When argument can’t compete with belief

As a liberal arts (specifically philosophy) major, I was taught the power of argument — of using rational statements, logic, and evidence, to substantiate, attack, or defend the beliefs of oneself or others.

But as I’ve observed in recent years, argument doesn’t seem to be a mode of communication agreed to by everyone, and in a way, arguing is like a game, in that everybody has to agree to play by the rules. These rules include acknowledging that attacking the person rather than the person’s ideas, oversimplifying or misstating the counterargument, and/or simply talking over one’s opponent, are behaviors in violation of the rules.

Examples of people in political realms violating the rules above are numerous, and I won’t point to them now. But this is a problem, because rational argument is about the only rhetorical mode by which people with different background values and beliefs may communicate.

Andrew Sullivan makes this point well in a recent post asserting that many contemporary societies around the world are split into secular and religious camps, and that these divisions seem to be solidifying. Sullivan writes:

The real question, however, is how societies can retain their coherence and unity when they are caught between the reassuring certainties of fundamentalism and the exhilarating disorientation of modernity. The worldviews are from such different places – and are now penetrating cultures which, before the globalization of information, were able to keep them at bay. And so a mutilated woman in Saudi Arabia can see unfathomable sexual pornography with a click of a mouse. And young, hip Tehran youth look on in disbelief as the crudest forms of religious frenzy guide an economy toward the rocks. If you go from the central cities of these countries and venture further and further into the rural heartlands, you will find not only that the blue parts of these countries are getting bluer, but that, in response, many of the red parts are getting redder. Soon, both parties create a different set of facts, as well as beliefs, about their world. Until they are barely able to communicate with each other at all.

and the problem of division becomes a significant issue in agreeing on what can be (and is) known:

All of this is an epic struggle for meaning – and the possibility of meaning in any communal sense. That’s why it’s so intractable. That’s why it is tearing countries and cultures apart. That’s why reasoned debate, however vital, is so disarmed right now. Because pride, honor and identity are at stake. The ressentiment in the rural heartland is echoed by the bigotry of liberal, urban Americans when they discuss their fellow citizens in the redder, fundamentalist states.

I’m not sure there can be a political resolution to this in the short term.

And in another recent article, a young woman who was raised in a strict “Christian apologetic” household described how obedience was valued by her parents:

Obedience was paramount — if we did not respond immediately to being called, we were spanked ten to fifteen times with a strip of leather cut from the stuff they used to make shoe soles. Bad attitudes, lying, or slow obedience usually warranted the same — the slogan was “All the way, right away, and with a happy spirit.” We were extremely well-behaved children, and my dad would sometimes show us off to people he met in public by issuing commands that we automatically rushed to obey. The training was not just external; God commanded that our feelings and thoughts be pure, and this resulted in high self-discipline.

I was not raised this way, and, with my background in philosophical inquiry (with the “question everything” Socratic method), I was struck by how much certainty was valued:

Atheists frequently wonder how an otherwise rational Christian can live and die without seeing the light of science, and I believe the answer to this is usually environment. If every friend, authority figure, and informational source in your life constantly repeat the same ideas, it is difficult not to believe they’re onto something. My world was built of “reasonable” Christians — the ones who thought, who questioned, who knew that what they believed was true. In the face of this strength, my own doubts seemed petty.

and

I had trouble coping with the fact that my entire childhood education now essentially meant nothing — I had been schooled in a sham. I had to start from scratch in entering and learning about this secular world. Uncertainty was not something I was accustomed to feeling.

As a thinker and creative artist, I feel the need to question all of the things I feel certain about — that’s perhaps one way to define creativity. The writer above says that same about science:

I’ve been educating myself in science, a world far more uncertain than the one I left, but also far more honest.

and that what she values the most now is freedom:

Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything.
 My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful.

Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.

This writer also says her father trained her to think logically, to argue, and perhaps it’s that training (along with her curiosity) that led to her “deconversion,” as she calls it.

I hadn’t really heard of “Christian apologetics” before, but I guess I don’t understand the mission of those who would, as Wikipedia states, “present a rational basis for the Christian faith”. Faith would seem to be something that would be emotional and subjective — that is, personal, individual — and thus would not be able to be founded in rationality — faith and rationality seem fundamentally opposed.

This is not to say that faith and rationality aren’t both valid ways of knowing, but are valid when used within their own proper applications — just as we wouldn’t value an artwork just because of its weight (all marble sculptures would be more beautiful by the pound than almost all paintings!), we shouldn’t measure the reality of the physical world by subjective means. I wouldn’t want my guilt or innocence judged by whether someone found my face handsome or ugly — I would want my guilt to be proven, and likewise, if we’re gonna talk to each other, it’s gotta be in objective (publicly visible) ways. The rhetoric of faith cannot be the public rhetoric of a world of diverse faiths and personal experiences.

And so, to have a successful society, we need to be able to listen to each other, rationally, and make arguments (and not just unsupported assertions) to each other. In the previous post, I said that I did not confront someone who made assertions I didn’t agree with — and perhaps we don’t need to take every chance to argue with someone. (Frankly, I was a little afraid of getting punched — but this is why, to refer to my earlier point, argument is a game. We can’t be talking if one party uses physicality rather than words.) But I’d assert that we must be open to debate our views and beliefs if we are to reach beyond our mere subjectivity, our limited personal experiences.

P.S.: I also wanted to link in this idea, from a discussion about Hannah Arendt’s description of Adolph Eichmann:

That evil, Arendt argued, originates in the neediness of lonely, alienated bourgeois people who live lives so devoid of higher meaning that they give themselves fully to movements. It is the meaning Eichmann finds as part of the Nazi movement that leads him to do anything and sacrifice everything. Such joiners are not stupid; they are not robots. But they are thoughtless in the sense that they abandon their independence, their capacity to think for themselves, and instead commit themselves absolutely to the fictional truth of the movement. It is futile to reason with them. They inhabit an echo chamber, having no interest in learning what others believe. It is this thoughtless commitment that permits idealists to imagine themselves as heroes and makes them willing to employ technological implements of violence in the name of saving the world. [bold-emphasis is mine.]

4 responses to “When argument can’t compete with belief

  1. I think if everyone approaching understanding each other the way you did here, with the mutual respect for differing beliefs, we’d have a much better world. Thanks for the post!

  2. “The real question, however, is how societies can retain their coherence and unity when they are caught between the reassuring certainties of fundamentalism and the exhilarating disorientation of modernity.”
    I just finished reading Robert Pinsky’s “Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry” and it speaks directly to this topic and poetry’s place at the “interface” (my term) of these two forces in American culture of “homogeneity/uniformity” on the one side and “factionalism/fragmentation” on the other. Very interesting his take on the solitary/social dichotomy/unity conundrum and how poetry relates. Well worth checking out the book.

    I personally think that basic logic classes should be mandatory in school curriculums. It amazes me how unaware so many people are of the basics of rational argument. I too find the idea of “Christian apologists” a bit of head-scratcher. I was always taught (Catholic education, now recovering) that faith takes over where reason stops.

    Great post–

  3. Thanks for reading it — and thanks for the tip on the Pinsky book. I’ll look for it!

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