From the Mailbag: "I Don't Argue With People"

Last year, when I wrote about the death of Savita Halappanavar from anti-choice theology, I pointed out that several Catholic bloggers seemed to think Catholic doctrine should have permitted her to be saved - contrary to every real-world example I'm aware of. In every case I've ever read about where a woman's pregnancy was gravely jeopardizing her life and the Catholic church had the power to create law or policy, they decreed that the morally "correct" position was to let both die rather than to save one.

I contacted those bloggers with a link to my post, to see if they had any further thoughts on the matter. Not all of them replied. But one who did was Dwight Longenecker, a Catholic priest. This was the sum total of his first reply:

Thanks for your email.

I don't argue with people.

As I've written earlier, responses like this illuminate the dilemma that social media and the Internet poses for religious authority figures. It gives them a new way to reach out to people, this is true. But it also gives their audience a way to talk back, which is decidely not something that religious authority figures welcome. Longenecker, as well as other religious bloggers I've engaged with, seem to treat their blogs as if they were church pulpits - a place where they can broadcast their ideas without opposition or challenge.

I wrote back, with a certain amount of snark:

There was, of course, a time when the Catholic church could afford to ignore its critics, so I can't blame you for doing what's always worked. But I think that era is ending now.

I admit, I was trying to goad him a bit. In my view, that's the entirely appropriate thing to do when someone declares that they have a blanket policy of ignoring criticism. I think it worked, because I got a second reply:

The Catholic Church has always had both critics and persecutors. It's usually difficult to tell the difference.

The way I tell the difference is if the criticism is offered constructively and objectively for the good of the church and her mission.

Otherwise it's just another person who hates the Catholic Church and the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ trying to pick a fight.

My response to that:

So what you're saying is that you only listen to criticism from fellow Catholics. After all, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, etc., aren't working for "the good of the church and her mission," am I right?

If so, that's a very unwise stance to take, because outside criticism is a vital check against error. Even if your ideological opponents don't have your best interests in mind, you can count on them to tell you the hard truths you don't want to hear and point out any weaknesses in your argument you might have overlooked.

On the other hand, a closed and insular intellectual community is far more vulnerable to self-delusion and groupthink. Just look at all the terrible decisions made over the last few decades by bishops and other Catholic authorities who sincerely believed they were acting in the best interests of the church.

Is this something you'd advocate for everyone? For example, what if an atheist said, "I only listen to criticism if it's from fellow atheists who want to destroy religion and expand the secular community. I make it a point to ignore any comments from deluded bigots." Would you accept that as a fair and reasonable position?

In response to this, Longenecker merely reiterated his earlier e-mail: "I don't argue with people." Since he was clearly determined to keep up the brick-wall act, I didn't write back any further. I hope I gave him some things to think about, though I'm not optimistic. Judging by his responses, he typifies the kind of closed, inward-looking mentality that refuses to admit valid points could ever come from outside a tightly circumscribed circle of the like-minded.

I posted about this exchange because it shows the difference between two mindsets. Being a skeptic and a rationalist means seeing criticism as a potential help, a chance to correct any errors in your own thinking that you might not have noticed. Being a true believer means seeing criticism as a threat to be shut out. This isn't, of course, to say that a rationalist is obligated to respond to any and all challenges (I wouldn't feel obligated to treat a declared racist as if he were a worthy interlocutor, for example). Nor do I deny that there's such a thing as bad-faith criticism that's better ignored (which is just a reiteration of my longstanding policy against trolling).

But what I do assert, without exception, is that it's wrong to claim that only people who agree with you in every respect can ever have anything to say that's worth considering. Just as I said in my e-mail, that's how you create a toxic cult of groupthink.

Image credit: Tomas Castelazo, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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