The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 5

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by Neil Godfrey

Awareness of Mercy

Continuing from part 4 in this series . . . .

Next in Marlene’s list is “Awareness of Mercy”. While I found myself nodding in agreement I had to ask myself how such a legacy can come out of such a judgmental belief system.

But first, notes from Marlene’s discussion:

After reminding readers of the teachings about mercy (the command to forgive 70 times 7; removing the speck in your own eye first; not casting the first stone, etc) that necessarily hold a significant place in any Christian teaching, fundamentalism included, Marlene suggests that the ex-fundamentalist “probably retain[s] an openness and caring for people.” I would add that this is probably true for anyone who took their Christian teachings seriously to heart, and that fundamentalists generally take those teachings to heart more than many others. Even if the motive then was tinged with fear, at least this is undeniably a good legacy.

Human frailty, imperfection, and even serious misdeeds may evoke concern on your part instead of immediate judgment. This can make you a more whole, feeling person, with the potential for connecting with people on an emotional level, instead of relating simply to their overt behaviors. In other words, the other side of seeing human weakness is the tenderness you can have for others. You can assume they are struggling and “falling short of glory.” Your mercy is a needed quality in a world of harsh expectations and judgments.” (pp. 107-8)

It feels a little strange reading that again. It is impossible to really know how much of our character is innate and how much evoked by experiences. When I recollect my little “ex cult veterans support group” that included a motley array from diverse cults, we were able to talk as “brethren” — I think we did have a compassion not only for one another, understanding what we had each gone through, but that I am sure we all felt we had a similar compassion for our friends “left behind” and others “out there” who had not yet experienced what we had.

And in the fundamentalist or cultic church one does feel very close, bonded with a family bond even, to each other from all walks of life. Caring and understanding for others, and learning to live mercifully with others when they fail or even deeply offend you, is a daily part of what one strives to live for.

And when one leaves that mindset and “spiritual family” it gets even better. The walls are broken down between yourself and the rest of humanity. You now identify with collective humanity. And when one encounters the harsh and heartless one finds oneself, I am sure many times, reacting with an attempt to understand and to work with instead of against those people as much as possible. One often wants to understand others. The idea of “whose fault” something is, or the culture of “blame”, is distressing because of its unhelpfulness and the pain and strife it perpetuates.

That is the potential that I think is often there — following Marlene’s lead with this suggestion — and perhaps it is a little more accentuated than it otherwise might have been among others who have traveled the same path.

See the Winell archive for earlier posts in this series — and Marlene’s Recovery from Religion website.

The fallacy of argument ad verecundiam (to modesty?)

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by Neil Godfrey

The quaint Latin term might mean appeal to modesty but in plain English it refers to the fallacy of an appeal to authority.

This form of error is an egregious but effective technique which puts an opponent in the awkward position of appearing to commit the sin of pride if he persists in his opposition. (p.253)

Fischer (Historians’ Fallacies) discusses a 1950’s exchange among historians of modern history to illustrate that “the most crude and ugly form of an argument ad verecundiam in historical writing is an appeal to professional status.” I will cite here a more recent example.

In 2003 George Athas published a version of his 1999 doctoral thesis on the Tel Dan inscription — a 1993 archaeological find that was widely claimed to be the earliest extra-biblical evidence for the House of David. Two of the earliest reviews of this work were “most crude and ugly” indeed:

The author’s hope is that his “study will do much to quell the unhelpful passion and euphoria” that have lured us all into “emotional scholarship” (319). Those are rather grand and pretentious aims for a doctoral dissertation . . . (Review in RBL 10/2003) by William M. Schniedewind University of California)

And a year later:

. . . . After a decade of extensive research, there was a feeling among scholars that the study of the inscription had reached fruition and that no significant advance could be made, unless more fragments were found in the excavations.

It is against this background that the book under review should be evaluated. The book, a rework of a dissertation submitted to the University of Sydney in 1999, deals with some aspects (notably the epigraphical, paleographical, and textual analysis) in such detail as could be done only in a doctoral dissertation. Considering that Athas is a beginning young scholar, the book is pretentious in the extreme. Athas believes that his study “will do much to quell the unhelpful passion and euphoria that the Tel Dan Inscription has evoked among scholars and interested persons alike” (319). — (Review in RBL 10/2004 by Nadav Na’aman, Tel Aviv University)

I once wrote:

There are many reasons . . . to believe that Acts was composed [as] a later reaction against Marcionism.

No more, just an invitation to discuss the evidence if my debating partner was willing to go there. But his reply was an interesting shut down with his appeal to “modesty” and by inference “my arrogance” for even making such a claim:

That might be a fun debate. … {g} You do realize that such a position (about Acts) goes directly up against evaluations by Adoph Von Harnack and JAT Robertson (among many others on all sides of the theological spectrum, some of them no more poster-boys for Christian “dogmatism” than those two were), right?

In other words, my correspondent was demonstrating a complete lack of interest in what “many reasons” there might possibly be, preferring instead to rest on the works generally cited as authorities. Authority of the names alone was sufficient. The question was recast from one of evidence and reason to one of attitude: of presumed modesty versus a presumption of arrogance.

One might even call it an attempt at “intellectual bullying”.

A favourite arena where this tactic is found is where individuals outside the academy raise questions or challenge paradigms that have long been seen as the special preserve of the academy. Obviously some of those questions and alternate proposals are kooky. But academia does itself — nor the public to whom one would expect it to feel some sense of responsibility — any favours by arrogant appeals “to modesty”.

Fischer concludes:

In historiography, such crude forms of argument ad verecundiam are rarely to be met with — in print, at least. [He was writing in 1970 — before online discussion groups and wikis.] The explanation is not that scholars are gentlemen, but rather, as Bolingbroke noted many years ago, that “those who are not such, however, have taken care to appear such in their writings.”

The above examples demonstrate that Fischer’s observations do not necessarily apply in our times of public online journal reviews and discussions.


there exists online another review of Athas’s study sans the “modesty” by Daniel Miller (2007) in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

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by Neil Godfrey

David Hackett Fischer back in 1970 in his Historian’s Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, discussed this fallacy one sometimes encounters in discussions of the history of early Christian origins and biblical studies.

It refers to using widespread opinion as a method of verification. Often I’ve noticed this coupled with an argument “from authority” where well known historians’ names will be called on as examples of some who have expressed or assumed a widely accepted opinion or “fact” as if that adds empirical weight to something that has never been methodically investigated.

Fischer notes that cultural anthropologists have found this practice among certain tribes such as the Kuba. History, for them, is whatever their majority declares to be true. But Fischer’s point is that anthropologists would also find the same practice among some quarters in our history departments.

The best known example of something very close to this among biblical students and scholars is the Jesus Seminar with its method of voting in order to issue colour rankings to indicate how many or how few believed certain passages in the gospels were authentic sayings, or deeds, of Jesus. While the Seminar scholars may have explained the nature and real significance of their voting and colour coding scheme, the simple fact of voting to and grading passages accordingly is curious. Why not simply leave the various arguments themselves to speak for themselves? A ranking system based on counting votes obviously will only serve to perpetuate the laziness, and fallacy, of relying on a majority opinion for verification. And if a few prominent names can be linked to some of the votes (not the reasonings and assumptions) then all the “more certainly factual” one can misguidedly feel one’s argument is.

But one encounters this fallacy in many more areas than those discussions that call on the findings of the Jesus Seminar.

Few scholars have failed to bend, in some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have established a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of this problem. . . .” (p.52)

Fischer cites one example where a historian wrote in relation to the role of dope in early industrial England, “every historian of the period knows that it was common practice at the time for working mothers to start the habit in the cradle by dosing their hungry babies on laudanum . . .” Yet although this statement was often made and widely believed it had apparently never at the time been established by empirical evidence.

When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

When leaving my erstwhile faith I asked questions, and kept asking further questions about any answers I got to the first questions. This was not from nihilistic scepticism but from a determination not to be bitten again. I hated it when I asked on an academic discussion group the evidence for, say, that a particular passage in Josephus not being a completely 100% forgery, and being directed to a text that listed numbered points claiming to be reasons — no argument, nothing new at all that I had not already studied and found based on questionable logic or in defiance of stronger counter-arguments. It soon became apparent that many scholars themselves who gave such answers had never checked for themselves with due methodical enquiry the many “facts” on which they based their hypotheses and arguments.

Not that that particular point was a major one in the grand scheme of things, but it sticks in my mind since it was the answer I was given by a widely respected academic repeatedly, and in a context of arrogant dismissal if anyone found cause to “quibble” with such a list of dot points on a page of a text by such “an authority”.

But this fallacy is found across the spectrum. Fundamentalists may laugh at the Jesus Seminar with its voting, but one also regularly encounters their appeals to “majority opinion” among scholars who are from the same theological camp.

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form — deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.  

Fischer gives one popular example: the notion that Mussolini made the trains run on time. Fischer cites a work by Montagu and Darling testifying to the mythical nature of this “widely known fact”. In biblical studies one might in many cases substitute popular theology or religious beliefs for popular opinion.