Monday, December 1, 2014

Loftus, Reppert, and the Courtier's Reply

Victor Reppert made a remark about the Courtier's Reply that puzzled me:
One saving grace for John is that he has criticized the overuse of the Courtier's Reply, which essentially says "Your position is so stupid that we don't even have to bother to understand it to attack it."
I was puzzled because this definition of the Courtier's Reply is not what I understand it to be.  The Courtier's Reply is actually what theists use to attack atheists who reject belief in God without necessarily understanding all the details of every theistic argument or every particular religion they are rejecting. 

This term was coined by PZ Myers eight years ago, after reading reviews of The God Delusion.  Myers parodied the Courtier's Reply this way:
Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.
I wondered if there was another meaning for the term, so I looked it up, and sure enough, both Wikipedia and RationalWiki agree with Myers' definition (after all, it is Myers' definition).  So where does the confusion come from?

Richard Dawkins made a reply to one of his critics' comments about The God Delusion that fits with Victor's characterization of the Courtier's Reply:
Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology.
Let's be clear about this.  Dawkins' remark was not the Courtier's Reply.  It was a response to the Courtier's Reply.  However, John Loftus made this post three years ago, in which he confused the Courtier's Reply with the response to the Courtier's Reply.  This is evidently what Reppert is referring to, and where Repperts gets his understanding of how the courtier's reply is defined.

So what is my position on all of this?  I believe that Dawkins has valid and rational reasons for rejecting theism in general.  As to those who reply to him that he must understand the particulars of their own brand of theism, I agree with Myers that they are using a logical fallacy.  Dawkins' reasons are no less valid if he doesn't know everything about every single religion he is rejecting.

But Loftus also makes a good point (despite his confusion over the terminology).  You can't debunk a particular religion, or refute a particular theistic argument, without having a good understanding of what that religion or argument is.  I agree.  There is an important distinction to make here:  rejecting theism in general is not the same thing as refuting some particular argument or brand of theism.  The latter requires specific knowledge of the particular thing that you are refuting.  So it looks like we are all in agreement on this.

I made the point to Victor that he mischaracterizes what Dawkins says.  He paraphrases Dawkins as: "Your position is so stupid that we don't even have to bother to understand it to attack it."  But that is not what Dawkins said.  He didn't characterize his critics as "stupid", and he wasn't trying to debunk any particular brand of theism.  He was responding to the Courtier's Reply, about his attitude toward theism in general.  This is what Victor doesn't seem to understand.  Victor will not read Dawkins' words the way they were intended.  Instead, he insists on casting Dawkins in the most uncharitable light possible by taking his words out of context.  The real irony is that Victor is guilty of the thing he accuses Dawkins of - not being willing to listen to what your opponent is saying.


  1. The Courtier's Reply is a term that has come to be used for the response to the
    Courtier's Reply, and so you are right to say that it might be more proper to call it the Courtier's Reply Reply, but that gets awkward to say.

    Here is the problem. Sure, I don't have to understand the difference between, let's say, Sunni and Shiite Islam if my disagreement with Islam has primarily to do with whether I believe that Allah, through the Angel Gabriel, dictated the Qu'ran to Muhammad in Arabic. Both Sunnis and Shiites agree on this, and the question of how the succession in the Caliphate should have gone is not relevant to the fundamental issue between myself and Muslims of either stripe.

    On the other hand, if something is relevant to the reasons why one believes that Muhammad did receive this revelation, then I had better understand the reasons Muslims have for believing this I am going to seem pretty ignorant to my Muslim interlocutors. I need to know what their best reasons are. Or, I should at least show that I have tried to understand it. A person's time is limited, so I could reject Islam without this kind of information. But if I want to write The Muslim Delusion, then I need to know what the best Muslim scholars have to offer on why they think Islam is true. If I write a book that makes no attempt to understand this, then they have every right to complain that I am arguing from a position of ignorance, even if Islam is delusional.

    When you do something like say that all forms of the Cosmological Argument fail to the "Who made God" question. On the famous Trilemma argument, he gives a two paragraph rebuttal the completely ignores a wide range of arguments on both sides. John Beversluis wrote a chapter in his revised C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, which he considers to be an effective take-down of the argument, but in a footnote criticizes as too quick and too easy Hitchens's three-paragraph refutation. I'm sure he would say the same thing about Dawkins's two paragraphs.

    Now, I think there is further discussion which might develop the "Who made God" response to more sophisticated version of the Cosmological Arguments, but a popular kind of response to arguments like Aquinas's and Craig's, sometimes given in intro philosophy classes, makes it seem as if they somehow didn't think to ask the question "Who made God," a question asked by most grade school children.

    Now Dawkins has a quadrilemma concerning those who believe in God, (or, as he puts it, don't believe in evolution) and that is that they are either ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked. But I think he think that theism is really a stupid position.

    So, if Dawkins has reasons for rejecting theism in general, then, sure, he shouldn't be expected to know understand, for example, the filioque controversy about the procession of the Holy Spirit. But he should be expected to understand, or at least make an effort to understand the reasons why someone might think that the evidence for God is reasonably good, or that it can be justified as a properly basic belief.

    Another example: Dawkins assumes that if believers just believe on tradition and pay no attention to evidence. Reading him, you would never guess that one of the most popular books on Christianity is Josh McDowell's book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, or that there is another book called Faith Founded on Fact. Now, these people may be all wrong, and it could be that they don't have good evidence, but a well-informed anti-apologist should be aware that there are Christians out there who think the evidence favors them.

  2. Victor,

    This is a more fair treatment of Dawkins than I have heard you make in the past. If he makes bad philosophical arguments, that's fair game. Go ahead and criticize. But you don't need to resort to namecalling, and you don't need to misrepresent his positions. First understand them (which you haven't always done), then argue against them, criticize them, and give credit where credit is due.

    For what it's worth, a lot of people have been persuaded by reading his books.

  3. I'm always surprised by the criticism of Dawkins' _The God Delusion_ that he didn't adequately treat the religious and philosophical arguments. It simply was not the point of the book to address those arguments - at least not in detail. Dawkins was making a different case: primarily, that the question of a deities existence is a factual question and as such falls in the purview of science. He also supports a number of other secondary points - such as, that religious beliefs should not receive a level of respect over and above what any other belief might receive and that religious beliefs are harmful

    To focus on his treatment of traditional arguments seems to me to an attempt to divert attention from his main points. He doesn't rest his case on the debunking of those old theistic arguments - although he considers them to be adequately debunked. Frankly, the traditional arguments were irrelevant to what Dawkins' presented but leaving them out of the book entirely would have been invited even more criticism.

  4. In the legal system, there can be a Summary Judgement to dismiss a case. This can be done well before either evidence or arguments are presented. The idea is that regardless of what the evidence is or the arguments made the legal decision would be the same, so the exercise of a trial is unwarranted. When it comes to theology talking about the nature of God, atheists are requesting a Summary Judgement to dismiss the case. If there is no reason to believe that a deity or deities exists, then it is simply a futile waste of time to explore the nature of that God. It is simply a pity that we can't get a Summary Judgement to dismiss *with prejudice*.

  5. Good points. I think the point, as far as theists are concerned, is to discredit Dawkins because they see him as a real threat. Toward that end, they are willing to dispense with honest criticisms.

    I will make another post in a few moments with further commentary on Victor's criticisms.