Beyond the intriguing title, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole (2011), author Stephen Law provides helpful advice for understanding our Quaker faith and its communication to others. He wants to protect us from falling into a hole from which we cannot extricate ourselves and to hold ourselves accountable to avoid abusing others in discussion of faith and religion.
Stephen Law is a prolific author of books making philosophy accessible to adults and to children. He is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Universityof London. His writing is aggressive, but very clear and, therefore, helpful in understanding difficult ideas.
The book consists of two parts. The first section is a cautionary guidebook for clear thinking about issues of belief. The second section is a dialogue entitled “The Tapescrew Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Guru.” which forms a thoughtful and amusing parody of the famous The Screwtape Letters (1942) of C.S. Lewis, which is recognized as a milestone in the history of popular theology.
This guidebook summarizes eight strategies for leading people astray from truth (whether through evangelizing, proselytizing, witnessing or sharing), but leaves the door open to the future identification of more strategies. The eight outlined pernicious traps for distracting us from true discernment include:
- Promoting mysterious knowledge, beyond science and reason
- Coercing consistency of beliefs and evidence through distortion
- Leveling all beliefs with skepticism and relativism as equally reasonable and equally true
- Switching definitions of key terms
- Asserting secret knowledge of the transcendent ineffable
- Using charismatic presentational skill and patience
- Substituting accumulated anecdotes and testimonies for evidence
- Attacking confided personal weaknesses
These strategies that ensnare the uninformed into belief systems from which escape is difficult, because people fail to distinguish between the content of a belief system, which may be true or false, and the eight mechanisms by which a belief system is introduced and promoted.
Regarding evangelical Christian beliefs, Law identifies 1, 5, 7 and 8 as the particularly dangerous strategies to anticipate. For sophisticated Christian beliefs, Law identifies 1,3,4,5 and 6 as the dangerous strategies to watch for. Note that the author sees overlapping dangers in 1 and 5 for all flavors of religion.
This book is especially challenging for Quakers with a universalist commitment of inter-faith toleration and courtesy. Recognizing mysterious knowledge and the ineffable nature of this knowledge, are strategies that Quakers support and use.
From the outside, Law says that any indications of strategies 1 and 5 among proponents of beliefs are to be suspect. Yet, from the inside the mysterious knowledge of an ineffable experience and its implementation in life is at the core of our faith and Quaker communication.
Regarding communication about religion, the author focuses primarily on the theodicy problem of the substantial apparent evidence for the reality of evil and the problem of the agency in human affairs of a God outside of time and space. The author’s tone can be sarcastic, but the message is important.
The Tapescrew Letters section is an exchange of letters between a senior guru and a junior guru about how to ensnare a gullible person into a belief system. It forms a thoughtful and amusing parody of the famous The Screwtape Letters (1942) of C.S. Lewis. The advice advanced is to close the mind of a gullible person within a belief system, to convince the gullible one of the illusion of their secret freedom and to persuade them that these new forms of belief are rational and reasonable. The intention in The Tapescrew Letters is to reveal in a popular form how manipulative and distorting the discussion of truth can be, and how important clear thinking is to the assessment of supernatural or extraordinary claims. The arguments for these claims rest on what the proponents say is true or that these claims are based on a deeper process that is not subject to scrutiny.
This book is a contribution to popular theology. The Tapescrew Letters is a reasonable satire that entertains readers with its sly and ironic portrayal of human nature, although it is not as well written as The Screwtape Letters, which it parodies. But, Tapescrew makes the intended point regarding the need for clarified and vigilant thinking about supernatural or extraordinary claims.
The book includes a modest, but adequate, index and some endnotes.
This book provides a challenging basis for a discussion with Quaker young people as they venture into independence from parental proximity. It provides tools for assessing claims of truth and for avoiding use of manipulative techniques. Respect for those of other faith traditions or no faith is important for mutual exploration of truth with integrity.