In my article “Haha. Imagine that.” I offered a rejoinder to the following Ricky Gervais tweet:
“Imagine if you carried on believing in Santa and the tooth fairy into adulthood. And even killed & started wars over it. Haha. Imagine that.”
In the discussion thread, Logical Question then offered the following response:
“Viewing Gervais’s tweet sympathetically, he may not have been thinking about a purely philosophical belief in God with no specific threats of hell for those who “blaspheme” such a God, and no specific threats aimed at those who dare to commit “heresies” by holding doctrinal views that differ from “orthodoxy,” i.e., more specific views of God rather than less specific ones. The more specific ones have had kings and kingdoms “defending” them from other kings and kingdoms.”
I’m not going to go into the weeds with the substance of this tweet, except to note that Logical Question makes some substantial assumptions in his quest for a “sympathetic” interpretation.
What I do want to do here is warn against what I call the charitable interpretation fallacy. The fallacy results from a misreading of a common philosophical principle called the principle of charity. According to the principle of charity, you ought to interpret others in a way that maximizes the truth or rationality of their utterances. Applied to the present circumstance, so the reasoning goes, when I encounter a tweet that seems crassly reductionistic in its understanding of and engagement with religion, I ought to interpret it in a way that redeems the tweet. And so we get our various proposed sympathetic interpretations.
The problem with that approach is that the principle of charity is a ceteris paribus (i.e. other things being equal) principle. It is not an absolute. And that make all the difference. Consequently, one commits the charitable interpretation fallacy when they disregard relevant background material (i.e. they fail to recognize that all is not equal) in seeking a charitable interpretation.
To consider our present case, if I knew absolutely nothing of Ricky Gervais and had no context for the original posting of his tweet, I might have cause to seek a charitable interpretation of it. But I am familiar with Gervais’ withering anti-religious views: he is, in short, the Court Jester in the new atheist kingdom. That is not to say I dislike his comedy. On the contrary, I’m a huge fan of The Office and Extras (but alas, not Derek). But it does mean that I know enough not to expect subtlety, nuance, or charity when I encounter Gervais’ tweets on matters of religion. So neither should I extend charity when interpreting them.