Bulldozing the Religious Landscape – When the Courtier’s Reply Fails

by Matt DeStefano on May 29, 2011

The Courtier’s Reply is originally from P.Z. Myers’ blog Pharyngula, and is a response to an overwhelming refrain that many of the new atheists hear from religious apologetics. In the short story The Emperor’s New Clothes, two weavers promise the Emperor new clothes which will be invisible to those that are unfit for their positions. When the Emperor comes before his people, a child cries out “but he isn’t wearing anything at all”. Many skeptics have pointed out that this is how we ought to treat religion: simply because it is ingrained in society and seen as an untouchable subject for scrutiny shouldn’t stop us from pointing out the obvious: the Emperor has no clothes!

One of the common retorts against Dawkins, Harris, Myers, etc. is that they do not understand enough about theology, philosophy, or the Bible to argue against the God of the Bible. That in order to properly understand what they’re arguing against, they ought to know enough about these subjects in order to properly engage it.

This argument seems obviously flawed: most Christians don’t know anything about Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek Paganism, etc. but those are all easily dismissed as fictional nonsense. Why should the skeptical disbelief all of a sudden halt at the Christian version of God? The usual response from the new atheists is that it absolutely should not. Instead of engaging the believers on the specific qualities of their deity, we can merely universalize the doubts by necessitating evidence before belief. In other words, by pointing out that we see this God as an imaginary being akin to Zeus, Thor, Allah, or any of the other versions, hopefully we may plant the seeds of doubt in their own minds.

In response to this, PZ Myers, Dawkins, etc. often point out that it’s a logical fallacy to argue that they need to have a PhD in Biblical Studies in order to properly engage theists in discussions about the rationality of belief. While this seems like an intuitive response, I would argue that it should necessarily be supplanted by another type of response.

John Loftus recently wrote about his perceived failings of the response from PZ Myers and Dawkins  in certain regards, and I couldn’t agree more. He says:

I can embrace the Courtier’s Reply when it comes to religions I reject. But given the power and influence of Christianity in particular, they need to recommend and embrace those of us who know it and argue against it. The Courtier’s Reply may some day be the blanket response to religion. It isn’t yet. Until then let them recommend those of us who do understand the dominant religion of our land, both philosophers and biblical scholars. It takes all of us together with all of our talents, all of our knowledge, and all of our abilities.

Christianity is an overwhelmingly dominant religion in the United States. It informs our laws, our public officials, both foreign and domestic policy, our media, and nearly every other facet of our lives. To write off the task of the atheist movement as simply pointing out the Emperor has no clothes is to understate it dramatically. While it may be easy for those of us who have seen the naked Emperor, many people are, as Loftus has recently posted, blind to this fact.

This blindness isn’t something that can always be ridiculed, scoffed, or trivialized away. Sometimes, no matter how loudly we scream about the Emperor being naked, some people don’t have the capacity to see it. Whether this is due to severe indoctrination, or merely the unwillingness to believe otherwise, these people are best reached through arguments against the internal consistency of the Bible, the inconsistency of God’s qualities, or other such arguments. Only then can the blinders be removed and they will begin to critically examine the virtues of their beliefs.

My own de-conversion is  evidence of the success of this approach, which I call “bulldozing the religious landscape”. Seeing arguments against the Bible’s validity, the logical incoherency of God’s qualities, the lack of historical evidence for many of the Bible’s most important events led me to doubt my religion from the inside. Only then did I become more receptive to external critiques about the validity of religion as a whole.

People like Loftus, Bart Ehrman, Matt McCormick and other atheists that engage the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Christianity are doing an important service to the atheist movement. By meeting the believers on their own court, we engage those who would utter the Courtier’s Reply in the first place. While there is no denying the success of Myers, Dawkins, and others: it’s important to realize that those who wish to chop away at the interal structures of religion are not necessarily being accommodating of religion, but playing a different role in changing the intellectual landscape.

  • Beau Quilter

    In Chapter Three of THE GOD DELUSION, Richard Dawkins includes a section titled “The Argument from Scripture”, in which he references and discusses the writings of religious historic scholars such as Bart Ehrman, Jacques Berlinerblau, and Robin Lane Fox, among others. He also lists them in his Books Cited or Recommended section at the end of the book. 

    While Dawkins may use the Courtier’s Reply himself, he also heartily recommends biblical scholars for further reading.

    • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

      Thanks Beau!

      I don’t mean to discredit Dawkins or anyone else, as I know he knows the Bible and theology far better than most theists give him credit for, but I want to say that there is certainly a place at the round table for ex-pastors, ex-theologians, and ex-apologists that have experience inside the faith. I just think that the Courtier’s Reply is becoming a go-to argument when we have plenty of scholars (Loftus, Ehrman, Berlinerblau, Fox, McCormick, etc.) that know the Bible and the arguments and can effectively use them against the believers on their own terms.

  • ___________J

    Um, but the Courtier’s Reply isn’t at all about ex-theologians: It’s about ACTUAL theologians.

    And anyway, I still don’t see the point of what you say because it doesn’t seem to me like anything will ever change religious believers: Neither mockery nor reason have any chance with them. They believe, they always will, the end. The only ones who ever change are ones who have the genetic and neural capacity to not believe. The rest are just lost forever.

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    I never said that the Courtier’s Reply was about ex-theologians… perhaps you could clarify what you are referring to?

    I’m evidence of a religious believer changing their mind, and while I presumably have the “genetic and neural capacity to not believe”, I don’t see why this ought to stop us from pushing the issue. If it wasn’t for atheists presenting their case against Christianity and other religious faiths, I would probably be writing an apologetics blog rather than an atheist one.

  • Beau Quilter

    J, my experience agrees with Matt. I’m a former religious believer who began his journey to nonbelief with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger – but then needed to bolster that position with the biblical/historical writing of Barth Ehrman and Robin Lane Fox. I was an ingrained Christian, and needed to specifically address the scriptures I had grown up reverencing.

    Also, Dawkins has made the point that, belief aside, the bible is such an influential collection of texts historically, that it deserves study and scholarship (historical and textual criticism); it is only theology, the study of how we should apply the teachings of the bible to our lives, that he dismisses as a scholarship of nonsense.Incidentally (off-topic since he’s not a religion professor), the most effective writer in my journey was actually Victor Stenger. He’s not as popularized as Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, or Dennet, and  perhaps not as effective a communicator in person (at least on youtube), but I found the straightforward, no-nonsense argumentation of “God: the Failed Hypothesis”, more convincing that anything else I’ve read on the failure of religious thinking.

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