Monday, August 20, 2012

The Akin Conundrum: Why Do Christians Believe Weird Things?

Over the weekend, acting Representative and Senatorial hopeful Todd Akin swallowed his own foot and may have crapped out a victory for his opponent Claire McCaskill. Check out his remarks in the video below.

The key line from this is "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." This was in the context of a discussion on abortion, and he's basically saying that when a woman is raped, she almost certainly won't get pregnant.

The world heard this, shouted "What the fuck?", and proceeded to hammer him on Twitter and Facebook. Romney's distancing himself and Akin started walking his statement back within a few hours. Nate Silver is predicting that this one gaffe could cost Akin the race. How did this happen?

It's a perplexing bit of rhetoric. First there's the hideous choice of words--legitimate rape. As opposed to what, exactly? But there was also a sort of measured earnestness. Notice how he couches his words: "From what I understand from doctors". He's trying to legitimize his statement with an appeal to an outside authority. He also plays the victim just a little when starts his statement: "People always try to make it as one of those thing..." He's deflecting, not baiting.

This isn't like Rush Limbaugh telling bald-face lies about the new Batman movieAkin actually believes this, and he assumes that it's a totally normal thing for a reasonable person to believe. How does this happen to an otherwise intelligent person? Obviously it's tied to his religious views, so let's broaden the question. There are some Christians who believe in some mind-bafflingly crazy shit. Why?

As a former Evangelical, I can offer a little insight.

First off, it helps if you're familiar with the research wing of Evangelical Christianity. Never heard of it? That's because it doesn't exist. Instead, you find Apologetics. In principle, apologetics is the practice of fitting evidence to the biblical narrative. It sounds scientific--it's not, it's basically the exact opposite of the scientific method. In reality, apologists cherry-pick data, use out-of-date data, or just plain make up data to construct a worldview that dovetails nicely with their Christian beliefs. Much of this is innocuous. Whether you believe that the flood story happened has very few real-world applications. But some data are inescapable and difficult to reconcile and this leads to some very creative leaps of intuition.

The most popular example is the widespread notion that homosexuality is a choice. Start with a base set of beliefs: homosexuality is a sin, humans were designed to be heterosexual, salvation is available to all people, a saved person must make the decision to sin no longer, God won't test you more than you are able to bear. Add a bit of confounding data: homosexuals exist. Make the intuitive leap: people who are homosexual clearly chose to partake of that deviant lifestyle.

People do this sort of thing everyday. But with most people, if your core beliefs don't match up with new data, it's time to re-evaluate your worldview. You also want to check your work: did the conclusion you arrived at make sense? The above example flows logically, unless you take two minutes to actually talk to some gay people and discover that they didn't choose anything. But to an Evangelical, the core beliefs are immutable. They cannot be compromised. So when they don't match up with some new data, it's time to re-evaluate the data, and if their conclusion disagrees with other data, then it's time to start taking a serious look at conspiracy theories. When extreme viewpoints are on the line, people will come up with bizarre explanations. The infamous Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church (whom I will not dignify with a link) said that he suspected every single person who died on 9/11 was "a fag or dyke or a fag-enabler." In more extreme cases--and yes, there are more extreme cases--you get things like Holocaust denial.

So how did this happen in Akin's case? Base set of values: abortion is absolutely wrong. Confounding data: rape victims should not be burdened with the constant reminder of the way they were violated. Intuitive leap... Most people here would say "adoption", but someone did some homework and came up with a more creative answer--that the stress of the rape prevents the pregnancy from happening. I don't believe that Akin actually consulted any physicians about this. He almost surely heard it from the pulpet or from a friend who heard it from a friend who read it on a website. But still, it's an appealing answer--elegant, in a way.

It just happens to have no bearing on reality.

And that's why I find Akin's comments so damnably infuriating. He's an educated man, and yet he is committed to a completely ass-backwards frame of reasoning. He has gone through his entire life starting with the conclusion and then moulding the evidence to support it. That is the most solid definition of "living a lie" I can think of. And he's a Congressman.

Thank god for elections. You see, when confronted with ignorance like this, if it's legitimate ignorance, the body politic has ways of shutting that whole thing down.


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