Critical thinking is the process by which one utilizes the methods and tools of rational thought, evaluation, analysis, and inquiry in order to formulate objective and sound conclusions. How does one think critically? Today, I will explore it with a case study.
The particular example is a post from Instagram user @atheism_is_dead_official. Now, as a disclaimer: we all recognize that this post is unconvincing and flat-out fallacious. Theists and atheists alike, for the most part, can see that this post just isn’t quite right even intuitively.
But it’s not enough, as rational thinkers, to merely say, “I disagree.” We must substantiate with reasoning why we disagree. When evaluating arguments, first check their structure to see if they contain formal fallacies. For example, someone cannot say “if you live in CA, then you live in the USA. You live in the USA. Therefore, you live in CA.” This argument’s structure is a formal fallacy and is invalid, since it affirms the consequent. The conclusion doesn’t logically follow from the premises.
If the structure is good, evaluate the argument’s premises to see if they’re accurate (true), relevant, clear/unambiguous, precise, have sufficient depth and breadth, and are complete. Also keep in mind informal fallacies, such as equivocation (where someone uses one word in two different ways, but the word has two different meanings in each way), or false dichotomy (where someone says “either X or Y” when really Z, W, P, and Q (for example) are also options). Another thing to realize is that critical thinking is also a mindset. It’s a mindset to honestly, objectively, open-mindedly, and skeptically seek the truth. It’s the willingness to seek out evidence and reasoning in order to pursue the truth. It’s also an insatiable curiosity. Lastly, read. Read philosophers’ arguments and immerse yourself within a solid framework of argumentation.
A great way to start evaluating an argument is to put it in syllogistic form. This post can be syllogistically formulated as follows:
P1: All babies are atheists.
P2: All babies are ignorant.
C1: Therefore, atheism is ignorant.
I know the post says “if” in front of babies being atheists, however that is because the post is trying to refute the common new atheist claim that “we are all atheists as babies until someone teaches us religion”. So, the post is essentially an internal critique on atheists who say this. But with that side note out of the way, let’s evaluate it.
“If babies are born atheist, and if babies are born with soft skin, then atheism has soft skin.” Using this tactic, called reductio ad absurdum, is basically like using an analogy of the argument to show how absurd it is. It is an effective way to expose faulty arguments. In our case, using the exact same reasoning as the post, we can conclude that atheism has soft skin. But that’s absurd! So it follows that the reasoning being employed is faulty.
Additionally, just because a group of people hold to a given belief and epistemologically accept it, it doesn’t follow that the belief in question is flawed/incorrect/ignorant if those who hold to the belief are ignorant or flawed. For example, a large number of people wouldn’t even be able to substantiate their belief that the earth is round with empirical evidence or mathematical proofs. They’re essentially ignorant on the matter. But that doesn’t invalidate the proposition “the earth is round,” and it certainly doesn’t make that proposition “ignorant.” So, even if babies can be called “atheists,” it wouldn’t follow that atheism is ignorant.
Further, this is a logically invalid form of syllogism.
All X are Y.
All X are Z.
Therefore, Y is Z.
This, however, is an association fallacy, which is an informal inductive fallacy of the hasty-generalization type and which asserts, by irrelevant association, that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another. For example:
All cats purr. All cats are mammals. Therefore, all mammals purr.
This, however, is clearly fallacious.
Further, one can reasonably argue that babies are not, in fact, atheists. There is something rather odd about ascribing any metaphysical positions concerning the existence of deities to babies that don’t even know what a metaphysical position is and that lack the requisite concepts of “belief”, “deity”, and “existence”, among others. To be an atheist would seem to require an assent to the proposition, “atheism is true.” But babies cannot assent to propositions.
Finally, some may argue that the argument equivocates on the word “ignorant.” In the first sense, it means “having absolutely no knowledge, familiarity, or experience with regard to all information.” In the second sense, however, if we use the first definition, it would be false to say atheism is based on absolutely no knowledge of any information in the world, or lacking any experience, or lacking any familiarity with information.
One last thing: The argument can likewise be formulated as follows:
P1: Epistemologically, all babies are ignorant.
P2: Epistemologically, all babies are atheists.
C: Therefore, atheism is (in an ontological sense) ignorant.
But the argument above contains an unwarranted move from epistemology to ontology.
So, as we have seen, the argument (or, perhaps I should say point) being made by the original post is manifestly fallacious and succumbs to a wide variety of criticisms. Note, however, that my main goal in this post was not to actually evaluate this particular argument per se. Instead, it was meant to be an example of the process of critically evaluating arguments. I hope you enjoyed it!