Unspoken maxims

Addressing difficult topics with 'don't ask, don't tell.'

This section is divided into three main parts:
  1. When the policy of 'don't ask, don't tell' makes sense.

  2. Examples of don’t-ask-don’t-tell scenarios in religious contexts.

  3. Types of replies given.

  4. Why people stop asking.
When the policy of 'don't ask, don't tell' makes sense.
The policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is sometimes employed for excellent reasons:
  • The process of explaining all the details that go into a decision is so tedious and time-consuming, that the savings in time and energy due to specialisation would be negated by the costs of acquainting lay people with the details.

  • The specialists have access to information that should be kept from non-specialists, as the withholding of this information results in the greater good (according to judgements made by competent, knowledgeable, compassionate specialists).

    For example, the information may be very difficult for non-specialists to grasp, even given a reasonable amount of effort, within a realistic length of time. It may be particularly susceptible to misinterpretation, which would lead to dire consequences. Or the information may be the sort that non-specialists would rather not hear about in too much detail, given the choice.

    The trade-off between revealing and withholding information is such that the benefits of allowing people to understand and evaluate things for themselves are outweighed by damages that would result from misuse of that information by deviant non-specialists, or cause excessive boredom or distress.
If no independent means of evaluating a system exist, then there's basically no way for non-specialists to tell whether their faith in the leadership is warranted. (For more about Religious Leaders and their responsibilities, click here.)

Examples of don’t-ask-don’t-tell scenarios in religious contexts:
  • Audiences are not encouraged to ask questions during a sermon or interrupt the speaker.

  • Believers, while encouraged to evaluate the content of their religious texts in some detail, are typically not allowed to probe beyond certain boundaries. They are often discouraged from thinking of their God and leading prophets as individuals with basic human needs.

  • Believers may be banned from making critical comments about their God, prophets, or religious leaders. They are often required to accept the gender identity of their God and prophets at face value without question, especially if homosexuality is frowned upon or banned by the religion.

  • Events in religious texts that are physically impossible are interpreted as metaphors, and doctrines that do not lend themselves to literal interpretations in a modern day context are glossed over and reinterpreted.

    When believers ponder this fact in closer detail, they realise that their religious text sounds better when interpreted by their fellow believers than when simply read ‘as is.’ More insights are to be gained from their religious leader (if he or she is skilled at the job) than from the text that directly embodies God’s word.

    Thus, the religious text is less-than-optimally written, at least from the perspective of someone alive in the present day and age. It’s less informative and insightful than something that is be written by a good human author today- and that includes non-believing authors.

    One’s inevitable conclusion is that the text is sadly outdated and far less relevant and interesting than plenty of other, religious and secular, texts. At the very least, it could do with the release of a new edition. (Read more about how Religious Texts manage to endure here.)

Types of replies given.
The replies given depend on how much the respondents actually know, whether they are aware of how much they know, and their willingness to share information. (For a description of 'known' and 'unknown' categories of human knowledge, refer to the section on Knowledge Awareness.)

  • If respondents genuinely know the answer, they may or may choose not to reply in complete and accurate detail, for reasons such as those mentioned above.

  • If respondents do not know the real answer, they might say so, or sometimes give an inaccurate answer, whether unintentionally or deceitfully.
Typically, in the domain of religion, people tend to quote from religious texts and offer a profusion of detail in response to questioning.

Many religions have had a long and varied history, thus the volume of content in religious documents is high. When believers ask about issues such as the existence of human suffering, or seek proof for the existence of God, respondents can provide detailed replies which describe historical incidents, and quote passages from religious texts. However, replies often do not address the questioner’s concerns directly, or may only partially address the question and be logically unsound.

The questioner may be distracted by the details provided and, while trying to assimilate the new information, be unable to gather his or her thoughts rapidly enough to identify gaps in logic.
Why people stop asking.
If the believer does point out inconsistencies, the respondent may offer further, inadequate explanations.

This process goes on until the discussion stops because it is going nowhere, and
  1. The questioner remains unconvinced but doesn’t want to be too rude and keep pointing out gaps in the respondent’s logic, or

  2. The respondent gets tired of trying to address issues that cannot be answered, or

  3. The questioner is satisfied with the answer given.
In the third scenario, what often happens is that questioners agree with the response given, because the statements made are true. The questioners mistake their acceptance of the statements for a sense of satisfaction with the way the reply addressed the question. Just because the statements are true, however, does not mean that they answer the original question.

For example, if one were to give the reply, ‘Humans are able to distinguish between various wavelengths of visible light’ in response to the question, ‘Does God exist?’, few people would disagree with the truth of the response given, but in actual fact, the response does not address or answer the query.

In the context of discussions about religion, it is particularly hard to ensure that participants in a conversation are talking about exactly the same thing, and using the same definitions. This makes it much harder to identify the specific ways in which replies evade the issue. The mismatch, however subtle, is still there. (For more on the subject of partial truths, refer to the section on Cherry Picking.)
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