There’s a science-fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called The Gripping Hand. In it, they talk about a three-armed race called “Moties” who have this interesting expression. You know how some folks say “On the one hand.. on the other hand..”? Well, because of their anatomy, in much the same way that humans might tend to use base-10 counting systems because we have ten fingers, Moties recognize that often there’s some third option, so they say “.. and on the gripping hand” to describe that third option. And because their third hand is stronger and thicker than their other hands, that third thing is usually the most pressing and compelling of the three options presented. I’ve always had an affection for ideas like this, like how a creature’s body might affect its thinking like that (yes, I used to read the heck out of James White’s Sector General books, which bases an entire series on that general idea; check it out if you like your SF on the cerebral side), so this expression’s always stuck with me.
Unsurprisingly, the “hacker” community picked up on this expression “on the gripping hand” too at some point. People in that crowd tend to think outside the box, and most of them know that there are usually way more than two solutions to most questions.
Not Christians, though. False dilemmas abound in that group, and we’re going to talk about some of them today.
A false dilemma is simply a situation where two options or possibilities are offered as though they are the only possible options or possibilities. The Bible’s got this idea in it as well, with verses about folks (Matthew 12:30) being either for or against Jesus. We’ve talked before (right?) about the false trilemma of “lunatic/liar/lord” that many Christians insist are the only options possible for the Jesus whose story is presented in the Bible. And we could not possibly talk about false dilemmas without touching upon this particularly ridiculous and odious one that every single non-Christian in America’s had to deal with: Pascal’s Wager (or “sucker bet,” as Greta Christina calls it so eloquently). Christians love trotting that one out with a “aha!” flourish, as if a sly, sneakily-said “but… what if you’re wrong?!?” is in any way compelling to anybody with sense.
Christians come by this black-or-white thinking quite honestly. In the vein of the competing pagan traditions of its time, Christianity encourages this kind of dualistic thinking. Flesh, the world, one’s physical needs and desires, this stuff is bad. Spirit, the next life, spiritual concerns, this stuff is good. Their god is of the spirit so he is good, while followers’ physical bodies are bad and of no consequence. It doesn’t matter what one suffers in life, because life is of the flesh and therefore bad.
Indeed, one of the hardest things I had to overcome upon leaving the religion was my own black-or-white thinking. Greyscales and nuances were largely totally lost on me. If something was wrong, it was always, always, always wrong; if something was right, then it was right in every single circumstance. If I was not for this thing, then I had to be against it. If I rejected this one idea, then clearly this other idea was the answer. It was very hard and a real struggle to learn to look for alternate ideas and solutions instead of knee-jerk going to one of two ideas or solutions presented. I had to learn that just because someone’s presenting two competing ideas, that doesn’t mean at all that they’re the only two ideas that could be considered.
I’ve heard parents say that when one has young children, a false dilemma can be used to great effect. Asking children what they want to wear that day might provoke a war, but asking a child, “Which of these two pairs of pants do you want to wear today?” lets the child make a decision and feel autonomous without sparking a big long circus of changing clothes or arguments about what is and isn’t appropriate to wear to wherever the child is going. But when we’re adults, we know there are lots more options than just those two pairs of pants.
Many Christians, though, remain childishly convinced that there are only those two pairs of pants.
Creationism relies upon a false dilemma to sell its junk science: that evolution must be totally true, or else it is false and the only other option is creationism (also known by its newfangled name, “intelligent design”). Christian leaders insist that if Christians want to call themselves Christians, they must reject science, because Christians cannot embrace science and still be Christians. In the same way, I see Republicans often trying to make a “for us or against us” statement, either explicitly or implicitly, where either someone totally supports their efforts and is a real American, or else opposes (or even just criticizes) their efforts and is consequently a traitor to the country. That there are people who manage both sides of a dilemma or reject both sides doesn’t even occur to them.
When I was a Christian, I believed–very truly believed–that anybody who wasn’t a die-hard fundamentalist like me was a Satanist. Even if someone said out loud that he or she didn’t believe in Satan either, Satan was very tricksy that way, that tricksy, tricksy demon. Wiccans especially were all actually Satanists. They might not realize it, but I did. I was so smart that way. I had it all figured out. It took a long time to realize that no, actually, that wasn’t the case, and it was actually pretty arrogant for me to unilaterally assign labels to people against their wills. Thankfully, I began figuring that out in college before my deconversion, but not until I’d really annoyed a lot of Wiccans. That false dilemma was very compelling to me. The idea that someone was secretly something even if that person didn’t even know it and even if that person rejected that thing, and that I could figure this out and zing ’em with it, was a really hard idea to shake.
It’s probably some karmic retribution that nowadays I often get accused of being an atheist by Christians who cannot even imagine how it is that someone could utterly reject Christianity and yet not be an atheist. The accusation gets hurled as if atheism is some terrible thing, amusingly enough. Y’all probably can guess I don’t have any issue at all with the idea of atheism. It’s just not a label I feel comfortable with for my own personal views, so I don’t wear it, that’s all. But if I completely reject Christianity, obviously I am embracing atheism. You can just about hear their gears shifting without the clutch when I laughingly inform them that no, I’m not an atheist. They can’t even figure out how that’s possible! In their world, only atheists utterly reject Christianity. You can find all sorts of advice (link leads to a surprisingly well-thought-out list of things to do and avoid) that are applicable to any non-Christian, but it’s very rare for me to run across such advice without it being phrased as “how to talk to an atheist” rather than “how to talk to a non-Christian.” I just mentally translate the term “atheist” to “non-Christian” when I encounter it nowadays and make a gentle reminder that the person using this false dilemma would do well to remember that lots of non-atheists reject their religion, but it’s still simply fascinating to me that so many Christians can’t reconcile the idea of someone non-atheistic being also non-Christian. How do they deal with the millions of Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims in the world, not to mention the millions more people who follow a religion or spiritual philosophy that’s off the beaten track?
But the hits just keep coming with the false dilemma. Either people are Christian and have good morals, or else they reject Christianity and with it all morality–because obviously if one doesn’t believe in a god, then one cannot treat people well or have any sense of altruism or benevolence. This error has some serious implications when the Christian in question believes that if the United States rejects Christianity, then all sorts of madness and chaos will result. That plenty of non-Christians are charitable, belong to charity organizations, and otherwise do things that are very kind to others does not even ping the radar of Christians who desperately need to demonize (in a very literal sense) those who don’t march to their tune. That many nations are quite secular and haven’t descended into madness or chaos also seems to completely slip past the Christians who need to believe in this false dilemma.
Of course, not all of these false dilemmas deal with Christianity, though I suspect Christianity’s dominance sparked most of the ones I deal with in my own everyday life.
One of these seriously detrimental and toxic false dilemmas revolves around women’s sexuality. Either a woman is a total slutbunny or else a sweet virtuous baby-pink-tulle-wearing “good girl.” A woman cannot voluntarily choose to have sex without becoming a lesser human being who no longer deserves to have the right to own her own body and whose most intimate decisions get taken out of her hands and given to others to decide for her. Many people (even atheists!) only allow women who’ve been raped or molested the right to make their own healthcare decisions in the case of pregnancy, because women who voluntarily chose to have sex “deserve” to be hugely physically, emotionally, and financially imposed upon for almost a solid year and have their health put at risk in hundreds of ways–and even have the risk of death or mutilation forced upon them–for nothing more than choosing to share their bodies with another person for one night, while women who had that sex forced upon them are exempt from this punishment. They’re “good girls.” It’s not their fault this horrible thing happened. They get to opt out. (In b4 “but but but if abortion is murder then why does it even matter how a fetus got lodged in a woman?”) These “good girls” also get society’s full protection and respect, and if they are somehow raped despite all their efforts to be innocuous to men, society will stand by them. But if it comes out that they’re somehow not “good girls,” they no longer deserve that protection or that respect.
Like most childfree women, I also get accused of hating children. If someone likes children, obviously he or she must want to have their own children. If someone doesn’t want to have his or her own children, obviously that person hates children. I’ve even heard friends complain that if they even give side-eye to a parent who isn’t parenting very well in public, the parent defends by saying that this person clearly just hates kids. I don’t hate kids. I like them in small, controlled doses. I just know there is nothing about my life or personality that is a good fit for parenthood and I just have no interest in becoming a parent, so I don’t have kids. What I do dislike are bratty kids, but I dislike bratty adults too, so I don’t think my problem is not liking kids in general. (Spending a bit of time teaching English in Japan did a lot to make me realize that well-behaved children are an absolute delight to be around–plus, Japanese children were always so blown away by my blue eyes and blond hair.) Non-parents are also usually well-accustomed to hearing accusations that if they don’t have kids, then clearly they’re really just “adultolescents” who don’t know how to be loving, nurturing, or giving–heck, they might not even really understand what love even is if they haven’t had kids. Of course, the Mommy Wars don’t end at the kids/no kids question–once you’ve bred, you get to hear the false dilemmas around natural childbirth, working, breastfeeding, vaccination, schools (unschooling, homeschooling, public, private), vacation and leisure options, food, entertainment, and a host of other topics.
It’s grating to be informed that if you don’t fit into one side of a dilemma that obviously you are on the other side whether you like it or not. But it’s even worse for the person locked in that false dilemma, isn’t it? When someone can convince him- or herself of one of the two sides of these dilemmas, then that person is all but helpless to resist the other side of it. It can be impossible to free oneself from the dilemma. That’s why it’s so important to have the voice of dissenters raising the possibility of options the believers haven’t even considered yet.
Enter the gripping hand: that third option that was previously unconsidered but which actually makes the strongest argument.
On the one hand, the character of Jesus might be lying his butt off in the New Testament. On the other hand, he might be totally right and the divine son of a living god. On the gripping hand, if he existed at all, maybe he was just sincerely mistaken about his claims.
On the one hand, Christians could have a stranglehold on morality and conscience. On the other hand, non-Christians could be deep wellsprings of evil and malevolence. On the gripping hand, people are just, well, people, and as we’ve seen repeatedly, people’s religious identification doesn’t dictate their levels of goodness or morality.
On the one hand, evolution could have some false elements and therefore be totally untrue. On the other hand, creationism could indeed be totally right even if creationists can’t prove a single element of it. On the gripping hand, when an element of a theory is disproven or shown to be incomplete, real science stretches to accommodate the new information, but that doesn’t invalidate the entire theory right off the bat. (On another gripping hand, some Christians do embrace science and accept things like the Theory of Evolution.)
On the one hand, women who choose to have sex deserve to have the book thrown at them if they get raped or pregnant against their wishes. On the other hand, women who jealously guard their “purity” (or whose purity has been jealously guarded by their
masters handlers caretakers) deserve society’s full protection. On the gripping hand, people get to make their own healthcare decisions all the time and always deserve society’s protection and respect no matter what they have voluntarily chosen to do with their very own bodies.
On the one hand, only parents know what love, respect, sacrificial giving, and nurturing are. On the other hand, anybody who hasn’t had kids is immature and completely ignorant of true love, respect, sacrificial giving, and nurturing. On the gripping hand, people can learn and grow into all of these things without having to have kids.
On the one hand, science can totally explain Thing X. On the other hand, if science cannot explain it, a god must have done or created Thing X. On the gripping hand, just because science doesn’t have an explanation for Thing X, that doesn’t mean a god did it–we’ve always found explanations for stuff before, and we’ll probably figure this thing out too one day.
On the one hand, someone is totally for Christianity and a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. On the other hand, someone is totally against Christianity and an atheist. On the gripping hand, someone doesn’t care in the least about Christianity and just wants Christians to leave him/her alone, and may follow one of literally hundreds of different world religions past and present or be a None who hasn’t necessarily decided one way or the other.
In every single one of these cases I’ve outlined here, you can tell that third thing every single time with no exceptions doesn’t even seem to occur to the majority of Christian leaders. Even to acknowledge this stuff is to accept that the illusions these leaders push are far more polarized and that reality is far more nuanced than most of them even want to consider.
There’s a lot of fear behind these things, a sort of one-ups-manship going on that says “You don’t hate kids…. do you? Then you have to have kids.” Or “You don’t want to be an evil bastard… do you? Then you have to be Christian.” Or even “You don’t want to get raped… do you? Then you have to dress modestly and always act demure so your potential rapist will go find a different victim to hurt.” These false dilemmas are always presented in such a way that one option will be ludicrous so the other seems that much more palatable and acceptable. That I see so many of these arguments in Christianity makes me wonder why the religion seems to rely so much upon these fear tactics and manipulative strategies.
So let’s be reminded of deeply-polarized false dilemmas when we see Christians or anybody else using them, and let’s challenge those dilemmas. Let’s be the gripping hand that offers a way out of that trap.
Next time, we’re going to be talking about evangelism and why it fails. I’ll be dragging up my brief time in Amway and more than a little science, so I do hope you’ll grab your Binaca and join me. In parting, I say this:
In other news: Yet another megachurch pastor resigns amid sexual scandal. In this case, married Mark Connelly had multiple affairs and got the typical “quit or be fired” ultimatum in these cases. Crazy, isn’t it? The guy’s acting like he knows it’s all hokum. I wonder why anybody else is supposed to feel compelled to go in for it if he can’t even live like he believes it’s true. I feel for the guy in a way–I’ve written before about my sympathy for clergyfolks who don’t have a lot of ways of handling their stress and isolation–but dang, multiple affairs? I wonder if he perhaps just lacked that “conviction about fidelity” that the “12 Non-Negotiables” author talked about. It’s so weird.