As I mentioned in my last post, I want to start addressing what I consider to be prevalent intellectual sins, both within and outside of the atheist community. One of the greatest and most dangerous of such sins is Templatic Thinking.
Templatic Thinking is a term I use to address people who use ideology for the purpose of drawing conclusions. It is especially prevalent in politics and in the more controversial social issues of the day. These templates exist in varying forms. Sometimes they are bumper-sticker slogans, and other times they are overly simplistic ideas that are a foundation for the actions or stances of particular groups. Here are a few examples of templates that people use to this end:
“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.
Gun restricting legislation is the only way to avoid mass shootings in public places.
“Life begins at conception.”
A unborn fetus is just a mass of human cells.
Atheists are immoral because they deny the existence of an absolutely perfect moral (divine) source of moral law.
[Religious] people who assert [any of a myriad of asinine assertions] are hate-filled bigots.
You’ll notice that I’ve tried to list statements that address both sides of these controversial issues, and some may even already be questioning the illegitimacy of some of them. We’ll address that issue a little later. First, let me explain why I consider these to be harmful. Any of these statements could technically be valid conclusions, and the validity is subject to debate. What makes them harmful is not that they are conclusions, per-se, but that they are used as premises for drawing further conclusions. If you were to make a valid, well-reasoned argument and then were to draw one of these statements as a conclusion, I have no issue there. But the use of one of the above blurbs as a starting point for a logical argument, constitutes an intellectual sin. It is a shortcut that should never be condoned or allowed to stand. In effect, the argument uses one of these templates as a premise to an argument. To use legal parlance, it assumes facts not in evidence.
Sometimes the templates may only appear to be so due to a lack of proper definition of terms (the lack of which is another gross intellectual sin in itself when making any valid argument). As a timely example, I’ll use the recent controversy in the US about the popular television series Duck Dynasty.
For those of you outside of its broadcast range, Duck Dynasty is a reality television show about a family of backwoods (conservative Christian) hunters who made a fortune selling duck call devices to hunters. The charm of the show seems to be that this group of somewhat ordinary people have become multi-millionaires, and yet retain most of the trappings of their humble origins. Although I’ve never watched the show, I’m told that the patriarch of the family still lives in a mobile home in the woods and drives an old pick-up truck. Recently, this same patriarch made some statements about his Christian faith in a magazine interview that were not well received by many, and has resulted in his indefinite suspension from the television show.
What were the controversial statements? Basically, he said that homosexuality (particularly anal sex between homosexual men) was a sin according to his religion, and pointedly placed it in the same category as bestiality. The atheist community in the US came alive with rapid (and well-deserved) criticism. However, in many of the scathing crtitiques I detected one of the templates that I referred to above: “People who assert that homosexuality is immoral are hate-filled bigots.”
By starting with that as a premise, the overly harsh criticisms were justified. They were an attack on bigotry and hatred, after all. As one person I encountered claimed, “I will never apologize for being intolerant of intolerance.”*
My objections aren’t to criticisms as to the erroneous nature of the statements, which I believe they obviously were. My objections were that people—many people—automatically concluded that this man is an intolerant, hate-filled bigot towards homosexuals. The problem stems from the fact that depending on how you define intolerance and hate speech, this conclusion is questionable based on the statements published in the interview. While it may be true that this individual does hate homosexuals, I found no evidence in the GQ article to indicate that. It was well-known that he is a conservative Evangelical Christian, and this knowledge is what brought the subject up in the first place. The man was asked about his religious beliefs and he answered very directly. He believes homosexuality is immoral and a sin. He does liken it to bestiality. What his detractors failed to notice, apparently, is that he also placed it in the same category as adultery and swindling. Are we to understand that his objection to adultery is a statement of hate and bigotry against adulterers? That wasn’t my impression of the article at all. In fact, what I found remarkable is that a man from his background didn’t direct any real hate-speech towards any of the groups he mentioned. He merely stated that he didn’t understand homosexual attraction (pointing out his opinion that a woman’s vagina has so much more to offer a man than another man’s anus), and that his religion taught that people who engage in these and other sinful acts were not going to make it to his exclusively heterosexual heaven. What he didn’t say was something like Pastor Worley of the Maiden, NC Providence Road Baptist Church preached from the pulpit earlier this year:
“Build a great, big, large fence — 150 or 100 mile long — put all the lesbians in there…Do the same thing for the queers and the homosexuals and have that fence electrified so they can’t get out…and you know what, in a few years, they’ll die out…do you know why? They can’t reproduce!”
Taking that statement as an example of bigotry and hate is justifiable on its face. But in this magazine article there were no diatribes against gays as being evil or bad. There was no expression of ill-will towards them, or a fervent hope that they would somehow be eradicated. The Duck Dynasty patriarch merely stated what every American atheist knew he believed: Homosexuality is a sin, and God doesn’t approve.
Starting out with the template that anyone who disapproves of homosexuality is full of hate leads one to make conclusions that may or may not be true, but that, based on the available evidence, are not demonstrably true. These ardent critics took the mental shortcut by drawing a conclusion that didn’t fit the evidence available. This is harmful to atheism’s credibility, in my opinion. To express disagreement—even fervent disagreement—with his statements is justifiable and honorable. But to do so in a hateful way, based on poor reasoning while demonstrating an even greater level of intolerance and hate towards him is also hypocritical. That’s right. Some atheists criticized this man in very strong and deplorable ways, and in doing so demonstrated the very characteristics that they were criticizing. The use of hate-speech to criticize a person for hate-speech is bad enough, but to use it while criticizing a man who didn’t actually engage in hate-speech is embarrassingly lazy.
Were his comments hateful? That’s where the conversation should begin. Many would think that they were, and there’s a discussion to be had on those grounds. But to automatically assume that any statement that disagrees with your template automatically amounts to such is unforgiveable. Please define what you mean by hate-speech and demonstrate why this is definable as such. Templatic Thinking causes shortcuts in reasoning. To be quite honest, I would much rather have a beer with this bearded backwoods Christian than I would with many of the spiteful atheists who attacked him.
In short, Templatic Thinking is an intellectual sin because it makes assumptions that have not been adequately demonstrated as factual. As long as atheists continue to make this mistake, which is quite similar to the template we commonly condemn: “The Bible is true…” then the world would be no better off if religion disappeared tomorrow and left atheists in complete control.
*Which is in itself another intellectual template, and is potentially dangerous to boot.