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March 01, 2004

My Ignorance, My Bliss

While I was wrestling with a moot cour/LRW brief arguing that receipt of a gun as payment for drugs constitutes "use" of a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime, it appears Three Years of Hell and the Curmudgeonly Clerk found much to dislike about Congressman McDermott's speech that I posted yesterday, as well as the fact that I posted it at all. There are several comments on their pages, as well as more in dialogue with Letters of Marque. Anthony (of Three Years) and the Clerk argue that McDermott is making a dumb argument, and that it was dumb of me to post it. To review, McDermott made a short speech using citations to the Old Testament to mock those who would like to make U.S. social policy conform to "Biblical principles."

I admit my ignorance of Biblical specifics is gross (meaning broad or general), in part because I determined long ago that any reference to the Bible (Old Testament or New) to support or refute any position was asking for trouble. Obviously, reference to the Bible to point out this fact is also asking for trouble. But seriously, people can toss "scripture" at each other endlessly and there's never going to be a winner in those fights. In that spirit, I didn't intend the McDermott speech as a serious argument about gay marriage or anything else; it simply mocked the ridiculous "prayer request" it responded to, and I still think it did that quite well. When the Presidential Prayer Group asked that U.S. policy conform to "Biblical principles," it didn't specify any content to those principles, so McDermott chose to respond with Old Testament citations. Anthony and the Clerk claim it was ridiculous or dumb or disrespectful or something along those lines to refer to the Old rather than New Testament, and perhaps they're right. But if McDermott's point was that the Presidential Prayer Group's request was ridiculous or dumb (and I think that was at least part of the point), then choosing those Old Testament passages made that point quite well.

But as I said, in posting McDermott's speech I wasn't trying to make a serious argument about gay marriage or civil unions or the Bible, and therefore I admittedly didn't do a lot of (or any) homework on these subjects. I figured my intent would be clear from the glib sarcasm of my remarks following the quotation. For future reference, if I want to make a serious argument about gay marriage or civil unions, I probably won't base that argument on the Bible.

All of this is tangential to the main and more important point on which Anthony and I agree: The government simply shouldn't be in the "marriage" business. We should grant equal rights to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, and leave "marriage" to religion.

Now back to that brief...

Posted March 1, 2004 06:00 AM | general politics

Sorry, I still don't buy this. Ambimb, you wouldn't commit such gross intellectual cop-outs on anything but religion:

But seriously, people can toss "scripture" at each other endlessly and there's never going to be a winner in those fights.

No, people can have good scriptural debates, and there will never be a winner. This is not what you did. If you choose to post something the background of which you admit you don't understand, I really don't see this.

If I were to post three one sentence extracts from, say the Lambda Legal Defense fund's website, and then argue that, based upon those three sentences I could derive that acceptance of gay marriage implied that we'd have mandatory homosexual intercourse training sessions in our schools and the Lambdas were for multiple-wife polygamy, you'd consider me to be a fool. But this is very much what you did. It doesn't just say, "You shouldn't quote scripture."

Besides, it's a false statement to say that, "Just because I don't bother to learn something, using it as evidence is fundamentally indeterminate." Just because people disagree on precisely what principles are in the Bible doesn't mean that it doesn't have principles, or excuse using it with foolish ignorance.

But if McDermott's point was that the Presidential Prayer Group's request was ridiculous or dumb (and I think that was at least part of the point), then choosing those Old Testament passages made that point quite well.

No, it didn't. If you had no idea what you were talking about, it looked quite cute. But if you have a passing knowledge of Christianity, it looked like you and McDermott were mocking something which you didn't understand.

Again, I really don't understand your position on this, Ambimb. You'd not support anyone arguing affirmatively for ignorance on any other topic. If I were to start mocking the Democrats with only a knowledge of three lines of their platform; or scientists after quoting only a few lines of an extract; or even the New York Times without actually bothering to read it, you'd consider me foolish and disrespectful. But because you consider scripture to be indeterminate--after confessing to no knowledge of it--you think you can just quote it half-assed and not be held to account if your argument made no sense?

Posted by: A. Rickey at March 1, 2004 07:43 AM

In all the comments that I've read by you (A. Rickey) on this issue, there is either the clear implication or the explicit statement, as above when you state that "people can have good scriptural debates," that you possess some positive knowledge of what what the Bible actually says on these matters. Indeed, such knowledge would be fundamental to your claim that there is some sort of affirmative argument being made here for ignorance. On what other basis can you charge Ambimb or Congressman McDermott of using the Bible "with foolish ignorance" or "mocking something which" you assert they "didn't understand"? Further, what difference is there between that claim to specific knowledge and that of the Presidential Prayer Team praying that the "definition of marriage" will be "legally" codified according to "Biblical principles"? After all, they assert "God's Word" and "His standards" (I think it interesting that they make use of the capitalization of the proper noun in speaking of "God's Word") against the "variant definitions of marriage." As someone who was educated in a private school system run by a conservative Christian sect that saw the Bible as literal truth, I for one would like to know exactly what divine knowledge has been revealed to you such that you can make such claims. Indeed, I think it a highly disingenuous manner of argument to even speak the word ignorance without first putting forth the principles on which such a charge is based. I might add that I have the same questions about the process of exegesis that in other places you accuse people of not being able to observe. What tradition of hermeneutics are you making use of? In not putting forward that methodology, you are eliding method and substance (which is not to say that method can not be a substance as this is in part my point) in your accusations, a distinction even the Presidential Prayer Team doesn't fall prey to (pun intended). So, clarify your principles and let's argue for and from principles. Otherwise, you argue both pointlessly and in bad faith.

Posted by: Famous P at March 1, 2004 10:38 AM

Famous P:

How do you get from "people can have good scriptural debates" to "I know what the specific debates involved here are?" That's a logical leap that's not sustainable.

If I've ever seen a good scriptural debate, then I can say it's possible, even if I've not seen it on this one. Simply put, would you like to defend the idea that Christianity and current Christian doctrine supports all the terms of that Amendment?

As for 'divine knowledge' to say they didn't understand it, I don't need divine knowledge. Read Ambimb's comments: he admits he never read, much less understood, the passages involved. As for Congressman McDermott's, you're right, I don't know, but it's the nicest and most colorable inference.

If you want to say I'm arguing in bad faith, then please show me how the argument put forward by either Ambimb or McDermott is logical and consistent with any real theological debate. I'm happy to learn something new. But certainly on the basis of even limited knowledge--and I'll admit it's limited but better than Ambimb's 'I didn't read it' standard--the argument sucks.

Posted by: A. Rickey at March 1, 2004 11:04 AM

You can only sustain the claim that people can have "good scriptural debates" if you know what constitutes a "good" debate. That's basic logic.

I do not deny that such a thing as a "good scriptural debate" is possible, only that the standards by which such a judgment is to be rendered, in your argument, are utterly lacking and further do not admit of the simple assertion or assumption that your argument would seem to ascribe to them.

Ambimb's admission of ignorance comes in response to your post in response to his initial post on February 28 ("And in Ambimb's comment section"). Your argument thus is post hoc ergo propter hoc. In any event, the same problems as to your possession of divine knowledge applies with regard to your argument of February 29. This is especially apparent in the manner in which you elide a reading of the Bible with a reading of the law. There you claim that " even if you're Scalia the intent of the authors counts for something." If we accept the notion that the Bible is the account of God's working in the world obtained by divine inspiration of the human writers (precisely the fact that renders it Holy Scripture), then we would need to know the mind of God in order to interpret the Bible according to the legal standard of precedent you use in faulting both Congressman McDermott and Ambimb.

It is a non sequitur to claim that you are not arguing in bad faith simply because neither "Ambimb or McDermott is logical and consistent with any real theological debate;" the point of the argument being made (and simply because it may be an argument that "sucks," to use your term of art, does not make it any less of an argument or rule it out of bounds. It is definitely bad faith to render such an utterly subjective judgment while yet admonishing others for supposed objective logical failures) is that it is legal and biblical principle are in many ways incommensurate; biblical principle aims to instruct a person in the service of God while the law seeks to serve man & society. In any event, it is extremely problematic at best to make use of something as vaguely defined and contentious as "Biblical principles" in shaping law. There is no one set of biblical principles any more than there is one bible. To assert otherwise is laughably ill-informed.

And, I might add, it is discriminatory as well in as far as the "Biblical principles" alluded to, by both the Presidential Prayer Team and yourself (and this is a sub-text of your assertion on the 29th that "later amendments can overrule prior ones") are specifically Christian ones. Or is this not the force of your criticism of "McDermott's "piece""citing "only Old Testament provisions"? You might consider that while there are, and I'll give you this one, no Christian sects or doctrines that support "all the terms of that Amendment," there are a large number of people for whom the Messiah has not come and thus do not see the Old testament as "Old." For that matter, there are a large number of conservative Christian sects for whom the arrival of the Christ does NOT invalidate the laws of the Old Testament. That's why you have some Christians, for instance, who keep Kosher. In any event, why should we privilege principles derived from the BIble? What gives it standing above the collected beliefs of Islam or Buddha or Confucius and so on. So how then should we decide what constitutes the "Biblical principles" that the Presidential Prayer Team, and I do not hesitate to say Bush himself, thinks should underlie an amendment to the constitution?

In this sense, arguing in bad faith has less to do with whether or not the argument is in accord with any existing theological argument, Christian or otherwise, and more to do with whether the standards by which one chooses and so judges are clearly articulated and consistently applied. On that account, I don't think you've really thought through your argument or the assumptions on which it rests. Yet, you would, in a move characteristic of your argument as a whole, close by leaving your reader believing otherwise. Thus you implicitly assert your moral and intellectual superiority: "The trouble is that to even my admittedly passing theological knowledge, the piece is dumb. Smart people shouldn't post it." But you've done nothing to deserve such consideration. So yes, I do believe you argue in bad faith. From theological, logical or rhetorical standpoints, I see no merit to your opinion other than you think the argument "sucks." So, clarify your principles and let's argue for and from principles. Otherwise, you argue both pointlessly and in bad faith.

Posted by: Famous P at March 1, 2004 01:57 PM

Ahem? Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Perhaps you'd care to explain that 'logical fallacy'? As I understood it, it was an argument regarding cause and effect. However, I can't cause Ambimb's ignorance.

Now you're right--I didn't know for a fact that Ambimb didn't know anything about the scripture he was citing, which is why I asked him. It wasn't until after I did that I quoted him as saying he didn't know what he was citing. But that's (a) appropriate, and (b) not a causation fallacy at all. Rather, I made a guess that he didn't know what he was talking about, and I was right. If he'd come back and said, "No, Tony, see, here's why the argument stands," then I'd have been impressed, and changed my views. Nonetheless, it's not there.

Sorry, but I really don't see the points you're making. I've not denied that a case can be made that one shouldn't argue for not making civil law based on scriptural principles, but merely that Ambimb's argument is a bad argument. If you'd care to disagree with that, do so: show me anyone who interprets the Bible such that you can get from Deut 22 to execution of non-virgins in contemporary society. Lacking that, it's a fair and reasonable assumption to say that this is no-one's reading of the Bible.

If you think it's bad faith, fair enough. But your criticisms throw around a lot of terms (post hoc ergo propter hoc, for instance) that either you're going to have to explain more clearly or I'll admit to being simply befuddled by. At the end of the day, Ambimb quoted someone who made some claims, and he quoted it quite approvingly. I challenged him to show those claims were good, and showed at least one case (the Deut 22 one) where the argument seems false. If you care to show me that it is--that there's a biblical scholar somewhere who argues for a biblical principle of stoning adulterers--then heck, I'm happy to listen, and I'll certainly learn something.

Otherwise, if you think it's bad faith, fine, but I can't see your case.

Posted by: A. Rickey at March 1, 2004 06:37 PM

No, you don't cause his ignorance. But you do claim that his ignorance causes his argument to be wrong which, in light of your refusal to explicate the basis of your judgment, I hold to be a fallacious argument; on its face, your argument amounts to Ambimb being wrong because you say he is wrong, nothing else. That, Counselor, is not the kind of argument that wins cases.

As far as examples go Deuteronomy 22 (and realize of course that there are a whole range of crimes in Deuteronomy that are punishable by death) go, I can't say for sure as I don't really know all that much about the basis of Islamic Sharia, but I do point you towards this article about a woman sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery in Nigeria two years ago. Find it here . Closer to home, you might be interested in this article by William Einwechter, leader of the National Reform Association, titled "Stoning Disobedient Children," which appeared in the NRA's magazine "The Christian Statesman" back in 1999. It caused quite a stir when it came out. I'll let you check it out yourself. Find it at . You might also want to check out his follow up to the article published just last year at .

Finally, as a teacher of literature, I have to point out that this, "I've not denied that a case can be made that one shouldn't argue for not making civil law based on scriptural principles," is really a torturous piece of writing.

Have a nice day!

Posted by: Anonymous at March 1, 2004 08:36 PM

Whoops! Forgot to sign the above post. Also, the URL's I pasted in don't seem to be showing up. Let's try it this way:

The Nigerian Woman Sentenced to Death By Stoning for Committing Adultery

Stoning Disobedient Children? (actually from the Chalcedon Report, January bad)

And the follow-up to the above


Posted by: Famous P at March 1, 2004 08:44 PM

You guys have hashed this out pretty well and I really don't want to stir things up any further. I'll only want to reiterate one thing:

I wasn't quoting McDermott's speech as a serious and fair argument. I quoted it as what it was: a satire of people like the members of the Presidential Prayer Team who advocate making social policy based on some completely amorphous notion of "Biblical principles." You (A. Rickey) didn't like this bit of satire. You say it's dumb. That's fine. We disagree. I didn't want to have a serious scriptural debate when I originally posted McDermott's remarks (as should have been obvious from my sarcastic comments in that post), and I don't want to have one now. Let's move on.

Posted by: ambimb at March 2, 2004 05:35 AM

I think McDermott's point (and we had the same flame war on our school's listserv) is that one can find support for any number of potentially bizarre ideas from the Bible. And it is not just McDermott or other Leftists who pick and chose their bits. The Unmoral Minority do exactly that when they organize their arguments around other portions on the Bible.
If one cannot come up with a more solid basis for an argument than "it's in the Bible" then they ought not be in law school to begin with. Reference to an antique work of fiction is not rational discourse.

Posted by: justin at March 3, 2004 11:03 PM

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