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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Fundamental Errors in Representing Other Points of View

After the tremendous length of my last post, I am hoping to keep this post short and sweet. This post is the second installment of series of three to continue the pondering critique I started in my Fundamental Errors post.

In this post, I will be discussing the misquote of H. J. Blackham by Dr. James Kennedy. Kennedy quotes Blackham of saying "The most drastic objection to humanism is that it is too bad to be true.” Kennedy then uses this quote as a summation of the secular humanist worldview and then attacks it as philosophically misguided and inferior to Christian theology (whose most drastic objection he describes as “too good to be true”).

As a former journalist (and now a member of a journalism faculty), I take the presentation of others’ words extremely seriously. In the past few years, I believe we have seen a dramatic decrease in the quality of public discourse and an equally dramatic decrease in the intellectual honesty needed for people on two sides of an issue to address one another’s positions.

There are several types of misquoting. The most common offenses I see are the direct manipulation of another’s words and the misconstrued context of an otherwise accurate presentation of another’s words. I believe that Kennedy’s use of Blackham’s words is an example of the latter.

Let me begin by saying I cannot find a primary source for the quote. I spent several hours pouring through humanist documents, biographical references, quotation archives and even running a Google search for this quote. The only results I get for this quote are from previous sermons and promotions of Dr. Kennedy and other Presbyterian ministers. I don’t know where Blackham is supposed to have said or written this comment, nor can I verify that it was ever uttered or penned by the alleged source.

I am going to assume that Blackham did say or write this passage. I do wish ministers and religious scholars were a bit more diligent about sourcing their material, particularly when it comes to engaging points of view in conflict with their own.

However, even without primary sourcing to look at, Dr. Kennedy’s use of the quote appears to be less than logical.

Dr. Kennedy asserts that Blackham is claming that in his own view, secular humanism is “too bad to be true.” However, it seems rather illogical to assume this based on the actual quote.

Blackham says "The most drastic objection to humanism is that it is too bad to be true.” He does not say that he agrees with this objection, nor does he endorse it as a correct or logical conclusion. He simply says that of those who object to humanism, the “most drastic” of their objections is that it is “too bad to be true.”

If I were to say, “Critics of Christianity claim that it is evil and manipulative,” I would not be claiming that I think this statement is true, nor would I be validating the claims of those critics.

Furthermore, I believe that Blackham’s quote is meant to be a statement about the illogical objections he has encountered towards his worldview. In other words, he may be saying “Objectors don’t say it’s illogical, they don’t say it doesn’t work, they don’t say it hurts people, they don’t say it’s manipulative … all they can seem to come up with is that it’s ‘too bad to be true.’”

In other words, he might simply be saying “They object to it not on rational grounds, but simply on knee-jerk emotion.”

And what does “too bad to be true” mean? Is Blackham saying that objectors to humanism have trouble dealing with the harsh reality of not having an afterlife? Is Blackham saying that objectors to humanism have trouble understanding the complex philosophy of humanism and so just resort to calling it “bad” rather than engage it?

I suspect Blackham is making a statement about the nature of the differences between religious belief and secular humanism. I believe he was trying to say that members of a religious faith have trouble imagining living in a world where the promise of heaven was not a motivating force (or comfort) or that the hope for the world didn’t reside in something greater than man himself.

Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation, it’s rather obvious that Blackham was not condemning his own worldview as “bad.” And thus, I think using this quote as a straw man argument (“Even THEY think their movement is bad”) is intellectually dishonest and unfair.

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