December 5, 2012

Credibility and Popularity in the Atheist Community

argumentum ad populum

I started taking a look at the subject of credibility in the atheist community recently, and I'd like to continue that topic here by considering the relationship between credibility and popularity. A few readers commented, correctly I believe, that my last post presented an unrealistic and overly idealized view of credibility in our niche. I was writing about earned credibility without making this sufficiently clear.

Credibility, Popularity, and Logic

What started me thinking about credibility and popularity was a recent post at another blog. In discussing some of the more common logical fallacies, Reason Being described one of my least favorite, argumentum ad populum, as follows:
Argumentum ad Populum—this is the fallacy that states something must be true because most people believe it to be true. It is absurd and a common tactic by U.S. Christians on Twitter.
I suspect every atheist living in a heavily religious country recognizes this one and has had considerably experiencing being on the receiving end of it. Just think of how many times you have heard the various counters. We typically take the position that we would rather pursue truth than popularity. We are not going to go along with something false just because many people believe it.

But there is a somewhat different application of the argumentum ad populum we may be less likely to spot, and it concerns credibility. Much like the suggestion that religious claims must be true because many believe them, many are quick to use the popularity of a person as an measure of his or her credibility. Take Richard Dawkins as an example. He's arguably the world's most well-known living atheist, at least among those who are well-known primarily for being atheists. Does this necessarily make him more credible, more likely to be correct, etc.? Nope. Remember, the Pope is popular too.

It is not my intent to disparage Richard Dawkins here. I have generally been impressed with his work, and I certainly appreciate the attention he has brought to atheism. I bring up the Pope not to suggest any similarity but to point out that popularity does not necessarily indicate credibility. Dawkins has earned his credibility in other ways.

I also bring up Dawkins to remind us that we are sometimes guilty of committing this fallacy right here in our own community. I have been surprised by at the number of times I have seen atheists claiming that certain figures in our community are more credible simply because of their popularity (e.g., how many "followers" they have). They may indeed be credible and they may indeed be popular, but they are not necessary credible because they are popular.

Atheism and Reason

It seems like most atheists are more rational on the subject of god(s) than are most religious believers. However, we have seen again and again that this form of rationality does not necessarily extend beyond the question of god(s). We atheists commit errors in thinking too, including a whole host of logical fallacies.

It is dishonest for us to insist that we are somehow immune to committing fallacies like this, and it is hypocritical for us to criticize religious believers for engaging in fallacious reasoning while giving ourselves a pass for doing it. We should encourage one another to apply skepticism, reason, and critical thinking to religious claims, and we should encourage each other to do so in response to claims made by others in our own community. We should consider earned or legitimate expertise when it comes to interacting with religious individuals, and we should do so in our own community.

No claim, no dogma, no authority can be beyond question. When we forget this, we are no longer operating as reasonable skeptics; we have become believers.

H/T to Ape, Not Monkey for the great comic.

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