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Ask an Atheist >> Opinion
I was hoping to ask for a bit of advice from you since you seem much more practiced in debating religion than I am. I was hoping there were a few common logical fallacies you could point out to me. I feel my Dad using them all the time, but sometimes it can be hard for me to discern what they are on the spot.
I suppose I should back up for a second and explain a bit of my situation. Ever since I came out as an atheist to my family, my dad has been pestering me to engage him in theological debate, and he won’t stop trying to convert me. It can be stressful and annoying, but I admire his openness to discussion. The book he’s been falling back on the most is Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? I’m sure you’ve heard of it.
Lennox brings up some interesting points but there’s so much he seems to be assuming that it begs the book to be ripped apart. This should make debating my father easy, but when I try to explain these fallacies to my dad he seems to not understand or brings up straw man arguments.
My dad has also been pushing me to invite my other atheist friends to debate him and invite all of them to read Lennox’s book. I’ve held back on this because it feels awkward, and also I would think it cruel to have so many of my good friends lay the smack down on such a touchy subject.
Thanks for listening; I’ve been dealing with this for three years.
Heckled over Heaven
It’s important to say, first, that one ought to be grateful for the chance to best one’s parents in reasoned argument — most of the time, and this was certainly my experience, it’s all shouting or else comes to a bullying ultimatum (“Disagree with me one more time, young man, and it will be gone with your car keys”). Even though it’s regrettably theistic, at least it’s capable of being rationally grappled with, and given that, your eagerness for deliberation should arrive with full force.
Which route to the destruction of theism shall you take? Most effective, perhaps — especially with mommy and daddy — is to counter the numinous premise directly. For example, it’s often said, “The atheist cannot argue against my position of faith because the atheist, bless his heart, is also faithful himself!” In other words, atheists lack evidence for their disbelief in God. This, however, is a misapprehension; in my own case, I’d say I lack belief in God, precisely because there is no evidence. We must be vigilantly skeptical, brothers and sisters, of any claim promising bliss and consolation. Our mammal frailties in this regard have been on full display for millennia, and once religious superstition has possessed our minds we shield it from all serious inquiry, as if an invading bacteria tricked one’s body into aiding its own infection.
Some parents also rely on pandering the theistic views of scholarly and intellectual figures, such as those of John Lennox, the brilliant Oxford mathematician and pentalingual. Debating the late Christopher Hitchens, the rotund apologist asserted that the Christian tale was the most evidentially substantiated of all myths, and therefore the most reasonable one to believe — but why even trifle in this trivial exercise? Why not regard them all as pitilessly false, as the product of fearful, searching minds groping in darkness? The idea of God resolves puzzlement and confusion, yet it is the solver of nothing. God is shapeless, formless, empty, filled in only when the human injects its own prejudices, hopes, fears and happy suppositions. What else explains the abounding sectarian and denominational contradictions in every faith, which are founded everywhere on ignorant and airy whims?
Brian Gallagher is a fourth-year philosophy major.
My compatriot Brian has done a great job describing why your position is the enviable one. I’ll now try and point out the biggest mistakes Lennox makes. Lennox brings nothing new to the table.
Firstly, Lennox begins by wasting multiple chapters using the old-as-dirt “God of the gaps” fallacy (after explicitly promising that he won’t!), which states that because science has not yet explained everything, one must invent a god to fill in the gaps in scientific knowledge. A teleological claim — meaning that it assumes the end point of the argument before it begins — it says that because we don’t have every transitional fossil since the Paleozoic, the already-assumed-to-exist God is the only possible explanation, that a lack of evidence for one claim is proof of another. This is the fallacy.
Secondly, Lennox invokes “irreducible complexity.” This came from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species itself — in chapter four, he states that if any living thing were found that could not have arisen by gradual change, the theory would be destroyed. Creationists love this passage, but while it seems intuitive that a wing or an eye cannot evolve slowly because half an eye or a wing is worthless, this turns out to be false. Look at a flying squirrel, which uses considerably less than half a wing to glide. And look at any of the myriad creatures with photosensitive patches that use “half” an eye to see when the sun is obscured. Even our human eye looks like “half” an eye next to an eagle’s! No irreducibly complex trait has ever been found.
Lennox also drags out the argument from incredulity, which, in brief, is a claim to ignorance. The argument from incredulity says, “this is hard to understand, ergo it must be wrong.” But just like the fact that “half a wing” seems intuitively useless, the truth is very often unintuitive and difficult. It’s an appeal to our natural laziness. Why think hard and examine the world around us when we can complacently fall back on, “God did it”?
Check out the Ask an Atheist archive at dailynexus.com, where many of these same questions are answered more fully. Also, look up the debates between Lennox and both Richard Dawkins and Hitchens on YouTube; he gets absolutely destroyed in both.
Connor Oakes is a fourth-year political science major.
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