It’s considered very important to have an open mind. Everyone wants to be considered open-minded, or at least not to be considered closed-minded, which is the ultimate insult to anyone’s intellectual honesty. I’m not about to argue with that – being prepared to be corrected or change your position in response to the evidence is the most basic element of the scientific method – but it’s a phrase that carries a lot of subtext.
Obviously, examining the evidence without fixed preconceptions – with an open mind – is a fundamental part of science. But when was the last time you heard a scientist pleading for someone to keep an open mind? Maybe it happens sometimes, but I can’t remember a single example. I find that very interesting.
The people who tend to put the most emphasis on people keeping an open mind are a different group entirely. They’re the conspiracy theorists, the woo-mongers and the like, people who ironically tend to be very, very certain of the truth of their chosen beliefs. Nevertheless, this poses a curious problem – if an open mind is such a good thing, as it is, what should we conclude from the fact that it’s generally advocated by fringe groups with wacky beliefs, and not mainstream scientists?
The answer becomes a little clearer when the question’s reframed slightly: Why would you appeal to someone to keep an open mind? Clearly, because the evidence isn’t sufficient to convince on its own. If there was good reason to believe something to be true based on the evidence, only an imbecile would neglect that to make an appeal which encourages people not to reach a firm conclusion. As the legal adage goes:
If you have the law, hammer the law. If you have the facts, hammer the facts. If you have neither the law nor the facts, hammer the table
If I wanted to persuade a flat-earther that the world really is round, I could appeal to the easily observable curvature of the Earth, photos from space, people who’ve circumnavigated the globe and webcams demonstrating that it can be night in one place and day in another. And that’s just for starters. What I wouldn’t do is plead for them to keep an open mind.
Scientists rarely if ever appeal for people to open their minds, not just because an open mind is the most basic of assumptions, as self-evident as breathing, but also because having an open mind is only part of the answer. The point of having an open mind is to ensure that you’re not clinging dogmatically to a position which isn’t supported by the evidence, but that still requires the evidence to make it work.
Having an open mind is a good thing, all else being equal, but perversely, if someone’s encouraging you to keep an open mind, it’s probably a good reason to be suspicious of their claims. In this context, an insistence on having an open mind most likely means that there’s no decent evidence to support their position, and what’s more, they know it.
I’ve long been of the opinion that weak or negative atheism (a lack of belief in any gods) was a rational, defensible belief, but that strong atheism, also known as positive atheism (a positive belief that there is no god) was an insupportable claim that not only overreached, but betrayed a certain degree of arrogance. (Yes, the arrogant atheist thing – it takes time to shake off all those old ideas.)
Looking at the question again, I see my error. Obviously, from a logical and philosophical point of view, it would be making a big mistake to claim that a lack of satisfactory evidence of a being means that it definitely doesn’t exist. At this point, theists usually mention black swans as something that was wrongly supposed not to exist, but for every black swan there’s a Russell’s Teapot. Beliefs don’t become any more sensible just because they can’t be conclusively falsified.
And anyway, we don’t generally deal in precise logical and philosophical terms. I’m quite happy to say that homeopathy doesn’t work, psychics are frauds, and unicorns aren’t real. Strictly, I’m wrong to show such confidence, because I haven’t exhausted all possible avenues. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, and all those beliefs could be demolished with just a single example. But if I was presented with an example that disproved my claim, I’d change my mind.
It’s easy to see a bald statement that something doesn’t work/exist as arrogant and closed-minded, but that’s not how we talk in practice. When I say unicorns aren’t real, I’m drawing an inference based on the sum total of the evidence currently available. I don’t hedge it with caveats, just like I don’t say “According to current scientific theory” before any explanation of how something works, because those assumptions can be taken as read.
Suppose I’d repeatedly investigated mediums and found them wanting. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that mediums don’t talk to the dead? It might not be watertight as a logical conclusion, but it’s hardly unrealistic. I’d be far more worried about someone in that position who blandly said that they hadn’t found any genuine mediums yet, because they sound like the words of a potential mark.
As ever, there will be quibbles about exactly how sure you should be before saying that something doesn’t exist, the correct interpretation of the available evidence, and what would be necessary to change your mind. And there are undoubtedly some strong atheists who have no interest in evidence, and would never change their minds. That’s down to them, but it doesn’t affect the principle.
When I consider strong atheism now, it seems like a fancy name for a perfectly ordinary position. The only reason I can think of for someone not to identify with strong atheism is the inevitable and tedious attempts by theists to reverse the burden of proof because “it’s a belief”.
I was following a discussion earlier where the claim was made that science is increasingly getting stuck at certain points, various scientific theories are evidence-free, and that the discoveries of the next century will consign atheism to an insignificant rump, if not oblivion. That was meant to be a taunt, but it missed the mark in a big way.
The arguments entirely failed to convince me, but while I must confess that I’m not particularly keen on the idea that my search for answers might be taking me on a trajectory away from truth and towards some sort of epistemological dead end, I was surprised and slightly amused that atheists were expected to react badly to the idea that evidence might eventually prove them wrong.
Actually, that isn’t quite right – I should probably say that convincing evidence for some sort of creator/deity might come to light to substantiate religious claims. That might sound like an irrelevant distinction, but it’s fundamental to how people approach the issue.
I know very few atheists who dogmatically assert that there is definitely no God, but I know loads who would say the evidence is lacking or absent, or that there’s no good reason to believe the claims of religion. Unlike the stereotype of unbending religious faith, atheism is generally conditional on the evidence.
So sorry to the taunting apologists, but I don’t feel bothered by the idea that one day, there might be evidence that demonstrates my current beliefs to be mistaken. I’m where I am as a result of following the evidence, and if it takes me in a different direction, I’ll follow it there as well. And to be frank, any atheists who are bothered by that idea are doing it wrong.
Image courtesy of Prashant Jambunathan, used with permission
If you take a stroll through the website for Answers in Genesis (and to be honest, I recommend that you don’t), you’ll find a huge number of articles that deal with scientific evidence. You’ll also find numerous arguments that proper scientists can be creationists, and a huge amount of devotion to notable scientists from the past who were Christians.
In AiG world, any scientist who believed in God is taken as evidence that science doesn’t disprove creationism. I used to think this was funny, if tiresome – the idea that Isaac Newton’s theological views have any bearing on the current scientific consensus on the age of the Earth or the origins of the universe is unintentionally hilarious – but it’s part of a trend that increasingly worries me.
It’s no surprise that Answers in Genesis have no understanding or respect for the scientific method. They like the air of authority that comes from a sciencey-sounding opinion or an ignorant or specious counter to the established evidence, but at least they’re more or less honest about it. As their “10 Best Evidences” page says:
That’s why, when discussing the age of the earth, Christians must be ready to explain the importance of starting points and assumptions. Reaching the correct conclusions requires the right starting point.
The Bible is that starting point.
They don’t care about science unless it falls into line with their interpretation of what the Bible says. Despite their best efforts to bolster weak arguments, they’re engaged in an almost perfect example of what Richard Feynman called “cargo cult science”. They adopt some of the language and habits of science, but lack the methodology and particularly the integrity of the real thing.
This isn’t controversial, and of course many sensible Christians rightly ignore AiG’s Bible-thumping dribble because the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly against them. Those Christians probably agree with everything I’ve said so far, because they hear what science says about our origins, and they incorporate that knowledge into their worldview. That’s laudable, but why don’t they do that all the time?
Science has so much to say about a wide variety of theological beliefs, if only anyone would take an interest. Healings, spiritual experiences and much more are amenable to scientific investigation, at least in principle, to determine both what’s happening and how it might be explained. But Christians who appeal to science to debunk Young Earth Creationists like AiG are still wary when science starts to threaten their own theological comfort zone.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter how much you hold up science as having the answers in this case, or that one. If there are areas where science can tell us anything and you aren’t prepared to take a scientific approach or let it inform your view, then whatever you’re doing, it isn’t science. At best, you’re missing a trick, at worst you’re engaged in cherry-picking and cargo cult science as bad as anything AiG have done.
At this point, some are probably crying “NOMA” at me. I don’t particularly hold to Gould’s views, but nor do I see any problem for those who do. If you believe that religion and science answer different questions, the boundary between the two will only become clear after substantial investigation, and the very existence of non-overlapping magisteria would allow Christians to use science to answer “how” questions while leaving the “why” questions to religion.
This isn’t about expecting the full force of science to smash religion to pieces. Science doesn’t guarantee a particular answer, only an inquisitive, investigative approach and a willingness to follow where the evidence leads, whether it supports our existing beliefs or shows them to be sadly mistaken. I was recently privileged to witness a fine example of this scientific mindset.
I saw an appeal on Twitter to sign the petition on Bishops in the House of Lords, posted by @RichWiltshir and retweeted by @CrispySea, so I responded with a necessarily brief explanation of my reservations and a link to my recent post for a more comprehensive treatment of the subject. Their immediate response, much like Jonny Scaramanga commenting on the post at the time, was to acknowledge the arguments and change their minds.
They weren’t being unscientific before, nor (I hasten to add) were they paragons of science just because they agreed with me. But their willingness to reconsider in the light of new evidence or arguments is what’s important, even though the arguments were far from empirical. A truly scientific approach holds facts to be provisional and open to correction, regardless of how much we might like them to be true, or how strongly we held them before.
This sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s surprisingly moving. An interest in following the evidence, rather than looking for ways of shoring up our existing beliefs, doesn’t just show humility – it’s the very foundation of progress.
I understand why Christians would be concerned about science trampling all over their beliefs – I lived with that fear for years. And having firm, unshakable convictions doesn’t make you a bad person, but it does mean you’re not being scientific. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and you might take the view that science isn’t a valid epistemological approach, but then you need to stop using it to debunk AiG and their ilk.
I’m not saying that Christians aren’t allowed to be scientists (as if I had that authority), nor that they must be. And you’re free to claim that God resides in whatever domain remains untouched by scientific investigation without any taint to your scientific credentials. But if you’re not prepared to consider evidence that contradicts your beliefs, stop claiming to have any interest in science.
Mark it on your calendar – it appears that I’m in agreement with the Coalition for Marriage (C4M) about something. Specifically, that it’s very good news that Adrian Smith has won his case against Trafford Housing Trust after being demoted for expressing a personal view in a personal context. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his position (mostly wrongs, it has to be said), the McCarthyite approach of disciplining people for opinions is dangerous and illiberal.
But that’s where my agreement ends. Strangely, even as they celebrate this victory, they’re claiming it as proof of the dangers of changing the law. Smith won his case, and there’s widespread agreement on both sides that he should never have faced any action against him. But while acknowledging and even celebrating these facts, C4M somehow seem to believe that this demonstrates a genuine risk of persecution for their views.
You can’t have it both ways – either this victory protects the right to hold a personal opinion or it highlights the danger that certain personal views will be regulated and suppressed. To celebrate this victory while scaremongering in this way is like being acquitted in a murder trial on the very reasonable basis that you didn’t do it, then spreading fears that many more innocent people will be not just tried but convicted of murder. They may be right, but there’s no reasonable basis for the claim.
On its own, this is a fairly trivial example of someone trying to have their cake and eat it (or eat your cake and still have it, if you want the expression to make sense). But it’s depressingly common to see this sort of inconsistency from some groups, particularly Christians. They frequently support their arguments with contradictory beliefs, claiming to be persecuted and counter-cultural even while asserting that they make up a majority and doing their best to dismiss any evidence to the contrary.
You could argue that atheists like Richard Dawkins are guilty of the same thing in reverse, but you’d be wrong. Dawkins is very clear that his census survey was motivated by the suspected discrepancy between people’s self-description as Christian and their beliefs and policy preferences. He believes (with good reason) that the majority broadly support his views, but that their response to a particular census question gives a different impression. Far from having it both ways, he’s specifically trying to resolve the discrepancy one way or the other.
Here’s the deal, guys: you can claim to be speaking for a majority, or you can claim to be persecuted, but trying both at once just makes you look confused or dishonest. It’s theoretically possible for a majority to be persecuted or oppressed (apartheid South Africa would be a modern example), but not when you have an equal right to vote and stand in elections.
So if you see someone arguing for your side with a claim that’s incompatible with your own views, you owe it to your own credibility to challenge them. Otherwise, you’re denying the truth of your own position and making your arguments appear inconsistent and opportunistic.
So Lance Armstrong has decided not to contest the charges of doping against him. That’s a result that disappoints me, but not because I think he’s innocent. It’s just that this appears to be a calculated PR move to try to blur the lines, and it would be much more satisfactory if all his dirty laundry was aired in a proper hearing. It will probably still come out eventually, but in such a way that people who want to ignore it will probably be able to.
I don’t particularly want to discuss Armstrong (you’ll probably be relieved to hear), but how people handle it when their beliefs are challenged, especially when they have a significant amount of emotional investment in those beliefs.
Even before the latest investigation, there was a huge body of evidence in the public domain that Armstrong doped. Not conclusive, probably not sufficient to convict beyond reasonable doubt, but very highly suggestive. A backdated Therapeutic Use Exemption after he tested positive for cortisone, EPO in his samples from the 1999 Tour de France when retrospectively tested, the doping record and testimony of ex-teammates and the fact that virtually everyone he beat was doping all point in one direction.
Maybe it makes sense to withhold judgement while there’s been no official ruling of his guilt, although many of his fans went well beyond mere reservation. But even after he’s declined to defend the charge, it’s already clear that there are plenty of people who are not just a little unsure of what to make of it, but positively desperate to share their view that Armstrong’s as honest as the day is long.
His supporters say “he’s never tested positive” (apart from when he did, and ignoring the many confessed dopers like Marion Jones and David Millar who could say the same), “there’s no evidence” (ignoring the mountain of evidence already in the public domain), “it’s a witch hunt” (as if anti-doping officials would recklessly pursue a baseless case against the most (in)famous cyclist of modern times just because they didn’t like him), and so on. They cling to these arguments that have been knocked down over and over again (enough to qualify as PRATTs) as if they were holy relics.
Despite Armstrong’s decision not to contest the charges, effectively an admission of guilt despite his self-justifying rhetoric, no one seems to have actually changed their mind. It’s no surprise that people who thought he doped still hold their existing views, but so, apparently, do those who previously thought him innocent. Even the few who have slightly shifted their position to a reluctant admission of his probable guilt do everything they can to mitigate and explain away his transgressions.
Once anyone’s taken sides and made any serious investment in their chosen position on any subject, they’re very unlikely to change their view more than is absolutely necessary to convince themselves that they’re open to new evidence. Where possible, evidence against their current belief is ignored, rejected or minimised in some other way. This is particularly obvious in Young Earth Creationists, for example, but it’s a trait we all share, whether theist, atheist or agnostic. The more we invest in a belief, the more we defend it from uncomfortable new information, and the greater the risk of self-deception.
What can we do about this? I don’t know. Ideally, we wouldn’t become attached to beliefs, but that’s probably aiming rather high. Awareness is part of the solution, recognising our irrationality and doing what we can to fight it. It’s a start, anyway.
Photo by xandert, used under morgueFile License
I was recently introduced to an interesting phenomenon known as Perry Mason Syndrome, a term for a cluster of popular misconceptions about legal procedure derived from watching Perry Mason on , or more generally any legal drama. In particular, this can lead jurors to assume that defendants who are guilty will confess under questioning, or even that the prosecution case can only be adequately countered by forcing a confession out of a different witness, effectively reversing the burden of proof. This use of attack as the best form of defence, gaining an acquittal through confession, is sometimes known as the Perry Mason Method.
The reason why I bring this up is that I immediately found this reassignment of the burden of proof strangely familiar, having encountered something very similar several times in the last few weeks, especially over Easter. Jesus must have been resurrected, the argument goes, because the Bible says so and there’s no other plausible explanation for the recorded events. In other words, if you want to argue that the resurrection didn’t happen, you need to provide a convincing alternative explanation.
So in classic Perry Mason style, it’s expected that in order to refute a specific claim, the defence should not just explain why that claim is flawed or inadequately supported, but prove a case of their own to demonstrate exactly what did happen – making one of the prosecution witnesses confess, if you like. Maybe the people who advance this argument would be happy to stand trial under these conditions, but I wouldn’t.
It’s easy to be lulled into this line of argument by the age of the claim – 2,000 years down the line, the resurrection almost seems like an established event, requiring a heavyweight response built around a strong supporting narrative. But when you get down to the details, it’s a claim that a dead man came back to life. How can anyone seriously expect to pass the burden of proof on to those who doubt the story? Extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence, etc.
This is a truly remarkable and unlikely claim, and in support there are a handful of documents dating from many years after the event, and nothing else. If such a thing was claimed today with that evidence, any reasonable reaction would involve a strong degree of scepticism, pending better evidence or a thorough debunking. Why give it more weight just because it happened long ago?
I realise that it would be easy to ask for evidence that simply couldn’t be delivered, and maybe it looks like I’m doing just that. Well, it would be great to have independent medical, video and DNA evidence, for example, but that’s tangential to my argument. My point is that the evidence we have would be regarded with extreme suspicion at best if these claims were made today, so there’s no justification for concluding that there’s a strong case, let alone one that merits a reversal of the burden of proof. The patchy evidence doesn’t become compelling just because video cameras hadn’t been invented.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the resurrection didn’t happen, of course. Even though I consider it incredibly unlikely, it can’t be categorically disproven. But if you do believe in it, you can’t get away with expecting other people to disprove your claim – it doesn’t qualify as a default position simply by virtue of age. And seeing that the supporting evidence is so unsatisfying, you’d be ill-advised to make it a central pillar of your beliefs.
Maybe I’m being harsh on this point, but I’ve encountered a lot of people who acknowledge tensions and apparent contradictions in their beliefs, and fall back on the resurrection as the one thing they can’t dismiss, the single event that underpins everything else. So would they be so quick to believe the latest poorly-attested claim of the dead being raised in Brazil, or Uganda, or China? If not, it looks like there’s a touch of Perry Mason Syndrome in their assessment.
So anyway, there we are. I’m not particularly intending to dismiss the resurrection (or at least I wasn’t when I started), but if you want to tell me that I’m wrong about anything, I’d be interested to hear your views, so have at it.
Okay, I’m only six years late to the party, but I’ve finally got around to reading it, so here are my thoughts on a book I’ve been avoiding more or less since it was published – The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.
First, I should say that I read the paperback edition. This may be important, as it included a new preface, which helpfully dealt with a number of common responses to the book (such as “I’m an atheist, but…”, acceptance of religion as a fact of life, and descriptions of Dawkins as a fundamentalist equal to those he criticises), and mentioned that a few other unspecified changes and corrections had been made to the text. I found it a useful addition, heading off common objections before getting down to the substance. In some cases, I think people would benefit from reading this preface more than the actual book.
And the book’s nothing if not ambitious. It attempts to show that God doesn’t (or almost certainly doesn’t) exist, explain why religion is nevertheless so common, deal with common questions about belief and morality, make the case for religion in all its forms being dangerous, persuade that religion should be excluded from education and upbringing, and finally inspire at the majesty of a world viewed from a scientific perspective. Any of these could be the subject of a short book on its own, and a comprehensive treatment is obviously impossible, but the book holds together well within the limitations of space.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting to encounter – I had a vague expectation that the book would be 400 pages of angry ranting about sky-fairies – but from the very first page, I was pleasantly surprised by Dawkins’s openness and humour. He marshals his arguments well, dealing with them thematically in a well-planned progression, and both anticipates and deals with possible objections with a perception and understanding that I’d been led to believe he lacked. More than once, I read his arguments thinking “what about…” only to find him addressing my question a couple of pages later.
Dawkins also injects a good amount of balance – he may be arguing his case, but he isn’t just throwing every available weapon against religion. Unlike many outspoken atheists, he recognises the overwhelming likelihood that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, even while mentioning that arguments to the contrary have been attempted. And he goes out of his way to defend the Roman Catholic church on the subject of child abuse, giving the scandal a wider perspective which has been generally lacking. He may be arguing a case, but it’s encouraging that he also seems to care very much about fairness and honesty.
It’s often said that Dawkins has an aggressive tone, and I found the section on Intelligent Design to be both interesting and helpful in considering this reputation. ID is most definitely something that Dawkins knows a lot about (he can construct his arguments without ever leaving his area of professional expertise), and it’s a subject on which I (and most moderate believers) would agree with him wholeheartedly. I found him to be very fair and balanced on this, but couldn’t detect any difference in style between this section and the rest of the book, suggesting that any criticism of his tone may be caused by sensitivity to criticism of dearly-held beliefs, rather than an objectively aggressive manner.
I confess I found some sections rather longer than they needed to be. Maybe it’s an indication that I’m not completely convinced by the idea of memetics, but 50 pages of often evidence-light speculation on the origins of religion seemed to drag a little, and I might have skipped to the next section if I hadn’t been wanting to cover the full text. I’m glad I persisted, because the part at the end covering cargo cults was very interesting, adding a lot of detail to an idea I was familiar with. Obviously, a book of this type will never cater for all tastes or needs, and others will undoubtedly have found this useful, but personally, I’d have been happy to see some ruthless editing in this area.
In some cases, Dawkins appeared to be making a statement which made me sit up and make a note of a quibble or objection, only to conclude much later on the basis of further passages that he wasn’t saying what I thought he was saying, or that his view was rather more subtle than I’d appreciated. I’d be surprised if I was alone in that, and it should serve as a warning to anyone intending to quotemine his book for ammunition. It could be argued that he should be clearer, and I’d have some sympathy with that, but he covers a lot of ground for a relatively short book, with a style that’s generally more polemic than academic, so I wouldn’t want to make a big deal of it.
Bearing that in mind, there were some points where I thought Dawkins was overreaching. His view that religion is uniquely responsible for all manner of conflict is plausible, but I’m not convinced that all (or even most) conflicts wouldn’t be justified in other ways in the absence of religion. And I can’t let it go that he quotes the NAS statistics I recently picked apart. He contrasts them with the general population, which is a more justified comparison than the prison survey, but depending on whether respondents were questioned on labels or specific beliefs, you can get very different responses, as Dawkins knows. That’s a more recent survey, though, and he goes on to give a lot more supporting data, which makes this a minor infraction.
And there were other areas where I found that I didn’t entirely agree with his arguments. Some of his opinions on various sorts of agnosticism fall into this category, I’m not convinced that a truly deist God is a question science can answer (although this is academic as such a God is functionally useless in the real world), and as something of a pragmatist, I feel naturally drawn towards the sort of strategic alliances and recognition of common ground that he decries in his section on NOMA. But if he argues his case well, as he does, he’s entitled to serious consideration, and I’ll probably be chewing over his views for a while yet.
It’s a good book, probably a great book. It doesn’t offer the final word on any of the subjects it covers, but as a single work covering all of them, it’s hard to imagine anything much better. If I have a complaint, it’s that Dawkins has covered a whole load of subjects that I was intending to address, and better than I would do, so if I write about them having read the book, it’ll look like I’m crudely rehashing his material. That’s not a problem with the book, but from a selfish point of view it’s very annoying.
Today’s sermon was a total car crash – an attempt (I use the word advisedly) to justify Christian belief, predominantly using cherry-picked quotes, false equivalence and bad analogy. Highlights included quoting Richard Dawkins’s view that Jesus almost certainly existed to prove that the Gospel accounts are accurate, arguing that we can’t see gravity or magnetism, therefore God, and bizarrely, associating the rise of both “secularism” (used erroneously to mean lack of belief) and Islam in Britain as if they were somehow related.
But I don’t want to dwell on that, because the details aren’t important, and a weak, flawed argument isn’t exactly unusual in any context. What I found interesting was that with every word, I felt myself moving further away from the church. Every gap in reasoning, every unsupported assertion, every dodgy analogy was like another nail in the coffin of what remains of my faith. But is it ridiculous to wonder why that should be?
I’ve always known that some people are liable to advance poor arguments, whatever their beliefs or lack of them. I also know (from experience, as well as intellectually) that position and seniority is no guarantee of competence. So it’s pretty much a given that any cause or organisation is occasionally going to produce this sort of clanger, even from an official platform – if any use of weak arguments and even logical fallacies proved that the case being argued is actually flawed, I’m not sure there would be a single sound position left on any subject.
So I don’t think that the sun would disappear just because someone used a fallacious argument in an attempt to prove that it exists, which is probably just as well, because such an argument has undoubtedly been made at some point. Nor do I think that this morning’s effort is the pinnacle of Christian apologetics, or that the church is alone in making weak arguments to support itself. And I think it’s reasonable to judge a position based on its strongest arguments, not its weakest. It might make sense to be repulsed by unpleasant attitudes, but this was just poor arguments, so am I being completely irrational in feeling alienated by this sort of nonsense?
I’m still working through that question, but at the risk of sitting on the fence, I think the answer’s both yes and no. The arguments of a particular person at a particular time have no bearing on the strongest arguments available, and it would be irrational to lower my opinion of the strength of those strong arguments in response to a weaker argument. It could possibly be justified on the grounds that this betrays a person’s weakness in evaluating arguments, but if all groups contain people who make weak or fallacious arguments, the effect of identifying one more should be negligible.
Where I think my reaction may be rational is in relation to the personal and relationship aspects of belief. Christian belief tends to revolve around communities within the church, and a certain amount of weight is typically placed on the life and experience of Christians, not least in the context of apologetics. Even the most liberal church, where outrageous claims of miracles would be severely doubted or rejected outright, will be full of people who place value and evidential weight on their personal experience of God, however nebulous, and that experience will be considered a good reason for believing.
If the people who speak of their experiences of God in my local church show themselves to be bad at evaluating the strength of competing claims, whether in the context of arguments or evidence, it casts doubt on the validity of their experiences and interpretations of them. Making a weak argument doesn’t weaken better arguments on the same subject, but it does suggest that the person making the weak argument may not be a reliable interpreter of other events, and their significance. That sounds like a plausible reason for my reaction, with only one problem – I don’t think I’ve put any weight on the reported experience of others for some years.
So I’m torn – I’m feeling an ever stronger pull away from the church, but that’s a confusing, and possibly irrational reaction in the context. It seems ludicrous that my search for an intellectually satisfying answer is being driven by instinct and irrationality, but that seems to be the way it is. Which is quite odd and slightly unsettling.
Photo by Xurble, used under Attribution License
There’s a new campaining body on the move – Coalition for Marriage (or C4M as they like to shorten it) have suddenly popped up and started making a lot of noise about traditional marriage, and the dangers of redefining it. There are a number of things that strike me as odd, so I accepted their invitation to “Contact Us” and sent them a few questions I think it would be helpful to answer.
I sent them my questions via their webform. Let’s see how they respond. The full text of my message:
You may have noticed a certain amount of discussion about your organisation and aims on Twitter today, in particular relating to your precise identity and that of your backers.
As someone who blogs anonymously, I appreciate that you may wish to keep your identity concealed, although I would be interested in an answer on that count. But I’m particularly interested in your aims, and I was wondering if you’d be prepared to answer a few questions.
First, I’m interested in your precise long-term goals. What would make you believe you’d been successful? Is there any possible end-point to this campaign, or are you always going to be battling to maintain the status quo?
Second, could you point to some of the evidence you mention in support of traditional marriage? You say on your About Us page that there is a substantial body of evidence that changing the definition of marriage would damage society, but I haven’t been able to find any on your site, and would like to check it out.
Third, what would you consider to be redefining traditional marriage? Would you consider civil partnerships to do this, for example, or is it only if they’re called “marriage”? What’s your position on divorce, marriages of convenience and arranged marriages?
Finally, do you have a target for your petition? At what point will you feel that your point has been made, and broad public opposition to redefinition of marriage has been demonstrated?
I would be grateful for a response. This is an intriguing campaign, and I would like to ensure that I understand your position fully.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Naturally, I’ll post any response when I get it.