Quote of the week: Gene Witmer on how Christian presuppositionalists see us

25 02 2009

Warning . . . it’s a long one:

Key to the presuppositionalist position are two psychological claims about believers and unbelievers. I’ll use “unbeliever” here as a blanket term for anyone who fails to believe that God exists, including those who believe that there is no God and those who simply don’t believe either way.

The first claim: So-called unbelievers in fact already know that God exists. Their declarations to the contrary simply manifest a kind of willful self-deception and sin.

The second claim: This knowledge manifests itself in various things the unbeliever does and says. So, for instance, when the unbeliever reasons or makes moral judgments, he betrays this implicit knowledge. He in fact constantly, without acknowledgement, “presupposes” this knowledge. Hence the name “Presuppositionalism.” [. . .]

The first psychological claim is important as it makes a big difference in how presuppositionalists approach unbelievers. Suppose you think that someone already knows that P and refuses to admit it; in that case you’re certainly more likely to treat him with disrespect or anger. Indeed, the temptation to treat him with scorn or abuse will be greater yet if you think the refusal to admit that P is due to some kind of immoral motivation. (Imagine how angry you might get at the corporate driven scientists who insists that, say, nicotine is not really addictive.)

Just to break in for a moment, I think this speaks to why atheists are so regularly strawmanned about what they do and don’t believe. You’re an atheist, ipso facto your words must always be taken with a grain of salt (i.e. relative to believers), ipso facto it is legitimate to make assertions about what you really believe, despite your protestations to the contrary. (See Witmer’s discussion of “conscious” reasoning vs. “unconscious” presuppositions, elsewhere in the article from which this extract is taken.)

On the presuppositionalist view, we already know that God exists; as a result, as they see their job, it is not so much as to offer an argument. After all, if we already know this claim to be true, we don’t need an argument. Rather, they see their job as getting us to admit what we already know. Their goal is more akin to using torture to extract a confession than it is to offer a rationally persuasive argument.

[. . .] it’s important to understand how your opponents see you; if you don’t, you can hardly hope to say something persuasive to them. It’s worth noting, too, that the presuppositionalist view of unbelievers helps explain why the actual arguments they do offer are in fact as bad as they are. They don’t really see argumentation as the main point, as they’re just trying to get you to agree to what you already know.

Witmer is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Florida, and it’s worth reading “Atheism, Reason, and Morality: Responding to Some Popular Christian Apologetics” in its entirety as a primer for dealing with the main arguments and rhetorical ploys of some of the Christian door-to-door salesman we may run into occasionally, in the blogosphere and elsewhere. In terms of overall strategy, Witmer counsels (i) modesty (and I would add honesty) about the limits of your own knowledge on x or y subject, and (ii) “forced slowness”—never being afraid to demand that your opponents explain their questions and clarify their terms where such clarification is required. (Precisely the approach that Russell Glasser and Don Baker were critiqued for in their dialogue with a Christian apologist on The Atheist Experience.) Don’t overextend yourself, and never forget that your opponent’s main game is to trap you with your own words and make you look foolish and irrational. It’s sage advice for debate on any topic, I think.

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15 responses

25 02 2009
ozatheist

Interesting, when I get chance I’ll have a read of Whitmer’s essay. I like the idea of (ii) “forced slowness”, some of these Christian apologists are well versed in Presuppositionalism and I find it difficult to debate them sometimes.

while writing the above I misspelt apologists as apologits , I thought it a funny, and perhaps Freudian, spelling mistake. Though, a lot of them are gits

25 02 2009
ozatheist

oops, error in link, should be:
gits

25 02 2009
Sammy Jankis

Ah, the old “You believe in God but are just too proud to admit it because you want to be boss and don’t wan’t to live by his rules” ploy. If an apologist refuses to accept that you believe what you say you believe, and insists upon putting words in your mouth (or placing thoughts in your head, as it were), I think it’s perfectly reasonable to end the conversation right there and then. I don’t see how a constructive exchange can occur when one participant refuses to give up their red-herrings and straw-men.

25 02 2009
AV

If an apologist refuses to accept that you believe what you say you believe, and insists upon putting words in your mouth (or placing thoughts in your head, as it were), I think it’s perfectly reasonable to end the conversation right there and then.

Witmer doesn’t appear to consider engaging presuppers in conversation to be a worthwhile activity in any case, especially since “conversation” is not on their agenda.

25 02 2009
Cale

Many atheists make the same presuppositions about theist. We often like to point out behavior that demonstrates a theists lack of faith such as wearing a seatbelt or having car insurance. Even though a theist claims to believe that their God(s) will provide for them, they still save for retirement. These kinds of arguments exist on both sides.

26 02 2009
AV

These kinds of arguments exist on both sides.

If your point is that atheists are capable of strawmanning theists, I have no quarrel with that.

Witmer is addressing something more specific, I think. Misrepresentation of the beliefs of another can be a product of mere ignorance, and can (at least potentially) be cleared up through dialogue, finding out what the other person actually believes, as opposed to what you have hitherto asserted that they believe.

What Witmer is talking about, on the other hand, is a kind of wilful misrepresentation on the part of presuppers about what atheists “really” believe. This is not the kind of misrepresentation that can be cleared up through dialogue with an atheist, because (Witmer argues) the presupper takes it as axiomatic that the atheist is misrepresenting his own “true” beliefs.

Granted, this is not to claim that atheists can’t be guilty of wilful misrepresentation on their own part. But I can’t say I’ve ever heard an atheist claim that theists as a class are either in denial about or are barefaced lying about what they “really” believe.

27 02 2009
Bruce

Probably worth considering theological innatism as well, if you’ll excuse the my shameless self promotion. 😉

28 02 2009
PStryder

“Granted, this is not to claim that atheists can’t be guilty of wilful misrepresentation on their own part. But I can’t say I’ve ever heard an atheist claim that theists as a class are either in denial about or are barefaced lying about what they “really” believe.”

I’ve actually heard/read this claim from atheists many times. One of the reasons that has often been postulated as to the venom theists reserve for atheists is that atheists show the theists how bizarre and simply false their beliefs are, and they know deep in their hearts that they believe in utter bull. I’ve also heard atheists put forth the idea that the leaders of various religions KNOW that the belief is bogus, and simply use the church/religion for power and control.

I personally prefer to think that believes are delusional. That belief in gods is essentially a mental illness and should be treated as such.

28 02 2009
PStryder

BTW, nothing irritates me more than talking to a theists and being told that I believe deep down and just want to be an atheists so I can do what I want.

People who see atheists this way get nothing from me except ire.

28 02 2009
arthurvandelay

Bruce: the reference to the Inquisition in your post is apposite. Indeed, one might describe the presuppositionalist strategy against atheists as the Inquisition by other means.

PStryder: I certainly wouldn’t accuse theists as a class of knowing “deep in their hearts” that there is no deity. The ridiculousness of a belief, the lack of evidence in support of a proposition, is no guarantee that such a belief will not be deeply held.

Bruce’s post neatly sums up why I think atheists inspire such ire among some theists, and why presuppers might consider us fair game for their deception. It isn’t just that we don’t believe—it’s that we don’t believe in belief. It is for this same reason that so-called New Atheists, meaning those atheists who are willing to make an argument in defence of atheism or against theism and supernaturalism, are cretinously described as “militant” by some moderate theists.

1 03 2009
adherent

How ironic. I have long believed that most of those who profess Christianity don’t actually believe it, based on my own experience in an evangelical church, and observation of others. Why were there so many books on dealing with doubt in the church bookshop? Why such strong admonitions to keep the faith?

I think the nature of belief for many christians is more like literary suspension of disbelief – a choice by the reader to willingly suspend disbelief in order to enter in to a story. Reminding someone reading, say, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, that Sherlock Holmes was not real, is likely to result in mild irritation. But pointing out to someone with a large investment in christianity – church, church groups, public professions of belief, social networks, family ties, giving, etc., that their god is not real is likely to encounter much stronger psychological defenses.

I think (my opinion) that the number of professed christians who actually do believe in all honesty, is small, and that the reason that they struggle with their belief is that, actually, they don’t believe, and the struggle is about ways to sustain that suspension of disbelief with too much cognitive jarring.

Returning to a theme of the post, I think this provides a different way to engage theists, by not simply accepting their own claims about their own belief at face value, and moving the discussion to their own doubts (they do have doubts). This is more for one on one conversation – theists are not very likely to discuss their doubts in a public forum or in like minded company.

Its difficult to sustain a belief in the absurd. There was perhaps a time when simple, unreflective belief was possible, but now (my opinion) theism implies:

a failure of education,
a failure of wit, or
a failure of integrity

The first two are rare in my part of the world. The third, a failure to directly and honestly engage one’s (dis)belief, or even worse (see the Dover trial for examples), is endemic.

So I suppose I’m a reverse presuppositionalist.

2 03 2009
AV

I think (my opinion) that the number of professed christians who actually do believe in all honesty, is small, and that the reason that they struggle with their belief is that, actually, they don’t believe, and the struggle is about ways to sustain that suspension of disbelief with too much cognitive jarring.

You may be right, adherent, but I’m not in a position to determine the degree to which individual Christians sincerely hold their beliefs. I think it’s safer, therefore, to grant for the sake of argument that they are sincere, noting that being sincere in one’s beliefs and being justified in holding one’s beliefs are two very different things.

4 03 2009
PhillyChief

I will not seriously deal with presuppositionalists. There’s no point. Nothing can be gained through debate with them. I will, however, mock them mercilessly by way of extreme and ridiculous scenarios which expose the absurdity of their presuppositions.

3 03 2010
Gene Witmer

Is it appropriate to inquire as to why the ire over those who hold to Christian beliefs, i.e. that the Bible is true? Why would an unbeliever waste any time at all in refuting claims for the trurhfulness of Scripture? My namesake I see has written an essay but to my knowledge we are not closely related, though presumably our roots are both there in the Swiss Emmentale where there is a believing Anabaptist presence from back in the Conrad Grebel/Menno Simons days. Recently I me a Jewish young woman from Berne who has become a keen witness to the claims of Christ. Interesting.

3 03 2010
RON GARVEY

I found it interesting the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, brought 25 sat phones to Chile’s President Michele Bachelet along with hug, and promise ” we will be here after every else have left” . Sat phones are real help when all else fails. I LOVE THIS ARTIST.

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