Sarah Silverman Goes to Heaven

Introduction: This clip is part of a stand-up act from Sarah Silverman. her larger point in this segment appears to be that more established religions are as problematic as newer faiths often dismissed as cults. Within that larger argument, she produces a sub-argument against Christianity.

…Okay, Silverman doesn’t say ‘problematic’; she says ‘crazy.’

Key Facts: Sarah Silverman is well-established comedian. She has often specialized in shocking material, and she is frequently critical of religion.

Text: This text is taken directly from the transcript on the Youtube clip provided above.

“Christianity is super 00:26 old but it’s [ __ ] crazy I mean it’s 00:29 you’re born a sinner by being born you 00:34 are a sinner and you’re going to hell 00:38 but you can just apologize and then you 00:40 can go to heaven let me go if you’re a 00:44 murderer same thing it just apologized 00:48 and go to heaven you can be Hitler and 00:51 go to confession and say forgive me 00:53 Father I killed six million Jews and the 00:55 priest would just be like no problems 00:57 say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to 01:03 heaven Hitler goes to heaven is the name 01:09 of my band”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I commonly use this segment in a classroom exercise in which students are expected to pick a point of view they disagree with and explain why. This video is one of the options students may choose to criticize. My own ideas about this argument have thus been shaped by the thoughts of several dozen people who saw fit to take Silverman on, so to speak, in my classoom.

Statements: I have deleted some of the time stamps. Also, I’ve made some corrections. “Let me go” in the transcript should be “No big deal.” ‘It’ in statement 7 should be ‘it’s,’ and I omitted the past tense marker on apologized for this statement. I believe the rest is accurate. I’ve supplied a couple words necessary to render fragments into statement form, but mostly, I left the wording as originally presented in the text. I am leaving the very first comment out of the argument as it is more about the way that this sub-theme connects to Silverman’s larger comparison between established religions and new ones. The last comment is funny as Hell, but it’s not part of the argument.

Christianity is super old

but

[1] it’s crazy.

I mean

[2] you’re born a sinner

[2] by being born you are a sinner

[3] you’re going to hell

but

[4] you can just apologize and then you can go to heaven

[5] [It’s] no big deal.

[6] if you’re a murderer, [it’s] same thing

[7] it’s just apologize and go to heaven.

[8] you can be Hitler and go to confession and say forgive me Father I killed six million Jews and the priest would just be like no problems say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to heaven Hitler goes to heaven.

is the name of my band.

Diagram: This is the best way that i can think to represent the flow of logic in this argument.

The passage from statement 3 and 4 (you can just apologize and go to heaven) to statement 5 (it’s no big deal) is tricky. Statement 5 summarizes the significance of 4 i a way that let’s us know what the problem is as far as Silverman is concerned, but the schema (apologies fix everything!) is used in subsequent inferences. This creates a problem. If we see 5 as inferred from 4 and then move on to subsequent images without referring back to 4, then we lose the schema. If on the other hand we treat 5 a separate conclusion, then it seems to be unconnected to the rest of the argument, whereas it is clearly relevant to subsequent points. It is tempting to treat statement 5 as applying to multiple inferences, but that muddles the diagram a bit much. Another solution would be to treat statement 5 as part of the meaning of statement 4, a kind of elaboration. This is one of the problems with reasoning in real life. The question of what is being offered as evidence for what is not always clear in actual speech, so these diagrams can effectively misrepresent the reasoning involved by forcing a choice on a diagram which wasn’t actually clear in the presentation itself.

I think the solution here is found in statement 6 which asserts that murderers get the same treatment. The equivalence asserted in this passage strikes me as applying to the both statement 4 and 5, i.e. the schema and the way the insignificance of immorality under that formula.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Interactional Eclipse, reductio ad absurdum, motte and bailey doctrine, satire, straw man.

Interactional Eclipse: There are several ways in which the reasoning of this argument is substantially overshadowed by the social interactions at stake. To begin with, the shock value of Silverman’s act overwhelms any sense of the reasoning at stake. Believers may often be too offended to attend to the argument at hand. On the other hand, non-believers may enjoy the schadenfreude too much to think too carefully about the argument. I’ve seen both reactions. This problem is of course compounded by the sense many Christians have that this behavior is simply unacceptable, either because it is too rude, or because it is blasphemous, or both. That response can be all you get, in which case, no account of Silverman’s reasoning will be forthcoming. Likewise, some critics of religion may celebrate the argument simply on account of its subversive message, independent of the reasoning in question. the bottom line, is that a significant number of people will ignore the logic of this argument while focusing on its emotional impact and the social implications of Silverman’s verbal behavior.

Motte and Bailey Doctrine: One interesting question here may relate to the question of whether or not there may be some Christians for whom this is in fact an accurate account, or even whether or not there may be some contexts in which Christians themselves produce an account of their belief that comes close to this. Simply put, Christians themselves may oversimplify their own beliefs in some contexts, bringing out more serious efforts to sort the moral significance of repentance only when pressed to do so. In this case, Silverman’s criticism would apply just fine to some versions of Christianity (those expressed in the Bailey, so to speak) while failing to address others belonging to the Motte.

Reductio ad Absurdum: This argument definitely fits the pattern of of a reductio ad absurdum. Silverman assumes for purposes of argument that an apology is what makes the difference between going to Heaven and going to Hell and infers from this the claim that Hitler could make it to heaven by simply apologizing for all he has done whereas others who have done little wrong in life would go to hell because they simply didn’t believe in God (and failed to apologize for their sins). Silverman, and many others would regard this as an unacceptably absurd approach to morality. The crucial question in this case is whether or not her sub-deduction succeeds, whether or she can really demonstrate that a simple apology gets Hitler into Heaven whereas the lack of it leads decent people to Hell.

Satire: It would be fair to suggest that Silverman’s presentation of Christianity here is satirical. Given this fact, some might suggest that it is a mistake to take her specific argument too seriously, but then how do we take it? There is no obvious reason to think that Silverman does not believe any given part o this argument, and there is no clear alternative to taking the argument as a serious effort to show us what is wrong with religion as she sees it. If Satire often accomplishes its goals by exaggerating tendencies in the object of its abuse, it also works sometimes by simply stripping away pretentious language and adopting alternative narratives which are just as plausible as the stories and language used by those less critical about that object of abuse. Arguably, that is what Silverman is trying to do here; to strip away a flattering narrative and show us what these beliefs mean without the reverent language in which they are normally presented. So, it seems to me that her argument stands or falls on terms pretty much the same as those iof any serious critic. Hell, this is a serious criticism, and it should be treated as such.

Straw Man: Because I include this video in one of my classes, I have had occasion to hear a couple dozen Christians respond to it. At some point or another, they invariably suggest that a simple apology is NOT an accurate description of what they actually believe. Whether this is about confession and contrition or being saved, they always emphasize the necessity of sincere regret accompanied by a substantial change of character and lifestyle. Silverman’s account would seem to suggest that even an insincere apology would get one in to Heaven. Discounting that, she certainly does not talk about the kind of transformation which is central to christian thinking on this subject. So, I do think it’s fair to suggest that Silverman is misrepresenting the beliefs in question.

Evaluation: The biggest problem with this argument falls squarely on statement 4 as a description of actual Christian thoughts about morality and the prospects for getting to Heaven or Hell.

I haven’t addressed the adequacy of this metaphysics. Many Christians might find this to be a childish caricature of their own beliefs. Silverman might respond by suggesting that some Christians (perhaps most) have expressed belief in just such a childish caricature, in which case, her argument may be fairly applied to them with a great deal more validity.

All of which is to say nothing of differences between Protestant and Catholic views on the subject.

The biggest problem lies in the question of whether or not it is fair to suggest that a mere apology is all that is at stake in Christian ideas about repentance. As stated above, I do think this is a straw man, as applied to the more serious thoughts of most Christians, but I do think there are some Christians for whom the criticism may be accurate, and even some contexts in which Christians in general may allow themselves to talk in ways comparable to those Silverman criticizes here.

Final Thoughts: As applied to most Christian thought, the argument is unsound because it amounts to a straw man fallacy. If there are Christians whose beliefs align with Silverman’s description, then frankly, I think the argument is sound.

Phil Robertson’s Argument from Rape

Introduction: On March 20th, 2015, Phil Robertson spoke at an event known as the Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast in Florida. The Duck Dynasty star is an outspoken evangelical Christian who has espoused right wing political views on a number of occasions. Robertson’s talk included an elaborate rape fantasy which soon generated a great deal of controversy.

The full speech can be heard on True News. Critical Responses can be found on Right Wing Watch as well as a number of other sources. The excerpt used below came from Time Magazine.

Key Facts: Most of Robertson’s critics have focused on questions about his representation of atheism, it should be noted that the purpose of his speech is to show that faith in God is central to morality. The passage presented below follows a reading of comments from the psychologist Orval Hobart Mowrer. Mowrer’s comments had focused on the effort to eliminate the concept of sin from psychology, efforts Mowrer appeared to regard as unsuccessful (at least as Robertson quotes him). Robertson provides no source citation for the Mowrer quotes which he finishes up by noting that Mowrer committed suicide. (The implication appears to be that Mowrer’s work in secular psychology led to the suicide. This narrative would be complicated by Mowrer’s own embrace of Christian messages.) Robertson’s overall point thus advances the general notion that all moral consciousness stems from acceptance of Jesus. Robertson further asserts that a broad range of worlds views are simply attempts to escape this fact. His remarks about atheism must be taken as a sub-argument toward this larger conclusion.

Text:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

ANALYSIS

Comments: The central argument of this passage is folded into a story. It may be best to group much of the details of the story into one statement.

Statements: I am grouping most of the story scenario itself into one single claim. I’ve tried to isolate the rest of the claims made in this argument below and presented them in bold. No effort was made to clean up the punctuation after doing so, and various bits and pieces that don’t contribute to the logic of the argument are left dangling, so to speak. Anyway, here it is!

***

I’ll make a bet with you.

[1] Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say,

[2] ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3] Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[4] There’s no right or wrong,

now is it dude?’

[1] Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say,

[5] ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this?

But you’re the one who says

[6] there is no God,

[4] there’s no right, there’s no wrong,

so

[7] we’re just having fun.

[8] We’re sick in the head,

have a nice day.’

***

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Indirection, interactional eclipse, paraphrasing, reduction ad absurdum, redundant assertions, rhetorical questions, straw man, and voicing.

Indirection and Interactional Eclipse: Most of the controversy over this passage has bypassed any straight-forward evaluation of Phil Robertson’s argument to focus on questions about why he would want to field such an elaborate rape fantasy in the first place. This does not exactly go to the logic of the argument, but it is a perfectly legitimate question.

Such imagery is likely generate significant (negative) emotional response. When delivered in person, an argument portraying someone as the victim of graphic violence serves to intimidate or anger its target, so much so that any rational dialogue is likely to end. But of course Phil Robertson isn’t exactly talking to atheists. He is speaking to an audience of believers (though his speech was recorded and hence shared with a wider public). This illustrates a common feature of Christian apologetics, namely its use of indirection. Phil frames his argument as one against atheism, but it is actually an argument intended for an audience consisting primarily of true believers. It’s probative value as a means of furthering debate with unbelievers thus takes a back-seat to its value as a message to the faithful, and any adverse reactions by atheists would thus have little meaning to Phil or his audience (except perhaps for the side-benefit of generating Schadenfreude.

In the end, we are left with a kind of rhetorical pornography, an argument that plays ironically to the prurient interests of its audience without doing much to advance the soundness of their position.

Paraphrasing: The argument requires some paraphrasing to piece together. Three rhetorical questions require rewording (see below) and the opening teaser line needs some fleshing out. I’m inclined to see it as a reference to statement number 5. If you were to finish the thought, I think it would look something like this:

[5] [Atheists will object to the actions taking place in this story.]

Reduction as Absurdum: The overall structure of the argument is that of a reductio. Phil Robertson doesn’t attend much to the details, and hence his sub-deduction leaves a lot to be desired, but it would seem he is trying to show us that atheism leads to a contradiction of sorts.

Redundant assertions: Claim number 4 is made twice. Robertson further alludes to claim 5 at the outset of the argument, though he only makes the claim explicit later in the argument,

Rhetorical Questions: Claims 2, 3, and 5 actually take the form of questions. The following revisions may be used in order to transform them into statements.

[2a] [It is] great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3a] [It is] great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[5a] [There should be] something wrong with this?

Straw Man: The most common complaint relating to the logic of this argument is that Phil Robertson has misrepresented atheists to the degree that he assumes all atheists reject the notion of moral values. There are of course a good many atheists who would object to the notion that there is no right or wrong, and they would object strenuously to the notion their own views amounted to such a position. From this standpoint, Robertson’s argument misrepresents atheism. It isn’t even particularly subtle about it.

It should be noted that Christian apologists often field a somewhat more moderate version of this argument by suggesting that atheist may be moral and decent people, but that they are unable to provide an adequate philosophical basis for any moral attitude they may have. Phil’s argument seems to share in this approach at least to the degree that he makes little effort to base his position on the claims of actual atheists (though his Mowrer quote seems to provide a token effort along these lines). In the end, this simply isn’t Phil Robertson’s approach. he isn’t merely suggesting that atheists lack for a sound philosophical account of their morality. His argument explicitly attributes to atheists claims rejecting moral values.

Although there are certainly atheists who also reject morality altogether, Phil Robertson is wrong to equate this position with atheists in general. His argument is accordingly a pretty clear case of a straw man.

Voicing: This argument contains voicing insofar as the rapists in his story appear to be speaking for Phil himself. Their words constitute his argument. Hence, the characters in the story provide a voice for the author of the argument.

Diagram: It’s tempting to abandon the hope of diagraming this argument. Aside from the lack of explicit explicit reasoning indicators Phil Robertson does seem to jump around a bit. I think I can make sense of the general flow of ideas here, but this seems to rely on more imaginative reconstruction than I would prefer. It isn’t entirely clear for example just what Phil thinks is a reason for what, or more importantly, whether he distinguishes some of these propositions from each other at all. That said…

The key to the argument here is to remember that Phil is attacking the moral sensibilities of atheism. The whole narrative is a reduction ad absurdum directed against those sensibilities, so we begin with the core assumption to be refuted (claim number 6). Phil seems to derive two specific consequences from this, that there will be no consequences for bad behavior (claim 2)and that there is no right and wrong (claim 4). Phil thus infers from claims 3 and 4 that there is nothing wrong with the behavior in the story (claim 3) and that it should be construed either as mental illness (claim 7) or mere fun (claim 8). He then assumes that an atheist will want to object to the behavior anyway (claim 5), thus refuting the initial assumption (number 6) which he started with.

Back of the envelope alright!

Back of the envelope alright!

Evaluation: I’ll just call attention to a few problematic steps in the argument. Note that it is in claims 2 and 4 that the Straw man mentioned above enter Robertson’s argument.

A) The inference from 6 to 2 is weak at best. Without God, people may still be accountable to other people and/or social institutions.

B) The inference from 6 to 4 is likely nil. If absence of a a God entails a lack of moral values, Phil Robertson has done little to show this. Of course that is the point of the overall argument, but the presence of that notion here as an assumed basis for the inference in question would do little but make this a circular argument. In any event, the inference from 6 to 4 lacks force.

C) The inference from 2 and 4 to 3 is strong to deductively valid insofar as it would be difficult to imagine how general statements about the lack of moral values or consequences would be reconciled with the notion that there is something wrong with the specific behavior in the story. (The problem of course lies up above in the diagram.)

D) The inferences to 7 and 8 are a little beside the point. Each is little more than an elaboration of the main point which is contained in claim 3.

E) The final inference to a rejection of statement 6 is weak. At best Phil Robertson’s argument would establish a desire to believe in god, perhaps even a need for such a being in moral philosophy. It would not prove that such a being does exist.

F) Ultimately, the argument is unsound. Atheism does not logically entail the nihilism Robertson associates with it, and the moral problems Phil advances would not prove that atheists were wrong to reject belief in God if he had establish them properly.
Final Thoughts: Some might think it unwise to treat such an argument as worthy of analysis. At this point, I’m not entirely sure that they are wrong.