Came across a quote from Isaac Asimov today on social media. It’s from 1980, but I fear has a shelf-life well beyond thirty-nine years…and was certainly true even before it was spoken.
The quote is,
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States…[It is] nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”
Whelp. If that’s not a punch in the old stomach-of-truth I don’t know what is, and it’s being displayed in full force these days, especially in these White House briefings happening on the regular where the President gives his opinion about the effectiveness of this drug or that drug, contradicting the experts around him. He follows it up with, “What do you have to lose?”
I mean, anytime it comes to ingesting chemicals of any sort that aren’t naturally found in your body, I think there’s QUITE A BIT YOU COULD LOSE just by going off a hunch.
Or take the news reports out this morning about the in-fighting in the administration where one official wants to push a drug on the public that “could work” over and against the trained doctors in the room who caution it. And the official’s defense? They’re a “social scientist”…which, apparently, gives them the right to endanger human health, just because “scientist” is in their discipline’s title.
Opinion and expertise are not the same.
I digress, though.
I saw this quote on social media and I responded, “Looking at you, church…”
And I wrote that for two reasons.
The first? I had just been in a conversation with a friend who comes from a different theological point of view. They have no formal training, but take issue with my theological analyses quite openly, and even went so far as to suggest that their years of Sunday School and small group studies was equivalent to scholarly theological rigor.
The sum was, in effect, “It’s just a different point of view.”
The problem with this “point of view” is not that it’s different, though, it’s that it’s ill-informed at best, and uninformed at worst.
Now, I’m not suggesting that I’m always correct. By no means, just ask my partner. I’m wrong all the time, as much as I hate to admit it. But I do know the difference between informed work and opinion, and so much that flies around as “theology” today is just mere opinion, brought on by years of the church, writ large, encouraging people to buy into the idea that their thoughts about the Bible, or their desires for what it means, trumps scholarly, rational, and even scientific study.
This is why I have so much trouble with churches who explicitly or implicitly teach that the Bible is inerrant and/or infallible. It creates such a closed-loop system of truth inquiry that the oxygen is sucked out of the air and you end up with nonsense and the necessity of having to deny things that are plainly true. For example, the statement “there are two different, unique, and theologically divergent creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2” should be open for scholarly debate and discussion, using all the tools available to investigate that claim.
This is not a problem, unless you need there NOT to be two different, unique, and theologically divergent creation stories because inerrancy and/or infalliblity are the foundation of your argument. And so you end up making all sorts of excuses and qualifications for how there are not two different accounts with unique, divergent theological claims…which is nonsense. There clearly are.
That’s a small thing.
But think on this: if, with such a small thing, you’re having to go around your ass to get to your elbow proving something can’t be what centuries (literally) of grammatical analysis, language study, theological inquiry, and historical, anthropological, and archeological research indicates it is, what about the big things?
The big things like not staying home during a pandemic because your religion teaches you, nay, encourages you to gather anyway because “God must be glorified and no one will tell me not to worship.” Or, as someone legitimately offered just the other day, “Jesus died for me already, so I have nothing to fear by gathering at church.”
If the scriptures, or even your amorphous faith, is the center and locale of all truth because it is where inerrant and infallible authority rests, we create a system where your opinion becomes dangerous for our collective health.
And it starts with the small things.
If a collection of stories, full of contradictions, histories, myths, letters, apocrypha, and all sorts of kind of literature becomes the center for all your truth, then evidence will not convince you otherwise.
Normally the above is not a huge issue. But in a pandemic, it can be.
And the second reason I wrote it?
Because I really want people to take a look at what their church teaches and consider the consequences.
I have friends who recently left their little church to go to the mega-church down the street. “It has better kid’s programming,” they said.
I get that to some degree, though if you want good children’s programming in a church, my suggestion will always be: create it, then.
But here’s the thing: their new church teaches a literalist understanding of the scriptures. And although their “children’s church” is all sorts of flashy, the lasting intellectual incongruencies that their children may get as a result of an anti-intellectual approach to scripture will ultimately not be good for them.
Imagine being a doctor who can bring their brain to work, but not to worship. This happens all the time, by the way, and I don’t know how people can look at evidence through a microscope or study the intricacies of a discipline Monday through Friday but endure a religious life that amounts to little more than a Sunday School lesson for infants throughout their life.
Or imagine a retributive God. This pandemic could very well be seen as a response to human action, rather than the natural thing that happens when competing lifeforms compete. Think of the mental anguish that is already stacked on top of the physical anguish that comes when we have to think that we are being punished by a God who supposedly “loves us.”
What your church teaches matters.
A friend of mine said once, “It’s nice to not have to think.” Which, I guess it must be if you don’t think your religious life is consequential in this one.
But it is.
After posting my response, a good friend pushed back honestly suggesting that I not broad-brush the church. I welcome that critique. And he’s right, of course. I come from a tradition that encourages intellectual rigor in all parts of life, including spirituality. I don’t like being lumped in with those who don’t share my beliefs or practices.
And it is true that the church has done much, so much, to point humanity toward truth, encouraging intellectual inquiry and rigorous discipline. I’m thinking specifically of our contributions in astronomy, sociology, art, architecture, philosophy (at times), and anthropology.
But, here’s the thing: I’m woven into the Christian fabric. Which means the anti-intellectual parts of it are not “some other” part of it, but a close cousin to me. And, like the “me too” movement forced me to wrestle with toxic masculinity even though I try not to fall into the trappings of it all, I need to be forced, even from my liberal corner, to wrestle honestly with the anti-intellectual history and contemporary factions of the church.
And one way I wrestle with it is by calling attention to it.
Because it may not, in most situations, seem like a big deal to attend a church that doesn’t take the life of the mind seriously, has a closed-loop view of scripture, and feels that pointing out truth in other faiths (or even in the secular world) threatens their own sense of truth.
But I really think it is a big deal.
Because if we disregard evidential truth, scholarly inquiry, and the like in one arena, chocking it up to “a difference of opinion,” we call into question, in an unhelpful and even dangerous way, truth in all arenas.
And, as we’re seeing, that has consequences.