Whataboutery

Pure fallacies are a rare breed.  You encounter examples of such arguments in textbooks of logic, but rarely in real life. Real-life fallacies generally bear some resemblance to valid forms of reasoning, which makes them hard to distinguish.
Nevertheless, I found a genuine, 24-carat nugget of bad reasoning the other day.  The historian Jeroen Bouterse was reacting to my essay “Disbelief in belief” on 3 Quarks Daily, in which I suggested that modern secular Westerners have become so estranged from religion that they have difficulty in putting themselves in the shoes of devout religious fanatics.  That fabulous garden in paradise with 72 virgins, or the entire universe having been created in six days: surely nobody actually believes that rubbish?
Writing on the web site Geloof & Wetenschap (Belief and Science), Bouterse was completely in agreement with me that “ideas matter”, and praised my call for people to explore other people’s ways of thinking.  But he still had an objection:
I would like to ask Boudry, “When you tell us not to ignore religious ways of thinking, what are you thinking of? Have you been struck by the richness of St. Augustine’s philosophy? Do you think that the medieval Islamic theologian Al-Ghazali touches on some interesting themes in the philosophy of science?”
According to Bouterse, the fact that I only wrote about fanaticism shows that I’m revealing the true nature of my position.  This is a classic example of what is known as “whataboutery”.  Instead of debating a point, you just switch to a different subject: “But what about X?”  Of course, two can play at this game.  Why is Bouterse reacting like this to an essay by an obscure philosopher?  What about all the other important and relevant subjects that he could have chosen to address instead?
It’s true that a writer’s choice of subject can sometimes give away their position or show that they have an agenda, but nobody can write about everything at once, in a single piece.  As soon as you stop writing, the critic will bring up their own favourite topic: “your conspicuous silence about climate change / whale hunting / crusades / tax evasion tells us all we need to know”.
In this particular case, I wanted to specifically focus on jihadism, as part of an academic discussion over the question of whether religious people really believe what they profess to believe, or whether they simply imagine that they believe it?  One way to find out is to look at extreme religious behaviours, such as a sick person who refuses medical help in the hope of a miracle, or someone who blows himself up in order to enter heaven as a martyr.  It’s certainly a lot simpler than ascertaining the exact mental states of medieval theologians.
Of course, that leaves us with the question: out of all the errors in thinking that I could have addressed in this column, why did I choose this one? Do I perhaps think that ad hominem arguments are not so bad ?

(Column in Filosofie Magazine, translated by Nick Brown)