The Gates Are Open


Christians and Poor Debates – Part 2

Posted on August 20, 2015

debateDo you want to engender immediate dislike and strong reactions from people? Simply imply that their favorite politicians, preachers or writers are doing it all wrong. That’s what I did in my last article on this subject and I am jumping in to do it again. I never learn.

As People of Faith, we are among those who hold tenaciously to what we believe. And, because we hang around with people who share our belief system, we reinforce those beliefs regularly. Therefore, you would think we would get really good at articulating those beliefs to others. Regrettably, we are not that good.

After the last article, a few of you wrote and asked if I was implying that all of us should argue, debate and reason with those who don’t believe. Actually, I think there are many among us who should not debate or enter into rational discussions on topical issues. Sometimes it is better to live a life of spiritual power, integrity and consistency and just let people learn from your example. Sometimes.

But there are legitimate human debates in which Christians have something to say. But when we do say it, we need to be careful we don’t muddy the waters with poor rhetorical skills. In Part 1, I mentioned four mistakes commonly used by everyone in debating a point of view:

1. Ad Hominem Attacks:

2. The Polemic Approach

3. Appeals to Faith

4. False Dichotomies

As you read through those, undoubtedly you will recall when you have heard these mistakes made. Even though they are often catalogued in college textbooks on Rhetoric, they are all common. Just as common are the next four mistakes. But I have lumped these together because they are mistakes made not just in debate but also in casual conversation.

Rather than trying to recall when you have heard others make these rhetorical errors, see if you can spot when you have made them yourself.

1. Willed Ignorance:  This is defined as a stubborn refusal to change one’s beliefs even if the evidence and the arguments are overwhelming. I am ashamed to admit I have done this on several occasions and even as I write this article, I mentally try to justify having done so in the past.

We engage in this most often when we are caught off-guard by the debating skills of another person. We may have a friend who wants to talk about the proof for the existence of God. This is always a difficult debate and it almost never ends well for either party. But suppose a Christian is debating the existence of God and the other person is better prepared and gives reasonable proofs for why God does not exist.

Does that mean God doesn’t exist? Hardly. The existence or non-existence of God does not depend upon the skills of debaters. However, a person makes the “Willed Ignorance” mistake when they feel overwhelmed by the argument. A “Willed Ignorance” statement would sound like this:

“I don’t care what arguments you make, I am going to believe God exists anyway. I don’t need evidence. I just believe”.

If you recall, this is also an Appeal to Faith mistake. But at the core, the person making this statement doesn’t want to wrestle with the argument. They simply want to bury their head in the sand and make it go away. This is willful ignorance.

This is also the idea behind statements like “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”  “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.” “This is the work of the Devil to confuse me; I’m just going to ignore everything you said.”

In my first year of pre-med, I took several biology courses. In those classes, the concept of Evolution was presented clearly and as fully as a Freshman class can present the subject. The evidence for an Old Earth was staggering and overwhelming. But, I also believed in the literal account of Genesis. As a result, I would tell people “I know what the evidence suggests, but it must be wrong because the Bible is always right.” At church, when I told my friends this answer, they all applauded me–and as a result reinforced this belief.

However, over the decades since, I have done more research into this topic. I found out there are many Christians who took the evidence for Evolution seriously. And from that honest inquiry, they have developed models for Creation which accept certain elements of evolution while still holding to a high opinion of the Genesis account. As I mentioned in the last article, there are now 24 plausible alternative interpretations to the literal Genesis story of Creation.

In a discussion, if the other person is making a point you can’t counter, it is best to listen carefully, ask questions and say “I will think about this later. Thank you.” And, then go and think about it. Ask other people what they think about it. God wants our faith to be well-established, not stubbornly clung to.

2. Strawman Fallacy:  This is not a mistake Christians make: it’s a mistake EVERYONE makes. It is so prevalent and subtle it is almost taken for granted. But we offer a huge disservice when we use this in discussions on beliefs and practices.

A “strawman” is presenting a false version of another side’s argument and then debating that. Let me give some examples.

A pro-choice supporter says “Pro-lifers want to tell women what they can do with their bodies. Pro-lifers love a couple of differentiated cells more than the woman who has them in her body. Pro-lifers want to force everyone to believe what they believe.”  None of those statements is a true representation of the majority of pro-lifers.

A pro-life supporter says “Pro-choice people are murderers. They are just in it for the money. They want to use unborn babies as science experiments, harvesting their organs and selling their stem cells. Pro-choice people are heartless, cruel and couldn’t give a crap about the poor mothers who are fed false information leading up to their abortions.”  None of those statements are true representations about the majority of pro-choicers.

A Republican might say “President Obama wants to tell you who your doctor must be. He wants to tell a 65-year old he can’t have dialysis”

A Democrat might say, “Republicans want every poor family to starve, every wealthy person to pay no taxes and the elimination of all government. And they want every person to own a gun and walk down the street with it on their hip like cowboys of old.”

You see what happens with the Strawman arguments. You make a caricature of another person’s argument, then you tear that argument down. The problem is the argument you are tearing down is not really their argument.

I heard this being used when Rob Bell published his book questioning some beliefs on Hell. I then read another book that sought to refute him. In that book, the author essentially said that Rob Bell was trying to eliminate Hell so that we never have to talk about sin or judgment in church any more. Nothing could be further from what Bell was saying. Bell actually says three times in his book he believes in Hell. He talks more about judgment than most books. But once the author painted Bell with his Strawman argument, he spent the rest of the book showing how judgment and sin are things we should talk about.

I don’t think Rob Bell would have disagreed with him. But it wasn’t a fair approach to a very worthy debate. Even though my personal position was closer to the second man’s book, I felt myself taking Bell more seriously because of how poorly the other guy treated his argument.

3. Failure to Clarify:  It’s actually called “Failure to Elucidate”, but since so few people know what “elucidate” means, I thought I would clarify…with the word “clarify”.

This failure happens when you are asked to give a definition of a word or concept and the definition is more confusing and complicated than the word itself. An atheist friend of mine tells me with regularity this is the error Christians make more than any other. Though I think we are much more creative in our mistakes than he gives us credit for, he is right: We do this a lot.

But we’re in good company. Politicians have made this into an art form. Political chiefs of staff actually tell their candidates when they are asked a potentially catastrophic question to make the answer as confusing as possible. If they are asked to clarify, make the clarification confusing as well. We can see how this would benefit a politician who has just stepped in the political equivalent of dog manure.

But for people who want to make their beliefs known and accepted, our definitions need to be clear. Jesus certainly did that. People may have disagreed with him, but they always knew what he was saying.

Textbooks can be guilty of this. Here is an actual definition of a thermometer from a Biology text“”A thermometer is a device that measures the average kinetic energy of the ambient medium, usually indicating the reading by means of the height of liquid in a narrow vitreous tube.” What and what?

Here are a few Christian examples of this mistake:

“There are spirits all over this world.”  “What’s a spirit?”  “A non-corporeal substance.”

“You need Salvation through Jesus”. “What do you mean salvation through Jesus?” “You need to have your sins washed in the blood of the Lamb.”

I think you get the picture. Any time we try and define something for another person, we should be careful to use words they can understand better than the original word. There are exceptions to this of course. When we are trying to define the indefinable, sometimes all we can give is an analogy. Jesus does this a number of times in the Gospels when he compares the Kingdom of God to varied things, such as a Mustard Plant, a man looking for precious pearls and a lost coin.

The best thing to do is, if you can define something more clearly than the original word, do so.

4. Causal Reduction:  I remember sitting in a high school history class and the teacher said “What caused World War 2?” One of the students put up his hand and proudly announced “Germans had hated Jews for hundreds of years. That’s why the war started.”  My teacher had a sly look on his face and then proceeded to explain how over-simplified this student’s answer was.

In a little less than an hour, he explained over 50 significant causes for World War 2. Fifty!! I have never forgotten that class because it showed me that things are often more complex than we admit to. It is much easier in life to reduce all problems down to one or two causes. The problem of course is that if you reduce a problem too much you are inaccurate and often unhelpful.

This is the error of Causal Reduction. In trying to show the importance of a certain cause, we often over-inflate that one cause and reduce problems down to simple solutions. Christians, Muslims, Politicians, parents, teachers, bosses, economists and Sesame Street are all guilty of making this mistake.

Let’s give several examples from politics, religion and daily life:

“If we just close our borders, our economy would improve.” (Really, it’s that simple?)

Officer, the sun was shining too brightly and my sunglasses were broken. That’s why I rear-ended the guy in front of me.” (Really, you weren’t driving too fast, you weren’t texting, you weren’t pre-occupied some other way?)

“If you would just pray together as a couple, your marriage would be saved?” (Really, that’s all we need to do? Should we both stop hitting each other and cheating on each other…or just pray?)

“If you start giving 10% of your money to the Lord, all your financial problems will be solved.”  (And maybe stop gambling, buying stuff you can’t afford, drinking too much, investing foolishly as well).

I could go on and on. This is a debating mistake we often make with other Christians. We see something they’re doing in life we don’t agree with and we want to make that mistake responsible for all their problems. Life is extremely complex and interwoven. There are few situations that can be explained with one simple cause. The only way you can do that is by making the cause so large and vague that it could apply to everything.

That’s why the Beatles could sing “All you need is love” and we agree. It’s true because it encompasses a thousand ways of acting in love.

Preachers are guilty of this, and many times with good intentions. They want to emphasize the importance of certain errors so they aggrandize their importance. Recently, I heard a famous preacher say “If every married couple in this church would agree to  have sex every night for 30 straight days, I believe it would solve almost every marriage problem in this room.” I was flabbergasted at his audacity. And then I thought about the truth-claim he was making. All I had to do was open my mind up to the possible exceptions to his formula and they began pouring into my mind.

Will 30 days of sex solve the following marital problems?

  • Spousal unfaithfulness
  • Dealing with cancer
  • Loss of income
  • Disobedient children
  • Crushing debt
  • Physical violence
  • Child molestation
  • IRS audit
  • Missing child
  • Migraine headaches
  • Constant putdowns by one spouse

I know a couple who are friends of ours who took the 30 day challenge. At the end, they reported there were some really good moments. But they both admitted they had a lot of resentment at the end of that month. Why? Because the resentment was there at the beginning and the idea that 2 fortnights of sex could cure that was unrealistic.

I believe a sane approach involves saying “Here is a problem I have seen” and not make it bigger or more extensive than it is.

Christians and Our Poor Debating Skills-Part 1

Posted on August 17, 2015

debateThe Apostle Paul made it quite clear in 1 Corinthians 2 that he was not interested in getting into a philosophical discussion with the Greeks. He concluded that a philosophy was not going to transform lives in Corinth, but would actually prevent people from knowing God. His conclusion:

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

It seems ever since, Christians have decided since Paul avoided public debate, so should we. And unfortunately, many in Christendom who do engage in debate do it so poorly that it would be better if they didn’t. We break so many rules of logic and reason it is no wonder that people scoff at what we have to say. And we think it is because they are rejecting God’s Truth. Many times, people are rejecting the poor way we present the truth.

I assume most readers did not take a debating class in school or a class in Rhetoric in college. It would be good if every apologist did so, but most will not. Therefore, I want to be helpful and point out the 8 ways that Christians often make huge logical errors as we present biblical Truth.

1. Ad Hominem Errors.

I know…you don’t like Latin or anything that smacks of it. Neither do I. But this is what this error is called, so learn it and know what it means.

Ad Hominem means to attack a person making the argument instead of the argument itself. As followers of Christ, we ought to remember that each of us was the Chief of Sinners before God forgave us and gave us Grace. Unfortunately, when we speak of what we’ve learned in life, we often take a high and mighty attitude that looks down upon others who have not learned what we have. Let me give an example.

Jim believes that every woman should have a right to choose whether to have an abortion. His friend Bill, a Christian is trying to argue that all abortion is wrong. In his argument, Bill says this:

“Jim, haven’t you been in jail three times for losing your temper? Why should I listen to what you have to say? You’re a violent man who endorses violence against unborn children!”

This is an attack against Jim and therefore against his argument. But when you make the attack personal, it is really  no longer about the original idea. What if Jim had been a wonderful member of society, giving to the poor, making time to help puppies in distress–would that make his pro-choice argument stronger? No. An argument stands or falls on its merits, not on the limitations and moral standing of its presenter.

There is another type of Ad Hominem argument. That is where a person is attacked for their personal bias in the situation. We call that Situational Ad Hominem. For instance, if we are talking with someone who works for Planned Parenthood, we might tell them their argument doesn’t hold water because they receive financial benefit from abortions. Though that is true, it doesn’t affect the legitimacy of their argument. They could say the same about a pastor: That a pastor receives a salary and therefore must tow the party line on abortion or lose his job. That doesn’t mean a pastor arguing the pro-life argument is wrong either.

2. The Polemic Approach

This is used more in public addresses than in personal debate, but it is good for all of us to recognize when it is being used by people whose positions we agree with. This is also called “Argument of Emotive Language”. Some have called this “Preaching to the Choir”. It is not always wrong and may even be part of a debating approach that contains good facts and logic. But it is dangerous when used alone.

We heard this a lot in the gay marriage debates. Public speakers against gay marriage would stand and tell the crowds that legalizing gay marriage would destroy heterosexual marriages. The speakers never really explained how that would work. But it would stir up the crowds. Statements like “God made them Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” bring cheers and laughter. But this kind of appeal just clouds the real question.

In fact, during the court challenge against Proposition 8 (the California referendum that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman ) the Appeals Court asked defenders of Prop 8 to explain the position that gay marriage would hurt straight marriages. Remember, this is in a court of law where polemics are discouraged. The defendants tried to prove that this would happen, but their arguments were weak. Once you remove the crowd listening to the emotional appeal, the argument doesn’t sound all that strong. When that happens, you know you have a polemic appeal and not a logical one.

Preachers will use polemics to rally people to good living, helping the needy, evangelizing the lost, giving to missions and church work, attending church, forgiving your brother. All of these are good things and ought to be taught. But when the only teaching appeal is a series of slogans, jingoisms, emotive language and telling people what they already believe, the effectiveness is lost.

3. Appeal to Faith:  This is one that Christians often feel justified to use. And it is a legitimate appeal in some circumstances. The problem with this appeal is that we use it too often and many times in the wrong circumstances. Let me explain.

An appeal to faith is a way to end an argument by using faith as the ultimate appeal. It would be used in this way:

“I want to explain this to you, but it can’t be understood without faith. And because you don’t have faith, I can’t explain it to you.”

The reason this is wrong for Christians to use is because faith is not supposed to be our final appeal. Faith is a sense of trust in God. Faith says “even when i don’t understand, I trust God’s heart.” Faith has nothing to do with explaining something; it has to do with being able to trust even when we don’t understand something.”

If my child dies young, I can still believe that God loves me and is the King of the Universe. That is not an argument for God’s sovereignty or an argument for his love. Those arguments can be made many other ways. Faith in God is what I hold onto when the circumstances seem to suggest that God does not love or is not in charge. Faith is not to be used to explain the nature of God.

Here is what the appeal of faith looks like when it is used wrongly:

Seeker: “How can God be good if He allows evil things to happen?”

Believer: “If you had faith in God, you’d be able to accept that God is sovereign even if there is evil. I’m sorry, until you have faith, I can’t explain it to you.”

There is a reason this line of explanation is wrong. You can certainly explain the existence of evil without faith. God is a good God. God created all things, including mankind, and gave mankind the ability to choose good or evil. God left that choice free. Therefore, when man chooses evil, God does not prevent him because it would not be a free choice otherwise. This explains how God can be good but allow evil to exist. This is a logical argument.

Now, for people to believe in a God who allows evil, they must weigh the evidence and come to a decision. That decision is called faith. Faith does not help a person understand the argument. Faith comes after we have believed the argument. To put faith at the beginning is to make all logic and reason unnecessary. And God is the one who says “Come, let us reason together.”

4. False Dichotomy: In Rhetoric, this is one of the most common fallacies. This is also called a False Dilemma. A False Dichotomy is an argument where someone proposes there are only two legitimate choices, when there are actually more than two. It is used in politics all the time. If you have been watching the debates between the Republican candidates lately, you’ll hear this used all the time. Let me give a couple of examples:

“Either you want to cut off all immigration or you hate this country.”

“Either you stop voting to raise the debt ceiling or you want us to be owned by China.”

“Either you have a brain or you watch Reality Television.”

Years ago, this was used in the debate over Creationism. People would often claim that “either you believe in a literal six-day creation or you will need to throw out everything the Bible says.” “Either you believe in a six-day Creation or you believe in Evolution.” Over the years since Darwin, there have been at least 24 different variations of belief in the Creation account. And many of those variations are held by people who believe the Bible is God’s Word. They have simply adopted another way.

In the debate on homosexual practice, both sides like to frame the argument as a choice of two viewpoints. But recently, the debate has centered around a whole host of “third views”. The two main views are that homosexuality is a sin or that homosexuality is valid from God’s point of view. Using the False Dichotomy logic someone might say “Either you believe that homosexuality is a sin or you believe there is nothing wrong with it.”

But the issue is not that simple. There are people who believe that homosexuality is a sin, but being attracted to the same sex is not a sin. There are some who believe God endorses homosexual marriage, but not sex outside of marriage. There are those who believe that homosexuality is not a sin, but also believe it is wrong for modern society to endorse it (these are believers in the concept of Natural Law).

The problem with this logical fallacy is that it boils everything down to two alternatives, when there are often more than two. Some will say Jesus did this in the Bible. There was a moment he told his disciples “Whoever is not for us is against us.”  This certainly seems like two alternatives. But are there just two? At another point, Jesus says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” When you add the two statements together there are actually four views:

For Jesus

Not for Jesus

Against Jesus

Not against Jesus.

I think you can see the differences between these four positions if you try. Nicodemus, when he came to Jesus was not yet a believer. Yet he sought him out so he was not against Jesus. The crowd who wanted Barabbas to be released was not For Jesus. The Pharisees were actively against Jesus. The disciples were actively For Jesus. So look at these four examples: Nicodemus, the crowd, the Pharisees, the Disciples. These are four different positions related to Jesus. It is not just either or.

My uncle used to say “there are two groups of people in the world; those who lump the world into two groups and those who don’t.”

Next time, we will look at the four other common types of poor debating skills.

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