Does theology have a reason to exist?

deal with itThe following is semi-formal discussion of theology and philosophy. While I am passionate about the subject matter, it could come across as stuffy and impersonal compared to my usual posts. I will use words like “situatedness.” Deal with it.

Theology is both wrong and harmful in its common use

This came up in a private conversation: I would contend that theology is simply harmful in general or at least as people usually go about working in the discipline. Outside of a very select group of claims, any time that theology tries to make metaphysical assertions, it both fails and harms.

Theology fails because it does not provide justification for its beliefs beyond the pure assertion of those beliefs, the assertions usually taking the guise of direct revelation from God. The guise fades when one asks theology to defend the status of revelation.

Theology harms because these unjustified claims then go on to become boundary markers which delineate the shape of the in-group or the tribe, thus excluding and marking as “heathen” and “other” those who take up alternate positions.

Theology fails in making metaphysical claims

So, then, does theology have continued relevance? As a discipline similar to the sciences or philosophy, which aspire to answer questions of truth, my answer is quite simply “no.” Theology certainly has no (or few) shared interests with science, and whatever it shares with philosophy, philosophy does better. The only plausible claim to truth which theology might hold over philosophy is divine revelation; yet, so far as I am aware, all instances of supposed divine revelation are suspect. Such instances are much more easily explained in human terms.

If theology were to attempt to continue investigating metaphysics in the same or similar manner as philosophy, then it would do so as though it were trying to describe the universe using a translated ancient vocabulary with its meanings mangled by a centuries-long game of telephone.

Foremost among the metaphysical failures of theology is, I believe, that theological meta-ethics frequently settles on divine command theory.* Divine command theory gives special metaphysical status to every moral command, supposing it to be a fundamental part of the moral fabric of the universe. For example, from now til the end of time will sex before marriage be forbidden; this is what God has commanded.** To the theologian, it is as true as the laws of physics. Yet by taking this approach, the theologian forgets the historical situatedness of the Biblical prescriptions for sexuality, firstly in the ancient near eastern world and secondly in Roman-occupied Hellenistic Israel.

* Thomas Aquinas approached ethics from the vantage point of natural law and virtue theory, which are decidedly philosophical positions. This excuses Aquinas and others like him from my criticisms here.
**This presupposes that the theologian assumes both divine command theory and the eternal unchanging nature of God, which are fairly common beliefs to hold in tandem. If one were to hold DCT but not God’s unchanging nature, I would criticize DCT differently, but I exclude this argument for brevity’s sake and to criticize the more common position.

Treating morality this way, the meanings of the various Biblical prescriptions regarding sexuality or any subject, then, take on bizarre shades that may or may not share any attributes with their original contexts, even though they may pretend at this status: because God supposedly commanded various things through Scripture, they must apply in the same fashion even today. Additionally, the theologian assumes that the prescriptions were appropriate in the first place, i.e. that the Bible always gives good moral advice, which is questionable if not simply incorrect. For all of the Bible’s many merits, it is the product of sexist, homophobic people. It follows that theology attempted in such a manner should fail miserably to meet the moral challenges of the present generation.

In other areas of metaphysics, such as in claiming attributes about God, theology fails similarly. Among other things, one cannot provide any sort of justification, including revelation, that God exists as a Trinity. Even supposing that (a) Jesus was God and that (b) the Gospels accurately record his sayings (at least (b) is dubious), one must contend with Jesus’ statement in John 3 that he has revealed things to us by analogy so that we may understand and relate to them. Theology is thus impotent to make claims which extend beyond analogy, yet it demands more than analogy if it wishes to make strong claims about morality, a seeming necessity to those who hold theology most dear.

Theology creates hostility

Among those who approach theology as a metaphysics, there is a decidedly strong tendency to cast dissent in a combative light. Because the theologian tries to say that some things about God are right and some are wrong — and this without justification, as previously discussed — contrasting opinions are not simply wrong but also dangerous. The fates of immortal souls hang in the balance.

Contrasted with, say, differences between the opinions of virtue theorists and consequentialists, differences of opinion between theologians and the laypeople who ascribe to various schools of thought are not merely differing perspectives, each with their merits. Rather, each theologian supposes that the others are making some grievous mistake which will have horrendous results in the eternal scheme. Depending on exactly how grievous this mistake may be, the theologians may either forge an uneasy alliance or engage in outright verbal or, if society should allow, physical combat.

And because theology as a metaphysics relies on the false assumption of revelation, differences between theologians are intractable. The conversation boils down to the arbitrary selection of which passages are definitive out of the contradictory whole of the Bible, as even the best hermeneutics can only interpret a passage, not resolve a contradiction. One camp places importance on one set of texts, whereas another camp reveres another set. They duke it out in various arenas until one camp silences the other, usually by some means of coercion. Then another group decides a different set of texts to be most important, and this cycle continues ad nauseum.

The only solution for a sustainable theology as metaphysics is to establish a governing body which imposes its arbitrary selections on all others. Thus, the authority of the Catholic and Orthodox churches seems momentarily inviting to the bedraggled Protestant who tires of constant inter- and intra-denominational bickering. It resolves by force, under the guise of apostolic authority and not by reasoned justification, the otherwise endless debate. Yet, because no human authority is omnipotent, the occasional dissent may still arise, resulting in the various schisms.

Theology must abandon metaphysics and embrace mythology

If one looks at the earliest myths prior to their later misinterpretation and misuse by later generations (one could consider this the earliest theology), one sees various people-groups attempting to define themselves and their cultural values. Whereas Jewish theologians pretending to metaphysics in the first century AD and immediately prior supposed themselves to be good because of their actual lineage to Abraham, the myth-makers who invented Abraham (or at the very least mythologized him) did so to carve out an identity around which their people could gather. Historicity was of secondary importance to establishing a culture.

Theology must reclaim myth-making and myth-telling to retain its importance in society. Myth affords us both a common set of values at the same time as it allows for flexibility within those values. Myth can hold high stories of virtuous or flawed heroes without requiring that we emulate those heroes precisely. It gives us the freedom to consider philosophy individually while also tying us to our neighbor.

Yet one could very easily question why myth-making and -telling should be theological; there is nothing which explicitly forbids secular myths. Here, we should say two things: first, it would be widely beneficial for secularists to craft or select their own myths, preferably in tandem with those of theists in order that the competing but similar myths should give us a sense in which we are both participating in the same human experience. Second, I should point out that the original question was for the future of theology, not culture in general, thus presuming that there is at least some agreement that God probably exists (or at least is a useful concept) among those to whom this question is relevant.*

*Such an agreement would be either philosophical or historical in nature, not theological, deferring either to strong arguments for the existence of a god in general, such as those by Aquinas (though they fail to support Christianity in specific), or to arguments for the divinity of Jesus, which are less widely-supported but which I personally hold to have at least a modicum of plausibility.

In myth and its close cousins analogy, allegory, and metaphor, theological concepts like the Trinity may regain significance. While one has little reason to believe that God exists metaphysically as the Trinity, the Trinity can exist as part of our cultural identity as a descriptive metaphor for how God desires cooperation and unity (among other things).

Another natural question which arises is why we should engage in mythology rather than, say, theistic philosophy. The latter is important and should continue; however, mythology is not just simplified philosophy in story form. Mythology may partially be this, but it is also a common framework for understanding cultural identity and value. I draw heavily from MacIntyre here (After Virtue) in suggesting that virtue in society consists of excelling in those things which the culture values, and mythology is an excellent way to frame cultural values: something like Harry Potter can capture the values of a society not just for the philosopher but also for the doctor, the salesman, the engineer, and the janitor. It may be up to the philosopher to help us refine or reconsider our values, but he/she cannot simply decide what we find valuable, and mythology helps us decide our values together by engaging us with a single narrative.

Theology has a future but perhaps not the future it wants

I sincerely doubt that my contentions here will resonate very strongly with the majority of people engaged in the discipline of theology at present. And of course, with this being a blog post and not a paper or book, I am sure I have made some oversights, and I would welcome discussion on anything I may have missed. Still, I do believe that the future of theology lies in reintroducing society to the mythic mindset, no matter what its current practitioners may desire. Theology as metaphysics is dead just as speculative metaphysics in general is dead, though perhaps some have tied puppet strings to its lifeless limbs. We should instead embrace the mystery of God and learn new ways of relating to Him and to each other.

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This wasn’t what I wanted (on Mark Driscoll)

driscollThe Mark Driscoll saga has taken some pretty big turns in the past few weeks. The Acts 29 Network threw him out along with his church, and LifeWay Christian Stores has rescinded all of his books pending further investigation. Now, finally, Driscoll is stepping down from being the lead pastor at Mars Hill while hiring a major PR firm to handle damage control. Part of me is glad, because it is high time people in power stood up to Driscoll and others who abuse their power. Part of me, though, is upset. Something doesn’t feel right. In all that is going on, I don’t feel like I matter. I don’t feel like the people who suffered matter.

In particular, I cannot shake the feeling that Driscoll has grown into a public relations nightmare for people associated with him, and thus, like a cliche mafia boss tying up a “loose end” in a crime drama, they throw Driscoll under the bus as too much of a liability. The complaints piled up too high; the stench was too great. Kick Driscoll out and continue business as usual.

Stories about abuse in Driscoll’s church have circulated for years. The worst of what he has done is in the past and well-documented. The primary thing that has changed is that people have mounted a successful campaign against him. Church members are holding protests outside the Mars Hill church, and no, it is not Westboro holding “God hates…” signs; these are groups of normal people who are sick of what Driscoll is doing and hoping for reconciliation and repentance.

If you read the various press releases, however, the victims of abuse are rarely a concern. In Warren Throckmorton’s detailed coverage of the events, all the major released statements have little if anything to say about the victims. It’s all about “love for Mark” or “the cause of Christ” or “the gospel.” What about solidarity with the victims of his abusive behavior?

Look at the statements from when Driscoll was first kicked out of Acts 29. The statement by Acts 29 cites “love for [Mark], Mars Hill, Acts 29, and most significantly, the cause of Christ” as its major reasons for removing Driscoll. Former Mars Hill pastor Kyle Firstenberg states, “I believe this would be the most God honoring thing to do as it would show their love for Jesus and the Gospel is greater then their position, authority and influence.” Ron Wheeler, pastor of the first Acts 29 church, also says of the Network’s decision, “Not only did you recognize the credibility damage to the network due to the continuing association with Mark Driscoll, but more importantly, you recognized that the cause of Christ was truly more important than Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill, Acts29 or anything else.”

Unless “the Gospel” and “the cause of Christ” is really Christianese for “the victims you have abused,” then I have a hard time feeling glad about all of these statements. I sincerely doubt that, though; here is how I suspect these phrases translate: “we are glad that you value converting people to our particular worldview more than your own personal power and influence.” There is no regard for the victims and no regard for the damaging ideas which harmed them. To address these things would require wrestling with their own demons. Instead, this is simply an exercise in missing the point.

And as for LifeWay? As someone pointed out to me, there are countless other books besides Driscoll’s which they shouldn’t be selling if they had any actual interest in integrity. Aside from Peter Enns’ fabulous book, The Evolution of Adam, which I highly recommend, there isn’t a single book in LifeWay’s evolution category which they should sell. All of them are garbage, spreading lies and misinformation. The problem is that, while Driscoll’s books are bad, too, the difference between Driscoll’s books and all the other garbage they sell is that Driscoll is bad for business.

So if you will excuse my cynicism, I’m not exactly giddy at what is happening to Driscoll. I don’t think anyone taking major action against him really gets it. Bad as he is, they are treating him as a scapegoat for their own sins. Matt Chandler’s church (Matt is the head of Acts 29) states very explicitly within its bylaws that it is “imperative” all church staff agree on the sinfulness of all things LGBT. Furthermore, only men can be elders — the only requirement explicitly stated by the bylaws besides agreement with the church’s beliefs and active participation in the church. It is as if the church is going well out of its way to be homophobic and misogynist.

For Matt Chandler to give a pass to his own beliefs and practices yet criticize Driscoll is like a leper breaking a mirror to cure his sickness. I do not want the Acts 29 Network as an advocate against Driscoll, and I hope I can gather others to share my concerns and cast this back upon them so that they realize they are part of the problem. Sure, Driscoll is hotheaded, but at least he is entertaining. The other churches which preach the same things — but with nicer, smoother words and softer edges — are even worse, because it is harder to spot the problems before they have taken root and done their damage.

This is nothing but a better disguise for evil. Unfortunately, Driscoll wasn’t wearing a very good disguise and became a problem. At Chandler’s church, it’s okay to believe people should never have a sex change or fail to observe “associated gender norms” (quoting from Matt Chandler’s bylaws again), yet the church forbids “hateful and harassing behavior or attitudes.” Sorry, but too late there! This statement only tries to hide the knife as it plunges into the gut of the LGBT community.

All this to say that I’m glad the pressure is on Driscoll, but this isn’t what I wanted. I would prefer that Driscoll and others took seriously the complaints against them and addressed the systematic abuse perpetrated by their teachings. Instead, we have opportunists trying to save face as our biggest advocates.

Excuse me while I’m not excited.

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Robin Williams, Matt Walsh, Morality, and Mental Illness

Popular Christian morality has a strained relationship with mental illness, and this has scarcely been more apparent than right now. With Robin Williams’ tragic suicide yesterday, everyone seems to have an opinion to share — not a bad thing, as I had my own, but some of the opinions have been rather offensive. As a general rule, the worst time to preach about the morality of suicide is immediately after the fact. Even if you say something true, which seems to be pretty hard for a lot of people, the more moral proclamations you make, the more likely it is that your comments on the situation are ill-timed at best, horrible at worst.

And so it is with Matt Walsh’s insultingly-titled article, Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice. The article itself is not as bad as the title, but it is still bad. Even if the article were good, the title is an offense of its own. Matt Walsh should apologize for the post (and honestly all his other posts, too) for speaking well beyond his expertise. To put Walsh’s advice in a nutshell, he basically states that people battling depression are faced with a difficult choice, and they ultimately need to be sufficiently spiritually-aligned to keep from making that fateful decision to end one’s life.

It’s not for me to comment on the exact nature of depression, and the same is true for Walsh. Read a trained therapist or maybe just study psychology if you want to know more. We have experts for a reason, and you should realize the limits of your knowledge and defer to people who know more than you.

Here’s the thing, though. We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level. We never fault them for this, and we do our best to love them and support them in their limitations.

Why, then, do we treat people with depression and similar illnesses as though they should be able to perform at a level well above the limitations of their disease? Why do some people — like Matt Walsh — try to fault people for not making all the right choices, even when those people have problems which preclude making all the right choices?

Christian folk morality really needs for Williams’ suicide to be a choice. If it’s not a choice, how can we say that suicide is bad? How can we assign it moral value? And whose fault is the suicide if not the person who killed himself? This last question is critical, I believe.

It is trivially true that Robin Williams and no one else ultimately placed the noose around his own neck, but this is not enough to start assigning blame. This is precisely the mistake that Walsh and others make. They ask the question, “Whose fault is the suicide?” and then take the immediately-obvious answer without a deeper consideration of what could be the case. The action is too complex and premeditated, so folk morality has a very hard time placing blame elsewhere or perhaps placing no blame at all; the simplest explanation then prevails in spite of the facts which complicate the matter.

Folk morality has a long list of similar simplifications. Poor people should just make better decisions — even though the education necessary to make better decisions is expensive and out of reach. Black people should stop committing so many crimes and tearing apart their community — even though the criminal justice system unfairly targets the problems facing minority communities, even though the felonies received for minor crimes all but preclude finding a decent job. Women in a crisis pregnancy only do harm receiving an abortion — even though single mothers face horrible poverty and food security statistics.

Curiously, I began crafting the previous paragraph before I realized that in every case, Matt Walsh had already said the sorts of things I criticize here: over-simplifications of complex problems. So, I just made some minor edits and linked his articles. He writes as though his solutions are obvious to everyone, so people should just bow to his wisdom. Here’s a hint: the world is a complex place. Our first intuitions are frequently wrong. We have to do the hard work of researching a topic thoroughly before speaking about it — a concept which Walsh frankly fails to grasp.

One of the things that we will have to give up if we do this, though, is our naive outlook on free will which we inherit from folk morality and which informs Walsh’s latest gaffe. If only people would just choose to do the right things, right? If our choices were not colored by chemicals, by past experiences, by knowledge and experience, by disease, by bacteria in your stomach, and by a whole bunch of other factors, then sure. But the reality is that free will is such a complex subject that honestly not even the brightest philosophers, psychologists, or neuroscientists comprehend it. I certainly don’t, and I’ve studied it a good deal — far more, I assume, than Walsh, whose credentials and background seem totally elusive.

We really must divest ourselves of the tendency toward easy answers. Walsh is easy to pick on because he is so frequently wrong, but he is certainly not the only person who does this. Mental illness is a complex topic, and the answer to suicide isn’t just “don’t do it! Be more spiritual!” No matter how loudly we scream, that approach simply fails to address the situation. If we are serious about combating suicide, let’s address the systemic problems with our society that engender feelings of loneliness and abandonment, let’s end the stigma against getting help, and let’s learn a bit more about mental illnesses. Again, go read a psychology textbook or at least a good number of Wikipedia pages before presuming to make a judgment.

In tragic cases like Robin Williams’ death, it is easy to fall for simple explanations to make sense of the world, but we have to be better than that. We need to acknowledge the complexity of reality and recognize the limitations of our knowledge. If we fail, we make asses of ourselves, but I think we can succeed, and if we succeed, we make the world a better place. Let’s strive to be compassionate, informed citizens proudly working together to support the downtrodden and depressed. Let’s hope for a world where the next Robin Williams doesn’t have to die.

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

To stab the giant in the eye (RIP Robin Williams)

 

despairthegiant

Facing the giant, Despair; original work

“Yeah, well, I’ve got a dream too. But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. The kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well, I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream. And it kind of makes us like a family.”

- Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie

I can’t help but think that Robin Williams was a big fan of Jim Henson, creator of Kermit and the rest of the Muppets. Given that Williams appeared numerous times on Sesame Street, this has to be the case. I grew up on the Muppet Movie, and to this day, “The Rainbow Connection” tugs at all my heartstrings. While I never liked Robin Williams as much as I did the Muppets, in reflecting on Williams’ work, I see that same spirit. And now Williams joins Henson and so many other entertainers who died just trying to accomplish that very simple task of singing and dancing and making people happy. For that reason, the loss of Robin Williams feels a lot like the loss of part of my family, because he made it his life goal to make people like me happy.

With all the injustice and death in the world right now, it doesn’t feel like any of us deserve happiness. It also seems silly to mourn this one man none of us really even knew in the first place over the thousands upon thousands dying in Iraq, Gaza, and elsewhere. But what makes something like Williams’ death so poignant is that he challenged us all to find joy in a world that contains atrocities like Iraq and Gaza. He asked us to confront despair and death with a brazen smile. Against the odds, it all felt a little absurd, and honestly that was always what unsettled me about Williams’ work: why was he trying so hard to make people smile? What was with how he tried so hard to find simple-minded joy even in the face of death?

In retrospect, knowing that Williams fought and lost a lifelong battle with depression, I understand. This was his struggle, to smile and laugh and tell jokes. But he lost. If even such a man should give in to depression, should we abandon the hope he taught us to seek?

I continue to believe in Williams. I still hold on to hope. Let me tell you a little story: the Norse people said that at the end of time, the gods would knowingly ride to their deaths. The giant Surtr would rise up from the south to destroy the world. During the Ragnarok, the god Freyr would ram an elk horn deep into the giant’s eye, but the giant would swing his burning sword and kill Freyr.

This is Williams’ story. He faced the giant Despair with the utmost courage. With his smiles, his jokes, and his unabashed joy, Williams drove a horn deep into the eye of the giant only to be slain in the process. He could not kill it, but he would be damned if he did nothing to resist!

And this is how we should remember Robin Williams: a man of incredible bravery who fought to the last against an insurmountable foe — a man who tried to make people happy in a world that so often tempts us to give up hope. And maybe we can’t fix the world. Maybe death and misery will never leave us. I don’t care. Let us all cling to the hope of a better world even to the point of death, because that makes us better people.

Let us mourn for a life lost, but let us honor him by never giving up on joy. Let us keep singing, dancing, and making people happy — each in our own small ways, just as Williams taught us.

And to Williams, thank you so much for your life. We will miss you. Goodbye.

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Progressives, Paradigms, and Problem People

“If only everyone thought like me!” said pretty much everyone, ever. Unfortunately, such is not the case. And when it comes to important ideas, we often wish that the problem people — those who stubbornly refuse to change their views — would either just go away or, even better, have a sudden change of heart. Hopefully, I have something of a solution.

For a long time, I was one of the problem people to the various liberals I had befriended through Facebook. We had long conversations about different topics, and while most of those conversations didn’t go very far, they were at the very least informative, and I have to credit their graciousness in putting up with me as formative in my eventual change of opinion (which I outlined in my last post).

But as much as it might accomplish in the long run, I hardly think subjecting conservatives to religious abuse at the hands of a manipulative pastor (the tipping point for me) is a very good strategy for convincing more people to be religious liberals. Fortunately, I think there is a good solution. It obviously won’t work 100% of the time, but it may be quite more effective than just general arguing. The answer? Paradigms!

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn punching Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell in the face.

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn punching Rush Limbaugh/Jerry Falwell in the face.

Philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote about paradigms in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. To give a very crude summary, a paradigm is a general way of thinking about a subject which goes relatively unchallenged for a long period of time until people start discovering boundary cases where the general way of thinking has to make up all sorts of excuses as to why the paradigm is still any good at explaining those cases — the worse the excuses, the more likely it is people abandon the paradigm. Poor excuses push the paradigm into a crisis, which results in a paradigm shift.

But why should this apply only to science? What happened to me, for example, was that I had to deal with mounting evidence that my beliefs did not lead to the results I would have expected. The religion which claims “you will know them by your love” did not seem very loving, especially when I found the knife in my back at the end. This was the boundary case which I couldn’t explain, and it wasn’t enough just to make excuses. I had to undergo a total paradigm shift.

Manufactured pop music has to deal with the boundary case of why it is not this awesome.

By contrast, I remember a conversation long ago, when I was still something of an inerrantist, in which some people had tried to convince me that there were at least two separate stories of how David met King Saul in the Bible. Indeed, there are (1 and 2), but the problem is that it’s really easy to make excuses. “Oh, well Saul was a king, so he probably met a million people and just forgot who David was.” This and similar excuses are really easy to employ against minor inconveniences to the paradigm.

My solution, then, is to focus on the major problems with the problem you may be criticising. Fundamentalists already do this to would-be religious moderates who want to have their cake and eat it too on the intersection of LGBT issues and Scripture. The so-called “clobber verses” are very difficult to overcome on Biblical grounds, and honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to believe both in LGBT equality and Biblical inerrancy — pick one.

Fundamentalists seem to understand paradigms in an intuitive sense, and they are smart to take the approach they do, even if they support the wrong ideas. It is indeed a bit silly to suppose a startling new revelation in interpretation will suddenly change both the Bible and Christian history. Both/and approaches to LGBT equality and inerrancy frankly fail to make a strong case. Fundamentalists press their points where it hurts argumentatively, not just argue about every little thing that might be wrong. Hence, everyone gets really tired of the clobber verses, but honestly, it’s the best argument the fundamentalists have.

Social progressives, then, should focus on very clear counterexamples to the fundamentalist paradigm. My favorite example right now is Romans 1, which provides a supposed account of how same-sex attraction occurs. That passage is demonstrably wrong, and thus it has proven itself to be a very difficult problem for many of the fundamentalists to whom I’ve mentioned this. There are usually excuses about why psychology is bunk (and to be honest, as a nascent science, psychology does sometimes have issues), but the problem is even more insurmountable for the fundamentalist paradigm when one leaves out the moral judgments of psychology about same-sex attraction and focuses strictly on the attraction’s origin, which is very well-documented and directly contradictory to the Biblical account.

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn making excuses for his behavior.

Photograph of Thomas Kuhn making excuses for his behavior.

My point is to focus on things which stretch the paradigm the hardest. There are lots of ways in which fundamentalists are wrong, but many of the legitimate arguments against fundamentalism also have very strong excuses. “It’s not loving,” for example, has the tough-love counter, which is true in enough other cases to feel legitimate when countering pro-LGBT arguments. In fact, this is the primary reason why I think sharing the stories of LGBT persons will be particularly ineffective in convincing fundamentalists to change their positions, because the tough-love objection is so strong in excusing abusive behavior. Granted, that is not always the case, and stories sometimes really are convincing, but

So while I’ve noticed the progressive blogosphere tending toward sharing people’s stories, which is good, I think it is important to recognize that there really are intellectual issues at play here, too, and we need a holistic approach which stretches the fundamentalist paradigm to its limits and forces them to create enormous excuses. Additionally, we need to make people aware of their behavior so as to lower the number of excuses necessary before someone abandons a paradigm. If we keep repeating arguments which have easy excuses, then our objections will fade into obscurity and generally fail to convince, even if they are legitimate arguments.

Unfortunately, though, one of the problems (or perhaps just “sad implications”) with paradigms is that perhaps there are no arguments or experiences powerful enough to shake the incumbent paradigm out of someone’s mind. Even among scientists, whom you would presume to be eminently reasonable, sometimes the death of a particular idea coincides very directly with the literal death of those supporting it. But let’s do what we can to minimize the number of “problem people” by focusing our efforts on our most convincing arguments in order to push people into a whole bunch of individual crises of belief that require a total paradigm shift to solve.

I certainly do not have the exhaustive list of the most persuasive techniques, though. Let me ask this: if you, the reader, ever changed your mind on a major issue related to fundamentalism, please let me know in the comments below what eventually convinced you to change your mind. What was it you found most powerful? What did people try that you found ineffective? Or, if you are still fundamentalist in your beliefs (against LGBT rights, feminism, historical infallibility; pro-Biblical infallibility, religiously exclusivist), what do you find unconvincing about progressives’ arguments? I look forward to hearing your feedback.

All “photographs” copyright 2014 by me, Chris Attaway. But seriously, you could do better than copy these images…
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Then they came for me…

It would be great if I could share a self-congratulatory tale about how I overcame the bonds of prejudice (against gays, women) with great moral courage and fortitude. Unfortunately, my tale reads something closer to the famous poem by Martin Niemöller:

"Martin Niemöller (1952)" by J.D. Noske / Anefo - Nationaal Archief. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Martin Niemöller (1952)” by J.D. Noske / Anefo – Nationaal Archief. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

For as much as I trumpet about gay rights and so forth, I have not always been this way. In fact, I recall very specifically telling my gay cousin as well as a gay Facebook acquaintance some very hurtful things. Looking back, I’m not sure how either of them tolerated me in the slightest. I wasn’t saying anything like Westboro would say, but in my ignorance, I did my best to subvert hard evidence in order to maintain my position of agreeing with what I thought the Bible said.

By 2011, I had reversed my position on evolution from my days as a Creationist of sorts. I was also in something of a Libertarian mindset, so if I remember right, I had already decided that gay marriage should be legal. Still, I was still against condoning gay marriage; it was not my business, but if you asked me privately, I would still offer you excuses for why it was wrong. I’ll avoid reciting any of those excuses so no one has flashbacks to hurtful conversations.

And, of course, my church at that time mostly agreed with me on this issue — not so much on evolution or how to treat the Old Testament. But I was naive, and I didn’t understand how exclusionary cultures worked. My church was an Acts 29 church, and there was some talk about “open hand” and “closed hand” issues. The “open hand” issues were ones on which we could agree to disagree between the laity and the leadership. The “closed hand” issues were not up for discussion; if you were to disagree, perhaps you should look elsewhere for a church.

I thought I was safely inside the “open hand” since I had discussed whether I would be welcome at the church whenever I first joined. But as my participation and influence in the church grew, I became a problem. It also grew evident that my belief in evolution may actually have had implications for those “closed hand” issues, what with my metaphorical/mythological interpretations of the Old Testament. I remember my ex-fiancee growing absolutely livid that I didn’t think Ruth or Boaz actually existed, and of course my church was no help to me and branded me as “dangerous” for my beliefs.

And so, as the story goes, the church all but kicked me out, eventually, and then the pastor tried to put a knife in my back as I left, “warning” other pastors about me. (In a delightful fit of irony, this actually directly resulted in the church’s demise through no action of my own, but the details of that are somewhat private.) As a result, I still have a hard time going to church — Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, as some are calling it — even when I enjoy the service and the people.

What strikes me, though, is that not only had this church, which had planted itself in the heart of the gay community in Houston, alienated me, it had also alienated the entire culture around it, and it had done so deliberately. Almost all of us drove in from elsewhere. I lived fairly close with a 15-20 minute drive, but even the pastor had nearly twice the driving distance. Everyone came so far just to preach a message hostile to its surroundings. With misguided intentions about evangelism and “mission,” which seems to be church-speak for cultural imperialism, we all drove in to be a “light in the darkness.”

Now we didn’t talk about LGBT issues often, if at all, but if you were to ask the pastor, he would tell you unequivocally that it was a sin. He might have tried to be nice about it, but this much is lipstick on a pig. And whereas in a suburban church, LGBT issues might be the furthest thing from your mind outside a select few times when something happens in the news to rile the conservatives, at this church, it hovered over us like a fog.

So my eventual betrayal reads like another verse before the end of the poem.

Then they came for the gays, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not gay.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Not a single person from the church stuck up for me when I had to depart. When I warned others of what the pastor had done, they were all with him. Everyone either abandoned me or tacitly accepted the pastors’ actions. And while I certainly don’t blame myself for what happened, I realize now that the way in which they abandoned me was how I had abandoned the LGBT community: with silence and self-justification through dogma.

They say experience is a dear teacher — but only fools learn from none other. I was the fool, here, and I should have refused to participate in yet another exclusionary system. It took having my entire world shaken from its foundations to wake me up to the reality of my exclusionary and harmful beliefs.

I share this to warn others who would be like me. What would happen if you changed your opinion about a key issue? You say that would never happen, but then you learn something, and it does, so unless you plan on living in a hole or never learning anything, you can bet it will happen. Would the people who now call you friend abandon you? It has happened to me and to countless people like me.

Sure, you could trade up to another exclusionary church that accepts whatever new beliefs you have, but isn’t that missing the point? Find people who encourage you to learn and to thrive as a human being, not who want you to be just like them. Don’t wait until it’s too late, until they have come for you, to realize that what is going on around you is not okay. Don’t be like me.

Posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

What We Stand to Lose: Why Social Progressives Need Philosophy

philosophyIt might sound old and boring, but we need philosophy now more than ever

It’s great that gay marriage, feminism, and similar social causes are gaining ground — if not in the law, at least in our culture, and that means a lot. I am pretty sure that, recent setbacks aside, we will overcome the biggest legal hurdles related to these issues within a generation or two. There will be a great deal more work to do after that, just as there still is with racism, but there is certainly reason to celebrate. Unless there is a huge upset in the near future, things seem to be heading in the right direction. The world is changing.

I’m concerned about the transition, though; I don’t want us carrying a bunch of unnecessary baggage into the brave new world we hope to create. It’s one thing to be open-minded and another thing to be entirely uncritical of nice-sounding ideas, but the latter is often what seems to be happening with many would-be allies of progressive causes. Whatever profound-ish phrases or thoughts happen to strike our fancy tend to circulate around the Internet before becoming near dogma.

Take, for example, the immensely-popular Facebook page The Mind Unleashed, which regularly publishes New Age-y advice. I have no doubt that the owners of that page are social progressives, but honestly, most of the page’s thoughts are nonsense that sounds nice. For example, “The strongest drug that exists for a human is another human being,” published on the page on July 23rd. Sure, humans can help each other, but you know what? Antibiotics are going to help you more than a friend will when you have an infection. Chemotherapy and surgery will save your life when you have cancer, not a supportive spouse. People are great, but with as much anti-science, anti-medicine nonsense circulating these days, the last thing we need is more bullshit sentiment about drugs.

If that sounds reactionary and overly-literal, consider that the page also claims to have found “The Mother Of All Antioxidants“– gluthione — which is a dubious claim unsupported by any medical research. It is curious that the claims of the article linked by the page are so much greater than those of the WebMD page. Wait, it isn’t curious: Facebook is a marketing platform, and companies stand to make money off of misguided people with good intentions. WebMD, on the other hand, is strictly informative. The Mind Unleashed, however, likely makes a killing on ads and click-through.

The Mind Unleashed is but one among many sources of nice-sounding BS. Oprah and Dr. Oz have their fair share of influence, and while they may have done some good for socially progressive causes, they also tend to promote pseudoscience and bad reasoning. Then there’s the Food Babe, whose overblown claims about GMOs and health are wholly unscientific yet tremendously popular. It comes as no surprise to me that while researching her, I discovered she was voted Dr. Oz’s “Healthiest Facebook Page.” I cringe in disgust.

On the Christian progressive front, I find that things like the Carnival de Resistancewhich this year embedded itself at the popular Wild Goose Festival, embody a pseudo-spiritual rehashing of these same tired tropes of caring for the earth = being against scientific tampering with plants, taking up Monsanto conspiracy theories, and so forth (short note: as a Christian progressive, I don’t much care for the linked article, but it’s the only place I’ve seen document the more questionable activities of WGF). Never mind you that we wouldn’t know the earth was in trouble but for science, and never mind you that the only real way out of the mess we’re in is with more science.

Who can save us now?

The cure for many of these ills is philosophy. Thanks to the Internet, people consume a massive amount of information on a daily basis. And because no one can know everything, all of us regularly encounter information which extends waaay beyond our levels of expertise. Accountants, retail clerks, and doctors alike read articles and see informative photos making claims about medicine, geology, nutrition, economics, and so forth. The problem is real: how the hell do we sift through all this information?

The Internet Age requires us to formulate new virtues. In particular, we need to know what expertise looks like and how it behaves.

1. Who is an expert? How do we know he/she is an expert?

Lots of so-called experts, like Food Babe and Dr. Oz, are not experts at all. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there are no experts — or at least there is no one who is an expert on their own. No expert exists in a vacuum. Real experts like scientists, philosophers, historians, and so forth may have individual expertise, but none of them are wielding their expertise except when they are discussing ideas that have gone through peer review or perhaps informally discussed their work with a variety of other experts. It’s not just, like, their opinion, man. Food Babe and Dr. Oz are not experts, because they say stuff that no one has actually tried to test.

2. What is a sound conclusion?

The actual answer to this is complicated, but there are some pragmatic steps you can take to defend against bad reasoning. In short, demand evidence. And bear in mind that procuring good evidence takes some expertise in statistics and sampling. People may try to trick you with anecdotes or pander to your pre-existing beliefs, such as how Food Babe preys on fear of authority and how fundamentalists try to capitalize on feelings of piety and cultural superiority, but you have to be better than that. It takes practice, but we all need to get into the habit of identifying the claims made in articles and on webpages in order to check whether those claims have any support. Much like Wikipedia, we need to slap a mental “[citation needed]” sticker on all kinds of content that we face every day.

New virtues for a new era

The dawn of the Internet surely provides new challenges, and we need to adjust our societal virtues in order to survive. I’m glad that increased communication has broken down many of the walls preventing social justice, but we may just end up ushering in new kinds of insanity if we do not proceed carefully. The advice I have given here just barely touches on what we will need to survive in the information age, but it is a good start, and I hope we as a society manage to adapt to our new technology before it confuses us beyond repair.

Posted in Epistemology | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments