Redefining Words: Facts.

I’ve got to admit, one word that really bothers me to see misused by toxic Christians is the word “fact.” I feel like giving them my best Inigo Montoya glare and telling them, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Maybe it’s high time we talked about this word.

I’m going to dictionary you first–sorry, but we’ve got to have a leaping-off point.

1. something that actually exists; reality; truth

2. something known to exist or to have happened

3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true

4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened. The facts given by the witness are highly questionable.

Notice that these definitions all have the same general tone. They are talking about something that objectively happened, something that can be observed, measured, and actually seen. Even that last one is in the context of something that really happened, not something that is just felt to have happened.

Compare and contrast with Christians who claim that their god’s existence is a fact, or that Jesus’ crucifixion is a fact, or that creationism is a fact. Notice that none of these things are actually facts, though many Christians have gotten confused and think they are. If you talk to ex-Christians, they, like me, usually will tell you that they were very certain that their god was a done deal fact, but after de-converting, realized that this wasn’t the case at all. How did we find out that our certainty wasn’t fact? Most of us had to re-learn the very nature of reality once we escaped.

How do you know if something is really a fact or just a faith-based guess? Here are some handy checkpoints in the “you might be a redneck” tradition:

* If the “fact” requires someone to agree with your religious ideology before they can see it the way you see it, that’s not a fact.

* If the “fact” relies upon a logical fallacy (like an appeal to ignorance), that’s not a fact (or at least it’s not a demonstrated fact).

* If the “fact” can’t be discerned the exact same way by anybody of any religious persuasion, that’s not a fact.

* If the “fact” relies upon the Bible to be an accurate reporting of history or science, that’s not a fact.

* If the “fact” contradicts what has been repeatedly shown to be true by science and history, that’s not a fact.

* If the “fact” requires you to lie to maintain it (like this famous Liar-for-Jesus), that’s not a fact.

* If the “fact” gets proven false, then it most certainly is not a fact.

* If the “fact” depends on your feelings, that’s not a fact.

* If the “fact” gets picked up by fundagelical Christians or the Republican Party, or was heard on Glenn Beck’s show or Fox News, it’s probably not a fact. Definitely check it out before signing off on it.

Facts don’t care how you feel about them or what your religion is. They are the same regardless. Christians tend to construct their worldview first and then try to smash “facts” into that worldview, rather than seeing the facts first and constructing the worldview later. That’s certainly what I did, and I see it going on today in most apologetics arguments. I had no idea what a fact was, and I don’t think they do either.

So here’s a heads-up. You can make predictions about facts. If I drop an apple, it’s going to fall because the Theory of Gravity is a fact. If I get a flu shot in 2005, I’m going to need a new one in 2013 because the Theory of Evolution is a fact. The sun will come up tomorrow because it’s a fact that the earth goes around the sun.

But you can’t make predictions about the things Christians think are “facts.” If I pray, I might or might not get whatever I prayed for even though the Bible presents answered prayers as a “fact.” If Jesus existed as a person, none of the things I’d predict we’d see about his existence are in evidence even though the Gospels present his existence as a “fact.” If creationism is a fact, the scientists who buy into it sure haven’t ever presented any predictions around it at all, nor can they really (which is one reason it can’t actually be a theory or even a hypothesis).

You can ask questions of facts, too, which is something that Christianity’s “facts” lack. If I drop an apple a hundred times, will it fall each time? I can test the Theory of Gravity in a million different ways. If I breed fruit flies a hundred times, what changes will I see in their genetics and how quickly will those changes occur? I can test the Theory of Evolution that way, or any number of other ways that dozens of scientific fields are testing this theory even today. But you can’t ask questions of toxic Christians’ “facts.” If I take the Bible’s promises about prayer totally seriously and pray sincerely for an end to war or the re-growing of an amputee’s arm and I do this for a year solid with a group of like-minded people who are all equally sincere and serious, will war end everywhere and the amputee’s arm grow back? How do I do what the Bible says and “test everything and hold to that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21) when none of it can really be tested? Indeed, at this point many Christians regard it as a character flaw that anybody would even dare to test their god’s promises–handy and convenient considering that those tests would either be inconclusive or completely damning.

Despite not having any evidence behind their claims, Christians are still very sure of their “facts.” But a fact is not the same thing as being very sure of something. You can be very sure of something that isn’t true. People do it all the time. We’re famous for being extremely certain and yet extremely wrong about all sorts of things–anti-vaxxers, truthers, trickle-down economists, flat-earthers, creationists, birthers, Tea Partiers, forced-birthers, not all of these groups are even explicitly religious and they are still dead wrong about just about everything they believe. I really think Christians have gotten confused somewhere along the line and began thinking that anything they’re really certain about can be considered a “fact.”

This kind of thinking is extremely toxic, though, because it encourages Christians to discard actual facts in favor of the fake ones that tickle their ears and make them feel safe and comfortable in their Jesus bubbles. And once a Christian gets confronted with real facts, real and irrefutable facts like I did, that Christian has a choice to make that never should have become a do-or-die choice: does such a Christian choose reality and discard his or her faith, or does the Christian deny reality and keep the faith?

It never should have come to a showdown between reality and fantasy. I’m just going to tell you that right now. This confrontation never had to happen. But now that Christians have forced our hand, I wonder if they’re really happy that they forced this showdown. I imagine many ex-Christians would still be sitting in pews if they hadn’t been forced to decide between reality and the Christian feel-good movie. A benevolent lie is at least benevolent. But when the lie becomes malicious as well as false, that’s when most people draw the line.

Christian leaders are counting on their sheep being too scared to contemplate life outside the bubble to question the fake “facts” that pour out of Christian publishing houses and down from toxic Christian pulpits. They are counting on ignorance. They are counting on intellectual dishonesty. And they are counting on the cruelest of all dilemmas to keep their sheep in the fold.

How do we know what is a fact and what isn’t, though? Here’s how I sift claims. Maybe this will help somebody else, who knows.

First, I consider the source. A while ago, someone posted a news article making a shocking claim about Muslims doing something bad in London; I can’t remember what, probably trying to establish sharia zones or something. I followed the link and came up with a Daily Mail news piece. Well, the Daily Mail is hardly an established, creditable news source. So I began looking for other news sites that repeated this claim. I didn’t find any except right-wing blogosphere type links. No reputable, creditable news source had picked up on this amazing story. So I felt quite comfortable in writing off the claim.

Fig. 21. Cross between yellow-round and green-...
Fig. 21. Cross between yellow-round and green-wrinkled peas, giving the 9: 3: 3: 1 ratio in F2. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the same way, I don’t take biology lessons from people who aren’t biologists. A physicist doesn’t know much more about biology than I do. A guy with a mail-order diploma doesn’t either. Because I’m not an expert by any means in that area, I have to at some point trust someone else to condense what’s been going on in that field. And a Christian with a declared agenda of “proving” Christianity and absolutely no real qualifications in the field is just not going to be as trustworthy to me as a real scientist who goes where the evidence leads and has trained his or her whole life to talk intelligently about that field.

Christians would do well to consider the source when taking their apologetics lessons from their leaders. We’ll talk about this idea of how apologists are borrowing and misusing authority later, but for now, we’ll just leave it at that.

Second, I fit that new information in with what’s already been established. Is this new information more or less consistent with what has already been discovered? If it’s a fringe theory, does it at least have some peer-reviewed consensus behind its methodology and its general findings? Especially when one deals with Biblical history, it’s possible for the mainstream to be really wrong about the facts of a situation. I tread very carefully there. Let’s take a recent example from this blog. Y’all know I’ve got some somewhat fringe ideas about Jesus Christ’s historicity, and I still stand by those ideas because the basic outlines of the ideas don’t actually conflict with the mainstream (namely, no hard evidence for his life, no mention of his physical body or life in the earliest Christian writings, and no contemporary mentions of the man anywhere at all during his supposed lifetime). I go a little further than the mainstream, which hedges with “well, he still might have existed,” in that I see no reason why he had to exist for early Christians to have been perfectly happy with their new religion.

Third, I make predictions based on the facts at hand. If I pray, the results will be indistinguishable from normal happenstance and effort–and more to the point indistinguishable from not praying at all. If I drop an apple, it will fall. If I breed fruit flies, they will mutate at a particular rate in particular ways depending on the genes I breed against and for. If the predictions happen the way I expect, then the information I’ve assimilated is most likely correct.

Fourth, I keep my ears open for conflicting data. This is probably where toxic Christians fail the hardest. Once they’ve gotten their reality-free information from beyond-incompetent sources and even after discovering that they can’t reliably use that information in any way to make predictions about anything, they cling to it at the expense of anything else. Creation apologists tend to ignore everything done in science in the last 150 years, and tend to ignore absolutely anything that crops up that contradicts their idolized ideology. But if you can’t ever be proven wrong, then you’re not growing and learning. You’re just stagnating at that point. Learning is one long process of discovering where you were wrong and fixing the canoe’s course down the river.

And last, I use that information to ask new questions. This, too, is hard to do with Christian “facts.” It breaks my heart to hear ex-Christians say that their religion destroyed their natural curiosity about the world, but that’s what happens when the answer to everything is “a god did it” or “it’s a mystery.” The unspoken add-on to those phrases is “so shut up, idiot.”

I want to be moving forward, always. I want to be learning, always. I want to be growing, always. And I’m not going to be able to do any of that without facts upon which I can build my ideas–facts that prompt me to ask questions and maybe even make me change my mind about cherished assumptions.

And maybe that’s the whole point of why toxic Christians don’t like them and must warp and misuse the word to the point where it is almost meaningless.

We’re going to talk about another redefinition next time: tolerance. I’ve talked about tolerance before, but I want to dig into this word a little more and this series seems like a good time to do so. Hope to see you there!

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