The “Best” Defense …

Cuttlefish has recently put up a post titled In Defense Of The “Village Atheist”. The post is ostensibly a defense of “village atheists” as talked about in this post by Randal Rauser. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to actually criticize what it says in any way, and seems to be equivocating on the term “village atheist” in its own criticisms. Now, to start, we need to see how Rauser is using the term “village atheist”, because he is using it in a slightly different way than the norm but is actually very clear about it:

First, a word on terminology. So far as I can see, the term “village atheist” was first popularized in the 19th century to refer to an atheistic individual within a religious community who vocally (and provocatively) expresses his/her dissent from the religious consensus of the community. For example, G.K. Chesterton identified Thomas Hardy as a village atheist (see Kevin Taylor, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Question of Tragedy in the Novels of Thomas Hardy, p. 168).

However, in more recent literature the meaning of the term has evolved to identify a type of popular atheism that is often brash in presentation and lacks critical nuance. (In other words, minority status within a wider religious community is no longer essential to the term.) One sees this use in Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, p. 178 when Inwagen juxtaposes the unlettered popular opinions of the “village atheist” over against the more sophisticated opinions of the “atheist”. In this article I will be using the term “village atheist” in the broad sense used by Inwagen.

So, Rauser makes it clear that while the original term referred to an atheist who merely was vocal about their atheism, the sort he’s talking about here is the sort of “village atheism” that Inwagen talks about. He points out clearly that by this, the “village” descriptor doesn’t require someone to be a minority anymore, which immediately means that it could apply to Christians as well who are brash but also lacking in critical nuance. From this, Rauser says repeatedly that, yes, you can have “village Christians” as well.

Which then makes Cuttlefish’s defense seem rather odd, even putting aside the fact that it doesn’t seem like a defense at all. After noting that he couldn’t find terms for “village Christian” on Google — which makes sense since as Rauser notes the “village atheist” usage is new — he says this:

And that’s because “the village X” is a designated minority role. It’s a way of othering, of dismissing with a label, of designating someone to be both part of the village and apart from the village.

Well, sure, in the original usage, but Rauser is, again, very clear that that isn’t the usage he’s using. He’s using it in a sense that applies beyond minority status. Did Cuttlefish simply not read the parentheses, or even that section where Rauser talks about specifically how he’s using it? Because by that usage, this comment doesn’t apply.

He then talks about “village Christians”, and walks into the equivocation:

We have village atheists because we have people who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of. We have a great many more Christians who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking on (we don’t have to look far). These are not “village Christians”, though–they are wholeheartedly welcomed members of the community. They are the village. It is not the fact that someone doesn’t have all the facts that makes them the “village atheist”; it is the fact that they are the atheist.

The first part does indeed relate to how Rauser is using the term. But when he goes to deny that you can have “village Christians”, he ignores that those are the traits that Rauser is using to define “village atheist” and “village Christian”, and instead says that those Christians that fit Rauser’s definition aren’t really “village Christians” because of the original meaning of the term, despite the fact that Rauser is abundantly clear that he’s using the more recent meaning and is actually using that definition completely consistently throughout the entire post.

This is why I wonder where the actual “defense” of the “village atheist” is here. The only way he could be defending the “village atheist” is by claiming that “village atheist” doesn’t actually mean what Rauser says it is, and so “village atheists” aren’t really atheists that are eager to speak up but aren’t terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of, but instead apply broadly to any atheist that is eager to speak up, or that even speaks up at all. But while Cuttlefish might be correct that that is the normal or common meaning of the term, that’s clearly not how Rauser means it. Cuttlefish, then, is defending a “village atheist” that Rauser is not attacking.

Now, a counter might be that this is a problem with Rauser, in that he’s using the term wrong or is wrong to “broaden” it as he claims it does (I think he narrows it myself, but that’s neither here nor there). The first problem with that counter is that Rauser himself is consistent; he is not equivocating on the term in any way that I can see. But, one can protest, that at least _I_ call broadening the term “science” — ie using a non-standard definition of science in arguments — as being a form of scientism, and have called Jerry Coyne out on using his uncommon definition of “science” in an argument. The difference, though, is that in the cases of scientism generally I accuse them or broadening or narrrowing the definition to suit their argument — which is equivocation — or in the case of Coyne taking someone’s point where they are using the common definition of science, taking that out and using the less common definition of science, and then using that to argue that their point is wrong because by the less common definition of science the point doesn’t hold — ignoring that they weren’t using that definition and so the point attacked is not their point. Here, it is Cuttlefish who is translating the word to a definition that Rauser is not using to make his point and then declaring the point invalid; Rauser himself is clear and consistent in his usage. Thus, in the other examples, the person I am criticizing is equivocating, while in this case Rauser isn’t equivocating but Cuttlefish is. So there doesn’t seem to be a problem with Rauser here … or, at least, not one that Cuttlefish has pointed out yet.

In summary, Rauser is using a non-standard definition of “village atheist” but is clear that he is doing so and consistent in that, even down to saying that by that definition you can indeed definitely have “village Christians”, even though he implies that the common or original definition of the term doesn’t allow for that. Cuttlefish, on the other hand, ignores that completely to attack Rauser using a definition that Rauser is not actually using, and that Cuttlefish seems to acknowledge and them move away from. As a defense of “village atheist”, it either defends the wrong target or isn’t a defense at all.

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2 Responses to “The “Best” Defense …”

  1. Cuttlefish Says:

    I had a racist acquaintance who claimed to use the word “N****r” to apply to whites, blacks, hispanics, asians… according to him, the word as he used it was not racist.

    Words have meanings. “Village Atheist” has meaning because of its history. Rauser could have chosen any number of modifiers–“New”, “Militant”, etc. have all been tried (in the comments, he admits an overlap with “new”), or he could have chosen a brand new word to describe a brand new idea. He chose a word with a history, then claimed he did not mean to include that history.

    Logically, I cannot fault your analysis here. But people do not think logically; they think heuristically. Kahneman & Tversky’s brilliant work demonstrates nicely that one can logically imply one thing while rhetorically (and practically) meaning another. (See also “dog-whistles” in politics).

    Attributed to Lincoln: “if you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? Four–calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.”

    If Rauser means something different by “village atheist”, let him call it something different. Yes, I read his explanation, and his parentheticals, and all of that. He’s a very good writer, and chooses his words very carefully. Frankly, if he were more careless, it would be easier to dismiss his choice. I give him the benefit of the doubt–I assume he is no idiot, that he knows what he is doing.

    Beyond that… no, I do not make a logical defense. Again, you are right. But… none is needed. And that is the point.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Words have meanings. “Village Atheist” has meaning because of its history. Rauser could have chosen any number of modifiers–”New”, “Militant”, etc. have all been tried (in the comments, he admits an overlap with “new”), or he could have chosen a brand new word to describe a brand new idea. He chose a word with a history, then claimed he did not mean to include that history.

      There are two problems with this:

      1) Rauser points out that the term has ALREADY been used in the way he’s using it. He cites Inwagen as an example and claims that the usage he’s working with is an evolution of the term. He could be right about that, or he could be wrong, but you didn’t argue that in your post, and here you seem to be charging him with taking an existing term and sticking his own personal meaning onto it (which is probably what your acquaintance did in your example). But Rauser isn’t doing that, and to make the claim you make here means that if, say, someone wanted to comment on or even criticize Inwagen’s notion of “village atheist”, they’d have to avoid even using that term as a short-cut for what Inwagen is saying, meaning that they’d have to avoid using Inwagen’s own usage, which can lead to confusion. That’s not good. So what people normally do in such cases is use the term in the non-standard way, but make sure to make it clear what their usage is. Rauser does that. There’s no reason to criticize what Rauser did in his post at all.

      2) If that was your point, you really should have, well, just made that point,saying that using a term that is commonly applied to all atheists to apply to only a subset of atheists risks having people paint all atheists as being vocal and ill-informed, and that simply isn’t true; while some are, many are informed and not vocal, ill-informed and not vocal, or vocal and informed. Again, however, from the first point that’s not a criticism of Rauser, as he is again very clear who he means — as I said in the article, I find his calling Inwagen’s definition “broad” to be a bit puzzling — and that it doesn’t apply to all atheists.

      Part of the reason I’m pushing this, though, is because of my philosophical background. Yes, words have meanings, but often have multiple meanings and when you’re doing philosophical work often you have to use a term in non-standard ways because language is limited, and you can’t have an entire essay filled with technical terms if you expect anyone to understand it. So often words will be “slanted” in different ways, and the context built so that it is clear what meaning you’re using for that word/term. As an example, the ancient Greek philosophers have a term “eudaimonia” that they use as the basis for their moral reasoning. It is commonly translated to “happiness” as a short-cut. But, say, the Stoic idea of happiness isn’t the same thing at all as the Harris idea of happiness. Does that mean that they should only use eudaimonia, and then have to define that, and not use happiness? As long as the context is made clear and people don’t try to compare them directly, it’s not a problem with the clarity of the writing, and if someone takes it out of context and confuses the meaning then that’s not a problem with the writing, but with the interpreter.

      That being said, you might be right to say that Inwagen shouldn’t have used that term because of the potential confusion. Personally, I hadn’t heard of the original usage, so it’s not confusing to me, but it might be for others. But to reference your Lincoln quote, one doesn’t get to object to someone talking about the tails of a suit that a tail is something that a dog has. Words often have multiple meanings and usages, and Rauser is saying that now we have an additional (if not new) meaning for “village atheist” and is clear about which meaning he’s using. Rauser, to my mind, has not only done nothing wrong, for the topic he wanted to address he made the careful and right choice.

      BTW, I can’t read comments on Disqus systems from the machine where I normally read these things, so I haven’t read any of the comments to Rauser’s post, so if there’s something that I missed in there I apologize.

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