Wednesday, September 28, 2005

When arguments go awry

It's interesting when you do a lot of debating on message boards and stuff that there are some things you say that are guaranteed to be misunderstood. It's like something happens between the time the words leave your mind and arrive at the other person's mind. They hear something completely different than what you say. Here are a few examples:

When arguing for the resurrection, we will sometimes make the point that since the disciples were willing to lay down their lives for their beliefs, it's clear that they were not just pulling off some kind of scam; they really believed what they were saying. When you make this point, people hear something completely different. What they hear is that since the disciples were willing to die for their beliefs, then Christianity must be true. And then they'll point out the many other people from other religions who have been willing to die for their beliefs. I always respond the same way. I point out that the fact that other people are willing to die for their beliefs proves the same thing in their case as it does in mine. If people die for their beliefs, it proves they really believe it.

When spelling out the kalam cosmological argument, the first premise is "Whatever begins to exist has a cause to its existence." But that's not what people hear. What they hear is, "Whatever exists has a cause to its existence," and then they say, "Who created God?" They figure since God exists, then God must have a cause for his existence, too. Then you have to explain how there are two kinds of things in existence--those which had a beginning, and those which didn't. Those that didn't have a beginning don't require a cause. Those that do have a beginning do require a cause.

When making the moral argument for God, the first premise is that "If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values." But that's not what people hear. What they hear is, "If you don't believe in God, then you can't be moral." And then they go on to point out that atheists are often more moral than Christians, and they think they've refuted your argument.

Here's one more involving same sex marriage. Some people will defend same sex marriage on the basis that anybody ought to be allowed to marry if they love each other. To rebut that argument, we will point out that a brother and sister might love each other, so by their reasoning, we have to allow incest. Or we might point out that Jim, Jill, Jason, Joanna, John, and Jasmine all love each other, so by their reasoning, we'd have to allow polygamy, too. These are ad absurdum arguments. That's where you show that a position is false by taking it to its logical conclusion. The logical conclusion to the premise that people ought to be allowed to marry if they love each other is that brothers and sisters ought to be allowed to marry each other, and multiple partners ought to be allowed to marry each other. If we reject these conclusions, then we have to reject the premise they are based on since that premise leads inevitably to them.

But that's not what people hear. It's especially not what gay people hear. What people usually hear is this: If you start allowing gay marriages, then next thing you know, there'll be incest and polygamy. Then they'll accuse you of committing the slippery slope fallacy. (Of course in a sense, it is a logical slippery slope, but it's not the causal slippery slope they're accusing you of.)

Gay people hear something even worse. What they hear is that you're comparing homosexuality to polygamy and incest, and then they get offended. At this point it becomes impossible to reason with them, because they're offended. They refuse to actually address your argument from here on out, and instead whine about you likening their lifestyle to polygamy and incest because you're such a mean homophobe, and fundie, too. Of course the only sense in which you're likening them to incest and polygamy is in the fact that they love each other, but even heterosexuals love each other!

I tell ya, it's frustrating. The frustrating thing about it is that you know ahead of time that the person is going to hear something completely different than what you say, and you know ahead of time that you're going to have to correct their misunderstanding.

These are just a few examples off the top of my head. There are others. If you've noticed the same thing, please tells us about your experiences in the comments.


At 9/28/2005 7:49 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Sam, this is so true. It reminds me of the time that it took me @ 6 months on an evolution board to understand that I believed in science and that I was not a young-earth creationist. I had to say it thousands of times.
What people do is they assume your entire philosophy matches the philosophy of someone they have talked to before. If you propose that abortion is wrong, then they pull from their mind the entire philosophical framework of someone they've previously known that held that view.
Or worse yet, the only thing they know @ your framework is the strawman of it they get from their fellow 'pack' of pop-secularists.

Here's an important point to ponder: are we christians guilty of the same thing in regard to those others?

At 9/29/2005 12:44 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I think we Christians are sometimes guilty of the same thing. It always helps to ask a person what they believe before saying why you disagree with them.

It's interesting you would mention "young earth creationism" in light of evolution. I was recently on a message board where this guy was railing against the intelligent design movement. He attributed all kinds of things to the ID movement that weren't true--he thought they based their theory on the Bible and not on evidence, that they believed in a literal six day creation, etc. When I suggested to him that he read up on the topic, I was reprimanded by the moderator.

At 9/29/2005 3:48 PM , Blogger Paul said...

I think it is not comfortable for the skeptic to discover that the Christian perspective is far more sophisticated and nuanced than the stereotype.

Regarding Jeff's "are we guilty too" question: I think where I am the guiltiest is when I dialog with someone of a particular persuasion (e.g., postmodern, Wicca, Mormon, Christian Science) and I assume that they fit neatly within that worldview and hold to the "orthodox" beliefs of that group. I have to remember that each person is an individual, and even though they have put themselves into a particular group they still are guilty of a cafeteria belief, having simply taken a very large portion from one pan. Don't try to argue with them against their stated religion/worldview; try to address their own unique flavor of it.

A comment on the "dying for your beliefs" point: I think we can make this into a proof. Sure, lots of people die for their beliefs, but there are differences in these people. The Muslims are dying for their belief that Muhammad really was God's man and produced all those sayings by divine inspiration. Their belief is real, but they could be wrong about Muhammad. The apostles, on the other hand, were the guys who claimed to see Jesus resurrected. What they died for is not a story that must be verified; they died for the testimony of their own observations. Seems they really did see something. Now, the task of the skeptic is to explain away what it is that they witnessed.

I enjoyed this post.

At 9/29/2005 9:00 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

Though they are not exactly arguments but news, some things also sometimes trigger an automatic assumption:

When telling someone that you've converted, they think you've been brainwashed.

When telling someone that you believe in God, they think of the God of the gaps.

When telling someone you follow a religion, they suddenly discount any of your views on morality.

When you talk about Christianity in the company of unbelievers, you feel pressure to hold back because of popular stereotypes about Christians.

At 9/30/2005 12:53 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I agree with you on the "dying for your beliefs" point. I were merely break it down into two steps. First, did the disciples really believe what they were saying? Second, were they in a position to know that what they were saying was true? Their willingness to die for those beliefs shows that they did believe it. If it turns out that they were in a position to know, then it also establishes that it's true.

But in every case of somebody dying for their beliefs, it does raise the question of why they believe. The reason the disciples gave for their belief is the fact that they actually saw Jesus alive after he had been crucified. They either saw him or they didn't. If they didn't, then it's hard to account for why they believed, and why the reason they gave for believing was so completely different than their actual reason.

At 9/30/2005 12:56 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...


I hear that brainwashed one a lot. It seems like the "brainwashed" argument can work for anybody you disagree with. Just say they're brainwashed, and you win.



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