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