Tag Archives: truth

About Christians Losing the Culture War

I have recently encountered several articles in which Christian writers talk about losing the culture war. This post focuses on a prominent example: an article in Time by Mary Eberstadt titled “Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture.” Eberstadt is promoting her book and, as this post demonstrates, she peddles falsehoods to excite the persecution narrative and stimulate sales.

I felt that Eberstadt’s title started off a bit strangely. What, exactly, is a “regular Christian”? Her article said she was referring to “American Christians who lean in toward traditionalism,” and she immediately restated that as “Traditional American Christians.”

But what is “traditional”? The answer is, it depends. For example, according to History.com, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a religious sanctuary against “the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism.” It seems the Puritans were the original “traditional American Christians.” But a funny thing has happened since then: they have pretty much vanished, being remembered nowadays as just one source upon which other Christian denominations draw.

Today, Baptists and Catholics would surely be considered “traditional American Christians” — and yet these were actually among the nontraditional types rejected by the Puritans. In this regard, Eberstadt made the mistake, common in Christian writing, of ignoring the history of her own religion. What was traditional in the 1600s is gone now; what is traditional now will probably be gone some day. That’s how it works. We don’t speak Middle English anymore; we don’t live in log cabins. Times change. The Baptists and the Catholics found a place in New England precisely because someone spoke up for those who were not the traditional American Christians of that time and place — just as Jesus did for the outcasts of his day.

As just noted, Eberstadt implies that the “Traditional American Christian” is a person who “leans in toward traditionalism.” But that’s not necessarily true. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians — these are among today’s mainstream, traditional Christian denominations in the United States. But being a traditional American Christian in that sense does not necessarily make a person a traditionalist in daily life. Among the members of those denominations, you don’t see much interest in, say, a Mormon-style emphasis on modest, traditional clothing. Nor do the teachings of the mainstream denominations necessarily result in mainstream beliefs among their members. Churchgoers often say they listen to the sermon, but don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Silver (2013) offers research on atheists who attend churches for reasons of family, social connections, and church-related activities. From the Lutherans to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christianity’s thousands (some say tens of thousands) of denominations and sects exist because of the fact dramatized in the “West Wing” TV show: people feel entitled to pick and choose Bible passages, emphasizing those they like, and ignoring (or inventing alternate interpretations for) those they dislike.

Eberstadt is herself an example of this nontraditionalism among people who might claim to be traditional Christians. According to Family Life (Rainey, 2002), Eberstadt’s role as a married woman is supposed to be as follows:

  1. Be a helper to your husband.
  2. Respect your husband.
  3. Love your husband.
  4. Submit to the leadership of your husband.

Supporting such conclusions, Family Life quotes numerous Bible passages, starting with Genesis 2:18, in which God’s stated purpose in creating woman was “to make a ‘helper suitable for'” the man. But that is a gentle way of putting it. Valerie Tarico cites the Bible as the foundation upon which traditional theologians described woman as “the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian) and “an instrument of death leading to all perdition” and that this is “why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame” (Calvin). Tarico further cites Bible passages stating that a wife is a man’s property; a daughter can be sold, and a raped daughter can be sold to her rapist; menstruating women are spiritually unclean; and so forth.

Eberstadt is no doubt a good person in many ways. But her concept of tradition depends on the selective, self-serving style of interpretation commonly taught in Bible study. One hopes that, somewhere in her writings, she has honestly admitted that, historically speaking, she is a liberal, not traditional at all — that, traditionally, she would not be voting, would not be telling men what to think, and would not have had an opportunity for higher education. She apparently wants to wrap herself in the mantle of tradition, without doing the hard work of actually returning to where tradition has historically kept women, in this country and elsewhere.

So I think what Eberstadt really means is not “traditional” but rather “conservative.” She doesn’t seem dedicated to a return to traditional ways. She just prefers a go-slow approach. And that is not necessarily bad. There will always be a tension between those who leap at opportunities and those who urge us to look before we leap. The leapers and the lookers can produce a beneficial balance. But this doesn’t make either superior. There are risks and advantages in both directions. Some people are rich or successful because they were careful; some are poor or unsuccessful for the same reason.

Conservatism is particularly interesting in Eberstadt’s “culture war” context. Let us be clear: Christians of her type are not suddenly losing a culture war. The more accurate statement is that they are always losing the culture war, because they are always fearfully clinging onto past ways, afraid of losing the advantages that they have enjoyed as established members of a dominant community, looking down on minorities and outsiders. Conservative churches are often depicted (and in many cases deserve to be depicted) as narrowminded, hypocritical, judgmental places where “our type” of people pat each other on the back for helping to preserve their own advantages and fantasies.

Slavery is an example. As conservatives — that is, usually following rather than leading social, political, and economic trends — Christians have a history of widely accepting and supporting slavery. As another example, for some reason, “Thou shalt not kill” has not resonated against the wars, murders, and other horrific crimes recorded in the Bible and practiced by Christians down through the centuries.

But, whoa, same-sex marriage! Now that is evil. More to the point, it is a new thing and, to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, that tends to mean it’s probably bad. Again, it’s not that the knee-jerk conservative reaction is intrinsically wrong; it’s that many conservatives don’t seem to want to stop and think about their own habit of stopping and thinking. Let’s just pull the brakes on everything, and then be dragged into it anyway, kicking and screaming and feeling wronged. Consider the criteria by which Wheaton College decided who would be eligible to join its faculty in the 1920s (Cole, 2008, pp. 252-253):

To prospective instructors a questionnaire is submitted bearing such interrogations as . . . “Do you dance, play cards, attend theatres, attend movies, or associate with worldly people in other amusements such as are indicated above?”

We, today, might find this absolutely bizarre — that God forgot to put in the Bible that he did not want people to play solitaire or even watch movies about Jesus. And yet that was the conservative Christian mindset a hundred years ago — culminating in (among other things) the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition. Not that anything was learned from that fiasco: conservatives needed to inflict it upon us again, once again at enormous cost to lives and nation, in the mindless War on Drugs. This is where conservatism becomes most dangerous: when it radically departs from tradition, in pursuit of a harsh and unrealistic dream.

Gay marriage is relatively new; we did not have it when the Constitution was written, 200+ years ago. But then, we did not have bicycles 200 years ago either. When the newfangled bicycle contraption did come into existence, it remained in the legal shadows: for seventy years, according to Wikipedia, cyclists were given “no legal right to use the roads or walkways.” In other words, the gay movement itself only started in the 1960s. We had gay people; we had marriage; we had gay people who wanted to marry. We just didn’t have a political environment in which that desire could be taken seriously. The question did not previously have political force. Now is the first time when it has become a real possibility on a national level. There is no golden past to go back to, other than the centuries when supposedly respectable Christians were comfortable with an arrangement in which gay people had to lie about who they were and what they wanted.

There is no legal right to force gays to endure a substandard existence. That’s what the courts have decided, now that the question has been squarely presented for consideration. But the more shocking fact is that there is no religious right to do that either. A growing number of mainline Christian denominations have concluded that the matter is not so simple. For one thing, if homosexuality were so terribly important, why would Jesus overlook it? In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said nary a word about homosexuality, but had strong words against adultery and divorce. Much the same is true throughout the Bible. So why aren’t Christians distinguishing themselves with a principled demand for laws forbidding adulterers or divorcees to remarry? Because that would be unpopular. Frankly speaking, it would cut too close to the collection plate.

Christianity purports to be following in Christ’s footsteps. But in fact it often does the opposite. Just like the Jews of Jesus’s time, so-called Christians like Eberstadt reject his concept of Messiah. In both cases, it was because he came as a savior, not as a conqueror. Specifically, Eberstadt wants victory in the cultural war. She cites abortion as an area in which Christians are losing. And yet what kind of “Christian” would be involved in such a struggle? Abortion was a reality in ancient Rome. Jesus himself was a survivor of Herod’s notorious Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus was eminently qualified and able to make abortion a big issue, if he considered it one. He didn’t. The abortion fight gets people upset and excited, but it doesn’t make them the least bit Christlike. Others have been trying to tell them this for the past forty years. But they just haven’t wanted to hear it. Being Christlike is not their priority; they would rather fight and attack people than seek the truth. And so we follow this twisted path to Eberstadt’s complaint about losing the culture war — to which the schoolyard retort is quite apt: if you can’t finish it, don’t start it. Stop inventing reasons to pick on people. Mind your own business. Or as Jesus put it, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Eberstadt cites “school prayer” as another front on which today’s alleged Christians are losing the cultural war. Some want to force kids of all denominations to pray together in public schools. The underlying fantasy appears to be that most Americans are Christians and, as such, are apt to construe prayer in approximately the same way. If that fantasy had any truth to it, we would see those schoolkids’ Catholic and Protestant parents praying together in their churches. These people want to bully teachers and school administrators into achieving an ideal unity that they, themselves, do not even hope to achieve. And so Eberstadt would return us to the mindset of the Dark Ages: if you can’t persuade the Jews, Muslims, pagans, and agnostics through the strength of your ideas, then hammer them with the force of your laws. Forward to the Crusades!

Alternately, there is the quest for voluntary school prayer opportunities — “voluntary” in the sense that the kids will supposedly not be browbeaten into participating in it when, in point of fact, their parents are being forced to accept it. Once again, we have a muscular, coercive, conquering concept of Christian faith that involves shoving one’s beliefs down another person’s throat. It is more the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition than of the New Testament. People who are mindful of the religion’s history can plainly see that such efforts besmirch the name of the God who gets dragged into it. But people who are willing to see the religion’s history in that light are not likely to remain within it. The ones who are left seem, too often, to be those who don’t want to know the truth.

Eberstadt’s article contains a remarkable number of borderline and just plain false statements. An example of the latter: “Religious expression is under attack,” she says, because of recent events, “including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics.” That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with religious expression. According to Fox News, conservatives criticized that decision on grounds that it “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost” (quoting Texas Governor Greg Abbott). There is not a single reference to “expression” in that Fox News writeup of the Supreme Court decision, nor in the writeup offered by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Eberstadt complains that people like her can no longer count on receiving “civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs.” That complaint is disingenuous. What are a Christian’s most-cherished beliefs? A search leads to such topics as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation by grace. Eberstadt’s article is not about anything of the sort. Instead, she offers the example of a teacher in New Jersey who was suspended for giving a student a Bible. She doesn’t mention that the act violated a school policy against distributing religious literature on school grounds. (If necessary, think “Koran” or “porn” or “hand grenade,” instead of “Bible,” to be reminded of why a school district might try to discourage teachers from creating unnecessary controversies involving middle-school students and their parents.) In other words, there are multiple problems with Eberstadt’s example: it’s not about uncivil remarks, nor about anyone’s “most-cherished beliefs”; it is not a deliberate suppression of Christianity (suspension would have been equally appropriate for an atheist teacher giving a student a leaflet attacking the Bible); and all of these facts are left unmentioned, in hopes of tricking Eberstadt’s reader into believing something that is not true.

Eberstadt wants to bemoan the disappearance of “civil criticism” among those who question her beliefs. Let me offer a clue: lying for the Lord is not going to promote the desired civility. She is jumping into combat on some of the nation’s most contentious issues; she is firing at the enemy — sometimes making statements that, as shown here, are downright nonsense — and then she is complaining that the enemy shoots back. If Eberstadt were to completely rewrite her piece in a spirit of Christian humility, with a visible commitment to be honest and fair in her remarks about her own beliefs and those of others, then (a) Time probably wouldn’t publish it, because it wouldn’t contain all this posturing on behalf of the self-styled righteous, and (b) on the other hand, readers not similarly minded might find it more difficult to dismiss her as one more phony self-congratulator.

Eberstadt admits the great difference between “the horrors of ISIS-led genocide against Christians in the Middle East and what Pope Francis calls the ‘polite persecution’ of believers in the West.” Regrettably, she goes on to muddle that with a complaint that “some American citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views.” Well, yes, and some people are fearful of leaving their bedrooms. The fact of fear does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine threat. When 63% of us are absolutely certain God exists and an overwhelming 77% describe themselves as religiously affiliated (to cite the numbers quoted in her article), it is doubtful that most American Christians experience anywhere near the persecution experienced by American atheists (~3% of Americans). Moreover, among Christians who do fear ridicule, some deserve it: to varying degrees Christians themselves ridicule others.

Simply put, Christian belief per se is not being widely persecuted, politely or otherwise. What Eberstadt characterizes as persecution seems, for the most part, to be just the logical elimination of theories that do not stand up to scrutiny. There certainly are reasons why an intelligent person would doubt Christianity. It has had its share of high-profile fakes and frauds. It makes excessive and false claims about itself. When your religion conflates its most solemn holy events with the Easter Bunny and with one of ancient Rome’s biggest party times, you can expect people to wonder whether it is for real.

Eberstadt offers a separate set of examples in support of her claim that “Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology.” But that’s America. It is a secularist nation. We have never had a state religion. At times, the secular state and the religious preference are going to conflict. At those times, the secular state will tend to prevail, because the country does not exist to serve the religion. As a different example, some Jewish people treat the U.S. as if its purpose were to serve Israel. As with Eberstadt, their wish is not reality, nor should it be.

She offers the example of Gordon College, which came under fire for policies that seemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So, OK, let us review: you aren’t supposed to discriminate in America. We are all supposed to be equals here. Christians may not like it — they may want to shove the gays back into the dark — but fortunately their attitudes do not control the law of this land. Even so, on the particular issues in the Gordon case, a Christian lawyer’s analysis concludes that Gordon’s position has enjoyed the support of law, right up to the Supreme Court. That hardly points toward what Eberstadt decries as “an insidious intolerance for religion.” Another article suggests that, in fact, it is the school’s LGBT students “who feel they can’t say anything out of fear about what that will do to their college experience.”

In America, Christians have enjoyed virtually limitless opportunities to organize their practices, research their claims, market their views, and attack their opponents. After all that, if they still cannot achieve anything like the growing popularity of the first-century Christian movement that began with Jesus, it is fair to suggest that perhaps they are not really very much in touch with Jesus after all. In that case, Jesus made clear what he would say to such people: “I never knew you. Depart from me!” As the Matthew Henry commentary says about that,

Christ here shows that it will not be enough to own him for our Master, only in word and tongue. It is necessary to our happiness that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another.

This article demonstrates the falsehood of arguments by which Mary Eberstadt tries to engage would-be Christians in fights that detract from the message of Christ. Replace people like Eberstadt with genuinely Christ-seeking writers who are committed to finding the truth, humble about what they know, and loving of others, and then let us revisit the questions of whether there is really a problem of religious intolerance in today’s America, and of whether followers of Christ should be jumping into a war to control the nation’s culture.

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The Failure of Philosophy on the Big Questions

Philosophy is commonly associated with the big questions of life. For example, a Google search leads to a number of books, articles, and other materials linking philosophers with such questions. The question here is, does philosophy deserve that association?

What Are the Big Questions?

Granted, people may differ on what they consider most important at any moment. If your boat is sinking in the middle of the ocean, your big questions may include “Can we plug the hole?” and “Is there a life raft?” But under ordinary circumstances, lists of really grand questions in life tend to be short and similar, from one source to another. Here, for example, are the topics listed in the contents of a book by Solomon and Higgins (2013):

  • The meaning of life
  • God
  • The nature of reality
  • The search for the truth
  • Self
  • Freedom
  • Morality and the good life

Similarly, the table of contents from a book by Sample, Mills, and Sterba (2004) lists these as “the big questions”:

  • What can we know?
  • What can we know about the nature and existence of God?
  • Are we ever free?
  • Does our existence have a meaning or purpose?
  • How should we live?

Blackburn (2013) phrases similar concerns in somewhat different terms (and adds some that may be better answered by scientists than by philosophers):

  • Am I a ghost in a machine?
  • What is human nature?
  • Am I free?
  • What do we know?
  • Are we rational animals?
  • How can I lie to myself?
  • Is there such a thing as society?
  • Can we understand each other?
  • Can machines think?
  • Why be good?
  • Is it all relative?
  • Does time go by?
  • Why do things keep on keeping on?
  • Why is there something and not nothing?
  • What fills up space?
  • What is beauty?
  • Do we need God?
  • What is it all for?
  • What are my rights?
  • Is death to be feared?

There is not terribly much difference among those lists. A student, assigned to boil them down into the Top Ten Issues, might mention something like existence and nonexistence, reality and knowledge, consciousness and beauty, goodness and freedom, and God and the universe.

How Is Philosophy Doing on the Big Questions?

Imagine a world in which contemporary philosophers had arrived at answers to the big questions, and were effectively communicating those answers to the college students sitting in their classes. In such a world, the self-help sections in bookstores (and the self-help websites online) would probably be much fewer, smaller, and less popular. Religious nuts, spouting nonsense, would get nowhere with a public familiar with philosophy’s answers to the big questions. Politicians would be philosopher-kings, succeeding only to the extent that they could engage educated listeners with reasoned defenses of their preferred views on those questions.

Sad to say, the train went off the tracks somewhere. Self-help has long been a booming business. Religion and politics are the jokes that rule us. Hardly anybody thinks that philosophy, of the type taught in universities, has much relevance to the real world. Yes, a few times per century, some philosopher exerts far-reaching albeit gradual influence upon society; and yes, within other fields of knowledge, there is the occasional intellectual who understands philosophers’ insights, and applies them to his/her own work. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. There is an enormous contrast between what could be happening, as illustrated in those exceptions, and what is actually happening in the overwhelming bulk of philosophical study and writing.

As a practical matter, philosophers have long been pulling a bait-and-switch — holding out the promise of useful education, so as to get people to take their classes and buy their books, but then disappointing generation after generation of students with extremely complex texts that, very often, degenerate into hairsplitting trivia. Students can certainly pick up some ideas, and some familiarity with forms of intellectual debate, that may be useful in their future careers in other fields — although there are no guarantees, as philosophical discussion and reasoning can be very alien to the working world.

The point here is not that philosophy is a complete waste of time. It is that philosophy is a failure for purposes of providing answers to the big questions.

It is not that philosophers have not tried to answer the big questions. It is that, as we learn in philosophy class, every answer has its assumptions, its limits, its weaknesses. The real bait-and-switch is that, with few exceptions, those complex and trivial texts build to a single conclusion: there are not really any answers to the big questions. There are only unsatisfactory ways of attempting to provide such answers.

I do believe that that conclusion is correct — that the philosophers have not been lying to us, that for the most part there truly are no completely satisfactory answers to the big questions. Then again, that is precisely what someone like me would believe — someone who has followed the occasional philosophical debate far enough to arrive at the conclusions expressed in the preceding paragraph. With the aid of a bit of background reading, I, or someone like me, could probably poke holes in just about any big answer that someone might suggest. Persons with this kind of education tend to function as skeptics toward the very notion that there might actually be a useful answer to a big question.

Here’s an example. Take the first topic on the first of those three lists (above): the meaning of life. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “the meaning of life” says that that topic has interested philosophers since the time of Aristotle. But that entry also says that, somehow, “it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared.” How is that possible? Nor has that deeper contemporary debate led anywhere in particular. The encyclopedia entry suggests that — consistent with philosophy’s established track record — it has yielded, not answers, but rather more questions:

When the topic of the meaning of life comes up, people often pose one of two questions: “So, what is the meaning of life?” and “What are you talking about?”

The entry goes on to state that some people have debated the meaning of life’s “meaning” — but this, too, has not yielded definitive insight:

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field.

In further discussion, the entry indicates that some philosophers ascribe meaning to life as it relates to God, while others prefer a sense of life’s meaning that relates in some way to one’s eternal soul. Still others focus on life’s meaning in non-supernatural terms, having to do with either the subjective individual perspective or something else, external to us, that confers meaning upon life regardless of subjective mental state. Finally, there are nihilist or pessimistic perspectives, in which “what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.”

So there you are. There, in a nutshell, is philosophy’s answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer is, it depends on which philosopher you agree with. Very helpful. That and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

The true state of affairs is not that philosophy grapples with the big questions in a serious and responsible way. The true state of affairs is that, in the words of a New York Times article, philosophy suffers from “an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.”

Certainly there are people who enjoy philosophizing for its own sake, sitting around and batting ideas back and forth. For that sort of person, big questions can actually be unrewarding, as they tend to involve messy combinations of fact and feeling. Indeed, most important questions in life are like that. When you have a real-life problem, you might entertain various abstract notions, but at the end of the day you need a practical answer.

Suppose, as a relatively simple example, that you’re trying to decide whether to adopt a child. That’s not one of the big questions. But it illustrates a kind of situation in which someone does have a burning need for an answer. It’s not something that you can futz around with for years, and in the end just shrug and say, “Well, I guess there are no absolutely right or wrong answers.” People who bring personal interest and immediate need to the big questions are not wanting someone to diddle them for a while. They are wanting workable conclusions to inform their lives. And the need can be urgent — in the case of someone who is losing his/her religion, for example; in the case of someone considering suicide, or struggling with deep personal loss.

Philosophy tends to provide everything except that sort of working conclusion. In that sense, the bait-and-switch description may not be quite right; perhaps the better characterization is that philosophy is a subterfuge, a means of identifying the people who are most likely to seek out and live by specific answers to big questions, and persuading them that it is silly or at least unrealistic to seek such answers. Philosophy is, indeed, a debilitating subterfuge, insofar as its study tends not even to equip the student with a sophisticated alternative. Most students will not clearly and permanently digest and remember what the philosophers have actually said on a specific question. Instead, what the students tend to retain is a general belief that there is probably some good reason why any attempted answer to such a question is flawed and should be ignored.

If the student ever does arrive at a point in life where s/he needs real answers to big questions, s/he is likely to be found in the self-help aisle, or looking into the words of various physical and social scientists or religious leaders — more or less as s/he would have done if s/he had never read a word of philosophy. In the works of those self-help, scientific, and religious writers, the student may encounter references to various philosophers, and may once again be reminded that philosophy claims to be at the root of the big questions; but for the most part such references will be historical in nature. They will be reminders that, if you want to pretend to wrestle with big questions, you should consider wasting a few years in philosophy classes.

Philosophy vs. Metaphilosophy

Philosophy used to be done by people like Plato and Aristotle, who would try to articulate relatively straightforward solutions to big questions. But then readers noticed problems with the way that Plato et al. formulated or answered such questions. Over time, it developed that reasoned approaches to grand philosophical questions were invariably problematic. There was always some devil lurking in the details. Thus philosophy became more of a historical affair, like the history of the Roman Empire or of ancient Christianity, in which the early deeds of great leaders gradually devolved into the baffled and increasingly ineffectual scrabblings of minor devotees. At a certain point, attempting to get an overview of all that material, you grasp that it is essentially a history lesson — and perhaps an unnecessarily complicated one at that — and you move on, in search of better alternatives.

We see, in other words, that philosophy as currently taught in college courses, and as conveyed in books about philosophy, is a largely bloodless affair, conducted by people with no skin in the game. Is there a God? Maybe, maybe not — but it’s not something that this sort of philosopher will lose any sleep over. It is an activity in which the dominant voice is that of the spectator, sitting back and watching what other people have tried to do, in their variously brilliant or foolish struggles with the big questions.

One could characterize such armchair philosophizing as “metaphilosophy.” Officially speaking, “meta” implies self-reference (i.e., about oneself). So — according to Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — metaphilosophy is philosophizing about philosophy.

But the concept of metaphilosophy has drawn a lukewarm reception. Most philosophers seem to feel that meta questions (e.g., “what is the purpose of philosophy?”) are just a part of philosophy itself. And of course philosophers consider themselves qualified to decide what lies within the proper scope of their professional activities, as do other kinds of professionals (e.g., police officers, generals, prostitutes, politicians). Ironically, though, the claim to possess an accurate overall understanding of philosophy, sufficient to reject the label of metaphilosophy, is just what one would expect from a metaphilosopher.

It does not appear, in fact, that philosophers have a very good grasp of the proper scope of their profession. They have positioned themselves as experts in their field, but not as experts on public need. As experts within their own concept of expertise, they have presumed to dictate what the general public should find interesting, or what the general public should be able to understand. Such positioning amounts to elitism: we will speak to the more intelligent people (i.e., those who are more like us), and leave the others to fend for themselves. Certainly some concepts are difficult to understand. But leaving those unlike us to come up with their own beliefs is, in effect, leaving the door open to liars and quacks — and that, we have discovered, is a great way to undermine public support for philosophical inquiry.

While metaphilosophy is certainly not the ordinary word to describe philosophy professors’ everyday teaching and writing about philosophy, it does seem to be the appropriate word. There are real philosophers, who are motivated to resolve big questions with practicable answers that can make a difference in real lives; and then there are various historians, analysts, and teachers who are content to talk about what the real philosophers are trying to do. Traditionally, both groups are called “philosophers.” But that seems lame, for a profession so oriented toward detecting distinctions. We do not confuse football players with those who merely talk about football, or who record the history of its games. We do not confuse the people who study sex with the people who actually participate in it. Let us likewise cease to confuse philosophers with metaphilosophical teachers and historians.

This is not to deny that the garden-variety teacher of philosophy may consider him/herself — perhaps with good reason — to be a philosopher of the first rank, prevented by circumstance rather than lack of brilliance from changing the world with the things that s/he would publish, given time and funding. The line between direct philosophical practice and indirect metaphilosophizing may be vague, contested, and in flux. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the possibility of a useful distinction between the people, ideas, works, situations, or statements that seem to count as solution-focused engagements with the big questions, and those that do not.

In that light, one might look more carefully at the definition of philosophy. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers a contrast between, on one hand, “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” and, on the other hand, “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” or “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live.” That contrast amounts to a difference between the general study of ideas offered by various philosophers down through the centuries, suitable for metaphilosophy, and the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a specific issue (e.g., a big question). The former is philosophizing about philosophy — adding the teacher’s or historian’s interpretation on top of what famous philosophers have said — while the latter is the actual practice thereof.

Reconceiving Philosophy as (Especially)
the Pursuit of Answers to Big Questions

It is possible to define teaching to include every instructive activity taken by every crow, dog, and human on the planet. But for purposes of people who are trying to educate small children, the definition of teaching quickly becomes much more narrowly conceived and closely monitored. The same is true of history: there is a difference between logging every random factoid (with or without commentary) and an attempt to provide a concise and readable explanation of what happened in, say, America’s war in Afghanistan. It is neither helpful nor appropriate to indulge the freedoms implied in the broad definition, when circumstances call for an outcome consistent with narrow application.

Likewise in the case of philosophy. The key question (above) is whether the putative philosopher is engaged in the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a big issue. As one moves away from that sort of thing, one appears increasingly likely to be engaged in metaphilosophy — in, that is, classical philosophy’s interminably indecisive dabbling in ideas about ideas, lacking commitment to delivery of working solutions within an appropriate timeframe.

One can belong to various groups; one can share interests with a wide variety of people. It will not be surprising, though, if a philosopher, vitally engaged in the study of a big question, has less in common with metaphilosophers in his/her university department, and more in common with poets, sociologists, and lawyers who have become engaged in some aspect of that same big question. In other words, “philosopher” will no doubt continue to be a term applied carelessly to anyone with a PhD in the field; but, again, for purposes of people seeking useful answers to big questions, there may be a world of difference between real philosophers and abstruse metaphilosophers.

If philosophy is reconceived as the focused pursuit of useful answers to big questions — spinning metaphilosophy off into, perhaps, a subgroup within the university’s departments of history or literature — then it immediately becomes somewhat less appropriate to adjudge philosophy, as a whole, to be a failure with respect to such questions. It also becomes clearer that it is OK if you have not mastered the classic philosophers. Instead, the question may be, how well is this or that contemporary philosopher doing, in his/her up-to-date struggles with the particular big question on which s/he is focused.

Assuming this reconceptualization of philosophy — along with a determined effort to present philosophical findings intelligibly — it could develop that, at some point in the future, philosophy will cease to be a failure with respect to the big questions. That is not to anticipate that philosophers will have all the answers, or that they will have magically ceased to reach conclusions rife with contradiction, error, and impracticality. It is just that, at such a time, their reconceptualized and more tightly focused discipline may at least have bridged part of the gap between what they do and what the world needs from them. Success in this regard may have arrived when the average person seeks guidance from a philosopher — rather than from a minister, astrologer, or self-appointed expert — because the philosopher’s guidance is more palpably based in a superior combination of science, experience, and reasoning, and less dependent upon random opinion.

Next Steps

This article has proposed a distinction between metaphilosophy (understood as the bloodless recounting or analysis of what various philosophers have said) and philosophy (understood as the immediate pursuit of conclusions on big questions within a realistic timeframe). That distinction does not imply that metaphilosophy is worthless. No doubt there are many purposes for which it is well suited. Among other things, the Internet offers tons of material on the history of philosophy, and of course there have been many books as well. Well-known examples include Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Copleston’s History of Philosophy series.

Under the rubric of applied (a/k/a practical or popular) philosophy, one finds many (and potentially engaging) philosophical investigations of specific issues arising in the daily news. Such investigations span subjects ranging from health care to hate crimes. Here, again, such subjects can readily entail exploration of topics outside philosophy (e.g., law, in the case of hate crimes). One source distinguishes applied philosophy from accessible philosophy, where the latter consists of efforts to present the ideas and/or works of mainstream philosophers in more readily digested form. My own plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic would be an example. Daniel Fincke and Brendan Myers offer related thoughts and materials. Philosophy Bites appears to be a recognized source of both applied and accessible philosophy.

Yet applied and accessible philosophy seem to be beside the point — the former, because it appears oriented toward small questions, not big ones; and the latter, because it appears to offer only a simplified route to understanding the ways in which philosophy has failed to reach useful conclusions on the big questions. In other words, the situation seems to be that (with or without accessible treatment) either we accept the rationality-based approach of western philosophy and its lack of convincing solutions, or we reject that approach and go with something else instead.

One rejectionist route is that of religion. Religious organizations and thinkers offer answers to big questions. These are not traditionally considered part of philosophy because they draw upon sources of alleged knowledge that are not open to rational analysis. For example, in Christianity, which has been the primary focus of debates on religion and philosophy in Western culture, key beliefs tend to require uncritical acceptance of unverifiable stories, presented in a scriptural book of mixed reliability.

Before turning to religion, the person seeking workable answers to big questions might consider adopting a single school of philosophy and making a go of it, warts and all — concluding (as one must also do in a religion) that the chosen philosophy has its difficulties and its quandaries, but is nonetheless time-tested and worthy for practical purposes. As a start in this direction, one might look at Wikipedia’s lists of Western and Eastern philosophical movements, along with Listverse’s list. Several of the items on those lists (e.g., existentialism, pragmatism, utilitarianism) appear capable of providing guiding principles sufficient to chart a course through many of the big questions. For instance, Koshal (2010, p. 105) construes Rorty’s pragmatism in these words: “[Pragmatism] maintains that unless we take something for granted we shall never settle any question . . . . The [propositions] we should rely on are those for which we have the most evidence for and little or none against.”

Where the chosen philosophy falls short, one might supplement it with eclectic selections from one or more other philosophies. A reasonable objective, in such an approach, might be, not to arrive at a single quasi-religious God’s-eye answer to all questions, but rather to develop conceptualizations that work and make sense for one’s own purposes. Unlike a religious approach, this objective would appear compatible with, and potentially open to, discussion with and learning from people who have adopted other philosophies.

As these suggestions imply, giving up on philosophy as a source of big answers does not necessarily entail giving up on philosophers as sources of good clues. Perhaps one’s personal philosophy is best developed inductively, starting with applied philosophical discussions of specific topics and allowing one’s reading and thinking to grow toward larger hunches and speculations.

It may turn out that there is not, and for the indefinite future there will not be, a single Bible-like compendium of definitive words, straightforwardly answering the big questions in terms satisfactory to a given reader. In that case, the point of this article might be that one need not therefore lurch to the opposite extreme. There may be strategies, oriented toward development of a working personal philosophy responsive to the big questions, that do not necessitate the undergraduate philosophy major’s bewildered stagger through a thicket of bickering eggheads. Ultimately, it is possible that a carefully reconceived profession of philosophy can succeed where today’s multifarious profession has failed.

Lying for the Lord: The Fundamentalist Christian Minister as B.S. Artist

Contents

Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion
Focus: Pathological Christian Lying
Case in Point: Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher
The Core Epistemological Issue
Conclusion

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Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion

In a previous post (How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian), I mentioned a term I had heard from some Mormons: “lying for the Lord.” I had experienced something similar as a fundamentalist Christian. The concept was that we wanted and were expected to present our Christian faith in the most positive light, so as to persuade others to join us and be saved. We would lie about what we were actually experiencing, so as to make our lives and beliefs sound superior and desirable.

As described in another post (Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God), we were similarly untruthful in our interpretation of scripture: we would ignore what it actually said, time after time; we would invent bizarre readings that would give us some excuse to claim that the Bible was what we wanted it to be. We were not at all honest about the scriptural difficulties arising from our mode of interpretation, choosing instead to force-fit biblical texts to our preconceived notions.

This urge to twist the religion in one’s preferred direction is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. For example, Loren Franck discusses “Ten Lies I Told as a Mormon Missionary.” Further afield, in a New York Times editorial, Mustafa Akyol states that Islam traditionally considers it blasphemous to mock Mohammed, and treats such blasphemy as a capital crime — and yet such views are not based on the actual words of the Quran (Koran), but were rather invented and added to the Islamic religion by later scholars to serve political purposes. As another example, scholars (e.g., Obekesekere, 2004, pp. 253-254; Seshadri, 1992) have indicated that so-called Hindu fundamentalism is another modern concept invented for political reasons, and is supported by neither the texts nor the traditions of Hinduism.

This post focuses on Christian falsehood simply because that is where I have personal experience. In the posts cited above, I described my own growing awareness that we Christians were lying to ourselves and to others. I was not alone in becoming aware of Christian untruthfulness. For example:

  • Brother Ken at Burning Bush Christian Crusades suggests that professing Christians lie because they have ceased to fear eternal damnation and because they have lost their reverence and respect for God.
  • Jaimee at CloseYourEyesDream.com says that Christians embellish their stories and tell white lies, in mundane day-to-day interactions, for reasons such as immaturity, lack of devotion to God, rebelliousness, and desire to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
  • Peter Davids concludes that Christians lie about sex in order to maintain a hypocritical denial of their own sexuality.
  • Jon Acuff proposes that Chrstians — especially pastors — lie “To hide what they’ve done or hide the fact they’re still not the person they wanted to be by now.”

The problem of lying has been acknowledged by Christian ministers, writers, and scholars. For instance:

  • In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer wonders, “Why do Christians lie about each other so much?” Stetzer points out that such behavior violates the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness [or “give false testimony”] against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). That particular form of deception is distinct from the more general command of Leviticus 19:11: “Do not lie to one another.” Stetzer says, “We often give one another a pass when someone bears false witness because [we believe] they were being passionate for truth.” Stetzer seems to be correctly recognizing that Christians do not necessarily see God’s truth as forming a cohesive whole: they may decide that God would want them to defend a seemingly big truth by telling a seemingly small lie.
  • On the question of “Why Christians lie,” Jenny Rae Armstrong says, “I’ve had one too many friends leave the church because [their sincere questions were met] with a horrified gasp, followed by impassioned arguments that . . . came across as either ignorant or disingenuous.” Armstrong offers the example of political debate, where “we can get pretty worked up about those issues, defending our side at all costs, even when it compromises our character.” She suggests that such behavior, inconsistent with “the gentle humility with which Christians are supposed to express their faith,” arises partly from fear that the nonbeliever’s question is a good one to which the believer does not have an answer.
  • In an article in Relevant magazine, John Piper reviews a number of Bible passages and concludes that “lying may be acceptable in rare situations” but also that “the Bible never commends lying.” To the contrary, he says, “The mind has to be filled with falsehood-fighting truth”; the believer’s faith can conquer “the deceitful craving for esteem and safety and possessions that causes us to distort the truth.”

Google searches (1 and 2) led me, not only to the foregoing examples, but also to other writers who describe their own problems with and/or reasons for leaving fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, the unnamed author of the Path of the Beagle blog says he had been a creationist for 20 years; but when it came time to decide whether to send his kids to a Christian college, he ran into difficulties. The most upsetting discovery, he reports, was that “the people I had trusted the most — the conservative, Christian leaders at the top of the young-earth creationist movement — had been lying to me.” For him, this creation issue was “a real wake-up call.” Similarly, in an article on ExChristian.net, Michael Runyan reports difficulties with creationism among numerous other problems in Christian belief. On the subject of truth, he observes that Christianity has “overvalued the exercise of faith, or believing in things without supporting evidence” that “allows for unscrupulous people to dupe others into accepting on faith a false promise or assertion.” Such remarks suggest that believers as well as nonbelievers may be best served by a determined orientation toward honest truthseeking.

Focus: Pathological Christian Lying

People are often tempted to lie to protect or to advance themselves. With some frequency, they also encounter opportunities to lie on behalf of friends and family members. In addition, it is quite common to lie, and to be expected to lie, in service of one’s employer, customer, or client. A person who has no employer, no friends, no surviving family members, and few personal interests or ambitions, will tend to have fewer opportunities and motives for lying. Another way to think of it: juggling more balls at once will tend to increase their likelihood of interfering or colliding with one another.

So it seems that, if you consider it highly important not to lie, you would be well advised not to acquire many obligations, connections, and interests. Conversely, as you acquire more obligations, connections, and interests, it seems you may find it helpful, indeed necessary, to lie more frequently, on behalf of yourself and others. Failure to lie on cue — that is, being honest with people — may tend to result in the loss of various acquaintances and opportunities. Despite rare pockets of deep (but not absolutely reliable) integrity, deception (including failure to disclose information that a fully honest person would disclose) tends to pervade interpersonal interactions.

The sources cited above, and my own experience, suggest that Christian faith is an important interest. Adding it to one’s life greatly increases the number of things to lie about. That increase is especially likely if one’s chosen form of Christian faith entails — as fundamentalism does — conflict or incompatibility with a vast number of people, ideas, and experiences arising in daily life. It can feel as if everything, everywhere, is set against the Christian fundamentalist. There is a fundamentalist response — that this conspiracy of nontruth stems from Satan — but such a dramatic explanation is not necessary, nor does it address the command’s expectation: regardless of satanic influence, do not lie. Period.

No doubt the situation becomes less difficult when one does not know, or seriously care, what one’s religious texts or leaders may say. Countless people have attended Sunday morning church services, year after year, with little interest in theology, philosophy, science, or other intellectual areas in which their professed faith raises major issues. That is, even within Christian fundamentalism — even within a specific congregation — people may vary widely in the extent to which they see any need to distort facts or avoid the truth. It is no doubt possible to avoid some lies by avoiding certain kinds of discussion or lines of thought. Not that such evasion would make one more truthful; it may be merely a means of simplification.

There are also, no doubt, many people whose limited mental capacity leaves them unable to engage in deliberate falsehood on matters of religious belief. People can have brain damage; they can be severely short of logical capacity; they may operate under pervasive misconceptions that somehow leave them unable to grasp seemingly elementary conclusions. In the terms used by Jenny Rae Armstrong (above), there may be a distinction between those who are ignorant and those who are disingenuous, although determined ignorance probably amounts to deliberate deception.

Much the same could be said about fear. Fear plays a great role in the deceptions practiced by many Christian believers. People can be so afraid of eternal damnation that they hesitate to question their faith or otherwise step out of line. For social reasons, likewise, people may have simply concluded that a dedicated pursuit of truth often entails serious risks to personal survival in this world.

A concern with pathological lying begins to emerge, then, among certain subsets of Christian fundamentalists. Those subsets may include people who would commit any evil in order to save themselves, and those (e.g., ministers) who have a demonstrated commitment to or investment in the assumed truth of their beliefs. Such people could be honest about difficulties with Christian faith, but choose instead to cross the line, using falsehood and even absurdity to deceive people. When you see such behavior continuing for years on end, you might fairly ask whether this person is thriving in Christian fundamentalism precisely because s/he has no serious problem with the level of falsehood required to persist in that kind of belief.

Sarah Sumner examines such thoughts in a Christianity Today article titled “The Seven Levels of Lying.” Drawing on work by Budziszewski (2011), Sumner suggests that the most objectionable forms of lying are No. 6, “You develop your technique” and No. 7, “You see it as your duty to lie.” Within Sumner’s analysis, even these worst forms of lying are understandable when they seem to be required to survive and thrive within a dysfunctional family or bureaucracy. And that, in the view of many nonbelievers, is precisely the nature of fundamentalist Christianity: a dysfunctional entity compelling and/or encouraging falsehood. Consistent with that view, Dromedary Hump offers these quotes from famous historical Christian leaders:

Often it is necessary to deceive, and to do the greatest benefits by means of this device, whereas he who has gone by a straight course has done great mischief to the person whom he has not deceived. [John Chrysostom]

We should always be disposed to believe that which appears to us to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the church so decides. [Ignatius Loyola]

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them. [Martin Luther]

But one need not revert to historical texts for illustrations. A search leads readily to the continuing stream of scandals in which priests, preachers, and evangelists deceive their congregations and the public about assorted financial, sexual, and psychological abuses. It does not appear that people of this nature would be good guides in the matter of how to live one’s life, much less the truth about one’s eternal salvation.

One often hears such people called “pathological liars.” But that does not seem like the right term. In an article in Psychiatric Times, Charles C. Dike (2008) notes that pathological lying (PL) is not a settled psychiatric diagnosis within the psychiatric profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). (See also Mark D. Griffiths in Psychology Today, 2013.) Dike suggests there is nonetheless some consensus as to the core elements of PL: “excessive lying, easily verifiable to be untrue, mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way, and even possibly harmful to the liar, yet told repeatedly over time.”

Note, then, that — at least by that sense of the term — a good liar and a pathological liar are two very different things. The person who obtains success, wealth, and/or power by deceiving and manipulating people may have some other kind of mental health issue, but s/he would not be a pathological liar — would not be, that is, telling falsehoods that are “easily verifiably to be untrue” or “mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way.” His/her success comes precisely because s/he is good at misleading people.

Pathological lying (PL) — like psychopath and sociopath — is a popular assessment, used in assorted and sometimes conflicting ways, sometimes based on knowledge and experience but often abused by people with poor training or no training in mental health. A search leads to any number of people who claim expertise on the matter. For example,

  • WikiHow defines a pathological liar as “someone who tells lies habitually, chronically and compulsively. It has simply become a way of life for this person, to make up things for a variety of reasons and eventually, the truth becomes uncomfortable while weaving whoppers feels right to them. This kind of lying tends to develop early on in life, often as a response to difficult home or school situations that seemed to resolve better if the child lied. It’s a bad habit, not a manipulative trait — this is how to differentiate a pathological liar from a sociopath who does seek to manipulate.”
  • LoveToKnow says, “Pathological liars are people who tells lies when there is no clear benefit for them to do so. An individual who is not a pathological liar may lie to avoid punishment or ridicule. He or she may be less-than-truthful to avoid hurting someone else. When the problem of lying is at the point where the person is unable to control it, that person is considered to be a pathological liar. Even though pathological lying isn’t listed in the [DSM], it is considered a disease by some experts.”
  • New Health Guide says, in somewhat similar terms, that “A pathological liar lies compulsively and impulsively, almost without thinking about the consequences of his action. He lies regularly on a spontaneous basis even if he gains no benefit from it, or even if he traps himself into it. A pathological liar cannot control his impulse to lie and it is usually a self-defeating trait.”

Those materials suggest several observations. First, it may be true that — as I was informed by a source that I have cited in another post — the ministry is one of the ten professions most likely to attract psychopaths. Especially when one enters the arena of wildly unrealistic and dishonest claims about Christian faith and practice, It may take a remarkably cold and clever manipulator to keep on preaching, week after week, without any concern for the kinds of problems that I have discussed in the posts cited above. It is certainly interesting to read the suggestion, by Pater Familias, that “many fundamentalist Christians become atheists in college or seminary.”

Of course, not every minister is a televangelist with a congregation of thousands. As I know from observing the work of the Lutheran minister for whom I was an office assistant during high school, many work for a pittance, struggling to keep their congregations going despite congregational politics and negative and sometimes abusive parishioners. Ministers of this ilk — and many of the confused congregants who spend their week ping-ponging among dissonant theories of what God wants and what they have been doing right and wrong — may come closer to the concept of pathological lying. They are not seriously attempting to manipulate anyone, and would rarely be able to do so. They are just trying to string together a chaotic pack of random ideas in a bid to say something that, to them, sounds good at the moment — even if it does strike the casual listener as grotesque self-deception. This behavior often entails great costs, in terms of time and money wasted and opportunities foregone, including other careers that the minister might have pursued, and more truthful (and, probably, more rewarding) ways of pursuing his/her religious calling.

Dike distinguishes pathological lies from other kinds of disorders (e.g., Borderline Personality Disorder) by their “elaborate, fantastic, or complicated nature.” That description does seem applicable to the tangled webs of doctrine, and the incredible supernatural entities and events, with which fundamentalists weave together their ideas about themselves and their world. Dike also distinguishes “the blurring of fact and fiction that occurs in PL” from “the absolute conviction” experienced by delusional persons — which is interesting, in light of the contrast between the extraordinary claims that contemporary Christians make about miracles and other supernatural events, and the limited extent to which they demonstrate real belief in such phenomena.

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

This tentative impression should be cushioned, again, with the warnings that pathological lying is not an established psychiatric diagnosis and that, if it is to be used, one might consider it a call for compassion, not a charge of willful manipulation. Without denying the harm done by such beliefs, nor for that matter the positive aspects of religious belief and community, in these specific ways these people are confused and, for the most part, cannot be helped, but are rather left to help themselves, often by growing more relaxed and less serious about the most problematic aspects of their faith.

Case in Point:
Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher

I had been vaguely curious about lying by Christian preachers ever since hearing about Marjoe Gortner, an evangelist who exposed fraud within the world of fundamentalist ministry, in a production that won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. I lost touch with that sort of thing, later in the 1970s, when I rejected fundamentalism as a route to spiritual truth — although I did hear, with the rest of America, about fraudulent and abusive priests and evangelists throughout the years to come.

Despite my rejection of fundamentalism, I remained in loose contact with several fundamentalists, including a few with religious training and/or positions in the ministry. I was moved to write this post after repeated Facebook encounters with one of them. I was not deeply acquainted with that preacher (referred to here as “Jack”) and his wife (“Jill”); but within my face-to-face experience they were generous, nonjudgmental, and basically kind people. As often happens, however, our online interactions tended to highlight differences in our viewpoints. It was harder to think of the person as a whole, and to disregard various absurd or offensive things that s/he might say, when written expression became our primary means of interaction.

I decided to write this post for several reasons. First, as detailed below, I wanted to wrap up that series of Facebook encounters with Jack. Over a period of months, I had concluded that Jack was wasting my time with insincere and sometimes ridiculous remarks. It seemed best to unfriend him, so as to eliminate that source of fruitless distraction, and to direct him to this post if he was interested in an explanation.

Unfriending Jack on Facebook did not necessarily imply ceasing to be friends in fact; that would depend on future developments. Indeed, it seemed that removing Facebook from the equation might actually be beneficial to the friendship. At this point, it could hardly hurt. So it seemed appropriate to compose this explanation, and to leave it to him to see if he could understand and respond appropriately to it.

Second, I decided to write this post because, as in other posts in this blog, I had prior personal experience that I thought might be useful to others. As noted above, I, myself, had been a lying inventor of bogus “explanations” for the problems that arise when one takes a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. In that role, I may well have contributed to the confusion and pain experienced by fellow believers. I certainly was not contributing to any real solutions. As I observed various things that Jack and Jill posted on Facebook, I became concerned at the damage that they, and others like them, might be doing. I had been hearing, for some years, about what might have happened if people had not looked the other way when they found priests and ministers misbehaving. It seemed appropriate, indeed obligatory, to speak up.

So, as I say, I found myself engaged in repeated disagreements with Jack and Jill on Facebook. In the early months, these were limited to the occasional expression of dissent on some random item. Once, for example, Jill posted something like this:

2015-01-07-VaccineTrumptweetborder

I don’t believe that was the actual item; it is just an illustration of the type of thing she posted. In this case, it was something about vaccines for children. She added a remark; as I recall, it was, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”

I was aware that some parents were afraid that vaccines were more dangerous than the diseases they were supposed to prevent. But as far as I knew (and as still appears to be true), adverse reactions were rare and generally less harmful than the diseases in question. Indeed, it appeared that those who refused to vaccinate their children could pose an unreasonable threat to others. So I posted a reply, saying something like, “Polio, measles, tuberculosis — who would want to go back to that?”

There were several similar exchanges. At some point, reviewing my Facebook history, I noticed that Jill seemed to have deleted some of the posts to which I had objected, including the one about vaccines. It occurred to me that perhaps I had sensitized her to the existence of alternate viewpoints of which she had been unaware — that maybe I had helped her to recognize the foolishness of some of the things that others had been telling her. It was gratifying to imagine that I might have introduced some caution into her sharing of potentially harmful advice with members of her congregation.

Meanwhile, it appeared, for a time, that Jack enjoyed online debate. That was not the impression he had given in person. When talking in person, he had sometimes dominated the conversation, going on and on about his beliefs. I understood his viewpoint — as I say, I had been a fundamentalist and a pre-ministry student myself — but he had not seemed reciprocally inclined to understand and explore my views. Since then, online, he had described himself as not being open-minded. At some point I concluded that he was, ultimately, the typical preacher, primarily interested in telling you what to think, and not very interested in learning whether his way might be imperfect or just plain wrong.

So, to continue with the example of vaccines, eventually I did come to realize that Jill had not in fact learned anything from my remarks about vaccines. She was still agreeing with Jack, months later, when he posted this on that subject:

I have been accused of being crazy because I do not use vaccinations for my kids or myself as a general rule. If I suggest other listen to why I feel this way, then words like medieval, barbarian, cave man, etc. are thrown around. The only argument for being totally for vaccination that I have heard is the elimination of polio, or smallpox.

This seems like a pretty good argument, though, right? Let us explore this argument for a minute. The argument, as I understand it, goes like this: If by vaccinations we can eliminate the deadly disease polio, then all vaccines are good and acceptable to be used on every child starting with the day they are born. . . .

Who oversees the production of Vaccines? Government. Did you just shudder? I know I did! . . .

So, really, am I really that crazy? You do what you want. I will not call you crazy, even if I know better. I will walk the path I have chosen, regardless of your choices and demonizing of my choice.

To me, it seemed that anyone who had looked into vaccines at all would know that they were tested individually. There was no simpleminded acceptance of any and all vaccines, across the board, merely because the polio vaccine worked many years ago.

It was also obvious that the government of the U.S. had achieved remarkable successes, in projects that nobody else was inclined to tackle. Examples over the previous two centuries had included the fighting of the Civil and World wars, developing a reliable post office, breaking up monopolies, building an interstate highway system, and landing people on the moon. The presidents pursuing such projects, Democrat and Republican alike, had enjoyed wide public support for such initiatives. Certainly there were major mistakes in those and other projects. But it made no sense to speak as though governmental involvement, in itself, would automatically imply poor quality in a specific vaccination project.

In that area of vaccines, and elsewhere, Jack did not seem motivated to look into the facts of the matter before telling others what to think. Instead, he was content to hold forth with an uninformed opinion, notwithstanding its potential to cause serious harm to less educated or less capable people, including his own children, who might be depending on him or looking to him for guidance. In the case of vaccines, he and Jill persisted in this approach despite his report (above) that numerous others had challenged it. He received those challenges, not as evidence that he might be mistaken, but rather as “demonization,” as though others had behaved inappropriately in pointing out real dangers in his words and acts.

Over the months, Jack challenged a number of items that I had posted on Facebook. He was not the only person to express disagreement with such items. In his case, unfortunately, the challenges did not entail reasonable give and take, where one would strive to understand the opposing viewpoint before trying to rebut it, much less acknowledge credible aspects of that opposing viewpoint. Here, again, Jack admitted that he was not interested in an openminded pursuit of truth. He demonstrated no willingness to seek truths that might be painful or inconsistent with his preferred beliefs. Nor did he demonstrate anything resembling Armstrong’s gentle Christian humility (above). He did not even make a serious attempt at logical argument. The situation seemed to be that he knew himself to be right, on a given issue; he accepted that others were too blind to perceive their wrongness; and he was not very motivated to demonstrate his rightness and their wrongness in much detail. He just contented himself with tossing out a few hints pointing toward his personal wisdom, and leaving others to find their own way toward him and his Truth.

I don’t intend those remarks sarcastically. In all seriousness, that did appear to be how he saw things. Moreover, his propensity to insulate himself from reality was not limited to people like me, or to venues like Facebook. He was also insulating himself from the patent facts of his own scriptures. Jesus was not known for his love of guns and his insistence on a right to carry weapons, to cite another of Jack’s predictable areas of interest. (Jack would go on to start a sporting goods store, so that he could sell guns for the Lord.) Jesus was also not famous for his views for or against particular politicians.

Indeed, a casual reader of the New Testament might conclude that Jesus’s tendencies often ran somewhat opposite to Jack’s. What Jack knew was not really Jesus; it was just the culture into which he, Jack, had been born, and the ways in which that culture had distorted Christ’s life and words for its own purposes. Jack seemed to be the kind of person who, born in Iraq instead of the U.S., would have defended his family’s version of Shiite or Sunni Islam with the same narrowminded indifference to truth, selectively adopting or ignoring facts and arguments as needed to arrive at his preferred conclusions.

A few examples may help to illustrate the situation. Consider Jack’s responses to a cartoon I posted on Facebook:

10931295_10152514116931408_439443050043691658_n

The cartoon could have said more — about the European wars of religion, for instance, and about the Spanish Inquisition, and about the behavior of conquering Christians in the New World, indeed about the history of Christian slaughter and torture going back to the time of Gregory of Tours, never mind the attitudes of people like Jack toward American behavior in the Islamic world over the past two decades — but the basic point was clear enough. Christianity has been secularized and restricted by relatively unsympathetic governments and societies in the West, and has thus become less of a threat in recent centuries; but its history presents grounds for serious concern that, if such controls were removed, people would once again be committing enormous atrocities in the name of Christ.

Jack did not want those things to be true of his religion. Like most fundamentalists, he was not very interested in the long and horrible record of violence committed by so-called Christians. He preferred to assume, as Christians have doubtless assumed for centuries, that his generation would be different. So in response to that cartoon, Jack posted several long tirades filled with tangential and in some cases nonsensical remarks. Each time, I replied with relatively brief rebuttals. I can illustrate the tenor of those exchanges with this excerpt from one of my rebuttals:

Jack, your remarks seem incoherent. I did clearly distinguish the fundamentalist branch of Christianity. See previous comment. It is self-contradictory to refer to the liberals as a mere “fringe” and then say they are responsible for causing wars: fringes do not have that power. Such a claim is also historically ignorant: there were virtually no Christian liberals at the time of the Crusades and the European wars of religion. Do present-day fundamentalists submit to secular government? Only by force. For decades, they have been seeking to make it less secular and more theocratic: Ten Commandments in public places, for example. Finally, I don’t know whom you’re accusing of defending Radical Islam; that’s certainly not me.

Of course, it would be easier to interpret that excerpt if I were to provide the words, from Jack, to which I was responding. Unfortunately, I can’t. That’s because, after several lengthy discourses, Jack decided to go back and delete all of his comments. I think that may have been the only time, in my several years of using Facebook, when anyone has done that. It seemed odd. Eventually, however, he did offer a bit of an explanation for this behavior, in a concluding post that ran to 419 words (i.e., the equivalent of nearly two double-spaced typed pages). Here is an excerpt:

If you feel I was calling you disingenuous, then that was not my intention. I said it seems disingenuous to hold all of Christianity accountable for the past actions of a few, then excuse a few Islamic groups using the past actions of that same “few” of Christianity. . . . I have not wish to further argue with you on the subject. If I would have wished to continue in the argument then I would have not erased the comments I have made. From any outside observer stumbling across this thread, It will appear you are the king of the hill on your Facebook page. If your goal is to stand uncontested in your opinions, then you have achieved it. You win. If you want to convince me that you have the right-headed thinking, then you will probably never win. I am as set in my ways as, I hope, you are in yours. . . . If you were offended by me calling you disingenuous, then I do sincerely apologize. . . . I am sorry I cannot do more for your complaints than this. God Bless you.

So, to paraphrase, Jack admitted calling me disingenuous, but also said he did not intend to call me disingenuous. What was disingenuous, he said, was to hold all Christians accountable for the past actions of “a few” — where Jack’s concept of a “few” can include a good chunk of the population of Europe. He did not clearly explain why he would remove his comments, but it sounds like he wanted to make it appear that I was arguing with myself. He started the debate, but then characterized my replies as “complaints” with which he was trying to offer assistance.

This did not seem to be the behavior of a sincere debater of belief. Frankly, given his repeated indications that he was set in his ways and intended to remain so, it seemed to be the behavior of a troll — of, that is, someone who had no genuine interest in shared pursuit of the truth of a matter, but who simply liked to provoke disagreements. It appeared that, when someone took the bait, he would treat their response as an invitation to share his own views at length — not for the purpose of genuine engagement or learning, but merely to preach.

That impression probably would have been too hasty, despite the absurdities in Jack’s argument, if we had just gone back and forth once or twice about that cartoon. It seemed less hasty, however, as the matter dragged out over the course of a week, each day bringing a new tirade. Some skepticism toward Jack also seemed appropriate in light of his reactions to a number of my other Facebook posts. Here is an example of a photo, to which Jack responded and I replied as follows:

Fracking

JACK: Oh no! the poor fish! (as I am filling up on gas that is cheaper than it has been in years)

ME: Unbelievable.

ME: Jack, maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. It sounds supremely ignorant. Do you not go fishing multiple times per week?

JACK: I do not go fishing several times a week, right now. I have been fishing several times a week, though. What about any of you guys? Do you people like to fish?

Nobody replied to Jack’s question. I admit: as my reply indicates, he was becoming tiresome.

On multiple occasions, as in that example, Jack started by questioning or ridiculing what I had posted — but then, when I challenged his remarks, he would try to change the subject, or would claim that it was all just a matter of opinion or belief, and there was no point debating it. But it was not a matter of belief: it was a matter of real-world actions and their consequences.

Such exchanges seemed to support the widespread perception that Christian fundamentalists use the Bible as an excuse for sociopolitical views that do not always make much sense — and that, if they were in power, they would behave as fools who (in the foregoing examples) would help to see the environment wrecked and the country ravaged by preventable disease. I would like to say that Jack was unusual — that other Christian fundamentalists, in other private and public communications, have displayed far more responsibility and common sense. Unfortunately, too often, that has not been the case.

The Core Epistemological Issue

This post has looked at the topic of pathological lying, and at the problem of lying among Christians; it has looked in more detail at a few exchanges I had with a fundamentalist minister on Facebook. Ideas presented here could, perhaps, be developed into an argument that fundamentalist Christians, or a subset of such Christians, or at least some fundamentalist ministers are pathological liars, or psychopaths, or sociopaths. There might be some truth to such an argument.

That, however, is not the point here. Fundamentalists like Jack do not need to be psychologically screwed up in order to become bullshit artists. As developed more fully in the posts cited at the start of this piece, the real problem is not that a subset of such fundamentalists have mental health issues. It is that fundamentalism, by its very nature, is opposed to the search for truth. To the fundamentalist, truth comes from the scriptures, and from what one’s preacher or other accepted commentator says about the scriptures. The result is a mishmash of views, ranging from the reasonable through the murky to the absurd. People are so determined to have a religion, or to defend the one they were born with, that they will accept an enormous amount of nonsense rather than be honest with themselves, and with others, about the real world and about what their own scriptures actually say.

Epistemology is, in essence, the study of what we can know, and how we can know it. The epistemological question posed by fundamentalist Christianity is whether one can reliably obtain factual knowledge, as distinct from mere opinion, from the Bible, from Bible commentators, and from preachers like Jack. Even if there were no scientists for them to disagree with, it would appear that the answer to that question must be no, else there would not be such a plethora of divergent Christian denominations and cults, each insisting that it alone has arrived at the correct interpretation of scripture.

In that light, the primary issue of pathology arises at the level of the culture, not of the individual. In other words, the real question is not whether there is something wrong with this or that believer; it is whether the culture of Christian fundamentalism is itself sick. Such a question could draw upon the reasoning of Erich Fromm (1955, p. 15). Fromm, reacting to Nazi Germany, pointed out that “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Needless to say, not everything that Christian fundamentalists do is automatically stupid or evil. Taking a cue from Fromm, one must recognize that even Nazi Germany achieved notable advances — in medical and public health research and practice, for instance (Proctor, 1999). The issue is not one of pure good and evil. It is, rather, that regardless of the outcomes achieved, the means employed are simply not acceptable. The point is not that one should prohibit Naziism, fundamentalist Christianity, or other forms of belief per se. The more appropriate response is surely to demonstrate, and to keep on demonstrating, with rationality and human kindness, that fundamentalists are relying upon a flawed and often destructive worldview, and that there are better ways.

The example of Jack highlights a consequence of fundamentalist Christian epistemology. If you already know what you believe, and if nothing is going to shake you from it, then much of what the world cares about is just a joke. A person like Jack can post silly remarks about fracking and fish because he is more interested in taunting and ridiculing intelligent people than in thinking seriously and speaking responsibly on sociopolitical and economic issues. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about many things in our world, because his religion taught him that all he needs to know and care about is contained within the Bible (with, of course, certain homemade additions about guns and politicians).

Jesus seems neither to have written down his own words, nor to have solicited anyone else to do so. But apparently that is not important to those who claim to be Christlike. In the behavior of the fundamentalist, who wants to support his/her preexisting culture by highlighting preferred Biblical texts and by interpreting those texts in preferred ways, the actual person of the historical Jesus can be surprisingly unimportant — which is just what Kazantzakis indicated, near the end of a film that fundamentalist Christians abhor.

Philosophers and scientists do not appear to be very surprised that Christian fundamentalism, epistemologically and fanatically rooted in an ancient book, has produced substantial amounts of folly and evil. That is because philosophers and scientists spend whole careers struggling to achieve small advances in the very difficult project of figuring out what one can really know, and how one can be sure that one really knows it. People doing that kind of work tend to realize that there are no shortcuts. It takes work. Lacking any commitment to that sort of project, Christian fundamentalists are left to fire cheap shots at things beyond their understanding, and to demand that their schools, their states — if possible, their country and their world — be managed in ways consistent with their ignorance.

Conclusion

This post has observed that Christian fundamentalism has a problem in the area of truthfulness. The post began with a look at individual experiences and concerns having to do with lying. There was a glance at concepts of pathological, psychopathic, or sociopathic falsification. But the primary concern was that the problem of truthfulness is endemic to the faith — that Christian fundamentalism is built upon, and glorifies, the rejection of the human search for truth. The false hope, and claim, is that the Bible (as construed by one’s preferred scholars) gives the believer a pass, an easy out, a way of avoiding epistemological engagement with the things that concern mere mortals. Private and public concerns about honesty, science, life, and other people are all subordinated to the words of the biblical text.

And people live that way, year after year, century after century, proud of their imagined superiority or perhaps fearful for their salvation, but in any event never admitting that they are simply wrong. So I wind up with a clown like Jack, and many Christian believers wind up in private hells of falsehood and confusion, because their culture prohibits open, honest, and humble engagement down here with the rest of us, on the level of reality. The world is cursed with a horde of bullshit artists, some quite solemn and sincere (within the severe limits of what they are willing to contemplate), because that is precisely what their faith respects.

You’re Wrong

You may think you’re right, but you’re wrong about that too.

But what was I wrong about in the first place? you might ask. That’s a good question, but not important. The point here is just that you’re wrong.

This may seem like a ridiculous claim. A person can’t just be wrong; s/he has to be wrong about something in particular. You’d be right about that, except for just one problem: you’re wrong.

But I’m not wrong, you might say, and I can prove it. I say you can’t. You say, Well, how about 2 + 2 = 4? I’m not wrong about that, am I?

And the reply is, yes, obviously. Because 2 + 2 can only really equal 2 + 2. You can define 2 + 2 to be equal to 4, but that’s where you start to go off the tracks. Because defining 2 + 2 = 4 leads, pretty quickly, to strange creatures like division by zero (which cannot be defined in this number system), and irrational numbers, and numbers that cannot exist, like the square root of minus one. You can define yourself as being right, by defining 2 + 2 = 4, but that’s like defining yourself as Bill Gates and then living as if you were rich. It doesn’t add up.

Try again, if you’d like. The sky is blue? Which part of the sky? Where? Does the person blind from birth agree? Would you care to compare it against a color chip from the paint store, to make sure it’s not actually aqua or periwinkle?

The point here is not that everyone is always wrong about everything. It’s that it is hard to be right, and even harder to stay that way. When I say you’re wrong, I’m just generalizing, because you usually are.

Well, how about me, you might ask – am I not wrong too? Good question. If you think it’s important, I encourage you to get your own blog and write about it. But you’d be wrong – it’s really not important.

So, to clarify: yes, you can define 4 to be 2 + 2. You can define blue to be what a certain part of the sky is, at a certain place and time, as if it were possible to preserve that lost moment. You can carve out bits of being right, from a larger world in which you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

The reason you’re wrong is that being right tends to be a matter of contingencies and particulars, the tentative and usually temporary result of concerted effort in the face of a general reality of being wrong. On 3 + 9, you nailed it, but only because you had already given yourself that trophy, starting with your definition of things like 2 + 2. On that little spot of blue, congratulations, and big deal.

But surely you know things more important than that. Or do you? Example: you think your kids love you. Do they? Maybe. Janie, down the street, loved Jimmy, and that’s why she shot him. Do your kids love you like that? No, of course not. So you see. You have to define the word the way you want, and keep tweaking it until it doesn’t fit any of the situations that you don’t want to include. Your knowledge isn’t an apple that just falls off the tree into your hand. It isn’t an apple at all. It is a creaky little gizmo that you invented out of bits and pieces, and then tried to glue together. It takes work, the result looks awful, and it wants to fall apart.

Well, but doesn’t being right about lots of little things add up to being right on the big level, about some pretty impressive problems? Good question: does it? You’re right, in some ways, about things like hemoglobin, and viruses, and the body’s immune system, and somehow it all adds up to a polio vaccine. But (a) you, yourself, weren’t right about those things; invariably your path required reliance on other people, sometimes finding truths contrary to what you might have expected, and (b) what you were right about is still not keeping up with what you were wrong about. Among other things, polio is back. Again, congrats.

Collectively, the things you are right about are like the time when my brother’s wife got a job in a department store. They were always having sales. She would come home with new merchandise, telling him how much money they had saved. He said to me, Ray, I saved money yesterday on a new microwave. Last week I saved money on new drapes for the windows. I’m saving so much money, I’m going broke.

You are so right, these days, about so many important things, that humanity is at the point of jeopardizing its own existence, in a world that is on its way to becoming unliveable. If you were any more right, we would all be dead already. So keep it up – you’re doing a heckuva job.

* * * * *

See also this Kathryn Schulz excerpt and my own later post on the arrogance of experts.

Illustrations from the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible

Before I started this blog, I put a number of religion-related entries into my ideas blog.  I have gradually been moving them here.

This particular post contains the verbatim text of several of those posts.  They were focused particularly on the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (SAB).  An inescapable conclusion from review of that work is that it is unrealistic — I have argued that, in fact, it is blasphemous — to blame God for the Bible.  Not to deny that the book contains literature, history, great stories, and so forth; but, clearly, the Bible is not what some have claimed, in their efforts to construct their religions and cults.

I might have continued with the exploration of the SAB — I did flip around in it, here and there — but eventually it becomes obvious:  the Bible is not, and does not even claim to be, a perfect work, inspired by God.  I certainly wanted it to be God’s divine word, but in the end, truth is not about what you or I want.  Unless we wish to spend our lives lying to ourselves and to others, we’ve got to face the realities, and open our minds to whatever God, or the gods, or the universe — whoever or whatever there is — may actually be trying to communicate to us.

So I did quickly decide not to make much of the SAB, beyond the few excepts shown here.  There just didn’t seem to be much point in going on and on about it.  People who are being honest with the facts will get the picture quickly enough, and those who don’t prioritize honesty that highly — preferring tradition, or hope, or some other virtue instead — will never get it, no matter what you put in front of them.

Given that perception of the situation, it did not seem necessary to spend time to weave the following texts together.  I am just presenting them, as I say, verbatim, in the form that I previously posted them in that other blog.  There assuredly is a great deal more where this came from, for those who have time and interest in exploring the SAB further.

*   *   *   *   *

Previous Post No. 1:  When Was the Sun Created?

Genesis:

1:3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
1:5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

BUT:

1:14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
1:15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

Evidently there was no “light upon the earth” before this point.  So the division of light from darkness cited above, as well as the evening and the morning, were occurring somewhere other than Earth.

AND:

1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
1:17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
1:18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
1:19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

The creation of the Sun (1:15) occurred on the fourth day.  How could there be three days before this?

From The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which also provides the following link, among others:

In response to the theory that each so-called “day” actually represented an entire epoch, Dr. Jason Rosenhouse quotes Rabbi Natan Slifkin at length, including the following excerpts:

[A]lthough this approach reconciles the difference between a time span of six days and a time span of fourteen billion years, the events of those six days cannot be correlated with the scientific account of what took place during the fourteen billion years. . . .

There have been very ingenious attempts to make the content and sequence of Genesis concord with that of science, an approach known as “concordism.” Such efforts are, however, beset with serious difficulties . . . . [Among other things,] they render the true meaning of Genesis as something only comprehensible to modern man. And yet we see that, although the Torah is binding for all generations, God presented it in a form that would be meaningful to the generation that received it.  The laws of damages refer to donkeys falling in pits, not trucks ramming into cars. It is unreasonable to believe that God gave an account of Creation that mankind was completely incapable of understanding for thousands of years.

If Genesis can only be reconciled with science via obscure theories, reference to irrelevant phenomena, drastic and very difficult textual reinterpretation, and ingenious intellectual gymnastics, then it is not a very impressive scientific account. The most reasonable conclusion is that Genesis was never intended to be a scientific text . . . .

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Previous Post No. 2:  How Many Gods Are There?

Genesis 1:26
And God said, let us make man in our image.

Genesis 3:22
And the Lord God said, Behold, then man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.

Genesis 11:7
Let us go down, and there confound their language.

Exodus 22:28
Thou shalt not revile the gods.

Exodus 34:14
For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

1 Samuel 28:13
And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.

Psalm 82:6
I have said, Ye are gods.

Zephaniah 2:11
The Lord will be terrible to them: for he will famish all the gods of the earth.

John 10:33-34
The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God. Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?

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Previous Post No. 3:  Adam Didn’t Die That Day

Genesis 2:16-17:  “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:  But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

Genesis 5:5:  “And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.”

 

Religion and Politics: Further Ahead by Losing

One time, I was fighting traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, heading into Manhattan.  I saw an opening and jumped into it.  Another driver felt that this move wronged him.  He pulled up next to me on my right side, yelling and threatening.  I pointed off to the right, past him.  He ignored my gesture and kept yelling.  I pointed again.  Eventually, he looked.  So finally he saw that the lane off to his right was completely clear.  He was so busy worrying about me that he had overlooked a wide-open opportunity.  Instead of being so eager to get stuck where I was, he could have been long gone.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when talking to people about religion and politics.  They get so concerned about winning every battle that they set themselves up to lose the war.  Everybody has to be right about everything, all the time.  But if that’s how it has to be, when are we going to get a chance to make some mistakes, so that we can learn something?

This question comes to mind when I think about evangelical Christians in American politics.  The classic example:  why does Mississippi vote Republican?  You’ve got a state full of people who are dependent on Medicare and other governmental programs, and they consistently vote for politicians who strive to reduce if not eliminate such programs.

The answer seems to be that the very religious voters of Mississippi see the Republican Party as the party of God, and they see it that way for social rather than economic reasons.  In their view, God does not worry about money nearly as much as he worries about abortion and gay rights.  Mississippi voters are going to save those fetuses.  That is the call of God.  Providing postnatal healthcare for them and their mothers is not.

Many consider this to be the kind of thinking that one should expect from the least literate state in the union.  The blunt word is “stupid.”  But I would emphasize a different word:  “proud.”  I would say this is the thinking of the arrogant.  The voters of Mississippi think they know a Truth that others cannot see.

That belief would be understandable if God had plainly said, in the Bible, “protect those fetuses” and “support the Republicans.”  He did not.  The preoccupations with fetuses and Republicanism are due entirely to interpretations that not all Bible readers share.  The illiterate are telling the literate how to construe a text.  Arrogance seems like a good word for this.

Of course, Mississippi’s preachers are not illiterate.  Ultimately, though, they are not the ones with the power.  It is the individuals in the pews who elect the politicians and choose the ministers.  It is they, relatively unskilled in textual interpretation, who know what they want the ministers to say.  We have, in other words, a tail wagging a dog.

The idea seems to be that God has revealed himself to the people of Mississippi, and that they can therefore disregard common sense.  It is no surprise that a state such as this would be dead last in health, poverty, and other social indicators.  There’s probably a story that would make that sound like the work of the God who gave his people a land of milk and honey, and there are may be many who are eager to believe such a tale.

It would be one thing if Mississippi had some rational basis for concluding that its eccentric path were the right one.  But when a state’s people reach the very bottom of the barrel, and respond by striving persistently to stay there, one must wonder whether the result is due to emotion rather than intellect.  It seems that it might be a situation in which a person makes a terrible mistake, and then tries to save face by pretending that this was exactly what s/he intended to do.

Sometimes, as in my Lincoln Tunnel story, people will become preoccupied with fighting, instead of being smart and moving ahead.  It could be embarrassing for Mississippi’s believers, and their ministers, to smell the coffee – to wake up and realize that they have been screwing themselves for decades.  It may be emotionally more tolerable to keep insisting that they were right all along, even as things keep getting worse.

The message to Mississippi is really a message to fundamentalists in every religion.  God has not spoken to you.  You may like to believe he has.  But we know you by your fruits – including those that you conceal or conveniently overlook.  You are as human as the rest of us – no more, no less.  You make mistakes as often as the rest of us do.  And in the case at hand, the people of Mississippi have made some serious mistakes in their mixing of religion and politics, just as the rest of us have done in various ways, at various times.

The question is not whether mistakes have been made.  The question is whether a person is going to learn from them.

In a sense, this post is about the ethical restraint of fundamentalist self-righteousness.  No cause or principle is a law unto itself.  Virtues tend to be counteracted by other virtues.  For instance, justice is important, but so is mercy.  Truth is important, but so is humility.

Virtues do strive for supremacy.  The person preoccupied with truth may think that nothing else matters.  Ironically, such a belief tends to be false.  The reason is that life is complex.  There are always many things going on, on multiple levels.  It is tempting to get on a roll – to treat one virtue as supreme, and to flatter oneself on one’s superiority in that regard.  For instance, a person might like to believe that s/he is more honest than others.  That is the path of arrogance and, at the same time, of ignorance.  Even in that one virtue, we are usually not as admirable as we may wish to believe.  We are less likely to go astray, with an overemphasis on one virtue, when we keep other virtues in mind.

The point is not that virtues overrule the text of the Bible.  They probably do, for people who entertain reasonable doubts.  But even the Bible-believing Christian must recognize the attention given, in that text, to competing virtues.  Jesus provides a number of examples in his complex remarks about law and gospel.  The Bible contains many calls to prioritize competing virtues.  Do this, but also do that.

A crusade that glorifies one principle above all others is very likely to conflict with biblical guidance in multiple ways.  Crusades can be emotionally gratifying, but they tend to result in a great deal of non-Christlike behavior and unanticipated collateral damage.

The people of Mississippi would benefit from greater humility about what they know, and what they do not know.  I recommend curiosity, including a willingness to question what people tell us on either side of an issue.  That is not always the right path.  But it tends to reduce the urge to proclaim one’s rightness in every battle, to the point of precluding actual learning.

Introduction to Bible Study

There is a reason why most people are not Mormons. They listen to the stories about how the religion was formed and what Mormons believe, and they conclude that key parts of it are nonsense.

That’s pretty much the story for most religions. Religions tend to focus on very big-picture things, like the purpose of life, the origin of the universe, and what happens after death. If they were focused on everyday stuff, like how to make a good salad or what to do this weekend, the reactions would probably be more flexible. But when one person tries to tell another person what to think and how to live, some resistance is likely. And so most Muslims do not become Christians, most Christians do not become Buddhists, etc.

People tend to think that their religions are serious and important. Everyone else’s religion is nonsense; but their own religion is different. Their religion — typically, the one they were born into — leads to Truth.

Yet a funny thing happens when nonbelievers do take the religion seriously. It turns out that believers don’t really want that either.

Christianity provides an example. There are all kinds of Christians; there is, in fact, a lot of disagreement about the definition of “Christian.” But if you look particularly at the various Christian denominations that call themselves “fundamentalist,” “Bible-believing,” “evangelical,” or otherwise based on the Bible, you quickly see that they do not want you to study the Bible. They want you to study only a few aspects of it, and they want you to see those aspects in just one way.

Consider the Mormon example again. Christians often object that the origins of Mormonism are sketchy if not downright ridiculous. How could the religion be true when Joseph Smith was such an obvious fraud? But if that is a legitimate line of argument, why don’t we apply it to Christianity itself?

In Bible study, the first problem is completeness. Suppose I wanted to plan a vacation to Greece. Greece is a place of ancient culture. So of course I would want the most ancient tour book I could find. A copy of something by Pausanias, perhaps, written more than 2,100 years ago. This would be a pretty silly way to plan a vacation, no? I mean, Greece may have changed a bit over the centuries. Yet this is the Christian approach (using “Christian,” henceforth in this post, to refer specifically to fundamentalists and the like). This approach causes a lot of grief to believers and unbelievers alike. The Bible is extremely old. It is not a practical guide to contemporary life. That is part of the reason why there are Christian bookstores, filled with the latest publications in a 2,000-year tradition of discussing things that the Bible, itself, does not explain. Believers often find that those Christian books (like any other books) are imperfect, sometimes very wrong, often mutually contradictory — but what’s the alternative?

The second problem is honesty. Christian students of the Bible learn that they are supposed to invent excuses for God’s failure to provide the kind of book that they want him to provide. As many first-time Bible readers have observed, the Bible is riddled with inconsistencies, bad ideas, and hokum. The Bible itself does not claim to be the word of God — the New Testament, in particular, makes clear that this is not the case — but Christians go through tremendous contortions to avoid admitting it. The Christian preoccupation with the Ten Commandments is an especially visible example of what happens when people try to blame God for writing something that he didn’t write, and didn’t claim to write: there is both an embarrassing focus on those few commandments while ignoring many others, and a blatant disregard of the words of Jesus — who, according to the Bible, really is the Word of God.

The third problem that arises in Bible study is blasphemy. There may or may not be a God, or gods. He/she/it/they may or may not have had anything to do with the writing of the Bible. If they are gods in any ordinary sense of the term, they are capable of expressing themselves pretty clearly. If they have declined to do so, presumably they have their reasons. In that case, the human attempt to put words in their mouths — to hold them responsible for wars and other horrors, crimes, falsehoods, and the many other things that arrogant people attribute to their deities — is blasphemy. It makes God look absurd; it gives sensible people good reasons to choose atheism. You might as well draw a cartoon of God, with a word bubble that contains any crazy or evil statement you can imagine. That is what Christians are doing, when they portray the Bible as God’s word, and then intrepret it according to their liking.

The fourth problem is history. As in the Mormon example, the Bible did not just fall from the sky. It came into existence through centuries of fighting among people who decided what they did and did not want it to say. Those people were actual human beings, just like people living today, and in these regards they behaved just as today’s humans would behave. In other words, there is no sign that God stood over the process and steered it — unless you think that he was responsible for the fact that Christians have murdered each other by the thousands, down through history, because of their disagreements about that book. The origins of the Bible are just as relevant to its meaning as the origins in Joseph Smith are to the meaning of Mormonism.

What Christians call Bible study is actually the study of deception. Inconvenient matters are avoided; preferred views are promoted. It is very much like the practice of law: there is already a conclusion that we want others to reach, and the only question is how we can help them — trick them, if necessary — to reach it.

That is not real study and learning. If you want to really understand something (as distinct from making up a story about it), you are best advised to approach it humbly, realizing that many of the things you think you know are likely to be wrong. You build up your knowledge about it, while remaining open to new information that could contradict your preferred beliefs. If you come across something that doesn’t fit, you slow down and examine it carefully, because that has often been exactly where people have discovered the most important learning.

There are many ways to interpret the Bible. Nonbelievers will probably find Christianity more appealing when it becomes less proud, less lawyerly, and more honest. In the area of Bible study, in particular, nonbelievers will probably not be able to sit down at the table with believers until the latter become more realistic and respectful. The nonbelieving student of the Bible is probably not possessed by the Devil, probably not stupid, and probably not trying to avoid divine insight. Based upon what the gods do seem to have communicated to humans (assuming, again, there are any gods at all), the nonbeliever may even be ahead of the Christian, in the effort to listen to heaven — even if the nonbeliever just calls it philosophy or science.

Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God

This item was previously posted on October 24, 2007 on my other blog. It drew a few comments there. I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

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Everyone agrees the Bible is a book, written by humans. Some think those writers were inspired by God; and of those, some think it is appropriate to examine the words of the Bible with great precision. This is not the message of Jesus, however.

Jesus emphasizes that the religious lawyers of his time were on the wrong track. “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered” (Luke 11:52). The writers of the New Testament books took a similar approach. They did not number the passages of their writings (that was a human addition), and they generally did not argue specific passages with anything like the precision that now appears in many Bible commentaries.

Jesus himself does not seem to have been too concerned about literal precision in his own statements. There are many instances when he says something, and then later contradicts it or seems to be saying something quite different. For instance, John’s gospel has him saying, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (John 5:31) but also “I am the one who bears witness about myself” (John 8:18).

If Jesus was a human being, then surely he was aware that you can’t freeze statements in stone — that the thing you say on one occasion turns out to be only partly true or relevant on another occasion. It would have been a mistake for him to insist that his words could reliably serve as a guide to every other person, at every moment in the future.

Some Bible interpreters go to great lengths to argue that Jesus and other Bible writers never contradicted themselves or each other. But the Bible does not actually command these interpreters to do this, nor does it explain which procedures they should use. In pursuit of that self-appointed mission, they rely on entirely human ideas, not clarified in scripture: that a certain passage is literal or figurative; that God inspired the original Greek or Hebrew statement but not the translation into English; and so forth. Indeed, they take it upon themselves to develop detailed creeds and carefully worded statements to explain what God meant. Again, the implication is that God himself was not capable of doing the job properly without their assistance — that the Bible is actually not complete and perfect. Thus, Bible commentaries disagree with one another on many things — yet each is nonetheless sure it is right. Inevitably, the Bible — in the interpreted, commentated form that readers contemplate — becomes a truly complex mass of disagreements, contradictions, and falsehoods.

People sometimes come to a form of Christian faith because they believe Jesus taught a simple gospel. Maybe he did. But when that gospel gets mixed up with the attempt to have a completely perfect, divine Bible, the simple gospel loses out. As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). If you insist upon the text, with all its history, complexity, and imperfection, you will lose some aspects of Jesus; and if you focus on Jesus, you will move — with him — away from a preoccupation with texts.

The approach of focusing on the text has created a collection of conservative Christian denominations and beliefs that sometimes erupt in bitter and even bloody fights. As shown at various times in Christian history, people will kill for the sake of a Bible passage. This is very far from the concept of a unified body of Christ that appears in some New Testament passages (see e.g., Romans 12:5). When matters reach such a point, it is reasonable to conclude that people have departed from the Jesus who praised peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

The books of the New Testament do not claim that they, themselves, are God’s word. There is one passage that makes the briefest possible reference to the concept: “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). That passage is not helpful. The Bible itself does not clarify which materials “scripture” should include. God, himself, either failed to understand the importance of this question, failed to answer the question intelligently, or did not consider it an important question. In other words, humans created the issue, and then had to fight about it over a period of centuries, before arriving at a state of permanent disagreement that continues today.

Sometimes, people pretend to be speaking about someone else, when in fact they are drawing attention to themselves. A classic example is Mark Antony’s speech in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones

So it is with people who try to help God by creating a Bible of the sort they prefer. The attention gets shifted to the interpreters. The preachers and interpreters may claim to be humble people, and in some ways, many of them are. Yet there is a monstrous pride and arrogance in their enterprise. “I am humble,” they seem to say, “but I happen to possess the truth of life and mankind — and it’s a good thing someone like me was there to add the chapter and verse numbers, and the many explanations, that God forgot.” Thus, the spotlight turns to them, to help people understand a God who (in their telling) is unable to explain himself adequately. They have the answers — but, in fact, they don’t. All too often, what they say is nonsense.

There is another, better way. The better way is for the preachers and interpreters to stop making claims that do not stand up to reason, that were not clearly authorized by God, and that have the blasphemous effect of making God out to be an idiot.

Imagine you are God. You are watching humanity try to figure out which books to include in the Bible, how to interpret them, what passages to emphasize. You can see that the disagreements begin almost immediately. Your solution? Screw it. Let them fight it out. But make sure they keep preaching about love and forgiveness. That’s the God that the Christian Bible-thumpers give us.

There may actually be no God of the kind that conservative Christians imagine. If there is a Christian God at all, he’s supposed to be far more competent than these Bible interpreters are willing to allow. That, anyway, is the message of the gospel of John. In its very first words, that gospel makes clear that a textual orientation is absolutely the wrong orientation. The Bible, John says, is not the Word of God. Here is John 1:1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Not, “In the beginning was a Book, and God ordered reprints.” According to John, God did not make the mistake of thinking that a written text (which is the most they had, in New Testament times) would capture things as clearly as audio or video recordings could have done.

God did not attempt to convey his message in words that lawyers would argue about. Instead, according to John, he conveyed his message in flesh and blood. Jesus came into the world as God’s Word to mankind. Obviously, if God wanted people to keep getting the message loud and clear, then Jesus needed to stick around. That didn’t happen, and that raises some questions about God, Jesus, and John.

Those questions are a starting point. To think about difficult things and unpleasant possibilities: that is the challenge of growth. But, of course, a person could insist on staying with what s/he knows. That’s what the Jews largely did. And so, if you believe the Bible passage (Matthew 7:23), Jesus is going to come back someday; and when he does, he will be approached by all kinds of people who will say, Master, remember all the things we did in your name? And he will say, Get away from me. I never knew you.

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