I’ve compared the efforts of Christian apologists to watching a Roomba repeatedly hit a wall, and nowhere do we see that analogy in action better than with a circular argument. That was one of the early topics I tackled here here on this blog like a year and a half ago, but I want to discuss circular arguments because since then I’ve noticed even more that Christians like circular arguments–almost as much as this tuxedo cat likes riding its Roomba:
Circular arguments can be supremely satisfying, I bet. At least I imagine they are, given how persistent those who favor them tend to be. And newly-deconverted people need to know how to identify them and escape them.
Spotting a Circular Argument.
A circular argument is made when the conclusion of an argument proves its premise, while its premise in turn proves its conclusion, which comes back around to the premise, forming a circle. That sounds kind of dry, doesn’t it? Like a lot of logical fallacies, its definition can sound a little difficult to imagine. Wikipedia puts it a bit better: “A is true because B is true; B is true because A is true.”
No actual evidence is presented here, it’s important to note. The argument is self-contained. All the proof you’re going to get is right in the premise and conclusion. As with other logical fallacies, it’s not an automatic indication that a premise or conclusion is objectively wrong. If A or B happen to be true by accident, they don’t become false just because they’re located in a circular argument. But the argument itself doesn’t pass muster as a persuasive, credible argument for a claim and it should not be allowed to pass for one that does.
In Christianity, circular reasoning is super-popular:
* We know the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true.
You also know I’m a Space Princess because I said it was true. One site even admits that this circular argument isn’t very persuasive-sounding to anybody not drunk on the same punch they are, then proudly goes on to make that exact same argument for another few hundred words and then as an added bonus moves on to slam anybody who wants outside corroboration for the Bible’s claims as wanting a higher authority than “God.” I guess that’s one way to do it, falling into another logical fallacy (an appeal to authority) to explain away why they’re falling into a logical fallacy. It’s just not a terribly persuasive way.
* We know God never lies because God never lies.
You also know I’m a Space Princess because I never lie. (Seriously, I try super-hard not to. Of course, if I wasn’t an honest person, I’d probably say that same thing, wouldn’t I?) But here’s another site that claims “God doesn’t lie!” with just this wide-eyed kittenish innocence. Here’s a theological expert claiming that “God” cannot lie at all, which obviously is true because “God” cannot lie so therefore “God” cannot lie. You and I may wonder what this sublime force is that prevents this deity from lying–because that might be more worthy of someone’s worship than a god whose own source material mentions him lying on more than one occasion anyway. Huh, maybe he was lying about not lying? Nobody’s ever done that before! In-con-ceiv-able!
* We know the Bible’s claims about Jesus’ return from the dead are true because the Bible says 500 witnesses–whose testimony is only recorded in the Bible, which is also literally the only vaguely-contemporaneous source of this claim–saw him returned from the dead.
In the comic book about my life, I have 20 people in it vouching for me being a Space Princess. Obviously that means my claim about being a Space Princess is true. Oh wait. There’s not enough scorn in the world for this bullshit. As mentioned before, this particular argument formed the entire basis of a YouTube video I saw called “Can you still be an Atheist after watching this? Overwhelming Evidence for Jesus Christ!” (The answer, incidentally, is “yes,” going by the comments for it.) You’ll also see this argument at work in our punching-bag-du-jour William Lane Craig’s long writeup about how we can 100% know the Resurrection happened; every one of the “four historical facts” he discusses to prove his claim are found only in the Bible.
When someone hands you an argument trying to prove that the Bible is a reliable account of a god’s interaction with the world in any way, and the support for that claim involves something the Bible says, you are encountering a circular argument.
When someone tries to convince you that something is true, then the proof of that claim has to come from somewhere besides an insistence that this thing is true.
Here’s What Happens When You Point Out Its Use.
It’s a tricky situation, made worse because Christian leaders train their flocks to accept the Bible as the evidence for the Bible’s claims and to accept decently-constructed arguments in lieu of evidence for their religious claims. They’ve been taught to accept and offer coins that the rest of us neither acknowledge as being legal tender nor care to accept.
In my personal experience, when told that I simply don’t consider the Bible to be authoritative*, Christians act like I just told them that I don’t consider breathing a necessary part of my daily life. And consistently, in response, they will take one of three courses. To use that coin analogy, they’ll hear my rejection and then just keep pushing their coin at me hoping that this time I’ll take it. If I don’t, then the whole argument fails. I have to think of reality in the same way the Christian does for the circular argument to work. So this is how they try to get me to hop on board the U.S.S. Green Cheese with them:
1. They will just repeat their argument again, maybe just louder this time and with a befuddled expression like they’re not sure I understood all the words they used last time.
“But.. but.. the Bible really is God’s word! Of course it’s evidence for its claims!” It’s like if I said I don’t watch television and get, in response, “But what then did you watch last night?” It’s just a paradigm mismatch, but it’s still annoying and ineffective.
2. They will demonize me for daring to want credible support for their claims.
Lest you think I’m maybe exaggerating, this happened a couple of days ago. Seriously. The Christian involved actually began saying that obviously when I said “credible,” I was just being totally unreasonable and needed to dial back my skepticism; the problem was that my standard of credibility (observable, meaningful, recordable, testable, falsifiable, reproducible) was just too damn high. Notably, at no point did he offer anything different in terms of support for his claims, and even more notably he did not offer any explanations for why his god seemed incapable of meeting such a standard. Attacking my character and gaslighting me was a lot easier for him. It isn’t hard to think of a reason why that might be so.
3. They will offer non-credible support for their claims, thinking it is credible.
It’s just astonishing how many totally non-credible and often debunked talking-points Christians parade in front of people, and I can tell they are totally convinced that what they’re offering is credible–in those cases when they actually reviewed that evidence for themselves. Sometimes Christians offer up books they haven’t read, websites they’ve never even visited, or movies/videos they haven’t watched as an attempt at supporting a claim. It can get embarrassing when the material suggested actually disproves what the Christian was saying. When offered a citation of some kind, it pays to check it out before accepting it as support for the claim, especially if it’s very favorable to the Christian’s case; every single time it will turn out to be either non-conclusive or else damaging. And before you ask: no, it doesn’t really faze them at all when this is pointed out, though we should still do so. I’ve thoroughly debunked a Christian’s “proven miracle” and seen that same Christian out the very next day offering the very same debunked miracle as PROOF THAT GAWD IS TOTES REAL.
I’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of receiving back either the second or third of these if the first is not offered. I have never once, in all my life, had a Christian respond “Huh, okay, well, then I guess we’re at an impasse and should table this discussion because that’s something I totally can’t offer. Thanks for being so up-front with me.” It’s really the weirdest thing. (/s)
Here’s Some Help Maybe In Short-Circuiting a Circular Argument.
Basically, you need to disrupt the wheel’s spinning.
First, expose the elephant in the room by describing what’s happening and the effect this argument is having both on the discussion and on the Christian’s credibility–but try to be gentle if you can.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to call out the names of logical fallacies like they’re cards in a game or something, letting the name alone function as your response. I’ve noticed that it’s more effective to describe it. We’ve no reason to believe everybody knows what those fallacies are or accurately defines them–or can recognize one in play. Instead of rattling off a name, share why this fallacy is so unconvincing to you. The important thing is to remember that this might well be the first time someone’s explained to this Christian why this particular argument is so unconvincing to non-Christians. It might even be the very first time this Christian’s really come face-to-face with someone who doesn’t see reality in the same way that s/he does. Just about every ex-Christian’s been there, right? So try to be cool.
A Christian may well consider the Bible to be every bit as powerful a piece of objective evidence for their religious claims as you or I might consider a thermometer or a calculator for claims about the weather or mathematics. When you’re dealing with someone whose perception of reality literally doesn’t look like your own, it can be difficult to find common ground. But with the possible exception of the most whackadoodle Christians, most people don’t do this all the time with everything. A Creationist, for example, might be wise to the tricks of a con artist or even have an advanced degree in some biology-related science; a fundamentalist might be a really good manager of money and avoid multi-level marketing scams. I even managed to graduate from college with a degree involving psychology with my fundamentalist faith intact, and was known for being level-headed even by the atheists I knew at the time–yet I thought I could communicate directly with a god and that this god cared very passionately about every tiny little thing I did.
It’s probably best to think of a Christian’s belief as a blind spot until that person demonstrates they really are that gullible in many other ways. And some are, let’s face it. Very fervent belief in a religion’s claims can lead to someone suspending the rules of evidence and prudent caution in other areas. I knew a lot of conspiracy theorists even then, and it sure seems like religious zealotry pops up in the personal stories of the ones I run into now. One need not be a toxic Christian to buy into the Faux Noise propaganda stream, but it sure helps. So they may have critical thinking skills–and just suspend the use of them when dealing with this one subject, or they may lack them entirely.
It’s worth figuring out if your conversation partner uses critical thinking skills elsewhere, and if so, you can try to extend their use to an area the Christian just isn’t used to seeing them get used: religion. In the same way that we ask Christians to extend their sense of right and wrong to Biblical atrocities, jogging them into seeing once-cherished childhood myths as the genuine crimes against humanity that we see, we can ask Christians to extend their demand for evidence about health claims and financial schemes (and especially other religious claims!) to the Bible’s various truth claims.
Be very up-front about what kind of evidence the Christian could muster that would help here.
I’ve been very public about the sort of thing I’d consider evidence for a religion’s supernatural claims. Some claims are very loose and may even be subjective in nature–“this religion makes people happier”–but we don’t normally talk to those kinds of Christians in confrontational settings. The ones we run into are a lot more likely to make specific claims like “prayer works” and “there’s a god meddling constantly in human affairs” and “this ancient book of myths is totally for realsies true and totally happened for real.”
When the wheel spins, reach out to put a hand on it.
You can also keep an ear out for ideas that get repeated in conversation on either side. When you notice yourself repeating things, or the Christian repeating things, that’s a good indication that a circular argument is in use. Stop where you are right then and keep the focus on your questions. “We’ve already discussed that and I’ve said that I don’t accept the Bible as a source for Bible-based claims. That’s not evidence for your claim. Do you actually have any contemporary non-Biblical source for this claim?”
Do not repeat your arguments or debunks, only your standards.
If the Christian hems and haws over a request, or offers some new fallacy or irrational answer to explain why you should accept a source that you know isn’t authoritative or an argument you know isn’t sound, then it’s okay to ask for the conversation to end on the basis of a mismatch. “We’ve gone over that and I rejected it; was there something about my rejection of your circular argument that you didn’t understand and need help with?” or “I’ve asked you several times to use non-Biblical sources for your claim, and you are either unwilling or unable to do this. You will not be able to convince me of your claim because I have no rational reason to accept the Bible as a source of truth. When you have something that isn’t Biblical, let me know.”
Christians regard these conversations as battles–battles they must win at all costs, battles with huge and obscene penalties for loss. But in the real world, vanishingly few of those conversations end with a decisive victory for Christians, often because of that same at-all-costs aggression. The truly aggravating thing to know is that even if you refute them hands-down, they’re still going to think they “won” somehow, if at least in that vaguely befuddled manner they call “planting a seed.”
So stop trying to win.
Make your standards very clear, and if what you get back isn’t what you asked for, it’s okay to say so and to remain firm. You might feel like you’re trying to explain to a toddler why they can’t wear Hello Kitty pajamas to a wedding, but in a way that is what’s happening on a metaphysical level; you’re talking to that part of the Christian’s mind that isn’t ready to see something. That programming can run so deep sometimes that it can blind the sharpest eye. It’s ironic, isn’t it? The Christians being the loudest and most pushy about trying to logic people into their religion weren’t, themselves, rationed into it; the Christians most convinced their religion makes perfect rational sense tend to sound the most irrational of them all. Circular arguments run to the very heart of this irrationality, which is why I think they form such a backbone of so many Christians’ faith.
This is approach I took when I watched that lame YouTube video. I listened to their argument, which they claimed was totally irrefutable, undeniable evidence for the veracity of the Bible; I assessed it, saw that it was just a circular argument dressed up with Preacher Eyebrows, and dismissed it. They had their shot; they failed. In the exact same way, if you watch an infomercial and aren’t persuaded that you absolutely need the informercial’s product, then you just won’t purchase it.
Christians often give us the same courtesy, in a way, by insisting things like no matter what you say or what evidence you present, I won’t change my mind. Okay then! What we ought to be doing is thanking them for saving us time and asking them to check back with us when they’ve decided that evidence does actually matter in deciding what’s real and what isn’t. It’s like when a Facebook bigot un-friends you after you protest some very bigoted post; it’s the trash taking itself out. Cherish these moments of honesty.
In the end, here is the only real way to win with a circular argument:
Get off the damned Roomba and walk away from the argument. And if you happen to be minding your own business when one hits you, it’s okay to walk away.
* Indeed I don’t reckon I ever could find it so. At this point I regard the Bible as a world atlas that puts Europe in the wrong place, claims the capital of Peru is Seattle, and says that it’s 10 miles from Washington, D.C. to Houston, Texas. It’s not that it’s unverified; it’s that it’s unverifiable. Without considerable contortion, redefinitions, and compartmentalization, nobody’s going to be able to prove that it’s 10 miles from Washington, D.C. to Houston, Texas. Could some details in such an atlas be accurate? Sure. A broken clock’s right twice a day. But anybody who counts on that clock to get to work every day is going to get fired. When I run across someone who mistakenly thinks the Bible is totally inerrant and authoritative, I confess that the first thing going through my mind is oh you poor, poor thing. I know exactly what’s going to happen when that person finally gets confronted with some inconsistency or inaccuracy that apologetics just can’t hand-wave away convincingly enough to ignore.