Argument-stoppers in religion

Some time ago, I commented favorably on an essay by philosopher Richard Rorty titled Religion as Conversation-stopper. In his essay, he responds to another essay by Stephen Carter in which the latter said, “One good way to end a conversation — or to start an argument — is to tell a group of well-educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one, such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will.”

Carter says that one consequence of this is that it is considered bad form, at least in intellectual circles, to bring in religion-based arguments on matters of public policy. He thinks that banishing religion-based discourse from the public sphere is a bad thing but Rorty disagrees, saying that allowing it privileges religion in unjustifiable ways. As Rorty says, “Carter seems to think that religious believers’ moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs. He seems unwilling to admit that the role of the Enlightenment ideology in giving meaning to the lives of atheists is just as great as Christianity’s role giving meaning to his own life.”

If a religious person is allowed to use statements of the form “I base my views on my religious beliefs” as an argument on matters of public policy, then it should be perfectly appropriate for others to respond that “I base my views on Enlightenment values” as a counter-argument, and we immediately reach an impasse. There is no way to resolve this issue other than by voting or by force.

In arguing with religious people about the existence of their god, I have found that they invoke two things that can be called ‘argument-stoppers’ that are the equivalent of Rorty’s conversation-stoppers. The two statements are:

1. God can do anything
2. God’s ways are inscrutable to us

For example, as I wrote earlier, the idea that Jesus rose from the dead in his physical body and ‘ascended into heaven’ poses some problems as to what happened subsequently to the body. Is it still floating in space? Or is Jesus the only person in heaven with a physical body? Wouldn’t that be awkward?

When you ask Christians these kinds of questions, you will most likely discover that they had never occurred to them and they will struggle to find a way to answer you, coming up with one ad hoc solution after another, each leading to further complications. When they inevitably fail to arrive at anything that satisfies even them, they will say something along the lines of “Well, since god can do anything, he would have found a way to resolve this seeming contradiction.”

When they say this, it is interesting to push them on the issue by saying that the whole thing seems needlessly pointless. Why go to all the trouble of resurrecting the physical body and then having to find ways of disposing of it later? Why not simply resurrect his ‘spirit’ only since that is what they think exists now, to the extent that they think of it at all? Again, the question will not have occurred to them and they will come up with new ad hoc solutions but eventually you can be sure that they will utter a variation of argument-stopper #2 and say that god must have good reasons for doing things in this complicated way but that we mere mortals are not privy to those reasons as yet but may find out when we go to heaven or at the Rapture, whichever comes first.

In a way, these two arguments (“God can do anything” and “God’s ways are inscrutable to us”), when used in tandem, are irrefutable. They have the power to stop the argument dead in its tracks since there is no way to counter them. Since religious people can play these trump cards at any time, it would seem to be pointless to argue with them at all.

But what is interesting is that religious people never play these trumps right at the beginning of the discussion. Although they are the ultimate ‘get out of jail free’ cards, they will go to extraordinary lengths to find arguments and reasons for their beliefs and will only play them when they have been squeezed into a corner and have little or no choice. At what point they feel compelled to resort to this depends on the level of sophistication about their religious beliefs and their knowledge of science. And when they do use it, they never do it with a sense of triumph, that they have won the argument. It is always with a sense of resignation, that they have been forced to say something they would prefer not to have said. It is as if they know that saying these things means that they have really lost the argument.

When I argue with religious believers, I never expect to ‘win’ in the sense of having them say they agree with me. They may agree with me later after thinking about it but people rarely concede defeat in an argument at the time of having it, especially if the issue involves deep beliefs like religion.

What I do is argue until they invoke these two argument-stoppers because those are the markers I use to determine if I have won the argument. And they know it too, even if they are unwilling to say so publicly. Once that point is reached, I do not pursue it further. This enables you to avoid going round in circles.


  1. thisisaturingtest says

    …they will go to extraordinary lengths to find arguments and reasons for their beliefs and will only play them when they have been squeezed into a corner and have little or no choice.

    Creationists do this all the time. They will invoke science as a reason for their beliefs (“kinds,” as opposed to species, appeals to stratigraphy to support the Flood, “instant starlight,” etc.) right up to the point the science fails them- then resort to “well, god can do anything he wants.” If you’re going to resort to magic as your explanation, why not just do so at the beginning, and forget science altogether? I suspect it’s the same reason they like to equate acceptance of evolution with faith in god (“it takes more faith to believe in evolution than in god”). They don’t understand evolution, so it’s necessary to put it on the same level as something any seven-year-old child can understand- simple faith.

  2. 'Tis Himself says

    Or is Jesus the only person in heaven with a physical body?

    Catholics believe Mary was bodily “assumed” to Heaven.

    The way this bit of dogma came about is mildly amusing. In 451 the Bishop of Jerusalem, Juvenal, was ordered by the Byzantine emperor to send some relics of Mary to Constantinople. Juvenal couldn’t produce any so he told the emperor that the reason there weren’t any Marian relics was that Mary’s body went to Heaven. Later this became a “teaching” of the Catholic Church. So a piece of doctrine originated because a guy came up with an excuse to keep the boss off his back.

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