“The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Psalms 14:1) This is one of the Bible verses that the religious will quote as a supposed refutation of atheism. It tries to make a case for belief in God with what seems at first like logic. The statement is brought in to help construct the syllogism that:
- Only fools don’t believe in God
- You are (or at least want to be seen as) not a fool
- You should believe in God
Is it unfair at this point to bring up the multiple studies that show inverse correlation between education levels and religiosity of societies? It is? Aw, shoot. Yeah, yeah; correlation is not the same as causation. I get it. Still.
Syllogisms can be powerful tools in logical reasoning but they are also very easy to use to construct fallacious arguments that only sound reasonable. In a syllogism, you have a series of statements where the first two must be true for the third to be true. Then you have to be very careful not to overtax the conclusion that’s supportable by those two and make your third statement too broad.
To show how this one works to trick us into the desired conclusion, let’s look at what it really says and what apologists try to torture it into saying. Here’s what we can correctly infer from the verse, if we take it at face value: At least one person who is a fool says there is no God. (He says this to himself because he knows how dangerous it is to declaim in Bronze Age Palestine; maybe he’s not such a fool after all.) If we think about it in terms of sets, it means that the intersection of the set of fools and the set of people who say there is no God is not empty. What it doesn’t mean is that the set of unbelievers is a subset of the set of fools; yet to support the argument, that is what the religious speaker has to imply. With the first statement of the syllogism shown false, the entire thing collapses. (Ironically, the actual plain meaning of the verse is almost certainly true. There has to be a fool somewhere who is also an unbeliever.)
This may be excusable; people who don’t think hard about the imprecise way common language expresses logical concepts really do have a tough time with this. The mistake may be an honest one, and we should assume good will as long as possible.
As atheists we will be challenged all the time by the religious, with arguments of approximately this level of quality. We need to be on our game.
One final note. The most famous cautionary example of why you need to be very careful with syllogisms,
- Aristotle is an animal.
- Cats are animals.
- Aristotle is a cat.
means that I have an opportunity to rescue this logicians’ punching-bag by naming my next cat “Aristotle.”
This is #8 of a series covering the top ten goofy things religious people say to atheists.