By Spencer D Gear
If you want to get a sample of how Christians can use logical fallacies to hamper logical discussion, take a visit to an Internet Christian forum. I frequent four of them and too many Christians use them without knowing what they are doing. Most often I encounter Red Herring and Straw Man fallacies.
Let’s pursue a few examples:
The Hasty Generalization Fallacy
Here a person stated:
Personally I find problems with any and all of the early “Church Fathers”, they do say and teach a lot of wonderful stuff, but on occasion do not seem to reach the most likely interpretation of a passage. Since they are dead I really cannot questions them about how they came to some of their conclusions.
If we agree that any of these “scholars” could be wrong in their interpretation of some verse then how could we rely on their interpretation of any particular verse?
You might look to these scholars to see what others are thinking, but can you count on them 100% for being perfectly correct (I do not think they would want you to do that)?
My response was: Here you seem to have engaged in some illogical reasoning with a Hasty Generalization Fallacy: ‘This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough….The fallacy is committed when not enough A’s are observed to warrant the conclusion. If enough A’s are observed then the reasoning is not fallacious. Small samples will tend to be unrepresentative’ (The Nizkor Project).
When a person wants to write off the church fathers because that person disagrees with a small sample, an interpretation of a verse or two, this Hasty Generalization Fallacy has been committed and logical discussion on the topic is impeded.
The response was:
The problem is we are trying to establish a “rule” or “Law” or as you say: “measure it”, by which we determine truth. If the “measuring” tool we are using is wrong one time it could be wrong other times, so we cannot be “sure” we have the truth by using a measuring stick that could be wrong?
I do not have to determine all the “Church Fathers” are wrong all the time, just some are wrong some of the time to make that system invalid.
When it comes to truth can we even say: “the majority of scholars” would voice the correct interpretation on any Bible verse?
By their fruits we shall know them. I am looking for people that have the fruits Jesus produced and right off Jesus did not write a letter or a book, so I have to look further. Jesus taught the masses, but the masses are a fickle group and cannot be counted on, while mentoring to a small group over time can produce disciples like the Messiah. If you can produce Christ like people that can allow Christ to live through them mentoring their small groups over time you wind up with a world movement of truly Christ like people teaching others and not a group being “led” by some charismatic leader.
Note what is included here.
- This person’s determination of what is the correct ‘measuring tool’ – what this person considers is correct;
- When Church Fathers are wrong some of the time, it makes that system invalid. I ask: If a few motor vehicle mechanics make errors regarding certain vehicles that does not eliminate the use for qualified and generally competent mechanics.
- Try speaking about ‘the majority of scholars’ when that includes modernists, postmodernists and evangelicals.
- He has some views about mentoring small groups, but the concept seems to need some further explaining.
The Straw Man Fallacy
The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:
1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of a position simply does not constitute an attack on the position itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person (Fallacy: Straw man).
I often see this kind of fallacy in Arminian versus Calvinistic discussions where one side does not understand some aspects of the other. I, a Reformed Arminian, often see this in Calvinists accusing me of being Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian. Pelagianism ‘denies original sin and elevates natural and moral human ability to live spiritually fulfilled lives’ while semi-Pelagianism ‘embraces a modified version of original sin but believes that humans have the ability, even in their natural or fallen state, to initiate salvation by exercising a good will toward God’ (Olson 2006:17-18). Roger Olson has addressed many of the misrepresentations (straw men) against Arminianism by others (especially by Calvinists) in Arminian theology: Myths and realities (2006).
This is something that I urge all Christians to watch for in conversations, whether in the mass media or among Christians. Are the statements about Christianity that are being criticised accurate or not? Watch for evidence for the straw man fallacy.
The Red Herring Fallacy
(1) A person asked, ‘If you knew there was a way to have eternal life. would you take it?’ I replied, ‘Firstly, I would need to know if the evidence was reliable?’ His response was, ‘Do you know Christ as your savior’.
My comeback was: ‘That does not answer my question: “Firstly, I would need to know if the evidence was reliable?”
When this person came back with a response that was totally unrelated to what I wrote, he had committed a Red Herring logical fallacy, which is ‘a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic…. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim’ (The Nizkor Project).
(2) In another example, a person wrote:
God hardens for purpose, not arbitrarily. I do not suggest arbitrary yet you think that?
Whom He wills He hardens, well those He hardens He wants destroyed.
20 For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might utterly destroy them, and that they might receive no mercy, but that He might destroy them, as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Part of believing in being predestined is the verse in Romans 11,
36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
God is not capriciously mischievous, God hardens for His eternal purposes, known only to God.
Ephesians says of God’s will how He works all things.
The reply to this person was, ‘Okay – you just totally ignored my post’.
My response was that if that is what is done, I urge you to call it for what it is, a red herring logical fallacy.
‘A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic…. This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim’.
If people ignore your post and give a reply of their own making on a different topic, we cannot have a logical conversation with them because it is a promotion of illogical thinking with a Red Herring fallacy.
Begging the question or circular reasoning
A person responded to me in a forum:
Please explain to me how a person who is going to die has eternal life.
You didn’t address any of the passages I posted. Jesus explicitly stated aionios [Greek aiwnios] life is in the age to come. How do you reconcile the passages I posted?
This person had been pressing the point in previous posts:
- ‘One can know they are in the faith, however, one doesn’t receive eternal life until they are resurrected. I think we can all agree that Christians die, one who has eternal life doesn’t die’.
- ‘My statement isn’t contradicted, it’s pretty straight forward that eternal life means one doesn’t die, if one dies he doesn’t have eternal life.
- What is there that is not correct. A claim that one is now in possession of eternal life is in contradiction with other passages of Scripture’.
- ‘My point is that it’s not a done deal when one believes as many would suggest. Ultimately, salvation is the resurrection and receiving eternal life. Until that happens one is not truly saved. Paul in Ephesians, tells us that the holy Spirit is given to the believer as a “down payment” until the redemption of the purchased possession’.
When a person states, ‘Please explain to me how a person who is going to die has eternal life’, that person is perpetrating a begging the question (circular reasoning) logical fallacy. In his begging the question fallacy, his premise is that people who die do not have eternal life. Then, what doe he conclude? His conclusion is that this is indeed so. We can’t have a logical discussion when he does this ‘because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion’ (source).
Keep on the look out for how Christians and others use logical fallacies in their conversations. When they do that, it becomes impossible to have a logical conversation.
This does mean that you need to become fluent with a bunch of frequently committed logical fallacies. I have found this list and description to be very helpful at The Nizkor Project.
However, I issue a warning. You will not be seen as the most popular person around when you start to isolate the logical fallacies that people commit. I find it helpful to state the name of the fallacy and then explain why it is such a fallacy – briefly. I hope I have done that above.
Some of the most common logical fallacies are:
Olson, R E 2006. Arminian theology: Myths and realities. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic.
 bling#34, Christian Forums.com, Salvation (Soteriology), ‘Let’s keep salvation simple!’, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7816364-4/#post65463786 (Accessed 25 April 2014).
 Ibid., OzSpen#35.
 Ibid., bling#36.
 It started with this post by SavedByGraceThruFaith#280, Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved’, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7804923-28/ (Accessed 9 May 2014).
 Ibid., OzSpen#22.
 Ibid., ddrgkd#23.
 Ibid., OzSpen#24.
 Ibid., janxharris#8.
 Ibid., Ozspen#13.
 Butch5#260, available at: http://christianforums.net/Fellowship/index.php?threads/losing-salvation-after-getting-saved.54616/page-13#post-956261 (Accessed 16 July 2014).
 Ibid., Butch5#242.
 Ibid., Butch5#246.
 Ibid., Butch5#235.
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 19 November 2015.