On appealing to authority
How does an individual accept the divinity of Christ? Apparently, by wishing Christians a merry Christmas, as some took it upon themselves to remind us all on the social media last week. Their reasoning: because doctors Zakir Naik and Bilal Philips say so. These days it appears that anything less than a fatwa of kufr or shirk just isn’t acceptable as far as many Muslims are concerned.
Accepting this verdict has some curious consequences: by the same logic a non-Muslim wishing you a happy Eid must have accepted the tenets of Islam! Also, celebrating the birthday of one prophet of God is fine while the other is shirk! Intellectual lethargy invariably leaves one tied up in contradictions and having to desperately resort to special pleading.
This “Merry Christmas” controversy is of course just one instance of a much wider phenomenon. In fact I would be a rich man today if I had a dollar every time somebody demanded during a discussion on some religious issue: ‘So you mean to tell me that you have more knowledge than renowned scholars who have devoted their entire lives to the pursuit of knowledge?’
It is of course natural to revere a scholar, and there is nothing to be said against reaching a certain conclusion with his help. But if you can’t give an account of your position, your favorite scholar has obviously not done his job of educating you – not well enough for you to be a preacher at any rate. Once these followers have repeated an opinion, they are not left with much by way of reasoning, except some high sounding philosophy about the efforts needed to learn religion. This, then, is not an indictment of Naik or Philips (I am sure the two gentlemen have a lot of reasonable things to say). It’s about their fans who quote them with impunity, perhaps often out of context or even incorrectly, to prove religious points.
Of course this is a self-defeating exercise, because it is always possible to respond to it by pressing into service the conflicting opinion of another ‘scholar’ who has devoted even a longer life to the pursuit of knowledge. Often it is possible to produce an absurd position taken by the original scholar. Zakir Naik, for example, when asked why Islamic states were justified in not allowing propagation of other religions when Muslims availed of the same freedom in other lands, gave his infamous 2 plus 2 equals 4 horror of an analogy. This is not to say that Naik doesn’t make sense on any issue, for that would be to fall in the same trap as those who trust him blindly. The point here is that a position must stand on its own merit, not because a scholar believes it to be true. Scholars become worthy of respect because of their arguments, and not the other way around. A free man doesn’t owe any reverence to a scholar over and above that warranted by his reasoning. Compare this with the plight of somebody shackled with the ‘renowned scholar’ philosophy, who finds himself obliged to defend all opinions of that scholar, however absurd. Being rational may be hard work, but it liberates one like nothing else.
I have found men fond of such appeals to authority to be incredibly impervious to any argument that is offered by way of a reply. Apparently they continue believing that they have settled the issue as soon as they advance the name of a scholar who agrees with them. This is not surprising because appealing to authority definitely has its attractions. It affords the satisfaction of some of the most deep-seated human weaknesses: hero-worship, a desire to feel certainty in an uncertain world, and intellectual laziness.
It’s true that human conduct is governed by passion much more than by rational arguments, and that reasoning alone rarely settles any issues – at least in the short run. For the sake of intellectual honesty however, reasoning is nevertheless crucial. Valid reasoning sows seeds that not infrequently blossom into flowering trees later on, while appealing to authority does no such thing. In fact, even if it appears to work momentarily on an unsuspecting youth, there is great likelihood of his throwing away the baby with the bath water so to speak, when upon growing older and more intelligent he sees through the argument. By preaching that the truth resides with certain people with impressive resumes, and by hinting that one doesn’t need to give an account of one’s beliefs provided one gets ready-made solutions from a ‘renowned’ scholar, you make your audience potential hostages for life to some smooth talking operator. You are definitely not doing any service to them, to Islam or to your own intellect.
In a world where the religious narrative no longer enjoys a monopoly over thoughts, religious zealots are perhaps the greatest advertisement for atheism and agnosticism today, especially when it comes to intelligent, independent-minded people. The enemies of religion don’t need to do a thing. In fact, if I were one I would just sit back and enjoy the show. Since I am not, I cannot help wishing that my religious friends realized that their reasoning is at least as important as their conclusions, if not more so. After all, one can easily hold the ‘correct’ position on an issue accidentally – by being born to the ‘correct’ parents, for example.
So how does an individual accept the divinity of Jesus? By accepting the divinity of Jesus, I am inclined to say. But then, I am no scholar or religious expert. So what do I know!