“God talked to me and gave me understanding of his reality.”
The irony of some Christian positions is the willingness to openly assert lots of claims about reality: God is real, morality is real and from God, Jesus Christ was real, there is an afterlife, etc., but in the end, when pressed for the ultimate arbiter of this so-called knowledge, they appeal to some inner dialogue, “prayer with God,” in which they arrived at some strong feelings that X is true. The willingness to invoke and then suspend the notions of rationality, evidence, argument and reasons at will to sustain such a powerful and implausible ideology is shocking, dangerous, and irresponsible. The irony is that they have so frequently accused the non-believer of being a relativist, a nihilist, and of denying reality while engaging in this ostrich behavior of sticking their heads into the sand of prayer and “consultation with God,” in order to address hard challenges or the incoherencies in their view. Faith gets invoked as the catch all response to every problem when reason fails. The only reality, it would appear, that they are willing to accept is the one that they construct for themselves in their heads. Claiming to aquire truth from God in prayer is selfish, nihilistic, and inhumane.
We tend to think of this prayer practice as quaint and harmless, but what’s gone wrong here is that they’ve abandoned their responsibilities to society, to the human race, to the future of humanity, and to history. The only judge of truth, the only arbiter of reality becomes this self-consultation activity--checking one’s own feelings. And why should we trust those feelings? Because they feel like truths from God. This, I propose, is the consumate act of moral, social, and intellectual irresponsibility to the rest of us. This refusal to acknowledge the hopeless inconsistencies and absurdities of trying to apply a Stone Age ideology to the 21st century, cloak it as the height of moral virtue, and then smuggle it by the rest of us under the protection of religious toleration, is flatly, objectively, morally wrong.
There are good arguments to be made for valuing human flourishing and well-being above other priorities. That is to say that we all have a set of moral, social, legal, and rational duties to ourselves and to the rest of humanity to do our part. We have an obligation to have true beliefs, to justify those beliefs to ourselves and others with the strongest appeal to reasons and evidence we can muster. We have an obligation to educate ourselves with the best corroborated results of our scientific inquiries. When we make important decisions about politics, society, wars, presidents, school boards, scientific funding, education, and so on, each one of us has to work hard to draw from the best pool of information and research that we have. It would be grossly irresponsible, for instance, to get elected to state governor and then consult the books of Nostradamus for guidance on how to lead. It would be dangerous and negligent for a modern doctor to revert to the Medieval scheme of the four vital fluids—phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood—in order to try to cure disease. It would be unacceptable for a modern school teacher to present earth, air, fire, and water as the four basic elements of matter as the ancient Greeks did. It would be worse for the governor, doctor, or engineer to merely consult their feelings as the source of truth about matters that are of life and death to the rest of us.
A person should not operate in an intellectual vacuum as if none of the important discoveries and advances in our knowlede of the world in the last 2,000 years occurred or mattered. (Much of the support for “school choice” seems to arise from a desire to perpetrate exactly this sort of misrepresentation and willful ignorance of reality on unsuspecting children who may never realize what a bill of goods they’ve been sold.)
So when the Christian believer resorts to a consultation with the voice of God they feel in their heads to answer hard questions, it is this set of duties to humankind that they violate. They take decisions that affect the fate of everyone and trivialize them. They say, “The only accountability that I will have for my decisions is checking my feelings.” With their refusal, they say, I’ll demean you, diminish you, dehumanize you, even kill you, and give you no say in the matter. I’ll reject thousands of years of the hardest efforts by humanity to learn about the world. I’ll just opt out for those principles or that ideology that I find intuitively and emotionally satisifying, the one that the magical voice in my head tells me is right, with no concern about its fit with reality. You don’t matter, humanity doesn’t matter, science doesn’t matter, the future doesn’t matter, children don’t matter—all that matters is whether or not I’ve had some non-disconfirmable, highly unreliable intuitions or feelings.
You don’t get to just opt out of all the hard work that the rest of us have done. You don’t get to just consult your feelings and then choose to ignore some well-corroborated fact like you’re picking items from a restaurant menu. Our current understanding of evolution, for example, represents the best, hardest, most carefully vetted and critiqued work that the very best minds in the world have produced. You don’t get to earn a C in a high school biology class, read a few half-baked creationist blogs, and then just announce that carbon dating doesn’t work. You have to earn your view, just like the rest of us. And you have to earn it in the context of the latest, broadest set of scientific conclusions that we have available to us in the 21st century. Once that argument is out there, and once the evidence is there with the theoretical models and predictions to back it up, you can’t reasonably reject it on the basis of some inner contemplation where it feels like you are communicating with God. You don’t get to ignore the mountains of evidence and the countless examples of transitional forms that we now have and then just prounounce, “There are no transitional fossils, therefore evolution is false.” The standard that science holds itself to, and the standard that the rest of us must face is if there is counterevidence that defies expectations or violates our predictions, then we have to adjust what we think is true. A single example of a Jurassic fossil in the Triassic period, or a single appearance of a mammal in the Palogene strata would falsify the predictions of evolutionary theory. But the praying believer blythely tolerates no such disconfirmations of their inner voice. If something doesn’t make sense in their Stone Age world view, if it harbors contradictions and inconsistencies, they happily write them off because that inner, self-affirming voice that no one else gets to check assures them that it is true.
Cross-checking against the evidence, against predictions, and against the critical eye of others is perhaps the single most important method we have ever come across for promoting the state of human knowledge. Nothing else separates fantasy from reality or truth from falsehood faster. But the praying believer who opts for all their ultimate answers in their “communications with God,” has ignored that. They’ve done an end run around what the rest of know and have worked hard to justify in order to arrive at the conclusion they want. They’ve opted for gross intellectual dishonesty by refusing to accept any arbiter of their ideology except their own feelings about the matter. And this is not to mention the free ride they take on everyone else’s hard work the rest of the time. They’ll get that vaccination to prolong their lives, and they’ll use the cell phone transmission network, and they’ll reap a thousand other concrete advantages that the scientific method has brought to their lives. But when those scientific investigations produce conclusions that are unpalatable or that don’t satisfy their feelings, then they jump ship and confidently declare that here science is wrong or worse, here science cannot provide us with answers. The truth hurts sometimes. But that doesn’t justify someone in just opting out, particularly when your opting out has such clear deleterious effects on the rest of us. The rest of us are waiting for you to catch up, and our patience is getting thin.
In the recent Republican primaries, when asked if they believed evolution, Huckabee, Brownback, and Tancredo proudly announced that they did not, as if it was perfectly acceptable for someone to just take or reject the conclusions of science at will without any regard for the reasons or evidence that support those claims. Do I get to just declare that there’s $1,000,000 in my bank account, or that microwaves don’t heat up my food, or that measles is not a virus too? How did that get to be up to Mike Huckabee to decide? And how did we get to the point where we would applaud him deleriously for doing it?
Only checking in with yourself, which is what prayer amounts to, is not an epistemically or morally acceptable method for deciding what’s true.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
“God talked to me and gave me understanding of his reality.”