Brian Regan, Mitt Romney, a Gay Veteran, and the Art of Bad Arguments

“I’m trying to learn how to play chess. That game’s not right. That game does not end properly. You’re just looking at the board and your opponent goes ‘CHECKMATE!’
‘I thought you said you were supposed to take my king.’
‘Yeah but no matter what you do in the next move I take the king in the following move, so it’s a checkmate.’
He’s in the car headin’ home.
No other game lets you do that. You never see a quarterback walking up to the line…
‘TOUCHDOWN! The way your corner is playing we’ll do a slam pass underneath the coverage. Too much of a cushion. 6 points! Touchdown!’
Don’t just announce that you’re going to win.”
Brian Regan, stand-up comedian extraordinaire

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about arguments and how so often people give just flat-out bad arguments for their positions.  This led me to blog about theological debates that are often crippled by bad arguments, and I’ve got about fifty more blog ideas in this same line of thinking.  This one was inspired by an article I read last month about Mr. Mitt Romney.

Apparently Romney was confronted by a gay Vietnam veteran named Bob Garon at an event in New Hampshire who asked whether or not he supported gay marriage.  Saying he did not, the conversation got pretty awkward.  Garon proceeded to say, “It’s good to know how you feel…That you do not believe that everyone is entitled to their constitutional rights.”

BOOM!  Checkmate, you unconstitutional jerk!

Look, this entry is not about Mitt Romney as a political candidate nor is it a statement on whether or not gay marriage should be legal.  Rather, it’s an example of how bad arguments hinder understanding and thus any hope of progress.  Comments like the one above made by Mr. Garon are about as pointless as the quarterback in Brian Regan’s joke just declaring “touchdown” without ever running the play.  You can’t just declare yourself the winner in a debate without ever even debating your opponent.  And that’s exactly what this veteran did.

His claim is that Romney doesn’t believe everyone’s entitled to their constitutional rights.  But the debate on gay marriage isn’t about whether or not we should give gay couples their constitutional right to marry.  The whole debate is about whether it even is a constitutional right.  Garon’s comment, whether he realized it or not, assumes a universal agreement that gay marriage is a constitutional right, thus making Romney unfit for office for wanting to deny homosexuals that right.  But since such agreement doesn’t exist, comments like the one Romney received are weightless.  It’s like asking someone, “Why do you love bad music?”  No one loves bad music.  They simply love music that they deem “enjoyable” and you deem “bad.”  Besides, until there’s a universal agreement on what constitutes bad music, it’s impossible to truly condemn someone for loving bad music.  (Remember…Nickelback does have fans, guys.)

To pull back and add another dimension to this whole incident, Bob Garon never actually made an argument at all.  Rather, he made an unfounded claim.  I still lump that under the umbrella of “bad arguments” because so often in our culture simply declaring your beliefs seems to take on a role that should be reserved for intelligent debate/dialogue.  A huge part of intelligent debate is describing your opponent’s views in a way they would be happy with, so when no attempt at understanding is made, what should be two people debating becomes two people mocking each other’s views.  Internet comment boards are flooded with this to the extent that I’m not even sure we understand the difference between “mockery” and “debate” anymore.

So when Richard Dawkins for example says that faith “is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence”  and that it “is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence”, he’s calling out “Touchdown” without any intention of even snapping the ball.  Not only is he defining “faith” in a way that no theologian would define it,   he uses his perception of faith to further reinforce the thought held by many that it is opposed to science, which does think and evaluate evidence.  Dawkins’ definition of faith demonstrates a great reluctance to truly understand those he disagrees with.  And as I said already, when understanding isn’t present, mockery will be.

Another fine example of this is Ricky Gervais’ article “Why I’m an Atheist.”  Gervais, like Dawkins and Garon, declares his victory throughout without ever really giving a substantial argument.  With mockery taking the place of intelligent debate, I personally feel like atheistic comedians get away with a lot.

 “The Bible truly is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. … It was written thousands of years ago, when people were even dumber than they are today. … It’s absurd to believe in that s***.”
David Cross

Closing Our Minds on Truth

“Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
-G.K. Chesterton

Truth should never be sacrificed for the sake of peace, and such is the prevailing attitude of many.  As I was studying for a test this semester in one of my management courses, two words leapt off the page at me: “religious preference.”  Religion, it appears, has become as much a preference as pulp or no pulp.  To be fair, I understand the necessity of treating religion as such in the management cotext of an organization, but many have adopted this mindset outside of such a context.  Beliefs are a dime a zillion in the syncretic West.  Frankly I’ve come to a point in my life where I don’t care what anyone “believes” anymore.  Neither should anyone care what I believe.  I only care about what’s true.  What I believe doesn’t affect truth, so the quest for objective truth isn’t me doing some soul searching, but letting truth govern how I see everything.  Christianity is not a preference.  It’s not something that might work for me but doesn’t work for others.  It’s a claim to truth.  When the Gospels record the Resurrection of Jesus, they are making a truth claim.  Thus the question becomes: “Is it true?  Did that happen?”  And if so, belief isn’t your concern anymore.  Your concern is what to do with what has proven to be true.

This is why I love the Chesterton quote above.  I get frustrated with people who are so chronically open-minded that they hesitate to make ANY claim of truth.  Allowing anything and everything to be fair game is just plain silly.  It is illogical and unreasonable.  A great example of this is those bumper stickers that have the logos of several of the world’s religions and say something like “One Path, Many Roads.”  I’d challenge anyone to call me closed-minded for saying that that is absolutely ridiculous.  Truth is intolerant of falsehood.  It is mutually exclusive.  Because of this, not all religions can be true.  If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.  It is anything but admirable to open your mind if your definition of an open mind is a refusal to believe that any one belief can be correct.  We must close our minds on truth.

To See An Elephant

There’s an old parable about four blind men and an elephant. One man grabbed the elephant’s leg and believed it to be a tree trunk. One grabbed the tail and assumed it was a whip. One touched the elephant’s trunk and called it a hose, and the fourth touched its side and called it a wall. Then a teacher declares to them that all of them are right.

This parable can be awesome or not depending on what one uses it to illustrate. For instance, it works well if we’re talking about people’s perspectives on things. But it’s often alluded to in our religiously pluralistic society as an illustration that there is one God, but many paths to him. For some, Christianity works best for them. For others, Hinduism is how they see fit to pursue God. Some see Buddhism as best for them, while others turn to Wicca and new age beliefs. Still others create a religion based on a conglomeration of many other religions (Baha’ism).

One of the most unpopular things you can do in the West these days is to declare something as universally true. How dare we assume that what works for one person must work for all people? What right has one blind man to speak for all four blind men? But pending the possibility that a wild peg-leg gratti elephant is going around wreaking havoc by whipping people with his whip-tail, then there’s a huge problem with using this proverb to illustrate divine truth: All the blind men are wrong. Whatever each part of the elephant feels like doesn’t change the fact that what each of them are feeling is, in truth, an elephant. Not a hose, not a wall, not a whip, not a tree trunk, but the trunk, side, tail, and leg of an elephant.

It’s not wrong to say that a certain part of the elephant feels like something else, but we are false when we assume that what we feel is not just what it feels like but rather what it actually is. How does this play out with regards to religion? Many feel an unmistakable connection to the divine when they are out in nature. Its not wrong to feel spiritual when you’re in a beautiful, outdoor area. The Bible claims that creation declares God’s glory. But what many people do is to direct their affections and trust towards nature itself, trusting it for guidance. The stars, meant for beauty and for signs of things GOD will do, are thus turned to as divine guides of what we should do in our own lives. Nature becomes its own god.

As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is way, the truth, and the life, and that there is no other way to God than through him. Not a popular view, I understand. But let me level the playing field. All of humanity is born blind. You, me, everyone. We’re all blind. This is the great strength of the proverb. And like the four blind men, that blindness leads us into falsehoods. We’ve all made a career of trying to interpret what we feel but cannot see. Many take what we feel, certain distinct attributes of God and run with them making religions out of the whip and the hose. But none of them entail what we were truly feeling.

If all of humanity is blind and grabbing hold of some different part of the proverbial elephant, how will we ever know that what we’re touching is an elephant and not something else? In other words, if we’re all blind, how can we ever truly know God? How can we possibly discover that we’re touching a leg and not a tree trunk? Somehow, someway, we need to receive sight, for it is by illumination that we will see the realities that exist beyond our own fingertips. And for this, something must be done to humanity. Something must be done to give sight back to us. And if we’re referring to God with this analogy of the elephant, then God must intervene and reveal himself as he truly is and show us that he is greater than the sum of all the parts of which we’ve merely touched. If we’re to know God as he is and to worship him on his terms, our only hope is that he will show us how, because if our knowledge of God is based upon the blind leading the blind, what hope do we have of knowing him?

So the big question is: has God revealed himself? Has God taken pity on a blind race and given us sight? No religion is worth pursuing if all it does is make us feel better, yet that’s exactly the standard that so many people use when searching out a path to the divine. We’re prone to find out what “works,” and since what works will differ from person to person, it would be wrong to say that only one religion is correct. But if our search for the divine is merely a means of self-improvement, then what is truly divine will be difficult, if not impossible, to pen down. The question we must ask rather is “What is truth?”

So many people claim so many different revelations that God has made to us. Some say that Muhammad was God’s revelation to man, some Buddha, some say Joseph Smith, and some believe that Baha’u’llah was God’s most recent one. Theoretically it makes sense to say that men can speak on behalf of God, but only if God has first revealed himself to them. But to truly know whether or not Buddha, Smith, Muhammad, Baha’u’llah are speaking on God’s behalf in ther revelatory claims, we need to ascertain where God has actually revealed himself, how he revealed himself, what he actually did reveal to the fumbling blind race of humanity about himself, and measure that against what these supposed prophets said.

Christianity is truly unique among the world’s faiths, for many reasons which I won’t go into now. To cling to the elephant proverb is to admit that we are blind, lost, and unable to help ourselves. The Bible states this. It also says that God DID come down to us (Jesus Christ) to open our blind eyes to see the elephant before us. Jesus said that he alone was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one gets to Father but through him. The Bible says that Christ is how God has spoken to us, and therefore the validity of any so-called prophet of God must be determined in the light of whether or not it completely matches up with what Jesus said.

A religion unconcerned with truth is no better than a self-help method. Truth isn’t relative. What we prefer, or what “works” for us doesn’t bend the universe in some cosmic way as to make it true. And Christianity, the people who worship and follow the self-proclaimed God who took on human form to save us, makes the claim to spiritual and historical truth to a degree no other faith ever has.