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Does a Bible quote belong in a TEDx talk pitching a new technology? Here’s how my opinion evolved from “no” to “yes” and back to “no” today, after being asked for advice from an upcoming speaker.
My friend proposes implementing dry public sanitation systems instead of customary water-based systems. Composting toilets (such as those familiar to backcountry enthusiasts in North America and Europe) could be deployed to economically-developing regions that currently lack public sanitation altogether, as well as replace the common style of portable toilet in developed regions. Suspending human poop in water is an unnecessarily costly and environmentally harmful practice borne out of taboo.
The speaker proposed citing a Hebrew Bible passage “…from dust, returning to dust” (which is familiar to the speaker from Genesis, and known to me from Ecclesiastes).
Which passage to quote?
“For you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19)
“All come from dust, and to dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20)
Both passages in their original language use the Hebrew word “afar”, which was accurately translated into Greek “choos” and ultimately to English “dust”.
Though English translations of the Bible vary enormously across religious traditions and denominations, the wording of these particular passages is simple enough that translation version won’t inhibit recognizability.
Genesis 3 recounts a creation myth from the 10thc BCE Yahwehistic southern Judean tradition, and was likely written around the 8thc BCE. (In the Bible, it occurs second in sequence after the Elohistic creation story, which borrows from the 18thc BCE Sumerian “Enuma Elish” epic, and was likely redacted in the 6thc BCE.) The Book of Ecclesiastes was composed anonymously in the 3rd-2ndc BCE under Hellenistic influence, and it’s likely that its wording is an allusion to the then-familiar Genesis passage.
Both passages are philosophically cynical. Genesis 3 explains God’s postlapsarian punishment on humankind, including endless hard work and eventual death. Ecclesiastes describes the meaninglessness of life – in this verse specifically noting that humans and animals are alike in the fact of their inevitable death.
So, pick either one!
Argument from emotion or reason?
First, bringing the Bible into an argument about technology and environment could impugn the credibility of the speaker. This is especially true in the technology community, which is certainly more post-theist/atheist than the general U.S. population. The kneejerk judgment among the ever-growing number of post-/non-religious Americans is that Bible-quoters lack critical thinking skills. (e.g., Does he read sacred texts literally and out of context? Did he misread his audience/market here? Does he draw other conclusions about the world from scripture, in lieu of using science and reason?)
The TED organization does specify that all science and health info shared in TED/TEDx talks must be supported by peer-reviewed research. Obviously, a single Bible quote isn’t a big deal. Although, the guidance does exist that straying too far from secular methods of reason is not appropriate.
On the other hand, invoking the Bible – the foundational document of Western civilization – is a technique to potentially augment a message’s gravity and heighten its persuasiveness. It’s an emotional hook. Emotional content is essential to making an audience remember content better, be more persuaded by an argument, and feel motivated to take action. Regardless of their current beliefs regarding the supernatural, people who grew up with the Bible are to some extent emotionally triggered by a Bible reference. Moreover, most people in the English-speaking world who have ever been to a funeral will likely have heard “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (which, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, is a mashup allusion to both the Genesis and Ecclesiastes passages in question).
Indeed, grasping the meaning of Biblical references is part of cultural literacy for people of all faiths in the West. Such allusions have added richness of layered meaning to art and literature, political speech and popular culture for thousands of years.
The trick is to invoke the Bible purely to add pathos to the message, but not as a logical argument. Appeal to emotion and appeal to authority are serious logical fallacies. (This applies to appeal to actual authority… and appealing to unrecognized authority is even more problematic.) Emotion or authority can never be the premise upon which valid logical conclusions are drawn. Innocently quoting the Bible can look like an appeal to Biblical authority: arguing that we should dispense with the poop taboo (which is what perpetuates dominance of water-borne sanitation systems) because putting our poop back into the earth is consistent with the human condition (i.e., being made of dust and returning to dust).
- The Bible is authoritative.
- The Bible says something about dust.
- Therefore my dry sanitation idea is good/natural/important.
Emotional content is indeed critical for effective persuasion. But the credibility risk may not offset the potential gain here. A better way to wield emotion would be with vivid anecdotes, personal testimony, and more universal examples (to complement the argument from reason which uses evidence and statistics).
Who is the audience?
- People in the lecture hall during the talk
- Prospective investors in the speaker’s future company
- Prospective customers of the speaker’s eventual product
- Prospective end users of the product
- Other people who view the recorded talk later (e.g., friends, family, associates)
- Self (i.e., personal authenticity)
The speaker is best served by designing his message to persuade groups #2 and #3. The point of doing a TEDx talk about one’s startup idea is to establish a credible personal platform – which hopefully facilitates obtaining investor funding and acquiring initial partners/customers. The TEDx video will become a useful public relations tool to get traction. As a practical matter, #6 shouldn’t be the target audience – best to save the self-actualization for another venue.
Note that the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a., Old Testament) has no specific resonance for the ~2/3 of humans not raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And, those are the people (audience groups #3 and #4) to whom the proposed technology will be primarily deployed!
Bible-quoting constitutes a bit of “Global North-splaining” to the Global South – an instance of Western cultural-religious hegemony rearing its supposedly-humbled head. Three decades ago, for example, our society awoke to the need to gut Western- and Anglo-centric “great books” courses. A pitch arguing for the universal import of a technology shouldn’t rely on sectarian/regional references.
Now, the Bible may have resonance for some of audience group #2: American private equity firms. Though a majority of such wealthy, educated Californians are post-theists/atheists who ascribe little import to the Bible, most are nominally/culturally Christian/Jewish and so may have an emotional response to an invocation of the Bible. (But they could have a negative emotional response!) Furthermore, the venture capital community notably includes a non-trivial number of Hindus.
- “No”, it may damage your credibility.
- “Yes”, it may have persuasive emotional resonance for some.
- “No”, because: Western hegemony. (Plus, there are more effective sources of pathos anyway.)