Thursday, September 10, 2015

Opposing arguments

My last post, and some of the comments to it, got me thinking.  I was noticing one of my least favorite things, the contradictory argument.  That is when someone argues in favor of their position using one argument, and then at a different time argues in favor of the same position using an exactly opposite argument.  Like a climate change activist who on a cold day says "Climate is not a matter of daily weather patterns; the fact that it is cold is no proof the climate is not warming," and then a hot day says, "See how hot it is?  How can you continue to deny climate change?!"  They can't both be right, and one starts to get the impression that they will grab any argument they think will convince you, without regard for logic or truth.

The arguments that I keep seeing (not just here) are as follows:

1.  Life as a Catholic is an objectively positive way to live, so the risk of being wrong about it is very low.

2.  The martyrs and other saints lived in a way that would make no sense at all if their faith was not true.  This makes them an admirable witness for the truth of the faith, because if they weren't really sure, they wouldn't act that way.

Now both of these actually can be true.  That is, they can apply to different groups of people:

1.  These people have an easy time being Catholic.  It makes them happy to go along with what the Church teaches -- some things take some effort, sure, but it always pays off in visible ways.  It helps them keep their marriage together, encourages them to give to charity, and gives them comfort when they feel anxious.  They're not really that sure it's true, but they don't bother looking into it that much because, heck, if it's not true, they haven't lost anything.  I've made this argument before.

2.  This group has complete certainty about the Catholic faith.  Maybe they've had visions, or seen an actual miracle with their own eyes.  They've studied Church teaching and read opposing views, and in their most objective judgment, the Church teaching still seems most reasonable.  Because of their certainty, they are willing to give up a lot for their faith.  Even when it makes their life miserable, they stick with it -- and it seems not so bad, because they have a firm conviction that life is short, heaven is forever, so why fuss about some momentary pain?  They are even willing to be martyred.

But is it right to take a person with the certainty of belief in (1) and demand of them the level of commitment in (2)?  I can't see any way in which it could possibly be.  If you aren't sure a drug works, but it has no side effects, go ahead and take it, right?  But if there's a 50% chance it might cause serious damage to your body, you're not going to take it unless you're pretty sure it works.

And yet the Church (or any religion) seems to put a huge emphasis on being as committed as (2) with the knowledge of (1).  That's what faith IS -- acting like you're more sure than you rationally could be.  That is why the perfectly rational choice of a person who's not super sure of his religion, following it when it's comfortable and breaking the rules when it starts to get hard, is derided as sinful.  The reason most people act this way is because they're not all that sure, so they're going to give it a good try, but not everything.

And that's why I constantly see these two opposing arguments switched back and forth rapidly: I say "Catholicism causes suffering," and they say, "That's okay, because we are absolutely sure it is true and worth it."  So I say, "All right, show me the evidence that it's true," and they answer, "You don't need it, because being Catholic is an obviously great way to live!"

It can't be both, at the same time, to the same person!

And the really problematic part is that martyrdom isn't even the thing that requires the most certainty.  Because it's your life, if you want to spend it, that's your look-out.  What requires the most certainty is doing things that could harm others.  For instance, if the Catholic faith is not true, I can't see a thing wrong with birth control.  In some cases, it could really be important for someone to have access to it.  So using your faith to make sure someone else doesn't get birth control seems unwise unless you have complete certainty.  Or, when you find a suffering Catholic whose suffering is caused by the Church, telling them to stick with it.  Are you sure they should stick with it?  Or is the only reason you stick with it because it's easier for you?

This past week I read a book called Escape, by Carolyn Jessop.  It's the story of a polygamous wife's escape from the FLDS.  Some people find this stuff too dark, but I find it tremendously uplifting -- it's a reminder that there is no mental conditioning so harsh that people do not sometimes break free.  The human spirit is a powerful thing.

Anyway, this woman believed that if she didn't obey her husband, she would go to hell.  But it also became clear to her that if she did obey her husband, who didn't believe in medical treatment, one of her children would die.  And she decided that her son's life was worth going to hell for.  She asks one of her sister-wives, "You may get a reward from [our husband] in your next life, but what about the abuse your children are getting in this life?"  The point being that no one has the right to put other people on the table in Pascal's Wager.  It is your choice to spend your whole life working for salvation on evidence as scanty as you choose.  It might not be the best imaginable decision, but it's your right to make it.

But hurting other people in the name of your religion, when you don't even have any sort of certainty that your religion is true?

I'm sorry, you don't have a right to do that.

And that's the whole understanding of religious freedom in this country.  To follow your own treasured beliefs, you don't need to be able to defend them in a court of law.  You don't need proof.  All you need to do is show that you really do believe it, and as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, you can go ahead and follow it.  However, as soon as your choice does hurt another person, a higher standard of evidence is needed.  You need something that will hold up in a court of law, with actual proof.  You can't say that you believe something unprovable, but demand the right to force others to abide by it.

And I feel like that's what a lot of the people I run into want to do.  They insist that we all must follow the teachings of the Catholic faith, even when they hurt, because we should be that sure .... but when you ask for the evidence, the answer is always, "You don't have to be sure."  It can't be both, not for the same person, at the same time.

Which is it for you?

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