Quaker Universalist Conversations

Stephen Law, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole (2011)

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:

  1. Promoting mysterious knowledge, beyond science and reason
  2. Coercing consistency of beliefs and evidence through distortion
  3. Leveling all beliefs with skepticism and relativism as equally reasonable and equally true
  4. Switching definitions of key terms
  5. Asserting secret knowledge of the transcendent ineffable
  6. Using charismatic presentational skill and patience
  7. Substituting accumulated anecdotes and testimonies for evidence
  8. 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.


The problem with critiques of religion like this one is that it focuses on belief rather than experience. The question for Quakers is not what do you believe but what have you experienced? Religious experience is both mysterious and,at least to a degree, ineffable. So how can you avoid talking that way? So the problem--or I should say, the condition--of such critics is that they have not had what they would describe as religious experience and then assume that any such experience must be delusional.
"Promoting mysterious knowledge, beyond science and reason" is self-contradictory. Much of science is mysterious and is not real knowledge, as science is about as corrupt as government. Much of conventional reasoning is unsound. "... need for clarified and vigilant thinking about supernatural or extraordinary claims" is not profound, since no one can likely say what is supernatural or extraordinary, except subjectively.
Stephen Davison writes: "the condition–of such critics is that they have not had what they would describe as religious experience". This is not a safe assumption. I do not know what Stephen Law's position is with regard to personal religious experience. I, for one, have had "religious" experiences, the source of which I now consider to be suspect.
Critics such as Law quite reasonably, simply, suggest skepticism regarding the evidentiary import of such experiences for those not having had such experiences. Additionally, he suggests that even those having such experiences have skepitcism regarding them. People have all sorts of experiences that are certainly convincing to themselves, including experiences of alien abduction and the like. Law's point is that reports of these experiences do not have to be given much weight in determining the probability of alien abduction or the validity of theological claims. The major religions of the world have historically demanded BELIEF in those under their dominion, with only the flimsiest of evidence to support this required belief. People have been burnt at the stake for failing to proclaim the required beliefs. Beliefs are important. What matters to the person hoping to avoid being burnt at the stake is what beliefs he or she has to proclaim in order to avoid this fate.
Thanks for your review. Just as Richard Dawkins has elevated himself to be the arbiter of what constitutes proper science so, it seems, Stephen Law has done in relation to belief. What reasons do we have to accept this self-recommendation? I've not been impressed with Stephen's critique of Christianity elsewhere, and I would say that he is so ill deposed to it that I'm not convinced that he can speak about it in any way that really matters. As others have suggested, this book has Christian belief firmly in its sights.
Stephen Law has in his sights primarily forms of Christianity that are Black Holes, to use his terminology. For example, a large portion of the book is devoted to Young Earth Creationism, the doctrine that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and that Genesis is literally true, including the story of Noah's Ark. Surely, this a a fair target! Those holding these views have held the American text book industry hostage. Such science and reason defying belief systems have consequences. That his focus is on belief rather than experience may be because historically it has been belief that was demanded of subjects of religious authority. Giordano Bruno was burnt because his beliefs defied the church. Failing to profess the proper beliefs got people killed!
Thanks for your reply, but I disagree. Dr Law has mentioned numerous times elsewhere, and particularly in his Evil God Challenge, that his criticisms are directed towards 'Classical Theism' too. This is not the Y.E.C. brigade, but the form of Christianity that includes the ancient Churches such as the Catholics and Orthodox. In addition, he has compared the Resurrection to a UFO siting - surely not a marginal belief in Christianity! I accept that some believe that he is simply trying to help, but I'm not convinced his intentions are all that honorable.
You can't just declare the religious experience is ineffable and leave it like that. Millions of people from drastically different faiths have religious experiences, more than half of them simply have to be deluded (at the very least). So you have to consider what makes you certain that you aren't among the deluded ones. If there is a good reason, then this can constitute good evidence for your god (and it should be able to be explained to others, hence not so ineffable). If there isn't a good reason, then maybe religious experiences aren't very reliable as a foundation to your faith.
Even if Stephen Law doubts the basic tenets of mainstream Christianity, e.g. the Resurrection of Christ or the survival of the soul after death, this does not imply that his endeavors are not "honorable". The so-called Jefferson Bible omits miracles from its account of the life of Christ. It is doubtful that Jefferson was up to no good in this work, although he was obviously doubtful of the supernatural aspects of the Bible. It may violate ettiquete to discuss such doubt in the sense that good manners proscribe discussing religion, politics, and money in public. However, ettiquette aside, questioning Christian historical claims, claims that in most contexts would be viewed as prima facie doubtful if they were not simply so familiar and tradition laden, seems to be a reasonable intellectual enterprise. Stephen Law is not a peace negotiator, whose thinking is geared simply to avoid hurting feelings. One could argue that negotiation is simply a form of manipulation, because its purpose is not clarifying an issue but coming to a mutally beneficial agreement, i.e. one that serves one's interests.
In the case of UFO sitings, there are at least living people who claim to have seen UFOs, no matter how unbelievable their testimony may be. In the case of the Resurrection, there are no living witnesses to the event, and even Biblical accounts are not those of witnesses to the actual resurrection itself but to the dissapearance of Christ's body. Hardly more credible, although supported by Tradition! Lawson's views may not be polite dinner conversation, but they are reasonable!
I think being vigilant for claims of the supernatural or extraordinary is important and is not intended to be profound. It is simply common sense. Claims of miraculous healings, the ability to channel the spirits of dead people, and peculiar alternative medical approaches demand skepticism. Many cults are based on this line of thinking with harmful consequences. It is dangerous to relativize all reason to each individuals subjectivity
Richard Dawkins has not elevated himself to be the arbiter of anything. He has merely expressed an opinion distasteful to theists. Stephen Law has not elevated himself to be the arbiter of anything either, except in expressing an opinion on epistemology. These are intellectual activities in traditons centuries old. Nothing new here. Any reasons to accept or deny these "self-recommendations" are open to rational discussion. What are reasons to deny their arguments? They are clearly not arguing from authortity. They provide arguments that may be possibly refuted. On the other hand, authoritarian Churches such as the Roman Catholic Church offer their postions based on authority.
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