Pure Monty Python 7

WARNING: Don’t watch the following video unless you are immune to venom spewing.

As irreverent as that was, let’s not get distracted from the point we could be missing. Specious arguments like these hardly ever get challenged, though they’re as easy to pick apart as they are to disgorge.

This clip is chock full of fallacies. Dawkins’ deliberate use of ad hominem and straw man arguments may dazzle his fawning devotees, but these tactics do not prove anything. In the same breath, he scoffs at believers for being naïve and irrational. It’s time to turn the tables on him.

The ad hominem argument (a.k.a. mudslinging) is good for a cheap laugh, but as convincing as it is to the unthinking segment of the public, it’s  nothing but hot air.

Don’t get me wrong. Dawkins knows his audience. He also knows that they appreciate low blows and cheap shots at religion. That’s what they call wit and wisdom.

All Dawkins has to do is call the canonization process “pure Monty Python” and throw out an expression like (…Sorry, I can’t bring myself to put the words “Pope” and “Nazi” together in the same sentence they way he so glibly managed to do it) and drop a few more unjustified insults, and his audience applauds him for pointing out how silly the Catholic Church is.

The smart thing to do would have been declining to answer or to respond with something like this:

Ma’am, I’m not interested in theological issues. I’m a scientist, not a theologian and, frankly, I don’t understand matters of faith and religious belief – it’s just not my field of competence, because it falls out side of my field of study. Next question, please.

That would have been more respectable.

Then again, I’m being naïve here. His aim is to kill religion not to be fair with religion. Why am I fooling myself?

Enter the straw man. Dawkins’ aim is to slash and burn. So the straw man argument is an indispensible weapon in his arsenal.

Here’s how the argument works. You want to burn your opponent. You build a straw man – any position that misrepresents your opponent’s position. You burn the straw man. Now you have given the impression that you effortlessly burned your opponent, when you really just burned a dummy – not your opponent. Everyone applauds, laughs, and gives you a thumbs up. You’re an instant hero – a genius! And it was all based on the cheapest logical fallacy man has ever invented.

For example, Dawkins responds to the question by appealing to his audience’s ignorance (Biltrix!) when he says that “serious Catholic theologians” look down on “fundamentalist wingnuts”. And that’s why he won’t debate them. Where’s the logic here?

Notice how he does not back up his claims. Exactly which Catholic theologian is he talking about? Who are the theologians involved in the canonization process that challenged him to a debate? He doesn’t name anyone. Why should such a petty thing discourage him from debating a learned theologian? And what does this have to do with the question he was asked? Nothing!

He does address the question indirectly by scoffing at isolated aspects of the canonization process, with a flimsy example of the type of miracle required for canonization (cancer going into remission). He does not prove that it is flawed or that it is “harmful.” He just mocks it irreverently — As if it were a Monty Python sketch.

This just shows that Richard Dawkins does not understand what he is talking about. If he did, he would give a more intelligent answer.

He could give a more intelligent answer if he wanted to, because he’s an intelligent man. It’s a shame that he chooses to lower his standards with these irrational and unwarranted attacks.

If he were sincerely looking for truth, he would stop attacking and give more reasonable, well grounded answers than the one he gave in the clip above.

Out of fairness, we’ll give the last word to Dr Dawkins:


  1. Thanks, James, for the detailed look at Dawkins’ rhetoric. Call me biased, but I find it odd that he refuses to even confront the possibility of miracles even though they refer to grounds perhaps a bit more familiar to him (i.e. seeing the evidence).

    I get a kick out of the Humean antecedent improbability of miracles as seen here, which provides about the same empirical certainty as antecedent probability would (hint: zero).

    • Good observations! Moreover, the empirical evidence is a conditio sine qua non for pronouncing a miracle, because unless something out of the ordinary is observed, then we would not consider anything to be miraculous.

      We should also admit that there is something of truth to the antecedent improbability of miracles, since their occurrence defies all natural explanation — that’s why we call them miracles.

      • Absolutely, in fact, a very large chunk of our certainties are based on antecedent probabilities (cf. faith). What strikes me as ironic is that this is one of the whipping boys of the anti-religious crowd: we can’t take their beliefs seriously because they are not based on “reality” as we (they) know it; but then you get logic like Hume’s a priori reasoning on miracles or this snippet from Dawkins, and you really have to wonder. Do as I do, not as I say…?

    • You have to take into account that they only accept one antecedent possibility of this sort, namely, that the only reality that one can observe and, therefore, the only one that counts is physical reality. On these grounds, only the physical is observable and thus only the physical can count as evidence. They believe that physical science will eventually tell us everything there is to know about reality — since all reality is physical. Any explanation for any event outside of the physically observable is subject to ridicule. Note however, that their claim that science will eventually tell us everything about reality is not a physically observable fact. So they end up believing in something that cannot be sufficiently explained through scientific method — their claims are subject to faith as well.

  2. I am really enjoying these posts about Dawkins. I think they are brilliant and very helpful.

    I have a suggestion. If you can, please do a similar series on Christopher Hitchens. I think it would be really cool!

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