Creationism and the Courtiers’ Reply

PZ Myers put forward this famous and rather devastating counter argument against theology:

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.

It was designed to counter those ‘sophisticated theologians’ who criticized New Atheism’s arguments as simplistic and who encouraged Dawkins et al to read and engage with modern theological treatises.

When I first read it I was impressed, but I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, and not from Atheists.

It is, at heart, an argument of anti-intellectualism. It says that for field X there is a direct way of accessing the truth and therefore one can come to the secure conclusion that any academic or scholarly work in that field is wrong without having to consider it on its own merits. Put another way, if you have good reason to believe you know the truth, than you don’t need to look at the evidence.

Which other groups make the same kind of claims? Lots, as it happens. Geocentrists, holocaust denialists, mythicists, and, darling of my debating life: Creationists. And the latter (who I have most exposure to) have begun to quote it to me. When I suggest that they find out about genetics, or learn about radiometric dating techniques. And this week it was quoted by name:

Look up the Courtiers Reply by your beloved PZMeyers [sic] — I don’t need to go to school for ten years in biology to know its all a lot of rubbish — cats don’t turn into dogs — the emperor has no clothes.

I have studied, and continue to study theology. I believe there is no God (for the most common definitions of God). I think those very few theologians who claim their work shows otherwise are wrong, and I can generally say where their reasoning is specious. But such rejections cannot be made on the basis of Emperor’s New Clothes type thinking.

I wince hard when New (or Gnu) Atheists make theological statements the equivalent of “cat’s don’t turn into dogs” and then, when they are corrected hide behind this kind of response: ‘first show me why your field is valid, then I’ll listen to anything you have to say’. Especially when this is most often correlated with communities of non-believers who are more likely to claim they understand religions better than their believers.

And this is why: it is the exact same arrogant anti-intellectualism that endangers good science.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Creationism and the Courtiers’ Reply

  1. Ian, you said,

    I wince hard when New (or Gnu) Atheists make theological statements the equivalent of “cat’s don’t turn into dogs” and then, when they are corrected hide behind this kind of response: ‘first show me why your field is valid, then I’ll listen to anything you have to say’.

    I didn’t follow. Can you give me a specific example?

  2. Ian

    Yes, from this week, describing the cosmological argument as: “everything has a cause, therefore there has to be a first cause.” when I pointed out that the cosmological argument was more complex and nuanced, and that that formulation was plain wrong, I got told that didn’t matter. Another example would be railing against a man-in-the-sky God and being unwilling to engage with ground-of-being type models, because — after all — there’s no more evidence for any God (which itself is a cat and dog argument imo).

    The big difference is, of course, there are believers who do believe in the naive God models (though only a few, in my experience, when pressed — far fewer than you’d think by listening to Christian rhetoric), whereas scientists don’t believe the cat and dogs thing. So it is important to say God is not an old man in the sky: it is important for folks like Dawkins to write books like the God Delusion, I think. I thought it was good and mostly on target, I thought Sam Harris better still.

    But if someone takes the Courtiers’ Reply type stance when challenged with scholarship on theology or religious studies, or ancient history, or biblical studies, that is a problem. It is a problem because it just makes us (on the atheist side) no better than creationists. (Except that we’re right and they aren’t, of course.)

  3. exrelayman

    A couple of observations:

    Every good argument atheists make against Christianity is eventually parroted back at them by Christians – I have seen co-opted by Christians: burden of proof, you can’t have it both ways, circular argument, ad hominem, and more. Courtier’s reply simply adds to the list.

    When you have investigated enough to know their is no cloth, you have investigated enough. You cannot be required to go all the way down the rabbit hold for all the different religions – life is not long enough, and tedium sets in when the same category of thought error is replicated repeatedly among the differing forms of supernaturalism. There always remains some infinitesimal possibility that there truly is an invisible cloth, but you do see the naked emperor, and that is enough (for me anyway).

    Some atheists argue poorly – no question there. Sometimes Courtier’s reply is appropriate and sometimes not. Depends on the state and quality of the particular argument. The fact that a Christian used it poorly does not make it always inappropriate.

    In regards to all of my comment – OR NOT. My thoughts are, as always, amenable to improving criticism.

  4. Ian

    Thanks. By and large I agree.

    But the issue isn’t use of an argument (as you say Christians can make good use of logical arguments and can point out logical fallacies with just as much justification as atheists). The issue for me is whether the argument itself is anything more than pure anti-intellectualism. I suspect it isn’t.

    One side effect of this is that religionists can hide behind theology: claim it as their own. And since many atheists act at best petulantly towards it, and overwhelmingly are ignorant of it, many religionists can feel that it provides some justification for their belief without actually having to read it or understand it. Whereas, in my experience the vast majority of modern scholarship on religion, scripture, religious experience and theology is deeply at odds with the naive religious belief Gnu atheism is addressing. As long as atheists are citing the Courtiers’ Reply as an excuse for not actually engaging with real scholarship, they aren’t able to show (as I hope this blog does to some extent) that mainstream religious belief isn’t supported by it, and often refuted by it.

    Now to be fair, Dawkins took a different tack, and noted that the God of Tillich is not the God of most people in the pews. But had he been willing not to dismiss the scholarship outright (I think it was he who said it was something of a scandal universities such as his could have a theology department) – he could been more effective in showing that theologians by and large totally agree with his view on the non existence of the God he’s arguing against.

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