Metaphysics

John Wright, whose education as a lawyer has unfortunately equipped him with a propensity to believe that splitting a hair is as good as answering a criticism, objects to New Atheists dismissing Christianity without studying its theology. The objection that he himself dismisses the Aztec pantheon without studying its theology he waves aside by pointing out that there are no living worshippers of the Aztec gods, and also they were evil devil-worshippers:

[The Aztecs are] a long-dead cult of devil-worshippers, unsupported by any theology, known only to archeologists and students of the macabre

Given the character of the Christian god, I would be quite happy to refer to Wright as a devil-worshipper, and a cannibalistic one at that; but this does not seem to bear on the question of whether his description of the universe is accurate, so I shall refrain. Quite why he thinks this is an argument worthy of respect I don’t know; shall we measure truth by the body mass of its living adherents? And incidentally, just how does he know that the Aztecs had no theology? For all he knows they had as rich an oral tradition of exegesis and interpretation as the Jews do.

However, that is not the point I wish to address; rather I want to take issue with the necessity of understanding a theology before dismissing it. The point is very simple: Before the Christian can demand one study his theoretical structure, he must demonstrate that there is a reason for doing so. It is all very well to spin theory, but does it actually describe anything? Unless you can demonstrate that there is some reason to investigate this question of gods in the first place, you cannot reasonably demand that anyone read volumes of abstruse argument before saying “It’s not true”. You have to demonstrate that there is something to theorise about. This the Christian cannot do, and consequently all his theology is of no more interest than a Truther’s bibliography about the melting point of steel. It might be a reasonable intellectual exercise, in the same way that one can build mathematical systems which do not describe the real universe and have a lot of fun doing so; but to claim that it has any relation with the truth – well, show me the dang evidence, not the wordy theory.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Metaphysics

  1. John C Wright

    I hope you don’t mind if I answer your argument here.

    The concept your argument overlooks is what lawyers call “standing”, which is, whether or not the argument is made by someone with the right to make it.

    If I am talking to an Aztec who believes the Aztec religion, there is a gravity to his comments that talking to an atheist who merely uses the Aztec religion as an example does not have.

    Likewise, if (as was the case here) an atheist is talking to a Christian, and the atheist levels criticisms based on ignorance of Christian theology, the Christian can raise the defense that the comment is based on ignorance. It does not overcome that defense for the atheist to analogize the real discussion that is actually happening to a theoretical discussion that, in this day and age, is unlikely ever to happen. The informal logical error involved is called Ad hominem tu quoque.

    As a matter of fact, I have studied Aztec mythology quite a bit (I was planning to use it in a novel of mine), and if I answered the objection by saying that I do indeed comprehend what little survives of Aztec theology, and that my disinclination to believe it is not based on ignorance, all the atheist who make such an argument need do is find some other mythology I am not familiar with, that of the Innuits or the Anu, to raise his point again.

    And if I happen to be familiar with the legends of the Anu (as I am), he need only change his example again, and then again.

    It is unanswerable; all honest arguments are answerable; therefore it is not an honest argument, it is a bit of rhetoric.

    It is a bit of rhetoric, not an argument. It is hardly hairsplitting on my part to point out the difference between rhetoric and logic.

    For a frivolous discussion, talking about things one knows little of is fine and dandy. For a serious discussion, it is not. If a man makes a criticism of Christianity based on ignorance, that is fine in a frivolous discussion. If a man makes a criticism of Christianity based on ignorance when talking to a Christian about the poor intellectual standards of modern atheist argument (as was the case here), and is called frivolous, and the atheist defends his right to his ignorance by analogizing Christianity to some long-dead and obscure religion which is not part of the discussion, that is a rhetorical trick, and unworthy of further consideration.

    Naturally, the situation is different in the context of a different conversation. If the atheist starts the conversation, and says, “Convince me that anything supernatural exists” or he asks “why should I believe your tradition when you reject traditions of others? How is my disbelief in your absurd Christianity any different, fundamentally, from your disbelief in their absurd Aztec rites? All Christians are atheists concerning every religion but their own!” These are not frivolous questions, but deep ones, and merit serious answer.

    If we had been having the second conversation, on the topic of why to believe Christianity over any other religion, your comment would have merit. However, the first conversation, a discussion of the poor intellectual quality of modern atheist criticism of Christianity, was the context of the conversation where my comment was made, so your criticism of my comment is problematical.

  2. kingofmen

    There are ‘atheists’, it’s true, who have never actually thought about their atheism, but hold it as a fashion, as a means of rebelling against their parents, or simply to troll discussion forums. But this is equally true of Christianity; one might even argue that it is more prevalent among Christians, because it’s that much easier to hold a majority belief merely because “everyone else” does. From such people one can expect much ignorant spew. But to attack “modern atheist criticism of Christianity” on such grounds is unjustified. There is, in a sense, only one criticism of Christianity: Lack of evidence. All else is strategy or tactics intended to make the Christian wake up to this one all-overwhelming fact, or else it is response to attempts to shift the discussion. For example, there is an entire literature about morality in the absence of gods, which answers the irrelevant and untrue Christian attack that an atheist cannot be moral. As a matter of tactics it is important to answer this charge, because it serves as an excuse to close off debate; but in plain logic it is not relevant, being an appeal to consequence. Even if there were no morality without gods, nonetheless there are no gods, and so we would just have to live with the lack of morals; c’est la vie.

    You attack atheists by pointing to the worst examples; if such a tactic were used against Christians, you would recognise its speciousness. You cannot win an argument by attacking the weakest argument of your opponents; you must engage their strongest argument, or engage a straw man.

    It is unanswerable; all honest arguments are answerable; therefore it is not an honest argument, it is a bit of rhetoric.

    The arguments that convince me the Earth is round seem ‘unanswerable’; shall we on that ground disqualify them, and conclude that the Earth is flat? No. There is no argument, honest or otherwise, that cannot be answered with “You are correct and I was mistaken; I change my belief.”

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