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 this individual

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 colleague’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 an attempt to justify it. I recognize that 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 is 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 obvious 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 own 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 and divorce. 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 the same colleague would (or at least should) reject it as silly. I don’t accept the claim precisely because it’s an easily exposed logical 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, declaring, “You fool!” and invoking other anti-intellectual slogans at those simply asking them to reconcile their own 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. It is the epitome of anti-intellectual fundamentalism.

At the end of the day, my colleague’s 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 fundamentalist circles, but it sure as She’ol ain’t scholarly.

I shake my head.

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Views on Evolution by Members of Different Religious Groups in the US

In 2008, the Pew Research Forum published the findings of a survey they did examining the percentage of the US population who agree that human evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth by members of various religious groups.

Percentage of the US population who agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

Percentage of the US population who agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

The results are fascinating.

But first, here’s a fun exercise: find your religious faith tradition on the bottom of the chart, and look at the traditions to the left and right of you. This allows you to put into perspective your view on the scientific fact of human evolution.

The chart is powerful because it allows US citizens to see where they are on the relative scale of beliefs.

You will note that there are three natural statistical clusters:

To the left, there are the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and ‘unaffiliated’ (which could mean anything from atheist to agnostic to “spiritual” to “aliens did it”).

Then in the center, there are Catholics, Orthodox, Mainline Protestants (right at the 50% mark), Muslims, and Black Protestants.

Finally, at the far right, there are the Evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The far right category doesn’t surprise me: these three religious groups have led the way in denying science outright for some time now.

Interestingly, the Muslim category was farther left than I expected, probably due to the fact that the media usually portrays Muslims as more fundamentalist than the national average. (Again, Muslims in the US are less likely to be fundamentalist, and therefore less likely to be seen on TV. Rational folks don’t usually end up on TV; just watch any news program or reality show.)

Other than that, there are few surprises. Historically, the most densely populated Catholic parts of the country are in the northeast, where the average demographic is more liberal/progressive and better educated than the national average. Black Protestants and Evangelicals demographically appear in the south, where things lean more conservative and people are less educated than the national average. (Even FoxBusiness says so.) This sociological reality may partially explain the results.

Again, the chart is powerful because it allows US citizens of particular faith traditions to see where they are (and to whom they are intellectually closest on the issue of evolution) on the relative scale of beliefs.

So where are you?

on the virtues of doubt

question markI was invited by my friend Jason Boyett to write a piece on doubt for his blog, O Me of Little Faith. I wrote an essay entitled, “On the Virtue of Doubt: A Brief Autobiography of the Skeptic in the Sanctuary,” in which I discuss the influence that doubt, skepticism, and science have had in my life and career. I recount portions of my personal story moving from my Christian upbringing in central California to life as a scholar embracing science, evolution, and the critical method, and rejecting literalistic interpretations of the Bible. I describe my struggles with issues of faith and what I’ve learned from it all.

Please give it a read.

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