Theists reflexively don’t like Richard Dawkins, but can upset Atheists too when he speaks on religion. Personally, I think Dawkins’ atheist efforts have had a very good impact. Yet I am sympathetic with some of the objections people have toward him. For unlike Dawkins, I am not an all-religion-is-bad atheist. But even with objections, I think Dawkins offers us a lot. Heck, I am sympathetic with peoples’ objections about me too, and yet I still like myself. 🙂
When people make objections about Dawkins, I prefer they make careful objections. But a large number of objections I hear about Dawkins are irrational. Today I will explore one of Dawkins’ bad argument classes — one I hear him make often. Then I will show how ironically, a criticism of Dawkins consists of the same sort of fallacy: a relevance fallacy.
István Aranyosi (a philosophy professor at a Turkish University but possibly Romanian or Bulgarian) wrote a fascinating article in Boston Review, discussing this issue. Below I will only discuss the section on the Fallacy of Relevance.
Dawkin apparently tweeted:
“Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.”
This tweet implies a fallacy of relevance that I often see among atheists. As Aranyosi says, “Hasan’s religious beliefs are irrelevant to his journalistic activities. It is what we call a “fallacy of relevance” in informal logic.” In my jargon, the reason it is a fallacy is because we have multiple selves and/or our minds are partitioned, thus even brilliant people can hold ridiculous beliefs which don’t necessarily interfere with other areas of their lives.
Here is how I would formalize the logic in Dawkins’ tweet:
(1) If someone believes any ridiculous thing, they can’t be a good journalist
(2) Hasan believes a horse once flew
(3) Believing a horse once flew is a silly thing
:: therefore, Hasan can’t be a good journalist
Aranyosi calls this a fallacy of relevance. The Relevance Fallacy is a broad category within the category of Informal Fallacies — those lying within the premises. The fallacy of relevance is also called Ignoratio elenchi or irrelevant conclusion — See here for a list of such fallacies. In that list, however, I can not find this fallacy. Instead, I think this is the “Black-or-White Fallacy” (see the Fallacy Files explanation here).
So in my formalization above, the error lies in the first premises — the second and third premise are true and the conclusion flows from the first three premises. But the first premise is false because it is has a “Black-or-White Fallacy” buried within it which says something like this:
“If someone believes even one ridiculous thing,
then they will believe many ridiculous things
and thus inevitably be bad at everything they do.”
The general form of Dawkin’s claim is then:
(1) If X believes even one ridiculous thing,
then X can’t be good at any job requiring reason
(2) Y believes Z
(3) Z is a ridiculous belief
:: therefore, Y can’t can be good at any job requiring reason
This Black-or-White Fallacy is a common one I see among atheists when they generalize about religion.
In Aranyosi’s article he points out how anti-Dawkins folks create the same fallacy of relevance by saying his argument (his tweet) is evidence that he is an anti-Muslim bigot. But just because Dawkin’s feels that a ridiculous belief (like a winged-horse) stops good journalism does not point to his bigotry, because Dawkins makes this sort of illogical claim against many religious and even non-religious folks. It is not enough to use this to claim that Dawkins has pan-anti-Islamic bigotry. Just because he dislikes one religious belief, does not mean he is bigoted agains Muslims. He may be, but this is not evidence for such a claim.
Question for Readers: Do you think my formalization of Dawkin’s tweet is accurate. Do you think the fallacy classifications are accurate? (Please note, I really don’t want to discuss Dawkins — instead, this is an exercise in logic.)
Footnote: Mohammed’s horse’s name is Burāq, which means “lightning”. On hearing that name I thought Buraq may be the origin of Barack Obama’s first name. But apparently, “Barack” is an African name meaning “blessed” which itself comes from of the Hebrew word ‘Baruch’ meaning the same [ as does the Arabic name ‘Mubarak’]. Googling shows that many people wrongly wondered as I have. Some maintain their view because it feeds position that Obama is a secret Muslim.