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 youâll 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:
âŠthis 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, Iâm hard pressed to imagine how such a belief could be detrimental to these peopleâŠ
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:
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.