My experiences on the Web have included a number of interchanges with devout Christians. Most of these have been pleasant enough, but I am a nonbeliever, and occasionally things became a bit contentious, even downright nasty. I try not to respond “in kind” when someone aims an abusive or insulting post at me, and I think I succeed most of the time. I can be provoked, though, so I am not claiming to be “holier than thou,” if that is possible for one without religious faith.
Some of the debating tactics used by believers are pretty darn clever. They have tripped me up a few times with their crafty little traps. I am slowly learning to recognize some of them.
I recently read a book titled “Biblical Nonsense,” by Jason Long. The book is a difficult read, tedious and repetitious in many parts, and the writing style is stilted. But the author relentlessly attacks the Bible on many fronts, and his arguments are methodical (to a fault!) and well reasoned for the most part.
An early chapter of the book discusses the subject of this piece. He calls it “Poor Christian Reasoning.” The purpose of the chapter, he says, is to “assist you in being able to recognize when such disingenuous methods of argumentation are used.”
Herewith are some excerpts from his list of creationist argument tactics, and examples of their use in religious debate. I am including the formal Latin names because I really like the sound of them, followed by a translation and one or more examples.
NOTE: You can Google most of these and find more information.
Argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance)
Example: The virgin birth of Jesus must be fact because nobody has ever found any evidence that there was a conspiracy to fabricate the story. Using that argument, I could claim that I saw a flying pig ten years ago, and to prove me wrong, someone would have to find evidence that I am lying. This is also an example of shifting the burden of proof which is discussed separately later.
Argumentum ad nauseam or argumentum ad infinitum (repetition makes it true)
This is the method of propagandists. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, understood this very well. If you repeat something often enough, some people will believe it. Creationists sometimes argue that the massive quantity of literature generated in support of Christian beliefs proves that it’s true. No matter how many times it is repeated, a statement is no more true the last time than it was the first.
Argumentum ad antiquitatem (people have believed it for a long time so it must be true)
People have believed in the Bible for thousands of years. Any belief that has lasted that long can’t be wrong. The age of a belief is obviously not a measure of its legitimacy. In fact, I would argue that ancient beliefs are often wrong. The Bible makes many references to a flat earth.
Argumentum ad novitatem (It’s newer than those old faulty beliefs so it must be true)
This is a New Testament argument. The death, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus happened in “modern” times of recorded history. It could not have been faked or based on old myths, so it must be true. Well then, how about Allah and his prophet Mohammed? They are newer yet, so they must supersede the older Jesus myths. Just because it’s newer doesn’t make it true.
Argumentum ad crumenam (Rich people believe and they’re smart, so it must be true)
As Tevye said in the song, “If I Were A Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof, “When you’re rich, they think you really know.”
Multibillionaire believers are touted by creationists as proof of the truth of Christianity.
(The Bible disagrees…read the “eye of the needle” quote from the Bible, Mark 10:25 and others.)
Argumentum ad lazarum (Poor people believe and they’re virtuous, so it must be true)
The Bible glorifies poverty, urging people to give up their worldly possessions.
Not many take this advice seriously, but the poor are seen as more religious, and therefore more virtuous. Or is it the other way ‘round?
Argumentum ad verecundiam (Famous leaders believe, so it must be true)
Um…like Bush? An oft-repeated claim is that the founders of our nation were Christians. Some of them were; many were not, including Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison, among others.
Argumentum ad numerum (Lots of people believe, so it must be true)
Two billion Christians believe in Jesus. Are you smarter than all of them?
Christianity currently has the largest following of any religion, with around two billion self-described believers. Islam is not far behind with about 1.5 billion, and birth rates in Islamic nations are higher than in most nations favoring Christianity, so the Christian lead is dwindling. But are sheer numbers the criterion to use to determine truth? Is truth determined by an election? What if ALL religions are wrong? One of them will still win the election.
Argumentum ad populum (Popular celebrities believe, so it must be true)
Endorsements…companies use them to sell products. Creationists use them to sell religion. It’s called “witnessing” but it is really just a sales pitch.
Cum hoc ergo propter hoc (with the fact, therefore because of the fact)
If it’s a good thing (decrease in crime, divorce, whatever) and it happened at the same time that church attendance went up, then that must be the reason. Of course, if it’s a bad thing, then religion had nothing to do with it. Cause and effect need some logical link…not merely the coincidence of concurrence.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after the fact, therefore because of the fact)
The same as above, except the good thing happens after church attendance goes up.
Denial of the antecedent (attempts to link a failed hypothesis to valid ones to discredit them)
Early evolutionists believed that man evolved from the apes. This idea has since been discredited. Apes and man are now known to have evolved from a common ancestor.
Nevertheless, some creationists claim that the discredited theory invalidates all of evolutionary theory. They clearly don’t understand the Scientific Method.
Ad hoc reasoning (explanation offered after the fact)
“Young Earth” creationists believe the earth is only about 6000 years old. When presented with overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that it is much older, they often fall back on the ad hoc notion that God created it to look old, to test the faith of believers. I find this idea particularly pernicious, because it suggests that faith-based belief should trump what we perceive as reality. Creationists sometimes claim that our perception of reality is not necessarily valid. It could all be an illusion, created by God or Satan…or both, I suppose. Such thinking denies the validity of ALL scientific knowledge, and it reminds me of the statement by Martin Luther: “Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding.” That way lies ignorance, superstition and intolerance.
Slippery slope argument (lack of belief will lead to a cascade of other bad things)
Prohibiting prayer in schools will lead to a decline in morality of the students, teen-age pregnancies, crimes committed by children, etc. There is no evidence that this is true. In fact the states that have a high percentage of fundamentalist/evangelical Christians also have high teen pregnancy and divorce rates. But that doesn’t stop the toboggan ride by believers.
The No True Scotsman fallacy (In this case, No True Christian)
Attempts to discount the immoral actions of Christian individuals by separating them from the greater mass of Christians who don’t do such things.
“John is a Christian, and he committed adultery.”
“No true Christian would ever commit adultery.”
Naturalistic fallacy (If it doesn’t happen in nature, humans shouldn’t do it.)
This is a fallacious argument often used against homosexuality. It is false for lots of reasons. First, homosexual acts have been observed in other animals. Even more obviously, there are lots of things that animals don’t do that some humans do, like drive cars, fly airplanes, take pills, drink beer and read the Bible.
Petition principii (begging the question)
Basing conclusions on invalid premises.
Premise: The basis of all moral standards is the Bible.
Conclusion: If you don’t read the Bible, you have no basis for moral standards.
Circulus in demonstrando (circular reasoning)
The classical example:
Is there a God?
How do you know?
Because the Bible says so.
How do you know the Bible is correct?
Because it was written by God.
I’m getting dizzy.
And finally, shifting the burden of proof (attempts to make the questioner of faith-based beliefs prove that they are NOT true.)
I had an example of this in a recent thread. The creationist gave several examples of miraculous events that were described in the Bible. When I stated that there was no proof that these had occurred, he challenged me to prove that they hadn’t.
Creationists also often revert to the use of anecdotal evidence, sweeping and hasty generalizations and loaded questions. Here’s an example of the latter that I saw recently in a discussion thread:
A creationist asked, “Wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that God created the world with an appearance of age?”
If you argued that no, it wasn’t a reasonable conclusion, you would still be acknowledging that God created the world. The right answer in this case is that the question is moot, since there is no evidence that God exists. Note that this question also tries to promote that ad hoc notion that God deliberately set out to deceive scientists by making the earth look older than it is, just to test their faith. That is truly one of the most outrageous and hilarious of all creationist claims.
Okay, now that I have given you this set of tools for recognizing the clever debating tactics of a creationist, what should you do with them?
It’s up to you. You can just use the knowledge to reject fallacious arguments when you see them, and let it go at that. Or, you can point them out to the perpetrator, if you don’t mind the confrontation.
You can even have some fun with them, by suggesting even more ridiculous arguments using their techniques. The Latin for that, by the way, is reductio ad absurdum.