Friday, February 5, 2010

On False Comparisons and Other Errors Used In Attacks on the Christian Faith

Usual Preliminary Disclaimer

I recognize that not all atheists reason as the example used here, and not all of those who do phrase it the same way.  However, it is growing in popularity among certain so-called "New Atheists" who have used it, thinking it "proves" religion is unreasonable.  Because of this, this sort of challenge needs to be analyzed.

I am also quite aware that another challenge (which I reject) to the Apostles, the claim they were deluded, exists.  That claim is NOT the topic of this article.  One topic at a time is enough.

The Challenge

Awhile back I came across an atheist objection to the actions of the apostles and the Christian argument: that their actions reflected that they truly believed what they were attesting to, and they had no material gain from any deception.

The Basic Issue Under Dispute

The Basic issue disputed is the argument that if the Apostles lied about having seen the risen Christ, then what did they gain from it?  They did not gain materially.  They did not recant their claim when threatened by death.  If it was a lie, then what did they gain from their deceit?

This challenge I have seen sought to deny that the sincerity was a valid point by using the examples of other false religions and their founders, seeking to imply that just as these others had people who claimed revelations which were false, so too the actions of the apostles could have been from similar cause.

The Syllogism

The syllogism they used ran along these lines:

  1. [Mormonism] is a [religion] ([A] is [B])
  2. [Mormonism] is [false] ([A] is [C])
  3. Therefore [religion] is [false] (Therefore [B] is [C])

(This argument has been used with whole religions or individuals from religions in [A])

It has been expressed in other ways of course, but when turned into a syllogism, this is what it breaks down to.  "Breaks down" is a good choice of words as they syllogism has a large flaw right off the bat.

The Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle

The problem with the argument presented is it has the fallacy of the undistributed middle.  The fact that [A] is related to both [B] and [C] does not show [B] is necessarily related to [C].  We can show this by changing the terms of the syllogism:

  1. [Bill] is a [Cat]
  2. [Bill] is [Orange]
  3. Therefore [Cats] are [Orange]

Since cats can be other colors than orange, the fact that [Bill] is [orange] does not mean all [cats] are [orange].  Likewise, if [Mormonism] is [false] it has no bearing on whether [religion] is [false].  So, from this it follows that the examples of "New Age", "Mormonism" or other groups being false only says that these examples fall into the categories of [religion] and [false], but cannot say other groups fall under these considerations.  (See Figure 1):


(Figure 1: Knowing that [A] is part of both [B] and [C] does not mean all of [B] must be in [C])

However, this fallacy is what people do assume when they assume that because Joseph Smith founded a religion and that he behaved in a dubious manner it follows that because the Apostles founded a religion, they too must have behaved in a dubious manner.

The Fallacy of the Hasty Generalization

Another fallacy this argument tends to slip by is the argument of Hasty Generalization, which says because samples 1,2 and 3 from a certain group have a characteristic, all members must have this characteristic.  This can be illustrated in this example from the short story Love is a Fallacy by Max Shulman (Well worth reading):

“Next we take up a fallacy called Hasty Generalization. Listen carefully: You can’t speak French. Petey Bellows can’t speak French. I must therefore conclude that nobody at the University of Minnesota can speak French.”

“Really?” said Polly, amazed. “Nobody?”

I hid my exasperation. “Polly, it’s a fallacy. The generalization is reached too hastily. There are too few instances to support such a conclusion.”

This fallacy is often employed against religion, on the grounds that "Religion A is nonsense, Religion B is nonsense and Religion C is nonsense.  Therefore all religion is nonsense."  The problem is, to say "all religion is nonsense," this can only be established if all religions are shown to be nonsense.

Christians need not defend Islam or New Age claims for example, because the errors displayed by these groups do not prove Christianity is false.

The Fallacy of the False Analogy

The fallacy of the false analogy comes into play when a person says:

  1. [Situation 1] has elements [A] [B] and [C]
  2. [Situation 2] has elements [A] [B] and [C]
  3. Therefore [Situation 1] and [Situation 2] are the same.

The problem with this is that if [Situation 2] also has elements [D] [E] and [F] and [Situation 1] does not, then the situations are not equal.

For example, if a College Admissions department considered two students who were both A students, both presidents of the student body, and both valedictorians, it might seem arbitrary to exclude one from the college and admit the other.  However, if one student also had a record of suspensions, criminal acts and the like, we could see the choosing one and excluding another is not arbitrary as the situations were not the same.

Another example from Love Is A Fallacy can illustrate the point:

“Next,” I said in a carefully controlled tone, “we will discuss False Analogy. Here is an example: Students should be allowed to look at their textbooks during examinations. After all, surgeons have X-rays to guide them during an operation, lawyers have briefs to guide them during a trial, carpenters have blueprints to guide them when they are building a house. Why, then, shouldn’t students be allowed to look at their textbooks during an examination?”

“There now,” she said enthusiastically, “is the most marvy idea I’ve heard in years.”

“Polly,” I said testily, “the argument is all wrong. Doctors, lawyers, and carpenters aren’t taking a test to see how much they have learned, but students are. The situations are altogether different, and you can’t make an analogy between them.”

“I still think it’s a good idea,” said Polly.

Joseph Smith and St. Paul Walk into a Comparison…

So if one wished, for example, to say St. Paul and Joseph Smith were both "founders of religion" (many skeptics claim that Paul invented Christian beliefs and the original Christians were merely Jews who happened to think Jesus was a human messiah), one would have to look at both examples and see if the comparison was fair.  If there are more differences than similarities on key issues, it would not be correct to say the two were alike.

Lets look at some of the ways Joseph Smith and St. Paul

  1. Joseph Smith claimed to have encountered Christ.  So did St. Paul
  2. Joseph Smith claimed all religions were false and he had been directly revealed a new religion.  St. Paul recognized the Christians did in fact follow what God taught better than he did when he persecuted them.
  3. Joseph Smith, at his peak, had many physical benefits, was mayor of a town etc.  St. Paul endured many hardships in order to spread his teaching and did not acquire physical gain for his work.
  4. Joseph Smith did not accept martyrdom but died in a shootout during a jailbreak attempt.  Reports are mixed as to whether he killed anyone, but he was known to have been shooting with a revolver smuggled in for him.  St. Paul was executed for being a Christian, but not for any particular crimes.
  5. Joseph Smith claimed new revelations which supported his doctrines, claiming other Scriptures were "altered."  St. Paul used the existing Scriptures and teachings of the Christians to explain how the Christian teaching did not contradict the gospels.

Of these five points, the only point of similarity is both men claimed to have encountered Christ.  On four of these points, their behavior and teaching was radically different.  So if one wished to claim both were equally self serving, the question is: Where is the evidence to show their behavior was alike?

The Illogic of the Attack

These points of comparison show that attempting to lump together St. Paul and Joseph Smith as an attempt to deny the sincerity of the Christians who were martyred for their faith, or the claim the Christian faith must be false because other religions are false are not based on any real similarity between the two, but comes from the assumption that all religions MUST be false and anyone who claims a religious experience must be lying.  However, this assumption must be proven.

The fact that another religion may have false teachings or immoral members do not show that Christianity is false.  To seek to lump the two together to imply "guilt by association" does not prove the two are both false.

No comments:

Post a Comment