The Logical Fallacy

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:

NotSoAngryAtheist ‏@NSAAtheist

@GearGuyNY Iit’s the #1 fallacy I’ve encountered by far. Being able to recognize it can get an #atheist through about 85% of all arguments.

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

Grundy over at Deity Shmeity also had a good post on this a while back which referred readers to another great list which you can find here: http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.

—-RB

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30 thoughts on “The Logical Fallacy

  1. Ahab from United States

    Here's a rainy day activity — pick a Christian apologetics book from the past thirty years at random. Take a highlighter and highlight every passage that uses one of these logical fallacies. I promise your highlighter will be out of ink by the time you're done.

    In all seriousness, everyone needs to be familiar with these logical fallacies in order to make good choices in life. These fallacies are used constantly by religious figures, politicians, advertizers, etc. to sway people, but if we can recognize them, we can see through poor arguments.

    Reply
  2. Loren Miller from Bedford, OH, United States

    There's a corollary to the fallacies you posted here which I thought I would mention: the Dunning-Kruger effect:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Krug

    Time and time again, I run onto people who think they understand a distinction when they don't, like the old saw about evolution being "only a theory," never mind technical distinctions which they either aren't aware of or fail to recognize, frequently because of their own bias, born of their mistaken belief. Breaking that barrier can be as difficult or more so than any of the fallacies you've listed here.

    Not as though we have ENOUGH up against us as it is, eh? [chuckle!]

    Reply
    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Great point Loren. I often get the evolution is only a "theory" idea presented to me. The other one I see often is the meaning of the word "faith". People will say that needing faith doesn't require a lack of evidence because I have "faith" my wife will be home for dinner. That is nonsense and really a misuse of the word. I don't have "faith" that she will be home. I trust she will be home for good reasons. She is always home by a certain time, perhaps we spoke on the phone, etc. "Faith" has nothing to do with it.

      Reply
    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Not much, most of those people have trouble thinking outside of their own bubble. I had a conversation with a lady last night who assured me there is only one god, who lives up in heaven. I pointed out to her that Hindus would very much disagree with her…I haven't heard back…and usually don't. It is like the idea that not everyone is Christian or atheist (or Jewish–which can't really be ignored in the U.S.) is a foreign concept to them. Truthfully, they are the shortest conversations I ever have or they come out at the end when someone is throwing anything and everything at the wall and hoping something sticks.

      Reply
      1. Ahab from United States

        Oh God. I've heard the appeal-to-popularity argument so many times from Christian nationalists. Their argument is along the lines of, "America has majority rule, so we should be a Christian nation with Christian laws because Christians are the majority!" Their flawed argument ignores the fact that (1) America does NOT have tyranny of the majority, meaning that large groups don't get to ride roughshod over everyone else, (2) we have separation of church and state in America, (3) Christian nationalists do not speak for all American Christians (who are extremely diverse) and therefore do not constitute the majority, and (4) non-Christians are citizens too and have rights protected by law. I wonder if they'd feel the same about their appeal-to-popularity argument if America had a different religious group as its numerical majority? Probably not.__As for the idea that not everyone is Christian, rural fundamentalists in particular have trouble with the concept. It really surprised some rural fundamentalists when they learned that I live, work, and play alongside progressive Christians, Jews, Bahai, Buddhists, Unitarians, atheists, agnostics, pagans, and the occassional Sufi. Then again, I live in a suburban/urban area.

        Reply
  3. Trey from Tallahassee, FL, United States

    Nice post. Of course logical fallacies are dangerous to all who argue, but if we serve Socrates' common master (truth), we will be willing to acknowledge our own shortcomings.
    Ttrey3Bray

    Reply
  4. Cephus from Redlands, CA, United States

    If you learn only one thing from this post, learn what the "Argument from Ignorance" is, it covers 99.9% of all theist arguments. The sad reality is, theists really have no bloody clue what they're talking about, their beliefs exist because they make them feel good, not because they make any sense.

    Reply
  5. Grundy from Buford, GA, United States

    Great list. I find when talking to theists that many of these fallacies lead into one another. They might have a false dilemma because personal incredulity prevents them from buying another option. If I manage to explain why another option is valid, they move the goalpost making the original dilemma pointless.

    I love when apologists post about logical fallacies as if they aren't the primary violators of logic. While we may commit a fallacy from time to time, they aren't the underlying basis for our arguments.

    Reply
    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Great point Grundy. It is rare to encounter just one of these at a time. They do flow into each other quite well and easily. I suppose if someone is not really schooled in logic it is easy to do. Just listen to peoplein our everyday lives have discussions about things…we see these fallacies all the time…I even find myself doing it while telling my co-workers exactly why the Red Sox are the greatest team ever, and why the Twins will amount to nothing….

      Reply
  6. Paul Ballarin from Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

    I think you meant Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber, had to go pretty far to find something to nitpick :-)

    Reply
  7. Anonymous from Fuzhou, Fujian, China

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    Reply

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