Can Atheism Be Justified?

skeptic's only, justified, athiest

In October, I started conducting interviews in the “free speech zone” at the University of Missouri. I sit at a table with a sign inviting “Skeptics Only” to come and talk about why they are skeptical about God or religion, and I offer them $5 for their time. A line of waiting interviewees often forms next to the table. Some aren’t even interested in the $5! Some sound justified in their views, and some struggle to articulate the reasons for their skepticism.

Ironically, an atheist friend inspired me to try this. Anthony Magnabosco, a nationally-known practitioner of “Street Epistemology,” runs a YouTube channel with 28,000 followers. He expertly engages in Socratic conversation with people, encouraging them to re-examine the reasons for their most deeply-held beliefs. While I disagree with him about God, I applaud how he models friendly conversation about religion and other touchy subjects.

Pleasant Surprises

believe, belief, think, rationalThe biggest surprise has been people’s candor and willingness to have their story filmed and put on YouTube. I was also pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness and depth I heard in many of their responses. Some point to Christians behaving badly as evidence against the faith. Some bring up perceived conflicts between science and faith. Others suggest that a loving God would not allow good people to suffer. These can serve as justifications for atheism.

Some atheists and skeptics, in an effort to gain an edge in the debate about God, will insist that they don’t need to offer support for their view. But nearly all the people I’ve interviewed can offer coherent reasons for their disbelief. I think this is how any rational person ought to respond. Whatever your position is on God, you ought to have a rationally justified basis for that position. You ought to have reasons for your view. Otherwise, it’s no different than blind faith.

A Real-life Example

In the video below, Lacey raises several legitimate reasons for her skepticism.

  • Religion often seems to conflict with science.
  • Christians fail to live up to the ethic of Jesus.
  • Good people suffer for no apparent reason.

Based on her experience and reasoning, she seems quite justified in her rejection of the Christian faith. Her “total evidence” can be construed to point in the opposite direction. But she also seems open to acquiring new evidence and re-thinking her conclusions. This openness further demonstrates her rationality and intellectual virtue.

resurrection, justifiedI probed for further thoughts on a few points she made. For example, if we take bad Christians as evidence against Christianity, shouldn’t we also take good Christians as evidence in its favor? And if we reject the resurrection account, then what alternative explanation do we have for the data (e.g., empty tomb, resurrection appearances, changed lives, etc.)?

Conclusion

I think, given a certain set of total evidence, atheism can be rationally justified. We all possess a different set of total evidence, which makes it difficult to compare our conclusions. What is rational for me may not be rational for you. But openness to hearing one another can help improve our set of total evidence, which may mean revising our beliefs. Do you agree?

Interpreting the Bible: Straightforward or Sophisticated?

Bible, interpretation

I recently debated (cordially) with a friend about the words of Jesus to Thomas in the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verse 29 — “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” My friend interpreted this to be an encouragement toward “blind faith,” while I took Jesus to be saying that those who believe based on the adequate evidence of testimony are even more “blessed” than those who see Jesus in the flesh. My friend takes his interpretation to be the straightforward, common sense view, and he sees my interpretation as strained.

When I make a complex argument for my view on this (or other passages), he contends that we shouldn’t need a PhD to understand this stuff–it was written by, and to, simple, every day people without years of graduate education. I can’t disagree with him on that point. But, at the same time, I believe we make mistakes in interpretation easily due to certain kinds of ignorance. What I want to do in this post is not debate this passage in particular, but rather to argue that the Bible is both simple and complex, both easy and hard, at the same time.

Ask Someone Who Knows

Eugene Peterson, BibleEugene Peterson, who recently passed away, wrote some of my favorite books and my favorite translation of the Bible (The Message). I trust him as an “expert witness” in this area. I trust Peterson for a few reasons. (1) He was a good man, by all accounts, (2) he translated the ENTIRE Bible from the original languages, and (3) he presents an honest and balanced approach to our question.

The Bible As Straight Talk

Peterson argues, in his book, Eat This Book (Eerdmans, 2006), that the Bible was written in ordinary language for ordinary people. This conviction drove his translation work. “I identified with the first writers and readers/listeners of Scripture, whose first concern had to do with living in the company of the Trinity while walking down the muddy roads of Galilee and Judea and navigating through the sexual chaos of Corinth.” (p.165) “[It] occurred to me that the first people who heard or read the Bible didn’t need a dictionary of a concordance. . . All these books came out of the common life and common knowledge of the people, many, maybe most, of them illiterate. Not unintelligent, mind you, but not schooled.” (p. 166)

Peterson agreed with the Reformers on the “perspicuity” of the Bible–“the conviction that the Bible is basically readable as it is. It is not a body of secret lore accessible only to an academic elite. It is written plainly for plain men and women. “(p. 167) This motivated him to work hard to capture the original ideas and intentions of the biblical authors and to translate them into contemporary language and idioms that the ordinary person can understand today.

Daily Bread

bread, Bible

Here’s an example of the tendency to overdo interpretation. For centuries, scholars assumed that the phrase “daily bread” (arton epiousion) in the Lord’s Prayer must have been a reference to some spiritual sustenance, rather than actual, humdrum bread. Part of the argument was that the term epiousion (daily) was not found in any other ancient Greek writings, and must therefore be a special “spiritual” word, obscured from pedestrian readers.

This, of course, all turned out to be rubbish. In 1925, an archaeological dig at Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) unearthed, in an ancient scrapheap, an ordinary housekeeping book. It contained a shopping list for chickpeas, straw, and . . . wait for it . . .  epiousion. It turned out that Jesus’ prayer referred to good old, fresh-baked bread. (pp. 147-150) Sometimes the simplest view is the correct one.

The Bible As Complex Literature

So how can I still maintain that the Bible contains complexities that require expert guides? One reason is what I call the “time travel” problem. Let me illustrate. In Back To the Future, Marty McFly experiences this problem while trying to order a soda at the local hang out.

Marty, who time traveled from 1985 to 1955, asks for perfectly ordinary soft drinks like ‘Tab’ and ‘Pepsi-Free.’ So why doesn’t the bar keep doesn’t understand?  Marty’s not using “mysterious,” confusing words, and yet, no one is 1955 would know what they mean. In fact, some readers in 2018 feel equally flummoxed by the terms. When we read an ancient text from another culture, we experience the same difficulties, but amplified even more. Instead of 1950’s America, we’re reading about 1st century Palestine, or 20th century BCE Egypt.

Peterson discusses these temporal/cultural complexities of exegesis and translation in an essay entitled, Eat This Book: The Holy Community at Table with the Holy Scripture.

The scriptural text is complex and demanding. The primary witnesses to God’s revelation are the Old and New Testaments: Torah and Prophets and Writings from the Old Testament; Gospels, Letters, and Apocalypse in the New. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek, languages that have, as all languages do, their own peculiar way of inflecting nouns, conjugating verbs, inserting prepositions in odd places, and arranging words in a sentence. Written on parchment and papyri. Written with pen and ink. Written in Palestine and Egypt and Syria and Greece and Italy. . .

. . . Each book has its own way about it, and generally a careful reader begins to learn how to read a book by slowly and carefully poking around in it for a very long time until a way is found. A careful reader (an exegete!) will proceed with caution, allowing the book itself to teach us how to read it. For it soon becomes obvious that our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyperspiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncracies of local history and peasant dialect expunged. There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be recovered. (pp. 2-3)

International Time Travel

Peterson understands that we, as readers, are international time travelers. And as such, we face all the problems that international travelers face, multiplied by 1,000. The original text makes simple sense to an ordinary person in the ancient world, but can confound modern readers. This is why Peterson felt so passionate about his translation.

ancient, Parthenon, BibleWhen my wife and I travel to another country, we start preparing with Rick Steves. We want to learn as much as we can about the history, language, culture, and geography of our destination. We have enjoyed “walking tours” in places like Athens and Barcelona while listening to Rick Steves’ narration piped through our ear buds. The places simply come alive for us, and we miss out on this without a knowledgeable chaperon. Peterson does the same with the Bible in his teaching and translation, informing and even correcting our experience of the raw text.

I think people sometimes resist this viewpoint–that the Bible often requires additional insight and effort to understand–for at least two reasons. First, they like the idea that reading the Bible is an effortless process, requiring very little intellectual work. They passively assume the Spirit will reveal everything to them. Second, skeptics want to flatten out all the genre distinctions and hermeneutical nuances in order to generate more problems and inconsistencies. This sort of fundamentalism helps make the atheist’s case.

Conclusion

study, BibleSo is the Bible straightforward and easy to understand? To the original audience, absolutely. But because we are international time travelers, we often need guides to help us understand what we are seeing. Additionally, interpreting any work of literature has challenges, and the Bible has these more mundane issues as well–verb tenses, vocabulary, context, literary devices, etc. None of these are insurmountable obstacles to understanding for regular folks, but they often require some work and a guide. The “first impression” of a passage isn’t always accurate (or complete), any more than my first impressions of the Parthenon were.

The take away here, for me, is that we ought to hold these two truths in tension as we read the Bible. We come to the text both adequate and inadequate at the same time. This should stir up humility and motivate us to put in our “due diligence” in understanding what is said. But it should also guard us against both discouragement and elitism.

How To Talk To Your Relatives at Thanksgiving

thanksgiving, civil discourse

Are you dreading Thanksgiving this year? Are you anticipating arguments and tension over religion, politics, and more? Well, I have the solution! Well, not THE solution, more like A solution. Well, honestly it’s not a SOLUTION so much as a way to improve things a bit. At least from your end. Right!

In the video, I share how knowing what you believe and why you believe it can make a huge difference in conversation with Aunt Gertrude this year. You don’t have to live in fear of those pesky disagreements any more. If you find the video helpful, feel free to share!

If you’re interested in the book I mention in the video (Alan Jacobs’ How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds), there’s still time to order it before Thanksgiving!  It’s a great first step toward becoming more confident in our contentious world.

(One idea I leave out of the video: approaching a conversation with confidence is great, but humility is also crucial! Never forget that you could be wrong. Confidence isn’t the same thing as absolute, dogmatic certainty.)

 

Epistocracy and Voting

driving, children, epistocracyIn our family of six, two of us can run for president, three of us can drive, four of us can marry, and five of us can open social media accounts. In this week’s elections, only three of us can vote. These restrictions limit our rights for good reasons. Take voting. We don’t allow children to vote because: (1) they may be unduly influenced by their parents , and (2) we assume they don’t have the requisite understanding to make a responsible decision. In other words, knowledge matters. 

This epistemic rationale takes center stage in the other restriction cases as well.  But how far should the “knowledge requirement” go? In his book, Against DemocracyGeorgetown philosopher Jason Brennan argues that voters should be required to pass a test on basic political knowledge. This would result in what he calls an “epistocracy,” or a rule by the knowledgeable. Only those who impartially educate themselves on civics and current issues (Brennan calls them ‘Vulcans’) would be eligible to vote, according to one proposal. (I encourage you to read this interview with Brennan and listen to this radio show to hear more about his intriguing ideas.)

Is Epistocracy A Good Idea?

test, epistocracyOn the one hand, competent voting sounds great. A great many of those who vote have no idea what they’re really voting for. Columnist Ilya Somin, in his Washington Post piece, writes that many people vote badly because

[t]hey often lack even basic political knowledge; and what they do know, they analyze in a highly biased way. Instead of acting as truth-seekers, they function as “political fans” cheering on Team Red or Team Blue.

So why not implement a simple knowledge test? Legal immigrants, before they can vote, must pass a civics test that many native-born Americans would fail. Why not require this for everyone?

As a passionate knowledge activist, I am generally in favor of anything that helps people improve their beliefs about important issues. But I have two main reservations about this plan.

Two Objections to Epistocracy

second amendment, arms, epistocracyFirst, from an ethical/political standpoint, universal suffrage protects us from certain dangers and should not be rolled back lightly. I tried to compare the right to vote to other rights, and I think one apt comparison is with gun ownership. The right to bear arms originally aimed to protect the citizens from the potential tyranny of their own government. We still keep some restrictions on who may own a gun, but we generally maintain high levels of freedom here. (Set aside the question of whether the second amendment still serves the original purpose.)

Similarly, not everyone uses their right to vote, but everyone could, and that’s the important thing. If voting is restricted to the epistocracy, then it is easier for tyranny to arise. Why? Because it is always easier to manipulate a few than to manipulate many, regardless of education or understanding. We can tolerate some bad voting in order to preserve this safeguard.

complex, country, epistocracySecondly, and the most relevant to my own research interests, is the problem of epistemic limitations. Several philosophers (David Estlund and Udit Bhatia to name two) have argued that the amount of knowledge needed for an elite epistocracy to effectively vote on national issues would be prohibitive. Our country is so big and so complex that it simply cannot be effectively governed by so few, simply because they lack the necessary insight and information. No matter how smart they are, they understand only what they can put their epistemic arms around. And this will always be less that what universal suffrage can collectively represent.

Ilya Somin agrees:

Even if epistocratic selection mechanisms work better than I expect them to, the resulting more competent electorate might still lack the knowledge needed to effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the activities of the large and enormously complicated modern state. That herculean task may exceed the competence of even Vulcans. Ironically, the main flaw of epistocracy may be that we don’t have the knowledge to make it work.

Conclusion

vote smart, epistocracyIn conclusion, the best way to solve this problem is to educate yourself and vote. Alternatively, if you know absolutely nothing about the issues at hand, you may have a moral obligation to abstain from voting. In either case, as you engage in public discourse about the elections, match your speech to your knowledge. If you haven’t looked into the issues, then just say , “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t know what to think yet.” And if you have done the homework, speak up and offer reasons for your views. And whatever you do, don’t let tribalism be a substitute for thinking!

Dealing With Doubt (Podcast), Part 2

Twenty-One Pilots, doubtTwenty-One Pilots captivates their audience, in part, because of their honest portrayal of a complex and often painful mental life. Along with anxiety and depression, they talk about their own struggles with faith and doubt. In their song, “Doubt,” Tyler Joseph writes:

[I’m] scared I’ll die of uncertainty
Fear might be the death of me, fear leads to anxiety
Don’t know what’s inside of me

Later in the song, he says that he’s “shaking hands with the dark parts of [his] thoughts.” This kind of experience isn’t unique to people of faith. The song can apply to a variety of contexts. But it poignantly portrays what many believers go through in their private moments.

I do love poetry and song, but I think there is also a place for careful thought and analysis to inform our beliefs. Joseph doesn’t answer the question, “Is it a sin for a Christian to doubt God?” or “What do I do with my doubts?” And that’s OK. But as a philosopher, part of my calling is to tease out these questions more precisely, so that  our worldviews can become more coherent and logical.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 2 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” Philosopher Andrew Moon (Virginia Commonwealth University) has influenced my thinking a great deal in this area. I borrow Moon’s distinction between “verb doubt” and “noun doubt,” and show how it helps us understand the relation between doubt and faith. I also discuss, in this episode, some of the problem passages in the Bible that seem to portray doubt as sin.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Dealing With Doubt

doubt, faith, beliefWe all deal with doubt, no matter what you believe. It is a normal, healthy part of a thinking life. But doubts can cause distress and anxiety for many of us, especially when we think it’s wrong to have doubts, or when we really want to believe something.

Most of us experience significant doubts between middle school and college, when we really start asking questions. Too often, when we go to adults or teachers for help, they dismiss our concerns or imply that there is something wrong with us. (I suspect this is because most adults also have unanswered doubts!) Tragically, this can cause many young people to abandon their beliefs prematurely.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 1 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” I think the model I propose helps anyone who wrestles with the interplay between doubt and belief, whether Christian or otherwise. This model is still a work in progress, so feel free to push back on it or ask questions.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

The Legend of Ezekiel Bulver

BulverHere’s how the legend began: Ezekiel Bulver, at the tender age of five, once heard two people having a dispute. (I’ve modernized the story a bit.) The first person insisted that the sum of two sides of any triangle will always be greater than the length of the third side. The second person argued that the first person only believed that because he was a socialist.

“At that moment”, Ezekiel Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

You’ve never heard of Ezekiel Bulver? Astonishing! Anyone who wants to gain some measure of freedom from their all-too-human tendencies to use poor logic and to cut through the confusing clutter of contemporary media, needs to understand Bulver. Well, no worries–here’s a clever little doodle video to bring you up to speed . . .

*Thanks so much to the CSLewisDoodle YouTube channel!

The Other Side Is Evil (Moralized Disagreements)

us and them arroganceRarely do I come across something so closely aligned with my own goals in blogging that I use it in place of an original post. But this video is such a thing. In the context of the Kavanaugh hearings, Kyle Blanchette skillfully breaks down how we tend to view those who disagree with us as stupid or evil. This is NOT about which side is right, or even the reasons behind each side. It’s about how we judge those who disagree with us. Worth you time.

Logical Mistakes, Part 2

straw man, logic, fallacy

Superman, fallacy, logicLogic is like a superpower. Without logic, we are like Superman exposed to Kryptonite: vulnerable to attack and without our X-ray vision. But when you begin to acquire skill in logic, you experience the powers natural to a flourishing human being. You won’t see through walls, but you’ll see through manipulative commercial and political advertisements. You can’t bounce bullets off your chest, but emotional appeals without logic will be useless against you. 

For example, many “attack ads” exaggerate negatives and omit important details in order to sound more persuasive. Also, most ads for consumer products use sentimentality and humor to give you a warm fuzzy feeling about their product, even though those things are irrelevant to quality or value of the product. Here’s an example I just found:

When you understand basic logic, this sort of manipulation has little effect on you. It’s because you understand that warm fuzzies are not a logical reason to believe in the quality of a product. You can spot distraction and misdirection.

Bad Logic as Exploitation

Freud, logic, fallacy, advertisingIt’s important to realize that bad logic isn’t always the result of carelessness or ignorance. Sometimes fallacious reasoning is used intentionally to exploit you. I heard a great story on NPR  a few years ago about how a man named Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, used Freud’s ideas to pioneer the public relations/advertising industry. Essentially, he learned from his uncle that people aren’t motivated by reason and rational argument, but rather by unconsious, primitive desires and repressed sexual urges. Thus, the way to successfully market a product involved bypassing the rational and appealing to the unconscious, irrational and emotional. Sound anything like today’s TV commercials?

So, if you want to be able to (1) avoid making logical errors that often lead to false beliefs, and (2) resist the manipulation of money-driven media, then read on! (See Part 1 here.)

Eleven Logical Mistakes, #7-11

#7 Traditional Fallacy

X has always been done, so X is true and good

This mistake is grounded in what some call the “Is/ought fallacy.” Suppose we see a blue ball on the ground. Wouldn’t it seem odd to look at that ball and say, “That ball, and in fact all balls, ought to be blue.” You can’t simply look at the way things are and say, “that’s how they should be!”

Tevye, tradition
Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) wrestled with tradition

In the Christian realm, tradition weighs in heavily. But we sometimes become lazy and let tradition become a substitute for thinking. “That’s the way it’s always been done” doesn’t mean it should continue. In the Bible, we often forget the distinction between description and prescription. Actions are often described, in story form, with no intention of condoning or recommending those actions. Sometimes people in the Bible do bad things! One example worth considering is patriarchy. It’s true that nearly the entire Bible is written within the milieu of patriarchy, or male rule. But does the Bible actually teach and command that this is good and right? That’s a tricky question and needs careful analysis. It should never be assumed that, because Abraham and Paul did it that way, that we should do it that way.

#8 Confirmation Bias

Anything that supports my view is good/true.

Kavanaugh, hearings, logic, fallacy, confirmation biasThis mistake held center stage during the recent Brett Kavanaugh confirmation discussions. People who were already for Kavanaugh saw only heroism and persecution. People who were already against Kavanaugh saw only emotional intemperance and evasion. I’m not sure anyone’s viewpoint was affected by the precedings. This is because human beings are naturally disposed to pay almost exclusive attention to what supports their beliefs.

Not only this, but confirmation bias makes us more likely to endorse bad arguments, as long as they support our view. When a Christian hears something like, “Well, billions can’t be wrong!” she should cringe, not applaud. An argument is not good simply because it supports your view.

Even when we seek out additional evidence and research a debate, we tend to latch onto evidence that supports our view and ignore it when it opposes us. We need to be extra vigilant in our thinking and research so that we can avoid this tendency.

#9 Either/Or Fallacy

Claiming there are only two options when, in fact, there are more.

In the “conflict” between religion and science, we often hear only two options. “Either you believe science and reject religious stories, or you reject science and turn off your brain!” In truth, many subtle positions exist in between these two extreme viewpoints.

Nazis, false dichotomy, logicChristians often portray morality this way: “Either God exists or there is no objective morality and we’ll all become nazis!” Again, there are atheists who are very good people, occupying that middle ground. Pushing people to choose between your view and something ridiculous is manipulation and bullying, not logic.

#10 Bad Appeal To Authority

“Jones said X is true, therefore it is true!” (But Jones is not an expert on X.)

Legitimate appeals to authority can serve as evidence or reasons to believe a claim. “Supreme Court Justice Ginsberg says that this position is unconstitutional.” She is an expert and her opinion can be taken as evidence in favor of that view. But the appeal to authority can go wrong in several ways.

First, it is fallacious to claim that the authority’s word settles the issue. It is only one (weighty) bit of evidence. Not a substitute for thinking and reason.

Peyton Manning, authority, logic, fallacySecond, when the authority quoted is speaking on matters outside his/her expertise. Pastors sometimes make this mistake in speaking authoritatively on science. Similarly, scientists do it when they speak authoritatively on religion. Or if you quote someone else who isn’t an expert in that field, like saying, “Peyton Manning says this camera is the best!

#11 Straw Man Fallacy

Misrepresenting your opponent’s view in order to mock or easily refute it.

Bill: What are your views on God?
Ted: I don’t believe in any God.
Bill: So you believe we are just products of evolving pond scum and live in a self creating universe?
Ted: I didn’t say that.
(Example courtesy of Colin Burgess.)

straw man, logic, fallacyIn the “old days,” if you didn’t like someone (say, a politician or football coach), you would make a scarecrow, put the person’s name on it, and burn them publicly in effigy. Why? Because it is much easier to burn a scarecrow/straw man than the actual person. Straw men don’t fight back! But this is a sneaky or ignorant tactic to use in a debate. By constructing a flimsy caricature of your opponent’s view, it is much easier to refute it and make it look ridiculous. Instead, try constructing a “steel man” of their view — the best possible version of it — and refute THAT. Then you’ll have accomplished something.

Application

The only way to avoid these mistakes is with humility and vigilance. Humility helps us consider our views and our words more carefully, because we know how prone we are to logical error. Humility helps us focus more on the arguments and ideas, rather than egos.

vigilant, logic, fallacyVigilance helps us keep our mental eyes peeled so that we can spot the mistakes we make and prevent or correct them. Sometimes when I teach, just to correct for my own biases, I intentionally skew my presentations the opposite way or slightly favor the students who disagree with me.

If you want to build up your logical immune system, read a book on reasoning or visit online resources. I recently enjoyed (and highly recommend) Alan Jacobs’ book, How To Think. One of my favorite go-to websites for building critical thinking skills is the Critical Thinking Web. Leave your own suggestions in the comments below.

That Is Not Logical, Part 1

Spock, logical

Star Trek, logicalI loved Star Trek from the time I was five years old. The show inspired my early artistic skills, here displayed in the marker sketch made by my 5 year old self.   Star Wars hadn’t come out yet, so there was no competition, other than Lost In Space, perhaps. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Spock.  He unfailingly let Captain Kirk or Dr. McCoy know when they strayed from the logical path. Now, more than four decades later, I appreciate Mr. Spock even more. And I’m not alone. Some fellow Trekkie nerd made the early animated series into a collection of short logic primers.

You can find numerous other websites floating around the interwebs, giving lists of logical fallacies. But I recently was asked by a colleague to present a list of logical mistakes particularly common among Christian communicators. So, in no particular order, I’ve assembled them here. Most are common fare, available in logic textbooks. But a few of these are my own observations. (Also see this post and this post.)

Eleven Logical Mistakes, #1-6

#1 Hasty Generalization 

Taking one example and assuming all other cases are the same. 

puppet, logicalWhen I tell people I’m from Florida, they sometimes look at me and think, “But you’re so pale!” As if all Floridians are tan! Sheesh. But that’s a generalization or stereotype people have. This fallacy arises in Christian circles quite often in the form of anecdotal evidence. We base an entire philosophy of ministry on one story. “Well, Johnny’s life was changed when we did that puppet show!” So, we will now do puppet shows forever. But one story is hardly enough evidence to show that a particular outreach is really effective. Christians also love to generalize about men and women. “Well, my wife is shy and I’m assertive, so really that’s just the way all men and women are!” But that’s a double blunder! Not only is it a small sample size, but even if every one in the church was that way, the sample is biased. Walk outside the church walls and you’ll find much more variety among male and female behavior. Bottom line: all generalizations are bad logic! (Just kidding!) But really, be careful that your conclusion or belief stands on a significant foundation of evidence or “unbiased samples” before you shout it from the roof tops.

#2 Slippery Slope

Assuming that A is bad because it will lead to B (which is bad), but there is no clear causal or logical connection. 

dog, marriage, logical, fallacyThe DirecTV commercial from a few years ago illustrates this beautifully. “Don’t end up in a roadside ditch . . . get rid of cable.” This error occurs, in part, because of a confusion between possibility and probability. Sure, it’s possible that if you have cable, you’ll end up in a ditch. But it’s also possible that you’ll end up a millionaire! The important thing is: what is probable. Christians needlessly use this fallacious kind of reasoning in arguments against gay marriage. “If the state endorses gay marriages, pretty soon we’ll have people marrying dogs and cats — mass hysteria!” Sure, that’s possible. But there’s no clear causal or logical link that leads us to expect that such a thing will happen. So use a better argument! On the other hand, smoking five packs of cigarettes a day will probably lead to lung cancer, which will lead to hospitalization and death. That’st NOT slippery slope reasoning. 

#3 Perception Fallacy

It seems this way to me, so it is this way.

elephant, logical, fallacyIf you’ve never heard of no-see-ums, they’re tiny biting bugs nearly invisible to the eye. Suppose you asked me, “Are there any no-see-ums in here?” After casually looking around the room, if I said, “I don’t see any, so I guess not,” that would be bad reasoning. No-see-ums aren’t the sort of thing you would expect to see, even if they were in the room. So just because you don’t see any, you shouldn’t conclude that there aren’t any around. By contrast, if I claimed there was an elephant in the room, and you didn’t see one, you’d be justified in thinking I was crazy. That’s because elephants are the kind of thing you would expect to see if they were in the room. So it all depends on how reliable your perceptual faculties are in spotting that particular thing.

This mistake became especially apparent to me during the protests here at the University of Missouri in 2015. While black students came out in droves to protest racism on campus, white students were baffled. “What’s the big deal?” they said. “Aren’t they blowing this out of proportion?” Most white students just didn’t see the racism that was being talked about. But the truth is that white students’ “racism perception” isn’t very reliable. Most racism occurs when they aren’t around, and even when they are around, they are often oblivious to it. Minority students, however, are very practiced, from much experience, at noticing racism. So, it’s a mistake to go from “I don’t see it” to “it just doesn’t exist.”

#4 Deconstruction Fallacy

“She only believes X for emotional reasons/bad motives, so X is false (or can be dismissed).”

This error sometimes goes by the name “genetic fallacy,” but I’ve never cared for that label. I like the term ‘deconstruction’ because I often hear people speak of “deconstructing” someone’s views by analyzing their cultural and psychological influences. In the religious realm, both believers and nonbelievers fall into this type of poor reasoning.

crutch, religion, logicalChristians will say of atheists, “they’re only atheists because of a bad relationship with their fathers,” or “they just want freedom from moral restraint.” Thus any intellectual arguments against God are dismissed. But the irreligious commit this classic blunder as well. “Christians only believe because they need an emotional crutch,” or “they only believe because they were raised that way.” And the arguments for faith are dismissed out of hand. But sound reason recognizes that how a person came to acquire their beliefs is irrelevant to the truth of those beliefs. All truth claims must stand or fall independently of the motives or history of those who assert them.

#5 Tribalism Fallacy

“My ‘tribe’ is against X, so X is bad/wrong.”

Trump, tribe, tribalism, fallacy, logical Tribalism becomes, for many, a substitute for thinking. Violators come in all flavors: Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, etc. Take the debates about Trump. If you’re a liberal, then you know that liberals hate Trump, so that means Trump is bad. No logical argument required. If you’re a conservative, the same procedure applies. And when you find your Tribe holds a certain position, there’s no need to examine evidence or reasons. You instantly defend that position to the death! Conversations about the recent Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kanavaugh offer a consummate example. Don’t look at the evidence–just defend your Tribe at all costs!

Now lest I be guilty of mistake #4 (Deconstruction), let me clarify. I’m not saying that Tribalists’ views can be dismissed out of hand as false or bad, simply because they are Tribalists. I’m encouraging people inclined toward Tribalism to stop and examine their reasoning, and to be sure they are believing according to their evidence. And “my tribe believes X,” is probably not evidence for the truth of X.

#6 Circular Reasoning

X is true because of Y, and Y is true because of X. 

car, logical, fallacyLarry arrives home with his new (used) car. His wife, Lisa, asks, “was the car salesman honest?” Larry answers, “Yup.” “How can you be sure?” inquires Lisa. “Because he told me so.”

This sounds laughable, but it’s easier to fall into this kind of logical error than many realize. Christians frequently and famously commit this mistake when they defend the Bible.

Christian: The Bible is the Word of God.
Skeptic: How do you know?
Christian: Because it says so in the Bible.
Skeptic: But how do you know what it says is true?
Christian: God’s Word is always true!

This is a bad argument. There are many other logical ways of arguing for the truth of the Bible, so Christians need not resort to circularity. But it happens in other venues as well. “Abortion is murder!” “Why do you think that?” “Because it is the wrongful killing of a person!” (But that’s simply another way to assert “Abortion is murder.”) The bottom line is, be sure that when you state reasons for your conclusion, you aren’t merely rephrasing your conclusion.

Tune in next time for Part 2 of “That Is Not Logical!” Mistakes #7-11