One of the challenges in defending one’s faith is coping with critics who use the “Big List” technique in their attack. This involves throwing out numerous arguments to create the impression of an overwhelming barrage that decimates the faith in question (see the related post, “If Only 10% of These Charges Are True…“). The Big List is loaded with barbed questions that weren’t written in search of a real answer. If there is a good defense to the arguments raised at first, never mind, there are many more to be launched in different directions.
As with many topics in fields like history, science, and religion, the issues raised in Big List attacks are often complex and may require exploring abundant details to answer questions properly. Even for those who are prepared to answer questions on a wide variety of topics, the time it takes to lay a foundation and properly answer a question can be taken by the instantly impatient critics as an admission of weakness and confirmation that they are right, and then it’s time to move on to the next attack and the next. If reasonable answers are promptly provided for some attacks, or if the alleged weakness on further examination actually proves to be evidence in favor of the faithful position, the response can be ignored as new attacks from the Big List are hurled out.
This doesn’t just happen in anti-Mormon attacks. Attacks on many other faiths use the same approach. Interesting, attacks on some aspects of modern science by religious fundamentalists or young earth Creationists also may rely on the Big List approach, much to the exasperation of scientists who know there are good answers to the attacks, but often may not be able to adequately deal with the barrage of questions from critics not really interested in the answers. Some scientists call the tactic the “Gish Gallop” after Duane Gish, a Creationist noted for hurling numerous brief arguments to overwhelm opponents in debates on evolution.
There’s a common tactic used by creationists, and I’ve encountered it over and over again. It’s a form of the Gish Gallop: present the wicked evolutionist with a long list of assertions, questions, and non sequiturs, and if they answer with “I don’t know” to any of them, declare victory. It’s easy. We say “I don’t know” a lot.
Jack Chick’s Big Daddy tract is a version of the creationist list, and contains a fair amount of fantasy as well. You know what they believe will happen: they’ll ask that one question that the scientist can’t answer, and then they’ll have an epiphany, a revelation, and realize that all their science is a lie, at which time they’ll resign from their university position and join a good bible-believin’ church.
It happens to me all the time, too. At one talk I gave, there was a woman at the door who had printed a 5-page, single-spaced list of questions, and she was telling everyone going in to ask me to answer them — I invited her to come in and listen to the talk and ask them herself, and she ran away. I’ve had a Canadian creationist do the same thing, and then I talked to him for several hours in the hallway after the talk. He seemed stunned and angry that I actually had answers for most of his questions. I have been confronted by people with questions (more like ignorant assertions) about biology, who once I’ve answered them and reveal that I’m a biologist, switch to asking me about geology and the Big Bang, to get me into a corner where I’d have to say, “I don’t know.”
This approach, often launched by some of the same religious folks who like to denounce The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is painfully familiar to me.
By the way, for the record, I believe in God and believe that He is the Creator, yet believe that science and religion will ultimately be compatible when properly understood. I have no problem with the earth being billions of years old and with evolutionary tools being part of God’s toolkit for preparing a planet like ours for the miraculous spectrum of life that we have here. While I disagree with the arguments used by many Creationists, as one who loves science, I definitely believe that the majesty of the cosmos and the many intricacies of life cannot be reasonably explained as mere accidents, but are evidences of a remarkably clever and artistic Creator. So while I do not share some of PZ Myers views, I can related well to the frustration of being hit with Big List attacks from religious critics not really interested in understanding or dialog.
One of my first experiences in helping to teach the Gospel after graduating from school and taking my first job in Appleton, Wisconsin involved a young college student, a new LDS convert, who had been given volumes of anti-Mormon literature by her former pastor. She came in with a stack of books, relying especially upon a thick tome published by a popular anti-Mormon organization. She asked one pointed question after another, all of which turned out to have reasonable answers, in my opinion, that we were able to offer on the spot. We dealt with them one at a time, turning to answers from the scriptures, when appropriate, or making points based on logic or other sources of information.
After about 40 minutes of this, she grew impatient and said something like, “Look, maybe you’ve got answers for the questions I’ve raised, but there are hundreds more arguments in this book. How can the Church be true when there are so many arguments against it?”
I said that it’s easy to make arguments against anything. I reminded her of the days of early Christianity when there were numerous false witnesses against Christ, when there were paid witnesses who said that the tomb had been raided by Christians to fake the Resurrection, when all the elite religious leaders of the Jews spoke against Christ, and when the whole Roman world seemed to speak against Christ and the Christians. There were volumes and volumes of arguments against the Church back then, too. “If you were living them, how could you see past the massive arguments and recognize the divinity of the Son of God and the truth of Christianity?”
Unwilling to acknowledge the importance of a spiritual witness, she returned to her anti-Mormon books. I pointed out that while we had examined only a few of the arguments, the ones she had raised had reasonable answers, and some even demonstrated a lack of integrity on the part of the authors. Her answer surprised me: “I don’t care. Even if only 10% of that book is true, that’s enough to prove the Church is false.”
Ah, the fallacy of the Big List, a key tool in the Adversary’s arsenal. Impress them with shear volume, wear them out with endless attacks, and many will succumb, overwhelmed by the image and impression of strength.
A few years ago I received a letter from a former LDS member explaining why he and his wife were leaving the Church. In that letter, he acknowledged that there may be “excuses” to deal with each anti-Mormon argument when taken individually, but that taken together as a whole, the case against the Church is overwhelming. He then listed a barrage of arguments, mentioning DNA and the Book of Mormon, anachronisms, 4,000 changes in the Book of Mormon, racism, polygamy, the Temple and masonry, etc. — problems that each can be dealt with if one takes the time to understand the issues and examines the assumptions behind them. Even then, one must be willing to recognize that there always will be some gaps in our understanding and that no amount of evidence and study will remove the need for faith or replace the power of a witness from the Holy Ghost. But in many cases, there are answers, sometimes powerful answers that turn apparent weaknesses in the Book of Mormon, for example, into strong evidence for authenticity. Such insights do not come from a superficial glance at the text and related literature. Sadly, he became another victim of the fallacy of the Big List.
There are tough arguments, indeed. DNA and the Book of Mormon is an example of this. For a meaningful understanding of the issues, one must identify assumptions and evaluate information from a variety of perspectives. In so doing, one can come away with a better understanding of what the Book of Mormon is and what it is not. But the Adversary would have us just fold based upon a superficial examination: “Wow, there’s no obvious Jewish DNA in the Americas. End of story!”
To help those coping with Big List issues, I’ve begin compiling my own list of recommended reading for students of the LDS religion. I hope it will be helpful to some. I’m not saying that you have to read this list before you leave the Church (or join it), but if you’re willing to look at answers and evidences, it might be a great place to start.
The Gospel is true, and the Book of Mormon is a divine, authentic book of scripture, in spite of whatever mountains of books and brochures against it the enemy can mount. And Jesus is the Son of God, no matter how many false witnesses and PhD’s and celebrities take a stand against Him. It’s not about who can shout the loudest and longest, but Whose gentle voice we listen for amidst the senseless shouting of men.