In The God Delusion, Dawkins makes a case against the plausibility of any creator god in general. But most of his critics have responded by saying that Dawkins has not considered the specifics about their own concept of a creator god. Basically, Dawkins pointed out that the emperor has no clothes, and the emperor’s loyal courtiers complain that Dawkins has not considered the latest innovations in imaginary fabrics. This is known as The Courtier’s Reply.
It is epitomized by Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion for the London Review of Books:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology…
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope?
Eagleton misses the point. If a creator god doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter whether the imaginary god’s grace is best described by Rahner or someone else. Besides, the millions of believers to which Dawkins writes have never heard of Rahner, either. Christianity as practiced by billions of people is not the Christianity of the academic theologians.
The Courtier’s Reply complains that the skeptic has not considered all the variations in imaginary fabrics, instead of showing that the emperor’s clothes are not, in fact, imaginary.
“Not my theology”
What I call the “not my theology” reply is similar but distinct. A proper use of the “not my theology” reply says to the skeptic, “Yes, your argument might be successful against the kind of theology you attack, but that is not my theology. My concept of God is immune to your attack.”
The “not my theology” reply can be legitimate. For example, if I present an argument against the existence of a creator god and you say that your theology does not envision God as a creator, then this helps me understand where you are coming from, though my argument may still succeed against those who defend a creator god (that is, my argument would succeed against the vast majority of theists).
Furthermore, the atheist may then reply: “Okay, so you don’t think God created the world? What is your concept of God?” And when the believer has explained his concept of God, the atheist may reply with an argument that is relevant to that concept of God, if he has one.
But most believers aren’t going to say they reject the notion of a creator God. It’s more likely they’ll use the “not my theology” reply to a skeptical argument that attacks some more specific doctrine.
For example, the atheist might give an argument against the idea that an all-good God would command genocide and rape, as recorded in the Bible. A believer could say “not my theology” if she rejects the historical accuracy of those passages.
The atheist could then continue to give his argument, which would still be relevant to all those millions of Christians who do think the Bible is historical through-and-through. The atheist could also, if he wanted, open another conversation with the “not my theology” believer to clarify his theology and see what arguments might be relevant to it.
Many believers will make a “straw man!” complaint when they should be giving a “not my theology” reply. For example, if I argue that an all-good God would not command genocide and rape as recorded in the Bible, believers who reject the historical accuracy of those passage are likely to tell me I’m attacking a “straw man.” But this is no straw man.
Millions and millions of Christians do accept the historical accuracy of those passages, and my argument is aimed at their beliefs. So I would not be attacking a straw man in that case. I would be attacking the real beliefs of millions of Christians.
If some believers reject the historical accuracy of those passages, they are welcome to give the “not my theology” reply. We atheists are quite aware that there are thousands of different Christian theologies and that almost anything we assume about Christian belief is rejected by some Christians, somewhere.
When is a “straw man!” complaint legitimate?
A straw man complaint is legitimate when the atheist attacks a doctrine that few Christians believe as if it is one held by the majority of Christians. For example if I say Christianity is false because we know the earth wasn’t created 6,000 years ago as recorded in the Bible, this could be considered a straw man. Relatively few Christians still believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago. (But I could still argue this way if it was clear I was directing my arguments at those who believe Christianity depends on the literal truth of the Bible, including its claim that the universe is about 6,000 years old.)
A straw man complain is also legitimate when the atheist attacks the theology of a particular believer or group by misrepresenting what they actually believe. For example, I could not rightly attack Peter van Inwagen‘s theology by arguing against the existence of souls. Inwagen doesn’t believe in souls, either. If I’m attacking Inwagen’s belief in souls then I am attacking a straw man because Inwagen doesn’t believe in souls, though he believes in God.
Hopefully this can help clear up our discussions.
The Courtier’s Reply is useless. It ignores the real target of an argument.
The Not My Theology Reply is legitimate, though it may be beyond the scope of the present discussion. If someone’s argument does not apply to your philosophy but it does apply to the philosophy of others, then that argument probably wasn’t intended for you. But you might still want to make the Not My Theology reply just to clear things up for people.
The Straw Man Reply is legitimate only if someone misrepresents the view he intends to attack. Remember that many arguments are not intended to attack every variety of your worldview there is.