Christians seeking to sell their religion to others rely on two main methods. They can try to sell their religion on its own merits. Or they can try to knock down whatever they view right then as their main competition. It’s a big ole game of Last Ideology Standing, and for some reason it’s not working as well as expected these days.
The Burden of Proof.
When someone wishes to convince another person of a claim, then the claimant must offer evidence for it. Them’s the rules. Otherwise, that other person can and will reject the claim out of hand.
This rule is called the burden of proof. It applies to anybody wishing to convince anybody else of any claim.1 Here is the way it’s supposed to work:
- Someone makes a claim.
- Someone else asks, “Hey, how do you know that?”
- The first person provides whatever evidence or support they might have for that claim.
- Now the second person evaluates that evidence. Either it’s compelling or it isn’t, and the second person will decide accordingly how to proceed.
It Doesn’t Always Look That Tidy.
Sometimes the process short-circuits at various places along the way.
For example, a person making a claim might not want to defend it at all. When that happens, the person receiving the claim can reject it out of hand without further ado.
At other points, someone receiving a claim might not care to challenge it, or might not care to evaluate whatever evidence is offered. As buyers in the religious marketplace, we can do what we want. We don’t need to stop and listen to every nut with a story. Salespeople do not have a right to our time or attention.
Lastly, a claimant might try to offer support for their claim, but maybe the person receiving the claim can’t quite put a finger on why the support sounds sketchy. Or maybe the receiver wants to think about what’s been offered, or simply to table the discussion entirely. In cases where the claim is sound and the evidence offered is excellent, antiprocess can sometimes shut down the receiver of the claim.
But It Works.
The burden of proof shows up in the scientific method, of course. There, it can get a little complex, but overall it works as I’ve outlined above. Until the person making a given assertion can demonstrate some kind of acceptable support for the assertion, their idea doesn’t get into canon for their field of study. The claimant bears responsibility for demonstrating support for their own claim.
As well, the burden of proof keeps hucksters shilling pseudoscience and scams away from potential victims. It works well there, too, as long as those receiving the claim actually know how to weigh claims in the first place.
That’s sort of the problem here, though.
Over decades of culture wars, Christian evangelists, in particular, have learned a variety of ploys designed to shift their rightful burden onto others.
Last Ideology Standing is one of those ploys.
And Now: Last Ideology Standing.
In a game of Last Ideology Standing, the Christian salesperson tries to knock down a competing idea or worldview in order to make their own product look like the only other alternative.
In essence, the salesperson sets up a false dilemma. On one side, of course, is the Christian’s own claim. On the other side lurks the enemy. The Christian expends most of their efforts trying to destroy that enemy, rather than supporting their own claim. They think that once they destroy their enemy, then all that remains–all that is left standing–is their particular claim. Like water rushing to fill a container, their side floods the other person. It becomes their new belief–their only belief.
Christians who go this route have two main problems, however.
First, they can’t actually obliterate their enemy in the first place. For a few different reasons, Christians don’t have the ability to quash reality and truth–not anymore.
Second, even if they could do that, a success wouldn’t make their own idea less wackadoodle. Without a compelling reason to believe their claims, people won’t buy into them. At most, all the Christian could do is make someone doubt a current idea they hold–not buy into the Christian’s idea. If the Christian’s idea is completely ludicrous and unsupported, it doesn’t matter how well the Christian argued against something else.
Exhibit A: Creationism.
No discussion of Last Ideology Standing could occur without mentioning Creationism.
Since they have no actual support for their claims, Creationists spend most of their time trying to dismantle the long-established Theory of Evolution. Almost all of their output revolves around that one goal: toppling the giant!
As we saw in the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, Creationists’ top names haven’t even tested their ideas. In the judge’s decision paper (p.87-88), Michael Behe “conceded” to a federal judge that his religious twaddle had never been supported by peer-reviewed research of any kind, and that his pals had never done any scientific research or testing.
Instead, they’ve all been spending their time trying to debunk the best-supported explanation for anything that humans have ever discovered. (And we’re still finding some mind-blowing things about it!) As Ron Frost writes in Religion Versus Science, Creationists try to set up a false dilemma between “Godless Darwinism” or “God as embodied in Creationism.” Then,
Creationists present a large number of arguments designed to ‘show’ that evolution is impossible. The intention is that once Darwinism has been shown to be false, the listener has no choice but to accept Creationism as the true answer.
We see this attitude in the wild all the time. For example, Frank Steiger, a scientist who sounds like he has the patience of a kindergarten teacher, reprints a number of letters he’s gotten from Christians on his website. Almost all of them attack the Theory of Evolution. They seek to make Creationism seem more plausible–and thereby Christianity itself. (One Christian, a teenage boy, tries to argue in favor of the Bible’s myths using the Bible itself. He sees nothing wrong with that.)
Exhibit B: The “5 Big Mistakes” List.
One of the most comical sights in Christian marketing is another common one. When Christians try to sell their religion to atheists, they often spend most of their time trying to knock down atheism itself.
As one example, let’s look at a post from Kile Baker at pastors.com. Here, this young-looking fella parlays his I-WAS-TOTALLY-AN-ATHEIST-ONCE-YAWL testimony into an instruction sheet for his fellow pastors about how to
totally convert talk to atheists. It’s called “The 5 Big Mistakes We Make When Talking to Atheists About God,” but it somehow leaves out the biggest mistake of all that Christians make.
Not once on that list does he suggest offering evidence to atheists that compels belief. He offers only emotional manipulation points that demonstrate how little he understands of atheism. In particular, the second point assumes that atheists reject his imaginary friend because of “their hurts.” His job, as he sees it, is to break down the “big wall that’s been built between [atheists] and God.” This is the one point on the list that actually rises to the level of a sales attempt; the rest are admonishments to his fellow Christians to maybe quit being so hypocritical and pushy.
We can see similar tactics all over the place. Someone calling himself “Dr. Dave” offers his readers a list of evangelism tools that mostly consist of insulting atheists and trying to debunk the Theory of Evolution. (Don’t you worry. We’re coming back to him sometime. He represents quality wingnuttery. We need some time to savor this one.)
Exhibit C: Combining Both To Get Something Worse.
Our Get-A-Load-of-THIS-Guy-Cam now swings around to Phil Fernandes over at Billy Graham’s website. There, Fernandes manages to combine both of those approaches to get something way worse. In his 2007 post “Sharing Christ With an Atheist,” Fernandes suggests both knocking down the Theory of Evolution and knocking down atheism.
Somehow managing to inject logical fallacies into nooks and crannies you wouldn’t have imagined possible before now, Fernandes ends up with two points to stress to atheists.
First, he doesn’t think atheism is reasonable. He thinks theism is way more reasonable. More to the point, he thinks that his particular take on theism is the most reasonable of all. At the end, he recognizes that convincing someone of theism generally wouldn’t actually get them to Christianity. But he offers no advice at all for getting a newly-convinced theist to his particular take on theism.
Second, he thinks Creationism makes much more sense than the Theory of Evolution. He cloaks Creationism in the term “theism” here as well, of course. It’s quite a disingenuous move, considering how many different creation myths are out there. We’ve seen a Christian try that trick before, remember?
As a testimony to how thoroughly useless Fernandes’ advice was, some Christians showed up to his comment section to lament their lack of success in “saving” their atheist loved ones.
It’s not hard to see why someone making nonsensical claims might have special reasons to avoid supporting their claims. Nor is it hard to see why someone selling smoke-and-mirrors would rather concentrate anywhere under the sun except on the empty box containing their product.
Hell, I even understand why Christian salespeople would far rather parrot their canned apologetics and talking points instead of finding out what their sales prospects really want to have in terms of evidence for Christian claims. Once they knew exactly what their prospects would consider compelling evidence, they’d have to concede that they simply lack it. Better to proceed as if they know exactly what would convince people. Then, when nobody buys the product, the salespeople can whine that people just aren’t open-minded anymore.
But the time Christians had left for repairing their ship’s battered hull is long over. I used to see a possibility of them fixing the damage and staggering on into the storm to weather one more century. I don’t anymore. They bought a little extra time for themselves by entwining themselves like kudzu around the Republican Party, but that brief flash of regained power is already turning into a Pyrrhic victory.
The more they pointedly ignore shouldering their burden of proof, the more they play this childish game of Last Ideology Standing, the more obvious it becomes that they simply don’t have anything worthwhile to offer humanity.
NEXT UP: Remember Insult-Britches above? He appears to feel very comfortable with accosting people in public. There’s a reason for that. And it’s the same reason that lurks behind catcalling and that Florida guy who threw a tantrum over not getting free cake. We’ll be exploring it next time. (No SBC Annual yet.) See you soon!
1 A sealion is someone who inserts him- or herself into a discussion–usually online–to demand that people argue points out to his or her satisfaction. Sealions act like they’re asking for the evidence backing a particular claim, but in reality they’re in it for the grinding argument they’ve just started. They seek to stop the entire discussion to re-center it upon themselves, to annoy people, and to air their regressive opinions to an unwilling audience. The sealion poorly feigns a good-faith effort to engage in dialogue, but in reality they are Just Asking Questions. Sealioning is a form of online harassment.
The phrase “last ideology standing” is not original to me. I don’t remember where I heard it, but it appears to come up a lot in high-end economics and political analysis journals. So your guess is as good as mine there.
I liked this pamphlet on the topic of burden of proof, put out by the High Desert Atheists.
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