Last month I talked about Candace Owens and the alt-right’s habit of constantly referring to “Judeo-Christian” values as a way for bigoted Christians to hide their own history of blatant anti-semitism while at the same time borrowing the victimhood of an actually marginalized group AND furthering the marginalization of other groups, especially Muslims. Well wouldn’t you know it, that term has popped up again, this time in an interview (or “debate” as the headline frames it) between Ben Shapiro and Sean Illing of Vox.
It’s not much of a debate, but Illing does a pretty good job of breaking down many of the ridiculous claims Shapiro makes in his new book, “The Right Side of History,” which from what I can tell is about how America isn’t doing so well these days because we no longer acknowledge our foundation as a “Judeo-Christian” nation. As a reminder in case you missed my last video, the US is not, and never has been, a “Judeo-Christian” nation. That phrase didn’t enter popular usage in that way until the middle of the 20th century. And even using the term that Shapiro actually means but can’t say because it sounds as stupid and bigoted as it is, the US also wasn’t founded on “Christian” beliefs or values. As Illing points out, Jefferson even edited his own Bible to remove all the supernatural shit. Christianity isn’t mentioned once in the founding documents of this country, and every attempt was made to divorce politics from religion since the Founding Fathers saw how poorly that went in England.
Obviously everything Shapiro says in this interview and his book about “Judeo-Christian” values is a stupid lie, but I’d like to draw particular attention to his particularly strange insistence that we should thank Judeo-Christianity (whatever that is) for science. Yes, all of science.
Also, just a point of order: even though I think “Judeo-Christian” is a stupid lie to use, I don’t think Shapiro is stupid. Quite the opposite — I think he’s pretty clever, which is why he uses the old Gish Gallop in his interviews. If you’re not aware, the Gish Gallop is named after Duane Gish, a creationist who also told a lot of stupid lies to credulous people but who was, himself, rather intelligent. He was famous for using debates to say so many wrong things so quickly that it would take his opponent hours to unravel and explain each one, rendering debate absolutely useless.
In a similar fashion, Ben Shapiro says things like this in his debate with Illing: “The belief that human beings are fundamentally equal, for example, comes from the Christian tradition.” This is dropped into Shapiro’s reply to Illing asking why he insists America is founded on “Judeo-Christian” values. Illing can’t even begin to address that because he wants to get back to Shapiro’s false categorization of America’s founding. Does the belief that human beings are fundamentally equal “come from the Christian tradition?” Note that Shapiro has dropped the “Judeo-” here, probably because he has a slightly better leg to stand on since New Testament Christians were some of the first to loudly insist that all humans are equal, though the philosophy has deeper roots among the stoics, and Muslims and Jews started preaching the same philosophy at around the same time. It’s not as simple as Shapiro makes it sound, but it’s too complicated to stop the flow of conversation and address.
Illing can’t make Shapiro admit he’s just wrong on the point of America’s founding but he does then solidly smack him down when it comes to Shapiro pretending that the Nazis had no connection to Christianity. And then they get into science, at which point Shapiro insists that science in the West wouldn’t exist without Christianity — I’m sorry, Judeo-Christianity, which I assume he has to say because so many of our greatest scientists were in fact Jewish — and he actually says, “There’s nothing in evolutionary biology that suggests that objective truth is even a thing.”
Imagine someone saying that to you in a live debate. I had to reread that sentence about 15 times. I’m still rereading it. What could it possibly mean? It’s so nonsensical that it’s “not even wrong.” It’s like saying “there’s nothing in astrophysics that suggests that Santa doesn’t exist.” Yes? But also no? And? What??
Illing’s response is really the only one he could possibly give: “I’m not sure that’s an accurate characterization of the scientific method, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole.”
I decided to go partway down that rabbit hole to try to figure out what Shapiro is trying to say. The best I can figure is that Shapiro is a presuppositionalist — a person who believes that no rational thought is possible without a basis in Christianity. Yes, this ignores the very long history of rational thought prior to the birth of Christ. Yes, it makes no sense. But there are a lot of people who believe it because, well, they are desperately clinging to a religion that makes no sense in the broader context of scientific discovery.
Shapiro correctly says that scientists must make assumptions in order to explore our world — that’s true! Scientists need to assume certain things about the universe in order to rationally study it, and he points out that one of these is the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which is basically “cause and effect.” Everything that exists does so because something happened before it. The mousetrap doesn’t just magically fall at the end of the game “Mousetrap,” it does so because the boot kicked the ball that rolled down the ramp and into the basket.
Shapiro suggests that the Principle of Sufficient Reason “comes from our Judeo-Christian roots,” which is so incredibly wrong. The PSR predates Socrates, first being used probably around 600 BC. It is an absolutely essential assumption, because if you don’t make the assumption that things happen for some reason, then why bother to try to study the universe at all? How could the ancient Greeks figure out the circumference of the Earth in around 200 BC if they didn’t accept that the sun would cast a shadow on the summer solstice in two different cities at the same time? What if shadows just happened because God made them happen? It’s an absolutely bonkers argument for Shapiro to suggest that Christians — I’m sorry, Judeo-Christians, who don’t exist, are the ones who suddenly invented the scientific method. Even if they did exist and they did invent the scientific method, their religion had nothing to do with it. The bible does not in any way elevate or encourage scientific inquiry.
Shapiro is exactly, completely wrong in his understanding of religion and science. Religion is, at its heart, an attempt to explain the natural world without having the facts. Thunderstorms used to be god being angry at us, but then we figured out what they actually are, and god got a little smaller. We found out that he’s not the cause of earthquakes, or the plague, or babies born with deformities, and he got smaller, and smaller, and smaller. Humanity’s gods take the shape of whatever science has left to discover, which is why they’ll never go away. But that’s also why science must constantly struggle against theocrats who are threatened by us explaining why their god is needed less and less.
Illing did as good a job as one can in a discussion with someone like Shapiro, but for every point he was able to make Shapiro walk back, there were three new little falsehoods Shapiro was able to insert into the conversation. I’m not saying it’s pointless arguing with people like Shapiro — I’m just saying that it’s not an easy game to win, and I’m not sure it’s ever actually possible to win.