Friday, March 14, 2014

Religion means perpetually moving the goalposts

In debate circles, debaters constantly look for logical fallacies in their opponents' arguments because it's a way to expose the weakness of their stance. If an argument is built on a foundation of lies and misrepresentations, then it becomes clear there's no argument but rather an attempt to misrepresent the facts in a manipulative fashion. Identifying these informal fallacies all but ensures victory.

One of the more popular logical fallacies is called "moving the goalposts," aka shifting the goalposts or raising the bar. The term "goalposts" comes from football (American football for any international readers out there). Imagine a kicker trying to make an extra point or field goal and after he kicks the football you move the goalposts farther away (though left or right works, too). Or, you tell the kicker he has to make a 20-yarder, but when he goes out there to kick it you move the posts 60 yards away from the original spot. It would pretty difficult to kick that ball through the goalposts, right?

Now, apply this metaphor to an argument/debate you're having with someone. Your opponent makes a statement, you refute it, and then your opponent changes his stance or adjusts his POV after learning of your refutation. That is moving the goalposts in a nutshell.

Here's an example: There are a lot of uneducated people who fear vaccinations, and there was a time when these people would claim the thimerosal mercury-based preservative in vaccines increased the rate of autism in children. So, after the mob mentality prevailed, this preservative was removed, and guess what happened. The rate of autism remained constant. So the uneducated mob started to claim other toxins in the inoculations were causing autism in children. The point they argued for was removed, and the result remained the same, so they refused to admit they were wrong, and moved the goalposts.

It's my contention that religion is one huge moving of the goalposts. Every time a skeptical/freethinker points out something that questions religious beliefs or holy texts, believers come up with a twisted excuse to reconcile their irrational beliefs and make the argument more difficult to defend. Some examples, and I'll stick with the Judeo-Christian angle:

• The bible says god made everything (universe, earth, humans, animals, etc.) in six days, and when the math is extrapolated from the biblical stories, this "Genesis" happened about 6,000 years ago. They argued for centuries this was irrefutable fact. Science comes along and proves the age of the earth and universe is billions of years old. How do religious zealots deal with this revelation? Well, at first they were truly desperate in the face of irrefutable fact, saying one "day" in the six-day creation story wasn't a 24-hour day like we understand it. They contended that a day could mean an exorbitant amount of time, including billions of years. Goalposts duly moved. So, historians and theologians looked carefully at the bible again and refuted this claim rather easily, as a day was clearly defined to be a 24-hour period in the bible (the sun rose and it was day, the sun set and it was night and this constituted one day). This spawned two ways to move the goalposts for believers: become a young-earth creationist and deny all science so incessantly as to look absolutely insane or agree with science but now call atheist Genesis story poetry and say it is merely an allegorical way to look at god's creation. Goalposts moved.

• Let's stay with the creation story. It says god made humans at the same time from dirt, and then a chapter later it says man was made first and woman was made later on from man's rib. Here comes science again, proving evolution is fact and we evolved over billions of years from common ancestors through natural selection and speciation mutation. Theists deny evolution for a long time (and still do in many circles), but once their superiors admit evolution is fact, they move the goalposts by saying god interceded so that evolution could happen, but only humans have souls. So skeptical people naturally ask, "At what point was the soul inserted?" because there was never just one "a-ha" moment when the first human appeared on Earth. It was an evolutionary process that took millions of years. They raise the bar again by either saying the soul was always there or they ignore the question and change the argument. This also calls attention to the fact that Adam and Eve never existed, so they move the goalposts by saying there was an Adam and Eve somewhere along the line, and they committed the sin, which could never be proved.

• In the bible, Jesus is said to have siblings, most notably James. No one denies this, except the Catholics. It's so ridiculously important to them that Mary remain an eternal virgin that they move the goalposts by saying every man who followed Jesus' ministry was called brother. Here's the problem with that: Why is no one else in the bible referred to as Jesus' brother? If it was common to call his followers "brother" then why aren't the other characters called brother? They will move the goalposts again and say, the word for brother in Greek or Hebrew had many connotations and means cousin in this context. This is easily refutable by asking what the word for brother is in Greek or Hebrew, and when they say it's the same word then they have no leg to stand on and will just deny everything and change the argument.

• When scientists present the Big Bang Theory and "Something From Nothing," theists will say everything that has an effect needs a cause. So, when that logic is applied to their god, they move the goalposts by saying god's not contingent and is eternal, ergo he doesn't need a cause.

Another way to look at "moving the goalposts" is enabling. I've touched on this in the past in my blog, but what it means is, instead of dealing with these weak arguments and using rational thought to come to the obvious conclusion, the believer makes up excuses to reconcile their foolish beliefs. When they can't comprehend something so appalling that their god did, they say he is infallible, works in mysterious ways and we can't possibly understand his plan. It's the ultimate moving of the goalposts when they pull out the faith card.

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