Consensus Argument

consensus-argument

When a majority of people arrive at a rough consensus, whether about the existence of God or any other topic, we should not flippantly dismiss their conclusion without giving it due consideration. That’s just common sense.

Unfortunately, that commonsense dictum has a cancerous mutant form known as the consensus argument.[1] According to the consensus argument, since most people believe in a god, the burden of proof falls on nonbelievers to prove believers wrong. Peter Kreeft huffs that most Americans are believers, then puffs, “To be an atheist, you have to be a snob.”[2]

It’s a well-established philosophical principle that the burden of proof falls on the party putting forth a theory or postulate. When we violate this principle by failing to demand proof, we commit the fallacy known as an appeal to ignorance. The consensus argument is a monument to this fallacy.

Obviously, if a believer puts forth an argument to prove God’s existence, it’s not enough for the skeptic to simply assert that the argument fails; the skeptic, by issuing that assertion, assumes a burden of proof. The skeptic must offer a reasonable counter-argument. My point is that the mere fact that believers outnumber skeptics does not shift the burden of proof to the skeptic.

Moreover, if the believer is putting forth a claim that can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed, the skeptic is free to dismiss the claim. Likewise, if a believer chooses not to submit evidence for evaluation, the skeptic is free to dismiss the claim. As Christopher Hitchens said, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

The fact is, we never do, or even could, believe every theory or proposition until it is explicitly disproved. Nobody today says, “I believe in Thor because no one can disprove his existence.” Everyone immediately recognizes this as an illogical statement. Yet a statement in this form is equally illogical regardless which god—Thor or Jehovah—is being referenced.

The consensus argument is not merely logically flawed. It’s also morally flawed. By teaching that our default response should be to yield to the majority, it reflects the rationale of the mob, not the mindset of the honest truth-seeker.

In The Wisdom of Crowds author James Surowieki describes circumstances in which popular judgment is likely to be reliable, sometimes even more reliable than the opinion of a supposed authority. Surowieki specifically warns, however, against the degrading influence of groupthink. He also cautions that deference to the crowd must not be extended to topics where particularly deep expertise is required or to topics about which people are generally ill-informed. Unfortunately, the majority of people are so ill-informed on the topic of religion that it would be an unlikely happenstance if they formulated an opinion of any merit.

If that judgment strikes you as overly harsh, I invite you to put it to a test. Ask the next believer you meet about the cosmological, teleological, ontological, and transcendental arguments. Unless you run with an unusual crowd, you will get back a blank stare. This isn’t a vocabulary test. It’s a measure of the typical believer’s intellectual disengagement from the ultimate questions of life.

Christians often memorize a collection of quotations from the Bible, their top forty hits, which are selected because they apply fruitfully to their lives and fit snugly into conversation. Yet believers rarely engage in their study of Scripture with any academic rigor. The suggestion that they could benefit from examining unorthodox perspectives would provoke an incredulous gape.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2010 that revealed, to no one’s surprise, that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than do believers. Religionists are uninformed about other faiths, such as Christians who don’t know the five pillars of Islam or the four noble truths of Buddhism.[3]

The study also revealed that believers are uninformed about their own faiths. Most Christians can’t name the Ten Commandments, the five books of the Pentateuch, the four Gospels, or the languages in which the books of the Bible were originally written.[4] Among Protestants, nearly half don’t know that Martin Luther launched the Protestant Revolution. Among Catholics, four out of ten don’t know that, according to Church doctrine on transubstantiation, the communion wafer and the wine literally change into the flesh and blood of Jesus. In other words, the communion wafer is not symbolic of the body of Christ; believers are literally chomping on Jesus’s kidneys, spleen, toenails, and testicles. Bon appétit!

Stephen Prothero of Boston University, author of the book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t, observes that ten percent of Americans believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, one third believe the Sermon on the Mount was delivered by Billy Graham, and a sizeable minority believe Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.

Bill Maher similarly commented, “Did you know that only about half of Americans are aware that Judaism is an older religion than Christianity? That’s right. Half of America looks at books called the Old Testament and the New Testament and cannot figure out which one came first.”[5]

Prothero suggested that atheists know more than believers because atheists are in the minority and therefore get challenged to defend their position. I can personally vouch for the fact that atheists often get challenged. From the moment I began to publicly identify myself as an atheist, I have been subjected to impromptu Sunday school lessons from insurance agents, electricians, and cashiers.

But there’s a major flaw in Prothero’s explanation. The number of atheists in America is greater than the combined number of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus. If religious literacy were a function of a group’s minority status, all these smaller groups would outperform atheists on knowledge surveys.

What matters is not the size of a group, but rather its intellectual tenor. A group that promotes learning and questioning will outperform groups that venerate doctrinal fealty. I would bet my left nut that atheists would also exhibit greater knowledge of geography, physics, biology, and history.

Christians responded to their poor scores on the religious knowledge survey by frantically stampeding to local libraries and bookstores, studying diligently to patch the gaps in their knowledge. Just kidding! They continue to imbibe their weekly dogma dosing like gullible kindergarteners. After juice and cookies, they join hands and sing off-key praises of their uncritical belief in an invisible sky-daddy who loves them dearly forever and ever, amen.

Those who appeal to the wisdom of the majority need to take a second look at the majority. We should no more expect sound theological reasoning from the typical Christian than we would expect sound nutritional advice from someone who eats only cotton candy.

Precisely how careless about the truth must one be to grant credence to the opinions of people who never even bothered to familiarize themselves with the arguments on either side of the issue? Even a person whose beliefs rest on faith ought to have enough curiosity to take a passing glance at the arguments concerning the Creator of the universe. Given that the religious majority blindly accepts whatever pablum they’re taught in Sunday school, majority opinion is something to be lamented, not something to be trotted out, as it is by C. S. Lewis and others, as though it were a principled objection to disbelief.

Notice that I have not stooped to the level of citing the argument from consensus in behalf of my own beliefs. I have not made an issue of the fact that two thirds of the world’s population agrees with me that Christianity is a false religion. I renounce the argument from consensus, even when it might serve my purposes, because it is a truly rotten argument.

When I say it is a rotten argument, I do not mean merely that it is intellectually unsound. I mean that it is evil. What makes the argument not only wrong but also morally odious is that it flouts respect for facts and careful reasoning. It is a direct appeal to our aboriginal fear of being ostracized. The festering impulse to punish and exclude nonconformists is the character lesion from which this noxious argument oozes.

Owing largely to the consensus argument, every independent thinker confronts a hostile world. Almost everywhere outside academic circles, and sometimes even within them, if you dare to think for yourself you will attract metallic stares, as though you were an unassimilated alien. Your fate is sealed, your character impeached, the instant you ask a serious question and demand a sensible answer.

The Christian susceptibility to this vice is traceable to the fact that salvation, in the view of Christian orthodoxy, is attained by one method alone: accepting dogma. You can never get to heaven by merely asking questions, no matter how ingenious. You can’t be redeemed by exploring all options with an open mind. You earn no kudos from the Abrahamic god or from his followers by conscientiously aligning your beliefs with the evidence. Ultimately, you must terminate your researches and accept the pre-approved answer, despite the fact that the pre-approved answer is slobbering twaddle. You have been graciously endowed with free will and a fully functional brain, but it all seems a bit extravagant for the task, since you have only one basic choice to make: Believe or burn.

Let’s be honest. This is not and never was meant to be a free choice. It is extortion. The threat of eternal torment hangs over your head. The victim of extortion is not invited to sit back and have a leisurely think on the matter, weigh all the evidence, and decide dispassionately according to what satisfies the intellect. That is not the tone in which the dogma of religion is promulgated.

It may be countered that Christians often raise questions about their religious principles. No, not often, only occasionally. And their questions, those that are not softball questions, usually scrutinize principles peculiar to sects of Christianity other than their own. Christian sects squabble relentlessly among themselves over interpretive minutia, yet they unanimously attest to one shared point of dogma: salvation mandates signing on the dotted line.

We are commanded by 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” This text is quite plain. The instructions are unambiguous. Every thought is to be captive. No more free-ranging thoughts for you, Buster. No thought is to be spared for tasks such as scrutinizing the evidence for and against the truth of Christianity. No, you get your one chance to accept the truth of Christianity up front, and from that moment forward all your thoughts are to be committed to achieving unquestioning doglike obedience.

This reeks of totalitarian thought control, something straight from the imagination of George Orwell. Obedience—not informed assent, always subject to verification and challenge, but obedience—is just another name for sniveling subservience. And it’s not even guaranteed to be subservience to God, but only to a conception of God that, once accepted, is never again scrutinized. Because the conception of God is inadequately scrutinized, it is likely to be the prevailing conception of God, in which case obedience is indistinguishable from acquiescence to the mob.

Christian salvation comes packaged in a loyalty oath. Allegiance is primary. The rest can be dealt with later. The soldier must solute his commanding officer before receiving his marching orders. The horse must be broken before it can be made to perform tricks for its master.

It’s bad enough that we all face the totalitarian threat that to evade hell we must accept implausible tenets on faith. But along comes the consensus argument, like a bully with his nose in the air, demanding that we yield to the mob—and become part of it. The consensus argument is both intellectually vapid and morally repugnant.

Religions, as a rule, regard independent thought as the one unforgiveable sin. Doubt, the necessary impetus for thinking and the inevitable concomitant of thinking, elicits churlish references to eternal hellfire from otherwise civil neighbors. One must relinquish his or her intellectual integrity to public opinion if he or she wishes to be embraced as a full member of the community.

The alternative, which I recommend, is to grit one’s teeth and invite the insults. The person of integrity must be willing to be, in a phrase borrowed from Isaiah 40:3, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

 

[1] For an example of the consensus argument (and the argumentum ad populum fallacy and other fallacies), read the article about Anthony Flew at www.atheology.com/2010/09/16/antony-flew-is-dead/

[2] Peter Kreeft, “Rationality of Belief in God”, (Published 12/25/2010), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yK_71C3C-30

[3] Five pillars of Islam: profess, pray, give, fast, pilgrimage. Four noble truths of Buddhism: suffering, attachment, release, and the eightfold path (right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration).

[4] Ten commandments: (1) No god before me, (2) No icons, (3) Don’t take God’s name in vain, (4) Remember Sabbath, (5) Honor parents, Don’t (6) kill, (7) cheat, (8) steal, (9) lie, (10) covet. Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. OT in Hebrew; NT in Greek.

[5] Bill Maher, Huffington Post comedy blog titled “New Rule: Smart President ≠ Smart Country”, posted August 7, 2009 12:29 PM, www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-maher/new-rule-smart-president_b_253996.html

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