Diversionary Tactics

burqa_meme2When a system of belief lacks evidential support, it must compensate for this weakness by surrounding itself with defense mechanisms.  These defense mechanisms do nothing to address the flaws themselves, rather they attempt to divert attention away from the vulnerabilities of the system, drawing fire in an alternative direction.  By far the laziest (and therefore the most popular) way to do this is the ad hominem attack, in which you impugn the character of the person making the argument.  Note that this does nothing to address the argument itself—it only serves to change the subject to something easier to defend.

Her:  I think belief X lacks evidential support.

Him:  Your argument is invalid because you’re wicked.

Her:  Wait…what?

It’s an especially manipulative tactic when you turn to question the motives of the other person, evaluating her by measures which are subjective and therefore impossible to falsify, like values peculiar to your own belief system (the very system under investigation).  This is a logical fallacy, and yet it is the standard response to almost any challenge to the Christian faith you hear these days.

Yesterday a Facebook friend pointed out that apologetics rarely persuades non-Christians to become Christians.  I agreed, adding that apologetics is primarily for the “saved,” not the “lost.”  It serves to assure the faithful that their beliefs are intellectually respectable, despite the apostle Paul’s insistence to the contrary.  One of my friend’s Christian friends dutifully chimed in, saying:

A truly Biblical/Christian worldview posits that the aversion to God is much more deeply-seated than at the intellectual level…The Bible says people believe what they want to believe.  When someone is genuinely converted, it’s because what they want to believe has been changed.

Did you see what he did there?  True to his training, he moved the discussion away from the rational sphere of falsifiable things to the subjective sphere, where things can be asserted (e.g. “You hate God”) which cannot possibly be falsified because they are asserted without evidence.  And as the late Hitchens famously quipped, “That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”  My friend’s friend deserves credit for discerning the fundamentally subjective nature of the Christian faith, but I still fault grown-ups for being okay with this.  It’s fine when you are six, but not when you are forty-six.  The beliefs of adults should be verifiable apart from what they want to be true.

Now imagine if the situation were changed.  Imagine if a young man began to question the historicity of Joseph Smith’s golden plates, or if a young Muslim questioned the authority of either Muhammad or the Koran.  Would Christian apologists disparage the young man’s motives then?  Would they accuse him of selfishly wanting to be free from the authority of the Koran or the Book of Mormon, or rather would they join him in honestly consulting the facts as we find them?  Would they consider the motivation of the inquisitor an overriding factor in this discussion?  No, they wouldn’t.  Even if they chose at some point to condemn the character of the young man (and I’m confident they will at some point, for they must) they would still see the intellectual questions as separate from the question of motives or character.  They would see the intellectual questions as valid in themselves and address them to the best of their abilities.  So why don’t they do this when someone challenges the Christian faith or the Bible?  Why in those moments do they insist on moving the discussion away from the intellectual sphere toward the very subjective sphere of hidden motives?  It’s because like any organism fighting for its own survival, the Christian belief system must employ an array of defense mechanisms to hide its most vulnerable places from the harsh light of rigorous questioning.

Your motives for asking probing questions is beside the point.  Whenever someone tries to shift the discussion away from the evidence of falsifiable things to the very squishy subject matter of “the human heart,” you can be sure you’ve just struck a nerve, a vulnerability in their belief system.  Don’t fall for that old trick.  It’s a diversionary tactic.

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school Geometry teacher, a tutor, a swim coach, a father of five children, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil mostly writes now about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.

  • Piobaireachd

    Yep, that’s a pretty common one, esp on the web it seems. Everyone loves to make personal digs instead of addressing the argument. My personal favourite is shifting the burden of proof.

  • Piobaireachd

    Yep, that’s a pretty common one, esp on the web it seems. Everyone loves to make personal digs instead of addressing the argument. My personal favourite is shifting the burden of proof.

  • David W

    Speaking of logical fallacies, I think that your readers will enjoy this book, https://bookofbadarguments.com/

    It is free online, but you can purchase a hard-copy on amazon. I just purchased a few for my fundamental family and friends in the hope that they will read it, and then use fewer logical fallacies, this is probably hoping for too much though.

  • David W

    Speaking of logical fallacies, I think that your readers will enjoy this book, https://bookofbadarguments.com/

    It is free online, but you can purchase a hard-copy on amazon. I just purchased a few for my fundamental family and friends in the hope that they will read it, and then use fewer logical fallacies, this is probably hoping for too much though.

  • http://humanistfox.wordpress.com humanistfox

    “It’s fine when you are six, but not when you are forty-six. The beliefs of adults should be verifiable apart from what they want to be true.”

    That’s the truth.

    I recently had an exchange with a pastor, who said, “If we don’t believe, it is because we are inclined not to. The evidence can go either way.”

    Even though I am a former believer myself, it still stuns me when I hear adults making statements like the one above.

    If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists. Boghossian writes, “One can sit at the Adult Table if one has evidence in support of a position. Absent evidence, the claimant needs to go to the Kid’s Table.”

  • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

    I often recognize that I’ve struck a nerve, but on the other hand, how in the world does one get others to take a peek outside the Christian “box”? I’ve found that it’s like trying to speak to someone who doesn’t understand your language while you, on the other hand as being a former one of them, understands theirs.

  • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

    I often recognize that I’ve struck a nerve, but on the other hand, how in the world does one get others to take a peek outside the Christian “box”? I’ve found that it’s like trying to speak to someone who doesn’t understand your language while you, on the other hand as being a former one of them, understands theirs.

  • https://www.facebook.com/stephen.doonan Stephen Doonan

    I recently watched two videos at YouTube, of two notable atheists arguing against Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, a vigorous defender of the faith. The two atheists arguing against him, in two separate videos, were Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker.

    Richard Dawkins vs. Cardinal George Pell

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8hy8NxZvFY

    Dan Barker vs. Cardinal George Pell

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2knl_QTLpY

    I noticed that Pell frequently removed certain aspects of his religion from question. He posited that “God is outside the realm of time and space,” making it convenient to dismiss lack of scientific evidence, for example.

    I’m not sure what the best way is to argue with people like Pell, but I recently read a quote from Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis, who said that nothing inspires more doubt and question in a person of faith than attempting to defend one’s beliefs, even if one is successful.

    As for myself, it has seemed to me for years that the more we find ourselves gripping onto our beliefs (or some of them) and defending them, the more we realize that they are probably wrong or incomplete. The more we argue, the more we are exposed to and see the other side of the picture, the one we don’t want to be real or accurate.

    On another note, in doing some Internet trawling for some religion and atheist websites, in addition to this one, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie, I found some interesting blogs at Patheos.com–

    http://www.patheos.com/Blogs.html

    Thank you Neil for another great blog article.

  • https://www.facebook.com/stephen.doonan Stephen Doonan

    I recently watched two videos at YouTube, of two notable atheists arguing against Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, a vigorous defender of the faith. The two atheists arguing against him, in two separate videos, were Richard Dawkins and Dan Barker.

    Richard Dawkins vs. Cardinal George Pell

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8hy8NxZvFY

    Dan Barker vs. Cardinal George Pell

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2knl_QTLpY

    I noticed that Pell frequently removed certain aspects of his religion from question. He posited that “God is outside the realm of time and space,” making it convenient to dismiss lack of scientific evidence, for example.

    I’m not sure what the best way is to argue with people like Pell, but I recently read a quote from Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis, who said that nothing inspires more doubt and question in a person of faith than attempting to defend one’s beliefs, even if one is successful.

    As for myself, it has seemed to me for years that the more we find ourselves gripping onto our beliefs (or some of them) and defending them, the more we realize that they are probably wrong or incomplete. The more we argue, the more we are exposed to and see the other side of the picture, the one we don’t want to be real or accurate.

    On another note, in doing some Internet trawling for some religion and atheist websites, in addition to this one, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie, I found some interesting blogs at Patheos.com–

    http://www.patheos.com/Blogs.html

    Thank you Neil for another great blog article.

    • http://gravatar.com/mikespeir mikespeir

      “…C. S. Lewis, who said that nothing inspires more doubt and question in a person of faith than attempting to defend one’s beliefs, even if one is successful.”

      Do you have the exact source of that? It would be a handy quote to hang onto. But I certainly get the sentiment. That’s why believers intuitively understand that they have to project an air of utter confidence. And yet, we all know there’s no way they could possibly be that sure, considering the actual evidence.

  • David W

    “I’ve found that it’s like trying to speak to someone who doesn’t understand your language while you, on the other hand as being a former one of them, understands theirs.”

    I think that this is an accurate description of the situation when a former believer attempts to speak with a believer. Anyhow, it is certainly the case for me when I try to speak with my believing family and friends; it is as if I am spouting non-sense, rather than carefully thought out positions which can be defended with evidence and which are logically sound.

    I am really feeling discouraged lately, and am seriously considering keeping my mouth shut when I am around my family.

    One of my family members recently said, when I told him that there was a scientific consensus on the matter we were discussing (and offered him a link to the Pew foundation study), that, and I paraphrase here, ‘he didn’t trust the study and he didn’t trust the scientists.’

    I was shocked.

    If I present an argument and/or evidence that he doesn’t like, or doesn’t agree with, he will wave his hand and say he doesn’t trust it!!!! =/

    I cannot overstate how utterly baffled I was, I think that I stood there with my jaw literally hitting my chest for several seconds.

    What he really meant: ‘I have dismissed anything that you can possibly say and/or offer before you have even said it, you will NEVER change my mind because I will refuse to even consider what you are saying.’

    To me, this is a forsaking of our responsibility as thinking adults; if you say this you have forsaken some of your humanity and you are well on your way to becoming sub-human.

    • http://humanistfox.wordpress.com humanistfox

      Consider yourself lucky. The last time I hit the “like” button on a Facebook image that included the phrase “climate change is real,” I was told that I was a “Communist” and a “radical Marxist.”

      Selling lies is great business. Use buzzwords like “freedom” and “liberty,” and ignorant people will gladly find themselves unwittingly relinquishing their freedom and liberty–not to mention any semblance of critical thought they may have ever had. To the brainwashed, evolution, climate change, and atheism are all conspiracies out to get you–and fearmongers like Sarah Palin rise to power selling these lies.

      The Billionaires’ Tea Party is a spectacular documentary which chronicles how this propaganda machine operations.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-ctB8NPIEs

      • http://humanistfox.wordpress.com humanistfox

        ^ operates, not operations. Can’t edit comments. That’s annoying.

      • bonnie

        Selling lies is great business. Use buzzwords like “freedom” and “liberty,” and ignorant people will gladly find themselves unwittingly relinquishing their freedom and liberty–not to mention any semblance of critical thought they may have ever had.

        To be fair I’ve seen this quite a bit on the left as well as the right. And although believing in climate change does not make you a marxist (really!?!) be aware that it is a huge money maker for the politicians that tout it.

  • David W

    “I’ve found that it’s like trying to speak to someone who doesn’t understand your language while you, on the other hand as being a former one of them, understands theirs.”

    I think that this is an accurate description of the situation when a former believer attempts to speak with a believer. Anyhow, it is certainly the case for me when I try to speak with my believing family and friends; it is as if I am spouting non-sense, rather than carefully thought out positions which can be defended with evidence and which are logically sound.

    I am really feeling discouraged lately, and am seriously considering keeping my mouth shut when I am around my family.

    One of my family members recently said, when I told him that there was a scientific consensus on the matter we were discussing (and offered him a link to the Pew foundation study), that, and I paraphrase here, ‘he didn’t trust the study and he didn’t trust the scientists.’

    I was shocked.

    If I present an argument and/or evidence that he doesn’t like, or doesn’t agree with, he will wave his hand and say he doesn’t trust it!!!! =/

    I cannot overstate how utterly baffled I was, I think that I stood there with my jaw literally hitting my chest for several seconds.

    What he really meant: ‘I have dismissed anything that you can possibly say and/or offer before you have even said it, you will NEVER change my mind because I will refuse to even consider what you are saying.’

    To me, this is a forsaking of our responsibility as thinking adults; if you say this you have forsaken some of your humanity and you are well on your way to becoming sub-human.

    • http://humanistfox.wordpress.com humanistfox

      Consider yourself lucky. The last time I hit the “like” button on a Facebook image that included the phrase “climate change is real,” I was told that I was a “Communist” and a “radical Marxist.”

      Selling lies is great business. Use buzzwords like “freedom” and “liberty,” and ignorant people will gladly find themselves unwittingly relinquishing their freedom and liberty–not to mention any semblance of critical thought they may have ever had. To the brainwashed, evolution, climate change, and atheism are all conspiracies out to get you–and fearmongers like Sarah Palin rise to power selling these lies.

      The Billionaires’ Tea Party is a spectacular documentary which chronicles how this propaganda machine operations.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-ctB8NPIEs

      • http://humanistfox.wordpress.com humanistfox

        ^ operates, not operations. Can’t edit comments. That’s annoying.

      • bonnie

        Selling lies is great business. Use buzzwords like “freedom” and “liberty,” and ignorant people will gladly find themselves unwittingly relinquishing their freedom and liberty–not to mention any semblance of critical thought they may have ever had.

        To be fair I’ve seen this quite a bit on the left as well as the right. And although believing in climate change does not make you a marxist (really!?!) be aware that it is a huge money maker for the politicians that tout it.

  • http://apastasea.blogspot.com/ The Apostate

    “It’s an especially manipulative tactic when you turn to question the motives of the other person, evaluating her by measures which are subjective and therefore impossible to falsify…”

    As you are aware, there is an entire branch of apologetics built around this very idea. It unabashedly sets aside evidence and instead begins with the premise that the opposition’s thinking has been corrupted by “the noetic effects of sin on the mind”. Its practitioners like to pretend it’s an epistemology, when it’s really just an apologetic method that reduces to an ad hominem attack that employs question begging and an appeal to consequences. It’s much better at keeping people in Christianity than it is as converting them to it. I know because I used to practice this method. For I once was…

    …a Presuppositionalist.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Well said. The PA approach is an entire apologetic method based on the idea that ad hominem isn’t even a fallacy. Where do you go from there? When your staring point is to embrace deliberate disregard for rules of logic, nothing good can come of that.

  • http://apastasea.blogspot.com/ The Apostate

    “It’s an especially manipulative tactic when you turn to question the motives of the other person, evaluating her by measures which are subjective and therefore impossible to falsify…”

    As you are aware, there is an entire branch of apologetics built around this very idea. It unabashedly sets aside evidence and instead begins with the premise that the opposition’s thinking has been corrupted by “the noetic effects of sin on the mind”. Its practitioners like to pretend it’s an epistemology, when it’s really just an apologetic method that reduces to an ad hominem attack that employs question begging and an appeal to consequences. It’s much better at keeping people in Christianity than it is as converting them to it. I know because I used to practice this method. For I once was…

    …a Presuppositionalist.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Well said. The PA approach is an entire apologetic method based on the idea that ad hominem isn’t even a fallacy. Where do you go from there? When your staring point is to embrace deliberate disregard for rules of logic, nothing good can come of that.

  • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

    @David W

    it is as if I am spouting non-sense, rather than carefully thought out positions which can be defended with evidence and which are logically sound.

    Yes, that:)

  • http://ma-sblog.blogspot.com/ Alice

    @David W

    it is as if I am spouting non-sense, rather than carefully thought out positions which can be defended with evidence and which are logically sound.

    Yes, that:)

  • Piobaireachd

    You guys will love this one since we’re on the topic of logical fallacies… It’s actually a good training tool for spotting these sorts of defective arguments. Enjoy, but make sure you’ve been to the loo first… you don’t want to wet yourself laughing.

    http://www.proofthatgodexists.org/

  • Piobaireachd

    You guys will love this one since we’re on the topic of logical fallacies… It’s actually a good training tool for spotting these sorts of defective arguments. Enjoy, but make sure you’ve been to the loo first… you don’t want to wet yourself laughing.

    http://www.proofthatgodexists.org/

  • https://www.facebook.com/mike.simpson.5836711 Mike Simpson

    Did you charge the Christians in your article of believing what they “want” to be true rather than what is verifiable? And is that a subjective statement about their motives?

    It seems to me that motives are more important than you indicate. In the courtroom, besides the physical evidence, motive comes into play big time in determining guilt or innocence.

    So, I wouldn’t dismiss motives as an invalid argument, but it does get overused, and like you say, it’s used as an ad hominem many times in lieu of real evidence.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      No, I did not accuse them of such. That would be very inconsistent of me, wouldn’t it? :)

      Motive may help establish circumstantial evidence for something like murder, but it has nothing to do with whether or not the Earth goes around the Sun or whether or not invisible spirits exist. These are questions for which the motives of the questioner are irrelevant.

  • https://www.facebook.com/mike.simpson.5836711 Mike Simpson

    Did you charge the Christians in your article of believing what they “want” to be true rather than what is verifiable? And is that a subjective statement about their motives?

    It seems to me that motives are more important than you indicate. In the courtroom, besides the physical evidence, motive comes into play big time in determining guilt or innocence.

    So, I wouldn’t dismiss motives as an invalid argument, but it does get overused, and like you say, it’s used as an ad hominem many times in lieu of real evidence.

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      No, I did not accuse them of such. That would be very inconsistent of me, wouldn’t it? :)

      Motive may help establish circumstantial evidence for something like murder, but it has nothing to do with whether or not the Earth goes around the Sun or whether or not invisible spirits exist. These are questions for which the motives of the questioner are irrelevant.

  • Gra*ma Banana

    I choose not to argue with theists because I know they won’t listen to reason and because I don’t want to waste my time listening to their cyclical arguments using the Bible as their main or only reference for refutation of my points. I’d rather visit godlessindixie, read all the ‘very erudite’ postings, and consider myself lucky to be here. Thanks Neil!!!

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Just posting about that right now, as a matter of fact. Typing it in now…

  • Gra*ma Banana

    I choose not to argue with theists because I know they won’t listen to reason and because I don’t want to waste my time listening to their cyclical arguments using the Bible as their main or only reference for refutation of my points. I’d rather visit godlessindixie, read all the ‘very erudite’ postings, and consider myself lucky to be here. Thanks Neil!!!

    • http://godlessindixie.wordpress.com godlessindixie

      Just posting about that right now, as a matter of fact. Typing it in now…

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  • http://kingpollux.wordpress.com kingpollux

    Wow, thank you very much. You are clearly very insightful and have been through a lot of “training” as a Christian. If you haven’t…then I say “BRAVO” to your understanding of the mind steeped in faith.

    I was raised a Christian Missionary. After years of playing the devout follower of Christ while researching and even practicing elements of witchcraft and supernatural “arts” in secret, I rejected Christianity entirely. After that time (at around ages 18-22) I became one of those militantly anti-Christian pagans. Fortunately, I’ve come to see the folly in that, and now I make arguments a bit more like yours, good sir.

    In any case, thank you for your words. You’ve got a new reader.

    In Earnest,

    King Pollux (AKA Adam Kristofer Walkingstick King)

  • http://kingpollux.wordpress.com kingpollux

    Wow, thank you very much. You are clearly very insightful and have been through a lot of “training” as a Christian. If you haven’t…then I say “BRAVO” to your understanding of the mind steeped in faith.

    I was raised a Christian Missionary. After years of playing the devout follower of Christ while researching and even practicing elements of witchcraft and supernatural “arts” in secret, I rejected Christianity entirely. After that time (at around ages 18-22) I became one of those militantly anti-Christian pagans. Fortunately, I’ve come to see the folly in that, and now I make arguments a bit more like yours, good sir.

    In any case, thank you for your words. You’ve got a new reader.

    In Earnest,

    King Pollux (AKA Adam Kristofer Walkingstick King)


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