The Courtier’s Reply, as popularized by P.Z. Meyers, is a category used by atheists to characterize Christian responses to theist arguments.
The term usually comes up like this: someone at First Things points out that the arguments of some or most “New Atheists” are massively unsophisticated and show complete ignorance of serious theology. The atheist responds by saying that, as the child in the fable did not need to be a expert tailor to tell that the Emperor was naked, so also one does not to be a theologian to say that there is no God. One need not be an expert in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings mythos to know that it is about something that does not exist; one need not be an expert on leprechauns to know they do not exist; and so one need not be a theologian to know that there is a God.
This has been criticized a lot. I’d like to add one more criticism.
Often, online, one will come across an exchange in the comments that goes something like this.
AngryAtheist: There’s absolutely no evidence of any kind whatsoever for God’s existence. Whoever thinks there that there is evidence is a deluded moron who cannot distinguish between fallacies and arguments, and post-hoc explanations and predictions.
NaiveChristian: That seems a bit strong, AngryAtheist. Have you read [book by famous Christian apologist], [intellectual book by not-so-famous Christian], or [really obscure book on something or other]? I thought the same thing you did, once, before I read these books and others and decided that Christianity was in fact true.
AngryAtheist: Those books are a tissue of specious arguments; they are full of metaphysical, pre-scientific attempts of reasoning; to go through them in detail (and therefore to read them) would be a waste of my time. [He says, perhaps mentioning it by name, that such books are merely an instance of the Courtier’s Reply] Why don’t you just read [book advocating science as the only method of coming to truth] and realize the errors of your ways.
Yes, I exaggerate. But I exaggerate to make a point, namely this.
One is sometimes right to accuse one’s opponents of making the Courtier’s Reply. Really. I don’t think I need to be an expert on space aliens who created human beings to serve as slave labor in gold mines to reject a theory that says this. If someone were to give me a complex argument for the truth of such a theory, I would accuse them of making a Courtier’s Reply.
Nevertheless, when the accusation is true, the one who is accusing the other of making the Courtier’s Reply should still shut. up. The accuser should shut up because they have have just confessed their complete ignorance about a field. The accuser may be right in dismissing the field out of hand. But if even if the accuser is right, they have shown that are not qualified to argue against the theory, because they probably do not even have the knowledge necessary to characterize it well.
Put it this way. I am willing to accuse anyone who defends the alien-overlords-trying-to-enslave-humanity thesis of making a Courtier’s Reply. But if that’s what I do, then by that very fact I have admitted that I haven’t looked at the theory and any evidence for it in detail. The fact that that I invoke the Courtier’s Reply means that, while I may be right, I am not a qualified argumentative partner in the conversation.
I should not attempt to debate those who think we are being enslaved by evil alien overlords.
I should not write about them in newspapers.
I should not appear on talk-shows attacking them.
I arguably should not even mock them on websites.
I should not do any of these things because, while I may not need to be an expert on leprechauns to reject belief in them, I do need to be an expert on them to publicly attack belief in them.
In short, although an accusation of the Courtier’s Reply can be used to try to shut up someone else, whoever slings the accusation about should know that it is the last thing they should say, if they want to be consistent with themselves. Anything they say after that is, by their own confession, massively, and horribly ignorant.