Cal Thomas, the syndicated right-wing columnist whose Christian views dominate many of his opinions, wrote a short piece on April first of this year that should be required reading in every high school and university course on critical thinking. It is a virtual cornucopia of illogic, a jumbled mish-mash of ad hominems, straw man arguments and muddled thinking that somehow manages to pack in as many logical fallacies per square inch as I’ve ever seen in a syndicated column. In case you missed it, here it is in its glorious entirety:
April Fool’s Day: The Atheist National Holiday
Happy April Fool’s Day. It’s the atheist national holiday. ‘The fool has said in his heart there is no God,’ you know. I hope you’ve sent your atheist friends a card.
Several things about atheism. First, it is the smallest minority in the world. Why? Because there are no dead ones. Second, an atheist is guilty of the worst form of pride. He, or she, says that everyone else who believed in God and his Son for thousands of years was an idiot and only they are smart enough to have figured out there is no God.
Is that credible? Are atheists smarter than Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn; scientists and illiterates and the apostles, all of who died a martyr’s death (except John, who was exiled?) Any one of them could have saved his life by renouncing what he claimed to believe. Who would die for this sort of monstrous lie ‘ unless it was and is the truth?
Think about it. Billions believe and have believed. Only a tiny minority don’t. But they will someday, because every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. I’m Cal Thomas in Washington.
As an atheist I probably should be offended, but it’s just so damn bad that I can’t help but be amused by it. As a service to student of critical thinking everywhere, I’ve broken down his rant line-by-line and enumerated as many fallacies as I could find. I’m sure there are more. In fact, there’s more than one sentence that contains multiple fallacies, while others alter their fallacious content based on whether they are taken individually or as part of the encompassing paragraph. Truly, it is an amazing piece of work.
Happy April Fool’s Day. It’s the atheist national holiday. ‘The fool has said in his heart there is no God,’ you know. I hope you’ve sent your atheist friends a card.
Cal begins his rant with a classic ad hominem (literally, ‘to the man,’ i.e. attacking the person rather than the argument), which gives you an idea where the whole piece is headed. Since his arguments cannot stand up to reason, the only recourse left to him is to label his opponents ‘fools.’ Cal should probably bite his tongue in the future, though. He’s obviously forgotten Jesus’ admonishment in Matthew 5:22: ‘Whoever says, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.’
Several things about atheism. First, it is the smallest minority in the world. Why? Because there are no dead ones.
Forgetting the absurd generalization for a moment, one has to wonder where Cal gets his data. Even in the United States, the most evangelical Christian country in the civilized world, atheists comprise, at minimum, 5% of the population. That is more than Jews, Muslims and Buddhists combined. (And these are the people who admit to being atheists, which takes considerable strength of character considering the stigma the label carries. The actual number is almost certainly higher.) When you consider atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, Unitarians and other indifferent non-believers, the number jumps to 14%. There are some countries that sport an atheist majority. In fact, on a planet-wide scale, the all-encompassing ‘non-religious’ category is the third-most widely held ‘belief,’ trailing only Christianity and Islam.
Of course, the number of people hold a particular belief has no bearing on whether that belief is true, but Cal should at least get his numbers straight. Of the last part of this section (” there are no dead ones’), what can one say? Circular argument, begging the questions, irrelevant conclusion, hasty generalization. Pick one; they all apply.
Second, an atheist is guilty of the worst form of pride.
Yup, another ad hominem. Now we’re not only fools, we’re prideful fools. What one’s pride has to do with the veracity of one’s argument is beyond me, but then again so is most of this column.
But let’s deal with the charge: Are atheists prideful? Let me address this question by asking another question: Who’s more prideful, a person who uses scientific reasoning and rational thought to come to a conclusion based on the available evidence (and who, incidentally, will abandon that conclusion when new evidence comes to light), or a person who claims a monopoly on the absolute truth and who will never abandon that belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? It seems to me arrogance and pride go hand-in-hand not with belief, but with fanatical belief.
According to the typical atheist’s world-view, the universe is most likely infinite in both space and time. It can neither be created nor destroyed. The visible universe evolved from a singularity known as the Big Bang, resulting 15 billion years later in an expanse populated by roughly 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion suns around which orbit, on average, 7 or 8 planets. How many of these 70 thousand million million million planets contain life? We only know of one. If you ask free-thinkers, most of them would probably agree that the universe is teeming with life, but no one knows for sure. It is one of the most fascinating questions in all of science.
But no matter. On one of these planets, in a backwater portion of one unremarkable galaxy, at no particularly important place in the universe, sits a planet know to its humanoid inhabitants as Earth. The multitude of life on the planet formed slowly over the course of about 4 billion years by an evolutionary process of natural selection. Through various environmental pressures, couple with random genetic mutation and, above all else, the struggle for survival, every magnificent creature on this particular planet evolved from what is essentially primordial pond scum. Every creature, from bacteria to mammal, is linked by a common genetic replicator called DNA. From the laws of physics, the interaction of fundamental particles, chance, and an incomprehensible amount of time, a giraffe was born out of nothingness, free to live and die and interact with the thousands of other creatures born in the same manner to this one insignificant rock called Earth.
Now, contrast this world-view with the predominant Christian view: Human life is too complicated and glorious to have arisen by chance, and so there must be a God of the Universe, a deity responsible for The Creation. This god created everything ‘ the heavens, the stars, the planets ‘ for our benefit. Humans are central to His creation. In fact, He cares so much about our well-being that He sent His only begotten Son to die for our sins, that we may have everlasting life if only we believe. The God of the Universe looks like us, cares for us, and created the universe for us. We are special; we are unique; we are central to everything in God’s glorious creation.
So I’m a little confused ‘ who’s prideful and arrogant again?
He, or she, says that everyone else who believed in God and his Son for thousands of years was an idiot and only they are smart enough to have figured out there is no God.
Having gotten the ad hominems out of the way, Cal now jumps headfirst into a fairly juvenile straw man attack. (For those of you who haven’t heard the term before, a straw man argument is one in which an opponent’s position is caricatured in order to make it easier to attack. My wife is notorious for using this tactic: ‘You’re right, I’m a horrible person ”) Atheists do not call their opponents idiots, but if they did they’d be guilty of the same ad hominem attacks that Cal seems so fond of.
What atheists and other free-thinkers do challenge, of course, is the popular wisdom. It is easy and convenient to say you believe in God, even when you really don’t. Most of my friends and family claim to believe in God, but when pressed, ‘God’ turns out to be nothing more than a placeholder for ‘the unknown.’ This is intellectual dishonesty, in my opinion. If you’re the type of person who rejects the personal God of the Bible and instead finds ‘God’ in the wind or a beautiful sunset or the will to persevere, then you’re nothing but a closet atheist.
Free-thinkers reject the supernatural, in any form. So while it is true that we will say, with resolute conviction, ‘There is no God,’ we will also say, without a doubt, ‘There are no Santas, fairies, goblins, ghosts, demons, succubae, incubi, leprechauns, unicorns, or devils.’ Cal would probably agree with me on the last statement, so the question I’m always curious to ask believers is: ‘Why do you reject 999 out of 1000 possible supernatural entities, but cling to the last one even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence?’
And like it or not, atheism and agnosticism are almost always the end result of an intellectual exercise. Free-thinkers are, for the most part, extremely well-versed in mathematics and science. We should not have to apologize for being ‘smart enough to have figured out there is no God’ and having arrived at that conclusion via rational thought.
Is that credible? Are atheists smarter than Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn; scientists and illiterates and the apostles ‘
Cal now commits the popular fallacy of the Appeal to Authority, or Argumentum ad Verecundium. Since Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn and the apostles were great men, their beliefs must be true. Psst, Cal, a little advice: Even Kings can’t make two plus two equal five, and a drunk on the street corner can have better insight into the nature of the universe than Einstein or Hawking. Great men do not have a monopoly on the truth; in fact, if history is any indication, the opposite is more often true.
‘ all of who died a martyr’s death (except John, who was exiled?) Any one of them could have saved his life by renouncing what he claimed to believe. Who would die for this sort of monstrous lie ‘ unless it was and is the truth?
From an Argumentum ad Verecundium right into an Argumentum ad Populum. This guy’s good! First, appeal to authority, then appeal to the masses. Certainly, all those people who’ve died over the years for their beliefs couldn’t be wrong! It seems to me that at a point not too far into our past, the vast majority of humans believed the Earth was immobile at the center of the universe, while the sun, moon, stars and planets revolved around us in concentric circles. And yet, no matter how many poets, philosophers, theologians, scientists and bums on the street believe it, this stubborn old Earth insisted on circling the sun. If we’ve learned anything as a species, it must be that popular beliefs are even more deserving of skepticism than unpopular ones.
As far as martyrs dying for their beliefs, there’s a lot to say. First, and most obvious, is this: There are many people on this planet willing to die for their beliefs, as the horrible events of 9/11 made sickeningly clear. Does that mean Islam is the one true belief and Allah is the one true god? According to Cal’s reasoning, that’s certainly a possibility. After all, if a Christian dying for his beliefs gives merit to Christianity, surely a Muslim dying for his beliefs props up Islam in the same manner. Who would die for this sort of monstrous lie, Cal, unless it was and is the truth? If I were to put on my scientific hat and look at the data from 9/11, I’d have to conclude, in the absence of all other evidence, that God must be Allah. After all, He allowed the hijackers to board those planes without the least bit of hassle, He guided them accurately to their targets in three of the four cases, and He allowed 3,000 Americans to be slaughtered in the most horrible way imaginable. Surely, if there is a God, this data proves that God is on the side of the Muslims.
There’s another point to make here, this one more subtle. A person who gives up his life for his religious beliefs is doing so based on a selfish cost/benefit analysis, nothing more. Pretend for a moment you are a devout Christian, and you’re about to be drawn and quartered in some fundamental Islamic nation by a few fanatics. They give you an out, though: ‘If you renounce your God and embrace Allah, we’ll let you go.’
What are your choices as a devout believer? You can renounce your God, in which case you save your earthly body for, at most, a few decades, but in the process you damn your soul. Or, you spit in their faces and lose those few decades of earthly life but gain an eternity in Heaven with your God. If you are devout in your beliefs, your choice is clear. It’s not even a hard choice. It is, however, completely selfish, with only one goal: to save your eternal soul.
Martyrs might be true believers, but their act of martyrdom was nothing but an exercise in self-preservation. Applaud their conviction, if you will, but don’t pretend it was a heroic choice deserving of respect and admiration. Who’s a true hero? How about the atheist who says, unselfishly, ‘I’ll risk the prospect of eternal torment because I believe any god worthy of the title would not eternally torture someone for an honest intellectual error.’ Compare this with the popular Christian mind-set known as Pascal’s Wager: ‘I don’t know what to believe, but I’d better opt out on the side of caution and believe, so that just in case God is real I’ll save my eternal soul.’ Am I the only one who finds it difficult to believe that God would prefer the hypocritical, self-serving Christian to the honest atheist?
Think about it. Billions believe and have believed. Only a tiny minority don’t.
Closely related to the Argumentum ad Populum, we now get the Argumentum ad Numerum. Billions and billions have believed, so it must be true. I’ve already covered this nonsensical argument above, so it’s pointless to waste any more time here.
But they will someday, because every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Translation: The Bible tells me that Jesus is Lord and that everyone will be forced to admit that when they die. How do I know this is true? Because the Bible says so, silly!
An argument that presupposes that which is sets out to prove is called a circular argument, or Circulus in Demonstrando. It is also closely related to ‘begging the question.’ You can quote the Bible all you want, but until it is proven to be the actual word of the God of the Universe, it’s pointless. You’ll also notice that Cal has taken a quick aside here to bash, not only atheists, but all non-Christians. Am I the only one sickened by the vision of a supposedly benevolent God driving all non-Christians to their knees in a forced confession of devotion? Or maybe what really bothers me is that such a vision seems to generate absolute glee in Christians like Cal Thomas.
I’m Cal Thomas in Washington.
I haven’t found a logical fallacy with this sentence yet, but maybe I’m just tired and missing something. But I do have one final thought. Why is Cal devoting any space at all to what he obviously considers to be a worthless minority? In my opinion, it is because he is fearful. He fears atheists and other free-thinkers because he knows, deep in his heart, their arguments ring true, and this scares him. Like most fallible humans, he’s scared that death might really be the end, that there might be no cosmic purpose to his life other than whatever he makes of it, that Hell might merely be a myth invented by the powerful to scare the weak into submission, and Heaven might simply be a comforting fairy tale. When we are fearful of our opponents because of our own deep-seated insecurities, that tends to be reflecting in the way in which we lash out. When we are confident in our arguments, our tone reflects that confidence. We have no need to resort to ad hominem attacks because our arguments speak for themselves. If I were inclined to write a scathing editorial about people who still believe the earth is flat ‘ and I wouldn’t bother because their views are not worthy of anyone’s time, particularly my own ‘ would I call them fools and arrogant? Of course not. My arguments would demolish their credibility. It is only when we are backed into a corner that we attack the person rather than the argument. Cal should relax, though. Yes, the God of the Bible is a fantasy, but that’s reason for celebration, not fear, and if Cal started talking to atheists rather than blindly attacking them, I think he’d begin to understand that.