One of the most common complaints leveled against Richard Dawkins (and other atheist writers) is that his understanding of religion isn’t sufficiently sophisticated – that he dismisses religion without delving into all its intricacies of doctrine. For instance, Terry Eagleton:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?
What any of this has to do with the basic question of whether God exists is left unexplained. So common is this attack that P.Z. Myers gave it its own, very appropriate name – The Courtier’s Reply – a reference to the famous fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The analogy behind the Courtier’s Reply is that no one has the right to claim the Emperor is naked unless they’ve first engaged in a detailed study of all the latest fashions in imaginary fabrics.
The use of this argument shows how religious apologists set the bar at a different height for atheists than they do for their own fellow believers. Why is it that that atheists are expected to be fluent in every last detail and nuance of theology, while no similar qualifications are needed to be a churchgoer?
Millions of theists pray, worship and attend church each week despite possessing pathetically shallow levels of knowledge and familiarity with their own religion. If atheists criticized Christianity despite possessing such shoddy knowledge of its teachings, they’d be lambasted – and rightly so. But no one seems to be demanding that the ill-informed faithful clear out of the pews until they’ve brought their theological knowledge up to code.
In fact, some of the world’s major religions have commitment ceremonies where children as young as 12 or 13 are expected to pledge their lifelong devotion. Clearly, these faiths believe that even a child can understand their teachings well enough to make a meaningful vow of allegiance to them. How, then, can those same faiths turn around and say that atheists need to have a postgraduate education in theology to even think about objecting? This is just an attempt to create a double standard where detailed understanding is required to deny, but not to assent.
If anything, this is a bar that’s not just uneven, it’s perpetually moving. A lifetime of study would not be enough to learn every last detail about even a single religion. No one, atheist or theologian, could possibly know everything about the history and culture of a large faith. And again, while this is not viewed as a liability in believers, it serves as a convenient cudgel for apologists to use against us. When challenged, they can always demand that the atheist go away and study another long-dead theologian before questioning the existence of God.
But as Eagleton’s excerpt shows, this is just a smokescreen. It rarely if ever has any bearing on the key question of whether theism is true. If God does not exist, of what possible relevance is the epistemological difference between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? We seek to respond to religious beliefs as they are actually held and practiced by a vast majority of the faithful, not to the rarefied views held by a tiny minority of theologians. We have no interest in debating how many angels can dance on a pinhead; we want to know whether there’s any reason to believe in angels in the first place.
And, it should be noted, this argument is almost never applied in the reverse direction. That is to say, most of the believers who reject atheism know little, if anything, about it, and I’d bet that only a vanishing minority have ever read anything written by us in our own words. Greta Christina, as always, shines a clear light on the double standard being applied here. If we’re expected to possess expertise on theism, why aren’t theists expected to read up on atheism before rejecting it? Why aren’t they expected to be experts on all the other faiths which they don’t belong to?