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.