|Photo by Sanjay Acharya (CC BY-SA 4.0)|
Take the libel case that the Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt in 1996. Irving’s claim that accusing him of being a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history was libellous were forensically demolished by Richard Evans and other eminent historians. The judgment was devastating to Irving’s reputation and unambiguous in its rejection of his claim to be a legitimate historian. The judgment bankrupted him, he was repudiated by the few remaining mainstream historians who had supported him, and in 2006 he was imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial.
But Irving today? He is still writing and lecturing, albeit in a more covert fashion. He still makes similar claims and his defenders see him as a heroic figure who survived the attempts of the Jewish-led establishment to silence him. Nothing really changed. Holocaust denial is still around, and its proponents find new followers. In legal and scholarly terms, Lipstadt won an absolute victory, but she didn’t beat Holocaust denial or even Irving in the long term.
As someone who was in Christian ministry, is currently a Humanist Celebrant, and hopes to enter the Unitarian Universalist ministry down the road, interacting with others about their beliefs is fairly commonplace for me. I’m genuinely interested in what motivates people, or at least what kind of lens they use to see the world, although sometimes I don’t like what I discover. For that reason I tend to avoid outright conspiracy theorists.
Skepticism can be healthy, causing us to dig deeper and do more research to be sure of what we’re saying or being told. When all the evidence is in, and we know one way of looking at things is on more solid ground, we ought to go with that, willing always to re-evaluate down the road. That’s an idealistic thought, and we all know it doesn’t often play out well in practice. Personal pride, prior investment, and future social well-being all interfere. As I write this there’s a major measles outbreak going on in the northwestern United States because people refuse to accept the established scientific facts around vaccination. There are parents who are convinced that vaccines either don't work, or do and cause autism, and are treating death as through it is a better --albeit unwanted -- outcome. It’s a worrying scenario.
Speaking of children, let's lighten this up a bit. It’s common for little kids to get into dinosaurs. I certainly was fascinated by them, and the National Geographics we had at home fed that interest. They helped me understand the very basics of paleontology and archaeology at a young age, leaving me certain as a third grader that I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. Again, this was true archaeology, as I had not yet seen the Indiana Jones movie, nor would I for several years. My emphasis was to be researching prehistoric human history.
As I voraciously consumed those magazines and any books on prehistory that I could find in the local public library, I picked up a pretty solid understanding of evolution. Then, one day, it occured to me that the way our species came about doesn’t match what Genesis says, and so I asked my mom about it. I remember clearly where we were, taking our evening walk and nearing the house on our return, as I asked the question. I also remember the “I-don’t-want-to-deal-with-this” look on her face. I don’t remember her response, and not long after that I learned that the Roman Catholic Church, in which I was being raised, has no problem with evolutionary theory. Church authorities see the early chapters of Genesis in a ‘spiritual,’ non-concrete way. In later years I told this to a classmate who was the son of the local Assembly of God pastor, and he retorted, “what a system!”
"As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’" (Luke 19:37-40 NRSV)In the Gospel reading for this Palm Sunday, Jesus is making his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. People cheer and cast palm fronds before him on the road. Though he rides a donkey he gets the royal treatment. A few days hence the people would be jeering and mocking as he was taken to be brutally executed by the Romans.
In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy: “Well, that escalated quickly!”
On Jesus' way into town we’re told that his perennial critics, the much-demonized Pharisees (mere straw men for the narrative’s sake), complained that the people shouldn’t be hailing him so. If they weren’t making noise, Jesus told them, the rocks themselves would.
Holocaust denial is an extreme example of insidious denial, and Creationism and Flat Eartherism are mind-bendingly terrible, but there are good and bad ways we practice denial every day, and it would do us well to pay attention.
For instance, whenever we watch a TV show or movie, we suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it. We know that the aliens, magic, and superpowers we see on the screen aren’t real, and that’s the fun of it. Children play pretend from the crib, and that’s what we want to see happen.
Additionally, there are grim truths we set aside from our minds in order to function on a daily basis. The bills we have to pay, what’s going on in the world, and our mortality and that of those we love. Our peace of mind requires taking a break from these concerns. At the same time, too much of this passive denial can exact a steep cost. If we put off dealing with our bills too long, we’ll have services cut off, suffer late fees, and maybe be evicted. If we plant our heads in the sand and don’t step up and speak out against injustice going on in our world, we’re part of the problem. Finally, we acknowledge our mortality by leaving a will, buy life insurance, and so forth. It’s unpleasant business that’s also necessary.
Over the course of my life I’ve gone from Roman Catholic to Evangelical to Unitarian Universalist Humanist. While I really, truly hope I've found my spiritual 'home,' I hold myself to a certain standard. I’m regularly reviewing what I think I know to see if I am in denial about anything. This outlook is fully in line with Unitarian Universalism, which has as it's 4th Principle a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." Thus, it seems likely I'm finally where I belong. I can still change my mind without changing my religious tradition.
Is there some truth about yourself, your family, or the world that you are denying right now? Maybe take some time and check in with yourself and with what's 'out there' beyond your skin.
The stones cry out, the evidence is there, and sometimes, on our best days, we listen.