The Handbook: Understanding the Straw Man.

Christians are very, very fond of telling everybody who’ll listen that they just love non-believers. Oh my, they just love us to death. But if they keep talking, a curious thing happens: they show us exactly what they’re really thinking.

Enter Pastor Bo Wagner, whose biography blurb reveals that he is a pastor at a North Carolina Baptist church of the more loony and toxic variety (their “about us” page specifically defines their stance on abortion and equal marriage–and you can probably guess what that stance is; my goodness, how far the Baptists have fallen from their days of insisting that people’s private lives are their own business). Mr. Wagner and his impressive 70s porn-stache preaches as well that Hell is a totally real, totally horrible place that people go to after they die if they don’t totally march in step with what he preaches. He was, we also note, a child preacher in his youth, which probably accounts for a lot of his complete tone-deafness and the childish way he presents laughably overly-simplistic ideas and doctrines.

In addition to teaching at a Bible College–which are more like indoctrination factories than genuine places of learning, aimed at the same type of Christians who fervently believes that real colleges and seminaries are hotbeds of liberalism–Mr. Wagner also apparently writes opinion pieces for his local newspaper’s online site. I’m linking to the main opinion site there for a reason, and that reason is so that you can take a look at the variety of (generally right-wing, Fox-News-informed) posts and articles on display–and so that you can notice, as I did, that none of Mr. Wagner’s pieces appear to allow comments or responses, though many of the other columnists do and indeed see copious responses to their work. But not Bo Wagner.

But though Mr. Wagner is for whatever reason reluctant to allow anybody to respond directly to his faffle*, a number of folks have taken up that burden in response to something he spewed out lately: “An Atheist Deserts His Flock”, written this past week. Terry Firma over at Friendly Atheist had some devastating things to say about this “lazy” and “dishonest” Christian and his witless “bigotry” against atheists. The Digital Cuttlefish thought for sure he’d discovered, at long last and amid a sea of eager competition, the “Worst Yet” depiction of an atheist.

What Mr. Wagner has done here is create the straw-iest of all straw mans at which to tilt. This behavior is so common that it belongs in our Handbook, because we need to be aware of it and how to (hopefully) defeat it.

Straw Man (comics)
Straw Man (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Yeah, like this.

A straw man is a creation of someone who cannot, legitimately, attack the real views or arguments of an opponent, so that person creates instead a substitute target and attacks that instead. This substitute target is a misrepresentation of what the opponent really thinks, but it is usually a misrepresentation that can be much more easily defeated in argument. Once the straw man has been put up, the person attacking it knocks it down and declares victory–while the opponent wonders when they ever said anything like that straw man.

Some of the various ways that Christians create straw men.

* Quote mining.

In this, the Christian takes a quote totally out of context and pretends that this non-contextual statement is the real position of the person quoted. This behavior is so common it gets its own subsection at the anti-Creationist Talk.Origins website, and David Barton wouldn’t have a career at all if he couldn’t take shameless advantage in this way of his target audience.

* Cherry picking.

When a selection of facts or quotes is available, only those that strongly support a position are presented. Cherry picking creates a basket filled only with cherries; plums and durians are excluded. This basket’s composition becomes a misrepresentation of the facts because it creates the false impression in audiences that the position is stronger–or weaker–than it really is.

* Exaggeration and hyperbole.

Part of the process of demonizing dissenters and non-believers involves using very loaded language to misrepresent their thoughts and beliefs. When a Christian claims that atheists believe in themselves or that all gay men love anal sex, it sets up a straw man because the statement is not actually universal. One thing I have to watch out for myself is presenting Christian beliefs as monolithic–though you can say pretty much anything about any group and it be true for at least some of those groups’ members, whenever a statement is presented as blanket truth about any group or is very extreme in nature, chances are it’s going to be a straw man. This kind of language prevents the Christian from even thinking twice about the validity of the stereotype they’ve bought into.

* Grossly inaccurate conclusions.

The entire trumped-up “War on Christmas” (and its buddy, “religious freedom,” which is shaping up fast to become our generation’s overly-sanctimonious, disguised form of overreach like “separate but equal” was in the last generation) is a straw man response on the part of Christians who feel a little slighted and threatened by the increasing secularity of American culture. The fact that absolutely nobody is actually attacking Christmas and that moreover absolutely nobody is telling Christians they can’t put up whatever displays they want on their own private land doesn’t matter at all. Christians look at the repeated pushback against their religious encroachment and interpret it as an attack on their religious customs in general, and an attempt to rob them of their religious liberty. It doesn’t matter how often we try to tell these butthurt Christians that there is no war on Christmas and nobody cares if they’re Christian or not as long as they’re civil and fair to all people–they’re going to come away insisting that any day now we’re going to frogmarch Christians into concentration camps and behead them or something. That these things have a far lower likelihood of happening in a society that values free speech and personal liberty (and a far greater likelihood of happening in the Taliban-esque America these same Christians salivate over instituting) doesn’t even matter, nor does the simple fact that nobody actually wants any of that stuff to happen. But you need not go as far as the Fox News stuff. Any time you hear a Christian chirp that people leave the religion “to sin” or say that atheists “just hate ‘God'” and you’ve felt downright mystified at how anybody could ever think that, you’re likely hearing a straw man position.

With all of that in mind, let’s look at Mr. Wagner’s straw man.

* First, he creates a fictional atheist, “Farhis O’Hare.”

Why did he need to create a fictional atheist? The answer is quite simple: he clearly could not find a real atheist who would ever say anything like he’s about to say. Indeed, I cannot think of any atheists–let alone “world-famous” ones as Mr. Wagner claims his creation is–who’d ever sign off on a single thing in this hit piece. It’s hard to believe that a fellow who is this active in his religion has never met an atheist, or has no way to find an atheist, to run his ideas past.

* Then he gives his fictional atheist opinions that are markedly different from those of the majority of actual real atheists.

We’ll probably have a go at close examination of just where this atheist goes wrong, but his worldview actually echoes what Mr. Wagner dearly, desperately wants atheists’ worldviews to look like: he calls atheism “my religion” and says it brings him “comfort,” mistakenly says that the Theory of Evolution requires blind faith to think it is a fact, and talks about how he “worshiped” science and considered scientists themselves to be gods. I cannot think of a single atheist I have ever met who would ever say anything like that, which is exactly why Mr. Wagner had to invent an atheist to have those things said.

* Then he uses this fictional atheist and his completely unheard-of opinions to trash atheists.

Like most straw men, this one actually channels its creator’s thoughts. “Farhis O’Hare” whines that it’s really those mean ole libruls who are the really intolerant ones and that he’s scared he’ll be shunned by his onetime tribe for stepping out of line. He claims he actually only stopped believing because of the “Bad Christians” he encountered in Christianity (whereas in reality people stop believing in Christianity because, well, its claims turn out to be untrue). From an insistence that people deconvert for stupid reasons to a belief that it’s the mean ole libruls and not toxic Christians who shun and mistreat dissenters, “Farhis O’Hare” is a perfect mouthpiece for Mr. Wagner’s false ideas.

I find it physically impossible to believe that Mr. Wagner is actually writing a satirical piece here. It is too blatant of an attack and uses too many of the tropes we often hear Christians parrot about atheists. So I strongly suspect that Mr. Wagner is guilty here of deception for claiming he wrote “satire,” as well as of creating a straw man.

What do straw men do to relations between people?

I want us to be thinking very seriously about what Christians communicate to us when they say and write such awful things about those who dissent from their views.

I don’t know Mr. Wagner from Adam’s housecat, but I certainly get the impression that he doesn’t like atheists all that much–or liberals, or science, or anything else that might contradict his worldview.

Am I to read this awful, totally untrue propaganda and think Mr. Wagner is just fucking around? Am I to believe his gaslighting attempt when he claims it’s just “satire,” just kidding, haha, he really totally loves atheists? Am I to see the blatant hatemongering and fearmongering he gleefully smears on himself and his walls and think that he’s just joking and knows that what he’s saying is not even a little representative of actual atheists? Am I to seriously think that he wrote this out of sincere love and concern for anybody?

No, and I’ll tell you something else: we know he isn’t joking and that this isn’t really satire in his head because he lacks any trace of self-awareness here, which would be an essential component to real satire. There’s not even a hint that he knows that what he’s writing isn’t true–and certainly nothing else in his other writing would indicate he knows better than to strike out at already-marginalized people. He coughs up every single right-wing toxic Christian trope about atheists without even the vaguest gesture toward showing how those tropes are wrong. There is no sign whatsoever that he really thinks that this is a satire or that he knows what the truth even is. When I look at his other pieces, certainly I don’t get the sense that he is aware of what atheism actually means or what atheists are, as a group, generally like. It’s all the same Fox News fear- and hatemongering. And because he’s hiding behind what he mistakenly thinks is “satire,” he thinks that protects him from criticism.

It’s shitty satire, and a shitty worldview, and a shitty article, and a shitty attitude. As the Cuttlefish pointed out, certainly good satires exist of atheists and liberals. This just was not one of them–because it is not in fact satire at all. It’s a straw man that lets him voice what he truly thinks about atheists.

When someone makes a straw man,

it’s a loud-and-clear announcement of what that person really thinks.

Straw man arguments are amazingly effective when deployed against an ignorant and willingly-gullible audience that mistakenly trusts their leaders to be telling the truth (I know, right?), and are eager to believe lies they’ve been told many times before. That is why techniques to defuse the straw man consist of educating its creator–and disavowing the false content in the straw man argument itself:

* Call it out.

“What you’re doing is misrepresenting atheism/deconversion/ex-Christians so you can better attack it.”

* Succinctly make clear what the truth is.

“That’s not why I deconverted.”

“I don’t know any atheists who think that way.”

“Nobody actually blindly believes in any scientific idea–because nobody needs to.”

“Atheism is not a religion, any more than baldness is a hair color.”

“That quote is taken completely out of context.”

* If you’re invested in the idea, ask if the Christian is interested in learning better.

“Here’s a list of Creationist talking-points and scientific rebuttals to them.”

“Here’s a great video of an atheist who discusses preconceptions like yours and debunks them.”

“Would you like to know why I deconverted?”

“Here’s the rest of that quote, which shows it actually means the opposite of what you say it means.”

* Make crystal-clear the effect the straw man attack had on you.

“It doesn’t feel loving when I am completely misrepresented and lied about to my face.”

“Do you really think ex-Christians are that stupid and shallow?”

“What you’re doing is not fair or kind to me.”

“I start seriously distrusting the other things you say when you deliberately misquote and misrepresent people like that.”

I’ve fought the straw man many times myself. Its greatest enemy is education and understanding. Its fuel is ignorance and inexperience. As more Christians meet and get to know non-Christians, this tactic should get a little less common–but right now, with Christianity getting more and more polarized, it’s probably going to be worse before it’s better. The main problem you’ll have in rebutting it is that even after you’ve done so, the Christian may well retreat into the petulant idea that you’re just saying that and secretly actually totally believe or act the way the Christian’s straw man says you do, but at that point you can turn away with a clean conscience or end the conversation. A Christian who genuinely cares about the truth will get it eventually, even if there are some false starts along the way, while one who just wants to beat up dissenters will remain impervious to any amount of refutation and knowledge. Meanwhile, we certainly aren’t required to give any attention to people who just want to demonize and attack us, or who condescendingly act like they know us better than we know ourselves.

Mr. Wagner can get away with lying to the clearly-ignorant folks unfortunate enough to be under his authority, but when he puts that nonsense out on the internet, he can–and will–face a lot of pushback from people who know better. The loving thing for him to do would be to listen to and learn from those he has slighted and injured. I’m pretty sure he won’t, though. Sometimes I run into Christians who chirp about how I must have deconverted “to sin” (which means “to have tons of unapproved sex,” remember), and I can tell they’re really struggling when I set them straight about why I deconverted. It goes against everything they’ve been told. I have a friend, Neil Carter, whose specialty is educating Christians about atheists, and one of the very first thing his teenaged audience does (at about the 30-minute mark in the first video linked there) is try to get Neil into a big argument about their favorite apologetics talking points. Thankfully, their pastor shuts them down because he recognizes that that is not the point of the discussion; he knows that the education Neil offers these young people is invaluable–and hopefully will save them from the same sort of errors that Mr. Wagner makes all through his writing.

In the case of this fictional atheist, Mr. Wagner can certainly also help his case that it’s “satire” by writing a denouement concerning what atheists are really like. But I sure as hell ain’t holdin’ my breath here. His entire livelihood depends upon demonizing dissenters and enforcing hatred and fear of anybody or anything that threatens his dominance.

If Christians like him couldn’t resort to deceptive and mean-spirited tactics like the straw man, I don’t know what on earth they’d have left to say.

* I seriously thought I’d made up this word on the spot–but apparently “faffle” actually means “to stammer”. Will wonders never cease. There’s your word for the day. I now dare all of you to find a way to use it in a sentence in speaking or writing because it’s a word worth reviving.

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