Wretched Writ: The Dirty Apologetics of Bad Religious Writing

There’s good reason why polite company is expected to exercise studious avoidance of the topics of religion and politics. No other areas of human concern turn so quickly and viciously polemical. Whole books have been devoted to explaining and understanding our extraordinarily ugly groupishness when it comes to these domains. I’ve recently been reading two of them.

Wretched Writ  

In the arena of religious polemics, I’ve noted a somewhat underhanded complex of behaviors to which groupish adherents to traditional (read: non-atheistic-Satanic) religions resort when seeking to silence their opponents without having to give due consideration to the critical points of opposition they may be raising. (What? I said I was reading about how to avoid groupishness, not that I’ve actually been able to manage it!) Technically, the complex of behaviors I’m thinking of constitute a logical fallacy of relevance because they seek to dodge an opponent’s reasoned arguments by introducing irrelevant emotional appeals to pity and compassion that, if successful, make a potential critic shy away or back down from criticism on the grounds of not wanting to be seen to be attacking a less fortunate person. Technically speaking, then, this tactic involves the relevance fallacy of argumentum ad misericordiam or “appeal to pity” to exploit the opponent’s feelings of pity or guilt so as to distract and divert from the point of reasoned criticisms. But since this particular appeal to pity comes up in response to criticism of religious writ in specific as a way of using fallacious evocation of pity in an attempt to explain away the perceived faults of religious writings or at least to diminish them in relation to the alleged miraculousness or superlative nature of the texts, I’m going to dub this complex of dirty apologetic trickery the wretched writ fallacy. Here, the adjective wretched serves as a double entendre: both an accurate negative descriptor of the faulty character of the texts under attack and an emotion-laden evocation of someone or something that’s poor, downtrodden, unfortunate, and deserving of pity. 

I’ve recently witnessed the wretched writ tactic being used even in inter-group conflict among atheistic Satanists, so it’s been weighing heavily on my mind of late. In what follows, I will describe the wretched writ fallacy and illustrate it from personal experience, much of it drawn from my familiarity with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon or simply LDS Church. I’m providing this discussion of wretched writ so as to help others who engage in polemics with aggressive religious groups recognize and understand the characteristic behaviors of the fallacy when they see them. At the end of the essay, I offer some preliminary observations on how to deal with the complex.

How Wretched Writ Works

   Religious groups make a lot of truth claims and deontic behavioral pronouncements. Modern religious groups tend to write most or all of these claims, commandments, and suggestions down in the form of scripture or canon: sacred writ. Those outside of said religious communities often find grave fault with the form and expression of these scriptures and canonical writings, to say nothing of their content. Detractors usually point to faulty grammar or clumsy style in religious writings, invoking these traits as fodder in arguments against the supposed inspiration or direct revelation of the texts or, in cases where no divine power is being invoked, against claims that the writings are somehow exemplary or superlative. When critics air their grievances with such sacred writ, the religious communities themselves often turn to two different apologetic tactics by way of defense. 

On the one hand, they sometimes deploy religious professionals whose job it is to examine and refute criticisms leveled against the substance of the religious writings, point for point. Since religious scriptures often lay claim to knowledge of and recommendations for every area of human life, such substantive criticisms and the work of religious professionals to refute them may come to encompass all manner of fields of study: textual criticism, philology and linguistics, archeology and history, biology, physics, cosmology, and so on. Apologetics of this sort tend to be detailed and highly technical, and they usually remain focused on substantive, verifiable, and falsifiable issues of fact and the representation of fact. 

On the other hand, and at a level that better captures popular imagination, religions also often deploy spokespeople, whether professional or among the laity, whose job it is to preemptively silence critics by raising scripture and canon, both in their production and style, above critical evaluation. One common method of attempting to accomplish this feat is by making emotional appeals to uncritical acceptance of the religious works’ sanctity or other superlative nature on the basis of claims regarding the adverse circumstances surrounding the works’ production and dissemination. These claims usually involve appeals to disadvantages in the personal histories of the religions’ founder(s) that render the appearance and propagation of the work miraculous, inexplicable by any other than divine means, or simply remarkable and admirable by entirely human standards. By eliciting pity, awe, and/or compassion in critics toward the figures responsible for the religious works’ appearance and dissemination, religious communities engaged in polemics seek to make would-be detractors feel alternately moved to sympathy for or compassion toward the founders who overcame obstacles or faced drawbacks, inspired by the stories of the founders’ overcoming said obstacles or drawbacks, and ashamed for ever having raised intellectual objections to the scriptures, canon, and doctrines in the first place in light of the inspirational stories surrounding their being set down as sacred writ and published. Let me illustrate this process in its entirety from Mormonism. I will then make some remarks on the applicability of this picture to other religions following that discussion.

Wretched Writ in Mormonism

The modern LDS Church has built the bulk of its imposing international membership on the back of the humble Book of Mormon, the chronologically earliest of its three distinctive works of original scripture. LDS Founder Joseph Smith famously said of the book that it “was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” The Book of Mormon remains the key tool of Mormon evangelism to this day. 

The esteem in which the book is held within the faith notwithstanding, numerous outsiders have found grave fault with the Book of Mormon in both matters of style and content. Writer Mark Twain had some famous choice words for the work, calling it “a curiosity to me. It is such a pretentious affair and yet so slow, so sleepy, such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print.” In the 1920s, the Church tasked historian and Mormon theologian B.H. Roberts with writing a defense of the Book of Mormon from certain objections then being raised to alleged historical anachronisms and improbabilities in the work. Roberts, a faithful Mormon who, though elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1898, was denied his seat due to his practice of polygamy, ended up writing three lengthy essays about the origins of the Book of Mormon, essays which, in essence, concluded that it was a work of 19th century fiction largely paralleling and most likely borrowing heavily from another 19th century work entitled View of the Hebrews by an author named Ethan Smith. Roberts didn’t lose his faith in the LDS Church as a result of his intellectually honest investigations, but he did begin to de-emphasize the importance of the role played by the Book of Mormon in converting others to the Church and to place greater emphasis on the collection of revelations regarding rules of Church governance and conduct that goes under the name of Doctrines and Covenants. Roberts’ essays on his research into the authorship and historicity of the Book of Mormon were officially suppressed by the Church, though they continued to circulate underground for long decades. They didn’t finally appear altogether in published form until the mid-1980s, when they were bound into a single volume under the title Studies of the Book of Mormon.    

For their part, modern popular and official apologists of the LDS Church usually turn first in their defenses of the Book of Mormon to dwelling on Joseph Smith’s self-professed want of formal education and his resultant lack of the authorial and editorial skills necessary to produce such a work on his own. Of his own paltry formal schooling, Smith writes: 

“[A]t the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Seignior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were [sic] obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren [sic] and as it required their exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit [sic] of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructtid [sic] in reading and writing and the ground <​rules​> of Arithmatic [sic] which const[it]uted my whole literary acquirements.”

In a bit of autobiography seemingly designed to elicit comparisons to the unknown boy Jesus somehow having the wisdom and authority to teach the teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52), Smith contrasts his own obscurity and impoverishment of origins with the reaction that tales of his famous First Vision elicited in great teachers of the popular religious sects of his day. He writes:

22 I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me. 23 It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.” (emphasis added)  

A clear purpose in these descriptions is to evoke pathos in the audience. Latter-Day Church spokespeople and apologists use these stories, as well as the emotions of pity and compassion they prompt, in crafting a vision of Joseph Smith and his labor to bring forth the Book of Mormon as a clear inspiration for others, for how they might find “strength out of weakness.”   

At the same time, apologists also insist on the miraculous qualities of the text, using Smith’s own alleged background and the popular legends attendant on the Book of Mormon’s production to highlight how remarkable a feat its eventual appearance was. In the late 1980s, Church apologist Hugh Nibley issued  the following challenge to his Book of Mormon studies class at Brigham Young University: 

“Since Joseph was younger than most of you and not nearly so experienced or well-educated as any of you at the time he copyrighted the Book of Mormon, it should not be too much to ask you to hand in by the end of the semester (which will give you more time than he had) a paper of, say, five to six hundred pages in length. Call it a sacred book if you will, and give it the form of a history. Tell of a community of wandering Jews in ancient times; have all sorts of characters in your story, and involve them in all sorts of public and private vicissitudes; give them names — hundreds of them — pretending that they are real Hebrew and Egyptian names of circa 600 B.C.; be lavish with cultural and technical details — manners and customs, arts and industries, political and religious institutions, rites and traditions; include long and complicated military and economic histories; have your narrative cover a thousand years without any large gaps; keep a number of interrelated local histories going at once; feel free to introduce religious controversy and philosophical discussion, but always in a plausible setting; observe the appropriate literary conventions and explain the derivation and transmission of your varied historical materials. Above all, do not ever contradict yourself! For now we come to the really hard part of this little assignment. You and I know that you are making this all up — we have our little joke — but just the same you are going to be required to have your paper published when you finish it, not as a fiction or romance, but as a true history! After you have handed it in you may make no changes in it (in this class we always use the first edition of the Book of Mormon); what is more, you are to invite any and all scholars to read and criticize your work freely, explaining to them that it is a sacred book on a par with the Bible. If they seem over-skeptical, you might tell them that you translated the book from original records by the aid of the Urim and Thummim — they will love that! Further to allay their misgivings, you might tell them that the original manuscript was on golden plates, and that you got the plates from an angel. Now go to work and good luck!”

Notice how, by the end of his challenge, Nibley has smoothly segued from dwelling on the difficulties attendant on the actual production of the text to the adverse circumstances to its author/“translator” as a result of its publication. This same emphasis appears prominently in the emotional testimony of Church Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland as to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. Here, the venerable Church worthy dwells on Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith’s martyrdom and how, in their final hours, they sought comfort by quoting a passage of the Book of Mormon. He asks “…whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their eternal judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time.” Holland next responds to his own rhetorical question:

“They. Would. Not. Do that. They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.”

Notice how this popular apologetic technique of emotionally insisting on the difficulties to the founder(s) from the production and dissemination of the religious text serves to redirect concern away from the substance of the work and toward the character and reliability of the founder(s) themselves. As a direct result of this rhetoric, should you still have the temerity to question the work, you are not only calling into question its contents, but are also seemingly by definition impugning the very character and integrity of another human being, something religious apologists expect conscientious critics to either shy away and back down from or even be outright unwilling to do. By making would-be opponents experience emotional aversion to undertaking their own reasoned attacks, apologists hope to silence their critics, using their detractors’ own internal moral compass against them. And again, while all this is taking place, the actual problematic substance of the religious scriptures and the doctrines they contain get away unscathed—untouched even. 

For instance, one of the many problems B. H. Roberts highlighted in his evaluation of the Book of Mormon were the peculiar grammatical errors and idiosyncrasies sprinkled throughout. One common such problem is the frequent use of gerunds or verbal nouns (the present participle form with article or other determiner) with full verbal complements (direct objects, indirect objects, etc.). In standard modern English, the only way a gerund like “my writing” can take complements like a direct object is via the mediation of the preposition of placed before the object: “my writing of the book” and not *“my writing the book” (here, the raised asterisk before the second, incorrect example follows the usual practice in descriptive linguistics to mark ungrammatical examples). In the very verse from the Book of Mormon that Hyrum Smith quoted to comfort his younger brother Joseph in their final hours, we find an example of this phenomenon: 

“And because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father” (Ether 12:37, emphasis added). 

This grammatical tic is actually characteristic of Joseph Smith’s own writing and can be seen, for instance, in the passage from his personal history quoted above, which features the phrase “my telling the story” rather than the grammatically correct “my telling of the story.” There may or may not be a good explanation for how grammatically quirky features of Smith’s own style end up in the Book of Mormon, but this entire issue slips quietly out the back door of notice when Church apologists emphasize instead an emotion-laden, inspirational testimony of poor little old Joe Smith whose family couldn’t afford to send him to school but who nonetheless rose to prominence as a remarkable religious figure hawking a unique Christian vision. 

LDS faithful even invoke wretched writ thinking and rhetoric in connection with Joseph Smith’s problematic uses of the Biblical Hebrew and ancient Egyptian languages. Among Smith’s copious sermons, writings, and published statements are several prominent uses of the Hebrew language to explain or make doctrinal points, perhaps most famously in the non-canonical King Follet Discourse or King Follet Sermon, a speech Smith gave in 1844, less than three months before his assassination. In the work, he “explains” particulars of the first portion of the original Hebrew of Genesis 1:1, but his understanding of the language is clearly faulty, and the statements he makes are, in large part, factually inaccurate with regard to the meaning and syntax of the original Hebrew. Smith had actually studied Hebrew, together with other Church leaders, during the winter of 1835-1836, while the early LDS movement was headquartered in Kirkland, Ohio. They had employed a professional Hebrew instructor to do the teaching. Nonetheless, according to a celebrated assessment by University of Utah Professor of English and Lecturer in Hebrew Louis Clement Zucker, Smith’s use of the language was that of an “artist” and not “a meticulous Hebraist.” Of Smith’s discussion of Genesis 1:1 in King Follet, Zucker writes that the Mormon Prophet “ignores the rest of the verse, and the syntax he imposes on his artificial three-word statement is impossible.” The key problem here is that Smith appears to use the first three Hebrew words of the verse, bĕrē’šît bārā’ ‘ĕlōhîm, and the fact that the Hebrew root in the word rē’šît, meaning “beginning,” is rē’š which literally means “head,” to argue that the real meaning of the phrase which actually translates to “in the beginning God created” is, in fact, “the head one [of the Gods] brought forth the Gods.” When Zucker mentions syntax being an issue here, he is alluding to the fact that Smith’s proposal requires that the subject of the verb bārā’ (‘created’) be understood as the dubious word rē’š, ‘head,’ preceding the verb, which is not where subjects appear in unmarked clauses in Biblical Hebrew. The real subject of that particular verb is actually the word ĕlōhîm (‘God’), which follows the verb as subjects in the language customarily do. 

Subsequent faithful Mormons like Kevin L. Barney, however, who has written widely on Mormon history and thought and serves on the boards of both the independent quarterly journal of Mormon thought, Dialogue, and the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR), though troubled by Zucker’s sober critical assessment of Smith’s Hebrew, have nonetheless chosen to rely on their conviction that Smith was an unusually diligent student of the language, a conclusion bolstered by Smith’s own diary entry for March 7, 1836. There, the prophet recounts how his Hebrew class for the day had translated all of Genesis chapter 17 and most of chapter 22, after which Smith himself privately translated ten verses from Exodus 3. In light of Smith’s self-professed ability to translate copious amounts of Hebrew in a single day, Barney admits to being puzzled as to the prophet’s “apparent garbling of the Hebrew” in the passage from Genesis 1 in King Follet. Barney lets his wretched writ thinking guide him to proposing an elaborate conjectural account that would vindicate how Smith managed to pull a ten word English “translation” out of the hat of a single initial word in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1, bĕrē’šît, thus allowing him to escape the syntactic problem detailed above. Barney’s conclusion to his study evidences the tension he feels between reasoned criticisms of Smith’s use of Hebrew and the wretched writ fallacy to which he is, as a faithful believer, beholden: 

“In general, Joseph may have known what he was doing and, although he freely experimented with the Hebrew, he did not completely butcher it, as has long been assumed. It should scarcely surprise us that Joseph Smith, who produced such extensive and creative biblical expansions in the English of the Joseph Smith Translation, had the capacity to construct a comparatively modest textual expansion in the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1.”

On a non-official website for LDS faithful, the page entitled “How did Joseph Smith learn Hebrew?” shows the wretched writ pattern of reasoning even more clearly. It begins with a paragraph contrasting Smith’s lack of formal schooling with his eventual learning from “many fields, including Hebrew”:

“Joseph Smith received very little formal education as a child and young man. He was largely educated by his parents, due to a lack of schools available. In all, he attended formal schooling only about three years. In addition, he was tutored by an angel named Moroni in spiritual things for several years prior to beginning his work. Despite this, by the time of his early death, he had become well-educated in many fields, including Hebrew.”

By the final paragraph, the page is using Smith’s Hebrew study as an inspirational lesson on how “Joseph set a pattern of strong Mormon support for education.” 

As far as Egyptian is concerned, in 1835 a man peddling Egyptian mummies and old papyri came looking for Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio, because he heard through the grapevine that the young prophet could translate “reformed Egyptian,” the supposed language of much of the material in the Book of Mormon. Excited, Smith cobbled together over two thousand dollars, despite narrow financial straights for the Church in those early days, to buy the lot. From his “translation” of the materials, he eventually produced the third and most bizarre of the LDS Church’s distinctive original scriptures, The Pearl of Great Price, which contains Biblical-styled books attributed to Moses and Abraham, complete with facsimiles of some of the Egyptian material from the papyri said to depict scenes from the Book of Abraham. Though non-Mormons began publishing their doubts about Abraham as early as 1837, and one professional French Egyptologist published a work in 1860 arguing that the published facsimiles were actually just common Egyptian funerary papyri and not some fabulous lost book of Abraham, the papyri themselves—as well as all ability to verify these criticisms—were lost to history until their rediscovery in 1966 in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, together with a bill of sale from Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s widow. The find was authenticated, and articles published in 1967 and ’68 by both amateur and professional Egyptologists both within and outside the LDS Church again affirmed that the documents were in fact just fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Indeed, the same year in which the papyri turned back up, two disaffected former Mormons who became professional thorns in the side of the Church by starting a Christian ministry devoted to discrediting and exposing the LDS movement somehow obtained the microfilm of Joseph Smith’s work Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, which he prepared and used during his initial grappling with the original papyri, and published a photomechanical reproduction of it. That work clearly shows that Smith had no knowledge of the Egyptian language whatsoever and drew “meanings” from Egyptian symbols that bear no relationship to their actual significance at all. An Egyptologist named I. E. S. Edwards at the British Museum wrote of Smith’s Alphabet and Grammar that it “reminds me of the writings of psychic practitioners which are sometimes sent to me.” All the same, an official LDS Church webpage devoted to the “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” relies on the wretched writ principal to defend both Smith’s integrity and the miraculous nature of his “translation.” The page states:

“We do know some things about the translation process. The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language. He readily acknowledged that he was one of the “weak things of the world,” called to speak words sent “from heaven” [(Doctrine and Covenants 1:17, 19, 24)]. … The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.”   

Wretched Writ in Islam    

Mormonism is not the only religious movement to engage in this fallacious wretched writ behavior, however. The pattern rears its head in Islam as well. The Qur’an (Surah 2:23-24) issues to its would-be critics a challenge remarkably similar to that with which Hugh Nibley confronted his BYU class in the 1980s. The key verses read: 

“And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our Servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful. But if you do not—and you will never be able to—then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.”

Note how the passage segues from challenging opponents to produce their own surahs to promising them not just lack of success in that endeavor but eternal damnation in hell for having made the attempt. Though both Christian missionaries and Western scholars have been quick to dispute this and other claims of the Qur’an’s greatness on grounds of both style and substance, sometimes suggesting that the book was the product of an entirely human author (perhaps Muhammad himself), Muslim apologists often respond just as Mormons do to challenges to the Book of Mormon. They first note that Muhammad was possessed of little learning and had no particular poetic talent; therefore, he could not possibly have authored the work. In a way similar to Joseph Smith’s personal history, one of the six major collections of Sunni hadith or oral traditions surrounding the Prophet makes much of Muhammad’s illiteracy in its recounting of the story his investiture as a prophet in the cave at Hira. The account provides a vivid description of Muhammad’s terror at the unyielding command of an angel to read the words of what would later become the Qur’an, this despite his inability to read. Faithful Muslims also object that Muhammad and his early followers suffered great persecutions as a result of their new religious book and its teachings, further proof that they would not and could not simply be “faking it.”

Wretched Writ in Christianity

Christians also often fall back on this kind of apologetic rhetorical technique when defending claims of divinity attributed to Jesus. Though Jesus did not champion a novel work of scripture per se, Christians respond to criticisms of his oral teachings as recorded in the New Testament in ways that parallel Mormons’ defense of the Book of Mormon and Muslims’ of the Qur’an. In one conversation I had with a university professor who was a professing and practicing Christian, my interlocutor at one point said that if Jesus was not the literal son of God, as he is represented as having claimed in the Gospels, then he would have been a delusional madman or some kind of trickster whose fantasy or fraud brought him nothing but physical opposition and eventual violent death. The clear implication of this line of reasoning is that criticisms of Jesus’ claims amount to personal attacks on the individual himself, and because he suffered enormous trials and travails as a result of his claims but still nonetheless never recanted, his sincerity and veracity must remain above reproach. Moreover, since Jesus died on our behalf, shouldn’t we feel ashamed, in light of such suffering, for our apparent lack of gratitude in daring to question his claims to divinity? Q.E.D.  

Wretched Writ in Atheistic Satanism

I mentioned earlier how I had experienced the wretched writ fallacy even within inter-group controversy amongst atheistic Satanists. This experience marks an important departure for the fallacy, insofar as the “sacred” writ in question is not put forward as an inspired text, but merely as a work—series of works, really—of important life philosophy. Thus, I want to say something briefly about how the fallacy works in this novel context. 

While I was engaged in a spat with an atheistic Satanic organization, I received a communication from a ranking group member in which he attributed the obvious technical and stylistic faults of the group’s rather copious oeuvre to the common knowledge of the founder’s having suffered a stroke in early adulthood, as a result of which he had to relearn how to speak, read, and write. The ranking member added that, while detractors from other organizations have used the founder’s stylistic faults as polemical fodder, he thought the individual had made amazing progress in the relatively short time period of his recovery, during which he was formulating and refining his Satanic ideas. The similar faults of the particular online essay to which I was responding, the ranking member explained as arising from the twin facts of the piece’s having originated as notes from an in-group discussion which the organization decided to publish openly at the last minute and its author’s suffering from his own severe cognitive disorder that makes reading and writing difficult. This ranking member’s explanatory words did manage to play on my heartstrings—such as they are—and I pledged I would let the controversy drop and even offered my assistance to the group to remedy their erroneous and untranslatable Latin motto. Not much later, however, the group I was contending with published a follow-up essay to my criticisms in which the author now claimed that he experienced my essay as—you guessed it—a character attack mounted for the purpose of shutting down argument by someone who touts his “high educational standing” solely as a means of “attempting to say that his ideas are of greater worth.” 

This exchange fits the pattern of the wretched writ fallacy to a T:

  1. First, an outsider—me—initially criticizes the group’s religious writ on grounds of both substance, in my blog, and style, through offline comments.
  2. Second comes the insider reply by sob story, touting the disadvantaged background of the founder and writer in question that is designed to elicit pity and compassion from the critic, while making no reply as to the actual substance of the original criticisms.
  3. Finally, the group paints the outside critic as a mean-spirited intellectual who uses his learning to impugn the character of the group’s writer and to assert his greater worth on fallacious grounds. 

The group could have chosen to defend themselves by affirming the value of the content of their writings, despite the obvious faults in that content’s expression. Instead, they chose to activate the wretched writ complex and falsely play on my empathy and compassion, two values affirmed by many modern Satanists. Oh well: what can you do?  

What to do about Wretched Writ?    

So what do we critical atheists do in the face of this emotionally manipulative rhetoric? Ignore our pangs of conscience and press on with our justified, reasoned criticism? Feel guilty, back off, and pipe down? It’s hard to know, quite frankly, what to do. 

In the final analysis, when the ideas and doctrines presented in a religious writing are themselves particularly worthy of tearing down, poking holes in the vehicle by which they’re propagated—the form of the writing itself—is a perfectly valid avenue of argumentation. Even if that means appearing the asshole. I suppose, in this endeavor, we can be comforted as Satanists by LaVey’s own words in The Devil’s Notebook on the subject of “The Goodguy Badge.” The point of the wretched writ fallacy, as of all fallacious appeals to pity, is to prompt “an exhibition of piety and charity, with a Goodguy Badge to pin to…[our] lapel.” True to the ninth of the Nine Satanic Statements (“Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years!”), “[i]n whatever allegory the Devil is conjured, he becomes the reaction device for those who need him the most.” Those who mount the wretched writ fallacy are counting on us being unwilling to forego the Goodguy Badge and be branded as Devils. Luckily for us Satanists, Devil is already precisely what we are. And we’re damn proud of it! Ultimately, we Satanists should probably always be up for honest, reasonable criticism, without feeling the need to emotionalize it for our own manipulative purposes. That may be cold comfort in the moment, but there’s not much else to be done—save the Devil’s work, that is. 

Furthermore, when it comes to the subject of our own written work in support of Satanic traditions, we can always strive to make sure that it is as technically and substantively accomplished as we can possibly make it. Where our talent and ability for such things flag, we can seek the help of others to take up slack. In this way, we can do anything and everything in our considerable power to ensure there is no need for underhanded apologetics on our own behalf. Let our critics say our work is dull. Let them say it’s pretentious. Let them say it’s overbold even. But for Lucifer’s sake, please do all you can to make sure they can’t honestly call it uninformed, comically flawed, or just plain wrong on key points. Moreover, when we do make mistakes—as we will and always do in some way or other—let us certainly not throw up the smokescreen of a sob story and attempt to excuse our flaws with emotional manipulation. Rather simply fix the problems, post haste, for good and all, if possible. While achievement is most definitely a common design and desideratum with Satanists, acknowledging when we fall short of attainment, rectifying any errors made along the way, and remediating incidental harms caused also form necessary parts of the Devil’s work, however unpleasant a set of tasks they may be.     


4 thoughts on “Wretched Writ: The Dirty Apologetics of Bad Religious Writing

  1. Pingback: A Wretched Defense of Wretched Writ – The Devil's Fane

  2. Yar, engaging essay.

    Regarding the Mormons, one of the defenses I’ve heard that attempts to defeat all criticisms is that Joseph Smith was writing a book that was intended to be “understood in its day,” and that should be taken as an historical account, but as a grand narrative used to teach “spiritual truths and lessons.” So even though there are mountains of ahistorical claims — metal working before it was known in the Americas, elephants, mechanical tools and conventions not known to the native Americans, etc. — the point isn’t that the BoM should be taken literally, but that it should be taken figuratively (and therefore it doesn’t matter if the Egyptian translations are nonsense, and so on.) I find this defense particularly unbelievable because it requires the one who employs it to be consistent in accepting that the BoM is ahistorical, but the Mormons I met who made this defense would often attempt to have it both ways. *shrugs* I guess they’re cribbing notes from the Creationists who argue that God created the world six thousand years ago, but deliberately planted dinosaur fossils and such things that would appear to be much older upon scientific inspection merely to confound the rest of us. Wonders never cease, hmm?

    Regarding wretched writ, do you suppose it shares anything with the general convention among people writing persuasive essays that before the end they should (re)introduce chief criticisms of their position and either their own or their position’s conflicts and weaknesses? It was hammered into me rather heavily in school that to be intellectually honest in attempts at persuasion the author of an essay should attempt to see the other side of the issue before before closing the argument. In this way, the author is able to show that he or she is not arguing from a place of absolute and irrefutable knowledge, but instead from a place of “best current understanding,” and offer final rebuttals tempered by the self-awareness that he or she could be wrong but feels the way he or she days because of the aforementioned reasons.

    In a similar vein, I try — and don’t always succeed — in my writing to be the first one to point out my own faults, shortcomings, and failures. I do this because I try to be the person who sees more than one side to an issue, and also because I think that it helps my audience understand how I’ve come to think the way that I do and to understand that there’s no clever answer to “Cui bono?” hidden in my writing, but there are some Satanists whose affiliation you could probably guess who’ve accused me in the past of playing the victim, throwing a pity party, etc. What kind of line do you think exists between being intellectually honest and acknowledging other perspectives or one’s own weaknesses in the argumentative process, versus falling into wretched writ?

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    • Regarding your first observations as to taking BOM figuratively and not as literal history: I actually really respect that POV. I think the more Biblical literalist Xtians have really backed themselves into a corner and become subject to what Einstein called the “tyranny of facts” in their insistence on Bible as history. No one wants their faith claims subject to verification and falsification the way that good academic work should always be. If they come at me with, the truth in the Bible or BOM is like the kind of truth found in novels and great poetry: it reveals truths about human nature and what it means to be a good person, I’m totally on board. At that point for the BOM, we can drop all this “reformed Egyptian,” golden plates, seer stone, etc. nonsense and just evaluate the work as literature of a moralizing bent. It still fails on literary grounds, but at least we’ve narrowed the field of concern.

      As regards your second point, I’m not entirely certain I take your meaning. I think the wretched writ fallacy seeks self-consciously to avoid intellectual honesty and critical evaluation of all claims, both your opponents’ and your own, by introducing irrelevant appeals to emotion. When apologists instead meet point for point, acknowledging strengths and weaknesses in their own and others’ positions, I’m fine with that. I think the key in evaluating claims and rhetoric, no matter the field, is to avoid fallacies of relevance and keep the focus on the ideas and issues. Emotions rally support like nothing else, and that’s why we so often resort to them to win arguments. But it’s a dishonest practice. So, for example, while I think LaVey’s work was critical and did manage to express a key novel insight into world religiosity that we very much needed, I fully acknowledge his lack of original research, his plagiarism of Redbeard and Rand, his thorough sexism and cis-het normativity, his very execrable flirtation with Nazi imagery and ideas, and so on. I may acknowledge some of his shortcomings by appeal to his biography and his being characteristic of his day and age, but I would never insist on such acknowledgements as exculpatory in any way. He could have and should have done better. That’s what I’m trying to do now.

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  3. Pingback: Neophilia & Neophobia, Fear v. Wonder: Differential Effects of the Sublime on Closed and Opened Minds – The Devil's Fane

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