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The Courtier's Reply is when they say you're uninformed and wrong but won't say why. This fallacy accuses opponents of misrepresentation without explaining what they think was distorted. [1] The courtier's reply is a red herring since it draws attention away from what the other side actually said and tries to discuss instead how little they assume other side knows. [2]

This article tries to study the courtier's reply in depth.

Origin and meanings

The courtier's reply is intellectual bullying because it amounts to "I understand this but unfortunately you don’t know enough, therefore you should shut up and listen to me.” Well opponents made fun of it.

It was originally just a brief, humorous reply to a negative review of the God Delusion. [3]

Biologist/blogger PZ Myers published the Courtier's Reply in 2006 in his blog, Pharyngula. The phrase, "The Courtier's Reply" was first used to answer critics of The God Delusion and imagines a spin doctor for the naked emperor in the fable The Emperor's New Clothes.

Debate between believers and atheists

PZ Myers[4]

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

The God Delusion

The Courtier's Reply started as a short, light hearted reply to critics of Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion. From that it became a Meme and took on a life of its own because too many believers criticise atheists for not knowing Theology.

Supporters of religion regularly complained that Dawkins had not studied theology and assumed therefore Dawkins was not qualified to discuss evidence about whether or not God exists. This is not a valid argument for the reasons below.

  1. Since he is not a theologian Dawkins is not technically qualified to discuss the nature of God.
  2. Still as a scientist Dawkins is extremely qualified to discuss the nature of evidence. Scientists and New Atheists do not need to read every imaginable book on the subject or consider every established theological angle in order to test the existence of God as a scientific hypothesis. As they are discussing evidence, their scientific credentials are sufficient qualification in the same way that the eyes of the townsfolk were enough to recognise that their King was naked.
  3. Moreover, before we can reasonably discuss the nature of God (as anything other than a hypothetical entity) we must first prove that God actually exists.
  4. Critics don't need years of careful study to see that Astrology doesn't make sense.
  5. Critics don't need to study acupuncture in detail, they just need to read a few Scientific research programmes that showed acupuncture doesn't work.
  6. Critics don't need to study the theology of Thomas Aquinas or other theologians for years to see there's no evidence for the God of the Bible [5] the Old Testament and the New Testament are typical of Mythology.

Dawkins himself once said, when referring to the fact that he is not a theologian:[6]

Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology.

Further to this Dawkins quoted the Courtier's Reply in a debate with Alister McGrath,[7] he also referenced the Courtier's Reply in the preface to The God Delusion's 2007 paperback edition.[8]

Reasonable analogy on theology

The Courtier's Reply is a reasonable analogy in cases when debaters present material that is irrelevant to the subject under debate, for example.

Terry Eagleton [9]

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? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?

Supporters of Dawkins and Myers maintain the above is beside the point when the existence or otherwise of God is discussed.

—Luke Muehlhauser, director of the Singularity Institute[10]

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.

Similarly "detailed discourses (...) on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, (...), the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. " and other examples that Myers gives [1] are irrelevant when the emperor's nudity is plainly observed.

Deacon Duncan supports Myers and claims the bulk of theology is irrelevant to whether or not God exists. So atheists do not need to waste an entire lifetime reading irrelevant theology simply to find the relatively few arguments dealing with whether God exists or not. Further Duncan claims Christian apologists who use the Courtier's Reply do not themselves know arguments proving the existence of God and themselves know at most a small part of theology. If Christian apologists could prove the existence of God Duncan argues they would do so instead of making complaints about what atheists do not know.

[11]

If there were, somewhere in that vast time sink called theology, a truly objective and undeniable proof for the existence of God, then the Courtier himself ought to know it, and ought to cut straight to the part where he shares that important knowledge with his lost brother. (...) The Courtier’s Reply is simply a smoke screen, an attempt to hide behind an overwhelming and impenetrable wall of irrelevant speculation and superstition.

The whole of theology is so vast that knowing more than a small part is not humanly possible. [12] Duncan argues Christians demand superhuman standards from atheists, then resort to Ad hominem attacks because atheists do not reach those superhuman standards. [11] Chris Hallquist claims reading and understanding theology can be unecessarily difficult because many theologians deliberately write in obscure ways.

—Chris Hallquist [13]

I refuse to apologize for not having read more theology, in the sense of the writings of people like Haught and the people he admires. That’s because they frequently don’t even try to write clearly. My typical experience when picking up their books is to first notice they are using words in ways I am not used to. Then I start skimming to try to find the section where they explain what they mean by their words (sometimes there are legitimate reasons for using words in unusual ways). Then I end up closing the book when I fail to find such a section.

The Courtier's Reply can be extended to defending other atheist thinkers as well as Dawkins.

You don't need to read up vast amounts of theology to see believing in God isn't reasonable, you just need to remember you don't believe in Zeus, Thor, or other Mythological ideas and tell yourself believing the Bible makes just as little sense. Chris Hallquist mentions an online comment that persuaded him to stop believing in God.

—Chris Hallquist [3]

Roughly it was “I became an atheist when I asked myself why I believed in the Christian God, when I didn’t believe in Zeus or Thor or any of those other gods.” Once I came to terms with not having any good reasons to believe, I became an atheist.

So sometimes, people do leave religion just because they realize they don’t have any good reason to believe its claims. And that means it can make sense to simply point out the lack of evidence for any kind of god, without worrying about the details of specific theologies. And doing that is the stated intention of the courtier’s reply.

Unreasonable analogy on theology

Some Christians claim that atheists use The Courtier's Reply to assume the we needn’t bother with learning any theology. Atheism Wiki hasn’t found actual cases where atheists argue this way.

Nor taking into account relevant areas of theology can seriously weaken anti-religious arguments (assuming it happens). Evidence for and against the existence of God should be studied and cannot reasonably be dismissed arbitrarily. For example the Problem of Evil gives powerful evidence against the Abrahamic religions. Still we should study how Christians try to answer our arguments and many atheist websites do this.

Outside theology

People who imagine they're specially qualified on a given subject tend to favour this argument. Evolution deniers (as well as denialists of other stripes) use it against scientists when they try to sidestep forensic evidence such as fossils and traceable physical and chemical changes in rocks and other matter.

See also

"The Courtier's Reply, entertaining but not very polite This one is err.. entertaining and just a bit rude.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Pharyngula - The Courtier's Reply. The blog column by Myers that made the term popular.
  2. Guns and the Courtier’s Reply
  3. 3.0 3.1 The courtier’s reply
  4. The Courtier's Reply
  5. The Courtier's Reply
  6. Dawkins on Theology. video on YouTube
  7. The "magnificent P-Zed"?
  8. Richard Dawkins reads the new preface to The God Delusion (paperback) See also How dare you call me a fundamentalist
  9. Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching
  10. The Courtier’s Reply, the Not My Theology Reply, and Straw Men
  11. 11.0 11.1 Defending the Courtiers at Intellectual Conservative
  12. Theology is such a vast field even experts cannot master the whole of it. Theologians cannot possibly read all the related material by other theologians, cannot become unparalleled authority on holy texts from ancient times, etc. Therefore their own qualifications are based on their limited knowledge and are inevitably relative. The argument, 'You haven't read enough on it!' means very little when even the greatest authorities on the topic also cannot 'read enough on it' and cannot possibly become irrefutable gatekeepers of their subject.
  13. Unintelligible theology

This incorporates RationalWiki material.

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