Note: Some edits have been made to clarify a few things. Edits will be noted.
Before I begin my actual argument, I will fill in some background detail about what brought this article about. As well as this site and our podcast, we also run both a Facebook page and a Facebook group. Not too long ago the YouTuber Kristopher Mann appeared in the Facebook group, and began a discussion. This discussion was part of a larger ongoing discussion between himself and Davidian, another author here at Answers in Reason. The discussion was about a debate between Steve McRae and The Duke, which took place on Modern Day Debates last year, as well as a response video that Kristopher Mann made. However, when Kristopher Mann joined the Answers in Reason group, and made his post, he expanded the invitation to all the contributors of the AiR podcast and site to respond to him, his video, his arguments, as well as some of the points discussed in the original debate between Steve McRae and The Duke.
So, I accepted this invitation, and began a discussion with him. His request was to discuss the video he made, as well as the debate between Steve McRae and The Duke. However, I began by discussing a different topic, but focusing on arguments used in the debate by both Kristopher Mann and The Duke in his response video but reframing them from a different perspective and based on a different topic. This discussion allowed me to gauge various arguments from various angles, and to see how Kristopher Mann would argue the same points but on topics he was not quite as heavily invested in. As well as understand various other elements too of course. So, having had that discussion, and found what I needed to know, we then turned our focus onto his video, as well as The Duke’s discussion with Steve McRae, and the arguments that both of them made.
We have not actually got to that discussion properly yet, though it has begun. However, I felt I would make an argument here, because there is an argument that I have which would be better put in this format. It is related to points that Kristopher Mann wants to argue, and it is a counter argument to him and The Duke, as both are making related arguments. It is not a teardown of his video. Just the shared arguments from both him and The Duke. I will include references where I can, as Kristopher Mann was kind enough to let me have his script for his video, for which I am very grateful as it saved me a lot of note taking! So, thank you again, Kristopher. This sums up the background to this enough to understand why it is being made, and why I am responding to Kristopher Mann’s argument here, as well as why I am responding to the argument. So, let us move on to the argument itself.
The Duke’s Argument
Their argument will be approached in a slightly wider way, where the overall conclusions and implications being made, as well as specific points, will be addressed. It is first important to understand the argument that both The Duke and Kristopher Mann are making of course. So, we will begin with the main points of their argument, which can be found below:
- Steve McRae and The Duke had been arguing on Twitter previous to the debate over Steve McRae’s philosophical use of terms like agnostic and atheist, with Steve McRae arguing that he is not an atheist according to the philosophical usage  . With The Duke arguing that Steve McRae was an atheist according to a popular definition, and that Steve McRae should accept that and Steve McRae should not be arguing for the philosophical definitions .
- During the discussion between The Duke and Steve McRae on Modern Day Debates, The Duke opened still arguing that Steve McRae should accept being called atheists by people that use the word as The Duke does, and Steve McRae should not be arguing for the philosophical definitions and arguing against people calling Steve McRae an atheist.
- The Duke also argued that ‘academic philosophy’ should update their definition because it is incorrect, not useful or valid, and out of date .
- Part of the defence for The Duke’s argument, as put forward by Kristopher Mann, is that ‘words get their definition from usage’ and ‘nobody gets to tell another person how they define their words or express their views’.
- Part of the defence for The Duke’s argument is also that the definition used in philosophy is just that, part of philosophy. It is not the colloquial definition, and should be updated to the colloquial definition, and that Steve McRae should be using the colloquial definition when speaking to people outside of Philosophy .
Breaking down The Duke’s argument
So, the first part of The Duke’s argument can be summed us so:
P1) The Duke uses a popular colloquial definition of the term ‘atheist’ to describe himself and Steve McRae
P2) Steve McRae understands this popular colloquial definition and has qualities that match this definition
C1) Therefore Steve McRae should accept that he is an atheist according to the definition that The Duke uses
Edit: Added some clarification to the above, showing The Duke arguing that Steve McRae ought to accept being called an atheist because he fits one of the definitions.
However, when the same argument is framed in this way, both The Duke and Kristopher Mann reject the argument:
P1) Steve McRae uses a philosophical definition of atheism and does not describe himself by this definition
P2) The Duke understands this philosophical definition
C1) Therefore The Duke should accept that Steve McRae is not an atheist according to the definition that Steve McRae uses
This form of the same argument is also rejected by both The Duke and Kristopher Mann:
P1) Steve McRae uses a philosophical definition of the term agnostic to define himself
P2) The Duke understands this definition and has qualities that match this definition
C1) Therefore The Duke should accept that The Duke is an agnostic, and not an atheist, according to the definition that Steve McRae uses
EDIT: Added some slight clarification to the above argument, as the Duke said he is happy to be called agnostic, but only if it includes the term atheist. He did not understand the above philosophical definition inferred that he would just be agnostic, and not atheist. So, have clarified that he would not be defined as atheist under Steve McRae’s terminology. Have also added a shot of a Tweet showing The Duke admitting he would not accept being defined only as an Agnostic in the way Steve McRae uses the word. The Duke will only accept being called an ‘agnostic atheist’, The Duke says he is an atheist and should always be referred to as such.
Hang on a minute
So, what we see here as an asymmetrical argument. One where The Duke argues Steve McRae should change his behaviour, in the case of both using the philosophical definitions of atheism and agnostic, as well as arguing against people calling him an atheist because he matches the colloquial term. In other words, there are atheists telling Steve McRae how he should be using definitions, and that Steve McRae should be accepting the definition put forward by atheists like The Duke and Kristopher Mann who use the popular colloquial definition. However, in the opposite direction, Steve McRae is not telling atheists like The Duke and Kristopher Mann that they should use the philosophical definitions of atheist and agnosticism to define themselves, only that Steve McRae defines himself by the philosophical terms and would prefer it if atheists like The Duke and Kristopher Mann defined Steve McRae using his preferred terms also. Steve McRae argues that there is more than one way to define what an atheist is, and that others that claim that only a singular definition exists make false claims.
Do as I say…
Yet, people like The Duke and Kristopher Mann still argue that Steve McRae is an atheist, and should simply accept that he is an atheist, because a portion of atheists use a particular popular and modern definition, with an almost pod-people like sense of assimilation. However, people like The Duke and Kristopher Mann argue that philosophy, and by extension academic philosophy, ought to change their definition. Their argument is that it is incorrect, not useful, and out of date, as it does not match the definition that a particular portion of atheists use, we can see this in point 3 above. So, their argument is something along the lines of this:
P1) A portion of atheists now define atheism as ‘a person that does not believe in God or Gods’
P2) The philosophical definition of atheism does not match this definition
C1) Therefore this means that the philosophical definition is out of date
P3) The philosophical definition is not only out of date, it is not valid and it is not useful
C2) Therefore the philosophical definition of atheism should be changed to the one that the portion of atheists from P1) uses.
… not as I do
So, once again we see The Duke, as well as Kristopher Mann through his support of The Duke’s argument, arguing that others should be adopting their terminology. Arguing that other’s use of the term should match theirs, because not matching theirs makes it out of date, not valid, and not useful. Their standard for the definition’s validity is whether or not it matches their definition, and usefulness is determined by whether or not it matches their definition. You see, when another says ‘I use the definition a person that believes there is no God’, they understand that definition, they simply argue that it is not what an atheist is, their definition is what an atheist is; and the other person does not get to tell them what an atheist is, atheists like The Duke and Kristopher Mann get to tell others what an atheist is.
Steve McRae’s definitions are not useful
This means that it cannot be that the word atheist defined as ‘a person that believes there is no God’ is not useful because it cannot be understood. Interlocutors like The Duke and Kristopher Mann obviously understand the definition, what the definition means, what the definition implies, and the type of belief that it categorises. If they understand all of these things from the definition, then it is a useful word. It communicates an idea, and a very specific idea. It also cannot be that the word only exists in philosophy, as a philosophical definition, because most theists define the word this way too; and the word was commonly defined this way by most people up until at the least the new millennium (2000). The word slowly changed as ‘New Atheism’ took off, and more and more arguments were made on Facebook, Twitter, and on shows like The Atheist Experience. It became a popular definition amongst that portion of atheists, who then preceded to declare it the only acceptable definition. Claiming all others must accept this new definition, because they were now the gatekeepers of atheism, and what defines atheism.
Atheism has always been…
Others were not allowed to tell them how to use the word, others were not allowed to disagree with their definition, others were not allowed to use a different definition without incurring the wrath of the gatekeepers. Others were not allowed to tell them how the word could be used, should be used, or even how some atheists used the word. Atheists like myself for example, that define the word as ‘belief there is no God’ and have defined it that way since they were growing up. Who while growing up used that word with other people, just regular non-philosophical people, and they knew immediately that I believed there was no God. Instead, I was told that I was using the word incorrectly, and that it is not how atheism or atheist was defined, nor was it ever defined that way. It is, and always was, ‘a lack of belief in god’, or is it ‘someone that does not believe in a god’. It was and always that definition, at least depending on who you were speaking to. We are and always have been at war with Eastasia, so to speak.
One of the arguments that many of those atheists like The Duke and Kristopher Mann use is that atheists get to define how the word is used, nobody else. Yet when other atheists use the definition ‘belief there is no God’, we are immediately told that the definition is incorrect, and we should be defining it as ‘not believing in a god’. We should be using terms like ‘agnostic atheist’ and ‘gnostic atheist’. So, it is not the case that they are arguing that atheists get to define the word atheist, it is the case that they are arguing that they get to define the word atheist. Other atheists should be adopting their definition, their terminology. Philosophy, personal choice, and previous definitions be damned, the ‘New Atheists’ are here, and they are to be obeyed. You do not tell them how to use words, you do not tell them how you define yourself, you do not get to tell them how you define atheism. They are the ones that get to tell you how to use words, and how to define yourself, and how you define atheism. To define yourself otherwise is ungood.
Philosophy and Atheism and Agnosticism
Now, there are several ways that we could go here. We could argue the validity of the usage of the term atheist by philosophy, whether it is logically valid, or linguistically valid. However, we will not take that route. Let us assume for the sake of argument that The Duke is correct, and that the terminology used in philosophy is incorrect, not useful, and out of date. We could also argue things like descriptivism and prescriptivism when it comes to word usage. However, we will not go down that route either. Let us for the sake of argument accept that their arguments about words getting their definition from usage, that people are free to use words how they like, that agents do not get to tell other agents how to use words, and that atheists get to define how they use the terms atheist and atheism. Let us even accept The Duke’s argument that Steve McRae is wrong for arguing the philosophical definitions, and that Steve McRae should just accept that Steve McRae is an atheist every time The Duke, or someone else calls him that, because that is how those people are using that word. I do not believe this, of course, but for the sake of argument let us accept it. Let us accept all of this as true and move on, let us give them all of these arguments. There is still a fundamental flaw with their argument, even if we grant everything they say, and the arguments they use to defend that position. What is that flaw?
We reveal today’s fallacy
That flaw is that they all commit the fallacy of special pleading. The special pleading fallacy is when we argue for a certain position, using certain arguments, but exempt ourselves from that same position and those same arguments. Which, as can be seen throughout this whole argument, is what people like The Duke and Kristopher Mann have been doing. They are continuously holding others to standards and arguments that they exempt themselves from. How so?
Steve McRae should just accept he is an atheist
Consider The Duke’s argument that Steve McRae should just accept that he is an atheist when he is called that by people like The Duke, Kristopher Mann, and other agents that use the term to mean ‘a person that does not believe in a god’. When this argument is turned back around on The Duke, The Duke does not accept the conclusion. He exempts himself from this argument. If Steve McRae’s usage of the term agnostic matches the qualities of belief that The Duke holds, then, according to The Duke’s argument, The Duke simply needs to accept that he is an agnostic according to the terms that Steve McRae uses. The Duke understands what Steve McRae means when he calls him an agnostic, it is just that The Duke refuses to accept this label because The Duke defines himself as atheist according to the definition of atheist that The Duke uses. One rule for Steve McRae, no rule for The Duke. That is special pleading.
And philosophy needs to be updated
Consider now The Duke’s argument that philosophy, and by extension ‘academic philosophy’, needs to update the definition. The Duke argues that it is not useful, and not valid, and outdated. Well, philosophically speaking, the definition that The Duke argues is not useful, and not valid. The philosphical definition of atheism is also not outdated. The definition of atheist as ‘someone who believes there is no God’ is still common, and ongoing, and the term is also used that way by many theists and many other non-theists. What too if a newer definition comes out that defines an atheist as ‘an irrational agent that believes in fairies at the bottom of the garden’, and billions of theists start using this definition, or philosophy begins using this as a common definition. Will this ‘outdated’ argument apply to The Duke also? No, of course it will not, The Duke will argue that an atheist is ‘a person that does not believe in a god’, and theists, or philosophers, do not get to define the word atheist for him. He is, once again, committing special pleading.
The same could be said of The Duke’s argument that philosophy should update its definition because it is not useful or valid. What if philosophers do not find The Duke’s usage to be useful or valid? What if Steve McRae does not find The Duke’s usage to be useful or valid? Do philosophers or Steve McRae then get to tell The Duke that he must update his definition to the one used by philosophers? Of course not, because the argument that The Duke is making is that Steve McRae must start accepting that Steve McRae is an atheist according to the definition The Duke uses, and The Duke is arguing philosophy must also. The Duke is not saying ‘well, I’ll accept that I am agnostic under your definition Steve, and you can call me agnostic when you speak to me’. The Duke is using his argument to say that Steve McRae must accept being called atheist, but the same argument does not apply to The Duke if Steve McRae wants to define The Duke as an agnostic. Once again, we see The Duke committing special pleading.
So, um, yeah…
As we can see, The Duke’s entire argument is based around the special pleading fallacy, as are those that argue things like ‘words get their definitions from usage’ and ‘nobody gets to tell me how to define words’ but then go on to tell people like Steve McRae, myself, philosophers, theists, and others, that ‘atheism just means X’ or ‘atheism just means Y’ and that others do not get to define atheism as they wish. All of these kinds of arguments, when the atheist applies it to others but exempts themselves from those same arguments and conclusions, commit the special pleading fallacy. We often see many contemporary atheists argue how rational they are, how logical they are, how well they know fallacies, and how fallacious arguments are bad. Some even going so far as to use them to be dismissive, simply saying ‘you have committed fallacy X, your argument is dismissed’. Well, you have committed the special pleading fallacy, your argument is dismissed.