Thursday, December 29, 2005

Rhetorical Goons

I was over at Pharyngula’s esteemed abode, reading a debate involving Christians and science (which describes almost all of his posts), and I decided to leave a comment regarding the futility of arguing with most Christians.  And while none of this is particularly new to my regular readers, I haven’t posted anything good in awhile, and thought this was good enough.

The big problem with arguing with Christians (as well as most other groups) is that there are as many different Christian belief systems as there are Christians.  In the end, people believe what they want to believe, and make their gods out of their own image.  The bible says whatever they want it to say, and they merely use it to justify beliefs that they cannot rationally explain (or simply refuse to do so, as a form of rhetorical shorthand).  Rather than explain their dislike of homosexuals or why their specific moral code is better, they just insist that their god tells them to act like that and believe the case to be closed.  In reality, this is no better an argument than that of "I'm right because I say I'm right" because they are their own basis of rightness and source of reality.  

The proof of this is simply the fact that no two Christians agree on everything, and most of them agree on almost nothing; or at least, nothing specific.  If their god were a reliable source of morality and whatnot, then there shouldn't be such large differences in their opinions.  As things are, any part of the bible that they disagree with is considered wrong; which is evidence that it is they who are selecting the teachings, not their god.  Additionally, the confirmation they use in determining that the bible is accurate is also more evidence that they are selecting their beliefs; as it is their own beliefs confirming the bible, and not their god.  More evidence is seen with the "cafeteria Catholics" who believe that they get to decide issues regarding homosexuality and women priests.  The idea that these people are all worshipping the same god is fraudulent.  If anything, they are abusing their god's name by attaching it to their own personal beliefs.  Rather than being a fount of truth, God is reduced to nothing more than a rubber stamp of approval; the rhetorical equivalent of a hired goon, used to settle all battles in their favor.

And so before you can debate any Christian, you have to figure out what it is exactly that they believe; but that can take longer than any debate could be worth.  And so it does little good to argue with them.  You will be forced to speak in generalities which will almost never correspond to the specific person you're arguing with, and they will continue to believe that it's anti-Christian bigotry driving your stereotype...and perhaps they're right.  Overall, you'll just talk past each other, as you argue against a generic Christian position, while they argue that their beliefs aren't being addressed by your arguments.  But again, this is all more evidence that they are the source of their beliefs, and that they cannot rely on their god to win the debate for them.

And the upside for Christians is that I'm saying that they're not all sheep following a monolithic belief system; but rather, they are their own leaders and are following what they really believe.  But the downside is that they can't claim a supernatural basis for their arguments, and must defend them on their own merits.  None of this is to say that there is no god, but merely that they cannot rely upon His name to support their arguments.  Rather, they have to defend their ideas of morality on their own, rather than pretending as if our argument is with their god.  And that’s the way it is with everyone.


Harry Eagar said...

Well, yeah, if you approach it from that direction.

That's why the instance of Germany is so useful.

Germany included just about every conceivable variety of Christian, and ALL of them failed to summon whatever moral lesson they needed to oppose Hitlerism. Thus, we are not faced with the problem you cite of determining exactly HOW a particular Christian belief led a particular Christian to sign on with mass murder.

All bases are covered.

Anonymous said...

"...they just insist that their god tells them to act like that and believe the case to be closed. "

I'd agree that this applies to a particular minority type, but to apply it to "Christians" without any qualifiers is just silly.

"...ALL of them failed to summon whatever moral lesson they needed to oppose Hitlerism. "

Right. Tell it to Bonhoeffer or Von Stauffenberg. Or to the Confessing Church or the Lutheran Council of that time in Germany.

These sorts of ignorant exaggerations accomplish nothing ...

Doctor Biobrain said...

I'd agree that this applies to a particular minority type, but to apply it to "Christians" without any qualifiers is just silly.

While I don't like having to add qualifiers to every statement made (as there can be no complete generalizations), I should not have given the impression that this applied to all Christians. Thus said, I believe that this applies to far more than a small minority; and that, in fact, it is a small minority that doesn't act as if their morals are dictated from above. Because this doesn't just refer to fundies, but also to every Catholic (or at least every Catholic who properly follows his religion's teachings), as well as many other religions. In fact, I'm having a hard time understanding how anyone can not think this way and yet still be religious. But I'll assume that it's possible.

Anonymous said...

" fact, it is a small minority that doesn't act as if their morals are dictated from above. "

I'd be interested to know if you have any basis beyond personal experience for making this statement, which is only slightly less broad-brush than the statement to which I objected. It certainly does not match up with my experience.

If we simply differ in experience and that's the only basis for your "conclusion", that's fair enough ... but I know of no other basis for this sort of statement. It seems to me to border on bigotry.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Anon - I'm kind of confused as to how that part of my post is in doubt. I guess I'll ask this from the other direction: Do a majority of Christians believe that there are various sources of moral conduct beyond the bible or God, and that they're supposed to justify these moral codes based on their secular (ie, world-based) merits; rather than claiming God as the ultimate source? Because I've never debated morals with a christian who didn't cite the bible or God as the ultimate source of their moral beliefs.

So, are there christians who don't cite the bible or God as the source of their morals? Can you give me examples of this? I just don't see how this is in question and suspect that you misunderstood my point; or perhaps I'm misunderstanding your complaint.

I mean, the entire Catholic Church is taught that they can't question their church's teachings on important matters such as abortion and homosexuality; and that they have to accept the word of the Pope which comes to him from God (a simplistic version of how it really works, but good enough for this discussion). I know that many Catholics believe that these things are optional, but the Church says otherwise. How is this not an example of what I'm talking about? And do Catholics not make up a large percentage of christians? And that's just one group.

Now I'm not suggesting that Christians never try to explain their beliefs. For example, the anti-homosexual thing is often argued in terms of it being "unnatural" and whatnot; but that entire argument is grounded in God and how He supposedly intended things to be. And I've never been in a morality debate that didn't have every argument ulitimately based on God and how he supposedly wanted things to be. And as I argued in my piece, that is a sham and that it is their own personal beliefs making such a claim; just like what everyone else does. But that isn't the basis that they give.

I'm willing to listen to a differing opinion, but I don't see what it could be. I mean, I'm currently working on a critique of a column written by an influential Catholic priest who insists that the concepts of law and justice cannot properly be understood outside the context of God; using the Creation as the basis for all laws. And this is representative of the entire church. So I just don't see how I'm being bigoted about this. But give me a try and we'll see. Again, I suspect that this is just a misunderstanding and that I'm not going to get the thrilling debate I want.

Anonymous said...

Not much time here, and I want to give your response more thought. However, my major point is that you seem to be extrapolating from an miniscule sample (your own experience) to broad conclusions encompassing millions. Hence my question as to whether there was any basis beyond personal experience.

In my opinion, this is all too common. It's certainly common on the "extreme fundamentalist" end of the spectrum when it comes to their comments on science in general and evolution in particular. However, it's distressingly common also among those on the "science & truth" side of the equation. I simply don't understand why the increasingly common slagging of religion in general is happening. It's not productive and it adds nothing to the "science" side of the argument. And no, I'm not religious. I don't consider myself a Christian, or anything else religious for that matter. I just know far too many Christians who I simply cannot recognize in the snarly and snotty generalizations that abound in "science" blogs, and it puzzles me as to what the posters think is being accomplished.

Don't intend to be anonymous, by the way; I just couldn't be bothered to register yet again. I am ...

Scott Belyea

Doctor Biobrain said...

Alright Scott, I guess I'll have to wait for your response. But I suspect that you're barking up the wrong tree. I'm not a big disrespecter of religion or anything. Hell, I'm not even particularly anti-god; and consider myself to be agnostic on the issue. Overall, I'm a live and let live kind of guy. They can believe whatever they like, as long as I get to sleep in on Sunday and watch dirty movies.

But I don't think that the position I'm taking on this is particularly controversial or wrong. Even the smarter religionists eventually fall back on the God position to explain their beliefs, as I'll be showing in a soon-to-be-published post. I'm guessing that a god is a pretty helpful crutch for explaining things and that if you've got one, you might as well use it. But in my opinion, this is nothing but god abuse and might possibly be tantamount to blasphemy (assuming there's a god to blaspheme). And in that regard, I am a much greater respecter of religion than most. I may not believe in God, but I'm certainly not going to exploit his name to defend my position.

BTW, you can use the "Other" identity to type in whatever name you like without registering, so you don't have to use anonymous. It's no biggie for me, but things can get confusing if more than one anonymous shows up.