Around and Around and Around We Go …

Over at the new Daylight Atheism on Big Think, Adam Lee has posted about the Apologist’s Turnstile, or methods or arguments that he thinks apologists for religion use to avoid having to think about their religion or lose any converts. He starts by regaling ones with the ones he’s talked about before:

One example is the selective wall I’ve written about in the past, also dubbed “Morton’s demon”, that lets supportive evidence pass through while blocking contradictory evidence.

Now, see how here he gives it names that make it seem like something that he’s discovered, and something that uniquely applies to these apologists? The problem is that this is a known psychological effect called Confirmation Bias. Most people have it. Adam Lee himself is probably vulnerable to it. So, probably, am I. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that religious people are more prone to it than others, and he could have just called it confirmation bias instead of renaming it. This is not exactly a good start.

So what’s the new one:

Today, I want to discuss a different but equally commmon one: the idea that no particular level of knowledge is needed to assent to a religion, but an impossibly, unattainably high level of knowledge and expertise is needed to deny it. In the minds of many believers, the entrance to their religion is like a subway turnstile: a barrier that only allows people to pass through in one direction.

This is similar to the tactic called the Courtier’s Reply, the silencing argument often used against atheists which holds that no one is qualified to criticize a religion in any particular unless they’ve completed a total study of its most esoteric doctrines. The difference is that the Apologist’s Turnstile adds the assumption, implicitly or explicitly, that none of this knowledge is necessary to join or to be a member of that same religion.

Okay, comparing it to the Courtier’s Reply is not going to make me inclined to think it accurate, since the Courtier’s Reply is, in my opinion, one of the most ludicrously over-applied classifications in this whole debate. There are times when you do need to know more about the topic before criticizing it, and a lot of my posts are about doing precisely that. If you don’t know what the position you’re criticizing actually says in its best and most developed form, then you’re likely not going to be able to criticize it properly. End of story.

But, as Corran Horn once said, I work better with duracrete than vapour, so let’s look at the example Lee gives to see what he means by that:

after coming across some atheist arguments after doing a web search on a whim, he was having major doubts about the truth of Christianity. When he disclosed some of these doubts, another member of his church group counseled him as follows:

What I’d like to do is to appeal to you to withhold judgment – to avoid starting to “land” anywhere in your quest – until you have really given Christianity and theism your best shot. I think you have a very long way to go in this regard…

John’s correspondent then listed half a dozen Christian apologetics books and urged him to read them all, adding “For now, stop doing research online and listening to/watching debates. Also stop, for now, reading atheist and agnostic stuff”.

This is a perfect example of the Apologist’s Turnstile. In John’s case, the knowledge he already possessed from his long time as a faithful Christian was suddenly deemed insufficient when he announced he had doubts and was thinking of leaving. No one demanded that he read these books while he was a believer, even though he himself was doing outreach work for the church.

The problem is that this can, in fact, actually be reasonable. Let’s take this case. While he simply believed, he didn’t need to know the details and the detailed philosophical arguments. They were there and they underpinned the religion, but for the most part most people in their daily lives really don’t care about it. It’s kinda like how most people don’t know the details of complicated physics and yet can do all of the things that physics provides for us without knowing how it all works in the details. It’s kinda like how you can use a computer to write documents without knowing how the OS works, or even how to install it.

And I think that last analogy works the best. Imagine that you bought a computer off the shelf, and it had all of your favorite programs installed, including the OS. You could, of course, go happily along with that default OS for a very long time. But now imagine that someone says that that OS isn’t good and that you should switch to a new one. And so you run home and muse that maybe you should change to that different OS, and then your spouse or friend or whatever comments that maybe you should learn more about what changing to a different OS means and what’s good and bad about the new OS before you do it. Would it be in any way reasonable to reply that it was unfair to ask that because, hey, you didn’t need to know all that to use it from the start? Of course not.

The same thing applies here. If you have simple and perhaps naive belief, you don’t really need to get all of the philosophical details. Folk religion is fine for that, just like folk physics is fine for our everyday lives. But I would assume that the arguments that John came across were more philosophical objections, things that you wouldn’t normally care about. And so when they made John wonder if he should keep or abandon his faith, it’s only reasonable to say that before making the decision he should “hear the other side”, and go find the philosophical rebuttals to those problems and see what the deeper philosophical underpinnings are. Then, after doing that, he can make a clear and informed decision about whether he should keep or abandon his religion. I fail to see anything wrong at all with having people make a clear and informed decision.

Lee can argue that people should make a clear and informed decision, then, to join the religion as well. But I would reply that the information you need has to be tailored to what you care about. There’s little point in opening up philosophical debates when all you want is a folk understanding, just like there’s little point in getting a PhD in science when all you want is a folk understanding of physics. If someone is content with the shallow view — either theist or atheist — I’m not really one to complain about it. There are so many propositions and so little time; we cannot all be experts in everything. It’s only when you start to engage in the philosophical debates that you need to learn more about them to make sure that you understand everything and can make an informed argument or decision.

This, of course, takes care of both the Courtier’s Reply and the Apologist’s Turnstile in one fell swoop. Atheists will not get called out for not understanding theology if they don’t engage in it, and theists will not get called upon to learn more about the deep philosophical underpinnings of their religion until they get involved in questioning it. All of this is reasonable and above board as a general principle (some people may take advantage of this reasonable principle, but that doesn’t impact the argument). So there’s no problem.

The implicit assumption behind this tactic is that criticizing or denying a religion should require more knowledge about its teachings than joining it. But in reality and in logic, the opposite should be true: Assent should require a larger amount of evidence than denial, if only because the person who makes a positive claim always has the burden of proof to support it. An atheist is perfectly justified in saying that they disbelieve a religion because they know of no evidence in its favor, but a theist is never justified in saying that they believe a religion because they know of no evidence against it.

The first sentence is at least not necessarily true; you can run the demand on something other than that, as I just did. An atheist may indeed need a deeper background in the debate to abandon their atheism and move to theism, and I think that if someone was indeed doubting their atheism that a call to read some of the big atheist names would not be out of place, if perhaps it might be a bit confusing.

The idea that assent needs more evidence than denial is wrong here because he justifies it by attaching it to a positive claim. But strong denial — of the form “This is not true” — are positive claims in terms of burden of proof. If I believe that X, and you say that belief is false, then the burden of proof is not on me to prove my belief true unless I claim to be able to prove it true. So I’d use as a rule of thumb that the burden of proof goes to the side that’s trying to change a belief. In John’s case, that was the atheist side, and so that had the burden of proof, and theism was right to present a defense. Also note that we all get tons of beliefs from our upbringing, which we can call default beliefs. We cannot find and explicitly assent to all of them with full evidence, and so it is not unreasonable to maintain them until they are demonstrated to be at least problematic.

And the final sentence is wrong as well, since it is possible for atheists to be wrong to say that they know of no evidence for it and for theists to say they know of no evidence against it, depending on how one defines evidence. If evidence is defined as “Evidence I accept” — as it seems to be in order to make the statement about atheism true in any cases — then theists have the same out in their mirroring statement. And if evidence is defined as merely suggestive, then both atheists and theists can muster evidence for and against their claims, making the universal false in both cases. The irony is that in a post where he claims of unfair burdens on one side — the atheist side — his last sentence can only seem even remotely possible if you hold the two sides to different burdens … and as we’ve just seen, that’s not exactly reasonable.

It strikes me as funny when atheists argue that demands that they learn more are somehow generally invalid. Yes, there has to be an end in sight, but for John there clearly was, and the suggestions were fairly limited to start with. It isn’t going to be clear when you’ve read enough to know enough to stop making arguments that are based on a misinterpretation of the argument, but I would say that all that someone in that position can reasonably demand is a list of specific things to look at. And then decide for themselves if they care enough to go on if the other person says they still need to learn more.

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