Home > Uncategorized > An Atheist’s Perspective V: Evidential Standards

An Atheist’s Perspective V: Evidential Standards

I have been trying to focus his blog primarily on issues concerning religious belief, atheism, and anything else that could reasonably be included in the spectrum covered by either the term “theology” or the phrase “philosophy of religion.” That being said, other subjects are certainly going to have to be included, e.g. politics. The problem with bringing politics into these entries is that there are certain people that are going to automatically assume that I am a _________, because of what I wrote. Let me get this out of the way now, I’m unaffiliated with any political party. I do not identify myself with either the liberal camp or the conservative camp. For the most part I am anti-conservative on social issues because I don’t believe it’s the government’s responsibility to, for example, be involved in marriage in any way. I’m anti-liberal because I don’t necessarily think every corporation is evil nor do I think that socialism is the way to go for all of society’s ills. Because of the subject matter involved in this discussion I may tend toward criticizing the American right more than the left, but that’s because I’m an atheist and the right panders to the worst form of religiously intolerant theocrats outside of the Taliban. Not all Republicans do this, of course, but it’s their extremists that think I am an enemy of the United States because I don’t praise Jesus.

I wrote the above as a disclaimer because I am going to use a rather infamous tape as an example, Mitt Romney’s “47%” speech. I am not concerned with what he said, the content of the video, or whether or not he was right or wrong. That’s immaterial to this discussion. What I’m concerned with is the reaction to the video when it was made public. One of the reactions was to claim that the source of the video was the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Party Researcher. I am strictly concerning myself with this response.

First off, any student of informal logic ought to be able to tell you the name of this fallacy. The response is a simple ad hominem, meaning “against the body.” A person commits this fallacy when, instead of addressing the argument they merely insult or deride the person who made it [in this case James Carter didn’t create the video but he was the one that made it public]. Claiming that the video didn’t matter because of who released it, ignores whether or not the video was authentic (which was never disputed), whether the message that the presidential nominee spoke in the video was one that he wanted to communicate (again, never disputed—only that he wished he could have said it better), or any other subject which is relevant to the argument made in the video. It merely states that what is on the video is irrelevant because _________ made it. It is why Ad Hominem is a fallacy and not a legitimate means of argumentation.

I bring the video up, because we have a similar situation with the sacred books of the world. In these cases it is the opposite; they are inspired, so no matter what is actually said in these books they are by default true because of their origin. Now, it doesn’t matter which book we are talking about, they all make the same divine claim whether the deity did the actually writing or inspired the writing is irrelevant here. What matters is that they are divinely inspired so they contain the truth. The problem is that there is nothing that necessarily relates “inspired” with “true.” To be inspired, a work could be entirely fictional. For example I consider the works of Shakespeare to be inspired, but I do not consider them to be historical records any more than I consider them to be divinely inspired. Certainly the William had really found his niche in writing works that have transcended the passing years but they are no truer than the works of any other playwright.

Truth is about the relationship a thing has to objective reality; it has much less to do with craft of that particular work. The works of Euclid, are certainly true with regard to 2d plane geometry, but are they inspired? I can barely keep my eyes from watering when I try to read the formulas but they are true. Whereas Beowulf is engaging but clearly a work of fiction. The problem is further increased when we are claiming that a work is divinely inspired. If the divine is to be considered perfect, or incapable of error than any work authored by it (as some bible literalists will claim) ought to also be perfect. Yet none of the “divinely” inspired works are ever in a more advanced state scientifically, culturally, or socially; than the time period that they were written in. To be clear this is true even when the work in question is contradicted by non-inspired works that turn out to be more accurate.

Aristotle’s De Caleo speaks of a spherical earth and gives an argument for why this must be the case while biblical writings contemporary to it speak of a four-cornered earth. Surely we may not want to claim that divinely inspired works must be books of science, but wouldn’t we at least want to claim that they don’t get something so basic wrong? Would it be so hard for the divine to not create a false belief? Or is this another Abrahamic test of faith as segments of the Intelligent Designers want us to believe? The source of the argument does not matter if we are judging truth, what matters is the statement itself. Like the 47% speech, the words on the video mean more than who uploaded it to YouTube. At least with the Romney campaign they didn’t try and twist the facts, they openly admitted what was said. Unlike say defenders of sacred book literalism that try and twist every word and phrase into fitting the actual truth.

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