How Faith Breaks Your Thinker

How Faith Breaks Your Thinker April 10, 2018

confusedSomeone wrote me recently to ask:

What drives you to be so adamant in sharing your atheistic beliefs? What is the driving force behind you? To influence others to be nonbelievers??

I have so much to say about this it will take me more than one post to get it all out, and this one won’t be short.

First of all, to me this question implies that, while it’s laudable for the religious to wear their beliefs on their sleeves and talk about them in public spaces, when nonbelievers openly share about their own perspectives it’s just wrong and, gosh, why would you take it upon yourself to talk about this stuff in public? What’s wrong with you?

My departure from the faith upset many people, but nothing bothered them more than my decision to start writing and speaking about it openly. That took people from sad to angry really quickly, and that’s because the only socially acceptable atheism is that which keeps its thoughts to itself. That disparity alone is reason enough for people like me to write and speak about why we left.

Imagine how many people plopped down into a pew this past Sunday, going through the motions again so as not to offend the people they love when in reality they became convinced a long time ago that this stuff made no sense. Those people have virtually no way to connect with anyone else who could relate to their frustration because their surrounding subculture shames anyone who openly discusses doubt and disbelief.

We write so those people know they are not alone.

But it’s not just for these reasons that I feel it’s useful to openly challenge the belief system in which I was raised. I’ve observed another consequence of rewarding credulity the way the church does and this has paved the way for one of the biggest national mistakes my country has ever made. Ultimately a series of mistakes, really, over decades.

Growing up in church impairs your ability to ask better questions and detect logical inconsistencies in the answers you get, and on a large enough scale that has far reaching consequences for the fate of a nation, and maybe even the world. You are taught from birth to accept so many incompatible ideas that eventually it breaks your irony meter.

Do you ever wonder why Christian comedy is so very bad? It’s because most humor is based on observing irony, but growing up in the church teaches you to accept incompatible ideas as perfectly normal. It weakens your sense of contradiction, sending most jokes right over your head. Add to that a collective allergy to talk of anything below the belt and you’ve just eliminated 90 percent of all comedic material right there. But I digress.

In this post I’m going to take a handful of well-known logical fallacies and show how growing up in church teaches you to accept these as “just the way things are.” My intent is to illustrate how faith normalizes bad thinking, leaving us vulnerable to manipulation by people and institutions whose chief purposes are self-serving and often deleterious for the rest of us.

Seven Ways Faith Normalizes Bad Thinking

What follows are the most egregious examples of how Christianity (or at least the kind I grew up with) takes logical fallacies and normalizes them. There are many more but these are the most obvious offenders. And by the way if you’d like a handy reference for some of the most common logical fallacies (complete with cute little symbols for each one) check this site out here.

1. Argument from Authority. The most obvious logical fallacy built into the faith in which I was raised is the argument from authority. People use this all the time, but in most cases it’s a very poor way for establishing anything. In fact, much of the progress of humanity has arisen from people challenging authority, questioning those in power because they have self-serving reasons to insist on everyone agreeing with them, punishing them for not doing so.

“The apostle Paul says…” or “Jesus himself said…” And off they go, no more argument needed. Once they’ve quoted a Bible verse, they’ve now established the right way to think about pretty much everything. This is just normal in church. In fact, it’s the most basic starting point for every church that I can think of.

Some churches use the Pope or the councils; others use the Bible itself. But they all reason the same way: An authority figure you’re supposed to trust has said this, therefore you have to accept it or be put out of the group. For example, do you think people’s sexual orientations are up to people themselves to label? Wrong. “The apostle Paul says…” and there ends the discussion for them.

Of course all of this assumes we have an accurate accounting of what each authority figure really said in the first place, and that in itself leads to my next logical fallacy, but first I have to at least interject here that, in this particular environment, arguments from authority are compounded—stacked on top of one another—so that much of what we were taught to believe rests on a very tall house of cards:

I’m supposed to accept something as true simply because Paul or John or Matthew said it, and nevermind the fact that most scholars qualified to speak to the matter are convinced that half of what’s been attributed to them probably wasn’t really written by them at all. But why should I accept Paul’s word as sacrosanct in the first place? Is it because he speaks for someone with even more authority? Who says he speaks for that authority? Paul himself? That’s rich.

Billions of people all over the planet today will demand things from each other on the authority of a Being they are certain they speak for, and yet none of them are greatly bothered by the fact that more people than not disagree with them about which God is the right one in the first place. And even those who agree on the same God will still disagree on how to know what he wants or says. Ever heard of the Great Schism? Or the Protestant Reformation? Ever counted how many denominations there are?

[Related: “The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History“]

Is this really a solid basis for reasoning? It’s ultimately untenable, and yet it’s the very foundation on which the religious enterprise is built. Everyone is certain their competing arguments from authority are correct, and since nothing supersedes God’s authority, they cannot be wrong. They are all right. The logic is impenetrable. You see why religions never merge; they only keep splintering off perpetually because there is no logical way to forge a meeting of the minds.

Outside of religion, arguments from authority are considered logical fallacies. Inside religion, however, it’s just the way you’re supposed to think.

2. Begging the Question. Also known as circular reasoning, begging the question happens when your conclusions somehow derive their basis from an assumption inherent in the question itself, which of course should not be accepted until the thing being asked has been settled in the first place. The most obvious place this happens is when someone tries to argue that the Bible is a reliable book because the Bible says the Bible is a reliable book.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Of course, if you’re a woman of God, the previous epistle makes clear that your job is to be quiet and learn from the men. Just thought I’d throw that in there for funsies.

Chuck Colson, who served time in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal (what is it with evangelicals and corrupt administrations?), argued that Jesus must have been resurrected from the dead just as the Bible says because the original 12 disciples were tortured and killed for insisting that he was, and why would they do that for something they knew was a lie?

Leaving aside the obvious reality that people die for delusional beliefs all the time (see September 11, 2001), Colson’s point depends entirely on the assumption that the Bible accurately tells us who the original 12 disciples were and what they went through (note: it never really goes into much detail, but let’s not get sidetracked by that right now). Taking his argument at face value, the point is that Colson couldn’t even see that he was essentially arguing that a story in the Bible was true because people named in the Bible underwent hardships for which we have little other evidence than the Bible itself to know in the first place. He didn’t even see the circularity of it because he had become desensitized to circularity itself.

Or take evangelical darling Tim Keller for example. As I’ve quoted before in my review of one of his chapters in The Reason for God, Keller argues:

Speaking personally, I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible.

Aaaannd how do we know that was Jesus’s view of the Bible? We know this because the Bible tells us it was. Duh.

Once again I say that outside of religion, begging the question is considered a logical fallacy. Inside religion, however, it’s just the way you’re supposed to think.

3. Special Pleading. A person is using special pleading whenever they assert that the normal rules don’t apply to whatever it is they’re trying to discuss. It’s basically a claim of exemption from having to explain or establish good reasons for their assertions simply because what’s being suggested is so out of the ordinary that you cannot expect it to make sense in any other context.

An obvious example of this would be the belief that while the cosmos must have a cause, an Invisible Person would not, for some reason. But why wouldn’t it? Because we said so, that’s why. Or perhaps consider the point I’ve often made that, while I’m told it will take trillions of years for me to pay for about seventy years of mostly “thought crimes,” one guy was able to pay for the sins of billions of people in the space of a single Friday.

That’s some creative accounting there, and good luck getting anybody to explain how that works. The bottom line is that “God” is a special category, so you can’t expect anything about him to make sense. Which is very convenient for them.

Are you greatly bothered by the idea of a divine Being with no specific gender (there’s some irony for you, given their disdain for nonbinary sexuality)? Get over it because this is a special case! You wonder how someone has just always been around with nothing to make him/her/it exist? Special case! Three separate persons relating to one another but somehow they’re still one single Being? Don’t think about it too hard—it’ll never make sense.

In fact it’s better if it doesn’t make sense, for the Bible itself tells us that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts and that spiritual truths cannot be grasped by people who aren’t specially equipped to perceive them:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

Outside of the church, making this little sense gets you tuned out. Inside it, however, the less sense it makes the more it actually adds credibility to a proposition because, come on, people would never make up something this irrational, right? So it must be true.

4. Appeal to Emotion. I’m not sure how much I need to explain this, but appeals to emotion happen most effectively in settings where an audience’s emotions can be manipulated in order to render them susceptible to spurious claims which would otherwise be rejected in the absence of the right mood. Just attend any worship service or evangelistic meeting and ask yourself how many elements of what you are seeing are designed to manipulate the emotions of the audience.

Growing up in church, I learned that if you feel insecure, guilty, or ashamed of something, that is God trying to speak to you. Therefore you should open your heart to whatever the minister is about to tell you. Are you lonely? Fatigued? Worried about your future? Has he got good news for you! And did you feel the joy and peace at some point during the last 30 minutes of singing the same three lines over and over again? Get ready to walk down the aisle and make a lifelong commitment to something right now because the church believes that it is while you are the most emotionally compromised that you are in the best position to make that kind of decision.

Outside of religion, appeals to emotion are considered logical fallacies (or at least a pushy sales technique). Inside, however, it’s just the way God works.

5. No True Scotsman. A person is using the No True Scotsman argument whenever he makes an assertion which automatically excludes any data that would undermine the assertion itself. It is probably the second most common form of selection bias in the Christian faith (the first being “answers” to prayer), and it is most classically expressed in the following syllogism:

Person A:  No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Person B:  But my uncle Angus is from Scotland and he puts sugar on his porridge.
Person A:  Then he is not a Scotsman because no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

You run into this kind of argument all the time in the church, and the form it takes depends on which brand of church you’re in. If I point out that not all Christians think the Bible is infallible, I am told that those who don’t are not true Christians, so their opinion is irrelevant. The funny thing is that the other group often says the same thing about the first group, and neither group is greatly bothered by the contradiction because each one considers the other’s opinion immaterial. It’s like magic.

Whenever I try and offer constructive criticism about my former faith, I am often dismissed because the still-believer concludes that if I left the faith at some point it means I must never have been a True BelieverTM in the first place. And just like that, I am excluded from the conversation because my thoughts no longer count, and now twenty years of my life were just dismissed with the wave of a hand. How do they know this is okay to do? It’s because there’s a verse in the Bible which clearly states:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

So the justification for this maneuver is written right there in the Bible, which means it’s okay to ignore us from now on. We were never really one of them, now. The source documents for the religion itself normalize the logical fallacy so it becomes institutionally sanctioned from this point forward. You can’t even explain to them why this is bad thinking because you’re just disagreeing with the Bible now, and as we’ve established in numbers one and two, that cannot be done (unless you’re a liberal, but we all know they’re not True Christians anyway).

See how these all work together to form an impenetrable suit of armor? Together they make this belief system impossible to falsify, which goes a long way toward explaining why it’s lasted so long. But again, outside the faith, this is considered a logical fallacy. Inside? Not so much.

6. Ad Hominem. In discussions where logical reasoning is held to any kind of consistent standard, ad hominem (“to the man”) arguments are considered a change of subject…because that’s actually what they are. Instead of addressing the argument itself, this tactic involves pivoting to the person and impugning his or her character or motives in making the argument.

Me: “I don’t see why the cosmos has to have a cause but an invisible person doesn’t.”
Them: “You just want to be free to have more sex.”
Me: “Wait. What just happened?”

I’ve noticed that when devotees to other religions like Islam critically evaluate the assumptions undergirding their own faiths, Christians don’t disparage their lines of questioning as attempts to be free to do as they please. On the contrary, they support the seekers’ conclusions because, obviously, it gives them an open door to suggesting their own faith as the only reasonable alternative.

[Related: “The Motive of the Questioner is Beside the Point“]

But when someone questions the Christian faith, the Bible gives them a clear excuse for dismissing anything the person has to say:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

What this tells them is that people only reject Christianity because they want to live in sin. Elsewhere the Bible asserts that human hearts are darkened by their own desires, which means you cannot trust your own perceptions about anything. So no matter what part of the belief system you question, in the end your resistance is futile because your own reasoning cannot be trusted since the purity of your motive is in question.

It’s a clever way to keep people from asking hard questions about the faith. You just teach them to feel so guilty for having questions in the first place that they learn to stuff them down and keep them to themselves because how dare they be so presumptuous? Who do they think they are? Don’t they know they’re just wretched vermin without God’s grace, incapable of accurately perceiving anything at all?

In my next post, by the way, I hope to lay out all the ways I see the Christian faith normalizing tactics of emotional manipulation (e.g. blameshifting, “gaslighting,” etc) like this one until you’re unable to recognize when someone uses the same sleights of hand for other things as well.

Outside of religion—and now, apparently, presidential debates—ad hominem attacks are considered logical fallacies because they represent a change of subject from the thing being questioned to the motives and character of the questioner himself or herself. But the church validates this line of reasoning, or rather of failing to reason at all.

7. Appeal to Consequences. Simply put, an appeal to consequences argues that something must be true because if it’s not, the end result would be unfavorable. It’s a very weak form of argument, logically speaking. But fortunately for defenders of faith, humans aren’t fundamentally ruled by logic as much as we are ruled by emotion and by social reinforcement. One familiar example of this again comes from Paul:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Aside from the bit about sins, I mostly agree with Paul here. The only thing we disagree about is whether or not the unpleasantness of the consequences of an idea constitutes a legitimate reason to reject it.

I realize Paul wasn’t so much defending the faith here as comforting believers, but I’ve often heard friends and family say that they have to believe in life after death because if there isn’t any, they’ll be so disappointed. But that’s not enough reason for me to believe in something for which I don’t see credible evidence. It may be emotionally effective for them, but it’s not good reasoning. It’s a logical fallacy, yet it’s a common refrain in the church.

Honorable Mentions

Besides these seven most common examples of logical fallacies that are normalized by growing up inside the Christian faith, there are several other honorable mentions:

Moving the Goalposts. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cited a biblical promise only to be told that it doesn’t say what it clearly seems to say. In order to prevent falsification, the goalposts are moved to ensure that the Bible cannot be wrong about anything it says.

Consider when Jesus said all the cataclysmic events he foretold would occur before the passing of the generation he was addressing. What happened there? Well, he can’t be wrong, so either the events he predicted were purely metaphorical or else “this generation” will have to be redefined to mean something it’s never meant before in any other context. Easy peasy.

In another place, Jesus gambled his entire credibility on the ability of his followers to remain unified (whoops), prompting some to argue that we have to wait just a little longer for this to become true and others to argue that their denomination alone counts as the True Church, anyway—and since their group still maintains fellowship within itself, the testimony is preserved.

I have even heard Christians argue that while the Bible clearly says if you pray for the sick they will be healed, sometimes the “healing” it produces refers to being restored to health in the afterlife. You can’t move the goalposts any further than “it’ll come true after you die.” Come to think of it, the process of tracking “answered prayers” is itself an object lesson in waiting to see where the arrow lands and then drawing a target around it (also known as the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy).

[Related: “Games Christians Play: Making Your Faith Impossible to Disprove“]

Fallacies of False Cause. An argument could be made that religion itself is fundamentally rooted in attributing a false cause to everything that happens. Rains come and a storm destroys your crops? You must have done something to anger an invisible cabal of beings who control such things. You were in a drought and then you did this dance and the rains returned? The dance must have caused the rain! Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”).

Christians today make a fuss when preachers like Pat Robertson still blame human behavior for hurricanes and earthquakes, but he’s only being biblical. And those same people will then turn around and take the story of Jonah at face value, sincerely believing that a deadly storm overtook a boat the prophet was on but then subsided immediately upon throwing the poor man into the sea. Thanks to the Bible, ancient superstitions are alive and well in the modern world, validated by a religion incapable of accepting critical feedback from the rest of the world.

Appeal to Popularity. You would think the bandwagon fallacy wouldn’t show up much among the followers of a man who said, “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” But somehow it still does show up. I’ve also lost count of how many times I’ve been told I’m being arrogant for disbelieving a religion that’s believed by billions, as if sheer popularity were a persuasive reason to believe something.

Two-thirds of the global population are not Christians. So if we’re really going to value numbers, I’d say I actually agree with the majority of the people in the world, who do not accept the claims of the Christian faith.

Anecdotal Evidence. Basically the entire Bible is a collection of anecdotes, and historical study has already established that very large chunks of it cannot have even happened. I’ve already explained how archaeologists have determined the people of Israel didn’t even exist prior to their gradual and peaceful emergence as a subculture within the larger Canaanite culture in the 13th century B.C.E. which means there was no Egyptian captivity, no mass exodus, no wilderness wandering, and no violent Canaanite conquest. These are just stories, and history has already proven them false.

But it’s not just the Bible. Anecdotal evidence dominates the pulpit so that every Sunday morning, preachers retell stories they’ve heard fourth- or fifth-hand as if they knew they were true, and generally people will believe every word they say. No references are given, no sources cited…no one will even think to ask. If it “preaches,” it’ll be told and retold a thousand times because ultimately the spiritual effectiveness of a story is more important to ministers than whether or not it actually happened.

The Law of Non-Contradiction. Simply put, the law of non-contradiction states that a thing cannot be both “A” and “not A” at the same time. This is just an explicit statement of an understood rule undergirding all logical arguments that things should be logically consistent.

But the Bible says that God is capable of “giving life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.” This is the ultimate explanation for how God can be both three persons but one Being, completely sovereign yet incapable of interfering with human choice, and all-loving yet capable of torturing the objects of his love forever. Logical inconsistencies become meaningless now because the law of non-contradiction is rendered null and void wherever faith like this is celebrated.

Outside the faith, these kinds of misfires are called out and corrected. Inside the church, however, it’s just the way you’re supposed to think.

What’s the Big Deal?

My contention is that growing up in church desensitizes you to logical inconsistencies, and that opens up large numbers of people to manipulation tactics employed by individuals and institutions keen on controlling groups of people for their own self-serving purposes.

Churches work very hard to stress in-group/out-group distinctions, drawing bold lines of demarcation around those issues they value most. Lifelong church members will pick up even the slightest variation in vocabulary (we call these “shibboleths“) so that the group identity is secure and well-delineated. Groupthink in such a place isn’t just commonplace, it’s downright demanded.

Imagine how powerful a platform this kind of environment would provide for persuasive salesmen and politicians who know how to adopt the vocabulary of a group in order to earn their undying loyalty? Do you really think that “bad actors” would pass up such a golden opportunity to garner the support of millions of people who tend to move as a unit?

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. What you’ve got here are large groups of people who have been conditioned to do as they are told, and on top of that they’ve been desensitized to logical inconsistencies so that they will never even notice (or care) if you don’t follow through with your promises. As long as the people standing up in front of everyone keep reassuring the masses that these people are “on our side,” they will follow them right over a cliff.

The God of the Bible is pleased by obedience, not by independence. That’s why his people are called “followers.”

Aside from not wanting to see people I love being taken advantage of, our current political situation gives me ample enough reason to combat this anti-intellectual subculture. It’s making large numbers of people overly credulous, rendering them easy prey for con artists and demagogues bent on eliminating all the checks and balances that keep any individual or group from having too much power over the rest of us.

Ultimately I believe that liberty is an essential element to human thriving. When an environment militates against free thinking and free choice, I cannot help but feel it is counterproductive to the things we say we want for ourselves and for our country.

If you can convince people things don’t have to make sense, you can make them believe virtually anything you want. And I’m not going to be okay with that.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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