Changing the Subject

Changing the Subject June 1, 2013

batman-supermanHave you ever considered why Batman has to wear protective armor but Superman doesn’t?  The reason is obvious, of course:  Bruce Wayne is a fragile human being while Kal-El is impervious and virtually indestructible.  One requires special protection while the other does not.  Furthermore, you can tell which areas are the most important (and the most vulnerable) by noting where the strongest armor is situated (e.g. the cranium).

The same protection principle applies in movies and video games.  You can always tell that you’re nearing the lair of “the boss” by the sheer number of guards surrounding that particular location.  If I were wandering through the woods and saw that a lowly log cabin were heavily guarded by surface-to-air missiles, tanks, and several dozen troops, I’d conclude something important and valuable hides away there, something vulnerable to attack.  You don’t surround something indestructible with high-powered defense mechanisms.  That would be a terrible waste of resources.

Which is why certain religious belief systems surround themselves with a whole host of defense mechanisms, diversionary tactics, and camouflage.  The very presence of those defenses indicates that something fragile and vulnerable to attack lies behind those defenses.  Greta Christina has already written persuasively about the many protective layers of religion but I would like to note one in particular which used to trip me up—at least until I finally saw it for what it was.  It generally falls under the heading of Changing the Subject.

In the formal study of logic, there are several types of diversionary tactics with their own Latin names.  Each of them attempts to draw attention away from the issue under discussion by changing the subject to something else—preferably something which evokes enough emotion to make the responder forget what was being discussed in the first place.  But this is a defense mechanism.  It is not dealing directly with the issue at hand.  In effect, it signals that the arguer is so insecure in defending his position that a diversionary tactic must be used to draw fire away from the point of greatest vulnerability.  It’s something akin to throwing a rock over to the side in hopes that a threatening animal will look away long enough for you to flee.

The most popular diversionary tactic used towards atheists is the ad hominem attack.  It says “Your argument is invalid because you are a bad/wicked/sinful person.” That’s actually a very poor argument, and it’s a total change of subject.  But it’s very effective because it draws attention away from what really matters:  The validity or veracity of whatever we’re discussing at the time.  Another subcategory of this fallacy is the appeal to motive, which says “Your argument is invalid because your motives are impure.”  This one in particular used to get me off the subject until it finally occurred to me what’s happening here.

Back when I first “came out” to my friends about my atheism, they were pretty critical of me.  I wrote them a letter which in turn prompted a slew of questions which I tried my best to answer in a second, longer letter.  This was not enough for them, either, so one of them staged an intervention of sorts which took up about 10 hours one Friday.  During that all-day question-and-answer session, I was interrogated about dozens of things ranging from the philosophical and scientific (“How can something come from nothing?” and “If we evolved from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”) to the very personal (“How often do you look at porn?” and “Do you struggle with masturbation?”).  The most common accusation which emerged from that all-day event (and which continues to this day) was that my disbelief in the supernatural is invalid and suspect because my motives are impure. “You just wanna live the way you wanna live,” and “You wanna be your own boss,” they said.  Over the last couple of years, the one I’ve heard the most in one form or another is: “You just want to cast off the moral restraints of the Christian faith.  That’s why you’ve thrown yourself into this ‘atheism thing’.”

I realize this line of thought comes from the Bible itself (therefore it cannot be questioned!) and for the longest time it put me on the defensive.  I found myself trying to justify to my friends that my motives were honest and purely intellectual and personally disinterested but they had already made up their minds so there was really no point in arguing.  It was only recently that I stopped and thought long enough to realize that I had fallen for a classic diversionary tactic.  See if you can see the mistake when I boil it down to an abbreviated conversation:

Me:  I really don’t believe in invisible spirits anymore.

Them:  You’re only saying that because you want to be your own boss.

Me:  But I just don’t see any valid reason to believe in invisible…

Them:  You just want to be free to look at pornography!

Me:  Um…what’s that got to do with…

Them:  How often do you pleasure yourself?

Me:  Well, I don’t see how that’s any of your…

Them:  You want to have sex with whomever you like, don’t you?

Me:  Wait…what were we talking about, again?  Weren’t we talking about whether or not there are valid reasons to believe in invisible spirits?

Them:  You’re only asking that because you want to be the sole arbiter of truth, putting yourself in the position of GOD.

Me:  Is there anyone else over there I can talk to?

I spent entirely too much energy trying to convince people close to me that the motives which led me to seek answers to my questions were pure and unrelated to anything personal.  But I realize now just how totally beside the point that really is.  In fact, it is completely unrelated to the question of whether or not gods exist.  You encounter a similar problem when Christians assert that atheists disbelieve in (their particular) god because of the hypocrisy of Christians themselves.  While it may be true that the hypocrisy of some irritates and angers outsiders, it totally misses the point to conclude that this is why they disbelieve.  Their disbelief stems from the conclusion that all of the reasons for believing in gods are very subjective—they are inside our own heads.  The behavior of the adherents of one religion or another is entirely beside the point.  Only Christians have such high expectations of themselves, anyway.  The rest of us do not.

So let’s assume for the sake of argument that impure motives led me to question my faith.  Go ahead and assume away.  That’s still unrelated to whether or not invisible spirits really exist.  This is a classic protective mechanism which all vulnerable ideologies must employ in order to defend themselves from hostile invaders (like critical thinking and empiricism).  I’ve decided I just don’t care anymore because I’ve seen it for what it is.  It’s a brilliant and effective diversionary maneuver, like the pyrotechnics of Bruce Wayne, the vulnerable human cloaked in millions of dollars worth of kevlar and black paint.  But it’s a change of subject every time, and I’m not falling for it anymore.

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  • Alex

    They HATE when you switch the traces on them, I’ve found: “You believe in Christ, right? So that means you reject the Hindu faith. You just want to live the way some other dude tells you. You want to eat as many steaks as you like without feeling guilty, that’s what this whole Christianity thing is about!”

  • They reject Judaism, too, don’t they? THEY JUST WANNA EAT BACON! They love bacon more than they love God.


  • It really irritates me when they say that I have rejected Christianity because I want to sin. My lifestyle hasn’t changed one bit, and the irony is the immorality of the Bible is what led me to really look into what I believed and why. Even if the Christian god were real, I wouldn’t worship him, because he is a sociopathic asshole!

  • Micki

    In the homeschooling world you can purchase logic or Christian-friendly logic. Just throwing that out there.

  • Anthony Magnabosco

    You are correct: this is a frequent diversionary tactic during debates and I have encountered it many times myself. Now I know where to link to when I see this happen (this very post).

    Anthony Magnabosco

  • excellent article , as always. :)

  • Thank you :-)

  • RBH

    Stephen Law’s Believing Bullshit is an excellent overview of the kinds of tactics that are used to defend invalid beliefs/positions, religion among them.

  • I really hate that “you just want to sin” thing. I will often respond to that by saying that I actually “sin” much less now as an atheist than I did as a Christian. Although now that you point it out, mission accomplished for them, subject successfully changed.

  • It would be very wrong to think that ad hominem is a one way street. The very big current trend to compare an historically established religious belief with a construct such as the flying spaghetti monster. This is designed to mock the believer, faith in God, it seems is as stupid as faith in some random creature that I just pulled out of my imaginative ass. yet it is in no way a valid argument against Christianity. Your own post seems to indicate that Christianity is a belief in “invisible spirits” as far as you are concerned. A debate on the historical claims surrounding the person of Jesus Christ I can respect, but to claim ad hominem from Christians as a distraction to debate and then go and set up a strawman representation of Christianity is a bit rich. I cannot speak for other religions, but, it all hangs on Jesus Christ as far as Christianity is concerned. Why do so many Christians question motives for disbelief? Why do they go for distraction rather than getting to the heart of the argument? Possibly because they have believed the lie (that lie that is all to often espoused) that our faith is unfounded and irrational. But our faith is not a blind leap that we take … our faith is in a man … admittedly in a man around who some extraordinary claims are made, but non the less in a human being and certainly not in “invisible spirits”.

  • So you are suggesting there is a version of Christianity which does NOT believe in invisible spirits? Was there a strictly humanist version of Jesus somewhere which preached nothing of an invisible deity, angels, demons, or an invisible adversary? Are we even talking about the same religion? Tell me how any of that is a “straw man” version of Christianity.

    You say your faith is not in invisible spirits but in a man. Where may I find this man? Is he visible? Where is he located so I can check him out for myself?

  • Karen Dawson

    An intervention?? Wow!!

  • I ma sure that you are aware that a straw man is a weak representation of someone else’s position so that that position can be knocked down.The reduction of God to an “invisible spirit” which is what you appear to do, neglects a far more comprehensive reality of God from the Christian point of view. Yes I believe in what you call invisible spirits, but not from any arbitrary assumption, but from the evidence I see in Jesus. I believe in them because Jesus did and because he dealt with them. This is based on the knowledge that can be gained in believing in the testimony of others. I believe in God, who is not reducible to as invisible spirit because He is in Christ and Christ is in him and they are one and had for a time physical form. I understand that you would disagree with me on that, and that is fine, but to equate Christian belief with a simplistic belief in “invisible spirits” is a straw-man.

    Where can you find Jesus? Well, he is definitely found in history. You can check him out in any version of the New Testament that takes your fancy. Biased you say? Of course it is. But a biased person can still speak the truth. Does Jesus still hang around today? I would argue yes, but not as an “invisible spirit.” I see him at work in the hearts of many people. His fruits are real. He was real and I believe that he still is real.

    Of course you can disagree with anything I have said. You will probably place a heavy emphasis observation based knowledge and point out that I cannot verify any of this except by the testimony of others. We could certainly have that discussion. But if you are going to argue against what Christians believe, then you have to argue against the person of Jesus and whether or not he was physically God. To do anything else is a diversionary tactic and camouflage.

  • Yep. They would chafe at me calling it that, but I was asked to call in a sub so that I could devote the day to an intensive conversation between myself and three or four of my friends. I was asked a lot of probing questions to which I didn’t have a good answer at the time. I was still pretty fresh off my deconversion.

  • But Ruz…your claim is that calling the Christian god, (or even Jesus) “invisible” would be a straw man. But then when I ask where I can find him, you cite words in a book, or subjective things like “fruit.” That’s not what I’m asking.

    If it’s incorrect for me to say your religion is about invisible things, then show me. Tell me where I can see this visible person.

    Is Jesus a visible person whom I may see?

    If the answer is “No,” then please refrain from accusing me of dishonestly representing your religion (which incidentally was likely my own for a very long time so I know I’m not misrepresenting it).

  • Lee

    I hear the argument: Christianity is about a relationship with JC, but I’m not sure any Christian worth their salt would claim a delineation of the trinity. If indeed the Christian faith holds that the trinity is inseparable and that JC was simply God in the flesh sent to save our souls, then at least two manifestations of the Christian God (specifically, the Holy “Spirit” and “God the Father”) are “invisible spirits” if you will and your relationship includes one with those supernatural or invisible aspects too. Because the three are so interdependent, I’m not sure how you can claim that the Christian faith does not require belief in invisible spirits. Moreover and to Neil’s point, JC is now only accessible through salvation and “lives” in your soul/heart and not in any “visible” (at least as I understand the word) manifestation.

    Also, I would hardly claim Christianity as “historically established”. The Bible is a deeply flawed “historical document” which can’t be taken literally less one wants to be labeled a fundamentalist crazy. Belief in the Bible as proof of JC’s life and works is quite possibly the largest leap of faith. I can respect folks that claim to have a relationship with JC and understand that it all rests on faith in his life, resurrection and way to salvation, but to claim the Bible as evidence or proof in support of those claims is ridiculous. If in fact you claim to believe in Christianity, you must agree that it all really boils down to faith in the “invisible” because I have yet to see any historical or current “visible” proof of any manifestation of the trinity that would satisfy the scientific requirements we hold for other such claims (i.e. current attempts to prove the paranormal).

    The existential argument clearly prefers the atheist or agnostic position up to now. Should events or discoveries prove otherwise in the future, I’m sure the majority of non-believers would tell you they would then believe. I wish Christians would call a duck a duck and own the fact that FAITH in the untenable lies at the center of their beliefs…which is fine, just quit trying to argue otherwise.

  • Legit argument, Lee.

    Technically speaking, from the standpoint of Systematic Theology, the believer does not have a direct relationship with Jesus, per se, but indirectly through the Holy Spirit. So, yeah. Well put.

  • Keep up the very good work.

  • Its true, along side questioning the bible…..any of it, in any way.