“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard Feynman
I happened upon an interesting little book by Ali Almossawi called An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments which is exactly that. It takes the reader through a series of informal (and one formal) logical fallacies, explains what is wrong with the reasoning used (or lack thereof) and provides a nice little cartoon to go along with each one. As one would expect from an author so devoted to logical reasoning, it’s fairly clever. And in the spirit of service to the public good, it’s also free, and can be read online here: An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments
While reading, I was often aware of the tension that is posited between faith and reason. To be more precise (which good reasoning requires), I often thought of the attacks upon religious belief lobbied at the devout mainly by those who consider themselves to be secularists or more scientific in their thinking. I must admit that I could definitely think of fallacies that apply to reasoning by Christians; the “No True Scotsman Argument” very much reminded me of the knots reformed Christians tie themselves in (when apparent believers sin egregiously) due to their belief in eternal security. It was also implied that political conservatives often use reasoning beset by an Appeal to Fear (for example: “Be aware–if gay people get married, it will completely destroy the institution of marriage”) and an Argument from Consequences (for example: “Implementing additional environmental regulations will make doing business more expensive and inhibit job growth; we maintain that climate change is natural, not man-made.”). Any of those conclusions could be true, but the argument used does not support the conclusion because relevant evidence is not given to support it.
I found the book at an apropos time, as I had been thinking a lot about a seeming rise in the assumption that religious faith is fundamentally opposed to logical reasoning. That is not really anything new (though Western society is becoming more secular) but it is sticking out to me more and more because I notice that liberal secularism in the culture is often less logically rigorous in the formation of its ideological beliefs than that of religious doctrine. (Full disclosure–what I just did there could be considered an informal fallacy because I made a generalization that is not supported by any concrete evidence. However, I am not asking you to draw any conclusions based on that observation; rather it provides context for understanding where I’m coming from. You can decide whether my observations match yours.)
The main issue I see with die-hard skeptics is a failure to recognize the difference between logic and epistemology. Logic is a process that enables one to move from a premise to a valid conclusion. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, how we know what we know, and perhaps even what evidence is sufficient to induce belief. Logic deals with conclusions, epistemology with premises. One can reason logically about a premise that is entirely fabricated. But a valid reasoning process does not make an untrue premise true; nor can a valid reasoning process assure you that your premise is true. If you happen to have a false premise, then however airtight your arguments, your conclusion will be logically valid but nevertheless untrue. When it comes to believing that one’s premise is true, there comes a point at which the nature and amount of evidence sufficient to induce belief is highly subjective. There are some doubting Thomas’ who cannot believe something they have not physically touched or seen or heard even if plenty of others have said they have touched and seen and heard it. There are others who have had experiences that they cannot fully or accurately communicate to others. I know a bible scholar who converted to Christianity from athiesm. He mentioned during a lecture that many skeptics dismiss personal experience as evidence for religious belief. But personal experience is empirical. It is an observation of a phenomenon and it does count as evidence, even if it is not evidence that is sufficient to induce someone who has not had the experience to believe.
The Christian tradition in particular has generally evinced a stringent reasoning process through the Catholic Church. It would be difficult to read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and find it anything but doggedly logical. For every doctrine formulated, every question answered, one can generally find hundreds of pages in tome after tome of explanations, reasoning, history, etc for any given issue or concept. In Christendom more generally, there remains a highly active intellectual tradition that has been and continues to be populated by brilliant minds. But for all its reasoning, the Church recognizes that there is an uncaused cause, a premise underpinning its structure of belief that one simply either accepts or rejects. The athiest’s view that the Big Bang is the uncaused cause (not whether it happened, but whether it is the only beginning) is not something that has been or can be proven, but is essentially an ideological choice. And from that chosen premise, they reason in a manner that excludes any religious influence.
Beyond that uncaused cause, for Christians, is the question of Jesus of Nazareth whose identity as bodily resurrected Lord and God is explicitly posited by Christianity as its defining belief. Even though by the standards of historical documentation, it is perfectly reasonable to accept the manuscripts comprising the biblical canon as authentic (and not fabricated in some grand conspiratorial fashion), there are plenty who offer alternate theories of Jesus’ identity–not because they have more evidence to that effect, but because belief in an alternate explanation is easier to grasp psychologically or more neatly fits their ideological preferences. Like Thomas, though having good reason to believe, they either cannot or will not. But note, the ability to create a sound theory starting with certain premises and proceeding to a conclusion that flows logically is not proof that one’s premises are themselves true or encompassing enough. This is where the potential for self-deception on the part of the skeptic and the believer runs high.
Also, Carlos Flores writes a really excellent response to those he calls the “new athiests” that is short, clear, and really worth reading. It’s called “Strawmen and the God of the Athiestic Philistine.” You may read it here.
As far as those who are not really skeptics, but more or less secularists or humanists (those who don’t mind religion so long as it doesn’t interfere with what people want to do), I offer the following bad argument examples:
Argument from Consequences & Circular Reasoning: “If we allow prayer in schools or public displays of Christian images, non-Christians will feel alienated; therefore the separation of church and state demands that such things be forbidden” (Whether or not the concept of separation of church and state requires the prohibition of public prayer and displays of Christian images cannot be determined by how certain people feel about it. Furthermore, there is an unstated premise in the conclusion that the separation of church and state is, one, a Constitutional concept, and two, forbids feelings of religious alienation. Neither can be taken for granted.)
Straw Man: “With all of their talk about morals, you know those Christian conservatives just want to set up a theocracy with the Bible in place of the Constitution!” (Having strong beliefs about what is right and what is wrong does not constitute advocating for a theocracy, and such claims are caricatured versions of certain political views.)
False Dilemma: “Christopher loved science and his Christian upbringing, but he knew deep down he had to choose between his reason and his faith.” (This dilemma falsely assumes that faith and reason are mutually exclusive.)
Hasty Generalization: “I’m done with Christians–what a bad lot. The people I went to church with were so gossipy and mean; and the pastor ran off with the deacon’s wife!” (An experience in one church or even a dozen does not provide sufficient evidence to make a judgment about all or even most churchgoers, as one has only encountered a very small fraction of the whole.)
Appeal to Ignorance/Argument from Personal Incredulity: “It’s ridiculous to think that a man rose from the dead. As what, a zombie? Surely such a tale is mythical.” (One’s feeling of incredulity toward an assertion does not provide any evidence that that assertion is false.)
No True Scotsman: Friend 1: No well-educated, reasonable person could allow his life to be dictated by some ancient religious text. Friend 2: Hmm…Chris has gone to good schools, has always been smart and level-headed, and he’s very devout in his faith. Friend 1: Well obviously, Chris is not truly well-educated nor reasonable. (In any other context, Friend 1 would have accepted that description of Chris as qualifying as well educated and reasonable. But when Chris had attributes that didn’t support his assertion, he moved the goal post. The fallacy of Equivocation is also implicated here.)
Genetic Fallacy: “The view that masculinity and femininity are natural differences and not socially constructed comes from the same patriarchal belief system that prevented women from voting and having careers. We need to leave the 19th century behind and become true 21st century women.” (The question of the nature of masculinity and femininity is independent from any belief system, patriarchal or otherwise.)
Guilt by Association: “Look at the hateful antics of Westboro Baptist Church. With all of these crazy fundamentalists out there, I really cannot take anything Christians say seriously.” (Guilt cannot be Assigned to all Christians because of what a particular group of Christians have done (usually independently) and to do so is using faulty logic.)
Appeal to Hypocrisy: “Christians say that they care about the institution of marriage? Ha! Why don’t we talk about all the divorces that happen in churches.” (The nature or significance of marriage does not depend on whether Christians have upheld that standard. Also, there is guilt by association being used here, as there are plenty of Christians who are faithful in their marriages, so they would not be being hypocritical to speak about it.)
Appeal to the Bandwagon: “Legions of young people are leaving their churches and not looking back. Why would you hold onto something that is so outmoded?” (People leaving their churches does not provide support for one doing the same.)
I thought it important to share these examples because I think they constitute about 90% of the arguments I hear most often against Christianity and faith in general. The fact that they are fallacies is telling, as it indicates that people are making judgments based on completely faulty thinking while at the same time often asserting that it is Christians who are anti-reason. Strange times we live in, indeed.
A note on ad hominem arguments. While attacking a person’s motives does not address their argument, I do think that discerning motives can be relevant for deciding whether to engage someone in discussion. The entire point of discourse is to reach greater clarity and truth. Someone who comes to the argument not interested in either, but who is only attempting to deconstruct, is probably not someone worth spending time debating with, as they will not be willing to admit when you’ve made a sound argument. There were times in the Gospels when Jesus refused to answer the religious leaders directly because He knew they were only attempting to trap Him. As I recently heard someone say, “Just because someone invites you to an [argument] doesn’t mean you have to go.”