Antonin Scalia and Bill Maher: Two Sides of the (Failure of the) Binary Hermeneutic Strategy

Screenshot from 2013-11-19 04:35:49

By Tim Morgan…Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia surprised some during his recent interview with New York magazine, including the interviewer herself, in averring that his adherence to “standard Catholic doctrine” includes belief in the devil. During this segment, he attributes the existence of atheism, especially contemporary atheism, to this apparently invisible being’s involvement in current affairs. This assertion has arrested the bemused attention of other media outlets, including CNN, where the title of its selective overview reads, “Scalia says atheism ‘favors the devil’s desires.’”

Scalia first defends himself by making an essentialist claim that all Catholics believe in the devil, but when he is corrected through an incredulous question by his interviewer, he is forced to be more precise, stating that those “faithful to Catholic dogma” are pinpointed to a large degree upon this belief. We see here that Scalia implicitly makes a separation between Catholics he regards as genuine and those who could colloquially be regarded as “cultural Catholics.” This move can fairly be suggested as being in line with magisterial teachings, but he follows up with a much more spurious distinction when he attributes the devil’s success in fostering atheism to the theological aftermath of the New Testament narratives and adds, “I didn’t say atheists are the devil’s work.”

If the devil is “much more successful” in getting people to no longer believe in God to accomplish his goals, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this is logically what Scalia is suggesting. But the aspect of this exchange that provoked reactions most from pundits, including a blistering critique from well-known atheist comedian Bill Maher, is that the devil’s lack of detectable presence in favor of a “wilier” strategy is “the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place” anymore. Maher brooks no such speculation and, in detailing why he thinks Scalia is a fool, attributes the concept of the devil to “a reflection of mankind’s thinking in his intellectual infancy.” Maher’s full response is amusing in parts, but he fails to acknowledge that a lack of a literal belief in the devil need not equal atheism, an observation that could have been a rejoinder more identifiable to most. He is instead just as interested in undermining what he sees as popular religious beliefs as Scalia is in pronouncing them.

Scalia does himself no favors in invoking not one, but two logical fallacies (the bandwagon fallacy and an appeal to authority) in his final sentences before the interview topic changes, but his hermeneutical strategy can be captured and even positioned against itself without condescension and mockery. In positing a representative mythological being and attaching one’s opposition to it, while in turn attaching one’s own perceived goods to that being’s mythological opponent, i.e. a being with whom one sides in a locked binary, the strategy is sealed very simply. However, it is only convincing to those who accept as actual the poles of the system those beings represent, and the “rules” of the system are flexible. Its poles are not overwhelmingly endorsed, and even if they once were, there is no indication that they once again will be, by and large, at least in places where liberal thought has any significant influence. At the very least, this particular belief has a range of perspectives (institutionally sanctioned or otherwise) not compliant with the dichotomy that Scalia and Maher suggest is in place.

Scalia’s appeals to the influence of the devil ultimately fall flat to many who don’t consider themselves atheists, not to mention to atheists themselves. Maher’s appeals to the “age of science” will also fall flat outside his own grouping, and for the same reason. Different groups have different ways of defining these beings and what they represent. Ultimately, both fail to either see or, more likely, cater to all of the heuristic variations attached to the devil and his celestial adversary.

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