Are You Arguing Badly?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Have you ever been arguing (holding a rational discourse where you are giving evidence to support your position) with someone and realized that they are not arguing against your position at all?  Instead, they are arguing against a distorted or false version of your position.  As I’ve discussed the beliefs of Christianity and the evidence for those beliefs over the last 7 years, I’ve seen this happen frequently.

What is going on when this happens?  After all, it’s pretty hard to get going with an argument if you can’t even agree what you’re arguing about.  There could be several reasons why your opponent is arguing a different version of your position.

  1. They may not understand your position even after you’ve explained it.
  2. They may assume they know your position before asking you.
  3. They may understand your position but purposefully distort it because the distorted version is easier to disprove.

Regardless of the reason, if your opponent is arguing against a false or distorted version of your view, then he is committing what philosophers call the “straw man” fallacy.  The fallacy is thus named because it is easier to knock down a straw man than a real man.

An example might be helpful.  Recently a Muslim commented on the blog that when Christian apologists are confronted with the inconsistencies and contradictions in the New Testament Gospels, they admit the contradictions but argue that the Gospels are still inspired and inerrant because each of the Gospels still contains the same basic message about Jesus and his life.

The problem is that the Muslim has distorted the apologist’s position.  First of all, apologists typically do not agree that there are contradictions in the Gospels.  Second, when Christian apologists are discussing the differences in the Gospel accounts, they are not discussing inspiration and inerrancy at all; rather, they are usually talking about the historical trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts (see this post for more on this topic).

The trustworthiness of the Gospel narratives and the inerrancy of the Bible are two disparate topics that our Muslim commenter is confusing by mashing them together into one phantom argument that no apologist makes.  So our Muslim friend is committing the straw man fallacy.  He is arguing against a false view that no Christian apologist holds.

If you are ever arguing with someone, make sure you understand their view before you engage.  I know this can be difficult sometimes (I struggle to do it myself), but it is so important.  If you don’t engage your opponent’s true viewpoint, you will never make any progress toward understanding his point of view and then making rational arguments against it.  All you’re really doing is knocking over straw men.

  • 4. They may understand your position perfectly well and be arguing against one of its logical implications, i.e., it is not really as much of a straw man as you think it is.

    That happens, too.

  • Bill Pratt

    That’s true. In that case, I would hope the person pointing out the logical implication is clear about what he is doing. I think it would be helpful to re-state the argument to make sure all are agreed, and then move on to point out logical implications of it. That would limit confusion.


  • Boz