Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Christianity is Child Abuse”

So despite the title, Seidensticker starts with a different argument of Bannister’s:

In today’s opening episode, we find Richard Dawkins (Bannister’s favorite atheist to dislike) in the office of his literary agent. The agent reports that things aren’t selling well. What to do? Dawkins suggests The Santa Delusion.

This is a reference to Dawkins saying, “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”

Who wants to guess what Bannister thought about that? He said, “I guess a good place to begin is by illustrating what a disastrous argument this is on many levels.” So where’s the problem? “The first problem is that it’s a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy. That is when, rather than critique an argument or belief, you attack the person making it.”

Now, if I hadn’t realized it before, here is where it became clear that to really understand what Bannister was saying and what his arguments were I’d actually have to read Bannister, because Seidensticker isn’t providing sufficient quotes or information to determine that. why? Because Bannister starts here by clearly saying that the ad hominem attack is the first problem that he will address and that the argument fails on many levels, but Bannister only ever references the ad hominem argument, and nothing else. Generally, you don’t start with the strongest argument, and even if you do start with the argument that you think is the strongest that doesn’t mean that none of the other arguments work even if that first one fails. And yet Seidensticker, after explicitly quoting Bannister clearly stating that this was only one of many problems with that specific argument only addresses one of them. Did he think that we wouldn’t notice that from one of the few things that he quotes Bannister as saying? Well, maybe most people won’t really read the quotes from the primary source, but for me I was already desperate for an idea or context of what Bannister was actually saying, and so I noticed. So, then, what happened to the other arguments?

And Seidensticker doesn’t exactly do a great job of dealing with the charge of it being an ad hominem.

Yep, that’s the definition of ad hominem fallacy that I know, but Dawkins doesn’t make that fallacy. I wasted half an hour poring over the pages that precede his charge trying to see if there’s anything more offensive than Dawkins’ quote above. Nothing.

Um, except that why an ad hominem fallacy is a fallacy is not because it is insulting, or offensively so. It is when you attack the person instead of the argument. It is quite possible to commit an ad hominem fallacy by saying something that is a) true about the person you are using it against and b) something that they might even be proud of. For example, I am well known for arguing against the use of empathy in moral reasoning. Since I am also Stoic-leaning, at least, one could claim that the only reason I argue that way is because of my inherited distrust of emotion from the Stoic tradition. Thus, I only argue against empathy because I am Stoic-leaning. This would, in fact, be true, something I would admit, and I would certainly not see being called “Stoic-leaning” as an insult. But it wouldn’t in any way address any of the arguments I would be making.

So Seidensticker’s scouring of the text to see how insulting Dawkins was is utterly irrelevant here. The ad hominem, in fact, would be contained in that precise statement that Bannister referenced. So, is there an ad hominem here, where Dawkins attacks the person instead of attacking the argument?

Well, the issue here is that Dawkins is trying to attach the belief in God to immaturity, and thus argue that people who still believe in God only do so because they “haven’t grown out of it”, and so are believing childish beliefs. This would, in fact, essentially be his calling religious believers childish. That’s pretty much a shot at them as people. But if he had an argument that the belief in God really was simply a childish belief — meaning that it wasn’t true and was just one of those falsehoods that we develop as children — then that would be the only argument he would need. Thus, it adds nothing to the argument to call it — and, by extension, those who believe — childish; either he has the evidence that it is false or he doesn’t.

But this all assumes that Dawkins means it as an argument at all. Given my experience with Dawkins’ writing, it seems far more likely that he is just using it as a rhetorical potshot and not as an argument at all. But Seidensticker is supposed to be defending it as an argument. As an explicit argument, it does strike a lot closer to an ad hominem — you only believe because you haven’t grown out of that belief yet — than a real, valid argument. Seidensticker’s examinations of how offensive or insulting it is do nothing to preserve it as an argument, which is what he’s supposed to be doing here.

And he won’t actually do that, because he moves on to the next argument:

The second problem that keeps Bannister up at night is Dawkins’ concern with Christian parents. In The God Delusion (chapter 9), he says, “Horrible as sexual abuse [of children by Catholic priests in Ireland] no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

Seidensticker then tries to point out that Bannister doesn’t seem to support … something, here:

Bannister overflows with ridicule—remember this is from someone who hates ad hominem arguments—but he has no studies. He has no arguments. He doesn’t even search for anecdotes of people who’d experienced harm (or good) from a Catholic upbringing.

But, wait, shouldn’t the person who has to provide the evidence be Dawkins? If Dawkins can’t provide sufficient evidence to think that this is true, then this would indeed be a Bad Atheist Argument. Bannister would not have to prove the argument false to demonstrate that it is insufficiently evidenced and so a bad argument.

And what evidence does Seidensticker claim Dawkins has?

Bannister only has time for ridicule, but Dawkins actually supports his claim with evidence. Right after we read the quote above in God Delusion, Dawkins introduces a woman who experienced trauma from both sexual abuse and her Catholic upbringing. At the age of seven, she was sexually abused by her priest, and a friend from school died. What made it worse was that the friend went to hell (so she was told) because she was a Protestant.

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, as many atheists continually assert. And we know that children may indeed be traumatized by a number of things. Take, for example (warning TV Tropes link) this page talking about “Nightmare Fuel” for the long-running children’s program “Sesame Street”. It is quite likely, from that, that there is someone out there who was more traumatized by “Sesame Street” than they were by sexual abuse. What would that say about “Sesame Street”?

This “evidence” gets even more odd when Seidensticker tries to clarify what Dawkins is really saying:

Let’s recall Dawkins’ quote to be clear what he’s saying. He’s not saying every child raised as a Catholic is psychologically damaged more than every child sexually abused by priests. He’s simply arguing that there is overlap.

But then finding one example of such a case is meaningless. What does it mean to say that someone was more damaged by their Catholic upbringing than by being sexually abused? Especially in light of the above example of “Sesame Street”.

Thus, for this to be an argument, Dawkins has to be trying to establish that in general a Catholic or religious upbringing is comparable in terms of psychological damage to being sexually abused. Yes, we would know that in all cases and in all individuals that won’t hold, but we’d have to expect that, in general and on average, children raised Catholic suffer comparable psychological damage to people who were sexually abused. And this is obviously false. And even if we didn’t know that, one example wouldn’t show that. So Dawkins has no evidence and no argument. Seidensticker can talk about “overlap” — whatever that is supposed to mean — but that wouldn’t even rise to the level of an argument.

Now that we know that the argument to be meaningful at all must be stronger than “Some people are psychologically damaged by Catholicism”, let’s go back and look at Seidensticker’s attempt to deal with Bannister’s analogy:

All he has is another invented story where he imagines Dawkins faced with two educational options for his daughter. One school is run by Catholic nuns and the other “by a group of sexually voracious convicted pedophiles.”

Bannister is too busy mocking to notice the irony. For this to be an analogy with Dawkins’ quote, both of Bannister’s options—sweet nuns and sexually voracious pedophiles—are within the Catholic Church. Sure, that accurately describes some of these priests; I’m just surprised that Bannister wants to put that sharp a focus on it.

No. Bannister’s argument is to give Dawkins a choice between sending his children somewhere where he knows that they will be taught Catholicism or somewhere where they will be sexually abused. If Dawkins really believed his own argument, he’d have to argue that neither choice is better than the other, as both are — presumably — incredibly bad because of the psychological damage that would be done to his children. But I think pretty much everyone would say that even though it isn’t an ideal choice choosing the Catholic upbringing would be far superior. Given that, it seems that Dawkins’ purported “argument” doesn’t work; no one actually believes it. And the “evidence” Seidensticker gives above wouldn’t be enough to prove Dawkins rational if he did claim that there was no difference between the two.

But Seidensticker also misses how one could go about testing this. If Bannister was presenting this as a way to test the theory, he’s more on track than Seidensticker is, because again the point is to measure the psychological damage caused by Catholicism and the psychological damage caused by sexual abuse and find them comparable. We wouldn’t want to study cases where the two “overlap” because the interaction between the two might have an impact, either positive or negative. We certainly wouldn’t want to limit our study to only Catholic children abused by priests because that interaction with the authority figure would certainly confound the results. And on top of all of that … that’s not what Dawkins complains about. He complains about the idea of Hell. Sure, Seidensticker can argue that we can get a direct comparison of the damage if both are in one person, but there are so many confounds that it would establish nothing … especially since it would be hard to untangle, in most cases, what damage was done by what.

And again, one example does nothing to establish anything here.

Dawkins is right that religious indoctrination is a problem. (Aside: I propose a thought experiment where religion is in the adults-only category, along with voting, driving, and smoking here. Religion must have access to immature minds to propagate and would vanish like the Shakers without them.)

However, I’ve never heard Dawkins demand that society ban religion or forbid parents from teaching their worldview to their children. Again, that’s my belief as well.

But let’s presume that the psychological damage done by raising a child Catholic really is comparable to that of sexually abusing them, which is the only interpretation of Dawkins’ statement that both a) makes sense and b) has any real meaning that anyone would care about in this debate. If that’s the case and you really think it is the case, then why wouldn’t you want to do that? Presumably, Dawkins’ and Seidensticker’s objections to child sexual abuse is not that other people get to have fun that they don’t get to have, but that it is incredibly psychologically damaging to the child. If raising them Catholic is comparably as bad, then it’s incredibly inconsistent to say that in the case of sexual abuse, we should step in and use the law to prevent it and punish those who do it, but in the case of Catholicism which, again, causes comparable damage well, then, it’s okay if they really want to and I’d rather that they not do it or wait until their adults but, hey, no big deal. Again, the reaction is not consistent with what they claim to believe or know. That doesn’t mean their argument is wrong, but it seems to cast doubt on it if they themselves don’t seem to actually believe it … especially when they have no evidence to support it.

I’ll end with talking about his tangent, which is a bad argument in and of itself:

Let me take a brief tangent. Bannister insists that parents be given free rein to raise their children as they think best. Society is there as a backstop to intervene as necessary, but the benefit of the doubt for how to raise children goes to their parents.

I agree, and that’s the philosophy that must govern pregnant women considering an abortion. In the same way, they are on the front line, they best understand the issues within their lives, and they must be given free rein to decide for themselves whether an abortion is the right course. (I talk more about abortion here and here.) Bannister must be consistent—if we trust parents to do the right thing, we must similarly trust pregnant women. (Let me make clear that Bannister never mentioned abortion. I’m simply drawing a parallel that religious conservatives often miss.)

They only miss it because the parallel doesn’t exist. Seidensticker never gives what Bannister’s reasoning for giving parents free rein, but the typical one — and one that somewhat fits with Seidensticker’s response — is that since children can’t decide for themselves what’s best for them, someone has to do it for them on their behalf, and the best people to do that are their parents since, well, that’s pretty much the definition of “parent”; when we recognize the legal parents of a child (or guardian) we include in that the responsibility for acting in the best interests of the child. The alternative would be for the state to decide all of these things for all children, but there are so many of these decisions and they vary so much per child that that would be a monumental undertaking unless the state regimented and universalized the experiences of all children, which we aren’t sure is all that great for them itself. Thus, we give parents the responsibility for determining what is best for their child and then stay out of the way unless we are certain that they aren’t living up to the responsibility.

None of that applies to the abortion case, at least as Seidensticker describes it. They are thinking about their own lives, not those of others. If the foetus’ interests need to be considered, Seidensticker is not arguing for them considering it. We don’t have to leave this decision up to them because the circumstances are more limited and the views of others — medical professionals, for example — is more important and useful than that of the woman. There is no reason to argue that in that specific case the right move is to let the woman decide, unless you take a strong “individual choice” or “bodily autonomy” argument … which is what the debate is about. So that purported “parallel” isn’t one; one can easily hold it for parents and not for pregnant women wrt abortion.

So far, Seidensticker steadfastly refuses to defend these Bad Atheist Arguments as actual arguments. Let’s see if that will continue, or if he will actually defend an argument as some point in this series.

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3 Responses to “Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Christianity is Child Abuse””

  1. theoriginalmrx Says:

    I think there’s a simpler rebuttal to the purported child-rearing/abortion parallel: namely, that Bannister’s support for parents’ rights doesn’t extend to giving parents the power of life and death over their children. So, there’s no inconsistency whatsoever in his opposing abortion.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, actually, it does, since in general parents are supposed to be allowed to choose what medical care their children get, which would include taking them off life support and whether they get major operations done on them. If you take that line strictly,. then at least abortions done because of some medical problem with the foetus would compare. However, the sort of open abortion Seidensticker advocates for does not limit it to choices for the benefit of the child, but then he makes the comparison on the basis of leaving choices up to the individual. That’s not, as far as I can tell, what Bannister is basing that on, however.

  2. theoriginalmrx Says:

    Well, actually, it does, since in general parents are supposed to be allowed to choose what medical care their children get, which would include taking them off life support and whether they get major operations done on them.

    There’s a difference between not acting to save somebody and acting to kill somebody. Not letting your child have a certain medical treatment would fall into the first category, whereas abortion, which involves a direct medical intervention to procure, would fall into the latter. So, I don’t think that being able to choose medical care for your children is a valid analogy here.

    (Of course, maybe I’m wrong and there is actually no difference between the two categories. But even if that’s the case, I don’t think it’s inconsistent of me to say that people shouldn’t be forced to save others but should be prevented from actively harming them.)

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