The sum of our hopes and fears
“Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.”
The above quote is by Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who died about 30 years ago. He is revered among intellectual theologians and Popes alike. I love this Barthian quote. In fact, I find it self evident and quite enlightening.
I have a number of conspicuously un-read books on my shelf – most of which are there to make me look intelligent and learn-ed and to hide my Harry Potter books! One of these, which I bought a few of years ago during my “re evaluation,” is Twentieth-Century Western Philosophy of Religion. To be honest I no more than skimmed it, but I recently dug it out to look at this quote.
The writer expands Barth’s quote.
Religion is a matter of conversation, not argument, and there is no logical transition from unbelief to belief. Religious belief is not dependent on any philosophy it stands on its own terns. If the atheist claims that religious belief fails the test of rationality and then no rational person should accept it, religious belief can only confess its content and appeal to its authority.
So, of we look around us and analyise our society, what do we see? Some things we believe because we have been convincingly taught or convinced by way of reason - gravity, eco-cycle, germs-cause-diseases, earth-orbits-sun etc . It’s easy to see how we can convince someone of Newton’s laws of physics or aerodynamics or why we should wash our hands before we cook – we argue/reason with them.
So how do people become convinced of things without being reasoned with? Barth hits the nail squarely on the head… by being preached to.
Good decent, normally rational people can be made to believe all sorts or dubious things. What is the common factor in this seeming irrationality, conspiracy theories, miracle cures and scare stories? The common factors are our hopes and our fears. For these two powerful bedfellows, we willingly drop the level of evidence we require.
Fear makes us terrified of pedophiles running amok!! Fear leads to conduct witch hunts. Fear of unseen conspiratorial forces and of being lied too lead a multitude of 9/11 conspiracies or moon landing shams or that the Jews are behind everything.
Hope of a cure lets people spend the housekeeping on homeopathy and crystals. Hope of contacting a beloved relative leads to visiting clairvoyants. Hope of looking 10 years younger keeps expensive face creams rolling off the shelves. Hope of riches lets us dare to respond to “Nigerian Prince” emails etc. etc.
A quick look around shows that if you cannot prove your case through production of convincing evidence, then get out the snake oil for what ails you and the tales of eternal fiery lakes for the skeptics.
Another way to phase Barth’s quote would be
We cannot convince unbelievers by using the god-given rationale which has brought them out of the caves and a semblance of order to their society, we must preach to their hopes that there is a god who loves them and can guide them and answer their prayers and tell them that it will all be ok in the end…. and if that doesn’t work preach to their fears that there may be ‘more to life’ or indeed that there may a be correct doctrine or ritual to keep them out of hell.