I have had a couple of unfortunate run-ins with begging the question lately, the most recent being a suggested video from YouTube featuring Ricky Gervais.
Begging the Question
Begging the question is quite difficult to understand firstly because it is popularly misused when we want to say “raising the question” or “failing to answer the question”, and secondly because it uses archaic language to tag what is already a reasonably confusing idea. For all that, it is nevertheless an argument fallacy that is shockingly common.
One is begging the question when one’s argument requires the desired conclusion to be true for the argument itself to work; in other words, one is ‘begging’ one’s hearer to accept as true the very thing that one is trying to prove (the ‘question’). Like I said, it is quite confusing.
It is not unlike the classic loaded question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” While it requires a yes/no answer, both options are incriminating. You either have beaten your wife, or you still are. The way that the question is phrased pushes you to admit guilt. In a similar way, begging the question also requires the hearer to accept something undesirable as a fact, and that ‘something’ is the very conclusion that is under dispute.
For example, I have come across a ‘proof for God’s existence’ that has as one of its premises that the Bible is inspired; thereafter, it follows that the Bible claims that God exists, and therefore God must exist. It is a slightly better argument when not abbreviated like this, but to use inspiration as a premise for this argument begs the question because inspiration (when used of the Bible) is the idea that God is ultimately its author. In other words, the premise depends on God existing; it doesn’t prove that God exists.
How Does Ricky Beg the Question?
One of the early arguments in the linked video is that if religion were not spoken about at all to children, then we’d see a ‘different pattern’ in society; i.e. people mostly only believe religious ideas because they are inculcated very early on and with the same level of unquestionable authority as “don’t touch the fire” or “don’t go near the wolf”.
At about 1m30s, he says,
“If [religion] is given that same level of credence and truth, you’re never going to get over it. It’s going to be a lot harder to undo that.”
On one level, I agree with him. Religion, in general, has often survived because of fear and indoctrination. As I am someone who finds only one religion credible, I would also agree with him that most religious teaching needs to be ‘got over’.
It is unfortunate that Christendom at points in history most certainly used fear and coercion to keep up the numbers (and some Christians continue to do this ), though I would argue this approach is opposed to Christian theology. In fact, the movement that had to rescue Christianity from Christendom (i.e. the Reformation) claimed their gospel as a message of liberation and freedom, over against the fear and manipulation of the church. In other words, (although this is very reductionistic) the most prominent and violent Christian conflict in history was waged in order to free Christian theology from authoritarian Imperial control.
But as an argument for atheism, I think that Gervais is (among other things) begging the question. Why? Because we can only agree with him that it is bad to teach children about God if God is a myth that we’ve invented (as the question at 0m30s claims). In other words, if the atheists are correct and there is no God, then yes, it is unfortunate that myths are propagated as truth. However, if there is a God, then one would be doing massive harm by raising children as though there isn’t, because the assumptions that underpin naturalism are equally hard to undo.
Christianity ultimately depends on the resurrection of Christ having been an historical event. There is good evidence for it, but how you process that evidence depends in large measure on unprovable presuppositions that you bring with you. If it is possible that there is a God who cares about the world, then there is nothing impossible about the idea of a resurrection that was the ultimate demonstration of that love for the world. If, on the other hand, you would say with the likes of Hume and Dawkins that a lie is always overwhelmingly more likely than a miracle, then what evidence for the resurrection would ever persuade you?
We’re all responsible for training our children in how to make sense of the world. It is unavoidable and it is never neutral. As with all the other circumstances of their birth and upbringing, what we give them will either prove to be a blessing or a curse. As I experience following Jesus to be an uncoerced and unqualified good, I have no fear in recommending it to my children. If it proves to be a mirage in this desert, then pity my hope if you like.
Ricky is concerned that religion is bullied into kids, and I agree that this is bad. Ricky would rather that kids be given the opportunity to choose without coercion, and again I agree that this is good. We even both seem to agree that teaching kids to think is good. But I disagree with him that atheists have a monopoly on that.