Sunday, May 27, 2007

Equivocation--Part 1

The informal logical fallacy known as equivocation is when the meaning of a term changes in the middle of an argument. Let me share two examples, the first (in this post), one of which Dawkins is guilty in his latest book, and the second (next post) one that is common fare for evolutionists in their ongoing efforts to convince us--contrary to the evidence--that their theory is true.

Dawkins is guilty of equivocation with regard to the word "secular" in his argument in chapter 2 of The God Delusion. In this section, he is laying some foundation for his larger thesis--that religion is bad and should be stamped out. His lesser argument here seems to be that to be secular is a good thing and that America's government ought to be more secular than it is in practice. To support this, he quotes founding fathers like James Madison and John Adams. The problem is that what the founding fathers meant when using the term "secular" is entirely different from how Dawkins uses the word. Dawkins takes it to mean 'religion-free' or even 'atheist.' (Note that he is not alone in this misunderstanding, which is at the heart of our modern misinterpretation of the whole separation-of-church-and-state issue.) What the founding fathers meant was that the government should not force any particular religious practice, worship methodology, or denomination upon the governed. They took belief in a Creator and in an ultimate, objective morality that flows from that Creator to be essential for the success of any democracy.

So Dawkins' argument here is fallacious. It commits the fallacy of equivocation. Worse, of course (and here I mean not merely fallacious but downright unethical), is that Dawkins quotes the founding fathers out of context, in some cases making them seem to say just the opposite of what they actually were arguing. Here's an example, as Dawkins quotes Madison...
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.
Sounds like Madison shared Dawkins' view of Christianity, right? If so, that's only because Dawkins left off the sentence that led into this quote...
Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation...
The bold font is my addition, to highlight the words that make it clear that Madison's view was opposite Dawkins'. The founding father finds religion to be pure and efficacious except where the government meddles by establishing and sponsoring it. From the same letter (a dissent by Madison of a Virginia bill that would have levied a tax to support religious teachers) come other quotes Dawkins would rather his readers not find...
...the policy of the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity.
Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.
Dawkins quotes John Adams as writing
This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.
But here's what Adams wrote in full (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated 19 April 1817)...
Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion at all!!!" But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.
When taken in full, what Adams wrote was just the opposite of what Dawkins makes him seem to mean. More than that--Adams here refuted the central thesis of Dawkins' book. Dawkins' claim is that the world would be a better place without religion; Adams believed the world would be hell were it not for religion. Elsewhere (in a letter to F.A. Van Der Kemp dated 27 Dec. 1816), Adams wrote,
The Christian religion, in its primitive purity and simplicity, I have entertained for more than sixty years. It is the religion of reason, equity, and love; it is the religion of the head and the heart.
Understand that throughout this "argument" Dawkins is being (to generously use a polite word for it) disingenuous. His failure to footnote these quotes indicates his recognition that anyone willing to look them up in context would discover the truth that Dawkins repeatedly makes these founding fathers seem to believe exactly the opposite of what they actually believed.

1 comment:

john said...

Thank you for chasing down quotes and reminding me that "things taken out of context" are just that. Very helpful.