The Courtier’s Reply as Post-Theistic Attitude, Not Fallacy

Sam Sawyer, SJ, a fellow a Patheos blogger over at the new blog The Jesuit Post (in Patheos’s Catholic Channel) recently plugged the exchange between Edward Feser and Keith Parsons. (Thanks!) I’d like to return the favor by plugging a post on his blog: “Not Even Wrong: Answering the New Atheism with Better Belief, Not Better Arguments.” The post provides a Jesuit perspective on the ‘New Atheism,’ which is well worth a read.

In a featured comment, Sawyer mentions his experience of being accused of committing “The Courtier’s Reply” fallacy in his criticisms of the ‘New Atheists.’ He writes:

I wanted to let everybody following this comments thread know about a really excellent debate currently going on between Keith Parsons and Edward Feser — it’s being moderated by Jeffrey Jay Lowder of the Secular Outpost blog here at Patheos, and the overview page for the debate can be found here.

 I’m pointing it out because I’ve been charged several times here with “the Courtier’s reply” fallacy or with more garden-variety obscurantism for claiming that New Atheism misses the point by ignoring or dismissing stronger and more sophisticated accounts of belief in God.
I posted the following reply to Sawyer:

Thanks for mentioning the exchange between Feser and Parsons!

As an atheist who aspires to interact with the strongest arguments against atheism (and so rejects most of the objections raised by the New Atheists), I’ll say this about The Courtier’s Reply. I think the most charitable interpretation of The Courtier’s Reply is this: it should not be interpreted as a literal refutation or defeater of theistic arguments, but rather as expressing a post-theistic attitude or sentiment that is held by many nontheists. If you’re a theist, try to imagine, for just a moment, a world in which:

(1) 80-90% of the world’s population believes X;

(2) you think X is not only false, but obviously false and absurd;

(3) believers in X devote entire academic careers to the formulation and defense of sophisticated arguments for X; and

(4) you really have very little interest in talking about X except when you are presented with ‘X apologetics.’

When X believers confront you about your disbelief in X and try to convince you using sophisticated arguments, you respond with, well, unsophisticated objections. You are then told that, well, your objections are not very sophisticated and totally miss the point.

Hopefully that analogy will make it a little easier to empathize with atheists who express the attitude summed up by The Courtier’s Reply, even if the Reply itself is literally misguided.

Speaking only for myself, I think atheists who use The Courtier’s Reply as a literal refutation of theistic apologists are mistaken. I think there are some very sharp thinkers who’ve formulated creative, interesting, and non-absurd arguments for the existence of God that don’t deserve The Courtier’s Reply. Instead, such arguments deserve to be taken seriously.