An Open Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury

(This was originally posted at Secular Perspectives.)

The Telegraph reports that the Archbishop of Canterbury wants Christians to argue their side more forcefully:

Clergy are to be urged to be more vocal in countering the arguments put forward by a more hard-line group of atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have campaigned for a less tolerant attitude towards religion.

A report endorsed by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warns that the Church faces a battle to prevent faith being seen as “a social problem” and says the next five years are set to be a period of “exceptional challenge”.

Dear Dr. Williams,

This seems as good a time as any to repeat what Christopher Hitchens wrote in the introduction to his anthology, The Portable Atheist:

A terrible thing has now happened to religion. Except in the places where it can still enforce itself by fear superimposed on ignorance, it has become one opinion among many. It is forced to compete in the free market of ideas and, even when it strives to retain the old advantage of inculcating its teachings into children (for reasons that are too obvious to need underlining), it has to stand up in open debate and submit to free inquiry.

I, for one, welcome better arguments from believers, and I suspect that many atheists and humanists do, too. But then, a lot of us argue ideas for fun and to get at the truth by knocking down bad ideas.

And the fact is that an awful lot of apologetics is of very low quality. You might be surprised at how often we’re offered Pascal’s wager, C.S. Lewis’s Liar, Lunatic, or Lord, arguments from ignorance, and even “you just have to have faith” come up. Evidently a lot of theists have no idea how comically weak these arguments are. If you could educate them, we’d appreciate it. Thank you.

Over the centuries, religion has erected a protective wall around itself: blasphemy laws, intimidation, social taboos against criticizing religion (often in the name of ecumenicalism), mean that religious ideas have been insulated from criticism for a long time. And as a result, many theists have very little experience defending their ideas against rational arguments. And now that atheists are speaking up, and things like free-speech laws prevent religions from silencing dissent, this fact is becoming more and more apparent.

But if I may, I’d like to offer some advice on arguing with atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, as well as lesser luminaries like PZ Myers and Matt Dillahunty, and even rank-and-file atheists like myself.

The key is to realize that our commitment is to the truth, not to any given set of ideas, tenets, or dogmas.

Philosophers and scientists have done a lot of work in figuring out how to figure out what’s true, and how to avoid coming to incorrect conclusions. It is easy to find lists of logical fallacies. You may want to educate your coreligionists on these fallacies and how to avoid them, because people who rely on fallacious arguments will be called on it.

What we’re really looking for is arguments for the existence of a god that don’t fall apart under scrutiny. If you have such an argument, please present it. If you don’t have one (yet), then it would be nice if you could at least say so.

Secondly, when asked for reasons to believe that there are any gods, theists often reply by pointing out the good done by their churches. But of course that is a non sequitur: it may in fact be useful for people to believe in gods, souls, or reincarnation, but that doesn’t mean that those things actually exist. Please tell your coreligionists to make sure they’re not arguing the wrong topic, because they will be called on it.

I realize that it’s easy to see the above as concern trolling. Actually, it’s cockiness. I’m so confident that spirited, rational argumentation will bring us closer to the truth (and remember, my commitment is to truth, not to atheism) that I can afford to give the game away, as it were.

So bring it on. And may the best ideas win.

(Thanks to Shelley for forwarding the Telegraph article.)

5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury”

  1. I think the idea that Dawkins, et al, have a commitment to the truth is a bit naive. They may have started out that way, and I’m not trying to say that they are wrong. But they are now on record, and one thing we know about human beings is that they are loathe to retract things they say and loathe to give up their friends who believe as they do. That’s why church is so effective at keeping the faithful inline — it provides them with a social network, and then conditions that social network on a set of beliefs. Once one starts attending skeptics meetings, publishing books, etc., one acquires a similar network, and a natural predisposition to remain within the orthodoxy of the group. That’s just the way people are. I would go so far as to say there are good evolutionary reasons for it.


  2. Paul:
    The evolutionary reason is probably that the crowd tends to be right most of the time. If everyone except you remembers that there were edible berries in the wood you were in a month ago, the most likely explanation is that they’re right and your memory is faulty.

    It’s true that people are susceptible to peer pressure, to selective memory, and that once they’ve gone on the record as holding some position, they have an emotional investment in that idea, which makes it hard to let go of it. This applies to skeptics as much as anyone else.

    But the cool thing about skepticism is that since it basically boils down to “how do we know that?” or “show me”, it’s naturally resistant to the sort of cult of personality you’re talking about. Within the skeptical community, it’s not impolite to ask for evidence, any more than it’s impolite to point out to Larry Niven that the Ringworld is unstable.

    As an example, take Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech at TAM 8. My view of what happened was that at first people were interested in what he said (after all, Phil’s a good guy, he’s one of us, and he probably wouldn’t give a speech like that unless he saw a serious problem); then, a few people came forward and said that yes, in fact, they had changed their views because someone got in their face and called them retarded. Phil was also asked to present examples of the dickishness he was talking about, but none were forthcoming. At least, nothing that you wouldn’t expect just from the Internet being what it is.

    People have also asked what would happen if Richard Dawkins or James Randi were to announce that they’re theists, or that homeopathy works, or that they’ve been abducted by a UFO, or something like that. The consensus answer seems to be that they’re smart people who know the sort of evidence they’d have to provide to convince a skeptical audience, and would realize that it would be incumbent upon them to provide that evidence. If Randi were taken on a flying saucer, I would expect him to realize that he needs to grab an ashtray or something while the aliens aren’t looking, and bring it back, if he expects to be taken seriously.

    I guess the closest thing I can think of to what you’re thinking is PZ Myers and his cephalopod horde (or whatever his fans are called). I’ve mostly given up reading the comments at Pharyngula, but I can easily imagine people jumping on any commenter bold enough to disagree with PZ.

    At the same time, he’s not without his detractors (Chris Mooney springs to mind; and Phil Plait’s “don’t be a dick” may have been aimed at PZ, though it’s hard to tell).

    I guess I should also mention Christopher Hitchens who, as admired as he may be for his observations on religion, doesn’t seem to have managed to convince anyone that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do at the time.

    In short, while I agree that groupthink and cults of personality are things to watch out for, if there’s one group of people naturally restant to them, it’s skeptics.


  3. Good, thoughtful points.

    What I was thinking of was something more along the following, if you don’t mind me hijacking your example: Suppose James Randi gets abducted by a UFO. He tries to grab an ashtray, but no dice. Now he is left with the option — does he tell anyone about the UFO, or doesn’t he? Now your run of the mill person might figure — hey, my associates will believe me, and my social group will be intact. But Mr. Randi *knows* his associates won’t believe him, because of the associates he has chosen, and therefore he has a prejudice to tell anything but the truth. In fact, he now has an incentive to lie. One could generalize — skeptics who hang around other skeptics have a prejudice to pretend not to believe anything they can’t prove, but that might be overreaching.

    A similar position, however, is occupied by a skeptic who is through argument convinced of something that other skeptics don’t believe, *if* the first skeptic can’t reproduce the argument. Being able to follow an argument and being able to cogently reproduce it are two different things.

    None of that has any bearing on your main argument, which is that theistic arguments are flawed. I think I agree that skeptics are more resistant to group think than other people. I’m not sure they are more resistant to the fear of opprobrium, but they might be. I think if you imagine a skeptic truly committed to the truth per se, and not any particular tenet, that skeptic would try to insulate himself from the group (and all groups). I don’t reccomend it as a way to live, but then I think life without attachment to ideas or tenets is probably a bit futile anyway, as is life without attachments to people. I think it’s easier to get to the truth when both sides start the argument with “I have an attachment to certain notions” than when one side claims to have none.


  4. Paul:

    Suppose James Randi gets abducted by a UFO. He tries to grab an ashtray, but no dice.

    In other words, what if James Randi finds himself in the same position as Ellie Arroway in the second half of Contact? In that case, he might do the same thing as Arroway. In the movie, she tells Congress (James Woods) that she has no hard evidence for what happened to her, then pretty much keeps her experience to herself. In the book, she goes over her recollections and those of her fellow astronauts to try to tease some hard evidence out of the nearly-useful mission recordings and such. But of course, she believes that she has participated in the most significant event in human history, contact with intelligent extraterrestrials, so she’s highly motivated.

    A more realistic analogy might be to clergy who have lost their faith. In many cases, they have to make a very difficult choice: either risk losing their social circle, their friends, perhaps even their family or spouses, and the only job they’re trained for; or live a lie and profess things they don’t believe.

    So what if Randi got abducted by aliens? (Or if PZ Myers had a road to Damascus moment and privately converted to Christianity, or Phil Plait’s became convinced that vaccines cause autism, or…) Then yes, they’d face a choice similar to that of non-believing clergy: profess something they no longer believe, or lose their following. I like to think that they’d take the honest route and alienate their followers, but of course I could be wrong.

    But I think your first comment focused more on the rank and file, people like myself, rather than the leaders or stars of the movement. What if, I think you’re asking, we fall prey to groupthink, and reinforce prejudices against wacky claims that blind us to the possibility of bizarre, though real, phenomena. A bit as if the 1890s were plagued with “telekinesists” who claimed to be able to move objects by manipulating distance itself, and skeptics of the time got so used to dismissing them, that they also dismissed Einstein’s claim that spacetime could be warped.

    Or what if you got involved with a political party whose platform you agreed with, and got so caught up in the rah-rah of election season that you got to the point where you simply dismissed good points made by people from other parties?

    I suppose that might happen. But nothing’s 100% safe.

    I think if you imagine a skeptic truly committed to the truth per se, and not any particular tenet, that skeptic would try to insulate himself from the group (and all groups). I don’t reccomend it as a way to live

    If you were committed to never getting in a car accident, you’d never drive anywhere. But the risks of driving are manageable, and on balance, the rewards of going places are worth the risks.

    Likewise, I, for one, will continue hanging out with skeptics because the risks you bring up aren’t enough to outweigh the benefits. You know, like hanging out with cool people with whom I share interests.

    I’ve also been known to drive to cons.


  5. I don’t know that I was suggesting you stop hanging out with skeptics. I think hanging out with cool people is a pretty basic need — people need to form tribes. I don’t think the reason why the tribal impulse works is because tribes are usually right, however. I think it works because big tribes beat up on smaller tribes, all other things being equal, and the force of “truth” is a much slower and less reliable thing.


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