The Great Tim Tebow Fallacy — Richard Dawkins


 By Richard Dawkins  |  February 3, 2010

Q: The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family is sponsoring a pro-life ad, featuring football star Tim Tebow, during Sunday’s Super Bowl. Should CBS show the ad? Should CBS allow other faith-based groups to buy Super Bowl ads promoting their beliefs on social issues? Is a major sporting event, or a TV ad campaign, an appropriate venue for discussing such vital and divisive culture-war issues like abortion?

I gather that Tim Tebow is extremely good at football. That’s just as well, for he certainly isn’t very good at thinking. Perhaps the fact that he was home schooled by missionary parents is to blame.

The following is what passes for logic in the Tebow mind. His mother was advised by doctors to abort him, but she refused, which is why Tim is here. So abortion is a bad thing. Masterful conclusion.

It is a version of what, following the great Nobel-Prizewinning biologist Peter Medawar, I have called the Great Beethoven Fallacy.

Versions of the Great Beethoven Fallacy are attributed to various Christian apologists, and the details vary. The following is the version favoured by Norman St John Stevas, a British Conservative Member of Parliament. One doctor to another:

“About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic. The mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?”

“I would have terminated the pregnancy.”

“Then you would have murdered Beethoven.”

It is amazing how many people are bamboozled by this spectacularly stupid argument. Setting aside the simple falsehood that Ludwig van Beethoven was the fifth child in his family (he was actually the eldest), the falsehood that any of his siblings was born blind, deaf or dumb, and the falsehood that his father was syphilitic, we are left with the ‘logic’. As Peter Medawar, writing with his wife, Jean Medawar, said,

“The reasoning behind this odious little argument is breathtakingly fallacious . . . the world is no more likely to be deprived of a Beethoven by abortion than by chaste absence from intercourse.”

If you follow the ‘pro-life’ logic to its conclusion, a fertile woman is guilty of something equivalent to murder every time she refuses an offer of copulation. Incidentally, ‘pro life’ always means pro human life, never animal life although an adult cow or monkey is obviously far more capable of feeling pain and fear than a human fetus. But the profoundly un-evolutionary nature of this terminology is another story and I’ll set it on one side.

The sperm that conceived Tim Tebow was part of an ejaculate of (at an average estimate) 40 million. If any one of them had won the race to Mrs Tebow’s ovum instead of the one that did, Tim would not have been born, somebody else would. Probably not such a good quarterback but – we can but hope – a better logician, who might have survived the home schooling and broken free. That is not the point. The point is that every single one of us is lucky to be alive against hyper-astronomical odds. Tim Tebow owes his existence not just to his mother’s refusal to have an abortion. He owes his existence to the fact that his parents had intercourse precisely when they did, not a minute sooner or later. Then before that they had to meet and decide to marry. The same is true of all four of his grandparents, all eight of his great grandparents, and so on back.

Religious apologists are unimpressed by this kind of argument because, they say, there is a distinction between snuffing out a life that is already in existence (as in abortion) and failure to bring life into existence in the first place. It’s not a distinction that survives analytical thought, however. Look at it from the point of view of Tim’s unborn sister (let us say), who would have been conceived two months later if only Tim had been aborted. Admittedly, she is not in a position to complain of her non-existence. But then nor would Tim have been in a position to complain of his non-existence, if he had been aborted. You need a functioning nervous system in order to complain, or regret, or feel wistful, or feel pain, or miss the life that you could have had. Unconceived babies don’t have a nervous system. Nor do aborted fetuses. As far as anything that matters is concerned, an aborted fetus has exactly the same mental and moral status as any of the countless trillions of unconceived babies. At least, that is true of early abortions, which means the vast majority.

The fact that the Tim Tebow advertisement is a load of unthought-through nonsense is no reason to ban it. That would infringe our valued principle of free speech. The best that the rest of us can do is point out, to anyone that will listen despite our lack of money to pay for such advertisements, that it is nonsense. As I have just done.

By Richard Dawkins  |  February 3, 2010


2 thoughts on “The Great Tim Tebow Fallacy — Richard Dawkins

  1. Pro-life……..Pro-choice. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Life and Death are huge issues. Issues doctors deal with daily. And then there is the Thou Shalt Not Kill things. In Bible history, wars were ordained by God to accomplish specific purposes. Now we declare war to protect oil imports, corporate interests, as well as human rights. Still only God knows if those wars are just or unjust. Do we value life for one and not for another??? I don’t have the answers. And I KNOW God is real. I know He finds it hard to look on many of the things practiced by we ‘know it alls.’ 🙂 Concerning Tebow and the Super Bowl ad. I think it’s in very good taste since there is definitely two sides to the life-choice issue. The ad is a reminder of one of the sides which must be considered when a woman is agonizing over her decision…..the side of the offspring. Tebow is a very good example of a young man who, like all children, make the world a better place.

    No biggie. And one side as as much right as another side to buy advertisements. It certainly crosses no separation of church and state issues.

  2. You comment as though you didn’t even read what Dawkins had to say.
    You make barely a reference to his wording other than the fact that the delusional people who wished to ban Sponge Bob Square pants, in fear of creating homosexual toddlers, are now advertising against giving a woman free choice, during a meaningless sporting event.
    The problem with dogmatic unthinkers is that they have trouble contemplating “probabilities” and thus attribute many outcomes to supernatural entities created out of imagination. This is unfortunate.
    “Biblical History” was written in a time when humans had no idea about the true nature of a vast array of natural phenomena.
    Christianity (for one contemporary dogmatic meme) eliminated so many other dogmatic memes which believed different mythologized constructions of history and rules of living.
    What gave them (Christians) the right to eliminate the memetic mental coding of so many of the the indigenous groups in the Western Hemisphere, Sub-Saharan Africa, and countless other concepts of the inexplicable (in their time) origins of the life and death drama which we are all experiencing?
    If you KNOW your god is real, why do you deny all the countless gods in history which have been eliminated from contempory dogmatic organizations?
    Homo Sapiens have been inventing “gods” ever since we began communicating with one an other as we hunted through the jungles of Africa.

    If the unthinkers of the world would take the trouble to read more than one book, they would realize the thousands upon thousands of gods which have been extinguished by inter-tribal warfare.
    The concept of God is merely a meme.
    Had the Chinese (or Maya, or Mexica, or Hindus) attacked and utterly extincted the tribes living in the Fertile Crescent area of the Eastern Mediterranean, for whatever odd reason way back when, today no one would really be taking “Biblical History” seriously in any way in 2010.
    Much as no one really takes the Popol Vuh very seriously today, in 2010.
    It, again, is pure luck, pure probability that Abhramical ‘faith’ memes have lasted into the 21st century, while so so SO many others have not, like the Roman Pantheon, the Norse Pantheon, the Meso-American Pantheon……

    As Dawkins would say, you are but an Atheist to 99% of the gods known now, or historically to Humanity, but I am just 100%.

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