Not a “paradox” at all

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The article, The Christian Paradox is making the rounds. It starts:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife…Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture.

Perhaps the readers of Harper’s believe that Christianity is something you find in the Gospels (sola scriptura writ large), but if you are an unbelieving anthropologist you would say that a religion is lived by the people who profess it, and it is out here, not in there. This is relevant to the thread below where we discuss the future of (North) American Islam. If you are a believer in religion X, you are going to assent to creedal assertions a, b, c…, and the intersection of those assertions help define what a religion is fundamentally. But, if you are not a believer a religion is nothing fundamentally except for what the people who espouse it say it is, and to make that judgement you need to weight various semantical nuances in their proper context, ascertaining the character of a religion is not an act of faith but a cognitive process of category creation.

Apropos of this, in the first chapter of Knowledge, Concepts, and Categories I learned that:

  1. People tend to create concepts or categories with OR conditions more than AND conditions (that is, a loose set of probable characteristics rather than a tightly integrated set of necessary traits).
  2. People are aware of the correlated variables within the concept.
  3. Context matters in how people perceive a category.
  4. Repeated input can result in adaption via inductive reasoning so that the center of gravity of a concept can shift over time.
  5. Not all traits have additive effects (ie; not “linearly separable”).
  6. And people tend to attribute essences to a category.

I think the last is a problem in light of public policy disputes because we no longer live in bands of 100 people, we exist in a world where macroscale constructs which exhibit flux and continuity are the norm. 10,000 years ago there might have been 50 Muguloo tribesmen, and you could make pretty robust generalizations of those Muguloos, to the point where a distribution-population way of thinking was unnecessary. Today, you have 12 million Jews, or 1.2 billion Muslims, tens of millions of liberals and conservatives…but we still talk as if they were just a band of Muguloos.1 Additionally, the disjunctive tendency of categories (trait A OR trait B OR trait C) also causes confusions because people disagree about the particulars but never make their axioms explicit so that it is often the norm to just talk past each other. More later….

1 – The closer a category or concept comes to one’s own self-reference the more nuanced, precise and qualified one will get about defining it. Muguloos be damned!


  1. Godd heavens, Razib, what are you doing reading Harper’s
    In a way this reminds me of the Baptist kids who would earnestly inform me that Roman Catholics were not Christians. And I did not, as a matter of fact, know my Bible. The “tradition”, however, I had a better grasp of. (Still can recite the Nicene Creed. The Ten Commandments I only remember via a mnemonic jingle learned in 2nd grade.)

  2. And I did not, as a matter of fact, know my Bible.  
    well, the oversimplification is that the protestants have the bible (or christ), and the catholics have the church. some of the church fathers in fact were explicit that lay persons who approached the bible without a scholarly background were liable to confuse the meaning of the text (not to mention the translational issues from hebrew to greek to latin).

  3. “Baptist kids who would earnestly inform me that Roman Catholics were not Christians.”  
    They meant “Christ is our central diety” while you have the “Holy Trinity”.

  4. Actually, I belive “the gods help those who help themselves” is originally from Aesop’s fables. Although, as Mart Twain pointed out, people will generally treat your ideas with more respect if you say Ben Franklin said it first.

    They meant “Christ is our central diety” while you have the “Holy Trinity”.
    baptists come from the tradition where you have to confess your belief that jesus christ is your lord and savior when you have free will (infant baptism isn’t enough), and then you are baptized into the community of believers. this “born again” concept is common among many groups in the USA that espouse “evangelicalism”* so that “christians” are those who are born again, while “non-christians” are those who aren’t, ergo, non-evangelical protestants and non-protestant forms of christianity included. this is a simplification, as many evangelicals do not harbor antipathy toward roman catholics these days, but, it clarifies the linguistic confusion (and explains why evangelical christians could speak of “christians” being persecuted in the US when 80-85% of americans are self-identified christians, as they are actually speaking of the narrow-sense of born again christians who were baptized into the faith as adults). 
    * in many protestant vs. catholic contexts, evangelicalism (ie; german speaking working) means lutheranism, but that is not so here in the USA where until recently protestantism was normative.

  6. Yeah  
    As a person of Suth asian descent, it freaked me out, a few years ago, when my Puerto Rican secretary converteed to some evengelical denomination from her Roman Catholic ubringing and then dutifully informed me that she was now ?Christian?.  
    What did she think she was before??? I obviously didn?t ask !

  7. Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife 
    Good one.  
    Except that she would have never put up with all his boozing.

  8. I believe that “evangelical” was a tendency within the German Lutheran church, a revival group distinguished from the Sunday Christians. But not like our evangelicals.  
    The point of the “The Christian Paradox” (which I haven’t read) was probably that classificational or sociological Christians actually don’t really involve themselves much. The serious Christians who actually do study the Bible (or do related Catholic works) are relatively few. Some of the political dynamic of today comes from the ability of serious, Bible-reading Christians to convince nominal Christians that if they at least oppose abortion and gay marriage, they’re a bit closer to salvation.

  9. Bible-reading Christians to convince nominal Christians that if they at least oppose abortion and gay marriage, they’re a bit closer to salvation. 
    well, one thing that seculars often don’t know is that there are big fissures within the “evangelical” community. the reformed-calvinists types are pretty ‘rationalist’ in many ways and really preoccupied with scripture, while the baptists are less fixated on such things and tend to be more pietistic/devotional and the pentecostal are twithin’ a forth constantly. my experience with baptists and pentecostals indicates that they really don’t know the bible that well either, but the reformed tend to have the details down. i mean, america’s premier christian philosopher, alvin plantiga, is reformed, so that tells you something…which all indicates that standard theological differences aren’t as relevant in the conservative vs. non-conservative split, as the reformed as often splinters from presbyterian churches which are much larger, while there is an american baptist church which is a smaller, more liberal, version of the southern baptist church.

  10. Go on with you, I doubt if 12% of Americans have ever heard of Joan of Arc. Mind you, as a cheerful atheist I rather agree with the Baptist children “Roman Catholics were not Christians.” I think of catholics as being like Mormons i.e they follow christianity but with bits added on. In the RC case, attributing divine properties to mortals – infallible Pope, priests who can forgive you your sins, and adding a neolithic fertility goddess on to the Trinity. Unitarians, I suppose, are christians with bits taken off – I sympathise, because I can’t understand the Trinity business either.

  11. Commandments…our Czech Foreign Affairs Minister, who is a member of christian party and never forgets to mention this, wasn’t able to name 10 commandments either – I think he stopped somewhere around 6. I and my atheist husband were able to name 8.

  12. “I doubt if 12% of Americans have ever heard of Joan of Arc” 
    I was watching a rerun of a sixties sitcom where a little girl was given Joan of Arc as an example of female accomplishment. This was a strictly secular sitcom (any other kind?). There was a recent show entitled “Joan of Arcadia”, probably a take-off of the Joan of Arc’s handle. I don’t watch much tv, but it was apparently one of those too good to last. George Bernard Shaw wrote a play about her and movies about her still flicker on late night tv. 
    Many girls read biographies of historical personnages avidly in grade school. Most do know about Joan of Arc, unless they are immigrants from a non-European or non-catholic countries. What they don’t know is that Joan of Arc was related to the pope of the day,. according to those who have had access to the Vatican archives.  
    Oddly, Mark Twain, that francophobe, considered her to be one of the greatest human beings to ever live, and also one of the most wronged. Twain was a spiritual person in his way, but quite hostile toward the usual suspects among religions.

  13. The commandment most often forgotten is the one against coveting thy neighbor’s ass. The Ninth, IIRC.

  14. John, 
    Well that’s one most people would probably like to forget, especially if their neighbour happens to be Beyonce ;-)

  15. Actually, it’s the Tenth. Even I forgot it.

  16. “What they don’t know is that Joan of Arc was related to the pope of the day,. according to those who have had access to the Vatican archives.” 
    I thought they made her a saint after England left the Catholic Church because she was fighting against the English and this was the church’s way of extending the middle finger to England. Which would make the Catholic Church totally hypocritical on that issue because I think the Vatican was neutral during actual fighting of the 100 years war. Maybe not, I’m not sure. But maybe this pope relation has something to do with it, although she was probably made a saint many years after both she and the pope were dead.

  17. Nobody knows nuthin’ about anything is what you find in all surveys that dare ask people questions with factual answers.  
    What percentage of the public can tell Iraq from Iran? Or even knows they are different countries? Pollsters won’t ask because they don’t want to find out — they like the myth that public opinion is well-informed because it keeps them in business.

  18. “But maybe this pope relation has something to do with it, although she was probably made a saint many years after both she and the pope were dead.”  
    Joan of Arc was canonized in solemn ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica on May 16th, 1920, long after she was burned at Rouen, May, 1431, age 19. To be declared a saint, the candidate must be credited with a number of miracles that even the appointed “Devil’s Advocate” priest cannot explain away. Two crucial ones attributed to Joan did occur in the years leading up to 1920, ergo, her canonization. That’s how the Church saw it anyway.  
    I doubt Joan’s fighting against the English had anything to do with her veneration. Most people many years after the 100 yrs war, did not look at this in a political light, although Charles DeGaul did declare that he was Joan of Arc [quoi?]. Quite charming really, for a white haired old general.  
    Nations and kings come and go, and were god fickle, it could be told by his favor. In the grander picture, the politics of the situation was of little import. The church condemned Joan for heresy, so sainting her was a de-facto admission of its own mistake so long ago. It was her ego-less and unwavering faith that commended her to saintly veneration, not her politics.  
    Comparing this to suicide terrorism, Joan only fought other armed persons, in combat, and when she was told she would be burned at the stake, she got very upset indeed. She’d been hoping for beheading, but reconciled herself to her martyrdom. btw, the English only burned alive for 2 offenses, and witchcraft was not one them. They were heresy and treason. 
    As far as her relation to the pope, I got that from an ex-protestant who lived in Switzerland and had some communication with persons “high-up” in the churches’ administrative order.

  19. I could only remember nine, dammit! I forgot about one on cussing.

  20. “The church condemned Joan for heresy” 
    Maybe I should read the history instead of speculating, but I imagine they might have called her a heretic because they didn’t like the idea that young women could make some claim to spiritual authority because she thought that she could hear God’s voice. They may have wanted to reserve that for people high up in the church hierarchy. Either way, that could be consistent with the church either being on the English side, the French side, or neutral during the actual conflict. There may be some modern interpretation of her hearing God’s voice that suggests she was suffering from schizophrenia, but that seems inconsistent with the rest of what she supposedly did.

  21. mort, it’s not like reading the history requires anything beyond google and wikipedia. anyway, it was more politics and pragmatism than religion (she wasn’t always victorious, nevertheless she didn’t like to listen to counsel from others).

  22. It’s actually a little tough to find something on Rome’s stance during the 100 years war. I didn’t look for reasons why she was canonized. Wikipedia says this: 
    “Jeanne (Joan) was put on trial by a hand-picked gathering of pro-English clergy, who charged her with heresy. The trial, held in the seat of the English occupation government at Rouen, beginning on January 9, 1431, was conducted in flagrant violation of a number of basic Inquisitorial guidelines. The accusations were a large and motley list, unbacked by any of the direct witness evidence required under the Church’s rules…….She was alleged to be in opposition to the Church, although eyewitnesses confirmed that this was based on a distortion: she only objected to being tried by pro-English clergy who were intent on convicting her. She appealed instead to the Pope, but this was rejected……In addition to the various illegal procedures and the denial of her appeal to the Pope, she was also kept in a secular prison guarded by English soldiers instead of in an ecclesiastical prison, as the Church’s rules mandated…..A set of 12 articles of accusation, which the notaries later confirmed had been drawn up without their knowledge and without any correction of the many errors contained within, was sent to the pro-English University of Paris, which dutifully recommended conviction.” 
    I’d bet the Pope was neutral during the Hundred Years War and the clergy of both England and France generally cheered for their own side. Probably a bit like a modern war in which churchmen of all denominations support their own country even though the opposing country has many members of their own denomination.

  23. I await Harper’s snide deconstruction of Islam — you know, all those ignorants who don’t realize that “death to Israel/America/Britain” isn’t written in the Koran.

  24. “ which churchmen of all denominations support their own country even though the opposing country has many members of their own denomination.” 
    Probably right there. That’s about it.  
    btw, schizophrenia doesn’t fit, though “hearing voices” is associated with that condition. Joan’s personality was down to earth and in the moment. She was a hale gal well met, from all decriptions (one observant male comrade noted her “delightful” breasts–soldiers lived rough in those and slept in the almost altogether you see, yet all agreed to her chasteness, and she was a proven virgin at the time her execution. From all accounts, she was not bad looking; it was her decision to remain chaste, and essential to her mission. There was nothing in her behavior or descriptions of her personality to suggest mental illness.  
    A psychologist(name forgotten) remarked that the functions of genius require a sound and cognitively functioning mind; the madness of genius rarely results from a mal-functioning mind, but from a mal-functioning heart [emotions]. Joan’s mind functioned only too well.

  25. Re 10 commandments. I’m with John Hartung; there aren’t ten commandments to begin with. I think it shakes out to five or so. 
    There is no punctuation in the original texts, and so we get a single commandment enforcing dual moral standards (you won’t covet the wife of, or steal the donkey of, or bear false witness against, your coethnic).

  26. “Anon,” i deleted one of your two comments because i discourage anonymous posts, makes it hard to keep track of people. please make up a handle in the future.

  27. Joan of arc was burnt to death by the Burgdarians ( duchy of greater Belgium basically) and this had notthing to do with the Pope and everything to do with clashes between kingdoms that kingdom clergy got brought in on.  
    Joan of Arc was made a saint early in the 20th century (I think by the last Benedict pope) partly I think to try and reach out to the v anti-clerical French government and partly to encourage the repressed French Catholic Church-it had nothing really to do with England and the 100 years war the motivations.

  28. I would also say that one should be carefull about the “god helps those who helps themselves” people may belive that that is the implication of scripture either from the stories of Abraham, Joseph or other wordly storeisi nt he bible, or many of the “god blessed them and they prospered because they were good” or even in an Arminian way (and American christianity is v Arminian) that god saves and sends to heaven those who reach out to his grace