How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
On June 21st, Donald Trump announced his Evangelical Advisory Board—a group of 25 Christian leaders who have agreed to consult the Republican presidential candidate on matters of faith when called upon. While not everyone on the advisory board officially endorses Trump, it appears that most share a favorable view of him.
One of Trump’s new advisors, Chicago megachurch pastor James MacDonald, claims he does not endorse Trump (or any candidate); however, he has defended others’ decision to do so, even appealing to science at one point to justify his argument. In a blog post back in January, MacDonald attempted to defend Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. from criticism after Falwell gave his public endorsement of Trump:
I was so encouraged to see Jerry Falwell, Jr., (not a pastor) state publicly and without apology his intent to vote for Donald Trump. I haven’t even decided who I will vote for, but I found his arguments sound, even compelling on several levels… While at Liberty University, I was blessed to sit down with Jerry for a few minutes and found him humble, remarkably capable, and wonderfully centered, given the immensity of what he carries and does.
As MacDonald’s defense of Falwell continues, however, his article takes a surprising rhetorical turn: he appeals to science to show that Falwell is in a better position than most people to know who would make a good president:
Speaking of people who carry a lot, I read an article recently that blew my mind. It describes a Cornell University study which directly correlates a person’s skill level with their ability to accurately assess their true skill level in that area. In other words, people who are good at something are also good at knowing whether they are good at it. And that is an immense dilemma. When our country was founded, being the president wasn’t much more complex than running a used car lot—but that has really changed through 240 years. Jerry Falwell, Jr., is effectively building and managing a multi-billion dollar organization, and for that reason he is, according to this study, in a much better place than the average person to assess who is capable of being an effective President of the USA…
A moment’s reflection here reveals two things: (1) MacDonald grossly misapplies the scientific study he mentions—it has no implications for Falwell’s (or anyone else’s) president-choosing abilities whatsoever; and (2) if we attempted to correctly apply the study, it may ironically lead us to an opposite conclusion than MacDonald intended—namely, that Trump thinks of himself as a far better candidate than he actually would be if elected.
MacDonald’s summary of the study is basically correct: people who are good at X also tend to know if they’re good at X. Someone who is good at math, for instance, will also be likely to have an accurate view of their own mathematical abilities—they will not think they are a better mathematician than they actually are. In particular, the study found that a self-awareness of one’s own limitations in a given skill area is directly connected to one’s actual skill level in that area.
Despite his accurate summary of the study, however, MacDonald turns right around and misapplies it. He tries to claim that because Falwell runs a multi-billion dollar organization—a job that MacDonald assumes is similar to being President of the United States—he is in a better position to know who else would be good at that kind of job. In other words, MacDonald is arguing that people who are good at X are also good at knowing if other people are good at X.
Whether or not his claim is true, the study MacDonald cites (which he links to three times for emphasis) in no way supports his argument. It finds a connection between one’s skill level and one’s awareness of self-limitations—not awareness of others’ limitations. There is no connection between being good at something and being good at knowing if other people would be good at it—at least not according to this study. So unless you are specifically a highly skilled “best-president-chooser,” it turns out that science has no implications for the trustworthiness of your vote, or anyone else’s. In short, Falwell is no more qualified to decide who would make a good president than your average informed citizen.
But what if we were to correctly apply the study MacDonald references, though? Would it have any implications for a Trump vote? Maybe, but only if we apply it to Trump himself. Remember, the study found a connection between skill level and awareness of one’s own abilities and limitations—i.e., the more skilled you are at something, the more likely you are to have an accurate knowledge of your skill level. But the reverse is also true: it also found that those who were completely incompetent had the most over-inflated view of their abilities. They were too ignorant to even know how unskilled they are.
Now ask yourself (and try to keep a straight face): does Trump have a modest, down-to-earth, level-headed estimation of his presidential abilities? Or does he seem to have an inflated view of those abilities—one that also reveals ignorance of the serious challenges of the job?
To many, the answer is obvious; examples of his overconfidence are too numerous to even cite. From insisting he will force Mexico to pay for the wall to tweeting “I alone can solve” the problem of radical Islam, there seems to be no upper limit to Trump’s egotistical claims.
That said, Trump does seem keenly aware of his own abilities when it comes to one thing: getting votes. He’s a master at marketing; he knows how to craft the right message at the right time to persuade his target audience. But being good at getting votes is not the same as being a good president; electability does not imply presidential competency. No, if this study tells us anything about the election, it is that Trump’s overconfident bloviating should give any voter pause in casting their vote for him.
There is, however, another study that could give us insight into the rationalizations some Christians are offering to justify a Trump vote. Before I discuss it, though, consider how MacDonald ends his defense of Falwell:
That’s why I was upset to see people who have never carried anything heavier than a book, sounding off about Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s decision to endorse Donald Trump. The fact is that the study referenced above indicates that not only are most of us not capable of discerning the person most able to help our country, but the more sure we are of our ability to make the best choice, the less likely we actually are able.
The stated purpose of MacDonald’s argument, then, is to call for humility and freedom among Christians to disagree on political matters—a noble goal, and one that I agree with. And I appreciate that as a pastor, he will not give an official endorsement to any political candidate. But because of how MacDonald chose to make his point—by wrongly appealing to misrepresented science to argue that Falwell knows more than you about who should be president—his argument comes across as authoritarian. Even attempting to be charitable, it is hard to interpret MacDonald as saying anything other than, “Don’t criticize your leaders on this election. They know better than you. It’s science.”
To be clear: it is not my intention to pick on MacDonald, nor do I wish to attack him, his church, or his ministry. Rather, I am critiquing the logic of his argument because I think it is a good example of a broader trend among evangelicals who are trying to rationalize support for Trump.When our Christian leaders misrepresent the legitimate authority of science or Scripture—especially in service to politics—they deserve to be challenged.
And that’s where the other study comes in. According to a widely reported study conducted by Matthew MacWilliams, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Trump supporters share an affinity for authoritarianism. MacDonald’s argument, which appears to have some authoritarian overtones, fits nicely within this trend—and that should give us pause.
Authority is necessarily a part of the Christian faith. We recognize, for example, the authority of Scripture, the authority of Jesus, and so on. Science, too, is a legitimate authority for Christians (or at least it should be)—after all, God’s Creation “reveals knowledge,” as the psalmist says. Yet it is precisely because we recognize these higher authorities that we constantly strive for balance in the relationship between our human authorities and individual autonomy. If we are members of a church, for example, then we voluntarily submit to the spiritual authority of the pastors and elders there. But that does not mean that we can’t think for ourselves, or that we let them tell us who to vote for, or that we can’t respectfully criticize their political stances.
So when Christian leaders who have large audiences—whether they’re MacDonald, Falwell, Dobson, or others—begin telling their followers that they’re not capable of discerning for themselves who should be president, but their leaders are, and that we should therefore take their word for it and not criticize them, we should be concerned. Very concerned. To even suggest that we can’t critique our leaders’ social or political views is to invite a future with less freedom for everyone except those in power.
Science can’t justify a Trump vote, but it can help us understand why some Christian leaders are attempting to do so. And even though authority is a part of our faith, authoritarianism (in any form) should never be. When our Christian leaders misrepresent the legitimate authority of science or Scripture—especially in service to politics—they deserve to be challenged.
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