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.
One interesting recent example is discussed by famous science blogger PZ Myers in the post, “No! Not the list of stumpers again!” at Pharyngula. Myers writes:
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 relate 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.
*Cross posted from Mormanity.
Great article by Jeff. When a person reaches a tipping point in their faith crisis, there is little that can be done to reverse it, simply because emotions get in the way. Som e people are more vulnerable to the big list approach and expect perfection from the Church. I have learned that the grand purpose of this life is to learn from our own mistakes and those of others, since we are all connected in a spiritual sense. This will reveal that mistakes are made by humans, whether they are prophets, or pagans. Ultimately, my strength in the gospel is not based on historical interpretations, or current scientism, but on myo connection to our ultimate source, often called God, or Father. It is this connection that influences my thinking and develps the patience that waits for the answers. I think those who give up may not have had that spiritual basis in the first place, perhaps because they joined the Church prematurely, or were born into it. This can sound judgemental, but at the end of the day, we will all be judged by a loving Father who has perfect knowledge,
Very informative article. As one who engages the anti-LDS crowd almost on a daily basis, I have encountered the “Big List” many times. It’s irritating, and it’s frustrating. Usually, I pick one or two items and reply to them. One thing I’ve noticed over my years of responding to the anti-LDS crowd is that rarely are any of them actually interested in the truth about LDS. Most just play what I call the “Trip the Mormon” game. If one accusation doesn’t work, they pull out another one, If that one doesn’t work, then accusation #3 is used. And so-on and so-on. The Big List in bits and pieces, I guess.
As a side-note, this site has been an absolutely wonderful resource for me!
It’s easy to put five or ten criticisms of the Church into a few sentences. It’s easy to sling mud but it takes far more space and time to respond to criticisms with real evidence than it does to sling the mud..Examining real history and facts in an intelligent and factual way using documented and well researched information takes time and effort. In any reasonable system of justice the burden of proof is upon the accuser not the defendant – yet critics act as if their wild unsubstantiated claims are true just because they say so.
People commonly use, what I call, the machine gun approach. They posit a criticism of the LDS Church. When an informed person corrects their misinformation they ignore that and go on to another criticism and they repeat this cycle over and over again. In other words, they really don’t care about correcting their information. Their goal is to put the Church and Joseph Smith down. They often become annoyed or mad when you actually have good information and can answer their criticism.
Another approach is the shotgun approach. This approach is often used in written material although it can also be done verbally as well. This approach tends to throw out all possible criticisms at once. A critic will typically put out all the negative things about the Church that they can. These criticisms often contradict each other. For example, one chapter of a book will discuss how Joseph Smith is a low life scum who was short, fat, and ugly, who had poor hygiene, and stooped shoulders with a Neanderthal forehead who spoke in grunts and single syllable words. Another chapter in the same book will discuss how Joseph Smith was able to deceived people because he was tall dark and handsome with a charismatic personality and a brilliant mind. Well which is it? Legitimate scholarship seeks to discover and present the honest truth. However, mud slinging any negative thing you can is not good scholarship.
Ultimately, no matter how much evidence there is or how high the quality of that evidence, people will still not believe it if they don’t want to. He who is convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. Ultimately you cannot prove anything to anybody. They have to believe things because they want to
God is testing us and He set things up so that there are compelling voices on both sides. The test is to see what we will do when presented with compelling but competing arguments? What will we do when there are persuasive arguments on both sides? What do we want the truth to be? We think we are testing the evidences but the evidences are really testing us. The persuasive voices from both sides are testing us to see which way our hearts lean. God allows competing voices, even those which oppose God, so that we can be tested. If God came down and settled all issues and answered all the questions the test would be ruined.
Jesus taught that obedience comes first and then the results follow (John 7:16-17). The Lord told Thomas “because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29). The test of mortal life is to show God which voices we will lean towards. In the end, the blessings come from exercising faith even when we have not seen. We should not expect all our questions to be answered. If so, we would be deprived of the gift of having faith for the “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Yet, most issues have well supported answers which uphold the restored gospel.
A profound comment that I have been pondering. Thank you
This really is an article about one specific kind of “attack” and so observations outside of the parameter of the Big List are probably only semi-applicable, but there are some interesting thoughts in the comments. For context, I’m a life-long, very active member; CES, Mission, BYU, callings, etc, who chooses to remain active despite struggling with a somewhat long term crisis of faith. I try to be fair, open, and level-headed. I believe the Lord gave us brains to use and so I try to use mine. I put the word attack in quotes above because I believed we do a short-sighted disservice when we adopt the attitude of the martyr. It’s true that there are some who attack the church blindly, without a desire to know truth. But I think there are just as many, perhaps more, who are smart, faithful members who’ve struggled with and studied the hard questions about the church for months or even years. In the majority of these cases, even those using the author’s Big List approach, the person would LOVE to hear a convincing truth. It’s just that they’ve already done a LOT of homework and haven’t found adequate answers that can put the doubts to bed. They’re not attacking you per se, they’re just tired, impatient, and understandably doubtful that you are the one rock under which all the correct answers have been residing all along.
In addition, whether it means to or not, the church and it’s membership encourages a binary approach to gospel, and so kind of makes itself a lightning rod for certain kinds of debate and criticism. From inescapable claims to be the ONLY true and living church (D&C1:30) to numerous statements from general authorities that the church is true or it is not, that the Book of Mormon is either true or false, that Joseph Smith was a prophet or he was a fraud, that Jesus was the literal Son of God or he was a mad man (see Pres/Elders Hinckley, Holland, and others). Maybe the finest by Elder J. Reuben Clark “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” There is very little sense that the church and its scriptures contain many truths and are one of a number of good options for people to find their way to exaltation. The church doesn’t actually invite attacks, but it sort of does. However, I agree that a Big List/machine gun/shot gun approach is not the best or fairest way to go about it.
A couple thoughts:
@dhrogers – re your statement that “Ultimately, no matter how much evidence there is or how high the quality of that evidence, people will still not believe it if they don’t want to. He who is convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. Ultimately you cannot prove anything to anybody. They have to believe things because they want to.” This is true, but from an objective stand point, this is just as easily said about people who believe in the church’s truth, despite a pile of circumstantial evidence to the contrary. That is the problem that ties into your most interesting point – the idea that God sets up compelling evidence on both sides to test us.
The trouble is most, if not all, of that evidence is circumstantial. It can’t be proven conclusively to one side or the other. And from my study (and I’ve done quite a bit), there seems to be a lot of strong circumstantial evidence against the church’s case. Enough so as to be almost equal. The ultimate arbiters of the witness of the Spirit and of personal revelation are, at best, tricky because everyone receives and interprets it differently, through their own lenses and biases. So we struggle to make a judgement by our feelings, our intellect, and by the fruits the church bears and has born. Again in my experience, its a real tough call. If the Lord has set it up this way, it seems that the test is one with no clear right answer. It’s a question like this: Which one is red? A) an apple B) a strawberry. And remember, there is only one true red.
If this is truly the Lord’s design and He’s truly designed it to be this tricky, confusing, and complicated, then I’d have to assume He’ll will be infinitely gentle and understanding when grading that test, and people choose B over A and vice versa.
Ultimately you almost have to decide to sort of ignore one set of evidences or another. Which feels kind of crazy. In no other circumstance or discipline would you take that approach. If I wanted to buy a house and I had 10 inspectors look at it, and 5 told me why it was a great investment and 5 told me that the house had immense structural problems, etc. I’d definitely move on until I found a house that most of my guys agreed upon. In judging a drug and it’s potential safety, I’m sure as heck not going to only listen to the scientists hired by the drug company.
Anyways, I’m not sure my point here:) Other than I’m not sure I see the virtue of a test like the one above. I hope that there is a virtue to it. I stay because I want to believe what I’ve felt is the spirit and also because all the most important folks in my life are here. But I don’t believe that most of us really “KNOW” these things like we say we do. And I believe that if people choose not to follow the church, then that is perfectly understandable and I believe that the Lord will find a way to teach them what they need to know and to bring them home.
David H says
They used the exact same Big List approach directly against Jesus himself:
56 For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together.
57 And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying,
58 We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.
59 But neither so did their witness agree together.
60 And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee?
Basically the high priest is taking that same “if only 10% of these charges are true” position. Never mind that all the accusers turned out to be liars. The fact that there were so many accusations meant that He had to be guilty… of something…