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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Fundamental Errors in Representing Other Points of View

After the tremendous length of my last post, I am hoping to keep this post short and sweet. This post is the second installment of series of three to continue the pondering critique I started in my Fundamental Errors post.

In this post, I will be discussing the misquote of H. J. Blackham by Dr. James Kennedy. Kennedy quotes Blackham of saying "The most drastic objection to humanism is that it is too bad to be true.” Kennedy then uses this quote as a summation of the secular humanist worldview and then attacks it as philosophically misguided and inferior to Christian theology (whose most drastic objection he describes as “too good to be true”).

As a former journalist (and now a member of a journalism faculty), I take the presentation of others’ words extremely seriously. In the past few years, I believe we have seen a dramatic decrease in the quality of public discourse and an equally dramatic decrease in the intellectual honesty needed for people on two sides of an issue to address one another’s positions.

There are several types of misquoting. The most common offenses I see are the direct manipulation of another’s words and the misconstrued context of an otherwise accurate presentation of another’s words. I believe that Kennedy’s use of Blackham’s words is an example of the latter.

Let me begin by saying I cannot find a primary source for the quote. I spent several hours pouring through humanist documents, biographical references, quotation archives and even running a Google search for this quote. The only results I get for this quote are from previous sermons and promotions of Dr. Kennedy and other Presbyterian ministers. I don’t know where Blackham is supposed to have said or written this comment, nor can I verify that it was ever uttered or penned by the alleged source.

I am going to assume that Blackham did say or write this passage. I do wish ministers and religious scholars were a bit more diligent about sourcing their material, particularly when it comes to engaging points of view in conflict with their own.

However, even without primary sourcing to look at, Dr. Kennedy’s use of the quote appears to be less than logical.

Dr. Kennedy asserts that Blackham is claming that in his own view, secular humanism is “too bad to be true.” However, it seems rather illogical to assume this based on the actual quote.

Blackham says "The most drastic objection to humanism is that it is too bad to be true.” He does not say that he agrees with this objection, nor does he endorse it as a correct or logical conclusion. He simply says that of those who object to humanism, the “most drastic” of their objections is that it is “too bad to be true.”

If I were to say, “Critics of Christianity claim that it is evil and manipulative,” I would not be claiming that I think this statement is true, nor would I be validating the claims of those critics.

Furthermore, I believe that Blackham’s quote is meant to be a statement about the illogical objections he has encountered towards his worldview. In other words, he may be saying “Objectors don’t say it’s illogical, they don’t say it doesn’t work, they don’t say it hurts people, they don’t say it’s manipulative … all they can seem to come up with is that it’s ‘too bad to be true.’”

In other words, he might simply be saying “They object to it not on rational grounds, but simply on knee-jerk emotion.”

And what does “too bad to be true” mean? Is Blackham saying that objectors to humanism have trouble dealing with the harsh reality of not having an afterlife? Is Blackham saying that objectors to humanism have trouble understanding the complex philosophy of humanism and so just resort to calling it “bad” rather than engage it?

I suspect Blackham is making a statement about the nature of the differences between religious belief and secular humanism. I believe he was trying to say that members of a religious faith have trouble imagining living in a world where the promise of heaven was not a motivating force (or comfort) or that the hope for the world didn’t reside in something greater than man himself.

Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation, it’s rather obvious that Blackham was not condemning his own worldview as “bad.” And thus, I think using this quote as a straw man argument (“Even THEY think their movement is bad”) is intellectually dishonest and unfair.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Fundamental Errors in History

This post is the first installment of series of three to continue the pondering critique I started in my Fundamental Errors post.

In this post, I will be discussing the politics of history as well as attacking a few logical errors mentioned in that previous post.

First, I find the claim that secular humanism (and the false dichotomy presented between it and Christianity) is the root of most of the pain and suffering in the world to be quite laughable. The worldview of secular humanism emerged rather recently, as cultural time is measured. Secular humanism simply did not exist during World War II, much less during the Enlightenment. To be able to even address Dr. Kennedy’s claims about history, I must assume that we’re dealing with some kind of primordial essence of secular humanism, or simply buy into Kennedy’s notion of atheism and secular humanism being some kind of singular political movement that has existed throughout Western history. I think this idea is absurd, but will have to grant these false assumptions in order to critique the specific claims.

The specific claims I want to explore? That “atheism” (and by Kennedy’s extension, “secular humanism”) led to the rise of Nazism and communism and had contributed to “more deaths than all of history’s wars.” Also, I will be addressing Dr. Kennedy’s complementary claims that atheism led to the outbreak of World War I, World War II, the rise of Adolph Hitler, the outbreak of the Cold War and finally, Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers.

Nazism as atheism? I hear this quite a bit, but never from a professional historian or from someone who seems to be a student of history. Nazism began as a religiously based socialist movement. After the economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the people began to look to the extreme left (the communists) and the extreme right (the Nazis) to help the nation recover form the crisis.

Adolph Hitler was able to position himself to become Chancellor or Germany on the death of President Hindenburg and then was able to use his new authority to coalesce his power by outlawing the leftist and centrist groups.

Where this power was concentrated is important tot this discussion, because in direct contradiction to Dr. Kennedy’s assertion of atheism leading to Nazism, Hitler (a Catholic) mounted a political (and eventually, a military campaign) against the Jews and the Communists, two groups he was able to demonize because of their “non-Christian beliefs and values.”

The rise of Nazism is a product of the right wing of a society gaining ultimate control of the government’s bureaucracy and the use of this control to remove the other counterbalancing cultural influences. The rise of Nazism is a story of one extremely convicted group of people establishing a set of cultural norms based on their religious and political views, the manipulation of a society to adopt these views out of a sense of social duty and religious fervor and then the reconstruction of a society around defending these norms as if they were God’s will.

Far from being a movement based on the tenants of atheism, I suspect that the story of the rise of Nazism presents us with a morality play of the dangers of religious intolerance and racial hate.

This survey leads me directly into the second major claim that atheism led to the rise of communism. While it is easy to see why so many make this connection, it is intellectually dishonest to presume that communism and atheism go hand in hand. It is certainly true that Karl Marx saw religion as a tool of oppression designed to keep the lower classes entrenched below and elite class. However, the recognition of this view does not speak to the intricacies of whether or not a person who agrees with Marx’s view of organized religion can still believe in a higher being.

This is a subtle point often lost on critics of communism, and particularly those who think only of the Soviet model of communism, which sought to outlaw religion to free the people. There is nothing inherently atheistic about communism, but there is quite a bit of friction between communism and Western religious authorities. Communism seeks to make all citizens equal, and finds all sources of cultural authority to be manipulative and twisted in the end.

However, it is understandable to see why so many associate atheism with communism, for many Marxists of the WWII era were, in fact, atheists. However, this only underscores Dr. Kennedy’s mistaken assumption that atheism is a movement that led to both Nazism and Soviet communism, since the two systems were ideologically opposed over matters of faith and religious practice. To associate Nazis and communists together as a group, even as a group that have similar philosophical origins, is an error of the highest magnitude. The social philosophies underpinning each movement could not be more different, and even the most cursory investigation into European history of the early 20th Century would encounter evidence that these groups could not have been politically, theologically or philosophically related.

As to the outbreak of both World Wars, it is generally accepted that the root causes of those global conflicts were the same as the causes for most wars: scarcity of resources, the build up of military prowess and the increasing intolerance between societies with different cultural values. The Germans, the Americans, the French, the Italians and the British all saw themselves as acting according to the will of the Christian God. If atheists had a role in either of those wars, it was most likely as the victims of ideological intolerance.

Similarly, the outbreak of the Cold War can be viewed as an extension of the World War II conflict. The alliance between the USSR and America was an uneasy one at best. Ideologically, America had more in common with Germany’s economic system than with Soviet communism, and the moment that Germany officially surrendered, America and the Soviet Union were placed in an awkward position of being the two most powerful nations in the world with completely incompatible economic and social structures.

Again, Soviet Communism certainly had an anti-religious component, but the Cold War was neither started nor fought over matters of faith (or the lack thereof).

As to Saddam’s torture chambers, it is certainly true that the Baathist regime that controlled Iraq is the lone secular government in the Muslim world. However, I don’t see the atrocities of Saddam and his henchman as being a direct output of their secular approach to government. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are all locations where similar atrocities have occurred, and the lack of secular authority in these nations does not seem to have made much difference in the practice of torturing dissidents to the status quo.

And I noticed Dr. Kennedy seems to have ignored the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and several other moments in history that make his assertions all the more problematic.

To sum up these belabored points, I think to portray Nazism, communist, the Baathist movement, the outbreak of both World Wars, the outbreak of the Cold War and even the current War on Terrorism as natural outputs of atheism is historically incorrect and intellectually dishonest. History is a complex construction of facts, attitudes and politics and the generalize whole segments of complexity into poorly defined straw man constructs is morally indefensible, particularly coming from someone providing spiritual leadership to so many people.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Fundamental Errors

I have insomnia, and so I see a lot of strange television. You know, the kinds that you can’t imagine anyone tuning into on purpose.

Early Sunday morning, I saw a broadcast of the Coral Ridge ministries, The Corral Ridge Hour. The program contained a sermon by one Dr. James Kennedy, an immensely popular Presbyterian minister who has apparently become one of the latest evangelical media stars.

Dr. Kennedy stood in front of his congregation, clothed in the bright blue doctoral robes framed by the scarlet hood of a theological doctorate, lecturing from a regal pulpit. As he delivered his words with measured passion, his figure cut a striking flurry of colorful activity against the drab surroundings.

“Man is in a state of decay,” Dr. Kennedy thundered. In the following 40 minutes or so, the speaker attacked the “evils” of atheism (which he somehow connected to secular humanism, even using the terms interchangeably) and its effect on society.

Dr. Kennedy described the popular backlash against atheism in the U.S. (however, not having provided any dates, I wondered what moment in our history he was actually describing) and claimed that secular humanism was the repackaged “politically correct” atheism and that the two movements were really one and the same.

This was the point that grabbed me, for I know people who are atheists and definitely NOT secular humanists. Atheists simply do not believe in the existence of a divine being. Secular humanists are optimistic believers in the transcendent nature of the human condition: that we as a race will rise to new ideals as a matter of social evolution, for man has within himself the power to overcome all of his shortcomings.

To make this distinction a bit clearer, it may help to understand that most (but not all) secular humanists are atheists, but only a small proportion of atheists are secular humanists. Many atheists cannot find secular humanism to be a valid expression of their beliefs because they believe that human nature is fundamentally evil and twisted, which makes seeing the human ideal as a positive force a true impossibility.

This error of associating the category of unbelief with the subcategory of one group who tends not to believe is quite common, though one might expect someone with a doctorate (whether of philosophy or divinity) to understand the distinction. Nevertheless, my curiosity was aroused and I sat to listen to the good doctor’s words.

But if the indistinct generalization of others was going to irritate me, the remainder of the sermon was destined to send me alternatively into feelings of outrage and giggles of incredulity.

As Dr. Kennedy continued his assault on the evils of secular humanism, he described the movement as an “erroneous idea” that has led to the rise of Nazism, fascism, communism and had contributed to “more deaths than all of history’s wars.” After leading to the Enlightenment (a negative achievement, it seems), Dr. Kennedy attributes this movement led to the outbreak of World War I, World War II, the rise of Adolph Hitler, the outbreak of the Cold War and finally, Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers.

As I listened to these words, I was amazed at the spectacle of a man – clothed in the symbolic clothing of the Enlightenment, when Western society combined the priestly robes of teachers to the ideals of knowledge and discovery – condemned the philosophy behind that age. And as he stood surrounded by neo-classical architecture, I wondered if he had ever paused to consider the ironic figure he struck.

I doubt it, for the pastor continued his assault on public education and politics by presented a tortured and mangles review of world history. He quoted and critiqued without context a snippet of H. J. Blackham: “"The most drastic objection to humanism is that it is too bad to be true.” He next turned to the nation’s media, presenting a packaged promotion of Bernard Goldberg’s book Bias : A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News.

As I sat, not knowing where to begin to cope with the “erroneous ideas” Dr. Kennedy was assembling, I decided that I needed to write a more thoughtful critique, for my own peace of mind. I decided to isolate my thoughts to three mains sections: Kennedy’s tortured view of history, the misquote and the Goldberg segment.

I am compiling my notes on these segments and will be posting my critique of these areas in my next few posts.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Waterview, a Blast from the Past

Waterview is a part of my past in several ways. I attended there several times in the mid-1990s while I was an undergraduate at ACU. But my personal experience is not the only reason Waterview seems so familiar to me.

Waterview most closely resembles my early church experience. That’s not to say that Waterview is particularly old-school, for I grew up in a reasonably modern church of Christ in the late 1970s and early 1980. Waterview has always reminded me of my birth-church (the now-defunct Eldridge Road Church of Christ in Houston), but the resemblance is particularly striking in comparison to all the churches I’ve been visiting recently.

Waterview is led by a fine group so Elders and the pulpit duties are handled by Robert Oglesby, the only preacher Waterview has had in its 40-year history.

Waterview is an extremely friendly church. Located in Richardson, it is rather upscale and the members are quick to exchange both witty banter and heartfelt sentiments at the drop of a hat. Waterview is a very socially driven atmosphere.

The morning I visited, the sermon was on “Authority.” While I agreed in the general premise of the sermon (I’m not sure how anyone could not, it was merely a reflection that God has the ultimate authority over our lives), there were several moments that I was rather uncomfortable. The first moments of the sermon occurred during the opening anecdotes. Church of Christ preachers are rather famous (or is that infamous) for their seemingly unattached anecdotes: generally funny, but often tied to the sermon by the loosest threads. But the anecdotes in this particular sermon were a bit disturbing: one dealing with traffic (presumably reminding us that we are under a secular authority, though this reminder seems to contradict the later corpus of the message) and the second reached its apex with a grown man striking a preteen young man in the face as an example of how to reestablish authority on a playground.

I do not think the anecdotes were meant as a call to action, nor do I think they represent any nefarious attitudes or positions on the part of the preacher or the church. However, they did make me sit upright, and reminded me that my sensitivities may not be the norm in the conservative Churches of Christ that are found in this region of the country.

However, I found Waterview to be warm and friendly, and I appreciated the layers of infrastructure they have constructed to help the diverse groups of members that make up that church.

Perhaps, I will return there at some point, but I embark this weekend on a four-week hiatus from Dallas church-going (I will be in Austin three weekends in a row and then Abilene the fourth), so it’ll be a while before I start making my interim decisions about where to ultimately attend on a permanent basis.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Skillman, a familiar air.

Well, if Preston Road were my “mini-UA,” then Skillman Church of Christ is a much closer member of the UA genus.

Skillman is a very traditional, very formal atmosphere. The church has chosen to use Powerpoint in worship (it seems none of the Dallas churches have had the reluctance that UA has had in this area).

On the Sunday I attended, Skillman was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its Child Development Center, which provides weekly children’s educational programs for the community. The service contained a long segment devoted to this ceremony and it quickly became clear that Skillman is loving, family-centric church.

Skillman is also the most “high-church” atmosphere I have yet attended. Plenty of white collars and pressed neck ties present and accounted for.

The sermon (delivered by Dwight Robarts, the pulpit minister) was very good, but leaned towards the conservative side (in terms of outcomes and calls to action). There were frequent references to scripture. The sermon topic was how Jesus used the frame of children as how we should approach him and what that entails.

I found Skillman to be very warm and open, though the demographics do not seem to be particularly young professional centric (the church rolls its singles and couples programs together), which is not necessarily a negative.

Once again, very familiar territory.