Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An exercise in logic by a stupid old faith-head—UPDATED

Yesterday, in a fit of pure mischief, I did what I normally don’t — I tossed a couple of hand grenades in a combox full of New Atheists. Since the combox belonged to a regular journal article and not to a specific writer’s blog (where you would expect people of similar minds to hang out), I didn’t feel too bad about it.

One reply I got, from “Dave”:

The problem basically is, you and all the other believers in all the diverse religions in the world will shut your ears to the logic that says for a start, two religions cannot be correct because they contradict each other.  For example, the gods of Islam and Catholicism are not the same god, no matter how you try and make it so.  So we see convinced passionate faith from both and yet a Hindu knows with equal certainty both are wrong.

Now it’s time to play “Spot the Fallacy”! A believes p; B believes q (not-p); C believes r (not-p and not-q); therefore, p, q and r are all false? Aren’t we missing just a few steps between premises and conclusion?

We might excuse “Dave” from making a fuller defense; after all, it was a combox, which imposes limitations. However, I’ve seen this argument before, in just as brief a manner, but without the excusing context: “There are tens of thousands of religions all over the world. They can’t all be true. But they can all be false.”

Certainly. But “either all true or none true” doesn’t exhaust the range of possibilities. What about “one true (or closest to being 100% true), all others true to the degree that they hold true principles also found in the first one”?

One problem that holds throughout the field of religious apologetics — regardless of what religious system you argue for — is that almost all religions present multiple propositions on a wide range of areas: cosmology, theology, eschatology, and so forth. Catholicism isn’t reducible to a single proposition; neither is Islam nor Hinduism.

Now, both Catholics and Moslems believe in one God; however, what they believe about God is often so radically divergent that “Dave” is functionally right: the God of Catholicism and the God of Islam can be considered different gods altogether, in spite of their common source in the God of Judaism (a third “God” altogether). And insofar as they’re both monotheistic, they differ from the polytheism of the Hindus.

So we don’t have just one question here; rather, we have three: 1) Is there at least one god? 2) Is there only one god, or are there more? And 3) If there’s one God, is He one Person or three? All three questions have mutually exclusive answers; however, if the answer to the first question is “Yes”, we establish a point of contact between all religions that feature gods (not all do). So if there is at least one god, then all religions which have at least one god will be true to that degree, even if every answer they give to other questions is false. And that’s just the very beginning of one area.

The logic of “Dave’s” position is purely on the surface; in fact, it depends on the apparent truth of the vague assertion that “religions contradict each other”. And certainly I’m not going to put a full-court press on his position by claiming that religions support each other more than they contradict; if I tried to do that, you would do well to never read this blog again.

In fact, “Dave” is attempting a very shorthand reductio ad absurdum, which indirectly proves a proposition by showing how the opposite assumption leads to a contradiction. The problem is, the other premises in a true reductio don’t change in the process of deriving the contradiction; it doesn’t work when one tries to compare systems that have some premises in common but not all.

Let me put this another way: “Dave’s” reductio fails precisely because religions contradict each other. Assumption a would lead to the falsifying contradiction p and not-p only if Religion 1 and Religion 2 shared all the same basic premises; introduce even one difference or disagreement and the contradiction doesn’t falsify. And if they only agree on 10% of the premises? The contradiction would be barely germane!

Just how popular is this paralogism? On the basis of two occurrences, I can hardly estimate a frequency, nor can I guess how much weight the atheist community gives it. I’m certain there are atheists out there who can see the argument for the nebulous fluff it is, and eschew it accordingly. But a lot of what passes for atheist apologetics nowadays isn’t any more rigorous than the counter of the street-corner evangelist.

The problem is by no means that believers aren’t capable of logic, or that faith somehow makes reason impossible: atheism itself depends on faith in an assumption that, by its very nature, can’t be proven. (In fact, reason itself depends on certain assumptions that can’t be proven.) Nor is the problem that atheism poses an unanswerable challenge; in fact, it has been answered time and again, often to rousing indifference or jeers.

No, the problem is that, under the New Atheists, the Thing That Used to be Atheism is rapidly becoming a mirror image of the reflexive, dogmatic, unscientific fundamentalism they despise. Moreover, the New Atheists are caught up in an echo chamber of their own creation, where their basic misunderstandings, factual errors and paralogisms simply reverberate back and forth, unbaffled and unattenuated by contradiction.

Worst of all, they’ve changed the Thing That Used to be Atheism from a (mostly) honest critique of religion into an exclusive club where people can assert their intellectual superiority and congratulate themselves for it without honestly earning their stripes by proving it in debate with theists.

Because, y’know, we’re just too stupid and blind to recognize reason.

Update: May 20, 2011

Randy over at Speak the Truth in Love drills a little further on the topic to mine an unexamined presupposition of "Dave's" argument. Rather than repeat the substance here, go check him out!