Saturday, June 26, 2021

Who Would You Listen To?

John McWhorter explains a bit about the new religion Electism to me.  I had not heard of it by name, but I had run across some of the concepts. They seem an inevitable extension of some black theology over the last couple of decades.

Yet what jumped out at me was not the theology so much as the reasoning.  There was a small sample to work from, but the two theologians he quotes - one from Chicago Theological Seminary and the other from Princeton, Tubingen, and Yale - were operating on an extremely long kite string from grounded reality. It occurred to me that I was not interested in what they had to say on any other subject. I had not quite known this about myself, but I understood that I make my judgements on this basis often.

If I overheard them talking about the brakes of a car or important facets of making wine I would ease away. Yes there is some chance one of them worked for a few year at a winery and might know something, but even at that, I would wonder if they had absorbed too much speculative knowledge or great ideas they had come up with on their own without running past anyone else.

I would not ask them if such-and-such was a good boss to work for or a good employee to hire.  If I learned that they had spent time in Des Moines I would not ask them what is happening with the culture or economy there. I don't trust their ability to make simple observations and draw simple conclusions.Such preachers used to be comic figures, whether they were urban or rural, white or black, trying to impress us by using big words. I think it's a reliable indicator, not only in theology, but in any complex subject.  Do I even want to hear them talk about a simple subject? 

Incidentally, I have an answer to the puzzle John came up against about the leap of faith aspect of religion as applied to Electism.  There is something different from the more familiar religions, and he comes right to the edge of it.  All religions do ask for some leap of faith, and he doesn't feel the need to make one for any of them. I might like to pursue that with him, but I get that reasoning. (I think the same might be said of many philosophies that would deny being religions but function as one.  I am one who believes that everyone has a religion in there somewhere, they just may not have defined it that way.) 

But first, other religions aren't constructed of things known to be false.  You might not believe that Mohammed was a prophet, and don't want to take the leap that he was, but you haven't got a way of proving that he wasn't.  You might think the idea of Jesus rising from the dead absurdly unlikely, but you haven't got an active disproof. But we know the information about Michael Brown is false, based on a theory of innocence that does not accord with the facts. Secondly, this particular new religion asks us to make a leap of faith at every point. It is not merely some difficult doctrines which require getting over, it is every item on the menu.


james said...

I have never been very comfortable with the "leap of faith" model. Schaeffer had at it a few times, IIRC.

I like Paul's approach: if Jesus wasn't resurrected, we're liars and more to be pitied than anyone--eat, drink, have fun and forget this. There's integrity there. He wouldn't have been revisiting the prophecy like William Miller or Marshall Applewhite. Or Stephen J Ray.

Some religions aren't so history-based: if Siddhārtha never existed, the principles would still remain, and I've no idea how you'd prove or disprove Shinto--you're born into it or not. But even there, I haven't heard that they make stuff up.

I also would not seek out their observations or opinions on anything else, including the weather.

Christopher B said...

What I got from those quotes was a bit more limited. I think McWhorter was going for something like, "See these folks who should know more than a little about religion in general, and really should object when somebody calls something a religion if it isn't, and even they are acting like this new thing is religious in character." The logic might be a bit faulty, sort of an argument from authority but also an argument against (perceived) interest so it might balance out.

Grim said...

McWhorter seems not to understand either empiricism or logic, surprisingly given his claimed attachment to them. He claims to reject religion because it includes a space in which belief not founded on either is necessary, but all forms of thought do this.

Empiricism is very useful, but it depends upon categories acquired from somewhere else. Take the famous syllogism:

A: All Men are Mortal.
A: Socrates is a Man.
∴: Socrates is Mortal.

You'd think you could check the truth of the assumed premise ("A") 'Socrates is a Man' by going and examining Socrates. But what is a man? Is it an animal of human genetics with XY chromosomes? That is being hotly debated right now in spite of thousands of years of empirical evidence. (Even more so the allied question, 'What is a woman?') Ultimately, what counts as a valid category doesn't come from empiricism; rather, the categories into which we sort empirical data come from elsewhere.

Where? Not from logic! To return to the syllogism, which is strict logic, we see that it only apparently teaches us something new. It doesn't, and can't: logic is analytic. All it does, and all it can do, is to help us realize a consequence that we can know to be true given the truth of what we already know. That means that all it's doing is showing us things we already know, not teaching us anything new. The truth of the assumed premises has to be validated separately to determine whether the conclusion will hold -- and, as above, empiricism can't get you all the way there. The categories being employed as logical objects -- "Man," "Mortal," "Socrates," and "All" -- come from neither logic nor empiricism.

You would think such a man would at least know of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which proved that even mathematics can't rely on proofs, not even internally to a given system. The case is far worse in the physical world. Ultimately all forms of knowledge rely on what McWhorter is assigning to 'the religious space.' He is certainly wrong to so assign it -- developing a theory of 'man' based on chromosomes is not religious, for example -- but his allergy to the idea shows that he has not understood.

Grim said...

As to your last point, AVI, if it survives and flourishes in spite of provably false origin stories it won't be the first such to do so. Perhaps it will end up having some sort of value in spite of that; or perhaps it will be merely pernicious.

G. Poulin said...

Yes. To assent to an ideology, one that requires a leap of faith for every item on the menu, is not what Christians generally mean by "faith". It would be more properly referred to as "drinking the kool-aid".

stevo said...

Anecdotally, I went from agnostic to hardcore believer without any awareness of making a leap. Suddenly I just knew, and I have no reasonable explanation.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Those of us who have reasonable explanations for either dropping or adding religious beliefs might be kidding ourselves, so you might be ahead of us.