Saturday, April 28, 2012

Some people say

I really dislike the Fox News "some people say" move. It's almost always illegitimate. In the typical Fox News sense, it's used to introduce a criticism of a point of view without having to specify the details of that criticism. To paraphrase the probably apocryphal Lyndon Johnson story, The point is not that anyone believes one's opponent is a pig fucker; the point is make him deny it. In another sense, it can be used to ascribe to an opponent a position that is at best in the minority, and at worst is a complete straw man. In essence, the "some people say" is a classic framing device.

Like any device, it can be used legitimately. If it really is uncontroversial common knowledge that a position is widely and explicitly held, then "some people say" can be used simply to provide context for an argument. "Some atheists say," one might note, "that no god exists." Or, "Some Christians say that Jesus is the son of God." Another legitimate use is to simply introduce a specific argument. "Some philosophers argue," for example, "that ideas are the highest reality."

But even when the use is technically legitimate, however, there are better ways to use it legitimately, ways that do not facilitate dishonest framing or blatant straw men. So when I see "Some atheists say," I usually whip out my bullshit meter, and I'm rarely disappointed.

If philosophy has any value at all, it is the investigation, use, and promotion of good argumentation. One reason I dislike philosophy is that good argumentation seems to be not the rule but the exception. In "Common Atheist Mistakes," Luke Muehlhauser constructs a criticism of atheism that consists of nothing but logical fallacies, all introduced with the "some people say" fallacy noted above.

First, Muehlhauser asserts that "Religion is not the root of all evil, but some atheists like to think it is." The assertion that some atheists actually do think religion is the root of all evil of course requires support. But Muehlhauser's support is deceptive. First, he cites Richard Dawkins' documentary, The Root of all Evil?. However, Muehlhauser buries in a footnote the concession that Dawkins himself denies the absolutist sense that Muehlhauser criticizes:
To be fair: in an interview with Reginald Finley, Dawkins said that he wanted to call it The God Delusion, and that "no one thing is the root of 'all' anything; religion is not the root of all evil." Still, many atheists think all or most evil comes from a single source: religion. To me that is absurd.
Muehlhauser is intentionally using the denial of a position to support his assertion that the position is common. We can count this only as intentional dishonesty.

One instance of obviously intentional dishonesty is enough to discredit not only the writer but also the publisher as unreliable, but I enjoy piling up the score against liars. So I'll continue to highlight the complete vacuity of Muehlhauser's argument.

Muehlhauser then tries to support his assertion that atheists believe that religion is the root of all evil by appealing to the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens' book, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. We should hold self-styled philosophers, even amateur philosophers, to a pretty high standard of logical validity. And of course, the idea that "religion poisons everything" is logically different from the idea that "religion is the root of all evil.*" A logical fallacy is a logical fallacy, and as Muehlhauser is nitpicking atheist claims, it's hardly unfair to nitpick his.

*If you need help with the logic, as in comments; I'll be happy to explain in detail. But my readers are usually more competent in simple logic than Mr. Muehlhauser.

Additionally, Muehlhauser commits the fallacy of uncharitable interpretation. A more charitable way to read Hitchens' title would be to read it as, "Religion poisons everything [it touches]," which would render invalid Muehlhauser's trivial criticism that religion has not poisoned math, Renaissance art, sailing, or hats. And even his argument against the uncharitable interpretation is just an argument from incredulity: Muehlhauser simply finds it "hard to believe that religion poisons everything."

What is especially irritating is that a lot of atheists really do make a strong claim, a claim that deserves serious critical examination: religion is absolutely useless. Religion per se gives us nothing good; anything good that happens to be somehow attached to religion would always be at least just as good, and usually better, without the religious part. In his haste to commit the fallacy of uncharitable interpretation, Muehlhauser misses a chance to make an actual substantive contribution to the discussion.

Wow... a lot of fallacies in just one paragraph. But the fallacies continue.

Muehlhauser's next claim is that atheists use myths as facts. He cites specific atheists claims: atheists comprise less that 1% of the prison population, in contrast with 10% of the general population; that "Muslims destroyed the library of Alexandria"; and that "the idea of Jesus as God did not arise until 300 years after Jesus’ death. at the Council of Nicea."

Muehlhauser might well be factually correct on the second two points; if so, certainly no one should use these arguments.

First, I at least skim a fairly large sample of atheist writing, and I rarely see any of these elements in atheist writing. I could be wrong, but Muehlhauser makes no effort at all to establish that these errors occur with enough frequency to constitute a common atheist mistake. Again, it seems dishonest to call a criticism of a few historically naive commenters as a common mistake.

More importantly, we have to be very careful to distinguish between people taking one or another position on a controversial topic with intentionally ignoring evidence from bias. Intellectual inquiry is a social process, and we have to look at any difficult issue from many sides to come to agreement about the truth. Muehlhauser fails to make this distinction. According to Muehlhauser:
Every people group retells history in a way that favors itself. Liberals and conservatives, socialists and anarchists, Christians and Buddhists, hockey fans and NASCAR nuts – we all have some myths that make us look good. Atheists are no exception.
Clearly, Muehlhauser is going beyond the give-and-take of controversial intellectual inquiry. But is this position justified?

Muehlhauser charges that atheists' assertion that atheists comprise 1% of prison population is "either made up or based on a questionable 1925 study." But a quick Google search reveals, for example, Percentage of atheists, which cites a 1997 study by Denise Golumbaski of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. What's worse, Muehlhauser asserts that atheists are more or less obviously wrong, the "truth", according to Muehlhauser, is found in this study, Prison Incarceration and Religious Preference. The problem is that Muehlhauser's "truth" is a non-peer-reviewed study published by an obviously biased source,, hardly proof positive. The issues regarding Muslims burning the Library of Alexandria and the divinity of Jesus are similar: these are controversial claims, with intellectuals exploring all sides of the issue. I'm not saying that Muehlhauser is necessarily wrong, but saying that one side of an unresolved controversy is evidence of bias is again prejudicial and dishonest.

This article is getting long, so I'll cover Muehlhauser's remaining errors briefly. First, he accuses atheists of "bad scholarship" in calling the Hebrew word elohim a plural. This is such a narrow, technical issue of Biblical scholarship that calling it a "common" atheist error is simply ridiculous. Muehlhauser weighs in calling assertions that the Jesus stories are unfairly compared to other myths "simply false. [emphasis original]" But parallels are definitely a live controversy in academic scholarship, as historian Dr. Richard Carrier has been recently discussing on his blog. And finally, Muehlhauser condemns atheists' "dogmatic materialism" without offering any evidence whatsoever that this is a common theme.

Just because one disagrees does not mean that they are stupid, lazy, or dishonest. But using egregiously bad argumentation, unsourced assertions, faulty logic, and unjust pejoration does make Muehlhauser stupid, lazy and dishonest.


  1. I should Say that my posting of it is a repost.It is not my own writing.

    -Author of Philosophy for everyone.

  2. I think I'm pretty good about attributing the views to Luke Muehlhauser. More importantly, however, you chose to repost the article, so you have to take your measure of responsibility for promoting incompetent and dishonest work.

  3. I gave up on Luke after a few too many "William Lane Craig is an honest man and an excellent debater" posts. I just have no idea where he gets some of his thoughts.

  4. Perhaps Luke is some flavor of concern troll.

  5. If part of your assessment of Luke Muehlhauser's motives or character is based on thinking he's attacking atheism from religious motives, you may wish to reconsider: he is firmly atheist, and when he says "Some atheists say X" his purpose is definitely not to promote the belief that atheists, or atheism, are a Bad Thing.

    Of course this makes no difference to whether his arguments are any good, nor to what truth there is in his factual claims. But those aren't the only issues. In particular, I think your description of L.M. as dishonest is likely based on a wrong model of what he's trying to do in that article.

    Also possibly worth noting: Scott F. posted his copy of the article very recently, but it's actually from March 2009. It's possible that Luke wouldn't now endorse everything he wrote then.

  6. And I'm about 99.99% sure he isn't any sort of concern troll; if he's some kind of closet theist then his cover is *very* deep.

    (I do think he's too positive about William Lane Craig, but I don't recall him ever actually saying WLC is *honest*. I regretfully agree with Luke that WLC is a very effective debater -- and highly intelligent, even though most of his pet arguments are made of pure bullshit.)

  7. If part of your assessment of Luke Muehlhauser's motives or character is based on thinking he's attacking atheism from religious motives...

    It's not. Is there any indication that I say it is? Indeed, do I write on Muehlhauser's motives at all? Criticize my work as you will, but please criticize what I actually write.

    And I'm about 99.99% sure he isn't any sort of concern troll; if he's some kind of closet theist then his cover is *very* deep.

    It is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to be labeled a concern troll that someone has a different agenda than the agenda he or she criticizes, not necessarily the opposite agenda. Muehlhauser might simply be an accommodationist or faitheist. Or he might simply be stupid.

    In any event, Muehlhauser's is definitely incompetent and dishonest, regardless of his motives and agenda.

  8. Is there any indication that I say it is? No; if there were, I wouldn't need to say "If ...". There were some grounds, though, for thinking you *might* be; for instance, your opening paragraph is concerned with people who say "Some members of group X say Y" in order to discredit group X, and surely far and away the commonest reason for someone to try to discredit atheists as a group is that the person in question thinks atheists are wrong and/or despicable.

    Muehlhauser might simply be an accommodationist or faitheist. He might, but as it happens there is abundant evidence that he is neither. In any case, he didn't say "Gnu Atheists often say ..." or anything of the sort, but "Atheists often say ...", which in my book can only be concern trolling if done by someone who isn't an atheist. I appreciate that definitions may vary on this point.

    Muehlhauser is definitely incompetent and dishonest, regardless of his motives and agenda. I don't see how you can distinguish dishonesty from incompetence without at least making some guesses about his motives and agenda.


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