Parallel Universe Watch (the Evangelical One)

In the New York Times recently, evangelical Karl Giberson makes the following diagnosis on his own community, in response to advancing secularism:

[M]any evangelicals [have] created what amounts to a “parallel culture,” nurtured by church, Sunday school, summer camps and colleges, as well as publishing houses, broadcasting networks, music festivals and counseling groups.

Giberson writes this as if it’s something new, but it’s actually an age-old tactic for fixing belief in people. Every ideologically driven movement more or less does such things. Charles Sanders Peirce, in 1877, called fixing belief through habit and insularity “the method of tenacity”, and gave the following example of it:

If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry [as opposed to truth], and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end by taking any answer to a question, which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it? This simple and direct method is really pursued by many men. I remember once being entreated not to read a certain newspaper lest it might change my opinion upon free trade. ‘Lest I might be entrapped by its fallacies and misstatements,’ was the form of expression. ‘You are not,’ my friend said, ‘a special student of political economy. You might, therefore, easily be deceived by fallacious arguments upon the subject. You might, then, if you read this paper, be led to believe in protection. But you admit that free trade is the true doctrine; and you do not wish to believe what is not true.’

The alternative to this has always been some form of the scientific method for getting at the truth of matters; some attempt at bringing subjectivity down and objectivity up. Most people don’t seek the truth for truth’s sake, but for comfort’s sake; for the reduction of anxiety and an increase of hope (however tenuously posited). They want an optimistic and certain conclusion—or, at least, an argument that makes thoughts that are pleasing to them seem probable—or they want no argument at all.

Therefore, the great question is not how to get evangelicals to open up to the outside world, but to get everyone to do so, for Peirce’s “method of tenacity” is very nearly universal on the matters most important to people; the matters where desires are in play (which is everywhere).

What, for example, would a culture (or a whole religion!) look like if it was seriously committed to getting at the truth of matters (the whole truth and nothing but the truth)?

And why hasn’t that religion ever really got going?

In a way, it has. Getting at the truth of matters is what drives the scientific community at its best, and it’s what universities in general at least aspire to. Hazel Barnes once wrote a little book titled The University as the New Church, and the title ironically suggests the right (subversive) idea: higher education should be a substitute for the method of tenacity; humanity’s way of moderating our impulses to thoughtless habits, narrowness, authority. University culture is the Trojan Horse that rigid and insular ideologies are on the lookout for most assiduously. Universities, ideally, are ships of calm and practiced rationality in the midst of humanity’s emotion driven historical seas. Their north star is (or ought to be) critical thinking.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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