Saturday, January 18, 2014

Q: If it was good enough for Moses, isn't it good enough for you?

If my faith was good enough for [insert # of practitioners or list of famous practitioners here], shouldn't it be good enough for you?
No. There are a couple of variants of this argument, and none of them stand up to examination.

The first is a fallacious appeal to authority: "someone very smart (or some set of very smart people) believed in my god; surely, you don't think you know better than him/her/them, do you?" It implies that a person who is intelligent and correct in some, oftentimes many, matters is correct in everything, or at least this point of importance. An authority is only relevant if they are an authority on the matter at hand; and, as that involves unknowable, unprovable things, like invisible entities, magical occurrences, etc. a person cannot have the sort of knowledge that develops an expertise sufficient to be convincing. Furthermore, there is no current or historical consensus among intelligent persons as to the nature of gods. Tellingly, every era and every culture produced its own sets of geniuses who pray to their own sets of gods -- and, now, do not pray: the number of the godless amongst our best and brightest is exploding. Wise men have always prayed to the gods of their era, at least publicly (brilliant atheists pop up, openly, in every culture that doesn't brutally suppress them; like Iran's gays, the absence of acknowledged atheists seems to be strongly correlated with the likelihood that they'll be dismembered/beheaded/stoned/flogged/otherwise brutalized). Today, it's generally assumed that the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans got it all wrong -- and are burning for their error, this very moment, in the fires of eternal torment, while a loving almighty god opts not to intervene. Indeed, the Muslims assume the Christian scholars, monks and scientists of yesteryear (as well as the atheistic, Jewish, polytheistic, etc., ones) are roasting and boiling for their sin of disbelief; and the Christians think the Muslim, Jewish, pagan, etc., geniuses and laymen together are likewise cooking. In short, everyone is cooking, because they all got it wrong according to someone.

Genius has always been found and will likely continue to be found whatever god is or isn't prayed to; and religious matters are faith, rather than evidence, based, disallowing a level of expertise that renders an appeal to authority useful. So, no, a religious genius (or a hundred of them) is not sufficient to sway someone to your faith.

The other form of this argument tends to be argumentum ad populum. The most recent example I've seen is Tony Jones' piece on Patheos, but it pops up every once in awhile. "So many people believe, how can you think you're smarter than them?!" Which is interesting, when one considers exactly what we discussed earlier -- that so many of the people who use this argument condemn more or less everyone else to eternal torment. This being argumentum ad populum, it is an all around bad argument. It might feel convincing, for the half a second before your mind floods with contradictory instances (ancient Egyptian gods were worshiped for thousands of years; and yet who today would argue for their survival? Christianity and Islam currently have prodigious followings, and yet regard each as hellbound fools. And so the list continues...). But, ultimately, consensus does not assure correctness; a lot of people making bad choices just means a lot of bad choices and sorry people. So an argument cannot rely on numbers to do its work for it.

Finally, I should note that while the "smarter than" phrase doesn't always show up, it often does. This is a strawman in and of itself. Unless someone is actually claiming that  being an atheist makes them more intelligent than anyone who is not, it is a bogus accusation, meant to subtly shame the person into agreement, something like, "Well, gee, of course I'm not smarter than Isaac could I even suggest that?!" Fact is, we're all -- even the Isaac Newtons of the world -- wrong about something, sometime; and the Newtons are still, well, the Newtons of the world (and we remain just us :P ). Disagreeing on the issue of deities is, quite simply, not challenging another person's intelligence.

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