Monday, July 10, 2006

Facts of the Apostles

I was recently reading the J-h-v-h's Witnesses textbook/handbook/manifesto Reasoning From the Scriptures. It's a fascinating look at one group's rhetorical strategies. The book instructs the evangelist on techniques for broaching the subject of belief and faith with people who may fall into one or several of various categories: Those who don't believe in a god, those who believe in a different god, those who have a negative view of the J-h-v-h's Witnesses, those who are receptive, those who say they are busy, those who believe they have already dealt with and shooed the Witnesses away...

Well I've been thinking and reading about disagreements lately. I love a good verbal navigation through the eddies and tides of different opinions. And if the discussion gets heated and the volume starts to rise I'm still happy to forge on.

But why do I brace myself when religion surfaces? Several weeks ago I exchanged ideas regarding the salvation doctrine in Christianity. It was a short discussion that very quickly veered off course and ended abruptly. As I think back on it, what happened was a simple realization that our accepted facts are different.

Is it possible to continue a discussion when the accepted facts are avowedly different? I would say so - but it requires a brief window argument - an argument within an argument to clarify terms and premises - then a return to see where the views are discurrent. To abandon this strategy too early leads to the Bill O'Reilly habit of "Well - I say you're wrong so I guess we'll have to agree to disagree." It's a cop-out.

This form of retreat ignores one vital concern of any discussion - the belief of the implications of the facts. The Socratic method of trapping your opponent is brutally aware of the importance of implicative - or "thus" formulation. You get the other to agree that if X then Y. And you can best lure them in by saying "Okay - Y is not likely. You don't believe Y. But is there any way that you will accept Y? Oh - you'll accept Y if X? Well then . . ."

Anticipating this loophole the adroit arguer effectively asserts X. The other has already promised to agree. Because of the implication of a fact.

The J-h-v-h's Witnesses obviously believe there is a key implication to fact regarding the shape of the structure on which Jesus was hung to die. They believe there is a key implication of the fact that birthday celebrations are never mentioned in a positive light in the Bible.

Last week I also read The Marked Bible by Charles L Taylor. This novel-ish book claims to tell a story of a young rebel who leaves home then finds a Bible marked by his mother. And he turns back to a life of goodness.

No plot. No character development. Nothing but a set of pawnish players whose changes come about through epiphany, and the preachers who answer their questions - questions that are very obviously planted by an author with an agenda.

I'm also bothered by the assumption of what the argued facts implicate. It begins with a portrait of a young man who rejects his parents' teachings. And the young man is evil because of what he rejects. I almost have to give this author credit for making sure that the young man is really evil - he doesn't rely on mere apostacy; he stresses that the young man has become a drunkard a gambler and a criminal. I refrain from commendation because I'm tired of the post hoc ergo propter hoc argument so common in religious upbringing.

This book assumes from the very beginning several implications of facts and goes through in a very systematic way to argue and defeat challenges to the final claims about the Seventh-day Adventist religion. The greatest disservice that a book like this does is to ignore any challenges to the primary assumptions.

And here I find I'm bracing myself because of how I believe many of my acquaintances would view me if they knew my accepted facts. A friend of mine recently "came out" religiously (no jokes about being on his knees people - he just revealed some agnosticism about common and fundamental church beliefs). His coming out was received just like it is in its more usual context. Some were supportive. Some asked questions at arms distance. Some were upset and worried. I imagine their various thoughts would have sounded like this:

"Has he always been agnostic?"
"What was he thinking when we had that discussion in the locker room that one time?"
"Can I trust him now? Will his skepticism rub off on me?"
"To be honest I think we're all skeptical to a degree."
"What's important is that he knows we'll always love him."

Each of these thoughts focuses on a fear or an assurance about what can now be predicted. And for some people, more important than the entire history of the friendship is the new future they see simply because of cherished and rejected facts.


  1. Best post ever, Michael. I think you're right to zero in on the problem of "accepted facts" or "primary assumptions." I used to go on for hours with a good friend of mine, a protestant, about details and consequences and epistemology; almost always, the conversation eventually grinded to a halt--not in bad faith, simply like a dead end.

    As honestly as I can recall it, I would have to say that I was the one who was responsible for the impasse... my friend had and was willing to share his primary assumptions; I had a much more difficult time committing to anything. I suppose it stemmed from a natural (learned?) hesitation whenever I someone approaches those Socratic moments of "thusness."

    I wonder what's so scary about being persuaded.

  2. There's often this strange spot in a discussion where I find myself looking at a few options: tell you why I really believe this OR admit that from the angle your argument takes your conclusion is valid OR stress that the conclusions we reach are both valid tho different.

    Maybe every argument goes through these options.

    The highest hurdle for me is that place where I might have to reveal that I think one of the views is based on a simplistic or uninformed or biased perspective.

    I end up being either a jerk or a fool.


Thanks for reaching out.

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