Drew Wilmott writes about how people – believers and non-believers alike – often use spurious arguments to defend their own version of the ‘truth’ while disparaging others’.
1. I only read/watch/listen to what I already agree with.
My views are, therefore, never tested, I never give myself an opportunity to be corrected, or to enter into the thought-world of those with whom I disagree. I see them (insofar as I see them at all) only through the lens of other people’s opinions. I never give them a chance to speak for themselves. I never give myself a chance to empathise with them.
2. I regard people who disagree with me as ‘stupid’
If I have a psychological need to be right, then I will seek to protect my ego by regarding the views of others as ignorant, hopeless biased, or downright malicious. I make myself feel better by thus alienating the person with whom I disagree.
3. I allow anger to colour the conversation
I end up trying to shout louder than the other person, or by using the passive-aggressive tactic of flouncing off. But this is probably not as a result of righteous indignation, but of my feeling I have lost control of the situation and need to regain power over the other person.
4. I use adjectives such as ‘logical’, ‘rational’ and ‘intelligent to describe myself and my argument
And, of course, I use their opposites to describe my opponents. But, of course, such descriptions are merely smoke-screens unless they have some substance (real arguments, real evidence) behind them.
5. I deliver assertions in the form of questions
‘How could a good God allow suffering’ is a question which, for many, does not express a genuine enquiry at all. The person is saying, in effect, ‘I can’t believe in a God who…’
6. I use ad hominem attacks
If I feel threatened by the extent of the other person’s knowledge, or the quality of their arguments, I may try to sidestep the problem by attacking their morality (‘Who are you to say that religion is morally evil: you’ve been divorced twice!’) or formal qualifications (‘Only academic with higher degrees in science have any right to comment on the nature and purpose of the cosmos’).
7. I go quote-mining
If I feel that I, or my arguments, lack credibility, then I go looking for quotes from the great and the good that will invoke their authority. Einstein is a good go-to, given his iconic status and the fact that he sometimes mentioned ‘God’.
8. I avoid self-criticism
Think about it: most people today are not won over by reason or by evidence, but by advertising. Our opinions are shapes by our feelings, more than our thinking. Too often, we believe what we want to believe, and what we already believe. In a rapidly-changing world, our sense of equilibrium is upset when we are asked to modify our world-view. Real critical thinking is at a premium.
The eight points present above are based on Drew Wilmott’s helpful article. I think that one or two other fallacies might be noted:-
9. I side-step the subject
I came across this recently while listening to a discussion between Colin Humphries and Robert M. Price on the miracles of the Old Testament. My impression was then when Sir Colin offered a possible interpretation of a miracle (say, the crossing of the Jordan as recorded in Joshua chapter 3) Bob Price habitually changed the subject, saying, ‘Yes, but what about…?’
10. I fail to address the question behind the question
To return to the question: ‘How could a good God allow suffering?’ there is a need to consider what the deeper question might be. Is the questioner simply being offering this as a knock-down argument against theism (‘I bet you can’t answer that one!’)? Or has she just lost a loved one after a long struggle with cancer? The difference is profound, and so are the responses required.