There are some beliefs that, if I held them, I could easily and justifiably be called arrogant. For example, if I held to the belief that I am inherently superior and more significant as a human being than all others, it would be safe to charge me with arrogance. But what about other more common beliefs people hold and profess? What exactly qualifies a belief as arrogant, and thus a person as arrogant for choosing to hold to it?
In a previous blog post I initially posed this question and began to hash it out, mostly in light of the current trend in our culture of identifying many traditional religious beliefs as arrogant. I first pointed out the important distinction between arrogance as a character trait and arrogance as it might apply to beliefs. The former is generally regarded as odious and undesirable by all parties, but the second is the more interesting and often confusing issue.
When it comes to charges of arrogance leveled at Christian beliefs (rather than people themselves), I listed what I take to be the chief culprits as far as opponents are concerned. These include claims to know what God thinks, believing we (human beings) are special, thinking we are right (and others, by contrast, are wrong), and even seeking to get other people to believe like we do. I dealt with the first of these in the previous post, and now I will address the others.
Let us take, then, the claim that human beings have a high and special position in the created order? Isn’t that a self-serving and anthropocentric vision of the universe? Isn’t this mostly why the Roman Catholic Church was so reluctant to adopt the Copernican heliocentric model that removes us from the center of the cosmos, and later held Galileo under arrest for promoting it? Today some animal rights people suggest that this view of man amounts to “speciesism” and is responsible for people being cruel to animals.
In considering this the first thing we must ask is this: Is it really a stretch to suggest that human beings have superior intelligence to all of the other living things we know of on the planet? Is it a bold and shocking assertion to state what seems, on its face, obvious by experience and consensus? I’m fairly certain that this has been the view of every culture that has existed since the beginning of human civilization – that is, that human beings outrank all other living things on the planet when it comes to cognitive capability. I might go ahead and call it a common sense observation. Human beings, while inferior to other creatures in numerous ways (size, speed, strength, jumping ability, hearing, vision, reflexes, swimming, flying, etc.), are easily at the top of the pyramid when it comes to overall intelligence.
So in a natural sense this idea is plain and observable. But Christian teaching includes many additional things like being made “in the image of God,” and being given special attention and concern by God. Maybe these in particular seem arrogant to some people, but they need not. Bearing God’s image is never taken to be a source of undue pride; it is the source, rather, for basic human dignity and rights. It is never a justification for any sort of arrogance, since this teaches that ALL human beings bear this image equally. If it were to make us boast, it could only be a boasting over other creatures, which seems pretty asinine, don’t you think? Search the Scriptures and then search the writings of the great and influential Christian thinkers, and you will find nothing like arrogance as a response to the Imago Dei (image of God). Similarly, the response to God showing attention or favor to man is one of humility not prideful boasting in human greatness. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” asked David in Psalm 8:4.
Nor is the idea of dominion taken as license for “playing God.” Just after the verse above David wrote (v.6), “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.” It is a lordship that is actually a stewardship. In this passage we see the humility comingled with the responsibility that man bears for the physical creation. He may use it for his good purposes, but this does not entail wanton abuse of nature. Man is responsible and answerable to the Maker of all these things for his treatment of them. He should feel a sense not of tyranny over nature but of privilege and gratitude that the world contains so much that is to his benefit.
One more thing on this issue: man’s natural superiority to the other creatures is mentioned in the Bible far less frequently than man’s inferiority to God. The constant theological drumbeat where anthropology is concerned is not how great we are (to quote Hamlet, “how noble in reason, … the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals”) but rather how finite and powerless we are (as when Hamlet concludes, “And yet, … what is this quintessence of dust?”), not to mention how hopelessly depraved we are. In light of both the charges that the Bible [a] inflates man’s ego, and by contrast that it [b] cripples man’s self-image by emphasizing what a rotten sinner he is, we must at some point ask, “Which is it? Does Christian doctrine make us too great or too evil?” My response is that it presents us accurately, with a healthy sense of our ultimate worth, grounded in the Imago Dei, as well as a realistic ‘warts and all’ portrayal of our morally and spiritually sick condition.
The Audacity of Believing your Beliefs
Let’s look now at the claim that my view(s) is/are right? Surely that is intolerant and arrogant, since it suggests that others with whom you disagree are wrong. Well not so fast. If intolerance and arrogance are always part of somebody thinking he/she is right about something, then approximately 100% of the population is guilty of exercising such intolerance and arrogance between 20 and 50 times a day. In fact, the very claim, “If you think you’re right and someone else is wrong, you’re arrogant” is spoken by someone who presumably thinks he is right about this statement (and that if I disagree and say, “That’s not the case,” then I’m wrong); therefore the one who says this is, by his own reckoning, arrogant.
This is a bit of a no brainer so we need not spend much time on it. The situation is that everybody has beliefs about nearly everything, including religious topics. We tend to hold our beliefs with varying degrees of certainty, but even if you’re “mostly” convinced of something while still open to the idea that you could be wrong, a belief is a belief. Imagine someone saying something like, “Having thought a lot about the differing views on x (where x is a religious subject), I have come to believe a over b, c, and d. I am willing to listen to those who disagree and to consider their reasons, but that’s where I stand at the moment.” Does that strike anyone as arrogant?
The problem here is illustrated by a quote I heard some years ago by a Harvard student who said that in her Ivy League context she has come to understand that it is OK for her to have her religious beliefs, so long as she doesn’t believe they are true. This is a clever way to state the silliness of this idea. You can’t actually believe your beliefs or you’re arrogant. I will grant that people too often speak with too much certainty and authority on things, like when Christians take their stand on a peripheral theological issue (pick one – end times, spiritual gifts, church music style, alcohol, etc.) and thunder away as though giving the definitive word from Mt. Sinai on the matter. But believers who do this should be (and usually are) called out and corrected by other believers. As I said in the previous post, people are always prone to arrogance and plenty of other bad traits of character. But none of this supports the confused idea that having a belief (and, if you’ll pardon the necessary redundancy of my saying so, believing it is true) is arrogant.
Everybody believes things. Whether it’s something you’re 100% sure about or something you’re only 70% sure about, you think it’s true or you wouldn’t believe it at all. And furthermore every belief someone holds is necessarily exclusive of other points of view, particularly other points of view that are in direct contradiction to it. People today have a habit of forgetting this, as when someone occasionally holds up a philosophical or religious viewpoint as not excluding any other views. I’ve heard it from people claiming to be Wiccans, Buddhists, general spiritualists (New Agers) and secularists. They claim that they accept, celebrate, maybe even agree with everyone’s views, that they are never exclusive, that they don’t take the narrow-minded view that other people are wrong about what they believe.
This, of course, is sheer nonsense. In every case I simply ask the person simple questions to draw out her beliefs (about the divine, the soul, man, spirits, karma, whatever), and as sure as God made little green apples (a particular belief if my own), the person always has beliefs about some of these things. And no sooner is utterance given to those beliefs than the realization begins to rear its inconvenient head – those who do not believe what they are professing (or who believe the precise opposite) must be (here it comes, are you ready?): WRONG. The law of non-contradiction remains undefeated. No irrational tenet of politically correct religious ‘tolerance’ can stand against it, regardless of how often it is repeated by those living in the chokingly thick postmodern miasma.
Finally, and related to this charge of thinking you’re right, what about the effort to convince other people of your views and thereby spread them? Surely if there’s one thing that smacks of arrogance, it’s trying to get other people to see that their beliefs are wrong and to adopt yours instead, right? That would have to be the reason, no doubt, for such outrage as we see in an article like this one from an atheist website: “The Arrogance of Evangelism.” Christians of every kind have this nasty habit of trying to talk to other people in such a way as to lead them to believe things. But this simply will not do, because it says, explicitly or implicitly, that other beliefs are not correct. And it’s not just what people may imagine as backwoods fundamentalists who think other religious doctrines are false. When in 2000 Pope John Paul II and future pope Benedict XVI collaborated on the official statement known as Dominus Jesus, they should have expected that they would stir up controversy by their description of non-Christian religions as “gravely deficient.” But this is, after all, the natural and logical result of the dastardly position taken by so many religious people, namely the position that their beliefs are actually true.
Let’s think about this whole business of trying to persuade someone that his view on something is not quite right, and that he should consider changing his mind on the issue, especially if it is one considered really important. Let’s think about whether or not we in fact do this all the time, and furthermore whether or not it is possible or conceivable for us NOT to do it. It should not take long before it begins to be clearer in our minds that what is going on in the act of persuasion is as normal and common a part of human communication and interaction as can be imagined.
And to be exceedingly clear on this, evangelism or missions in the Christian sense never ever entails coercive or manipulative means. I did not say people are not guilty of doing this. I said it is not the meaning or understanding – biblically or historically – of those terms. Very recently I heard a prominent anti-religion (mostly anti-Anglican) British politician say to an interviewer that when he hears the word “proselytize” (apparently the only word he knew for this general idea), for him the word includes using nefarious methods. It sounds to his hears like bullying.
But that man is simply mistaken if he thinks that is the understanding of historic Christianity regarding missions and evangelism. I don’t know how else to say it. He’s wrong about the meaning of those concepts. And so long as we remove those agreed upon wrong tactics, the act of persuasion is what is left, and that is not only perfectly legitimate, it is inevitable and unavoidable. Again, the opponent who attempts to get religious people to stop trying to convert other people is, himself, making a case in hopes of persuading us and getting us to change our minds and behavior. He wants so convert his hearers, does he not? Many secularists today are activists and preachers of their views, seeking to convince other people – looking, if you will, for proselytes.
So once again, if simply believing that you have correct views on something important, and then actively talking to people about those views in an effort to persuade them – if that is arrogant, then let the condemnation fall universally upon all citizens of planet earth for their arrogance in this regard. If you are reading this, then YOU believe you are right about many things, and thus YOU believe that many other people are wrong about those great many things, and yes YOU have and will continue to attempt to persuade and convince people to change their views on all sorts of issues. The good news is that this by itself does not make you arrogant. It only makes you a human being with properly functioning cognition and communication skills.
I should add one last thing here. Quite often those who busy themselves with finger-waving toward Christians for their arrogant beliefs are themselves coming from a position of materialistic atheism. If that is the case, let’s make sure we take note of the potential charges of arrogance that could be leveled against the set of beliefs that characterize that philosophy. For the materialistic atheist, we human beings are the highest form of life we know of in the entire universe thus far. To our knowledge, nothing and nobody outranks us. We are the ‘gods’ of the universe for all practical purposes. We are naturally superior to all other kinds of life on this planet, and some of us may be superior to others by nature (genetic fitness, social Darwinism, etc.).
For the materialistic atheist, we have arrived on the scene through the struggle of our powerful and crafty genes to prove their dominance. In a raw competitive struggle, our “selfish genes” (to borrow from Dawkins) frankly won the long arduous contest. We did it, and that is why we are here. We owe nobody gratitude for this. There is nobody to whom we must submit or bow ourselves. No actual, objective moral law has any real demands upon us. We will not be made to answer for any deeds of this life, howsoever terrible they may be.
We (materialistic atheists) are also correct in our views, even though the overwhelming majority of people throughout history and in the world today do not agree with us. They are just plain wrong, likely not as perceptive, scientifically astute, and tough minded as we are, be they Sir Isaac Newton of former times or one of the prominent believing scientists of today. If they disagree with our narrow minority view of life, they are flat-out incorrect. And this is why we will use the internet, the talk show, the entertainment establishment, as well as billboard and public bus advertisements to seek to convince them that they are wrong and should change their views so as to agree with us. In short, we will proselytize.
Looks like the pot has been calling the kettle arrogant.