David Marshall, The A-Unicornist, and a review of reviews

Mike over at The A-Unicornist has spent quite a few weeks working through the Christian apologist book True Reason, chapter by chapter. (Links to all his reviews can be found here.) The book is more or less a response to the relatively recent uptick in atheist writings and whatnot; it contends that Christianity and reason go hand-in-hand while atheism lacks in justification. Most of the chapters are written by different people, the most well known of whom is William Lane Craig. (Craig, popular on YouTube and the debating circuit, is the sort of guy who fancies himself knowledgeable about physics. This is despite the fact that he does not understand anything about the First Cause argument.) Unfortunately, Mike has yet to get a response from Craig. However, he has had several authors respond in his comment sections. A few even made their own blog posts. One of those bloggers is David Marshall.

I have not read True Reason, so I can’t respond to anything specific from Marshall’s chapter unless it has been quoted. However, I can respond to a few of the bad arguments he makes in his response post. Let’s start with this gem:

[Alister] McGrath is Dawkins’ colleague, and his expertise lies in historical Christian theology, so he ought to (and does) know what it teaches.

Richard Dawkins has studied biology and evolution for over 50 years. He has a PhD from Oxford. He has taught at Berkley and Oxford. He wrote one of the most influential books on evolutionary theory in the 20th century. Alister McGrath is not his colleague.

This sort of thing represents the general quality of Marshall’s opening. For instance, he goes on to link to books he has written, bash more atheists, and call Dawkins ignorant while saying John Loftus is basically a liar. But the part that takes the cake is where he attempts to poison the well by, as he admits, biasing us against Mike:

Whether you call [the name of Mike’s website, The A-Unicornist) whimsy or logic, let me begin by asking the obvious question. Is it intellectually humble, or wise, to define oneself as denying the existence of unicorns? If you are a Christian, how can you know God didn’t create any unicorns, and put them in one of the worlds C. S. Lewis locates at the bottom of pools in the Wood Between the Worlds in his children’s book The Magician’s Nephew? (A Christian multiverse already, in 1955!) And if you are an atheist, the Anthropic Principle probably requires you to posit an infinite number of worlds, or so enormously large a number of worlds that the word “astronomical” is rendered quaint. Then on what grounds, having visiting almost none of those worlds (I am not talking to New Agers), that there are no unicorns on a single one of them?

This is an issue that has been covered so many times by so many people, including Mike during his process of reviewing this book. Atheism (and a-unicornism, for that matter) does not mean denying the existence of deities. It refers to a lack of belief in them. That is, atheists are not making the positive claim that there are no gods. We don’t know that. What we’re saying is that no compelling evidence has been presented to convince us of the Christian’s positive claim that there is a god, so we reject his proposition. (The same goes for positive claims made by Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and virtually all other religions.) Hell, Richard Dawkins even has a 7 point scale of belief in The God Delusion where he contends that he is an agnostic because, though no good evidence exists to make a reasonable case for any god, he does not have definitive proof that we live in a godless Universe. Just the same, there is no proof that we live in a unicornless Universe, but there is absolutely no reason to assume that they exist.

At this point Marshall is starting to get into Mike’s actual arguments, but continues with the bad form:

The question is how fairly or incisively Mike has thought through what he claims are the book’s better arguments, or if he knows enough for his opinion to be worth anything.

So Jesus-like.

Let his attempt to “think through” my argument be a test of that. If he fails to accurately grasp the argument I make in this chapter, let’s assume that he flubbed the other chapters, as well, until he proves otherwise.

This is interesting because the post to which Marshall is responding is about chapter 10. One would imagine he might look to the 9 previous reviews (one of which was about a chapter which Marshall also wrote). Or even more significant, since his post went up on October 21 and Mike finished chapter 16 on October 16, one would not be unreasonable in imagining he could have read those other chapters rather than assume they were flubbed. But, no, by all means. Let’s go down that totally logical road and assume that if someone gets one argument wrong, he must have them all wrong. SPOILER ALERT: This ‘logic’ does not work out in Marshall’s favor.

David Marshall, whose previous chapter left me unimpressed . . .

Since I know quite a bit about the subjects of that previous chapter, world religions and the history of Christianity, and Mike evidently does not (read my response in the comments section), let’s just say, that his “thumbs down” critique does not quite break my heart.

(The italicized portion is a quote from Mike whereas the rest is Marshall’s response.)

Oh, well. If you’re an authority in your field, then I guess we’re done here. Unless…wait a minute. That’s right. It turns out logical fallacies are not valid responses. So…I guess we can just assume that Marshall has flubbed the rest of arguments, right?

If Gnus were really open to learning something gnu, shouldn’t the fact that Christians keep denying the definition of faith New Atheism projects on us Christians, tell them something right there?

First, this is an argument from popularity. That makes three logical fallacies (though credence has been lent to Marshall’s argument that we might rightly assume a person who flubs one argument has flubbed them all). Second, atheists have been arguing for who-knows-how-long that atheism is not a positive claim, yet that hasn’t stopped Marshall from ignoring us. Third, the definition Gnu Atheists have had for the sort of faith displayed by those who believe in God (‘belief without evidence’) is correct. If it wasn’t, then we would expect to have all sorts of Christians who came to their beliefs independently of the Bible. That is, the Bible is not a source of evidence anymore than the Lord of the Rings is a source of evidence that Mt. Doom exists. So since that is true and since Christianity requires the Bible, we do not have independent Christians as we would expect if faith was not belief without evidence. On the other hand, scientists come to the same conclusions independently all the time.

Indeed it doesn’t! Here’s Blatant Flub II: Mike quaffs his first quote! (And what he calls an “old canard,” at that!)

He glosses me as saying “faith is just another way of knowing.” But then what he quotes me as actually saying, is rather that faith (as Christians understand it) is the ONLY way of knowing anything!

Here is what Marshall said, emphasis mine: In fact, faith is simply one of two faculties (along with its close cousin, reason) by which we know all that we know.

At least that one wasn’t a logical fallacy.

Also, the sub-text, Mike is admitting that he has often heard Christians say faith is reasonable. This he calls an “old canard,” because he has heard it so often. Why, then (third and most important error so far) doesn’t he allow Christians to explain what we believe for ourselves?

He read your book, didn’t he?

If Christian after Christian says, “Faith is, by our understanding of the word, a function of reason,” shouldn’t our understanding of the word be normative for how we use it? The question is, after all, what Christians think about faith, not what gnus or unicorns or hippogriffs think.

The problem is that Marshall says religious faith is like the ‘faith’ we have in our senses. That premise is what allows Mike to pick apart the argument: There already exists a description of what our belief in the reliability (or lack thereof) of our senses is. It’s called assumption. The things we assume are distinctly different from what Marshall says we must do in order to believe in God; Marshall describes two things as faith, but he is plainly wrong about one of those things. Take this from his post, for example:

When I cross a bridge, I assume it will not fall down. If it does fall down, my assumption will have proven to be in error. But the act of crossing the bridge is an act of faith, in the sense I am using the word, as is the act of praying to God.

See the problem? It lies in the phrase “in the sense I am using the word”. That would be fine if his argument was narrowly construed, but it isn’t. He is attempting to apply his sense of the word to situations in which a different definition already exists. Again, this is what allows Mike and everyone else to tear his argument apart.

How can Christians be “abusing” language for using the word “faith” consistently as we have used that word for thousands of years, and its ancestors, before the modern English language even evolved into being?

This isn’t a logical fallacy, but it is a bit of hipster theology, and that’s just as bad, if not worse.

Again, Mike is completely missing the point of this chapter. It is not to prove that the Bible is accurate — I wrote two books arguing that the gospels are essentially historical, but their arguments are completely irrelevent to what I am saying here.

What elicited this response was a claim by Mike that one will not be convinced of a particular portion of Marshall’s arguments unless one assumes the Bible to be true. Marshall understood that to mean Mike was saying a full defense of the Bible needed to be given in the chapter. Again, perhaps that first logical fallacy wasn’t so far off the mark, what with how many times Marshall has flubbed his responses.

I’ve actually skipped quite a bit of what Marshall had to say because it was largely just a series of insults directed at Mike. He calls him thick, ignorant, numbskull, and says he is acting dumb. Taken with his earlier poisoning of the well, it isn’t a big leap to conclude that this guy isn’t entirely secure with his arguments. He commits a number of logical fallacies (maybe 5, counting the ad homs? I think I forgot to include the poisoned well, but who knows at this point) and all he has to rely on is pulling rank and insisting that everyone needs to buy into his definition of faith. Then, just to compound it all, he says this in his comment section:

Mike: “His whole post was like that. Bragging about how he’s an expert and I’m not, saying that I’m “arrogant” and a “numbskull”, that Sean Carroll “worships science”, that I have a “thick skull”…. the dude’s certifiable. And a pretty major (novel obscenity — DM). If his arguments had a leg to stand on, he wouldn’t be steeped in that kind of vitriol.”

This seems a bit peculiar, because just a few posts earlier, Mike had been calling William Lane Craig a “hypocrit,” “dishonest,” and an “f-ing theologian.” And in this post he uses stronger language than “numbskull” about me. So is this a concession that his own arguments have no leg to stand on?

This is a common mistake people make about ad homs. It is not a logical fallacy to insult the hell out of one’s opponent when the point of the insult isn’t meant to undermine the arguments being made. It is only when an ad hom is used in place of actual rebuttal that it becomes a logical fallacy. I think it is clear that, while Marshall does respond to Mike’s arguments with actual arguments of his own, he is also attempting to undermine Mike’s credibility throughout the entire post. As for the language Mike used about Marshall, he called the guy a major dickhole well outside the purview of any attempt to present further argumentation; he was just stating his opinion of the guy, not trying to undermine anything.

At any rate, this post has gone on for far too long, so let me sum things up: There are a lot of good reasons to reject the arguments David Marshall presents. Also, he is a bit of a dickhole.