Confuse ‘Em and Lose ‘Em.

Confuse ‘Em and Lose ‘Em. April 20, 2015

I want to sidetrack briefly because I was noticing earlier in a discussion of Christian deepities how often phrases and sentiments pop up in the religion that don’t really have a basis in reality. When someone isn’t really very clear on a concept, phrases like this jump out very quickly and easily and get seized upon like lucky feathers. Awareness of this concept can help smooth our way considerably as we navigate our new lives–and we’ll be touching base with it in future posts, so it seemed sensible to get it out in the open now.

"Telling a story." (Credit: Marina del Castell, Flickr, CC license.) Also: Mr. Captain has pointed out that a lot of my posts' pictures seem to involve cats. It's a coincidence. Really.
“Telling a story.” (Credit: Marina del Castell, Flickr, CC license.) Also: Mr. Captain has pointed out that a lot of my posts’ pictures seem to involve cats. It’s a coincidence. Really.

A “deepity” is a saying that seems very deep and meaningful at first, but when you look at it more closely you realize it’s beyond idiotic–or that it says something awful about the subject that the person uttering it doesn’t even realize got said. The term was coined by the teenaged daughter of a friend of big-name atheist Daniel Dennett, and the classic example he gave was “Love is just a word.” Obviously, love is actually a word with letters, a correct spelling, and dictionary definitions, but it’s a lot more than that–which is why this deepity sounds impressive, but is actually not only wrong but could also be considered a bit mean-spirited. (ETA: Thanks to John Lawson for his small correction regarding the coiner of the term!)

Though religions–especially the more wackadoodle varieties–are shot thick with deepities, they don’t just appear in religion by a longshot. I still remember a call-center job I had once where a supervisor yelled at my team about how she didn’t think we showed enough “concern for the customer.” “Show more concern! Be more concerned! Customers need to know you’re concerned!” None of this was news to us; all of us wanted to do a good job and were aware of how much importance our company put upon this idea of concern. And we all shifted more and more uncomfortably till I asked, “How do you managers know when you’re seeing concern?” And everything just stopped cold as she turned to stare at me. “Well, be concerned,” she finally said.

“Yes,” I said, “but how do we do that, if we’re not already doing it? Clearly we’d love to do that–‘concern’ actually ranks on our ratings and service scores and it’s just the right thing to do anyway–but if we’re not already doing it, or we think we are but we’re really doing it in a way that simply isn’t registering to you or customers as concern, how would we go about showing concern in a way that customers will definitely detect and that you will definitely hear when you grade our calls later?”

She blinked. Finally she burst out, after a flustered silence:

“You do it by showing that you’re concerned!”

We went around and around like that until she got mad and changed the subject. I’m not understating how important my company thought concern was for us to show to customers. And this manager very clearly had no idea what it was. It wasn’t a big leap to wonder if the company did either.

Because our manager didn’t really understand was meant by “show concern,” she could communicate her directions only in the most vague and befuddled of ways. When challenged, she got mad and changed the subject rather than admit she didn’t have any idea how to “show concern.”

It’s worth noting that she was one of the most gung-ho Christians at that place (a youth-ministry volunteer of some kind at a local fundagelical church, I think)–and so probably not used to being asked this kind of question–but well used to seeing nebulous and difficult-to-understand terms and completely accustomed to nullifying the troubling vagueness of those terms with thought-stopping warbling. And by the way, we did eventually figure out how to objectively express concern–thanks to a new manager who was actually interested in consistent results.

We see these sorts of admonitions in religion all the time and you can tell they’re supposed to mean something, but they actually don’t. We’re not even supposed to think too hard about them. One of my “favorites” was from a famous preacher, Joyce Meyer, who shares more in common with New Age pseudoscience quacks than she should find comfortable: “When we fill our thoughts with right things, the wrong ones have no room to enter.”

If someone had said something like that to me as a Christian, I’d have bobbed my head in happy agreement.

Now, though, I’m completely puzzled.

How do you “fill your thoughts with right things”? How does she know that if someone manages to do this that “the wrong ones have no room to enter”? Does she mean that someone should keep herself too busy to get into mischief (pronoun chosen because Ms. Meyer’s marks are young-to-middle-aged, fairly-affluent white Christian married women who don’t possess critical thinking skills or won’t apply the ones they do have to what their leaders say)? How do her marks know what the “right things” are? What if “the right things” aren’t what she thinks they are? What if “the wrong ones” are actually the truthful, valuable ones that really should be there? What if someone tries her best to spend morning-to-night cluttering her mind up with “the right things” and still can’t get “the wrong ones” out of her head, since that is not how human minds actually work? And by what mechanism does she recommend someone accomplish that herculean task? The questions never really end, and we never can seem to banish the white bears from our minds. (Related: Why are people taking psychology advice from someone with absolutely no formal education or training in anything related to psychology?)

Not even Christian leaders know exactly what their deepities mean. I once saw a fascinating comment thread about “dying to self” on LinkedIn involving a dozen evangelical ministers (most pastoring decently large churches, all with 10+ years experience in ministry, at least a few with publishing credentials, all with some kind of formal education in ministry stuff). The originator of the discussion was clearly worried about how to teach his flocks “the reality” of this concept, but those joining in didn’t have the faintest idea how to engage him. One guy loftily proclaimed how important this concept is and how bad it is that KIDS TODAY™ weren’t learning how to do it and get offa his lawn and isn’t he just the bestest ever. The others took mostly similar tacks.

Our worried questioner refused to back down. He asked, “Yes, yes, I know: dying to self is important. I’m not denying it’s important. I am totally on board with its importance. But how do I tell my church members to do it? What do I tell them to do? What signs are present when they die to themselves and are absent when they don’t?” And nobody could answer. Half the group treated him like he was making the shocking, unthinkable suggestion that they stop telling people to die to themselves. Several of ’em slapped down Bible verses about the topic like Magic:the Gathering cards, all of which our brave dissenter called out immediately. (The discussion’s been made group-only since the day I first ran across it, but here’s the first bit of it on Google cache if you want to see the cut of our brave hero’s jib–you’ll quickly get a taste of the nonsensical blather going on in the whole thread.) I was seriously cheering for him, but I could also tell that he was intensely annoying everybody there. By the thread’s ending, someone–the questioner, probably–shared how hugely concerning it was to him that the most important concept in Christianity was one that not a single one of them could even objectively tell was present or absent, much less teach others to cultivate. They never did come to an understanding, and their discussion has always stuck with me. When push comes to shove, not even the people spouting deepities really know what they’re saying, and when these bits of rah-rah intrude too closely on the real world, everybody gets really uncomfortable. (By the way, I wrote about my opinion of “dying to self” in more detail here.)

The reason these sorts of sayings become popular is that they are just confusing enough to be soothing. When people face an impossible task–like believing utter nonsense with no evidence for itself in the real world–they develop a litany of calming mantras to help them deal with the dissonance erupting constantly around themselves. These mantras stop thought and halt inquiry, and stop people from realizing that they’re saying and doing ridiculous things. Thought stoppers are meant to shut us up and make us more likely to obey. When we don’t understand these phrases, we tend to shut down and assume the whoever issued them does know what they mean. Ask a person who’s been in tech support for a long time about it and you’ll quickly hear about at least the idea of (if not the exact phrase) “duh mode,” where a caller/end user becomes an obedient zombie when really technical language is used in the course of issuing a command. I figured out pretty quickly in that line of work that if you confuse people, then they’re likely to do whatever you tell them to do. Jargon is to a techie what a lab coat is to someone conducting a sociology experiment: it establishes authority.

Other examples of these mantras include phrases like “live for Jesus,” “love the sinner, hate the sin,” “walk in faith,” and “spiritual submission.” Your guess is as good as mine regarding what they look like in ideal practice. They and many others like them work for a little while for some folks and for a long time for others. But they don’t work forever for everybody.

There’s even a known cognitive bias about how people think rhyming sayings are more truthful, and I bet any rhythmic, emotionally-manipulative, assonance-laden phrase (like the ones that abound in Christianity) would work about as well on listeners, especially phrasing that’s been around for many years. At this point, if a Christian has trouble figuring out what a saying like “dying to self” even means in the real world, then the fault is immediately laid at the feet of the person having trouble.

Christian leaders are playing with a loaded deck here.

So when I hear Christians chirping at each other stuff like “just trust in Jesus!” I have to ask: how does one do that? How far does that trust extend? Do Christians have to literally sit in their pajamas on the couch and wait for the doorbell to ring with a person standing there with a check for a billion dollars? If Christians take any action at all, are they really trusting Jesus? What if they take an action thinking that’s an expression of trust, but it’s the wrong action? How would they even know the difference? What if someone “trusts in Jesus” by not taking an action or taking the wrong action and something terrible happens–is the Christian to blame, considering there’s no objective way to tell either way? How can the Christian know what to do and when and how? Because any ex-Christian could tell these chirpy Christians that as often as we turned out right in our own guesses while we were Christian, we were wrong (if not more often wrong); “you just know” and “you feel the still small voice in your heart” and all the thought stoppers like those they spout at any opportunity are nothing but blather covering up a total inability to tell exactly and objectively why one guess turns out well but another doesn’t.

I’m sure a boatload of Christians would be happy to tell me I’m just thinking too much about it. But this was stuff I had trouble with when I was a Christian too. I got frustrated with these vague sayings that seemed to satisfy my peers but which seemed so maddeningly unattainable and unworkable to me. There is a lot of this sort of purely-metaphorical blather in the religion. And of course, when these sayings eventually failed to comfort and inspire me, I was the problem–not the sayings, and certainly not the flippy-dippy world they inhabited.

The best indication there is that this religion is not meant for applying too closely to real life is that so much of it cannot be translated into real-world behaviors and observations–and that getting too attached to making it fit the real world leads to some seriously disturbed beliefs and behaviors, like going overboard with Rapture scares or becoming a conspiracy theorist.

We should not fear asking what something looks like in the real world and how we know when it’s present or absent. As Aron-Ra has said, if you can’t show it then you don’t know it. If something’s objectively true or real, we should be able to see or otherwise detect it in the objective real world. If a system exists, we ought to see evidence of its existence even if we don’t know its exact mechanism quite yet. And if someone can’t explain a concept in fairly simple terms, then we need to stop giving that person more street cred than he or she deserves–and moreover, we need to question whether or not that person actually understands this concept or is just cloaking ignorance in bibble-babble that sounds impressive and hoping to fool us.

When we ask questions, we are not the problem. Nor are we in the wrong for refusing to accept the deepities that Christians have been trained to accept and spout on cue for decades if not centuries.

Questions are the natural enemy of thought-stoppers.
* Can you summarize what you’re saying in a few sentences?
* Can you describe your idea without resorting to jargon?
* What real-world observations support your idea?
* What real-world phenomena will be absent if your idea is wrong?
* Can you state your idea in an “if/then” format?
* What does that even mean?

Sure, you might run into a physics professor who just doesn’t inhabit the same planet the rest of us do, but chances are that if you talk to anybody who can’t clearly and succinctly explain a concept that he or she claims expertise in, but must instead haul out the deepities and jargon-y words like “immutable” (that word itself seems like the mating call of the toxic Christian–I’ve yet to run into a Christian who was fond of “immutable” who wasn’t also a complete chucklenut) or resort to metaphysical language to support real-world claims, then you’re dealing with someone who isn’t actually very clear on their own concept and is hoping like blazes that you don’t notice it or–worse by far–call them out on their attempt to stun you with an argument from gibberish.

We’ll talk more about metaphysics itself, but for now I just want you to be on the lookout for this kind of vague, confusing language. This kind of language is a good indicator that you need to be careful around the folks using it–they’re very likely trying to sell you something untrue or something they don’t understand themselves.


* Explain Like I’m 5 – one of the largest subreddits out there and a veritable goldmine of great information.

* Ask Historians. A smaller subreddit but still absolutely amazing for the information you can get; these folks explain complex ideas brilliantly and their April Fool’s Day posts were some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever seen on Reddit. My friend the Apostate, himself a brilliant explainer-of-complex-things, turned me on to this group (btw: don’t miss his recent Star Wars post).

* Ask a Scientist, one of several sites focusing on bringing real live credentialed experts in touch with laypeople who have questions.

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