On “objective” statistics and political propaganda

Kevin Miller (whom I interview here) wrote a thought-provoking article:

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Writer Samuel Johnson once said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” To be fair, he wasn’t criticizing love of one’s country, he was criticizing so-called “false patriotism,” which was really a cloak for self-interest. By calling a selfish or aggressive act “patriotic,” it somehow becomes heroic. It’s an appeal to emotions in order to distract people from the facts and to stifle dissent–for fear of being labeled a traitor. How this differs from “true patriotism,” I’m not really sure, because in my mind, patriotism is always an expression of self interest–my country above all others. Isaac Asimov_1951_Foundation

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, one of the characters paraphrases this statement by saying, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” I might paraphrase it further to say, “Violence is the first refuge of the incompetent.” But whether tried first or last, resorting to violence is always an admission of defeat–even though it’s often portrayed as an expression of power.

Which brings me to white evangelicals. According to a recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelicals in America report significantly stronger feelings of national pride than any other religious group (68%). They are also “more likely than any other religious group surveyed to believe that God has granted the U.S. a special role in history (84%).” When you pair this with the 2009 Pew Forum study that found 62% of white evangelicals say torture can often or sometimes be justified, this paints a pretty disturbing picture.

As I noted in a previous post, as long as white evangelicals continue to conflate their faith with their country, their primary concern will be security. And if security–self-preservation–is your primary concern, all of your actions will be inherently self-interested. That’s why white evangelicals are both patriotic and violent. It’s a natural and logical expression of manifest destiny.

Unfortunately, as Johnson and Asimov point out, it is also an expression of unscrupulous incompetence, which is why it is most certainly doomed to fail.

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To which I responded:

I think that it’d be good if they gave the same percentages for black, Asian and Hispanic Evangelicals.

What’s more, Evangelicals are extremely diverse. What about those values for Charismatic, Pentecostal, reformed, liberal…Evangelicals?

The danger of such GLOBAL statistics is that they can all too easily lead  to resentment and verbal violence towards people (and confessions)  belonging to the overarching group but not fitting the average norm.

In statistics, a mean or average value isn’t all what matters. Quantities indicating how SCATTERED the sample or population is (variance, |max(S) – min(S)| etc..) can be equally and often much more important.

This fact is all too often forgotten by ideologists (on all corners of the spectrum) who want to forcefully make a point.

Anti-theists use average values concerning inferior scientific and technological achievements in more religious societies for arguing that ALL religions (without any exception) ought to disappear.

This is both morally and rationally abhorrent.

If among the main religions, certain confessions perform as well as secular folks with respect to science, it is fully absurd to say they’re an impediment to progress.

Therefore, before or after any such statement, it would be good to always add a visible disclaimer reminding of this.

I’m not writing this against you but generally against the authors and presenters of all these kinds of research.

I think that if people were fully rational and loving, politics as we know it could not exist.

That said, I completely agree with you that these findings are disturbing.
These people pretend to be the best (or even the only) followers of a God of Love and yet…their fruits do not really match up.

As for patriotism, I don’t think it’s wrong to feel proud of one’s culture and language and wanting to defend them if they’re threatened.
However, it is egregiously wrong to sustain and uphold an imperialistic State triggering bloody wars without any good ground. Or a State allowing horrible discrepancies between the welfare of poor and rich children in the name of an abstract libertarian economic ideology.

I do recognize, however, that some of these Conservatives and Libertarians are good people who are just utterly misguided.

I don’t doubt that Kevin had good intentions by writing this and I don’t want anyone to think the contrary.

But I think we should all be very careful with the way we express ourselves. For words can create reality.

To my mind, what we can say is that (probably) MOST American white Evangelicals hold beliefs which cause much harm. But we should also clearly recognize the existence of many who do not and even actively oppose such excesses.

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Greg Boyd is a great example.

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One thought on “On “objective” statistics and political propaganda

  1. To my mind, what we can say is that (probably) MOST American white Evangelicals hold beliefs which cause much harm.

    Okay. Let’s do a comparison:

        Another exaggeration may have been the conventional view of the reach of scientific rationality. One does not have to look at religion only in order to find this thought plausible. It is amazing what people educated to the highest levels of scientific rationality are prepared to believe by way of irrational prejudices; one only has to look at the political and social beliefs of the most educated classes of Western societies to gain an appreciation of this. Just one case: What Western intellectuals over the last decades have managed to believe about the character of Communist societies is alone sufficient to cast serious doubt on the proposition that rationality is enhanced as a result of scientifically sophisticated education or of living in a modern technological society. (A Far Glory, 30)

    How much damage do we think that the belief of Western intellectuals (many who were atheists) in Soviet-style Communism did to the world? Now, they no longer believe in Soviet-style Communism, but has the mechanism with which they justified that belief been rooted out, or is it still there, justifying something else ridiculous that makes them feel good? After all, to question The Establishment is very much an ‘in’ thing to do, these days!

    Marc, what I’m trying to do here is make it clear that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that statements like yours, above, threaten to indicate that there are some people who, if they’re sinners, just aren’t nearly as bad as the rest. This is very dangerous ground!

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