Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The John Loftus Know-Nothing Pity Party

One of the purposes of the Ticker and Forge blogs was to keep up with various anti-Christian blogs and provides answers to posts that struck me as needing a few whacks with a pointed stick. I had a list prepared of blogs to check, though with Thommy “the Wolf” Stark “retiring” from blogging, and Ken Pulliam regrettably passing away, two on that list vanished in just a week.

John Loftus? He’s still here, though it seems many of his posts these days are either composed while on Miller Lite (and plenty of it) or just repeat stuff he’s said before in some place or another.

But of course, that doesn’t mean a whack isn’t in order.

Case in point was a recent diatribe in which Loftus whined about epistemology (he didn’t use that exact word, though; it’s harder to spell when you’re inebriated):

Christians have faulted the so-called New Atheists with ignorance. They do the same thing with me.

That we do. John has proven time and again that ignorance is one of the few things at which he is exceptionally competent.

If only I knew this or that I would see the error of my way and believe again.

Huh? Um, no. I don’t harbor any such illusions about Loftus and many other Skeptics. Actually, I would think that of maybe 1% of those I know, because for the rest, their unbelief is not based in any sort of informed, rational epistemology, attempts to apply a thin coating of it to the contrary.

But anyway, this leads to the heart of the matter, a series of questions that Loftus apparently thinks are real stumpers, and which we will divide into two sets. The first is the “how much” set:

How much philosophy should Richard Dawkins know to rationally reject religion? How much science should Christopher Hitchens know? How much Bible should Daniel Dennett know? How much theology should Sam Harris know? How much should we know to rationally reject religion? How much?

Let’s get more specific by first discussing something about epistemology and information.

It’s always possible for there to be some little bit of “deal breaker” information which would offer sufficient knowledge to reject a larger paradigm wholesale. For example, if the body of Jesus were found in a grave in Palestine, you’d need to know no more about Christianity to reject it. Just one fact.

At other times, it takes a lot more to get a “deal breaker” level of information. For example, let's say there was a theory that one of Neptune's moons is covered in ice, and let's say that astronomers and other experts provide no clear consensus, meaning you have to decide for yourself. You'd have to dig out a lot of material from various scientific fields like astronomy to break the deal either way. (If the experts did weigh heavily in one direction, you'd have some significant weight to bend the deal, but not enough to actually break it. You'd need to understand their arguments better to break it for yourself.)

There’s just no pat answer; every situation must be taken on its own, though admittedly that would mean Loftus would actually have to break a leg now and then, which he’s never shown much interest in doing once he finds an argument he agrees with.

The real question is whether any of these guys possess “deal breaker” information on any of these topics. I’ve read Dawkins and Harris, and they definitely do not. Dawkins is an embarrassment who even manages to give implicit endorsement to the Christ myth; his philosophy is so bad that he has embarrassed atheist philosopher Michael Ruse with it. Harris’ knowledge of theology is also primitive to the point of embarrassment. They are not even close to possessing deal breaker data.

I have not read Dennett and Hitchens, but I can’t imagine how “science” would aid in rejecting “religion”, save under some primitive rubric whereby it is assumed that the two are antithetical. There are plenty of religious people who think otherwise. But it’s not my game, so I can’t comment further.

Then Loftus offers a collection of “how little” questions:

What if we know very little? What if all we know is that God did not save our child and she died from Leukemia? What if a scientist rejects religion because s/he cannot adequately test supernatural hypotheses? What if a historian rejects the claims of a religion because as a historian s/he must assume a natural explanation for the events in the past?

Pshaw. None of that is deal breaker knowledge, and each one involves serious logical fallacies or errors in thought. The person with the child assumes that God is obligated to step in and fix things, and is merely relying on strong emotional reactions, which provides absolutely no answer to a rational theodicy. There’s also the question of what actually causes such diseases, and how much we’re responsible for them in our own actions.

The scientist needs to get a grip and recognize that there is no distinction between natural and supernatural, and that not being able to “test” a “hypothesis” isn’t sufficient grounds for rejecting a claim; when was the last time you were able to put history in a test tube? Sometimes you can test historical hypotheses (eg, various ways Kennedy may have been assassinated in Dealey Plaza) but more frequently, you can’t.

The historian? Who said that they “must” assume any such thing? And that’s also the same false dichotomy between natural and supernatural at work.

All of this of course is just John offering props to his drones who already agree with this stuff and don’t have any interest in actually considering the evidence. Which leads to answers to Loftus’ final set:

What then? Are they culpable for doing so when this is all they know to do? When can it be said that a person can rationally reject a religion? Surely the theist cannot possibly demand that nonbelievers must know all that can be known before their rejection of religion is warranted.

Baloney. I've dealt with these people for years. It isn’t “all they know to do”. They are not being rational. And no one is demanding that they “know all that can be known” – just that they know more than they do now, and that they know enough. But none among that crowd does, and I’ve got years of observation and interaction to support that, and to show that Loftus is among the least knowing of all of them. The fact that he does so much of this type of whining speaks for itself in those terms.

Loftus closes:

To put it in terms of the Outsider Test for Faith, how much should someone know in order to reject Mormonism, or Catholicism, or Islam, or Orthodox Judaism, to name a few. How much do YOU know of them?

I wouldn’t see a need to reject Catholicism per se. Mormonism? I know a lot about it – more than Loftus ever will. As for the other two, there’s a deal breaker there: Both reject the Resurrection as historical, and I find the evidence for it to be more than satisfactory. Of course that doesn’t mean every word taught in Judaism and Islam is false, but it does mean there is sufficient grounds to reject their unique claims as ultimate answers to life’s questions.

Beyond that, let’s just sum it up this way: How much do you need to know, John?

A heck of a lot more than you do now. That’s for sure.


  1. Not only is there the question of "deal-breaker" facts, but of responsibility relative to your position/influence. Talk to your average person in the pub about religion and their opinion may reflect a lot of ignorance, but their culpability for this is clearly reduced compared to the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens et al who set themselves up as authorities. They cannot avoid the criticism of ignorance by appealing to the standards of the average person.

    I've only just started following Loftus' blog, and this post on the question of sufficient knowledge was one of the first of his I read. Certainly didn't impress me.

  2. @Martin: An excellent point. To many people fail to recognize information as a commodity that can be mishandled easily to devastating long-term effect.