It’s hard for people to present evidence or arguments for a position that is intellectually bankrupt. There are, however, some tactics that can be used to evade the responsibility of actually having to present evidence or arguments, and they are used quite liberally. I’ve already discussed some of them when I discussed thought-stopping techniques.
Other techniques can be used beyond thought-stopping. One that is very popular is to try to draw the arguer down to one’s own level. Here are some examples of this tactic.
“There is no such thing as truth.”
Whatever you try to posit, anyone can simply say that you can’t possibly be more “right” than they are because we really don’t know the entire truth about anything. So ultimately any positive position is just guesswork, any given argument can’t be any more valid than any other, and so no one can “win” and there’s no point in discussing anything.
The obvious problem with such a tactic, and this is a problem with all of these tactics really, is that it’s a semantics game. We live our lives as if we know many things with reasonable confidence. We also use the evidence of our senses to deduce or induce a great number of other things with reasonable confidence. Whatever you want to call those propositions, we all have them. It doesn’t matter if you call them “truths” or “things I am reasonably confident about,” or whatever you want.
This is the same semantics game as people who deny “objective reality.” Whatever it is that we perceive, there is something there. What you call it doesn’t change that fact. A rose by any other name is still a rose.
“We both operate on faith.”
This is most often used against atheists, because of the fact that both sides claim a radically different epistemic approach. The religious person is trying to bring the atheist down to eir level by claiming that they too have faith in things, and therefore do not hold the epistemic high ground.
This tactic will often degenerate into the above one. When the atheist naturally asks how faith is a part of atheism, the believer will reply nonsense like “you don’t see love, but you know it exists,” or “you have faith the Sun will rise tomorrow.” When the atheist gives the rational reason for knowing love or the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, that’s when the believer will say something like “there’s no way for you to really know anything by using reason,” “you can’t be certain of anything” or something of the sort.
Even if true, this tactic doesn’t really makes sense. If the believer accepts things on faith, then how does pointing out the faith in his opponent prove some kind of shaky ground? It would seem to me that if you really do believe in faith as a valid process, then accusing your opponent of using faith merely confirms the validity of what ey’s saying. Or more succinctly: if faith is good, then the atheist having faith should also be good. The believer can’t have it both ways.
“If you can’t explain everything, then you are explaining nothing”
This is another universal tactic. Consider that whatever position you advocate, there will always be some things you don’t know. This is used to the believer’s advantage. By asking you to explain any number of things, ey will eventually stumble upon something you don’t know, at which point ey can exclaim: “AHA! This is the problem of your ideology right there. Unless you can explain this, your whole position is useless!”
What the problem is depends on the type of position. If arguing against atheists, believers will demand that you explain features of the natural world or evolution one after the other. Here are some examples from various “questions for atheists” pages (some of which I have answered before on this blog):
“How long ago did hominids split from the other primates?”
“Who were the neanderthals? Where did they live, when did they live, and why are they gone?”
“A major event occurred approximately 70,000 years ago very relevant to the evolution of humanity. What was the event, and why is it significant?”
“Where does all the matter in the universe come from?”
“How do you explain the changed lives of millions of people throughout history who testify to a life changing experience with Jesus Christ?”
There is nothing relevant to atheism in these questions. One does not have to be a biologist, a geologist, an astronomer, or a psychologist to be an atheist. And yet, failure to answer any single question will be claimed as a failure of atheism as a whole.
If it is a social position, the believer will demand that you explain exactly in all details how your proposed new system or institution would work. If you are against some institution, they will demand that you provide an alternative and that you be able to completely explain how it would work, as well as the complete socio-political path from our current situation to this new situation, all the while proving that every step of the way is not only feasible but probable. If you propose some social relation or process, you must either provide real-life examples which are complete and perfect in every way, or provide a hypothetical society where this relation or process is used (never mind that setting a hypothetical society in stone is a stupid and contradictory thing to do if one believes in the freedom to choose one’s way of life) and then be able to explain every single feature of this hypothetical society.
In either case, it is clear that there is a ridiculously high burden of proof put on the negative side which just cannot be met. The equivalent tactic would be to demand to the positive side to directly and completely justify every single bad feature of the institutions they support. There’s no way anyone could do that, either. So by presenting this impossible standard, they ensure that non-mainstream ideas cannot be heard, and that the delusion that everything is for the best will be maintained, because the alternative is just too inconvenient.
“You have to respect my beliefs.”
This is one most often used in public arenas. There is a pervasive belief in the “politeness” of respecting everyone’s beliefs… as long as said beliefs are the “norm” or “mainstream” for that arena of discourse. Mainstream beliefs usually enjoy some level of immunity (all the way from moderator bias to complete immunity). They try to manipulate one’s sense of decorum and politeness to shield themselves from criticism. There is not much to do against this phenomenon.