Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Church-goer Divide

I ran into a couple of posts on Ross Douthat's blog at The Atlantic last night, dealing with the question of whether Sen. Obama is being unfairly held accountable for the black power/liberation theology beliefs of his minister, Jeremiah Wright. Douthat argues, and I think persuasively, that on the Republican side of the aisle no one could get off the ground as a presidential candidate who actually belonged to the congregation of one of the gonzo preachers (Hagee, Falwell, etc.) or the "religious right". Republican candidates certainly accept the support of these preachers and their congregations, but I think it's pretty fair to say that they would not elect a member of one of those congregations as their presidential nominee. Look how much low-level flack Huckabee absorbed because of his evangelical preacher background -- and he has a pretty tame theology by comparison to these more extreme characters. (A friend predicted to me: "Huckabee could never be elected president, because he believes the world is only 6000 years old." I suspect that's the case. Despite the rather large number of Americans who have some degree of creationist sympathies, it's just not something people would want to see their potential president holding fast to something so far out of the intellectual mainstream.)

What struck me as most interesting about these two Douthat posts, however, was the reaction which he was receiving from Atlantic readers. Many of readers essentially argued that the beliefs of Obama's pastor (that crack cocaine and AIDS were developed by the CIA to kill black people, that 9/11 was a punishment from God for America's sins against people of color, etc.) were not that weird compared to other things said by religious leaders. They would then either point to the outrageous statements of characters like Jerry Falwell, or argue that it was no more weird to believe that AIDS was developed by the government than to believe that God exists in the first place.

Both of these underlined to me that part of what we're seeing here is a difference between those who consider attendance at religious services to be a normal and important part of their lives, and those who don't. The latter argument, indeed, reminded me of a question which I believe Razib brought up on Gene Expression some months ago -- and I meant to blog about but never got around to -- which if memory serves was basically: Is it possible to say that one religious belief is more probably than another? At the time, Romney was catching some flack over Mormon beliefs, and Razib's question was: Is it actually any less probably that we all become gods of our own planets after we die than that Jesus rose from the dead, or is it simply that the former is a belief fairly alien to mainstream US culture, while the latter is familiar even to those who don't accept it.

It strikes me as an interesting point. I think I would say that it's not possible to assign probabilities to religious beliefs. One can consider whether they are internally consistent, whether they are consistent with any scriptures on which they may be based, and whether they seem to fit with what we know of the world, but it strikes me as impossible to assign probability to a question like: Was Jesus God?

Now what this means is that to many non religious or non church-going people, especially if their ideas of what goes on in churches on Sunday is mostly informed by odd-ball televangelists which they stumble across while channel surfing, it probably doesn't seem very improbably that most people hear weird conspiracy rants and shouting on a regular basis from the ministers, priests or rabbis. Judging strictly my media portrayal, it wouldn't be hard to get the idea that most sermons have to do with gays, abortion, the end of the world, or damnation.

However, the majority of Americans do enter some kind of religious service pretty regularly, and to those folks, the YouTube videos of the sermons by Obama's pastor do actually look pretty alien. To most church-goers, Reverend Wright shouting "God damn America" to thunderous applause or miming Clinton "riding dirty" on Monica Lewinsky bear no resemblance at all to anything they've seen in a church.

Similarly, the antics and thundering of TV preachers bear little resemblance to anything that most churchgoers see on a regular basis. However much these people may symbolize the "religious right" in the perceptions of many secular Americans, their rhetoric is actually starkly different from what most churchgoers actually hear on Sundays. Which is why it really would be very hard for a politician who attended one of these more fringy right-wing congregations to win a Republican nomination for a high profile office.

In Obama's case, his deepest base of support is not necessarily among churchgoers, so the initial reaction may be, "You have to belong to a church to stand a change for running for high office in this country, and his is probably no more crazy than most."

That may play with a fairly secular audience, but I don't think it will wash in the general election.

18 comments:

TS said...

The most amazing thing I heard was when Donna Brazile on ABC's "This Week" said that she understands white people feel uncomfortable with Pastor Wright but that she, as a black Catholic in a predominantly white church, sometimes feels uncomfortable in that environment.

You-have-got-to-be-kidding-me!

I can't put herself in my shoes obviously, but to even suggest a moral equivalency between the two services just seems so indicative of the gigantic divide between people on this issue.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

"I think I would say that it's not possible to assign probabilities to religious beliefs. One can consider whether they are internally consistent, whether they are consistent with any scriptures on which they may be based, and whether they seem to fit with what we know of the world, but it strikes me as impossible to assign probability to a question like: Was Jesus God?"

One can also consider the credibility of the witnesses. The early Christian martyrs were willing to give their lives as a witness to the Resurrection not merely as an abstract idea but in hope that their foes would become their friends, if not on earth than in eternity. This striking love of one's enemies implicit in Christian martyrdom is perhaps the most convincing reason why I believe in Jesus Christ. I trust the witness of these martyrs, for their witness was of the most profound, unconditional, and encompassing love. I trust their testimony to the Resurrection.

Rick Lugari said...

Thanks, Kyle. I was going to comment in that direction too. I'd add that a big part of my reversion to the faith was that based on the testimony in the Bible, of the Martyrs, and the Church that not only was Jesus probably God, but that He was God and established the Catholic Church. Even Christ's enemies testified to the things He said and done...they attributed to the devil, but they are critical witnesses nonetheless. As CS Lewis said, the Man had to be either a lunatic or God.

Darwin said...

Kyle,

Good point. And I very much agree with you.

To be clear, my point is not that one cannot ammass evidence for a religious belief and come to a rational assessment of that evidence. Obviously one can.

I just think that the _probability_ (in the scientific/statistical sense of the term) of a specific doctrine is a meaningless concept.

I suppose this would require some more thought (and perhaps more philosophical sophistication than I possess) to set out clearly, but it doesn't seem to me that the way one deals with the claims of scripture, Tradition, the saints, etc. is by making an assessment of, "Based on all this it seems to me that the probability that Christ rose from the dead is at least 70%." I in part come to my belief that Christ rose due to the witness of the saints, Tradition, and scriptures, but it's not by means of having assessed the probability as high.

There are certain events which one can address well by saying how probable they are, but I'm not sure that I would class events in salvation history and religious doctrines in that set.

Darwin said...

Perhaps someone more trained in analytic philosophy than I can speak to this, but does it make any sense to hold that something can be subject to rational analysis (as in: does it seem from what we see before it that the Christian claim is true?) and yet not be a question on which probability has a bearing?

The specific sort of argument I was thinking of is: "The idea that someone would rise from the dead is so improbably that almost no level of documentary evidence from 2000 years ago could convince me of its truth."

Obviously, the historicity of Christ's resurrection has nothing to do with the question of some more general propensity for bodies to rise from the dead.

However, in reading the variations on the argument, it struck me that perhaps in some wider sense these questions are simply not well addressed by probability as a measure. They're true or not true, and we examine evidence to determine which we believe to be the case, but probability seems like a misplaced measure.

Kyle R. Cupp said...

I agree. I don't see how one could assign a percentage of probability to a religious doctrine's veracity.

I could see the headline, though:

There is a consensus among historians of religion that it's highly likely, 67% probable, that Jesus rose from the dead.

Katherine said...

The most amazing thing I heard was when Donna Brazile on ABC's "This Week" said that she understands white people feel uncomfortable with Pastor Wright but that she, as a black Catholic in a predominantly white church, sometimes feels uncomfortable in that environment.

You-have-got-to-be-kidding-me!

I can't put herself in my shoes obviously, but to even suggest a moral equivalency between the two services just seems so indicative of the gigantic divide between people on this issue.


I've been to Mass with Donna Brazile when, without either of us saying a word, we each gently brushed our hand on the spot on the pew that used to have the barrier that separated whites and blacks at Mass.

Bang Gully said...

As a non-Catholic, I have a question about what a couple of commenters here refer to as "witness of the martyrs." Can someone explain this to me?

Darwin said...

bang gully,

It's a term that can be used in more general or more specific ways, but in this context it's talking about the martyrdom of the earliest disciples and apostles. (All of the original apostles except John were martyred.)

The argument is essentially: If the apostles didn't really believe that Christ had risen from the dead (and promised eternal life to all believers) they wouldn't have been willing to die for the Christian message.

Thus, given that so many of those who are claimed in the Bible as witnesses to the resurrection died for that belief, it does not appear to be something that was made up, symbolic, or mythologized, but rather something they really believed to be true.

Bang Gully said...

Darwin,

Thank you for explaining this. I have a hard time seeing why someone's martyrdom for a belief makes that belief true.

Is this an argument given by Catholics or a doctrine of faith that is required?

Katherine said...

bang gully,

I don't think it "makes" it true. It is a testimony to the truth. I don't think this terminology is unique to Catholics; in fact I think it is even more commonly used by Protestants. In the secular world, we speak of a "witness" as someone who testifies to something, such as in a court of law. In the Christian sense, we might witness by our verbal proclamations, such as witnessing for Christ on a street corner or in a prayer group by sharing one's faith story. But as Christians we also see the act of martyrdom as a witness for Christ, even if it is accepted silently, without words.

I hope this helps.

Rick Lugari said...

If I may; it's not a doctrine and you're right that empirically speaking martyrdom does not make a belief true. However, it does speak to the truthfulness of the martyred. When evaluating the veracity of someone's claims (i.e. witnessing the Resurrection of Christ), the willingness to die a horrible death for their testimony speaks to the truthfulness of their claims. It does not *prove* the Resurrection in and of itself, but it gives us good reason to believe that the witness is telling the truth. People just won't offer their lives for a con job, but they might for honor or for something bigger than themselves.

Darwin said...

bang gully,

No, it's not a doctrine, though the early martyrs have long been seen as a particularly powerful witness to the faith.

I wouldn't say that someone's martyrdom for a belief makes it true, but rather that it seems like a strong indicator that the martyr believes that it's true. Obviously, the martyr could be wrong. I expect that every belief system that's been around long enough has some martyrs.

In regards to the historicity of Christ's resurrection, it does seem to me significant that nearly all of those who personally knew and followed him during his life died for the belief that he really did rise from the dead. Obviously, one could argue they were in some sense deceived by this, but I would say that it makes it seem unlikely that they consciously made up the resurrection in order to make some sort of more abstruse point.

Darwin said...

Heh, should have refreshed my browser... Good answers Katherine and Rick.

Bang Gully said...

Thank you guys for all the answers.

I'm sure opinions vary on this, but do Catholics beleive that the Bible is God's Divine Revelation? Like there are certain Christians who don't beleive it to be "divine" but "divinely inspired" but written by humans. Do most Catholics believe that it is 100% God's Word?

Anonymous said...

Other religions have martyrs.

Joel

Darwin said...

bang gully,

The Catholic Church teaches that the bible is divinely inspired, and that the Holy Spirit provides the Church with the guidance to correctly interpret it when it teaches on grave matters of faith and morals.

It does not, however, hold that the bible is divinely authored in the way in which, to my understanding, traditional Islam interprets the Koran -- as in, God choosing the individual words in the langauge of composition.

Subject to correction from others more versed in theological technicalities, I'd say say the most clear and concise way of putting it is that God preserved the biblical authors from essential error in what they were attempting to communicate. However proper interpretation of biblical passages requires and understanding of the genre of which the passage is an example, and any limitations of worldview and experience which the author may have been subject to which are not essential to the doctrinal meaning of the text. (For instance, from a Catholic point of view it really doesn't matter what the scientific views of the authors of Genesis were, since it's not intended to convey a scientific history of the earth and the species on it.)

Joel,

Most certainly. Martyrdom clearly pertains more to sincerety (or perhaps sanity) than to correctness.

However the reason why I'd take it as particularly significant in regards to Christ's resurrection is that his followers who were most in a position to know the truth of the matter personally were all ready to die for the belief that Christ really had risen.

The Deuce said...

Darwin:

One can consider whether they are internally consistent, whether they are consistent with any scriptures on which they may be based, and whether they seem to fit with what we know of the world, but it strikes me as impossible to assign probability to a question like: Was Jesus God?

You're correct. The confusion here is that probability isn't a property that applies to beliefs, but only to events.

If somebody believes that their next Poker hand will be a Royal Flush, it's not technically correct to say that their belief is improbable. Rather, you mean that the event they believe in - that they will get a Royal Flush - is improbable, ie unlikely to happen.

So, asking how probable the belief is that Jesus is God no sense. The correct question would be something like "How likely would it be that God would come incarnate in human form?"

And, of course, that question is impossible to answer without more background information. If God exists, and made man in his Image, but man subsequently fell from grace by sinning against God, but God loved the world and wished to redeem man by paying for his sins, necessitating a blameless sacrifice - then it's extremely probable that such an event would happen.

On the other hand, if you believe, as Razib does, that man was not intended or made in the Image of God, but is rather the unintended outcome of a mindless material process, and that morality and belief in 'God' are epiphenomenal evolutionary projections of our genes - then the probability of that event happening is precisely zero.

When we're talking about beliefs, the relevant property is not probability, but plausibility. To that end, since you're a Christian, I'm assuming you consider Christian beliefs to be more plausible than Mormon ones, correct?