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Christian Sophistry 101

02 January 2013, 10:04

We’ve heard this idea so many times now – that the bible can only be truly understood if it’s read “prayerfully” and one is “filled with the spirit” while reading it. This is a favourite line of counter-argument by believers in the face of challenges to the accuracy and inerrancy of the bible – specifically the factual contradictions that exist in it, and especially the immoral actions either carried out or commanded by their god, Yahweh.

Most human pursuits have their “folklore” and jargon, and I reckon religion is no different; years ago I remember kids talking about “backsliding” and encouraging others to “turn or burn”, “draai of braai” – violent stuff, but regarded as acceptable jargon because it came from religion. Then there’s the new favourite that we’re seeing regarding biblical interpretation – “descriptive, not prescriptive” – a little rhetorical turn whose convenient meaning stems only from the clever flipping of a prefix.

Jargon serves many functions. It can provide terminology for specialist fields where appropriate terms don’t exist in everyday language, and I’m sure this is true in religion, because the concepts in it aren’t everyday ideas. But more importantly, it provides a framework of understanding that has to be scaled by initiates before they can be truly considered part of the A-team – or “J-team” in the case of christianity. This provides the basis for a veritable industry of evangelism, books, TV programmes, outreaches, seminars and workshops. The more jargon, the more newbies have to get to understand, and the more engagement that can be asked of them.

Now the beauty of jargon in debate is that it takes time for the jargonist’s opponent to figure out exactly what it means, and so it provides some protection to the user of the term. This preference for jargon suggests that phrases like “prayerful reading” and “being filled with the spirit” are euphemisms for something. I decided to figure them out.

The thing that I noticed is that these phrases (and others, like “go and actually read the bible”) are used as a final line of defence by believers, either after a long thread of debate where they’ve exhausted their intellectual options, or a short round in which they never had any. And therein lies the clue. So often in arguments, we see people trying to change the track in a bid to end the conflict. Children are honest, but clumsy, when they tip over the Monopoly board; adults are (slightly) more sophisticated by leaving the room or slamming the door to indicate finality. A debate is different, though, because you don’t have those physical parameters available.

So what to do? Don’t leave the room – exit the logic of the argument. “Well, that’s what I believe and that’s that”. Or “Who are we to understand God’s plan?” And then there’s “You’ll understand when judgment comes”. And of course there’s always Pascal’s Wager, taking the discussion from logic to the realm of probability and statistics. These are the intellectual equivalent of storming out of the room.

But the next level up is to exit the debate in a way that implies that the opponent is somehow deficient or under-qualified to be a participant in the discussion. This is where “prayerful reading”, “filled with the spirit” and even “being born of God” come in – because non-believers don’t do any of these. Clever.

But it’s even cleverer than that, though, because of the clincher.

These phrases have a calming effect on the mind, they imply contemplation and even meditation, they provide a secure alternative to the challenges of rationality by rising above and detaching from it. Performing an act “prayerfully” means many things, but one of them is without mental conflict. The dictionary refers to prayer in this way: "supplication, adoration, praise, contrition, or thanksgiving” – hardly a mindset for seeking rational truth. And hence these jargon terms allow, and actually encourage, believers to seek solace away from the intellectual battleground in a way that is simply an escape from the requirements of reason. They grant permission to not think rationally about issues presented in the bible that compromise its core principles.

And because they’re touted as qualifiers for understanding biblical truth, they’re insistent on this irrational devotion - which just happens to be a dictionary definition of fanaticism.

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