Presuppositions are powerful things. They are powerful because a person has to accept what is presupposed in order to understand what is said. Certainly a person can reject the presupposition afterwards, and in some cases does so quickly, but many times this doesn’t happen, and many times a person is left uncomfortable or unable to “put their finger on” what’s troubling them about the other person’s position.
Peter Hitchens uses this tactic. He sometimes talks about the position taken by his ‘automatic critics’ to his views on this or that. ‘Automatic critics’ is an interesting phrase because it suggests his opponent’s position is not faithfully held. The phrase is a sort of argumentative pre-emptive strike in the possible debate or discussion to come. Before he’s had to get started he’s already accused his opponent of a lack of sincerity. It’s subtle, certainly, and a sort of “Presuppositional Debatics.”
This is not the only example. Consider this change of mind by Peter Hitchens. I’ve italicised the relevant parts. In this quote he’s talking about Terry Pratchett:
“I have heard the position of the new atheists well summed up elsewhere as ‘God doesn’t exist – and I hate Him!’ But I wasn’t aware that Sir Terence (whose books I have not felt compelled to finish, or explore further, after sampling one or two) had said he hated God for not existing. Both positions are of course nonsensical. Sir Terence has no idea if God exists or not, and can believe in Him tonight if he chooses to do so. You cannot hate someone who is not there.” *
(21 June 2011 – “More Angry People.”)
In terms which could not be clearer Peter Hitchens describes “God doesn’t exist – and I hate Him” as “nonsensical.”
By November the following year he has changed his mind:
“I was amused by Douglas Wilson’s summary of the ‘new atheist’ position as ‘God doesn’t exist – and I hate Him’, as being paradoxically accurate […]”
(12 November 2012 – “Who has The Thin Skin? The Millican Exchange Continues.”)
He’s changed his mind unless “paradoxically accurate” means “nonsensical.” It doesn’t so he has. I wonder if Douglas Wilson, an impressive and serious person, got in touch and explained to Peter Hitchens exactly what the point of “There is no God – and I hate Him” actually is? I also wonder if Douglas Wilson is the “elsewhere” that Peter Hitchens refers to?
In any case, by the following year, Peter Hitchens likes the paradoxical position enough to have re-phrased it as his own:
“They often ask me quizzically ‘How can you say that we hate God, when we don’t believe in him?’. My reply is always the same. You refuse to believe in Him because you hate Him.”
(27 June 2013 – “Puddleglum versus the Atheists.”)
His answer might now be ‘always the same,’ but it hasn’t always been the same answer.
By 2014 the paradoxical position is expressed freely and easily:
“And then there are the many female liberationists bashing away at the traditional family, and all the legions of equality merchants and open-borders enthusiasts, and of course the militant atheists, who hate God, claim he doesn’t exist, and want to stop us telling our children about Him, in case he does exist.”
(14 October 2014 – “A Guide to Selfism.”)
I’d say he’s changed his mind, wouldn’t you?
It’s a good tactic, a bit like a gambit in Chess: sacrifice a bit of surface logic to land a deeper blow.
Could you miss all the doubt the militant atheists are suffering from?
This is important because using skill with words to suggest the atheist doesn’t believe the position he takes is, at bottom, a refusal to take the person seriously because he doesn’t know his own mind. This is insulting. But it’s also the claim to know the atheist’s mind better than the atheist does which is a form of dishonesty because such a thing is impossible. Acting or writing in a seious way, assuming the atheist doesn’t believe his position is dishonest behaviour because you can’t know that. You can’t know that even if you’re a presuppositional apologist. Which Peter Hitchens isn’t.
* Two lines later, Peter Hitchens says “The passion which atheists devote the subject suggests (as such passion almost invariably does) a grave uncertainty underneath. So do the linguistic and debating tricks employed by some atheist bores […]”
I don’t know if using linguistic or debating tricks suggests grave uncertainty under the surface words or not. Peter Hitchens does, but only when atheists do it.