My Problem with Loftus (Part 1)

My Problem with Loftus (Part 1) November 5, 2010

I’ve been engaged in a back and forth with John Loftus over his proposed questions for a Christian interlocutor, and I think we’ve both ended up a little frustrated. Therefore, I want to take a moment to explain in more detail why I disagree with Loftus’s methods and questions, and why I’m not inclined to just let them lie as a difference of opinions.

I still think Loftus’s choice to focus his questions on nitpicks for biblical literalists is problematic, and complaint isn’t resolved by the fact that the person he’s debating may be a biblical literalist.  But before I explain why, I’ll let John explain, in his own words, why he focuses his debunking on American Evangelicals:

I can, and I do argue against mainline and even Catholic Christianity. It’s just not my focus. My focus is on fundamentalism because the majority of Christians believe the “literal” passages in the Bible, and because they have a zeal for pressing their views upon me through economic and political power. Liberals are not that much of a threat, period. They do not blindly accept what they read in the Bible, and that’s being more reasonable than fundamentalists, who have a Bible verse for every problem, intellectual or social. I can agree with liberals on this, so why bother with them?

My goal is to dislodge the evangelical Christian off of center. That’s the hard part. That’s the challenging part. I like a big challenge. Once they are knocked off center they will be less cocksure and less of a threat to my personal liberties. They will begin to think for themselves without blindly accepting what they read in the Bible.

I disagree with John on a couple points here. First, as an atheist and as a liberal, I don’t feel threatened solely by evangelicals; plenty of other denominations push for policy positions I disagree with, even if I am more frequently in agreement with them than evangelicals. Even more importantly, as a scientist and a skeptic, I am threatened by most religious traditions. Rational discourse is endangered when people accept flawed heuristics, whether the particular claim is ‘God did it’ or ‘some children were diagnosed with autism after vaccination, therefore parents should opt out.’ Taking any of these seriously when they lack evidence hurts discourse.

And that brings me to the heart of my problem with John’s approach. Although he has helped evangelicals leave the faith, and I’m glad for that, I don’t think his approach does much to promote rationality and reasoned discourse. By focusing exclusively on the intellectually weakest opponents, Loftus need not offer a truly compelling case for atheism, only a dichotomy between atheism and a particularly weak, albeit destructive, vision of Christianity paired with some simple defeaters for a wrongheaded faith.

Let’s put this a different way: many viewers of Fox News hold views that are unambiguously false and patently absurd. And, especially after Tuesday, it’s beyond question that, in a democracy, these misguided views pose a danger to our side and our values. If my goal is only to deal with the danger of their votes, it doesn’t matter how I try to decrease turnout, whether by pointing out factual inaccuracies or by engaging in actual voter suppression by paying them not to vote.

I’m still achieving my base objective, and if I’m correct that mine is the side of truth, I am helping my opponents by preventing them from voting for policies and politicians that would hurt them and everyone else. But, in either case, I am not giving them the chance to improve themselves. I am shunting them over to my side by discrediting my opponents, without encouraging people to consider all the evidence, even though I do believe it’s in my favor. I’m not strengthening my opponent’s ability to reason rationally, merely engineering a betrayal so they’ll turn their loyalty to me instead.

This is a valid short-term maneuver, but it does demonstrate complete contempt for the other side in a way I believe to be unproductive for Christians and atheists. By not addressing stronger opponents, even if they are less politically dangerous, Loftus does atheism a disservice, especially given his prominence in the skeptical community.

About which, more in part 2

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