We know why you believe what you believe…

By , 23 April 2010 7:16 pm

We are in the middle of the run-up to the general election here and in two weeks’ time we will probably have a new government of some sort installed. Not for us the luxury of a long American interregnum. If you’ve been following what’s going on you will have realised that we in the UK experimented this time round with a series of television debates that has utterly galvanised things. For all my life, the Liberals or the Liberal Democrats have been a mere curiosity in national politics, a harmless irrelevance in what was always a race with two contenders. Now suddenly they seem to be capable of shaping the next government. I shall reserve a fuller judgement on the television debates until after the third one. Even at this stage however I can say that they have been both a good and a bad thing. Positively, they have certainly aroused interest among the general populace (I was gratified to find that most of my students are going to vote). Negatively, they are reducing complex issues to soundbites.

It’s the soundbite thing that worries me. A colleague of mine was pointing out that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who is pro-Europe, seemed to have reduced his opposition on the vexed topic of our European links to a single stereotype. It is that the only people who are anti-Europe are those old-fashioned souls who nostalgically hanker after the days of the Empire, who have no understanding or knowledge of the modern Europe or its languages and who are probably slightly racist. Now, of course Nick Clegg never actually said that but my colleague is I think right: this is how opposition to Europe is portrayed. The reality is, of course, that you can be a Francophile or a lover of German culture (and I would put myself in both categories) but nevertheless have very real questions over the European experiment. My concerns for instance, lie in several areas and racism is not a part of them. One is whether we really need another level of bureaucracy. (I remind you that in Wales we already have some legislation coming from Cardiff and some coming from London; most of us are not vastly enthused about yet another series of bureaucrats issuing forms.) Another is the fact that some European countries are corrupt on a scale which renders our MPs pure amateurs. In business one does not normally enter into partnerships with those who habitually fiddle the books; I see no reason to break this rule at a national level. The third issue is quite simply that I do not see all cultures as being interchangeable and I’m not convinced that the world is much better by creating a single uniform one. There is much that is good in British culture that I would like to encourage and preserve rather than see diluted (or perhaps it is ‘die looted’) through some careless foreign union.

Now the interesting thing is that this type of assumption with respect to one’s enemies is fairly widespread. I can think of many arguments where no attempt has been made to recognise that the reasons for belief or non-belief in a position may actually be really quite complex and varied. If someone is uneasy about immigration, it is assumed that they hold this position simply because they are racist. Or if you want to decrease the prison population, it is assumed it is because you are soft on crime. We have a stereotype of the opposition and we expect them to fit it.

Such smearing – and the word with its connotations of rubbing out detail is very appropriate – is very common. The implied stereotype is actually rarely precisely stated – that of course would give the game away and invite the rebuttal – but it is nevertheless made pretty plain. Of course it happens elsewhere. It is generally assumed that most people who are Christians are Christians because they were ‘brainwashed’ as children and have never really considered the alternatives. The fact that some of us became Christians later in life is a little bit too complex.

Now I could leave this argument exactly there. Nevertheless I suspect it works on the other side of the fence as well. I have no idea what makes atheists atheists but it may well be that I have created my own stereotypes there. So for instance when we hear that someone has lost his or her faith it is all too easy to assume that it is the moral claims of Christianity rather than its intellectual justification that has become a little bit too difficult to bear.

So on the edge of the election let me make a plea for us to be prepared to work to say not just that we hold such a position but why we hold such a position. And at the same time let’s be not assume that those who disagree with us, disagree with us for the reasons that we expect.

5 Responses to “We know why you believe what you believe…”

  1. K says:

    Yea, I’ve stereotyped the religious in my time as only being brainwashed youth. I think that stems in part from my own experience. Religions do clearly target the young for conversion more than their elders (except for the very elderly, who also seem to be a prime target audience). But then again, atheists are beginning to copy that tactic with “Evolution Camps” and “Bright Experience”. And of course, dialectical materialists\Marxists have always engaged in such youthful brainwashing. I do differentiate between different religious systems, however, and I think one can make a fairly persuasive argument that evangelicalism, for better or worse, is a more deliberately indoctrinatory system than, say Reform Judaism. Just an observation. I respect evangelicalism and can understand why it engages in such indoctrinatory practices.

    My problem with the New Atheists, except for Hitchens, is that they are so woefully uninformed on the structure of contemporary religion. Richard Dawkins takes hell houses as representing the standard evangelical experience, when in reality that experience is far more complex than he thinks. He also ignores the class issues involved in prejudice towards evangelicals. Historically, Britian has had a very bad track record in treating its evangelicals with respect. One need only read one of the 15 or 20 novelistic diatribes against Methodism at the turn of the 1800’s to see how bad early evangelicals in Britian suffered. Here, in America, evangelicals and fundamentalists are economically disenfranchised, yet people refuse to acknowledge this trend.

    I think, no offense, Chris, that it’s a little silly to think that people are turned off by Christianity’s moral claims. I think it’s more basic issues, like issues of whether a just God can create hell, etc. (you’ve heard it all before I’m sure) that turn people off to religion. While I personally don’t find the intellectual case for Christianity to be particularly persuasive, I doubt anyone believes in Christianity or atheism or any belief system for purely rational reasons.

    Just my two cents. Hope you are well. Still working on revising that article about your books for publication.

    John

  2. Matthew says:

    This could be an interesting, rational debate if all parties are willing to participate in such. I for one would enjoy discussing (again, in a rational manner) the basic issues of Christianity. Such as why a just God has created Hell. As for an intellectual case for Orthodox Christianity, I think the hard facts and real evidence support Christianity over any other view. As a Christian, I would cheerfully debate that I believe not simply because I was told, but because I’ve thought about it, investigated the claims made by the Bible and Christian teachers, and have accepted it as truth on both faith and rational reason.

  3. John Weaver says:

    Matt,
    Yes, I’d be interested in that conversation too, though I think rationality is likely to be in the eye of the beholder. i for one don’t think my agnosticism is much more or less rational than Chris’s evangelical belief. So maybe the place to start would be to define why you think Christianity is a rational belief system and what do you mean by the term “rational”

    John

  4. Matthew says:

    Hello John! Not sure if you’d like to discuss on the board here, or through e-mail? Thoughts Chris? But by utilizing the term “rational” or “reason” in regards to my belief in Christianity, I mean the usual definition of “rationality”: The process of analyzing data through systematically gathered observations. But as you’ve pointed out, each of us has our own version of rationality depending on personal backgrounds or individually valued observations. So, in civilized society (assuming we can agree upon the defining of such), we’d have to decide a standard as to who’s personal observations are the more rational. This naturally would be a problem with government, and law, as surely everyone could claim their own rational version of what they believe to be right and wrong.

  5. Paul Hosea says:

    You seem to attach a lot of importance to being honest about one’s motives and to expecting the same of others. I agree that motives are supremely important. In the church and in the family, I think we are commanded to take people’s motives into account.

    I don’t think this is appropriate for politics, however. In politics, I think it is best not to discuss motives publicly. At all. Period. Politicians should not get credit for good motives or blame for evil motives. The reason, simply put, is that the vast majority of voters do not have either the time or the energy to properly evaluate motives.

    I couldn’t tell you what my own motives are for half the things I do. Even if I did know, I could be deceiving myself. Even if I was not deceiving myself, I could still be deceiving YOU. Yes, you probably could call me on it. If you knew me personally. But you don’t. And if I ever choose to run for office, you never will. Its just the way our sinful world works.

    Democracies that work tend to have strong forces to counterbalance popular ignorance. Here in the US, the Supreme Court plays that role. You mentioned that the Monarchy has been useful in Britain. In both places busy voters “outsource” judgements about character to people who DO have the time to make more reasoned judgements about character – and are pilloried for it in the press. In places like Japan and Singapore, a strong unified culture can act as a counterbalance to popular passion.

    TO PUT IT MORE BLUNTLY…. as an ordinary voter……Anytime any politician claims good motives as an excuse for something, a red flag goes up in my head. Anytime any politician questions his opponent’s motives, that same red flag goes up. If you want physical power over others in this world, I want to hear about results. Not motivation. You are running for Prime Minister(or President, or whatever). You arn’t running for God. If you wish to run for the office of God Almighty, I suggest you consult with the current officeholder before doing so. You might decide that the job is just too much for you.

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