Argument Fallacies and How the Faithful Reason

Dave Armstrong

Dear Dave,

Hello. I was reading your Catholic blog and your latest debate, this time with a Lutheran, and wondered if you spent more time debating fellow Christians or non-Christians?

That reminds me, I recently looked up Sogn, a Christian with whom you have had discussions in the past, on homosexuality, abortion, vegetarianism, and, whether people can be saved after death. You seemed interested in speaking with him, perhaps because he is a fairly recent convert to Anglicanism and of a more moderate sort that yourself. Though I was particularly amused by this web exchange between Sogn and yourself in which you said:

Dave: “Modern folk do not disbelieve because scholarship has disproved the Christian faith. Modern folk disbelieve because they do not want to follow our Lordʼs call of discipleship.”

Sogn: “That is an extreme generalization and oversimplification. Itʼs also an ad hominem argument, perpetuating a stereotype that insults many non-Christians who have given a lot of honest thought to Christian claims and yet remain skeptical. As you say, ‘We are ALL selfish sinners’ and as such we all have motives to resist the call of Christ, including those of us who have already embarked on the path of discipleship. Regarding informed disbelief in Christianity, sometimes people simply havenʼt heard any cogent arguments for Christianity. Apologists might make more progress with honest nonbelievers if they would respect carefully considered reasons for disbelief instead of assuming that the only reason people are not convinced by Christianity is because of their wicked unwillingness to see the truth.” Source

Edward: The exchange, above, between Sogn and yourself also reminded me of the way you opened your first blog discussion with me, making me the “disbeliever,” for you wrote this…

Dave: “Christians believe… that there is a purpose to everything. We may never discover it in this life, but that makes it no less likely for a loving God to have some inscrutable reason for difficult-to-understand things like this… Edʼs skeptical take on this is clear… Godʼs promises are null and void, and obviously vacant.”

Edward: Dave, in my eyes you were overstuffing a host of questionable assertions/appeals into your first two paragraphs. Here are your assertions/appeals again, Dave, from your very first two paragraphs:

  1. “what Christians believe” [Not an argument in itself but an assertion/appeal of sorts.]

  2. “there is a purpose to everything” [About such an assertion much could be said, as well as meriting a discussion of the words “purpose,” and, “everything”]

  3. “We may never discover it in this life” [Another assertion, or perhaps an admission of lack of proof, or indeterminacy, at least in this life, and for some people.]

  4. “Loving God” [Assertion/Appeal]

  5. “inscrutable reason” [A weird combination of words about which much could be said, or perhaps about which nothing need be said, since if “reasons” are “inscrutable” then neither you nor I are “scruting” any of them. *smile* How can anyone tell that their interpretation of the “inscrutable reason” lying behind an unusual or tragic event is superior to another personʼs interpretation that their own philosophy or religion might supply? And in what sense is defending oneʼs beliefs via employing “inscrutable reason” an effective rejoinder to folks who think differently than you do? Again we have lack of proof or indeterminacy.]

  6. “difficult-to-understand things” [Assertion. It was difficult for me to understand why the words and promises of Psalm 91 that spoke of being spared earthly death or discomfort in the face of deadly diseases (or in the midst of a battle with an army of foes; or faced with a stone in the pathway of oneʼs toes), would be sung at my young friendʼs funeral, especially knowing that according to one ancient Biblical school of thought, divine protection and long life were the ultimate blessings, while a short life was viewed as a misfortune, sometimes even as a curse or punishment of God. But Dave, you saw things differently, namely that if I could be reminded right up front of a host of your assertions/appeals, you might be able to convince me that Psalm 91 contained a heavenly promise that could apply equally well to all manner of loving providential care and “wisdom sayings” in general—and hence I might be able to leave behind the “this worldly” dimension of that psalmʼs promises and teachings, no matter how clearly the psalmist appeared to be reiterating such promises in “this worldly” ways.]

  7. “Edʼs skeptical take” [Assertion. It hardly seems fair to label an article that merely mentions obvious questions a “skeptical take,” especially prior to proving all of oneʼs own supernatural assertions and interpretations that point to “inscrutable reasons.” You could have employed the more neutral less prejudiced phrase, “Edʼs thinking on the matter” rather than “Edʼs skeptical take.”]

  8. “Edʼs take on this is clear: Godʼs promises are null and void, and obviously vacant.” [Assertion/Appeal to “God” and “Godʼs promises.” In my own mind and in my original article I had been appealing to a particular school of ancient Hebrew thought that envisioned Yahwehʼs promises in a “this worldly” fashion, a school that this psalm seemed to exemplify par excellence, and was comparing that with the incongruous reality of a friendʼs youthful demise. Perhaps there is life after death, perhaps there is a God, I have my hopes, though not tied to any particular holy book or holy church. So, though I donʼt speak encouragingly nor enthusiastically of “Godʼs promises” in the psalm, nor encourage others to do so, I have my own larger hopes (and prayers in my own closet), and also my own doubts concerning the Bible being “Godʼs” word from cover to cover. Dave, you yourself himself admitted there were “inscrutable reasons” “we may never discover” in this life, for why “everything” happens as it does. I admit if there are reasons for everything that happens, I for one have not discovered them all, far from it, and if they exist they remain as “inscrutable” to me as they are to you, Dave, in this life. We agree there. I even know some Catholics or other types of Christian theologians who leave room for God and “chance” to work together in “inscrutable” unison in the cosmosʼs evolution, and in peopleʼs lives. The reasoning of that particular psalmist however, appears pretty “scrutable” (*smile* i.e., understandable) from the standpoint of ancient Near Eastern “this worldly” promises, blessings and expectations.]

Perhaps if I had simply written the above as my first blog reply, a brief reply, our discussion might have gone on smoother. I also recognized several things after our online debate, Dave, namely that there is a difference between people like me who simply believe in “mystery” and continue to ask questions and have hopes, and people like you whose lives revolve around particular “holy mysteries of the church” about which you believe you have more supernatural answers than I presently claim to have.

First realization: I could question the beginning of the Catholic Bible focusing on the creation myths with which it begins. But to a believer in the “inscrutability” defense, there is nothing even remotely questionable about God starting the Bible off with myths and speaking in mythical stories. Thatʼs as “sure” a start as any holy book needs apparently.

Second realization: Or I could cite a book nearer the end of the Bible, namely the “letter of Jude” in the N.T. that many scholars believe was probably not even written by Jude nor by any apostle but was a pseudepigraphical writing. And I could quote a verse that “Jude” quotes from a definitely pseudepigraphical source, the Book of Enoch, i.e., since “Jude” explicitly says that “Enoch the seventh from Adam” “prophesied” “such and such.” “Jude” thus cites a passage directly from the flat-earth book of Enoch and says that passage was a “prophecy” about what was happening to the church in “Judeʼs” day. So we have a pseudepigraphical author citing another pseudepigraphical author! But again thatʼs as good a way to convey “truth” as any to a believer in the “inscrutability” defense. I assume your answer, Dave, to all such questions is that “The Bible needs proper interpretation, and that is provided by the church.”

Third realization: I could critique the 600+ pages of the official interpretation of the Catholic church, the Catholic Catechism, a 600+ page book written to explain what Catholics believe about their 1000+ page Bible, and their church, and what they should practice. The Catechism of course is a document that can continue to undergo at least some future changes. But I think you would say, Dave, that if I criticized anything in the Catechism for not changing soon enough, or changing too late that I was nitpicking. “Look at the Big Picture” youʼd say. (But of course you wouldnʼt mean the picture of Christians persecuting pagans, Jews, and fellow Christians throughout the millennia, nor the history of doctrinal differences too numerous to mention, nor of todayʼs internal differences among Catholics.)

Fourth realization: My response to you, Dave, and to the Bible scholar whom I originally contacted and who chose to defend his faith at your site via that same “inscrutable” defense as you, probably can only be this…

I donʼt see a personal need to have a holy book nor a catechism to help me interpret what I believe about that holy book. I am capable of growing and learning, reading more than just two books. I am capable of citing inspirational bits of wisdom from a wide variety of spiritual and secular sources and deciding what sayings seem more “wise” and appropriate than others (just as the “wise men” who collected the “wisdom” sayings in the Bible did, even collecting some sayings from pagan Egypt as that Catholic scholar admitted).

Of course I do not claim to know as much as Catholic theologians do about ‘God’ and the ‘afterlife’ and what you must believe and practice as concerns that particular Church. Nor am I eager to join Catholicism and have to defend any particular side within todayʼs Catholic church controversies (both local and national, both spiritual and institutional) of which I read each week in various Catholic publications like the conservative Catholic Miscellany, or the more moderate/liberal Catholic publications like the National Catholic Reporter, or, Catholic Worker, or America magazine.

Neither am I enamored with all the “middle men” in religion either. I have also heard enough even from local Catholics who are my friends and relatives about local church politics, disputes, likes and dislikes, and the way people even in town here gravitate toward the more energetic and/or younger and more handsome priests and churches as an almost Darwinistic matter of course. (Those things donʼt change much from religion to religion. People who work harder and show more enthusiasm always attract more laity their way. It doesnʼt hurt to also be handsome, though thatʼs not essential in the religion bizz. Though perhaps thatʼs also more of a Southern religious phenomenon, since preachers have to compete down here for a limited number of congregants in the religion-soaked South.)

Neither do I feel myself drawn back to the days when my mind was abuzz thinking about how to politely point out to some other well educated, civilized fellow believer that they were in Eternal Error, or in danger of soon embracing it. *smile*

Neither do I feel I am without any spirituality. I have a closet and choose to pray in it. I see no reason to separate the doubter in my mind from the hoper in my heart, nor am I eager to divvy up my brain making part of me declare the other a heretic whenever I entertain certain thoughts, nor eager to declare others outside me heretics in some “eternal” sense just because our religious beliefs or practices do not all jive according to some holy book or catechism.

Personally, I began having questions about religion after studying the way the N.T. authors cited O.T. verses. The O.T. verses were not saying exactly what the N.T. said they were. Especially not in the attempt by N.T. writers to interpret Isaiahʼs prophecy to king Ahaz as a prediction of Jesusʼ “virgin birth” centuries later. And, typological defenses offered by Christian apologists struck me as also being unsatisfactory. Couldnʼt a God who wanted me to believe in some relatively well delineated church creeds, doctrines and dogmas reveal himself in a more directly prophetic fashion? Couldnʼt such a God do better than mere typological prophecies and typological fulfillments? Reminds me of that alleged prophecy about an “old coat” being “divvied up” by Roman guards at Jesusʼ crucifixion, call that a “prophecy?” The psalm itself isnʼt even talking about a crucifixion! Surely a few “prophecies” predicting the alleged darkness that enveloped the world; or the two earthquakes and “raising of the many”—as told only by Matthew—would have been more to the point? Neither does Matthew say where he even got some of his prophecies from, like the one, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” in response to Jesus being raised in the “city of Nazareth.”

I read several fascinating books in which Jews critiqued Christian missionary interpretations of their holy books. In fact for centuries Jewish scholars have been critiquing the Christian scheme of salvation in light of the Jewish Bible and its teachings about forgiveness from sin.
See for instance Jews for Judaism

Other questions also came to mind, like why did the Arian Christians have such a field day citing the first three Gospels, and the Athanasian Christians only had a field day citing the oldest last-written Gospel? Has the Arian/Athanasian controversy ever gone away, or was it merely legislated away under the Christian Roman Emperors, only to continue to reemerge again and again, from Unitarians in Calvinʼs day to Jehovahʼs Witnesses today?

Finding Christianityʼs truth began to appear to me more like having to tilt your head and squint and stand back far enough, until you began to see how the claims of Christian apologists “matched” what scant partisan evidence there is in the N.T. In the end I found myself standing back so far that I was outside the fold. *smile* (Prior to leaving I defended Christianity in long letters for several years with three close friends, two of whom had left the fold before me. One of whom was never a Christian and whom I apparently led toward the fold, only to find him grow increasingly more liberal over the next few years, reading John Macquarrie, a moderate/liberal Anglican theologian. That person whom I was instrumental in helping to convert is no longer very religious if at all. Not so far as I presently know. The other two, who left the fold before me, remained outside the fold. One was Robert M. Price who now has two Ph.D.s one in N.T. history and the other in N.T. theology. Priceʼs free online work, Beyond Born Again, was written while he was still in graduate school, and left the fold for liberalism not long afterwards. He cites in that work all of the Christian apologists he read at that time. The points he makes about Christian psychology and Christian apologetics are fascinating and worth pondering. See his online book, Beyond Born Again.)

I also began having doubts about N.T. historicity, since the Gospels are partisan documents and many questions arise when you compare them one with another and when you start with Mark as ostensibly the earliest Gospel. If you ever read Straussʼ The Life of Jesus (which was even written before the days when Markan priority had become the agreed upon hypothesis), you soon become “Strauss-sick” just from his incredible knowledge of all four Gospels and his ability to point out obvious and interesting comparisons that you had never noticed before. Randall Helmsʼ books, Gospel Fictions, and Who Wrote the Gospels?, are also interesting. There are too many interesting books to mention in fact. Thomas Paineʼs simple older work, “On the Prophecies.” Michael Arnheimʼs work, Is Christianity True? I mention others in my testimony in Leaving the Fold. Jim Lippardsʼ concise article, “The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah” is free online and also very interesting as is his latest response just this year to apologist Christians (who wind up resorting to the typology defense mentioned earlier) Jim Lippardʼs personal testimony is also in Leaving the Fold.

Some of Jesusʼ sayings and teachings also worried me. But leaving those aside, I also learned about the way “Satan” grew to tremendous proportions and inflated importance (“the god of this world,” “the prince of the power of the air”) between the O.T. and N.T. The obvious growth of such a lesser figure in the O.T. to such mythical proportions during the intertestamental period worried me (even a professor at Wheaton College, professor Walton, who wrote the recent NIV Application Commentary on Genesis, took note of the way “satan” was a more generic term in the O.T., in fact the “angel of the Lord” who stood in the road before Balaam was called a “satan,” as were mortal men in the Psalms, and the “satan” in Job and in Zechariah are not even necessarily the same “satans,” as Walton himself admits! Get his commentary at any major Christian bookstore). Other things that grew during the intertestamental period was a pessimism concerning human history, attempts to sum it up in various stages, and alerting people to various “woes” before “the end.” Such ideas grew during the intertestamental period. In fact the Dead Sea Scrolls in that period contained predictions of a final world-wide battle of the sons of light against the sons of darkness (a literal worldwide Armageddon that was written before Rev.), and also featured some “last generation” predictions before Jesus was even born! The Dead Sea scrolls even mention a human being in heaven who was exalted by God to judge the world (Melchizedek scroll).


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