Thursday, March 22, 2012

Do atheists own reason?

It's not burningly stupid, so it doesn't get the tag, but it's still pretty bad.

Tom Gilson asserts that Atheists don't own reason. Gilson not only believes that reason does not point directly to atheism, but that atheists are incompetent at reasoning effectively. "The new atheists have no business proclaiming themselves the defenders of reason, simply because they don’t practice it competently." As an English composition tutor, I must give high marks to this strong thesis statement (and a pretty good introduction). However, which might come as a shock, Gilson fails spectacularly in supporting his thesis.

As his first supporting element, Gilson appeals to a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, but this approach simply cannot work. At the most basic level, the most a debate can show is the logical failings of a single individual. The strongest conclusion we could draw from this debate is that Sam Harris himself was incompetent at the practice of reason; Rather than an indictment of atheists' reason, this paragraph can aspire at best to rise to the level of ad hominem fallacy.

Gilson does not manage to give evidence supporting even Harris's incompetence. Gilson accuses Harris of the fallacy of appeal to emotion, but completely fails to provide any evidence for this accusation. Furthermore, the appeal to emotion is not itself a fallacy; it is an indispensable rhetorical strategy. Gilson says that in the debate, Harris "depict[s] Christianity in the most negative light possible, and suggest[s] that we should conclude therefore conclude [sic] that Christianity is wrong." But "wrong" is a label we give to things that are indeed negative. Gilson does not even assert that Harris argued fallaciously, nor does he even assert that Harris's negative portrayal of Christianity is mistaken. Gilson fails to assert, much less support, the incompetence of even a single individual.

Gilson's support of Craig is halfhearted. Gilson acknowledges that "opinions differ" the outcome of the debate. The best he can say of Craig's performance in the debate is that Craig used logic, and offered "at least one" (unnamed) argument that, if true, would be true. If Craig really has an argument worth investigating, then a debate is not the best support; Craig's published work could be cited directly. I'm hardly an expert in Craig's work, but what I have seen of it has left me quite underwhelmed. Reason is more than just logic, but even that Craig can use logic (or that Gilson thinks he did) fails to support the thesis that atheists are unable to use reason.

From the Harris/Craig debate, Gilson turns his attention to Richard Dawkins' best-selling book, The God Delusion. Gilson chooses to focus on (presumably) chapter 9, "Religion and childhood." But again, Gilson simply offers opinion, rather than any evidence. First, it is not clear why Gilson believes Dawkins "devotes an entire chapter to unscientific anecdotes supporting his belief that a religious upbringing is abusive to children." Judging from the chapter headers, only the first section, "Physical and Mental Abuse" (comprising eleven pages), would seem relevant. Furthermore, anecdotes are not necessarily unreasonable; they can be used unreasonably, but they can also serve (reasonably) as examples to inform the reader the sort of thing the writer is referring to. Because Gilson does not give us any details, we cannot determine what he specifically criticizes; we cannot form our own opinion as to what Dawkins is even saying, much less whether he is supporting it reasonably. Gilson goes on to claim that "science shows exactly the opposite: spiritually engaged teens are healthier than others on multiple dimensions." Not only does Gilson fail to specifically cite this material to evaluate its scientific quality, we have no way of knowing what "spiritually engaged" means, and whether this undefined quality has anything to do with Dawkins' assertions. Gilson closes with alleging that "rational and logical errors are pervasive throughout 'The God Delusion,' [sic]" citing as evidence only philosopher Michael Ruse's personal opinion. Again, Gilson at best only raises questions (and weakly); he fails to support in any way his thesis that atheists are actually incompetent at reasoning.

Finally, Gilson criticizes the recent billboard co-sponsored by the American Atheists. The billboard really is terrible; the imagery is certainly racist, and it is entirely inappropriate to co-opt the struggle against slavery for atheists' purposes. But Gilson is not concerned about the racism and misappropriation. Instead, Gilson believes that the underlying position of the billboard, that the Bible supports slavery, is so obviously false as to be fallacious. First, Gilson asserts that this is a fallacious appeal to emotion, but the whole argument against slavery lies in an appeal to emotion: slavery is bad precisely because we are emotionally repelled by the practice. And Gilson openly admits that the Bible does indeed support slavery, albeit for pragmatic reasons:
Immediate abolition was realistically impossible in New Testament times: The Romans would have treated it as insurrection, and the inevitable bloodshed to follow it would have produced greater evil than would have been alleviated by abolition. The injunction to “obey” was thus temporary and contextual.
A retreat into moral relativism is perhaps inevitable, because whether from conviction or cowardice, the Bible does in fact support slavery. That Christianity eventually contributed to the near-eradication of slavery, a brief millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, does not change what the Bible actually says. It is impossible to locate any actual offenses against reason in this example.

Gilson ultimately fails to give any support to his thesis than pure personal opinion. He accuses atheists of using "incomplete evidence," but he gives no evidence at all to support his position. He accuses atheists of using "demonstrably invalid reasoning," but it is his own reasoning that is demonstrably invalid. Indeed, chief among his complaints is that atheists use fallacious arguments from emotion, but it is his own argument that employs the true fallacy: he does not like what we have to say, therefore it is unreasonable. Nothing demonstrates the fundamental failure of Christian attempts at intellectual support more directly and aptly than Gilson's post.


  1. Atheists are to reason as Democrats are to liberalism. That is, not all of them practice it, but you won't find it in any of the other usual choices.

  2. Suppose you use reason and choose one of the two sentences below, to tell readers which one is an assumption, understanding an assumption as an utterance without rational basis:

    (i) A teapot orbits the sun between the earth and Mars. [From Bertran Russell,]

    (ii) God created everything with a beginning. [From Odrareg]

    Choose one and give your reasoning ground for your choice.


  3. ...understanding an assumption as an utterance without rational basis...

    You are construing "rational basis" much too narrowly here.


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