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Ad Hominens, Special Pleading, Straw Men & Red Herrings: John Loftus’ Response to MandM

October 3rd, 2013 by Matt

John Loftus has written a response to my post “There Probably are no Duties. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life!” Before turning to Loftus’ critique, let me recap my argument. While my post was satirical, it was intended to make a serious point. This being that many common and influential critiques of theism are incoherent.

To establish this I argued three things.

[1] That many critiques atheists offer of theism are moral critiques. Atheists argue that historically theism has been intricately linked with various forms of social oppression and/or the sacred texts of theistic religions condone oppressive practices.

[2] That such critiques presuppose or assume the existence of moral duties. The critic has to assume that these practices are wrong even though the religious believers condone them.

[3] That if one accepts the standard arguments atheists use against theism then the presupposition that there are moral duties is unjustifiable because precisely analogous arguments can be used to show there are no moral duties.

Now if these three contentions are true then there is a fundamental incoherence in many common critiques of theism. If Loftus is going to provide a rebuttal of these contentions then he needs to provide reasons for thinking one of these three contentions is false.

Unfortunately, instead of engaging the argument, Loftus ignored it and attacked a string of red herrings.

John LoftusLoftus’ first argument in Do You Want to Be a Christian Apologist? Part 10 was to assert that I am “intellectually dishonest”, although somewhat charitably he states I am probably not aware I am dishonest – presumably I suffer from profound self-deception. Apparently the truth of this claim is blatantly obvious to “us” [by which he apparently means the atheist community].

Unfortunately, simply stating that I am self-deceived and asserting with great confidence that I am wrong is not actually tantamout to offering a reason for questioning [1], [2] or [3] above. If it did then one could easily demonstrate that Loftus’ own work is substandard, I could just assert that it is and that everyone knows I am right and hey presto there’s my proof .

Clearly, this is not a method by which one can reliably establish the truth or falsity of the matter.

Loftus second argument begins with him drawing from my preamble:

“Some atheists offer moral critiques of theism; their claim is not just that belief in God is false or unjustified, it is that such irrational beliefs are intricately linked with immoral and oppressive practices. Moral outrage often motivates the critiques offered – one only needs to read the condemnation of religious wars, religiously motivated terrorism, inquisitions, witch hunts, the suppression of science, sexism, homophobia, and so on, which is so prevalent in many free thought writings. Similarly, one needs only to read the accusations, regularly repeated in popular atheist literature, that the Bible condones slavery, or genocide, or stoning cheeky children, or rape, to observe this.

Note that behind this critique is the presupposition that there are moral duties. People have a duty to not engage in wars or acts of terrorism, religious people who promote sexist or homophobic practices are wrong for doing so. I think this is nonsense as it assumes there is such a thing as a moral duty, it assumes things religious people do can be wrong. This is false and here is why.”

After citing me Loftus rejoins:

“Note the diversion here? Instead of providing answers to skeptical arguments he’s asking how anyone can have a moral critique of the Bible who doesn’t believe it’s the inspired word of God. He’s special pleading. No one else, given the rules of his game, can offer a moral critique of the Bible. Not a Hindu, nor a Muslim, nor a Buddhist, nor even liberals like the late John Hick or Thom Stark, or process theologians….. Do they? Do pantheists have a moral basis for critiquing the Bible? Flannagan would also have to reject the Natural Law Ethics (NLE) of the Catholic church, for if Natural Law Ethics obtains then even atheists have a basis for their moral critiques of the Bible. …”

Unfortunately this rejoinder has little rational merit at all.

First, I do address the sceptical arguments in question. By defending [3] I argue that analogues of these arguments entail an obvious false conclusion and therefore they cannot be sound. This is clear from reading the section of the original post which Loftus does not cite.

Second, contrary to what Loftus tells his readers, nowhere in the cited preamble do I claim people cannot make a moral critique of the Bible if they do not believe it is the inspired word of God.

What I explicitly state is that “behind this critique is the presupposition that there are moral duties. People have a duty to not engage in wars or acts of terrorism.” In other words, what I state is that these critiques are sound only if there are moral duties and the actions in question are, in fact, wrong. Nothing is said about needing to believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. All one needs to do to verify this is to read the section that Loftus cites. It is somewhat ironic that between Loftus’ claims that I am “intellectually dishonest” and “willfully ignorant” because I “don’t understand atheist arguments” Loftus misrepresents my argument to his readers, a misrepresentation that could easily be cleared up just by actually reading the passage he copied and pasted.

Third, even if I had argued this, which I did not, it would not mean I was engaging in special pleading. Special pleading occurs when one person applies certain standards to others while taking their own position to  to be exempt from these standards without providing adequate justification for the exemption. There is no reason to think that people who think the Bible is the sole basis for morality do not apply this standard to themselves. Loftus may disagree with this position but simply disagreeing with something and annexing the name of a fallacy to it does not mean it is actually a commission of that fallacy.

Loftus’s second rejoinder is to state:

“I see no reason to think atheists cannot spot irrational moral beliefs that cause harm to others. We have a computer. It’s called our brain. Evolution explains how we got it. All it needs to do is compute the steps.”

There are several problems with this response. First, it’s fallacious; Loftus here argues that because he sees no reason why atheists cannot spot irrational beliefs, it follows they can and do spot such beliefs. In other words, he is suggesting that if there is no reason for denying something  then we should affirm it. This is false and undercuts his own comments about theism and the burden of proof. After all, if the fact we have no reason for denying something means we should affirm it then it is up atheists to prove God does not exist, until they do we should all be theists.

But second, even if this argument were not fallacious it is irrelevant because I never denied, nor do I deny, that atheists can spot irrational beliefs in others – there are some atheists, like Graham Oppy, who are very good at doing this. What I did argue was (a) in order to offer moral critiques of theism atheists need to themselves have rationally justified belief that duties exist; and, (b) if the arguments atheists typically offer against theism are true then they do not have  a rationally justified belief that duties exist. Again Loftus simply engages in fallacious reasoning and misrepresentation.

The only time Loftus actually responds to my argument is when he makes a short response to [1] above. He states:

“Our critiques of the Bible can best be seen as reductio ad absurdum type of arguments. By taking the evolved morality that all civilized Christians now accept, we are simply forcing them to explain the barbarisms found in the Bible based on their own moral perspective, not ours. The main reason our critiques have force is because of the evolved morality modern Christians have accepted.”

Here Loftus suggests atheists do not need to believe in moral duties to offer moral critiques of the Bible. All that’s necessary is that Christians do. Athiests can simply assume the theist’s moral beliefs for the sake of argument and show these beliefs, the ones theists hold, provide a critique of theism.

This is an interesting suggestion. The problem is that if Loftus only accepts that duties exist for the sake of argument, and does not himself affirm that the actions in question are wrong, then the believer can easily escape the reductio he proposes. When Christians are are aware that the “evolved morality” they accept conflicts with what the Bible portrays then they can respond by denying that this evolved morality is correct. No doubt many atheists will find this response outrageous, but here is the problem. Unless they actually believe in moral duties they have no way they can justify such outrage. After all, they themselves also believe the actions objected to are not wrong. They believe nothing is wrong. To counsel a person to reject Christianity because it entails a particular action is not wrong and then to tell that person to adopt in its place a form of atheism that entails that nothing is wrong, including that action, is incoherent. This is precisely the kind of special pleading Loftus rails about.

Ironically, one line of argument Loftus makes, far from rebutting my argument, actually confirms it. Loftus  argues:

“The main reason our critiques have force is because of the evolved morality modern Christians have accepted. If Christians stepped back in time they would find our critiques wouldn’t have any force at all to them. They wouldn’t even be considered as critiques, just explanations of what believers in a prior era accepted as moral truth. Like this:

“Slaves? I own several of them. What’s the big deal?”

“Women? My wife is my property, yes. I can sell my daughters as sex slaves if I want. So?”

“War? We slaughtered everyone, even the children. Is there a problem?”

“Child sacrifice? Sure I did it. Yahweh commanded it.”

“Witches and heretics? Yes, we must kill them as God commanded. Thanks for noticing.”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument the dubious exegetical and historical claims Loftus assumes are accurate. Here Loftus frankly states two things: (i) that people in different times and places did not accept different moral beliefs to those we hold; and, (ii) to those who do not accept these moral beliefs the arguments he gives have no force.

This is very interesting because Loftus has made a reputation defending what he calls the Outsider Test for Faith (“OTF”). The OTF states that when approaching any religious faith one must adopt a presumption of scepticism: only if the faith can be shown to be true from this presumption is it rational to believe in it. Why must we adopt a presumption of scepticism with regard to religious beliefs? On p 69 of his book Why I became an Atheist Loftus is explicit. A presumption of scepticism is justified because “religious faith does in fact vary from culture to culture and different times in history.”

Loftus, in affirming both (i) and (ii), commits himself to moral scepticism; (i) tells us that moral beliefs have the very feature which he says justifies a presumption of scepticism in the case of religion. Moral beliefs differ from culture to culture and vary at different times in history. If his critique of theism is sound then we should begin with a position of scepticism towards moral beliefs and we should accept them only if they can be justified from this perspective. By affirming (ii) Loftus accepts that these beliefs cannot be justified from such a sceptical perspective. To a person who did not accept these moral beliefs Loftus’ arguments “have no force”. The very argument Loftus uses to reject theism, therefore, is one which, if it is sound, means one should reject the moral beliefs Loftus uses to critique theism. When it comes to the morality of slavery or killing heretics we should be moral sceptics and refuse to state such things are wrong.

At this point it’s worth reminding my readers that Loftus wrote on p 231 of Why I became an Atheist:

“He took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist. He made her get upon the stool, and he tied her hands to a hook in the joist. After rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cow skin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor … No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood clotted cowskin.Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?”

Here Loftus suggests slavery is wrong and then uses this as a premise to criticise Christianity.

It is clear that despite all his confident bluster that it is Loftus’ position that engages in special pleading and not mine. Loftus needs to get clear on what he thinks. Does he think the behavour he refers to on  p 231 of his book is wrong? If he does not then why does he attack Christains for allegedly supporting it? If it is, then he needs to admit that his own Outsider Test for Faith is worthless. Calling people dishonest and misrepresenting their position before one’s adoring atheist fans is not a response, nor is asserting over and over again that others are brainwashed.

What Loftus needs to do is show how his moral beliefs are justified from the presumption of moral scepticism. That requires him to provide a non-question begging argument from non-moral premises to the conclusion that duties exist. Either that or he needs to retract the arguments he has made against God’s existence where he endorses such a presupposition. These problems have been pointed out to Loftus numerous times yet in his public works he has never adequately addressed them. In fact, when one reads his responses often it is pretty clear he has simply ignored these critiques and changed the subject.  It is time for the confident bluster and chest beating to end and for Loftus to answer the hard questions about his own incoherence.

John Loftus were Christians in the ante-bellum South doing something wrong when they endorsed the beating of slaves? If so, can you please provide an argument which starts from the default position of moral scepticism and shows from that perspective that moral duties exist? If you cannot then perhaps its time to admit that the OTF fails and the Emperor is naked.

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24 responses so far ↓

  • Wow, my eyes glazed over really quickly. What a big long ramble. Why do you always accuse people who disagree of using the straw man tactic? That seems to be your favourite accusation to level at people.

  • Actually I dont “always” accuse people of attacking straw men, I have written plenty of pieces where I offer other criticisms of peoples positions.

    In this instance I accuse Loftus of attacking straw men because he does, for example can you identify in the text he quotes of mine where I claimed that, no one can offer a moral critique of the Bible who doesn’t believe it’s the inspired word of God.

    Moreover this isnt just an accusation, i offer arguments for the conclusion, they involve showing what I in fact said. If you disagree with this your welcome to show me where the arguments fail.

  • So if I don’t believe everything the bible says, I can’t morally critique it? That’s messed up.

  • This looks to me like two ships passing in the night. You’re asking John to be logical and consistent, which he will never be. His forte is guerilla warfare against the Bible and people who take it seriously.

    My challenge to John (see post last night, where your name comes up — sorry for misstating it initially!) is to be more thoroughly empirical, either by studying the actual effect the Gospel has had in the world, which is for the better, or by really stepping outside of western civilization to consider Christianity from a fair, not jaundiced, perspective. He will probably never do that, either. Ironically, he is, in his own way, as faithful to the Bible as a dog to its bone.

    I’m wondering, BTW, if the following sentence is misworded:

    “Here Loftus frankly states two things: (i) that people in different times and places did not accept different moral beliefs to those we hold . . . “

  • Mixter seems to have poor reading comprehension skills. Matt has explicitly denied making the argument that mixter attributes to him.

  • Mixter,

    Why are you criticizing something you admit you have never read? Read all three articles (Both of Matt’s and Loftus) before you begin your own criticisms.

    That said, Matt is criticizing what Loftus said in a logical and reasonable manner. He’s identifying the Loftus’s arguments, and then he’s evaluating how well they address Matt’s arguments. The fact that Loftus’s arguments are found to be poor is not Matt’s fault.

    As for making a moral critique on the Bible, you can critique it morally if you want. If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t give arguments that can be applied to the moral framework you’re using to criticize. Additionally, it would be nice if you could give justification as to why we should use the moral system you using.

    Basically, arguments that are based upon moral nihilism and moral relativism fail, since any *moral* arguments that can be used can be turned on their head. That leaves a making moral critiques from a stance of moral objectivism. Applying the stance of moral skepticism that Loftus wants us to apply, we still have to justify the moral system we’re going to be using to critique Christianity. So anyone making a moral critique has burden of proof if they want their critique to have any strength.


    You can critique it, but your arguments can’t undermine your own position.

  • […] Ad Hominens, Special Pleading, Straw Men & Red Herrings: John Loftus’ Response to MandM […]

  • Lofty is a bit of a verbal wanker, really.

  • Very elegant Matt.

    Should this be a textbook example of hoisting someone on their own petard?

  • Good article. A lot of double negatives, can I suggest you hyphenate “not-wrong” for clarity?

    Have you read David Marshall’s comment on Loftus he published a couple of days ago?

  • “Straw man” “ad homo-numb” “heretic”… then blocking ;)

    The answer mixter is that it is easier than thinking.

  • The arguments of the militant atheists seem to me to be often (and unnecessarily) nonsensical. Perhaps that’s why these kinds of debates are uninteresting to most people.

    For example, the argument “Some Christians were slaveholders, therefore God does not exist” makes no sense.

    Likewise, “There are Bible passages condoning slavery, therefore God does not exist.” Nonsense.

    On the other hand, it seems to me that a reasonable statement such as “Christians once practiced and condoned slavery and they were wrong to do so” would draw no objection from any sensible person, theist or otherwise. Likewise, “There are Bible passages condoning or describing morally unacceptable behavior.” I don’t see how anyone, believer or nonbeliever, could object to that, nor do I see how that fact does anything to disprove the existence of God.

    Just my two cents worth…

  • I think this is one of those most logical well thought out defences of the faith I have come across. Have you written anything about dinosaurs and the fact that they lived with Adam in the garden of Eden?

  • Bill, slavery itself isn’t wrong – just like killing – sometimes it is justified.

  • Matt had been challenged on Lofus, page to put up or shut up. So far he has shut up. Probabelely wise.

  • Loftus’ site is hard to navigate since it is in outdated blogger. What exactly does put up or shut up mean? Matt has refuted Loftus. Loftus has put up strawmen and pulled them down. Matt has pointed that out. What is there left for Matt to do?
    (A link, an explanation that is a little more than a slogan would be helpful)

  • Joe, thanks for that, but I am a little unclear as to show how any of Loftus five questions addresses either a premise of my critique, or addresses the argument?

    Also I note Loftus hasn’t answered the questions I put to him in this blog. They are similar to questions I put to him a couple of years ago and have not recieved any substantive answers, instead I get him writing a post where he insinuates something.

    As to the questions Loftus asks, actually I believe some of them I have answered in several dialogues with Loftus before, so I am not terribly optimistic that he really is interested in my answers. For example I have explained to Loftus before that I dont think believers apply the OTF to other faiths, and I have offered him reasons for this conclusion. I also have spelt out my own thinking on the way one would asses a religious perspective. So I am a little unclear as to what the “put up or shut” up is supposed to refer to.

    Also could you clarify your reasoning here, is it your position that if a person does not respond to a series of questions raised to them by a blogger within a few days then that person cant answer them? Because that would be the fallacy of an argument from silence.

  • I was very disappointed on going to Loftus’ site. It was terrible. I can’t believe his bold faced claims go over with so many people. How can this be? Are they all that simple? I tried to leave a comment, but it has not been allowed.
    It is a shame people are falling for his sloppy logic and underhand tactics. He seems no better as a philosopher than Krauss, who is not one. It was as you said red herrings, straw men, ad hominens, special pleadings.
    I’m not a philosopher, but having studied it a little, I can easily deal with the terrible arguments people are falling for on d.c.
    I was really really hoping to get my teeth into some really tough questions, but all his arguments are easily, easily done away with.
    It seemed clear after some reading of his articles, that he is not sincere. I simply cannot believe he is, his arguments are that bad.
    I read his ‘why I am an atheist’. It was less advanced than most people in my high school studying philosophy
    I think if young people really sat down, and just thought these things over, doing their utmost best to remove or put away any preconceived ideas they have, and just deal with facts and specifically the questions put in front of them, they would be far more likely to come to truth and if not, if they were sincere about finding the truth, they would be far more respectful of others ideas. As it stands, it just seems like a tribal mentality with folks unwilling to give ground or try to get to truth. Anthony Flew was honest enough to do that, not Loftus though.
    It is very despairing.

  • Just came across your blog via your podcasts on logic. Very interesting! I shall be reading more.

  • Matt, re. your comment about the incoherent position of morally outraged atheists who deny moral duties, is it directed only to those who are a) outraged at Biblical “wrongs” and b) those who deny moral duties? What of those who don’t profess to rail at O.T. Bible mandates because they don’t believe in moral duties, and those who DO believe in moral duties but just disagree on them being grounded in God, precisely because they believe God is not moral? It seems that many rejoinders directed at atheists assume a stereotypical position, which, while seemingly held by many, can lead to strawman arguments when dealing with someone who doesn’t hold that position.

  • Nice post like the last few paragraphs. I noticed that the OTF implied that atheists have to be holding to some type of moral facts existing. And it presupposed some type of objective standard to compare various beliefs in light of each other. Also this standard was reliable and sound. It also benefitted atheists, one would not be skeptical of one’s skepticism? Atheism is the default position. Under this notion an atheist has no beliefs. Well it appears they do have moral duties to observe, or they can not observe at all. Or know what to be looking for, or comment on it’s moral value etc. If I have stated this correctly you seemed to of joined some of ethics based gaps up for me. Cheers.

  • ETC, thanks for your comment, let me clarify my position a bit because I think you may misunderstand it.

    Is it directed only to those who are a) outraged at Biblical “wrongs” and b) those who deny moral duties?

    Its directed at atheists, who (I) endorse analogues of the 10 arguments I spelt out in the post and (ii) believe in moral duties.

    What of those who don’t profess to rail at O.T. Bible mandates because they don’t believe in moral duties, and those who DO believe in moral duties but just disagree on them being grounded in God, precisely because they believe God is not moral?

    If they dont believe in moral duties my argument does not apply to them, though I am inclined to think that if there position entails that its not wrong to rape children for fun then its extremely implausible. But it does avoid the criticisms I made.

    If they believe in moral duties and accept analogues of one or more of the ten arguments I sketched then my argument applies to them, this holds regardless of wether they ground moral duties in God or something else. The argument applied simply to belief in duties per se, not to ontological groundings of duties.

    It seems that many rejoinders directed at atheists assume a stereotypical position, which, while seemingly held by many, can lead to strawman arguments when dealing with someone who doesn’t hold that position.

    I assure you that my arguments are not straw men, I am reasonably familiar with atheist arguments and the 10 arguments I offered are analogous to arguments that athiests commonly make. I agree that if an atheist did not endorse these arguments, and offered a different argument for God’s non existence, and that argument did not rely as a premise on a criteria for rational belief which ruled out both moral and theological claims, then they would escape my arguments. The only arguments I am aware of which meet this criteria are those by positive athiests who think they can show the concept of God is incoherent and disprove his existence.

    The more common negative atheism which holds that the burden of proof is on theists and athiesm is true because theism doesnt meet some standard or proof, almost invaribly uses standards of proof which would rule out moral claims.

  • “The only arguments I am aware of which meet this criteria are those by positive atheists who think they can show the concept of God is incoherent and disprove his existence.”

    Thanks for that, Matt. You’ve given me something to think about. I must read more about it (positive and negative atheism). I think you are busy enough and I won’t burden you with answering something when I can look for it.

    I really enjoy reading all your articles, so thanks for all the effort you put in!

  • […] Ad hominems, Special Pleading, Straw Men & Red Herrings: John Loftus’ Response to MandM- John Loftus has written a number of works attacking Christian theism from multiple angles. Here, MandM respond to a critique he leveled against their satirical moral argument. In this post, they analyze Loftus’ arguments in a number of different lights. […]