Sunday, February 06, 2011

An Open Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury

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.)


Tom McGonigle said...

That about sums up the issue. If there are any rational arguments for the existence of god(s) I have not heard them. I went to a Catholic high school where they claimed that they were going to "teach us how to think". Then they didn't like what we thought. If anyone has a good argument for theism, bring it on. I would like to be proven wrong.

Don Wharton said...

@Tom, Obviously if theism is to be valid it will need to be consistent with what is scientifically known. In other words they will have to totally revamp what theism is all about. They would have to adopt the Einsteinian stance toward religiosity, being reverent about that which actually is. I somehow doubt that they will even try to bring an argument to people such as you, me and Andrew.

-shel- said...

Thanks for the "thanks" Andrew. Great post, as always.

Justin said...

for most theists, being informed on how to argue for religion will probably equate to regurgitating arguments that they read in a pamphlet that was handed out in church last Sunday, and that will be as far as their learning goes.

Hopefully a few will do their duty to their church and really seek rational arguments for their gods existence. I can't think of a better way for someone to become disillusioned with their religion and faith.

Don Wharton said...

There will always be a war between rational thought and domatic madness of many forms. I think something that is being modestly lost in this discussion is the increasing proportion of those who say they are "Christian" who are basically rational atheists. The major problem is that such people are mostly not "out" about their real views.