A question about polemics

Recently I came across a quotation that expressed, with wonderful clarity, something that I kind of half-knew but had not articulated so well to myself.  The historian John P. Meier, in the course of an argument about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, made the following generalization (Meier 1991, IV:279):

Despite the theoretical purpose of addressing and confuting one’s adversaries outside, most religious apologetics and polemics are directed inward.  Their real function is to give a sense of assurance and reinforcement to the group producing the polemics.  Most apologetics and polemics are thus an attempt to shore up group solidarity and conviction within a community that feels insecure and under attack.  The a priori conviction of such polemics is simple and unshakeable: “We are right and they are wrong, and now we will think up some reasons to prove that they are wrong.”

A good social-scientific description this is not, but I think it is a sound observation nonetheless.



Meier is talking here specifically about religious polemics, but there is nothing peculiarly religious about the phenomenon he describes.  In fact, when I first read it the light went on in my head because I felt it explained something that has long puzzled me about political discourse.



Leftist ideology is the unquestioned norm at my workplace, and it is sometimes pretty heavy handed.  Leftist beliefs are often kept implicit: it is just assumed that we all hew to them and there even develop little mini-competitions among individuals each trying to be further to the political left.  In this environment, we hear (and are expected to agree with and even recite) leftist arguments quite frequently.  I am told there are rightist groups on campus, but, for whatever reason, I do not hear from them.  So, on my way home, I sometimes listen to rightist talk radio.  When I first flip it on it is like a breath of fresh air to hear what seems a daringly different point of view, but by the time I get half-way home it has started to be equally heavy handed, so I renew my commitment to being apolitical, and console myself with some music.

The thing about most of this political discourse, on both the right and the left, is that it is such nonsense.  I used to think (with socially unfortunate results) that political arguments were jokes—the kind where you intentionally put together a non sequitur, or deliberately draw a completely absurd conclusion.  Over the course of more than a few hurt feelings, I slowly came to realize that people take them very seriously.

And I know that I am vulnerable to the same sort of thing.  Some theories, such as relevance theory, have a deep appeal to me, far in advance of any evidence.  I have to struggle to be critical about them.  Others, like psychoanalysis (at least in its primary Freudian version), repel me, and I have to struggle to give them a fair hearing.  This is part of what makes good science difficult to do.

What strikes me about this is that there is this swath of culture—a pretty large swath, at least if measured in terms of public representations—that seems to be of this type.  And it suggests that our judgment about the rationality or sensibility of an argument depends on proxies (no surprise there), among which the palatability of the conclusion ranks highly (again, no surprise).

What I am curious about is why this would be an effective means of building group solidarity.  Does the essential irrationality of the arguments have a function in building group solidarity?  Or do group alliances matter only when the subject—politics, religion, scholarship—is so difficult that clear conclusions are impossible to establish?


  • comment-avatar
    John Wilkins 2 November 2009 (18:13)

    This is an observation of the function of group polemic and apologetic in religion. It is not, I think, polemic itself (although I would like to see what was said next). I think it is a very good point made about power relations and in-group and out-group behaviour.

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    Neuro Skeptic 3 November 2009 (12:01)

    [i]”What I am curious about is why this would be an effective means of building group solidarity. Does the essential irrationality of the arguments have a function in building group solidarity? Or do group alliances matter only when the subject—politics, religion, scholarship—is so difficult that clear conclusions are impossible to establish?”[/i] I don’t think the purpose of apologetics is to shore up a group per se. Their purpose is to reassure the individual believer (religious, or otherwise) who is having doubts. This happens whenever someone is taught to believe things without good reasons to do so; as soon as they start to think about it, doubts creep in. And for the individual this is painful, so apologetics are very welcome. The group, I think, is the irreducible fact in this situation – for historical reasons, there’s a group, and you’re in it. Apologetics makes being in that group more comfortable for you as a member, but the group is not really in danger of breaking up just because people have doubts about it. Nations are a good example here: everyone has a nation and most people believe that their nation is fundamentally a Good one. What if your nation has done thing ostensibly wrong in the past, or still is? – well, it’s nice if you can find rationalizations to make it seem OK. But realistically no-one is going to change their national identity even if their nation [i]does[/i] do bad things. The rationalizations are nice, maybe they help people sleep more easily, but group identity doesn’t depend on them. This is obvious in the case of nations, it’s less obvious in the case of religions, because in theory a religion is a matter of “belief” i.e. something you could be argued out of. In theory, belief is prior to group identity in the case of religions. But realistically, it’s not, is it? People very rarely change their religion. It’s very nearly as much a matter of birth as nationality.

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    Emma Cohen 3 November 2009 (14:56)

    From the quote, and broader observation, it seems to me that group solidarity is established prior to the apologetic-polemic. I can imagine, however, that in specific cultural conditions, apologetics could serve to maintain or enhance solidarity and group membership (even if they don’t necessarily generate it in the first place). Specifically, where there is 1) a ‘religious market place’, in which different groups compete for converts and other resources, and 2) where coherence and internal consistency of ideology is highly valued (in religious doctrine and more generally), it really could matter that the group’s arguments appear to be right, or at least as plausible as the next group’s arguments. If they don’t succeed, their reputation, pulling power, and possibly internal cohesion and commitment could suffer, relative to the group that succeeds.

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    Gordon Ingram 6 November 2009 (11:36)

    I agree with Emma that religious/political arguments may be important in winning new converts under certain social conditions. But who are the arguments directed at, and whose arguments are they in competition with? I agree with the original author that they are not actually directed at the apparent target of the polemic – the atheist or political unbeliever – or even at agnostics or floating voters. In order to get that “Aha!” moment from an argument, that feeling that it has won you over, usually one’s thought has to have been moving in that direction already … It’s the feeling that the polemicist has given voice to your own vague thoughts, and more effectively than you could have done yourself. Therefore, such polemics are really directed at people who are thinking along the same lines as the polemicist, but have not yet committed themselves to a particular group (or whose commitment is wavering). In that sense, the polemicist is really in competition with similar sub-groups, rather than with groups who have quite a different ideology. These similar sub-groups constitute the real “marketplace of ideas”, which may be walled off to a certain extent from other marketplaces (just as the people who post on this blog would rarely engage in true debate with social scientists who are not sympathetic to evolutionary ideas; and when we do, we tend to talk past each other). In this more limited context it doesn’t really matter whether the function of the argument is to strengthen the commitment of the existing members or to attract new members: clearly the same sort of argument can do both. That is not to say that in certain rare cases – and perhaps at certain crisis points in an individual’s life – one may have one’s worldview turned upside down by a particular argument or other kind of encounter: a Road to Damascus moment. But I suspect that in those cases it is the emotional content (and context) of the experience that really counts, rather than the rational structure of the argument. It reminds me of Lakoff and Johnson’s work on political metaphor. Lakoff would argue that liberals spend too much time constructing “rational” arguments, rather than simply appealing to positive emotional constructs (like patriotism, or respect for authority) as conservatives do. These positive metaphors, which offer a kind of emotional security, may be what initially attract agnostics and floating voters – and even the odd apostate – as well as obviously strengthening the commitment of existing believers. Anyway the marketplace of religious ideas is certainly a fascinating research area and it would be great to do an ethnographic study of (say) small evangelical groups from a cultural evolutionary point of view – if one could somehow get access! Simon Coleman’s work on Swedish evangelicals is really fascinating: he found that members of these groups would adopt a completely different and much more open kind of discourse towards him, assuming he was an “insider” (i.e. a fellow evangelical in general, rather than a member of their own particular church), from the discourse that they adopted with “outsiders” (agnostics, atheists, and even non-evangelical Christians). Coleman, S. (2004). The charismatic gift. [i]Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (n.s.),[/i] 10, 421-442.