It’s so easy to do, and we are probably all guilty of doing it at times, either intentionally or unintentionally. How often have we built a straw man argument out of an opponent’s position just to torch it and make them look foolish? I don’t think anyone is immune from the temptation to misrepresent someone’s view to make it sound absurd, thereby making our own view look great by comparison.
This common logical fallacy frequently occurs in political and religious debates, and sadly, many professing Christians engage in this deception. I remember watching a presentation by a woman who was promoting “KJV-Onlyism” (the idea that the King James Version is the only acceptable Bible today). My goal is not to dive into this subject in this post, but she provided a great example of this type of argument. She was speaking to a large crowd of church-goers and repeatedly criticizing the New International Version. The problem is that my wife and I watched it with the NIV in hand and checked the things she was saying. Over and over again this woman lied about what the NIV did or did not say in a particular verse—and she could get away with it, because no one (or very few) in that particular audience would have had the NIV with them to check out what she was saying.
I think there are many Christians who do this unwittingly in that they don’t properly understand the other position and end up misrepresenting it. But whether it is done intentionally or unintentionally, this is absolutely dishonest and unbecoming a follower of Jesus Christ. If you are going to promote the merits of your belief system, then at least have the integrity to accurately represent the other view to the very best of your ability. Because our own biases hinder us from having a good grasp of the other position we need to be very careful in how we deal with it.
In the past two weeks I have seen this tactic from several atheists applied to things I have written or spoken. (Sorry that I won’t provide links to the following pages because I don’t want to give these bloggers any extra attention.) One atheist blogger mocked my article for the Ark Encounter about Noah’s ability to construct the Ark. This person rambled on about how I claimed that Noah was an expert shipbuilder with a large construction crew. In reality, I listed several plausible scenarios, including 1) Noah being an expert shipbuilder, 2) God specially empowering Noah at the right time to build the Ark, 3) Noah hiring qualified people to build it, or 4) Noah studied for many years to become an expert shipbuilder. But this blogger didn’t care that I was only providing tentative answers to the question. This person either did not take the time to read a few extra sentences, could not understand the flow of a basic paragraph, or willfully lied to his or her readers.
A couple of days later I read a blog post from a self-professed atheist college student who had recently heard my presentation at the Creation Museum on the relevance of Genesis. He complained that he wasn’t given any opportunity to ask me any questions, but I stood right outside the auditorium for the next 30–45 minutes (as I do after every presentation) to meet with people or to answer any questions. This person could have easily stopped by and asked me any question he wanted to (maybe he was just intimidated by my size).
Also, this same student claimed that I made a big point in my talk about atheists not being able to adequately answer the problem of evil because they cannot even define what evil is. He said that I asked the question and then waited for any atheist to speak up, and when no one did, I just gloated to show that they had no answer. While it is true that an atheist has no absolute basis for defining good and evil, it is not true that I acted this way in my talk. I advertised my book, God and Cancer, after the presentation was over, which I do every time, mentioning that issue but I don’t pause and wait for an atheist to respond.
Finally, I’ve already seen two critics misrepresent my latest Ark Encounter article, which dealt with the issue of why the Ark Encounter is not being built in water. The person I was responding to in this feedback wondered why we weren’t planning on having the Ark in water to prove to everyone that it could float. Both skeptics quoted the following sentences:
I don’t think there are many skeptics and critics of Noah’s Ark who would claim that it couldn’t float—at least initially. Many large wooden vessels have been constructed that have floated without problems.
They mocked this statement, claiming that no one could possibly build a large wooden boat that could stay afloat in stormy seas for months on end. They cited examples of large wooden boats sinking after a few years of use. But here’s what both of the skeptics did not tell their readers. Look at the very next line in my article:
One of the major skeptical criticisms of the Ark and Flood account in Genesis is the contention that such a boat would not remain afloat in turbulent waters.
Notice that I acknowledge the fact that skeptics and critics claim that the Ark could not remain afloat during a storm. They don’t object to it floating initially, since a wooden boat would float, but they do claim that it could not remain afloat once the waves started battering it. That’s exactly what I said. But rather than honestly engaging the subject, these skeptics yanked my statement out of context in an attempt to make my position look foolish.
This type of debate tactic is childish and academically dishonest. If you want to truly debate a topic, then do your very best to actually deal with the argument(s) being used by the other side. Don’t lampoon them and distort the facts just so you can score points with readers, followers, or listeners who won’t take the time to check if you are really telling them the truth.
It’s important to ask why someone would resort to this type of move. Is the skeptic’s position so weak that they must lie about the other view just to make their own position sound better? If their beliefs are scientifically sound and my view so puerile, then it should be pretty easy to show that through honest discussion and debate.
The same questions apply to professing Christians who act like this in theological debates. Is your position so weak and incapable of honest defense that you must resort to “strawmanning” the other person’s view just to make your own sound better? As Christians, we need to do better than that. We must honestly engage the issues at hand. It’s far more important for us to accurately interpret the Bible than it is for us to twist it or our opponent’s view to justify our own theological systems and beliefs. Sadly, I’ve seen far too many Christians misrepresent the beliefs of fellow Christians while trying to score points for their own side, and I’ve seen far too many strain to defend their theological systems instead of the text itself.
I really don’t expect the atheists who want to attack Christian beliefs to play fair. Why should they? In their own worldview, we are nothing but matter that happened to come together at the right time and place by chance. As Carl Sagan taught, we are just insignificant specks on a pale blue dot. There really is no ultimate meaning to life in an atheistic worldview. While many atheists believe in right and wrong, and many of them do lead ostensibly moral lives, they have no ultimate basis in their belief system to define what is right and what is wrong. So why would these bloggers believe it is wrong to tell lies to make their point?
I don’t begrudge the atheist for acting this way, but I do have a problem with their hypocrisy when some of these same people accuse us of lying. Most people do have a problem with hypocrisy, but why would it be wrong in an atheistic system? I also have a problem with Christians acting this way. Honest and helpful debate can only take place when both sides are willing to actually be honest with each other and discuss the issue at hand.