The tiny Kansas congregation is, of course, infamous for protesting at events such as soldiers' funerals and gay pride parades, bearing hateful signs such as "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell." Megan Phelps-Roper was something of a rising star within the congregation, a true-believer, and so her defection came as something of a surprise to Jeff Chu, the author of profile.
There are a number of things about her story that caught my attention. One, of course, was the courage it took this young woman to leave everything she knew for a world in which there was no certainty, no script but the one she wrote for herself. In some ways what she describes is familiar to me, resonating with what I see in the college students I teach every day: young adults who have left home for the first time, who are wrestling with questions of identity, with what they believe, and who are trying to chart a course into an undiscovered future.
But in Megan Phelps-Roper's case, all of these things are magnified both by the scope of the change and by the simple fact that this move into the wider world was never part of any script. College students leave home on a journey of self-discovery, but for most of them that journey is itself part of the script they've inherited from their families. Having a hand in writing their own script is, paradoxically, part of a script. They've planned for it, anticipated it with growing eagerness and fear, for years.
But for Megan Phelps-Roper, the script had always been "Stay with us, believe as we believe. Don't venture forth, because all the truths worth knowing and goods worth having are already right here."
Another thing that struck me about this story has direct bearing on some of the recurring themes of this blog. This young woman had been carefully and--it seemed--successfully schooled in the insular worldview of Westboro church. And yet, unlike others within the church, her true belief became doubt, and doubt became the seeds of transformation. And what was it that triggered this process, breaking open the hermetic seals and so allowing in something new?
“My doubts started with a conversation I had with David Abitbol,” she says. Megan met David, an Israeli web developer who’s part of the team behind the blog Jewlicious, on Twitter. “I would ask him questions about Judaism, and he would ask me questions about church doctrine. One day, he asked a specific question about one of our signs—‘Death Penalty for Fags’—and I was arguing for the church’s position, that it was a Levitical punishment and as completely appropriate now as it was then. He said, ‘But Jesus said’—and I thought it was funny he was quoting Jesus—‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ And then he connected it to another member of the church who had done something that, according to the Old Testament, was also punishable by death. I realized that if the death penalty was instituted for any sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent. And that’s what Jesus was talking about.”One thing that strikes me about this passage is that Megan Phelps-Roper had the seeds of her transformation--what I think of as her redemption--planted by reasoning. She had a conversation, and someone laid out an argument. And the argument made her think, and rethink, and ultimately turn a broader critical eye on the things she believed. There are those who say that what philosophers do never makes a difference, that arguments never convince anyone, that what you need is something else.
And it may well be that an argument alone is never enough, that experiences that challenge one's ways of thinking are crucial. But sometimes those experiences lie dormant, effectively suppressed by explaining-away tactics, until the right argument comes along.
But even more important than this is the nature of the argument itself. Megan Phelps-Roper's transformation didn't come from the disdainful objections of someone arguing for the absurdity of her worldview based on the standards of an opposing one. It didn't come from P.Z. Myers' mockery. And while it came from a Jew, it didn't come from a Jew who was objecting to her arguments based on Jewish standards at odds with Christian ones. Instead, it came when he stepped into her belief system--first asking questions about it, attempting to understand it, attempting to see it from the inside. And when he finally asked a critical question, the critical question was rooted within the framework of that worldview's own assumptions. The transformative argument came when a Jew invoked the words of Jesus.
This, of course, is the Socratic approach. But it also describes the Hegelian understanding of how worldviews evolve, how we move forward and make progress in our beliefs. So long as you criticize alien worldviews based on an uncritical embrace of the hidden assumptions that underlie your own, you will neither make progress in your own worldview nor inspire movement in the thinking of those you criticize. Your dogmatism will be met by a reactive dogmatism on the other side.
Progress is made in philosophical conversations when those who embrace a worldview are inspired to critically reflect on their own worldview. Meaningful transformations are those that come from within, a kind of internal evolution in which one's own standards of critical reflection lead to the transformation of one's worldview, including those very critical standards themselves.
This doesn't mean that outsiders to a worldview cannot be helpful--even uniquely helpful--in guiding the development of the ideas of those with whom they disagree. Rather, it means that an outsider's view is most helpful, most powerful, to the extent that the outsider can step within an alien worldview and try to understand what it looks like from the inside. Because the outsider is not invested in the worldview in the same way, the outsider may see things that those who are living out the worldview are afraid to notice. But a sincere attempt to see things as the other person does--in short, a sincere exercise of intellectual as well as emotional empathy--is crucial for a critical comment to really trigger the kind of internal work that leads to substantive change.
In other words, as theists and atheists converse, and as different religions come into contact, the greatest progress happens when each side sincerely attempts to understand the other, and when each side attempts to offer criticism that, rather than dogmatically embracing assumptions the other side doesn't accept, aims to invite the other to look for ways to achieve greater consistency within their own worldview and greater integrity within their own lives.
When Megan Phelps-Roper left Westboro Baptist Church, it was clearly an act of courage. But it was also an act of integrity.