Conversations with the “Straw Man.”

Posted by on Nov 24, 2014 in Blog | No Comments

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and they charged at you with their words describing, in detail, the ideas that you hold or a certain group of people hold, say your beliefs? Well that is precisely the topic of this post; to understand the opponents view prior to refuting, discussing, or dismissing them is vital to intellectual integrity. Honesty and integrity must be of the highest importance during a conversation with someone especially if their view differs from your own. That is, if we are willing to build relationships with people rather than just attempt to tear down their ideas.

Constructing an exchange with others is not always enjoyable at the beginning, it takes patience and time but love requires and equips us for such a task. The first idea I would like to address under this topic is our responsibility to have working knowledge of the other person’s beliefs and thoughts about the topic at hand or their worldview at large. The only way I have found to discover important concepts like this is by asking question and by doing some heavy lifting prior or during the engagement. The one major mistake that many people Christian and atheist alike make is a fallacy that can start the conversation off not just on the wrong foot and lead to anger and strong dislike but even worse in my opinion, misinformation and all the time wasted upon it.

We all deal with the big epistemological questions but how we interact with them will either aid or toss a wrench in the mechanism by which we produce an outcome. The one way to guarantee a false outcome is to use informal fallacies to deliver a deathblow to opposing ideas. Let me define some terms so we are on the same page. An informal fallacy is; wrong thinking or illogical ideas based on the content of the argument rather than the rules of logical order and structure, confused yet. Let me define a particular fallacy and I think it will greatly aid in our discussion. The Straw Man according to Dr. Mark Forman, professor of Philosophy at Liberty University, is when “one takes another’s argument, distorts it to an extreme, and then proceeds to tear down the distortion in the belief that he has torn down the original argument,” he further comments, “the distortion…is a “straw man” because it is a false imitation of the original argument.”[1] Can you see how many times have we made an assumption of someone’s beliefs with out any investigation and by investigation I do not mean an emotional experience alone because someone could be a misrepresentation of an idea but their point be valid. So because we know someone who is (A) and they do the (B) it does not necessarily follow that (B) is the correct or consensus belief in a particular group. This is why we must understand someone’s perspectives and beliefs deeper than just our assumptions alone, otherwise the conversation deteriorates. Let me give you two examples of this argument the first one is made many times by Christians and the second made many times by atheists.

To often as Christians that do not understand the nature of the Moral law we can distort the idea that an Atheist cannot be good, morally speaking. Romans 2 and Genesis 1 make it clear that we are all made in God’s image and one aspect of that is that the Moral law is written upon our hearts. So to be succinct here we need God to have a law grounding objective morality but we do not have to adhere to belief in God to respond to it. So many Atheist are very good outstanding individuals, sometimes better than many professing Christians, but it is not in-spite of God but because of Him. The second example I will use from a recent Facebook Meme that is a quote from a famous Atheist who happens to be a comedian. Relating belief in God to a “monster in my living room closet, you can’t see him, but you got to have faith that he’s there…” Where is the “straw man” here you might ask? Well, there are a couple but the most obvious one is the misuse of the word “faith” although I will concede that many Christians believe faith is the absence of evidence or “blind” but when we understand how the biblical text defines faith its made clear that faith is not blind but rather based on a wealth of evidences and makes if very reasonable to trust in a God who we might not see. It would be better to deal with the real arguments in both of these positions rather than make one up and attack it.

If we are to further the conversation in a civil manner then we need to know these fallacies and not make then. Most importantly we need to respect someone’s ideas in a way that we don’t cut all ties and destroy our engagement. Instead do some heavy lifting and learn what the true understanding of a particular idea is before throwing “gotcha” statements at people. Remember the more dirt we throw the more ground is lost and the messier the encounter becomes.

Dr. Mark Forman; Prelude to Philosophy; Thinking Critically abut Foundational Beliefs; InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL; 2012