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Atheist Pearce Agrees: Let’s Stop Mutual “Dishonest” Charges

Atheist Pearce Agrees: Let’s Stop Mutual “Dishonest” Charges June 18, 2021

Atheist anti-theist Jonathan M. S. Pearce is the main writer on the blog, A Tippling Philosopher. His “About” page states: “Pearce is a philosopher, author, blogger, public speaker and teacher from Hampshire in the UK. He specialises in philosophy of religion, but likes to turn his hand to science, psychology, politics and anything involved in investigating reality.” His words will be in blue.

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I have engaged in many dialogues / debates with Jonathan. In atheist vs. Christian debates there will, predictably and understandably, be lots of “heated” rhetoric and passion aroused and charges slung about of the debate opponent being a lousy thinker (in particular instances), illogical, unacquainted with the facts, etc. Sometimes it evolves into outright accusations of intellectual dishonesty and deliberate lying.

I fell into it myself (against my better judgment) and accused Jonathan of intellectual dishonesty; this was pointed out to me, and I retracted it, apologized, and changed the language. He had cited me in a paper (6-17-21):

As long as Pearce keeps lying about the Bible, I will keep exposing it. His choice. He can continue to embarrass himself and the atheist community if he likes. I don’t see what reward he gets out of that: as long as the lies continue to be exposed for what they are…. I have a big problem with intellectual dishonesty (upon correction) and intransigent refusal to retract statements that have been proven to be false.

I replied in the combox underneath it (6-17-21):

As I just stated in a comment on your blog, I will apologize and retract if you show me where I have attacked you personally. Here, I apologize for using the phrase “intellectual dishonesty.” I must have been overly frustrated. I don’t believe this about you (as you do about me, having called me “disingenuous” several times now).

So I will change that language (and thank you for highlighting it). “Lying” can have a second meaning of simply “falsehood” but probably only one person in a hundred knows that (anyone can look it up in a dictionary). That was what I intended above, but people always take it to mean “deliberate lying” and so it’s not good to use the word if the charge is simply spewing falsehood.

I changed the above paragraph to the following:

As long as Pearce keeps stating falsehoods about the Bible, I will keep exposing it. His choice. He can continue to embarrass himself and the atheist community if he likes. I don’t see what reward he gets out of that: as long as the falsehoods continue to be exposed for what they are. Or he can act in a more scholarly, objective fashion (as a self-described “philosopher” should) and retract and remove his erroneous statement. We all make mistakes. I have no problem with mistakes. But I have a big problem with refusing to be open to correction and intransigent refusal to retract statements that have been proven to be false. If you’re gonna extol the glories of science (as I do myself; I love it), than put your money where your mouth is, get consistent, and live with its results.
Do you retract the charge of “disingenuous” thrown my way?

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This paper was originally a recounting of the times that Jonathan has accused me of being “disingenuous” or “dishonest.” I was trying to get him to acknowledge that and retract it. It looked like he wouldn’t, so I wrote my original version of this article. Then he wrote his article, “I Find It Very Difficult to Lie” (6-18-21), which explained in a heartfelt way that he never intends to lie, and is honest almost to a fault. I responded in the combox (shortened to reflect his later apology):

I agree that you are not a liar, as clarified yesterday, with apology (that you again cite above). You seem to think I am, though, . . .

If you assert that I am a dishonest person in how I argue my positions: that I don’t really believe what I am writing, am insincere, two-faced, intellectually dishonest, or whatever, that is a falsehood. I’m as committed to being truthful as you are. What you say about yourself, I would also apply to myself: “I have never been intellectually dishonest. At least, I have never intentionally and consciously been so. Where I have been, please point me out and I will explain myself.” . . . 

These kinds of things are what make for harmonious human relationships, and it would seem to me that atheists desire that — as much as possible — as much as anyone else does. (6-18-21)

I had documented eight instances of Jonathan accusing me of being disingenuous or intellectually dishonest, on his blog. I include them now in summary, in case he wants a quick and convenient reference with links, so he can modify the language, if he wishes to do so:

. . . perhaps disingenuous to present what might arguably be a huge straw man of Toohey’s Christian belief. (7-18-17)

He’s really stretching things here, and being not a little disingenuous. (7-29-17)

What he does here is a dishonest move: . . .  (3-19-21)

I struggle to sign up to the idea that you truly believe what you say. (5-23-21)

Armstrong is disingenuous, and that’s putting it mildly, in his claims about refuting me, employing cherry-picking, and even then not reading his sources correctly. (6-11-21)

This is er, what’s the phrase…oh, yes, “intellectual dishonesty”. (6-11-21)

[H]is manipulation of data and usage of sources is so often utterly dubious and disingenuous that I’ve learnt is not to take him as seriously as he would like. (6-16-21)

I am not being dishonest in any way. Can he [yours truly] say the same? (6-17-21)

 

Lo and behold, later on this very day, Jonathan wrote his blog post, “Apologies for Calling Armstrong “Disingenuous”***” (6-18-21). This was a very welcome development. He wrote:

Dave Armstrong very kindly retracted some of the rhetorical flourishes in one of his recent pieces. We are both surely victim to such, and it is something I must shy away from. . . . 

So, here it is: I apologise for calling you “disingenuous” when, on the other hand, you might have been sloppy, careless, rushed and intellectually facile in not realising you were applying sources erroneously, and/or lacking in any kind of nuance.

Whilst this may sound harsh, here’s the good news: I assume you think the same of my work and my use of sources. . . . 

Anyway, apologies if I got the “disingenuous” labelling wrong. If I did, be sure to read my past and future pieces because they may help you improve on the intellectual sloppiness.

As you can see, while he has retracted the dishonesty charge, he has to explain my arguments somehow, so he goes on at length about how “facile” and “sloppy” my reasoning is, etc. That’s fine. I got a chuckle pout of it, and as you will see, I return the “favor” in my response, which follows:

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Hi Jonathan,

Very excellent, and I’m delighted to see this. I accept your apology. I was gonna leave your site for good, and give up on any personal interaction, but now I’ll stick around.

You are quite correct that we take a very harsh and dim view of each other’s thinking and conclusions, while at the same time it’s not necessary to reach the conclusion of “disingenuous” or “dishonest.” So yeah, as you suspected, what you think of my work I also think of yours; it is often, as you put it: “sloppy, careless, rushed and intellectually facile in not realising you were applying sources erroneously, and/or lacking in any kind of nuance . . . intellectually sloppy.”

So that’s a wash, and will likely always be present in most atheist-Christian discourse. It always comes down to premises. We just can’t comprehend how each other can actually strongly believe the premises and conclusions from them (all the way up to the obvious issue of existence or non-existence of God), and so the temptation (both sides do this all the time) is to posit dishonesty. But it need not be so at all. They can be honest differences. They may drive us nuts, frustrate us to no end, baffle, puzzle, befuddle, and astonish us, but we don’t have to go to the “d” word.

I’m glad to see you agree, because this is a huge issue in atheist-Christian discourse (on both ends): to the extent that it occurs at all. I’ve been talking about this for many years. We Christians talk about the all-too-present “angry atheist” while you guys always criticize “the hypocritical Christian, not living up to his or her own creed.”

I’m not gonna revisit all the past stuff that you allude to, save one, where I think you have rhetorically and polemically overshot the mark by quite a bit. You mention in this article my supposedly suspect and haphazard, skewed (whatever the word, short of dishonest) use of “sources” many times:

This, if I recall correctly, was about the use of sources. What gets me is you appear to have cherry-picked many of your sources without reading them in full or appreciating the finer details of what they were saying. . . .

[Y]ou are either rushing or are not very good at surveying sources, not being careful enough, and just lifting quotes that you think do the job without understanding the true context or full scope of the work. Applying sources to one area that don’t really apply because they are relevant to a different area is also something you do. . . .

I personally think your analysis of your sources has, at several points over the extent of our love affair, been sloppy and quote-miney at best . . .

Now, let me give you two examples of how I think this is a bum rap (one from this debate and one from an unrelated article of mine). You have seized upon a citation that I selected from an article that I thought supported my case (my last major one that I found regarding the “pitch in Egypt” issue). And you have taken it and run with it, making out (rather triumphantly) that this vindicates your entire point of view.

Yet you didn’t notice the high irony of that. While calling me closed-minded, hopelessly biased (the Christian apologist and all that), and one who supposedly “cherry-picks” quotes, somehow you missed the fact that I picked this one also: the very one that you think is your coup de grâce.

And I picked it when it didn’t particularly help my case. In other words, I gave it to you on a silver platter because I was fair-minded and open-minded, and doing precisely the opposite of cherry-picking. Here it is, from Egyptologist Kate Fulcher of the British Museum:

[E]vidence for bitumen use in Egypt in the New Kingdom has previously been limited to a few individual samples from objects with poor provenance . . .

I included that in my paper, which is how you likely first saw it and seized upon it and made your claims of victory in our whole crazy debate. The only problem is that you cited [or at least greatly highlighted] for your readers half of the entire quotation. The second part (immediately after the first) reads: “this study provides proof for a much more extensive use [in Egypt and the nearby occupied Nubia] than might have been suspected, with a secure archaeological context.”

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t use her as your be-all, end-all authority, but cite one half of her conclusion, because it fits well with your past argumentation, while ignoring the second half, which contradicts your claim altogether. That is quintessential cherry-picking: splitting a single multi-faceted sentence in half and choosing what you like and ignoring the other part. That’s not the scholarly attitude; it’s not how archaeology is done, and it goes against what she herself concluded. I agreed with her and showed my readers both “sides” of the issue, like she did, rather than only the one I liked.

As I have explained over and over, your original claim that started this whole debate was “pitch was not available in Egypt at the time of Moses”. I described that in additions to my second paper on the topic:

Note that you were not saying that it wasn’t used for caulking, or for reed baskets, etc. Your “argument” was much more sweeping than that (and thus much harder to prove from archaeology): it was not available, period. End of story. No subtleties, no academic / scholarly nuances, no exceptions. And this was one of the many reasons given in that article for thinking that the Exodus story was absolutely “ridiculous.”

I added, further:

[M]y task, when all was said and done, was simply to prove that pitch / bitumen was available in Egypt at the time of Moses (what it is used for is a different question, and not what I was setting out to prove at first). You have in effect admitted that several times, . . .

So does what Fulcher said contradict your initial statement, that was all I ever opposed during this whole thing? Yes, and undeniably so! Both the second half and the first half do that. In the first half she said “evidence for bitumen use in Egypt [during the time that included Moses] has previously been limited to a few individual samples.”

A few individual samples contradicts “pitch was not available” period. Three pieces of chocolate candy is a contradiction of (and vastly different than) no pieces of chocolate candy. You were defeated by your propensity to make these sorts of “universal negative” statements that are easily shot down by any evidence at all.

And so even the first part of her sentence, supports my overall case (pitch available in Egypt during Moses’ time) rather than yours. But the second half really supports what I have been saying:

this study provides proof for a much more extensive use than might have been suspected, with a secure archaeological context [my bolding]

Obviously “much more extensive use” of bitumen is a lot more than none at all, or none even being available if they wanted to use it (an even more sweeping claim). So this supports my case as well.

My second example, that I mentioned on your blog today, was from an article that will be published within a month by the National Catholic Register, where I am a weekly columnist. It was written about Joshua’s conquest. After providing five separate piece of concrete archaeological evidence, I noted:

There are, assuredly, other areas (most notably, Jericho) where the archaeological evidence is puzzling and could not be said to be a confirmation of the Bible.

So again, that ain’t cherry-picking, special pleading, or talking about only the findings that support a view of the Bible as historically accurate. It’s being honest about what is called in science “anomalies” that don’t fit one’s theories or hypotheses. I didn’t have to add that, in an article that will be read mostly by Catholics who agree with me about the Bible. It’s in there because I am honest and open-minded, for no extra charge.

I was discussing the same issue with your friend “Lex Lata” today on your blog. He wrote: “the scholarly consensus about the origins of the Hebrew people, . . . is based on comprehensive archaeological, linguistic, genetic, and other research and analysis–not just counting the hits and ignoring the misses.”

I agreed and cited the same thing from my National Catholic Register article above, showing that I don’t “ignore the misses.” I also noted how you had stated that there was “little to absolutely no evidence” of the conquest of Joshua and settlement of new Israeli residents. And I opined: “that sure sounds to me like a prime example of ‘counting the misses and utterly ignoring the hits.’ ”

C. S. Lewis observed that “it’s the rule of chess that create ‘chess problems.’ ” Likewise, it is the limitations of archaeological (and/or historic) theories that create archaeological / historical “problems” that need to be worked out. All theories have them. Christians need not be skittish about admitting the thorny problems in archaeology that don’t seem to support a “high” view of the Bible’s accuracy, because all thinking and all theories have anomalies and puzzling aspects. It comes with the territory of deep thinking and analysis. This is my view, and it ain’t “cherry picking.”

So all of this works both ways. You say I am cherry-picking? I just gave two examples where it sure looks like you are doing so (feel free to explain it as something else). But it’s not dishonest. I would call it excessive passion or bias; overzealousness for your cause. I say that we should simply admit that everyone has biases and passions, and naturally so; it’s nothing new, but it never has to necessarily add up to dishonesty.

Otherwise, any substantive (and amiable) dialogue is rendered impossible, and that is a thing that I think we both value highly and would like to see furthered and promoted, as opposed to constantly thrown “pies” from the mountainous pile of stinking cow manure that both atheists and Christians throw at each other all the time.

Someone has to take a stand and stand up and condemn that and try to do something different: to model the way these discussions should be conducted. And it will take a Christian and an atheist jointly deciding to refrain from these unhelpful, dialogue-killing charges.

Thanks again for your apology. I deeply appreciate it and you have gained a lot of respect from me for doing so. Life is not all just arguments (much as we both love that). Character and ethics are much more important.

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Photo credit: Tumisu (5-15-19) [PixabayPixabay License]

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Summary: Atheist blogger & author Jonathan MS Pearce has admirably agreed (with an apology) that Christians & atheists ought to stop automatically accusing each other of intellectual dishonesty.

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