U.S. Intellectual History Blog

I Love You but You’re Going to Hell

A few weeks back I promoted a few of my favorite blogs–here. In adding to that list, I am intrigued by a new blog authored by Adam Laats from Binghamton University, who is on the program for our conference this year. The title of the blog is I Love You but You’re Going to Hell: A Primer for Peaceful Coexistence in an Age of Culture Wars. The current topic is evolution (which I wrote about last week here). In Laats’s words: “The goal is to articulate the best arguments from each side; to show that evolutionists and creationists may disagree, but that doesn’t make them wicked, ignorant, or crazy, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins. Future plans include similar treatment of other ‘culture war’ issues, such as education, religion, race, family, etc.”

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hmmm…this does raise an interesting question about whether there are controversies (or pseudocontroversies) about which one wouldn’t want to provide a forum for both sides to articulate their views.

    I’m thinking, e.g., of Holocaust denial, which many of us would feel very uncomfortable about providing a superficial balanced forum for.

    To speak more theoretically: not all controversies are real controversies. The battle over evolution, is, in fact, a classic pseudocontroversy. On the merits, you might as well have a debate over whether or not the Earth is flat. This raises the question of whether there is anything to be gained from providing a space for each side to articulate its arguments.

    Secondly, very often in these pseudocontroversies, the primary goal of the side that doesn’t have the facts on its side is to be taken seriously by being seen as one side in a real controversy. Hence the frequent claim by creationists that, like “evolutionists,” they have a theory and that schools should teach “both sides,” and the repeated repackaging of creationism as “creation science” or “intelligent design.” When the goal of one side is to set up a debate, providing a site for a structurally neutral discussion might not be neutral at all.

    Finally, as in the case of Holocaust denial, one of the sides might be not only false, but vicious. More reason not to provide a forum for it.

    And just to be clear: I’m a First Amendment absolutist on all these things. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to provide a venue for them or to pretend that something which shouldn’t be a controversy is one.

  2. This is one of my pet peeves about the History Channel. Did space aliens build the pyramids? Did the Founding Fathers know the location of the Holy Grail? Was Nostradamus a time traveler from the future? In specials like this you see interviews with real historians with bona fide academic credentials, and for counterpoint you get the amateur “experts,” conspiracy theorists, “scholars” of arcana, etc. The fringe views are presented as if they are “the other side” of a legitimate historical question. Hideous.

  3. isn’t there a jean-luc godard quote about this? something like, ‘televitions: five minutes for the jews, five minutes for hitler.’?

  4. Andrew,
    Thanks for the notice. And thanks Ben for bringing up the challenge. By way of defense, let me try to make a distinction. My blog won’t take a position on the merits of differing ideas about evolution. Or about education, abortion, family, or the Bible. The point is NOT that “creationism” has equal scientific value to “evolutionism.” Rather, the point is that creationists and evolutionists may have similar reasons for believing in their positions. They can hold radically differing ideas about the nature of being and reality without being crazy, ignorant, or evil. Too often, it seems, creationists dismiss evolutionists as evil, and evolutionists dismiss creationists as crazy or ignorant.
    Maybe the goal will be clearer if I share some of my experiences. I have given some talks to academic audiences about the history of Protestant fundamentalism and anti-evolutionism. It is not unusual for people in those audiences to ask me things like, “What’s the matter with these people?” … ‘these people’? I thought we had moved on from dismissing ‘these people’ out of hand, even if we disagree with their worldviews. Or another example: at one talk I dropped the statistic that almost half of American adults agree that humanity was created in “pretty much its present form within the last 10,000 years,” according to Gallup polls. One audience member shouted, “But Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are nutjobs!”
    I will not be voting for either, but I do not think it makes sense to simply dismiss such a large number of people–sometimes well educated people–simply as nutjobs. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of American culture.
    For LD, you mentioned that the History Channel presents “fringe views” as if they have equal merit to mainstream thinking. The point of the blog is exactly that: creationism is not a fringe view. Whatever we may think about its scientific merits–and for the record I agree that it should not be taught in all public schools as science–it is embraced by a majority of American people. The true fringe view, if we can believe Gallup polls and a recent survey of high-school science teachers (Berkman and Plutzer, Science, 331, 28 January 2011, 404-405) is that humanity evolved without any divine guidance. That is my personal belief, and in my daily interactions it seems to be the belief of most Americans, but according to Gallup polls it is held by only about ten percent of adult Americans.

  5. I’ve thought a lot about this in my personal life, since I came out to my family about a year and a half ago. My parents are open-minded conservative Christians who voted for Obama and my brother is more conservative, but also a philosophy prof. They were horrified and a wee bit disgusted by my coming out as gay. It felt like a personal attack on my essence and yet I knew that it had taken me almost ten years to work through my own homophobia to get to a place where I was free enough to recognize my true self. How could it not take them equally long? And yet, I only worked through it because I had an internal voice, very weak at first, urging me to understand that gays were people too.

    In my discussions with my family, it is very hard for me not to get emotional, because what they so easily dismiss out of hand in a tone of pseudo-science (but the parts don’t fit! i.e. it’s not natural! or the more painful one–we don’t do everything that feels good, i.e. it’s not moral) hurts me to my core.

    I try to give the normal intellectual responses to these things, but it doesn’t really help because they are emotional issues for them as well. What does help is just having to live with me as daughter and sister. Reconciling their love for me and their conviction that my beliefs/actions may just lead me to hell.

    Sometimes I don’t want to engage them, I just want to demand tolerance, especially since they’d rather read what they find instead of what I send. But most of the time I don’t demand, I avoid.

    So yes, it doesn’t help to dismiss people as “these people” and if you can help people co-exist, more power to you. Unfortunately, in the controversies you mention, a lot of people don’t want to co-exist, they want to smash the opposition. So they may not even find their way to your blog.

  6. @adamlaats:

    Thanks for the long, substantive reply!

    Let me start by saying that I think that the overall idea of providing a space for both sides of divisive culture-war issues to make their cases in the most rational way possible is sensible. But most culture war issues are not simple matters of fact. Should gays and lesbians enjoy equal marriage rights? Should schools have abstinence-only sex ed programs? I have passionate feelings about such issues, but these are questions of value and/or policy, not simple fact.

    Evolution is not like this.

    Like global warming, whether or not Barack Obama was born in the US, whether the Bush administration carried out the 9/11 attacks, or whether or not the Holocaust happened, evolution is a matter of fact. And that fact is not changed by any poll data.

    There are, broadly, three reasons one might argue for creationism:

    1) Ignorance.
    2) Bad faith.
    3) A radical denial of science as such in the face of divine revelation. (i.e. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”)

    Frankly, #3 is the best of these three really bad reasons. And it doesn’t make for much a debate as it simply assumes its conclusions. (It’s also incoherent given the competing narratives of creation in Genesis…but that’s another story.)

    Providing a forum for a discussion of creationism vs. evolution, like providing a forum for an argument over whether or not Obama is a Muslim or whether or not the Holocaust happened, necessarily involves taking seriously arguments that fundamentally do not deserve to be taken seriously. Indeed, taking them seriously is halfway toward losing the battle. And in the case of creationism, many of these arguments are themselves bad faith pseudo-science, precisely designed to open the schoolhouse door to fundamentally religious beliefs. The whole point of such arguments is simply to be taken seriously.

    Does that mean that it’s ok to dismiss creationists as “nutjobs”? Absolutely not! But the problem with doing so is that it displays a lack compassion and a willingness to dismiss our fellow human beings rather than come to an understanding of why they make such fundamental mistakes. Not dismissing those who believe in creationism as “nutjobs” does not entail discarding or even questioning scientific reality. Having a debate over evolution does.

    Understanding American culture does require that we come to grips with why so many people have so many simply incorrect beliefs about reality. It does not in any sense require that we start calling reality into question for ourselves. Nor does it help advance American society to strategically call into question established scientific (or historical) fact in the name of civility.

  7. Professor Alpers,

    In cases that are less certain than those of Holocaust or evolution denial, whose truths appear to be painfully clear to a majority of reasonable people and yet somewhat more obscure to a smaller, though implacable minority, to what extent are the intellectual energies of academics, social scientists and theoreticians wasted on debate? In other words, has too much attention been paid to issues–gay marriage and the fitness of gay couples to raise adopted children, for example– that, while less obviously pseudo-controversial, are nonetheless just as out-of-place amid intellectual debate as those centered on, say, a denial of evolution?

    And at what point does it become necessary or prudent to restrict access to the forums of serious, scholarly debate? Certain battles within the culture wars appear less like legitimate discourse between opposing sides of one culturally significant argument, and more like desperate attempts on the part of marginalized sub-groups to earn legitimacy for their point of view specifically, and generally, the belief system(s) that underpin them. It seems like a mistake to persist in debating issues that are likely to remain unresolved as a result of one side’s inability to accept irrefutable truths most everyone else recognizes, and that engender nothing but fierce antagonism.

  8. @jm:

    I think those are excellent questions. And I don’t have firm answers about where one draws the line between issues that are, and aren’t, worth debating again.

    But here are some thoughts:

    1) Wherever one draws the line between issues worth debating and issues not worth debating, issues that are simply a matter of well-established fact are on the “not worth debating” side of the line. We are each entitled to our own opinions. We are not entitled to our own facts.

    2) Not all venues run by scholare are (or should be) forums restricted to “serious, scholarly debate” (though those that are settings for broader kinds of arguments ought to make their purposes clear). Academics should welcome–and be open to participating in–forums that are open to non-scholars as well as scholars. However, such forums need not–and should not–lend an air of scholarship to non-scholarship.

    3) I take it the premise of Adam Laats’s site is that, by changing the tone of the discussion on these culture war issues, we can reduce the fierce antagonisms that accompany them. Even if opponents of real sex ed continue to support abstinence-only approaches, at least they won’t demonize the rest of us (and vice versa). And, the argument goes, that reduction in antagonism would be good for our public culture. I only half buy this argument, but I see no harm flowing from those who believe in it giving it a try.

  9. Ben–
    Very interesting discussion. If I can push back a little:

    “We are each entitled to our own opinions. We are not entitled to our own facts.”

    The problem, I think, is that this sharp deployment of the fact/value distinction doesn’t entirely get at the issues that divide people, primarily because what counts as fact is dependent upon more generalized world views, which are enmeshed in matters of value. Most people who subscribe to a view that evolution is “fact,” are also committed to a set of values about how to approach and understand reality, values that are incompatible with those who hold particular theistic cosmologies and values. We don’t get those “facts” unless we subscribe to an empiricist scientific anti-supernaturalist world view (not to mention that most people who believe in evolution do so as a matter of faith in the authority of those who have actually done the hard word of studying biology). So, there’s an additional problem about how we draw the line between what is undebatable, and what is a subject of legitimate differences.

    I also tend to think that creationists and others who want to be taken seriously are playing a losing game. The defenders of science scream “not science” when creationists push for the inclusion of their views, but what the creationists are really pushing for, despite their intentions, is to have the merits of their positions judged on scientific grounds, and those are grounds upon which they cannot but be losers. I would follow James Turner’s argument in _Without God, Without Creed_ here; it was the defenders of religion who turned religion into something that could be done without.

  10. On the question, should certain points of view not have their arguments publicized as such, lest they mislead–it seems to me that there is a benefit to publicizing them exactly as that. If they are not publicized as special pleading for the express purpose of pushing a larger agenda (an agenda that’s not welcome to most people), they can find their way into “respectable” debate, in a way that can have negative side effects. There are plenty of questions, say, regarding the existence and significance of evidence, that it would be entirely reasonable to entertain–up to the point where either they’re debunked or the only proponents of those arguments are shown to be in bad faith. People of all stripes could easily be led to give such arguments the benefit of the doubt if their provenance is scrupulously hidden. Worse than that, the danger of this happening could lead to a refusal to countenance any question of that type, in order not to have to police the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable questioning.

    An amusing version of this can be seen among amateur debaters of “the Shakespeare authorship question”–on both sides–where the proponents of what they take to be the traditional, academically acceptable view do actually liken their opponents to Holocaust deniers, and also at times refuse to countenance questioning of even clearly speculative biographies, as long as they support the “traditional” narrative. (“Alternate author” proponents sometimes bring up evolution (according to the limited amount of anecdotal evidence I have), though “Stratford” proponents, not so much, IIRC.)

  11. @ bianca: Just to clarify, I’m not arguing that certain points of view ought not to have their arguments publicized as such. I’m happy to have creationist and Holocaust denying arguments publicized. What I’m not happy to do is provide a supposedly neutral forum for these arguments whose starting point is to treat matters of scientific or historical fact as open questions. But I’m totally opposed to any restrictions on the publication of materials that argue for creationism or deny the Holocaust. And I’d happily expose people to these ideas in the context of encouraging an accurate understanding of these false points of view.

    @Dan: Very interesting points! I wonder whether the point you make about contemporary religion in your last paragraph (about which I largely agree), vitiates the point you make about religion in your penultimate paragraph. That is, I don’t think proponents of creationism actual do embrace a coherent, theistic, anti-empericist point of view. They want to have their scientific cake and eat it, too. There certainly have been people who reject science as such. But you find few of them even among contemporary conservative evangelicals (much less the much larger number of people who are simply uncomfortable with evolution for even less coherent reasons).

    Of course whether or not proponents of creationism are wholeheartedly anti-empiricist is masked by the fact that the #1 goal of creationists arguing in the public sphere is to keep evolution out of the schools or, barring that, to at least include creationism alongside it. And the state of First Amendment jurisprudence requires them to package creationism as science for this purpose, whether or not they actually believe this packaging. As I said above, it’s this bad faith aspect of the creationist argument that makes the evolution debate even less useful than it otherwise would be IMO.

    Also: I don’t think we ought to pretend that we stand on neutral ground here. You’re right that we don’t get at these facts unless we subscribe to an empiricist scientific anti-supernaturalist world view. But, in fact, I do subscribe to such a world view. And I’d rather own up to doing so (which, I agree, is both important and necessary to do) than pretend that I don’t for the sake of argument. The last thing that the public discussion of evolution needs is more people arguing in bad faith.

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