Monday, July 8, 2013

Atheists Build Straw Men, Too

I love debate.

Debate is pure discussion, a fleshing out of ideas, bare and in front of exactly the person that will challenge your idea most. For those of us with a deep passion for learning (and likely a craving for confrontation), little can provide such satisfaction. There are many that will attempt to belittle a debater, dismissing you as an “armchair activist” or otherwise accuse you of failing to act, but those people are stupid. 

What we believe informs our actions, and what we learn about the world informs our beliefs. If we want to believe in true things and have the best chance of success when we decide to affect our surroundings, we need to learn; we need to share our ideas. And when we're in a situation where our well-being depends on the actions of another, we want that person to have the best available knowledge when they decide what action to take. 

The feeling that we can all make better choices: 

That is why I love debate.

Any practitioner of the art of arguing knows that the most infuriating of bad arguments is the straw man fallacy. The employer of the straw man is one who inaccurately presents the position of their opponent only to attack an idea of their own invention. Immediately I think of Ray Comfort’s crocoduck to show exactly what evolutionists believe, but can't back up through the fossil record.” In a debate, Ray pathetically inserts a third position that no one is arguing for and wastes everyone’s time, and that’s what makes me so angry. We're trying to better human knowledge; we don't have time to waste! At this point if I put forth a straw man I would be a terrible hypocrite, yet in one of my most recent atheist/theist exchanges, that’s exactly what I did.
It's too good to leave this picture out
The topic was sacrifice, specifically, “how was Jesus dying on the cross a sacrifice?” It seemed to me that when we make a sacrifice, something is lost. If I want to become a better guitarist, I have to sacrifice some of my time to do it. From the biblical standpoint, men of the OT would sacrifice livestock to God, killing and burning their property. They lost sustenance, clothing material, and maybe some of their good conscience over killing an animal. 

If sacrifice represented a loss to us, how was Jesus dying on the cross a sacrifice by God? Something that is perfectly complete cannot be added to or subtracted from, so how did God suffer in any way? This would have been an excellent “gotcha,” a brilliant demonstration of the law of noncontradiction violated, IF my opponent carried the position I presented.

It turns out my adversary was better learned than I was in my time as a follower of the man Jesus, so allow me to present the correct Christian position as I understand it now. It’s true that the bible refers to Jesus as a sacrifice (Ephesians 5:21), but the bible does not teach that punishment or loss is required for it. And what do they mean by “sacrifice” anyway? uses verse to form a clear and consistent explanation (surprisingly to me) of what the bible means and thus what Christians believe about the word sacrifice in context. They show that the narrative of God had neither a desire for sacrifices themselves nor were they required. God desired the symbols of love, humility, and obedience that sacrifice represented, so it was merely a demonstration of these “holy” attributes. In this way, Christ lived to show that he was holy and pure, so the end of his life was a sacrifice: the end of the show. Hebrews 10 says sacrifice is doing God’s will, so Jesus needed to go through a bit of a practice run to show us what we should aspire to. This is simply what Christians believe the bible tells them. Whether or not the interpretation is correct or if any of it is true is irrelevant here (let’s not add false conflation to the list of offenses!). 

Adding unlike terms... tsk, tsk
Ouch. It hurts how wrong I was. Like a young earth creationist describing a theory, I used the wrong definition. Am I as bad as Ray Comfort? Is sacrifice my crocoduck? I like to think not, in that I eventually took the time to research the opposing position (I don't think Ray could pass a test on evolution if his life depended on it), but now we can get to the real discussion. Now I can point out productive questions that challenge the sacrifice of God himself to himself to save us from himself. No one is arguing that God took a hit in this little exchange. A better point of debate is how anyone knows this story isn't a legend in the first place.

A great question we can ask each other is one I heard from Matt Dillahunty: 

“Do you care what is true?” 

If your answer is no, please leave the planet. If your answer is yes, and you want to engage in a collective effort to better understand the universe, you must realize there are politics in public debate (even in the most obscure corners of the internet). The political recipe is one part what and one part how something is said. We should all be responsible in the way we handle this.

The thing is, atheism is pretty simple (lack of belief in gods) and with the hundreds of sects of Christianity, each with differing beliefs on some level, it's probably more likely for an atheist to misrepresent a theist than the other way around. Still, we all use the straw man fallacy unintentionally because both sides think we're right, and it's difficult to understand a belief you don't hold to be true. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory, but we must rise above assuming our opponent’s position or else waste everyone’s time. True, you may trade a better argument for one that will break through a cognitive barrier, but I will actually invoke Billy Mays here and say there are enough good arguments out there that you don't need to sell crap.

"Billy Mays here with another fallacy-free product!"
So go forth and debate! Share your ideas! But in doing so, don’t make my mistake. Ask what your friend believes and why. Don't assume you understand the position of the people you are arguing against; let them make their own points and engage them honestly

*Before anyone complains, I capitalize “God” so that it is clear I am talking about the Christian god. No matter how confusing it may be, it is the name they give him. If you want to talk about Thor, well, there you go.


Justin Tanaka said...

A big thank you to Liam Bird for helping me suss out the philosophy and politics of debate!

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