A couple days ago The Friendly Atheist posted an article titled “Christian Textbook Urges Readers To ‘Keep a Closed Mind’.” The short article features a screenshot from a page out of a textbook for Christian young people. (Before this I’d never heard of the book, What’s on Your Mind? Discover the Power of Biblical Thinking, or the author Baptist John Goetsch, or the publisher Striving Together Publications.)
The screenshot is the first page of chapter 8 and is provocatively titled “The Closed Mind.” The “Lesson Aim” of the chapter is “to close our minds to unrighteous thoughts as they come through various diversions, demands, and deceptions.”
“Wouldn’t it be better advice to counter false teachings with strong rebuttals instead of avoiding them altogether?
“You don’t defeat an argument by running away from it.”
It should be no surprise that I agree with Mehta here. After all, I defended atheism in a public radio debate and I wrote a book defending atheists from the charge that they are in rebellion against God.
But here’s the key: keeping an open mind obliges one to steelman one’s opponent. Conversely, keeping a closed mind involves strawmanning one’s opponent.
And that includes Baptists like John Goetsch.
So what would it mean to steelman Goetsch’s chapter? For starters, one might try reading the chapter rather than only mocking it based on the first page.
Barring that, we can simply return to the lesson aim and see if it is possible to adopt a charitable reading. To recap, the aim of the chapter is:
“to close our minds to unrighteous thoughts as they come through various diversions, demands, and deceptions.”
Let me note here that there are at least two possible ways to interpret the aim of having a “closed-mind”:
(1) Goetsch is encouraging the reader to refuse to engage critically in alternative perspectives.
(2) Goetsch is encouraging the reader to adopt a heightened skepticism about particular alternative perspectives.
Mehta adopts the first reading. As he puts it, “forcing people to just stick their fingers in their ears at the first sign of opposition is a horrible way to convince them your ideas are right.”
But the evidence provided — a screenshot of the first page containing a Bible verse, a lesson summary, and a lesson aim — underdetermines that interpretation.
This is unfortunate since the second reading is far more charitable. And steelmanning begins with charity. It could be that Goetsch is just encouraging people to “stick their fingers in their ears.” But I suspect the reality is rather more nuanced.
I wouldn’t say Mehta necessarily strawmanned this book. But he made no effort to understand it charitably. Instead he chose to serve up yet another item of mockery for his enthusiastic readership so they could exult in their intellectual superiority over the poor, benighted fundamentalist Christian. (Just read the dozens of comments beneath the article.)
Mehta concludes his short article with a wry allusion to intellectual bubbles:
“What’s the next chapter in this book? How to keep the inside of your bubble clean?”
One might ask the same question of The Friendly Atheist.