Truth and Condescension
Sometimes today anyone who makes a claim about truth is labeled as fanatical, judgmental, or closed-minded. More often than not, this is more specifically when a conservative viewpoint is defended. This is unfortunate, because it basically turns any argument over truth into a game over who is more “accepting.” This pits truth against charity and against what is socially proper. Of course, this would be the strategy of a group of people who just didn’t have the truth. It is no surprise to me that for example, it is the pro-abortion crowd who wants to label the pro-lifers “fanatics” rather than engaging in the argument (although I must note that I think this strategy has been unsuccessful in the case of the pro-life movement, probably because of how utterly ridiculous it is to call someone defending the right to life a “fanatic”). This strategy is understandable in many cases. If I held the position that it was okay to dismember a growing child in the womb of its own mother, then yeah, I would probably resort to name-calling rather than an actual intellectual discussion because, well, it’s plainly obvious that there are some things which you can’t make an intelligent argument for. (On a side note, there is the Singer type who try to make philosophical arguments in favor of abortion, but his argument logically leads to permitting early infanticide, which he even concedes and is okay with…)
In any case, this post isn’t about the pro-life movement specifically but more broadly about making a truth claim. Often times religious claims to truth are seen as wrong. How often have we heard something like “there is nothing wrong with being Muslim”? Then of course, there is that “closed-minded” accusation. What should we make of these? Well they obviously just get in the way of spreading the truth. In many fields, truth claims aren’t attacked like this. Or at least, with some issues they aren’t. I wouldn’t be labeled as closed-minded if I said “the earth is warming and we need to stop emitting greenhouse gasses NOW!” Personally, I know very little about the issue of global warming. All I know is that there is major controversy and the different sides point to different pieces of evidence. I know that at the very least it isn’t an obvious fact that global warming is happening. Yet, I could get away with such a statement, without backing it up and be okay. On the other hand, if I criticized a religious view of a non-Christian, I run the risk of being labeled bigoted.
In order to make progress, we have to be able to make truth claims and criticize others. It is self-evident that objective truth is a feature of reality. If it were not, it would be true that “there are no objective truths” which is a self-refuting statement. Since truth is an objective feature of reality, and we are rational beings able to understand truth, reason with it, and use it as a force for good, it seems only right that we do so. However in order to do so, we have to be able to argue about it. This is what is done in the sciences. It can even get testy at times, but the point is that in order to uncover truth, all the information has to be laid out and people who have strong views should express them.
What about being “closed minded”? Well, that’s just a word used to bash someone who has a strong view really. Am I closed minded for thinking that the mitochondria is the place where cellular respiration takes place in eukaryotic cells? Am I closed minded for holding that water molecules are polar due to the difference in electronegativity of the hydrogen and oxygen atoms? Am I closed minded for holding that the square root of a negative number is imaginary? I could go on. The point is that it is not “closed-minded” to hold something as true. The phrase should really only be applied to someone who has no grounds for holding what he does as true and yet is unwilling to consider an opposing argument. Somebody like Richard Dawkins comes to mind with his views on religion.
What about judgmental? The same basic principle stands. Judging the truth of a proposition is not “judgmental” in the negative sense. Surely it involves a judgment of the intellect. But that is something we do every day and no one in life would make progress if it weren’t for judgment of this sort. The negative connotation of “judgmental” usually involves the judgment of one person who looks down on another person for his or her views. To an extent, I agree that this is not right. For example, if I were to see everyone who disagreed with me as “intellectually dishonest” or something, I would be making an unfounded and rash claim about the personal character of someone else. This is wrong and it is not my place to make such a judgment. However, judging the truth of a claim, is something that I must do. The proper attitude then is to separate the claim from the people making the claim. I can judge the claim without being condescending towards the people making it.
There is another issue that I want to briefly touch on. In judging a claim, it is not condescending to be critical towards a person making the claim. That is how knowledge progresses. Yet sometimes unfortunately, it comes across this way. In that case the issue becomes touchy. We don’t want to come across as condescending yet we don’t want to back down from making an argument. There is no fool-proof solution because we can’t make sure that we never are perceived as condescending if we are truthfully not. We can make an effort to do two things however: (1) we have to really not be condescending. Sometimes, it can be frustrating (and admittedly I do this myself) when making an argument, if the other person simply doesn’t get it. In order to not be condescending, it is important to understand that people have different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences which affect the way they look at things. So being respectful of this and always remembering that in dealing with an argument we are also dealing with people is important. It is important to present a case for something professionally and with all due patience and kindness towards other people. (2) Sometimes it is necessary to remind people of your intentions and to make it very clear that you are not criticizing people so much as views. I don’t mean do this in a “fake” way but genuinely remind people that you are arguing over views. Being a friend of the opposition probably works better than just making them angry anyway.
Now, this too can be taken to an extreme. There are times when the opposition is simply being absurd and the people themselves are the problem even more than their arguments. The point isn’t to judge their souls. The point isn’t to just shout at them and tell them about hell or what not. However, there is legitimate room to call someone out for being dishonest or whatever. For instance, in a recent post HERE I gave a harsh criticism of Nancy Pelosi for her statement on late-term abortions. Given the utter horror of her position, she merited it. There is admittedly a fine line in some cases, so it’s usually best that even if you want to be very critical to do so in a way that respects the person making the argument (meaning assumes they are being honest). Even if such an assumption is unwarranted, the other way always runs the risk of being seen as condescending.
There are cases when truth claims are made and there is true condescension going on. From a Christian standpoint this is wrong. The reason is that anything we have is not truly from ourselves but from God. This especially applies to faith. Second, it treats other people as less valuable because of their flaws, which is something God doesn’t want us to do. So even in the most extreme cases when someone like a Pelosi shows herself off to be a vile person, we are to remember that she is made in God’s image and capable of receiving grace as long as she lives. Christ died for all sinners. When he died on the cross, he didn’t condemn those around them but asked God to forgive them.
How does all of this apply specifically to religion? Well I think that religious truth claims are especially susceptible to these kinds of criticisms. This might partially be because some people make unfounded religious claims (like creationist claims). Since religion is a very important and personal topic, as well as something that has great power in the world, the issue is going to be touchy. Some of the more intellectual type have a problem with religion because they see it as the enemy of reason since many religious claims can’t be known through reason. Of course, faith and reason do not conflict and faith is perfectly reasonable as we have written about a number of times, most notably HERE . Yet still, it can be confusing if the proper understanding of faith and reason is not explained.
Yet insofar as religion is a claim about truth, the same arguments given above apply. It is certain that not all religions can be in fact true. Take the two monotheistic religions which are the largest. Islam states that Jesus is not God whereas Christianity states that he is. The law of excluded middles (A and not A cover all logical possibilities) entails that there is no in-between view. Jesus was either God or ~God. If he didn’t even exist, he wasn’t God. If he existed but there is no God, he was not God. If he was God, it entails that he could not have also been not God. The law of non-contradiction (A and ~A cannot both be true) entails that both the claim that Jesus is God and the claim that he is not cannot both be true. Now, Islam and Christianity can both be false, but since they make mutually incompatible claims, they cannot both be true. If this is the case, it is irrational to say they are on equal grounds. The same can be said of any number of religious beliefs.
If I make a truth claim, I should be able to back it up. When I say “the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ and teaches infallibly on faith and morals” I should have my reasons. If this belief is false, however, I am not wrong for holding it as true on account of me being judgmental or closed minded. It is true that I would be wrong because I was incorrect about a truth claim, but this is exactly what the PC crowd doesn’t want to say. Now if in fact I am correct in holding that the Catholic Church was established by Christ and teaches infallibly, then it seems very odd to call me “judgmental” or what not for simply sticking to a true statement.
I think that the counter to my argument, the reason behind a lot of the bigotry charges and all is that it seems to some like religion isn’t about truth and falsehood but about personal taste. If I started calling people out for liking chocolate ice-cream and not vanilla, I would rightfully be labeled as a nutcase. “Don’t force your ice-cream flavor on me” would be a very appropriate response. But religion isn’t like this. Religion attempts to make claims about the truth in reality. This is illustrated in my above example on the divinity of Christ. So the only counter to this argument is that religions make truth claims that are completely impossible to demonstrate as correct or not correct. Hence, they can be held but basically only as personal hopes more than anything else.
The position basically is that (1) yes, religion does make claims about truth but (2) since these types of truth claims are unprovable, it follows that you ought not try to convince anyone that they are true. If you want to believe that magic is real (or whatever else for example) do so, but since you can’t have any grounds for that belief, don’t try to convince other people or force it on others or make it part of law, etc. As far as it goes, this reasoning itself isn’t bad. I agree that if a claim is simply unfounded, one can believe it but he has to recognize this and not try to force it on others. The flaw however in the argument is that #2 isn’t entirely correct.
We have to distinguish between claims of natural religion and revealed religion. Natural religion involves the truth about God, man, and morality that we can know through reason alone. There are rational arguments for various positions. For instance, the belief that God exists is defended by metaphysical demonstrations like Aquinas’ five ways. Claims of this sort are subject to philosophical investigation and some would claim that a portion of these truths are a matter of proof. To make a philosophical argument and defend it is not judgmental, closed-minded, or bigoted. To say otherwise is simply an insult to reason itself.
Then there is revealed religion. This is a question over what God has revealed to man. For instance, the claim that God spoke to Moses at the burning bush is a claim about revelation from God, something God told man. This is not subject to philosophical proof. Further, the individual truths that God choses to reveal (if any) are probably not accessible to pure reason. They may be analyzed using reason, however their truth cannot be supported using reason. Now that is no grounds to say that these “articles of faith” are unfounded though because they are grounded in the revelation of a supremely truthful God (at least that is the truth claim being made). We can therefore analyze this truth claim to see if it has merit. It is not just an assertion but a belief grounded in some reason that there was such a revelation. Reasons could include things like consistency with natural religion and other facts about reality, ability to explain mysteries of the human condition, continuity with previous supposed revelations, hints and signs as well as strong miracles in support of the revelation, moral character of the people who follow or have received the revelation. All of these traits can be analyzed using history, philosophy, possibly even science. Since this is the case, the question of whether or not God has revealed something is in fact subject to reason and therefore to make a truth claim about revelation (as Christianity does) is not wrong nor is it something that can’t be debated.
Perhaps the person making the argument against religion would agree with the foregoing paragraphs in general however deny that there are in fact any good arguments for God’s existence or any good reason to believe in a supposed revelation for instance. This person however is simply arguing against or denying the truth claim made by the religious person. The claim that “arguments in support of your religion are not good enough” is itself an assertion about some truth and therefore is just as “bigoted” as any other truth claim.
From all of this, I hope to show that there is nothing wrong with making a claim about reality, asserting a truth as long as it is backed up. There is nothing wrong with arguing for this truth as long as all people involved are given due respect. This applies to truths of religion and morality as well. I’d like to just make one more passing comment on strategy. Sometimes, conservatives will attempt to show that the opposing side is bigoted or something like that. They “turn the tables” as it were on the opposition. In itself, I think it can be effective if it is used as a tactic to point out hypocrisy or inconsistency in the opposition. However, it can be dangerous as well and therefore must be done in the right context. We do not want to run the risk of conceding the point that certain claims can be themselves closed-minded or judgmental or something. We should call to mind that when arguing truth, we are actually going to keep the argument about truth. From a religious standpoint, we know we have the truth (albeit, in a non-condescending way since we have the truth from God and we do not judge or thing poorly of those who lack it, rather we simply want to share it with them…in many cases they are far more worthy of it than we are) and consequently we should not be afraid to keep the argument about truth. Only those who lack the truth should be afraid of that.