Apologia of Human Nature: Charlatans, Saints, Hoffer, and Burt Likko’s Query


Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website Yonderandhome.com

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17 Responses

  1. Avatar Saul Degraw

    I don’t know. Yes to err is to human and there is not a human who goes through out life without a major fuck up or two. Sometimes many more but I think the reason a lot of people around our age and younger became aggressively secular is because of the hypocrisy that often seems found in evangelical Christianity. A lot of the ministers ran quasi to very authoritarian regimes that could issue some brutal punishments or feelings to “sinners” (read: outsiders). And then what do you discover, these people lie about their academic qualifications, the sneak around with male sex workers while simultaneously stating that homosexuals deserved to be damned. Possibly multiple times on the same day. Or being pat to a parishoner who is distraught about a pregnancy while simultaneously paying for a mistress to have an abortion.

    Yes, I’ve been a hypocrite. All humans do things that are somewhat to very hypocritical. Life often forces this but a lot of the superstar or not so superstar evangelical leaders/ministers take it to a whole new level. And it is jarring because they are supposed to lead their communities theoretically.

    I’m not Christian and will never be Christian. There are rabbis or really religious Jews who fail at their callings, I remember reading a column by a sex worker who said that a lot of ultra-Orthodox Jews were her clients and she had friends with ultra-Orthodox clients because it allowed them to have sex with non-Jewish women.

    There are also plenty of secular people who lie about academic credentials. I remember a story from the mid 2000s where M.I.T’s director of admissions was found to have forged/lied about her entire academic credentials. IIRC she did not even have a B.A. but she started as a lowly admin officer in the late 1970s and worked her way to the top position. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2007/4/26/mit-admissions-dean-resigns-after-fake/

    But the reason it galls me more from the Evangelical world is because it used to rule over us mere mortals and dissenters. “Who are you to question by belief that conservative, evangelical Christianity is the only rational way to view the world? I have degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. You are just a lawyer from a middling regional law school with a bachelor’s from a selective but not ultra-selective liberal arts college.” Same for the followers who are so impressed by the credentials of those like Zachrias. “We hate Oxford and Harvard and Yale and all those other godless, leftist hells except when it produces someone we like.”

    Frankly, I am not sure why I should be forgiving of someone who thinks I am likely to spend all of eternity in torture because I reject the idea that Christ is the Messiah. I don’t think Ravi Zacharias deserves that fate. I don’t even think Fred Phelps deserves that fate.Report

  2. Avatar veronica d

    I agree with Saul. Yes indeed, Christianity is a human institution with all the flaws and foibles of any other human institution. Likewise, the OP is quite right in seeing religion as a flavor of Hoffer’s “mass movements.”

    But that’s a problem. Christianity is supposed to be the “correct one.” It’s not supposed to be a “mass movement” like any other. If the church becomes a nest of grifters, if the church cannot even manage its own house, then why should we trust it in other areas? Why should we believe this organization is run according to the revealed word of God, and not just people with all of their flaws?

    I’m not sure that it can be both, at least not without watering down the meaning of “revealed word of God.”Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw

    Another way to look at this though is when should the fact that people keep on doing certain activities mean we should reevaluate alleged moral priors?

    If Orthodox Jewish men keep on seeking avenues for sex with non-Jewish women, maybe, just maybe it means that there is nothing wrong with people from different backgrounds having non-marital and totally recreational sex together. Same with the fact that abstinence does not seem to work as a method of sex education.

    Yet people still seem to stick with old beliefs because of needs for in groups and out groups and/or because there is an aspect to conservatism which is about the assertion and maintenance of privilege where they get to dictate behavior but not follow the rules.Report

    • Avatar veronica d in reply to Saul Degraw

      One problem faced by the more rigid, orthodox religious groups is this: if they change their beliefs, how do they reconcile that with the fact they claim inerrant truth?

      For example, the Mormon church used to teach that black people were spiritually “less than” white people. Later they changed that policy.

      I’m glad they changed that policy. Black people drawn to Mormonism, whatever their reasons, deserve to be treated equally.

      The question is, however, what changed? Did God change? He is supposed to be an eternal perfect being. Was there a “new revelation”? Perhaps, but that seems weird. No one saw an archangel appear. Golden tablets didn’t float down from the heavens. There hasn’t been (so far as we can tell) a new messiah.

      I suspect that people changed. Moreover, they did so as a reflection of the changing mores of the broader culture.

      I’m glad they changed with the mores of the broader culture. Racism is pretty awful. Becoming less racist is good. However, they claim to be representatives of an inerrant God. How did their forebears get it so wrong?

      It’s all very curious.

      I’m glad I’m an empiricist. If I change my mind, I can just say, “Well, I learned new stuff and changed my mind.”Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to veronica d

        Another way to look at it is that people really, really have a hard time admitting that they might hold minority views.

        Like Andrew, I am not surprised that there is a difference between belief/support and willpower. For a secular example, there are lots of people in San Francisco who are clearly not following shelter-in-place/stay home. This is especially true on days when the weather is nice and the weather has been really nice for the last two weeks and into this week. Nearly perfect temperatures, not too much of a breeze, sunny. The beaches were jammed packed, I could see this from my walks which provided clear views of Ocean Beach and Baker Beach. Golden Gate Park was filled with groups ranging from 6 to 10 having picnics. I highly doubt that these people are all Trumpists or living together. A lot of them would tell you that they supported shelter-in-place if asked probably. They could also probably come up with an elaborate defense of why they were not breaking shelter in place.

        Yet these seems to really upset a lot of people with more lefty politics than mine on LGM who wanted a real conversation about how all of this would lead to a “real conversation” on changing priorities any ending everything they hated about consumer capitalism. They hate hate hate that even California seems to be accelerating (albeit in a confused and uncooordinated way) towards lifting shelter-in-place restrictions.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to veronica d

        Religious evangels are to theologians what diet pill salesmen are to medical nutritionists.

        Which is to say, the most enthusiastic proponents speak in terms of certitude and inerrancy, while those who are the source of their knowledge speak in more measured terms, and are able to revise their answers based on new discoveries of fact.

        And in theological circles, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize you were fully human” is one such new fact that can overturn previous pronouncements as is, “Oops, we were so blinded by our anger and fear we burned people to death who were innocent.”Report

        • Avatar veronica d in reply to Chip Daniels

          Let me be clear, I am quite aware that many religious people are not fundamentalists.

          I don’t think it splits between “educated theologians” versus “non-educated”. I’m sure you can find plenty of examples on both sides. Quite a few people use their smarts to defend bad ideas. Quite a few people can see the fundamental humanity in other people without any book learning at all.

          I’m pretty sure Jesus made this exact point in a variety of ways.

          Anyway, I think it has more to do with something deep inside each person. One might even call it love.


          I was thinking the other day about how we can conceptualize diversity and tolerance with regard to religion. My take: We should be accepting of all faith traditions. However, that doesn’t obligate us to accept every possible expression of every faith tradition. In short, we have the good ol’ “paradox of tolerance.”

          We should tolerate all faiths insofar as the particular expression of each faith participates in the bargain — or as the motto of a local queer dance event puts it: “all are welcome who welcome all.”

          This reveals the sinister trick of the intolerant. They demand tolerance of their intolerance.

          We should refuse, obviously. Nothing new here. This has been discussed at length.

          Anyway, I will always stan for my diverse and tolerant religious comrades. They come from every faith tradition. Thus I have no patience with general Christian-bashing, or Jew-hatred, or Muslim-bashing, etcetera. Fuck that shit.

          By contrast, fundamentalists of any stripe can pound sand.Report

          • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to veronica d

            I like the distinction between faith traditions and expressions of those traditions, and I don’t think I’ve thought about it quite that way before.Report

            • Avatar veronica d in reply to gabriel conroy

              My father is a Christian minister. If you asked him what is important in the bible, I suspect he’d talk about love and stuff, as expected. However, if you asked him specifically which stories in the bible resonate with him, his examples would certainly include Jesus among the lepers, or Jesus washing the feet of lowly people. He also seems rather fond of the ways Jesus rejected the rigid, “bookish” authorities. These are the aspects of Christianity that inspire him.

              My father took a stand for gay marriage before it was popular. For this, he was forced out of the ministry he founded. He moved to another ministry, where he thrived.

              In community college, I had an intro-to-philosophy teacher who, as he explained in class one day, grew up in a racist family. He told of a trip he went on, while attending seminary, where he sat beside a black man. Later, they all gathered in prayer. He ended up holding hands with that black man.

              He claims that, after that moment, he could no longer be a racist. He could no longer look down on a fellow child of God. He took a stand. His family ended up rejecting him.

              Both of these men are from a Christian faith tradition. Both are admirable people. This is not a contradiction. For each, their faith is a positive force in their life. In them, their faith inspires compassion, tolerance, and love.

              I don’t need to provide examples of contrasting sorts of Christians. We know them well.

              Between people like, on the one hand, my father and teacher, and on the other hand, right wing fundamentalists, there is an enormous gulf. Both groups have the same faith tradition, but very different expression. The first sort will thrive in a diverse, tolerant culture. The latter simply cannot.

              When the latter sort claim that a tolerant society must cater to them, in order to be truly diverse, we should see through this rhetorical trickery. They are opposed to diversity and tolerance.

              “Tolerance” doesn’t mean a moral blank slate free of judgement. It means, “All are welcome who welcome all.”

              (Edit: I know I’ve told these stories many times. I think they’re worth retelling. Admirable people should be admired.)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to veronica d

        Orthodox Judaism isn’t exactly claiming to have inerrant truth in the same way that Christianity is, mainly because they don’t believe the entire world should become Orthodox Jews or that bad things will happen to them in the after life if they do not. Orthodox Judaism is really orthopraxy, right practices not right beliefs. They argue that Jews should follow Jewish law and even among the Orthodox there are big disagreements about what this means.Report

  4. Avatar Burt Likko

    I feel just a bit of an obligation to comment, having been name-checked in the very title of the post.

    While I see the OP’s point of the similarity of the paths of corruption followed by (some) politicians and clerics, I think there’s something to contrast.

    Through sunshine laws and other kinds of publicity, we can see who is giving money to the formerly sincere politician, who has bought access to her. It’s usually not that hard to understand what it is that the politician’s counterpart in corruption seeks: “deregulate my industry,” “give me a position of influence,” “subsidize my business,” etc., quatenus visibilis. Who and what corrupts Jim Inhofe are materially different than who and what corrupts Bob Menendez (assuming both started out as sincere) and so we on the outside can understand what’s going on, and maybe even do legal or political things to mitigate it.

    In the case of clerical corruption, it’s easy to see how the practical needs of an expansive ministry is one way pathway is opened to the vigorous pursuit of money and thus transmogrify into the love of money within the cleric. This seems to me to be a rawer expression of the love of money (see 1 Timothy 6:10) than the politician’s pursuit of campaign donations. (This presumes, of course, that the cleric in question at least started out with sincerity and free of outright avarice; MMV based on the individual.)

    In other words, the politician’s pursuit of money begins with a need to exchange access and influence for the financial support needed to propel political campaigning. The cleric’s pursuit of money becomes internalized within the cleric’s own heart and mind. This has a less direct, but still tangible, effect upon the world in that the very notion of moral authorities deserving esteem and consideration is diminished and the messages of morality which they dispense are tainted.

    Neither flavor of corruption is good, of course; we should hope that both our temporal and spiritual leaders are free of such moral corrosion for these and probably many other reasons. But cynically, we also know better.Report

  5. Avatar gabriel conroy

    I believe the problem of clerics succumbing to the temptations of fame and wealth and the problem of politicians succumbing to similar temptations are special cases of a general problem most of us face.

    I believe we’re all hypocrites (as Saul seems to have implied in his first comment above). We all grow too attached to those comforts we are fortunate enough to have. If we are stronger than others in some ways, or have some advantage over others in some ways, we face the temptation to harm those who are at a disadvantage. When Andrew says in his OP, “[b]ut for almost all humans, the power and the money will win, because they are human,” the proper response, in my opinion, is “that but for the grace of god choose any of us.”

    Those, like me, who are fortunate enough to have had a good formal education, to have (knock on wood, for now) a good job, to be in (relatively, for now, and, again, knock on wood) good health–there are countless ways we choose to harm others, sometimes without giving it much thought. Malice is there, but we have the opportunity to “forget” it.

    I say clerics (and politicians) are “special cases” because they cause greater harm and on a more systematic level. There are probably solutions for very bad actors who end up violating some type of public trust in a way there aren’t solutions for addressing the evil we all are tempted to choose. So we should probably focus on those special cases. But it’s worth staying aware of the beam in our own eye.Report

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