The Handbook: Recognizing an “Argument From X” Attempt

The Handbook: Recognizing an “Argument From X” Attempt March 27, 2015

We’re going to be heading back to God’s Not Dead next week, but before we do that, I wanted to finish up something we were talking about last time we covered the Handbook for the Recently Deconverted: one of Christians’ very favorite apologetics tactics, the Argument from X.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...
Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while ago, a group called the Atheists of Silicon Valley put out a list called “Hundreds of Proofs of God’s Existence.” Unfortunately they and their brilliant list seem to have vanished, but you can still find it around if you hunt–here’s a copy of it with some embellishments. One thing non-believers will notice quickly, when they survey the list, is that these are arguments we actually hear constantly from Christians. Another thing to notice is that a lot of these apologetics attempts are Arguments from X.

The “X” varies, but always it’s something generally irrelevant to the truthful veracity of the claim–or only very tangentially relevant. For example, in the Argument from Design, also known as the Teleological Argument, it goes a bit like this:

The world looks like it was designed. Designed things need designers. Therefore, the Christian god exists and did the designing.

Sometimes the person making the argument adds considerably to the bare bones of the structure of it–I’ve heard variants that postulated the existence of the Christian god by insisting that only that particular god could be powerful enough to have made the whole universe, while other gods’ mythologies don’t make them seem quite as absolutely omnipotent. Entire books have been written about the Teleological Argument alone, and others have gotten similar love from apologists.

The “X”–whatever it is–is nothing more than a distraction, but one that we are told must serve as a substitute for better evidence for a claim. In an Argument from Authority, we are told to accept a claim’s veracity because the person advancing the claim has (what are believed to be, at least) good credentials. In an Argument from Numbers, we are told that any time a lot of people believe something, that that thing must be true. In an Argument from Nostalgia, we’re told that any claim that is very old or that wants to return society to a previous era’s customs must be true. Indeed, all of these arguments fall into that category I’ve mentioned of Christians trying to argue themselves into a god.

This is the general structure of an Argument from X:

1. Some physical fact or emotional “truth.”

2. A guess about why that might be.

3. A declaration that the Christian god is the only being that could possibly have made that happen.

The jump from 1 to 2 is pretty big, but the one from 2 to 3 is so huge that it’s shocking anybody thinks this kind of argument is compelling. Generally, there is absolutely no way that any of these arguments actually logically lead only to the Judeo-Christian god or to Jesus. You could insert the name of any god or even “The Giant Pink Unicorn” into any of them and it would read about the same and make about the same sense. So this argument style flunks the Unicorn Test, yes. Most of these arguments end with some variant of “Therefore, Jesus is real and we should all totally worship him,” since proselytization is their main goal.

Learning to recognize the major Arguments from X is a good idea. Some of them can sound really persuasive if you’re not aware of them, since they play upon human cognitive biases. Many of them rhyme or have very catchy wording, which people can sometimes find persuasive, and our society primes us to find certain of these arguments more compelling than they really are (such as the Argument from Nostalgia, which gets used often by politicians and pastors alike).

Here are some of the most common Arguments from X you will likely encounter as an ex-Christian:

* The Argument from Design: covered above. Loved by science illiterates the world over.

* The Argument from First Cause: Also known as the Cosmological Argument, this one claims that the whole universe needs to have had a cause to begin existing, and anything that is caused must have a causer (like the designer, above), and that the causer has to be the Judeo-Christian god, and so therefore this god exists. Of course, any one of these claims would need to be demonstrated, and none of them have or really can be. Between this and the previous one, you’ve probably noticed Creationism lurking. (Don’t say its name three times or it pops up behind you.)

* The Argument from Authority: This source is authoritative and says this claim is true, so therefore this claim is true. The source is, variously, quote-mined scientists or the Bible or a pastor or famous person. “So-and-So thinks this, and so therefore so should you” is a favorite tactic.

* The Argument from Numbers: covered above; frequently used by Christians who don’t remember that Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are also religions followed by many millions of believers, or that Germ Theory and the Theory of Relativity both faced opposition when they were first suggested. Related: the Argument from Tradition, which argues that anything that’s been done or believed for a really long time must be true or good, which ignores all the really awful stuff (like slavery and treating women like livestock) that was done long ago.

* The Argument from Morality: Subjective morality is ickie and only Christian morality is objective and timeless, and only the Christian god could possibly have handed a moral code down to humanity, so therefore the Christian god is real. This one comes up often from evangelicals who use it to justify their overreach into other people’s lives “for their own good,” since they tend to genuinely believe that non-Christians, lacking a belief in their god, cannot possibly ever be moral on their own. Ironically, the Christians who most buy into this idea tend to be the absolute worst at behaving themselves.

* The Argument from Beauty: “This thing here is very beautiful, and only the Christian god could have made something so beautiful, so obviously the Christian god is real.” This argument pops up frequently from Christians who don’t remember all the horrifying diseases humans get or the ghastly parasites in the world. Stephen Fry put it best when it comes to this popular argument (partial transcript here):

* The Argument from Ignorance. Oh, this one is so popular it almost deserves its own post, but let’s try to summarize: I don’t personally understand this thing, so therefore a god must have done it. Used for everything from miracle claims to Creationism, this is the ultimate “god of the gaps” argument. As long as the Christian involved can maintain ignorance about whatever is being claimed, and until a good explanation can be figured out and put convincingly enough to that Christian that it will be accepted, then that Christian can maintain a belief that the answer is going to be his or her favored supernatural one. Ironically, rejecting this argument will get you called “close-minded,” because nothing’s more open-minded than leaping immediately onto whatever half-assed guess makes you happiest and then clinging to it no matter what. You might also see a variant called the Argument from Incredulity: I can’t believe this fact is true, so it must be false.

* The Appeal to Emotion. It’s called “appeal to” instead of “argument from,” but it’s the same sort of idea: an idea’s truthfulness is based upon how it makes the Christian feel about it. But I’m so happy because I believe. Therefore, Jesus exists. Or: But don’t you remember how happy you were while you were Christian? Therefore, it must be true. Not useful once the Christian is confronted with genuinely happy non-believers or unhappy believers, though there’s always the tactic of insisting that these non-believers aren’t really truly happy but just pretending–and that the unhappy believers aren’t doing something correctly.

* The Argument from Adverse Consequences. “If this fact were true, then that’d be just terrible, so therefore it can’t possibly be true.” When that Duck Dynasty asshat Phil Robertson was drooling luridly over his bizarrely-detailed rape and murder fantasy, he was making this exact argument in a graphic and unsettling way: if atheism becomes widespread, then look what terrible things could happen to your own family. (Seriously, don’t click the link if you’re bothered by this kind of weirdness.) Christian leaders are very fond of this particular argument, but it’s used more on believers to keep their butts in the pews than on non-believers; ex-Christians often report feeling frightened of losing their morality or becoming terrible people if they stop believing–though it goes without saying that most ex-Christians become more moral, not less, after deconversion.

These arguments are all incredibly weak, but their weaknesses stem from two main areas:

First, the middle part of the argument cries out for credible evidence to support itself, but almost never gets it. For example, in an argument from ignorance, we can summarize it in the three-step pattern thusly:

* I don’t understand this thing or know how it happened.

* Anything I don’t understand must be supernatural in nature.

* Therefore, Jesus is real and must have done it.

That second part is where this argument dies its first death: the person making the argument is not going to be able to demonstrate it at all. In fact, nobody ever has demonstrated the supernatural to be real in any way, so any argument whatsoever that relies on anything supernatural for its explanation is going to fail. The attempt to explain the first point is almost always going to involve something totally unsupported, something totally unsupportable, or something untrue at all.

The third part is where the argument dies its second and final death: it’s usually a non sequitur, something that doesn’t really follow at all. They’re setting up an if-then statement where the “then” doesn’t actually flow from the “if” even a little.

And what really ought to bother Christians is that often their initial observations are wrong as well–such as in the argument from design which asks us to believe that everything complex must have been designed, when there’s not really any way to test that idea and when we know that quite a lot of complex things happen without anybody designing them at all.

Let’s try this reasoning out on an argument from miracles:

* Something unusual happened to someone’s benefit.

* That bit of fortune had to be a miracle.

* Therefore, Jesus exists.

The first might well be true, and no doubt the Christian thinks it was a miracle; they are trained to think that way, so they see signs and portents everywhere–even in the most mundane and banal of coincidences. But there’s never been evidence for any supernatural explanation, and even if that Christian could adequately, credibly demonstrate that something supernatural happened, that’s certainly not proof that a particular supernatural being did it. (And if we probe deeply enough, often we discover that the initial observations were either exaggerated or distorted in the first place, as in most magical-sounding healings and financial “miracles”.)

Defusing an Argument from X

And again, this is advice for only if you want to engage at all. Nobody says you must! But if you want to, here are some good ways to deflect and dismantle these sorts of arguments.

* Double-check the initial claim; find rebuttals if they exist. In an argument from numbers, point out how many Muslims or Hindus there are, or how many people are leaving Christianity. Challenge the assumption that complex things were designed. Mention how many ghastly, non-beautiful aspects of our world and universe there are, or how totally unsuited for human life most of our planet and universe really are. If the initial claim doesn’t check out, then the rest of the argument certainly won’t either.

* Rerun the argument with different nouns to see if it holds up. In Creationism trials like the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, for example, the plaintiffs famously got big-name Creationists to admit that their arguments could also be used to make astrology look like a valid scientific discipline, and I’m betting that was a real turning point for the judge. You can also falsify the argument; in an argument from numbers, for example, it’s easy to find examples of ideas lots of people believed in that weren’t true–like homeopathy or geocentrism.

* If the ending “then” statement doesn’t actually follow, feel free to say so. Even if anything an ignorant person doesn’t understand is supernatural, that doesn’t point to Jesus being real. Even if a divine being did create the Earth and everything in the universe via magic, that doesn’t mean Christianity is a true religion with valid truth claims. Often Christians betray a certain quaint ignorance about the fact that there are many hundreds of religions in the world, and thousands of gods past and present–and quite a few of their arguments could easily be used to demonstrate the existence of one of those gods!

In the end, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be aware of these fallacious arguments. Again, we shouldn’t use the name of the arguments like playing cards in debates–rather, we should be ready to point out where the argument fails and why, so the Christian learns. Maybe. Probably not, but maybe.

The reason I say “probably not” is that these arguments sound very persuasive to minds that aren’t skilled in critical thinking. There’s a reason why apologetics, as a field, is burdened to the point of buckling under the weight of Arguments from X: they sound really good. People tend to wield arguments that they themselves think are compelling, which is why Christians and non-Christians alike seem downright flabbergasted when they advance an argument that doesn’t seem to resonate with the target like it did with themselves. Nobody likes to think that they bought into and used an argument that is irrational or fallacious. Reactions may range from anger to petulance, and I’ve seen every one of them. Get used to seeing a Christian using a fallacy get slapped down in one place only to pop up again in another place bearing the exact same fallacy as if nothing had happened.

I’d like to say one last thing. Though we don’t normally see Christians wondering why it is that they only have fallacies and pseudo-science/history with which to prop up their claims, and though it can feel really useless to bother engaging on the subject, many ex-Christians can point to a time when being challenged on our various logical fallacies and misunderstood facts really stopped us dead in our tracks. Even a forum or comment-thread squabble can have the impact of a gong being rung when it hits the right person in just the right way. It’s lightning in a bottle, to be sure–nothing you can predict–but it happens often enough that it’s becoming clear that the internet, especially, has a big impact on Christians’ belief.

And I’m willing to bet that this link between internet use and deconversion is not due only to the simple availability of information online about science and real history. I think that Christians who venture out onto the Information Superhighway are mixing it up with non-believers (and Christians who believe differently about key doctrines, for that matter) and having their ideas challenged in ways that they never would have experienced in a tight-knit community inhabiting a Christian church bubble. Thirty years ago, someone in a small town might not ever known an out-of-the-closet LGBTQ person or an atheist, or even a feminist. Today, that same person can–no matter how small the town–find, meet, and interact with all three within seconds of entering the right chat room or forum.

So gang, if you’re interested in these kinds of discussions, know that your efforts don’t always just go into a void. We’re going to talk a little next time about suggestions for making those discussions as fruitful and productive as possible, and as always, I hope to see you there.

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Related:

* 50 Reasons to Believe in God, a popular email forward from a few years ago, debunked by the folks at Iron Chariots.

* Wikipedia’s Master List of Fallacies. Much goodness to learn.

* Another List of Fallacies with interesting flavor text.


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