Arguments that frustrate

If you’re making an argument, you should want your argument to be taken in good faith.

But in order to do that you need to make good faith arguments.

A lot of what I see happening online (and this isn’t recent, by the way, it’s happened since at least since I was on the internet, which is pretty much since the beginning of the world wide web) is folks making arguments not because they believe them, but because they believe their opponents will be unable to refute them.

A common antivax argument goes, “Woah woah woah, what about bodily autonomy? What about my body, my choice? Why should I have to get a vaccine?”

To be clear, antivaxxers do not believe this argument. They do not believe in bodily autonomy in the same way they imagine their opponents do (whether or not that’s true). They’re not speaking out of some deep respect for anyone’s bodily autonomy, if they even understand what that means.

They make this argument not to convince, but to frustrate. That’s the definition of a bad faith argument. There’s no way you can take this kind of logic seriously because no one in the discussion actually believes it.

Personally, I think there’s some ideological underpinnings here (leaning on Eco’s Ur-Fascism and Sartre’s view of anti-Semitic speech), in that some ideologies simply don’t take their own words seriously. Or, to put it another way, they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

A note on viruses

I’ve heard a few folks say “oh well I’m not worried about COVID variants, you see, as viruses mutate, they get less deadly.”

But this doesn’t make sense. If that were the case, we’d have no deadly viruses at all. Think about where the first COVID pathogen came from. Did it spring up, fully formed, ex nihilo? No, it mutated from something else. Maybe a virus in bats, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter.

Allele frequency, which is what these mutations are, changes in allele frequency, isn’t sentient. It doesn’t have a plan. It’s not trying to get somewhere. As mutations happen, they either make the virus better at reproducing, or they don’t. Deadliness is really a sort of knock-on effect.

If it were the case that mutations decrease deadlines, again, we’d have no deadly viruses, because all viruses are related to eachother and have been piling up these mutations for many, many years. If that were indeed the case, we’d see no new viral diseases develop at all.

The opposite of dogma isn’t dogma

I guess I’m going on a posting spree 🤷‍♀️

Here’s some dogma: The Bible says x.

Dogma in this case isn’t pejorative. It’s just to say that this an undefended statement made with certainty. It makes a claim. In this case, it actually makes a few claims, because it assumes univocality of scripture. It assumes that when the Bible talks about something in different places, it’s talking about the same thing in the same way (or more technically, that the Bible can be thought of having a single theological paradigm).

A lot of systematic theology (but not all) assumes the same thing, tacitly or not. If we can just collect all the different biblical data, they will reveal to us a correct theological paradigm. The history of the church’s attempts at doing this and the (very) many traditions that survive and continue to be developed should really put the kibosh on that.

How do deal with a scripture that isn’t univocal is a really tough problem. It’s at least partly why the Catholic church, to take a single example, has come to rely on its ecclesiastical megastructure like it has, or why Anglicans have adopted a “three-legged-stool” approach to interpretation.

But for the recovering fundamentalist, the trappings of this are hard to shed. Take one of the big bones of contention, the doctrine of Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment.

When we read the Bible earnestly, taking it seriously in its context, recognizing the rhetorical goals of its authors, not simply assuming univocality, it’s clear that the Bible in the Old and New Testaments talks about the afterlife in a bunch of different ways. Which makes sense, considering the different cultural contexts (ANE vs Greco-Roman) these books were written in. The Old Testament talks about the afterlife in a variety of different ways, and the New Testament in a different variety. Broadly, it support (at minimum!) annihilationism, punishment followed by annihilation, and eternal punishment.

The temptation for the recovering fundamentalist is to read passages that seem to support annihilationism and say, Ah, actually the Bible doesn’t say x after all!

How is this better? It’s still a bit of dogma. It doesn’t match the biblical data. If we take that data seriously we have to say that the Bible says at least both. Which is confusing. Because we don’t want our scriptures to say two different, opposing things, on the same subject.

This is a hard thing to recognize and reconcile. We want to make propositions about stuff. We don’t want to consider that the Bible contains polemic, speculation, errors, rhetoric, and all that.

But it’s worth asking a big question. If we’re taking the Bible seriously, if we’re reading it as a guide to faith and life… where does it ask us to make these propositions?

I don’t think it does.

Addendum

Just quick bit of context. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might get the impression that I think fundamentalists are stupid or evil or something.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

You can read these posts as me interrogating a much younger me; if it seems I’m aiming a bit of snark at you, don’t worry. It’s aimed at Younger Me (and, I assure you, he was a bit of a turd).

I think fundamentalism as a system of belief is built to address an angst that I, on the whole, very much share. That is to say, how do we arrive at capital-t Truth? In the modernist milieu, we’re expected to construct certainty, and in the division of waters between the secular and the sacred, it seems like the secular has arrived, via the scientific method and so forth, on a way to do that.

So how do we echo that in the sacred space? One way is fundamentalism, an attempt to construct certainty by casting the Bible as a document without error. What could be more certain than that?

The fact that the biblical data neither demand nor support such a doctrine is beside the point. The Bible is what it we need it to be, so it can do what we need it to do: answer the seemingly airtight secularist brand of certainty with our own.

Of course, this is in many ways ouroboros (you have to do this only because you believe you have to do this), and very much a departure from historic Christian belief.

But then, historic Christian belief didn’t exist in the Modern era, did it? And the angst at the heart of fundamentalism is a very good angst to have. It just doesn’t need to be resolved in such a destructive, inhuman, and disenchanting manner.

Bad Arguments

When I was younger, I attended a Reformed church which had some very strong ideas about what we should and should not do on a Sunday. They called Sunday the sabbath, treated it like the sabbath, and had a whole series of dos and don’ts. I got caught up in a lot of these arguments (they were, and still are, interesting to me), like “is it acceptable to purchase something from a vending machine on a Sunday/the sabbath, since no-one’s actually doing any labour there?”

The answer was generally probably not; you don’t want to get too close to the line.

These skirmishes around what is and is not acceptable on the sabbath are a bit of pharisaical fun, but they tended to obscure the real question: Why are we treating Sunday like the Sabbath?

After all, sabbath is pretty clearly supposed to be Saturday, and Sunday isn’t Saturday, so what gives?

Now, I’m not particularly interested in litigating that stuff again (I’m sure I’ve written almost this exact post, up to this point, before), even if I do find it interesting in a sort of abstract, academic, looking-at-the-giraffes-at-the-zoo sort of way. And my current answer, that the Christian tradition decided sabbath rules no longer apply at some point and that the Christian tradition gets to change those sorts of things, isn’t going to be satisfying to certain sola scriptura types. But then no answer will be, because you can’t just sola the scriptura harder to find justification for traditions that simply don’t appear in its pages.

I very distinctly remember one of the answers: “Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath”.

To be clear, this is a terrible answer, one that anyone with any theological education whatsoever should be embarrassed to give. It’s uniquely unconvincing because it just doesn’t connect any dots. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath therefore we observe the Sabbath on a Sunday is, plainly, nonsense. Look at the amount of work “therefore” is doing in that sentence!

This is a Bad Argument. You can try to make it a Good Argument but you’ll have to make it a Different Argument to do that.

So why would anyone use it? Well… I can think of a few reasons.

  • They’re not very bright
  • They’ve never had to think about this before and they chose the first thing that came to mind
  • They find that argument convincing, so they think that you should too
  • They meant to make a different argument, or thought they were answering a different question
  • I’m remembering the situation wrong and they actually did make a different argument

I think the most charitable interpretation, to all sides, is that they found this argument convincing. Keeping in mind that I’ve had many versions of this logic thrown at me over the years (Do not be conformed to this world… therefore… you shouldn’t wear pants with flames on them), each version seemingly convincing to whoever said it.

And why not? Imagine a world where you’re generally non-evangelistic, non-ecumenical, where even your seminaries are hermetically sealed off from the broader Christian world: who’s going to tell you that your arguments suck? Other than, I guess, some annoying, rebellious teenager?

Anyways, the larger point is this: a lot of arguments have rhetorical utility outside being good arguments. We might use them to convince ourselves and folks who agree with us of something. These bad arguments might have the rhetorical function of a firewall, that is to say, not to convince you that the argument is a good argument for proposition x, but that arguments simply exist in support of proposition x. Which might just be enough. Not to know that you have good arguments, but that you know that there are arguments.

That is to say, a flimsy justification is better than no justification at all. I know, for me, that I use flimsy justifications all the time. How often have you decided to do something you knew was harmful using the absolute barest of pretexts to justify your actions?

That’s a uniquely human experience, I think.


A brief footnote: Trying to parse out the rhetorical goals of an argument isn’t taking the argument seriously. I get that response. But I think in cases where an argument is prima facie absurd, it’s the only way to give a little grace to the person making it. Otherwise you really do have to consider whether person you’re talking to is, after all, an idiot.


Another one, sorry, I guess we’re going to keep doing this: Let’s say that the church I was attending at the time had decided to ditch the whole “everything we do must 100% be justified from the very word of God” and gone with a more “this is how we’ve decided to do things in our tradition, based on our extrapolation of these principles that we feel best interpolates God’s intentions”. Would this have been much better for me as that annoying, rebellious teenager? I suspect, based on what I remember myself being like in those days, probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a better approach, or at least one that fits the actual data better. At the very least it’s a more honest approach; if you’re going to have traditions, don’t pretend like you don’t.

Complications

Just a quick note.

One of Fundamentalist Christianity’s strengths is that is appears simple. It is, of course, not simple (nothing is simple). But it claims to be, and can appear to be.

Take the doctrine of inerrancy. It’s a very easy thing to say. The fact that it’s incredibly difficult to follow, or in other words, it’s difficult to reconcile the available biblical data with this notion, is entirely beside the point. It’s simple, it’s uncomplicated, and if you’re choosing doctrines with Occam’s razor (and you absolutely should not be) it might seem obvious.

Once you understand, though, that the inerrantist position developed in opposition to scientific propositions like evolution, you can start to see one of the ways it can be attractive, and that’s as a bulwark against complexity.

It’s obviously possible to reconcile science and the Bible: even the Catholic church has managed to do it. So why would you not do that?

The inerrantist pushes back against the scientific proposition of evolution because it is data that complicates their dogma. They go so far as to form an entire pseudoscientific community around attempting to provide inerrantist alternative solutions to scientific challenges to their dogma. The fact that these explanations are (from the outside at least) ludicrous, isn’t the least bit worrying to them, because all they need to do is assert that there are alternative solutions, not prove that these solutions are actually better in terms of actual science. They’re already better because they support the inerrantist approach.

The whole point of developing all this intellectual scaffolding is to support the inerrantist interpretive framework. To keep things simple. But, well, actually, it’s not so simple after all.

Why bother? Why do all this work when you can simply… not do it? Yes, switching dogmas is tough, but people do it all the time. The reality is, this is the big one that fundamentalism simply can’t move on from without becoming non-fundamentalist. The inerrantist approach (or something like it) undergirds the entire Reformation project, which switcherooed the Big Question of Christianity from “is your belief in God sincere” to “are your propositions true”.

And you simply can’t tell if your propositions are in capital-t True in the modernist sense unless you’re basing them off something that is also capital-t True. Ergo inerrancy. This is the fundamental in fundamentalism. The rest is icing.

Of course the fact that Christianity thrived for a good 1500 years without needing these sort of propositional, capital-t Truth claims is probably a good indication that when we’ve finally come back round to Jesus’s refinement of the law and prophets (love God, love others), we’ll probably be just fine.

On Ecumenicism

I listened to a podcast this weekend talking about the demands on apologetics past and future. The gist being that the apologetic project has been largely concerned with rational epistemology for a very long time, echoing the modernist milieu it was operating within. The spirits of the age, if you will.

That is to say, apologetics (think, The Case For Christ) wanted to prove that yes, this stuff actually happened, so you have a sound reason to believe that it did, and (after connecting a few dots) therefore Christian belief is warranted.

But the winds have changed. Suddenly the primary apologetic question is no longer “Is the Christian faith true?“, but “Is the Christian faith good?“.

It’s a wholly different question. And answering it with the apologetics of yesterday entirely misses the point.

Now, that’s a can of worms I’m not qualified to talk about. But it did send the ole brain a-wandering.

Because the winds haven’t just changed for apologetics. They’ve changed for doctrine too.

Right now, especially in the west, there’s a doctrinal realignment afoot. If we break down Christian belief into tranches of belief, there’s bunch of stuff we consider core to Orthodoxy (and the reason why Mormons, for instance, are broadly considered a different religion, not just a Christian sect among others), and then there’s some secondary stuff, and some tertiary stuff, and then stuff beyond even that, where we can all agree that no one should really be making a fuss about it.

Yet this isn’t what laypeople are concerned about at all.

We can set primary, core doctrines aside and assume all Christian churches agree on that stuff for the sake of brevity. It’s the secondary and tertiary stuff where things get interesting.

I see people moving between churches with pretty different secondary beliefs (adult vs infant baptist, and so forth) without much problem. A lot of this has happened in my extended family as the exit the Dutch Reformed tradition for Baptist Reformedish traditions. My feeling is that if you will move easily between two different church traditions without much issue, you probably consider at least those individual church as having some sort of broadly ecumenical overlap.

The question becomes… okay. If you would consider moving between churches that agree on primary doctrine but disagree pretty radically on these secondary doctrines, what are you concerned about? It can’t just be the primary stuff, because there’s certainly a bunch of other churches that you wouldn’t consider moving to, even though they agree on the primaries, right?

Again, the times have changed. People used to kill eachother over these secondary doctrines. Catholics, Reformers, Baptists… entire wars have been waged with these doctrines as at least their raison d’être. And yet here we are, 500 year later, with folks just deciding to up and become Baptists. What gives?

I think the answer is that the church is no longer arranged, at least in the layperson’s mind, along these traditional doctrinal lines. The stuff that really matters is Culture War stuff. Tertiary and beyond. Anything that you can put the word “rights” behind.

I think this reorganization is producing a broad ecumenicism across radically differing Christian traditions, based on the perception of the conservative church as a shrinking, oppressed minority (whether or not that is the case). So you see weird things that just wouldn’t have happened 50 or 100 years ago. Conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants feel more kinship with eachother than, say, mainline Baptists vs Southern Baptists. And, I might add, this isn’t just a conservative thing. Liberals and progressives do it too.

There’s a big push for this outside the church as well. Conservative news outlets have been trying to advance the idea that Russia is a western ally, at least since Trump. And how do we know they’re an ally? Because they agree on culture war issues. Don’t mind Russia’s slide into dictatorship and oligarchy. They hate The Gays, and that’s all we need to know.

It makes me wonder how long it’s going to be before conservative Christians find less to agree on with their liberal fellow Christian than with outsider groups like the Taliban. After all, on culture war issues, the Taliban gets pretty solid marks.

That might always be a bridge too far. But still…

On Deconstruction

Upfront: I don’t like the word “deconstruction”. Unless you’re an academic, this isn’t a familiar term, so it’s easy for bad-faith actors to try to scare you. It’s a foreign word. So I’m not going to use it.

I’d rather say Reformation. Or perhaps Exodus. These are familiar concepts in Protestant thinking, and handy metaphors for what’s happening here. I’ll try to explain why:

Once you open your eyes to the spirits of the age that evangelicalism is in thrall to, you can’t unsee it. And to be very clear and not to mince words, evangelicalism in general and American evangelical in particular is in thrall to demonic powers. To antichrists. All in service of blunting the church’s witness, providing a form of godliness that denies the gospel’s liberative power. You find the church more concerned with money and power and empire and this ism and that ism and you ask… is this right? Is this good? Is this true?

Again, when you see what evil the church will not simply tolerate but celebrate in pursuit of its goals, you can’t unsee it. So you have some choices to make.

You can live with that friction for the rest of your life. You can even try to transform the church from the inside out.

Or you can abandon faith altogether. A lot of folks are going this direction.

Or you can take your faith, nail your 95 theses to the door, and attempt to strip it down, like a dog with fleas. You can confront Pharaoh and empire. You can confront the Pope and the Vatican.

This is surgery. An attempt to strip away cancer so the body can survive.

And it’s how all Reformations start. The Luthers and Zwinglis and Calvins of this world aren’t some federated force until the histories are written. (And it’s fascinating that the Reformation arose after the printing press, while our current moment is after the internet; maybe a co-incidence, but an interesting thought.)

The evangelical church with its commitment to following the political and ideological ways of the world and its spirit of fear might never go away, much like the Roman church hasn’t gone away.

But we might be able to make something different and new. We might be able to find some kind of promised land as we try to escape our individual Egypts.

As ever: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

(And let all the theobros say: “Not like that.”)

On Gradients (via On Language)

Language changes. This is a fact, and not a difficult one to verify. Try reading some Shakespeare. (I’m going to elide the difference between spoken and written language here. I am not a professional linguist. If you are, feel free to be properly horrified.)

It changes, often slowly, but sometimes quickly. It changes in its syntax, its grammar, its pronunciation, its spelling. And we can trace at least some of that by examining the writings of whatever period we’re looking at.

All of this to say that language is produced by and embedded in societies. It’s “in here”. It’s “out there”. You can try to pretend there’s some perfect language standard written on tablets in the sky or whatever, and try to command the tide of language change to stop by gesturing in the direction of that perfect standard.

You can try. But it won’t work. And you’ll be super-annoying while you’re at it.

Language is what we say it is. You can still have your pet peeves (goodness knows I’ve got lots), but your peeves aren’t going to make a lick of difference.

I’ve said all this and more before. I won’t belabour the point.

One problem that we have with this, is that language changes slowly. At least relative to human lifespans. So you may notice some change during your lifetime, but probably not a whole lot. You’re not going to have a whole lot of trouble broadly understanding your grandchildren, should you have any.

But if you read Chaucer? That stuff’s basically gibberish to us.

So we break things into categories. Old English, Middle English, Modern English, for example. And don’t forget that categories are made up too!

But when does Middle English start? When does it end?

It’s nearly impossible to say. If you were to time travel to 500 years ago, you’d have a pretty hard time understanding what they were saying. So you’d be pretty confident in saying that 500 years ago folks spoke a very different language. Maybe you call it Middle English.

But start picking other points. It becomes really hard to say. Is this Middle English? Modern English? Middle/Modern English?

This is because slowly changing things change on a gradient. And a gradient is a great metaphor that you can just intuitively understand if you’ve ever seen a sunset. Where does the blue of the sky end and the, say, pink of the sunset begin? Very hard to say. Almost impossible, really. But if you pick any spot on in the sky, you can suddenly very easily identify the colour.

The same with slowly changing things. Overlaying our concepts of categorization on a gradient is artifice. It fits our mental and professional need to put things into boxes, but it doesn’t fully reflect reality.

Categories are models. All models are simplifications. All simplifications are, in some sense, wrong. Not to suggest these models aren’t useful, but they are, again, in some sense, wrong.

You can see this in the idea of speciation. We have this persistent and mistaken cultural belief that “species” is somehow a thing that exists “out there” in some kind of Platonic way. I’m not sure if we’re teaching it wrong, or if this is just one of those things about human brains, but there’s no such thing as a species, apart from the fact that we find it useful to say that in some sense this thing is a different thing than that thing.

A wolf is a different species from a dog. But dogs are just domesticated wolves. So when did the wolf become a dog? Again, a gradient. We can see, now, in retrospect, that a wolf and a dog are different things based on some criteria we’ve decided are useful, but the overall change through the course of history is a gradient. (Look at the Russian fox experiment if you want a more recent example; it’s absolutely fascinating to imagine how long it might take for those semidomesticated fox to be considered a completely different species.)

The fun thing here is once you start seeing gradients of change, you can’t stop seeing them.

Look at yourself adult self now and your adult self, say, 20 years ago. You may be remarkably different.

Yet the question “when did I change?” isn’t really meaningful, in general. The fact is you did, bit by bit. You’re not who you where. You’re who you are.

When did you become who you are? Well… never. And always.

On Believing

Beliefs have directionality.

That is to say, they point somewhere. They go places. Otherwise, why bother having them?

Another way to say is that beliefs have effects. I suppose it’s possible to conceive of a belief that has no effects, but I don’t think anyone would actually care to have those.

For the sake of argument, let’s take something incredibly stupid, like believing the earth is flat. At first glance, it doesn’t appear that this belief has much real-world impact. Flat-earthers do all the same stuff that everyone else does, except they happen to disagree with the scientific consensus that the earth is an oblate spheroid and they reinterpret the reams and reams of physical evidence for that fact to support their theory.

Even if the material effects of the belief are small, even if the people who hold this belief behave exactly like everyone else, there’s still at least one effect that springs to mind immediately.

If you think the earth is flat, you have to believe you are being lied to, intentionally and continually, by an absolutely massive number of people, from NASA to boat captains.

You may inhabit the world much like a normal folks. Your day-to-day may resemble the average person’s day-to-day. But the world that you inhabit is fundamentally a very different place. The noosphere is polluted. You can’t trust people, because you don’t know who’s in on the scam. And if they’re willing to keep something as fundamental as the shape of the earth from you, what else might they lying about?

This is the direction of this belief. I think of it as a vector.

The thing is, once you believe something like this, it’s really easy to accumulate additional beliefs that share a similar vector.

Why are so many flat-earthers also antivaxxers? Why do so many creationists fall for q-anon scams? Why are so many racists also patriarchists? Why are so many scientismists also atheists? And so forth and so forth.

Once you have accepted the vector of a certain belief, it’s incredibly difficult to explain why you should not also believe other things that share that direction.

If you’ve already accepted that there are natural hierarchies based on intrinsic characteristics that entail one group of people to subjugate another, it’s very hard to explain why you should have a patriarchy but not have apartheid.

If you’ve already accepted that the world is explained by scientific observation such that anything outside scientific observation is not knowledge, it’s incredibly difficult to explain why you shouldn’t be, at the very least, agnostic.

If you think that the entire scientific community is (at best) deceived by the devil or (at worst) purposefully lying about the origin of life on earth, why would you let those same scientists inject your darling baby with vaccines?

This is why it’s incredibly important to think about what you believe and why you believe it. There are actors in this world (politicians, marketers, scam artists, etc) who will actively exploit the directionality of your beliefs. There’s money and power to be had by appealing to you along these lines. Or even, in the most extreme examples, pure chaos.

There are actors in this world purposefully crafting “sticky” messaging that actively exploits the way you already think. Memes that inhabit the same vector.

And suddenly, you’re radicalized, and you don’t know how it happened.