Commentary | Beware of straw men

A look at the counter-arguments against "Religion and Children"

Both Zachary Sleep, and Abbie Buckman and Adam Winer mischaracterize Davide Mastracci’s “Religion and Children,” (Page # 10, October 17) presenting uncharitable readings of his position in their attempts to argue against his claims.

Sleep takes Mastracci’s argument to be the following: logic is trumping blind belief, since the number of believers in the world is decreasing, while the number of non-believers is increasing. Therefore, parents should not indoctrinate their children with their own religious beliefs. Sleep ridicules Mastracci, asserting that “he managed to situate a ‘therefore’” somewhere after his statistical observation, and provides his own creationist themed counterexample  to illustrate how Mastracci was misusing logic.

Mastracci’s actual argument had neither the form nor the content that Sleep imposes on it. Mastracci’s comments on logic’s trumping blind belief came almost as an afterthought to his main thesis: that it is wrong to indoctrinate children with religious beliefs because they are not old enough to come to those beliefs themselves, and that parents’ indoctrination of their children is an abuse of power. At no point does Mastracci infer from a statistical observation that parents should abstain from religious teaching. His reiteration of his main point (in the passage which Sleep analyzes) is not being entailed by the earlier points about logic, blind belief and statistics at all; he does not slip a ‘“therefore” in there, nor does he even imply that his thesis follows from those points. Sleep should recognize that yet and therefore are not synonyms.

Even if Sleep’s recounting were an accurate one, and Mastracci’s argument did take that form, Sleep’s creationist counterexample doesn’t prove anything. Sleep asserts, “Amazingly, I was able to use the exact same application of logic that Mastracci used and yet, somehow, I arrived at a seemingly opposite conclusion.” Despite Sleep’s enthusiasm, this isn’t amazing at all. Does he really believe that using similar logic entails arriving at similar conclusions? He is amazed that he “somehow” arrived at an opposite conclusion, but I don’t know what he was expecting, since he started with opposite premises. Sleep should ensure a proper use of logic himself before he alleges its abuse.

Buckman and Winer also mischaracterize Mastracci’s position. They accuse him of believing that “since all people are rational at their core, an authentic relationship to one’s self entails an automatic rejection of religion,” and use this as a starting point to criticize what they see as an Enlightenment inspired artificial division between faith and reason. Mastracci simply did not make this claim in his piece. He clearly stated, with regard to children discovering their own views, “if this means [they] will continue to overwhelmingly believe in their parents’ religion, so be it.” Mastracci said nothing about an “automatic” rejection of religion whatsoever, nor about a rational “core” or a “pure and logical self.” Much of Buckman and Winer’s response is devoted to rejecting claims that Mastracci didn’t make, under the  guise of “unpacking” his assumptions.

Buckman and Winer also argue that in “asserting the superiority of his own notion of rationality over religion,” Mastracci “has almost entirely replicated the logic of domination which he claims to reject.” Though clever, this attempt to turn the tables back on Mastracci fails. Asserting a viewpoint is not the same thing as imposing one. Mastracci did not reject a “logic of domination” for viewpoints, but an act of domination – what he sees as the process of converting children to religion. Buckman and Winer surely recognize the difference between asserting a view, and actually forcing that view on someone else. Mastracci does the former – as does anyone who gives an argument – and rejects the latter, and is consistent in doing so. Mastracci does not advocate actually imposing his view on anyone, thus no accusations of embodying “assumptions of superiority” or “imperialism of values” will illuminate a contradiction on Mastracci’s part.

My point is simple, but important: be charitable. Misrepresenting your opponent’s views and then arguing against the misrepresentation doesn’t constitute an adequate rebuttal. Attributing claims or assertions where there aren’t any inevitably leads to bad argumentation, and is unproductive. Mastracci’s position is a controversial one, and so it is especially important that it be represented accurately. Being clear on exactly what it is your opponent asserts is the first step to meaningful debate – responses that neglect this point, like Sleep’s, and Buckman and Winer’s, accomplish little.