Power of polemic is self-perpetuating, but not persuasive

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Why polemic is not greatReading Christopher Hitchens' much discussed book against religion, I was reminded of the Chaser’s War on Everything on ABC TV. It has the same good humoured and rather likeable style of presentation, the same manic energy, and the same breadth of scope. It also offers a good check-list of the arguments that can be brought against different forms of religious belief, many of them compelling. But I found it unpersuasive. Not because it was against religion, but because I find the wide-screen polemical style unpersuasive — especially when it is used to defend religion.

Christians have been as good at dishing out as copping criticism. In the early church, Christian writers took apart Pagan beliefs, Jewish practice and heretical theological systems. Subsequently Catholic and Protestant preachers demolished each other’s theological frameworks, and representatives of both traditions took with vigour to the post-Enlightenment world. Not all this critical writing was polemical, of course. Polemic characteristically avoids entering enquiringly your opponents' inner world, preferring to present their ideas masterfully in the worst possible light.

The much commented-on recent books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have reintroduced a broad brush anti-religious polemic. It has much in common with religious polemic against the secular world. Christian polemic is more often conducted through sermons, speeches and essays on particular topics than through comprehensive books. But as in the extended works of Dawkins and Hitchens, it characteristically contains two elements: an argument made in very broad terms showing the wrongness and inferiority of the ideas that the writer opposes, and some anecdotes which demonstrate the truth of this large argument.

Religious polemic likes large terms. Culture is analysed through categories like reason, faith, religion, science, democracy, modernity, postitivism, secularism, individualism, Marxism, post-modernism etc. These terms are related in a way that tells a story about the origins of the evils being opposed, the nature of those evils, and the remedy for them. In early twentieth century Catholic polemic, the integrated world of medieval Catholicism was ruptured first by the religious self-assertion of the Reformation and then by the rational self-assertion of the Enlightenment. This fragmentation played itself out in the anti-Christian Liberal movements. The way back lay through acceptance of the authority of God and of the Church.

This large story is normally supported by smaller stories that illustrate the argument. Polemic about religious belief might include improving stories about the soldier in the fox hole who did or did not pray, the theist or atheist psychopath, the wise or mad scientist/priest, the open or closed minded representatives of religion and anti-religion. The opponent, laid flat on the anvil of cultural analysis, is smashed with the hammer of discrediting examples.

Why polemic is not greatThis kind of writing can make enjoyable reading when done with panache, and can rally the faithful, but it convinces only those who wish to be persuaded. The favourably impressed reader does not murmur, "Now I see", but shouts, "Go, go, go!" Others move on. The reason why it does not persuade is that neither the large account of the world nor the panoply of examples represents in sufficient complexity the world that we know.

When a grid of '-isms is laid across the world, it fails to capture the unpredictable mixture of ideas, values, hopes and spontaneity that human beings display. More significantly, it does not capture the variety, the complexity and the delicacy of the way in which people respond intellectually and affectively to the world. Polemical accounts fail to do justice either to the views of the world that they condemn or to the ones that they claim to defend. The castle they defend is straw, and the opposing soldiers they massacre are also straw.



The telling examples also ring untrue. If we appreciate how various is the motivation for our own good and bad actions, and how unpredictable a guide is anyone’s belief to the way in which they will act in particular situations, we are unlikely to attribute people's bad behaviour simply to their agnosticism, Catholicism, secularism, Marxism or whatever. Stories of human action become examples only when they are stripped of the personal qualities that make them human actions.

This is why any polemic, whether on behalf of or directed against Christian faith, is unpersuasive. But Christian polemic against other views of the world has another, critical disadvantage. It harms its own cause because it necessarily misrepresents Christian faith. At the heart of Christian faith is a conversational relationship between God and humanity in which God takes seriously the world of the conversation partner. God enters the human world from within and engages with it. To represent Christian faith accurately, then, we must not only speak of its content but embody in our communication its conversational style. When we address those who hold different views from ours, our conversation needs to be question shaped.

Polemic supposes that we can read accurately the large patterns of God’s action in the world, and that we can effortlessly place and accurately judge those with whom we differ. Nothing in the Christian account of God’s dealings with us substantiates that assurance.

 

 

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Well said Andrew! I particularly responded to your comment"Polemic characteristically avoids entering enquiringly your opponents' inner world, preferring to present their ideas masterfully in the worst possible light.As Meister Eckhart would say - unless they have experienced 'The birth of the Son in the soul'they do not know what it is they are Knocking!
John Wood | 14 June 2007


Beautifully written piece andrew. Love the line about "The favourably impressed reader does not murmur, "Now I see", but shouts, "Go, go, go!"
Alan
Alan Stone | 14 June 2007


Bravissimo. When worshipping a God who is described both as Love and as Truth, it's easy and common, in all sincerity, to sacrifice one aspect to the other. Few seem to be able to convey their unity; Gandhi did, you do. You also both hold fast to your fallibility even while showing commitment; a marvellous and necessary tightrope act.
john fox | 15 June 2007


A lot of fence-sitting, methinks. I had to wonder whether the writer had even read Dawkins's The God Delusion, which is not a polemic against religion but a rational argument against the existence of a god.

Hamilton says Christians have been as good at dishing out as copping criticism. Really? For centuries, the Christian church did not cop it at all, the punishment for non-belief often being horrendous (torture; death). Now that the Christianchurch's influence has diminished, it can't dish that out (unlike what Islam has in store for those who question its tenets) but it can bleat endlessly about the impact of 6 best-selling books over the last three years. Contrast this output with fanatical output of the religious. The magazine Publishers Weekly reported earlier this year that the member publishing houses of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association between them produced 13,400 new titles in the two years 2005-6 alone. I wonder how many of those titles attempt to engage their opponents.
Rick | 15 June 2007


Thanks, Andy - good point well made.
Iain Radvan | 16 June 2007


Congratulations Andrew. Your thoughts arose hope for reconciliation and understanding. Do not be discouraged by Rick's comments. Perhaps he is just bleating.
Patrick Colbourne | 21 June 2007


I agree with Rick.The response(s)indicate that the books have NOT been read,and as such,do not enter into a meaningful debate re the points being raised.
Kevin Rocks | 21 June 2007


Comments to Rick and Kevin. I have read Dawkins and have seen his two part Root of all Evil? and think that he has missed a good opportunity. I believe that only good things will come out of the publications of more books etc by non-believing authors but if Richard D wants me, for one, to take him seriously he needs to decide if he rejects a literal interpretation of the Bible or not and whether Anselm's "proof for the existence of God" was considered by him to be invalid or not. Regarding literalism: Richard rightly rejects literal interpretations of scripture because of truths about the age of the world etc. Good. But then he starts taking quotes from Deuteronomy which he absolutely insists MUST be accepted as being literally true because that is the only way he can show how stupid those statements are (and hence undermine a belief in such religious texts). No can do, Richard. It's either one or the other. Secondly, Anselm. Richard says (rightly, I think) that you can not DEFINE God into existence (by saying God's existence is really part of His essence since He is, by definition, the Necessary Being). Okay. So no trying to get God to be real by the way you DEFINE Him. But doesn't Richard then spend much of the rest of his book doing the very same thing in the opposite direction?? Namely, defining God in such a way that God can not possibly exist? Think of the definition of God the Monster. How does Ridchard come by that definition? He insists on believing all the literal descriptions of God in the Jewish scriptures AND ONLY THE BAD BITS (his copy of the OT must have had the pages stuck together where any good bits about God were!) and then low and behold after defining God as a monster he insists (such a) God is unable to exist. I agree. But one of the reasons I do believe in God is that I don't define God in such a way that I would find it impossible to believe.

I think Richard and Michele and Thomas and others will contribute their best by challenging religious people about their inconsistencies! This will require a good knowledge of those people's religions. There is plenty of inconsistency to go around!!

Cheers,
Mike Yates
Mike Yates | 23 June 2007


Mike, you say that one of the reasons you do believe in God is that you don't define God in such a way that you would find it impossible to believe.

Well, I'm all ears for that definition. If you use an essentially Einstein-type definition (i.e. god is just some people's name for the natural world and doesn't suggest a supernatural deity) then fine.

You say that Richard Dawkins "rightly rejects literal interpretations of scripture because of truths about the age of the world etc. Good. But then he starts taking quotes from Deuteronomy which he absolutely insists MUST be accepted as being literally true". With respect, you have missed his point. Dawkins rejects any explanations the Bible offers about the natural world because it is demonstrably at odds with what science has revealed. His never says that the reprehensible quotes in the OT have to be accepted as literally true. (Clearly, he doesn't accept them, period.) He is merely saying that much of this stuff is not open to a kinder reading (how else do you interpet the command in Leviticus to stone homosexuals to death? - it doesn't lend itself to "thou shall frown indignantly at gays" does it, and that millions of people - not a mere lunatic fringe - believe this stuff.

Why do you think that Dawkins et al will have more success challenging religionist about inconsistencies? Apparently you are aware of the absurd internal inconsistencies within the Bible and also between faiths, but it hasn't caused you to reject a belief in the Sky Fairy. What gives?
Rick | 28 June 2007


Mike, you say that one of the reasons you do believe in God is that you don't define God in such a way that you would find it impossible to believe.

Well, I'm all ears for that definition. If you use an essentially Einstein-type definition (i.e. god is just some people's name for the natural world and doesn't suggest a supernatural deity) then fine.

You say that Richard Dawkins "rightly rejects literal interpretations of scripture because of truths about the age of the world etc. Good. But then he starts taking quotes from Deuteronomy which he absolutely insists MUST be accepted as being literally true". With respect, you have missed his point. Dawkins rejects any explanations the Bible offers about the natural world because it is demonstrably at odds with what science has revealed. His never says that the reprehensible quotes in the OT have to be accepted as literally true. (Clearly, he doesn't accept them, period.) He is merely saying that much of this stuff is not open to a kinder reading (how else do you interpet the command in Leviticus to stone homosexuals to death? - it doesn't lend itself to "thou shall frown indignantly at gays" does it, and that millions of people - not a mere lunatic fringe - believe this stuff.

Why do you think that Dawkins et al will have more success challenging religionist about inconsistencies? Apparently you are aware of the absurd internal inconsistencies within the Bible and also between faiths, but it hasn't caused you to reject a belief in the Sky Fairy. What gives?
Rick | 28 June 2007


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