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« CSI: Academia | Main | This Week's Acquisitions »

May 15, 2007



Thanks; this was both very interesting and very helpful.

Tom K.

Some Protestants are even blunter in arguing that Catholics are simply liars....

That, in a slightly more refined form, was pretty much what led to Newman writing Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

I think, when Kingsley wrote, "I am henceforth in doubt and fear, as much as an honest man can be, concerning every word Dr. Newman may write," that stung him as much as an English gentleman as a Catholic priest.


There's a gorgeous example of the Atheist Two-Step in a recent article by Dawkins:

If, as one self-consciously intellectual critic wished, I had expounded the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope (as he vainly hoped I would), my book would have been more than a surprise bestseller, it would have been a miracle. I would happily have foregone bestsellerdom had there been the slightest hope of Duns Scotus illuminating my central question: does God exist? But I need engage only those few theologians who at least acknowledge the question, rather than blithely assuming God as a premise.

But turning to the substance of your post, Miriam -- I wonder, are these anti-Catholic preachers really doing their own version of the Atheist Two-Step? I'm not sure. The essence of the Two-Step, it seems to me, is the refusal to engage with one's opponents' writings, on the grounds that these are untrustworthy or irrelevant to the point at issue. But at least two of the passages you quote (c and e) are doing precisely the opposite -- i.e. they are citing their opponents' writings in order to use them as polemical ammunition. The Two-Step, taken to its logical extreme, would result in a highly anti-textual form of argumentation: we don't need to read Popish books because we already know (a priori) that Popery is wrong. But surely there's nothing anti-textual about nineteenth-century religious polemic: it's deeply engaged with written sources; it's all about finding proof-texts to support your own position and refute your opponents. Indeed, one might well wish that nineteenth-century Protestants had been a little less textual in their approach, less concerned with 'Popery' as a doctrinal system and more willing to look at Catholicism in practice.

Colin Slater

I like the analogy a lot. It's a two-step, so it's a dance. And at a dance, you have someone opposite you doing the exact same thing, only it looks like it's backwards!

1. Atheist attempts to attack some general version of god, say "A supernatural being who created the world and interacts with it".

2. Doctrinaire theist scoffs, points out "But that's not the religion I believe in," without producing a better definition of god.

From a quick reading, I think this sort of argument is what (a) mentions briefly. Makes for an interesting comparison.


I think Colin Slater has it right. The usual run of critic says (usually quite rightly) that there are other types of religious belief that the atheist in question knows little about and does not address. The critic does not then say what those beliefs are, explain how they lead to a different conclusion, and challenge the atheist to rebut an actual argument. Maybe this version should be called the "theist side-step."


I suppose this will seem arrogant of me, but I think efforts by atheists to argue rationally with believers *are* a kind of dance, in that it may be pleasant to do but is otherwise a complete waste of time. What changes people's minds -- and then only very occasionally -- is seeing that others who beieve differently are rather admirable in one way or other.


People from any two different schools of thought or faith can not argue to any purpose if they do not share axioms. The religious point of view will always seem absurd to atheists and atheism will always seem absurd to the faithful. No amount of debate will change that.

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