Something is wrong. Commitment is a thing of the past. Love that is longsuffering has been replaced by divorce on demand. Charity is dead. We have ceased to instill our children with virtues and then we are shocked that they grow up to be reprobates. Materialism and hedonism are the philosophies of the masses because their education has not empowered them to define either. Our modern world has left us dissatisfied and disillusioned. We search for something lost. Classicism is on the ascendancy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reason and the Atheist Straw Man

"Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding. Exalt her, and she will promote you; she will bring you honor, when you embrace her."  -- Ancient Hebrew Proverb

An apocalyptic war is being waged for the minds and hearts of men and women everywhere. Atheists are on the offensive. Their goals are a secular, areligious society where Christians are marginalized as superstitious, irrational idiots whose beliefs have no reasonable basis. The strategy of the atheists can be easily seen in two recent news stories. The first comes from Canada, where columnist and atheist Christopher Hitchens recently debated former Prime Minister Tony Blair on the role of religion in the world. During the debate, Hitchens, the author of God is not Great, argued that believing in God requires the "surrender of your critical faculties." He continued, ""Religion forces nice people to do unkind things, and also makes intelligent people say stupid things." A second story, this one originating in New York, covered the annual assault on Christmas by an atheist group who took out a billboard in the city calling the Christmas story a "myth" and advertising their position as “reason[able]."

New York Times Photo.
These attacks on Christianity are standard fare amongst atheists. Notice the argument they are both advancing: “atheists have reason on their side,” and its corollary, “Christians do not.” So what of this claim? Are the atheists right? Is Christianity unreasonable? Is atheism really more reasonable?

We might start by defining our terms. What do we mean when we talk about things being “reasonable” and “unreasonable”? In the strictest sense, reason can be defined as the use of the rules of classical logic to govern thought. For example, we call a man reasonable if he can work out in his head, “All bachelors are unmarried. Bob is a bachelor. Therefore, Bob is unmarried,” and then actually live his life as if Bob were unmarried.

If this technical definition is what the atheist means when he claims reason as his own, he will be sorely disappointed. The greatest philosophical minds in human history have explored the question of God’s existence (or non-existence) with disappointing results for both sides. There are no arguments using classical logic which prove the non-existence of God in this strict technical sense. The argument which has the most merit is the Problem of Evil, and even that argument misses the mark as a proof by a wide margin. It should also be noted that there are also no arguments which proves the existence of God in this way. The argument which comes the closest is Anselm’s ontological reductio ad absurdum argument, but even it is not without its difficulties. As I argued elsewhere, this should not panic the Christian in the least.

So when the atheist claims reason as his domain, he is either ignorant, dishonest, or is using a different definition of reason than the one discussed above: if he is ignorant, then we must instruct him; if he is dishonest, then we must reprimand him; if he is appealing to a different definition of reason, then we must demand he tell us what that is.

However, another option exists. In a delectable twist of irony, it is actually the atheist who is committing a logical fallacy when he accuses the Christian of being illogical: he is creating a straw man for all the world to throw stones at. In philosophical terms, a "straw man" is a false position or argument created by one’s opposition as a tool of argumentation. The opponent then refutes the straw man position without ever addressing the real position of his adversary. We see this tactic used in modern politics all the time. For example, in the U.S. recently there has been a fascinating debate over tax policy. The Democrats, unable to logically refute supply-side trickle-down economics, instead created a straw man for the Republicans by declaring that they wantonly wanted tax cuts for the rich. The Democrats then attacked that position as indefensible and publicly harangued the Republicans for “holding hostage” 300 million Americans for the sake of their millionaire "friends." Perhaps one of the most entertaining straw man attacks of recent memory is the one performed by this congressman on the House floor.

Before moving forward, we should note a few essential aspects of a good straw man attack: first and most important, the straw man argument must resemble the position of the opposition close enough so no one recognizes the ruse; second, the straw man argument must be a weak position, easily beaten, humiliated, and dismantled; and third, the rhetoric must be effective enough to make the opposition look weak and foolish while making the straw man’s creator appear wise and erudite.

So what is the atheist Straw Man? As seen in the two news articles above, it is that Christian beliefs do not have a reasonable basis. All three aspects of a strong straw man attack are present. First, Christian ideology can be manipulated just enough that people who lack the ability to think critically gloss over the accusation without realizing what is being done. Here is what I mean. The Christian worldview is not without a rational basis. Christians have a long and proud intellectual heritage that forms the foundation of western civilization. Many of the greatest intellectual minds in the history of the western world - Paul of Tarsus, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Martin Luther, Kant, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, et al. - have been Christians. However, Christians do talk openly about abstract concepts like faith and hope. They embrace the metaphysical, things that cannot be seen or touched. As such, the atheist straw man is often easily accepted by a biased, thoughtless populace whose lack of historical perspective and philosophical education do not alert them to the fact they are being hoodwinked. Few within the realm of intelligentsia defend a position being sold as unreasonable, making the straw man easy to ridicule and dismantle. Lastly, the atheist’s rhetoric bears the characteristic condescension and egomania, like Hitchens’ comments that “religion makes intelligent people say stupid things” (I am unsure what religion has to do with anything. I hear people of all orientations - theist and atheist alike - say stupid things all the time; for example.)

Christians must recognize what it being done to them in the public arena. Only if we understand the fallacy being used against us can we counter appropriately with arguments that advance our faith. There is an embarrassing richness of arrows in our quiver if we only remember how to use them.