“Facts don’t matter.”
The first time I heard these words they came from a teacher to an audience of students during a presentation intended to celebrate black history. As part of the presentation, the teacher had intended to illustrate racial injustice in this country by showing pictures of the infamous “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protests following the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson in Missouri. Unfortunately, the teacher’s presentation fell on the heels of the Department of Justice’s investigation into the facts of Brown’s death, which revealed through eyewitness accounts that Brown not only didn’t have his hands up but was possibly charging the police officer at the time of the shooting. Rather than trying to enlist alternative, more credible instances of racial injustice (which surely could have been found), the teacher instead decided to suggest injustice had occurred in this instance in spite of the facts by providing one stipulation: “Facts don’t matter… This is about perception,” he said.
Although I was initially shocked to hear an authority figure espouse a perspective so at odds with the foundational American principle that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, the teacher’s sentiment was not all that new. The idea that facts are something that can be manipulated for one’s advantage or political purpose—rather than a tool utilized in discovering truth—has been infiltrating society at prominent levels for some time.
Over the past eight years, leaders have increasingly dismissed or distorted facts in an effort to gain favor or avoid responsibility. Factual inquiries into whether or not Benghazi was or wasn’t caused by an offensive video or whether or not one’s email server has or hasn’t been wiped clean have become subject to the response “What difference does it make?” Presidential debates have been reduced to emotional appeals and assertions, where the actual fact checking of those assertions occurs only as a politically tinged afterthought. We live in a time when intelligent people find it acceptable—despite experienced pediatric warnings to the contrary—to quickly dismiss the factual nature of a child’s biological sex in favor of a child’s emotional (and potentially changing) opinion of themselves. And unfortunately, school leaders across the nation are now adopting a Common Core English language arts k-12 model that substantially increases the study of persuasion without proportionally increasing the study of fallacious reason or propaganda, leaving students more vulnerable to the misuse or manipulation of facts.
Where facts don’t matter, however, consequences actually do follow.
As explained by William Jeynes, Professor of Education at California State University, in his article “‘Defactualization’ is Causing American Schools to Become Bastions of Anti-Intellectualism,” dismissing and distorting the nature of facts is creating an academic culture hostile to authentic intellectual debate.
Jeynes argues that any academic model that views facts as malleable instruments of the user, rather than objective details intended to inform context and conclusions, creates an environment where “debates are won by those with the loudest mouths and the Machiavellian ability to manipulate the emotions of others.”
While there is surely room for the interpretation of facts, Jeynes explains:
[H]istory is made up of facts that cannot be denied, from the Holocaust to Islamic military expansionism in the 700s AD to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. However, whatever one’s view of abortion’s moral status, a child is not an extension of his or her mother’s flesh. The child has his or her own unique DNA. That is a fact. Any debate about abortion that denies that reality succumbs to the quagmire of defactualization…. Any debate about why President Truman chose to have the atomic bomb dropped on Japan and not Germany must address the fact that the Germans surrendered in early May of 1945, well before the atomic bomb was developed and tested in New Mexico in July 1945. The purpose of this statement is not to claim that Truman was right to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The point is this: Facts have to be an important component of any intelligible debate.
Perhaps what should be even more alarming to the Christian, however, is the potential impact such factual fluidity has on Christian evangelization.
To be sure, the supernatural gift of faith and interior help of the Holy Spirit is what allows man to submit his intellect and will to believe in Christian truth. Christian belief can therefore never be solely reduced to facts mere humans understand. Facts cannot serve as “the” ultimate basis of man’s belief in Christianity, and any quest to confirm faith solely through such facts would be a fruitless endeavor. Nonetheless, facts do play a role where the intellect intersects with—and often advances—Christianity’s theological truth.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that, in addition to being a supernatural act, believing in Christianity is also a human act, often informed from right reasoning (CCC 154). Concrete proofs or divine facts, properly applied, therefore play a role in graduating man toward his assent in that they can “predispose one to faith and help one see that faith is not opposed to reason” (CCC 35). As explained in Dei Filius, the incipit from the Dogmatic Constitution from the First Vatican Council:
[I]n order that the “obedience” of our faith should be “consonant with reason” [cf. Rom 12:1], God has willed that to the internal aids of the Holy Spirit there should be joined external proofs of His revelation, namely: divine facts, especially miracles and prophecies which, because they clearly show forth the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are most certain signs of a divine revelation, and are suited to the intelligence of all…
Even C.S. Lewis acknowledged in his essay “Myth Became Fact” that what sets Christianity apart from false, pagan beliefs is its ability to reflect the supernatural imagination of God and also align with human reason. He points out:
The heart of Christianity is a myth, which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth; that is the miracle.
Indeed, while facts might negate the fullness of truth in other religions, they are a friend to Christianity. Attempts to undermine the truth-finding nature of facts actually undermine the truth-finding progression toward Christianity. If creation and all of the natural wonders of the world may or may not exist; if a man named Jesus may or may not have been born, performed miracles, gained a following and been crucified; if numerous eyewitness accounts did not claim to see him after the resurrection; if miracles may or may not have been performed in his name; if the Christian faith may or may not have spread in spite of persecution through the centuries; if all facts become debatable quasi-opinions, our society essentially ushers in a culture where external proofs don’t exist at all and nothing ever has to be so convincing to be true. Even Christianity.
In this ever-muddled world, it is important that facts, and the clarity they bring, should indeed still matter. Any culture that removes the nature of facts—that blurs the lines between fact, fiction, and opinion—only creates a duplicitous environment that fights against itself intellectually and theologically.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Christ Before Pilate,” was painted by Mihaly Munkacsy in 1881.