Tag Archives: philsophy

Arguing with Preschoolers

92572265From Smalley’s “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Atheist”:

3. I asked my four-year-old daughter where the stars came from. She confidently said “The moon made them.” I followed by asking “Then where did the moon come from?” She strongly asserted “Daddy, the moon is the boss. Nobody made the moon.” This is an unmistakably familiar mindset; and rightfully embarrassing for an adult to hold such similar thought.

The problem with most arguments from analogy is that their proponents have done nothing to show that the analogy is a good one.

We see this very clearly in the passage above. Smalley seems to be claiming ignorance of the differences between a contingent, finite, material object like the moon and a necessary, infinite, immaterial God. Whether one believes in the later or not, this is the idea being discussed, and merely asserting “the moon had to be made by something, so God (if there were a God) had to be too” isn’t any better an argument than the one Smalley’s daughter made.

In fact, cosmological arguments for God’s existence center around the idea that physical things (like the moon) need explanations. This is a point in favor of these defenses for God, not against them.

But I suspect that this isn’t actually what Smalley is trying to say. Perhaps he’s not really making the case that the causal regress must be infinite (if he was, he has failed). Perhaps he was simply trying to say that theistic reasoning is similar to that of a young child’s, and is therefore wrong.

I hesitate to assume that this is his point, because it is even less rational. To say that something must be false because it bears vague resemblance to something said by a young child is clearly poor logic. Ideas are to be weighed on their merits, not the merits of a vaguely similar comment made by a preschooler.

I doubt very much that Smalley would have abandoned his atheism had his daughter responded with “Nothing made the stars; space just appeared one day”, but there is as much analogy here to atheism as her comment about the moon to theism. Neither statement is a fair summary. The musings of preschoolers simply aren’t a rational basis on which to judge a philosophy.

The most charitable way I can interpret Smalley is to assume that he wasn’t really trying to make an argument here, but simply appeal to pathos: attempting to make religion seem inherently like a childish fantasy that adults grow out of.

He’s free to believe this, of course, but he doesn’t title his list “My Top 10 Personal Beliefs about Religion”. And that is all this last would be: an assertion that atheism is true, not remotely a reason to think so. That theism is anything like what Smalley’s daughter said about the moon is precisely what he should be trying to prove; he can’t simply assume it in order to “prove” atheism. So, why this is listed as a reason, let alone one of his best reasons, to be an atheist is rather strange.

In the end, it’s a cute story. An atheist parable to encourage fellow non-believers, clarify his position, and make his opponents look a little silly. What it isn’t is anything like a logical reason to be an atheist.