Home/Alan Jacobs/On Intellectual Triage and Not Writing People Off

On Intellectual Triage and Not Writing People Off

Life is hard, I know, and one of the ways we respond to the difficulties of life is by reducing complexity whenever we can, limiting the mental freight we have to carry around. The interesting thing is how reluctant we are to admit that that’s what we do.

And when I say “we” I really do mean “we.”

Terry Eagleton’s bludgeoning review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion famously begins, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I share Eagleton’s frustration. But what doesn’t bother me — or Eagleton either, I’m pretty sure — is Dawkins’s rejection of religious belief in general or Christianity in particular. Suppose Dawkins were to say something like this: “I don’t really know that much about Christianity, but from what I do know I haven’t seen anything that would cause me to take it seriously or to investigate it further.” I would have absolute respect for that position — because, after all, that’s the position I’m in in relation to all sorts of beliefs: in Zoroastrianism, say, or telekinesis, or alien spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico.

Again, we all do this, but we are often reluctant to admit it because we want to present to the world a façade of rationality: I hold my views firmly because I have carefully examined the alternatives and have justifiably rejected them. And sometimes we have indeed carefully examined the alternatives; but usually we haven’t. We’ve undertaken intellectual triage and set a great many possibilities aside with limited or no scrutiny. This is what Dawkins has done with Christianity; he just thinks he hasn’t.

In general, practicing such triage is okay — indeed, it has to be okay because there’s no plausible alternative until we live much longer, eliminate sleep, and acquire faster internal processors — but it’s the sort of thing that can easily go wrong, primarily because, as a self-justifying defense mechanism, we try to fortify our position by attacking or dismissing all the people who believe the things that we’ve decided not to investigate.

And this is what bothers me: I really dislike writing people off. In fact, I believe that as a Christian I am forbidden to write people off, or to assume that they have worse reasons for holding their views than I have for holding mine. (Didn’t Jesus say something relevant about motes and beams?)

Trying to convince ourselves that all those people who believe stuff we don’t believe are contemptibly stupid or wicked makes our intellectual triage more efficient, but at far too heavy a cost. This is is the source of my frustration with the Stegner/Berry opposition of boomers and stickers: it only indirectly critiques practices, habits, actions, but instead focuses on stigmatizing people. I would be far less critical of Stegner and Berry if they talked about “booming” and “sticking” rather than “boomers” and “stickers” (though even then I would want to inquire into the various reasons why some people boom and others stick).

These are hard lessons to learn, no less for me than for anyone else, but I really do try to keep them in mind: by all means practice intellectual triage, but don’t pretend that you’e doing something more thorough than you’re doing; and when you’re triaging, don’t make the task easier for yourself by contemptuous dismissal of your brothers and sisters in the human family.

Update: Wesley Hill on Twitter reminds me that I’ve addressed this topic before. 

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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