The Language of God: A Flurry of Fallacies

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

Chapter 7 covers Collins’ first option: “Atheism and Agnosticism: When Science Trumps Faith.” I expect to cover this chapter in a number of posts – probably no fewer than four. He goes into more specific detail on agnosticism later in the chapter, so we’ll save that for now. In fact, I can’t even get to Collins’ position on atheism until the next post. The first three pages of this chapter are enough to blog about, given how Collins falls into enough fallacies that he gives ample material.

The chapter starts with Collins relating that, despite a trove of negative events ranging from Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia to the escalation of the Vietnam War and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the launch of Apollo 8 marked a much more positive event. I won’t spend more time on that sentence other that to say this: As I read that passage, I thought of a balance of scales. On the negative end, we have wars and assassinations; on the positive, the moon landing. I read it as if Collins were saying that the moon landing makes all the rest of the bad stuff equal to a net positive. I may have read it wrong, but that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Anyway, Collins talks about how three astronauts broadcast on live television on Christmas Eve a joint reading of the first ten verses of Genesis. Shortly after, American atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair filed suit against NASA for permitting the reading. She wished to ban the astronauts – who were Federal employees – from public prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction. Collins refers to this “militant atheist taking legal action against a Bible reading” (p.160) as a “symbol of the escalating hostility between believers and nonbelievers in our modern world” (p.160). He points out that no one objected in 1844 when Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message was “What hath God wrought?”

PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula had a blog post about how long child molestation had been going on in the Catholic Church. He points out how Mary MacKillop was banned for uncovering sex abuse back in 1871. Now, following Collins’ fallacious logic, the public never seemed to get all up in a tizzy over that one, so why should the public be decrying sex abuse now? Collins seems to me to be an example of an Argument from Tradition. I also think comparing the world-wide live transmission from space to a telegraph is a bad analogy.

Collins is writing a book to persuade users that evolution is true and can fit nicely with Christian theism, so it makes perfect sense to say that “it is not secular activities like O’Hair who make up [atheism's] vanguard – it is evolutionists” (p.160). He marks Dawkins and Dennett as articulate academics, but that’s only naming two. What about Hitchens (Vanity Fair columnist), Harris (neuroscientist Ph.D. and author), Loftus (former pastor), or any of the other atheist proponents who have taken to the Interwebz? Way to take two data points and generalize their class (evolutionists) as being atheism’s vanguard. This looks like a case of Hasty Generalization, but it also looks like the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy where he draws the bullseye around the opponents of his intended audience.

Collins briefly points out that people like Dawkins and Dennett proclaim that acceptance of evolution requires an acceptance of atheism. Enter the Strawman Fallacy. In The God Delusion, Dawkins ranks belief on a seven-point scale, with 7 being “strong atheist – I know there is no God” (p.51 of TGD). On that same page, Dawkins ranks himself a 6, saying that he doesn’t know there is a god to the same extent that he doesn’t know there fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dawkins defines his rating of 6 as “de facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there’” (p.50-1 TGD).

One last fallacy to round them out. Collins mentions how, as a marketing ploy, the atheist community has attempted to promote the term “bright” as an alternative to atheist. Collins expands: “The implied corollary, that believers must be ‘dim,’ may be one good reason why the term has yet to catch on” (p.161). I agree that implied corollary probably does hurt the efforts for “brights” to catch on, but that implied corollary is fallacious: Denying the Antecedent. It’s fallacious to say “If atheists are bright, then non-atheists are non-bright.”

Other posts in this series:

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  • bPer

    Apollo 8 was not the (first) moon landing; that was Apollo 11 seven months afterwards. Apollo 8 was Borman, Lovell and Anders, and was the first time humans left Earth orbit and went into lunar orbit. They orbited the Moon for less than a day and then returned to Earth.

    While Apollo 11 is unquestionably the number one event of the space program, Apollo 8 is arguably a close second. The famous picture of the Earth rising above the lunar landscape (see Wiki entry) really changed the way we see our place in the universe, and as one who watched the Christmas Eve broadcast (including the Bible reading), I don`t think I was alone in realizing that these guys really were out there, alone, in a tiny spacecraft far from home. Far more than any previous flight, this one brought to the fore just how much of a risk the astronauts took, and what an enormous achievement their flights were.

    To some extent, Apollo 8 stole some of the impact away from the eventual landing, because it changed so much how we looked at ourselves.

    βPer

  • Rieux

    I’ve always wondered when I’ve seen that Britishism (I saw it first from Douglas Adams): I know that a garden is, or can be, what we Americans call a yard (lawn, etc.)—but what is the bottom of a garden? Roots?

    If there were fairies in my garden, how exactly would they end up in the bottom of it?

  • Leum

    The bottom of the garden refers to the edge of it farthest away from the house.

  • penn

    I knew that the British use “garden” to refer to an American “yard”, but I still always pictured an American flower garden with the fairies being small enough to remain under leaf cover at the bottom (e.g., on the ground). Thanks for the clarification.

  • L.Long

    Your comment…It’s fallacious to say “If atheists are bright, then non-atheists are non-bright.”
    Is spot on because I know atheist that believe in many forms of woo.
    But if you limit the ‘belief’ to g0d then you can say atheist are brighter than religious.

  • exrelayman

    While self designating atheists as brights does not denote theists as dim, you are truly engaging in theistic style hair splitting if you want to claim it does not connote that message. Bright is an arrogant term not well conceived to foster dialogue with theists. In all likelihood, escaping the dominant cultural meme to arrive at atheism requires more intellectual courage than conformance, and the term bright may be strictly correct. It sure isn’t very diplomatic or helpful though.

  • Marc

    The implied corollary, that believers must be ‘dim,’

    In the same way that since homosexuals are ‘gay’ then heterosexuals are, um, glum?

  • BJ Marshall

    The basic structure of the fallacy is like this:

    If P then Q.
    Not P.
    Therefore, not Q.

    If you’re an atheist, then you’re bright.
    You’re not an atheist.
    Therefore, you’re not bright.

    To see this why this is fallacious, consider the example:

    If it’s raining, then my car is wet.
    It’s not raining.
    Therefore, my car is not wet.

    Ignore the fact that I’m using my hose to wash the car.

    Despite the fact that it’s a fallacy to think that non-atheists are not bright, I do think the term “Bright” is loaded precisely because people can so easily fall into that fallacy. I think part of being charitable to the arguments of the opposition is to present to them clear concepts that don’t lend themselves quite so readily to fallacious reasoning.

  • Samuel

    Actually it was brights for atheists and supers (for supernatural) for theists. It wasn’t refering to intelligence at all, but a silly little naming system. Dennet thought it up, not me- I’m just the messanger.

  • John Nernoff

    BM: The basic structure of the fallacy is like this:
    If P then Q.
    Not P.
    Therefore, not Q.

    If you’re an atheist, then you’re bright.
    You’re not an atheist.
    Therefore, you’re not bright.

    N: You can also think of it this way: There are many reasons to hold that one is bright, not only, not exclusively, that one is an atheist.

    IF P then Q. But also,
    If A then Q
    if B then Q etc.

    So not P then not Q in only that instance of P.
    If A, then Q stands.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com/ Verbose Stoic

    I just noticed this post, and there are some problems with your claims of fallacies, noting that I haven’t read his book and so only have your argments to go by:

    “Collins refers to this “militant atheist taking legal action against a Bible reading” (p.160) as a “symbol of the escalating hostility between believers and nonbelievers in our modern world” (p.160). He points out that no one objected in 1844 when Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message was “What hath God wrought?” ”

    Your reply is:

    “Now, following Collins’ fallacious logic, the public never seemed to get all up in a tizzy over that one, so why should the public be decrying sex abuse now? Collins seems to me to be an example of an Argument from Tradition. ”

    The problem with this one is that according to your own quote Collins is using that to support an argument that there is more hostility between believers and non-believers now than there was before. Pointing out that in 1844 no one cared — at least vocally — about an obvious and famous religious message and now that one gets the astronauts sued pretty much DOES support that argument. It doesn’t support that that hostility is unjustified or isn’t right, but your quote doesn’t argue for that.

    As for the analogy, you need to do more than say that there is something different about world-wide television broadcasts today versus the pioneering — and now famous — line of the telegraph in 1844 so that suing would be an equivalent response, or that there would have been a similar situation that would have garnered a similar response to suing them. You can’t just point out differences in arguing for a bad analogy, because all analogies — by definition — have differences between them and the target of the analogy. You have to show why the differences matter to the argument. You might have wanted to point to it being far more public, but that might not work with how famous he had to know the quote would become. Anyway, you’d need to be clearer at why precisely it matters to his point.

    “Collins briefly points out that people like Dawkins and Dennett proclaim that acceptance of evolution requires an acceptance of atheism. Enter the Strawman Fallacy. In The God Delusion, Dawkins ranks belief on a seven-point scale, with 7 being “strong atheist – I know there is no God” (p.51 of TGD). On that same page, Dawkins ranks himself a 6, saying that he doesn’t know there is a god to the same extent that he doesn’t know there fairies at the bottom of the garden. Dawkins defines his rating of 6 as “de facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there’” (p.50-1 TGD).”

    I fail to see how you’re proving the argument a strawman. Dawkins is, in fact, still an atheist, even at 6, by the actual meaning of the term (“lacks belief in gods”). All that scale says is that he doesn’t know for certain that God exists, but living his life on the assumption that God does not exist is, in fact, holding a belief that God does not exist by pretty much most meanings of what it means to believe something (as a proposition one holds to be true in order to act in the world). Dawkins, I think, thinks the proposition true, so that makes him an EXPLICIT atheist, at least, believing that God does not exist. He’s certainly at least an implicit one, lacking belief that God does exist. So he is still an atheist.

    Additionally, this doesn’t address whether Dawkins thinks that acceptance of evolution leads to acceptance of atheism. Dawkins could very well argue that very case and just be inconsistent when he talks about his own “atheism”. I don’t think he is inconsistent, since I think he realizes that he is, in fact, an atheist, but even if I’m wrong you still haven’t refuted the claim Collins is actually making. And you need that to get to a “Strawman Fallacy”.

    “One last fallacy to round them out. Collins mentions how, as a marketing ploy, the atheist community has attempted to promote the term “bright” as an alternative to atheist. Collins expands: “The implied corollary, that believers must be ‘dim,’ may be one good reason why the term has yet to catch on” (p.161). I agree that implied corollary probably does hurt the efforts for “brights” to catch on, but that implied corollary is fallacious: Denying the Antecedent. It’s fallacious to say “If atheists are bright, then non-atheists are non-bright.” ”

    You should note that Dennett in “Breaking the Spell” tries to break that up by suggesting the term “supers” for religious people. However, that the corrolary is implied by those who invented the term does seem clear, even if logically it doesn’t follow. Taking your own example, I may indeed intend to imply that since it isn’t raining your car isn’t wet even though it isn’t logically guaranteed to be true. For example, someone may ask me if they need to do X that they only need to do if the car is wet, and it would be a reasonable statement for me to simply say “It isn’t raining”, and have them rightly take the implication from that that the car isn’t wet.