Debunking Dickson’s “Top 10 tips for atheists this Easter”

My original, and much wordier, title for this piece was going to be “Like a snowman using a blowtorch to build an igloo, Christians really shouldn’t  try to use reason to argue their case”, for in this latest offering published on ABC’s The Drum website, Dr. John Dickson, the founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity, pens his efforts to undermine many of the arguments Atheists give in arguments against religious belief. Sadly, like the aforementioned snowman, Dickson’s efforts to dismantle arguments against faith depend heavily on the use of flawed arguments and logical fallacies that leave us with a rather sad puddle where one expects Dickson had hoped to build a grand monument.

Here we go…

First of all, Dickson sets a sarcastic, snarky tone to his piece by suggesting that his writings are actually intended to help Ahteists select better arguments when arguing against faith, and be better equipped to “make a dent in Faith.” It reads like the script from teen-bitch-flicks like Mean Girls or Jawbreaker, where the super popular bitch pretends to be nice to the new kid only to deliver insults masked as sugary sweet advice. Perhaps Dickson just isn’t very aware of pop culture to realise what a tired trope this is, or how easily identifiable it is as the openings of a disingenuous argument. Personally, I take it as permission to assume the witness is hostile, your honour (Dickson, in case you’re reading, that’s a reference to primarily U.S. courtroom dramas that have been popular throughout the 20th and 21st centuries – I don’t actually think we’re in a trial 😉

The first 8 of Dickson’s ten tips suggest ‘helpful’ reasons why Atheists (Apparently a homogenous group with a single approach to discussing religion) should abandon some of their common argument against religion. The sarcastic, somewhat bitchy-teenage-girl tone of Dickson’s introduction continues, especially as he takes cheap shots at Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Kraus in multiple places, but overall, his reasons for abandoning key arguments are flawed and suggest that this missive is intended more for the already-faithful than as a genuine olive branch for Atheists.

Dickson’s first tip is for Atheists to Dip into Christianity’s intellectual tradition. At first, he doesn’t actually try to argue anything here, and apart from one snarky comment directed at Atheists, seems to be simply suggesting that Atheists should know more about religious history when trying to argue against it. But, if you look closely, what he has done is engaged in the Argument from Authority logical fallacy, when he says of Christian philosophers and thinkers throughout history that ” They’ve faced textual, historical, and philosophical scrutiny in almost every era, and they have left a sophisticated literary trail of reasons for the Faith.” Not only is Dickson deferring his need for evidence to the thinkers of the past, he’s even deferring his need to make an argument to those long-dead philosophers!

What Dickson, and all those who depend on the Argument from Authority fail to realise is that just because something has been studied over a long time, doesn’t make it any more real or valid than when it was first made up! There are universities that still include studies of Homeopathy in their health care degrees, but that doesn’t make Homeopathy any more valid as a health treatment. There are universities that include made up languages like Klingon and Tolkein’s Elvish as subjects of study, but that doesn’t suddenly imbue those fabricated tongues with their absent history and culture. They’re still made up, despite thousands of hours of study. See the connection to Religion?

Tip 2 addresses the use of the word Faith, and the way Christian’s use the word. Dickson claims that most Atheists use the word faith to mean ‘believing in something without reason’ (a definition which is included in any dictionary you care to look at) and suggests that what Christian’s really refer to when they use the word ‘faith’ is their “personal trust in the God whose existence one accepts on other grounds.” As someone who delights in picking apart fallacious arguments, this sentence gave me a thrill, such is its subtle combination of the Straw Man fallacy, and attempted misdirection to a weak Argument from Authority fallacy. The Straw Man lies in directing the reader’s attention away from the issue of evidence to the meaning of the word faith, while the weak Argument from Authority (or perhaps Appeal to Popularity) comes by dismissively referring to ‘other reasons’ for holding religious beliefs.

Equivocating over the meaning of words is a great Straw Man argument, and rather than addressing the issue at hand the intellectually dishonest arguer falls to redirecting the conversation to the meaning of words. Remember Bill Clinton on trial saying “That depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is?”. That’s what Dickson is doing. How about we forget the meaning of the word faith and get straight to the underlying issue of ‘absence of proof’?

But he does address, or rather dismiss, the need for proof by saying that Christians have faith in a God that they know exists for ‘other reasons’, without mentioning what those reasons are. True, it’s not entirely relevant to the meaning of the word ‘faith’ but it is a subtle misdirection that only serves to reinforce the original straw man argument. No evidence is given, just suggested reasons why one should not go looking for evidence and instead be confident that their use of the word ‘faith’ does not mean ‘belief without reason’, because we have those reasons. Those ‘other’ reasons.

Tip number 3 is where Dickson’s personal grudges really start to show and overshadow any effort he might make at a reasonable argument. In Tip 3 he asks Atheists to consider the status of 6-Day Creationism and accuses Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss of assuming literal 6-Day Creationism as the default Christian position, before going on to make the argument that Australia’s most productive theological college teaches that Genesis is not meant to be taken literally (another Argument from Authority fallacy). What Dickson is doing here is either one of two things. Either he is deliberately misrepresenting the truth, a.k.a. lying, or he is not as well versed in the writings and public speaking of Dawkins and Krauss, and is assuming that his own limited knowledge is enough to form a solid opinion (a rough approximation of the Argument from Ignorance fallacy). In either case, Dickson is ignoring the fact that when Dawkins and Krauss talk about irrational Christina belief, they are addressing the kind of hard-right bible-literalism that is found in various places in the United States of America. Dawkins especially recognises that there are some very reasonable Christian scholars and the tone of his rhetoric changes significantly depending on where, and to whom, he is speaking. If you would like one such example of this, here he is on the UK Christian radio program Unbelievable.

Dickson does not, however, go all the way of actually stating that all Atheists hold this mistaken belief about Christians and creationism, because to make such a statement would be absurd, just as it would be absurd to claim that there are absolutely no Christians who DO believe in literal 6=day creationism. This whole part of the article seems primarily aimed at undermining Dawkin’s and Krauss, but fails horribly due to Dickson’s ignorance, whether willing or otherwise.

Tip 4. *sigh* This is basically the same as Tip 3, but instead of focussing on Creationism, Dickson attempts to attack the God of the Gaps argument. For those unfamiliar, the God of the Gaps argument is a kind of Argument from Ignorance, in which, basically, religious believers use gaps in scientific knowledge as justification for sustaining belief in a god, and Dickson claims that no theologian actually uses this argument. As with tip 3, Dickson heavily depends on an attack against Lawrence Krauss as the support for this point, but once again commits the sin of several logical fallacies in doing so.

The first fallacy is in the title of Tip 4, which read “Repeat after me: no theologian claims a god-of-the-gaps”. Dickson is engaging the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy here, with the implied claim being that any Christian who DOES use a god-of-the-gaps argument must not be an actual theologian, and therefore their opinions and arguments are invalid. What Dickson fails (I would say deliberately refuses) to acknowledge is that the vast majority of religious believers in the world are not educated or trained to the point of earning the title ‘theologian’, and so by default, Dickson is actively dismissing the opinions and beliefs of the majority of religious believers; the same religious believers that Krauss is addressing in a national radio address. Again, Dickson is, either willingly or not, arguing from a position of his own ignorance.

The second logical fallacy Dickson commits here is a False Analogy in the form of another barb aimed at Krauss. Dickson writes: “Kraus sounds like a clever mechanic who imagines that just because he can explain how a car works he has done away with the Manufacturer”. Note how he capitalises Manufacturer, as a synonym for God? Anyway, why is this a false analogy? Because Dickson is trying to equate the mechanisms that resulted in existence of all known reality to the manufacture of a mundane, human-generate object. If I am a clever mechanic who knows how a car works, then I can make a car and become a manufacturer in my own right, and if I cannot manufacture a car, I am able to go and visit the place where the manufacturer exists and witness the process of the car being made. Even someone utterly ignorant of the mechanisms of car manufacture can go and watch a car being made. This is not true of the universe. Even the most knowledgeable physicist who has devoted a lifetime to the study of how the universe came to be cannot call God’s workshop and ask for a visit to the factory in order to better understand the process and hopefully make universes of one’s own. Dickson is using his poor analogy to suggest that because Car Manufacturer’s exist, God must exist. Well, I’ll get a car manufacturer on the phone, and when Dickson has a god on the other end of his line, we’ll organise a conference call and compare notes.

Tip 5. When reading this tip, I do not wonder if Dickson had intended this article to be a piece of comedy. It’s a short paragraph, so I’m going to reproduce it here in its entirety:

I wish I had a dollar for every time an atheist insisted that I am an atheist with respect to Thor, Zeus, Krishna, and so on, and that atheists just go ‘one god more’. As every trained philosopher knows, Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods. They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe. The disagreements concern how the deity has revealed itself in the world. Atheism is not just an extension of monotheism any more than celibacy is an extension of monogamy.

Just read that over a couple of times.

Then ask these question: Is Dickson saying that he, or at least ‘serious philosophers’, who believe in the Christian God, also believe in the existence of Thor? Ares? Susanno-O? Kali? Or any of the numerous other gods recorded in human history? Note that Dickson is not saying that they believe they are all different representations, or different manifestations, of the same God, but that “Christians are not absolute atheists with regard to other gods.” I suspect Dickson was attempting to make a dismissive comment here without considering the full implications, but in doing so he did invoke two more specific logical fallacies.

First, he once again dismisses the majority of religious believers with the No True Scotsman fallacy by stating that ‘serious philosophers know’, which means that if you are a religious believer who holds to the idea that the Christian god exists but Thor is a figure of fictional Norse mythology, then according to Dickson, you’re not a serious philosopher and your ideas are less worthy of consideration. You’d better get yourself a silver amulet depicting Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, in case the thunder god comes rampaging through your town any time soon. Just in case.

The second fallacy is one of my personal favourites, that of Begging the Question, in which a statement or question is posed which includes within it another contentious claim that is assumed to be true. In this case, Dickson says “They happily affirm the shared theistic logic that there must be a powerful Mind behind a rational universe”, which begs the question that the universe is, indeed, rational. Dickson describes the universe as rational, and says it in such a way that assumes it to be true, but doesn’t define this term nor offer an explanation of how he knows the universe is rational. If the universe were irrational, then what would that say of the mind that created it? Or the existence of such a mind at all? These questions are why the simple use of a word like ‘rational’ in describing the universe cannot be allowed to slip by unchallenged, even in such a comedic passage that suggests an acceptance of every known god in human history.

Tip 6. Dickson once again builds us a Straw man argument on the subject of Christianity ‘poisoning’ society. Rather than address the nuances and details of the argument that religion is a poison, Dickson focuses instead on the issue of how much charity work is conducted by religious people and religious institutions. He totally avoids the actual argument of what people may mean when they say religion is poisonous in the hope that citing the number of religious charities in Australia will somehow resolve the issue. What Dickson says about religious charity work is quite acceptable. Yes, religious people and religious institutions do good work. But that doesn’t address the very issue that Dickson himself raised. The Straw Man has been identified, burnt and now ignored. The argument that religion poisons everything is not a question of whether or not religious people do good or bad things, and Dickson’s efforts to reduce the topic down to a question of charitable man hours is just  disingenuous. Or ignorant.

Tip 7. The title of this section is “Concede that Jesus lived, and then argue about the details.” This point is filled with Arguments from Authority, as Dickson refers vaguely to ‘secular universities’ that teach of the existence of Jesus, and once again demonstrates a Begging the Question fallacy by referring to the specific facts of Jesus’ existence as an ‘academic baseline’. This section could also be seen to invoke the fallacy of ‘Special Pleading’ as Dickson does not actually offer (or even refer to) a specific study proving the existence of Jesus and instead pleads with the reader to just ‘concede’ the truth of Jesus’ existence. Umm… *cough* no. But I promise not to make absolutist statements that he didn’t exist either, because I simply don’t know.

Tip 8. This is really nothing more than a petty jab at atheists. Dickson says that people who claim their religious beliefs are based solely on ‘evidence’ appear ‘one-dimensional and lacking in self-awareness’, and that people need to incorporate an emotional and ethical basis for their arguments to be more persuasive. He even suggests that this is why churches attract more members than a sceptics club. In other words, Dickson is suggesting that people arguing against irrational, indoctrinated belief in defiance of evidence should invoke the very irrational indoctrination methods that allow people to ignore reason and evidence. Dickson is suggesting that ‘personal relevance and credibility’ are more important than, you know, real. What’s the logical fallacy here? Shifting the Goal Posts. Dickson doesn’t want to argue his case on the grounds of facts or reason, so he’d rather shift the goal posts to include ethical and emotional factors as well as facts. Sadly, no matter how good a person feels about religion, that doesn’t make it any more or less true.

After these first 8 tips, Dickson then offers two ‘helpful’ tips in the form of two lines of argument to which Dickson claims Christian belief is ‘vulnerable’. Those two tips are to ask Christians about Old Testament Violence (tip 9), and about hell and judgement (tip 10). In the subsequent paragraphs Dickson outlines how Christian faith might be vulnerable to these arguments, as well as reasons why he personally believes Christian faith will withstand such lines of argument (so he’s offering strategies that he believes will not work? That’s not really very helpful, is it?).

In my estimation, Dickson is doing something akin to ‘poisoning the well’, or inserting ideas intended to undermine future arguments before they can even be raised. How so? Well both of Dickson’s proposed arguments require discussion to take place within a framework that already assumes the existence of God and the truth of religious doctrine! If an atheist doesn’t believe that God exists, or has ever existed, then what is the point of arguing about violence in the Old Testament? I’d much rather explore why you choose to believe that the old-testament is a true and factual account of events. Likewise, discussing hell and judgement presumes the existence of hell and the existence of a God to make judgements of people. And until there is sufficient evidence to justify belief in a God or the hell it created, then why worry about the details?

So, in the end, despite his stated (and somewhat bitchy) intention to show why athesists should abandon specific arguments against religious belief, he has failed to actually articulate a single reasoned argument that holds up under scrutiny. He has, however, managed to distance himself from the majority of religious believers by dismissing them as not ‘serious philosophers’ or ‘serious theists’ while simultaneously making snide remarks about prominent public figures who he disagrees with and, as a result, comes across as a bit of a dick.

Well done Dickson, well done.

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