A Tale of Two Arguments

A Tale of Two Arguments November 8, 2016

It was the best of intentions, it was the worst of intentions, it was the mark of wisdom, it was the sign of belief…
with greatest apologies to Charles Dickens

Christians claim that they have one holy book and one god, one truth and one “objective morality.” But somehow they have managed to turn those simple ingredients into tens of thousands of denominations, at least as many rancorous doctrinal differences, a cottage industry of pseudoscience producers, and countless cultural squabbles.

Recently we talked about a big fight going on in Christianity right now concerning author Jen Hatmaker’s shift in thinking regarding one of those cultural squabbles: LGBTQ rights. She used to be not-okay with equal marriage, and now she’s okay with it–and she thinks, by wild coincidence, that her god is also totally okay with it. Her tribe is not reacting well to her announcement.

(woodleywonderworks, CC.)
(woodleywonderworks, CC.)

It’s downright striking to note how different this fight looks from what we see when reality-based groups have a difference in opinion. And as America’s election season winds down (at last, FFS), this topic seems like a timely one. When people stop and marvel at how nearly half of our country nominated and slavishly supported a man who has no concept whatsoever of honesty or integrity, at how even fundagelicals themselves–people who claim moral superiority over everyone else, who claim that a real live god fuels their beliefs and actions–could get behind someone so brutally antithetical to everything they claim to admire and want out of a leader, this consideration of how they handle information and form opinions is going to be a big part of the answer to those questions.

Beyond All Shadow of Doubt.

A long time ago, when I was still young and naive enough to believe the hype about progressive Christians being better people than other Christians are (in other words, about four years ago), I read something one of their leaders wrote about a new doctrinal stance he’d come to hold. He thought that unless someone was really horrible, they were going to be forgiven after death by his god and not go to Hell. (It was sort of Christian universalism, I suppose, but I don’t think he specifically called it that.)

I asked him how he knew that this was, indeed, the correct point of view to hold. What evidence did he have beyond preferring it? I asked this question because I knew that fundagelicals, in particular, needed a lot more certainty than that.

(Remember that “beyond all shadow of doubt” wording on that questionnaire I showed you last time? There’s a reason for that phrasing. Fundagelicals do not handle uncertainty very well–and they are really scared of betting on the wrong horse.)

To my surprise, he got mad at me. In a rather lofty and terse response, he informed me that he wasn’t going to jump through hoops for a non-Christian to prove anything to me because gosh, nothing he did was ever going to make me happy. I was taken quite aback. He sounded downright nasty, like how dare I harsh his nice universal-salvation buzz? Of course, I hadn’t asked for him to do jump through hoops or to make me happy. I just wanted to know how he knew that he was right and billions of other Christians were wrong. And he never answered that question.

After a while, I realized that while this was one of the first times I’d ever encountered this concept, he wasn’t at all the first Christian who’d ever come up with this idea of universal salvation. (Some of them have been teaching/preaching this idea since before I was a Pentecostal!) Chances are he’d been asked this same question many, many times–and was likely getting increasingly frustrated about not having any answer beyond “I like this better.”

The irony? The Christian in question was Tony Jones, who was a big name in progressive Christianity at the time. A couple of months later, he wrote a weird-ass post declaring that he was just totally baffled about why women never seemed to want to hang around his blog. And not long after, we learned about some very serious allegations against him. He’d been writing some increasingly-bizarre posts about sex and marriage, including this rather weird one, and when the scandal finally reached its full throat, he shuffled off of Patheos.

At the time, I was beyond stunned at just how deep that rabbit hole went. But four years later, I look back and I’m not surprised at all.

“How do you know that?” is a very frustrating question for religious people.

Dueling Sources.

A deterioration that began years ago in American culture is now starting to reach its nadir.

Even when I was Christian, I used to joke about the “doctrinal yardstick” that Biff and my other friends used when talking to people from other denominations. It was funny to watch, and completely predictable–like watching a pair of Wild West gunslingers edge close to each other to shake hands. Before they could socialize, they each had to know where the other stood on a variety of points (baptism, Trinity vs. Oneness, speaking in tongues, “holiness standards,” etc). They couldn’t just be happy hanging out together. And when a difference was found, the fight was on–they’d have to hammer out which of them was the more correct (and therefore the closer to “God” and the more superior) before they could proceed.

Slowly I began to notice that nobody could actually point to anything concrete and objective to demonstrate that they were correct.

Both sides of the fight had to rely, instead, on a Seven-Point Plan to demonstrate their own side’s superiority. Obviously, it wasn’t formally called that, nor were its precepts outlined as explicitly as I’ve listed here. But you’ll notice it in use every time two Christians disagree about anything. When a disagreement erupts, each side trots out the following points:

  1. How this assertion fits in with their denomination’s long-held doctrinal stance (and flatters them personally and as a group).
  2. Bible verses that seem to support their position, as well as “the original Greek and Hebrew” and random redefinitions of words.
  3. References to other people who agree with them.
  4. How much they’ve prayed about it and how firmly “God” personally told them they’re right.
  5. Diagrams and references to pseudoscience conspiracy theories, as appropriate.
  6. Reckless speculation about the spiritual and personal shortcomings of the other side’s proponents.
  7. Veiled threats of damnation for anybody who still doesn’t agree with them.

The really big problem, I noticed back then, was that both sides had exactly these same resources. That was a really big problem for me at the time. I’d been taught, my entire time in the religion, that there was only one correct opinion–and that my particular group held it. Anybody who read the Bible “with an open mind and humble heart,” as we said, would obviously be led by “God’s spirit” to the right answer–our answer. People who disagreed with us obviously were rebellious in spirit (which was a serious sin!) or, at best, totally misguided and fooled by irresponsible leaders; when someone with the correct, godly opinion came along and showed them the truth, then obviously they would instantly jump ship and join our side.

That was not what was happening, however. And I could see that my friends from other denominations weren’t rebellious at all. In fact, they were very sincerely wanting to believe and do the right things. And yet they were coming out with exactly the opposite conclusions that my side was!

Amazingly, nobody ever decided, as a result of these debates and arguments, that they were in the wrong. I don’t think I ever once saw that Seven-Point Plan succeed for anybody–and yet everyone still clung to it like a lucky black feather.

Even more amazingly, Christians still try to use these tactics–even against non-believers. It can be really frustrating to talk to such Christians; very quickly we get the impression that feels > reals, as the saying goes. As long as an idea confirms their existing opinions, flatters them, and titillates them somehow, then they’ll buy into it wholeheartedly–and then denigrate others for not agreeing with it.

In a nutshell, what I’ve described above is how fundagelicals are reacting now to Jen Hatmaker’s about-face regarding equal marriage, but it’s also how they react to any other dissenter who doesn’t agree with them about something. And she, in turn, has only the same resources.

Touching Base.

In the real world, people who have disagreements proceed in a way that is often genuinely baffling to religious minds.

Ideally, we know exactly how we came to our opinion. We know how to test it. We don’t invest correctness with godliness or get personally offended if we’re wrong–because our opinions aren’t like babies we must defend against oncoming bear attacks. And we’d far rather be corrected so that we’re in the right than feel correct when we’re actually wrong.

Entire sites (like Less Wrong and You Are Not So Smart) exist to help people work out whether or not they’re correct. Social scientists are getting more vocal about discussing how people make mistakes in thinking. There are even resources for educators and homeschoolers about how to teach kids how to disagree and to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong.

All of these resources rely on teaching people how to think critically and weigh evidence–skills most of us didn’t learn in school. (True: I didn’t know what the scientific meaning of “theory” was until embarrassingly recently. I thought that theories were grown-up hypotheses that would in turn become laws eventually. I didn’t get familiar with the most common logical fallacies, either, until I began to blog.) They teach us how to ask “How do you know that? How can you show that?”

If the opinion isn’t testable, then it is more of a religious belief than anything else. And if we’re totally unwilling to change an opinion, even if the evidence is persuasive, then we’re more like fanatics than anything else.

This is the Harm.

I know sometimes people try to excuse religious points of view by saying “Aww, what’s the harm? It helps this person and makes them happy!” And here, in this controversy that Ms. Hatmaker is experiencing and in what we’re seeing in the ranks of disaffected Trump voters today, we see exactly why religion is so harmful, and why it’s so important to base our opinions and beliefs on objective evidence, not on stuff that cannot be demonstrated in the real world.

Donald Trump got popular because an increasingly disaffected, emotionally-manipulated underclass became increasingly reliant on the Seven-Point Plan I outlined above. It was easy for fundagelicals to buy into the hatred, anger, and terror he peddled because it was nothing more than an out-loud version of what their own religious leaders had been preaching for years.

And I’m sure a lot of those fundagelicals are mostly nice people in real life–people who wouldn’t dream of screaming racist epithets at political rallies or assaulting protesters. But their inability to weigh evidence has led them to a lying, rapey sociopath who has never had their interests at heart, but who speaks their language, exploits their weaknesses, and uses their own tactics to stunning advantage against them. As I write this, Washington Post has him at 140 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 104, and my stomach is somewhere around my ankles right about now at the idea of fundagelicals making this buffoon our next president.

If nothing else, this election should tell us that even when religious points of view seem comforting, they hurt the people holding them–and hurt lots of other people who don’t. Jen Hatmaker and the surprisingly large contingent of Christians who oppose Donald Trump are in the right in their respective squabbles, but they can’t demonstrate why they’re in the right–and their opponents are people who couldn’t identify an objective demonstration of correctness if their entire lives and futures depended on it and who don’t recognize the value of such demonstrations in the first place.

Regardless of who wins, American political and religious leaders have their work cut out for them in the coming days and years.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to drink a whole lot of wine and try to avoid my computer for a few hours. I can’t even. I don’t even want to even. I just want it to be tomorrow already. Please can it just be tomorrow already?


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