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John Loftus on the Courtier's Reply


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#1 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 02:30 AM

One of the more tedious rhetorical approaches made by the New Atheists is the Courtier's Reply, made famous by the developmental biologist PZ Myers:

Myers has voiced the position that many of the responses to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion are what he calls "Courtier's Replies". Replying to critics who felt that Dawkins ignored sophisticated versions of modern theology, Myers compared them to courtiers fawning on the legendary emperor who had no clothes:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Dawkins himself quoted the Courtier's Reply in a debate with Alister McGrath. He also referenced the Courtier's Reply in the preface to The God Delusion's 2007 paperback edition.

Well PZ, almost thou persuadest me to be an unbeliever. I'm in agreement with the unbelievers in not a few areas:

* I'm the one making the extraordinary claim, therefore the burden of proof is on me to make the case for that claim.
* Presuppositional apologetics is an intellectually vacuous conceit, and one of the most egregious examples of question begging known to humanity
* There's no point me quoting large chunks of the Bible to the unbeliever, as this makes as much impact to them as quoting the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or Atlas Shrugged would make to us


As the burden of proof is on me, I need to make the case, which means the only credible apologetic strategy I have is the evidential approach. That entails:

* Demonstrating the essential historicity of the Bible. If the Bible is hopelessly, completely and irredeemably anachronistic and unhistoric, then my case is already on shaky ground
* Showing that the prophetic claims made by the Bible are in fact valid. A book that makes substantive predictions about the future without its writers having access to a Tardis would warrant attention. Conversely, if one showed that the prophecies were universally failures, another evidential plank would be shattered
* Answering the claims that Christian doctrine is logically incoherent, immoral or flatly unscientific. If the Bible really did teach something as incoherent as the Trinity, morally objectionable as penal atonement or utterly unscientific as the immortal soul, then its claim to being of divine origin would be refuted
* Making the case for the resurrection of Christ. Dead people remain dead, and the resurrection of a man who had been executed by crucifixion is an astounding claim. One needs to show that the most parsimonious explanation for the events surrounding the execution of Jesus of Nazareth and the growth of Christianity is the frankly supernatural one - resurrection.
* To this one needs to add that one must show that the God of the Bible isn't, to paraphrase Dawkins, a petty, brutal, genocidal tribal deity.


That in short is what our burden of proof entails at the bare minimum. That requires no little study, not from theologians, but from historians, Hebrew, Greek and biblical scholars as well experts in ANE civilisations and cultures. And that is where I become a little exasperated with many (but not all!) atheists. Many Christians do little more than parrot what their pastor / Lee Strobel / Josh McDowell / JP Holding tells them, often without having read the Bible from cover to cover. Atheist analogs to these Christians exist, whose arguments are store-bought from Internet Infidels or other on-line repositories of atheist arguments. Like the Christians they deride, their rejection of that burden of proof is not made on a detailed study of the Christian evidential case, but merely vigorous nodding to yet another New Atheist book.

John Loftus, an ex-believer who maintains the website Debunking Christianity is not completely sold on the Courtier's Reply:

Trust me, I'm very thankful for the brilliance of PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins. There's no doubt about that. In some sense they are my intellectual heroes. But the Courtier's Reply as an answer for theology needs to be discussed critically. First off, I do not expect anyone to understand any particular theology in order to reject it. We all do this easily. I doubt very much anyone understands all of the religions they reject. I don't. No one does. We reject them all for the same reasons, because they have not met their own burden of proof. So I agree very much that neither PZ Myers nor Richard Dawkins needs to fully understand the various forms of Christianity in order to reject them all. They can certainly use the Courtier's Reply, and for them it's legitimate, as it is for me when rejecting Hinduism, which I know little about. Christians do not fully understand the other Christianities they reject, so why should anyone expect this from skeptics?

But here's the problem. PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins, and others, have the clout to recommend those of us who do understand the various Christianities that exist who know how to debunk them on their own terms. But perhaps, and I'm only suggesting perhaps, they are so committed to the Courtier's Reply when it comes to their own lack of understanding of Christian theology that they don't realize this will not do if they want to change the religious landscape. If they do, then may I humbly suggest they recommend the work of Biblical scholars like Robert Price, Hector Avalos, Bart Ehrman and others like them, as well as philosophers like John Shook, John Beversluis, Richard Carrier, Keith Parsons, Matt McCormick and others like them. But they can't do it, because they are committed to the Courtier's Reply, and that's a shame. I can embrace the Courtier's Reply when it comes to religions I reject. But given the power and influence of Christianity in particular, they need to recommend and embrace those of us who know it and argue against it. The Courtier's Reply may some day be the blanket response to religion. It isn't yet. Until then let them recommend those of us who do understand the dominant religion of our land, both philosophers and biblical scholars. It takes all of us together with all of our talents, all of our knowledge, and all of our abilities.

He's right. I would argue that this does not mean one must become versed in Karl Barth or Thomas Aquinas in order to reject Christianity. Pointing out logical incoherence in Christian theology is useful, but that's not the issue. One needs to remind Christians that the burden of proof is on them, but the argument does not stop there. Once the challenge to produce the evidential goods is made, the onus is then on the unbeliever to show that the Christian case is insufficient. And, that demands not a little understanding. Too often, the atheist merely challenges the Christian to produce a burning bush or some like, but never bothers to check that the footage of the burning bush produces by the believer isn't photoshopped. This is why I become less than impressed every time I hear some atheist bleat "Courtier's Reply". Too often, it's merely an excuse to avoid looking at the case made by the Christian.

PZ has commented on Loftus' reply:

No, no, no. Loftus is making the same misinterpretation I've heard from creationists and theologians: that the Courtier's Reply is a call for ignorance and an excuse for not trying to understand religion. It's not. Rather, it's an amusing way to tell someone that they haven't established their premises (the existence of deities), and that all their phantasmagorical elaborations on their fantasies are irrelevant. Cut to the core issue; if you haven't shown that Jesus even existed, it's silly to be arguing about the color of his socks.

I have no disagreement with the approach of the scholars listed above; in fact, I'm a big fan, particularly of Carrier and Avalos. They're taking a different angle: even if we set aside the fundamental fallacy of the premise, we can assay the ramshackle rationalizations and irrational excuses and shoddy scholarship and show that the whole construction is bogus from root to crown.

For me, the Courtier's Reply is sufficient because I'm not wedded to any particular doctrine; it's enough for me to see that the core is rotten and hollow. But I entirely agree that for most religious people, the existence of a god isn't even an issue — it's assumed and taken for granted. What most people have locked into their brains is a pattern of ritual and dogma and pseudohistory so intricate that it obscures the central assumption, and to chip through that we need Biblical scholars who grapple with the details.

We just don't need Bible scholars who layer on more crud.

Of course, when one doesn't bother looking at the case made by the (non-presuppositional) believer, it's a little hard not to become unimpressed each time the limit of research appears to be mere proof-texting of selected scholars. We've made our case. It's hard not to suppress a flicker of impatience when the case isn't even regarded.

Edited by Ken Gilmore, 02 June 2011 - 02:32 AM.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei

#2 Fortigurn

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 02:48 AM

Loftus is making the same point as Berlinerblau. Myers of course completely misunderstands what Loftus is saying, just as he and Dawkins misunderstand McGrath's critique.

No, no, no. Loftus is making the same misinterpretation I've heard from creationists and theologians: that the Courtier's Reply is a call for ignorance and an excuse for not trying to understand religion. It's not. Rather, it's an amusing way to tell someone that they haven't established their premises (the existence of deities), and that all their phantasmagorical elaborations on their fantasies are irrelevant. Cut to the core issue; if you haven't shown that Jesus even existed, it's silly to be arguing about the color of his socks.


This is confusing the issue, because the Courtier's Reply is typically not reserved for such historical issues as these. For Myers to use the Courtier's Reply on a rock solid historical issue such as the existence of Jesus, just goes to show how little he really understands. When a believer states that Jesus existed then they are standing on the foundation of a peer reviewed scholarly consensus. For Myers to respond with the Courtier's Reply is completely irrelevant.

What Loftus knows is that the Courtier's Reply is used when atheists are attacking a particular interpretation of the Bible, or presenting their own particular interpretation of the Bible, and exegetes (whether Christian or otherwise), are responding to the atheist objection or interpretation. When scholarly commentary is cited on the point, it's then that the atheist retreats to the Courtier's Reply; 'Oh I don't care about your scholarship, I don't need to know anything about the Ancient Near East milieu, I don't need to know anything about Hebrew and Greek, I don't need to refer to the scholarly consensus on the interpretation of this passage, I can just dismiss your interpretation because I don't believe in God so the Bible is just junk anyway'. It's a limpwristed way of running away from the argument when the facts become difficult.

#3 Evangelion

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 03:18 AM

Wow, talk about confirmation bias. Myers should stick to biology.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#4 Ken Gilmore

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Posted 02 June 2011 - 03:44 PM

Here's another example of how the Courtier's Reply misses the point, and this is from a consultant clinical geneticist. :bag:

Edited by Ken Gilmore, 02 June 2011 - 03:44 PM.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” - Galileo Galilei




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