Christian Cowardice and the Suicide Tactic

A popular tactic within the Christian apologetics community is to identify and reject self-refuting arguments. There is some wisdom here, but dig into this advice and you’ll find that it betrays a fear to confront the actual arguments.

What is a self-refuting statement?

A self-refuting statement is one that defeats itself. You can reject it without additional evidence or argument. Here are a few examples.

  • “This sentence is false.” If we assume that it’s true, the statement itself tells us it’s false.
  • “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded” (Yogi Berra). The place can’t be both empty and crowded.
  • “My brother is an only child.”

Popularity of this approach with Christian apologetics

Identifying a self-refuting argument is a quick way to parry an attack. You needn’t bother with a rebuttal if there’s no argument to rebut.

This is called the “Road Runner tactic” in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (2004) by Geisler and Turek. The atheist whose argument has self-destructed is like the coyote in the cartoon who suddenly discovers that he has run off a cliff.

The approach is called the “Suicide Tactic” in Tactics (2009) by Greg Koukl. He wants the Christian debater to show that the argument has committed suicide.

Here are some examples from Koukl’s book that are more relevant to apologetics.

  1. To someone who says, “There are no absolutes,” the Christian could point out that that sentence gives no exceptions and so claims to be an absolute. It defeats itself. Or to “There is no truth,” the Christian shows that the sentence claims to be true, thus defeating the claim.
  2. “The Bible must be flawed because people make mistakes.” But if people make mistakes, that sentence is itself subject to error. And if the atheist wants to salvage his position by arguing that people don’t always make mistakes (and that his sentence was correct), then the Bible might also be correct by the same loophole.
  3. “Only science gives reliable truth.” But why is that statement trustworthy? Where is the science behind it?

And that’s that! (Or is it?)

Koukl says, “When a view commits suicide, it cannot be revived, because there is no way to repair it. Even God cannot give life to a contradictory notion.”

Not necessarily. Only through a strict and uncharitable interpretation can we dismiss these statements as meaningless. Clumsily worded, perhaps, but not meaningless. In fact, each of these examples is easily salvageable.

  1. Instead of “There are no absolutes,” say, “I see no evidence for moral absolutes” or “If you claim that there is absolute truth, provide evidence to back up that claim.”
  2. Instead of “The Bible must be flawed because people make mistakes,” say, “The Bible can’t be declared flawless if it was written by flawed people” or “Bible manuscripts disagree, so we can’t be certain what the originals said.”
  3. Instead of “Only science gives reliable truth,” say, “Science delivers—consider the computer you’re typing on” or “If religion gives reliable new insights about reality, like science, I would like to see examples.”

If the point were that clarity matters and that we should be careful how we construct arguments, that’s valid, but Koukl is not interested in precise wording. He wants to use this as a caltrop or rhetorical trick, an excuse to avoid dealing with the argument. This is what a debater does; this is not what someone interested in exploring the evidence does.

Christian cowardice and avoiding the burden of proof

The honest Christian would want to find any truth behind a claim. Is it poorly worded? Then fix the wording. Watch out for games like this where the Christian looks for the easy out rather than actually confronting any issue that’s there.

Used this way, the Suicide Tactic is just a dishonest gimmick to avoid the issue. The larger goal of apologists like Koukl—and they’ll admit this—is to avoid the burden of proof. Making a claim and defending it is difficult, so he looks for opportunities to dupe the other person into doing that. He wants to attack, not defend.

In the first place, the Christian is the one making the remarkable claim—“God exists,” let’s say—and so is obliged to gives reasons to accept the claim. But more important, the Christian can never win the argument if they shirk their burden of proof. Sure, they sidestep being embarrassed by not being able to defend their position well, but they also sidestep the opportunity to convince someone that they’re right.

Apparently they find that shouldering the burden of proof to defend the gospel story is actually a burden.

Religion is a byproduct of fear.
For much of human history, it may have been a necessary evil,
but why was it more evil than necessary?
Isn’t killing people in the name of God
a pretty good definition of insanity?

— Arthur C. Clarke

Image credit: davidd, flickr, CC

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • busterggi

    Of course there’s no proof – that’s why faith is emphasized, it is the opposite of proof.

    • MNb

      Exactly! Now if they were honest enough to admit it I think the world might become a better place. There wouldn’t be much use left for BobS’ blog though.
      Alas for the world and fortunately for BobS apologists want to have it both ways.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        I’d be happy to be put out of business for lack of nutty things to write about.

        • RichardSRussell

          Yeah, I always tell my friends that we atheists are like the Rural Electrification Administration or the Women’s Suffrage Movement: We want nothing more than to put ourselves out of business.

  • Dys

    This reminds me somewhat of the semantic word games presuppositionalists engage in to kill off conversations.

    • Greg G.

      This new blog article would be a good place to post today’s xkcd cartoon. It’s your turn.

  • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

    Premise 1: If God exists, then there would be no apologists and theists would find apologetics useless and pointless.

    Premise 2: There are apologists and theists do find apologetics useful and not pointless.

    Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.

    • Greg G.

      Does that mean that apologists and theists are not so much trying to validate God’s existence but they are trying to validate their own?

      • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

        Yes.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      Slight reformulation: “…there would be no NEED FOR apologists…”

  • Cognissive Disco Dance

    I’d like to know Koukl’s definition of “flawed” lol. “flawed”: anything that is not the Bible. Or better yet, “flawed”: something that the Bible isn’t.

  • MNb

    “a dishonest gimmick to avoid the issue”
    The plusside of this is that christian apologists have forced be to formulate more precisely and clearly. I don’t want to provide them the opportunity to use this gimmick.

  • RichardSRussell

    As a certifiable coward myself — an adherent to the Monty Python vs. the Killer Rabbit principle of “Run away! Run away!” — I’ve always felt sad that people never have anything good to say about us. 8:^(

  • Max Doubt

    “The honest Christian would want to find any truth behind a claim.”

    It seems there is only one honest position for a god believer to take. That is to admit that they simply believe it and cannot defend it as true. If a Christian is honest and wants to find the truth behind the claim, he’ll soon be an atheist.

  • Gregory Peterson

    My brother can say that I was an only child. As the oldest, I was an only child until another sibling was born.

  • MR

    Watch out for games like this where the Christian looks for the easy out rather than actually confronting any issue that’s there.

    Oh, you mean like our faux lawyer friend!

    • Kodie

      Oh, you mean like our faux lawyer friend!

      He’s not my friend.

      • MR

        Ah, yes, sorry. I was trying for sarcasm, but that was being too kind. Faux lawyer troll.