‘Atheist Overreach’ and the Courtier’s Reply

‘Atheist Overreach’ and the Courtier’s Reply August 16, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been reading and discussing Christian Smith’s 2019 book Atheist Overreach. In part of this book, he describes what he considers scientists’ overreach into religious matters. And he does so using a tactic the skept-o-sphere has called the Courtier’s Reply. Today, I’ll show you what that is and why it doesn’t work for this author.

unicorns in the courtier's reply
(Screenshot from this Sims 3 video.) PROOF YES PROOF of unicorns! See? SEE?

(Previous Atheist Overreach posts: Conservation of the Law of Worship; Blaming the Wrong People; The Wrong Questions to Ask About Atheism; Avoiding the Burden of Proof; Wingnuts Galore. Page citations come from the 2019 hardback edition of the book. All emphases exist in the original sources unless noted. All “x” notations come from original sources (ie, not scare quotes) unless noted.)

The Courtier’s Reply.

Christians: OMG, how wonderful to have the faith of a child!
Also Christians: You aren’t allowed to leave our religion till you’ve mastered theology.

Joining a Christian group is as easy as pie. No tests required, no waiting period, no examinations, no tests. At most, you might have to parrot a statement of faith, sign a creepy contract, or present yourself before your new church to promise them you’ll be a good and obedient little sheepling. But as far as I know, only Catholics and maybe Orthodox Christians require any extensive steps for new converts.

Leaving Christianity, though? Oh, honey. Now behold the circus-like array of flaming hoops they’ll want you to leap through before they’ll allow your leaving without too much grumbling. Of course, they’ll still grumble. But they hold out that potential for their approval all the time.

And what about rejecting their beliefs or worse, criticizing them? They’ll put even more hoops out for you to jump. Again, though, they’re lying when they hold out the promise of accepting your criticisms if you only perform to their liking. They’ll never, ever accept any criticisms of yours.

Both of these latter two situations represent facets of the Courtier’s Reply.

The Thrilling Origin Story.

Years ago, PZ Myers popularized the term the Courtier’s Reply. It boils down to a haughty denunciation of the target’s lack of perceived formal education in the study of imaginary things.

See, the only reason uneducated rubes like us might think that the emperor’s new clothes are nonexistent is that we haven’t studied enough about imaginary fabrics and styling. Until we have, the people who follow the emperor on social media and wholeheartedly endorse his fashion choices may discard anything we have to say.

We find the Courtier’s Reply all over, once we learn to recognize it. That lovely elderly aunt who keeps sending you apologetics books just so she’s sure that you know what you’re doing in rejecting her religion? The ex-pastor who demands you study a box full of theology books before King Him will graciously allow you to be an atheist (which happened to a friend of mine)?

Listen to their unspoken presupposition:

You can only speak against this topic if you’ve studied a lot about it and know everything about the study of it. If you don’t jump through our hoops, then you must submit to what we say is true about it.

But they’re wrong. We don’t at all.

How Atheist Overreach Uses the Courtier’s Reply.

Because of Smith’s preoccupation with turf, it was funny as hell to see his outrage in Atheist Overreach upon reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens (p. 89):

Next thing I know and without warning, I’m reading theological metaphysics: “There are no gods in the universe.” Really?

But Smith’s wrong here too. He mischaracterizes rejection of Christian claims constantly in this book, and this particular mischaracterization might be one of his worst. He implies that one must be an expert in what he calls “theological metaphysics” in order to assert that “there are no gods in the universe.” If someone’s not such an expert, then they have no right to make that assertion.

Many Christians — especially well-educated ones — love this tactic. It’s still cringeworthy.

Is it theological metaphysics for our author to say that Arnie the Incredible Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn’t exist? Cuz Yuval Noah Harari dissed unicorns too. Smith doesn’t seem to have any problem with Harari taking the nonexistence of unicorns for granted. Hell, even the Bible mentions unicorns. Why isn’t Smith up in arms over Harari comparing unicorns to fairies in the garden? Harari positions unicorns right alongside the notion of gods, but it’s okay because it’s unicorns?

(Gosh, y’all. It’s just sooooo saaaaad that Christian Smith dismisses the existence of unicorns without even reading the mountains of literature written on that topic! He must have been hurt once by bad Unicornists. We’re not all like that, I promise! He needs to give Arnie another chance!)

The Courtier’s Reply in Action.

So in Atheist Overreach, Christian Smith gets shirty over Sapiens. As Smith tells us, right after complaining about “theological metaphysics” in Harari’s book (p. 89):

How, I wondered, does or could Harari possibly know these things? From artifacts dug up in archeological excavations? From fossils archived in natural history museums? I think not. Said plainly, Harari is here engaging in a deceptive sleight of hand, an unacknowledged smuggling of atheological metaphysics in through the back door of science, ostensibly with the authority of science. I have no doubt that Harari would on principle defy religion’s setting two toes onto science’s turf. But he obviously feels entitled to wander onto religion’s turf, to pour a tank of gasoline on it and to set it on fire. Worse, he does not even seem to be aware of his own intellectual category-shifting here.

My, my. Atheological metaphysics in a Courtier’s Reply. It’s like Christmas came early.

See, y’all, Christians engage in theological metaphysics. That is their field. Thus, non-Christians are not allowed to comment on anything involved in that field.

Instead, uneducated heathens engage in atheological metaphysics.

Hmph! How dare they! It takes hardcore theology to talk about the emperor’s nakedness. Gosh, doesn’t Harari know that? Doesn’t he care that he’s trespassing on Christian Smith’s turf here? Hmph! 

(The phrase “atheological metaphysics” just became our next topic, by the way. Is it not AMAZING?)

Annnnnd What Really Happened.

Harari — like all the other scientists that Christian Smith names in this subsection — simply saw nothing whatsoever to support Christians’ truth-based claims. So he concluded, based on the utter lack of objective support for those claims, that they are not true.

Indeed, that’s how it went for the rest of us. No religion’s believers have ever produced anything credible or convincing to support their claims, ever, so we rejected those claims. It’s really that easy.

We’re allowed to talk about why we rejected those claims, just as we’re allowed to point out that whatever theological metaphysicians discuss, it involves an imaginary friend for grown-ups.

Nobody needs to be a high-falutin’ ivory-tower academic to reject Christianity’s claims. All we need to know is how reality stacks up against those claims. Any child can do that, and increasing numbers of children do.

Negation Over Engagement.

Yuval Noah Harari is no child, of course, but rather someone who’s studied the vast breadth and scope of human history. And his expertise in that field leads him to conclude that Christianity occupies exactly the same mental and emotional spaces that fairies and unicorns do: it’s not based on reality, but is rather a shared fiction that’s just lasted a really long time and enjoyed a long period of dominance.

But when we reveal that their emperor is naked, that their god is just like fairies and unicorns, way too many Christians do their best to silence those talking like that. These Christians cannot demonstrate that we’re wrong by presenting credible, objective evidence for their claims. So this is their chosen tactic instead.

To me, the Courtier’s Reply represents sheer intellectual cowardice. It’s not logical at all. It’s just a cringeworthy attempt to discredit a critic, and it’s done to negate that person’s criticism without really engaging it. 

Don’t think we don’t notice, is all I’d say to the Christians who like this tactic.

NEXT UP: Our LSP series finale continues! And then: Yes! Atheological metaphysics, y’all. See you soon!

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Final Note: Obviously, I don’t really believe that unicorns exist. I hate to add this note, but that’s the world we live in now. But I still play every one of my Sims 3 games with at least one unicorn in the family.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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