Via Pharyngula comes the story of someone that tried to argue the issue of Biblical contradictions with the rather defensively named Righteous Response Squad. It’s a good read, but it ends as too many of these debates do: with the very people who had issued the challenge declaring the issue foolish and then cowardly erasing it in its entirety. In fact, the site’s owners were apparently not satisfied just deleting a thread here and there, but have erased all of their content and declared that they are revamping things to block out all debate and discussion.
One Pharyngula commenter shared their rationale in the form of an e-mail he’d received from the moderators of the site. Here’s the key claim:
Christ did not debate His word. He said the Truth, and moved on. There was no debating with the Truth. And if you didn’t listen to it, then He moved on. Witnessing is not about debating the Word of God, it is either bringing a person to Christ, or issuing a warning.
As another Pharyngula commenter pointed out, even this excuse is wrong: the Biblical Jesus actually spent a considerable amount of time arguing with Pharisees. But the sentiment is, in fact, pretty common in Christian apologia circles and, to be fair, has plenty of Biblical support (indeed, the final post in the debate before the entire thing was deleted was a citation of one: “avoid foolish controversies and genealogies.” Titus 3:9) The Bible is, unfortunately, pretty much anti-intellectual to its core: it develops a self-sealing theology by which reasoning and argument are regularly denigrated and depreciated.
So what are we to make of this tactic? Of just shutting down debate? Of never really risking anything when you make an argument?
I think most non-believers, rationalists, and even many moderate believers would all look on it all with scorn. But it’s important to recognize why it is so troubling. It isn’t, for instance, inherently unjustified or illogical within its own bailiwick. If there really is a God who really does value unswerving obedience and trust in the Bible, then this anti-intellectual attitude is justified: arguments to the contrary really are dangerous distractions: once you have the one an only truth that matters, these things can only ever lead you astray.
So if someone believes this, really and truly believes it, then it isn’t crazy at all to for them to ultimately reject any meaningful need to defend or argue their claims. It may well be deceptive to present yourself as justified and capable of proving your claims to others and then backing out when things don’t go your way, but once you believe what they believe, it’s still a reasonable tactical position to take.
But if it isn’t internally illogical, what’s wrong with it? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s immoral.
Believing things without being willing to sincerely consider the idea that you are incorrect is exactly like jokingly pointing a gun at someone’s head and pulling the trigger without bothering to check whether or not the gun is loaded. It’s no different than putting a child into the front passenger seat of your car and not putting on the seatbelt because you are absolutely positive that you won’t ever get into an accident. It’s morally irresponsible on the most fundamental level.
Entirely missing this point, fundamentalists often characterize things like free inquiry, scientific debate, and intellectual controversy as trusting the wisdom of mankind instead of in God. This view gets things almost completely backwards. Liberal science is not an arrogant celebration of human beings’ capacity for getting things right. It is based, instead, on the idea that human beings are remarkably misguided and error-prone. That is why we so desperately need methods to correct our errors; that we require fail-safes against our own foolishness and bias; that we can never rest in the belief that we’ve finally gotten things right. We do trust a hypothetical God instead of human beings, not because we think human beings are superior to any God, but because human fallibility is unavoidably and always in the way of any attempt to understand a God.
Now, by “liberal science” here, I don’t mean the science of universal health care, drum-circles, and Dennis Kucinich. I mean one of the core values of classical-liberalism: what author Jonathan Rauch so expertly defines and defends as the three pillars of Western Society (capitalism, democracy, & the liberal scientific method/free inquiry) in his highly recommended book Kindly Inquisitors.
These are the values of the Enlightenment that ultimately inspired the founders of the United States; that remain as a beacon against central planners, dictators, and any and all people who claim that they alone can discern what is true and what is false. This isn’t, it’s important to point out, a version of relativism, a denial of the idea that there is any truth out there to discover. Instead, it’s the idea that truth is best discovered through an ongoing process: a never-ending trial of claims against argument and evidence, of political ideas against the will of the people, of economic allocations against the full force of what people really demand and what others can really supply.
Fundamentalists like the Righteous Response Squad attempt to buck this trend: to deny this very basis of modern civilization, the very fail-safes that humans have developed to protect ourselves from ourselves. They want special treatment for their own convictions above and beyond everyone else’s: they have gotten it right, and that’s that. On a very basic level, they no longer see the need to endlessly check the validity of their claims against evidence or argument.
But who, in that case, is arrogantly putting their full trust in human judgment? One can claim that the judgments are actually an infallible God’s, but this excuse won’t do: inevitably, a human mind and will still come first in this chain of justification. It is always, in the end, still a human being here that is judging themselves to be perfect and flawless in their perceptions and interpretations.
By simply rejecting in the first place the primacy of empiricism and the idea that truth claims are only as good as their rational justifications, fundamentalists can neatly dodge the accusation that they are being irrational. But they can never escape notice for the colossal degree of arrogance that this dodge entails, or the severe moral consequences of being a person that is ultimately indifferent to the possibility of their own error.
As Abraham Lincoln once said:
“I believe it is an established maxim and moral that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false is guilty of falsehood, and the accidental truth of the assertion does not justify or excuse him.”
~ August 11, 1846 – Letter to Allen N. Ford