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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!

Most of us think we are better than most of us. As a consequence, we are sometimes tempted to advertise our moral superiority through public expression. This is known as “moral grandstanding”. There’s nothing wrong with issuing public moral pronouncements; it’s not merely a right, but sometimes a duty. The issue here is motive. It is grandstanding when the main motive is to flaunt our virtue. (With human behavior, usually more than one motive is in play).

One of the many drawbacks of moral grandstanding is that it can lead to “ramping up.” If a conversation partner makes a moral statement that is equally virtuous to our own position, pride may push us to a more extreme position in order to maintain our own moral superiority. Ramping up is one of many prideful behaviors that contribute to extreme polarization on issues.

Both moral grandstanding and ramping up are pervasive in social and political spheres. It is often referred to as "virtue signalling" but that expression is a misnomer with a life of its own. This is not an invitation to point fingers. When we accuse specific people of moral grandstanding, we cross a line. We can't know the sincerity of their motive. It's like accusing a person of lying, when for all we know they may actually believe what they're saying. In the broader social context though, we can identify it, criticize it, ignore it, but especially avoid doing it.

Naturally, being the spiritual people we are, none of us would stoop to moral grandstanding, would we? Christians wouldn’t try to outdo one another in their spirituality, would they?

The “Dilbert” comic strip by Scott Adams features an intermittent character named “Topper”. Topper has a single distinguishing trait: whenever any other character makes a statement in his presence, he must counter with a competing claim that is more impressive. It’s always something outrageous, or it wouldn’t be funny. But the point of satire is to poke fun at things real people do. Have you ever played Christian Topper? It goes like this:

Sam: How was your trip?

Loretta: What a blessing! We were in Haiti for two weeks.

Topper: I spent 37 years in Borneo living off grass and beetles!

Loretta: We did get a stomach bug. I lost 3 pounds.

Topper: I survived malaria, dengue fever, Zika, and Ebola!

Loretta: But we prayed for a quick recovery and were soon back on our feet.

Topper: I was eaten by cannibals and prayed my way back to life!

Or closer to home:

Bob: We watched “Harry Potter” last night and had a good conversation with our kids this morning about the themes of courage and sacrifice.

Leah: We won’t let our kids watch “Harry Potter”. Didn’t you know that because of those stories millions of Christian kids turned to Satanism?

Topper: I’ve never watched a movie my entire life! In fact, I walk everywhere with my eyes shut so I can’t even see an advertisement!

Now, most Christians who eschewed the Harry Potter franchise probably were quite sincere in their belief that it was harmful (even if a disturbing number fell for the hoax about witchcraft and Satanism, mistaking parody for fact). Making a public display over it is more problematic. Moral grandstanding comes so naturally to us, it can be unconscious and quite unintentional.

Christians play this game even with the Bible. At one extreme some compete to see how simplistically they can interpret it without hitting 10 on the nuttiness scale. (Snakes, anyone?) At the other extreme they compete to see how much of the Bible they can jettison and still pretend to be Christian. It’s hard to grandstand from inside the mainstream where no one notices or pays much attention to you. Unfortunately, if enough people jump in, the ramping up effect can either move the mainstream, split it, or (usually) both.

Jesus knew moral grandstanding when he saw it, and warned his disciples:

"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly." (Matthew 6:1-4, NKJV)

We play Christian Topper with an endless list of theological and moral issues, but it’s a poor Christian witness. Better we follow the admonition of our Lord and let our character speak - softly:

"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16 NKJV).

Excerpted from the upcoming book "Superbia" by Steven Willing, MD