dinsdag 25 september 2007

Andrew Rilstone on the "Courtier's Reply"

Andrew Rilstone has a nice post up about the "Courtier's reply" argument, which was originally proposed, I think, by P.Z. Meyers but is now enthusiastically embraced by Dawkins. The argument is a reply to charges of ignorance on theology to the extent that since clearly there is no warrant to believe God exists and religion is vacuous nonsense anyway, there is no need to know anything about theology (just as the little boy need have no refined knowledge about sartorial habits to point out the emperor is naked). Or in Dawkins' words, quoted by Rilstone:

It assumes there is a serious subject called theology, which one must study in depth before one can disbelieve in God. My own stock reply (Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?) is superseded by P Z Myers brilliant satire on the Emperor's New Clothes.

I think I mentioned the argument before. I detest it, because it is basically a license to intellectual laziness. Andrew Rilstone remarks correctly that one may not need any acquaintance with theology to warrant disbelieving in God, but writing a book about it is another matter.

Technically, though, the rational arguments for and against the existence of God belong to philosophy of religion, rather than theology. However, as Rilstone remarks, a lot of the "new atheist" polemics against religion are directed specifically against traditional Christian beliefs (e.g. the alleged absurdity of Trinitarianism) or the history of Christianity (e.g. the alleged responsibility of religious beliefs for this or that instance of bloodshed). Which do touch upon theology.

The "Courtier's reply" move is astonishingly poor, to the extent that it's baffling that Dawkins is actually using it. As it is, it is equally open to rhetorical deployment by Creationists (why read anything about biological evolution, as it's nonsense anyway?), Flat Earthers, and so on. I really think there's a hubris thing going on here. To wade into an area which has more than two thousand years of extremely bright believers making cautious and complex arguments and extremely bright disbelievers making equally cautious and complex arguments, and to think all one has to do is to ignore all that and point out the emperor is naked, one needs a pretty high opinion of oneself. I think there is a tendency to that sort of thing in academia recently, at least in the humanities: to ignore the traditions of thought that exist and reinvent wheels (which tend, as the linguist Raimo Anttila once pointed out, to be squarish or at least have serious bumps in them).

As a matter of fact, it is intellectually sound to, if one sees a naked emperor, to rub one's eyes and take a careful second look. I'm not innocent of neglecting to do so (there's enough blog comments of mine circling around which consist of half-informed opinions about theology, including a lot of misattribution of views - but my excuse is that I didn't publish those opinions in a book).

In a footnote, Andrew Rilstone makes another point which is pretty dear to me:

Most Christians seem to be pretty well versed in the content of their faith: if you ask them "What do we mean by 'atonement'; why do we believe in it; and where do we differ from the Catholics?" they can often give you a coherent reply, although I assume that their knowledge comes from popularizing works rather than primary texts.

Because there's another kind of intellectual bad move which one could dub the, well, why not the "strawman argument", namely that there is no need to deal with the annoying points that my opponent (say, a theologically informed detractor of Dawkins') makes, as my polemic is directed against what "people really believe", which bears suspicious resemblance to a bearded guy sitting on a cloud fixing the bacterial flagellum, sending innocent little babies to limbo and tossing about untossably heavy stones. In other words, a cartoon version of religion.

In my opinion, religious people's conceptions of God are a lot more "sophisticated" than usually alleged, with a lot more points of contact between theology and "folk religion" than usually thought. Sure, people may not be able to express their ideas in precise philosophical terminology - but the ideas are often nonetheless there. And people's conceptions may change and evolve during their lifetime (any genuinely lived religious outlook does) and may sometimes be held with more confidence than other times (faith and doubt is not a zero-sum game: one may have a lot of faith and a lot of doubt at the same time).

But what really is at hand here is Popper's principle of charity: if you want to demolish an intellectual position, you should find its most clear and elaborate statement. And if there is an obvious fault in the position which could be easily remedied, you remedy it yourself instead of dancing around it while pointing a finger at it. Because that's the only way intellectual progress is made.

There's too much ho-hoing at non-fatal argumentative holes and perceived naked emperors going around, and too little mutual constructive criticism (there are exceptions, of course, but they do not dominate the faith vs. reason debate).

21 opmerkingen:

Andrew Rilstone zei

Hi,

Could I just mention that I haven't read the "Courtier's Reply": I was specifically responding to his analogy about disbelieving in fairies.

Glad you found my piece meaningful; I enjoyed your comments.

Steven Carr zei

Dawkins tends to read the Bible, rather than theologians.

How can he even begin to discuss basic concepts like 'Sola Scriptura', if he only reads the Bible?

What sort of idiot thinks reading the Bible makes you an expert on what Christians believe?

It is like reading 'Das Kapital' to learn about Marxism.

No wonder Dawkins shows so little understanding of Christianity.

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