Learning To Spot Bad Arguments

Let’s face facts. We live in a time and culture where we really don’t think through our point of view. This includes Christians by the way. People nowadays are quite content to rely primarily on emotions to determine the truth. If it makes them mad, sad, or disadvantaged – it’s bad. If it makes them happy, brings pleasure, or gives them something they want – it’s good. If we survey the kind of argumentation that gets lobbed around the public sphere, especially on the hot social issues, we can see this is the case. Don’t get me wrong. There are some good thinkers out there who are weighing in on the important issues; but as a whole, it’s the illogical, emotion-based rhetoric that most people will encounter when discussing issues that really matter.

Understanding some of the basic rules in argumentation can do wonders to bring clarity to the hot social issues, as well as make dealing with common objections to the Christian faith, easier. Today I want to list and explain some of the most common logical fallacies that people make. Then we can deal with them appropriately. I am convinced that the Christian worldview is the only one that provides a logical and coherent explanation of reality; and that any error in logic, at the end of the day, will be from the other side. With that being said, let’s go through some of them.

Genetic Fallacy

This bad argument comes in many forms that most people have heard of before. To the average person this fallacy says that a person’s beliefs are wrong, simply because of where they come from. One common form of this is the challenge,”You are only a Christian because you have been born in a Christian home. If you were born in India, you’d be a Hindu. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim.” The mistake is in thinking that where your beliefs come from, automatically makes them wrong. But how does it prove that Christianity is false just because you were born into a Christian home? It obviously doesn’t, but people often don’t see the mistake right away. A helpful example I use to show this to a person is: “If Hitler thought smoking was unhealthy, would he be wrong just because he is a very bad guy?” Of course not. The unhealthiness of smoking is a case on its own, and the origin of the belief means nothing.

Straw man

The online atheist crowd loves this one. It happens so often, it’s frustrating. Imagine a person who thought he was the best boxer in the world because he could beat up a cardboard picture of Mike Tyson. It’s ridiculous, but that’s what the straw man fallacy is – a person who tries to represent your view inaccurately, and then proceeds to argue against it. So many times atheists explain that people don’t need to believe in God to be good, and then talk about all the good things they do – even though they don’t believe in God. Obviously anyone who thinks that a person needs to believe in God to be good is out of touch with reality, and not many Christians believe that. We do believe that the CONCEPT of good makes no sense in an atheistic worldview since they have no way to define good or evil – without God. Make sure a person understands your beliefs to keep the conversation on track, and to save the other person a lot of wasted time in beating up a cardboard version of your argument. (For more on the topic of defining morality, see the article under Atheism in the Topics menu: The Problem of Evil for Atheists

Ad Hominem (Sticks and Stones)

This is probably one of the most common tactics used by people in arguing about the real hot topics like abortion, homosexuality, and religious pluralism. It goes something like this. You say,” There is no evidence that a person is born gay,” and then proceed to give evidence for the case. The other person in response replies,” You are an intolerant, homophobic, hateful, narrow-minded bigot.”  They have now officially changed the subject. They aren’t talking about the topic anymore. They are now talking about you! This person thinks that by attacking your character, they are arguing against your position. In reality, a person can be sweet and polite, and still be wrong. They can also be arrogant and rude, and be right. Their character is irrelevant. Objective facts are what matter. A simple phrase to remember is this one: Ridicule is not an argument. Simple right? When a person attacks your character instead of your argument, it’s a pretty good sign that they can’t deal with your argument.

Non Sequitor (So What?)

To spot this one, simply listen. When a person gives you their rationale for what they believe, test their argument and see if it proves what they say it does. A good example of this would be in the case of religious pluralism. People will say, “There are many people in the world that think their religion is the only way to God, and they are very sincere in their beliefs, just like you.” Your response could be, “So what? Just because many people disagree, doesn’t mean there is no right answer does it?” Of course not. They can be as sincere as they want to. In reality, how many different answers are there to 2+2? What if someone thinks its 8? What if they are reeeeeeeally sincere?

Self-Defeating

Many people get confused by a person offering a view that is essentially contradictory. Often it can simply be that the contradiction is not obvious at first, but once you spot it, it will quickly deflate the force of their argument. One obvious example of this is when people argue that there is no truth. They might even give long-drawn-out explanations for their view; but at the end of the day it’s a contradiction. When someone says, “There is no truth,” we only need to ask a simple question. “Is it true there is no truth? How can your statement be true if there is no truth?” If it is true, then it is false. It’s a contradiction.

Hopefully knowing how to spot these bad arguments can give us an edge when it comes to discussing spiritual and ethical topics. Showing a person their own bad logic, may even get them to actually listen to and consider what you have to say.

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