Defend Truth


If ridicule be the right remedy, mock on

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

The 21 May “Judgement Day” lead balloon sent tsunamis of ridicule at Harold Camping and those who believed his predictions. That’s quite funny. It also furiously demonstrated the profound potency of unchallenged faith in the form of several deaths. That is not funny.  How should society protect itself from the loony fringe – wherever it may be?

The day after the world didn’t end, Kevin Bloom suggested “the time for cheap shots has passed”. It’s certainly true that some cheap shots would be in poor taste, such as in cases where children suffered as a result of the delusions of their parents. But where people hold laughably confused – and potentially dangerous – views, surely we can and should make those views appear as unattractive as we can, in any way we can? If so, surely the more pressing issue is  whether ridicule is effective, rather than whether it’s rude or not?

On the days immediately preceding “Judgement Day”, I had the privilege of attending a conference at Oxford, involving some of the biggest names in contemporary theology in conversation with the ethicist Peter Singer. As an activist for secularism, I try to attend these sorts of events when I can, both on the principle that it’s good to know the best arguments the opposition has to  offer, and also because despite whatever metaphysical disagreements might exist between us, I knew the  majority of the theologians present to be thoughtful and intelligent folk, from whom I was always likely to learn a great deal.

Among the interesting debates and genuine challenges raised by the participants, there were nevertheless moments where you could only shake your head in wonder at the curious things people allow themselves to believe to manufacture some consistency in their beliefs. An example of this arose during a conversation regarding vegetarianism. It would seem uncontroversial to suggest that while humans can live healthy lives without inflicting pain on other animals, those other animals are likely to continue inflicting pain on each other (given that they don’t tend to theorise regarding their hunger).

Well, perhaps not, if one takes the point of view expressed by one of the notables on the panel. In all seriousness, he informed us that he looks forward to a time when God will intervene to turn non-human animals into vegetarians, so that the cat he had acquired for his daughter would desist from its immoral practise of hunting and killing cockroaches.

He was, of course, quite conflicted about having this cat in their household at all, but he reasoned that at least under his care, it could be fitted with a bell so as to hopefully save the lives of the sorts of creature who register jingling bells as signs of danger.

In conversation with this theologian, it was clear that he understood this to be a belief that others were entitled to find odd, given that its manifestation would require complete biological reprogramming of felines, not to mention a complete scrubbing of evolutionary programming. He could acknowledge the fact that nobody was obliged to take his point of view seriously, given that it required a leap of faith rather than being evidence-based.

Harold Camping would not – and cannot – do this. He would not do so because of his conviction, and he cannot because his conviction is based on what he regards as good evidence. But the difference between the theologian who wants to save cockroaches and Camping is that Camping’s beliefs have harmed people. Victor Frasno drowned himself. Lyn Benedetto slit her two daughters’ throats and wrists to protect them from the tribulation of 21 May. A 14-year-old girl in Russia hung herself, recording in her diary “I don’t want to die like the others. That’s why I’ll die now”.

Any long-standing tradition will have its successes and failures. There will be moments of embarrassment and moments of pride. Just as atheists can say “I’m not that kind of atheist”, Christians are free to say “I’m not that kind of Christian”. But despite this, the fact remains that if your warrant for your beliefs is unfalsifiable – even, for those less polite, imaginary – you are going to be more prone to error than a person who derives their beliefs from observable evidence.  You could even be prone to repeating the same error.

As Michael Chrichton puts it in “Environmentalism as Religion”: “Remember, the nut on the sidewalk carrying the placard that predicts the end of the world doesn’t quit when the world doesn’t end on the day he expects. He just changes his placard, sets a new doomsday date and goes back to walking the streets. One of the defining features of religion is that your beliefs are not troubled by facts, because they have nothing to do with facts”.

While these disconnections between observable reality and beliefs are always a problem for secular folk, they should sometimes be a problem for everybody, including the religious. When they cause physical suffering or financial ruin, all of us should be angry. And all of us should also face up to the fact that, within systems of belief which are firewalled against criticism on the grounds of having some unique and non-empirical understanding of reality, these are possible, and sometimes predictable, consequences of those beliefs.

To respond by quoting Matthew 24:36, as some Christians have done, is not a useful response to “Judgement Day” prophesies of the sort Camping has provided. Of course, it’s true that, according to your reading of the Bible, “no one knows the day or the hour”. While this might make it true that Camping is not your sort of believer, it in no way affects the truth of the claim that people like him are playing a destructive role in society, and even perhaps within the faith itself.

If you believe that we should safeguard people from harm (caused by others) where possible, then prophesies like those of Camping become a legitimate target for intervention. People have been harmed and not all of these people chose to endure those harms. And if we are to do something, the issue should not be whether it’s rude to ridicule people like Harold Camping. The issue should simply be whether ridicule is an effective response or not.

While we have some data suggesting that current believers in marginal positions are likely to further entrench their views in the face of ridicule, those aren’t the people we’re trying to reach. Instead, we’re trying to nudge those who are currently on the fence closer to sanity, and safety. And if more people are dissuaded from believing the likes of Camping due to widespread ridicule of his views than would otherwise be the case, then ridicule seems absolutely the right thing to do. DM


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