Serious Arguments in Silly Guises

I often read complaints that atheists tend to be a bit lazy in their arguments, relying on name-calling and silly references to make their point. This is, unfortunately, true in many cases. One shouldn’t assume that an atheist is any smarter, any better informed, or have thought in any more depth about their arguments as anyone else. Nope, most of the time everyone just recycles the arguments they’ve heard that make most sense to them. If you look carefully, there are often interesting arguments on all sides.

So here’s a very initial attempt to collect some atheist throwaways and express the significant argument under the hood.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster – The Flying Spaghetti Monster is an argument about rationalization. Take a particular theological belief and find an adherent who can rationalise their belief. You will find that they have various detailed arguments to support their belief. But if you look closely those same kinds of arguments would support other beliefs. Maybe just minor modifications of the same, but often leading to more and more remote positions. In fact, because almost all rationalization is post-hoc, you can apply the very same arguments to a farcical theology, such as the flying spaghetti monster (or the invisible pink unicorn, if you prefer your parody divinities to be female). There is no part of the doctrine of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that can’t be defended by robust rationalization. And this should clue us into the fact that rationalization itself is suspicious. Christianity may be a warranted belief (according to Plantinga, for example), but that merely means there are post-hoc rationalizations for holding it. In the very same terms (using the same arguments, in fact) faith in the FSM is also warranted. Which tells you all you need to know about the validity of ‘warrant’ in the pursuit of theological knowledge.

Woo – Woo-woo is a term of uncertain origin. It represents the opposite problem to FSM: a lack of reasoning and rationality. A belief that is woo is inherently unreasonable or unreasoned. This can range from a simple logical fallacy, through to the introduction of a whole bunch of dependent but undetectable properties of the universe. So if someone justifies the existence of auras by telling you that they’re caused by angels, then you’re talking big-style woo. As a piece of rhetoric, it should be taken as saying: your story is getting far-fetched and needs grounding in something we can all sense. Unfortunately, one person’s reasonable is another’s woo, and so woo gets used as a general term of disapproval (I’ve been called a woo, for example, for not thinking that all religious people are crazed idiots with genocidal tendencies).

Conspiracy Theory / Conspiracy Theorist – This is an argument from the historical inability of people to keep important things secret. Many arguments rely on the fact that a crucial piece of evidence has been intentionally hidden. The evidence we all know should be there, but isn’t. So the advocate of the position posits that the lack of evidence is evidence of a conspiracy: further reinforcing their world-view. This is the right time to call Conspiracy Theory. Conspiracy theories are a double edged sword. The same conspiracy theory argument that suggests 911 wasn’t an inside job could also be used to suggest that Jesus’s early disciples weren’t pretending the resurrection happened. At some point conspiracy theory arguments become arguments from the majority viewpoint, and that is dangerous ground. Remember the adage: just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me!

Please suggest some more… I’m stuck after these three.


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16 responses to “Serious Arguments in Silly Guises

  1. Well IMNSHO nothing was ever won in faith by argument. Faith comes through hearing and obeying. Then maybe you have as you say rationalizations and questions and stuff – and maybe you get the taste of something you could not have known otherwise. If you don’t, too bad. I consider a lot of theological writing is done from love and such tastes of the real – and a lot is done from accurate copying and citing of other scholars – and a lot is done from the will to power – and probably some other things too.

    Can you increase you stature by a cubit from thinking in depth? I’m getting older, I expect I am shrinking.

  2. imarriedaxtian

    [Edit by Ian: I rescued this from the Spam, it is largely repeated by Imax below, but I wanted to make his links active]

    There is an interesting post over at Common Sense Atheism on why arguments for or against religion does not work. It is premised on a paper by Jennifer Faust.

  3. imarriedaxtian

    Ian, I tried to post a comment but it did not seem to have gotten through. I am reposting my comments again but with my links removed to see if it will get through this time. My original comment was:

    There is an interesting post over at Common Sense Atheism on why arguments for or against religion does not work. It is premised on a paper by Jennifer Faust.

  4. imarriedaxtian

    Just as I suspected, your blog rejected my first comment because I had two links on it, the first to the post itself and the second link to Jennifer Faust’s paper. Sorry.

  5. Ian

    bob, imax – you both make a similar point, that arguments are irrelevant. Well I think that is only partially true. There have been several viewpoints I’ve held on religion that I’ve had to release because of what I perceived as better arguments. But at some level I agree, that most reasoning is post-hoc rationalization, and that faith is something altogether different from the belief in a set of doctrines.

    What worries me about that approach, however, is that it often seems to be a fig-leaf for having no or very bad reasoning behind your position. It is an excuse to stop looking and stop using your brain. At that point it becomes dangerous I think. I know churches who discourage their members very strongly from reading about Christianity (other than in straight-down-the-line Christian books). They would say that faith is about being a little child, about wisdom, not knowledge. Well okay, but that’s just an excuse to keep people ignorant.

    It is instructive, I think, to see how many theology students in a secular university like mine, lost their faith as a result of what they were taught. And why the evangelical church I attended as a teen was very keen that I didn’t study theology anywhere except at an evangelical bible college.

    So yes, arguments are over-hyped. But they are crucial when the alternative is the silent acceptance of dogma.

  6. >>They would say that faith is about being a little child, about wisdom, not knowledge.<<
    There is always an excuse to take a word and use it to discourage. My mother told me that to play the piano well I would have to practice a lot – hours a day. That was an appalling introduction to discipline – the same kind of discipleship that is required of the faithful. Maybe I should rather have learned to love the music of practicing. (As two of my children did and both are at the top of their field in music.) Maybe the young evangelical has to be undermined in his naive security – if the church won't do it, the university will – thank God 🙂

    such 'faith' lost is a good beginning

  7. Ian

    Amen, Bob. Thanks.

  8. Kay

    Unfortunately, one person’s reasonable is another’s woo, and so woo gets used as a general term of disapproval

    Yup. Way too much. 🙂

  9. Ian

    Kay, I just noticed you also posted on Woo on Monday (here) saying exactly that!

    I wonder if we were reacting to the same spate of woo-calling…

  10. Kay


    Maybe. I can’t remember what I was reading, but it had something to do with how feeling awe in the face of existence and the universe is just another form of woo. And that any talk of it in anything but scientific terms is woo.

    It made me think of a few of my favorite authors and how, according to the comment I read, they would be called woo-ish.

    Heck, I think the commenter I read would call Carl Sagan woo-ish. 🙂

  11. Graham Veale

    I’m not at all sure that you’ve grasped Plantinga’s point here…no rationalisation at all is necessary to have a warranted belief.
    Instead of comparing belief in God to a FSM, compare Theism to a belief in objective moral values, or objective aesthetic value. Now I think that a person is justified in believing in objective values, even if they lack an argument or publicly available evidence. Now arguments can be advanced against objective values. And you have a duty to respond to counter-evidence.
    But consider the proposition – “It is a fact that it is always wrong to torture babies to death only for the heck of it”. I think moral experience justifies that belief.

    (Of course there are many ways to account for objective values other than Theism. I’m not advancing a moral argument here. I’m just making a point about belief, argument and evidence.)

  12. Ian

    Graham, welcome to the blog, and thanks for posting!

    Plantinga – Yes, I compressed a lot of opinion about Plantinga into a throw away statement there.

    So for Plantinga (as I read him) warrant can be a passive thing. My belief is warranted if there are certain structures surrounding it. Regardless of whether I know about them or can describe them. In fact, in the case of belief in God the fact that he concludes that the warrant is only present if God exists suggests that the warrant may be unknowable. But still the belief is only warranted if there are those structures, and the structures he argues for two books on seem to me to be in two categories: those that I’d agree with and those I don’t 🙂 The dividing line being mostly about what he wants to pull out of the hat using them. So the latter category I conclude are post-hoc rationalizations. Often when I read philosophy I can see the rabbit going into the hat. Usually I can’t tell you what the error in the reasoning is, necessarily, but nonetheless, if you want to pull out a rabbit (like a warranted Christian belief), at a certain point it has to get in the hat, I think.

    I don’t then understand why you think comparing God to the FSM is not a reasonable thing to do.

    Of course discussing objective moral values, or objective aesthetics is an interesting topic. But I’ve no idea how you get from that to an analogy with theism, except if you start out wanting to anchor theism to something more concrete and less post-hoc. God is like morality: the concepts both occupy a difficult point between our intuitions on objectivity and subjectivity. Well okay, but FSM is like morality in that case. As are fairies. And auras. And past-life regression. And Xenu, the galactic overlord.

    That’s the point of the FSM, it reminds you that a Yahweh-friendly starting point (like the word “God” – nod, wink) is in itself an unreasonable place to start. All that’s likely to happen is you get a Yahweh-friendly conclusion, no surprise.

    So yes there are ways to account for objective values other than the fact they were dictated by the FSM. And given that we can all agree that a flying spaghetti monster is an idiotic place to consider as the grounds for objective anything, then those ‘other’ sources should be our starting point and the entirety of our discussion. They cease to be ‘other’ when faced with something as bare-faced ridiculous as the FSM. Why not when faced with “God” (“you, know, Yahweh, nod, wink”)?

  13. I confess that I have never read Plantinga’s “Warranted Christian Belief” tomes, but then I do have a life, and I do think/hope it is possible to understand his argument without trudging through the whole malarkey. The problem is that using Plantinga’s logic, it is possible to have “warrant” for belief in *anything*, from Last Tuesdayism to Frankensteinian Realism. All you have to do is construct your rationalisations post hoc, and refuse to budge from that framework. Creationism is the perfect example.

    I’ll be honest – I don’t rate Plantinga at all. He is certainly *clever*, but he is not *smart*. His re-formulation of the Ontological Argument is (in my opinion, and since I am a philosopher of international renown, having met sheep on both sides of the Irish border, my opinion must carry some serious weight) codswallop, and his review of “The God Delusion” for “Christianity Today” was so misguided, that I really can’t bring myself to thinking that he has anything sensible to say on the topic.

    [Now that *usually* sets Graham off, but we’ll see ;-)]

  14. Graham Veale


    Thanks Shane! I did mean to get back to this thread yesterday, and hopefully I’ll get back to it today or tomorrow. Generally, I like Plantinga’s criticisms of other epistemologies. But I don’t buy into his account of knowledge as “Proper Function”.
    I *think* his Ontological Argument does work…but it was never meant to convince an unbeliever. It simply shows that if you can believe that God’s existence is possible, then you should believe in God. If you’ve good reason to believe that God *can’t* exist then the argument can’t persuade that he does. So the question is, “what use is the argument?” Maybe it is of some comfort to a believer with training in modal logic and too much time on their hands??

    I’m not a trained philosopher, so don’t take me too seriously. I’m a high school teacher. I’m only an expert in taking out crazed juveniles with nothing more than a detention slip and a crazed squint in my left eye.


    PS Generally, how often do folk post here to keep conversations going?

  15. Hi Graham,
    Actually, I think Plantinga’s ontological argument goes belly-up at the first hurdle. It is not enough to think that it is possible that god exists (I do, actually, concede that it is *possible*). If you think it is possible that god does NOT exist (and I certainly think that; moreover, I think YOU think that too!), then by Plantinga’s own argument, the “quality” of omnipresence goes down the toilet, and if Plantinga’s god is by definition omnipresent, you have just proven it to be a logical impossibility, so god CANNOT exist. By definition.

    Of course, the flaw is that Plantinga’s argument is mere wordplay. Whether it convinces anyone or not is irrelevant to whether it *works* or not. Like Anselm’s argument, it is (to quote the late great Graham Chapman) very silly.

    A slight salve for Plantinga’s scuffed knee – the problem is that considering that it is “possible” that something exists is NOT the same as it ACTUALLY being possible that it exists. The former simply refers to our conceptual inability to exclude the option – a state of ignorance, perhaps. So he is making a very simple error that he should have picked up in Philosophy 101. Maybe he just wasn’t listening carefully enough in class.


  16. Ian

    @Graham – it really depends, I am more than happy for things to rumble on as a two-person thing for ever (see Sabio and I on the “Other Minds” post last month, for example). So feel free to rebut.

    I’m not so sure I agree that Plantinga’s argument works, or rather than his unspoken premises work. In particular the way he assigns modal operators to things. Modal logic is a pretty formal and abstract system, which can be nicely systematized for a number of domains. None of which is anywhere near the gestalts of ‘stuff that exists’ that he uses (he’s not alone, of course). To me the rabbit goes into his hat when he starts talking about necessary beings (just putting those two words together, seems to me to beg the question).

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