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snakes, history, and logical fallacies

Over at Sojourners, Adam Ericksen posted about the myth of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. He points out that “the last glacial period (some 10,000-100,000 years ago, depending on whom you ask) beat St. Patrick to the snake banishing.,” making this part of the story a myth. I’m not very up on my science so I’m going to assume he’s right on the facts here. If he is, that leaves us in an interesting conundrum. How are we supposed to interpret the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland?


Easy, says Ericksen. The snake was a symbol of the Druids, the native pagan religion in Ireland before St. Patrick came on the scene. And St. Patrick was first and foremost an evangelist, sent to convert the Irish people to Christianity. According to him, St. Patrick didn’t literally drive actual snakes from Ireland, but he did drive the religion symbolized by the snake from that island. Next question: just what is this myth glossing over?



Today, Christians assert that St. Patrick only banished a sacrificial Druid religion, an expulsion symbolically represented by the banishment of snakes. Pagans, on the other hand, claim that St. Patrick forced Christian conversion with the threat of violence, and actually killed many Druid priests who refused to convert.


It sounds to me like one side glorifies St. Patrick as a peaceful man doing the Lord’s peaceful work while demonizing a corrupt Druid culture by accusing it of practicing child sacrifice, and the other side glorifies Druid culture as livingin innocent harmony with nature while demonizing St. Patrick by accusing him of being a violent missionary.


Faced with this choice, Ericksen says that the choice must be somewhere in the middle between these extremes and that, this being ancient history, we’re in a poor place to figure out what exactly the truth of the matter is. My friends who studied medieval history may groan at that claim, because we do have lots of tools to figure out what happened going back much further than fifth-century Ireland. But I’m willing to give him some leeway because Mr. Ericksen is writing a very short blog post and, as far as I know, he’s not a historian.


Besides, I think he’s right about one thing: the truth of the matter will lie between two extremes. Neither the standard Christian picture of St. Patrick liberating the Irish people from child sacrifice nor the opposing picture of wholly violent conversion is likely to be a completely accurate position. So maybe when it comes to this moment of ancient history, given the restraints on space to lay out the facts and our very real problems with knowing specifically what happened 1,500 years ago (it’s not as impossible as Mr. Ericksen suggests, but there are real difficulties), maybe with St. Patrick “somewhere between these two extremes” is the closest we can get to the truth.


It’s the final step, though, where I think he and I will have to part company.


Maybe the best we can learn from the tradition of St. Patrick and the Druids is that we humans have a long tradition of scapegoating one another. We continue to demonize our scapegoats. Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Muslims, rich and poor – we tend to think that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. All the while neglecting that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.


I don’t actually disagree with anything he says here, but when I read these words I can’t stop hearing the next step I’ve heard so often in the classes I teach. And on blogs. And seen implied in the way a lot of people approach the news: that, because no one is perfectly correct, the truth must lie in the middle. Not just between the two extremes but precisely in the middle. Philosophers even have a name for this line of thought: the fallacy of the golden mean. From the Nizkor Project’s description of this fallacy:


This fallacy is committed when it is assumed that the middle position between two extremes must be correct simply because it is the middle position. this sort of “reasoning” has the following form:


1. Position A and B are two extreme positions.

2. C is a position that rests in the middle between A and B.

3. Therefore C is the correct position.


This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because it does not follow that a position is correct just because it lies in the middle of two extremes.


Let’s take an example. Many Americans would recognize Fox News as on the conservative fringe on the news media, and MSNBC as on the liberal fringe. So should we say that some news station that strikes the middle – CNN, perhaps? – will always get us close to the best position on any given issue?


Hardly. Take an example. In America MSNBC is the most liberal news network, and Fox the most conservative. Does that mean someone right in the middle (CNN, say?) gets the story right every time? CNN tends to report the news as if the liberal and conservative positions were equally reasonable and that the true analysis lies somewhere in the middle. It’s actually like the golden mean personified. The problem is, the two sides aren’t equally reasonable. I generally think MSNBC comes much closer to the mark than Fox does, but are they perfect? Not at all. And a more conservative friend might say the same thing, but about Fox news.


Both of these positions are completely compatible with Mr. Ericksen’s statement that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But “somewhere in the middle” doesn’t mean precisely the middle. I agree with him that we shouldn’t demonize the other side, and we should recognize that our own side isn’t perfect, either. But our situation with regard to St. Patrick is worlds apart from our situation regarding modernday politics or the relations between different religions or religion/no religion. Because we are in a much better position today to look at the different positions and see where they go right and where they go wrong. We may not know just what happened in ancient Ireland but we surely know if the GOP or Dems were more willing to compromise over the sequester.


I see this line golden mean fallacy type of reasoning a lot in modern politics. Just take this particular meme:



I’m not too happy with the politicians representing what passes for American liberalism today. I would like them to do better on many, many fronts. And if I think some other candidate will better represent my interests, that’s one thing. But this anti-incumbent attitude seems to take political gridlock which, from where I’m standing is much more one party’s fault than the other and use it as an excuse to punish all politicians. I can recognize that neither side is completely right without taking that to mean both sides are equally wrong. And this is important. If we say the absolutely midpoint between two positions is the right one, that gives both sides all the incentive they need to go as far to the extreme as they possibly can. It will only benefit their side because when they do that, if they go further than the other guy, they pull the midpoint along with them.


Aristotle said it well: just because two pounds of food is too little for everyone, and ten pounds too much, it doesn’t mean that six is the right amount for everyone in every situation. We an admit both extremes are wrong, without that meaning the halfway point is absolutely right.




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