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.