Last week, I wrote an Easter post about the false promise of rebirth offered by Christianity. A Christian blogger who’s periodically hung out on this blog wrote a response to it, inviting me to respond–which I did, as a comment on his blog. One of the reasons I took that time was because it concerned me that that response was a string of very old, very tired arguments that were already old and tired back when I was a Christian myself.
Quite a few Christians cherish these failed, long-debunked arguments–and they are not interested in questioning them, much less in learning why they’re not effective. Today I want to talk about these shopworn, moth-eaten arguments: what they are, where they come from, and why Christians cling to them so much.
One of the things that my commenters picked up on very quickly in that response was that it boiled down to the same old Points Refuted a Thousand Times (PRATT) that Christians tend to lean on when challenged. These are very familiar talking-point responses that Christians are taught to parrot reflexively and instantly on cue whenever the correct prompt is uttered in their presence, just as a dog may be taught to stand on his hind legs to get a treat whenever his owner utters the words “up-up, Jack!”
These talking points are methods of soothing the sting of cognitive dissonance and controlling wayward and dangerous thoughts in the mind of the Christian employing them, but more importantly they are silencing tactics as well. As one might guess given their varied functions in the modern Christian world, there are slogans, catchphrases, and elaborate (one might even say Byzantine) conspiracy-theory-level arguments for absolutely every single possibility, from the Problem of Evil to why the Old Testament has Yahweh telling his Hebrews to take little girls as sex slaves to all the countless talking points around Creationism.
(If you’ve ever heard me talking about once parroting “The Blind Men and the Elephant” back in college at an atheist friend who’d challenged me on the numerous inconsistencies in the Gospels’ accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, that was me using a PRATT–and getting rightly denied afterward.)
Talking points with catchy enough wording can last for many decades in popular Christian imagination, but even the most obscurely pedantic ones can be seized by smug or desperate Christians as their own lucky black feathers. Church folklore is chock-full of the supposedly-miraculous conversions and triumphs that resulted from the use of a PRATT. They are the pickup lines of the Christian world.
I wasn’t surprised to see a response filled with PRATTs. Even Christians who think of themselves as liberal and rational can get caught up in them because of how ubiquitous they are. Such Christians might not even realize what these arguments actually mean, that PRATTs are actually failures, or what they are really saying to non-believers when they use them. So please don’t imagine that I’m singling this well-meaning fellow out. This post isn’t about him. PRATTs completely infest almost every flavor of Christianity.
Anatomy of a PRATT.
PRATTs are slogans, catchphrases, and arguments built around Christian ignorance and persecution-fantasizing. Many center around pseudoscience to support some element of the religion’s scientific or historical claims, while some distort the news to make Christians seem like a persecuted minority when they’re not at all. Others concentrate on slamming or insulting non-believers. Others still are various threats against people who reject Christians’ claims.
RationalWiki theorizes that Christian leaders may know that these points have been long-refuted, but repeat them anyway because they know their followers won’t ever have heard of them. Those followers certainly seem to believe whatever it is they’re parroting, and I see no reason to think otherwise. So the first time such a Christian typically ever encounters pushback around a PRATT is when he or she trots one out around a non-believer and gets mocked, shot down, or blocked–as indeed I was years ago.
Unfortunately, this pushback is often too little, too late.
PRATTs are based around completely unverified, subjective beliefs that do not depend upon cause and effect at all or objective results in the real world–both of which are viewed by Christians with great suspicion and hatred as dreaded, evil “naturalism,” so the Christians who love these tired old slogans and arguments often have a very difficult time understanding that those slogans and arguments have been refuted and debunked for so long that the refutations and debunkings can often legally buy their own beer in any gas station in the US of A. That kind of deep indoctrination is hard to beat with a simple online chat or coffee-shop conversation.
A Short, Representative List of PRATTs.
I’ll list some of them here, along with the implied finishing statements I hear whenever a Christian uses them.
1. Atheists have a bleak, sad, miserable worldview while Christians have the opposite.
(Poor widdle things, bless their cotton socks, gosh, it’d suck so much to be an atheist–are they really even human at all? They can’t be if they’re that lacking in the loftier aspects of being human, aspects which WE automatically get upon conversion.)
What’s funny is that it isn’t difficult at all to find plenty of refutations for this argument. It’s ridiculously untrue and laughably easy to demolish. Worse, the people who’ve left the religion aren’t shy these days about discussing how much happier they usually are since leaving, how much more personal meaning they have in their lives, and how much more optimistic their general outlooks usually are after deconverting.
It isn’t simply pride or willful ignorance driving Christians’ refusal to challenge this argument, though; Christians are first and foremost salespeople, and one of the major ways they market their product–Christianity–is to try to draw a clear distinction between those who use it and those who do not. They want to make their brand of snake oil sound like it alone can possibly fulfill the needs they insist people have. Discovering that Christianity is either superfluous or totally counter-productive to the process of becoming a happy, healthy, productive, functional adult would mess up their sales pitch.
Less charitably, this PRATT gives its users that little rush of chortling, childish glee that comes of insulting and dehumanizing an enemy. Such Christians love to martyrbate to their persecution fantasies, but what they love more than even that is belonging to a tribe that is more correct and more powerful than any other tribe.
You’d think Christians wouldn’t be so eager to demonstrate just how little they love their neighbors.
2. An ex-Christian who speaks strongly against Christianity must have been terribly hurt by someone in the church at some point.
(Of course, I’d never leave over something that silly. You’re just too sensitive.)
Ah, the myth of the “Bad Christian:” this idea that abuse and hypocritical behavior is what really drives most people from the loving arms of Christianity.
Even if it were true–which it isn’t–a parroting of this myth sure isn’t something I’d consider a selling point for Christianity. If anything, this PRATT is a definitive demonstration of the non-divine nature of the religion and its followers’ total lack of regard for their very own claims.
I’m not sure that Christians should want to tell us this often and this loudly that they are well aware that their tribemates hurt a lot of people really often and really badly and that they are (erroneously) certain that this abuse causes people to leave their religion, yet aren’t frantically trying to stop that abuse, preferring instead to blame the victims of those abusers for separating themselves from a tribe that seems completely helpless to stop the many predators within their ranks.
Plus, if a dissenter can be negated as being spiteful, over-emotional, “wounded,” or “bitter” (that’s Christianese for “anger that I think should have gone away by now”), then the Christian doing it doesn’t need to engage further with anything that was said–which is another behavior you’d think Christians wouldn’t want to advertise so loudly.
3. Non-Christians should just shut up about the ethical problems found in Christianity, the dishonesty contained within its lavish promises to adherents, and its overall negative impact on society because it’s totally mean to “steal the joy” of ignorant, deluded Christians who think their only source of comfort in life is Christianity’s promises.
(That’s not me, of course. I’m much smarter than that. I’m speaking on behalf of Bubba and Mary Sue Christian in BFE Texas, who need the reassurance of Christianity after their house gets blown away by a tornado for the 12th time that year because they’ve got literally nothing else going for them. I’m all heart that way, you know. I think it’s better to have false promises than no promises at all, and comforting lies rather than the truth.)
This is the Dying Grandmother argument, which was debunked thoroughly by PZ Myers back in 2007 for chrissakes. It’s a silencing tactic meant to make dissenters fear looking meeeeeeeeean and cruel to the poor widdle ignorant huddled masses who couldn’t possibly get through their day without a little shot of snake oil and false promises. Here’s how it works:
An atheist says something assertive about religion; religious sympathizer retorts, “Would you say that to your dying grandmother? You atheists can’t give any consolation to the dying or grieving, and all you can do is flip a finger at believers.” There is usually a tone of high moral indignation, as well, and a smug expression of superiority that the faithful have over the godless.
The Christians using this PRATT are both setting up a false dilemma and saying something really, really uncharitable about themselves and their tribemates, but they don’t realize it.
They are also making a sales pitch that is guaranteed to backfire. They don’t care. They’re busy trying their best to avoid either addressing the criticism that sparked the PRATT or to face up to the fact that they don’t have any real evidence for their assertions.
4. You just don’t understand the Problem of Evil like I do. Here, let me explain why Jesus allows babies to die miserably due to birth defects, little kids to get abused, people to perish in terror and pain from violence, and natural disasters to decimate whole communities–many filled with his own followers–all because he is that awesome of a god and that truly morally good of a being.
(There, isn’t that all better? Clearly you just never had this simple matter explained correctly by someone who really understands this stuff. A pity you deconverted before we met. I could have saved you a lot of time away from Jesus. Also, I have never once really thought about what I just said.)
Christians can’t even figure out who their god wants them to marry, going by their abysmal divorce rates. They can’t agree on a single doctrine in their entire religion. They’ve been on the wrong side of every single culture war they’ve gotten involved with over the last few centuries if not longer. It shouldn’t be surprising that so many people look askance at them when they start making wild guesses about why their god “allows” atrocities to happen.
But one would at least hope that they’d kinda notice that every time they try, people back away from them a little bit more and become even more firm in their opinions that Christianity is an absolutely grotesque ideology. A pity such Christians despise “naturalism” as much as they do; this is one place where noticing cause-and-effect might be quite useful.
5. In every single way imaginable, I am totally unlike all the Bad Christians™ you have ever encountered. Though you didn’t actually ask for it, I will now explain my quirky lil take on the religion, which I guarantee you have never heard before now because it’s so amazingly unique and shockingly original that no Christian has come up with it in the last 2000 years.
(Are you ready to say the Sinner’s Prayer yet?)
(How about now?)
A Christian who parrots this tired old PRATT believes that he or she is a Magic Christian.
I have no idea why so many Christians think that this particular argument is compelling, but every single one that isn’t a proud, card-carrying member of a particular denomination seems to fall into this thinking.
They really don’t like hearing that no, they’re pretty much standard-issue Christians–and that they’re nowhere near as evolved, loving, compassionate, kind, or respectful as they think they are.
I had a really rough time coming to grips with the truth of this PRATT myself when I deconverted. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic; it’s that I don’t have time or inclination anymore to indulge that kind of self-serving preening.
6. Well, if you keep refusing to convert, you’re going to Hell and be physically tortured forever and ever and ever, with no hope of reprieve or mercy.
(Of course, I’m a Nice Christian, so I’ll use totally veiled threats and very distanced language so it doesn’t sound so bad to threaten you in order to try to strong-arm you into either converting or at least shutting up. I’ll start fantasizing now about all the stuff that will happen to you one day, whether you like it or not.)
This is nothing more than the sort of threat issued by a desperate abuser who senses that his or her control isn’t as strong as it once was.
The practice of issuing threats to dissenters and non-believers alike is so widespread that even Christians who eagerly position themselves as the Nice Guys of their religion fall into using them; the acceptability of using threats is one of the few things that almost all Christians agree on. Threats have been such a part of the Christian worldview since its creation that I’m not even sure how the religion’s adherents would even market themselves on the larger scale without them!
Unfortunately, threats don’t work on people unless they’re already at least vaguely inclined toward belief.
7. If I haven’t personally perceived or experienced what you’re describing, then it can’t possibly have happened.
(My anecdotal experience, which you have no way of verifying, overrides your lived experience in the religion. I might also be accusing you to your face of lying. Aren’t I loving? Don’t you want to join a group full of people like me?)
I think sometimes Christians make this kind of argument because they think it’ll undercut the dissenter’s assertions somehow by making them seem vanishingly rare, thereby silencing that person and setting the world to rights again. The success of this silencing tactic depends on the other person to agree that the events described are, in fact, rare, and also for the other person not to realize that Christianity itself is based on myths that none of its followers have personally perceived or experienced.
The always-eloquent Bruce Gerencser wrote an excellent post explaining this PRATT: Christians adore anecdotes that are completely impossible to verify or duplicate, and their religion is based around events that are way more ludicrous than anything ex-Christians could ever say about their experiences in the religion. But those singularly bizarre events are totally okay and even awesome. The events described by dissenters, however, must be immediately dogpiled and silenced.
This exact PRATT is largely what is responsible for the widespread abuse scandals rocking the religion’s denominations worldwide, from the crustiest old slimepits of Catholicism to the tiniest little enclaves of ultra-progressive hipster Protestants acting all cool in coffeeshops every Sunday, from the biggest sparkling-clean corporate-marketed megachurches dotting the country to the most primitive little storefront church plants struggling to pay their bills every month. It allows Christians to hand-wave away tales of horrifying abuse and overreach, and to ignore the abuse and overreach their peers are wreaking.
It is a variant of the Creationist argument “How do you know? Were you there?”, saying instead “If I wasn’t there, then it can’t have happened that way.”
In the end, PRATTs are nothing more than thought stoppers, and as such they are used more for the benefit of the Christian parroting them than for any other reason. There are many, many others besides the general ones I’ve outlined above, but now maybe those who haven’t heard this concept before will more easily recognize them in the wild.
Once we know what we’re looking at when we see a PRATT in action, we may be forgiven for feeling astonished that, when given the golden opportunity of a non-Christian’s time and attention, a fervent Christian will almost always leap straight to the use of these tired old arguments instead of offering us any really compelling reason to believe his or her claims. (I’m sure there’s some reason for it besides the one I’m thinking of.)
Dealing with these arguments is easy enough; if you wish to actually engage the Christian at all (and let’s be clear: you are not obligated to do a damned thing), letting them know that their beloved talking points have been debunked for years and that this information is easily available online might be enough to shame that person into at least dropping the matter.
The only acceptable response to being set straight about the errors of a PRATT is a variant of “Gosh, I’m so sorry, I had no idea. I will go and sin no more. I’m sorry I troubled you. I promise to check myself before I wreck myself next time.”
Unfortunately, sometimes a PRATT is so well-beloved (and so thoroughly internalized as a talking point) that the Christian thusly set straight will simply drill down on it even harder, or haphazardly fling more of them in a sort of Gish Gallop. At that point, that person isn’t really having a real dialogue with us; he or she is preaching at voices in his or her own head.
All I can do at that point is gently, quietly back out of the metaphorical room and slowly close the door. I wouldn’t dream of disturbing such a private, intimate act of self-love.
PRATTs are becoming more and more common as Christians desperately seek to reverse the erosion of their religion’s dominance and privilege, so it’s important to call attention to the practice and to demonstrate why these talking points are not the effective mic drops that Christians imagine they are. I hope this examination of them has been at least a little useful to y’all! We’re going to be plunging into some apologetics stuff soon, so I wanted to set the scene by talking about one of the tactics I’m noticing in what I’m researching.
See you Thursday, when we’ll be talking about more ways that Christians often undermine themselves and their own claims in interactions with non-believers.