Alan Roebuck, at intellectualconservative.com, has what he hopes is a stinging comeback for PZ Myers’ argument commonly known as “The Courtier’s Reply.”
Atheists have a new tactic to avoid confronting the voluminous evidence for God: When your debate opponent catches you dismissing valid scholarship, cry “Courtier’ Reply!”
Predictably, he does not link to Myers’ original article, but rather presents his own hand-crafted version.
Let’s define our terminology. “The Courtier’s Reply” (abbreviated CR) is the accusation that your opponent doesn’t understand the arguments about the point being disputed, and therefore his position is unproved. “The Courtier’s Reply Ploy” (abbreviated CRP) is the accusation that your opponent is using the CR, and that the CR is invalid. When deployed in a debate about God’s existence, the CRP is fundamentally the ploy of claiming that a superficial understanding of the arguments for God is enough to show that they’re all sophistry, and that God obviously doesn’t exist or, at the very least, is totally unproved.
Roebuck has completely missed the point of the Courtier’s Reply. Atheists are not cringing and cowering and crying, “Oh god no, not more evidence, please don’t show me any evidence!” Nor are atheists at all reluctant to address the arguments for God, as anyone who has actually ready The God Delusion can tell you. The problem with the Courtier’s Reply is not that atheists are declaring that they know God does not exist and are therefore uninterested in the evidence and arguments for God. Indeed, the New Atheists have become famous chiefly because they are interested in these things, and are exposing them.
No, the problem with the Courtier’s Reply is that some people are trying to argue that belief in God should be given credibility simply because of the quantity of scholarship that exists, based on the assumption of God’s existence. These books and papers and philosophies and theologies that are being levied against atheists are not scientific investigations into whether God objectively exists; they begin with the assumption that God does exist, and then proceed to explore all the implications and ramifications and possibilities that proceed (in their eyes at least) from that premise. It is, in short, a vast mountain of fallible human speculation about God, not objective evidence of God (which is why so much of it contradicts itself).
Now granted, there is, in this body of literature and scholarship, some smallish percentage of apologetics writing, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and there’s no need to devote your entire lifetime to reading the works of men just to acquaint yourself with the rather small handful of arguments in favor of the existence of God. If there were, somewhere in that vast time sink called theology, a truly objective and undeniable proof for the existence of God, then the Courtier himself ought to know it, and ought to cut straight to the part where he shares that important knowledge with his lost brother.
Unfortunately, he can’t, because the Courtier himself doesn’t know the literature either. You’d have to spend almost your whole life locked away in an ivory tower somewhere, and even then you wouldn’t have time to make it through all the accumulated conjectures and rationalizations and denials that have accumulated over the course of the past twenty centuries. Nor is there any consistent pattern to it, since the theologians have no way to objectively observe God in real life, and are therefore left to follow whatever speculations seem right in their own eyes. The result is a long, dreary history of trends and fads and politics and people trying to prove to each other how brilliant they are.
The Courtier’s Reply is simply a smoke screen, an attempt to hide behind an overwhelming and impenetrable wall of irrelevant speculation and superstition. Atheists quite rightly point out that this is an inexcusable attempt to avoid addressing the real issue, and an ad hominem that attempts to discredit the atheist by accusing him of having failed to live up to some humanly impossible standard. If the Courtier has any real evidence, let him present it openly instead of dodging behind the detritus of fossil philosophies that he himself does not understand.