Ethnic Epistemology (Part 1)

Adam Coleman

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December 30, 2017

Over the last year and some change I’ve been tackling objections to Christianity that have been gaining traction within the context of the African-American community. When I wrote my first FTM article on this subject, “Introducing the Conscious Community”, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. However, I can certainly say this first year of public apologetics ministry has been a fun ride and I’m excited about whatever God has planned moving forward. With that being said, shout out to all my people out there who have been riding with me on my Tru-ID Podcast and more recently the KING Talks Podcast. I’ve truly appreciated all the emails, FB messages, tweets, etc. with all the positive feedback and support. Trust me, we’re just getting started!

Prior to getting involved with so-called urban apologetics ministry I’d already embarked on my own personal journey to wrestle with difficult questions revolving around race, religion, and ethics. I immersed myself in reading slave narratives in which they described their faith and religious experiences in their own words. I studied up on Christianity in ancient Africa and was amazed at the robust contribution Africans like St. Augustine, Tertullian, and Abba Anthony had made in church history. I even found myself looking at African-American history through a new lens as I discovered the profound role that African American Christians had in setting a more direct course toward freedom for all in this nation. I thought that if people in the Conscious community only knew what I knew it would change the game.  I now realize I was wrong about that. Initially my understanding of what it’s going to take to effectively minister to the Conscious community was in a number of ways overly simplistic.

It’s Complicated

In an article I wrote for the KING Movement website, Consciously Confused, I talked about the role that apologetics can play in helping people reconcile the jagged edges of our human experience within a coherent worldview. For example, many people find it difficult to reconcile evil and suffering in the world with the existence of a loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God. Not only are there apologetics resources available which address both the logical version and probability version of the problem of evil, there are also arguments from which one would conclude that the reality of evil in the world actually points to the existence of God. Among people of the African diaspora there are other aspects of human experience that people have difficulty reconciling for which a broader range of responses and resources are needed. For many people, their most pressing issue isn’t so much how evil fits into the same world as a loving God but more so how African ethnicity fits into the Christian worldview which many nowadays are claiming is fundamentally at odds with African people. In this two-part article I would like to highlight one issue that seems to contribute to this friction.

What’s poppin?

As I’ve noted before, the sentiment that Christianity is the white man’s religion has been brewing for quite some time and is gaining ground among people of African descent in the West.  It seems to me that in some way or another this phenomenon traces back to a disruption in identity formation beginning with the Transatlantic Slave Trade and perpetuated by various forms of oppression in the West. This disruption seems to be the root of the thirst for lost ethno-cultural identity which drives many toward the belief that they must shed off what is perceived to be European and reclaim their Africanness and/or indigeneity. Unfortunately, a growing number of individuals are coming to the conclusion that Christianity is on the wrong side of the ledger. I would suggest to the reader that one element of what we have here is a matter of flawed epistemology.

This problem of what I call “Ethnic Epistemology” became more apparent to me leading up to my appearance as a guest on a popular YouTube talk show, “Talk With the Titans”. A few weeks before presenting on “Talk with the Titans” I started running into a particular question and had a feeling it would come up during my interview. Sure enough, as I anticipated, during the Q & A portion of the show the question was posed. Essentially what it boiled down to was “I hear what you’re saying about Christianity being in Africa for over 1400 years before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the diversity of ways in which slaves encountered Christianity including practicing it independently from and counter to the slave-masters religion, and given the evidence for the resurrection there is rational justification to affirm Christianity BUT– “Is Christianity African?”.

Sometimes a yes or no question really isn’t a yes or no question and giving a yes or no answer to such a question can do more harm than good. When someone asks about whether or not Christianity is “African” what are they really getting at? Basically, the underlying assumption is that Africanness is put forth as a criterion in determining whether or not to accept information, an ideology, a religion, worldview. etc. In other words if information, religion, etc. aligns with or directly derives from what a person believes to be an African source (I.e scholar or text) or indigenous African culture then it is valid and if it does not then it is to be rejected. This Ethnic Epistemology criterion seems to be a persistent feature of how individuals in the Conscious community attempt to adjudicate between truth and falsehood.

Episte-what?

For clarity sake, I’d like to take a very brief moment to broadly define what “epistemology” is and explain what specific aspect of epistemology I’m focusing in on here. The term “Epistemology” refers to that branch of philosophy which pertains to “knowledge”. Philosophers of Epistemology are interested in questions like:

“What exactly is knowledge?”

“What does it mean to know something?”

“How do we know that we know something?”

Believe it or not what it means to “know” something is a concept that is more slippery than most people realize. As a working definition most philosophers of epistemology would generally agree that in order to say that we “know” this or that we have to, at minimum, have a Justified True Belief (JTB) about it or something along those lines. If you’d like to know a little more about Epistemology you can start with this short video HERE.

I will be focusing on the “J” of JTB as we move on to tackle the problem of ethnic epistemology. Simply put, in the field of epistemology the term “justification” has to do with having good reasons or rational grounds from which a person can affirm something to be true. Obviously, we would want to have good reasons/ solid justification rather than flimsy ones for something we claim to be true. From an epistemological standpoint, if we don’t have solid justification for something we claim to be true then it might be the case that we believe something to be true but we couldn’t reasonably claim to “know” it is true. Knowledge is like a sandwich with JTB being its essential ingredients. If you were making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and forgot the bread you would have PB & J but not a PB&J sandwich. Likewise, if a person believes something to be true but doesn’t have justification–then out of the JTB ingredients for knowledge–one might have the “T” and the “B” but not the “J”(Justification) and therefore couldn’t claim to have knowledge in that instance. For example, let’s say you asked me how’s the weather outside and I told you it was snowing. Let’s also say I went on to explain that I “know” it’s snowing because I saw on last night’s weather forecast that there was 100% chance of snow predicted for today. Also, I’d just come in from outside and I saw flurries beginning to come down. In this scenario, we could say that I have rational grounds for claiming to know it is snowing based upon having watched the weather forecast and seeing the snow precipitate first hand. On the other hand, what if you asked me the same question and I said I know it is snowing because yesterday I flipped a coin while counting backwards and every time I’ve done that in the past on a Tuesday it has snowed the next day. I seriously doubt you would take it as the gospel truth that it’s snowing outside based on my coin flipping ritual. I think we all know that counting and coin flipping isn’t a reliable weather forecasting method. Therefore, even if you walked outside and just so happened that I was correct about it snowing outside, I wouldn’t be in a position to say that I had solid justification for my belief that it’s snowing outside. Unlike the first scenario, it would be fair for me to say that I believe it is snowing but it would also be an overstatement for me to claim that I “know” it is snowing since I don’t have justification. Here’s the punchline. Counting and coin flipping is not the sort of thing that would help a person come to a Justified True Belief (aka Knowledge) about the snow. In that same sense, I am suggesting that using Africanness as a cookie cutter criterion for screening information, is not a consistently reliable guide toward attaining knowledge of the world. Ethnicity and culture are just the wrong tools for the job when it comes to finding answers to certain questions about truth and reality.

Says Who?

Several months ago I came across an individual from the Conscious community, let’s call him RL, who was essentially trying to build a public speaking platform partly based around the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. RL had a group page on Facebook so I joined it hoping to have a dialogue with him on the historical evidence for Jesus’ existence. Eventually, we were able to have that online exchange and it ended up being one of my most valuable experiences as an apologist. For weeks, I had been taking jabs at RL by hopping on threads and showing his argumentation to be demonstrably fallacious. Eventually, he got fed up and issued me a challenge that was something along the lines of: “Ok Mr. Apologist since you know so much, ‘prove’ to me and my Facebook followers that Jesus really existed.”

Once he opened that door I had the attention of many of his “fans” so I had to take the opportunity to present evidence and make this exchange really count. I hit them with the “biggies” in terms of evidence for the historical Jesus like quotes from Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and so on.  Much to my disappointment, RL and the vast majority of those participating in that discussion seemed unmoved by the evidence. As a matter of fact, most of the people on that thread laughed me to scorn and scoffed at the evidence I’d presented. The same evidence, by the way, which has convinced the vast majority of scholars who deal with the question of Jesus’ existence that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed a real historical person. In spite of me providing the actual quotes from Tacitus and Josephus along with explanations as to why historians regard their testimony as being legitimate sources upon which one can make a case for Jesus’ historicity my efforts ultimately seemed to have been in vain. Why?  At the end of the none of the evidence mattered because among the central counter arguments from RL was that all of the early extra-biblical sources that mention Jesus were from white people. Tacitus? White. Pliny the Younger? White. I noted that Josephus was a first century Jew, however, he copied and pasted a drawing of Josephus from Google images and ruled him out for being white too. It became clear to me that in my exchange with RL the evidence for Jesus’ existence wasn’t the problem. RL’s use of Ethnic Epistemology was the problem.  That experience was a reminder for me that apologetics is about more than just answering tough questions. Being an effective apologist is also about coming alongside people and giving them tools so that they can wrestle with tough questions in a way that tends toward truth. Given that his approach for how he goes about determining what to accept or reject includes an automatic rejection of “white sources”, I would need to address that fallacious thinking first before I could even expect RL or his FB followers to appreciate the evidence for Jesus’ historicity. Sometimes we’re sowing seeds of truth and not seeing fruit from it because we forgot to prep the soil.

White Ain’t Right…

One of the cardinal tenets for much of the Conscious Community is that white people cannot be trusted. Generally speaking, white folks are seen as being an homogenous people group who are collectively responsible for the protracted oppression of Africans in America and worldwide. It is believed that an aspect of that oppression is the misrepresentation of history and current events toward the goal of painting white folks and a positive light while misleading and/or denigrating people of color. This core belief about the general untrustworthiness of white people plays out in a number of ways when attempting to dialogue with individuals from the Conscious community. Most commonly, you see an ethnicity-based brand of anti-scholarship as they will often times reject scholarly work on account of it being authored by a white person. Conversely, in the conscious community you have a number of books, lecture videos, documentaries, etc. that present sub-par content but are granted legitimacy because they are written or produced by a person of color. This dynamic makes it difficult to have constructive conversations on any given topic because many woke folks will privilege illegitimate sources or disregard credible ones solely based on the color of the author’s skin. In other words, information from black sources affords a person a higher degree of “justification” than information from white sources because white people are liars.  Since ruling out credible sources of information on the basis of race is clearly not going to help someone work their way toward truth, how do we challenge this thinking and move them in the right direction?

For the purpose of this article, I’ll call our strategy for nudging people toward a more reliable truth-finding thought process, “Adam’s Razor”. For my philosophy heads out there, it’s obviously a play on the term Occam’s Razor**. The goal of our Adam’s Razor approach is to use the conscious community person’s Ethnic Epistemology against them such that we:

A.) Eliminate as many of the sources they are using to support their views as possible.

B.) Draw attention to the lack of justification for their claims.

C.) Help them to see why their Ethnic Epistemology isn’t a consistently reliable guide toward truth.

D.) Open the door for the evidence I would put forth to make my case.

Authors of Confusion

Sometimes the person you’re in dialogue with will make life easy on you by alleging that the white man cannot be trusted while at the same time raising objections to Christianity that trace back to white sources. Recently, when I interviewed rap artist, David Banner, on the KING Talks Podcast he did just that. Early in the conversation he asserted that white people have always lied therefore we shouldn’t trust Christianity as, according to Banner, black people would not be Christians had it not been for forced indoctrination through slavery. Later in the interview, Banner made the claim that the four gospels are a rehash of 12 myths that predate them, particularly the story of Horus. Immediately I recognized that this was a claim that likely traces back to a book entitled “Sixteen Crucified Saviors Before Christ” authored by Kersey Graves; ironically Kersey Graves is Caucasian. Now, usually what I do at this point in a conversation is simply ask something like:

A.) If I go along with your reasoning for discrediting Christianity in that we supposedly got it from white folks who always lie, and the book you’re getting your information from is written by a white person, then why should I believe what you’re telling me right now since you got it from a white person?

B.) If we’re going to be consistent here shouldn’t we both cast aside this objection to Christianity you’re making since you got it from lying white folks?”

C.)  Whether others have been indoctrinated into Christianity or not, I have rational justification for affirming Christianity is true based upon XYZ evidence (ie. Minimal Facts Argument). I’d be happy to share that evidence with you but first can you explain to me why you reject Christianity for supposedly coming from “the lying white man” while at the same time you accept these other beliefs based on information you got from “the lying white man”? If white sources shouldn’t be trusted aren’t you being a bit hypocritical? 

My main goal at this point is two-fold. First, I want to help the person see their own bias and hypocrisy. Secondly, I want to pull the rug from under their argument by shaving away the sources they’ve built their worldview upon. Once I catch them on a point like this, I hold them to it for the rest of the conversation. Every time they reference a source I’m going to ask if its written by a white person. If so, I’m going to apply Adam’s Razor and reject every claim they make from that source. I want them to see how futile it is to try to make a case for what they believe while being consistent in applying their flawed Ethnic epistemology.

Half woke

Now, some conscious community folks attempt to do their due diligence and have spent time stock piling sources written by black scholars. Their collection of books likely include authors like Dr. Yosef Ben Yochannan (Dr. Ben), Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Ante Diop, Salim Feraji, Walter Williams, Anthony Browder, and so on. With this band of black authors and maybe a few extra nuggets they’ve memorized from watching the Hidden Colors docuseries, these folks might be able to pull off holding a whole conversation with you without referencing a single European author. Problem solved, right? Well, no not exactly. If they are committed to the belief that white people are liars and therefore are unreliable sources, we can still ask questions like:

A.) If you take a look at the bibliography in the back of the book you referenced and consider the sources your author draws from, are all of the sources listed in the bibliography from non-white scholars?

B.) Since there is no field of study in which you can build a well-rounded understanding of a topic without engaging material from “white scholars”, would you suggest that we remain unlearned and ignorant or would you agree that there are factors other than skin color by which we can determine a source to be valuable or not?

C.) If the “scholars” that you highly respect don’t seem to have a problem with appealing to scholarship or evidence from European sources, why do you have a problem with it when I do so?

As an example, many Kemetics love to refer to ancient Egyptian pyramid texts. As a matter of fact anyone who was paying attention during the recent Loso versus B-dot rap battle, probably noticed this sort of objection in one of B-Dot’s lines. He took a jab at Christianity by implying that the written “texts” of the Bible were merely copies of what the Bible authors wrote and on that basis are less reliable than what one might find in Egypt. Therefore B-Dot suggested that Loso needed to get some original “techs”/texts. Given that earlier in the battle B-dot implied that information from “the oppressor” can’t be trusted it would certainly be reasonable to ask B-Dot if all the archeologists who discovered the pyramid texts and the linguists who interpreted them were black? If some of these archeologists and linguists were white, and most probably were, how can B-dot have any confidence at all that they didn’t lie about what they found or what the text says? Imagine that. B-dot ridicules Christians for receiving their belief system from “their oppressors” and all the while he has been spoon fed his indigenous spiritual system through the feeding tube of modern European scholarship; Isn’t that fascinating!

Actually, my favorite example of this sort of thing is a book that seems to very popular among Hebrew Israelites called, “From Babylon to Timbuktu” by Rudolph Windsor. When you flip over to Windsor’s rather meager bibliography you find the first six names of those Windsor cited listed as follows: Joseph Deniker, Herodotus, Josephus, Friedrich Ratzel, John Clark Ridpath, and Herbert Wendt. Every last one of them are white men with the obvious exception of Josephus. Still, many Hebrew Israelites consider Josephus to have been a traitor to Israel anyway. Maybe it’s just me but it seems strange to put so much confidence in a book for which a significant amount of it’s content derives from traitors to your purported ethnicity alongside members of the very people group you believe to be subjugating and miseducating you. If the “woke” individual you’re dealing with is basing conclusions on books written by black scholars who draw from the work of white scholars then once again Adam’s Razor is in full effect. If that person is to be logically consistent they must discard any works that have been tainted by white scholarship even if it means doing away with the sources they value on account of them being written by black scholars.

Conclusion

I think this is a good place to camp out for now. I will be doing a part 2 to this article in which we will explore other ways in which this ethnic epistemology can be a stumbling block for many folks out there. I’ll also be giving a few more suggestions as to how we can help people navigate this issue so that they will be in a better position to hear the evidence for Christianity with an open mind.

Stay tuned…

Bibliography

Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia: https://plato.stanford.edu/

Winston, R.  “From Babylon to Timbuktu”

http://www.lojsociety.org/aymero_pdf/from_babylon_to_timbuktu_by_rudolph_r_windsor.pdf

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About the Author

Adam Coleman

Adam Coleman is passionate about equipping Christians with evidences for the faith and engaging the culture. He is a husband, father of three busy children, social worker, writer, and public speaker. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master’s in Social Work Adam began a career of community development, mentoring youth, and service to our nation’s veterans. Currently, Adam is primarily focused on using his "Tru-ID Podcast", writing, and public speaking to promote the gospel of Christ through Christian apologetics.

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