Consensus Argument

consensus-argumentWhen a majority of people arrive at a rough consensus, whether about the existence of God or any other topic, we should grant their perspective 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 says that most Americans believe in God and that should count for something: “To be an atheist, you have to be a snob.”[2]

I’ve been called worse. And deserved it. But name-calling isn’t a rebuttal of atheism. In fact, those who resort to name-calling typically do so because they can’t make a decent argument for their position.

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

A believer who respects her burden of proof will present argu­ments for God’s existence. When that happens, it’s not enough for the skeptic to simply assert that the argument fails; the skeptic, by asserting that the argument fails, is issuing a positive claim and thereby assumes his own bur­den of proof. The skeptic can meet his burden of proof by offering a reasonable counter-argument. The skeptic’s assumption of a burden of proof doesn’t relieve the believer of her burden of proof. Note that the rules of this game have nothing to do with how many players are on each team.

If a believer issues a claim without offering an argument in its de­fense, a skeptic may reject that claim with­out offering a rebuttal. As Christo­pher Hitchens said, “That which can be as­serted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” This is sometimes called Hitchens’ Razor.

We never do, or even could, believe every theory or proposition until it’s 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, by teaching that our default response should be to yield to the majority, 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, most 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, as validating Peter Kreeft’s labeling of atheists as “snobs,” then 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’ll 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. Few Christians, for instance, know the five pillars of Islam or the four noble truths of Buddhism.[3]

Worse yet, 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] Nearly half of Protes­tants don’t know that Martin Luther launched the Prot­estant Revolution. Four out of ten Catholics don’t know that transubstantiation isn’t mere symbolism, that adherents consuming the com­munion wafer 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 asked, “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 attest to getting challenged. From the moment I began to publicly identify as an atheist, I’ve received im­promptu Sunday school lessons from insurance agents, electri­cians, and cashiers.

But Prothero’s explanation is flawed. 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. They don’t.

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’d bet my left nut that atheists, on average, also know more about physics, biology, and history.[6]

I wish I could tell you that Christians responded to their poor scores on the religious knowledge survey by frantically stampeding to local libraries and bookstores, studying diligently to patch­ gaps in their knowledge. But no. 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.

Apologists like Peter Kreeft 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’d expect sound nutritional advice from some­one who eats only cotton candy.

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 Peter Kreeft and C. S. Lewis, as though it were a principled objection to disbelief.

Notice that I haven’t stooped to the level of citing the argument from consensus in behalf of my own beliefs. Even though two thirds of the world’s population agrees with me that Christianity is a false religion, I renounce the argument from con­sensus because it’s a truly rotten argument.

By rotten, I don’t mean merely intellectually unsound. I mean morally odious. The argument from consensus 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.

Thanks to the consensus argument, every inde­pend­ent thinker confronts a hostile world. Even within aca­demic circles, if you dare to think for your­self, you risk attracting 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.

This vice traces to the orthodoxy that salvation 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, even though the pre-approved answer is slobbering twaddle.

You’ve 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: Believe or burn.

Let’s be honest. This never was meant to be a free choice. It’s extortion. The threat of eternal torment hangs over your head. The victim of extortion isn’t 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’s not the tone in which the dogma of religion is promulgated.

Many Christians retort that Christianity has a long history of ex­amining questions about its theological and moral principles. Given that Christianity is the largest religion that has ever existed, it’s hardly surprising that it offers a bounty of examples suitable for both its defenders and its detractors.

While it is true that the history of Christianity provides countless examples of open-minded inquiry and debate, even the religion’s staunchest champions must admit that mostly Christianity has a history of infighting. That’s different from being self-reflective.

If you want to observe how a congregation functions, you need to take a seat on a pew. You’ll quickly discover that, when a church “entertains questions,” it’s a pretty safe bet that those questions serve as a rhetorical device to in­troduce some doc­trinal spiel. Otherwise, the questions discussed by the congregation scrutinize tenets peculiar to sects other than their own. Only in a small minority of cases do the questions reflect untrammeled curiosi­ty, the kind that’s free to traipse lightheartedly over doctrinal bound­aries.

Sectarian tempers flare as Christians squabble over in­terpre­tive minu­tia. I’ve seen fire ants that are more civil. Yet these quarreling Christians unanimously attest to one point of dogma: salva­tion man­dates signing on the dotted line.

We’re 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.

Salvation from hellfire is granted in exchange for your pledge of loyalty. Your unquestioning allegiance is your primary offering. 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. 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. Welcome the charges of snobbery. Relish the accusa­tions of insolence. Then speak your mind as a freethinking adult. 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/, in which the author makes the false claim that, “The burden, in science (and society generally), properly belongs on whoever is attempting to change the consensus viewpoint.”

[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

[6] I have three peanuts next to my keyboard as I type this.

 

 

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