Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Death of an Argument

Key rhetorical flub reveals fatuity of Richard Dawkins' "lying for Jesus" argument

Ever since its inception as an argument in the religion/atheism debate, "lying for Jesus" has become a favoured accusation lobbed by the most zealous atheists.

In fact, accusations of general dishonesty have often been central to the arguments of militant fundamentalist atheists. But in a column appearing on the Spectator website Melanie Phillips chronicles the tale of Dawkins flubbing this argument so badly he may never be able to use it again -- at least not with any trace of credibility.

The tale begins with a debate between Dawkins and Irish mathematician John Lennox in which Dawkins reportedly admitted that belief in God is a defensible belief.

"You can make a respectable case for deism," Dawkins admits. "Not a case that I would accept but I think it is a serious discussion that you could have."

Dawkins would insist that he hadn't really meant his comments as an admission that belief in a god could be respectably defended -- insisting that he was merely being sarcastic. As Lennox and Phillips would both note, Dawkins certainly said nothing at the time to indicate that he was being sarcastic, and had reportedly seemed sincere at the time that he said it.

But Dawkins was not yet finished.

Dawkins would go on to accuse Phillips of misrepresenting him in a column published on the Spectator site. He would even go so far as quoting her in a slide shown at a subsequent debate with Lennox:
"Arch-atheist Richard Dawkins is an evolutionist. But many are now asking whether the dyed-in-the-wool critic of religion may be, well, evolving in his views about God. You see, in a recent debate with theist and Christian John Lennox, he let slip what many would regard as a major blooper: he actually admitted that there might be a case for theism of sorts. This was a worldview change of seismic proportions. It was a most remarkable turnaround. For someone who had spent over five decades championing the atheist cause to all of a sudden renounce it was an incredible achievement."
The problem, as it turns out, is that Phillips never wrote those words.

Those words were actually penned by Culture Watch's Bill Muehlenberg. Oops.

Dawkins would go on to accuse Phillips of "lying for Jesus" based on quotes that he was misrepresenting as hers. But his folly in doing so actually ran deeper than this simple fact.

As it turns out, Phillips is actually Jewish. One clearly pertinent detail is that Jews don't believe in Jesus -- or at least don't believe he was the prophesized Messiah.

"Lying for Jesus! Oh dear oh dear. Not only did Dawkins falsely accuse me of distorting his position, but he accused me of doing so because he assumed I was a Christian. Five minutes’ research maximum would have told him that I am a Jew. Either he thought that all the stuff written on Culture Watch by Bill Muehlenberg, who appears to be a devout Christian, was written by me; or he assumed that, since John Lennox is a Christian, anyone who supports John Lennox must also be a Christian. Either way, the man who has made a global reputation out of scorning anyone who makes an assumption not grounded in empirical evidence has assumed to be true something that can easily be ascertained to be totally false – thus suggesting that the mind that is so addled by prejudice it cannot deal with demonstrable reality is none other than his own."
Those words at least actually were written by Phillips.

At the very least, Dawkins most recent flub has demonstrated precisely how eager he is to deploy his vaunted "lying for Jesus" argument, to the extent that he will rush to use it without even stopping to make sure that the words he's quoted were ever written or spoken by the person he's attributed them to.

Considering the high level at which Dawkins has conducted his scientific work it would be hard to believe -- nearly impossible -- that he was unable to tell Bill Muehlenberg' words from Melanie Phillips'.

Then again, considering Dawkins' history of weakly razor-thin arguments -- such as suggesting that astrology is akin to racism -- perhaps there is ample cause for doubt. It's of little surprise that Dawkins isn't nearly as bright as he and his supporters would like to have people believe.

One thing is for certain: Dawkins' "lying for Jesus" argument is now officially dead in the water. That certainly won't stop Dawkins or any of his supporters from using it -- they thrive on the ignorance of those they would convince, and on the alleged ignorance of anyone who believes in religion.

All that can be done is for those who oppose Dawkins and his virulent brand of atheism to remind people that he isn't nearly as bright -- or honest -- as he pretends to be.


  1. More broadly, though, don't you find some validity to an atheist's puzzlement over Christian zealots who do, in fact, lie for Jesus?

    I'm thinking of instances in which Christian bloggers publish accounts dripping with astonished indignation about the "persecution" of some poor Christians arrested "just because they were praying." In one example I'm thinking of, it turns out that the "poor Christians" were anti-same sex marriage demonstrators who chose to "pray" laying face down in the middle of a gay pride day celebration in a park, in front of the stage. They had been asked by the organizers AND by police not to disrupt the event.

    We could debate their tactics. But my point is, the omission of that information from the reports signficantly changed the nature of a reader's response to the event.

    So how does one justify such dishonesty - either by omission or commission - in defense of a faith whose basic tenets include an injunction not to lie?

  2. Well, even though this does take us off topic a bit...

    First off, I disagree with the views of those particular Christians.

    But beyond that, I'd remind you that civil disobedience has been used to protest numerous issues that people believed to be unjust. The anti-Vietnam war movement used civil disobedience, as did the civil rights movement.

    I'd be more inclined to agree that the Vietnam war and the denial of civil rights to blacks were unjust. The latter case I'd posit is much more factual than simply a matter of opinion.

    The point of civil disobedience has always been to make the authorities appear and feel heavy-handed in arresting peaceful protesters. It has often worked.

    Few people would agree that it's just to arrest a Christian activist on the grounds that they're protesting same-sex marriage. Although I personally support same-sex marriage fully, I don't hold it as an issue that is in any way above reproach. I disagree with the people who oppose it, but I respect their right to oppose it. I certainly expect that they'll do so peacefully.

    If organizers or police have these protesters arrested they have to understand that they run the risk of appearing heavy-handed and oppresive. Naturally, that perception will resonate best with individuals wbo are themselves Christians who oppose same-sex marriage.

    Some of those people honestly do believe that their religion is being persecuted by the very act of legalizing same-sex marriage. I disagree with their hysterics, but just because they're being hysterical doesn't necessarily mean they don't believe it's true.

    The act of praying in protest at a gay pride day celebration basically comes down to the simple right that Christians have the right to pray, and they have the right to do so in any public place.

    The organizers of that gay pride celebration have the option of continuing to conduct their celebration, simply ignoring the protesters. On an increasing business, just ignoring folks such as these has proven to be fairly effective. The Westboro Baptist Church has decreased the number of pickets they actually show up to conduct because people have started to simply ignore them. It's probably lot easier to do so now than it was four years ago.

    That being said, if we agree that the individuals in the case you've raised are being dishonest, and don't honestly believe that the individuals in question are being persecuted -- and we don't agree on this -- that dishonesty wouldn't be excusable.

    But nor would the dishonesty of an individual who has transformed accusations of dishonesty into a core argument against his philosophical opponents.

  3. My point wasn't the legitimacy of expressing views about same sex marriage (or any issue), or civil disobedience as a way of drawing attention to those views: I agree with you on that.

    My point was to draw attention to the hypocrisy of lying, by deliberately omitting key facts, in order to defend the position of a religion that explicitly condemns lying.

  4. Yes. And my point is that those individuals are only lying if they don't honestly believe they're being persecuted.

    I'm certain most of them don't really believe they're being persecuted. I don't condone their dishonesty. But I'm equally certain that many of them do, and as bemused as I personally am at this view, I won't condemn them for it.


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