Let’s begin with a story. In 2014, Bill Nye did something profoundly ignorant, in the way that only those who trust too much in their own higher reasoning can be ignorant: he debated young-earth-creationist Ken Ham. By the time the event took place, plenty of critical thinkers had already weighed in on how ill-advised the debate was–how it gave a false sense of equivalency to an unscientific body of beliefs–and the debate indeed only improved Ham’s cash flow, and lent prominence to the Creation Museum in Kentucky.
Why did Nye do it? He said he wanted to show Americans that creationist beliefs existed, that they “find [their] way onto school boards” in the contemporary world. He wanted to awaken Americans to this threat–as if they didn’t already know of it.
When this incident happened, I had maybe, oh, a hundred hours of atheist-religious debates in my rearview mirror. I had watched all the “greats”, of course: Hitchens’ indictment of religious people who felt that the suffering of a woman locked in a man’s basement for years, forced to birth children into that terrible prison, was better mitigated by the concept of a loving creator than an indifferent cosmos. Harris’s similar observation about the impotence versus evilness of a divine being, if it existed, that would let millions of children under five die brutally every year. Dawkins’ unfathomable patience when talking with a creationist who believed that evolution meant species waiting millennia for the biological equipment to go to the bathroom. Dennett highlighting the immorality of a system that requires you to profess to believe that which you do not and cannot understand. Shermer’s straightforward evolutionary explanations for how morality naturally emerges in group-oriented species.
And oh, they are great fun, aren’t they, such pieces from the throes of New Atheism? To watch eloquent discourse unfold for an hour or two upon a stage! To cheer when someone says something you’d been thinking all along!
But the very formula had its problems, too, whether debate parameters were more formal or favoured open conversation. And I’d known that before, I had. But for me the announcement of the impending Nye-Ham spectacle cinched it, and by and large turned me off the debate circuit as a path to better discourse.
New Atheism had been training for so long in the shallows of formal debate that some of its greatest champions had forgotten the murky depths beyond it.
Worse yet, one of the most difficult aspects of formal debate–one of the lousiest, most anti-intellectual tricks in the formal-debate playbook–had not sunk in as an even greater danger for discourse communities at large.
We thought ourselves so brilliant, so wise in our arguments from reason, that we forgot the one lesson repeated over and over in even the most controlled discursive settings:
Once the debate begins, the Gish gallop forever triumphs.
The Gish Gallop Being… What Now?
Named after creationist Duane Gish, the Gish gallop is simply that–a volley of specious claims and untruths hurled at such a pace and density in debate that, in its wake, the opposing side could easily need ten times the allotted rebuttal space to explain the absurdity of what has just been claimed. And while the opposing side fumbles–sometimes flabbergasted by the sheer stupidity of what has just been uttered–the “Gish” holds the advantage. Thus, if the opponent fails to address even one part of the Gish’s nonsense, the Gish can crow triumphantly about their opponent’s inability to rebut a given claim.
The Gish gallop, in other words, is rhetorical cynicism at its finest. No effort here exists to represent one’s opponents views in the best possible light, and then offer counterpoint from a place of clear thinking and higher reasoning. In the same vein as the notorious journalist smear question, “When did you stop beating your wife?”–the sort of query that automatically incriminates the target no matter how they respond–the Gish gallop has no interest in truth.
It is only about winning the court of public opinion.
And so, this is one place where New Atheism paints itself–earnestly, at times; self-congratulatorily, at others–into a corner of greater irrelevance.
Yes, it can be deliriously good fun to see a favourite public thinker whip off a brilliant rationalist indictment of the worst of religious ideology.
But the arrogance of always assuming that argument will defeat illogical thinking is part of what brings us to today’s spate of proudly uninformed and regressive leadership.
The Socratic Legacy
To be fair, though, we’ve been making this arrogant assumption for a long time as a species. Readers of Plato might have noticed its manifestation in Socratic discourse… but also, possibly not. Quite a few philosophy grad students I’ve spoken to, for instance, didn’t notice on their own the phenomenon I’m about to illustrate–so entranced were they with Socrates’ ideas themselves (or at least, the role that such ideas play within academic hierarchies of thought). And even after having the following pointed out to them, they still clung to the idea that Socrates’ oratory was simply too good not to deny.
…But have you ever really paid attention to the lines given to Socrates’ counterpoints? Certainly, his conversants hold differing opinions–some quite vehemently, depending on the themes–but in the throes of debate itself… pay attention to precisely how these others are “led” to see Socrates’ greater wisdom. From Book III, for example–a simple matter of musical theory, and Socrates deciding what are good and bad instruments for the State–pay attention to the substance of Glaucon’s replies:
At any rate you can tell that a song or ode has three parts –the words, the melody, and the rhythm; that degree of knowledge I may presuppose?
Yes, he said; so much as that you may.
And as for the words, there surely be no difference words between words which are and which are not set to music; both will conform to the same laws, and these have been already determined by us?
And the melody and rhythm will depend upon the words?
We were saying, when we spoke of the subject-matter, that we had no need of lamentations and strains of sorrow?
And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and can tell me.
The harmonies which you mean are the mixed or tenor Lydian, and the full-toned or bass Lydian, and such like.
These then, I said, must be banished; even to women who have a character to maintain they are of no use, and much less to men.
In the next place, drunkenness and softness and indolence are utterly unbecoming the character of our guardians.
But what do you say to flute-makers and flute-players? Would you admit them into our State when you reflect that in this composite use of harmony the flute is worse than all the stringed instruments put together; even the panharmonic music is only an imitation of the flute?
There remain then only the lyre and the harp for use in the city, and the shepherds may have a pipe in the country.
That is surely the conclusion to be drawn from the argument.
Oh, for a conversational partner in real life even a tenth as accommodating! One who only offers, in the throes of your own argument, neutral statement, echoing sentiment, agreement, and concession!
Is it secular blasphemy to note the failings of Socrates, by virtue of the paucity of the opponents given to him by Plato?
But it’s necessary blasphemy, if we’re to confront our infatuation with the power of debate.
Charismatic Leaders and the Public Indifference to Reason
Yesterday was the forty-year anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre, in which over 900 people, a third of them youth, were put to death under the orders of Jim Jones. They drank Flavoraid laced with cyanide, tranquilizers, and sedatives, but far from being completely docile about the process, a key strategy was first employed. It had to be, to make the members of the cult overcome their self-preservation instincts. And so the adults were made to kill the children first. In the wake of that devastation, with all the immediacy of guilt and despair it no doubt created, of course most of the rest then went readily to suicide themselves.
High-minded ideals about building a genuine fraternity of man had brought these people to the cult (along with the charisma of the man extolling those ideals). But in the end, the emotional root of all our decision-making revealed itself in the worst possible way.
And now, as a culture, we tend to hold up the likes of Jim Jones as horrifying oddities. Listening to his recorded speeches, like the “death tape“, we hear and are chilled by the charisma at play–little different than Hitler’s clever transitions from soft-spoken personability to an upswelling of righteous anger that gathered whole audiences up in the frenzy.
How could they–?
Who would ever–?
We want to believe it’s beyond believing. Beyond all reasoning itself.
…Meanwhile, the POTUS continues to rack up thousands of political lies with relative impunity. Indeed, he still finds loyal supporters among many pockets of the U.S., despite the absolute lack of coherence in his contributions to societal discourse. Nor is he the only leader like this on the world stage. In Brazil, in the Philippines, in Venezuela… all too frequently we find others given tremendous power, whose only real claim to “reason” comes from the flexing of raw might.
Gee, thanks for the reminder
The problem is, we want so much to believe emotion is an easily overturned force. We cling to the dream of an easy triumph over the forces that drive us from fear and discomfort into unconscionable group loyalties. How could the most logical commentary not win the day, we wonder, when pitted against the most incoherent foes? And so we latch on desperately–emotionally!–to stories favouring the triumph of reason throughout history, from Socratic dialogues straight to the brilliant erudition of New Atheist speakers. We feed ourselves on this delusion, then disdain the real world when it proves us wrong.
But we don’t have to live with such blinders on–and we 21st-century secular folk are especially well situated to choose a different path. Why? Because the New Atheists faced something that Socrates (as depicted by Plato) did not. They faced discursive opponents who were not as generous, supportive, and accommodating as Glaucon. They knew that the only way to counteract the Gish gallop was to cut it off at the pass: to anticipate the absurdity, to name it prior to its utterance, to show its foolishness, and then to refuse any further to engage.
And so we have a real opportunity, in light of this evidence, to grow as a discursive community. In the wake of all that we’ve learned about the limits of debate from tricks like the Gish gallop, we 21st-century atheists are especially well suited to combat its like in other discursive fields. We can take what we’ve learned here, among our classic atheist/theist binaries of debate, into other realms addressing global humanist practice.
So What Do We Know Now?
The real world isn’t a formal debate. It’s a set of communities. The more polarized our communities, the more limited our exposure to different points of view and ways of living. The more limited our exposure sets, the more entrenched we grow within our tribal doctrines. This isn’t rocket science, but then–rocket science is comparatively straightforward, dependent as it is on a far more reliable calculus than the human behaviours underlying personal belief.
The main flaw in our debate fixation, as atheists, is thinking that the wittiest thinkers will naturally trounce the opposition. But if the research shows anything, it’s the opposite: the most everyday, the most down-to-earth, the most proximate of different points of view can all the better sway minds. And not always for the greater good!
Indeed, sometimes such normalizing works against humanist practice. Sometimes we find ourselves inclined to diminish the gravity of anti-humanist thought and action, especially when it emerges close to home. And so we grit our teeth through Aunt Sally’s fearmongering about children from those neighbourhoods attending school with her own. Or Uncle Henry’s suggestion that we should arm refugees and send them back, to take out their governments themselves.
But there’s a midpoint between casting out Aunt Sally and Uncle Henry, and humouring their classist, racist, xenophobic bullshit. The trouble is, this midpoint doesn’t involve bringing your neighbourhood Christopher Hitchens over to dinner. Much as we might love to sort our loved ones out with his level of cutting banter, this is masturbatory “rationalist” fantasy at best.
My liquor cabinet trembled at the mere thought of Hitchens anyway.
As it should.
Rather, the solution requires engaging dissenters on a human level–on an emotional level. Even while being firm where necessary, we need to leave the way open for friends, family, and colleagues to return to the humanist fold. But this won’t happen if they come away from confrontation feeling that their tribe is even smaller now. What we’re aiming for, when we engage them in such “debate”, is to broaden their sense of community. To make them feel part of something far bigger than household, neighbourhood, and nation-state. To remind them of the pale blue dot to which we all belong.
And, sure, as I argued on Friday, this won’t always work in practice. Reciprocal kindness requires just that–a willingness to reciprocate– which not everyone has, for whatever reason. As such, when this strategy fails–and it will fail more often than not–we have to remember to draw strength from our own.
But–no, not just by watching more witty lambasting of formal debate opponents–the popcorn viewing of the actively atheistic world! By also being present for other humanists.
…Others struggling emotionally, that is, with how bloody hard it is to improve the world, when deep down we all know that even perfect reasoning is insufficient to get us there.