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Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Arguments?

I’m always puzzled about why smart people make (and believe) such stupid arguments.  We see this all the time, of course, in political discourse and family disagreements, not to mention department meetings, but since my field is religious studies I hear it the most in connection with the great religions of the world.  Actually, I guess I find it less puzzling than aggravating.

A lot of conservative Christians get upset with me when I push them for evidence for their views, and so I thought I should devote this post to give equal share time to other religions whose self-appointed representatives send me proofs of the superiority of their views, based on hard “evidence.”   It is really difficult to believe that someone can actually be persuaded by these claims.  Let me stress, I am NOT (repeat NOT) saying anything negative about any of these religions – in this case Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.  I’m decidedly not.  I’m saying something negative about very bad arguments used to “prove” their inherent superiority to one another.

I will talk about two emails I have received, one in today’s and one in tomorrow’s.  Today’s came from a Muslim.  If I had a nickel for every time a Muslim has written me with this same basic argument over the past three years, I could renovate my kitchen.   I preface this by saying I have the utmost respect for Islam – truly and deeply; and for the Qur’an.  Muslims and Islam itself are obviously getting horrible press these days ij the world most of us inhabit, but almost entirely by people who don’t know the first thing about it.  I’m not going to go there – even when you beg me to – because this blog is about the New Testament and the origins of Christianity, centuries *prior* to Islam.  But whatever you think about Islam and the fantastic numbers of people committed to it, this particular (common) argument for its superiority is not, well, thoughtful.  Here’s the email:

Would you like to see the rest of this post?  It’s a hot one.  And not hard to access.  Just join the blog.  It costs all of about 50 cents a week, and every cent goes to charity.  So what’s to lose?  Except for stupid arguments!

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What About Accurately Preserved *Oral* Traditions?
Rapid Fire Questions and Answers on Biblical Manuscripts

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Stewiegriffin  February 9, 2020

    Probably the worst argument I ever heard for proof that the bible is Gods sacred word is that dew is mentioned in the bible and people didn’t know about dew back then therefore it must have come from God.

    • Avatar
      Erik Nelson  February 23, 2020

      Surah 51:47 of the Koran appears to describe the expansion of the universe (which 21st century humanity considers Nobel-Prize-worthy science):

      “We built the universe with ˹great˺ might, and We are certainly expanding ˹it˺”

      “And heaven
      constructed We her
      with strength[ening]
      and by Us
      surely they are expanding”

  2. Avatar
    godspell  February 9, 2020

    Well, I do like to say there’s no fool like an educated fool. Knowledge and wisdom are not at all the same thing.

    Jesus almost certainly had no formal education. And he’s outlasted all the educated fools. That’s not an argument, stupid or otherwise. That’s just an observation.

    • Avatar
      jbickle  February 10, 2020

      But is his “outlasting” everyone else, despite his probably lack of education, down to the divine ? …..or the fact that Constantine made Christianity the official church of Rome and to disagree could cost you your life?
      I think we all know the answer to that ad populum fallacy.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  February 11, 2020

        Bart says in his book, Triumph, that Christianity would have succeeded without Constantine’s intervention.

        • Avatar
          jbickle  February 12, 2020

          There is a HUGE difference between “survival” and thriving with the Roman might behind you.
          I’m sure you can find some Essene based derivative still somewhere in the world but you cant compare the two.

    • Avatar
      joelcusumano  February 11, 2020

      Same goes for the illiterate slave Spartacus, who still has movies and TV shows made about him. He has outlasted all the educated fools. God wanted us to know how divine Spartacus was by keeping him in our memories despite his lack of education.

  3. Avatar
    forthfading  February 9, 2020

    Dr Ehrman,

    For the first few centuries did the Christian scribes think they were coping the literal word of God? Obviously they knew they were coping important sacred words, but was their view of the words the same as a modern fundamentalist`s view? Muslim scribes pretty much knew they were repeating the words of God, so obviously they were much more diligent in their efforts.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      No, almost certainly not; they would have seen the texs as sacred in some sense, but probably not the actual words of God.

      • Avatar
        ShonaG  February 11, 2020

        Why do you think their arguments are stupid but believe somebody when they say they were born in the wrong body? Maybe you asking the wrong question, why are some completely irrational statements not allowed to be disputed, are you really atheist or did you just follow the same religion as everybody else in 21st century.

  4. sschullery
    sschullery  February 9, 2020

    A few years ago, there was a study reported in Science of the fact of people’s reluctance or inability to change their minds about deeply held beliefs, even when presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary. This is apparently a universal human characteristic. The only difference the authors noted between liberals and conservatives was that the latter tend to dig in their heels more with respect to their manifestly bogus beliefs. The authors didn’t pursue it, but I often find myself wondering what the liberal coping mechanism is. Personally, I’ve noticed a tendency to push the unwelcome information to the back of my mind and flee to the refuge of the company of like minded people, such as recorded episodes of Rachel Maddow’s or Nicole Wallace’s shows (MSNBC).

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      Yup,there’s that, absolutely. Also liberals often fudge the view a bit so it could be true in a different sense.

  5. Avatar
    Ken Riel  February 9, 2020

    “I’ve known people who can type 80 words a minute without making a mistake. Is that a miracle?”

    There first two words of this sentence (“I’ve known”) recount a miracle. That the whole page is in front of me and I am reading what you have written is also a miracle.

    Existence itself and everything about it can only be reduced to the miraculous.

    This assertion is factually and undeniably true.

    • Avatar
      JohnRedshirt  April 1, 2020

      Depends on which definition of the word miracle you use. The fact that we do not have a naturalistic explanation for the Big Bang does not make it supernatural.

  6. Avatar
    dankoh  February 9, 2020

    Actually, we do know that there are variant versions of the Qur’an. Here is a NY Times story from 2002: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/02/arts/scholars-are-quietly-offering-new-theories-of-the-koran.html?pagewanted=all Taner Edis also cites recent research. Islam is only now starting to go through the same process as Christianity and Judaism of doing a critical scholarly examination of their sacred texts and history, and some scholars are at physical risk for pursuing this.

    One other observation: “God works in mysterious ways” is one of THE classic examples of circular reasoning.

  7. Avatar
    Matt2239  February 9, 2020

    Entertaining read, no doubt. But the straw horse Bart has chosen is an Evangelical Fundamentalist. Let’s try a different argument for the miracle of the New Testament. It’s surprisingly simple. Jesus of Nazareth and his followers are the most unlikely historical figures of all time. Today there are billions of bibles in print and billions of Christians all saying the same thing about an apocalyptic Jew who lived 2000 years ago and preached for only three years. We know much less about much more important people who lived more recently. People want to knock Jesus down as a diety, but once confronted with the actual, objective historical evidence, there’s little denying that the fact we know anything about Jesus today is nothing short of a miracle.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      Do you really want to claim that unlikely people cannot make world-changing history? (Have you read my book Triumph of Christianity, by the way? In it I try to explain how such an unlikely movement took over the western world)

    • Avatar
      JakSiemasz  February 16, 2020

      Prime example of the topic of this post by Bart!

  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 9, 2020

    You should look up an article in Vox called “How politics makes us stupid.” It’s available on the Internet, and shows how the more educated you are about a subject, the more likely you are to make mistakes that favor your ideological interpretation. Because with great education comes great power of rationalization.

  9. Avatar
    flshrP  February 9, 2020

    In this case smart people make stupid arguments because their religious belief make them say and think stupid things. How can it be otherwise since such individuals are living in a religious fantasyland? They are driven by fear and greed into believing the fantasy that they possess invisible, immaterial, immortal souls that can exist apart from the body and will survive death and that this non-existent soul will enjoy an eternal reward in an equally non-existent afterlife of pleasure. Their stupidity is a symptom of a frantic effort of cognitive dissonance resolution coupled with intense confirmation bias that are required to maintain full-time residence in their religious fantasyland. They are fighting a losing battle to cheat death by embracing their religious fantasies.

    They are not stupid people. In this Internet age of free flow of information worldwide they are well aware of the weakness and improbability of their beliefs. And this drives most of them to make Pascal’s Wager, leaving a small fraction as true believers who continue to buy completely into these religious fantasies. These latter individuals are the believers featured in this blog entry–the smart people who make stupid arguments.

    • Telling
      Telling  February 13, 2020

      It is Jane Roberts/Seth Material where the entity from beyond the grave who calls himself Seth pronounces:

      “Without myths there would be no Science”

      This is because everything in existence is mental construct arising from the imagination and is therefore “myth”.

      What is real is “thoughts” as is “the thinker”. The philosopher Descartes had that figure out: “I think therefore I am”. But he was only making a presumption, a needed starting point for further study, for he didn’t see that he could actually prove he existed (that he “I am”).

  10. Telling
    Telling  February 9, 2020

    Wow, this is the cash cow I’ve been waiting for!

    I’ve often mentioned the Jane Roberts/Seth Material, by far the most comprehensive substantive information on the face of the earth today (probably), I haven’t read everything ever written and therefore cannot substantiate my claim. But it doesn’t matter. The Seth Material is not the answer any more than is any religion or philosophy. The answer is wisdom-knowledge. I will proceed now to explain how your beliefs are as deficient as anything you critique, if you don’t mind.

    Lets begin with the idea “God”, a term you embraced but now reject. Is there a God or no God? Both ideas are stupid. “God” is a word representing a concept: “Where did I and everything else come from?” We can better tune the word “God” as us and everything a creation of intelligence. But what is “intelligence”? It is something like your mind and mine, an animal mind and insect mind, even a plant that follows sunlight. So the real question is, what is intelligence and how did it get here? And also, what is an inanimate object and how did IT get here???

    Science, in all its glory, easily resolves the concept. The idea of a God is foolishness, there is no proof of such an intelligence, so obviously intelligence rose from inanimate objects, and the inanimate objects “evolved” from nothing. Problem resolved; we don’t need a God. The argument is, however, stupid. It’s no better than anything religion offers, and perhaps dumber.

    So, what is our answer? The Seth Material offers answers that make better sense than what science offers.

    Seth says: “You can learn more by watching animals than you can from a guru … or from reading my books.” -Jane Roberts: The Nature of Personal Reality

    Here is the hard proof that God exists. It is the “Kingdom” in front of our faces but people don’t see it (paraphrased, Gospel of Thomas). It is not a belief, it is replicable science; intelligence unmistakably exists. God IS.

    If we are to wonder now how God created the world and all that is in it, we should look more closely at our dreams and should better tune into our imaginations; the essence of intelligence and creator of the world.

    How the mind came into being remains a mystery, Seth answering: time doesn’t really exist or does space, and thus no beginning, it always IS and is consciousness. That’s a tough one, not finished.

    • Avatar
      jrussel18@aol.com  February 10, 2020

      Lol

    • Avatar
      JakSiemasz  February 16, 2020

      Take another toke.

    • sschullery
      sschullery  February 19, 2020

      I wonder why the bogus argument, so much stuff in the universe obviously requires a creator, (the logic error known as “begging the question”) carries so much more weight than its counterpart, so much empty space in the universe obviously requires a destroyer. Let’s assume for discussion’s sake that quantum chromodynamics is wrong and there really is such a thing as empty space and that a vacuum is not teeming with virtual particles waiting their moment to pop out into fleeting existence.

      • Telling
        Telling  February 20, 2020

        I like to use this argument:

        How do rocks and organic matter form themselves into a working desktop computer? It seems utterly impossible for it to happen all by itself without a creator guiding the process. And that is very true when we envision it happening in the short timespan of a human life, but if were so say the process happens slowly over billions and billions of years, a time-frame so incomprehensible that our little minds cannot even fathom, then we can begin to see how rocks and organic matter can indeed come together and become a fine working computer all by themselves without any intelligence there at all. It seemed impossible until we stretch the time-frame into something unfathomable; then anything becomes possible without there being any intelligent guidance.

        What I just said is absolutely ridiculous. There is indeed an intelligence guiding the process, whether man made or organic: That very mind you will find right atop of your own head. But the scientist doesn’t recognize his own very being, so the first explanation suits him.

  11. Avatar
    Chasdot  February 9, 2020

    Thanks for the post. I and my wife were sitting in a military chapel two weeks ago and the chaplain stated: “The world would have you see, then believe but in Christianity we believe and then see.” I turned to my wife and stated, “He just explained how cults work.” After the service my wife asked me to explain. I stated: If you have to believe first, then your facts fit your belief. Cults work this way. Listen to the master, believe what the master says, and then you will come to true knowledge.

    In the real world, we look for correlation and hopefully causation through a reasonable sample size and then through statistical modeling to seek external validity (making predictions). Every time a military chaplain gets up and tells a story, it’s a sample size of one which is not possible to draw any conclusions in statistical modeling. The chaplain simply believes and then everything fits nicely into those beliefs. Thus, you believe then see.

  12. Avatar
    mjordan20149  February 9, 2020

    Don’t want to open a can of worms but there wasn’t there a Qur’an discovery in Yemen that differed from more recent versions…..

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      don’t recall, but there aer in fact attested differences in the Qur’an; I was just conceding the argument to make a point.

  13. Avatar
    nichael  February 9, 2020

    With regard to the question of the “real text”, an interesting point of view that I’ve heard expressed by some (many quite conservative) Jewish friends is the following:

    First, let’s acknowledge what modern textual criticism tells us about the factual history of the Hebrew text of the Bible. But once we’ve done that, let’s also agree that we have, with the authority of the Rabbis, essentially “defined” the established, traditional Masoretic text as the text that we accept as authoritative/sacred.

    [Now, this doesn’t address the real question here (why do some people not acknowledge the evidence?) And I’m certainly not arguing that this is necessarily what people *should* believe — or even that this is a commonly held view. But, nonetheless, I think it’s an intriguing way of looking at all this.]

  14. Avatar
    Danyowell  February 9, 2020

    As long as there’s a fraction of a percentage of a chance that their argument could be true, they’ll believe it. There’s too much at stake in their minds to do otherwise. It reminds me a lot of watching someone with a gambling addiction, actually. They know the odds are against them, but the hope they feel is way too strong to ignore.

  15. Avatar
    Pegill7  February 9, 2020

    Why do so many of the Fundamentalist denominations insist that the King James Version of the Bible is the only acceptable translation of the Bible? I note that the Moody Bible Institute allows most modern translations for believers to use. Was that true when you were there?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      Yes, when I was there the preferred translation was the New American Standard Bible (NASB); very literal. Why do fundies cling to the KJV? They grew up with it, and surely God wouldn’t have let them grow up with a Bible that wasn’t the right one!

  16. Avatar
    veritas  February 9, 2020

    I read this posting twice to make sure I was getting your point. Who better to answer this than yourself. Having traversed both sides of the spectrum. When you * believed* why could you not see these errors? You went to the top schools for Religious studies and yet you were convicted of the Bible’s truth. Today, you changed. I feel totally like you do. I have many questions that I can’t find adequate answers, hence hampering my beliefs. I think everyone in the world today believes in something, whatever it may be and to overturn that belief is difficult. How we decide what to believe is traditional/cultural driven, but in general, we perceive that everyone first looks at evidence and then makes a rational decision. But what most of us really do is, we decide what to believe (choose), then look for information and people that supports/confirms that belief. Hard to change someone’s mind with this, because they become fully convicted. Faith is part of our everyday life( non-religious), but more so connected to belief/religion because of its mystic/mysterious connotations. Imams teach the Qur’an, many followers do not read it, yet they trust those who teach it. In Christian churches the same occurs, they trust their preachers. Furthermore, many churches advise not to read irrelevant material as it may alter or cast doubt in their faith/belief.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      Ha! When I believed I didn’t use these arguments!

    • Avatar
      jbickle  February 10, 2020

      “faith” in colloquial terms, if very different to faith in religious terms.
      Fist one is describing a level of confidence ( I have faith this pen will drop to the floor if I let it go) , the other is believing despite the lack of, or in the face on contrary evidence – see Hebrews 11.1

  17. Avatar
    FredLyon  February 9, 2020

    I always think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement in Letters and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015, p. 9-11). Below is a short excerpt from his larger paper:

    Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      He was a very great man.

    • Avatar
      flshrP  February 10, 2020

      Yep. The Doobie Brothers nailed it precisely:

      What a fool believes, no wise man has the power to reason away.
      What seems to be is always better than nothing, nothing at all.

  18. Avatar
    mannix  February 9, 2020

    I can top that! Gus Lloyd is a Catholic Evangelist and a “popular speaker and radio host”. He also published a booklet titled “A Minute in the Church” (Vol.2) discussing various topics; one dealt with the Assumption of Mary. For those unfamiliar, Pope Pius XII in 1950 affirmed that Mary was taken up into heaven “body and soul” at the end of her life. Scriptural “evidence” of this is Revelation 12, 1-6. But if that’s not good enough, and I quote [I’m not making this up]:

    “…perhaps the most convincing evidence for the Assumption is actually a lack of physical evidence…In short, the bones of Mary are nowhere to be found…In ancient times the bones of saints and martyrs were closely guarded and highly prized…with many, there are great churches and shrines built over the final resting places of these holy people. If this is the case, how much more venerated would be the bones of the Mother of God? Yet no church claims to have them. Why? Because they are nowhere to be found on earth. Mary is now in heaven…”

    Well, now we know why they can’t find Jimmy Hoffa’s body!!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      Ha! That’s a good one. No bones! She must have gone to heaven without dying! . Like all the other revered early Christians.

  19. Avatar
    timcfix  February 10, 2020

    There are many different Qur’ans in Islam, they have the same translation problems that the Bible does. The Qur’an I read by Maulana Mohammed Ali is not the same one read in Iran or Somalia. Would knowing the original language be any help? Only if we gave up our day jobs and became scholars in languages of antiquities, and studied how the words were used in everyday use 1300 years ago. My read spent more time explaining the meanings of words than it spent just translating.

  20. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 10, 2020

    Those new to the blog might want to read Dr. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” about this subject which is a really good book.

    Adding to this “confirmation bias” and “cognitive dissonance reduction” is the “backfire effect” whereby people become even more entrenched in their views when they are presented with evidence that opposes their views. The better the evidence, the greater the opposition to the evidence. The amazing thing is that we can do all sorts of critical thinking in a field like physics and no critical thinking in another field, say religion. Confusing and disappointing, isn’t it?

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