On Making Key Distinctions in Polemics (Or, Richard Dawkins Isn’t the Only Atheist Out There)

Why? Because Tigers, that's why. Also, no good images for 'polemics.'

Why? Because Tigers, that’s why. Also, no good images for ‘polemics.’

I’ve written about intellectual honesty in polemics before over at Mere Orthodoxy where I argued that as Christians we ought to be principled in our engagement with positions with which we disagree:

We should strive to deal honorably, speak honestly, and actively avoid unfair caricatures and cheap shots in our polemical engagements. Whenever arguing against a position we ought to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that. That’s just dishonest.

Later, in a post on the issue of self-criticism within the Reformed tradition, I noted the sad fact that sometimes you will find pastors and theologians who actually fit the caricatures that are often criticized. When that happens, the distorted, unfaithful, sub-biblical versions of doctrines and teachings need to be corrected directly and forthrightly:

For instance, not every Calvinistic or Reformed pastor reads Kevin Vanhoozer, or preaches like Tim Keller, or articulates doctrine with the care and sensitivity of a Michael Horton. My own experience of the Reformed world has taken place in the context of a gently conservative Presbyterian church with caring, faithful, and sensitive pastors, but much as I hate to admit it, the reality is that some Reformed bodies are real-life, walking caricatures of the tradition I hold dear. Just as Wesleyan or Baptistic theologies can go off the rails in serious ways, so can churches and theologies with putatively Reformed roots. When that is the only expression of Reformed faith someone encounters, distaste for the whole stream is quite understandable. Sometimes the caricatures have human faces.

That said, I wanted to briefly return to the issue of polemics and caricatures formalize a couple of suggestions on how to criticize in a careful, intellectually-honest fashion. In essences, it’s a matter of establishing what you’re trying to do:

Inherently Bad Doctrines – There will be those instances when you undertake the task of criticizing a doctrine which you find inherently bad and utterly irredeemable in all its forms. In that case, your job is not to simply find the easiest, dumbest version of the doctrine to criticize, but the best, most nuanced, and persuasive version that doctrine that you can. When I read Thomas Weinandy’s defense of impassibility in Does God Suffer? I was impressed by his early chapter laying out the arguments against impassibility. By the end of it, I was wondering how he was going to dig himself out because he’d presented the case of his opponents better than most of them had (he did, though.) In the same way, strive to present the arguments of your opponents in terms they would be prepared to recognize and own, before you proceed to criticize it.

Distorted Versions – In the second case, there will be times when you’re not attempting to take down a doctrine wholesale, but particular versions, possibly popular and prevalent understandings, that you find inadequate. In those cases, as I noted above, add some caveats such as “in some versions”, “in this rendering”, “in it’s popular form”, “while not all proponents would frame it this way”, and then criticize away. If I launch off on “pacifists” in general, or “dispensationalists”, or “atheists”, (not that these are at all in the same category) when in fact it is only some, or the worst forms, that are guilty of whatever mistake I’m talking about, I’ve been deeply uncharitable towards those who are not. In other words, Richard Dawkins is not the only atheist out there. While it’s fine and important to criticize him, especially given the weight so many pop atheist fanboys give him, it’s unfair to all the very thoughtful, intellectually serious ones out there. 

This may all seem a bit nit-picky, but honesty and charity in our criticisms is a practical way we can work towards unity in the body, as well as put into practice Jesus’ commands to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 thoughts on “On Making Key Distinctions in Polemics (Or, Richard Dawkins Isn’t the Only Atheist Out There)

  1. I’m not nearly as thoughtful or intellectually serious as I’d like to be, but I am atheistish, and I am reading. I think what you write is worth considering (I’m also a Tim Keller fan–don’t tell my friends) and increasingly I find Christians making more sense–and more sensibly–than the likes of Dawkins and Krauss.

    Keeping an open mind is a struggle–specifically, remaining open to the possibility that I’m wrong and this group of people I disagree with on some big things is right. It’s even harder when I feel like I’m being pigeonholed as something I’m not and talked down to. That happens, I’m even less thoughtful and intellectually serious than usual.

    So that’s my dumb take. Appreciate your writing, Derek. The Story Notes have been particularly helpful.

    • Alex,

      Thanks for your comment! You’re absolutely right about the struggle involved in treating people you disagree with, with respect, especially when you’re not being treated the same way. I fail at that all the time. Still, I’m glad to hear you’re struggling through. And Tim Keller’s a great guy to do that with.

      Actually, on the subject, if you’ve ever been interested in the problem of evil and suffering, he just put out a book on it that’s worth checking it out.

      Well, peace to you man.

  2. A good message.

    Debate would be easier if both sides seek common ground and figure out where they differ and why, while staying civil. I was recently in discussion with a “caricature” minister, who at the end of a long discussion on slavery, felt the need to remind me that I cannot, as an atheist, understand the Word, and that I will roast in hell.

    I appreciate Dawkins as a scientist and writer, I do not warm to his personality so much. Krauss on the other hand I do enjoy. But I miss Hitchens. I’m not embarrassed to say I am a Hitchens fanboy.

    We might disagree, but we can do so civility.

    • Yeesh! Yeah, I can see how that wouldn’t be too helpful of a conversation.

      On the atheists, Dawkins is a good scientist. I just wish he wouldn’t pretend that qualifies him to do philosophy. Hitchens had similar philosophical deficits, but he also had style, so I really didn’t mind.

      Well, cheers to civil conversation!

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