Common Logical Fallacies In Debates with Theists
If you are someone who regularly debates, or discusses things with people, you will be quite familiar with logical fallacies. I tend to have numerous conversations a day with people on Twitter about religion and god. I am fully aware that Twitter is hardly the best forum for a debate—the 140 character limit makes it almost pointless. I have written elsewhere why I choose to debate on Twitter, so I will just sum up here. I sincerely doubt that I will change the person I am debating will have a change of view. However, there are many other people, both my followers and theirs, who are watching this. Many of my followers are not atheists. Many of the individual parts of a debate get retweeted many times. All of this is information that is worth spreading, and I feel Twitter is a decent way to spread information.
There are certain logical fallacies that seem to almost always present themselves and I want to discuss them briefly.
The Straw Man—This is an argument based on a misrepresentation of a person’s ideas or statements. It happens to me all the time. Theists will attack my atheism, based on something that has absolutely nothing to do with what I believe or said. I most often see it employed as an attack against atheism by using a foolish definition of atheism. I will see things like, “It takes more faith to be an atheist….atheists believe in nothing, so what do you have to live for…and other such nonsense”.
Argumentum ad Populum—this is the fallacy that states something must be true because most people believe it to be true. It is absurd and a common tactic by U.S. Christians on Twitter.
Special Pleading—This argument tries to exempt something from a given rule without justifying why it deserves to be exempt. I most often see this when theists argue for a great deal of time that everything in existence needs a cause (which is not necessarily true)….except for their god, who is obviously eternal… This is special pleading. If one can believe in an eternal god, why not eternal energy and stuff necessary to create a universe, etc?
Red Herring—This argument tries to take away from the central issue by bringing up a new topic or tangent. I see this the most when it becomes clear to theist that they are losing.
Moving the Goalposts— Is an argument in which evidence presented in response to a specific claim is dismissed and some other (often greater) evidence is demanded. In other words, after a goal has been scored, the goalposts are moved farther to discount the attempt. This attempts to leave the impression that an argument had a fair hearing while actually reaching a preordained conclusion. I liken it to “trying to nail Jello to a wall.”
False Dilemma—This argument involves a situation where only two options are considered, when in fact there are additional options that should be considered. The best example of this fallacy is Pascal’s Wager.
Argument from Incredulity—This argument relies on the person’s lack of imagination or thought. A good example is that “god must have done it” because no other way makes sense. Your lack of scientific, historical, or philosophical knowledge is a) not my problem and b) certainly doesn’t make your argument correct.
Appeal to Authority—this is where one claims an argument is true because someone with credentials said it was true. The fact of the matter is that what one person thinks is irrelevant. I see it most often when a theist refers me to something written by an atheist that implies there could be a god. It can very quickly lead to the argument for special pleading and confirmation bias. One atheist said you could be right? Reminds of that scene from Dumb and Dumber where Steve Carey says, “so your saying there’s a chance….”.
Cherry-picking—This is where someone points to a specific or individual piece of data while ignoring a significant portion of related data that may contradict that position. We often see this in relation to the bible. It would seem that many theists only want to focus on what is good in the bible and ignore the bad parts. I am often accused of cherry-picking only the bad parts. That is nonsense, there are some good moral teachings in the bible, and I recognize that…I just don’t ignore all the negative things.
We now come to the four most common logical fallacies that I see when debating theists:
Ad Hominem—This occurs when someone is trying to discredit an argument by discrediting the debater. I hear daily, that my argument is garbage because and only because I am an atheist and hate god. This is nonsense. I am atheist because I have not seen a good argument for the existence of god. If you have one, please share. Just because you think I am, and I quote from a Tweet yesterday, “…a fucking cunt and is your avatar (Darwin) must be a picture of your mum”, does not make my argument wrong. Though I must say, my mom has a much fuller beard.
Confirmation Bias—this is an argument where the party will only look at evidence and arguments that support their position. U.S. Christians are experts at this. Many will constantly point me to a fundamentalist Christian paper, book, or author one after another. Many have never read an opposing view. They also seem to refuse to believe that I actually read the Christian side of things. I have read some of Craig, Lewis, D’Souza, Zacharias, Plantinga, Strobel, etc—and I reject all of it.
Burden of Proof Fallacy—This occurs when a person tries to shift the burden of proof in an argument. It is an informal logical fallacy. This can basically be summed up as “I need not prove my claim, you must prove it false”. It also comes into play when we see, “I don’t need to prove my claim that god exists, you must prove he doesn’t”. It happens all the time. I will be debating a theist, they will have run out of options for their position and I almost always hear, ‘yeah well…what caused the big bang then?”. The theist will then try to attack something else. This is fallacious. You just spent X amount of time telling me your god was the cause. You failed and are now trying to bring down every other possible train of thought with you. A difference between me and most theists I debate is the following. I am quite comfortable saying “I don’t know”—as are most scientists when it comes to the cosmological or teleological debates. Theists punt to god—and it is where they go wrong (see the next fallacy). The fact of the matter is that the person making the positive claim, owns the burden of proof. It is up to them to prove their claim, it is not up to me to provide a rock solid alternative claim to prove them wrong. In the words of John Loftus, “Christians insist I prove their god impossible, before they will admit it is improbable”.
Argument from Ignorance—This fallacy seems to be the “grand daddy” of them all when it comes to debating theists. I saw a Tweet yesterday that I wholeheartedly agree with in reference to the Argument from Ignorance:
This argument asserts something is true because it has not yet been proven false or something else has not yet been proven true that answers the same question. The most common example of this is that “god did it” because you don’t have a concrete answer for why “it” happened. Simply because we are still looking for all of the answers to our and our universe’s origins does not mean that the answer “god did it” is acceptable. One would need to show how/why/when god did it. It is not an answer and only raises more questions. You see, when for example, cosmologists give us an answer for exactly how our universe came into being that is accepted as fact, it will be proven in such a way that anyone who wants to take the time to learn the required math will be able to see. That is how science works. If the theist is proposing “god” is that answer, then they too will need to prove that claim. That proof will need to withstand the exact same rigor that a scientific hypothesis will need to suffer before being proven. If it can’t, then it fails. The god hypothesis fails every time. I am sorry if you don’t like that, but it is the way it is.
There are many more fallacies out there. For a good list, check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies
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