I argue and discuss this stuff for a living (what a cool job!). And the way I think of it often is that what the arguments I present do, if they are good ones, is force someone to make some choices about what their view about X is. What the Salem Witch Trials argument does, and does well, is force the Christian who thinks that we should believe that Jesus REALLY did perform magic on the basis of the Gospels to take one of two positions. They can argue that it is not reasonable to think that the women accused at Salem really were performing magic themselves on the basis of that evidence, but on the basis of the Gospel evidence it is reasonable to think that Jesus performed magic. Or they can bite the other bullet and agree that their standard of proof requires them to admit that both Jesus and the witches REALLY did perform magic. As I see it, both of these positions are really embarrassing to any smart person who thinks about it—but the prevalent acceptance of the Jesus miracles as real seems to have diminished the extent to which people are embarrassed by it who should be.
If you argue that the women in Salem weren’t really performing magic, even though we have a truckload of evidence comparable to the Jesus evidence that they did, then you have to argue that the Jesus case is somehow different. These attempts quickly appear to be ad hoc, special pleading, or otherwise inconsistent. But people will rarely admit being inconsistent straight out, especially when they get mad. If the believer takes the other route and argues that they were all performing real magic, then at least that position has the virtue of some consistency and it isn’t so flagrantly ad hoc. The embarrassing part is that this person has said something that the vast majority of thoughtful, educated adults find utterly ridiculous, namely that those women really were performing magic. The Salem Witch Trials, in the minds of the vast majority of thoughtful people, are the consummate example of just how far astray human enthusiasm and fear can take even large groups of people into irrationality. Indeed, the reasons historians are so interested in the case is that we're all sure that they weren't witches, but all of those otherwise normal, reasonable people got themselves convinced that they were. What's remarkable is that so many people could talk themselves into something that was so clearly false.
And by "really performed magic, we don’t mean they had some books or they merely did some rituals, but that they actually summoned some supernatural, miraculous forces and caused events to happen outside the ordinary course of nature. If a person in the 21st century who has a decent education and can read the newspaper and otherwise think for themselves is willing to stand up in public and say, “Yes, it is reasonable to believe on the basis of the witch trial evidence that Sarah Goode and Rebbecca Nurse and the rest actually were witches,” then I confess I don’t know what else to say. II take that admission to be a flat out reductio of their view about the authenticity of the Jesus magic stories. I think the discussion at this point has probably reached the end of any constructive use. That strikes me as so childish and irresponsible that I just can’t be charitable with the reasons I am hearing any more and I have to conclude that the person in question is simply too deep in the grips of an ideology to be reasoned with. I know that this sounds ad hominem, but at some point, I am just not willing to keep chasing down the issues and arguing vigorously for points that I take to be plainly obvious and common sense. Arguments have to come to rest on some common foundations. We often run into this problem when we try to deal with someone who is deeply wrapped up in a conspiracy theory. Ultimately, there's just no reasoning with them because obvious absurdities don't bother them. This position is akin to taking the view that astrological forecasts really do work. The only sort of person who really insists on that is someone who just hasn’t thought about it very much, or someone who just doesn’t know very much, or who is so enamored of the idea that they just can’t see straight any more. While I do think it is very important to have open, constructive talks about God beliefs so that we can try to sort the question out, some people just aren’t going to relent because they have too much invested in the God worldview’s being right. And that investment will force them in the end to not be reasonable.
Friday, December 12, 2008