Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holy Argument

I've been reading a remarkable little book lately, by James P. Carse, entitled The Religious Case Against Belief (The Penguin Press, 2008). I may eventually publish a fuller review. But I wanted to comment on a key insight in the book, especially given its relevance to those of us who have been caught, in one way or another, in the debate over Proposition 8. The relevant insight has to do with his examination of the nature of belief, and the impact of conflict or opposition on belief.

Carse convincingly demonstrates how belief is not only immune to debate, but how it literally thrives on it. Anyone who has engaged in a passionate argument with somebody else knows from experience how this works. Each combatant has their own strong beliefs about a subject -- no matter what the topic -- and enters the debate firmly convinced that their opponent is wrong and that, by the light of reason, they will be convinced of their error. The debate is thorough-going. Each side rehearses all the multitude of reasons why their position is right and their opponent is wrong. Any one of these reasons, they think, should convince a rational person. How much more will they be convinced by this veritable arsenal of reasons?

But is anyone convinced? Of course not! At a certain point in the debate, the combatants begin to repeat what they feel are their most convincing arguments again and again and again. Neither side is really talking to the other any more, just re-stating their arguments with ever-increasing loudness and passion. Finally the debate not so much ends as it is cut off, with each side furious that the other side won't see the light of reason, each side more convinced than ever that their side is right and the other side is wrong.

Within the LDS tradition, there is a strong ethic against debate. The scriptural basis, cited frequently by Latter-day Saints, are the words of Jesus Christ himself as recorded in 3 Nephi: "For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another" (11:29). But apart from this scriptural admonition against contention, a central spiritual practice of Mormonism is conducive to the reduction of debate, namely the practice of encouraging the believer to seek wisdom from God on his or her own.

Mormons believe that God is the ultimate source of all wisdom and authority. In a significant sense, the founding text of Mormonism is James 1:5: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." This is of course the admonition that led Joseph Smith to ask God himself which of all the "contending" religious parties of his day was right. And God's answer to Joseph: None of them. All the combatants were wrong.

Joseph himself attracted followers not by browbeating them or seeking to prove the wrongness of their ways, but by encouraging them to do the same thing he did: Go ask God yourself! Don't listen to me. Study it, think about it, and then ask God and listen to what the Holy Spirit tells you, if anything. The Book of Mormon is remarkable among the world's religious texts for doing the same thing in writing that Joseph did in person: literally inviting its readers not just to believe the book on its own authority, but to ask God if it is true: "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4). For many, many Latter-day Saints (including me), the acceptance of that challenge was one of the most significant events in our spiritual biographies.

Because Mormons are wary of contention, which they see as emanating from the Evil One, and because of their bedrock foundation that every human being has direct access to the One Source of All Truth, which will ultimately be the only way anybody can or should be convinced of religious truth, they are rarely willing to enter into vigorous debate over spiritual matters. Thus the notoriously dull and boring Mormon Sunday School lessons and Priesthood and Relief Society meetings, where nobody dares offer a peep of disagreement with whatever is being presented. But, when we read James Carse's account of all the evils that have flowed from religious contention and war, we might find in that at least some validation of the Mormon ethic of avoiding all contention as the product of the Devil.

Yet, one of the things that has always fascinated me about the Jewish tradition is the commitment of Jews to the opposite. Jews love lively debate! When I taught my religious history class last spring and encouraged my students to attend worship in a religious community they were unfamiliar with, a few of my students attended meetings at a Jewish synagogue, where they reported the presence of a spirit of very wide-ranging, open dialogue in which members of the community were encouraged to disagree not only with each other but with their own rabbi! The rabbi wanted her congregants to argue with her! Remarkable! For it seems that within the Jewish tradition, unlike the Mormon tradition, it is believed that the best way to weed truth out from falsehood is to put it to the test of argument. Is this, from the Mormon point of view, somehow evil? Or is it possible for there to exist a kind of holy argument, a sacred debate through which God can reveal truth to us?

Everything, I think, hinges on the way in which argument is conducted. A careful reading of 3 Nephi 11:29 shows that it is not argument itself which is evil, but "the spirit of contention." In other words, contention for contention's sake. Or, applying the insights of James Carse, contention in which the contenders have no interest in or willingness to listen to those arguing with them and are unwilling to reconsider their own opinions. A debate will proceed very differently if the debaters enter it thinking, "Well, I think I'm right, and I have some good reasons for feeling right, but I might be wrong and, well, it will be interesting to see what the other guy has to say. Maybe I'll learn something new!" In such a debate, each side actively listens by trying to put themselves in their opponent's shoes. A good exercise in such a debate would be for each contender to state, in his own words, what he believes his opponent is arguing, and then asking for confirmation from their opponent. Ultimately, in such "sacred argument," it is necessary for each debater to be fully committed to the humanity, rationality, and decency of their opponents. The moment we begin to suspect (much less say!) that disagreement equals irrationality, stupidity, or maliciousness, we have lost the debate.

In a sense we must enter a debate like the ancient Roman Gladiators, with the motto: "We who are about to die salute you!" We who are about to be proven wrong, enter the arena where our assumptions will be challenged and perhaps shattered.

I'm not advocating that Mormons start debating in Sunday School; nor am I suggesting that Mormons ought to change their ethic of avoiding "contention." It has served us well, and trying to argue more might be disastrous if we don't have a strong culture (like Jews) that supports the right kind of argument. Nevertheless, in those situations where Mormons do argue -- as they have over Proposition 8 -- it might be worthwhile to ask, first of all, Why have Mormons abandoned their traditional insistence on avoiding debate on this particular issue? And second, If we must debate, can we do it in a way that does not banish the Holy Spirit from our hearts and from our communities?

Is there a way to make our arguments a sacred opportunity for the Holy Spirit to enter and convince us not of the other's error, but of our own?


Reuben said...

Nice post. I seem to remember reading somewhere about how debate was fostered during the Brigham Young years. Someone was telling me about all the open debates Brigham Young used to have with one of the Orsons (can't keep them all straight in my mind...).

I think the church's inability to effectively answer the question of "Of all issues, why take such a firm stance on THIS ONE?" is what has many members of the church perplexed. The church only seems to be repeating "It's a MORAL issue, not a political issue, that's why." ...but there are plenty of other moral issues that they are completely silent about.

J G-W said...

Well, based on anecdotal testimony, I've heard it suggested that there was a time when Mormon Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society meetings were once much more lively, and there was more allowance for disagreement and debate. Armand Mauss certainly makes that case in his study of post-1950s Mormonism, The Angel and the Beehive. It wouldn't surprise me if Brigham Young enjoyed and encouraged good-spirited debate among the Saints.

"Good-spirited" would be the key. The truth is, it takes a high level of trust for good-spirited debate to take place. We need to feel comfortable enough with those we are debating not to get defensive, not to fear judgment for disagreeing.

In that sense, you could even argue that, paradoxically, debate is most possible and most constructive when the Saints are truly "one," when their love for one another is most unconditional.

Knight of Nothing said...

Yesterday I saw a bumper sticker that made me laugh out loud: "God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts."

If Carse is saying that certain kinds of religious arguments cannot come to a conclusion because "belief" trumps facts and reason, I can agree with that completely. Sadly, I've seen that in action.

That is the problem with debating religion in general: a paucity (if not utter lack) of observable data and agreed-upon facts. The argument goes in circles because neither side can agree upon atomic knowledge. Especially maddening is when observable data is simply ignored in favor of "belief."

J G-W said...

Sam - Actually, a key to Carse's argument is that abundance of facts does not help.

Debaters always present facts, lots of them. The emotional/social rules of debate don't change in the presence of facts.

Scientists have been presenting the "facts" about evolution for about 150 years now. If facts alone could convince anybody, belief in evolution should be virtually universal now. Instead, survey after survey is showing that belief in "Creationism" is stronger now than it was in 1925, at the moment of the "triumph" of evolutionary science in the wake of the Scopes trial.

The point is, argument does not help. Argument always entrenches the opposition rather than convincing them.

In other words, the louder folks like Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens shout that all religion is bad and religious people are irrational, the more likely they are to produce precisely the kind of fundamentalist backlash that they fear...

Knight of Nothing said...

Regarding the survey that shows more people cling to Creationism now than they did 80 years ago... Is this phenomenon a backlash against scientists 'forcing' their theories ('beliefs') on people? Or is this backlash fueled by religious fundamentalists fanning the flames of a controversy that should have died away by now?

I think it is the latter. And I think attitudes regarding evolution held by our neighbors in Western Europe would support me on that - the surveys of which we speak were done in the U.S. Similar surveys elsewhere paint a very different picture of the acceptance of evolution in the rest of the industrialized world.

The rising voices of Dawkins, et. al. are an uncompromising response to this fundamentalist backlash. What data is a creationist producing? What facts are presented to support a creationist's position? Are their suppositions and theories falsifiable? I've tried to seek honest answers to these questions. But the answers just don't satisfy.

Perhaps in this climate of increasingly confrontational rhetoric, Carse's point makes sense. But I for one appreciate the injection of clear reasoning, energy, and passion into the discussion that Harris and Dawkins provide.

Looking forward to reading Carse's tome in its entirety. You're still going to loan it to me, right?

J G-W said...

Carse's point is that combatants in a debate fuel each other. Like Batman and the Joker, one cannot exist without the other. So, by definition, you can't just blame one side. It always takes two to tango.

Historical events play a big role in how debates unfold/come into existence. Pointing out that there are fewer Christian fundamentalists in Western Europe doesn't prove that American fundamentalists "started" the fight!! Most historians agree that fundamentalism was a response to the rise of modern science. So the question to ask might be, instead, What happened in Europe that made it so that science and religion could co-exist more peacefully than they do here in the U.S.? Why did science not provoke a fundamentalist backlash in Europe like it did in America?

Is it the fact that the state church establishments in Europe were more erudite, and thus more easily embraced scientific views about the history of the earth? Or is it that European pietism was more mystical, and thus less concerned about seeming conflicts between faith and science?

I don't claim to know enough about European religious history to answer those questions myself. But if Carse's arguments hold water, one would expect to find that, in fact, Europe has avoided the kind of polarization we see here over evolution by finding some kind of "middle way," in which scientists avoided attacking cherished religious beliefs, and religious leaders let science do its thing without getting in a tizzy.

I hasten to add that if Europeans seem more enlightened on the issue of evolutionary science, they have had their own problems with "belief" as Carse defines it... Many of the great world tragedies of the twentieth-century were sponsored by European "belief systems," some religious (Kosovo), some pseudo-religious (Naziism), some officially atheist (Stalinism).

The question I would put to Dawkins et al. is, Have they actually convinced anybody? I personally know nobody who started out religious, read Dawkins, and then said, "Yup. He's right. I'm chucking my religion today." On the other hand I've heard many, many, many impassioned arguments raised in counter protest. And of course, many atheists who have similarly felt strengthened in their convictions -- both by Dawkins and by the protests against Dawkins! In other words, deepening schism, no real talking (or thinking) across the divide.

Not EVERYBODY has responded by heightening the rhetoric. I have also heard folks who agree with Dawkins admit that some of his arguments were a bit extreme. And I personally have granted that though I disagree with his thesis, there's much about Dawkins I like and admire. So we can choose how to respond; we can try to find a via media that keeps people talking (and thinking). But that's the point... Better to move in that direction than the other.

J G-W said...

Oh, and yes, will be happy to loan you The Religious Case Against Belief!

J G-W said...

The one other thing I might add is that the one thing that disturbs me slightly about Dawkins is he makes a big point of not allowing a middle ground. Dawkins is almost as harsh on "agnostics" as he is on believers.

Furthermore, he makes a point of trashing the main modus vivendi between liberal religion and science, namely, the "two spheres" concept. By insisting that science can answer all questions that matter, he virtually guarantees a fight.

Now, oddly, I happen to agree with Dawkins that the "two spheres" concept has major holes in it. But it's not because I think there's no valid place for spirituality. It's because I find significant overlap between science and religion that stands to enrich both, if we ask the right questions in the right way.

Knight of Nothing said...

Well, I for one never dreamed I would ever call myself an "atheist," even as recently as two years ago. So you can count me as one who Dawkins and Harris convinced. And here we are, talking across the divide!

I agree: some of Dawkins writing is pretty heavy-handed and sounds, well, loud. But listening to him speak, it is pretty apparent that he is actually a fairly soft-spoken, light-handed, good-humored person (same with Hitchens, to some degree). And when you insert Dawkins' voice into the text, you can see that he really is trying to persuade, convince, prod, and challenge people to rethink "belief." From what you've said, this is exactly what Carse is trying to do.

I don't want to seem reductionist; I'm not saying science=good, religion=bad. I would even take your comment about Europeans further, and argue that at least some of Europe's 20th century "belief" problems actually stemmed from a kind of "fundamentalist" science - "scientific" justification for racism was rampant in the first half of the 20th century.

You say that it takes two to tango. Of course! But for a long time there was not much of a debate, at least not one of which I am aware. So why has it exploded with such ferocity in the last 20 years, and how did we get to this point?

Finally, you posed my question better than I did, but it is still the same question, and a good one: why is the U.S. trending *away* from embracing scientific knowledge, while our peers are not?

Knight of Nothing said...

FYI - I posted my comment before I saw your two additional replies :-)

J G-W said...

Knowing you as I have for nigh on 20 years now, I would say you were actually "trending" atheist long before Dawkins came along. So if you're now willing to come out of the agnostic camp and call yourself a proud atheist thanks to Dawkins, that sort of makes my point about his argument having the effect of deepening the divide.

I get your point about Dawkins being more conciliatory in person than on paper... Though that doesn't help the millions whose first and only contact with him is on paper. And, as I pointed out in my "P.S." post, a central agenda of his book is to deny the possibility of quarter or middle ground. The end of his book is a veritable call to arms, a "Save the children from religion!" plea. Now if you want to guarantee that your argument gets taken as fighting words, let's end by telling Christians they shouldn't raise their kids as Christians!!

Because... In answer to your question, What has ramped up the fight in the last 20 years? The answer, I think, is SCHOOLS. Nothing gets people more riled up than questions related to that most intimate of all problems, How do I raise my children with the right values? Nothing gets parents more hot than the suggestion that they're doing it wrong, and so somebody else has the right to contradict them, or come in and do it for them.

How did the religious right win Prop 8? By arguing that kindergartners would be forced to learn about homosexuality in the schools if gay marriage was allowed to stand. Who cares that it's total tripe? It proves the power of the school argument.

How we educate our children is arguably one of the most politically fraught issues in American history. Public or private or home schooled? Religious or secular? That's a storied battleground already, and then add evolution to the mix, and Kablooey!

J G-W said...

I like your point about "scientific" racism in Europe... It's right along the lines of Carse's argument about belief, and the way it thrives to devastating effect in almost any environment, scientific or religious.

Just as most scientists today look at "social Darwinism" and exclaim that it ain't social, and it ain't Darwinism... So people of all faiths look at what extremists claiming the mantle of "Islam" or "Christianity" or "Hinduism" or "Judaism" have done, and can only throw up their hands in despair and say, "That's not what we're about!"

Knight of Nothing said...

"I would say you were actually "trending" atheist long before Dawkins came along."

It's interesting to hear you say that... You could be right. But I actually spent a good deal of time arguing with MTK, and BMS before him, in favor of theism! (You know who I'm talking about.) It is true that I settled into a more or less agnostic position, but that was a more recent development.

Dawkins arguments about the "two spheres" is what convinced me that the middle ground of "agnostic" as I (and many/most others) had defined it was untenable. And you seem to agree with that. Where we may part is that I don't think Dawkins is "deepening the divide" for conflict's sake. I think he is simply exposing the flaws and gaps in the logic of such a position. And that to me is the purpose of debate.

Children and schools. Of course! You nailed it. But again, why the difference between Western European education and the United States' education? A mystery... More information and evidence needed!

J G-W said...

There does seem to be a growing consensus that the "two spheres" separation of science and religion is problematic, untenable even -- both from a scientific and from a theological perspective.

Carse argues for a different kind of middle ground based on sort of agnosticism. He argues that belief/knowledge is a kind of violence against the self. This self-directed violence is the root of violence directed against others, in the form of projecting our suppression of doubt on the world around us.

Belief/knowledge is always based on facts that are out of context. We can't ultimately know the context of what we "know" because to do that we would have to know everything -- which we don't and never will. Every kind of knowledge/belief thus is also a kind of not-knowing. To say that someone else is wrong assumes that you know everything about the context of what you know and they supposedly don't know. That kind of knowledge is possible in the realm of small-scale truths, which require little context to understand. Such as, the answer to the question, Did it rain last night in Minneapolis between 5 and 7 p.m.? But it gets more problematic when the question is something like, Is there some ordering intelligence at work in the Cosmos?

Dawkins dismisses this kind of agnosticism, because he insists you can't distinguish between flights of personal fancy and genuine religious experience (i.e., revelation). In fact he would argue that there's no such thing as the latter. To him it's all just personal fancy. So we might as well take seriously a belief in a giant Spaghetti Monster or a teapot in space as in God.

But that is precisely where Dawkins stumbles. Because nobody worships the Giant Spaghetti Monster, and nobody believes in a teapot in space, while billions of people worship God, precisely because they recognize and experience a profound difference between religious experience and the kinds of personal whim that could manufacture a make-believe god.

The insistence that there are no rational grounds for faith in the face of evidence that many, many very rational people have faith is precisely the kind of suppression that Carse categorizes as "belief." Does Dawkins (or anybody) really know what the context is for any other person's faith (or doubt)? To those of us who experience faith, and who see the fruit it bears in our lives, Dawkins comes across not as clear-headed, rational, and reasonable, but as, well, petty and patronizing.

But one of the areas where I agree emphatically with Dawkins -- and I think I commented on this to you at the time I read it -- that people of faith can also overreach by insisting that their experience, their revelation gives them the right to judge Dawkins or others for their lack of faith. That, Carse argues, is only possible in the context of a "belief system" and is likewise the root of violence against self and others.

In other words, there is a middle ground rooted in the refusal to know/believe, that permits the quest for truth, that allows all of us to ask (and try to answer) both "how" and "why" questions, and that has the potential to ground individuals and societies in an ethic of peace, humility and respect.

But we have to give up on "being right."

J G-W said...

Having just said that, I must now admit agnosticism as to the level of your personal theism, and whether or not you count as a "convert" swayed by Dawkins' arguments!


J G-W said...

As to the question of how the politics of American schooling have become so volatile... Again, I can say little about Europe, knowing not much about the history of public education there. But I can say that this has never NOT been an issue in American history.

Throughout much of the 19th century, American public schools were decidedly Protestant in orientation. Catholics responded by creating their own private school system (which your kids benefited from). Jews responded by fighting to make the public schools more religiously neutral (i.e., secular). Because I am a strong believer in the value of public education, and public support for education, I favor the Jewish solution.

But one of the very, very first issues that led certain Protestants to assume a more "Fundamentalist" orientation had to do with extreme concern that schools were losing the Protestant Christian ethos they once had. So it could reasonably be argued that the secularization of schools that so many of us champion still today, helped "create" the fundamentalism that frightens us and that spurs us to battle.

sara said...

I really enjoy reading about your classes/teaching/lectures.

sara said...

...and incidentally, the place it comes from in Jewish scripture is the writing in Pirke Avot

"A controversy for heaven's sake will have lasting value,

But a controversy not for heaven's sake will not endure."

Also written after a famous argument is, "Both these and these are the words of the Living God," the idea is that after the end of the prophets, the debates and study are the replacement, and are holy of themselves. ("Eilu v'eilu" or


Also that it is said that in court, if the judges have not at some point during the trial been convinced for each side, it wasn't a fair trial.

J G-W said...

Sara -- WONDERFUL, amazing quotes and thoughts... Thank you!