Question evasion

Why it's hard to get straight answers to questions about religion.

The questions posed by sceptics to believers tend to be those asked and answered again and again.

They address some niggling issue in the fundamental logic behind religious beliefs, such as 'Why does imperfection exist, if God is perfect,' or 'How could the scriptures be the work of an omniscient God, when they're full of contradictions and antiquated beliefs?'

(For a list of arguments that claim to offer proof of God’s existence, refer to the section on Critical Thinking.)

Here's a description of the common tactics used to dodge questions.
  1. Alter the scope of the question. Make true statements that your listeners can't disagree with, and pretend that they address the question directly.

  2. Talk fast so that listeners can't keep up. Make so many jumps in logic and inaccurate statements that your listeners have a hard time keeping track of them.

  3. Imply that any criticisms will be construed as personal insults, and further questioning will sour your relationship.
Alter the scope of the question.
Over the course of the reply offered by the religious proponent, you're likely to notice, upon close examination, that the scope of the problem is subtly narrowed down and constrained such that by the end of the narrative, the religious proponent is able to deliver a reply that appears to satisfactorily address the newly-reduced issue.

Furthermore, the reasons given for this narrowing of scope are meaningless and devoid of logic- however, they are asserted with such seriousness and rapidity that the listener is flummoxed and temporarily unable to identify where it was, exactly, that they got lost.

As the listener tries to sort out his or her thoughts, the religious proponent triumphantly concludes the ‘argument’ and expectantly looks the listener in the eye, defying him or her to make a swift comeback or confess to an inability to follow the logic presented.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say that instead of asking a believer ‘Does God exist,’ we ask someone who believes in fairies (referred to as 'the fairy proponent'), ‘Do fairies exist?’ The proponent for fairies replies that, first of all, if one is quite determined from the outset not to be easily convinced, then there is no point progressing any further.

Let’s say we decide to be generous and imagine that we might possibly come round to the idea that fairies exist, so that we can move along and hear the rest of the argument. The fairy proponent presents numerous items- children’s books, mugs, calendars, YouTube videos, t-shirts, lampshades, and stickers- all with images of fairies, depicting life in fairyland.

At the end of this exhibition, the fairy proponent declares that the fairies have been drawn in exquisite detail, their activities have been described similarly across multiple texts, that their behaviour and appearance is thus consistent throughout these sources, and that the volume of documented evidence is overwhelming.

Thus the conclusion: fairies are real.

Where did the argument go wrong and where were we misled?

Basically, the fairy proponent failed to tackle the full context addressed by the question ‘Do fairies exist?’ The original question was composed of several sub-questions:
  • ‘Do images, descriptions, and accounts of fairies exist?’

  • ‘Do fairies exist as separate, other-worldly entities, and are they endowed with magical powers that transcend the laws known to humans?’

  • ‘Do fairies exist independently of the portrayals found in materials generated by people (books, drawings, etc.) and of the human minds that visualise them?’

  • ‘If human beings were not around to create these images and descriptions, and maintain mental representations of them, would fairies still exist, and would there be any evidence of their existence whatsoever?’
The fairy proponent addressed the context that was raised in the first question, but completely ignored the issues brought up in the remaining questions. The fairy proponent only answered our original question within the context of the first sub-question, and mistakenly assumed that since this component was tackled satisfactorily, that provided a full and complete answer to the original question.

We can clearly identify where the logic broke down, in this example about fairies. (For more on how the presence of truth is not the same as the inclusion of the whole truth, refer to the section on Cherry-picking.)

Unless one is quick-thinking, however, it can be quite hard to perform this logical analysis for religious issues, because those concepts tend to be more complex and abstract, and more demanding on the brain.

In summary, the difficult questions we pose to religious proponents implicitly address numerous issues. We often neglect to specify the different components explicitly, because our intentions are so obvious, and our criticisms are so self-evident. Our neglecting to specify the components of the question in detail, however, provide religious proponents with the opportunity to exploit ambiguities in language, to tax the mental processing power of listeners to its limits, and to shorten the time that listeners are given to digest or reject what is being said.

Thus an artificial constraining of the scope of the original question goes by unchallenged, listeners are left grasping at loose straws, trying to piece the (non-existent) logic together, and none the wiser.
Talk fast. Make so many jumps in logic and inaccurate statements that your listeners can't keep track of them.
Certain questions make us scramble mentally. This scrambling may occur for a couple of reasons:
  • We’ve been presented with evidence that appears to refute our beliefs. We’re searching for a rebuttal, and are desperate to come up with new rationale and to point out gaps in the fresh evidence, in order to defend our position.

  • Alternatively, it could be that our stance has not been challenged by the question at all. Sometimes, we spot numerous flaws in the assumptions made by the questioner immediately, and identify topics that need to be addressed, and which we’re raring to address. The challenge lies, instead, in keeping a mental list of the issues identified, and trying to respond to all of them.
These two reasons for ‘anxiety’ in a respondent are widespread, and easily confused with each other.

Someone’s eagerness to address all the issues that have been crammed into short-term memory stores before they are forgotten is often misinterpreted as a sign of defensiveness. The emotional reaction felt and displayed when one attempts to address numerous topics may be misread by others as a sense of denial.
Imply that any criticisms will be taken personally, and badly.
A question that believers sometimes use, to back up their beliefs and show support for doctrines issued by their religious authorities, is, ‘Many incredibly smart people have spent so much time and energy in order to reach these conclusions- are you claiming that they are all wrong? Are you implying that you know more than they do?’

This statement is often quite effective at stemming a flow of critical questions. Instead of concentrating solely on the original topic, it shifts the tone of the discussion to a personal, emotional level. The response conveys a strong sense of disapproval: ‘By asking me all these questions, you demonstrate a lack of trust in my good judgment and a disregard for my authority.’

It changes the subject of the conversation, and puts the questioner on the defensive on multiple fronts, immediately. It suggests that:
  • The person asking questions (let’s call this person ‘the sceptic’) is arrogant and presumes to know more than the ‘experts.’ (For a description of how believers sometimes cite famous, widely-respected names, in support of religion, refer to Role Models.)

  • The sceptic is unwilling to trust the believer’s judgment and reasoning abilities.

  • The sceptic is unwilling to review the evidence presented by the experts, and is stubbornly choosing to ignore evidence that poses a threat to his or her personal judgments.

  • The sceptic is being unreasonable, because he or she refuses to rely on research that has been conducted by others and refuses to heed the consensus that has been reached by experts. The sceptic insists on reinventing the wheel by performing independent evaluations, and is wasting everybody’s time with his or her doubtfulness.

  • The sceptic suffers delusions of grandiosity and overrates his or her own abilities.
Thus, the person on the receiving end of this statement is suddenly confronted with a host of accusations, and any sign of desperation to try to answer as many of them as possible within a short time is easily mistaken for a sense of denial.

When someone scrambles to address these issues, other people recognise the signs of that person’s anxiety, but may think that his or her mental churning results from attempts to confabulate and come up with answers, in order to avoid admitting a mistake or undergoing a paradigm shift.

When confronted with the implied question, ‘Do you wish to belittle the efforts and findings of religious scholars and believers?’, one needs to recognise that this is a technique used, knowingly or unknowingly, to put sceptics on the defensive.

You might find it helpful to preface your reply with a statement to the effect that your intentions are not to disparage the work of others, but to remain critical of second hand opinions and information, and to avoid accepting second hand conclusions unquestioningly.
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