Monday, February 16, 2004

How and Why Discussions With Agnostics and Atheists Often (Sadly) Collapse / The Many Logical Fallacies of Ed Babinski and Friends

(Was [and occasionally still touches upon]: Discussion on the Psalms)

Dave Armstrong vs. Ed Babinski and Pals

See previous portions of the debate:

Reply to "The Problem of Pain and the Egomania of the Psalms" (by Agnostic Ed Babinski)

Second Reply to Agnostic Ed Babinski on the Supposed Irrationality and Immorality of the Psalms and the Christian Worldview

And the next installment:

Round III With Ed Babinski On Profound Christian Ignorance, and Every Subject Under the Sun Except the Topic (The Psalms)

Before I begin, it needs to be noted that my opponent, Ed Babinski, has not yet come to my blog to engage in simple discussion, even though we have had cordial relations thus far, he was invited, and despite the fact that I promised him that he would be treated fairly and charitably. Instead, he has chosen to circulate our between-response correpondence to a circle of friends (presumably non-Christian like himself, though I haven't been informed of the beliefs of most of them, or even given last names). In effect, I think this becomes a form of the argumentum ad populum fallacy (see below). Rather than engage the arguments directly, Ed surrounds himself with like-minded people, whose support leads him to believe that he "is on the right side" and that agnostics and atheists are the really "smart people," while Christians are deluded, ignoramuses and simpletons, unable even to broadly understand their own Sacred Book. Strength in numbers . . . moral support, etc. But then, if Ed had to have such a coterie with him, why not all come to the blog in the first place, instead of doing it in e-mail?! I don't exclude anyone! I'm a passionate believer in free speech and hearing both sides, as well as in dialogue with all other viewpoints.

Individuals in this little group may indeed offer up some (good or bad) actual rational arguments, but I'm supposed to debate five or more people at once? That's what Ed considers a "fair fight"? Now, I hasten to add that I am happy to debate multiple people (up to ten or even more if needs be -- I once took on an entire anti-Catholic Calvinist board before I was banned after two days of extreme, juvenile mockery and insult), if this is what is required to get into a decent discussion with any "single" agnostic. I've often debated multiple partners; it's no big deal to me, and I love the challenge. But the main shortcoming of this tactic is the tendency of groups to bring up many different topics. It makes for sloppy, unproductive discussion. Ed already has that problem, in my opinion (and he thinks the same of me, as we will see), so adding more folks to the mix surely can't improve the prospect of our dialogue. Anyway, here are the e-mails of some of these mysterious "participants":

Bruce Wildish: wildish@sympatico.ca
Thomas Cook: jaxcat9@yahoo.com
Sharon Mooney: webmaster@edwardtbabinski.us
Ed Babinski: ed.babinski@furman.edu
Harry McCall: McCallHH@dot.state.sc.us

criticus@aol.com
slocks@globalnet.co.uk
PGr333@aol.com
nahigian@email.com {added a bit later]

One is named Gary Amirault, and we've already met Phil (dunno who's who for some of these addresses). Hello y'all! Make yourself at home . . .

By constantly bringing in more variables of discussion before our initial topic is adequately dealt with, Ed might be criticized on the grounds that this is "muddying the waters," or obscurantism, obfuscation, and attempted evasion of difficult challenges by recourse to topic-switching. It might cynically be regarded as the old tired method of "throwing enough (manure) until [hope hope! and wish!] some of it sticks." This won't do. If my opponents wish to utilize such unworthy dialogical tactics, I will be more than happy to point out the ethical and logical difficulties in such an attempt. And that is their loss. What would they expect me to do?

That said, now I would like to offer a mini-refresher course on introductory logic (don't worry, no quizzes . . . ), so that readers will clearly see the sort of fallacious "arguments" that are currently being advanced against my response(s) to Ed Babinski. I shall cite the standard textbook on the subject, Irving M. Copi's Introduction to Logic (5th edition, New York: Macmillan, 1978).

Argumentum ad Hominem (abusive)

. . . translates literally as "argument directed to the man" . . . It is committed when, instead of trying to disprove the truth of what is asserted, one attacks the person who made the assertion . . . This kind of argument is sometimes said to commit the "Genetic Fallacy," because it attacks the source or genesis of the opposing position rather than the position itself.

. . . Where an attitude of disapproval toward a person can be evoked, it may possibly tend to overflow the strictly emotional field and become disagreement with what that person says. But this connection is only psychological, not logical. Even the most wicked of men may sometimes tell the truth or argue correctly.

(p. 89)

Argumentum ad Hominem (circumstantial)

When two people are disputing, one may ignore the question of whether his own view is true or false and seek instead to prove that his opponent ought to accept it because of that opponent's special circumstances . . . It is also used as the basis for rejecting a conclusion supported by one's adversary, as when it is argued that the conclusion arrived at by one's opponent is dictated by his special circumstances rather than based upon reason or evidence. Thus . . a manufacturer's arguments in favor of tariff protection are rejected on the grounds that a manufacturer would naturally be expected to favor a protective tariff . . . This type of argument, though often persuasive, is clearly fallacious.

. . . The first use of the circumstantial ad hominem charges people who dispute your conclusion with inconsistency, either among their beliefs or between their preaching and their practice, which may be regarded as a kind of reproach or abuse. The second use of the circumstantial ad hominem charges one's adversaries with being so prejudiced that their alleged reasons are mere rationalizations of conclusions dictated by self-interest. And that is certainly to abuse them. This particular kind of ad hominem is sometimes called "poisoning the well," for obvious reasons.

(pp. 89-91)

Argumentum ad Populum

. . . sometimes defined as the fallacy committed in directing an emotional appeal "to the people" or "to the gallery" to win their assent to a conclusion unsupported by good evidence . . . We may define the argumentum ad populum fallacy a little more narrowly as the attempt to win popular assent to a conclusion by arousing the emotions and enthusiasms of the multitude, rather than by appeal to the relevant facts. This is a favorite device with the propagandist, the demagogue, and the advertiser.

(p. 93)

Ignoratio Elenchi (irrelevant conclusion)

The fallacy of ignoratio elenchi is committed when an argument purporting to establish a particular conclusion is directed to proving a different conclusion. For example, when a particular proposal for housing legislation is under consideration, legislators may rise to speak in favor of the bill and argue only that decent housing for all the people is desirable. Their remarks are then logically irrelevant to the point at issue, for the question concerns the particular measure at hand. Presumably everyone agrees that decent housing for all the people is desirable . . . The question is: will this particular measure provide it, and if so, will it provide it better than any practical alternative? . . . During the course of an extended discussion, fatigue may lead to inattention, and irrelevancies may tend to pass unnoticed.

(p. 100)

Now let's examine how Ed (words in blue) and his pals have tried to utilize all these fallacies (knowingly or unknowingly) in their responses to my arguments. On 17 December, Ed wrote to me:

As for a second go round between us, what can I say? The Bible is not my book, it's merely a book to me. While you have claimed it in faith to be yours. How dare I or anyone else comment on any part of it in less than adoring fashion? God shall smite those like me, for it says He will. Where? Why in the Bible of course. So it's you and "God" and your circular reasoning against my common sense. Furthermore, is there really any need for me to say much more, or rather should I let the Bible do the speaking, and simply invite everyone to read the Bible as they would any other book?

This is a treasure-trove of fallacies, non sequitur, and illogical insult. First, sarcasm is brought in when it is unnecessary and unhelpful. Then caricature is used to (in effect) shut down discussion. Christians supposedly believe that God will automatically "smite" all atheists (as if there is no divine mercy or mitigating circumstances or varying culpability or degrees of ignorance involved)? Etc. ad nauseum. So why would Ed want to discuss the Bible with a Christian, I wonder? Then a severe ad hominem is applied in the broadest stroke possible: Christians who accept the Bible as revelation are (implied to some or a great extent) always using "circular reasoning," while skeptics of the Bible are merely applying "common sense." Again, why discuss the topic if you believe your opponent is an ignoramus who doesn't understand the least thing about logic? Dialogue becomes impossible under those loaded, biased conditions.

Now, it is true that I am critiquing Ed and his cronies' logic here, but not in the sweeping sense that he condemns Christian thinking. I'm simply applying it to this individual circumstance, with specific examples accompanied by logical argumentation. I wouldn't for a second make ludicrous claims that all (or even many or most) atheists and agnostics routinely think in circular terms, or that they habitually deny common sense (I would go after their premises, as is my Socratic wont). What's accomplished by that? Lastly, Ed assumes that because the Bible is believed by Christians to be inspired revelation; therefore Christians can't at all read it "as they would any other book," as if the two things are mutually exclusive. They are not. In fact, my initial response in defending the Psalms against Ed's spurious charges rested precisely upon the assumption that the Bible can and should be analyzed like other literature. It was Ed's refusal to do so, and attempt to make a special case out of the Psalms, as if the standard scholarly analysis of poetry doesn't apply to it, and his absurd wooden literalism in approaching the text (again, another charge that -- ironically -- Christians face constantly), that has caused the problem here. He accuses us of the very thing that he is doing.

Ed in his letter then cites eight biblical passages (and a host of cross-references) which he finds morally objectionable. That is fine for another discussion, but that's just it: it is another discussion. Why should I play "Bible hopscotch"? I thought this discussion was about a particular claim that Ed made about a particular Psalm? That would be the logical conclusion, since I chose to respond to one paper of Ed's where he made claims that I found dubious and false. I made my counter-argument, but Ed has failed to provide a direct response ever since. Instead, we get an impromptu assembled group all "replying" -- which I will document in this reply -- with (barring a few exceptions here and there) a bunch of fallacies and irrelevancies. But this is usually what people do when they have no answer, are unwilling to admit that (for various and sundry reasons) and must find some way (no matter how fallacious) to "save face." This is all the more true in atheist / Christian discussion, because the average atheist is accustomed to routinely assuming and thinking that Christians are so ignorant, that they could never prevail in any direct, one-on-one argument. So if this happens to occur, then he must deny that it has occurred at all costs, because no self-respecting atheist or agnostic or Bible skeptic could ever admit to being bested in argument with a lowly, foolish, gullible Christian. That is unthinkable. You know the "reasoning": "such a thing can't possibly happen, so it never does." Right . . .

After sarcastic, wrongheaded remarks, Ed launches into another of his patented "Bible collections": this time six "imprecatory psalms" (those which describe judgment and desire for judgment on the part of God and [usually also] the writer). But this is off the subject, too. In case Ed or his latter-day associates-in-argument-and-ridicule have forgotten the original discussion: Ed tried to deride Psalm 91 and interpret it hyper-literally (which is absurd in the case of poetry in the first place). He mocked and made fun of Christian use of it at a tragic funeral of a 27-year-old woman, as if Christians are dolts and idiots for even thinking to read such a piece at a funeral, under those particularly sad circumstances. As usual, Ed "got it," but hardly anyone else in the room did ("The irony of the words of that psalm being sung at Becca's funeral was apparent to me though no one else there seemed to notice"). I responded with a lengthy rational (not primarily emotional) examination of the nature of Hebrew biblical poetry and how it is sensibly interpreted, and how it was understood by the Jews who wrote it, in a particular cultural and literary context. But Ed's original piece was simply thinly-veiled mockery of Christian rationality and ethics -- as if Christians supposedly lack rationality to an alarming degree ("Religious services are not designed to make you think more rationally, they are designed to "move" you"). I dealt thoroughly with his paper. I haven't received the courtesy of a comprehensive reply back, though. Why? Ed continues in his letter:

Yet "fundamentalistic" Christians (whether of the Catholic or Protestant variety) appear to be living in a garden in which only their flowers--their holy writ with its poetry, hyperbole, metaphors and allegories--are deemed the kings of the garden, while all other religious literature is deemed less than truly "holy," even if you compare the imprecatory psalms to the most sublime and insightful passages found in Buddhist, Hindu and Moslem books, or secular novels.

This is simply not true; not as an accurate generalization. It is true that some factions of "exclusivistic" Christianity tend to think in this way, but it is not the mainstream by any means. There is plenty of Christian ecumenism around (a little council called Vatican II highly emphasied it), among Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox. But that would go against the plan of the broad-brushed caricature (complete with the obligatory use of the loaded pejorative "fundamentalist" -- a group Ed used to be in, but which I have never been a part of).

Ed continues in his typically epic-length letter, going from one ultimately irrelevant topic to another: why is the Bible considered "holy"?, mocking the doctrine of hellfire as if it is self-evidently absurd and outrageous, mocking OT miracles in great detail, and even the Incarnation and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ ("a God who only feels truly satisfied after He gets beat up and killed on earth--only then does God feel in a truly forgiving mood--though not too forgiving, because there's still eternal hell . . .") -- all of which is far far afield of our supposed subject. Again, does Ed expect me to take my valuable time and deal in turn with each major topic he brings up? And to do it now against ten or so "participants" -- none of whom were even properly introduced to me? I find this amazing. But it's not surprising (how well I know after more than 23 years of intense debates with all kinds of people).

Then more verses on hell (I am quite familiar with them already, Ed, thank you). As an example of the non sequiturs abounding in this letter, Ed asks:

What does being "thrown" or "cast" into "fire" symbolize? Seems like serious stuff even metaphorically, but of course to someone like you, a fan of Lewis and Chesterton, I suppose it's merely a metaphor combined with hyperbole, and essentially refers to nothing nearly as dire as being cast into fire, or being tortured deliberately by a deity.

Briefly: no, of course I don't deny that hell is a literal place and punishment, according to orthodox Christianity in all three of its major forms. Nor would Lewis or Chesterton. So this is more confusion of "literal vs. metaphorical." It's a recurring theme in Ed's ongoing polemic against Christianity and Christians. Moreover, Ed seems not to realize that hell is not a place of torture "by a deity" -- rather, it is torture by demons and the devil (also created beings, not "deity"). Big difference. The whole point of hell is that it is the place where creatures who so desperately want to "get away" from God, finally get their chance to do so. Hence, Lewis' remark that "the doors of hell are locked on the inside." But of course, a Godless universe and state turns out to be not quite the paradise that they expected. Why blame God, then, if His creatures (to whom He grants free will, even to the extent of freedom to possibly reject Him and be damned) want to get away from Him? Undaunted, however, Ed later remarks:

One last commonsense thought: If you have already justified to yourself folks being "cast into a lake of fire" [sic--metaphor] for not believing like you, then justifying the most imprecatory of the psalms as "holy writ" should be a relative breeze in comparison.

Then follows a lengthy excursion into hell and damnation and the devil. What relationship to the interpretation of Hebrew poetry in the Psalms this has, is lost to me. Perhaps Ed or someone else can explain to me what it is. Or is Ed simply unable and unwilling to stick to one topic? Thus he massively commits the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi. Ed continues on, mocking the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Hades, the account of Doubting Thomas, then Jesus' miracles and Resurrection and Ascension and post-Resurrection appearances, then supposed contradictions in the Resurrection stories; concluding triumphantly: "you can see the Gospel stories growing like Pinocchio's nose." Thanks for the patronizing lecture, Ed. Maybe one day we can talk about one or all of these topics by themselves. That would be a nice change, wouldn't it?

In a remarkable instance of intellectual arrogance and blindness to the projection occurring, Ed opines:

Religion is a puddle from which a gnat may drink and in which an elephant may bathe. And even the weakest disputant is made so conceited by what he calls religion, as to think himself wiser than the wisest who thinks differently from him.

What an "argument," huh? Readers can note who is exhibiting these arrogant traits presently; myself or Ed. I haven't mocked atheists as a class at all. Quite the contrary; in several papers I basically defend them against common unwarranted Christian charges. But Ed is mocking "religion" all over the place, isn't he? So, as the Good Book says, "look at the beam in thine own eye, and not the speck in thy brother's eye."

Then we are treated to a news account of a "fist fight at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem" [between Catholics and Orthodox], as if that has the slightest relationship at all to the ostensible "topic" under discussion. Whew . . . But wait! Here is something relevant to a discussion of the Psalms!: yet another news account of religious people going nuts, describing: "messianic fantasies and delusions of being Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, or other Biblical characters. Many have a strong grounding in the Bible [right; Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler had a "strong grounding" in Marx, too]. In Jerusalem, they suddenly take off their clothes or shout prophecies on street corners, only to revert to normal after a few days' treatment." Well, now I can retire to bed, safe and secure and properly-educated in the knowledge that religious folks like myself are nutcases, while atheists have only the best of mental health and "commonsense."

Ed (now reaching the end of this catch-all letter) cites a prophecy of Julian of Norwich. Okay . . . why not [shaking my head in dazed befuddlement]? We are blessed, in conclusion with comments from one Phil (no last name; no description otherwise). He (words in green) concludes with yet more of the fallacies we have described above:

From just a brief skimming at Dave Armstrong's critique of yours on the Psalms . . .

Heaven (oops: universe) forbid someone would actually "read" (and "ponder" would be an extra bonus) an opposing argument, rather than skim it. But of course, such skimming fully enables the skeptic to give their "take" on what they have merely glanced over. I find this laughable and ridiculous.

. . . are all the people of the world somehow supposed to correctly grasp all these nuances in the scripture and still come to a saving knowledge of
Jesus?

No one said they would or could do so (last of all, me). Great attempt at obscurantism and caricature of my argument. I was simply describing a proper way to interpret and exegete Hebrew poetry. Whether the average man on the street will understand all this is neither likely, nor in the least bit relevant (hence, more ignoratio elenchi fallacy).

The Bible by itself is quite strange to me. Making sense of it almost seems stranger.

That's fine and dandy, but is this supposed to be a self-conscious argument, I wonder? All this does is show this "casual reviewer's" profound ignorance of the Bible. How it follows from that fact, that two billion or so Christians must be likewise ignorant, or that no one can understand the Bible, because Phil can't, is, I confess, quite beyond me. But maybe the commentary is not intended to be rational. One must account for it somehow.

Phil goes on to the Problem of Evil: a huge and multifaceted topic, which I acknowledge as the most serious difficulty of Christianity and theism. All the more reason, then, to avoid being pulled into that discussion as an aside. It's far too serious for such perfunctory treatment.

The fact that the world is a mess and that there's a need for kindness and generosity is not a problem. But introducing God and the Bible as an explanation and solution in the mix seems to unnecessarily complicate things.

What has this to do with interpreting the Psalms, pray tell? Am I supposed to be impressed by these disconnected, discombobulated ramblings?

As to Christian testimonies and the road to victory, the once famous "prophet" and colleague of Branham, Paul Cain has recently been disfellowshipped for being an unrepentant homosexual and alcoholic.

So obviously Jesus didn't rise from the dead, and the Psalms are to be interpreted hyper-literally, as Ed does!

My life has been far simpler without those type of people and you don't need scripture to see the benefits of kindness.

Has Phil by now forgotten what he is supposedly talking about? The fact that Ed sends this on to me as some semblance of an "answer" to my argument is all the more astounding.

Dave Armstrong at least called you a friendly acquaintance!

Hey, at least I am brought back in, in the last sentence! Yes, I have been friendly with atheists, agnostics, and every other kind of class of people that anyone can think of, as I am taught to be, according to Christianity. The fact that some Christians fall short of this ethical requirement is no argument about Christianity. It is only an argument that arrogant hypocrisy and snobbery is wrong. I don't think I've ever met a Christian who would deny that (so why bring it up?). We're not perfect, but it doesn't follow that we (speaking of halfway educated, committed Christians) habitually assert stupid things about ethics and how to treat non-Christians.

At this point, I wrote to Ed (12-18-04) to clarify how he wished to proceed:

Hi Ed,

Before I make my way through another 30K "reply" having (in all
likelihood) little to do with our initial discussion, with all due
respect, may I ask: have you dealt with that original point of how
to interpret the Psalm read at your friend's funeral or not? As
far as I am concerned, you need to either defend your original
assertions (which I critiqued) or concede the point and admit that
you had an inadequate understanding of how to properly interpret
such ancient Hebrew poetic literature.

Going over 10,000 points (now hell is brought into it too?) does
not advance the discussion, which was about a very particular
claim you made. Just simply concede the point (if you have no
answer) and then we can move onto something else if you like. But
I refuse to deal with 7,532 things at once. That's an old tactic,
used by fundamentalists and atheists alike, that I never fall for.
My time is too valuable to fall into that trap. I actually believe
that real progress can be attained in agnostic/atheist ---
Christian dialogue, if people will remain amiable and stay on the
subject. You're doing great regarding the former, but I give you a
C- on the latter (maybe even a D+). :-)

Take care,

Dave

Ed responded on the same day:
In all honesty, I do not think that particular psalm was appropriate
at the funeral of someone who died young and who had just begun going back
to church. Read the psalm for yourself, note the promise of being kept
from pestilence, and delivered, and granted long life. Becca was granted
none of that. Do you concede such obvious differences? If you wish these
lines of the psalm to say something about eternal life, they don't, yet
they were the lines sung in church:
Surely He will deliver you...You will not be afraid of...the arrow that
flies by day; or of the pestilence [disease] that stalks in darkness; or
of the destruction that lays waste at noon. A thousand may fall at your
side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near
you...Because you have made the Lord your refuge... no evil will befall
you...His angels...will bear you up in their hands, lest you strike your
foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the lion and cobra...you will
trample them under foot...Because you have set your love upon Me,
therefore I will deliver you...with long life I will satisfy you.
- Psalm 91
In all fairness In your first reply you didn't deal with the lines in
the psalm that I cited. Instead you cited other lines, several that
seemed to me more appropriate for Becca's funeral. But you did not deal
with the lines of Psalm 91 above. Please deal with the particular lines I
mentioned that were sung at Becca's funeral. Go through them line by line
if you wish and explain each of them, or metaphorize each of them away,
but deal with them. I am the one citing a particular psalm, and you
haven't dealt with a sentence of it.

I was not employing a "tactic." I figured that since you did not
deal with the actual words I cited from the Bible, I would cite them again
for you to read and discuss line by line. Also, we agree in one thing,
finding each other's replies less than direct.

Handing out grades are we? My own study of the history of Hebrew
literature has led me to recognize two divergent schools of thought
concerning whether following Yahweh will grant protection and long life,
or not. There are other divergencies in Hebrew thought as well, such as
priests and their animal sacrifices compared with the teachings of the
prophets. And there were differences in belief concerning the afterlife,
did everyone go to Sheol or not? Daniel's afterlife judgment is a late
Hebrew development--unless you believe that the book of Daniel was written
in its entirety back in the days of Babylon, in which case, I would
suggest reading the works of Collins, one of the foremost scholars on
Daniel and intertestamental literature.

I replied on 12-19-04:
Hi Ed,

Well, if we can't stick to one thing at a time and deal with it
before moving on to 14 others, then what's the point? In these
dialogues, one has to stay on subject or it is perfectly futile
(wholly apart from the subject matter). You think I'm off-topic,
too, so I suppose there is nowhere to go with this. 'Tis a great
pity, I think, as we had great potential here for some
light-producing discussion ("light" in terms of education and
mutual understanding, not salvation LOL).

But I've been through this routine before. First, one is told that
they either (1) offered no argument at all, or (2) offered an
off-topic argument (when in fact it was precisely on-topic). Then
(using this obscurantist and evasive rationalization) the opponent
refuses to grapple with the arguments one has given.

With that modus operandi, dialogue is literally impossible. It is
merely mutual monologue; ships passing in the night. Again, all of
this has nothing per se to do with our own chosen topic at the
moment; it is about how to go about doing a dialogue on ANY topic
(what I say here applies to many many Christians as well; it is
not non-Christian-specific, by any means). If we can't agree on
that, then there is no hope of any progress and we may as well
stop now before both of us get even more frustrated.

Yours,

Dave

P.S. Hi to all y'all that this appears to be forwarded to. Since
this is, then, already "semi-public," I may post our
correspondence on my blog, too, so people can see how y'all reason
and approach discussion. Feel free to join in!

Ed's next letter (12-20-04) was entitled "further thoughts from Bruce and myself." Okay. I have no idea who Bruce (words in red) is; nothing else is said about him. So I can only assume that he is an agnostic (best guess). Talk about the impersonal nature of much Internet discussion . . .:

FROM BRUCE TO ED: Hi Ed, Just a couple of quick thoughts on the Psalms
debate you and Dave Armstrong have been having:

Dave has a valid point when he notes that the Psalms need not and should
not be pressed literally on every word because they are poetry and
homilies that try to say something about life experiences in general for
devotional purposes, they are not narratives trying to state historical or
scientific truth for every individual. The Psalm addressed a community and
its promises concerned the experiences of the community, not of every
individual within the community. This is true of all of the so-called
Deuteronomistic or retribution-theology literature. So it's true that one
cannot say that the hopeful promises of Psalm 91 are falsified by the fact
that personal tragedy struck one individual who happened to believe in
what this Psalm has to say.

Good. This was one of my main points, and a "defeater" of Ed's primary argument in his post that I critiqued. He never dealt with this in the way that was necessary to move the argument further along. All he conceded was the following, in our second round, posted on my blog:

I admit they represent typical exaggerations such as the language of the ancient world was prone to.
I responded: "Thank you. That's nine-tenths of the argument conceded already . . ." Bruce continues:

Even so, what sinks Dave's argument, and ultimately the claims of Psalm 91
and other biblical passages like it, is the fact that there are in the
world many other cases like that of your friend Becca. One example of a
person of faith suffering tragedy may not disprove the claim that people
of faith benefit from God's protections and blessings; but when such
tragedies are commonplace in the world and affect large numbers of people
of faith -- to the point where it can be said that people of faith are no
less likely to experience tragedy and suffering than non-believers -- then
the claim has been decisively falsified. The reality of the world is that
injustice, suffering and evil hit all of us in way or another, and people
of faith enjoy no observable advantage over unbelievers in this respect.
For every example of a person of faith who enjoys a long, happy life
that Dave can cite, you and I can cite a counter example. This simple
proves what should be readily obvious to everyone with an open mind and a
grasp of reality: suffering and pain is totally indiscriminate with
respect to who is affected by it and who is not. Faith in God is no more a
protection against this than is eating vegetables.

So the claims of Psalm 91, far from being strengthened by emphasizing its
"universal truth", are in fact more easily discredited by this approach
because looking at the big picture (the state of the world and the sweep
of human history) simply makes it that much more obvious that people of
faith are no less prone to suffering and tragedy and no more likely to
have a long happy life than anyone else. I simply don't know how anyone
can argue with a straight face, given the realities of this world and of
human history, that faith in God improves one's chances of a long happy
life. It's a patently ludicrous idea. And even many of the better
theologians and religious philosophers will admit this (which is why they
tend to emphasize the importance of justice in the world to come -- i.e.
the eschatological age or in some sort of afterlife)

I already replied to this objection by denying that this scenario is what these Psalms intended to teach in the first place. In my first reply I wrote:

Now, in the context of Psalm 91, the idea is that "God can be trusted to be faithful to His followers. He is loving and merciful." The way to illustrate that in a poetic form, to poor farmers or shepherds in ancient Israel, is to put it in very concrete terms (the Hebrews were not a philosophical society, by Greek standards; they were very pragmatic and practical-minded and ritualistic; as Judaism is to this day).

The Jews weren't philosophical, but it doesn't follow that they were stupid. They were not. Along with the promises of the Psalms and maxims of Proverbs were also the sober teachings of the book of Job: perhaps the most famous expression of the perplexities of suffering ever written. Job was also part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. Jews were quite familiar with it. And Job is much more like "real life," isn't it (Ecclesiastes offers a similar perspective also)? People suffer, and agonize over why that is, if God exists, is good, and can be trusted to bless the "righteous," or those who place their trust in Him, follow Him as disciples, and accept the free gift of His enabling grace and mercy.

[I went on to cite Job 37:18, 38:4, 40:2, and 42:3]

Ed also mentions the perspective of the book of Job, but he concludes that, therefore, this strain of Hebrew thought contradicts the more "simplistic" thought typified in the Psalms. My counter-argument was that the Jews understood how the two types of literature worked, and that they were not mutually-exclusive or contradictory. It's true that Hebrew thought developed over time (just as later Christian thought did), but that does not necessarily imply an irreconcilable contradiction. So my argument is from Hebrew idiom and worldview, whereas Ed's is more strictly logical. But I have tried to demonstrate that Ed's contentions about the Psalms are incorrect, because he is interpreting hyper-literally. Bruce agrees with me to that extent, but still sees interpretive and logical problems in my own perspective. I don't see them, and have tried to explain why. But if it is assumed (no matter what I say) that I am simply an ignorant, special pleading Christian, who has to argue this way because I believe the Bible is inspired (as Bruce implies subtly, I think), then we are back smack dab in the argumentum ad hominem (circumstantial) fallacy.

Moreover, I deny that the Psalms are to be interpreted hyper-literally as stating that followers of God automatically have it better off than non-believers. I showed this by citing even other more obviously "realist" Psalms that didn't fit into this skeptical framework (particularly Leland Ryken's analysis of Psalm 23):

Psalm 46:1-3: . . . God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Psalm 71:20: Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.

Psalm 73:26: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

Psalm 94:19: When the cares of my heart are many, thy consolations cheer my soul.

Psalm 119:

50 This is my comfort in my affliction that thy promise gives me life.

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I keep thy word.

71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.

75 I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right, and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me.

93 I will never forget thy precepts; for by them thou hast given me life.

Psalm 138:7: Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life; thou dost stretch out thy hand against the wrath of my enemies, and thy right hand delivers me.

[I also cited similar verses in Psalms (49:16-18, 52:7, 73:3-16); in Ecclesiastes (6:2; cf. 4:1, 7:15, 9:2, many others) and in the prohets (Amos 4:1, 6:1-6, Mic 2:1-2, Zech 7;10, Mal 3:5, Is 5:12) -- all ignored, of course]

So as anyone can see, I have met this objection rather thoroughly (agree or disagree). Why must I have to repeat it, and waste website space? But you would never know that, reading Ed's and Bruce's (and Phil's) responses. They ignore all of it and make the observations they want to make. This is not dialogue. It is mutual monologue. But I am thankful that Bruce at least agrees with one major point I made. Seemingly oblivious to my previous argument, Ed waxes triumphantly:

The priestly Deuteronomistic theology of earthly blessings in this life, as represented by the author of Psalm 91, is ethnocentric hyperbole and patently absurd, even in the corporate sense, i.e., given the history of Israel.

Then Ed sets out on his usual endless rabbit trails, citing tragedy in the history of Israel (as if any Jew or Christian ever denied that), writing about the Southern Confederacy's mention of God in its Constitution (huh?), and some studies on prayer. It's all much ado about nothing, since the Bible doesn't require Christians to posit that we live happier or longer earthly lives than anyone else. We would say there is more peace of mind, joy, and inner fulfillment in the Christian life, but that doesn't negate all tragedy or sorrow or suffering, by any means. Peace and joy are notions that transcend suffering, and help us through that; they don't wipe out all pain and suffering. This is what both Ed and Bruce don't seem to grasp, with regard to biblical teaching on suffering and blessing. Ed continues, ending this letter:

I would like to end on a more amicable note, and agree that there are many beautiful passages in the psalms as well as in non-Biblical literature throughout the world. But I do not see why the psalms as a whole should be considered "holy writ" while all the rest of the earth's poetry, hyperbole, religious writings must necessarily be viewed as "less inspired." Nor does it appear to me that the imprecatory psalms are much more than one person's wish to call down evil on another. A witch doctor could write curses like those. (Note, I am not "questioning God" but simply questioning how certain portions of the Bible might appear to anyone with a heart and head who has read similar passages outside of the Bible.)

I've already dealt with imprecatory Psalms in my two replies, but briefly, because it is another rabbit trail. Arguments for the inspiration of Scripture and its status as divine revelation also would take us far afield. The original dispute, technically, did not even rest upon inspiration, but upon how the Psalms are reasonably interpreted. One could make a very similar argument about the poems of Homer or the Epic of Gilgamesh or some other great body of literature which profoundly influenced a culture and discuss how that culture interpreted it. In this case, the Hebrews believed it to be ultimately from God, but that doesn't immediately impact a discussion of when to interpret literally and when to not do so (just as with any and all literature; it's more of a literary and cultural consideration than a theological one).

On to Ed & Co.'s next letter (Phil returns):

While I was painting today and having looked again at the debate last night I thought,"...Dave wants Ed to concede his points but Dave is unwilling to simply concede that the Psalm in question was not just inappropriate for Becca's funeral but bitterly ironic -- unless of course one is an apologist and fully grasps the metaphoric and poetic beauty of such a psalm."

I have no problem agreeing that it might be somewhat inappropriate emotionally and situationally, but Ed went far beyond that point (Christians can certainly disagree with each other and sometimes agree with non-believers about selections of Bible passages). He wanted to argue that it was manifestly absurd because these promises didn't come true in this poor woman's case. That was his opportunity to rail against the supposed general irrational emotionalism of religion and religious services, and of the Psalms in particular. But his arguments (insofar as he presented any at all) didn't fly, as I think I have shown.

Would this be the need to be right?

No, this would be the "need" -- or intellectual necessity -- (I know the following concept is a novelty today, but I press on nonetheless) to continue to hold one's heartfelt, thought-out belief until and unless shown something superior, or shown that one's belief is unworthy of belief, irrational or false. Ed simply hasn't provided sufficient proof for that, in my opinion. Since he scarcely dealt with my counter-arguments at all, why should I be expected to renounce them? All we've gotten is basically a bunch of circular reasoning and other fallacies. My substantive arguments from the text and the culture have been almost uniformly ignored, or mocked. These will be even more obvious as we continue.

I'll have a look at it again -- and the comments -- I haven't looked at them either

Well, that would be nice, that Phil has finally troubled himself to actually read the whole tihng, before commencing to condemn my points of view as, e.g., "the need to be right" (which is, of course, another form of the ad hominem fallacy -- this being a moral or psychological analysis and not a rational reply to my arguments).

You can find metaphoric beauty in much of the world's literature, not just in psalms about God's angels preventing a person from stubbing their toe because they love God. The point is that Dave adores the Bible it is his beloved, a letter from God. He will defend it all, from Eden to the Flood, from the tower of Babel to the slaughter of the Canaanites, with poetry, hyperbole, and metaphor if he has to, in fact, anyway he can, to make even the vilest shit in it smell like it should be served at communion to the heavenly choir. Therefore, you can't really argue with a person whose perception is that caught up in a single book.

This is absolutely classic ad hominem. As logic expert Irving Copi wrote above:

It is also used as the basis for rejecting a conclusion supported by one's adversary, as when it is argued that the conclusion arrived at by one's opponent is dictated by his special circumstances rather than based upon reason or evidence . . . [It] charges one's adversaries with being so prejudiced that their alleged reasons are mere rationalizations of conclusions dictated by self-interest. And that is certainly to abuse them. This particular kind of ad hominem is sometimes called "poisoning the well," for obvious reasons.
Ed's analysis fits this description all down the line. Rather than deal with when it is proper to interpret non-literally (which arises in all language and literature), he mocks my argument from the nature of the literature ("with poetry, hyperbole, and metaphor if he has to"). In other words, I will distort the text in these ways for my own prior purposes, rather than ever possibly have a sincerely-held rational difference of opinion on a particular piece of literature (or Bible passage, as the case may be). There has to be that negative dig in there, rather than the usual presumption that a person is intellectually sincere and has some semblance of reason for their held opinions.

That's apparently too much for agnostics to grant to Christians. They must descend to ad hominem attacks instead. One
"can't really argue" with me or any orthodox Christian because I am (we are) irrational from the get-go, and that is proven by my (our) belief that the Bible is inspired. Ed has already made his conclusion before he has begun. This is circular reasoning. He assumes that no one could rationally disagree with him on the Bible without being a special pleader of the worst kind and a simpleton. So why does he bother to engage in this dialogue at all? Dialogue presupposes at least a small amount of respect for the intelligence and sincerity of one's opponent, and at least the minutest possibility that the other may be right about something, and capable of actually teaching someone else in some way. How can dialogue proceed with this kind of "cloud of mustard gas" being spewed out by Ed and his buddies at every turn? Gentlemanly disagreement is not allowed. And that takes away the fun as well as the educational and intellectual challenge of any true dialogue.

Following this travesty of logic and discussion, Ed proceeds to tell one of his notorious stories, where Christians look like absolute idiots:

I recall a TV show about the garbage-eaters, a sect of ultra-conservative protestants who evangelize college kids and live owning nothing, eating out of dumpsters, memorizing Bible verses, and denying themselves contact with former family members (because Jesus didn't even let one of his own followers go home to bury a dead relative, . . ) . . . The Bible is the whole world and only book of these people.

Note what Ed has tried to (fallaciously) do here:

1. One can't argue with Dave because he is "caught up in a single book."
2. The nutcase garbage-eater sect also centers exclusively on the Bible, as their "whole world."
3. Therefore, Dave is nutty like the garbage-eaters (or at least in their same class in some sense), because they have this in common.
Anyone can see that this is illogical. And if it is, then one must immediately ask: what is Ed's purpose in bringing this weird sect up in the first place, in this context? To "prove" that the logical reduction of devotion to the Bible as God's Word is the "garbage-eaters"? To show that such views (of the Bible) are abnormal, out of touch with reality and sort of "mental"? If not, for what other reason would this bizarre example be used? Atheists are not amused at all when someone brings up the very worst cases of atheists (Stalin, etc.) in an attempt to argue against atheism. Yet they do this to Christians all the time. Scarcely a discussion can be had without hearing about snake handlers or Jim Jones or the Moonies. Somewhat incredibly, (yet following upon the previous line of thinking), Ed writes:

You can look up "garbage eaters" on the internet and find into about them. They are an orthodox Christian organization.

They are certainly not "orthodox" by any stretch of the imagination. How does Ed define "orthodox"? Anyone at all who names the name of Jesus? In fact, on a website called Religious Tolerance.org, the following information is found about this group:

Like the early Christian movements, they have no concept of the Trinity.
The first clause is a demonstrable falsehood, showing that this site is not itself an orthodox Christian one. But then that makes it an even more compelling witness for the fact that this group denies the Holy Trinity: which is fundamental to Christianity and orthodoxy (Nicene Creed, etc.). Later, the article notes:
The group has been targeted by: The Counter-Cult Movement, who accurately accuse the group of being a heretical "cult" -- deviating from traditional Christian beliefs. They give the same designation to Mormon church, Jehovah's Witnesses and many other established faith groups.
This website defines the "Counter-Cult Movement" (of which I have been a part, myself, as an expert on the Jehovah's Witnesses from the early 80s), thusly:
. . . composed primarily of conservative Protestant Christian individuals and agencies who attempt to raise public concern about religious groups which they feel hold dangerous, non-traditional beliefs. They are sometimes called heresy hunters or heresiologists . . .
They believe that any group which rejects one or more of the historical Protestant Christian beliefs is a danger to the welfare of its members, and to the Christian religion itself . . . Most CCM organizations target religious groups which regard themselves as Christian but hold one or more unorthodox beliefs. Examples of the latter are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the "Mormon church), the Unification church, Christian Science, and Jehovah's Witnesses. The unorthodox beliefs that they hold often concern the nature of Yeshua ben Nazareth (Jesus Christ), the criteria for salvation, the nature of Heaven & Hell, etc.
So much for the "orthodoxy" of the Garbage-eaters. Nice try, Ed. Unfortunately, the facts do not line up with your opinion at all on this one. If there is any doubt that Ed is trying to draw this bizarre comparison with me, the following comments of his will suffice to prove it:

The sadness that that family experienced, knowing that communication was impossible with their once very bright son, is the same sadness I experience when I see some one as bright as Dave turn over his mind to defending one book and every passage in it, above all.

How sad that a "bright" guy like me can renounce thinking and the mind and immerse myself in a mere book. What a pity . . . It couldn't possibly be that I simply have a difference of opinion from Ed, and can defend my viewpoint every bit as much (if not much more so) as he defends his. Unfortunately, Ed has ruled out that possibility from the outset, thus leading to condescending, drippingly arrogant comments such as this one.

I am sure that focusing on something such as one book or one religion is soothing. It simplifies life.

Ah yes; more ad hominem. "Dave believes in the Bible because it is soothing. He might just as well believe in a wonderful goose-down matress . . . Us thinking people, on the other hand (atheists and agnostics to a person), realize the complexities of reality. We don't have our head in the clouds like those stupid Christians."

So does being married to one person. But, unlike a single book, people can each read lots of books and seek out the best in all of them.

No kidding??!!!! Gee, I guess that's why I have over 2000 books in my personal library, huh Ed? Imagine the joy I felt when I discovered that there were books other than the Bible to read!!!! I shall never forget that momentous occasion when this dawned on me . . . In fact (unlike Ed), I scarcely read the Bible at all until the age of 19. By that time I had read plenty of books, so this is a bit of a no-brainer for me. :-)

People can also develop different opinions over time as they read widely and deeply from many books. Their views can change.

Ah, is that so? I guess, then, this is why I moved from pro-choice to pro-life, from Methodist to occult dabbler to evangelical Christian to Catholic, or from political liberal to conservative -- because I believed that "views can change"? Or was I just special pleading all along, as I supposedly am now?

But a book no matter how good, does not have the capability of learning, developing changing.

But it has the capability of being divinely inspired.

Surely any Deity that thought their exact words were vitally important would have “zapped” every scribe, printing press, or website, that dared to put false ones into the Deity’s mouth. But such “zapping” only appears to have taken place on extremely rare occasions,

"Surely"? I want to know why Ed is so "sure" about this (oh; sorry to be so intellectually inquisitive, despite being a mind-numbed Christian clone). It doesn't strike me as a certainty at all.

Then we get a bunch more quotes and anecdotes, supposedly intended to show the absurdity of Christianity and religion. Quite unimpressive . . . On to the next letter:

Thomas Cook writes: "Armstrong wasn't only rude to you [I was? Where?],he didn't consider you much of a challenge."

Well, yes and no. On one level it is a challenge, as all critiques of one's view are. But on another, I didn't find this all that difficult to reply to, and found plenty of holes in Ed's opinions. In any event, I have considered Ed's arguments far more meticulously than he has dealt with mine. And I contend that that is some form of respect for an opponent. If I thought it was all nonsense, I would ignore it (as he largely does with my arguments). So the vast difference in the amount of attention and respect granted to the opponent is apparent, I think.

What makes Armstrong imagine that I considered his arguments much of a challenge to my doubts concerning the divine inspiration of the Bible?

I can't imagine, since the thought never entered my mind. I wasn't arguing about inspiration, but rather, about proper interpretation of ancient Hebrew poetry.

One may quibble Quibble? It's not quibbling. What proof do you have that your version of God is the true God? How does he know if the Quran, or the Baghavahd Gita, or some ancient indigenous text might not be the source of the one truth?

More ignoratio elenchi fallacy (see the top of this paper for a description). If these people could only figure out exactly what it is I am arguing and contending for, we could make great progress.

Almost all religions have a "book." But Dave believes that there is only "one" book whose words are all extemely important and all-captivating to him

Well no; just one that is divinely-inspired. I can think of (and have read) lots of books in which the words are "all extremely important." For example, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, or the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, by John Henry Cardinal Newman. They're not inspired, but they're awful good and informative.

(he probably adores just reading the genealogies as well)

I do? Now on what basis would Ed conclude such a thing? He obviously doesn't know me very well at all.

[pass over Ed's forays into grand supposed contradictions in biblical interpretation through the ages; ignoratio elenchi again]

Agnostics are said to be so full of themselves. Not true at all.

Oh yeah; that really comes out in observing how I am treated by y'all in this "dialogue."

At least we can readily admit that we do not know and can NOT know the answers to the God question!

I'm all for intellectual humility, but this might also be regarded as a species of willful ignorance and dogmatic, insufficiently-grounded unwillingness to go where evidence might lead. In a sense it goes even beyond atheism, whch says "there is NO God!" (but perhaps is willing to be convinced otherwise, like Antony Flew). The agnostic knows more than the rest of us mere mortals: he "knows" that the question can't possibly be answered (but somehow they feel that they can positively make the absolute assertion). It would follow, then, that all the great thinkers who happened to believe in God were thoroughly deluded: epistemologically and metaphysically. I find that very curious and odd, and it doesn't seem very plausible to me.

Ed's last letter to date (37K in length) launches into more non sequitur, and has further ad hominem comments such as:

Is that your foremost fear, that your ethics may prove baseless and you'll walk out of the house one day and just start cursing, stealing or killing at random, or others will simply lose all control and do the same to you? Have you considered the philosophical fallacies inherent in all attempts to base ethics on a particular authoritarian "world view?"

I'm tired of the incessant commission of the ignoratio elenchi fallacy by now. I shall have to conclude that my friend Ed cannot provide any rational or plausible reply to my arguments about the interpretation of the Psalms (which, alas, WAS our subject at one time, way back when, before it was off to the dog races with Ed and his 6-9 buddies and comrades-in-fallacy), since he has to continually resort to such desperate and illogical methods. I may reply to another of his papers if I think it is a worthwhile discussion (he does manage sometimes to stay on-topic and to provide a good challenge and significant food for thought), but I will assume that no dialogue is to be had, unless something drastically changes. I always find that sad, but what can I do? One either "gets" the utility and pleasure of true dialogue or they do not.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 21 December 2004.

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