Why Religious Believers Don't Take Intellectuals Seriously

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Why This Page?

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 really 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.

Stop

Dollars to doughnuts you are reading the wrong page. If you style yourself a religious believer and are looking for more reasons not to take intellectuals seriously, you are on the wrong page. Go read Why Intellectuals Don't Take Religious Believers 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 intellectuals who wonder why their dealings with religious believers are so unsuccessful.

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 Bottom Line

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.

Stereotyping

Myth: Religious believers are dour, unhappy and sexually inhibited.
Reality: The ones I meet don't seem any more or less unhappy and sexually hung up than the population at large.
Myth: Religion is just a means of avoiding the reality of death.
Reality: How come Judaism lacked any real concept of an afterlife for millennia? And how come religious martyrs faced death willingly?
Myth: Religion is rigid and doesn't recognize that right and wrong depend on context, the way modern thinkers do.
Reality: Actually, it's the other way around. Religion distinguishes between murder, war, and capital punishment. It's the modern thinker who says "all taking of human life is wrong." Religion distinguishes between marital sex and adultery. It's the modern thinker who says "all sex is right."
Myth: Religion is wish fulfillment
Reality: Who exactly wished for restrictions on personal conduct? And can't the absence of any final accountability serve every bit as much as a wish fulfillment?
Myth: Religion serves the interests of the power elite
Reality: How come Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism arose and grew in the face of persecution? Nazism, which really did propose a religion based on the worship of power, dismissed Christianity as a vehicle by which the weak hobbled the strong.
Myth: Religious believers once taught the earth is flat and the universe was tiny.
Reality: Ptolemy's Almagest, the definitive model before Copernicus, states explicitly that compared to the sphere of the fixed stars, the earth is merely a point. When Ptolemy's Geographia resurfaced around 1400, its description of a spherical earth and map projections aroused not a flicker of opposition. The myth of the flat earth seems to be largely the result of a 19th century slander campaign (in part a reaction to anti-intellectualism among Christians, but that's a topic for the other page).
Myth: Religious believers lack a social conscience.
Reality: Who runs the food pantry in your home town, a church or the ACLU? If someone in your town needs help in a hurry, are they most likely to get it from a social agency or the Salvation Army?

I got an angry response from one reader who offered detailed critiques of each of the above points. That's a total waste of time, since I already believe all stereotypes have a basis in truth. Every one of the above stereotypes has some historical truth. There are also people who cheat social programs, but that doesn't make the stereotype of welfare recipients as cheats legitimate.

Ignorance of Even Basic Facts

It's astonishing how often people who would never dream of uttering an uninformed remark on art or politics seem to feel they can talk knowledgeably about religion without bothering to acquire even a smattering of knowledge first. Nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in Hollywood, where films like Contact or Solaris will routinely feature dialogue about religion that is so blatantly uninformed that it's obvious the writers don't have a clue what any serious theologian ever said about anything.

Back in the Bad Old Days of Politically Incorrect Westerns (and long before Dances With Wolves) it was common in Hollywood for Westerns to employ "hugga-mugga talk." This was random gibberish passed off as Indian dialogue (Hollywood had not yet discovered that Indians were physically capable of acting.) Most theology in the movies and on TV is theological hugga-mugga talk, apparently created by the Great Big Random Theological Buzzword Generator. Viewers got a double dose in the 2005 TV mini-series Revelations, where both the theology and the science consisted entirely of random buzzwords.

One example is the oft-repeated canard that religious believers rely on the fear of hell as the underpinning of morality. Or as the blog site Progressive U put it (October 26, 2006): "Ah, the old without fear of hell, there would be nothing to stop people from being bloodthirsty monsters argument. It may come as a surprise to most Christians, but there are reasons for being good other than fear of punishment.." It's no surprise to Christians (or other believers) at all, and betrays a complete failure to understand the argument. It's like claiming that doctors use the fear of heart attacks to try to get people to live healthier lifestyles. They do, but doctors didn't make up heart attacks as a bogey man. Most religions describe God as the author or creator of moral principles, that is, as the ultimate explanation for why the principles exist at all. They view their dogmas as describing the actual and natural consequences of disobeying moral law, not as threats. The moral criticism of disbelief stems mostly from the logical problems inherent in claiming to have meaningful standards that are not grounded in some extrinsic basis independent of feelings, cultural conditioning, social consensus, and so on. If Adolf Hitler were to say "screw you and your social consensus, and I have the storm troopers to impose my standards," what can the values-as-social-construct philosopher answer? "You're a bad, bad man, and I don't like you?" (Notwithstanding my criticism on this point, the Progressive U piece "16 Common Myths About Atheists" is a good complement to my companion page Why Intellectuals Don't Take Religious Believers Seriously)

Consider the following often-posed questions:

If you have ever asked any of these questions, or if you can't summarize the major schools of thought on these questions, you are theologically illiterate. You have no business in any debate involving religion because you simply know nothing at all about the subject. 

How can a good God allow evil to happen in the world?

Volumes have been written on this subject but almost nobody who tosses off this question asks it seriously, because nobody who asks this question has done all that he or she personally can do to prevent evil. If you're concerned about oppression, go to some oppressed country and help people fight, like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade did during the Spanish Civil War. If you're concerned about justice then go into law or politics and do something about it. If you're concerned about sickness then go into medicine. I know a retired doctor who spent his life dealing with cancer in children. He's entitled to ask why God would let a child get cancer; idle bystanders aren't. If you're concerned about homelessness then raise capital and build low-cost homes, or at the very least join Habitat for Humanity.

Most people who ask this question glibly really want to know why a good God would invade their comfort zone; why a good and loving God would force them to think about unpleasant realities.

How can religious believers reconcile war or capital punishment with the commandment "thou shalt not kill?"

Ever wonder why it's "Thou shalt not kill" but "David slew Goliath?" Because once upon a time before we got intellectually sloppy, we had two words for taking human life. Although there's some overlap in usage, generally the Bible uses "slay" for things like killing in battle, and "kill" for murder. To this day we preserve the use of "slay" in terms like "manslaughter."

Anyway, people who wouldn't dream of using "neither a borrower nor a lender be" as an indication of Shakespeare's own opinions, seem incapable of realizing that the real meaning of "thou shalt not kill" has to be sought in the totality of Biblical teachings on the taking of human life, including the numerous passages that command capital punishment for certain offenses. Fundamentalists aren't the only people who wrench Biblical quotations out of context.

Why can't evolution simply be God's way of creating new life forms?

Most religious believers don't have a problem with this, but asking it in connection with debates on evolution reveals an utter ignorance of what creationists think. To them, the issue is preserving a literal interpretation of Genesis. Anything not consistent with supernatural creation a few thousand years ago is "evolution." In creationist parlance, the idea that God used evolution to create life is called "theistic evolution." Asking this question is on an exact par with attempting to publish a research paper without looking up a single reference.

Intellectual Dishonesty and Specious Reasoning

"Blaming the Victim"

Perhaps no single concept illustrates the pervasive speciousness of some intellectuals than the phrase "blaming the victim." You can't hope to find a more explicit platform for intellectual dishonesty than this quote from Jack Levin and William Levin's The Functions of Discrimination and Prejudice.

Victim-blaming is the tendency, when examining a social problem, to attribute that problem to the characteristics of the people who are its victims. In contrast, a non-victim-blaming perspective would focus on the social forces that deny opportunity to the victims of a social problem, while ignoring any apparent differences in them that might be caused by such treatment.

It's good that I can cite such a reference, because I'd be accused of making up a straw man otherwise. For openers, there's the word "victim" which clearly indicates that the individual is the innocent target of hostile outside forces, as opposed to a neutral label like "person affected by a problem" or "person in a problem situation." Then there's the label "blaming" which automatically attributes hostile intent to anyone attempting to question whether individual values and attitudes might contribute to the problem. It is already predetermined that the root cause is "social forces that deny opportunity to the victims of a social problem," that any individual differences are only "apparent" (we won't ask why some people from the most hostile environments avoid crime, drug abuse and poverty). Indeed, it's considered intellectually responsible by these authors to "ignore" potentially relevant data.

"Simplistic"

Hard on the heels of "blaming the victim" as a beacon of specious thinking is "simplistic." The reasoning is wonderful: an idea that explains the data simply and economically is wrong for that very reason, and the better the idea explains the data, the greater the evidence that it's wrong. All ideas of any value are simplifications; the problem with oversimplifications is not that they're simple, but that they're wrong. And though social problems are very complex when activists critique ideas they oppose, the problems crystallize into marvelous simplicity when activists propose solutions of their own: more money and regulatory power for themselves.

"Epiphenomena"

Epiphenomenon is a popular buzzword used to describe a phenomenon that is merely a surface event on top of a more significant phenomenon. Generally, it's used to assert that whatever the user doesn't want to deal with isn't significant. Frequently, it's used to deny the significance of moral issues in society, as in the claim that the root cause of the Civil War was the growing disparity in economic power between North and South, and that moral indignation over slavery was merely an "epiphenomenon."

All you need to do to make that claim stick is deny tens of thousands of statements, letters, articles and books by people who saw the Civil War from Day One as about slavery. More interestingly, if the Civil War wasn't about slavery, how can the Confederate flag be a symbol of slavery and racism? As an interesting sidelight, a local mini-mall flies a collection of historic American flags. The Confederate flag has generated some controversy and been stolen a couple of times. Nobody has said a word about the other Confederate flag. See, there were two of them, a battle flag and a national flag, and most of the people who make noise about "the" Confederate flag are too historically illiterate to know there were two flags, or recognize it when it flaps in front of their faces.

Just how far some people are willing to go to avoid addressing values as a root of social issues is illustrated by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in Understanding Words that Wound. They note (p. 23) that black college students are targets of racial slurs several times a month, and if the term is broadened to include "code words" the frequency might be as often as every day. One of the "code words" they mention is "inner city culture." So a term specifically formulated to address value and behavior problems across racial lines while avoiding racial implications as much as possible is twisted around by Delgado and Stefancic to become a synonym for racism. It becomes very clear that authors like this will not tolerate any attempt to explore values and attitudes as a root of social problems, but will always disparage them as racism.

"False Consciousness" and "Internalized Oppression"

People in democratic societies often end up using their empowerment to make choices that intellectuals hate. How can we reconcile the fact that the masses, whom intellectuals profess to support, keep making wrong choices? I've got it - they've been duped somehow. Those aren't their real values; they've been brainwashed into a "false consciousness" by society. If they were completely free to choose, they'd make the "right" choices. But of course we have to eliminate all the distractions that interfere with the process: no moral or religious indoctrination, no advertising or superficial amusements, no status symbols, no politically incorrect humor. "False consciousness" is a perfect way of professing support for the masses while simultaneously depriving them of any power to choose; a device for being an elitist while pretending not to be.

The post-Soviet version of "false consciousness" is "internalized oppression." If you're a woman who opposes abortion, a black with middle class values, or a person with a lousy job who nevertheless believes in hard work, those aren't your real values. You've internalized the values of the white male power elite and allowed yourself to become their tool. You don't really know what you believe. When the enlightened elite want your opinion, they'll tell you what it is. 

The Cost of Intellectual Dishonesty?

Almost anyone who has debated with ideologues has encountered behavior like this:

The more I argued with them, the better I came to know their dialectic. First they counted on the stupidity of their adversary, and then, when there was no other way out, they themselves simply played stupid. If all this didn't help, they pretended not to understand, or, if challenged, they changed the subject in a hurry, quoted platitudes which, if you accepted them, they immediately related to entirely different matters, and then, if again attacked, gave ground and pretended not to know exactly what you were talking about. Whenever you tried to attack one of these apostles, your hand closed on a jelly-like slime which divided up and poured through your fingers, but in the next moment collected again. But if you really struck one of these fellows so telling a blow that, observed by the audience, he couldn't help but agree, and if you believed that this had taken you at least one step forward, your amazement was great the next day. [He] had not the slightest recollection of the day before, he rattled off his same old nonsense as though nothing at all had happened, and, if indignantly challenged, affected amazement; he couldn't remember a thing, except that he had proved the correctness of his assertions the previous day.

Sometimes I stood there thunderstruck. I didn't know what to be more amazed at: the agility of their tongues or their virtuosity at lying.

The author was a young, probably somewhat naive idealist who certainly underestimated the complexity of ideas and just as certainly overestimated his own intellectual sophistication. Nonetheless, the intellectual dishonesty he describes, and his outrage, is real. The author was Adolf Hitler, describing his student days in Vienna (Mein Kampf, Chapter 2).

The Holocaust has been attributed to the historical conditioning of Germany, the harsh terms of the Versailles peace treaty, the destruction of Germany's middle class by the hyperinflation of 1923, the failure of the Vatican to speak out, the failure of the Western Allies to speak out or bomb the gas chambers or the rail lines leading to the death camps. Alice Miller, in For your own good: hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence, even attributes it to child abuse. But the excerpt above raises a provocative question: to what extent was Hitler shaped by repugnance at the intellectual dishonesty he saw in the intelligentsia? Might the Holocaust have been avoided if young Adolf Hitler had encountered intellectual honesty instead of sophistry among the intellectuals of pre-World War I Vienna?

The Single Greatest Obstacle

Religious believers will never take intellectuals seriously as long as intellectuals deny the existence of absolutes.

What is truth? How do we know it when we see it? How can we be sure our interpretation of it is valid? What about rival claims of truth? These are difficult questions, challenging questions, wonderful questions. They tell us a great deal about the limitations of our methods of inquiry. The one thing they cannot do - what I call the Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy - is tell us anything at all about the nature of reality or the existence of truth. Philosophy since the days of the ancient Greeks has focused on the grand questions and the limitations of what and how we know, and as a result has remained stagnant. Science focused on what can be known and mushroomed.

Throwing up your hands in despair over the tough questions in epistemology is a grand version of the argumentum ad ignorantiam. Pseudoscientists use this argument all the time, usually prefaced by "Science can't explain..." Most of the time science can explain the "mystery" but the pseudoscientist doesn't want to believe the explanation. But even when the answer to a question really is unknown, that proves only that the answer is unknown. It doesn't justify interpolating some belief of your own preference, or denying that the question has an answer.

But of course no philosopher totally denies the existence of absolutes, either in theory, or in practice. Instead they resort to weasel words. Typical is an article by Bruno Latour called The Science Wars (Common Knowledge 8.1,  2002, pages 71-79). He asserts "I ...reject an absolute point of reference." but then goes on to say that post-modernist philosophers study "how human beings can speak truly about events" and "The difference between departments of geology or geoscience and the curio cabinets of the creationists ... is so huge that I don't see the point of adding an even more absolute distinction between true and false."

So Latour wants to have it both ways. He wants not to be bound by an absolute framework but he also wants the power to judge ideas as true and to differentiate between standard geology and creationism. Especially the latter. Latour's article is peppered with enough gratuitous references to the Religious Right that it's clear he confuses the existence of truth in general with accepting the agenda of the Religious Right. If the difference between standard geology and creationism is anything other than the preferences of two rival groups, there must be some directional standard that puts one closer to truth than the other.

In practical terms, people who deny that there are any moral absolutes are nevertheless quick to assert that it's "wrong" for one group to impose its views on another, generally while attempting to impose their own views on society. If moral beliefs are merely a result of socialization, wouldn't it be a lot easier simply to socialize oppressed groups to accept their fate, and socialize everyone else to go along with prevailing norms?

Pseudo-relativism seems to spring from three roots:

Finally, in any ostensibly intellectual discussion about the existence of God or moral absolutes, watch how quickly sex pops to the surface. It's astonishing how many people who have been prominent militant religious skeptics have also been outspoken advocates of free sex (what's the fun of being a prominent iconoclast if you can't have groupies?) Looking at the criticisms that have been raised against religion, I would estimate that the real motivation for religious disbelief breaks down about like this: sex, 75%; hatred of authority in general, 10%; economic injustice, 8%; war and oppression, 6%; serious intellectual concerns, 1%; serious intellectual concerns based on actual study of what theologians have said: too small to register.

To say some folks went ballistic over that paragraph is an understatement. They did so with a vehemence that suggested I had hit a sore spot. "Stereotypical" sniffed another recent reader, but since all stereotypes have at least some basis in reality, the issue isn't whether the comment is stereotypical (any generalization, no matter how valid, can be blown off as a stereotype), but whether it's valid. Mindless opposition to authority? I submit the "under God" issue: court challenges to the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. An utterly pointless exercise in petty harassment of religious believers, and one guaranteed to keep the Religious Right mobilized. What else can you say about people who are so stupid they work directly against their own interests, solely to lash out at something trivial they dislike?

As for sex, why are restrictions on abortion or homosexuality any more an invasion of privacy than forcing people to keep records for the convenience of the government? Why are so many of the people who are militant about restrictions on abortion equally willing to defend the government's right to invade all sorts of other equally private matters? Why are sexual interactions between consenting partners any more private than financial interactions?


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Created 8 December, 2001, Last Update 30 August, 2011

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