Common Fallacies Atheists May Encounter
When Dealing with Religionists
by Anton Thorn
Fallacies are roughly defined as errors of cognition. As such, it is a kind of defect in an argument. No system of atheology would be complete without a ready reference to some of the more commonly encountered informal fallacies on which religious arguments often rely. Below are descriptions of what I consider to be the more prominent fallacies that you might have run into yourself when dealing with religionists in the past, but didn't quite know how to handle them. However, this list is by no means meant to be a complete survey of the many fallacies one may encounter. Below I givetwo links to other sites that offer a more complete inventory of informal fallacies. It is recommended that one pursue his research into the various informal fallacies beginning with these links.
Below I have divided these fallacies into two broad groupings:Fallacies of reasoning, or logical fallacies, involve some faulty form of reasoning (weak induction, presumption, ambiguity, etc.) upon which general conclusions are often established. Fallacies of strategy, or dialogic fallacies, in which the relevance between an argument's premises and conclusion are suspiciously questionable at best, are primarily debating devices - used either verbally or in writing, but typically in some kind of dialogue - committed by arguers in an effort to attack, deceive or undermine their opponents or their opponents' position. Each fallacy is defined and presented with examples pertinent to submitting god-belief claims to atheological review. It is important to note that these fallacies are by no way restricted to those defending theistic claims; non-theists often commit these same fallacies, too. However, for purposes of offering non-believers an intellectual defense against such claims, this survey is presented here.
Fallacies of Reasoning: (Logical Fallacies)
While it is true that all fallacies are essentially defects of logical processes, some fallacies involve presumptive and inferential errors (here called 'fallacies of reasoning') while others involve an error of relevance (here called 'fallacies of strategy'). The reason for these designations should be clear in context of critical review of god-belief claims (usually involving fallacies of reasoning) and encountering apologists in verbal or written debate (wherein one is likely to encounter the use of strategic fallacies). Below are the fallacies of reasoning most pertinent to the Objectivist atheological discussion:
A list offallacies of strategy follows after a discussion of the fallacies of reasoning.
The most common instances of this fallacy that one will encounter in debates with religious apologists usually entail a denial - almost always implicit - of the fact of existence. For example, in constructing arguments of a cosmological nature, the apologist will attempt to posit either causality or consciousness as if they were not dependent on existence – as if they could ‘exist’ prior to - and therefore without - existence. This is the primary fallacy exposed by the Argument from Existence.
This fallacy can be graphically compared to one trying to lift the stool he's sitting on - it can't happen and it won't happen. Similarly, how can one posit a concept while denying its prior roots? The religionist, of course, will not admit to committing this fallacy for he usually does not see the breach; after all, he might not say outright that existence does not exist. However, this is exactly what he does say when he argues that he requires an explanation for existence (cf. "Why does anything exist?" or "How does the non-believer 'account for' existence?") or that the universe itself had a beginning. Fundamentally - if the religionist were consistent in his principles - the only appeal that could satisfy such arbitrary questions would be to non-existence, which cannot account for anything.
Identification of this fallacy is one of the most critical steps in dealing with the fundamental errors of god-belief. A firm grasp of this fallacy, what it means and how to correct it are essential in understanding the Argument from Existence. For a more detailed study of this fallacy, how it is necessarily entailed in the construction of any god-belief assertion and why the commission of this fallacy at the root level (axioms) of a philosophic code commits one to a whole series of further errors throughout consequent philosophic doctrines, see the section on the
This fallacy was first identified by Ayn Rand. See Atlas Shrugged - particularly John Galt's Speech, Philosophy: Who Needs It, specifically chapter 2, "Philosophical Detection", and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, specifically the chapter titled "Axiomatic Concepts".
The Stolen Concept by Nathaniel Branden, and Floating Abstractions and Stolen Concepts by J. William Pierce.
The questionable term, of course, in this argument is the term ‘creation’ which naturally requires the asserter to posit a ‘creator’ in order to justify its use. The arguer in this case did not make any attempt to show how premise 2 could be correct; it is simply assumed to be true without validation.
Another example of a circularity, this time at the axiomatic level of cognition, will be supplied by John Frame. John Frame is a spokesperson for what is called the Transcendental Argument for the existence of God (often referred to as ‘TAG’), which achieves nothing but to argue from the presumption of God's existence, not for God's existence (hence the associated nomenclature "presuppositionalist apologetics"). In one exchange in adebate with Michael Martin, representing an atheistic point of criticism of TAG, Mr. Frame stated that "Logic presupposes God and God presupposes logic." This is a blatant and interminable circularity – like a dog chasing its own tail. In the very same exchange, Mr. Frame seemed to recognize the error of asserting circularities in axiomatic concepts when he stated that "the chain of justification [i.e., of axiomatic reduction], of course, must end somewhere," but he failed to apply this principle to his own system. If axiomatic reduction must resolve in a terminus establishing an irreducible primary, then it cannot be true that "logic presupposes God and God presupposes logic."
The late theologian Cornelius Van Til (CVT), the supposed 'father' of "presuppositionalist apologetics", openly declared his embrace of employing circularities in his arguments.Click here for my response to an excerpted paragraph from one of CVT's books which one individual sent to me.
This fallacy is more often encountered than is usually detected, and detecting its occurrence sometimes requires great acuity. Since the fallacy is not restricted to any one particular level of conception, package-deals can be discovered between particulars as well as between broad abstractions, or even entire doctrines.
Common instances in today's culture is the equation of the vague, over-used bromide "family values" with the concept morality, often asserted when the speaker probably means virtue, which is the means of achieving values. Another instance is the equation of the "common good" with the concept just policy. Yet another instance would be the equation of economic power with political power. Each of these package-deals has been repeated and emphasized with the endorsement of high-standing politicians and media spokespersons so frequently that to question them seems socially blasphemous.
In more sophisticated religious apologetics, a frequently met package-deal is the equation of concepts with their referents. This package-deal finds its roots in Platonic intrinsicism in that it is an attempt to erase the distinction between an object and the concept identifying it. The catchphrases to watch out for might be terms like 'immaterial entities', 'conceptual entities', or 'abstract universal entities' (cf. Plato's non-material 'Forms'). Such package-dealing results from the attempt to treat concepts as if they were concretes existing externally, rather than abstractions or mental integrations. Acceptance of this distortion of reality allows the religionist to posit knowledge independent of man's consciousness, knowledge whose source does not belong to this world, but to another, supernatural point of origin. The famed Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen is well noted for his heavy dependence on this particular fallacy in his debates with non-Christians, calling the Laws of Logic examples of 'immaterial entities'. The root of this error is a package-deal.
Examples of frozen abstraction fallacies abound in conversations with religionists. The tendency of religionists to treat all moral virtues, for instance, such as justice or righteousness, as necessarily god-centered (belonging to not just any god-belief, but to their version of god-belief specifically to boot) is a prime example. Another example would be when sectarian Christians argue that their version of Christianity constitutes all of Christianity proper, while in fact there are so many versions of the same religion, each claiming to be Bible-based, that it's virtually impossible to keep track of all the variations on this theme. To put it into terms of concretes: While all apples are fruit, not all fruits are apples. The frozen abstraction fallacy abnegates this fact.
Another favorite frozen abstraction used by many religionists is the notion that atheism can only be defined as "the rejection of God". It is true that the concept 'atheism' includes the rejection of gods and god-belief, however this condition does not exhaust the essence of the concept. Atheism is defined as absence of god-belief. This includes outright rejection as well as lack of belief due to ignorance of god-belief claims (such as a newborn, who cannot possibly have a god-belief, or someone raised in an insulated society wherein no god-beliefs have developed and survived). Rejection of god-belief presumes both the familiarity with god-belief notions and god-belief claims as well as a decision not to accept those claims. If the concept 'atheism' applied only to those who had familiarity with god-belief notions and claims but chose to reject them, what concept would cover those who had no god-belief because of their non-familiarity with god-belief claims, such as newborns and individuals who have never heard of gods or god-belief notions? Certainly the concept 'agnosticism' could not apply here, for agnosticism entails this familiarity but a failure to decide one way or another instead of a decision to reject god-belief. Beware of this frozen abstraction; many atheists commit themselves to it, too, having bought the lie from the influence of religion.
Ascribing many of the Old Testament prophecies to foretelling the birth and ministry of Jesus, for example, are shown under examination to be instances of dropping the context of the Old Testament passages from which they were extracted. A brilliant, easy-to-understand exposé of this clumsiness among Christian apologists can be found in Tim Callahan's book Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (Millennium Press, 1997).
Context-dropping may be difficult to detect since it is possible for an arguer to hide or suppress some aspects of the context involved in order to argue his point. Therefore, extreme caution and scrutiny are recommended to those assessing god-belief claims so that proper recognition of any deceptive or evasive measures on the part of an opponent may be exposed.
There is virtually no limit to the scope and breadth that some religious defenders will go to in order to protect their god-beliefs from rational scrutiny. Consider the following example of a grotesque commission of context-dropping, which is quite involved. In my correspondence I have encountered Christian apologists who have persuaded themselves to believe their system of theology is sufficiently equipped to deal with the philosophy of Objectivism, particularly the Objectivist arguments against supernaturalism, god-belief and the like. While trying to wrestle with the significance of the fallacy of thestolen concept, first identified by Ayn Rand, one such apologist - in his glaring misunderstanding of what Rand meant by "stolen concept" - argued that any non-Christian philosophy employing rational means in its epistemology is guilty of 'stealing' from Christianity proper (as if Christianity were both built on reason and advocated reason, as well has held a philosophical monopoly on all legitimate appeal to reason).
When it was pointed out to this person that god-belief claims, such as those belonging to Christian philosophy, commit the fallacy of the stolen concept (as Rand identified it), this person replied, "They'll accuse us of engaging in "stealing concepts". Kind of strange, given that Christianity predates Plato and Aristotle, much less Ayn Rand…" When asked by another Christian (!) to defend this statement (who cited the facts of history, that both Plato and Aristotle predate Christ!), this apologist offered the following time line, calling it the "covenantal approach":
How well do the facts of history confirm this hopeful confabulation? By what sound method of reasoning - reasoning that does not commit itself to intentional carelessness in terms of its consideration of the context of relevant facts - can arrive at such a conclusion? Only by indulging in a blatant disregard for reality and context can one hope to arrive at such absurdities as this, and it is exactly this kind of 'reasoning' that non-believers are up against in defending their minds from the fierce dogmatism of religious distortion.
A classic example of a false dichotomy statement occurs in Matthew 12:30, which attributes the following words to Jesus: "He that is not with me is against me" (KJV). This statement, attributed to the messianic figure of Christianity by one of his followers (the gospel author), presents as jointly exhaustive two fundamental positions - total allegiance or total enmity - when in fact other positions are possible. In addition to these two positions presented by the gospel writer, one may: a) not even know of Jesus; b) have heard of him but has no idea who he was and what he was talking about; c) have a limited understanding of who Jesus was and his message, but not care enough to have a definite position; d) know who Jesus was as well as his message, yet view him and his message with an objective understanding of the historical context of the times in which Jesus lived, etc. Total allegiance and total enmity do not describe either of these possible positions, so the alternatives Jesus gave are not jointly exhaustive. Classic bifurcation.
Many theistic arguments regarding metaphysics are built on the false dichotomy entailed in the typical religious view of causality. Causality, argue many religionists, consists either of chance or design. This dichotomy boils down to two extremes: causeless or random action vs. supernatural intent. It is through the construction of such illegitimate alternatives that the religionist opens the door to posit the existence of the ruling consciousness which his particular religious code endorses. This bifurcation can be quite effective against skeptics who accept its unspoken premises and fail to prepare themselves with a rational answer in response. Should a skeptic accept this false alternative, he puts himself in the vulnerable position of defending an accidental universe riddled with random, causeless action, action whose causes cannot be identified or evaluated, action that can occur spontaneously without regard to the identity of the entities involved. Thus, acceptance of this common fallacy results in the skeptic's epistemological surrender.
The proper answer to this distortion is to recognize that causality is identity applied to action. No action can occur which is contradictory to the nature of the entities involved in the action. All action has identity (i.e., is not causeless), however not all action depends on the design, intention or will of a consciousness. Only when one speaks of man does these concepts become a legitimate issue.
The chance vs. design dichotomy can be seen to consist of two prior fallacies entailed in the word 'design'. The first fallacy is an equivocation on the term 'design' to equal 'supernatural will' (i.e., abnegating the fact that 'design' as a product of volition and intellect is only appropriate in discussions concerning man). The second fallacy is a frozen abstraction fallacy (see above) substituting 'design' for the broader concept 'causality' as if all legitimate causality necessarily involves a form of conscious intent (for this is the religionist's intended conclusion). Thus, the planets could not revolve around the sun because of their individual identities and their relationship to one another. Instead, there must be some intelligent influence at work which makes it all happen. Hence, argues the theist, a supernatural ruling consciousness (i.e., 'god') is responsible for these phenomena, and these phenomena serve as witness to its existence. The entire line of argumentation incorporating this particular use of bifurcation thus amounts to one large question-begging invention (see fallacy 2)Circularities above).
In a more broadly reaching example of bifurcation, it should be noted that many Christians are of the persuasion that there exist only two worldviews: the Christian and the non-Christian, or, the Christian and the materialist. This position carelessly overlooks numerous facts. For instance, this view fails to take into account that outside Christianity there are a plethora of different philosophies and schools of thought open to man. The term 'non-Christian' does not specify any one of these any more than it may serve to contrast it from Christianity proper. However, even this distinction is far from adequate in identifying the differences between, for instance, Platonism and Aristotelianism, both of which are not specifically Christian, yet are quite diverse between themselves. Quite simply, there is no particular "non-Christian worldview"; such a designation could only constitute a class of particulars, in this case a number of worldviews that are not Christian.
Furthermore, acceptance of this false dichotomy, Christian vs. non-Christian, (or Christian vs. materialist, etc.) inasmuch as it is taken as a jointly exhaustive categorization of possible viewpoints, also fails to take into consideration that vast amount of fragmentation and splintering within Christianity itself. There are tremendous disagreements, schisms, polemic and division among Christians, resulting in hundreds of distinct sects and denominations, each claiming to be the 'true' form of Christianity. Acceptance of this false dichotomy indicates the ready acceptance of afrozen abstraction (which see) of a particular strain of Christian theism.
There are two basic varieties to the false cause fallacy, both known by their Latin designation. The first is called post hoc ergo propter hoc (lit. "after this, therefore on account of this"). The post hoc false cause fallacy is committed when something is said to be a cause of something else simply because the first thing (said to be the cause) happens before the second thing (said to be its effect).
For instance, one may say, "The weather has gone crazy since man was on the moon." While it may or may not be the case that an increase of certain troublesome weather conditions has been noted since the late 1960's, to attribute such a phenomenon to man's landing on the moon is arbitrary and deceptive. However, since there is a temporal relationship between man's landing on the moon and the drastic changes in weather conditions on earth, a causal relationship is concluded, however erroneously.
Or, let's say the mailman rang the doorbell an instant after I switched on a desk lamp and I concluded that turning on the lamp caused the mailman to ring the doorbell. Similarly, when a believer sends a contribution of $25 to his favorite televangelist and gets a promotion at his job the next week, concluding that God is rewarding him for his generosity, this too would qualify as an instance of a false cause fallacy.
The second variety of the false cause fallacy is known as non causa pro causa ("not the cause for the cause") is committed when something is erroneously posited to be the cause of something else, but in this variety the conclusion is not dependent on the observed temporal relationship between the imagined cause and its effect (as is the case in post hoc).
For example, attributing the eruptive activity of a volcano to the anger of the sun god constitutes a misidentification of the nature of the cause and effect chain in question. Geothermal and tectonic activity of the earth are not the result of a grumpy god. However, early primitives, operating on a primacy of consciousness view of reality, mistook the effect (volcanic eruptions and earthquakes) as arising from some intelligent, 'intentionalizing' source.
Before the Age of Enlightenment, when western civilization began to open its eyes to Reason and its benefits for man, it was common to attribute mental disorders and physical impairments such as blindness and deafness to the work of demons or angered gods. Without the benefit of understanding the biological functions and needs of the human organism, pre-Enlightenment man felt completely justified in calling persons afflicted with abnormal behavior 'witches', 'possessed' or 'of the devil'. With the application of reason to the problems associated with man's existence on earth (a topic with which some parts of the Bible seem all too unconcerned), modern scientists and doctors have been able to determine the real causes of many illnesses and afflictions, and have even been successful in eradicating their threat to men in some cases. Religion and faith did not make this success possible.
The notion 'prayer' - insomuch as it is accepted and argued to be a means of communicating with the divine in order to persuade benevolent and enriching answers or favors in return - essentially entails a hope in the realization of a false cause fallacy. Prayer is basically a believer's begging plea to the supposed ruling consciousness either to change the facts of reality or even the laws of nature just for him. Again, such false cause notions stem from a primacy of consciousness view of reality, the idea that reality is contingent on some form of consciousness.
In at least one way, god-belief in general can be seen as one entire false cause argument, positing the universe as the effect or 'creation' of an 'eternal deity' hiding in a supernatural realm, that all existence was somehow 'created' (i.e., caused) by a 'ruling consciousness'. Such positions may be very enticing for some individuals who are easily seduced by the primacy of consciousness view of reality, for such a view preconditions an individual for accepting the notion of a ruling consciousness to the extent that he accepts it and confirms it in his conscious relationship to reality, often regardless of the resulting costs.
For instance, it may be argued that God exists because man is capable of moral judgment. While some theistic arguments virtually take this form, it is quite evident that the conclusion "God exists" does not follow from the fact that man is capable of moral judgment. A similar variation on this model would be any argument that attempts to establish the existence of God or gods on other facts of reality. For instance, it is argued by some that man can be certain that God exists (in one variety or another) because of the fact that man is capable of reason and science. This type of argument and its converse notion that reason and science are only possible because a god exists also commit the non sequitur fallacy, since the conclusion in either variant does not follow from its prior proposition. Some non sequiturs such as these have been developed to such a degree as to rely more so on overwhelming an opponent with confusion and sophistry than on any attempted logical connection between the argument's premises and its conclusion, thus appearing to seem true, while in essence it is merely a disguised fallacy or series of fallacies.
Hurley also provides a splendid example of an argument built on a weak analogy in order to establish its conclusion. He writes,
For obvious reasons, the attempt to compare the behavior of electricity to the behavior of water is erroneous, specifically because water, unlike electricity, is strongly affected by its reaction to the gravitational pull of the earth. However, it is just this kind of argument that is often employed by religious apologists in some of their arguments to defend their god-beliefs.
Douglas E. Kreuger, in his book What is Atheism? A Short Introduction (Prometheus Books, 1998), exposes the weak analogy essential to the famous evidentialist argument from design (also called the teleological argument ['teleology' is the doctrine that purpose is inherent in nature]). The teleological argument argues that, since nature exhibits evidence of design, then there must be a designer. The designer said to be established by this argument is said to be God. The argument is usually punctuated by an analogy between a known artifact, such as a pocket watch, and the universe as a whole, in order to show why it (the universe) must be the product of a designer.
Regarding this argument, Kreuger writes [pp. 138-139],
In fashion similar to Kreuger's critical scrutiny of the teleological argument, you, too, can learn to detect the fallacies inherent in any theistic argument with the proper know-how.
A common example of an equivocation occurs in English with the word 'faith'. Consider the following dialogue:
Here Person B exposes the fact that he's accepted a common equivocation on the term 'faith' which has two separate applications. In the first application, demonstrated by Person A, 'faith' in this case is equivalent to confidence, which is a moral assessment. Person A states that he has familiarity with the character of Jim and vouches for his integrity, which presumably has been demonstrated to Person A over the course of their acquaintance. Person B, on the other hand, assumes a different meaning for the term 'faith', a meaning linked to the subject of epistemology, for Person B alludes to faith as a method of claims acceptance. Faith in this case does not mean confidence, as Person A used the term, but the rejection of reason, an epistemological matter and as such a matter completely different from the former meaning of the term. In such a way, many religionists may attempt to argue the point that even non-believers practice faith-based thinking when in fact that may not be true at all.
The equivocated term in the example above is relatively easy to spot, and if all equivocations were so explicit, religionists and other practitioners of fallacy-craft would quickly abandon their use. "Most actual occurrences of the fallacy of equivocation do not, however," Hurley properly points out,
Some of the terms which are often equivocated in theistic apologetics include:
The temptation for defenders of god-belief claims to rely on the fallacy of equivocation may be so extreme that the apologist is beyond all hope of ever seeing the error himself. This is primarily due to the fact that religious terms and claims in general are intentionally elusive when it comes to matters of definition. One of the most important points non-believers should bear in mind is the fact that holy books, such as the Koran and the Bible, fail to define their terms. Because of this carelessness, the believers themselves usually inherit the task of either defining their doctrines' terms, or seek out those definitions established by someone they feel confident in calling an authority on the matter (e.g., priests, sermonizers, theologians, etc.). There is no substitute for definitions and their consistent use, however religious zealots are keen to sacrifice the meaning of terms whenever they feel their mystic interests may be threatened. For these reasons, this fallacy could easily qualify as a dialogic fallacy of strategy; however, because of its especially destructive impact in context of logical development, it is best categorized as a fallacy of reasoning.
Fallacies of Strategy: (Dialogic Fallacies)Back to Top
Fallacies of strategy, often called dialogic fallacies because they are most effective in the verbal discourse or written debate (dialogue), usually entail the assertion of a conclusion that is irrelevant to the premises presented in support of it, even though they have been dressed to appear as though they are logically relevant. Many theistic apologists are so skilled at what I have come to call 'fallacy-craft' that they themselves are not even aware that they are committing themselves to cognitive errors by their use. Consequently, although the flagrancy of the use of fallacies is often extreme, the errors themselves are more often than not seamlessly grafted into the rhetorical and syllogistic devices employed by theists in defending their god-belief claims. Hence, they may be difficult to detect for many non-believers, even those non-believers who have trained themselves to detect the instances of fallacy. But be assured, if a person is trying to use logic and reason to conclude that god or gods exist, there will be at least some retreat to fallacy which affords theism the only 'safety' open to it in the court of Reason.
The more common dialogic fallacies you can expect to encounter when dealing with advocates of god-belief include the following:
Again, it is recommended that those interested in continuing their enlightenment of informal fallacies visit the sites at thetwo links provided at the bottom of this page.
The fallacy known as the 'allegation of the neglected onus' occurs when an individual charges that his opponent's position does not sufficiently deal with an obligation that has not been shown to properly belong to the opponent's position. It can also be called the charge of neglected incumbency. As such, it constitutes an illegitimate attempt to discredit a position by asserting a charge that such a position does not sufficiently deal with an issue that does not legitimately belong to it. Inasmuch as this fallacy entails a mischaracterization of one's position, it resembles the
For example, a 'creation scientist' might assert that 'evolutionary theories' offer man nothing to resolve the problem of universals - the so-called 'problem of the one and the many' which has eluded many philosophers and schools of thought, thus implying that advocacy of 'evolutionary theories' amounts to the advocacy of failure in this regard. Obviously the statement to the effect that 'evolutionary theories' do nothing to resolve the problem of universals can be said to be true, however this does not constitute a failing on the part of evolutionary theories. The task of evolutionary theories (in biology) is of narrow scientific scope; their task is not to deal with problems of epistemology. An individual imputing evolutionary theories with this failure or negligence improperly imparts an essential epistemological task to a set of scientific theories. By its very nature as a study of specific scientific scope, evolution is not intended to offer man epistemological solutions, and to hold it to such obligations is indeed highly suspicious.
In some ways, allegation of the neglected onus resembles other common fallacies of relevance, specifically missing the point and straw man fallacies. This fallacy is akin to missing the point (ignoratio elenchi) for it often fails to take into account the fact the essential nature of a position (e.g., evolution or evolutionary theories) does not logically apply to the conclusion the arguer is trying to draw (i.e., failure of epistemological tasks). This fallacy also can resemble a straw man argument for it essentially entails a mischaracterization of the subject matter in question (e.g., evolution). Evolutionary theories are no more suited to handle epistemological issues than aerodynamic principles or geological theories.
The first form of ad hominem is known as ad hominem abusive. In this form the opponent attacks the arguer with verbally abusive language instead of attacking the arguer's argument with reasoned discourse. Ad hominem abusive is quite commonly encountered in today's intellectual vacuum, and is modeled constantly in our media. (Listen to a radio talk show sometime and you might be able to pick out a handful of ad hominem retorts in a matter of a few callers.)
Ad hominem abusive is commonly met on the battlefield between religious believers and non-believers, for each side may feel that the other is completely open prey for such insult. For instance, when I had presented one particular theist with a sound refutation of the outworn and dubious 'cosmological argument' (a standard apologetic argument), the theist found himself stuck and unable to recover his argument, and therefore decided to attack me verbally by saying, "Well, you're just an atheist! You have no love or God in your life!" Many theists believe such verbal abuse is wholly justified, even though it merely signals recognition of defeat.
But an ad hominem does not necessarily have to take the form of a verbal assault against an opponent. In the second form, known as ad hominem circumstantial, the opponent attempts to discredit the arguer's position by trying to discredit the arguer for some reason, usually one completely unrelated to the issue at hand. This form of ad hominem is quite common with many educated theists today.
Consider the following exchange I recently had with an advocate of Christian philosophy. The background to this moment in the dialogue is as such: While discussing the issue of axioms I had asserted that the only proper place to begin is with the fact of existence (this is the Objectivist position). My opponent, H-8984, argues that the only proper place to begin is with the notion of God, specifically the Christian God. At this point I asked my opponent the question, "Is existence contingent?" (Which essentially means: Is existence dependent on something prior to it?) My opponent, H-8984, responded: "Finite existence is contingent." Seeing that my opponent walked right into the snares of his own errant philosophy, I ceased the moment to inquire on the notion of 'finite existence' further. I asked, "'Finite existence' as opposed to what?" My opponent, H-8984, responded, "Infinite existence."
At this time I pointed out arbitrary nature of such a distinction, 'finite existence' vs. 'infinite existence'. I argued that to exist is to have identity, which is necessarily finite; to be something is to be that something. When I asked my opponent, H-8984, for him to define 'infinite existence', he merely replied with the statement, "God is infinite existence" (morebegging the question here, by the way). The dialogue continues from this point below (this example also serves to demonstrate a classic red herring fallacy as well):
Notice my opponent's last statement here (in bold). Instead of dealing with the principles I had provided that completely challenge to the point of obliteration his notion of 'infinite existence', H-8984 instead turns the debate from the issue at hand to that regarding the stability of my mind, hence thinking he has effectively discredited me and my position. This is a classic ad hominem circumstantial. (It is interesting that the same individual who committed this ad hominem circumstantial [H-8984] also recently stated to me in the same conversation the following comment: "Ad hominem is a nice escape, isn't it." The fact that this individual phrased his statement using the words he chose and punctuating it as an assertion rather than a question is quite telling, I think.)
The third type of ad hominem is known as "tu quoque" (Latin for "you too"). A tu quoque retort is basically a tacit concession on the part of the opponent committing this fallacy to the position submitted by the arguer, but with the attempt to discredit the arguer by asserting in some manner that the position argued applies to the arguer himself as well. The tu quoque ad hominem may also be called the "two wrongs make a right" fallacy.
For instance, many religionists are confronted with the fact that faith-based claims cannot by nature be validated by sound reasoning - they must be accepted on faith (hence they're called faith-based claims). While many religionists accept this fact as true, some will respond that the non-believer also holds to an irrational position for, it is argued, he must accept the claim that there are no gods on faith as well, thus attempting to put the non-believer on the same intellectually questionable plateau as the religionist finds himself. While the error of such an assertion should be readily visible (it takes no more 'faith' to accept the fact that there are no gods than it does to accept the fact that there is no such thing as the tooth fairy), what is important here is the recognition of the opponent's evasiveness. The fact that virtually all western theistic religions - especially Christianity - assert their claims explicitly on the basis of faith, puts today's religionists in a very uncomfortable and embarrassing position. There is little wonder that contemporary apologists are virtually silent when it comes to identifying faith as the acceptance of allegations without evidence and even in spite of evidence and/or reasoning to the contrary. There is also little wonder why contemporary apologists, having set before themselves the unattractive task of defending those same faith assertions, so often resort to ad hominems as an evasive tactic in their conversation with prepared non-believers.
For instance, the common example, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" presumes at least two things that may not yet be established: a) that you are married to a woman, and b) that you've had some history of beating her. It could be the case that you are not even married, or, that you are married but have never violently attacked your wife. Since the question is asked as a yes or no kind of question, no simple answer - if either of these presumed conditions is not fulfilled - is possible. A complex question of this nature may have tremendous psychological impact in the minds of an audience of a debate, or in the minds of members of a jury if asked during a trial, since guilt of the presumed conditions may appear to be established just by the asking.
Some so-called 'creation scientists' - i.e., Christian apologists disguising themselves as men of science - have been known to ask non-believers complex questions on occasion. The following is typical: "How do you account for evolved swamp gas being capable of conceptual thought?" While such a question on the face of it may appear to be legitimate in the eyes of unprepared non-believers, this question indeed presumes that the non-believer has accepted certain positions which he may or may not advocate. However, one need not go into the details of biological facts to determine that 'swamp gas' is not capable of conceptual thought to see the fallacy being committed here. The questioner in this case is presuming that his opponent is aligned with the characterization of evolutionary theories popularized by Christian authors like C.S. Lewis (though not completely without justification, considering some of the non-objective secular philosophy that abounds today). However, I have yet to meet any non-believers myself who believe that 'evolved swamp' gas is capable of awareness or thought (although there may be some who do believe this). Such mischaracterization as this is frequently met in dialogues with defenders of religious dogma, and such mischaracterization is repeated emphatically by these zealots without the slightest regard for intellectual honesty or compunction. (Furthermore, the notion 'evolved swamp gas' could only be argued by an exercise of extremecontext-dropping.)
An example of an obvious red herring is the following:
This argument starts out on the issue of the harmful effects of tobacco smoke, but concludes that smoking should be banned because government warnings are not being heeded. This example shows how easy it can be to argue for one cause (restricting individual rights) by prefacing it with a potent emotional issue ('harmful effects' in this case). Arguments of this fallacious nature abound in our society today, and unfortunately they tend to continue without counter.
Some red herring tactics may actually include one or more fallacies in order to draw one's opponent off track. Note how many fallacies can be found in the following argument:
The initial topic was how atheistic worldviews lead to an immoral lifestyle but immediately switched from this topic to one of crime and vice. Then the topic is again switched, this time to a more proselytizing theme, thus drawing the listener or reader off the topic. However, notice how the argument commits at least onenon sequitur (notably in the last sentence), as well as implying two false cause arguments (first, that the immoral acts listed in the second sentence somehow arise from the atheistic worldviews mentioned in the first sentence; and second, that a return to God's way will stem the tide of rampant immorality inferred to be wreaking havoc on this country). This argument also plays on a 'guilt by association' ploy which is frequently encountered in arguments where reason must be jettisoned and replaced by subterfuge in order to persuade listeners. Religious advocates, especially in America, have long pointed to the Soviet Union, for instance, as the end result of rejecting their god-belief claims. However, such arguments are entirely specious (see the future article [still under construction] on this very topic here to see why this kind of argument cannot succeed).
A red herring ploy can be especially easy to accomplish if clarity of the matter is easily obscured. The potential for murkiness is often present when dealing with individuals whose view of reality is fundamentally opposite to yours. The meanings of terms, often unclear themselves in the hands of religionists, are constantly shifting (see thefallacy of equivocation above). This shifting in meaning, if not checked, can be the ruin of any debate as no certainty is possible.
(Click on this link a good example of a red herring that qualifies simultaneously as anad hominem circumstantial.)
Probably the most common straw man arguments that non-believers should expect to encounter when dealing with persons committed to defending god-belief claims is the misrepresentation of atheism. While it is true that many atheists themselves are unaware of an objective definition of the term atheism, many religionists are often even more confused about its meaning and are quite apt to use this confusion in constructing arguments against non-believers as a result. The atheist's own lack of understanding in this area may only be taken as an endorsement of the theist's straw man argument.
Atheism is, quite simply, the absence of god-belief. Atheism per se says nothing about what one does believe; it is merely a negative as far as the question of god-belief is concerned. Usually atheism is taken to mean the explicit rejection of the existence of God or gods, or an advocacy of some sort or another. While these positions certainly may belong under the category 'atheism', neither of these exhaustively define the term proper. The idea that atheism means the explicit conscious rejection of gods exclusively is an instance of thefrozen abstraction fallacy. Rejection of gods is a species of atheism, not the genus itself.
However, in spite of the fallacy involved in this view, many religionists repeat it anyway, often unaware that they have accepted a fallacious position, and then proceed to add to that construct of 'atheism' an entire worldview system! Theists defending their religious view of the world will quite often treat atheism per se as a competing worldview in and of itself, which is fallacious, and then argue that this worldview is necessarily a form of naturalism (which is rarely defined), materialism - whether mechanistic (e.g., Hobbes et al.) or dialectic (e.g., Hegel, Marx, Cornforth, et al.) is not specified, or some form of 'rationalism', which they usually fail to define as well (and is completely ironic, especially coming from those representing so-called 'reformed' theology, for their 'transcendental presuppositionalism' has far more in common with rationalism as Rand identified it than Objectivism, which shares none of its traits).
Notice at this point that the theist embraces yet another bifurcation: atheism equals either 'naturalism' or 'materialism', which, many religionists would argue are one and the same. This view bolsters the previously identified bifurcation (see above): either you embrace a Christian worldview or a materialist worldview.
Once the theist has established his equation of atheism with either of these worldview variants, 'naturalism' or materialism, he then sets out to knock them down and claim a false victory for his worldview, completing his straw man argument. If theistic worldviews can only establish their 'truth' on ruins achieved by using straw man arguments, then what good are they in the first place? Can the Christian worldview not stand on its own merits? Or, must its representatives pursue its unearned, unmerited credibility by fallacy-craft?
The solution is for the religionist to realize that his generalities do not exhaust the possible choices open to man as far as which worldview he may adopt as his guide to reality. This is most likely the case because he has not identified his essentials - a skill that he cannot achieve by believing in deities, demons and devils. Furthermore, it is completely apparent from his acceptance of the Christian vs. materialist bifurcation that the theist is most likely completely unaware of Objectivism, the philosophy of Reason.
whenever an arguer poses a conclusion to another and tells that person either implicitly or explicitly that some harm will come to him or her if he or she does not accept that conclusion. The fallacy always involves a threat by the arguer to the physical or psychological well-being of the listener or reader, who may either be a single person or a group of persons. Obviously, such a threat is logically irrelevant to the subject matter of the conclusion, so any argument based on such a procedure is fallacious. The ad baculum fallacy often occurs when children argue with one another. (Hurley, 107-108.)
From this description of what the appeal to force fallacy entails, it should be obvious which particular appeal to force fallacy has lasted the longest in western history. It has been noted that neither the Old nor the New Testaments offer any arguments for the existence of God; this presumption is taken as fact throughout their pages without question. However, if it could be said that there is at least one argument presented in the Bible for the truth of its doctrines, it would be the ad baculum "Believe, or go to hell!" The New Testament is rife with threats of hellfire (Matthew 5:22, 29, 10:28, 11:23, 18:9, 23:33; Mark 9:43, 45, and 47; Luke 10:25, 12:5, 16:23; James 3:6; II Peter 2:4; and Revelations 1:18 to name a few). And this threat - of perpetual, unrelenting physical and psychological anguish, torture and suffering - is what the Bible offers to back up its claims.
While apologists vainly busy themselves with the construction of fantastically sophisticated and obfuscating rhetorical machinery - which even they themselves cannot understand, turning logic into a pretzel in order to establish the alleged 'truth' of their god-belief claims, the inevitable card at the bottom of their stack of arguments is the appeal to force. This much is indisputable, and no apologist for Christian theism can escape this fact, no matter what series of fallacies he decides to use in covering his conclusions.
For a synopsis of why all faith claims ultimately must rely on ad baculum threats, the reader is referred to Ayn Rand's essay "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World" in her book Philosophy: Who Needs It.
® 1999 by Anton Thorn. All rights reserved.
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Posted July 4, 1999