Are believers stupid? Ignorant? Not worth talking to?

In their book Reasonable Atheism, Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse (two philosophers at Vanderbilt) define the “No Reasonable Opposition strategy” as follows (p. 28):

You tell yourself, or surround yourself with people who tell you, that there is no reasonable opponent to your views, that all opposition is woefully uninformed, ignorant, or irrational. If there is no reasonable opposition to what you believe, then there’s no point in trying to argue with those who disagree with you. Indeed, those who disagree with you are not even worth speaking to; the fact that they disagree shows that they’re stupid, deluded, or worse. Hence there can be nothing wrong about declining to engage with them.

Later in the book (pp. 71-72), they claim:

These New Atheists regularly employ the No Reasonable Opposition strategy. This quick slip, you will recall, involves the failure to distinguish being wrong from being stupid. Again, it is possible to do one’s best in collecting and responding to evidence and yet still arrive at false beliefs. Thus it does not follow that those who hold false beliefs are, by the fact, irrational, incompetent, dishonest, or foolish. With respect to the most important matters, there is room for reasonable disagreement; it is possible for well-intentioned, sincere, intelligent, and knowledgeable people to come to different conclusions. The New Atheists seem to be unwilling to acknowledge this.

Aikin and Talisse quote some of what they call the “combative language” of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Onfray, though it’s not clear that any of it actually asserts what they call the “No Reasonable Opposition strategy.” In particular, Aikin and Talisse seem to be comflating a whole bunch of different things that need to be kept separate.

There are several problems here: Thinking someone is ignorant is not the same thing as thinking they are stupid. Thinking someone is wrong and stupid does not mean failing to distinguish between the two things. Thinking the No Reasonable Opposition strategy is the right attitude in some cases does not mean thinking it is the right attitiude in all cases. And you you can think that the other side of a debate is all ignorant or irrational, and think you’re under no obligation to engage with them, without therefore thinking that they’re never worth speaking to.

Dawkins, for example, has said:

To claim equal time for creation science in biology classes is about as sensible as to claim equal time for flat-earth theory in astronomy classes. Or, as someone has pointed out, you might as well claim equal time in sex education classes for the stork theory. It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

If that gives you offense, I’m sorry. You are probably not stupid, insane, or wicked; and ignorance is no crime in a country with strong local traditions of interference in the freedom of biology educators to teach the central theorem of their subject. I recently toured East Coast radio stations, doing phone-ins. I came away optimistic. I had expected hostile barracking from creationists with closed minds. Instead, what I found was genuine curiosity and honest interest. I got sincere questions from intelligent people who really wanted to know because they literally had no education in evolution. [More here--Hallq.]

From this, it should be quite clear that Dawkins does not think that even all creationists are stupid. It is also quite clear from his writings on legitimate scientific controversies that he does not even think that being wrong makes you one of ignorant, stupid, or insane. The No Reasonable Opposition strategy isn’t the attitude he takes towards those legitimate controversies. And while Dawkins thinks it would be a mistake for scientists to engage with creationists on equal terms, he thinks the fact that many creationists are curious and ignorant through no fault of their own means they are worth speaking to.

In fact, many of Dawkins’ books are to a large extent aimed at religious believers. The God Delusion explicitly so, and Dawkins also wrote The Greatest Show on Earth to inform people without much knowledge of biology about the evidence for evolution. The other Gnu Atheists have the similar attitudes: Christopher Hitchens made a decision to do the speaking tour for god is not Great entirely in the Bible Belt. Sam Harris’ second book grew out of a form letter he used to send in response to believers who would write to him, and he’s said his third book was motivated in part by a desire to show people how morality can be objective without God.


I’m able to write this post because I’ve been told Aikin and Talisse’s book has some of the better criticism of the Gnus out there, and Talisse was kind enough to send me a reviewer’s copy. Having now seen the book, I think it may be true that it has some of the better criticisms of the Gnus, but only because most critiques are so awful.

But I feel obliged to say a bit about the rest of the book, even though the confusions in the “No Reasonable Opposition” accusation jumped out as most worth blogging about. So: to be clear, the (bad) criticism of them only gets one chapter out of the six. Unfortunately, while I agree with the main points in the rest of the book, I think those points have mostly already been made by more compelling writers.

One other notable criticism of the Gnus the book centers around their treatment of the ontological argument, which the authors say is “the litmus test for intellectual seriousness.” They don’t say this about the cosmological argument or teleological argument or moral argument, just the ontological argument.

Not all of these points are wrong. For example, The God Delusion has a crack about the ontological argument and modal logic which wrongly implies that the problem with the modal ontological argument is with modal logic, rather than Alvin Plantinga’s use of it. (Though since it comes right after Dawkins mentioning repurposing the ontological argument to prove pigs fly, I should point out that it’s trivial to repurpose the modal ontological argument in the same way: “Possibly, it’s a necessary truth that pigs fly. And since possible necessity entails necessity…”)

And really, calling the ontological argument “the test of intellectual seriousness” is a bit much. Supposedly, Bertrand Russell was briefly persuaded by it when he was young, but other than that, I don’t know if anyone has ever been persuaded of God’s existence by the ontological argument. Most philosophers seem to think all it accomplishes is giving intro students headaches. In most debates about religion, it serves the role of a Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem if it does anything at all.

  • Kevin

    Where is the point when the No Reasonable Opposition strategy becomes a reasonable conclusion? There doesn’t seem to be anything fallacious in the reasoning. Let’s say you’ve interacted with everyone who disagrees with you and have evaluated their reasons for disagreement and have found them to be misunderstandings of established science, your position, etc.? Are we then obligated to argue with them indefinitely? I see no reason why we should. What if we have only interacted with a significant sample or the ‘intellectual elite’ of the opposition? To continue would appear to be an exercise in futility. Have we reached this point on the topic of religion?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Are we then obligated to argue with them indefinitely? I see no reason why we should.

    You could make up something like the Talk.Origins Index to Creationist Claims to deal with repeat arguments. That lets you shortcut to something like: “Piltdown man? Here’s a link to CC001.”

    • Kevin

      I don’t even think that would work. Even if you point them to the appropriate explanation, they can respond that somebody has already criticized something in that explanation which makes it invalid. It is then on you to show that their objection is bogus. Repeat indefinitely. As long as they respond with something, it continues the discussion. Essentially, they can keep throwing the ball back into your court and not returning it is the No Reasonable Opposition strategy so you have to play ball, indefinitely.

  • MNb0

    What the heck is a/the Worpitzky-Yamomoto theorem?
    I read that Jason Rosenhouse piece, but didn’t get it.
    One remark though, Ruse has a point. CS Lewis is probably an exception; it’s my strong impression that believers fírst believe or at least feel the need to believe and only then rationalize. Btw that’s what psychology states about almost all human decisions. The reverse happened to me: I averted from christianity (and all other religions, which is not rational as I hadn’t investigated them) the first time I was confronted with a “solution” of the problem of evil. I clearly remember the disgust I felt as I have maintained until today, 35 years later.
    That’s an important reason why I think god proofs and discussions about them a bit silly. It also makes clear why believers never accept refutations. Earth would be a better place though if all believers admitted it.
    And here we find the deepest dishonesty of Craig: he explicitly has made clear that no single rational argument will be able to deconvert him but still wants to use rationality to back up his faith.

    • Hunt

      It’s something a writer failed to discuss, therefore giving the reviewer an excuse to dismiss an entire work.

      • MNb0


  • left0ver1under

    Sometimes there (more than) two sides or points of view to an argument, such as abortion. Sometimes there is only one (e.g. evolution) and people are wasting not just their own time trying to ramrod their ideology, but everyone’s time, and ruin everyone’s education to do it. Those driven by ideology are the least likely to learn and think – not because they can’t, but because they actively won’t.

    Tom Tomorrow on the taste of sandwiches

  • miller

    Speaking of the ontological argument, that’s an example where I think Dawkins took the “no reasonable opposition strategy”. IIRC, he didn’t really argue the substance, he just argued that the whole thing was ridiculous. In some ways, this is pretty appropriate, since there really isn’t serious opposition, and it is misleading to pretend that there is. The only purpose in bringing it up (in this context) is to highlight a ridiculous argument.

    However, the ontological argument is also technically challenging, and attracts critical pedants (including myself). For this reason it would have been better if Dawkins skipped it entirely. Which, I guess is a different kind of “no reasonable opposition strategy”? There’s refusing to engage your opponents, and then there’s refusing to engage the question at all.

    • miller

      Suddenly I feel unsure about my comment… I’m not sure how the average person feels about the ontological argument, so I’m not sure whether it’s worth engaging in a popular book.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        I am not particularly average, but am not extensively schooled in philosophy. My feeling about the ontological argument is that in its original form, it is obviously fallacious, involving circular reasoning and question-begging. The modern versions of it, running to hundreds of pages, merely give more space in which to hide the circular reasoning and question-begging. I can see how that might be interesting in a technical sense, but since I am more interested in the result, it seems unnecessarily involved and accomplishes nothing new.

        I suppose it is how a non-football fan would view the sport if they looked on it as a potential way to deliver an object over a distance of 100 meters.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          IOW, expanded modern versions are “polishing a turd.”

        • Chris Hallquist

          There may be some modern versions of the ontological argument that run hundreds of pages, but Plantinga’s version can be summarized fairly briefly. My take on Plantinga’s version here.

    • Annatar

      I think Dawkins said something like (quoting from memory), “my problem, as a scientist, is the thought that you can arrive at some grand cosmic truth without any input from the outside world.” I suppose that’s a question begging rebuttal to the ontological argument (since it assumes that God can’t be proven a priori and then uses that to conclude that an a priori argument for God must fail), but it does reflect, I would think, how most people interact with the world around them. No one uses ontological arguments for anything else. If I said Scientology was true because it’s possibly a necessary truth that Scientology is true etc. I would get laughed at (and rightfully so!)

      • Kevin

        Actual quote: “My own feeling, to the contrary, would have been an automatic, deep suspicion of any line of reasoning that reached such a significant conclusion without feeding in a single piece of data from the real world. Perhaps that indicates no more than that I am a scientist rather than a philosopher.” Pg. 107

        This is in response to a Bertrand Russell quote regarding the ontological argument:

        “The real question is: Is there anything we can think of which, by the mere fact that we can think of it, is shown to exist outside our thought? Every philosopher would like to say yes, because a philosopher’s job is to find out things about the world by thinking rather than observing. If yes is the right answer, there is a bridge from pure thought to things. If not, not.”

  • Banned Atheist

    One of the more practical revelations of the spate of recent “Republican Brain” type studies is that authoritarian-leaning personalities become more rigidly dogmatic as they obtain more education. Consequently, someone who is only marginally conservative when entering college will more likely leave college as a loudmouth know-it-all.

    It’s more productive to talk, as Barney Frank once said, to a table than to this dudebro (and their Ann Coulter-esque female counterparts).

    What this says to me is that progressive humanists such as movement atheists would be better served debating the more ignorant wingers, than their more educated leaders and spokespeople.

    Sadly, this phenomenon of willful ignorance isn’t limited to the right-wing of the political spectrum.

    When I took Astronomy 101, it was in Taos, NM — a woo-town like Sedona where even the most radical leftists most likely believe in astrology and the Mayan 2012 doomsday. There were four middle-aged women in that class who genuinely thought the professor was going to talk about astrology!

    Repeatedly they accidentally said “astrology” instead of “astronomy”, and asked him leading questions about the gravitational influence of the planets on human personalities, etc… every single session. When he dismissed their questions as irrelevant or so poorly considered that they weren’t worth addressing, two of them would team up and try to argue — wasting precious moments of all our tuition (for which we will someday pay out the nose, plus interest). I could tell it was driving the prof nutso.

    It was making me hopping mad.

    Finally he’d had enough, and forbade them from asking any more questions about astrology, or even using the foul word in his class. Period. The two astrology dogmatists were incensed. One lady was literally shaking in fury, with tears in her eyes.

    All four astrology nuts dropped out. Me, I got an A+.

    • @blamer

      What this says to me is that progressive humanists such as movement atheists would be better served debating the more ignorant wingers, than their more educated [authoritarian personality-type] leaders and spokespeople.” (Banned Atheist)

      Too bold a claim. Yes better to debate the former if you want to win a debate. But I think not if lefties want to win back a red state today governed by the latter.

      If the point of a public debate is to change minds (of the randoms in the audience) we have a problem: The Science Communication Problem. That is, godless debaters –unlike their religious interlocutors– haven’t tailored their message from academia to persuade non-academics out in the real world. They’re unaware how to generate deconverts. (Ethically anyway ;)

  • Patrick

    The authors correctly recognize that a difference exists between believing an unreasonable thing, and being an unreasonable person. But in keeping with my belief in the ultimate uselessness of professional philosophers, they lose track of the point as soon as they make it. A belief that a person is reasonable might justify engaging with them. But engaging with their arguments requires that the beliefs themselves be reasonable. And arguing that we should not be so quick to dismiss entire groups of people as reasonable does nothing to defend beliefs that we can evaluate by means other than evaluating their believers.

    Tldr- they need to tell us why creationism is reasonable on its own merits, or stfu. And they should keep their own arguments straight or stop publishing.

  • Paul King

    I have to admit that I am puzzled by the idea that the Ontological argument should be used as a “litmus test”. So far as I can see it would only be a reasonable test to separate popular level books from a survey of the philosophical literature.

    I think that Plantinga’s modal version could possibly be covered at a more popular level, if it was done with care, because it is simple to change it to “prove” that God does not exist. But it would have to be done very carefully – it may be nothing more than a rhetorical trick, but it is quite a clever trick.

    Anselm’s argument is probably too much work to cover in detail and directing to Mackie for a detailed discussion is probably exactly the right approach to take, if it is felt necessary to mention it.

  • Quine

    I would argue that the results from the Clergy Project indicate that it can be a good idea to engage in positive discussion. You don’t know going in if you are going to be talking to someone with the intellectual integrity to seriously think things through, but you may. We have many stories from people who used to have faith, and accepted things that were ridiculous, but they did not see it that way at that time. In some rare cases, just having someone outside of their group flatly state that some previously unquestioned beliefs are nonsense, is enough to get the process going, but I find it is usually better to draw someone out in the process of expressing faith, and then ask the kind of questions that get the process of introspection going.

    There is a great deal we can learn from looking to our own folks who got loose from the bonds of religious faith. What tends to make a difference? Is it always the same few things or are there different questions that are more effective on different kinds of believers? We may know a great deal more about this than we know we know; we should try to collect it.

  • jamessweet

    The ontological argument and its various forms can be an interesting exercise in philosophy and critical thinking, in trying to pick apart exactly where the argument goes off the rails. Showing that the argument is invalid is trivial, as it is vulnerable to any number of very simple reductio ad absurdums (e.g. the pigs flying thing).

    As such, I don’t think that anybody is compelled to deal with the ontological argument in any discussion about (a)theism. As to it being a “test of intellectual seriousness”, I suppose if what you mean by that is whether a person is willing to engage in bizarre philosophical flights of fancy for no other reason that the joy of pure thought, well yes I suppose… But you might as well say that anyone who doesn’t enjoy Sudoko is not “intellectually serious”.

  • eric

    You tell yourself, or surround yourself with people who tell you, that there is no reasonable opponent to your views…

    …These New Atheists regularly employ the No Reasonable Opposition strategy.

    Hard to make this claim stick when you have avowedly Gnu atheists like Jason Rosenhouse writing books like Among the Creationists.

    If the title doesn’t give it away, here’s a five word summary: he surrounds himself with creationists.

  • qbsmd

    “wrongly implies that the problem with the modal ontological argument is with modal logic, rather than Alvin Plantinga’s use of it. ”

    I’m very suspicious of modal logic, partially because I’m not convinced that “necessary truth” can be applied to anything beyond tautologies following from definitions being used, and partially because I’ve never seen a modal argument used for anything other than arguing for the existence of a god. Your flying pig example only reinforces my suspicion.

    Do philosophers take modal logic seriously? If so, why, and what is it used for besides apologetics? And what would be a real example of a non-trivial necessary truth?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Yes, philosophers take modal logic seriously. The question of whether there are necessary truths outside of mathematics and logic is controversial, but many philosophers would claim that many truths of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are necessary truths.

  • Pingback: Mid-vacation recap: now also an open thread! | The Uncredible Hallq()

  • @blamer

    Aikin & Talisse seem to have identified a real-world debating pattern, yet err in trying to pin ‘No Reasonable Opposition’ on Dawkins et al.

    A&T have overlooked exactly what’s been front of mind for these New Atheists; that post 9/11 it’s no longer reasonable to keep teaching kids to believe in the incredible testamony of prophets.

    I suspect NRO is likely more prevalent on the other side of the academia/seminary divide. Where competing ideas about god’s will famously have no currency.

    Related, here’s audio of Non-Stamp Collector busting the faithful trotting out the “no rational objection, therefore monotheism” gambit,

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