Thursday, July 08, 2004

Living a lie

In trying to prove or persuade someone that he is wrong, a standard method is to show that one of his stated beliefs is inconsistent with another of his stated beliefs. A related technique is to show that his stated belief is inconsistent with the evidence.

Now, assuming that your demonstration is successful, the logical outcome would be for your interlocutor to make whatever adjustments were necessary to harmonize his beliefs with one another or with the evidence.

After all, why does he believe something unless he takes it to be true? Why does he disbelieve something unless he takes it to be false? Put another way, why does he believe that it is right to believe one thing and wrong to believe another unless he believes that one of them is right, and the other is wrong?

So, if he’s proven wrong by his own yardstick, then you would reasonably expect him to change his position accordingly—to do the honorable thing by withdrawing his original objection and coming over to your side.

All this makes flawless sense, does it not? And that is what sometimes occurs.

What is striking, though, is how often it does not occur. How often he sticks to his old routine. How often he will repeat the same old arguments, even though these have been disproven, even though he has no answer, no rebuttal, no counterargument.

There are many examples of this. Let’s take a few religious examples. In the conflict with Rome, the papal apologist used to claim that Peter was the first Pope, whereas the Protestant polemicist would reply that this was wildly anachronistic—for Roman primacy and monarchal episcopacy only arose at a later date. Nowadays, contemporary Catholic scholarship has come around to the Protestant position, but without changing its religious allegiance.

Again, the papal apologist used to appeal to the False Decretals to bolster the case for Roman primacy, while the Protestant polemicist argued that the Decretals were spurious. Nowadays, contemporary Catholic scholarship has come around to the Protestant position, but without changing its religious allegiance.

Once again, the papal apologist used to claim that the distinctive dogmas of Rome were traceable to oral apostolic tradition, while the Protestant polemicist denied that that was either demonstrable or even feasible. Nowadays, contemporary Catholic scholarship has come around to the Protestant position, but without changing its religious allegiance.

Or let us take a political illustration. Even though Islam has a continuous Jihadist tradition, going all the way back to the Koran, and extending from the Middle Ages and modern era right up to the present day, with militant Muslims slaughtering the innocent every day, and plotting mass murder on the Western world, yet many Western liberals rush to the defense of Islam, and instead view the real enemy and mortal menace as Christian fundamentalism, even though this represents a non-violent minority group. No matter how many attacks take place, no matter how many murderous plots are uncovered or thwarted, no matter that this is all done in the name of Islam, and supported by Mullahs and Imams in the Muslim world, and no matter the extreme rarity of vigilante justice among Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists, yet the liberals persist in their belief.

Indeed, they’ve spun a grand conspiracy theory to justify their belief. And, of course, conspiracy theories are self-reinforcing, for very absence of evidence or presence of contrary evidence is cited as evidence for the success of the propaganda machine to cover its own tracks and generate a disinformation campaign. If you can’t see it, then that proves it’s there! The fix is in!

We’ve all gotten so used to this mentality that the utter oddity of it may have worn off. But surely it is passing strange. Surely it calls for some special explanation.

In trying to account for this peculiar phenomenon, we should begin by asking ourselves what, exactly, is the function of belief.

For many folks, the function of a belief or belief-system is not alethic—not about the truth, but sociological. A shared belief-system is the social adhesive that glues together their otherwise disparate social bonds.

They believe something, or profess to believe something, because that is the price of admission into their social circle. That is the cover charge for social acceptance, affirmation, approval, and advancement.

I am not saying that this is the only role or proper role for believing in something. I’m just saying that this explains a common credulity or tenacity of belief.

Those who believe this way do, indeed, have reasons for what they believe. But their reasons have nothing to do with inner coherence or factual correspondence. They are not attracted to a belief or belief-system because it is true, but because it is useful. It gains them social access and social respect. It ropes them in with one social group and cordons them off from another.

Indeed, the two are correlative. They are what they are by what they are not. What sets them apart from the one is what attaches them to the other.

And such expediency has its own logic, for it delivers a practical payoff. It makes life livable—at least in the short-term.

And that is why such people are impervious to reason. For their position is both reasonable and unreasonable. It is reasonable in a pragmatic sense, but unreasonable in a factual or alethic sense.

Most folks are social chameleons. Once one of them gets wrapped up in a social role, it is almost impossible to get past the mask and the make-up to reach the real person. They can’t even admit to themselves that they are only play-acting. Like a method actor, they become the part they play. There is no longer a face beneath the mask.

So some beliefs are a form of encoded sign language, a symbolic marker of group membership. They are the functional equivalent of a uniform, accent, secret handshake, cross, yamulke, Hassidic dreadlocks, Jewish circumcision, Sikh hairdo, Quaker speech and dress, gang colors and hand-signs, passwords and countersigns, and so on.

Just as it would be a category mistake to ask whether a yamulke is true or false, it is, at this level, irrelevant to ask whether a belief is true or false—at least for a man whose belief is only a membership badge.

This is, of course, a half-truth. For beliefs are referential and relational—they are about something. As such, beliefs are true or false. And it can make a difference whether your belief about the world is true to the way the world is. But someone doesn't come to a belief-structure from that perspective, if his viewpoint is purely sociological, then no amount of argument and evidence will dent his convictions.

Because their motives are essentially emotional and utilitarian, the only thing that will shift them from their original position is a personal crisis in which what they believe, or profess to believe, carries an unacceptable cost.

And, indeed, it is life-threatening to live a lie. A man on a drug high may ever so sincerely believe that he can fly, but flapping his arms will not soften the landing if he leaps from a skyscraper.

Not going to the doctor for fear that I might be diagnosed with cancer will not prevent cancer or save me from terminal cancer. Rather, it may prevent me from receiving the only therapy that would otherwise have saved me from terminal cancer.

Many men gamble with the truth. And, in this life, their gamble may sometimes pay off. They beat the odds.

This is, in part, because a fallen world is like a casino in which you have a conspiracy of fraud. I’ll let you cheat if you let me cheat. The sticker price may be high, but if the price tag is the same for every player, it's a bargain.

Both true and false beliefs can serve a sociological purpose. Like a double-bladed sword, the truth is—at one and the same time—a touchstone of unity and disunity. For the truth is what unites the truth-lovers while dividing them from the truth-haters.

And this brings us to the ultimate explanation. Because sinners are too proud, too afraid, or too ashamed to admit their guilt, they concoct an alibi and impeach the character of their accuser (Jn 3:19-20; Rom 1:18ff.). They form a law firm of corporate sinners to defend and acquit one another’s sin. They rehearse the same story and cover for each other. If everyone is guilty, then no one is guilty, for no one can afford to indict another.

We much make allowance for this. No everyone is reasonable. It is no necessary failure on our part if we cannot reach the unreachable. We can only try. In the end, they are answerable only to God, and he alone can compel their testimony.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

I never sang for my father

In a recent article, Dennis Prager tries to analyze the roots of Jewish and liberal American self-hatred. A couple of his explanations attract particular interest:

"Many leftists are psychologically adolescents. And one feature of adolescent psychology is anger at a parent who claims very high ideals and turns out to be flawed. Many on the Left are angry at America and Israel for being imperfect and therefore disappointing them."

"Many American leftists base a large part of their case against George W. Bush on his having increased anti-American sentiments around the world. This makes leftists livid—again, like adolescents, they yearn to be part of the in-crowd (meaning America- and Israel-haters) and fear being disliked."

What makes these two explanations to be especially interesting is that they invite a deeper, doctrinal grounding. Many leftists don't believe in God. But all this means is that they transfer their natural, irrepressible belief in God to some mundane object of veneration. In this case, the state becomes their God. For the state is another authority figure. Indeed, the liberal would like the state to take the place of divine providence.

There are a couple of ways in which you can see the liberal apotheosis of the state. One example is the manner in which liberals personify the state, as if it were a living, immemorial agent. They rehearse all of the historic "crimes" of "America." When a current administration breaks with past policy, they accuse it of hypocrisy.

On the face of it, this is a very odd way of characterizing what is, after all, just an abstraction. "America" is not a person with a life-history. The "government" is not a person with a life-history. Why should I feel guilty for what someone else did? Why should I feel bound by what someone else did? Their past is not my past. Their evil is not my evil.

Another instance is the sense of betrayal and indignation when "America" lets them down. They react just the way an adoring son might react when he discovers that dear old dad is cheating on mom, or lands in jail for tax evasion. Suddenly his worshipful attitude turns to bitter disillusionment and open rebellion. It is embarrassing, even demeaning, to be his son. He feels abused and ashamed.

But, again, this is a rather peculiar way of relating to the state. Why take it so personally? Most politicians are strangers, not fathers. And why expect a politician to be above reproach?

Yet if you deify the state, if the state is your subliminal surrogate for God, then any declension from godlike perfection is unpardonable. Isn't God supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent, just and wise? And, indeed, he is. But the state is a poor substitute. And the state will inevitably dash their inhuman expectations.

Like some sons who can never forgive their fathers for being finite, fallen and fallible—living in a life-long state of rebellion and resentment—many liberals can never recover from the shocking revelation that their country, that their government, fell short of divine fidelity, foresight, and rectitude. Liberal ideology is arrested adolescence, transposed to a political key.