This is part 4 of a critique of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments (2015) by Andy Bannister (part 1 here). The book promises to critique a number of atheist arguments.
Chapter 4. The Santa Delusion
In today’s opening episode, we find Richard Dawkins (Bannister’s favorite atheist to dislike) in the office of his literary agent. The agent reports that things aren’t selling well. What to do? Dawkins suggests The Santa Delusion.
This is a reference to Dawkins saying, “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”
Who wants to guess what Bannister thought about that? He said, “I guess a good place to begin is by illustrating what a disastrous argument this is on many levels.” So where’s the problem? “The first problem is that it’s a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy. That is when, rather than critique an argument or belief, you attack the person making it.”
Yep, that’s the definition of ad hominem fallacy that I know, but Dawkins doesn’t make that fallacy. I wasted half an hour poring over the pages that precede his charge trying to see if there’s anything more offensive than Dawkins’ quote above. Nothing.
The second problem that keeps Bannister up at night is Dawkins’ concern with Christian parents. In The God Delusion (chapter 9), he says, “Horrible as sexual abuse [of children by Catholic priests in Ireland] no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”
Bannister overflows with ridicule—remember this is from someone who hates ad hominem arguments—but he has no studies. He has no arguments. He doesn’t even search for anecdotes of people who’d experienced harm (or good) from a Catholic upbringing. All he has is another invented story where he imagines Dawkins faced with two educational options for his daughter. One school is run by Catholic nuns and the other “by a group of sexually voracious convicted pedophiles.”
Bannister is too busy mocking to notice the irony. For this to be an analogy with Dawkins’ quote, both of Bannister’s options—sweet nuns and sexually voracious pedophiles—are within the Catholic Church. Sure, that accurately describes some of these priests; I’m just surprised that Bannister wants to put that sharp a focus on it.
Let’s recall Dawkins’ quote to be clear what he’s saying. He’s not saying every child raised as a Catholic is psychologically damaged more than every child sexually abused by priests. He’s simply arguing that there is overlap.
Bannister only has time for ridicule, but Dawkins actually supports his claim with evidence. Right after we read the quote above in God Delusion, Dawkins introduces a woman who experienced trauma from both sexual abuse and her Catholic upbringing. At the age of seven, she was sexually abused by her priest, and a friend from school died. What made it worse was that the friend went to hell (so she was told) because she was a Protestant. The woman later recalled,
Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression . . . as “yucky” while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest—but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.
Bannister’s book would’ve been better if he’d spent less time on witty dismissals and more time on actually making an argument.
He next quotes a psychologist lecturing for Amnesty International.
Bannister then worries about the practical problems of a Big Brother state critiquing parents’ every action.
We as a society have a duty to protect [children from nonsense]. We should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.
Dawkins is right that religious indoctrination is a problem. (Aside: I propose a thought experiment where religion is in the adults-only category, along with voting, driving, and smoking here. Religion must have access to immature minds to propagate and would vanish like the Shakers without them.)
However, I’ve never heard Dawkins demand that society ban religion or forbid parents from teaching their worldview to their children. Again, that’s my belief as well.
For Bannister to note that he agrees with Dawkins wouldn’t make for much of a chapter, I suppose, so he has to resort to strawman arguments, pushing back against what Dawkins isn’t saying. The result is that he loses any chance to offer a sensible critique of parents’ rights.
Let me take a brief tangent. Bannister insists that parents be given free rein to raise their children as they think best. Society is there as a backstop to intervene as necessary, but the benefit of the doubt for how to raise children goes to their parents.
I agree, and that’s the philosophy that must govern pregnant women considering an abortion. In the same way, they are on the front line, they best understand the issues within their lives, and they must be given free rein to decide for themselves whether an abortion is the right course. (I talk more about abortion here and here.) Bannister must be consistent—if we trust parents to do the right thing, we must similarly trust pregnant women. (Let me make clear that Bannister never mentioned abortion. I’m simply drawing a parallel that religious conservatives often miss.)
Now back to Bannister’s argument: I don’t want religion criminalized. Rather, I want religious privilege eliminated in the U.S. and education improved so that religion can be allowed to fall away. You don’t snatch away someone’s crutches; you cure them and let them discard the crutches once they’re unnecessary.
Some evidence points to religion being a symptom of a sick society. Religion is Marx’s opiate of the masses—a salve to cushion against problems within society. Fix those problems, and religion becomes unnecessary.
Bannister ends the chapter with this: “When one believes something deeply, passionately, energetically, one has a tendency simply to grab hold of any arguments that appear to support you, however desperate.” That’s both true and relevant, though he’s thinking of atheists here. Can he really not see that it’s his side that is likelier to believe things without sufficient evidence?
Continue to part 5.
God is Santa Claus for adults
— observation from the internet
Image credit: Bailiwick Studios, flickr, CC