The Benefits of the “Weaker Argument”

By John W. Morehead

One of the things I’m passionate about is my concern about the way in which Evangelicals try to share their heart-felt concerns about their religious convictions with others. Many times it takes the form of sternly presenting the doctrinal propositions of our faith, which seem all too true and reasonable to us, and coupling that with strong arguments, if not attacks against others. In its most extreme forms, this takes place when “street preachers” go to Mormon General Conference, homosexual gatherings, or Muslims festivals in places like Dearborn, Michigan, but also when Evangelicals go to Mormon pageants and hold up signs and shout sermons on the sacred turf of others. More often than not, we end up confirming the truth of our own views in our minds, and those we are trying to persuade end up never ever hearing what we have to say; they become defensive and entrenched in their own positions, and in the end Evangelicals have a huge perception as well as persuasion problem.

Patheos does a better job than many websites I’ve seen in pulling together diverse voices across the religious spectrum with people who do a good job of articulating their views. But many times the responses to these expositions of ideas are problematic, and demonstrate the problem of persuasive conversation foundation found in other venues. I recently came across an essay that relates to this challenge as it presents a counter-intuitive suggestion on how to be heard when we want share contrary perspectives with those that we seriously disagree with. The piece is titled “Want to Win a Political Debate?: Try Making a Weaker Argument” by Eric Horowitz from the Pacific Standard. The byline for the essay is “Gun control? Abortion? The new social science behind why you’re never able to convince friends or foes to even consider things from your side.” The essay is directed more toward the political end of the things, something desperately needed right now with the dysfunction in Washington, but it also has application to religion.

The foundation for the essay comes from research in psychology which indicates that people are rarely likely to find the arguments of others persuasive when they undercut those foundational ideas that contribute to their self-identity and self-worth. In fact, research shows then when shown data and arguments that strongly counter our cherished ideas, we tend to double down in our commitments to such ideas, even to the extreme. Horowitz calls this the “backfire effect:”

Research by Nyhan and Reifler on what they’ve termed the “backfire effect” also suggests that the more a piece of information lowers self-worth, the less likely it is to have the desired impact. Specifically, they have found that when people are presented with corrective information that runs counter to their ideology, those who most strongly identify with the ideology will intensify their incorrect beliefs.”

Instead, Horowitz suggests that the better way forward that will help people begin to consider our perspective is to offer a “weaker argument.” He writes, “We argue like boxers wildly throwing powerful haymakers that have no chance of landing. What if instead we threw carefully planned jabs that were weaker but stood a good chance of connecting?”
As I read and continue to reflect on this essay it seems to me that it has great ramifications for our rhetorical, dialogical, and apologetic strategies. Instead of firing our apologetic salvos that we think provide the unanswerable argument that our opponents should fall over and accept in defeat, what if we softened and “weakened” this approach and presented something that others might be willing to entertain because it’s not so threatening? Such a rhetorical approach sounds similar to the Apostle Paul’s recognition of God’s strength working through his personal weakness (1 Cor. 1:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:10).

I also think this essay has much to offer those who are tired of the frequent disconnect between people who are passionate and disagree about things like religion and politics, and who are not content with merely preaching to the choir. Perhaps it’s time for Evangelicals to consider offering some “weaker” arguments.

John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.

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  • Charles Randall Paul

    Very interesting piece. People must DESIRE to hear us if there is to be change. The weaker argument therefore has to include some ‘real and present’ danger OR ‘real and present’ friendship to create the desire to be heard. The latter is actually much more effective than the former–because most people these days do not find hell fire ‘real and present’.

  • MatthewS

    I like this. Thought-provoking.

    This may sound like a strange connection to make, but I just completed a course in addictions counseling. Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a common method for helping to evoke change in people. Part of the idea is that we all have a committee of voices in our heads. If you push a person one way, they are quite likely to side with the voices in their head that oppose you. But it can cut both ways. It is often possible to help bring out the voices on that “committee” in a person’s head that speak in favor of change. Since most people will listen to themselves more than to anyone else, bringing out their own voice stands to be a powerful influence. I see this “weaker argument” as having something in common with the spirit of MI, in terms of fostering dialog that pulls rather than pushes.