Three years ago I wrote a post about six popular arguments that should be less persuasive than they often are.

1. The Big Nasty. One of the best ways to discredit your opponent is to give his position a nasty sounding name.

2. The Third Way. That Isn’t. The problem is when people argue for a third way like it’s the only sane option between two crazy extremes.

3. Categorize and Conquer. Once you’ve assigned the categories you’ve already given the strong impression that no one view is more correct than another. You sit above the whole mess and can see the parts of a larger whole.

4. Preemptive Strikes. This approach doesn’t anticipate arguments, it merely tries to preempt them by defining would-be opponents in unflattering terms.

5. Affirm Then Deny. In this approach you simply say one thing and then say the opposite. “I’m not saying you’re fat, I’m just saying your grossly overweight.”

6. We’ve Been Wrong, So You Are Wrong. The argument usually goes like this: “I can’t believe you are holding to these outdated beliefs. Sure, you think the Bible is on your side, but Christians used to think the sun went around the earth, and Christians used to defend slavery from the Bible.”

If you traffic the blogosphere, or just scroll down Hootsuite or your Facebook page, you will find these arguments in abundance. And they very often carry the day. But on closer inspection, the reasoning is often much less than meets the eye.

Like these four other arguments, which, when combined with the original give us an even ten.

7. One Story to Rule Them All. People love stories. People are moved by stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. Conservatives probably need to improve in their ability to make their ideas powerful through the use of stories. But just because someone has a gut-wrenching story does not mean the position they are advocating is morally praiseworthy. We see this kind of argument all the time. If the Democrats want to pass Obamacare, they will tell the story of some sorry soul who can’t get healthcare because he inherited a tragic condition. And if the Republicans want to overturn Obamacare, they will tell the story of a sad family who lost their favorite doctor and now can’t afford their old health plan. We respond to these stories and think, “That’s terrible. That’s not fair. Something must be done to help these people!” That’s a fine reaction, but it doesn’t mean the proposed plan will be effective or prudent.

Public policy always deals in tradeoffs, so if we are going to do more than feel knee-jerk sympathy for people we must learn to think beyond stage one (as Thomas Sowell calls it). This is especially true when debating economic policies or budget proposals. If the government spends a trillion dollars, somebody is going to helped by that. There will be stories to tell. The money isn’t just flushed down the toilet (although, you never know). Likewise, if funding is cut for something, someone will be hurt. With 300 million people in the country, someone is bound to be adversely affected by almost every policy decision. We have to see that there are always tradeoffs. Money doesn’t grow on trees. You can’t print it without negative ramifications either. We have to look at the whole picture and not just the one story that brings a tear to our eye.

8. Unequal Stats Equal Discrimination. This argument is tricky because there may be merit to it, but by itself it doesn’t prove anything.  It’s an easy argument to make and convincing to many people, but life is more complicated to expect that every field, every profession, every school, every conference, every department, every political body, every denominational committee, and every industry will equally represented by across the spectrum of gender, race, sexual preference, and religious belief. We tend to be highly selective in using the unequal representation argument, employing it when our issue is at stake and ignoring it in most of our day to day lives.

9. Some People With Your Beliefs Are Stupid. Human beings are fallible. We don’t live up to our ideals. Our hearts can find a way to twist any good idea, act in utterly inconsistent ways, and use the best of beliefs to justify the worst of behavior. Just like meeting one really nice Nazi family man does not make The Final Solution a good idea, so meeting one nutty homeschool dad does not make all of conservative Christianity a joke. If Jesus had Judas, we are bound to have some undesirables in our camps too.

10. We Feel Bad So Your Arguments Must Be Bad. Again, like most of these weak arguments, there is something important to consider. As Christians, we do care about others and don’t want to hurt people. But some people are easily hurtable. In fact, some people are looking for every opportunity to be offended, aghast, appalled, outraged, and generally put out. Can you imagine if Jesus gave in to the professional offense-takers in his day? He would have shut down his ministry after a couple weeks. Rational discourse in our day has been hijacked by those who operate with the less than cogent, but incredibly powerful, philosophical principle: I hurt, therefore I am right.

More and more, I’m convinced that one of the chief apologetic aims in our day is to get people to think. An introductory course on logic could really serve the cause of the gospel among younger generations.

What bad arguments do you run into over and over?

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30 thoughts on “More Arguments That Are Less Than Meets the Eye”

  1. Joan says:

    Like this – “More and more, I’m convinced that one of the chief apologetic aims in our day is to get people to think.” I need to make sure I am a person of thought.

  2. Darren Blair says:

    About #4 –

    There actually *is* a degree of value in being aware of who one’s opponents are in a given debate, if only so that you know how best to answer them.

    For example, a critic who gets most of their news from sources like “The Onion” is going to require extra time and patience in working with, as you’re likely going to have to explain otherwise basic material to them.

  3. Andy says:

    Hang on…The Onion is NOT a credible new source? I guess next you’ll tell me that The Daily Show isn’t credible either!

  4. Darren Blair says:

    A few years back there was an incident in which a Chinese newspaper actually sourced The Onion on one of their articles.

    I kid you not.

  5. MIke Shideler says:

    I like #9 the most. All are good.

  6. One argument I hear around here goes like this—

    “Don’t judge by the results of my actions but by my INTENTIONS”. As in “I really care about X people and raised money to build them a well but didn’t teach them how to maintain it, so it dried up”

    I know you run into this alot Kevin (being in a college town as well). College students are cause oriented but often do not get past how they feel about the cause. (I guess lots of us live by feelings alone)

    Love your list by the way

  7. Jason W says:

    Is this post a preemptive strike meant to categorize and conquer your critics by implying that you hold the keys to logical argument and they don’t?

  8. Claire says:

    Have you noticed the many arguments people make based on their faulty understanding of who God is or what He would or would not do? Those assumptions irk me. Instead of making sacrifices to a small-minded moral or ethical code, let’s attempt to understand and obey the God who is the definition of what is right and good.

  9. Kraig Van Dyke says:

    Here’s one: Disregard everything a writer says by accusing him of employing the very thing he opposes.

    For example, the way a responder won’t even interact with a writer’s argument when that writer vehemently opposes the intolerance of the responder’s beliefs… “Your anger over our (supposed) intolerance is intolerant, so whatever else you say is rubbish.”

  10. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    The False Antithesis Fallacy.

    If you’re not for this, then you must be for that.

    Or if you’re opposed to that, then you must be for this.

  11. Brian says:

    Going back to people who get most of their news from the Onion and Daily Show, I might also add to that list the Huffington Post.

  12. anaquaduck says:

    We can be swayed or lured by so much. Funny (to me) that the onion should be mentioned with it’s many layers of onion. Parables have been illustrated at times as eggs, something within something within something…There is a definite need to grow in wisdom, those x ray glasses can only do so much & we can’t even trust our own thoughts at times. “I am weak but Thou art mighty”

    Getting to the bottom of things can bring you out on top but some people will scrape the bottom of the barrel & be satisfied with an unsatisfactory outcome.

  13. Neil Long says:

    Two I get in seminary a lot:

    1. “An Exploratory Question Implies an Explicit Conviction”
    Example: Person A recently asked Person B on what grounds Person B calls the Pope a “brother in Christ.” Person A is immediately accused of calling the Pope (and Mother Teresa) unregenerate.

    2. “Classroom Debate = Counseling Disposition”
    Example: I get heated in discussion with fellow seminary folk about how we define, say, the atonement. Those who want to be more “irenic” (i.e., so open that they become conviction-less) assume that I would handle a pastoral conversation in exactly the same way.

  14. Mike says:

    The worst is “You say I’m wrong, so that must mean you obviously hate me.”

  15. Matthew says:

    Your article sounds like a preemptive strike to me. ;)

  16. Darren Blair says:

    anaquaduck-

    “We can be swayed or lured by so much. Funny (to me) that the onion should be mentioned with it’s many layers of onion.”

    The Daily Onion (http://www.theonion.com/ ) is a newspaper & website that specializes in satire, producing such articles as “New Google Streep View To Provide Panoramic Imagery Of Meryl Streep”.

    Although meant to be nothing more than a humorous publication, there are people who take its articles at face value.

  17. taco says:

    Kevin,

    You should turn these two posts of yours (and expand it some) into a short ebook. You have some really great contemporary summaries for each of these.

  18. Alien & Stranger says:

    A favourite tactic of anti-theists when they run out of arguments is to declare that I and therefore all believers in Jesus Christ are deluded. I’ve even been told that we need psychiatric help for our “psychosis”. They also ignore what they do not want to acknowledge, preferring to fire off favourite insults, and deride anything supernatural,e.g. miracles, as “anecdotal” or “unverified”. I’ve learned that it is impossible to try to reason with such people.

  19. Peter Krol says:

    A good bad argument: “But God told me to [sleep with my partner, leave my spouse, fight the church leadership, etc.]”

  20. Josh says:

    One of the arguments that I hear over and over again when it comes to unpacking certain truths from the scriptures, especially from Paul’s writings, is that the author didn’t mean what he said. When people use that as their argument they are short changing God’s Holy Word.

  21. anaquaduck says:

    thanks Darren, I thought as much (but wasn’t entirely sure) what I should of wrote is that the mention of the onion site got me thinking of real onions(called red but really seem purple)which got me thinking of eggs.

    Continuing on from yesterday…I find atheistic science & subjective morality to be very vocal & often unreasonable. Music is also a classic,I can easily find myself singing along to stuff I really don’t agree with.

    But even in church, trust me I’m a minister has its place but so does putting God & His Word first.

  22. Darren Blair says:

    Seems like half the new entries on urban legends website Snopes.com involves people mistaking articles from The Onion or other satire sources (such as “The Daily Currant”) as being legit.

    It should remind people that they can’t always immediately believe everything they read, and need to do their own research whenever possible.

  23. # 2 is a logical conclusion of the other 9. If we are able to set aside all of the hostility and mischaracterizations on opposing sides of an issue, then we should expect the solution to be somewhere between the extremes.

    And while I understand your point regarding # 10, as stated it is far too easy to conclude that statements by those who are hurting should be ignored.

  24. Brent says:

    Great article!

  25. Saw this video of Tim Minchen performing a song called “THE FENCE” – not a Christian perspective, but felt it was appropriate for the discussion. His point: It’s really not that simple to divide some categories.

    http://youtu.be/VGErC6QQdoc

  26. Tim McCormick says:

    In additional to conscious logical fallacies, we fall into other unconscious thinking traps. Check out this “best of FastCompany” article: http://www.fastcompany.com/3019903/work-smart/8-subconscious-mistakes-our-brains-make-every-day-and-how-to-avoid-them

  27. What’s up i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anyplace, when i
    read this piece of writing i thought i could also create comment due to this brilliant piece of
    writing.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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