For the first time ever in our blog’s 10-year history, we feature a series co-written by me, Gary Shogren; and our long-time friend, Tod Hannigan. Tod will do the heavy lifting on the philosophical end. This chapter is by Tod, who reports that, “Personally, the most difficult article I have written.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dicken’s memorable opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” is an accurate representation of where we find ourselves a year or so after the pandemic began. It is the best of times because of the great progress made in vaccine development, which should give us all hope!
It is also the worst of times. Many nations, like India, are unable to keep up with the vast number of sick and dying. Vaccine supply and medical distribution problems have stressed their health systems to the point of failure and beyond. In the US as of September 8, 2021, about 75% of adults have received at least one shot, but this is not enough to reach herd immunity, which we need to achieve before the virus mutates into a more deadly variant.
Yet, a significant minority of people are not planning on getting a vaccine in the near future, or perhaps ever. Influenced by bad science, distortions, and fear-mongering politicians, they have been told that the pandemic is a hoax, and/or the vaccine is unsafe. One of the largest groups of doubters is the American Evangelical Church.
Here are just a few examples that highlight this problem:
Megachurch Pastor Guillermo Maldonado sent a clear message to his congregation. He warned them not to get the Covid19 vaccine, because it will “alter your DNA” and “prepare the structure for the Antichrist.”
Televangelist Kenneth Copeland is all over YouTube, literally blowing the “Divine Wind of God” into viewers faces as he “blows Covid away.” Outlandish? Sure, but the offerings keep coming in! Ironically, people are paying more for Copeland than they are for a COVID vaccine, which can be gotten for free. And not surprisingly, someone put together a remix video for YouTube.
Megachurch Pastor John MacArthur insisted that “There is no pandemic” as his cavernous megachurch violated public health laws, refused to wear masks, or social distance, and his congregation fell ill from the virus. But donations were up!
Gary adds on 9/9/21 – Liberty University boasted of a no-mask, no-vaccine, no-quarantine policy for its Fall 2021 semester. This policy has been disastrous and led to a campus shutdown within days. https://wset.com/news/local/liberty-university-reports-hundreds-of-new-covid-19-cases
In 2011, evangelical former Representative Michelle Bachmann said the routine administration of an HPV vaccine (which lowers the incidence of cervical cancer) was an attack on “innocent 12-year-old girls,” being “forced to have a government injection,” which might later result in “mental retardation” (sic). Scientific nonsense, sure, but not out of line with the evangelical American church. In fact, a large chunk of white evangelicals is wary of the Covid-19 vaccine.
The epidemic of unfounded fear in the evangelical church actually runs much deeper. According to Christianity Today, over 1 in 4 white evangelicals are convinced that the Q-Anon conspiracy theory is real and true. They believe that a secret cabal of Satan worshiping, baby-eating pedophiles are running the country, and that Donald Trump was chosen by Jesus to do battle against them.
A Tale of Two Cities – “Jerusalem versus Athens”
In this chapter of “Testing 4 Truth,” I am departing from a direct examination of logical fallacies, in order to highlight an important disconnect in the church. This issue is so egregious that it undermines the very relevance of the Christian church within society. Specifically, how can the Church expect people to respond positively, or even care about its truth-claims, when the church itself often can’t even recognize truth to begin with?
I am convinced that the root of this fatal flaw in discernment is related to a critical difference in how these two cities, or worldviews, determine “truth” and accept “knowledge.”
Truth and Knowledge – What are they?
As we mentioned before, the theory of truth we are using for our discussion is: “Truth is that which conforms to reality.”
This theory of truth is known as the “Correspondence Theory of Truth.” To put it another way, “Truth-is-what the facts-are.” Using this as a precept, any “truth proposition” can then be evaluated based on the evidence-for-or-against-it. By this method, we are able to improve and increase our knowledge of the world. “Knowledge” is a subset of belief, referring to beliefs that are both:
- Justified – Meaning that you have strong evidence that the belief is true.
- True – Meaning that the belief is factually accurate from an objective standpoint.
This method for increasing our knowledge and understanding of the truth does present some issues however! For example, we can be justified in our beliefs, yet the belief may ultimately be false. In addition, we can never reach 100% certainty that our beliefs are true, no matter how confidant we are in our justification! So, in our quest for truth and knowledge, we need to approach both with humility, realizing that there are limits to the methods we use to understand our world.
To bring this back into the context of our discussion, as Aquinas hypothesized from the analogical claim “God is truth,” then it is also true that “all truth is God’s truth.” Because of this, the Christian church should have a very high regard for truth. Truth is not something we should fear, it should be what we embrace!
This sounds quite reasonable. Yet, in practice, the Christian church has not always been a bastion of truth and reason. The church has in fact harbored a disdain for science and reason for centuries, and has sharpened its teeth on the bones of those who would dare challenge its view of the world. This despite the fact that historically, the Christian church has been responsible for founding many of the world’s premiere universities of higher learning! This schism has become ever more apparent over the last 300 years, as our knowledge of the world has grown exponentially, and technological innovations have improved the quality of life for so many.
A recent example of the schism between religious and evidential truths occurred in the early 20th century. The Roman Catholic Church responded to the new developments in science, history, and our understanding of the world by publishing a Papal encyclical with the subtitle “On the Doctrines of the Modernists.” Instead of recognizing the limits of dogmatism and acknowledging that many of the “Modernists” questions were valid, based on a serious study of the evidence, the church instead tried to vilify anyone who dared question it. Much like the current “Q-Anon” conspiracy theory in the Protestant church, “Modernists” were portrayed by the R.C. Church as a coordinated cabal of evil actors, having a mutual goal of destroying the church.
My Personal Kryptonite
So, why is the church of Christ, the Lord of all truth, so overcome with a strong passion against truth as demonstrated by scientific evidence? Why are so many believers enslaved in fear of conspiracy, also seemingly immune from logic and reason? This issue has been one of the most pervasive and personally corrosive questions I have struggled with over the years, because it seems so antithetical to the proposition and veracity of the Christian faith. Yet, I find it is also ubiquitous. It eats at my faith, and when not diligent, leads me towards cynicism.
A Tale of Two Worldviews – The Crux of the Problem
In our discussions, we have argued for a philosophically well-reasoned, logical approach to discerning truth from error. This view is represented by the Academy in Athens, which was ground zero for the development of both philosophy and science in antiquity. So, Athens represents evidential truth, the careful, well-reasoned, logical approach to discernment that we have been arguing for in this series. This method is self-correcting, able to provide testable predictions, understands its limitations, and is the foundation on which modern science is built.
Conversely, there is another method of discerning truth often used in the church. This involves the discernment of truth through faith and revelation. This method is represented by the city of Jerusalem, which is a sacred place for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This methodology can include direct revelation, such as our earlier examples of vaccine paranoia given out by modern so-called “prophets”, or through the revelation of a holy book.
Let’s be clear. Just because a truth proposition is derived from faith or revelation, this does not mean it cannot be true! For example, the truth proposition “Jesus rose from the dead.” Reasons to believe this as true should be based on reasonable evidence, not on faith alone, since by faith literally anything can be believed!
This brings me to a pet peeve regarding Hebrews 1:1, which I often hear quoted from the KJV as “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Not only is this a poor translation, but it is also misapplied. “Faith” is not, nor can it ever be “evidence.” Faith is simply belief. Strong assured belief perhaps, but still only belief.
So, in our example Jerusalem represents revealed / religious truth, the valuing of a feeling of faith over facts, and dogma over data. It offers a comfortable prison, free from questions, where we can feel smug and secure in our beliefs, without having to justify them to anyone.
A Problem of Historical Proportions
The clash between reason and faith, or “Athens” and “Jerusalem” is not new. The tension between these two different worldviews has been with us for a very long time!
In Chapter 7 of Tertullian’s (~155-220 AD) “Prescription Against Heretics,” he considers “philosophy” to be the root cause of that which undermines sound Christian doctrine. Using Paul’s letter to the Colossians as a cudgel, Tertullian boldly states that human wisdom merely “pretends” to know the truth, but in reality, only “corrupts it.” He asks, “What accord is there between the Academy (a center of learning founded by Plato) and the church?” He furthermore states: “With our faith, we desire no further belief.” For Tertullian, Christ is the capstone that makes praiseworthy all ignorance, as he himself states: “For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.” With a broad stroke, Tertullian brushes aside all inquiries of nature and mankind as “unprofitable questions.”
As we have mentioned in earlier chapters, at its root, philosophy is nothing more than study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence, especially as an academic discipline. It is from philosophy that modern science draws its worldview and methodological principles. At the time of Plato in the 4th Century BC, The Academy in Athens was a prominent location for study and learning across a broad range of subjects, including mathematics, astronomy, logic and political theory, as well as metaphysical inquiry.
Can we reconcile Jerusalem and Athens?
There have been those within the Christian church who have argued for a congruence (agreement, harmony) between “Jerusalem” (revealed / religious truth) and “Athens” (evidential truth), from Augustine and Origen, to Roger Bacon (who formalized the Scientific Method) and more. This is a critical issue, as we can see in this Venn Diagram:
Although we try, not everything we believe corresponds to reality, (ie, is true). My friend’s youngest daughter may be convinced Santa Claus has a list with her name on it, but that does not make it true. In addition, not all religious truths correspond to reality. For instance, compare the following truth propositions:
- “Ganesha is god.”
- “Jesus is god.”
Both statements are religious “truths” revealed through holy scriptures, recognized as true by the faith of millions! Besides the obvious “Well, my god is real of course, but not yours!”, in what way can either statement be actually true? The only way, is if one of them is “true” in “reality.” And if a truth proposition is part of the set of “reality,” then there should be evidence. Someone may argue that not everything in the set of “reality” may leave evidence that we can discern. Okay. In theory I agree, but where does that line of reasoning lead? To “truth”? No… it leads to the backdoor of Fantasy Land, where anything can be believed, independent of reality.
I propose to the reader, that if there is in fact no congruence between Jerusalem and Athens, this would terminally undermine the veracity of revealed / religious truth, making it merely subjective, without any objective anchor to reality. This would render all religious truth statements of zero value.
The time to believe something is when there is evidence. I think William Kingdon Clifford said it best in his work “The Ethics of Belief” (1877), “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”
This issue affects us all to the degree that we value knowledge and truth. This issue will never be resolved by labeling others, feeling superior, or being convinced this doesn’t apply to you. We are all brothers and sisters, and are all prone to the same afflictions and foibles.
The difficult truth, is that we all must be willing to challenge our beliefs, to drag out every sacred cow, and examine why we believe what we believe. We need to be sure that all our beliefs are based on the solid foundation of evidence, in order to defend our truth propositions as being a subset of reality, instead of mere fiction and make believe.
Tod Hannigan, “Testing 4 Truth, #4 – Athens and Jerusalem.”