of things. First off, the use of a logical fallacy does not immediately make the person using it wrong. So atheism is not false only because the poster commits a logical fallacy. Yet a fallacy is never evidence for anything even if the premise is correct. Suppose Lincoln, Jefferson, and Franklin were all atheists. What does that prove? Does it mean atheism is correct? It certainly doesn't. Then why even mention it? The only reason is to attempt to make an appeal to authority. But maybe I'm wrong. You said there was a “minor premise” provided in the picture but no “major premise.” That's clever spin. You make it sound as benign as saying, “Oh, Ben Franklin liked to eat eggs.” There was only ONE premise given in the picture and it was an appeal to authority.

    Thanks again for the link. Please visit my blog again.

    God bless!!
    RKBentley

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  2. Well, hello RK. I generally dislike spoon-feeding basic logic to idiots, but in your case I'll make an exception.

    Bum... may I call you Bum?

    As noted in the comment header and the caption on the cartoon, you are encouraged to call me "Larry," which is my name.

    FYI, I did read PZ Myers comments about the image prior to writing my post. Based on my impression, I'm not sure how you can say that PZ Myers found “fault with the image.” He admits his first impression was that most of the people pictured weren't atheists. He then learned the poster was meant to inspire someone to make a better version.

    Myers says:

    I saw this poster and thought, "What? But most of these people weren't atheists!" Surely someone could do a far better job with this idea than that, and everyone would see the problem here (at least John Wilkins did, as did many of the commenters).

    In the comment section of my post...

    Sorry, I don't usually read comments.

    You seemed to have overlooked the quote of Lincoln's widow...

    I did not overlook that quotation. It is a fundamental canon of intellectual integrity that one must examine the evidence in its totality; we may not merely pick the evidence that best suits our conclusion. Therefore, even though there is evidence that, taken in isolation, supports Lincoln's atheism, neither Myers, Wilkins nor I draw the conclusion that Lincoln actually was an atheist. The conclusion that one must draw from the totality of the evidence is that, as I mentioned, "Lincoln's religious beliefs were uncertain and largely private."

    First off, the use of a logical fallacy does not immediately make the person using it wrong.

    Well. You manage to say something correct. Huzzah!

    Suppose Lincoln, Jefferson, and Franklin were all atheists. What does that prove?

    As I mentioned in the post, "If a brilliant person believes something, that belief is worthy of investigation[;] it is not patently and obviously false." When I explicitly provide an alternative, it would be much less intellectually dishonest to actually address it, rather than casting about as if none were at hand.

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  3. I still don't know what Tom Selleck is doing in that image.

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  4. Tom Selleck is a notable militant atheist, n'est pas?

    An honor to have you here, John. :-)

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  5. what bullshit

    half the people in the picture are NOT atheist - you idiot

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  6. I concede that point in the post. Are you unable to read simple declarative sentences in the English language?

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  7. Good day Mr. Hamelin,

    Stumbled upon this blog by accident and a bit late, but I wanted to address a specific point. First of all, your critique of the use of the cited sloppy meme to brandish atheists as "brazen and outrageous liars" is certainly justified. However, the fact - and it is a fact - that this and other such sloppy memes do indeed make the rounds on the "village atheist" circuit of social media could also be brought to light to support a statement perfectly analogous to your indictment of Christian bloggers:

    "... this kind of casual disregard for ordinary standards of scholarship and intellectual integrity — even the looser standards applicable to blogs and message boards — is endemic among advocates of [atheism]"

    See what I'm getting at?

    As a matter of fact, sloppy scholarship of the type that would have Abraham Lincoln a devout Christian is quite controversial among learned Christian scholars. Granted, you might not know this from a scan of the blogosphere, but it has to be acknowledged that, intuitively, more serious Christians, given their conservative dispositions, would be more inclined to avoid electronic media than would their learned atheist counterparts. (Experience has borne this out.)

    It is common, for example, to cite the moral or intellectual sins of Christian individuals and take this as evidence for the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Christian religion. But one could turn the tables and cite the sloppiness of many hippy atheists or the aggressive bloodthirstiness of officially atheist (Bolshevik) states as evidence for the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of atheism. The reflexive response, for either a convinced Christian or a convinced atheist, of course, is to retort that it was only the "bad" part of their camp and you should be looking at the "good" camp.

    So while you may believe that the logical extension of what you have cited is that "At some point we are entitled to connect the dots and conclude the intellectual bankruptcy of religion and belief in god," and you are certainly entitled to believe this, putting it out this way is not particularly convincing to anyone who does not already agree with you, and if anything is counterproductive.

    Thanks!

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  8. Well, niq. I sincerely thank you for commenting, and I'm interested in hearing more of your views.

    I am (again, quite sincerely) not sure what point you're making. A lot of atheists are quite stupid. I've said, for longer than I can remember, that sometimes an atheist is someone with (only) one fewer stupid idea than a theist. And lately, I've pretty much divorced myself from the atheist movement as such: I no longer consider religious belief to be an especially pernicious problem, compared to other, more pressing, stupid ideas floating around.

    If you would like to amplify your ideas here, especially considering the evolution of my own ideas, you are more than welcome to do so.

    ReplyDelete

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