Tag Archives: Argument

The Highest Form of Respect

In the ongoing tussle of competing ideas, be they on the axes of conservative/liberal, theist/atheist, secular/theocratic, capitalist/socialist, the word respect, or commentary on the pronounced lack of it, is bandied about a lot in this internet age.

I’ve not minced my words on this blog – an oft-used quote, attributed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire, sums up my position.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

A frequent reflex defence of, say, Christian apologists, is that criticism of their position is an attempt to silence them. This is of course nonsense – free speech in the secular West guarantees both their right to public opinions just as it guarantees the right to criticise them. To curb the former is totalitarianism, to curb the latter is enforcement of blasphemy.

Similarly, apologists will claim a lack of respect in criticism. Sometimes this is true, but if the discussion can remain civil, I would counter that the critic is paying them the highest form of respect i.e.

I can think of no higher compliment, than to care about someone’s opinion enough to want to change it if you think it wrong.

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The Peanut Aliens : explaining why fundamentalism is crazy

The following is my attempt to explain to a Christian fundamentalist why his beliefs about homosexuals, and anyone not following the literal word of the Bible, make him look like a batshit crazy wingnut.

Let me put it this way.

Lets suppose that I swore blind to you that you would be abducted by aliens unless you ate peanuts every single day.

You would ask why I believed that. I’d tell you that I’m part of a group that believe this, and that our founder was personally warned by an alien.

He wrote a book about it which we have faithfully copied; it should be noted that the early copies were made by farmers and labourers, so some errors crept in, and some pages were lost, but we have no idea where they are now because we have no originals, so we just duplicate everything as accurately as we can. Now I ask you – would you start eating peanuts every day?

Lets suppose you had a peanut allergy. I’d tell you to eat the peanuts, and you’d say you could not, as it would cause you great discomfort. I’d insist you must do it, or be abducted by the aliens. As time goes on, and I become more insistent, you continue to refuse, and my group begins to condemn refusal to eat peanuts as a a sin against the aliens, and your peanut allergy as a perversion.

You know that the peanuts will cause you pain, yet all these people are telling you you’ll be abducted, and that you are disordered. How do you think you would feel?

Because mark my words – my story about the peanut-loving aliens is more plausible that yours about a man that was killed and rose again in 3 days.

Your concerns for our souls may be absolutely sincere, but they are still based on utter unevidenced poppycock, and your refusal to acknowledge that makes you look crazy.

Fallacio – the act of debunking false arguments

I am not a philosopher. Logic and reason were things I mostly figured out on my own. It is only recently, when debating online with fundamentalists of every stripe, be they religious, homophobic, global warming deniers, conspiracy theorists or even some vegans, that I came upon logical fallacies in their official form.

There are hundreds of them, and it seems fundamentalists use a significant proportion. Everything from special pleading, non-sequiters, straw men and ad hominem attacks, arguments of popularity and tradition, sunk cost fallacies, to suppression of evidence, confirmation bias, slippery slope, arguments from ignorance and of personal incredulity, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lying.

Many of the less honourable acts on the Internet are fallacies of some sort – trolling is a form of poisoning the well, quote-mining is a form of misrepresentation, and ad hominem is a well understood phrase in the faceless Web.

Bullshit (American) or bollocks (UK) is perhaps a new addition. A common argument based on bullshit is the infamous Chewbacca defence – it is an argument of attrition, a tide of nonsense put forward with enough vigour and volume that a rational opponent must either exhaust themselves refuting it, or withdraw from the argument, which is claimed as a victory by his opponent.

The Internet has been a phenomenon – I think of it as the Information Revolution. Perhaps it will herald a new Age of Reason. One thing for sure is that it tests our ability to vet and evaluate information in quantities we have never experienced before. Thus we need to learn reasoning skills at a far earlier age, in favour of raw knowledge. The knowledge is all around us – it is now a cheap commodity, though the quality is variable. It is how we assess that information that is now the premium skill.

This brings us back to fallacies. I blogged a few months back about David Cameron’s proclamation that “Britain was a Christian country” – the implication being that Britain should uphold Christian values for no other reason than our ancestors did. This is a fallacy straight out of the list above, the appeal to tradition – a popular one with Conservatives, as a cursory read of the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail reveals. My usual response to an appeal to tradition is the example of geocentrism, which was considered by most to be the correct model of the Universe until Galileo Galilee put forward evidence for the Copernican heliocentric model, at the cost of his freedom. Just because most people believe something, does not mean it is true.

If our own Prime Minister, a privileged man with the finest education one could hope for in the UK, can commit such basic errors, what hope for the rest of us? Well, learning how to spot false arguments is a good start (here’s a PDF poster of common fallacies). Teaching our children how to think clearly and rationally is another. And perhaps most importantly, we need to rip asunder fallacious arguments as soon as they are uttered, by the myriad means we now have at our disposal.

David Cameron, Christian morality, and the News Letter

On 19th December 2011, the News Letter reported on David Cameron’s speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, stating Britain was a Christian country, and “that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

In the Morning View editorial, the author was full of praise for Mr Cameron, though was disappointed he hadn’t gone further. I’ve long viewed the News Letter as a right-wing, neo-conservative rag, a Norn Irish Daily Mail, so I sent them a rebuttal on the whole business of  Christianity’s claim on morals.

I didn’t find it online until 9th January 2012, and when I did, it had attracted two posts. Let us just say that the News Letter’s readership would not be, in the main, Internet-savvy. (i.e. not in their first, or indeed second, flush of youth), so the limited response is understandable.

(Incidentally, I also saw a letter on gay marriage of such outrageous homophobia, I posted a comment describing it as “a vile piece of borderline-criminal hate speech” – the comment was not posted, but instead the whole letter was pulled! Result!)

Nevertheless, I set about with a staunch defence of my letter, which I’ve reproduced below should it ever vanish from the News letter’s site.

What followed was a fairly one-sided debate where I slapped around an at first fairly reasonable, but eventually pop-eyed religious nut, whom in turn kept coming back like Monty Python’s Black Knight. As I kept bludgeoning his arguments, he one by one distanced himself from his fellow Christians (the ones who had strayed), the Jewish origins of the Christian church, the Old Testament, the Roman Catholic church (he was a Protestant) and eventually the original argument altogether.

I thought my invention of the philosophical position of amarmitism was the highlight of the exercise…

I eventually, reluctantly, had to stop replying because while I had won the argument, it was quite apparent there was no reasoning with the loon. It’s not like there was even an audience.

 

Christianity did not ‘create’ morality

Published on Thursday 22 December 2011 09:31

IN response to Morning View (December 19) I felt compelled to challenge the assertion that the UK needs greater emphasis on the ‘Christian’ moral code.

The article says that the ‘overwhelming majority of citizens in the United Kingdom’ are Christian. According to a 2011 YouGov survey of Great Britain, a bare 55 per cent of respondents described themselves as Christian – of these only 38 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds are Christian, while 70 per cent of over-55s are Christian. In other words, while Christianity is in the majority, just, it soon won’t be.

I note the News Letter failed to report Dr Richard Dawkins’ response to David Cameron’s speech, which described Christianity as ‘an appalling moral compass’. Some Christians may be shocked by this statement.

Let me explain: a cursory reading of the Bible reveals genocide, slavery, treatment of women as little more than property, rape and stoning of people for adultery and other lesser crimes condoned in the Old Testament.

More recently, we have the Inquisition, and in modern times, we are witness to the paedophile scandal engulfing the Catholic church, their campaign to discredit the use of condoms in developing countries in the face of an HIV epidemic, and their complicity in the Holocaust in the signing of the Reichskonkordat.

Protestantism doesn’t get away scot-free either; the record of racism and homophobia by Protestants, predominantly in the United States, is a poor one.

I’ll omit our own Troubles, as nearly everyone, religious and political, comes out looking bad.

I am not saying that Christians are bad people – many of them are loving, kind and generous. You will, however, find that this is also true of non-Christians.

To quote Steven Weinberg, ‘Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things, that takes religion.’

Christianity did not ‘create’ morality; it subsumed it from pre-existing society. This is true of other religious moralities, too. Given this was a bronze-age civilisation (Old Testament), or if you prefer iron-age (New Testament), things have moved on in the Zeitgeist (‘spirit of the age’) – the 20th century saw the introduction of equality in gender, race and sexual orientation. These are increasingly considered ‘good’ morals, and have absolutely no basis in religious doctrine.

If you want an idea of what a secular society looks like, largely unfettered by Christianity or any other religion, look to Scandinavia. It should be noted that the Scandinavians have amongst the best social standards and life expectancy in the world.

To finish, I agree that there should be no legislation preventing Christians publicly expressing their faith; I know of no legislation that attempts any such thing, and I think it’s disingenuous of the editorial writer to insinuate that such things are afoot.

I would, however, wish the same thing for all faiths, and those with none, so long as they do not oppress or harm others. As a secular society, free speech is a central pillar of our culture.

Colin Morrison

Fermanagh