Hierarchies of Absurdity
I read an article, today, by Brian Doyle at The American Scholar which describes how his view of the peculiarities of Mormonism led him to reflect on those tenets of his own belief that others might find crazy. I had a very similar experience. One summer, some years back, I was having a discussion with a friend about the ridiculous assertions made in Scientology. At the time, I was still a Christian– and a Young Earth Creationist, at that. While I was opining about the absurdity of Xenu killing the citizens of his galactic empire using hydrogen bombs and volcanoes, one of my friends asked me, “Is it really that much weirder than claiming that Yahweh drowned the whole planet, then repopulated it by the inhabitants of a single boat?”
I was taken aback, for a moment. I realized, then, that the strange and miraculous stories embedded in my own faith sounded just as ludicrous to an unbeliever as Scientology had sounded to me. I fumbled together a reply, saying the authors of the Biblical text were more reliable than a crooked science fiction writer, but my friend once again befuddled me with his response: “Why?”
It was my search for the answer to that question which led me to lose my faith in Christianity.
Since then, I have come to notice some very interesting things about the manner in which the faithful look at other people’s beliefs. I started to notice that even people who held to incredulous tenets– including the person I once was– would often chide other faiths as being preposterous. I noticed something of a Hierarchy of Absurdity, where certain things were considered ridiculous even by the ridiculous. That single Hierarchy soon found company with others, entailing a number of different subjects and claims.
For example, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a Hierarchy of Religious Tenet Absurdity. Scientology is widely criticized by theists, in general, for its wacky stories and its science fiction underpinnings. But, among theists, Neopagans and Norse Heathens are looked at with curiosity by the more ancient, mainstream religions, who laugh at the incredulity of believing in religions so young with such weird tenets. Of course, the mainstream monotheistic religions then cast askance views at Hinduism, which seems to propose a preposterous multitude of gods with strange attributes. The monotheistic Jews and Muslims find the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be ludicrous, as well, since it appears to them that the Christians are trying to pretend their tritheistic faith is actually monotheistic. Et cetera, et cetera.
Another example can be found in the Hierarchy of Cosmological Absurdity. Young Earth Creationists assert that the whole universe is less than 10,000 years old, and that Creation occurred exactly as described in Genesis 1 & 2. Old Earth Creationists claim that YEC is preposterous– there’s ample evidence that the universe is billions of years old– and that Creation occurred as described in Genesis 1 & 2, but the “days” were not literal 24-hour days. The Intelligent Design proponents say that the OEC crowd is absurd– physics and biology show that Creation occurred very differently than Genesis describes– but there remain things which science cannot explain about humanity, showing that Mankind was specially created by God. Finally, Theistic Evolutionists decry the science-denial of the ID proponents, saying that there is more than enough evidence to show that the human species shares a common biological ancestry with every other living thing, and that Genesis conveys spiritual truths about Creation, but not historical facts about cosmology. Many Naturalists consider the whole lot of these to be absurd for claiming a God must be the reason for apparent fine-tuning in the universe, and instead appeal to the idea of an infinite Multiverse to account for such observations. Et cetera, et cetera.
My personal favorite has to be the Hierarchy of Biblical Interpretation Absurdity. The King James Only crowd asserts that the English translation of the Bible from 1611 is the perfect Word of God, and that anything else is the work of the Devil. Such people are seen as wackos even by Biblical Literalists, who realize that the Bible was originally written in other languages, while holding to the idea that every word written therein is the inspired, inerrant, completely-historically-factual Word of God. These people are chastised by more liberal readers of the Bible, who know that many of the stories recounted must be read metaphorically, but who still consider the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant Word of God. Other Christians think such a view is silly, and that it is fairly obvious that the texts of the Bible are very human works, but that those works yet convey great spiritual truths. Still other readers think this view is untenable, and view the Bible only as a compilation of historical literature.
Ironically, the final event which caused me to abandon my faith in Christianity was my attempt to defend “true” Christian beliefs against absurdities which were being claimed by another Christian. In attempting to prove that these “unorthodox” beliefs were absurd, I realized that my own beliefs were absurd. Since then, it has been my goal to purge such absurdity from my beliefs. I no longer cling dogmatically to almost any claims. The beliefs I now maintain are founded upon evidence and reasoning, but they are not immutable. If further evidence shows that my current beliefs are untenable, I will change them. I used to start my reasoning with a Conclusion, then I tried to fit the evidence into that Conclusion. Now, I try to start my reasoning with the evidence, then I attempt to make my Conclusion fit that data.