The Danger of Cheap Shots

The Danger of Cheap Shots August 17, 2012

I was chatting with some Catholic friends, and (as happens more and more frequently as the election approaches) the subject of Mormons came up.  Which means you can pretty much set an egg-timer until someone says, “Not to mention magic underwear!”

(I think in this case the elapsed time was about a minute thirty.  There’s never an egg timer around when you need one.)

The ‘magic underwear’ crack is pretty common (it’s the featured visual on the billboards American Atheists are putting up for the party conventions).  But I’m pretty sure it’s not anyone’s true rejection, especially for Christians.  So here’s what you should keep in mind before ‘magic underwear’ comes out of your mouth between now and November.

Priests wear vestments (alb-beit sometimes bad ones) to celebrate Mass, without triggering the kind of ridicule Mormons attract for their temple garments.  So where’s the difference that justifies the hilarity?

Are vestments only sensible when worn on top of normal clothes; it’s wearing them under clothes that’s funny?  (cough, cough, scapulars, cough).  Or is it that it makes sense for priests to do it, but not everyone else?  (Then you might want to remember that Mormons have a more expansive notion of the priestly vocation than other Christians).

And an incarnational faith probably wants to be careful about throwing stones at traditions that use physical practices to help people deal with the abstract-feeling transcendent.

You could make the argument that all ritual and tradition is a warning sign, and it’s just that Christianity has enough other kind of evidence on its side to overcome these red flags, but I think that’s not a case any Christian can make with a straight face.

But that’s the claim you’re supporting when you attack Mormonism for its aesthetic/ritual components instead of attacking the truth-claims it makes.  You’re legitimizing any similar attacks on your own faith (“I mean, what’s with all that chanting?”).  And you’re being unfair to your opponent (whether or not they are present).

Most people treat arguments like armies, so you’ve just given yourself points on the scoreboard you didn’t earn, and you’ve committed yourself to defending an objection you don’t think has merit.  You’ve confused the people you’re trying to convince, and you’ve weakened your greatest skill as a rationalist: being more confused by fiction than reality.  You’re training yourself not to notice bad arguments.

So knock it off.  Unless you really think there is something off about vestments and ritual.  Then you should notice you are confuse, try to track your confusion back to it’s source, and see what you might need to change your mind about.

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