Unintended Consequences

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, thus launching the Protestant Reformation. Originally intended to provoke improvements within the Catholic Church, this movement had unexpected consequences: a whole new form of Christianity, and a whole new basis for Christian doctrinal authority. The Protestants broke away from the Catholics, and declared that Scripture, and not any man or institution, was the sole authority for Christian faith and practice.

This, too, had unintended consequences. Because sola scriptura effectively isolated the interpretation of the Bible from the centuries of Church Tradition that had previously dictated the intended meaning of the Gospel, Protestants ended up practicing, not just the priesthood of all believers, but the virtual papacy of each individual believer. Any man could tell you that you were wrong, based on his own understanding of the Bible, but as a believer in sola scriptura, you need not listen to him. Your own understanding of God’s Word took precedence, because after all, which are you going to believe: what man tells you, or what God tells you? And this, too, had unintended consequences.

Protestantism began to splinter. Those who were more scholarly interpreted the Bible in terms of grammar and history. The more mystical believers rejected scholasticism and relied instead on the illumination of the Holy Spirit to convey the true meaning of Scripture. Some put more emphasis on divine law, others on divine grace; some on free will and others on divine sovereignty. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Without a God around to resolve the issue of whose interpretation was correct, the various groups had to rely on the force of their own arguments to try and establish what God’s will really was. All too soon, these arguments turned ugly, and began to resort to force of arms as well as force of words. Protestant enclaves formed, minorities were persecuted (even within Protestantism), and full-scale wars broke out. People died, people fled, and no consensus was reached about the true meaning of Scripture.

Exhausted by bloody wars, and enlightened somewhat by humanistic ideals, the West (including the newly-founded United States of America) adopted the principle of religious tolerance, the idea that freedom of religion was a virtue, not a heresy. But this, too, is an idea that has unintended consequences. It’s a good idea, mind you, but it has some subtle implications that have been making themselves increasingly obvious of late.

Implicit in the idea of religious tolerance is the idea that everyone has the right to believe whatever they like. This, in turn, tends to imply that all ideas are of equal worth, and therein lies the rub. If all religions are of equal worth, that means they are all equally false. They can’t all be true, because they contradict each other. And yet we value them and protect them anyway, which implies that they are worthy and meaningful despite their failure to be true. And that implies that truth itself doesn’t really matter as much.

We see this in the rise of postmodernism, and in the peculiarly American approach to evangelical politics. Gay marriage is banned in California through the cooperative efforts of Focus on the Family (a conservative Christian group) and the Mormon church, an unholy alliance that would have been anathema a century ago. We insert “under God” into the pledge of allegiance on the grounds that it’s part of a great “Judeo-Christian” tradition of government reverence, despite the historic conflict between the Jewish idea of God and the Christian concept of Trinity. People band together and cast their votes based on lowest-common-denominator appeals to “universal” religious principles, in blind disregard for the religious differences that led past generations to fight to the death for what they regarded as essential and uncompromising principles.

All this has the unintended consequence of changing America from a democracy to a mediocracy (as in “mediocre”). If all ideas are of equal worth, why shouldn’t I vote for Sarah Palin, or whoever else I feel is the same kind of person as me, with my kind of interests, values, and qualities? Who cares what her actual qualifications are? And conversely, if people are going to vote based on a desire to see their own, “equally-valid” ideas represented in government, why shouldn’t I, as a politician, run a campaign based on appeal to the lowest common denominators, in order to attract the widest basis of support? Who cares what my qualifications are, if all ideas are equally valid.

The result is that we no longer value—and even actively disdain—any kind of superiority of ideas and understanding. “Elite,” which means “superior, and of rare excellence and quality,” becomes a nasty word, hurled at one’s enemies to discredit them. We don’t want good leaders, we want leaders who are just like us. After all, all ideas are of equal worth, so who cares whether anyone is actually right or not?

Religious freedom is an important principle, and needs to be preserved and protected. At the same time, however, we need to address the problem of people’s naive assumption that all ideas are of equal worth. We need to be free to criticize bad ideas, and to point out why they are wrong. We need to value those whose opinions are informed and educated and experienced. We need to pursue “elite” standards of excellence, in politics, and in science, and in all areas of life.

This is not just a question of respecting other people’s beliefs. We need to respect their right to believe what they want, but the price we must pay for religious freedom is that we must also support the freedom of speech that lets us squarely address the flaws in those beliefs when they are unrealistic, wrong-headed, and poorly-reasoned. Yes, it can make us uncomfortable, but the alternative is to endure the relentless degradation and collapse of our society, as people refuse to face the facts, and make political, economic, and military decisions based on wrong assumptions.

All men are created equal, but not all ideas are. We can believe in stupid things if we want, but the price we pay for this freedom is that people can tell us our ideas are stupid, and we have to let them.

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Posted in Politics, Society. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Unintended Consequences”

  1. David D.G. Says:

    Excellent piece! I’m reminded of the descriptions of historical links that led to various technological innovations, as related in James Burke’s documentary series “Connections” and “The Day The Universe Changed.” “Unintended consequences” is a fine way of putting it.

    ~David D.G.

  2. Pliny-the-in-Between Says:

    An excellent posting on a subject that should be common sense but clearly isn’t. In conjunction with efforts to brand critical thinking and scientific objectivity as evidence of a closed mind, this insidious (and ironic) movement to make it appear as if everything is of equal value (promoted by people who clearly believe otherwise) often seems like an effort to so confuse the populace so that those in power can more easily insert some of Orwell’s Newfacts into the public consciousness. Unfortunately it seems to work very well.