On Ad Hominem Cries of “AGNOSTIC” and “ATHEIST” in Response to Scholarly Critique

Deflect. Deflect. Mock, then deflect again. Never address the issue, just deflect, attack the critic, and mock. This passes for “theology” and logic in some circles.

In response to recent posts I’ve made about the Bible’s understanding of certain social institutions like marriage and slavery, a colleague of mine responded immediately, yet indirectly with a logically fallacious and highly ad hominem criticism of agnosticism and atheism.

This is twice in one week for my friend.

I presented a theological problem concerning why the same God of the Bible would slaughter thousands of Egyptian children to free his people from slavery, and then instruct those same people on how to make slaves of their own.

And in response, rather than address the theological issue at hand – that glaring contradiction and theological conundrum posited by the text – my colleague shifted the response to an ad hominem attack against agnostics, arguing (indirectly) that I’m “cudgeling” them with a god I don’t believe exists. The post then rambles on, employing scattered, tangential analogies and other red herrings in the hope of diverting attention for the fact he has no answer to the dilemma posited by my post, or perhaps to disguise the cognitive dissonance necessary to maintain conflicting beliefs.

Of course, the problem with my friend’s line of reasoning is that HE believes God exists, and, HE believes the biblical texts to be an accurate “revelation” of the nature of God. Thus, the burden is to explain why HE continues to believe what he believes in spite of the glaring ethical problem created by such conflicting positions (i.e., God kills to free slaves, and then instructs those freed how to make slaves of their own).

The fact that I don’t believe that the text accurately reflects God – or that God even exists – is completely moot: I’m not the one making the claim that the revelatory text of the Bible accurately reflects God. I don’t believe it does. For me, the problem is solved: the text is a reflection of Iron Age thinking about social interactions (e.g., marriage, slavery, etc.) that has been attributed to God in order to justify it. I realize the conflicting claims don’t make sense, are contradictory, and I dismiss them as the beliefs of an ancient people who felt that the answer to ethnic diversity and religious plurality (so prized and protected today by our U.S. Constitution) was to kill those who don’t believe what they believe because God said so (Deut. 20:16-18).

But my colleague is trapped between claiming that the Bible is the “revealed” authority for social issues of slavery and marriage, and the often appalling actions of the God described in that same Bible (cf. the genocide of the Amalekites ordered in 1 Sam. 15:2-3, or the slaughter of Egyptian children mentioned above), and simply cannot resolve the glaring ethical contradictions contained within it.

And that’s the point of the exercise: to point out that there are horrendous INTERNAL ethical contradictions (note: no appeal to science here, just laying one biblical text along side another) that a believer in the revelatory nature of the social aspects of the texts cannot reconcile.

He can’t do it! So in response, he claims that the one pointing out this discrepancy is somehow the fool. He claims that the one highlighting the contradiction is waving around an “invisible cudgel”, when in fact, I am merely waving around the believer’s cudgel. In this regard, it’s a mirror. If they believe it exists and is real, then they must deal with the damage caused by it. But, if they realize it’s just an ancient set of social contracts attributed to a deity (as I and countless others do), then they don’t.

The believer is simply being hit with the cudgel of his/her own creation. It’s not my cudgel, it’s theirs. These are their claims, not mine. The burden of proof is on them to offer some semblance of a rational defense for their claims, not me, because I don’t accept them! They are the ones saying that the text is “revelation” and therefore binding on modern civil law in the case of same-sex marriage, but somehow not in the case of slavery. My question exposes this, and their only response is to attack the one asking the questions for not believing in the veracity of the contradictory claims.

philosopharaptor_1_plus_1The logical fallacy in my friend’s response is like asking, “How can you tell me that 1+1 doesn’t equal three, when YOU don’t even believe that 1+1=3? You idiot! You’re waving around a false cudgel.”

My response is that his response is circular reasoning combined with a mixed analogy (the “double-double” of logical fallacies), one which is quite easy to expose.

It’s like saying, “You can’t tell me that the claims made by the Flying Spaghetti Monster are contradictory, because you don’t even believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You’re waving around a false cudgel!”

With all apologies, it’s laughable. Simply change the name of the god and even my friend would (or at least should) reject it as silly. I don’t accept the claim precisely because it’s an easily exposed fallacy. It’s an absurd claim couched in circular reasoning.

Yet ultimately, this is the rhetorical tactic all too often employed by those who cannot reconcile their claims in the “revelatory” nature of biblical texts discussing social relationships (slavery, marriage, etc.) with our modern ethic: they tackle the person instead of tackling the problem (the very definition of an “ad hominem” attack), and they deflect from their lack of a solution by laughing, mocking, and declaring, “You fool!” to those asking them to reconcile their contradictory claims.

And even though the entire point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the God they believe to be making the claims is either self-contradictory, outright evil, or nonexistent, they claim that because the agnostic doesn’t believe in this flawed theological construct, they have no right to criticize it.

At the end of the day, his only response is that I don’t believe the fallacious argument, so I am ineligible to point out its flaws. I present a logical dilemma, and his only response is, “ATHEIST!” (or in my case, “AGNOSTIC!”).

This may pass for “theology” and “logic” is some circles, but it sure as She’ol ain’t scholarly.

I shake my head.

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24 Responses

  1. Sounds a lot like what happened with Dr. Christopher Rollston, except I suspect you won’t be fired for questioning the Bible. Great blog entry.

  2. thanx. i can’t speak for the good professor rollston, but i take comfort in the knowledge that he’s now at a place that won’t try to fire him for asking questions.

  3. Dr. Cargil,
    Great blog entry! Jim’s article is a lot more like political rhetoric then has any factual or logical attached to it. Perhaps it was part of the script that was cut out of “the Bible” series?

  4. Dr. Bob …

    Yup, I’ve run into that one, also. In essence: “Unless you meet MY DEFINITION of “Christian” (note: definitions vary !), then … you can’t question anything that I SAY about (my version of) Christianity.”

    Please recognize that this ad hominem argument is one born of desperation and springs from a corner into which these folks have painted themselves, and is an attempt to “shut the door” on questions/criticisms from a huge chunk of humanity re: (their varying definitions of) Christianity.

    If they want to live in a self-imposed religious haunted forest, then they can. If they want to tell me that their self-imposed religious haunted forest is REAL, then that is a different story, and they have to put on their Big Boy Pants and expect not automatic deference (to which they feel themselves “entitled”), but any response that anyone makes.

    That type of argument is just a Crybaby Argument. Obviously some folks find “growing up” to be an insurmountably difficult task.

  5. My interpretation of West’s argument is a bit different. West claims (IMO) that Dr. Cargill lacks discernment of biblical texts because he has not been shrouded by the Holy Spirit. Since Dr. Cargill has not spoken the magic oath in front of a group of people, the Holy Spirit has not coated him like an M&M. The Holy Spirit forms an outer shell (kind of like a candy coating) when certain words are spoken out loud. Of course, you must also BELIEVE that you will acquire this coating for the words to be effective. President Bush believed he had acquired the candy coating of discernment and interpreted his own thoughts as those of God. The genocide that he caused was far greater than that of the Amalekites or Midianites. There is no need to return to the Iron Age for examples of inhumanity caused by a belief in magic oaths and spirit coatings.

    Perhaps our national guilt of our atrocities has caused the paradigm shift of the last 5 or 6 years.

  6. I can’t understand the thinking of these “christians” who believe that you can’t challenge the Bible and especially not the ones who believe that it is literally true.

    I am a Catholic and there is nothing in my teachings that say that the Bible is literally true. The core teachings are true but the exact words are not and a lot of the secular stuff has changed as society has. If my priest ever told me that the Bible was literally true and that I couldn’t question it, that would be the last time I set foot in that church.

    I have coworker that has an MS in Mechanical Engineering yet believes in the Bible being literally true. If you point out inconsistencies or contradictions he dances around them. He truly believes that the Earth is young and not billions of years old. At most he will concede to 10 or 20000. He refuses to believe in radiocarbon dating or evolution. I pointed out that radiocarbon uses the same scientific principles he uses every day at work so how could he call himself a scientist if he didn’t believe in radiocarbon dating. He said he was an engineer not a scientist.

    I just can’t understand such people.

  7. What is the difference between Jim West and a Moloch priest? In his blog, Jim West consistently sacrifices our gay youth on his alter of righteousness. While it is true that he is not actually tossing the child into the fire, he is instrumental in their destruction nonetheless. A percentage of blame for every suicide, assault and murder of a gay person can be attributed to him. Since he believes words have a magical power, his intention is crystal clear. Jim West is a Moloch priest and wears his funny hat with pride.

  8. Your cutesy little equation is not an accurate analogy. Your dinosaur should be saying something like: “They say I can’t question whether 1+1=3, unless I first believe in math.”

    (Not that this affects the truth of what 1+1 is.)

  9. Don. Your alternative is indeed cute(sy), but flawed. I’ll demonstrate it in three different ways:

    1) Let’s say I grant the suppositions. Even if I grant a) that God exists, and b) that the Bible contains his divinely revealed word – even if I grant ALL of it – my friend’s argument still fails. One still cannot resolve why YHWH would slaughter thousands of children (and adults) for the purposes of freeing people FROM slavery, and THEN instruct those same people how to make slaves, UNLESS (there is an out after all), YHWH’s problem was NOT that he thought slavery was wrong, but that he didn’t like HIS PEOPLE being enslaved. That is, YHWH has no problem with owning other people, he just wants HIS people to be the masters/owners, not the SLAVES. YHWH has not problem with the institution of slavery, just his people being oppressed. If they oppress others, that’s cool. Of course, THAT’S the answer that no one wants to admit: YHWH isn’t opposed to slavery – indeed, he taught his people how to make slaves, and the NT tells them to continue obeying their masters. Rather, he’s acting like every other tribal/ethnic Canaanite deity in the ANE and rooting for “his” people.

    BUT, that’s not what my friend is arguing, because he opposes slavery, IN SPITE of the fact that the “revealed Scripture” that is the Bible clearly establishes, regulates, and endorses slavery. EVEN IF I posit the existence of God, AND the veracity of his word, my friend still CANNOT resolve the equation unless he makes God into a tyrannical ethnic deity endorsing slavery.

    So even if I accept his (and your) premise, the equation still fails. It’s not that ‘math doesn’t exist’ or ‘I don’t believe in math’, but even if I posit that math exists, my friends equation still doesn’t resolve, and therefore your proposition (“it’s like saying math doesn’t exist) fails.

    2) Your analogy fails because of the false equation that belief in God is belief in math. Belief in God is a/the claim under examination. However, math is a mechanism by which to determine and evaluate claims. You may claim, “I have a million dollars,” and then when we use math, and you show me two one-dollar bills, i can say that 1+1 does not equal one million and disprove your claim. Your analogy incorrectly equates that claim which is under examination (the existence of God) with the device by which to evaluate that claim (math), and this is flawed logic. Therefore, your analogy fails again.

    3) Here’s a third proof for why the analogy fails: Ironically, it is my friend who has “not believed in math”. My friend states that he arrives at his conclusion because the Bible is revelatory, and NOT because his argument is logical or rooted in evidence, facts, science, or reason. In fact, his claim is that because Scripture is “revealed”, it is above and therefore not subject to examination by reason, logic, science, evidence, etc. Thus, it is my friend who does not believe in math, which is a rational mechanism used to determine and arbitrate between claims. I believe in math (that 1+1 should equal two), but it is my friend who does not believe his claims are subject to math, and therefore does not believe in math. Rather, he claims that because he “possesses the Holy Spirit”, his claims about the “revealed scripture” are not subject to human math and reason. So while I believe in (and insist on) math and argue that 1+1 must equal 2, he can claim that 1+1=helicopter because faith and the HS are not subject to reason, evidence, and human reason (including math). Thus, your analogy fails again, because it is not I who does not believe in math, but my friend.

    Still, I will give you credit: even though your analogy is highly flawed, it does sound clever, and a lot of times, that’s all people need to continue believing what they believe: not facts, not reason, but clever, cutsy sounding rhetoric. It doesn’t matter that it can be disproved, it sounds good, and that’s all some people need. -bc

  10. Amazing. Having studied the history of Christianity over the 2000 years since the time of Jesus, I am always amazed by the different fads to appear. Now, mind you, every large sociological group goes through these changes, whether you are talking a tribe, a nation, or a philosophical group such as a religion. In this case, it is the fairly recent fad among the self proclaimed Christians of biblical inerrancy. They have made a god of their book! With that in mind, I can see how they would not be able to accept any kind of questioning of their new god not only from their own ranks, but especially from those outside the circle. Any question or criticism threatens their “faith” and therefore must be the work of their god of evil, Satan. If that frightening question comes from one who is not a self proclaimed believer, not only is the question scary, but it is obviously the work of Satan.

    They have my profound pity.

  11. Of course the ridiculous and desperate analogy breaks down: there is no one claiming in any circles that fairy dust exists or has any effectual power.

    BUT, there are those who do claim that the Bible is “God’s word for us today.” That we should base or society and morals on what it has to say–and that we should pray to the father God. When you point out anything about this God, from the book that is supposedly his word to us today… well, I guess you get another post of poor analogies and sloppy rhetoric like the one you linked to.

  12. I know plenty of people who would side with Jim West. But I am utterly astounded that someone who claims to be a scholar and is apparently paid some sort of legal tender to be a professor and author could write something so completely incoherent and unhinged. I’m kind of sorry that I asked you to address his bigotry in a previous post, I hope your friendship remains intact, although I also wonder how someone who addresses you in such a disrespectful manner in print could be nice in person.

  13. The question of God’s ethics, if indeed He had anything to do with the slaughter in the old testament, is an old one. But, It still must be dealt with by each of us Christians who don’t suffer from tendency towards cognitive dissonance. Those that believe the bible was written by God and Moses have a real problem.
    I asked the Lord this morning what I should say to BC about this debate. Then I said to Him, “What are YOU (Holy Spirit) going to say to him?” LOL The answers will come I believe if we search the OT scriptures that Jesus referred to. I am not as much of a NT scholar as I am of the old, due to my research for my book, so I will have to get back to you.
    In my experience, non believing scholars have just as much trouble with cognitive dissonance as is evidenced by the above snide remarks about the Holy Spirit. Every true Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit whose job it is to minister to and teach us. It’s not all Holy Roller stuff, friends.
    kind regards to all
    barbara singer

  14. You asked God what you should say to me?
    And then you asked the Holy Spirit what he would say to me?

    And wait, God indwells me (if I believe he indwells me)?

    What did God tell you to tell me that he couldn’t tell me himself? Did he ask you to ask me if I like him?

  15. Dr. Cargill,
    Thanks for taking your time to respond; I appreciate it. Let me take your points in order:

    1) I’m not sure why you’re arguing with me here. I guess my parenthetical note was not clear enough, so I apologize if that caused any lack of clarity. It was supposed to mean that whether or not the parties in the argument “believe in math” is not relevant to the validity of 1+1=3. Or, to set the analogy aside, if you believe in God and that the Bible is his Word, that does not change whether God is portrayed as pro- or anti-slavery. I hope none of that is controversial. I’m not trying to say that belief in God would make you automatically agree with your friend Dr. West. The controversy is whether your beliefs affect the weight of your arguments.

    2) No, that’s not the analogy I’m making. I’m referring to God’s view of slavery being the claim under examination. That is, “1+1=3″ : “God is anti-slavery” :: “believe in math” : “believe in God.”

    At this point, and I’m probably way too late in saying so, I should explain that what I meant by “accurate” is not “the correct, logical thing” but rather “an accurate representation of the charges being leveled against you.” Whether the point of the analogy is true is debatable, but that is significantly more subtle than the dinosaur’s original 1+1=3 tautological imposition.

    3) Somehow in this section you’ve moved on to talking about math, and claimed the “logical” stance for your own. Which, OK sure if you like, but I’m not really talking about math. I’m only using it as an analogy.

    That is, if somebody were able to prove to me that 1+1 was not 3, but they said they really didn’t believe in 2, and they didn’t care if maybe the answer really was helicopter, then should I abandon all belief in math? Or just find a better answer to the equation? Or maintain 3 as the solution? If somebody else tries to tell me that the answer is certainly 10, then wouldn’t their argument have greater weight since they “believe in math”?

    To leave the analogy behind, there are numerous instances of unpleasant things (as an understatement!) taught in both the Old and New Testaments. A nontheist might say, regarding a certain such instance, “This is so offensive to modern sensibilities, I cannot believe in God.” But a Christian may say, “Whether or not this is offensive to me, the Creator is sovereign; God is under no obligation to be ‘nice’ to us.” Suppose even that the nontheist and the Christian fully agree on the meaning of the text. But how could they meaningfully discuss the importance, or the application, of the text to the other person’s life, if they so disagree on its fundamental importance? If one sees a spiritual component to the text/in their life and the other denies it, how can they discuss how the text should affect their lives? I don’t mean to be throwing out rhetorical questions here, if you have any ideas on these last couple of questions I’d be glad to hear. But as you can guess, it seems to me that the lack of common ground halts the conversation at some point.

  16. Gods holy Spirit indwells you if you confess him as your savior. Are you saying that you do?? He ministers to nonbelievers but only indwells the believer.
    Ok so you are angry at God. I went through that myself in the middle of researching my book. I moved past Sunday school but , didnt stop beleiving. He has been faithful to me beyond my understanding. But thats a whole other story.
    So just dont give up on him because humans are so flawed. Stay tuned. God will give you the answer. Dig dig dig xkv8r.
    Blessings
    BYS. Barbara young singer.

  17. Your post “Why I am Still Friends with Jim West” is informative. Your point is that Jim’s online persona is different from his true nature. Jim adopts a tone of assholedness for a purpose. This information, along with Jim’s lament of being persecuted, made me have have compassion for him if only for one brief second. Why then is he so very nice to Francesca? He says it is because she is never rude. Then why does Jim want to be a wanker? Aren’t Christians supposed to treat people the way they want to be treated? If Jim wants other people to be nice why isn’t he nice to them? Apparently, it has something to do with their hotness. He is free to denigrate gay people because they have no sexual appeal to him. That is how it appears to me. Perhaps if Jim could understand the damage he is doing he would have a change of heart. He is making it harder for gay youth to navigate the gauntlet of middle school and high school. What if someone did that to his child? Jim doesn’t sound very Christ-like to me.

  18. What? Where do you get that I am angry at God?
    You didn’t answer my questions.

  19. [...] “It’™s not my cudgel, it’™s theirs.” [...]

  20. The question really isn’t that complicated. You just see it that way because you condsider humanity innately good. The Bible’s premise is that people are innately sinful and that not all of God’s creatures are God’s children. The Israelites’ freedom was a privilege granted by God to his chosen people among a fallen creation. No cognitive dissonance required.

  21. On the contrary, Alex. The premise of the question is that God is supposed to be innately good. That’s what makes it a theological quandary when he does atrocious things.

  22. HI

    what’s sad is that there are some comments to be made in favour of the biblical witness.

    A possible response is that our contemporary understanding of social structures – that greatly affects morality, justice, and ethics – were inconceivable in ancient times. Forexample, the idea of a universal humanity, or democratic process, or ending war (which i would say is still incomprehensible in a realistic sense). Therefore, the moral/ethical stream found within the OT is more difficult to see.

    In contrast, what is remarkable is that Jesus and the early Church were able to see a universal people and (at the very least arguments in favour may be found) of a society free of oppression and containing expressions of love and affinity to all. According to the New Testament, what makes the Old Testament valid is that the Reality of hte Messiah, as represented in Jesus of Nazereth, is found within the writings of the Old Testement. It is not a treaty on ethics or morality. However, themes such as Jubilee and ‘caring for the widow and orphan’ (i.e. the socially abandoned and destitute) are carried forward into the New Testament.

  23. Andrew: I have friends like the one you describe . . . who dance around “difficult” parts of the Bible (i.e., evade difficult questions). Accuse them of evasion and . . they just deny it.

    What they have done is “made their peace” (basically: denied that there even ARE “problems”) with a collection of folk tales which pretends to be fact . . . by a process of evasion to which they will never admit. It’s a sad way to live, but only for someone for whom logical thinking is important … for someone who lives in a haunted forest (as religious people do) it’s no problem at all.

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