Tag Archives: fallacy

Will the real god please stand up?

Blogging inspiration hasn’t struck me that often over the last few months, so I’ve been sticking to blog discussions here and there.  Lately, however, I’ve been coming across a theistic error so glaring, it cries for comment.  The curious thing about this error is that it’s being committed by some of the more prominent religious apologists, highly educated theologians you’d least expect to make such an elementary logical blunder – apologists like Oxford University professor John Lennox and Timothy Keller, author of the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God.

In a nutshell, the error these theists make is to take general philosophical god arguments (e.g., the cosmological argument or the argument from design) and cite them as grounds for the existence of their particular god.  Finely-tuned universe, ergo Jesus.  But whether through myopia or intentional smoke-and-mirrors sophistry, what these apologists fail to acknowledge is that the philosophical god arguments apply just as well to other gods that people both believe and don’t believe in.  Apologists for Islam make the same arguments for why you should believe in Allah.  So do Hindus.  As well as the believers of thousands of other religions.  What’s more, the arguments are wholly compatible not just with theism, but with deism and polytheism!  One god, for example, may have been responsible for creating the universe, while another for life on our little spec in it.

So, even if the arguments are persuasive, they don’t get you to Jesus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Thor, or Brahman, or Mazda, or Zeus.  At best, they get you only to…something.  You may call it Aristotle’s “prime mover”, and it could be any one of the aforementioned gods, or none of them.  Until it (or they) actually shows up and demonstrates its existence conclusively and exclusively (meaning, there can be no mistaking it with the billion other imagined deities out there people have worshipped), these arguments are for all intents and purposes useless to the believer.  They need to succeed not just on the merits of the god arguments, which I don’t believe they do, but also prove those arguments apply only to their god(s), and no others, which is something they don’t even attempt.

The religious don’t have a monopoly on making unsubstantiated claims

Dr. Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution Is True (a fine addition to my library) and proprietor of a blog of the same name, sometimes strays from his usual posts about evolution and atheism into the realm of politics.  These, unfortunately, are almost always disasters, exhibiting the kind of awful reasoning one typically finds among religious apologists.

Today Dr. Coyne was upset about comments made by Rand Paul, who won the Republican nomination for the Senate in Kentucky on Tuesday, on private business’s right to discriminate, which Dr. Paul believes falls under the general right to freedom of speech and association.  This, charges Dr. Coyne, makes him a bigot and a racist.

Were any actual comments by Dr. Paul stating an opinion on the alleged superiority of one race over another–you know, the kind of sentiment usually expressed by bigots and racists–ever cited? No.

Were any actual deeds by Dr. Paul demonstrating bigoted or racist behavior ever cited?  Again no.

It seems there’s quite a paucity of evidence for the claim that Dr. Paul is a bigot and racist.  And the reasoning used to brand him as such is quite…malleable.  It seems if you don’t support laws outlawing [insert behavior you don’t like here], that makes you a proponent!  By that “logic,” if because Dr. Coyne doesn’t support laws outlawing, say, Christianity, then that makes him in reality a supporter of Christianity.

I pointed out in a post on his blog that chastising others for making claims based on flimsy or unsubstantiated evidence while doing the same yourself is hypocritical.  As of now, the post has not yet seen the light of day.  For as long as Dr. Coyne  continues to maintain that Dr. Paul is a bigot and racist without providing any evidence to support his claim, he’s a hypocrite in my book.

If people like Dr. Coyne are truly rational skeptics as they claim, measuring their beliefs according to the evidence, then they should apply that stance consistently.   Religion, it seems, is not the only phenomenon that causes one to abandon rational thinking.

Is God punishing California?

When disaster strikes a people, believers of all stripes noisily proclaim it a sign of divine retribution for whatever sins those people were believed to commit. Take Hurricane Katrina. Depending on your religious persuasion, it was either a) a warning against rampant homosexuality, b) justice for America’s support for the removal of Jewish settlers on disputed lands in the Middle East, or c) retribution against America for its “war on Islam.”

That all of these are merely examples of the post hoc fallacy doesn’t phase the believer one bit. So let’s play their game and ask what God is punishing California for.

If you haven’t been following the news, the state recently experienced another found of devastating wildfires. Included in the destruction was a Christian liberal arts college in Santa Barbara. The fires have been followed by drenching rains, which threaten even more destruction and hardship.

California, you recall, just a few weeks ago passed Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Clearly, this was an act displeasing to God, who has “poured out His wrath” against the people there, including Christians, in the form of fires and flooding. Or so the logic of the believer leads us to conclude. Curiously, however, you’ll search in vain for any believer pointing this out.

Let’s recap the belief of the faithful:

When the will of God is flagrantly violated, calamity occurs. Whatever actions preceded the calamity, we should repent of and correct.

Since calamity in California occurred following passage of Proposition 8, to be consistent with their own belief, the religious must conclude they defied the will of God. They should therefore repent of their transgression in supporting the proposition and work to immediately repeal it.

Obviously this isn’t going to happen. It’s doubtful the connection was even made in any of their minds. When they fail time and again to consistently apply their own beliefs, why is it any wonder to them they’re the objects of constant derision?

Surreal

There’s a feeling that frequently overcomes me as I read religious scripture.  It’s difficult to express, but if there’s one word that sums the feeling up, it’s “surreal.”

Its source is knowing that there are millions and millions of fellow humans who fervently believe that what I’m reading is some divine truth, as factual as their jobs or families, while to me it’s just as plain that it’s pure fantasy.  I wonder, how is it possible that our perceptions of the same stories and words can be so fundamentally opposed.  As irreconcilable as oil and water.  It’s like I watched The Lord of the Rings and everyone came out of the theater saying what a great documentary it was.  Something. is. not. quite. right.  What prevents me from understanding their scriptures as reality in the same way these other millions do?

The designers of religion have recognized this conundrum, and have crafted ingenious rationales why their “truth” appears like a bunch of hokum to outsiders.  Consider the words of Christianity’s Apostle Paul:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. (1 Cor. 2:14-15)

Or Islam’s Prophet Muhammad:

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. (Sura 2:2)

Even Scientology has its “endgrams” – residual mental image pictures – of which we must rid ourselves in order understand our true nature.

In each case, there is some element, or lack of it, that obscures the underlying true reality, that biases our understanding.  And until we adopt the particular religion’s paradigm, we cannot fully understand and appreciate the alleged truth that it says is essential to our happiness, immortality, or what have you.  If this seems circular, that’s because it is.  The truth will be revealed to you only once you accept what they say as truth.

Many believers recognize the question-begging nature of their faiths, and a few honest ones realize other religions do the very same thing.  So that’s why they offer up other standards.  For example, a Christian might say that fulfilled prophecy demonstrates the truth of their religion.  Muslims claim the Qu’ran contains scientific knowledge of things unheard of at the time it was written, which proves a divine influence.  Mormons assert that the Holy Ghost witnesses to the truth of the Book of Mormon via a “burning bosom“.  All claimed reformed lives as evidence, too.  Why we should accept the superiority of one standard over any other is never quite explained.  They’re quick to point out the motes in each others’ religions (or even rival sects), but are blind to the beams in their own.

Sorry, if your religion requires me to swallow its tenets before I can comprehend its “truth,” then it is not for me.  Threats of eternal torture repel me even further.  Can any religion pass a basic smell test?

Enough with the fallacious appeals to authority

In answering in the affirmative during a debate on the question whether God exists, Professor John Lennox quotes the Apostle Paul, from Romans 1:18-20,

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.

It never ceases to amaze me that Christian theists recite this scripture – and it’s one of their favorites – because it’s in fact a fallacious appeal to authority:

This sort of reasoning is fallacious when the person in question is not an expert. In such cases the reasoning is flawed because the fact that an unqualified person makes a claim does not provide any justification for the claim. The claim could be true, but the fact that an unqualified person made the claim does not provide any rational reason to accept the claim as true.

What makes Paul an expert on the existence of God that we should accept his claim God’s attributes are clearly seen in creation?  The answer: nothing.  Paul is merely expressing an unsupported opinion.  One could replace the word “God” with “Thor” and it would remain just as “true”.  (And, as an aside, if the attributes of creation include pointless suffering…)

But Paul saw God (Acts 9)?  He received revelation?  Didn’t Mohammad?  And Joseph Smith?  If you’re going to believe Paul, why not those other two?

This fallacy is manifestly obvious, but is emblematic of theistic myopia that they would advance it in support of their contention that God exists.

Another conversation ends in…censorship

Has this happened to you?

You’re in a dialogue with a believer of some stripe on their blog site. You feel you’ve made some excellent points against their arguments. You return to see their response and find that your reply has been deleted. No explanation given. It’s just…gone.

I’ve had this experience more times than I can count.  The latest example comes from the blog of Canon Press, a Christian “literature ministry”.  The topic which led me to comment was the boasting about the relative success of their book Is Christianity Good for the World? I started off with the reasonable observation that the goodness of something does not necessarily relate to its truthfulness.  A staff member, Frank, replied with what I considered a woolly-headed rationalization, namely,

We all live as if telling the truth is good, while telling a lie is bad. And if it’s right for us to live this way (which it is), then it make sense that seeking good is also seeking truth.

Huh?  I pointed out that telling a lie can be good, depending on the circumstances, which rendered his formulation invalid.  Unfortunately, Frank continued to dig himself into a hole with that comment that,

“Truth” is what God says, and everything that God does and says is good.

I’m sure you can predict my response.  If everything God does is good, and God killed children, logically, that makes killing children good.  I continued to press this point, as well as faulted Frank for his equivocation and logical fallacies.  Apparently this was too much for Frank, as he – or someone else at Canon Press – deleted my reply.

The really ironic thing is the statement made at the top of their blog,

sometimes it looks like our efforts only make unbelievers more stubborn in their resistance to the Gospel.

When your fatuous reasoning is exposed and you panic by erasing the evidence, is it any wonder why?

When atheists get it wrong

One of my favorite bloggers, Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism, occasionally writes on topics outside the typical atheist fare, such as morality or poetry, but also the subject of capitalism.

Having a better-than-average knowledge of capitalism, I cringe when such blogs appear, because they often deviate from Ebonmuse’s usual high standard of critical thought.  Too frequently, they contain long-discredited capitalist canards which only find currency among the hard left.  These are the “springboards” for Ebonmuse’s larger points he wishes to make about capitalism.  One is tempted to give Ebonmuse the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he is merely responding to one school of capitalism. But alas, its supporters (aka, free-marketeers) are far more in agreement on capitalist economics, than, say, members of a particular religion.  At the least, Ebonmuse should augment his assertions with relevant quotes or examples, but this is rarely, if ever, done.

What follows is my critique of a recent Ebonmuse blog entitled “Spread the Wealth: Further Thoughts on Capitalism“.  Allow me to reiterate that I agree with much of what Ebonmuse writes and greatly appreciate his contributions to free-thought, but I believe that some of his views on capitalism are simply wrong.

Ebonmuse starts with a fair summary of the vast benefits capitalism has wrought, but he goes badly off-track with the following:

Some people, especially libertarians, seem not to grasp this. They act as if competition itself was the end, as if inequality was the end – and this is absurd.

Competition and inequality are ends?! No, no, no! A thousand times, no! The absurdity here is ascribing such a view to people like libertarians.  Free-marketeers (a circle of individuals far wider than libertarians, by the way) would fully agree with Ebonmuse’s view that competition is merely a means to better ends.  When free-market economists like the late Milton Friedman argue for competition in the provision of public education, for example, they justify it not on the basis that competition is the good we will achieve, but what good competition will bring: more choice, better quality, higher standards, etc.  Tsk, tsk.  A few minutes reading Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, or Friedman himself would have quickly dispelled this ridiculous notion.

Ebonmuse continues:

The purpose of the economy is, or at least should be, to produce happiness, not to produce winners and losers. Competition is merely the means; the end is producing greater wealth and greater opportunity, and with them, greater well-being for all members of society.

Happiness is certainly a desired end, but it is most definitely not the economy’s purpose to produce it; only individuals can do that for themselves.  This is more economic illiteracy.  The purpose of the economy–any economy–is to exploit limited resources to produce and distribute goods and services demanded by consumers in as efficient manner as possible.  Winners and losers are the inevitable by-product of a host of factors, many of which lie outside the control of us humans (at least for now), and appear in any economic system.  How does Ebonmuse propose to know when maximal happiness, and thus a fully purposed economy, has been achieved?  He does not say.  At least, he demonstrates a true understanding of competition’s role, though one wonders where he obtained it.  From Karl Marx?  It certainly could not have come from a free-marketeer…

We now come to Ebonmuse’s central point:

This is why progressive, redistributive taxation is a vital part of any civilized state’s economic policy. Those libertarian philosophies which would allow individuals to accumulate unlimited wealth without interference have lost sight of why an economy and a state exist in the first place. By allowing some people to acquire unlimited wealth, they have implicitly decided that their goal is happiness not for everyone, but only for a privileged few. By any reasonable standard of morality, this is wrong. By aiming at a suboptimal standard, they would construct a state that enjoys less prosperity and less happiness in general, and such nations will inevitably be outcompeted by those that ensure a fair distribution of basic resources.

Ebonmuse has committed a sleight-of-hand.  It is now the economy’s and state’s purpose to produce happiness, presumably achieved by the “vital” policy of progressive, redistributive taxation. But economies don’t tax; governments perform that function.  Does Ebonmuse believe it’s actually the state’s, not the economy’s, purpose to produce happiness?

It doesn’t much matter.  As well, a debate on the role of government is beyond our scope.  The question under contention is whether such taxation as Ebonmuse proposes will do as he intends.  Without any evidence or support, Ebonmuse asserts that predation of income translates into an increased level of happiness overall.  If some individuals possess “unlimited income,” this means, ipso facto, that others are sub-optimally happy.  Why is that?  Ebonmuse does not explain, but he does state that such a state of affairs is desired by libertarians.  What’s more, without any evidence or support, Ebonmuse declares that this state will produce less prosperity, less happiness, and relative competitive stagnation compared to countries which follow his prescription.  For someone who claims allegiance to reason, evidence, and logic, his assertions are remarkably lacking these qualities.

“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” as an infamous contemporary atheist puts it, so, normally, we could dismiss Ebonmuse’s views on that basis alone.  However, since Ebonmuse is widely and rightly regarded as a studios blogger, I think more is needed to undermine his case.  So, in counterpoint, allow me to present the example of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a city governed by China since 1989, but one who’s traditional free-market, low-tax policies have largely been allowed to remain unchanged.  Its tax rate for individuals and corporations around 17%, as well tax revenue as a percentage of GDP of 12.7%, are among the lowest in the world, yet its GDP per capita is one of the highest.  According to Ebonmuse, the citizens of Hong Kong should be downright miserable, what with all that unredistributed income floating around, yet surveys place its citizens above the median among international comparisons, exactly equal to the French.  If Ebonmuse wishes to make his case, he needs to explain away examples like Hong Kong and offer up those which support his claims.

At root of Ebonmuse’s errors, is the view–so common among critics of capitalism–that there is a fixed amount of wealth; if some people have more, it must mean that others have less.  The view is a fallacy.  There is no fixed amount of wealth. Rather than redistribute the pie, government policymakers need to focus on expanding it.  This is what motivates free-marketeers to champion capitalism and low, unbiased taxes.

Another error concerns the assumption that behavior will remain unchanged in light of new economic circumstances.  If we raise the tax rate to X, the treasury will obtain Y income.  True, but only in the short run.  Experience has shown time and time again that taxpayers respond to changes in tax rates.  Exactly how is not always predictable, but for the most part, high marginal tax rates actually produce a drop in revenues.  This is why many countries have actually lowered top marginal tax rates since the ’80s.

I encourage Ebonmuse to direct his considerable intellect toward garnering a better understanding of capitalism and economics.  It’s a bit of a shame to see such an important atheist blog somewhat discredited by a few flawed views.