Knowing the Literature – A Lesson from “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus”

David Brooks recently wrote an article describing the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” and how it relates to counter-cultural movements. Despite the huge popularity of this video, its creator, Jefferson Bethke, was quickly turned from his own views by cogent arguments against him. He admitted that his views were essentially “experience-based” rather than logically based, in this case, in the teachings of Jesus and his disciples.

Brooks then gets to his point:

For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

If you go out there armed only with your own observations and sentiments, you will surely find yourself on very weak ground. You’ll lack the arguments, convictions and the coherent view of reality that you’ll need when challenged by a self-confident opposition. This is more or less what happened to Jefferson Bethke.

As much as I want to disagree with Brooks, he is right. I have recently had this point hammered home in grad school. Many of my professors endlessly emphasize (or at least imply) that what we have to say on our own is simply not good enough in the scholarly world. Last semester, one professor in particular would get onto us nearly every week about supporting what we said with “the literature.”

At first, I admit, this annoyed me a little. One of the reasons I am going to grad school is to test out my own ideas, to see how I could apply personal observations from the world to specific questions and challenges. But more often than not, when I attempt this method, my classmates, but especially my professors, easily punch gaping holes in my arguments. If I respond to a question using the literature, though, I am standing on much firmer ground, because the literature has already been tested, critiqued, and found worthy of wider dissemination. That does not mean the literature is perfect, it’s just more likely to be logical than the thought that popped into my head thirty seconds ago.

Scholars spend their whole lives thinking, dissecting arguments, challenging the status quo, and this has been going on for millennia, from the time of the great Greek philosophers or earlier. Strong arguments for nearly every philosophical position imaginable have already been made, and we would be wise to take advantage of these developed streams of thought. That is why one of my professors last semester, when discussing how so many students (both undergrad and graduate) never read the material they are assigned, labeled the phenomenon a “crisis” in education. At the time I thought his statement was a bit exaggerated, but after having reflected on it, I think he was right. If students today only form arguments from their own experience, we are doomed to a future of mediocre thought. We ought to be gleaning constantly from the wisdom that has come before, at least as a starting point.

On top of the tendency to “think for ourselves” without knowledge of the existing literature, a parallel problem is the growing trend of relativism. As I have pointed out in another blog, truth is indeed often relative, depending on the perspective taken. But the existence of relative truth hints at the complementary notion that some ideas are truer than others (the use of the word relative suggests that we judge truth in relation to other truth). Truth is not only relative based on perspective, but also relative along some scale, ranging from unsubstantiated lies to fully corroborated truths. Any truth (regardless of its degree) will always be truer than unsubstantiated lies. The fact that Obama is an American citizen is fundamentally superior to the belief held by some that he is not, since the former can be corroborated with evidence, while the latter is unsubstantiated. But many have thrown out this continuum altogether, accepting the first aspect of relativism (based on perspective) while ignoring the second (truth in relation to other truth/lies), such that lies and truths are now considered equal. This is a huge problem. And it is much easier to fall into this trap, accepting lies as truth, if we base our understanding of the world entirely in our own experience.

Thus, despite the somewhat mundane sound of the suggestion, knowing “the literature” is extremely important. Experience alone will not always lead to fruitful arguments or a better understanding of truth, even though the growing popularity of relativism continues to encourage these notions. Brooks specifically uses his argument to talk about promoting counter-cultural views (such as those espoused by the Occupy movements), but I think that knowing the literature is equally important for supporting either mainstream or out-of-stream movements.

The lesson I take from this is that reading, and reading widely, is essential to a vibrant life of the mind. Even the most brilliant person on earth will not think of everything, so we all benefit by learning over the course of a book or two what may have taken a lifetime for one person to develop. Thus, if we see problems in the world, as Bethke did, and want to change them, we should remember that “effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings.”

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