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.”

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