I’m sure many of you have heard this commonly used argument. Indeed, I see it mentioned at least a few times in any sort of forum for religious debate. Essentially, it goes:
“[Insert famous name] was religious”.
It literally is just a name drop. This “argument” implies that because somebody famous (usually for something intellectual) was religious, there is more (intellectual) reason to be religious. A common example of this is “Einstein/Galileo/Darwin was religious”, thereby insinuating that if a scientific visionary was religious, it is automatically more scientific or intellectual to be religious. It always amuses me when theists try to use science or logic against scientific or atheistic claims – because it doesn’t work. This is called an appeal to authority logical fallacy. So much for using logic.
As usual, I’d like to point out I have nothing against theists. I tend to write a lot of counter arguments to theism but that’s simply because there’s so much material. In general, I just like correcting people and spreading knowledge (hence this blog). Whether or not that person is religious has nothing to do with it – I commonly correct atheists about their scientific claims too.
Anyway, the moment you identify an argument as a logical fallacy it pretty much renders the entire argument void already. But where’s the fun in that? In classic Sceptical Prophet style, let’s take it one further. Let’s flip that argument back on itself.
Whenever I encounter this argument, my first step is to identify it as a logical fallacy. I throw that in their face right off the bat simply by stating: that’s a logical fallacy called appeal to authority; your argument is already worthless. Next I lay on the hurt. This is where I flip the argument back, and though it is partially a technique to win arguments (one of many I covered in an in-depth analysis to winning arguments) it is also logically sound. Think about it yourself.
First: Ideologies do not instantly go from one extreme to another. Nobody spends two thousand years believing a Wolf God swallows the sun and yells at it to bring the sun back (Viking explanation of solar eclipse) and then suddenly wakes up the next day and says, “Hey, you know what? I don’t think it’s a Wolf God; it’s probably just because the Earth orbits the sun and the moon orbits the Earth so eventually the moon will orbit to a point where it lies between the Earth and the Sun, thereby blocking out the sun for a while.” Ideas, concepts and theories change over time as new information is discovered (at least they should in an ideal world; certainly, some institutions are slower to change). To claim otherwise is to declare intellectual bankruptcy; you’d be giving up the pursuit of knowledge by saying what we “knew” thousands of years ago is as accurate as we’ll ever get.
Second: It was the social paradigm to be religious back in these peoples’ times. Social paradigms are strong things. A cannibal society would have no ethical concern with eating human flesh but in our modern society, it is against the paradigm to do so. Therefore it is not strange for somebody who grows up in our modern society to have an aversion to eating humans. That’s just what society is like and how people are raised. “XYZ was religious” doesn’t mean diddlysquat if everybody was religious (especially if there were adverse consequences to not being religious – such as banishment, social exclusion and punishment).
Third: These “people of authority” you are name dropping were not your orthodox religious followers. They did not believe in the “standard” belief system of their time. If they did, they would never have questioned things. Why would Darwin suggest evolution over creationism if he was strictly religious? The very fact that he challenged the beliefs of this time meant that he was a pioneer in critical thinking. It’s meaningless to say he was religious because he challenged the correctness of those beliefs.
Conclusion: Some theists might like to use appeal to authority fallacies to try and suggest the intellectual superiority of theism or downplay a scientific argument. What they don’t realise is that these very people whose names they are using were essentially the forefathers of atheism. Yes, the creators of atheism were religious. It sounds like a contradiction but it’s not. Remember, ideologies don’t change instantly. For them to make a transition, people are required to challenge existing beliefs and nudge it in a new direction. These people had the courage, free spirit and critical thinking to say “Hold on, this thing here is wrong”, and the culmination of that approach to life resulted in what atheism is today – a rejection of beliefs without substantial evidence. Even though they were religious, by challenging the standards of belief in their own times, these people nudged us in the direction of atheism.
Don’t go around accusing people of being idiots (let me do that), but just remember two things: if anyone uses this argument, you can use this information as a counter-argument, and there is literally no argument a theist can put forth that there is no good answer to. Have faith (get it?): science, reason and logic will trump tradition. It is no longer the social paradigm to be born and raised religious – now we have a choice. Change might have taken far too long but eventually, more humans will realise that we cannot possibly know less about our world and universe today than we did thousands of years ago. To claim that old traditions trump new information is an admission of intellectual relinquishment – it would be akin to saying that we are incapable of learning anything new and thus there is no purpose in education or knowledge.