Moving Goalposts and Important Faith: Religion and the Universality of Bad Excuses

Apparently, the bad excuses for the lack of good evidence supporting religion aren’t limited to Christianity and Western theology.

They seem to be universal.

Over at Friendly Atheist, we have a story from Liberia of people who believe that some hunters can transform themselves into animals. A visiting researcher, Chris Blattman, offered them cash money if someone could demonstrate this ability to him… an offer that got upped substantially when they got wind of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s offer of one million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of paranormal, supernatural, or occult powers or events under carefully rigorous scientific conditions.

On hearing of this potential windfall, the believers in the human/ animal transformers became very excited. At first, anyway. But then, as you might expect, the parade of excuses began trickling in.

Excuses that will look all too familiar to anyone who’s spent any time at all debating with religious believers and reading religious apologetics.

In the end, it turns out he can’t perform the full transformation in the city, only in forested regions. We offered to drive out of the city, but it seems only in his home county of Nimba can he do so. Nimba will have to wait for my next trip (we have, in fact, a project there) but you’ll forgive me if I haven’t reserved judgment.

I can name that excuse in three notes! It’s Moving The Goalposts! Commonly seen in the form of, “To prove evolution, you need to find a transitional fossil between Thing 1 and Thing 2… okay, now you have to find a transitional fossil between Thing 1 and Thing 1.5… well, fine, but now you have to find a transitional fossil between Thing 1 and Thing 1.2.” Or, “The Bible is infallible and reliable. Well, okay, not the Old Testament, there are glaring factual errors in the Old Testament — but the New Testament is infallible and reliable. Well, okay, major parts of the New Testament seem to be flawed and mistaken — but you can’t absolutely prove with 100% certainty that those mistakes are really mistakes, and until you do, I will retain my faith.” Or, “God made all these wonderful things happen in our lives… but when bad things happen, it’s because God works in mysterious ways, and it’s not up to us to question him.”

And then we get this shabby excuse for why people cannot, as it turns out, turn into animals:

 this whole post is demeaning, sensationalist, and it casts you on a very bad light. Whether this individual transforms himself into an animal in a way that matches your Hollywood-informed imagination is not as important as the fact that many people around him operate as if this was possible and true. Also, I’m hard pressed to imagine how such a belief could be detrimental to these people 

Can you name that bad excuse? I thought you could! It’s “It doesn’t matter whether religion is literally true: what matters is that it’s psychologically true, or that people act as if it’s true, or that it’s important to people to believe that it’s true.” With the bonus excuse, “If it isn’t hurting anyone, what difference does it make what people believe? What do you care? It’s so intolerant of you to criticize other people’s beliefs!”

Funny how this excuse only applies to one’s own religion, or religions one approves of. You so rarely hear fundamentalist Christians say that it doesn’t matter whether Islam is literally true — what matters is that Muslims act as if it were true. You almost never hear progressive ecumenical New Age believers say, “It doesn’t matter whether Jesus really hates homosexuals — what matters is that people believe that Jesus hates homosexuals.” And you definitely never hear either of these groups say, “What difference does it make what these people believe? How could these beliefs be detrimental? What right do you have to criticize them?”

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But given how alien this particular belief is to the most common Western religions, I was very strongly struck by how instantly familiar these apologetics were. I half expected to see someone say, “You can’t prove with 100% certainty that people don’t turn into animals — therefore, it’s reasonable to believe that they do.” Or, “When we say that people turn into animals, we don’t mean it literally — it happens in the spiritual realm, and the spiritual realm is beyond questions of physical evidence.” Or, “You’re critiquing a primitive form of this belief that nobody takes seriously anymore: you just don’t understand the advanced modern theology of human/ animal transformation.”

So I guess what I’m saying is this:

Armor 1
The excuses for why religion can’t pony up — the massive body of armor religion has built up against the expectation that it support itself with evidence — don’t seem to be specific to one religion or another. They seem to be universal: a fundamental part of how the religion trope functions.

Which means that those of us who are trying to persuade people out of it have a long, hard road ahead of us.

We better bring some snacks.

Moving Goalposts and Important Faith: Religion and the Universality of Bad Excuses

11 thoughts on “Moving Goalposts and Important Faith: Religion and the Universality of Bad Excuses

  1. 2

    I think that what we witness in these instances is exactly what is going on in their heads. It’s cognitive dissonance.
    They believe it furvently until evidence needs to be presented, resort to special pleading/shifting goalposts/etc. until there’s no where else for them to run, claim the belief was never literal, and finally the “unharmful” fallacy. Then when you point out how such beliefs can be harmful they pick up their ball, go home, and claim to everyone else that they won the argument.
    I’m reminded of the “early morning hours” comments that I’ve gotten in the past. Supposedly in the dark, early morning hours I admit to myself that their is a God, or some other spiritual nonsense. Perhaps that is actually projection.
    Maybe it’s they who wake up in the early morning hours and wonder if they have wasted their lives following something that they have no reason to believe other than they’ve invested so much of their time and selves into it.

  2. 3

    Yes. I’ve been thinking for a long time that it is really not specific religious beliefs so much as a ‘kind of thinking’ that is the problem, and that kind of thinking takes different outer forms, such as different religions, a lot of differing New Age beliefs, all sorts of woo and superstition – But those are the outer forms, and the underlying thinking patters are often strikingly similar, as are the excuses to get to keep the belief.
    I’ve said it before, I am pessimistic by nature, but even so I think it’s not totally irrational to not have high hopes about this. As I think I have mentioned before as well, I live in a country where a majority do not believe in a Christian god and live mostly secular lives but that does not mean that there’s not still the same kind of superstitious thinking around (of which organized religion is only a part, though a big and very nasty one). The woo is flourishing here and are in no way at risk of being eradicated.
    When a people as a whole mostly loses religion it does not get more rational in its stead, it seems, to express it in a simplistic way. The same kind of thinking just takes new routes. Speaking out against religion having too much influence on our lives is a very good thing that is definitely worthwhile, and it is obviously possible to create socities that function well with much less, or very little influence from organized religion. But to change the actual thinking patterns behind that makes things like religion possible… I am much more pessimistic about that.

  3. 4

    There is no way to disarm magical thinking, no matter if it calls itself advanced modern theology or voodoo; it’s all the same sort of thinking. The only difference is the name, and that’s determined by the culture they were born into.

  4. 5

    The fact that many people act as if their religion is true is indeed important. It is what makes the whole debate relevant. It is why creationists oppose the teaching of evolution. It is why Mormons oppose gay marriage. It is why some Christians promote abstinence-only education. In short – the fact that people act as if their religion is true is the very thing that makes religion so harmful.
    On a different topic … there’s no need for people to turn into animals. People are animals.

  5. 7

    You almost never hear progressive ecumenical New Age believers say, “It doesn’t matter whether Jesus really hates homosexuals — what matters is that people believe that Jesus hates homosexuals.”
    Hang on a cotton-pickin minute. I’m an agnostic and that’s pretty much exactly what I’d say.
    What the historical Jesus, if he existed, thought about homosexuality matters in practical terms a whole lot less than what people nowadays believe, because it’s the contemporary beliefs that lead to actual oppression. What the historical Mohammed, same proviso, believed about jihad is not what leads to suicide bombers: it’s what people nowadays think he thought. When a source of belief is ancient and ambiguous, interpretation can mean the difference between life and death.
    I’d say that what people do is what’s important because that’s what affects the rest of us, so how they interpret and act on their beliefs matters a whole heaping lot.

  6. vel

    Theists and other believers in the supernatural have to move the goalposts or they will suddenly realize that they are wrong. They must insist that the non-believer is wrong and that they don’t want understand/can’t understand. What else can they do? Ask the average Christian when Jesus will return to watch this in action. Will it be tomorrow? Real soon now? In a “generation” and “a thousand years is like a day to God”?(which incidentally gets Jesus returning in 10.8 million years). they can claim all they want about “metaphors” but when it comes down to brass tacks, they are lying as much as anyone else to save their self-worth as defined by their religion.

  7. 10

    Kit: That’s not what I meant. I should clarify.
    The theistic meme I’m talking about essentially says, “It doesn’t matter whether religion is literally true — people’s faith in religion is an important and beautiful thing, and that’s all that matters.” But people only trot out that meme for religions they agree with, religions they think are beautiful. They don’t apply it to religions they’re passionately opposed to.
    So you don’t hear fundamentalist Christians saying, “Who cares if Islam is literally true — isn’t the Muslim faith a beautiful and noble thing?” And you don’t hear progressive ecumenical New Age believers saying, “Who cares what Jesus really thought about homosexuals — isn’t people’s faith in Jesus’s homophobia a beautiful and noble thing?” When it comes to beliefs they oppose, people are suddenly a lot less impressed with how wonderful it is to believe in things, and whether it’s important that the things people believe in are true.
    That’s what I meant. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

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