This week the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science decided to link to my post “Moral Clarity and Richard Dawkins,” which resulted in a vigorous discussion on their website. Two kinds of responses seem appropriate.
The first is to provide a robust defense of the position I staked out in the original post, which offered the metaphor of a house in order to explain the logical links between a person’s meta-ethical foundations, the ethical system, and our actual behavior. I then applied this metaphor to Richard Dawkins’ worldview to demonstrate inconsistencies within his belief system.
Another post will focus on some of the most relevant critiques that have been offered so far. In the meantime, I wanted to share some articles which already go over this terrain in careful detail. Here are a few articles that I recommend:
- Chad Meister on Atheists and the Quest for Objective Morality
- Paul Copan on God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality (PDF download).
- Peter Williams on Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God?
In this post, however, I want to illuminate the abundance of basic logical fallacies which have plagued the comment threads at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS). This is one of the ironies of the new atheism – the passionate self-identification as the guardians of reason, even as they offer illogical and irrational objections to arguments made by Christians. (This thesis was one of the primary points of True Reason, a book-length collaboration with a dozen other writers, recently published by Patheos Press).
The comment thread at RDFRS so far has featured two main kinds of logical fallacies: ad hominems and appeals to ridicule, as well as red herrings. To make the point, I’ll offer a brief definition of each fallacy from a third party source, then provide examples from the comment section at RDFRS itself.
Ad Hominems and Appeal to Ridicule
An Ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting).
The Appeal to Ridicule is a fallacy in which ridicule or mockery is substituted for evidence in an “argument.” This line of “reasoning” has the following form:
- X, which is some form of ridicule is presented (typically directed at the claim).
- Therefore claim C is false.
“How low an opinion of the human race have these idiots got if they genuinely believe that we are not capable of working shit out ourselves.”
“Is this moron for real? Hs he not realised, yet, that moral reasoning takes place within the context of who we are physically and socially? That human ethics are a result of some serious evolutionary and societal processes? I despair. Too stupid for words.”
“Yes religious and non-believers can have the same ethical standards, but the religious limit their views to a concrete first floor and do not question whether or not these standards are in fact truthful, psychologically sound, respectful, and actually fully beneficial to humanity.”
“For those who did not read the article this bloke is definitely having a pop. I think he is calling me immoral. My reaction is that i feel pity for him, being a religious nut case must be hard. It is my hope that he get’s the help he obviously needs.”
“This is just another passive-aggressive religious attack on Richard.”
“The basic problem remains, however – and none of these idiots ever seem to see it.”
“I’m confused, can I not describe theists as Tr–ls? As in, a person who wants to instigate inane arguments for the sheer joy of it and to waste everyone’s time.
JW for future reference, I don’t see a line drawn if I can’t refer to an obvious troll, can I not say a theist is a bigot? A charlatan? A liar? I don’t see how these are any different from ‘troll’.”
“They really think in simplistic terms, like a child. You have to actually explain to them that we didn’t simply POP into existence and time did not start 6k, 2k, years ago, or yesterday, for that matter. Morality developed because it was useful, like ears and teeth, bipedalism, reasoning, sex, etc. It’s no different from the rest and has the same answer, evolution.
The reason we’re still arguing this is because after hundreds of years they are still too dense to accept the fact of evolution.”
“I hope that this person never loses his or her faith, or the murder rate would clearly rocket overnight.
This alleged article is the sludge scraped from the bottom of a cat litter tray, served up shaped into digestive biscuits, a first-person fairy story told by the verbally incontinent witch who has a mental age of five and assumes, all too often correctly, that of others to be four. Swat the accolades from the pinyata professor whose name in the title ensures publication. Other fairy stories are available.”
A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
- Topic A is under discussion.
- Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
- Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.
“I was going to leave a comment on the article at the rfg site about how their god-given morality was itself a human construct, but there’s no comments section. Anybody would think they can’t handle the truth.”
“If you believe fairy tales about the nobility of genocide committed by a pack of Bronze Age savages then you’ve got no moral foundation.”
“No religious apologist has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma: Is an act moral because God likes it, or does God like it because it is moral? If the former is true, then “moral” is just another word for whatever arbitrary preferences God happens to possess, whether it is genocide, stoning, eternal torture or the extermination of all life on earth. If the latter is the case – God likes an act because it is moral – we might as well cut out the middle man (God) and appeal directly to the thing that makes us think of it as moral in the first place.”
“Oh, and if God-based “meta-ethical foundations” are so great, why are the God believers such utterly merciless killers? What’s up with all the stoning, witch-burning, child-murdering, ethnic cleansing, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Morals, my ass.”
“It’s funny how the religious argument always inhabits this strange, obscure plain, where some estranged concept of a logical equivalent is more conclusive evidence than say 90%+ of all prison population being religious, as well as tons of other evidence that religious people have far more of a tendency to behave badly. Then we can go straight to their holy texts and the behavior it prescribes.”
Summary and Conclusion
Even if I am an idiot, a moron, a religious nut job, a bigot, think in simplistic terms like a child, believed the universe was 6,000 years old, would be prone to murder someone if I wasn’t a Christian (!),was verbally incontinent, and was making a passive-aggressive religious attack, none of these points have any relevance to the actual reasoning presented in the original post. For what its worth, and though it probably isn’t a surprise, it just so happens that I disagree with these characterizations of my character and belief system. Nevertheless, the consistent use of abusive ad hominem attacks and ridicule in the comment threads is indicative of basic logical fallacies. It is also, needless to say, terribly uncivil behavior.
Second, the disabling of comments at this website, the alleged genocide by “Bronze Age savages,” the Euthyphro dilemma, the accusation that God believers are “utterly merciless killers,” the “tons of other evidence that religious people have far more of a tendency to behave badly,” are all completely irrelevant points to the reasoning used in the original post.
Recollect with me the Mission Statement for the US Foundation:
The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.
In light of their mission statement, the quotes provided above offer some inductive evidence that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (emphasis added) has quite a ways to go if it seriously intends to support critical thinking and overcome intolerance. I appreciate the dialogue with the RDFRS community, but the boundaries of rational dialogue require us to avoid going off on tangents, making insults and ridiculing a different position from our own.
Update: Note that the comments at RDFRS are completely in line with Richard Dawkins’ advice to fellow atheists: “Mock them! Ridicule them!”