The Worldview Bulletin Newsletter

By David Baggett

My wife and I recently listened to the eight-part podcast entitled “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper. It was largely about the vociferous resistance Rowling has encountered on social media after, as a left-leaning feminist herself, she nevertheless raised some concerns about the transgender movement—especially questions concerning women’s sports and her concerns about children “transitioning” when, she argues, they are not mature enough to make such momentous decisions and, in most all cases, eventually would grow out of the desire to do so.

The backlash she has received for raising these concerns is well known, and it’s just the most public example of a recurring pattern of demonization and bullying that’s taking place right now directed against women, especially, with the temerity to call into question any aspect of the trans agenda. (The firing of philosophy professor Kathleen Stock from Sussex is another example.)

There was much about the podcast I found enjoyable and illuminating. Among what I found fascinating was the chance to find out a bit more about the host, the granddaughter of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church who eventually found her way out of that toxic church situation. She had been caught up in the unseemly and atrocious behavior of her church for a number of years, using her considerable talents as an advocate and apologist for the cause. Her subsequent deliverance from its hold on her made her, in retrospect, second guess her ability to think clearly because, she realized, she’d been so strongly misled (while trying to think hard all along).

Epistemic humility is one thing, of course, but intellectual debilitation is another. So, in an effort to balance conviction with appropriate self-scrutiny, she adopted a set of six questions to ask herself about her beliefs to avoid falling into the same sort of trap. They are questions, I might submit, it would perhaps do us all good to ponder a bit; I find their resonance both with aspects of the history of philosophy and with biblical revelation intriguing.

First, are you able to entertain real doubts about your beliefs, or are you operating from a position of certainty? “Certainty” is often castigated nowadays as a great bugaboo to avoid. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, something like “Cartesian certainty” is, admittedly, generally beyond our ken except for a few beliefs internal to our own heads. Such certainty traces back to the writings of the French philosopher René Descartes, and it’s the idea that we can’t possibly be wrong. Such uber-confidence, however, is nearly always misguided, and hankering after it is generally a mistake. (This is one of the great takeaways from the last couple hundred years of epistemology.)

Objective certainty is usually beyond our pay grade, and subjective certainty, frankly, is notoriously unreliable; plenty of the certifiably insane claim certainty about all sorts of patent falsehoods. We can and should have assurance of our deepest beliefs, but the category of certainty is less a biblical term than a misguided Enlightenment ideal with numerous problematic connotations. There’s nothing wrong, and a lot right, admitting we might be wrong about most everything.

But another concern lurks in the vicinity here: sometimes people use the word “certainty” just to capture something like firm conviction, and if so, we should definitely push back. There’s nothing wrong with firm conviction, properly grounded, adequately principled, and balanced with humility and charity and a willingness to engage in substantive dialogue with those with whom we disagree. I can be both convinced that something is true and, in principle, open to the possibility, however remote, that I might be wrong. We can and should balance conviction with teachability and an aversion to off-putting pedantry and dogmatism.

Second, can you articulate the evidence you would need to see to change your perspective, or is your position unfalsifiable? Falsifiability (and verifiability) was much discussed in twentieth century philosophy, especially because of the influence of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle. Generally speaking, setting aside the overstatements and incoherence of the movement, here’s a germane insight we can all appreciate: it’s actually a virtuous thing if one’s beliefs are, in principle, falsifiable. This is not to say false, but rather able, hypothetically, to be shown false.

What, for example (counterfactually speaking), would show Christianity to be false? I might suggest finding the bones of Jesus. (Set aside the epistemic challenge of confirming such a thing; the present point doesn’t depend on solving that.) If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, our hope is in vain. The Bible itself says this; see I Cor. 15:14. There’s nothing wrong with admitting as much; in fact, if we aren’t willing to admit it, we end up trivializing the importance of the resurrection. First Corinthians 15:19 is another powerful example of this principle: If this life is all there is, we are of all men most miserable.

Third, can you articulate your opponent’s position in a way they could recognize, or are you strawmanning? In this acrimonious, contentious, and divisive age in which we live, especially with the acidic effects that social media has on us all, we as believers have to be especially vigilant to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), to show respect for those we disagree with, and to model what attentive listening looks like. We do our cause no favors by doing all the talking, by not listening carefully, by thinking we have everything to teach and nothing to learn.

Sometimes I have my apologetics and philosophy students spend more time laying out the positions they wish to critique, ensuring that they’re laying them out in the strongest, fairest, and most charitable form they can, since only then will their critiques carry much weight. Defeating lame variants of opposing views is as worthless as it’s easy. Knocking down the weakest versions of opposing views (an informal logical fallacy called “strawmanning”) achieves little, and is hardly a good way to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Who wants their own views treated with such disdain and frivolity?) If the truth is on our side, what do we have to fear by real and robust engagement?

Fourth, are you attacking ideas or the people who hold them? All of us, believers and unbelievers alike, have to resist, as we dialogue with others, the all too human temptation to direct our ire at people instead of their ideas. This takes practice and intentionality, and sometimes we will fail; all the more reason to redouble our efforts, learn from our mistakes, and do better the next time around. At the risk of sounding cliché, we want to win people, not just arguments, and surely not arguments by derogation.

Avoiding ad hominems and doing this right is made all the more challenging nowadays because people often identify their ideas with their identity. So even when we don’t intend to go after people, attacking their ideas may be thought tantamount to attacking the people who hold them. But this false moral equivalence is something we can’t grow weary resisting by repeating as often as needed that critiquing (say) Tom’s views is not an attack of Tom. There is great confusion nowadays about what constitutes people’s truest identities, and as Christians we shouldn’t capitulate to and reinforce those confusions.

Actually (metaphorically or literally) attacking people is wrong, of course, and we shouldn’t do it; we want to persuade people, not humiliate them, mock them, or destroy them. Whether they know it or not, we’re on their side, rooting for them; but we do demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

Fifth, are you willing to cut off close relationships with people who disagree with you, especially over small points of contention? Here the idea is that we generally shouldn’t be doing such a thing. There are occasions when breaking fellowship is justified and called for (Titus 3:10, for example), but if we find ourselves in the habit of doing so too often or too quickly, it might indicate a problem. Perhaps God’s allowing those people in our lives to teach us something, to sanctify us. Working through the challenges they pose will not be easy, but might be important. One of the ways we can be profoundly countercultural is by resisting the “cancel” rage. There’s almost always a better, more redemptive, and more imaginative solution.

Loving those we find it hard to love is challenging, if not well-nigh impossible, and takes relying on God’s strength and enablement to do so. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13). Family relationships, in particular, can be especially effective reminders that we don’t always have to agree with people to be close with them—but they are just a microcosm of the family of human relations at large. Sometimes folks are waiting to see if we’ll still love them despite our differences. This is not at all about compromising our convictions, but loving people as we ought, while we strongly resist the modern notion that love entails unconditional endorsement of another’s beliefs or practices.

Sixth, are you willing to use extraordinary means against people who disagree with you (violence, celebrating misfortune and tragedy, etc.)? We should continually check our hearts. If our convictions—religious, moral, political—are engendering bitterness in our hearts, making it virtually impossible to love our neighbors as we ought, leaving a trail of broken relationships in our wake, and the like, we should ask if those convictions have taken an unhealthy form. Recall these words from another French thinker (and contemporary of Descartes), Blaise Pascal: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” What better reminder to keep love paramount than these immortal words from I Cor. 13?

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:14–16).

— David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for the Foundations of Ethics at Houston Christian University. He is the author or editor of about fifteen books, most recently Ted Lasso and Philosophy: No Question Is Into Touch edited with Marybeth Baggett.

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