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Courage, Sacrifice, and Corona-spiracies

April 17, 2020 | health, pride | No Comments

Are we even talking about the same religion here?

As COVID deaths were skyrocketing in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, overwhelming local hospitals, Samaritan’s Purse (SP) – the Christian relief ministry headed by Franklin Graham – airlifted an emergency field hospital to Cremona, Italy. Staffed with both SP workers and emergency medical volunteers, the 14-tent 68-patient field hospital arrived on March 17 and began taking patients by March 20. It has been in continuous operation since.

America was to be next. On April 1 in New York’s Central Park, Samaritan’s Purse erected and ran an emergency field hospital to care for overflow patients from Mt. Sinai hospital. Volunteer physicians, nurses, and ancillary personnel stepped forward, risking their lives to care for victims of a rampant epidemic. By April 17, SP had admitted and cared for more than 130 patients. Courage in the face of danger is just another day’s work for SP, who heroically helped shepherd Liberia through the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak.

Meanwhile, an obscure independent Louisiana pastor defiantly held Easter Sunday services attended – he claimed – by 1,220 churchgoers (though the true number was probably much lower) putting hundreds of lives at risk of illness and death.

In a more tragic case, blues musician and itinerant preacher Landon Spradlin died from COVID only weeks after dismissing it as “mass hysteria” and driving to New Orleans to preach the gospel during Mardi Gras. He fell gravely ill on the drive back home to Virginia. How could someone be so tragically wrong? The usual simplistic answers don’t really address the core issue. It wasn’t “science denial” – even excellent scientists can be fatally mistaken. It wasn’t his politics – when it comes to respecting the nationwide social distancing guidelines, there is scarcely any difference between Democrats and Republicans. It wasn’t the fault of Donald Trump, as one left-lurching acquaintance of Spradlin’s uncharitably alleged. Nor was it misinformation from the mainstream news media, although it could have been. In the runup to America’s COVID pandemic, many governments and institutions dropped the ball.

Intellectual pride and its consequences

The sad story of Leonard Spradlin points to a naïve yet ultimately fatal certainty: not in God, not in Scripture, neither in religious authorities nor in any public institution, but in himself. In that regard, he is us. The universal affliction of pride inclines everyone of us toward overconfidence in our own opinions. But no matter how sincerely and fervently we nurture a belief, our beliefs do not bind God. God’s opinions are not contingent upon our own. Just because we think it, doesn’t make it true.

Crises such as this can bring out both the best and worst in human behavior. Recent headlines have proclaimed:

We’ve previously seen how human credulity cuts across culture, ideology, intelligence, and education. Most of these “coronaspiracies” are completely secular in nature. The professing Christians highlighted here are extreme outliers even within conservative and Evangelical circles, but they crave the attention. Many within the media are more than happy to provide that attention. It confirms their own biases and helps to foster the false narrative that most Christians are anti-scientific bigots.

Spradlin hurt only himself and those he loved. Many secular actors have descended into criminality. In recent weeks, over fifty cell phone towers have been vandalized across the United Kingdom by fanatics consumed with the bizarre belief that 5G towers are causing COVID. I have read some of the circulating polemics on this issue, which I will not dignify by linking here. The clever admixture of fact with fable can seem quite persuasive to someone with no particular scientific expertise. They press the hearer with a barrage of claims in rapid succession, a tactic that has been dubbed the “Gish gallop” after the debating strategies of the late young-earth proponent Duane Gish. Typically, all of the claims are either false sources or misrepresentation of legitimate sources, but the time and research required to thoroughly refute each one can be truly daunting. They might even throw in a few true claims to enhance the illusion of plausibility. An average person could never afford the time or effort to fact-check the sources, and usually lacks the skill to do it.

Christians are neither more nor less vulnerable to such manipulation, though probably more inclined to some fringe beliefs while less inclined toward others. A disturbing number of Christians have fallen for anti-vaccination myths, risking not only their lives but the lives of innocent children. Almost always this is wedded to the conceit that there is some great conspiracy of government, physicians, and “Big Pharma” to suppress evidence and thrust an allegedly dangerous product upon an unsuspecting populace. Anti-vaxxers seem impervious to the fact that leading authorities such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Medical and Dental Associations have taken great care to defend vaccinations and debunk false claims. Anti-vaccination and other conspiracy myths utilize the same persuasive appeal of ancient gnosticism – a chance to elevate one’s own self-importance through the possession of “special” knowledge. Recently on National Review, Andrew Stuttaford (an atheist) expressed it perfectly:

The draw of a conspiracy theory to its followers is reinforced by the perception it gives them that they are in the know. They reckon that they have discovered what the “sheeple” could not, endowing them with a sense of superiority that is as enjoyable as it is undeserved, a fact that hucksters of all stripes have turned to their financial, political, or other advantage over the generations: Sign up with me and I’ll tell you what’s really going on.

“Corona conspiracies”, April 13, 2020

Suspicion of the media and government can be totally rational if a consistent standard of skepticism is applied across the board. One should not believe everything that is reported, simply because it is reported. But it is a much greater error to abandon all skepticism toward less reputable, even more ideologically partisan sources.

Bringing out the best

Times such as this call for courage, hope, selflessness, and humility.

The courageous doctors, nurses, and technicians of Samaritan’s purse reflect the image of Christ, who willingly set aside heaven’s glory to fully know and experience the most profound suffering and agony.

Through trust in God’s saving grace and final sovereignty, we can enjoy a confident hope that this, too, shall pass and that glory awaits on the other side of death’s door.

We demonstrate our selflessness by accepting burdensome restrictions, by respecting social distancing, by wearing masks (if they help), by reaching out to those in greater need than ourselves, and patiently enduring the economic hardship in order that many more lives may be spared.

Lastly, and most importantly, let’s stay humble. Accept how much we don’t know, then act accordingly. Only health experts are experts in health. Humility may save your life.


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In our next installment: “Pandemic: Endgame”

Most of us think we’re smarter than most of us! In a recent large survey, 65% of Americans rated themselves more intelligent than average.[1] [Sounds of unrestrained laughter, barking, and howling – the Spaniel and pals]. Believing we’re very smart, we assume we’re usually right. But is that confidence warranted?

“Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Proverbs 26:12

In the course of my medical career, I have known brilliant physicians of many different faiths. Among the most committed adherents, it is safe to say that all were quite sure regarding the truth of their particular faith. But each tradition contradicts all others in one or more matters. They could all be wrong in part or in whole; they cannot all be right. Logically, we must conclude that not only is it possible to be brilliant, certain, and wrong, but that it is common.

In the previous post, we looked at several nonrational factors that can lead to false beliefs: heuristics and biases, emotions, and social influences. We noted that education and intelligence are unreliable predictors of rational thinking.

Yet false beliefs comprise but one side of the coin. The other side, of equal or even greater importance, is the level of certainty attached to those beliefs. Confidence is our estimate of the probability that we are correct. It is a belief concerning our belief—metacognition, in psychological parlance.

The Illusion of Certainty

Ideally, our confidence should be roughly proportional to the mathematical probability that we are correct. In other words, if we are 90% certain, we should be right 90% of the time. But studies repeatedly show that our degree of certainty consistently exceeds our accuracy. For example, people who are “99% sure” are wrong 50% of the time. This disparity both defines and demonstrates the phenomenon of overconfidence. Our unwarranted certainty could be blamed on misplaced trust; that is, by placing too much credence in an unreliable source. However, since we tend to favor sources we already agree with (confirmation bias), excess certainty usually reflects an excessive faith in ourselves (pride).

In his 2009 tome On Being Certain, neuroscientist Robert Burton argued that certainty is not a state of reason but of feeling, influenced by unconscious physiologic processes.[2] Certainty is mostly illusion, Burton argues, and there is considerable evidence supporting this hypothesis.

Overconfidence has been demonstrated and measured in many domains besides intelligence: driving ability, economic forecasting, and medicine, for example. In almost every domain studied to date, significant majorities express a confidence in their abilities far beyond what is warranted, or even mathematically possible. [“Like my distant cousin who somehow still thinks he can catch a car” – the Spaniel].

Sometimes, the least competent people are the most confident, whereas the most skilled and knowledgeable people slightly underestimate their ability. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Dunning-Kruger” effect, after the original researchers whose landmark paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” not only opened a new avenue of research but has prompted many a smile from those who sensed its ring of truth.[3]

The Intelligence Trap

Highly intelligent people constitute another group with an elevated risk of overconfidence. Intelligent people know they are intelligent, making them less likely to doubt themselves, respect other opinions, or change their minds. They are also every bit as attuned, if not more so, to social influences that motivate belief.[4]

Highly intelligent people can and do believe crazy things. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the ruthlessly logical Sherlock Holmes, was a devout believer in spiritualism and fairies. [“I once knew a Border Collie who claimed he’d been abducted by penguins” – the Spaniel]. Albert Einstein expressed a naïve and unshakeable optimism concerning Lenin, Stalin, and the Soviet Union:

I honor Lenin as a man who completely sacrificed himself and devoted all his energy to the realization of social justice. I do not consider his methods practical, but one thing is certain: men of his type are the guardians and restorers of humanity.[5]

In The Intelligence Trap, science writer David Robson informs us that:

  • College graduates are more likely than nongraduates to believe in ESP and psychic healing
  • People with IQ’s over 140 are more likely to max out on their credit
  • High IQ individuals consume more alcohol and are more likely to smoke or take illegal drugs[6]

While the popular perception is that intelligent people are naturally skeptical, in fact all humans are believing machines. We drift with the cultural tides, embracing popular ideas on the flimsiest of evidence, then clutch those beliefs tenaciously to protect our egos, strut our virtue, justify our actions, and advertise loyalty to our in-group. This view may seem cynical, but it is well-validated.

There are many strategies for overcoming the “intelligence trap.” They include cognitive reflection, actively open-minded thinking, curiosity, emotional awareness and regulation, having a growth mindset, distrusting the herd, and consistent skepticism. However one habit of mind undergirds all others: an attitude of intellectual humility.

Knowing Our Limits

Intellectual humility could be defined as merely having a realistic view of our mental processing; viz., that our knowledge is inevitably limited, our thinking is unavoidably biased, and that even the smartest among us are prone to error.[7]

In recent decades, psychology has embraced a model of personality based on the “big five”: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The more recent version adds a sixth measure: HH, for honesty-humility. Researchers have demonstrated that HH shows a consistent negative correlation with all three elements of the “dark triad”: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism.[8] [“We just call that ‘being a cat’” – the Spaniel]. On the other hand, HH correlates positively with healthier traits such as cooperation and self-control.

In a 2018 paper from UC Davis, researchers showed that intellectual humility is associated with openness during disagreement, and that promoting a growth mindset served to enhance intellectual humility.[9] Intellectual humility also helps to reduce polarization and conflict.[10] In one study, it was even superior to general intelligence in predicting academic achievement.[11]

Research Affirms Scripture

According to most theologians in the Judeo-Christian tradition, pride is the deadliest sin. Humility is its opposite. It may be tempting to assume this peril concerns only the skeptic, but it’s not just about “them.” It’s about all of us. And the greater the visibility or the higher one’s position in Christian circles, the greater the problem is likely to be.

“Do not be wise in your own conceits.”

romans 12:16, KJV

Scripture repeatedly warns against unwarranted confidence in our own wisdom. Decades of research in cognitive science shows this to be a common human problem that only worsens with intelligence. The antidote begins with intellectual humility, an ancient virtue whose wisdom has been validated by the latest empirical data.

Article also posted (without canine commentary) at Reasons to Believe on August 9, 2018

Endnotes

[1]. Patrick R. Heck, Daniel J. Simons, and Christopher F. Chabris, “65% of Americans Believe They Are above Average in Intelligence: Results of Two Nationally Representative Surveys,” PLoS ONE 13, no. 7 (July 3, 2018): e0200103, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0200103.

2. Robert Burton, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

3. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 6 (January 2000): 1121–34, doi:10.1037//0022-3514.77.6.1121.

4. Dan M. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” Judgment and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (July 2013): 407–24.

5. Lewis Samuel Feuer, Einstein and the Generations of Science 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1989), 25. [JA10] [SW11] 

6. David Robson, The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

7. Peter C. Hill et al., “A Few Good Measures: Colonel Jessup and Humility,” in Everett L. Worthington Jr., Don E. Davis, and Joshua N. Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research, and Implications (New York: Routledge, 2017).

8. Joseph Leman et al., “Personality Predictors and Correlates of Humility,” in Worthington, Davis, and Hook, eds., Handbook of Humility.

9. Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann, “Intellectual Humility and Openness to the Opposing View,” Self and Identity 17, issue 2 (August 9, 2017): 139–62, doi:10.1080/15298868.2017.1361861.

10. Porter and Schumann, “Intellectual Humility.”

11. Bradley P. Owens, Michael D. Johnson, and Terence R. Mitchell, “Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership,” Organization Science 24, no. 5 (February 12, 2013): 1517–38, doi:10.1287/orsc.1120.0795.



In this podcast recorded at Reasons to Believe in May 2019, Philosopher-Theologian Ken Samples and I discuss the nature of belief, pride, humility, and the life of the mind.

Topics:
-My personal journey from early atheism to Christian faith
Are people rational?
The role of emotions in belief formation
Intellectual pride and humility
The Intelligence Trap” by David Robson
The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins
Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII
Tenwek Hospital
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.” Matthew Paris, The Sunday Times, December 27, 2008
-Responding to skeptics

Moral Hazards of the Creation Debate

July 17, 2019 | pride | No Comments

Many Christians are deeply engaged in the ongoing dispute over the interpretation of Genesis 1 and its concordance with scientific progress of the last 150 years. Participants run the gamut from geologists, astrophysicists, theologians, and scholars of ancient Hebrew to gym coaches and English majors. Arguments for and against various positions simmer endlessly – usually civil, sometimes not. For a moment, let’s set aside the merits of the various positions. What about the partisan in this affair? What moral hazards confront him or her? How one approaches this matter could be of greater moral significance than which position one embraces.

Let’s stipulate the obvious. We are commanded to love one another. Intentional deceit or willful misrepresentation of the other’s position is lying, and always wrong. But suppose we faithfully honor those principles. Might we still be morally culpable? Possibly. Let’s consider four moral pitfalls of partisanship. In fact, these principles apply to any hot topic: denominational divisions, eschatology, even [especially] politics. So they are well worth examining.

Pride

We cannot choose not to be wrong. We can choose not to be arrogant.

Pride is thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. (Romans 12:3) It does not merely spill into the intellectual realm; it pervades the intellectual realm. Fields like geology, astrophysics, and ancient Hebrew are rarefied complex domains in which few can legitimately speak with authority. The number who profess expertise vastly exceeds the number of actual experts (the Dunning-Kruger effect). Outside our own field, we all do the only thing we can – we choose which experts to believe. But then, in whom is our faith? The expert? Or the one who picks the expert?

One thing worse than being wrong is being both wrong and supremely certain. No one can be right 100% of the time. For a host of reasons, it is humanly impossible. We cannot choose not to be wrong. We can choose not to be arrogant.

The solution to pride is intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is nothing more profound than accepting the obvious: our knowledge is limited, we are all biased, and we are all capable of being wrong about almost anything.

Grandstanding

Moral grandstanding is a form of self-promotion through which we try to assert our “superior” virtue to impress others. (“Who cares what other dogs think?” – the Spaniel) The imagined virtue may be our love of truth, faithfulness to Scripture, integrity, or courage. It can lead to the phenomenon of “ramping up”, where we try to outdo one another in our devotion and commitment. This was a defining trait of the Pharisees in Jesus’s day, and is explicitly sinful. (Matthew 6:1-4) In the Christian community, grandstanding is a far greater danger among passionate followers than among the apathetic and disengaged. When the disciples engaged in it, they were rebuked by Jesus (Matthew 26:6-13).

Manipulation

Pride creates in us a desire to rule over others, along with the conceit that we can and should. External force is an obvious example, but emotional manipulation violates the same principle and is far more common. We may feel our position is so obviously right that our means are justified. Well, so does the other side. Suppression of dissent, intimidation, shaming, or simply ignoring the other side are various forms of controlling behavior that erupt from our reservoir of pride. Equally pernicious is the practice of advertising one’s position as the more virtuous, encouraging yet others to grandstand.

How do you respond to others with an opposing viewpoint? Do you inquire why they believe the way they do? Do you seek to understand their strongest arguments? Are you listening for the purpose of understanding, or are you mentally planning your counterattack? Do you address their argument or do you impugn their character? If you are a church leader, do you foster an environment where people are free to express disagreement, or where they are intimidated into silence? Do you take it for granted that everyone present shares your opinion (false consensus effect)? False consensus plus enforced silence are mutually reinforcing. The appearance of agreement is merely an illusion when opposing voices are silenced, but leads to greater certainty among those in power.

Judgmentalism

Some exceptionally intelligent individuals embrace a young-earth position. Many devout believers with unimpeachable Biblical credentials do not.

Creationists of various flavors are quick to judge secular evolutionists. Theistic evolutionists and old-earth creationists may perceive young-earth creationists as ignorant, naive, or foolish, while the latter may view the former as sell-outs, heretics, or traitors. Both may judge the other as obstinate, though the distinction between stubbornness and conviction depends largely on one’s point of view.  Having been on both sides, I guess that makes me all of the above. However, I really don’t feel like a stubborn, ignorant, foolish heretic. In fact, I rather resent the accusation. Some exceptionally intelligent individuals embrace a young-earth position. Many devout believers with unimpeachable Biblical credentials do not.

We could equally apply this in the political realm. Republicans and Democrats are not stupid and [most] are not evil. (“Well, actually Bassetts really are pretty stupid.” – the Spaniel) There’s actually good evidence that too much intelligence leads to polarization and inability to compromise.

In conclusion

Regardless of your position, it would be wise to take a moment and reflect on your own stake in the subject. Are you able to admit you could be wrong? (Intellectual humility). Do you advertise your position to impress your peers? (Moral grandstanding). Do you pressure others into agreement or silence? (Manipulation). Do you struggle to respect those with whom you disagree? Do you impugn their motives? (Judgmentalism)

Have you witnessed any of these behaviors? Let us know in the comment section below!

Photo by Bill Davenport from FreeImages

“Pride is the first sin that ever entered into the universe, and it’s the last that is rooted out. It is God’s most stubborn enemy.” – Jonathan Edwards

Traditionally, Christians have been of the persuasion that sins are bad, and some sins are worse than others. What do you think is the worst sin? Murder? Rape? Idolatry? Blasphemy?

For most of church history, there was little disagreement in the answer. From Augustine in the fourth century, to Edwards in the 18th century, to Dorothy Sayers in the 20th century, it was a one word answer: pride.

The commencement of all sin.[1]

The root of all heresy.[2]

The first sin.[3]

The greatest sin.[4]

The head and origin of all sin.[5]

On what grounds did they reach this conclusion? Did they just make it up? Did they value self-abasement? The answer lies in Scripture:

The fear of the Lord is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way And the perverse mouth I hate.[6]

Everyone proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; Though they join forces, none will go unpunished.[7]

Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.[8]

So what’s pride? How can we not do it if we don’t know what “it” is? The ancients took care of that for us as well:

“The desire for inordinate exaltation” – Augustine

“Inordinate desire of one’s own excellence” – Aquinas

“The excessive love of one’s own excellence” – Catholic Encyclopedia

“Pride is nothing else (as the learned say) but love of thy own excellency, that is, of thy own worship.” – Walter Hilton

But we can make this even simpler: pride is thinking too highly of ourselves. And for those passionate in the service of Christ, it is their greatest weakness. As Edwards wrote:

The first and worst cause of error that prevails in our day is spiritual pride. This is the main door by which the devil comes into the hearts of those who are zealous for the advancement of Christ. …. Pride is much more difficult to discern than any other corruption because, by nature, pride is a person having too high a thought of himself. Is it any surprise, then, that a person who has too high a thought of himself is unaware of it? He thinks the opinion he has of himself has just grounds and therefore is not too high.[9]

To visualize the concept, imagine a scale. Our self-perception should be in general balance with who we really are. Consider traits such as intelligence, skill, expertise, virtue, or any other matter of importance. When our self-perception in any area exceeds reality, that is pride. If the scale is heavily tipped on the reality side, other factors may be in play: exaggerated or false humility, lack of confidence, or poor self-image. In practice, a perfect balance may be unattainable. If we must err, let us err on the side of modesty.

https://i1.wp.com/swilling.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/pride-scale.jpg?w=900

The first casualty of pride is self-awareness, so we don’t know ourselves well enough to recognize it. Often – perhaps most of the time – we are unaware of its presence. Tim Keller likened it to carbon monoxide: it kills you without your knowing it.

Pride aimed inward is overconfidence, an unrealistically high opinion of oneself. It causes us to be overconfident of our abilities, our beliefs, our power, and our moral standing before God and each other. Pride directed outward is self-exaltation. It drives us relentlessly to compare ourselves to others, to get and have more than others, to take credit for what is good, and to blame others when we fail. Ultimately, it is a passion to grasp for ourselves the place reserved for God Almighty.

After three thousand years in the realms of theology and philosophy, this truth has re-emerged in the realm of science. For example, the Book of Proverbs (Solomon, ca. 1000 BC) stated that by nature we are self-justifying and feel morally superior:

    Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
But the Lord weighs the hearts.[10]

In January 2017, Scientific American reported: “Most people consider themselves to be morally superior.”[11] The article noted that “decades of research confirm that we are all above average—at least in our own minds…. above all else we believe that we are more just, more trustworthy, more moral than others.” In other words, according to the latest research, Solomon nailed it.

We don’t just think we’re more virtuous. We think we’re smarter. And better. And very, very important.

But we’ve only scratched the surface. Stay tuned for future installments. Subscribe to this blog to be notified of future posts, and share it with others!

Key points:

  • God hates pride
  • Sinful pride is having too high an opinion of oneself
  • Everyone is proud in some aspect of life

  1. St. Augustine: https://biblehub.com/library/augustine/anti-pelagian_writings/chapter_33_xxix_not_every_sin.htm
  2. Hilton, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hilton/ladder.ii_1.i.iii.v.ii.html
  3. Aquinas, https://biblehub.com/library/aquinas/summa_theologica/whether_pride_is_the_first.htm
  4. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3162.htm
  5. Dorothy Sayers. The other six deadly sins. 1941/
  6. Proverbs 8:13
  7. Proverbs 16:5
  8. Proverbs 26:12
  9. Thoughts on the revival of religion in New England, Part IV Section I: Spiritual Pride. Jonathan Edwards, 1740
  10. Proverbs 21:2 ( NKJV )
  11. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/most-people-consider-themselves-to-be-morally-superior/