The Intellectual Dishonesty of Atheists



As an academic sending papers out for publication, it is interesting how atheism is held to a lower standard than theism. That is, if theists used the same poor arguments some atheists use, their papers would be immediately rejected. For example, if a theist were guilty of using the genetic fallacy to attack atheism, the paper would be rightly rejected. A theist might try to argue, say, that atheism had its origin among moral libertines (which is a questionable assumption); therefore, it must be false. This is a terrible argument since it is illegitimate to argue from the alleged origin of a belief to the truth or falsity of that belief. Even if it were true that atheism originated among moral libertines, it would not follow that atheism is false. If a theist is to successfully attack atheism, the theist must first of all defend the rational nature of belief in God. Thomists would go further and use the Cosmological Argument to attempt to prove God’s existence, and rationalist theists might make use of the Ontological Argument. The theist can also answer critics of theism on such points as the problem of evil and suffering. Such debate is difficult and takes a great deal of intellectual effort on both sides.

To be fair, most atheist philosophers believe that a naive genetic argument against the existence of God, such as Sigmund Freud’s “religion as wish fulfillment” hypothesis, which states that religious people want to create a powerful father-figure, is not cogent. They admit that Freud commits the genetic fallacy. But the same atheists might appeal to religious wars or damage done to society by certain theistic religions as evidence against God’s existence. Theists, on the contrary, could appeal to the positive moral influence of theistic religions. Neither argument works to prove or disprove God’s existence. But some atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, continue to make such a poor argument, which is basically a repetition of Bertrand Russell‘s argument in his book Why I am Not a Christian. I have seen college and university students fooled by the wonderful writing and rhetoric of both Russell and Hitchens–and then they are unwilling to see the vacuity of Russell’s and Hitchens’ arguments. If a theist were to make a similar argument, I have no doubt that Russell would have, and Hitchens would, call the theist to task. There is a double standard here–and a double standard that is intellectually dishonest.

No matter how sophisticated a genetic fallacy is, it remains a fallacy. An analytic philosopher can dress a bad argument up in enough Ps and Qs to write ten logic textbooks, but if the argument is fundamentally unsound, all the alphabet soup in the world will not turn a bad argument into a good one. When an atheist analytic philosopher rejects a theist for calling him on what he is actually doing, the atheist is being intellectually dishonest. The atheist may even question the competence of the theistic philosopher or accuse the theist of misrepresenting him. Now it is possible for a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or any other philosopher to misrepresent an opponent’s argument or set up a straw man to attack. But I become angry when atheists try to hide their bad arguments in a sea of rhetoric and symbolic logic, and then accuse theists of being ignorant and misrepresenting them.

It is easy to become cynical toward my own field of philosophy. More and more I see philosophers, including myself, holding cherished positions first and then trying to back them up through philosophical argument. Perhaps these great world-view issues are so emotionally powerful that one cannot avoid prior nonrational commitments that are later putatively supported by arguments. I do not want to go the postmodern route–I do believe in “Truth” with a capital “T,” but the more intellectual cheating I see in the field, not only among atheists, but among some theists and philosophers of every stripe, the more I see faith commitments as guiding people’s lives, even the lives of philosophers, whether theist, agnostic, atheist, pantheistic, panentheistic, Platonic, or Aristotelian. But if someone is intellectually cheating and is caught, he should have the intellectual balls to admit it (and this does not exclude myself).

Halloween, Ignorance, and the Genetic Fallacy

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Some Christian churches condemn trick-or-treating as if it were a branch of witchcraft. Instead, they have “fall festivals” in which children dress up like Bible characters or (in the Catholic tradition) like saints. Halloween is, in the literature of Fundamentalist Christianity, connected with Satanism. Even in some less rigid Evangelical traditions Halloween is considered to be pagan.

These are ignorant positions. So what is Halloween? It is the eve of All Saints’ Day, which is why it is sometimes called “All Hallows Eve.” In the ancient Druidic religion of the Celts, it was considered a day in which spirits could pass through to this world. These spirits were not necessarily evil; some were benevolent, others not so much. To protect themselves from harmful spirits, Celts would dress up as spirits to ward off the bad ones. Other customs, such as the jack-0-lantern, arose from the Roman Catholic tradition, from the practice of placing a candle in a turnip to remember souls in Purgatory. Since the souls in Purgatory will be in Heaven one day, remembering them was not considered to be a frightening occasion.

By the late nineteenth century, the elements that would later make up trick-or-treating were in place, but trick-or-treating did not become common practice until the twentieth century. Halloween was not historically associated with Satanism despite Fundamentalists who seem to find Satan around every corner except their own.

Roman Catholics have been, for the most part, friendly to trick-or-treating–even Fr. Gabriel Amroth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, has no problem with trick-or-treating as long as it is only play. Mainline Protestants also have no problem with celebrating Halloween. But other Protestants and a few rigid Roman Catholics insist that Halloween remains a pagan festival even today that is wrong for Christians to celebrate.

The fallacy in the Fundamentalists’ argument is obvious: they assume that because a certain celebration began as x, it is always x. That is, they assume that if Halloween began as a pagan celebration, then any celebration of Halloween must be a pagan festival. This is a version of the genetic fallacy, which involves the assumption that because a practice originally had one meaning that it necessarily has that same meaning today. This is a common error some Christians (and many others) make, but the conclusion does not follow from the premise.

As a child, I loved trick-0r-treating. As long as precautions are taken against cruel people who would harm children during trick-or-treating, I believe it is a fun activity in which children can engage.