Several times in my life, I have been in the position of knowing people on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, and I keep seeing similar patterns on both sides. First of all, both sides picture themselves as powerless in the face of an oncoming avalanche. You can't stand two people back to back and have both of them twelve feet taller than the other. Obviously one side or the other, and usually both, have serious delusions about how powerful and malevolent their opponents are. Generally both sides are grossly misinformed about what the other side believes, and when I have tried to communicate between sides, I find an identical response. I get arguments so specious that it's obvious the clear intent is to frustrate understanding. It's not that one side cannot understand the other - they will not understand.
So, in the spirit of Rhett Butler, who joined the Confederate Army after the fall of Atlanta, saying he could only get attached to a cause after it was good and lost, this page and its companion are an attempt to tell intellectuals and religious believers what each side thinks of the other.
If you're an intellectual who is embarrassed by the specious reasoning that is rampant in academia, or a conservative Christian who is appalled by the awful reasoning spouted from many pulpits, I am not writing about you. So you're wasting our time by writing and saying that you don't commit any of these sins. But if you blissfully assume that your side is good and the other side is evil, and you're shocked and offended by what I say about you, good.
Dollars to doughnuts you are reading the wrong page. If you style yourself an intellectual and are looking for more reasons not to take religious believers seriously, you are on the wrong page. Go read Why Religious Believers Don't Take Intellectuals Seriously first. Then, when you have cleaned up your own act and don't practice any of the fallacies described there, you can read this page. This page is meant for religious believers who wonder why they can't get any respect from intellectuals.
Also, please don't waste your time and mine trying to rebut the points presented here. If you choose not to understand why you can't communicate effectively with your opposition, and why you're not being taken seriously, that's your choice and the other side's gain. You're only demonstrating that you missed the point. You are free to visit all the Web sites you like that cater to your preconceptions.
The intellectual sins of intellectuals and religious believers have to be analyzed a bit differently. People who don't deal with factual evidence and logic every day generally don't have a clue how evidence is discovered and communicated in intellectual circles. So the question "How many books on [insert subject here] have you read?" or the distortion of the word "theory" into "hypothesis" or "guess" is just as likely to be found among religious scoffers at evolution and secular scoffers about environmental hazards. These fallacies aren't specifically religious.
On the American political landscape, anti-intellectual religious believers are likely to be extreme conservative Christians. I'm not interested here in liberal or mainstream Methodists, Presbyterians, or Catholics. But Richard Feynman, the physicist, has a fascinating tale in his autobiography of dealing with orthodox rabbinical students whose waste of intellectual talent in the pursuit of pseudoscience was as bad as anything to be found in creationism, and there's a powerful anti-intellectual backlash in the Islamic World with writers who parrot (plagiarize) the arguments of Christian anti-evolutionists.
If you read this page and its companion, you will note they follow almost identical structures. This is because intellectual dishonesty is pretty much the same regardless of who commits it. On both sides of the divide between religious believers and intellectuals, we find intelligent people who, instead of using their intelligence to seek the truth, and allow the evidence to lead where it will, have already decided what the truth is and use their intelligence to rationalize preconceived ideologies.
When intellectuals see religious believers spouting blatantly incorrect stereotypes, can you possibly blame them for not taking religious believers seriously? Here are a few of the most glaring.
What would you say if someone walked into your place of employment, admitted he had no technical training in your work, but told you that you were doing it all wrong (probably while demonstrating amply his lack of expertise)? Wouldn't you describe such a person as arrogant? Who is really the self-appointed expert here, the person with a lot of training or the person with none who still thinks he is qualified to criticize?
No single issue illustrates the intellectual shoddiness of many religious believers than their misuse of the term "theory," as in "evolution is only a theory." A theory is any coherent body of ideas used to explain something. The theory can be false, like the phlogiston theory once used to explain combustion, or the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky. The theory can be debatable, like string theory in cosmology. Or the theory can be true beyond any reasonable doubt, like Number Theory in mathematics, stress theory in engineering, or the atomic theory in chemistry. Some theories, like music theory, are more matters of accepted convention than truth or falsity.
A hypothesis is an attempt to explain previously unconnected facts, or an attempt to explain facts in a new way. Therefore, hypotheses are a subset of theories. That's the root of the popular use of the word, as in "I have a theory to explain that." The misuse of the term "theory," as in "evolution is only a theory," is a classic logical fallacy: some theories are hypotheses, therefore all theories are hypotheses. Anyone who buys this reasoning should stay off bridges and out of large buildings, because the stress theory the engineers used to design the structures is "only a theory." Also, if they play a musical instrument, they can ignore all that stuff they learned about sharps, flats, and notes, because that's "only theory," too.
In any debate with an academic layperson, you're sure to get the question "How many books on [insert subject here] have you read?" Most people do not have the faintest idea how information is disseminated among intellectuals, and this question reveals it starkly. Information in intellectual fields is mostly disseminated by periodicals. And it doesn't matter how much you read so much as what you read. Reading a thousand books on extremist theology will not make that theology respectable.
The worst factual misconception among extreme conservative Christians is that many scientists have begun to doubt evolution, that there is sound scientific evidence refuting evolution and supporting a global Deluge and a young earth. "You'd see if you just examined the evidence." Well, I have. For three decades. I have boxes of creationist literature, all of which I've read. And it's garbage. Every word of it. I would like nothing better than to have to devote equal time to creationism in my classes. I don't think creationists would like how I do it, though.
Quite a few surveys have been done of religious belief among intellectuals. Although religious belief among intellectuals is less prevalent than among the general population, the difference isn't huge. But one pattern is clear: the more detailed and convoluted a denomination's dogma is, the less likely it is to produce intellectuals. Why is that?
Almost certainly, it's because intellectuals are more aware how many alternative explanations there are for most things. The more complex a theology becomes, the more likely it is that people trained in reasoning and the use of data will spot weaknesses in the links or alternative interpretations. In warfare it's said "the side with the simplest uniform wins," and when it comes to intellectual soundness, the side with the simplest theology wins. Intellectual leadership in the West passed from the stagnant Byzantine and Roman realms to Islam, then when Islam fossilized into a stagnant theocracy, it passed back to Europe to the rationalist theologians of the Middle ages, the Protestant reformers, and the Enlightenment. If agnosticism is in the ascendancy now, religious believers have nobody but themselves to blame.
Given that we're discussing religion here, I find it useful to frame the discussion below in Biblical terms.
Deut. 25: 13-16 13 Do not have two differing weights in your bag-one heavy, one light. 14 Do not have two differing measures in your house-one large, one small. 15 You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
The lesson on double standards could not be clearer. If you want to cite mass murderer Ted Bundy as evidence for the social dangers of pornography, you'd better be ready to explain why sexually explicit material is readily available in Europe, but Europe has a lower violent crime rate than the U. S. If you want to cite some favorable event as evidence for the power of prayer, you'd better be ready to accept unfavorable events as evidence against the efficacy of prayer. If you want to denounce the slaughter of babies through abortion, you'd better be ready to deal with Deuteronomy 13:14-16, Joshua 6:15-18, Joshua 10:27-38, Judges 21:9-11, 1 Samuel 22:18-20, and other passages that command the massacre of entire towns, including children.
Double standards are rampant when it comes to dealing with Biblical interpretation. Who killed Goliath? 1 Samuel 17 tells the famous story of David and Goliath, but 2 Samuel 21:19 says "Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite." 1 Chronicles 20:5 says, however, "Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite." This is no big deal to secular (or even most religious) scholars; the whole context of 1 Samuel 17 tells the famous David and Goliath story in great detail, and the similarity of the the verses about Elhanan make it clear that a copyist simply omitted a few words.
Except, if you believe Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict, such a thing is impossible. McDowell expounds at length on how Jewish scribes were not supposed to copy even a single letter from memory, how even a single error mandated the destruction of a scroll, and how the scribes copied even traditional diacritical marks that had lost all their linguistic meaning. So how did entire words drop out? McDowell takes on the Goliath issue in Answers to Tough Questions and dismisses the discrepancy as "a copyist's error." So in one book he stresses that it was all but impossible to make an error in transmitting the Bible, and in another book "oops, I guess there were mistakes after all."
Then there's the issue of how Judas died.
Matthew 27:4-6 4 "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed innocent blood." "What is that to us?" they replied. "That's your responsibility." 5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. 6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, "It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money." 7So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.
Acts 1:18-19 18(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
Confronted with the discrepancy, most literal believers I've met shrug and say "they both happened." But the two quotes above differ in four important respects:
Either the Bible is absolutely free of error, or it's not. If the Bible is so authoritative that it can override the findings of science, we have a right to expect that it be free of even the most trivial inconsistency. Religious believers who insist the Bible is infallible enough to dictate that the earth formed in seven literal days, and who simultaneously gloss over major discrepancies as unimportant, are kidding only themselves.
Matthew 23:27-28 27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
More than once, I've asked Biblical literalists how they deal with Joshua slaughtering even the non-combatants in Jericho, and gotten a horrified look and "gee, I never thought about that..."
"Gee, I never thought about that..." This isn't some obscure verse, but one of the best known stories in the Bible, subject of the famous hymn "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho." And someone who claims to take the Bible literally, maybe even to have read the whole thing, "never thought about that..."
And you wonder why intellectuals don't take religious believers seriously.
Some believers are fond of citing verses like this as justification for ignoring factual accuracy or technical expertise:
1 Corinthians 1:18-20 18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. 20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
Since God makes "foolish the wisdom of this world," far too many religious believers think it's all right to blow off understanding the things they criticize. They conveniently forget that Jesus told his followers:
Matthew 10:16 (KJV) Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
Challenge: cite me a single example in the Bible where someone is praised for being unskilled or incompetent. But the most telling and condemning verse is this one:
Luke 16:10-12 10 Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?
If you cannot get worldly factual issues straight, things that can be weighed and measured and touched, things that can be double checked and re-examined if there's any doubt about their validity, you cannot have anything useful to say on spiritual matters. If you can't be trusted in the small things of this world, how can you possibly hope to have anything to say worth hearing about really important matters?
"Supernatural" means super-natural. If someone claims to have supernatural gifts, and they can't equal the natural achievements of ordinary people, who, besides themselves, are they deceiving?
Proof-texting is selective use of Bible verses out of context to support some particular doctrine. Nonbelievers do it when they pull "thou shalt not kill" out of context to oppose war or capital punishment, but the practice is rampant among people who insist adamantly that they take every word of the Bible literally. The basic difference between theological liberals and ultraconservatives is that liberals honestly admit they selectively interpret the Bible and ultraconservatives lie and deny it. Consider this verse:
Psalm 139: 13: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.
This verse and others like it is widely quoted by anti-abortion activists (since there is no direct Biblical condemnation of abortion, as there is, for example, for homosexuality). But it's very interesting that we never hear the next couple of verses:
Psalm 139: 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
If we take this passage literally (and remember, "day" in Genesis carries enough weight to overturn all of geology), then babies form underground. How come we never hear this verse in the anti-abortion debate? For that matter, how come we rarely hear much about this verse:
Matthew 25: 34-46: 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' 41 Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 44 They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
Biblical literalists are fond of ridiculing the "social Gospel," which stresses social justice over strict Biblical literalism. So it's scary that the most elaborate description Jesus gives of the final judgment doesn't say a word about accepting him as personal savior; it's all about personal actions and social justice.
I'll be happy to give credit where it's due. When I bring this point up to ultraconservative believers, they reply "Oh, we hear about that all the time." So if you can send me proof that your ultraconservative pastor has preached on this verse in the last five years, I'll be happy to acknowledge it here. In fact I'll do it right now: Pastor Mark Green of First Assembly of God of Green Bay, Wisconsin did it in October, 2005.
Exodus 20:16 16 "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
There is nothing in this verse about “to the best of my knowledge” or “sincerely believing” something to be true. False statements about others are prohibited - period. Our moral obligation when speaking about others is to be certain that what we say is true.
Some Christian “urban legends” that make the rounds periodically are that the Procter and Gamble company logo is a Satanic symbol or that the FCC is considering banning all religious broadcasting. This verse plainly shows that the obligation of a Christian, when confronted with such stories, is to check them out before irresponsibly forwarding them.
Consider this quote from Creation, Flood and coming fire by Ken Ham (Creation 8(2):17–20 March 1986)
However, creationists have shown over and over again that the fossil-bearing rock layers were obviously produced by enormous catastrophic processes, processes consistent with an event such as Noah’s Flood. But evolutionists refuse to accept this, for to do so would mean that the Bible is right and thus the whole of their evolutionary philosophy would have to be rejected. These people are ‘willingly ignorant’ that the facts do not support their evolutionary ideas but do fit into a model of geology based upon what the Bible says concerning Noah’s Flood.
There are any number of books and articles that lay out in intricate detail how geologists interpret the history of the earth, and why, and virtually none of them even mention the Bible at all. And there are books by devout Christians like Davis Young, who wrote Creation and the Flood (1977), Christianity and the Age of the Earth (1982), and The Biblical Flood (1995). Young's scientific credentials are demonstrated by his acclaimed book Mind over Magma published by Princeton University Press.
And Ham knows it! He mentions Davis Young in The wrong way round! (Creation 18(3):38–41 June 1996) as follows:
As I researched commentaries and other Christian works that were primarily post-Darwinian in age, I found that the majority do not stand for a literal Genesis, but, their reasons are basically all the same — because of what they call 'science', by which they really mean evolutionary ideas. Writers like Charles Hodge, Davis Young, and Hugh Ross, like many of their contemporaries, all reinterpret Genesis because of information that comes from outside Scripture.
So in other words, Ham knows perfectly well there are Christian writers who have no problem with evolution and an ancient earth, but still writes as if it isn't so. He goes on to say:
Again, these Christian leaders keep insisting that Genesis must be taken figuratively, but that man's changing theories must be taken literally. They have it the wrong way round. This is a major reason why the influence of Christianity has been so weakened in our Western world — the church is giving the message that we need to trust in man's theories — not the Word of God.
There's a theological term for writing that belief in evolution is grounded in deliberate disbelief when you know perfectly well it isn't so: Lie. It is a lie that there are no intermediate forms in the fossil record, that large numbers of scientists are beginning to doubt evolution, that there is abundant evidence for a global deluge, and so on.
If Ham wants to take a Biblical verse literally, check this one out:
Psalm 101:7 No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.
Note that it doesn't say you get a free pass for having said the Sinner's Prayer or being Covered in the Blood. It says no one who practices deceit.
Philippians 2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.
Go to any Christian bookstore, open a few books at random dealing with contemporary controversies of any kind - abortion, homosexuality, evolution, secular humanism - and judge for yourself how well many Christian writers obey this injunction when it comes to dealing with their opponents. Or for that matter, look at the tone of Ken Ham's statements above. Not too many display the attitude of this writer:
....underlines a fact of which my experiences have on the whole convinced me; i.e. that very little of the opposition we meet is inspired by malice or suspicion. It is based on genuine doubt, and often on doubt that is reasonable in the state of the doubter’s knowledge. (C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock)
Romans 13: 1-5 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
Generally speaking the extreme rebel against authority is usually an authoritarian himself. He hates authority because it interferes with his own craving to be the authority.
Science has no authority to dictate morality, though it can inform moral choices. Thus the taboo against dissecting the human body has largely vanished because we have come to accept that far greater good results from permitting dissection. However, the fact that some behaviors may be genetically governed doesn't necessarily make those behaviors morally acceptable, though it may offer guidance on how to deal with them. And the fact that some actions may entail no demonstrable physical harm doesn't preclude the possibility of spiritual harm. The fact that a fetus has fingerprints doesn't make abortion wrong; the fact that a fetus may lack a nervous system capable of pain doesn't make abortion right. The moral debate can use science to support its case; the science itself doesn't decide morality.
However, when it comes to describing the physical workings of the universe, science, not religion, is the lawful authority. If your religion says that some well-documented scientific finding can't be true because it conflicts with your religion, your religion is wrong. It's that simple.
Isaiah 55:9 As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Although religious believers give lip service to this verse, religious writings are full of statements that treat God like a small and not overly bright child. Consider the oft repeated claim that the Bible has to be literally true to the last word because anything else "would make God a liar." Translation: "If God chose to communicate through stories or metaphors, or any other way I don't approve of, he's a liar." Some humility.
Some evangelical and conservative Christians are seriously concerned about the low regard they have in the eyes of intellectuals, and are trying to organize campaigns to present Christianity as intellectually defensible. Conservative Christianity can never be intellectually defensible as long as it rejects evolution, any more than a mathematics class can be intellectually defensible if it teaches that 2 + 2 = 5, or an astronomy class can be intellectually defensible if it teaches that the earth is flat, or a chemistry class can be intellectually defensible if it denies the existence of atoms. On this issue conservative Christians are just plain wrong and no amount of Bible thumping, Scripture quotations, or hostile rhetoric will change that. Speaking theologically, you can claim victory in Jesus' name for the next million years, but God will not honor a lie.
There's a word for how conservative Christians approach evolution: sin. Anti-evolution writings are riddled with factual errors, distortions, quotations taken out of context, and deliberate lies, and the tone of these writings makes it abundantly clear that these authors are not interested in God or the Bible, but in lashing out at authority. We're talking about pride, anger, and sloth here. And there's a word for the cure: repentance. Christians have to admit that they have sinned in the theological sense through dishonesty and uncharity, they have sinned against the individual scientists they have maligned, and they have sinned against society by obstructing the teaching of accurate science in the schools. They have to confess they have sinned and make amends.
To put it terms that are commonplace on the Religious Right, anti-evolutionism is a man-made, pseudo-Christian cult. These are buzzwords that the Religious Right uses to dismiss groups like the Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, or Jehovah's Witnesses, but they apply perfectly to anti-evolutionism.
But what will happen to our theology if we admit error? Not my problem. You painted yourself into a corner and you can get yourself out. A man who repents and confesses adultery still has to face the fury of his wife. A man who repents and confesses theft may still go to jail. If Christians repent and confess having sinned against science by their attitude on evolution, they will still have to deal with the fallout. It may well be that your denomination will die out. That's the price you pay for not accepting the truth when you first had the chance.
Created 8 December, 2001, Last Update 30 August, 2011
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