This post is going to catharticly address the hypocrisy of the blogger, xPrae, on the topic of
facts evidence, as well as give a short introduction into when sources and evidence are useful. I don’t know why I do this, xPrae has so few followers as to be irrelevant. However, his pseudo-conversation was fun at first and then became a worryingly explicit performance of some of the faulty thinking that surrounds quite literally every subject he cares to pronounce on. His idea of evidence is ‘I just know’ or to claim he is actually familiar with the person you’re talking about, and so literally has secret access to knowledge you can’t have.
You may recall my previous posts on xPrae, the strange interlocutor who eschews sources in favour of things he
feels knows are correct. He’s one of the people arguing that all the genocide of the Western world in the 20th Century was down to atheism. He pointed to the assertion that Hitler, Mao, Stalin, the Kims and some others have committed genocide, and are atheists. That’s a painfully obvious case of selection bias, making a false correlation. (For starters, if the Kims and Mao are part of the “West”, surely the Ottomans, Pinochet, Batista, and Théodore Sindikubwabo who ordered the Rwandan genocide are also all the “West”).
He then explained the carefully selected correlation by claiming that atheism offers no prohibition to heinous deeds. I responded by claiming atheists at large are not bad people, that this is reflected in prison population breakdowns or by looking at other atheists in politics. More importantly, I argued that understanding what these people really did believe is what really mattered: as Hitchens would (probably) have argued, the problem with the named tyrants is that what they believed acted so much like a religion.
Now that you’re up to speed, I want to explore xPrae’s response to John Zande’s argument that Hitler was not an atheist, but a Christian. This would be a significant change to xPrae’s argument, because xPrae had been arguing that the genocide of the West in the 20th century was exclusively atheism-driven (and, when you say it that way, it’s absurdity jumps off the page at you). Up to this point, I had not challenged xPrae on whether these individuals actually were atheists, because he admitted to hating
facts sources. But actually confronting xPrae with facts revealed the overwhelming hypocrisy of how he was establishing his content.
Zande offered so many quotes from Hitler talking about reverence for God and scorning atheists, and of Church leaders endorsing Hitler that it’s barely worth sharing them all. You can trawl through the comments in your own time if you want to see some of what was said. xPrae’s response, for quite some time, was
‘nu uh! me no likey!’ to simply deny they’re relevant. He was pressed for sources. He presented none. He was pressed again, and he complained about sources and talked about sources being atheism’s Holy Writ. I found this ironic, as at least Zande and I were outsourcing our Holy Writ; xPrae’s Holy Writ was his own unfounded opinion.
Eventually xPrae changed tact and implored us to do his research for him. (A typical deflection used by homoeopaths, naturopaths and anti-vaxxers the world over.) Having believed only a few days earlier that Hitler was, in fact, an atheist (and having my mind changed rather rapidly in the comments section here), I took the bait and did the research. I came up pretty empty handed in terms of sources I actually trusted, but I shared a Wikipedia page on the issue and moved on. The page I shared was sympathetic to xPrae’s view, but admitted the topic was “a matter of interest and debate”. xPrae took one quote from one person, without evidence, from the page and ran with it. And that is the context for the conversation that followed.
xPrae showed a hyper-scepticism of the quotes Zande shared. It apparently did not matter to xPrae what Hitler said, so far as xPrae was concerned, Hitler could not be a Christian because Hitler was so heinous. xPrae had taken his own interpretation of Christianity and decided that he could mandate not only the beliefs that define Christianity, but the actions too. Regardless of beliefs, one’s actions could exclude someone from being a Christian. I took issue with that, because Christianity is a belief system, under which there are thousands of denominations, some of which are horrid. The definition is not about behaviour at all.
Not only that, but Hitler’s behaviour didn’t convince the Church leaders at the time that Hitler was not a Christian. Zande had also shared quotes to show Church leaders were not changing their mind based on the actions of Hitler. xPrae was claiming to be more knowledgeable of Christianity than Church leaders. This is very possible, but he didn’t evidence it. He just asserted it, over and over.
This is where the hypocrisy and hyper-scepticism became apparent. To reject the idea that Hitler was a Christian, xPrae had to doubt whether we could ever know someone’s mind. He started talking of “proof”, and me requesting a demonstration of what it is someone thought made me the “King of the Absurd”. He took the hardline that Hitler’s Christianity was a pragmatic theatre for the German people, but provided no evidence. (I’m not saying no evidence exists, I’m saying he wouldn’t present it.) I pointed out that you could do the same things to me: claim that I am actually a Christian and my entire blog is a ruse because I’m concerned about Christian persecutions. You can throw in baseless claims like that. You can always offer an unreasonable objection.
But, hang on, what about the atheists? How did we actually know Stalin was an atheist. Well, he said it, didn’t he? As did Mao and Pot. Case closed? That’s the very evidence Zande had for Hitler’s Christianity, and that wasn’t good enough. When xPrae called me the King of the Absurd, it was in response to me asking him to demonstrate that Stalin was an atheist. And yes, xPrae believes Stalin is an atheist. But, getting evidence of such a thing is absurd?
Essentially, xPrae had decided the facts he likes, and was simply believing them. And he likes facts not based on evidence, but the extent to which they support his narrative. He’s hyper-sceptical of evidence of Hitler’s Christianity, fully in support of one source claiming Hitler was a materialist, and fully in support of evidence of Stalin’s atheism, although the presented evidence accounts for only a fraction of the evidence in favour of Hitler’s Christianity. xPrae is sceptical of facts he doesn’t like (and you can always offer an unreasonable objection). And that’s simply not a conversation.
There was a lesson to be learned about sources, though. xPrae didn’t like sources, and his reason turned out to be because he didn’t know how to use them. So, here’s some lessons on how to use them: sources are best used when they present an argument or data. Simply quoting someone’s concluding remarks is entirely irrelevant, no matter how clever or renowned they are. You may rely on their subject expertise to guide validated ways of interpreting evidence, although that introduces a bit of uncertainty. The reason you can’t just quote someone’s concluding remarks is because you don’t know the person saying that: are they biased? Do they have an agenda? Do they use all the facts? Are they citing their own incredulity or awe as evidence? Are there concluding remarks about an anecdote informing an hypothesis, or meant as conclusive remarks about how something is? What assumptions have they made? Is this their area of expertise? Is it an exercise it Socratic Seminar?
Sourced concluding remarks are useless. What you want is the data and the methodology. Again, someone else may help you interpret that, that’s not an awful thing. But you don’t want just the conclusion
So, when xPrae was citing one person to say Hitler was a materialist with no belief in God or conscience, he was abusing the idea of sources. xPrae was right about sources, used the way he used them: that really is a pointless exercise in pitting one lot of opinions against another, with a disregard for the evidence. And that is a strange position to take for someone who, on their own blog, offers: “Unusually Insightful and Literate Commentary on the World Around Us”.
Zande used sources properly. The question was what Hitler believes. And Zande took long, explanatory quotes from Hitler’s writing and speeches. Admittedly, translated (and there’s a source of doubt). But still, that’s the actual data on what someone believes. Sure, a polygraph test would have been great, and the guest list in Heaven would be even better. But in terms of what evidence we can expect for what a person believes, Zande did just fine.
If xPrae wanted to defend his source of doubt―the idea that Hitler was an opportunistic pragmatist, and that’s all his pronouncements of Christianity were―we would expect to find such claims in Hitler’s personal writing, or for Hitler’s closest confidants to have quoted such things. I’m still open to such things, but a cursory look at the evidence has Hitler’s confidants simply expressing doubts, speculations and personalised definitions of Christianity―concluding remarks without the supporting evidence. (Not that xPrae presented any of this.)