My book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails provides a dialogical introduction to apologetic engagement set in a coffee shop. Over the course of one day I engage in an extended conversation about the meaning of life with an atheist named Sheridan. And who is Sheridan? This is how he is introduced:
“At that moment the bell over the door rings as a young man walks into the darkened interior of The Beatnik Bean. He looks like a graduate student in his mid-twenties with a pony tail, wire-rimmed glasses, a backpack, and a T-shirt silkscreened with a smiling Jesus giving a thumbs-up sign. Underneath the picture we read this provocative caption: ‘There’s a sucker born again every minute.'”
Our conversation begins with Sheridan expressing a high degree of condescension. He refers to me as a “faith-head” (a derisive term popularized by Richard Dawkins) and he claims that Bill Maher’s film “Religulous” provides evidence for mythicism (the view that Jesus never existed). And from that point we embark on a conversation that winds through multiple topics including the meaning of faith, the definition of atheism, evidence for God’s existence, the problems of biblical violence and eternal conscious torment and so on. It is never made clear what Sheridan’s field of study is, but it isn’t philosophy. (He notes that he did study some philosophy — likely during his undergraduate degree — but he hasn’t kept up on it. However, he has read the new atheists as evinced in that “faith-head” quip and his initial laudatory comments about Richard Dawkins).
Since the book was published some readers have charged me with presenting a straw man in the character of Sheridan. As one Amazon reviewer puts it, “‘Sheridan’ is nothing more than a straw man”. And based on this charge, this particular reviewer dismisses the whole book.
This is a very strange objection. The “straw man” is an informal logical fallacy.
“A straw man fallacy is an argument in which an arguer responds to a different argument than the one presented, though he treats it as the one presented.” (Watson and Arp, Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Reasoning Well (Continuum, 2011), p. 275)
I would add that the substitution is always a weaker argument than the one it replaces.
For a great example of the straw man fallacy we can consider John Allen Paulos’ book irreligion (Hill and Wang, 2008). In the first premise on the first page of the first chapter he presents a straw man form of the cosmological argument:
“1. Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes.” (p. 3)
This premise has no part in any formal cosmological argument, certainly not in any argument that has been taken seriously by any philosopher of religion. Instead, cosmological arguments begin with a premise like this:
1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
1. Everything contingent has a cause.
Thus what Paulos calls “a rough schema of the argument” is in fact a spurious substitution of the argument(s) that philosophers do discuss. And so it is a straw man.
It is clear that Sheridan cannot be a straw man in any literal sense since he is a literary character, not an argument. So by calling Sheridan a straw man critics are presumably engaging in an analogical extension of the concept so that it can be meaningfully applied to literary characters. There is nothing wrong with these kinds of assessments. Indeed, in his blurb for the book philosopher Dean Zimmerman (Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University) employs this analogical extension, and he concludes that Sheridan isn’t a straw man: “[Rauser’s] atheist counterpart is no straw man–he knows his Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens.”
However, we should keep in mind that this application involves an analogical extension of the concept. To avoid confusion, I propose that we follow common practice of distinguishing a straw man (the informal logical fallacy) from a “straw character”. We find a helpful, succinct definition of “straw character” from the website tvtropes.org:
“A straw character is a caricature of a person, a character the author has set up in order to ridicule a particular viewpoint.” (link)
So this is presumably the real source of the critics’ ire. It is not that I’ve substituted one argument for another so much as that Sheridan is a caricature of atheism and/or skepticism.
And what exactly is allegedly being caricatured here? Is it atheism and/or skepticism as an intellectual position? Surely not. To be offering a straw character of the atheist position one would have to be presenting the character as representative of atheism as a mature intellectual position, as with a world-renown atheist professor of philosophy.
But Sheridan emphatically isn’t presented in those terms. Rather, he is explicitly presented as an average atheist, the first one we bump into in the coffee shop. So then is the charge that Sheridan is a straw character representative of popular atheism?
That’s an interesting charge, but I’ve never seen any plausible argument that Sheridan is a caricature of popular atheism. Yes, Sheridan can be brusque and dismissive, but after all he did get the term “faith head” from Richard Dawkins. And if Sheridan gave Bill Maher’s film “Religulous” too much credit, he’s certainly not the only one. After all, the film has a rating of 7.6 with over 43,000 votes at IMDB.com. Do people take offense to the “There’s a sucker born again every minute” logo on Sheridan’s t-shirt? Well they can buy a bumper sticker with that logo from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (see here). Do people find that Sheridan the non-philosopher failed to present his arguments as powerfully as possible? Well he certainly does a better job than John Allen Paulos does in irreligion. Is Sheridan rude at times? Well many popular atheists advocate ridicule as a way to engage Christians. Can he be condescending? At times, yes. But he is nowhere as condescending as John Loftus who stated that he wrote a book with me to “expose” the fact that I am completely “impervious to reason”. Here are his words:
“Rauser is impervious to reason. When I engage him it’s to expose him as the culturally indoctrinated person that he clearly is. It’s to show to thinking people how badly he reasons because faith is unreasonable. I don’t remember saying that, but if I did it’s merely because I’m trying to figure out how to expose him as the culturally indoctrinated person that he is, and he is.” (link)
Incredibly, Loftus believes that he treats Christianity and Christians respectfully in contrast to Richard Dawkins who, he notes, famously directed the atheist community to “stop being so damned respectful.”
So how is Sheridan a straw character exactly? The fact is that through the book he makes some very salient points, in particular when he takes on issues like biblical violence and eternal conscious torment. Along the way he cracks jokes and we learn that he has had some very bad encounters with the Christian church, particularly from a legalistic and insensitive stepfather and an overbearing Sunday school teacher.
I have talked with hundreds of popular atheists over the years. Some are very thoughtful and reflective. Others are angry and ignorant. Some, like Sheridan, can engage in thoughtful conversation for hours. Others cannot. (Back in June when I debated John Loftus publicly I noted the irony of certain self-described free thinkers who angrily walked out in the middle of our debate. Apparently their commitment to free thought didn’t extend to those freely disagreeing with them.)
All in all, I find Sheridan to be a complex and sympathetic character who embodies many traits commonly found among popular atheists. A straw character he is not.