The courtier’s reply

PZ Myers and John Loftus are arguing about the courtier’s reply, probably one of the most famous posts PZ has ever written. John’s initial criticism is here, PZ replied here, and John gave a brief counter-punch here.

I’d tend to advise atheists not to get too caught up in this debate, because we risk doing a lot of huffing and puffing over what we think “the courtier’s reply” means. It was originally just a brief, humorous reply to a negative review of the God Delusion. In the initial post, PZ linked to a more detailed rebuttal by Jason Rosenhouse. I think if you care a lot about serious discussions of the arguments, it’s things like Jason’s post you should be discussing. PZ’s reply was intentionally very brief, without a detailed explanation of what, exactly, his point was.

That said, PZ does try to explain himself in his reply to John:

Loftus is making the same misinterpretation I’ve heard from creationists and theologians: that the Courtier’s Reply is a call for ignorance and an excuse for not trying to understand religion. It’s not. Rather, it’s an amusing way to tell someone that they haven’t established their premises (the existence of deities), and that all their phantasmagorical elaborations on their fantasies are irrelevant. Cut to the core issue; if you haven’t shown that Jesus even existed, it’s silly to be arguing about the color of his socks.

Loftus’s big worry is that the courtier’s reply would discourage people from getting behind better-informed critiques of religion by people like Hector Avalos and Richard Carrier, and put up a poll to illustrate his point. The poll asks: “What arguments led you to reject faith?” and the options are “Arguments from people who dismissed it,” “Arguments from people who understood it,” and “Both.”

I’m pro-understanding the religions you criticize, and I think Avalos and Carrier do great work. But I still picked the first option. Why? Because IIRC Bertrand Russell was the only big atheist writer I had read when I became an atheist, and his arguments probably influenced me less than a brief comment I had read on an online forum. Roughly it was “I became an atheist when I asked myself why I believed in the Christian God, when I didn’t believe in Zeus or Thor or any of those other gods.” Once I came to terms with not having any good reasons to believe, I became an atheist.

So sometimes, people do leave religion just because they realize they don’t have any good reason to believe its claims. And that means it can make sense to simply point out the lack of evidence for any kind of god, without worrying about the details of specific theologies. And doing that is the stated intention of the courtier’s reply. So I’m pro-courtier’s reply, though endorsing it doesn’t mean thinking it can’t be supplemented by other strategies. (Side note: the “both”s are winning John’s poll in a landslide.)

One other thing before I go: PZ doesn’t mention this in his reply to John, but I’ve always understood that part of the courtier’s reply is mocking the people who say “I’m going to dismiss Dawkins because he doesn’t address thinkers X, Y, and Z or issues P, Q, and R.” This is a totally unfair criticism because no one person can address everything in one book. Which is part of why it’s good we have many people pursuing many strategies in critiquing religion!

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