Before I begin, I want to emphasize that the question I picked is a good one. In fact, I picked it because it troubled me and I didn't understand why until the reason clicked into place. It's a subtle problem, which is why I'm raising it here. I don't think anyone involved in the question was acting maliciously. With that in mind:

What did God mean when He said 'lest they live forever'?

It's asking about a particular interpretation of Genesis 3:22 that happens to be held by Jehovah's Witnesses, as the question points out. It's been answered a few times in various ways, but not to the satisfaction of the asker who started a bounty:

I would like to see if the Protestants (or Catholics) have an answer to this Jehovah's witness' claim which seems to be a pretty strong argument for a mortal soul.

So the form of question is: group X believes Y. Please tell my why Y is wrong so that I can answer X. In other words: "refute this". This is a pattern I've seen in Christianity.SE questions that I think are hurting the site.

The trouble is:

  1. We don't have any contributors who regularly and expertly take the Jehovah's Witnesses position, and

  2. it calls for answers to knock over a strawman rather than answers of fact.

What it comes down to is we all get to beat up on an idea that none of us hold1. Even if some of us did hold the position, asking refute-this questions puts us on a path of sectarianism that might ruin our site. Instead taking a positive attitude ("I want to learn about X"), it takes a negative attitude ("I want to learn how to defeat X in a debate"). Even if we don't want to, it's easy to appear like we are trying to score points against each other, which is not what the site is for.2

Here's a similar question:

Which denominations hold the quartodecimanist interpretation of John 19?

Again, it's asking about an interpretation of John 19 that seems to only be held by Jehovah's Witnesses. Since I asked the second question, I don't think it has the "refute this" problem. (Maybe I'm wrong.3) It may take a while to get a constructive answer, but it should be easy to tell if an answer, well, answers the question. There's no room for speculative or un-referenced answers.

What do y'all think? Am I off-base here? Are "refute this" questions a good idea?


  1. Actually, I think the idea of the immortal soul was imported in very early Christianity from Greek philosophy and the correct interpretation of this passage is that God does not want humanity to claim immortality. But that's neither here nor there.

  2. That's what Eschewmenical is for.

  3. I've asked refute-this questions on Philosophy.SE with mixed success. Maybe the difference is that I actually hold those positions and hope that nobody can refute me. Maybe the dynamic of that site is different. Maybe I should cut that out. I'm not sure.

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    Ironically, this is a refute-this question. Commented Aug 16, 2012 at 22:57
  • "That's what Eschewmenical is for" As of now Eschewmenical seems to be a big slow dog. We're short on writers. Let's hope more people chip in. Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 18:00
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    @Monika Michael: I think the blog is changing. Several of our authors (including myself) have noted that it's hard to keep writing the sorts of essays we've been doing. I love writing them, but I don't think it's sustainable. Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 19:09

3 Answers 3


Honestly I was perturbed by the question myself. I was wondering just how would I objectively gauge the the quality of the answers since much of it looked like a debate.

Something seemed wrong but I wasn't able to put a finger on what it was. That was until you spelled it out so clearly.

Instead taking a positive attitude ("I want to learn about X"), it takes a negative attitude ("I want to learn how to defeat X in a debate"

I am now wondering if I should've left out the background story about Jehovah's witnesses.

To "score points against each other" wasn't my original intention. The Biblical verse I mentioned seemed to contradict a protestant doctrine. And I wanted to see how this contradiction was addressed by protestant theology. I guess there's a bad way to ask a good question. Most of us are still getting used to the SE way of doing things.

Are "refute this" questions a good idea?

Apparently no. But on the other hand I'd be against banning such questions through the FAQ. It would block out some good questions and would make it harder for new users to participate in the site. In such cases the mods or established users like yourself could step in and edit the question, leaving a note for the OP. If this fails for some reason - downvote. I've noticed that most users on this site cast only upvotes.

We ought to make this the SE tagline -

Question downvotes are free. Use em generously.

  • Yeah I don't think there is momentum to ban them, but it's something we should talk about, be aware of, and perhaps identify in comments and talk about ways to make our questions more positive.
    – wax eagle
    Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 19:02
  • Good point on the downvoting. I know I generally don't downvote enough. Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 20:29

This type of question can be problematic for several reasons.

  • If no one is here to defend the viewpoint in question, we could easily degenerate to arguing against a straw man.
  • If the viewpoint in question does have an ardent defender, the question could lead to debate and argument.
  • In general, questions with no purpose other than to marshal evidence against a particular viewpoint will be lower quality than questions seeking general information about a topic.
  • If a newcomer finds such a question—aimed at their beliefs—as their introduction to the site, it's going to color their impression of the whole site and probably decrease the likelihood they will stay and join the community.

With all that said, it is probably too late to even think about avoiding "refute this" questions. A quick site search of "evidence against" turns up (along with a few false positives) many such questions, and I know of a couple more with recent activity that don't show up on that list.

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    I don't want to ban those questions per se, but I do think your points are definite red flags. If there are enough flags, we should consider taking action. A slightly narrower search might be a good list of questions for us to examine more carefully as a community. Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 20:23
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    It's not too late to review our guidelines on any issue and shape the future of the site. Just because we have some historical questions that wouldn't meet current guidelines, doesn't mean we can't develop current community consensus and act on that both for new incoming content and gradually cleaning up old.
    – Caleb
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 7:49

I actually find these questions enlightening.

Perhaps that's a sign these are indeed bad questions, given how many bad questions I've asked.

What I would like ... would be if we could somehow cluster these questions into a wiki of sorts, so I can read them all at once rather than hunt/peck for combinations.

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    To reiterate: I don't think it's a bad question. Rather I think it's a pattern that could be very risky for us to encourage. Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 1:01
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    I second the fact that what you have been asking are not inherently bad questions, they just haven't fit the format that is constructive to handle in the SE format. You have good questions, they just aren't always good for the gig we've got going here. (And you've come with a few that are, so don't give up trying to figure it out ;)
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 21:11

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