Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sane People with Insane Beliefs

People who believe crazy things are not necessarily crazy; but neither are beliefs sane just because the people who hold them are so.

Photo taken from The Lonely Conservative

In a previous post on this blog (“Lewis Black on Creationism,” April 1, 2011), I included a video of Lewis Black, in a comedy performance, saying this:
There are people who believe that dinosaurs and men lived together, that they roamed the earth at the same time. There are museums that children go to in which they build dioramas to show them this. And what this is, purely and simply, is a clinical psychotic reaction. They are crazy. They are stone-cold fuck nuts.
As much as I relish Black’s comic exaggerations, I don’t accept them as literal truth, and I suspect that he didn’t so intend them either. Present a young-earth creationist with a problem about plumbing or accounting or gardening and I am pretty sure that he or she will respond to it as rationally as anyone else. It is only when a religious question arises, or rather a question to which their religious beliefs dictate an answer, that they talk like crazy people. If religious extremism were to be regarded as a psychosis, it would have to be a localized and artificial one. And eccentric beliefs are manifestations, not causes or constituents, of any condition that would be deemed psychotic in medical practice.

Louis Theroux has made a couple of documentaries in which he visits and converses with members of the Phelps family, the people behind the notorious Westboro Baptist Church: The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis (2011). I find it natural to describe these people as “loonies” or “wackos”; and to say of them, in Black’s words, that they are “stone-cold fuck nuts” is almost irresistible. But it is plain to any sort of fair scrutiny that they are not insane: it is merely their beliefs and their way of thinking that are so.

Yet that does not make them any the less disturbing. On the contrary, their demonstration that sane people can embrace an insane outlook is part of what makes them disturbing.

These people seem to have answers to any objections that one might raise against their views. I don't believe it would be possible to make any progress in argument with them (and I certainly would not care to try). What I might think of as an appeal to reason or evidence they would, I imagine, dismiss as relying on a “humanistic” perspective—as contrasted with “God’s” perspective, which is the one that they claim to take. And if I move to explain away their behavior in terms of ignorance and delusion, they will just as readily explain away my outlook as due to the influence of Satan.

Does this mean that there is no rational basis for choosing between my “humanistic” perspective and their supposedly divine one? No; it just means that neither side can persuade the other.

And yet, the matter will not rest there. For no one who accepts empirical evidence, scientific method, and logical and conceptual coherence—all of which may be gathered, very loosely, under the name of “reason”—rather than scripture, dogma, and personal influence as proper sources of authority in judgment can be content to regard such a practice as a mere private taste or predilection. The appeal to reason is an appeal that all human beings make and must make in determining what is the case. But some do so in the service of convictions that are not only implausible in themselves but that have implications that conflict with common experience, common sense, or common decency. They reason, but they are not reasonable.

The people of the Westboro Baptist Church provide one illustration of this phenomenon. Another, I think, is provided by right-winger Alan Keyes, who in an interview recently offered the following account of the movement for marriage rights for same-sex couples : “The aim is not compassion for homosexuals, respect for homosexuals, and all of this; the aim in the mind of these hard-headed, calculating, leftist, Communist totalitarians is to destroy the family and to establish the notion that once you have seized power there is no limit whatsoever to what you can do.” (Recording and transcript at Right Wing Watch.)


  1. Given Monday's events and the nutters who enjoy stirring up trouble with comments about divine judgment, this post was prescient.

  2. Oh, dear; I see what you mean: "Westboro Baptist Church Hails Boston Marathon Explosion, Plans To Picket Funerals" (International Business Times, 16 April 2013). That's the sort of timeliness that I can do without.