rhetoric sans pareil

April 17, 2009

Re: Atheism – Greatest Danger to Humanity

Or: Deconstruction via Inversion of Rhetorical Symmetries

Hey guys,

This is a post I’ve been meaning to make for ages now – work’s been a major pain recently, so I’ve been spending what little free time I have relaxing with the mates. That said, I’m feeling sick today – I think I’m contagious – so I’ve opted to stay in this Friday night. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to flick this up while I have some spare time to burn.

I’m demonstrating a technique for deconstructing an argument to get at the meat. The vast majority of arguments that we come across, in the paper, online, with friends and family, politicians, and even professional debaters contain vast portions of text that are superficially persuasive but don’t actually carry any substance. Because of this, if you wish to perform a critical reading of the text to work out exactly what’s going on it can be hard to work out what the core of the argument actually is.

If this is the case, its useful to first deconstruct the argument to try and weed out the hollow phrases and find the actual hard framework on which the flesh of the argument rests.

Note: This isn’t to say that hollow phrases are always a bad thing – they’re just a bad thing for the purpose of a critical reading, but in a persuasive or strategic sense they can be very useful.

This is a technique of deconstruction that I stumbled on – it was inspired by Gorgias if you’re curious. I’m not sure if this method of deconstruction already exists – I’m an armchair rhetor and largely self-taught, so I’m actually pretty ignorant of what’s already out there.

Disclaimer aside, here’s a bit of theory. There is a certain class of speech that conveys information. There is another class of speech that sounds like it conveys information, but doesn’t. The first class is the framework of the argument, and the second one is an important element of persuasion – the flesh that rests on the hard skeleton. Deciding which is which can be tricky.

Consider the following two statements:

1) Loving your children more than God is sinful.
2) Loving your children more than God is noble.

I apologize for jumping straight on the God-button, but this is actually a very apt example of an interesting phenomenon in argument. Often when we assign meaning to a measurement, we could also have plausibly assigned the contrary meaning very easily. The two statements above are perfectly symmetrical in that, on their own, they are both opposite in meaining as well as being equally plausible. As far as I can tell, Gorgias liked to point out this feature of argument for kicks.

So reading a few snatches of text from Gorgias where he pulled this kind of trick got me to thinking… An interesting method for deconstructing an argument could be to try and mirror any given sentence (or paragraph) and see if I could make a symmetrical argument to the original. When I started doing this, I found I couldn’t do this with every argument. Perhaps it can’t actually be done all the time – or maybe I’m just not as skilled in this art as Gorgias was. Either way, there is usually some parts of any given argument that I can invert, and other parts that I cannot.

Looked at in this light, the parts that cannot be inverted become very interesting – they are the points around which the argument in question is formed, like a pearl around a fleck of grit. Often they won’t even be the pieces that the author thinks their argument rests on – usually they highlight some basic and implied assumption that hasn’t been explicitly stated in the argument itself. They become the entry points to the argument in question. They’re the points of interest if you’re doing a rhetorical reading, and the points that need to be attacked if you are constructing a rebuttal.

The text below is my first attempt at doing this in full. I did it some time ago on a different blog of mine, so it’s a year old now. It was a brilliant learning exercise. My idea kind-of worked and kind-of didn’t. I had to shuffle some sections around a little bit, and take a bit of license with some of the words. But on the whole, I think I came up with an interesting result when I stumbled on the bits that I just couldn’t invert.

The intent here is for you to play the video and, as you listen to JesusFreak’s speech you should read the text I inverted from that speech at the same time as you hear him speaking. A few pieces are a little confusing where I had to shuffle the sentence structures around a bit to get them to work, so you may need to pause and rewind a few times. But the thing I found really interesting was stumbling on the parts that I just couldn’t fit in. I had to cut them out to make the inversion work. The clippings are referenced in the text and assembled as a footer.

I think that’s enough theory for now. If you’re still interested, click the play button and follow the text through. Keep in mind that what I’ve written below isn’t a rebuttal, it’s a deconstruction. If I were setting out to rebut this video, I would do this kind of deconstruction on the side before writing up my rebuttal so as to get a feel for JesusFreak’s main points (the clippings). These points would then be my main areas of attack when constructing the rebuttal itself.

So once again – it’s a little clumsy as its my first go, so please be generous in your reading!

Original Message


Hey YouTube, I want to talk to you about atheist morality.

Now, a lot of people say athiests can’t be moral. I argue that: Moral by who’s standards? I say athiests can be moral.

You see, I believe that human beings derive our morality from multiple sources. One being family, the second being society, the third being personal experience. [cut] Well, I believe that the morality that human beings subscribe to usually concerning family, society and personal experience are actually quite flexible.

If you study the term ‘moral relativisim’ you’ll see that society can often dictate what is or isn’t moral. So there is a flex there, within that morality. However, within Christianity they have direct teaching as to what is moral and that morality never flexes, it’s very rigid. They fail to understand that our own human nature supercedes morality. So I do believe athiests can be moral within any context they’re presented with. [cut]

That’s why I use the term Moral Anarchy. Anarchy – we all know the defnition of – basically it’s an opposition to a governing body. And I believe that when we rebel against our Heavenly Father, and argue that our morality supercedes even that of God’s morality, or our morality is equivalent to God’s morality, that is tantamount to Moral Anarchisim.

You see, this book trys to tell us what is right and what is wrong. But do the same laws and the same rules that applied to us two thousand years ago still apply to us today?

But if you were to look at the secular moral arguments, we would see that morality has flexed, and has changed, and has evolved. What was taboo a hundred years ago is now more socially acceptable. So we can see that whenever God Almighty dictates what is morality it remains consistent. But when humans dictate what is morality there is no consistency, and that is true morality.

It’s very popular nowadays for people to say, “Well, you’re not Christian! You don’t deserve heaven!” even though they’re talking to someone who doesn’t believe in God. And they act as though their morality is equal to that of their audience. Well if we look at the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra, Section 3, Line 9:

I conjure you, my brethren, REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.

You see, the law only claims that it helps us to understand how far we are from God. [cut]

Now I would like to speak on Atheism being the greatest threat to humanity. I would offer you this: Some would say, “Well, JesusFreak, what about famine, war, terrorism; aren’t those greater threats to humanity?” From a physical point of view, yes, I would concede that war has probably taken more physical life than atheism ever has.

But I’m not speaking of the threat to humanity from just a mere physical point of view. I’m speaking of an internal, spiritual point of view.

You see, we’re all going to die one way or the other. If you die from famine, that doesn’t mean you’re going to hell. If you die from war or from terrorisim, once again, you’re not condemned to hell because of those reasons.

But the only way you can believe in and fear hell is from faith in a religion.

Atheism promotes this lack of faith in religion, so it actually encourages the spiritual, ever-changing growth of untold number of people.

So out of the gate we see that I believe that atheism promotes Moral Anarchisim. And that is why I believe that atheism is the greatest boon to humanity. Now note I’m not saying athiests are the greatest boon, because not all atheists are. There are a lot of petty, arrogant athiests that simply don’t believe in doing the right thing. That’s fine! Every athiest must deal with the consequences of their actions at some point in their life. We’re all born atheists, and only if we develop a relationship with an organized religion do we become religious.

So I’m not saying that athiests are the threat, but the teachings of religion. I equate religion with eternal death. It’s kind of like dying of starvation when you have food around you and you just refuse to eat.

The world is all around you, the answers are there.

Ask yourself, think for yourself, read books of philosophy, ask people, send me messages, talk to a philosopher, go to a University.

The answers are there, all you have to do is look for them. And they’re pretty plain to see, it’s pretty easy to find these answers.

So, I just would just like to extend that invitation. If you have any questions, if you would like to investigate the joys of a life without religion, let me know and I would love to show you how to do so.

I hope your thought is provoked by this message, and I hope that each and every one of you learns to become more than you ever thought possible. I’m certain you will.

Cutting Floor

  • … but there is a fourth source of morality that humans look to, and that is: God, through theism… [back]
  • … that we have a litmus test – that is, God – to judge what is moral or isn’t moral against… [back]
  • … and Christ purifies us and atones for us and then we are just because of Jesus Christ… [back]

And there you have it.

This technique is imperfect, but it was definitely interesting to see how JesusFreak’s entire argument boiled down to these three points. The rest of his argument was essentially padding around these points. Particularly interesting was the feel of the thing when I swapped out JF’s Bible quotation for a Nietzsche reference. Quotes of this sort are kind of like cranes (the construction kind of crane, not the bird). You pick up a chunk from some other argument and then drop it into your own.

So my ‘inversion’ of JF’s bible reference was just to quote-mine something exactly opposite to the original. It felt like I was cheating when I did it, but the first time I played through the video as I read the deconstruction it really seemed to work – and it also made me realize that just dropping in a pithy quote from someone clever may not be the best way of advancing an argument.

A witty saying proves nothing.

– Voltaire

… Although if selected appropriately they can still be relevant and useful. ^_^

So that’s it for now – mull this one over for a while. I’ve got another post brewing in my mind that’s itching to get itself out. Y’see, I’ve been using this technique of deconstruction for almost a year now (I don’t write out the entire thing in full every time – I just scan through the argument looking for something that I can’t invert). And I’m starting to see a connection between this method of deconstruction and the need for evidence in argument. If used properly, hard evidence is a great symmetry breaker.

But that’s just a forshadowing. More on that topic later.


  1. Hey Che,
    nice post. Looks like a very useful technique and I think I’ll try it out next time I have a chance. It was laughing out loud for a good part of the video as I read along, particularly where you wrote “So we can see that whenever God Almighty dictates what is morality it remains consistent. But when humans dictate what is morality there is no consistency, and that is true morality.”

    I was also laughing at the fact that the buzz word (phrase) “Moral Anarchism” was turned into a positive thing.
    (by the way I think there’s only one “i” in Anarchism)

    I know this wasn’t quite what you were trying to show, but I don’t completely follow the idea that anything that can’t be inverted is the points of the argument. I mean, for the first cut, you could have simply said “…but, despite what some people might think, there isn’t a fourth source of morality -God and theism- and humans shouldn’t look for morality there.”

    I think the only thing you would not be able to invert would be hard facts, like the speed of light or density of water. At that point it would simply be a lie. Anything to do with philosophy could be inverted even to the point of saying “killing is good”. It’s all about a point of view, and, of course, inconsistent flexible morality.

    What it seems to come down to is seeing which points you don’t want to convert; the ones you both agree on. In other words, finding the shared agreed premises and then figuring out how you ended up at different conclusions.

    In the case of JesusFreak, it seems his logic is fine, it’s just you don’t agree on the premises. The points you didn’t invert seem to be his more obvious premises, but I think there’s quite a few enthymemes in there that you’ve hidden with the conversion.

    Comment by Zhatt — April 21, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  2. Hey- Sorry for getting back to your post late.

    I agree when you clarified morsec0de’s ‘argument’ that absence of evidence doesn’t work either way for a positive proposition (morsecode apparently thought he’d sound smart by making short, snide comments even though I didn’t point out that he didn’t read carefully).

    But some Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and N.T. wright do make positive claims using historical evidence, especially 1 Corinthians, and of course, the gospels. Likewise, other scholars like Richard Carrier challenge these claims. There’s an infinite number of ways to argue something don’t you think :/

    I just hope to clarify issues, one angry post at a time :)

    Comment by ruip — June 14, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  3. Hey there Che…

    cl from the soiree at SI’s. I didn’t see an email link anywhere, so I wanted to post the link to my response from that thread about what constitutes “good evidence.”

    Not much has changed since you left, but here’s the link to the response I promised you:


    Take care, I hope to see you around..

    Comment by cl — July 23, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  4. Hey, great comments on my blog. Solid stuff.

    Comment by awfrick — July 23, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  5. Hey this is Crsptch and I deleted your comment. I had to since you are insulting me. I don’t mind debate but when personal attacks are made your comment will be deleted.
    Also I have no interest in reading copy and pastes as you brought to my blog for approval.

    Comment by crsptch — July 24, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

  6. Atheism is not a danger to humanity.
    Atheism has a plastic knife from McDonald s and Christiantiy has a two-edged sword.
    Goliath (atheism) will never win and it is even defeated with the slingshot of God.
    No contest.

    Comment by crsptch — July 24, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

  7. Have you ever studied linguistics, as opposed to rhetoric ( a sort of applied linguistics, I suppose )? If not, I think you would get a lot of mileage out of the pragmatics discipline.

    If you ever visit TED.com ( short for Technology, Entertainment, and Design ) there’s a fascinating talk from MIT’s Steven Pinker. It talks about the linguistics of the scene in Fargo, where Buscemi’s character hands the officer his wallet, with a bill extending outward, and says “Maybe we can settle this in Brainard?” One branch of linguistics is interested in parsing the sentence into noun and verb phrases, etc, while another branch ( pragmatics ) is interested in how meaning is conveyed and understood.

    It’s a bit of a tangent, but, I think, pretty closely related to what you’re talking about.

    Comment by Forrest — December 19, 2009 @ 6:53 am

  8. I was very impressed with the video and the way in which you got your point across.

    I have a question that I hope you can answer. I have a son who is twenty seven and who is an atheist even though he was baptized and raised a Catholic. Even thought in general he and I have a good relationship he has made snide comments on several occassions regarding Christianity in my presence. One day after he and I and my twenty year old daughter had spent a good afternoon together I mentioned that I was going to the 5:00pm mass. My son once again seized my simple comment related to church as an opportunity to mock the idea of my going to church by saying “why don’t you ask Emily to go to church with you, I’m sure whe wants to”. My daughter has expressed less of an interest in going to church over the past year or so but she has never said anything negative about going to church and in fact on a few occassions has suggested we go together. Since my son is the older brother and is thought of as “cool” by his sister and younger brother, my daughter tends to not defend the idea of going to church in front of him. My oldest has also influenced my youngest on the subject of God and this too has bothered me. It is very upsetting and no matter what a good time my son and I have together when I hear these comments it is very frustrating. I don’t want to “challenge” him because I think that would only turn into something even more upsetting and I also think it’s possible my son gets something out of this and enjoys poking fun at religion so if I pay much attention to it he might get whatever kick he gets out of doing it in the first place. Generally I think it’s best to just ignore it and “turn the other cheek”. Even though he is an adult and a very good person and loving son, I view this as childish behavior left over from his rebellious stage. I am sending this to you in order to get the perspective of a young person who might have a more perceptive sense of why he does this and what it is he is getting out of the behavior. More importantly I’m wondering what the best way to approach it might be from a young Christian man’s standpoint knowing how young atheist’s might tend to think. Any ideas?


    Upset mom

    Comment by Sandy Furno — August 23, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    • Hi Sandy

      Just so you know, I responded to you via email instead – this seems like a sensitive issue, so I didn’t want to discuss it openly here. I thought I’d take it off the air, so to speak.

      Keep an eye out for my response. Sorry if it’s a bit long. I have a bad habit of using fifty words when five would do.

      Comment by Ubiquitous Che — August 23, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

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