The Argument from Arrogance

Frequently in debates with atheists I have come across a rhetorically powerful but logically feeble polemical tactic, which I will hereby dub "The Argument from Arrogance." Though it is never (to my knowledge) formalized, the argument from arrogance basically proceeds from the premise that atheists are smarter than Christians to the conclusion that atheism is more probable than Christianity. It could be spelled out more precisely as follows:
1. Atheists are more intelligent than Christians.
2. The beliefs of people who are more intelligent are more likely to be true than the beliefs of people who are less intelligent.
3. Atheism is more likely to be true than Christianity.
Such an argument would appear valid, in that the conclusion does seem to follow from the premises. The premises, however, are dubious. Premise One might appear true at a glance based on statistics, but those statistics derive in part from the fact that the gospel does not discriminate against the poor or the uneducated.[1]  (In the very act of making the argument from arrogance, on the other hand, the leading purveyors of atheism regard the unlettered and illiterate with but thinly veiled contempt.) Indeed, given that education correlates with wealth, and given the teaching of Jesus on the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven, the connection between education and atheism could be seen as an indirect confirmation of biblical teaching on the corrupting tendency, at least, of wealth upon spiritual life. In other words the increased wealth, status and self-reliance often attained through advanced education, rather than education itself, makes unbelief a stronger temptation.
Now consider Premise Two. The typical holder of a doctorate is better educated and more informed than a typical high school or community college grad generally, yes, but not always where it counts in particular issues like this. A professor with a PhD in physics from MIT, for example, may well have considerably less understanding of theology or ancient Near Eastern history than a new pastor fresh out of Podunk Bible School, or even less than a devoted but uneducated Christian with a desire to learn and an Internet connection. Meanwhile most of us are aware that some highly educated people hold some really bizarre beliefs (Ted Kaczynski would be one of many examples).
A variant of the argument from arrogance is the argument from "chronological snobbery," a conviction drawn from unfounded evolutionary assumptions and once described by Owen Barfield as a belief that "intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century." Whenever we hear rhetorical potshots at Christianity as belief in "superstitions of Bronze Age goat herders" and the like, chronological snobbery is at work. But a cursory review of history should be enough to debunk chronological snobbery. Every generation has believed itself to possess an understanding of the world superior to all previous generations. On gravitational theory, for one example of many, the philosophers of the Enlightenment embraced Newton and dismissed Aristotle, never stopping to consider that Newton might be wrong. Today's philosophers for the most part have given up Newton for Einstein, often refusing, much like their predecessors, to entertain the notion that Einstein could be wrong.  
To this last point Christianity's staying power speaks resoundingly. While brilliant philosophies, scientific theories and intellectual trends come and go, the truth of the gospel remains. Or as Jesus stated it, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away" (Matt. 24:35).
[1] See our own BK's post, "Lower IQ's Lead to Faith in God?"


BK said…
Brilliant. Well stated.
Don McIntosh said…
Thanks BK.

Chalk it up to intellectual superiority. ;-)
Jason Pratt said…
Dangit, Don himself beat me to the joke! {g!}


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