The atheist/agnostic camp usually lays claim to the title of “the rational ones” (occasionally nicknaming themselves “brights”), asserting that belief in God is inherently irrational and that their disbelief is thus an act of reason. This is, of course, nonsense, as I’ve discussed here. It is quite reasonable to believe in God, and the definition of “reason” that these folks give is often stunted and anemic, withered down to and often conflated with some form of empiricism (as I discuss here—please pardon the self-promotion, but it’s relevant!).
Reason is a pre-requisite for empirical science, not a nickname for it. And the first building-block of rational thinking and discourse is logic. Thus I’m thoroughly amused when folks who claim sole proprietorship of reason make the most basic of logical errors in their arguments. Let’s examine one.
I’m sure you’ve come across this nugget before: “We don’t believe in Zeus or Thor or Aman-Ra anymore. Why should we believe in the God of the Bible?” The argument underlying this rhetorical question is that if one or several of the category of “supernatural beings” is not worthy of belief, then the entire category must equally be unworthy of belief. God, Apollo, Quetzlcoatl… no real difference between them. Each must be as fictitious as the next, because they’re all “gods.”
The fallacy of composition is committed when one assumes that what is true for a part of a group must be true of the whole of the group. If a characteristic is essential to being a part of the group, then the assumption is valid, e.g. it is reasonable to assume that all cats have four legs because it is part of the definition of a cat that it is a four-legged creature (accidental exceptions not withstanding), just as it’s part of the definition of a cow to be an herbivore and part of the definition of Craig from Parks and Recreation to not be funny. Seriously, what were they thinking? I’ve had hangnails that were funnier than he is.
But if a characteristic or aspect is not part of the definition of a thing, then that aspect cannot be reasonably expected to be present in every member of the category or species. Just because some cows are brown does not mean that all cows are brown. Just because some cats are not evil does not mean that all cats are not evil. (All cats are evil, but that’s a topic for a separate post.) And just because some of those characters we categorize as “supernatural beings” do not in fact exist does not mean that everything we categorize as a “supernatural being” does not in fact exist. If this were true, it would mean that “not existing” would be part of the definition of a “supernatural being.” But whether supernatural beings, or more specifically God, exist is precisely the point of contention!
This is another logical fallacy, called “begging the question.” To “beg the question” is to assume the very thing that one is trying to prove. (Note: When people say “that begs the question” and mean “that brings up another point,” they are using the term incorrectly, or at least ambiguously, differently from how it is meant technically, philosophically.) In this case, the atheist/agnostic begs the question by essentially arguing “We know that gods do not exist because we know that gods do not exist.” That’s a tad silly, isn’t it?
There’s one more fallacy in play here, which I discussed in a previous post: the category mistake. This is known more colloquially as an “apples to oranges” comparison. A category mistake is a comparison of two things that are incomparable because they have no common point of reference, like “This flower smells better than the color blue,” or “This cake is sweeter than justice” (which I suppose could mean something poetically, but is nonsense literally). Just so, to compare the God of the Bible to the pagan gods is to compare completely unlike things. No offense to any remaining practitioners of Norse or Greek religion, but these gods are really more like super-powered human beings (which may be why Marvel saw fit to turn one into a superhero), with human emotions and physical bodies and the like. There are firmly ensconced within the world of nature, even if they have some extra degree of power over it when compared with humans.
The God of Christianity, on the other hand, as Christian philosophical and theological reflection understands Him to be, utterly transcends nature as its creator. He is the Uncaused Cause, the Unmoved Mover, the one whose essence it is to exist, having no beginning or end (eternal), in need of nothing (perfect), existing necessarily (existing essentially). That is completely different from the pagan gods, who do have beginnings in time, who do seem to be in need of various things (judging from their activities), who need not exist at all. Comparing Zeus and God is like comparing Jason Alexander’s early portrayal of George on Seinfeld with Woody Allen: the former is clearly a very poor imitation of the latter. (I doubt Woody Allen ever thought he’d find himself compared to God in any analogy. It’s a very, very loose analogy. And I guess Jason’s Alexander’s Woody impression isn’t that bad.)
The point is, while the Bill Mahers of the world may claim such arguments to be “rational,” in fact a different befits them more befittingly: sophistry. Sophistry is argumentation that has the appearance of wisdom and reason; it is seductive but false. The Sophists were the enemies of Socrates, the father of philosophy. When they employ such arguments, these self-professed “brights” are the enemies of reason