In my article “Russell Blackford, the Vacuous Atheist Critic” I offered a response to Russell Blackford, the, er, vacuous atheist critic.
I was responding not to a book or essay or blog post that Blackford had written. Instead, I was responding to a Facebook comment. The fact that it was a Facebook comment (rather than a book, essay or blog post) prompted Jonathan Pearce to respond as follows in the comment thread:
“Randal, I’m sure others have said this, but it was a facebook status. I mean, knickers in a twist and all…”
So here’s what we have. Blackford posted a Facebook comment in which he responded to my book God or Godless by saying that my coauthor John Loftus was “demolishing” my arguments. Next, he unpacked this comment by observing that while Christian apologetics might produce an “internally consistent” system of belief, it is still “bizarre and implausible” to those who do not share those beliefs.
This is an enormously revealing quote. And what it reveals is that Blackford is remarkably unreflective about his own plausibility structure. Everybody has a plausibility structure, a set of beliefs that condition which truth claims we will consider live options for belief and which we will consider dead options. Apologists always need to pay attention to plausibility structure, because if they fail to do so, their best efforts can become counterproductive. Consider, for example, the following passage from C.S. Lewis:
“When once a man is convinced that Christianity in general implies a local ‘Heaven’, a flat earth, and a God who can have children, he naturally listens with impatience to our solutions of particular difficulties and our defences against particular objections. The more ingenious we are in such solutions and defences the more perverse we seem to him.” (Miracles, 109)
As Lewis recognized, “ingenious” defences of a belief system are of limited value, and can even be counter-productive, when individuals have adopted a radically different plausibility structure.
What is so revealing about Blackford’s quote is the surprising naiveté of it. I think it is fair to say that most intellectuals become self-aware of their own plausibility structure and attempt to compensate for that when considering claims outside that plausibility structure. But Blackford’s dismissive comments show no awareness at all of his own plausibility structure or attempt to compensate for it so as to approach the contrasting arguments in the book with a modicum of objectivity. This leaves him in the unenviable territory of unreflective ideologue.
Yeah, but as Jonathan says, it was just a Facebook comment, right?
Yes it was. But so what? That doesn’t change the revealing nature of the comment or my analysis of it. Indeed, if anything the relaxed, informal atmosphere of Facebook provides a particularly revealing peek into Blackford’s real reasoning. Here we see that whatever else he might add in terms of post hoc rationalizations for his dour assessment of my contribution to the book, really it is his own unreflective plausibility structure that wears the trousers.
Jonathan ends his comment with the following irreverent quip,”I mean, knickers in a twist and all…” The suggestion, I take it, is that I am responding in an emotional way all out of proportion to the weight of Blackford’s comment. This is false. I simply saw it as a particularly illuminating example of unreflective atheistic ideology.
But as a rhetorical distraction, Jonathan’s insult reminds me of an exchange on the floor of Canada’s Parliament twenty years ago between then Minister of Justice John Crosbie and MP Sheila Copps. In response to Copps’ attempt to make a point Crosbie dismissively retorted, “Just quiet down, baby.” The comment was clearly an attempt to marginalize Copps’ analysis by diverting attention away from her argument and toward her allegedly irrational emotional investment in it (no doubt with a sexist gender reference). As a piece of rhetoric (and minus the sexism!) Jonathan’s comment functions similarly. He ignores the analysis I provide of Blackford’s comment and simply imputes to me an irrational emotional investment as a type of distraction.
It should be pointed out that behavior such as this is yet another effective defensive measure to avoid critical introspection of one’s own plausibility structure. In that sense, while Jonathan’s comment was just a comment in a blog thread, and Blackford’s comment was just a comment in Facebook, each was well worthy of critical analysis and deconstruction.