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.

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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.

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