The more you say, the less I agree

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

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

8 responses to “The more you say, the less I agree”

  1. 2012 and all that says :

    The only times I ever step foot in a church (except to admire the architecture and history – because I actually enjoy that) is to go to weddings and at the last two church weddings I’ve attended, the Minister has really got my back up.

    At the first one, the Vicar got all pompous about religious ceremonies, stating in no uncertain terms that unions before his god last longer than those that omit the mysticism (this particular marriage lasted 3 years). He went on to recite some waffle about how the mathematical formula of 1+1=2 was irrelevant in marriage because the two people were combining into 1. Therefore, a marriage is 1*1=1.

    The second marriage, the Minister made his church such an uncomortable place to be by complaining about the topics of conversation before the service and basically demanded that while they were signing the register we all ought to pray for them rather than discuss such insignificant things as the last time we met those we were sat with.

    And they wonder why congregations are dropping like lead balloons.

  2. Vince Chough says :

    I’ve been lurking around your blog for a while now and maybe it is time to engage more substantially. I find it intriguing that instinct and irrationality drive your search for an intellectually satisfying answer.

    For one thing I think you need to define for yourself “church” vs. “faith” as the two are not the same. Some in my church are hypocrites and malicious, but that in no way affects my faith. So often the easy target is so wildly off mark: Look, that man (priest, pastor, etc.) is bad so Jesus is not the Son of God. How many have failed to knock over the truth of Jesus Christ with this straw man? One could better argue the contrary – If a person maintains their faith despite abuse, then faith must be recognized as one of the most powerful components of the human existence.

    One thing I have witnessed as a product of faith is the transformation of a previously selfish and perhaps even evil person into a benevolent person. The innately good are good, with or without religion, but the bad transformed into generous and compassionate persons is something much more common in faith based situations – at least from my experience.

    I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but you can’t find God with your head. Only your heart. The wisdom of God surpasses the wisdom of man. Or maybe you might prefer hearing that our usual cognitive function can not comprehend God. A different (higher?) form of thought needs to be employed that goes against our flesh and pride. Surrender, letting go of control, accepting that which we can not understand or define but believe wholeheartedly – it is faith, or synonymously, it is love.

    I love my wife and kids. I can’t “prove” it scientifically, but I am more sure of this than of any other thing. No, this doesn’t “prove God” but it gives us a clue upon which plane faith walks.

    It is precisely that “nebulous” area in which we find God. And this drive us nuts because we want to wrap Him up in a box and take Him home with us to be at our disposal. But then He wouldn’t be God, would He?

    • procrastin8or says :

      but the bad transformed into generous and compassionate persons is something much more common in faith based situations – at least from my experience.

      Do you have anything more concrete than your own prejudices to back this up?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I don’t think you’ve got that right. Instinct and irrationality aren’t driving anything, although I’m aware that I’m not a purely rational being. There’s a big difference between being irrational, at least in part, and being driven by that. Nor do I have any difficulty distinguishing between faith and church. If I couldn’t tell the difference, I’d never have posted this in the first place.

      I don’t doubt that faith can have results and transform people. I’ve experienced that myself, and have previously written about it. But that doesn’t make the faith true. And the faiths which have (or are reported to have) beneficial effects are mutually exclusive. They can’t all be true, which demonstrates that truth isn’t necessary to achieve such results, and indicates that something more than “but it works!” is required to demonstrate the truth of a proposition.

      I’m not totally averse to the idea that God could be beyond our comprehension – He wouldn’t be much of a god otherwise – but there needs to be a good reason to go looking for Him in the first place, and His existence needs to be supported by the evidence, or at the very least not contradicted by the evidence. At this point my ignostic tendencies kick in and I start pointing out that the question of God’s nature is too poorly defined to meaningfully address His existence or otherwise. This goes double when you propose an obscurantist or unknowable God.

  3. raintreebranches says :

    I find it interesting that you think your reaction is irrational. Interesting meaning I can’t seem to fully understand it, haha.

    I completely agree that you should judge a position based on it’s strongest arguments and not its weakest. And that seniority or authority is no guarantee of competence.

    But here’s the thing, would the pastor that gave those weak arguments be considered incompetent? Or are people taking what he says to heart, regardless of how incoherent or fallacious he is being?

    you said, “Making a weak argument … suggests 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.”

    Perhaps it’s the realization (or the feeling) that this unreliability extends much deeper than just on an individual level? I mean, if you find that you can’t trust large groups of people in any group, what reason would you have to trust anything about that group? It’s certainly doesn’t mean all of what all of them say will be similarly unreliable/untrue, but it would certainly give you good reason to be much more suspicious and skeptical about anything they have to say…

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Maybe. I think there’s possibly an element of that, but I don’t know how anyone else felt about it. This was definitely out of the ordinary, and seeing that I was there, who knows what sort of vile heretics might have been present and silently fuming over it?

      And I think the group issue is really just a generalisation of the individual case. I’m still not sure that it would prove anything, would it? Maybe there’s a threshold where something that shouldn’t matter in an individual case becomes relevant among a group, but I’m not sure where that threshold would be. I’ll have to give that some thought.

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