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11/12/2007                                                                                       View Comments

Two Liars for Jesus and an Aging Philosopher?

By Valerie Tarico

In the name of God all manner of moral boundary crossings become conceivable. In the service of a biblical god or the Bible-as-God, they all too often become real.

For Evangelical Christians, the greatest good in the world is winning converts. A Christian who wins a convert saves a soul that would otherwise be condemned to eternal torture. According to traditional Roman Catholic theologies in which modern Evangelicalism has its roots, only true believers are exempt from this fate.

With stakes so high, intellectual and moral slight of hand in order to win converts or keep people from deconverting becomes a lesser evil than leaving souls to suffer damnation.

Evangelical missionaries, often genuinely decent people driven by compassion, choose this lesser evil even if it means they have to engage in distasteful manipulation or deceit. As they should! That’s what moral reasoning is about: being able to weigh the consequences of our actions and choose the lesser evil or the greater good.

The problem isn’t that Evangelicals, like the rest of us, weigh alternatives on a sort of moral balance. The problem is that fundamentalist dogmas simply outweigh normal moral constraints on behavior. If one truly believes in a God who demands sacrifice (a white dove, an unblemished lamb, Abraham’s son, Yeshua-born-of-a-virgin) in order to forgive sin; if you believe that the only way out of Hell is to partake of this sacrifice, most anything becomes justified in order to get other people to drink the blood.

Through history, Christians have taken this responsibility very seriously. Conquistadors reportedly baptized native infants and then ran them through with swords on the outside chance that they might have human souls. Public torture of apostates helped to keep the Faithful faithful during the Middle Ages. Even today in India and Africa, Evangelical missionaries stage “miracles” or manipulate desperate people with education, medical care, or even basic necessities like drinking water as here-and-now rewards of conversion.

On the scale of such zeal, most home turf moral transgressions in the service of faith seem small indeed. Sins that catch the public eye include things like evangelists rewriting American history so that the founding fathers appear to be “biblical” Christians, friendship missionaries targeting vulnerable foreign students without revealing their ulterior motive, a filmmaker fabricating an anti-Semitic snuff film under the guise of piety, or born-again officers bullying Air Force cadets to accept Jesus. Behaviors like these might seem worthy of little more than an eye roll. But such behaviors offer us an opportunity to understand how mind-controlling dogmas can get good people to do ugly things, large and small.

A recent New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer (The Turning of an Atheist; NYT Magazine; 11/4/07) ; exposes a good example of this pattern in action. About four years ago, British philosopher Anthony Flew, a life-long atheist now in his eighties announced that he believed in some sort of god. Possibly this god was simply a prime mover, possibly it was a person-god. Flew’s public statements were sometimes contradictory. Nevertheless, Flew made a published appeal in support of intelligent design, among other things, and over the course of several years he became the darling of evangelicals in search of a credentialed ally. Flew was a “catch,” courted hard and won. Recently, two public defenders of literalist Christianity, self-funding apologist Roy Varghese and evangelical pastor Bob Hostetler even helped the aging philosopher write a book There is a God , which tells the story of how and why he converted from atheism to a fuzzy deism with theistic overtones that are fuzzier yet.

There is a catch. Anthony Flew, possibly for several years, has been showing signs of dementia. Looking back on the second election of Ronald Reagan, my psychologist friend Geoff comments: “How could the American public have voted for that guy? His Alzheimer’s was obvious by the end of his first term.” In hindsight it was. The same may someday be said of Flew. When he first announced his reversal, fellow atheists were dismayed and believers thrilled. But it is only in hindsight, in a context of unambiguous dementia that Flew’s recent years can be understood.

The DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists has this to say about Alzheimer’s: The course of Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type tends to be slowly progressive, with a loss of 3-4 points per year on a standard assessment instrument. Various patterns of deficits are seen. A common pattern is an insidious onset, with early deficits in recent memory followed by the development of aphasia, apraxia, and agnosia after several years (any one of the three is sufficient to make the diagnosis). . .

Oppenheimer interviewed Flew, offering no diagnosis but simply reporting what he saw. If his observations are reported accurately, the characteristic symptoms of Alzheimer’s are present in interviews, Flew’s recent public appearances, and written conversations between Flew and atheist author, Richard Carrier. The article reads like a mental status exam:

• Memory impairment: could not recall the identities of old colleagues (e.g. Brian Leftow, Paul Davies) when given their names, could not recall the content of his earlier books (John Leslie), forgot and then remembered timeless philosophical arguments—conclusions were swayed back and forth in beliefs by most recent conversations or changes in recall.
• Aphasia: halting diction, loss of technical vocabulary (e.g. abiogenesis) self-described “nominal aphasia.”
• Disturbance in executive functioning: manifest confusion responding to abstract argumentation--demurring, passive assent, contradictory statements, didn’t write and couldn’t maintain content awareness of book published in his name.

With this level of observable dementia, and with a decrement of 3-4 IQ points per year, one might hypothesize that Flew is nearing the decade mark. In fact, having begun with a particularly robust mind and level of mental activity, it is possible that he has been fending off debilitation even longer. Symptoms such as those described by Oppenhiemer, even if they are currently patchy and inconsistent, let us know what to expect in coming years. Apraxia means losing the ability to carry out motor activities. Agnosia means losing the ability to recognize or identify objects, including people you love. Alzheimer's is a fate no-one would wish on anyone but an enemy and few would seek to exploit to their own advantage.

Is it not incredible, given this state of affairs, that people who claim to serve the God of Goodness and Truth would put Flew’s name to their own cherished arguments about what is right and real? If Flew showed symptoms of dementia like those witnessed by Oppenheimer and Carrier and then someone convinced him to donate his financial assets rather than his good name to their cause, criminal charges could apply!

For me, the real curiosity in the Flew story in not whether a once-brilliant philosopher caught in the throes of cognitive decline dies professing atheism or some form of faith-based belief. Rather it is the fascinating psychological question the story raises: Why would men who earnestly care about god concepts and goodness engage in the shameful behavior of manipulating and then speaking on behalf of an elder with diminished capacity?

One simple answer is that such behavior works. In evangelical circles, "Flew's" book will receive wide distribution, and few readers will be the wiser. It will be an effective tool for proselytizing young skeptics and arming campus missionaries. All’s fair in war, they say. And surely, if one seeks only dominion, any manner of behavior can serve the cause. Questions of good and evil are in some ways irrelevant to the end. But if one seeks, truly, to serve Love and Truth, then questions of good and evil, of decency and fairness and integrity are the end. Roy Varghese and Bob Hostetler, at least from their public statements, are not Machiavellians who generally insist that the end justifies the means. Rather, something has gotten them to violate what one might assume are their own deeply held principles.

Oppenheimer offers a partial explanation: “An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline.” This seems credible. Varghese has little to gain and much to lose from one simple punch line that emerges along with evidence of Flew’s impairment: How can you tell an Oxford philosophers is senile? He announces there is a god.

But beyond this partial explanation lies another. Bear with me while I try to lay it out.

Evangelism requires certitude. It simply doesn’t work to send out missionaries who say, “My best guess is that my God is real.” Or “The evidence is mixed, but some parts of the Bible seem divinely inspired.” Fortunately, the Evangelical narrative is beautifully adapted to provide the needed certitude.

The powerful emotions and personal transformation that can sometimes accompany conversion, worship and prayer in any religion get interpreted as unique to Christianity. They are evidence of God’s love, personal salvation, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s mind. Doubt, in Evangelicalism, is evidence of weak faith or even temptation by Satan, the Father of Lies. In the most sophisticated Evangelicals, it is something to be admired—and overcome. “Tolerance” means being fuzzy headed about good and evil. It means moral relativism or moral indifference of the worst kind. Developing attachments to unbelievers, except to convert them, is seen as dangerous—being unequally yoked. Contradictions within the faith are relabeled as divine mysteries that make belief all the more wondrous.

Maintaining appropriate Evangelical certitude, then, requires that one cultivate certain habits of the mind—an aversion to some kinds of inquiry, a will and ability to close mental doors, a faith in faith itself, a subsuming of curiosity to the higher cause, a wariness of seeing the world through the eyes of another, a funky sort of disconnect between compassion (good) and empathy (dangerous).

If we consider these habits of the mind in combination with the atonement-salvation-damnation doctrines mentioned earlier, we get a sense of how Varghese and Hostetler could fall into the trap they did. Combine a theology of desperate urgency and a mindset that actively disables the limited human ability to protect ourselves against self-deception, and the best among us are vulnerable. The weakness is not in the men but in man. It lies in our vulnerability to specific kinds of dogmas and in the ways that the Evangelical complex (and others) have developed immunity against self-correction.

Varghese and Hostetler sought to advance human wellbeing by advancing Evangelical Christianity and they instead did harm to both. Why? Because it is not enough to be well intentioned, we must also be right. What I mean by right is anchored to the real world contingencies that govern human well-being and the well-being of the world around us. The only protection any of us has against doing harm in the service of good is a set of mental habits that remind us that we may be mistaken and force us to ask those questions that can show us wrong.

These habits require that we cultivate a child’s delight not in mystery but in discovery and that we maintain an adult’s grudging appreciation for correction. The scientific method, which has been called “what we know about how not to fool ourselves” seeks to systematize these habits of mind. Our great wisdom traditions including Christianity seek to elevate them under the name of humility. Among other things, humility demands this: When looking at the shameful plight of someone like Varghese or Hostetler, I seek to understand the forces that bind them and to remember that there, but for grace, go I.

Valerie Tarico, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth. Her essays are available at www.spaces.live.com/awaypoint. This article is reprinted from www.debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com.

15 comments:

jfraysse said...

“Why would men who earnestly care about god concepts and goodness engage in the shameful behavior of manipulating and then speaking on behalf of an elder with diminished capacity?”

The “Force” (ie: religion) can have a strong effect on the weak minded!

Obi-Wan Kenobi 1977

Christians Are Chicken Shit said...

Hey Anonymous,
Angel's food cake is dry, plain, and it has no uniqueness about it just like your "Bible God" named Jesus.

I always thought Devil's food cake tasted better.

Thanks for showing the true color of most christians. At least you didn't hide your hypocrisy on here.

Of course you posted under the common chicken shit "Anonymous" name like most other fundies do.

Bob said...

Valerie,

I read your piece before there were any OT responses. Sorry to not comment until later.

I want to thank you for sharing your well written and interesting essay/article.

Regards, Bob G

Anonymous said...

Ha Ha. Hurl your impotent rage against God and us. Go Ahead freaks. Make our day.

Bob said...

Dear Anonymous, You said "Ha Ha. Hurl your impotent rage against God and us ..."

I experience no sense of rage against you or your imaginary friend.

Pity, yes.

From an ex-Xian who grew up.

Bob G.

Mandy said...

Anonymous said...
"Ha Ha. Hurl your impotent rage against God and us. Go Ahead freaks. Make our day"

I already did make your day.

I got away from nuts like you.

Thanks for displaying your immature, "Juvenile" behavior on this site.

How old are you btw? Seven?

boomSLANG said...

ha ha

Yoo hoo?.... Empty Trumpeting Can? Look, you made your point---that is, that you evidently don't have one. Now, can you reave us arone? Thanks, dear.

jfraysse said...

Hey Boom: Check it out. What you wrote went right over Trumpeter’s head! He didn’t get that you were mocking him! This guy/gal was actually funny at first but he’s a bit annoying now. I think we are dealing with an adolescent that is poorly versed in English with (obviously) not enough to do. Wait ‘til his Mommy and Daddy find out that he/she has been mixing it up with a bunch of reprobate apostates on the internet – There will be Hell to pay then!

BTW, Valerie: Sorry for descending to Trumpeter’s level, but I really did enjoy this thought provoking piece. I appreciate your time and willingness to share with us!

Can't Spell Christ Without Shit said...

Trumpeter Said:
you ex-c's are so fake heros that you just delete my posts because you can not win with your cheap reason and logic which you are so proud of.

No, your posts are so stupid that they aren't even worth reading. As far as your posts are concerned Trumpeter, they have "No Logic" to them.

Trumpeter Said:
that's not morally right that you erase challeging posts only to pretend winning within your own group and shout out with your ugly voices that we ex-c's are the only smart people, you believers are stupid, and there is no God

Trumpeter, you don't seem to be true to anything on here. You are like a pesty little kid that just wants to bug the shit out of someone.

You don't only pester us, you also seem to enjoy pestering christians like Dan Marvin also.

Are you really that bored with your life Trumpeter? I noticed that you are a "Woman Hater" also. I bet you're still a virgin.

That's probably why you hate women.

boomSLANG said...

jfraysse: Hey Boom: Check it out. What you wrote went right over Trumpeter’s head!

Oh, I had a feeling it would. Really, the joke was for the rest of class to get a giggle.

jfraysse: He didn’t get that you were mocking him!

Apparently not.

BTW, if I remember correctly, I think "he" is a rady, not a man.

Later.

.:webmaster:. said...

Trumpeter,

You are a pathetically immature and annoying troll. From now on every single one of your posts will be deleted.

To everyone: Please don't feed the troll.

Thanks.

Ricky said...

All I have to say is that, sadly, it looks like Anthony Flew over the cuckoo's nest.

Telmi said...

Valerie,

Another top-rate expose.

Enjoyed reading it.

rgds

Anonymous said...

Valerie,

Terrific article! Very well written!

Thanks.

Brian Worley said...

Valerie,

I have a lot of respect for you and enjoyed this article. Well done!

Humor: Maybe these two guys have been reincarnated....my crystal ball says that they were present at Voltaire's deathbed.