Time to hold back those crocodile tears. Sadly, this is the last post on informal logic as we look to address the third major category, fallacies of relevance. I’m not sure I can top Part 4 with examples from social media, but I will try my darnedest to make this part both easy to understand and comical (even though it’s not really all that funny in the end). So, without further ado, let’s get started…
Fallacies of relevance are simply arguments whose premises are not relevant to its conclusion. There is a handful these fallacies: genetic, ad hominem, faulty appeals (pity, fear, mob, authority, the one, many, majority, and ignorance), irrelevant thesis, and straw man. These fallacies are more a question of degree; meaning, how relevant is the conclusion to the premise(s). Let us look at some examples to make more sense of this.
If someone reading this post (or any of my posts for that matter) were to say, “Whoa, Brian isn’t a Doctor of Theology. He’s a Doctor of Education. We can’t take his theologically related posts seriously.” The origin of my education has no bearing on the truthfulness of my posts, therefore this example commits the genetic fallacy. It occurs when an origin is used to falsify or discredit an idea. Here’s another example, “How can we believe the Bible when the authors knew nothing of modern science?” Again, the author’s lack of knowledge of modern science has nothing to do with the truthfulness of the contents written in the Bible.
This next fallacy is fun, and easy to identify because it happens a lot when critics try to silence Christians – the ad hominem fallacy. There are two types, abusive and circumstantial. Those I’ve come across recently seem to be more abusive than circumstantial; but that’s neither here nor there. An abusive ad hominem occurs when someone attacks the character of another instead of addressing the situation at hand (this also happens a lot in politics, so pay attention!). “How can you call yourself a Christian when the church has been molesting boys for decades? You are no better than them. I can’t possibly take you seriously.” Did you pick up on the reification fallacy (“…the church has been molesting)? Anyway, it is quite true that some Christians do some awful things, however, that has nothing to do with a truth claim for God. Here’s another example: “Many politicians are Christians and they lie all the time. I can’t trust a thing either of you say.” The fact that some Christians are less than truthful at times, does not necessarily mean other Christians’ truth claims are false.
A circumstantial ad hominem fallacy occurs when someone is accused of taking a position solely on his circumstances. Here is one of the most classic examples when arguing with an unbeliever: “You’re only a Christian because you were raised in a Christian home.” It definitely helps to be raised in a Christian home in order to become a Christian. However, there may be other underlying (independent) reasons as to why someone adheres to the Christian faith; e.g. morality, laws of logic, etc. How about this one: “You’re only a Christian because you read the Bible.” God’s Word certainly helps. However, there are usually other reasons someone becomes a Christian aside from reading the Bible.
Fallacies of faulty appeal happen when an appeal is made to someone (or something) not relevant to a claim. There is a handful of common faulty appeals:
- Appeal to Pity – occurs when we argue from a position of pity. “We atheists have been ostracized, demonized, verbally abused, and shunned by Christians in public discord for years. God has no place in/on/around government facilities.” Here, this person’s appeal to pity has nothing to do with his claim that God must not be represented on government grounds, and is therefore, fallacious.
- Appeal to Fear – happens when someone suggests you will be hurt or harmed if you do not accept/convinced of their claim. “God must never be talked about or taught in public schools. Otherwise, our kids could become intellectually stupid.” A student’s intellectualism has nothing to do with whether or not God should be taught in public schools. Therefore, it’s fallacious. Basically, any assertion that stems from, “You must believe my claim, or there will be consequences,” is fallacious.
- Mob Appeal – usually happens at political rallies and formal debates where there is an audience. When someone uses crowd/mob momentum (cries, screams, cheering, clapping, etc.) by saying something like, “We don’t need Christians running this nation. We need free thinkers! No God needed! We need people who are going to take us to the next level scientifically, so we can evolve into something greater than we are now! Do NOT let the Christians hold you back;” it’s an example of appealing to a mob. Statements like these use very little (if any) sound logic, but play off of the crowd’s roaring (positive) responses.
- Faulty Appeal to Authority – occurs when someone claims something to be true solely because someone, or a group of people, say it is. There are two types of appeals to authority: to the one, and to the many/majority.
- A faulty appeal to the one happens when someone says something is true because an expert says it is. We shouldn’t just outright accept such a claim. Some claims deserve some scrutiny. Therefore, this is very much a fallacy of degree. For example, “The Big Bang Theory is indeed true. Stephen Hawking has done more than enough research on the subject to verify such claim.” Although Dr. Hawking is a brilliant man who has done extensive research on the origin of the universe, this by no means justifies a truth claim for his findings. Although there are many scientists who agree with Dr. Hawking, there are a great many others who do not because of contradictory findings to Dr. Hawking’s claims. Additional information in these cases should be sought. Be careful not to just arbitrarily dismiss an expert’s claim as you’ll have to present a very good reason for doing so.
- A faulty appeal to a majority arises when a position is argued and said to be true on the basis that a majority of people believe it. Here’s one you’ve probably heard more than a few times, “HAHA! You think God created the universe in six literal days? Yeah right! The vast majority of scientists disagree with that awful notion.” The fallibility of humans and those blinded by sin makes this quite possible (see Rom 1:18-26).
- When a claim is said to be true because it hasn’t been proven false, it appeals to ignorance, which is fallacious. A classic example is, “How do you know aliens aren’t in outer space, or even here for that matter? No one has ever proven it wrong.” Here’s another, “How do you know there isn’t life on other planets? No one has ever proven there isn’t.” To show how nonsensical each of these claims are, we could easily respond with, “There cannot be aliens in outer space or here on earth, because no one has proven there is.” Moreover, “There cannot be life on other planets, because no one has proven there is.”
“Jesus was never sent by any God, or god, or gods or anyone to die on the cross. After all, I am not an advocate of such murder.” Have you ever heard something like this? If so, you’ve heard a fallacy of irrelevant thesis. It happens when someone argues a point that has nothing to do with the issue at hand. In the aforementioned example, the truth claim of Jesus being sent by God to die on the cross has nothing to do with whether or not someone thinks it’s murder. Here’s another, “The Bible cannot be infallible. It was written by men, for men, that’s it. Plus, I don’t believe in God anyway.” This person’s belief in God is not at issue here, nor relevant to the issue at hand; the infallibility of God’s word is.
Now we’ve come to our last fallacy of relevance, the straw man fallacy. This occurs when someone misrepresents his opponent’s position, then argues his point based upon the misrepresentation. For example, “Christians think that in order to be saved, you have to pray at least twice a day. The Bible teaches nothing like this.” I don’t think I have come across any Christians who hold to this belief (and I have met many). This is merely a distortion of Christian belief, and is therefore fallacious. Okay, just one more, “Creationists think you are only saved if you believe in the literal six-day account of creation. I don’t find that anywhere in the Bible.”1 Again, creationists say no such thing (if you’ve found one stating this, do tell!). Here we find yet another misrepresentation of the Christian belief, creating a straw man argument – fallacy.
I do hope you have enjoyed the logic miniseries thus far. In order to continue the miniseries by addressing formal logic in an easy to understand, yet challenging and interesting manner, I must take a little break. By little break, I mean at least a couple of months in order to put something elementary and succinct together, as formal logic can quickly become a huge turn off to the layperson. In the meantime, I will continue posting some fun apologetic topics. What are they? Well, you’ll just have to stay tuned!
1 Lisle, J. (2009). The Ultimate Proof of Creation: Resolving the Origins Debate. Master Books: Green Forest, AR.
Author: Brian Kurkjian, Ed.D