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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About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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6 Responses to Progressives, Paradigms, and Problem People

  1. insanityranch says:

    Hmmm…. In one sense, you have shifted your Christian paradigm, but in another sense (it seems to me) you have not.

    Part of the Christian worldview is that there is one correct way of understanding things, and that the desideratum is for everyone to share that view. (Correct me if I’m wrong about that.) But there is at least one other way of looking at the idea of paradigm shift.

    When a paradigm shift occurs in science, what that means, in practical terms, is that effort is diverted from unproductive investigations and redirected to productive ones. In the same way, the culture war can be seen as an effort to take social resources away from unproductive uses such as discriminating against LGBT individuals, restricting the economic activity and bodily autonomy of women and non-whites and using militarized law enforcement to try to shut down the trade in illegal drugs.

    It seems to me unrealistic to try to “convert” those who continue to insist that unproductive restrictions are vital to social well-being. Such people are not in the majority, and likely never will be again. Instead, we need to energize the great numbers of people who already know that the old paradigm is not working, and get those people to actually take actions to change the framework of social norms. Even small actions by enough members of this large group are sufficient to set change in motion. And once change is accomplished — indeed, even before it is completed — a new generation develops its own new paradigm that makes the old guard irrelevant.

  2. Sarah V. Ligda says:

    Thanks for this, Chris. I also find the anecdote method unhelpful, mostly because it typically brings up strong emotions (which it’s usually meant to do), and usually then emotionally polarizes and overgeneralizes the opposing viewpoints in the minds of many, and thus further divides each side. For the time being, I just try to make a space for people to examine their stances, and even possibly think about questioning their views. That might even be a paradigm shift in itself in some (thinking about the subject of thinking… subject of metacognition?). I think for those that are heavily indoctrinated, it takes many rational and safe discussions around these topics for that to happen before the more topical paradigm shifts can happen.

    That being said, my ideal discussion would be to first focus on how groundbreakingly relational Christianity is and the necessary element of choice that brings, and then bring up the subject of uncertainty. By describing how relationships and choice are key in the Bible (Eden narrative, life of Jesus, etc.) and our own connection with God and each other, I sometimes make headway in explaining that it might not be good to mislead or force others to conform to our transitory and limited views (of which we all have) if God wanted us to have the ability of choice and healthy discernment, with the consequence of choosing incorrectly sometimes.

    If I still have their attention and interest, I then bring up the crucial component of uncertainty and doubt in faith and how that gives us an opportunity to grow and deepen in our relationship with God (maybe go into how faith would be stagnant and useless if doubt didn’t exist, or a strong faith would probably allow for the entertainment of opposing views for a time). Then, I’ll go into exegesis, context, and culture of the Bible. I find it helpful to focus on something else, like the NIV’s translation of hebel (meaninglessness instead of vanity – which neither are appropriate, breath or smoke would have been better) or something similar instead of arsenokoites or malakos because even talking about those terms can be emotional (leading to polarization and overgeneralization). Hopefully this shows that even more complex subjects aren’t so cut-and-dry, and perhaps God *wants* it that way (I’m sure God could have produced a more clear version of His laws that we didn’t have to crudely translate from thousands of years ago if not). I usually get dumped or discharged on from previous unknown arguments, so it’s frustrating but the hope that something rational might stick is always there. Further discussions on agape and social equality would have to happen, but I think we need to go further back in our reasoning initially.

    Anyway, I really enjoy your entries – very thought-provoking and intelligent. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • FiveCentFather says:

      I agree with Sarah. I think the “paradigm shift” is when you realize it’s OK to not know, but just to have a belief, a possible (based on what you have learned and experienced NOW) explanation for your theology. A song I love has a line that says, “Surrender the hunger to say you must know, have the courage to say ‘I believe'”. When you can accept that you will never KNOW how God works, how salvation “works”, how evangelism “works”, etc., etc., you gain such an incredible freedom and at the same time, become much less annoying to your peers. 🙂

      It’s OK for us to not agree on the myriad of theological issues out there. Agree on Christ as the only source of salvation (however that makes sense to YOU) and more of His love as the ultimate goal in your life (again, however that looks for you), and leave the rest of it up to God, Read, study and form opinions, yes, but keep your mind open, and the Spirit will guide you into the truths He knows you’re ready for. But you will never understand it all. And really, if you did, (or think that you have) you’d be your own god, not really needing faith in a mysterious, wondrous, awesome God.

      (Read more: Card Michael – Gods Own Fool Lyrics | MetroLyrics)

    • Joshua says:

      Wow, this is a topic for the ages. I find it funny that we all still argue about faith, and, religion… what exactly is religion? The reality is, any group of people who kill other people, for the furtherance of their beliefs, are called “terrorists” … so… I think it’s safe to say, that “faith” is the new way to force beliefs on one another… people are still dying for their beliefs, but it’s ok, they have faith….

  3. Alan says:

    Have changed my mind/view on a lot of what are traditional Christian doctrines. In doing so, the drive/goal is to get closer to the truth. I’ll mention two and a half.

    The Bible as book as god. It’s taking the bible as something in itself, totally divorced from God being present in things. Jesus when he was here criticized religious scholars saying, you search the scriptures thinking that in them you’ll find life, and yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I’ve found I can study the bible for hours and yet come away totally defeated; come away with a lot in my head but in terms of hope or peace or light. . . or anything that means life from God, come away with little or nothing. And recently I’ve been thinking that bible study is something I sometimes hide behind; that I lack the courage or faith to just do the things I already know he said to do. Unless God is present in the words there’s better ways to use the time.

    Heaven and hell. . .to keep things simple here, defining heaven as things being according to God, or Christ filling things. And hell as the opposite of that, anti-heaven, anti-God. Used to believe the fiery eternal torment images from Jesus and Revelation were literal. Part of being an American Christian are all the creature comforts that make life pleasurable or at least tolerable. You don’t need to be christian to enjoy these and they’re not wrong but they can blind one to the reality that you can enjoy them and God not be present at all in things. It may just be ignorance spiritually that can accept the absence of God and find pleasure. Maybe the torment of hell is that there is no blindness anymore. . . that God’s absence is fully known and experienced.

    The last one I’ll call a half because it was unspoken where I was raised but just as definite as the previous two. . . that the body and sex were somehow sinful. Have come out from under this one as well. I’ve since been at churches that don’t feel this way so maybe it was just isolated experiences and assumptions of mine.

  4. My “paradigm shift” occurred when I found out my prayer partner was an “L”. I didn’t have a clue. It had never come up in conversation and, since I am married, I didn’t want to date the lady. We talked. I knew her faith. Her faith forced me to reevaluate my views.

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