Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Paul Johnson & the Strawman

Forbes, the venerable business magazine that I somewhat respect, somehow allowed this article by historian Paul Johnson to slip into its pages. I'll let you go ahead and read first. What follows is the response I sent to the editor (just under the 500-word limit!).


To The Editor:

As an atheist it was with no surprise that I read the old, tired arguments against atheism from Paul Johnson.

To call atheists “militant” is to suggest that we are violent, and that is inflammatory at best. Did I miss reports of a recent string of bombings for which prominent atheist organizations took credit? I believe the adjective Mr. Johnson meant to use is “outspoken”. Yes, we are outspoken and are becoming more so. We are getting more press, more television coverage and traffic is increasing on atheist Web sites. Mr. Johnson is correct to note that atheism is on the rise, but that is the only point he makes that could be considered so.

There is too much superstitious, conspiracy-theorist nonsense in Mr. Johnson’s article to refute in 500 words, but it is clear that he dislikes not only atheists but anyone who does not believe in the God of the Bible. I can only assume that at least one of states he speaks of that has an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons is Iran, which is an Islamic republic – not an atheist one. And it is not revulsion against Islamic extremism that is partly driving the current “wave” atheism as Mr. Johnson suggests – it is our revulsion against the aggressive response of a significant portion of the Christian population towards what is a very small percentage of the total Islamic population. Lumping atheists together with Islamic extremists is a transparent tactic – one indicative of his level of paranoia.

Mr. Johnson also suggests that if we atheists had our way, we would demolish churches, burn artworks and attempt to purge history of any mention of God. We aren’t interested in trying to change the past, Mr. Johnson. There are plenty of people trying to do that already. It’s the future we’re most worried about.

As atheists, we believe that using faith as a crutch, that hiding behind it in order to see only what we want to see, is akin to shutting one’s eyes while driving on the highway. You can have “faith” that God will see you to safety, but chances are someone will needlessly wind up getting killed.

In conclusion, to address Mr. Johnson’s question about whether this latest wave of atheism is a “phase”, he will be sad to learn that it is not. Atheists currently make up about ten percent of the population, but recent studies have shown that 20% or more of young people under the age of 25 are identifying themselves as non-believers. And Christianity has only itself to thank. Thanks to the internet we can read about every church scandal, fallacy and abuse of power. And it wouldn’t take more than a few days of news coverage to make a reasonable young person believe that a life in God’s service is not much of a life at all.


For those of you unfamiliar with debate tactics (particularly of the theist vs. atheist variety), Mr. Johnson employs in his article one of the most common methods of deflecting (and I do mean deflecting - not debunking) an atheist argument: the "strawman".

A strawman is essentially an implication that your opponent holds a certain (undesirable) position that they actually don't. Here is the text from his article where the strawman is let loose:

"I could not find content in a landscape whose horizon held no churches or in a civilization whose literature was purged of any reference to a divine being; whose art had blotted out the nativities, crucifixions, saints and angels; and whose music contained no intimations of immortality. And I believe the vast majority of people share such a view."

Mr. Johnson is right - the vast majority of people, including atheists, share this view. As I stated in my response to this article, it is clear that Johnson is implying that atheists would unleash a scorched-earth campaign against religious imagery and literature if we were in charge. This argument is clearly a strawman because (1) to do such a thing would be logistically impossible, and (2) most atheists simply would have no interest in such an undertaking.

So - to all you on-the-fencers out there, here is your first lesson on monitoring theist vs. atheist debates: Beware the Strawman!

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