The Kierkegaard Gambit-3: The Nineteenth Century Variation

The Kierkegaard Gambit (explained in yesterday’s post) is a tactic used to deflect attention away from the awkward request made by atheists to believers to provide evidence for god by challenging the competence of the people making the request. I freely acknowledge that I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher nor have I studied the works of the famous philosophers in depth. But the claims that atheists make are fundamentally empirical and can be credibly made by anybody, although they do have theological and philosophical implications.

As commenter Eric reminded me yesterday, Richard Dawkins points us to the intellectual paucity of the Kierkegaard Gambit by saying “Would you need to read learned volumes on Leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?” Jason Rosenhouse and P. Z. Myers provide other responses to it. Myers has fun pondering what those who use the Kierkegaard Gambit would have said if Dawkins had been the child who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

As I said yesterday, what atheists say is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

The only god that concerns an atheist like me is some kind of active intelligent entity that exists in the same world that I live in and can thus interfere in its workings capriciously, thus violating the laws of nature that scientists have worked diligently to discover. It is these very laws that provide order to the universe and have enabled us to explain its workings and to create the vast edifice of science and technology that we currently benefit from. Surely it is a matter of some import if those same laws can be overturned capriciously at the whim of a supernatural being? A god who can mess with the laws of science is not someone whose existence I can ignore.

In response to the claim that I made that “There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns”, a commenter dismissed it by saying:

Absolutely specious. First off, it conflates names for God with God, showing that the questioner isn’t even treating his own claims seriously. Secondly, it groups physical beings (and here I assume that he means the existence of actual “unicorns”, “fairies” and “Santa Clauses” and not metaphorical ones, which do exist) with extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence), which either is meant as an attempt to belittle humble folks who think that they are limited and finite or simply indicative of a lack of complex approach to a complex subject out of arrogance or laziness.

It is interesting that this commenter is also claiming that there are “extremely complex, immaterial beings (Infinite and outside of physical existence)”? What does that mean exactly? What evidence is there that such beings exist at all? How does the commenter know that such beings exist if they are ‘outside of physical existence’ since the commenter is presumably inside physical existence? Or is he saying that they exist ‘metaphorically’ like metaphorical unicorns and fairies? How can one be so confident in assigning attributes to an entity for which there is no evidence?

People can have all the metaphors they want and endlessly debate the attributes of their metaphorical gods, just as they can argue about whether metaphorical unicorns are silver or white and whether these mythical animals are mild-mannered or ferocious in temperament. But they never come right out and say that their god is as much a metaphor as a unicorn. As Greta Christina so lucidly pointed out, even those progressive religionists who say that religion is a metaphor don’t seem to really mean it.

When Dawkins argues with theologians and sophisticated religious believers, he sometimes encounters an alternate form of the Kierkegaard Gambit which, to pursue chess terminology, I call the Nineteenth Century Variation. They often accuse him of being ‘nineteenth century’ in his level of sophistication and of arguing as if they still have the naive belief of god as an old man with a long white beard in the sky. Of course, since they don’t, they argue that that makes his arguments irrelevant. Dawkins wonders why they assign to him such a naïve concept of god when it should be obvious that he thinks no such thing:

What, then, is the coded meaning of ‘You are so nineteenth-century’ in the context of an argument about religion? It is code for: ‘You are so crude and unsubtle, how could you be so insensitive and ill-mannered as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like “Do you believe in miracles ” or “Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?” Don’t you know that in polite society we don’t ask such questions? That sort of question went out in the nineteenth century.’ But think about why it is impolite to ask such direct, factual questions of religious people today. It is because it is embarrassing! But it is the answer that is embarrassing, if it is yes.

The nineteenth century connection is now clear. The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. Hence, if somebody like me insists on asking the question, it is I who am accused of being ‘nineteenth century.’ It is really quite funny when you think about it. (The God Delusion, p. 157-157)

The Nineteenth Century Variation is similar to the Kierkegaard Gambit in that both seek to deflect attention away from awkward questions. The former is aimed at those who ask religious apologists if they really believe the absurd claims of their religions, while the latter targets those who ask believers for evidence for their claims about god. Both are embarrassing requests for sophisticated believers and so atheists must be deflected from asking them.

Next: Why evidence is so crucial

POST SCRIPT: Monty Python sing the Philosopher’s Drinking Song

Sing along with them! Its fun! Sadly, Kierkegaard didn’t make it into the song.


  1. Robert Allen says

    There is another objection to the Kierkegaard Gambit that I could mention. First, the gambit does apply whenever the person making the claims has expertise in a relevant field, and his critics do not. So, you could use the gambit if someone with no understanding of biology tries to critique evolution. It would be fair to say “Go read a biology book and then I’ll take you seriously.” So, what level of expertise did the writers of the Bible have on the question of God’s existence that any of us don’t also have? Isn’t it a bit odd that you supposedly need an advanced degree in order to properly understand the stories and ideas of uneducated 1st century fishermen? It’s more than odd. As Dawkins has said, it’s “barking mad.” In fact, I’m laughing out loud right now just thinking about it. Keep up the good work Mano!

  2. says


    You are right. I am sometimes questioned by religious believers who have been told that quantum mechanics and the indeterminancy principle proves the existence of god. In this case, since it is they who are raising the issue, I often end up suggesting that they really need to look up some good treatments of this and refer them to those works.

    But even in such situations this is not my first response. I usually first try and explain what the problem with their argument is. It is only when their incomprehension has reached a hopeless level that I point them in some particular direction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *