No matter your faith or lackthereof, we all should want to believe things that are true. You can believe in something because it makes you feel good, or because it helps you be a better person, or any other number of reasons (I like to call these “Arguments From Wishful Thinking”), but none of those reasons make the belief true.
If something is true, it should be able stand on its own merits regardless of the criticism thrown at it. If your religion is true, you should welcome criticism and questions so that you can show just how true it is.
The following common retorts from believers are not arguments at all but simply a shield – a buffer between themselves and those who would question the veracity of their religious beliefs.
1.) Holy book verses that claim there will be opposition and it just means you’re right!
In my response to Ken Ham, I called this the deus ex machina of Christian apologetics.
When all else fails, they can simply reassure themselves that they are correct because Jesus “predicted” opposition. “Jesus said this would happen,” they say smugly while patting themselves on the back. “It just means we are on the right track.”
Unfortunately, sometimes criticism only makes the belief stronger due to this built-in defense mechanism of Christianity.
Of course, this fails to take into account the fact that questioning and criticizing is not actually persecution. Persecution is being tortured or killed for believing differently. Persecution is living in fear of your boss, family, or children’s parents finding out your faith differs and losing your job or custody of your children.
Asking questions in the pursuit of truth is not persecution.
2.) Saying that only those who already believe a concept can understand it
This defense comes in many, many variations. Some examples:
“Only born again Christians can interpret the Bible.”
“Allah will reveal to you the correct interpretation of the Quran.”
“You must read the Bible with the Holy Spirit.”
“You’re suppressing the truth.”
“Pray to God as if he were real. You must obey and listen and he will reveal himself to you.”
If you’ve had any interactions with believers and tried to discuss the veracity of their claims, especially when it comes to contradictions in their holy books, you’ve probably come across defenses like this. Evangelical Christians are big on this one, that you can’t understand the Bible without your God goggles / mystery decoder.
This, to me, is such an odd concept. I have not heard of any other time in my life where I should first pretend to believe something and it will suddenly be true or I will suddenly understand it the way someone else understands it.
I mean, it would be like saying you can only understand Romeo and Juliet if Shakespeare’s ghost is chilling there with you.
Saying that God will not reveal himself to those who don’t believe is even more bizarre. How then does anyone become a believer? How can you believe before you believe? Truth should be accessible to everyone and if God makes it inaccessible for certain people then it’s quite his fault that I’m an atheist, isn’t it?
3.) Dehumanizing anyone who disagrees
The other night I watched a Periscope (follow me!) broadcast of a Benny Hinn prayer meeting. UGH. I really just wanted to encourage them to research Benny Hinn and think twice about giving him any money, but I admit I lost quite a bit of patience with the immediate accusations of being a demon/devil/witch/evil spirit etc.
Here are some actual comments from the scope:
I’ve said this before, but one of the reasons it’s so heartbreaking to have these sorts of interactions sometimes is because I can only imagine my family viewing me in a similar light when they find out I no longer believe. Will they try to get me exorcised? Will they no longer value my input and opinions, because they think that Satan is speaking through me to try to destroy their faith?
Again, this is in no way an argument for the truth of their claims. This is just a way to not have to answer any questions.
“I don’t have to speak to you, because you’re from Satan and are trying to distract me.” – Theists, basically
This is a way to completely close off any discussion. End of communication.
4.) Equating criticism with hate
Easily one of the best examples of this is being called “Islamophobic”. Don’t get me wrong – there is certainly anti-Muslim bigotry about… in spades. Don’t get me started on Donald Trump right now.
You can see this knee-jerk reaction in many right-wing Christians but in many atheists, too. I don’t like any religions, but I’m not shallow enough to conflate distinguishing jihadists and non-jihadists with support of ISIS. This is a no-brainer.
But Christians are just as likely to say that I question their claims because I hate Jesus, or I hate Christians. This is ludicrous. Almost everyone I know, including family and friends, are Christian. I don’t hate them in the slightest. I simply think their belief in a deity is misplaced.
Here are some helpful examples of what hate is and is not:
“Some Bible verses can be interpreted as instructing or condoning violence.” – not hate
“All Catholics should be raped, they love raping kids!” – hate
“Verses can be found in the Quran that devalue women.” – not hate
“Wipe Muslims off the face of the earth!” – hate
“Jesus died for your sins.” – not hate
“I piss on all Atheists for I know they will burn in hell when it will be to late what a waste (sic).” (actual tweet) – hate
“I don’t believe your religion is true.” – not hate
“If I was queen of the world I would sterilize every Christian and Muslim for defective genes & lack of intelligence.” (actual tweet) – hate
This is simple stuff, to me. Yet far too many people have no grasp of this and all it does is lead to a breakdown in communication — whether you’re at fault for being hateful instead of facilitating productive conversation, or the other person is simply conflating questioning for hate, no one is getting anywhere.
5.) Passing the buck
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing how many of these five points actually overlap. But five is a nice, round number… so I’m keeping it!
This one fits in a bit with the 2nd topic. Acting as if it’s not your responsibility to answer questions because it’s not your teaching, it’s the church’s is sort of the Catholic and Mormon equivalent to Evangelicals’ “You need the holy Spirit to interpret the Bible”. I say Catholic and Mormon because while many Christian sects rely solely on Scripture, Catholicism and Mormonism in particular rely heavily on “tradition” and Church authority.
When I was a questioning Catholic, I was often met with, “I don’t know, that’s just what the Church teaches.”
Yes, those individuals were at fault for not studying enough and knowing why they believed what they did. But it provides a very convenient out for topics that make people uncomfortable — how many times have you heard, “I don’t make the rules, God does!” when it comes to… LGBT rights? Abortion? Etc? It’s just a way to not have to think about their beliefs.
So how do we tackle these conversation killers?
I’m so glad you asked! I have mentioned in another post how I’ve changed tactics in conversing with a lot of believers lately. A lot of this has to do with the book The Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian — don’t be scared off by the title. It’s mostly about how to use the Socratic method (asking questions) to tackle the concept of faith rather than attacking people’s religions. It encourages people to try this out on strangers (called Street Epistemology — the opposite of street preaching!). I don’t think it’s my “calling” per se to go out and talk to strangers, however I like watching others put it into practice because I can see myself using these methods of conversing when conversation about religion DOES come up.
I honestly think many of these types of stalemates I mention above can be avoided in the first place if more people used this way of conversing with others. It is non-confrontational and compassionate, and because it tries to focus on how believers come to know their belief is true, rather than nitpicking biblical arguments, etc, the above “divine shields” don’t even come into play.
I encourage you to read the book and search “Street Epistemology” on YouTube and see what you think.
What other arguments do you consider “divine shields” — total conversation killers — and what are some ways to combat them?