Friday, February 4, 2011

Poor Rhetoric, Bad Arguments, and the Evolution Debate

Regardless of the position taken, I am not a fan of bad argumentation. The evolution debate among evangelical Christians is one place where bad argument seems to abound.

While there are a number of critical issues on which I disagree with the fundamentalists, we are in the same camp on some things. For example, I agree with them on the authority of the Bible – although we certainly disagree fairly radically on the interpretation of some scripture. I also agree with them on much of the evolution/creationism debate... At least, I agree that God created the world out of nothing and that many of the theories espoused by evolutionists are insufficient to explain what we can see around us. I think that looking at ordinary adaptation and labeling it “evolution” confuses the two ideas. That a single species adapts to its environment and its needs does not mean that one species evolves into another.

That said, however, I am not at all prepared either to (1) dismiss all evidence of evolution as bunk or (2) declare that evolutionists are intellectual rivals of Christianity. Many creationists do both. They often argue that the theory of evolution cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith.

I am not here to ridicule creationists or to accuse all fundamentalists of taking a position on evolution with which I disagree. If I did that, I would be guilty of the same sort of rhetorical fallacy of which I accuse them. Instead, I am limiting my criticism only to those who take a position that says that any recognition of evolution is antithetical to Christianity and that all evolutionists are enemies of the faith. For purposes of this blog, I will call them the “EBATs”, which, in my parlance, is shorthand for “Evolution is Bad All the Time.” There may well be fundamentalists who do not hold those positions and are not EBATs, and if so, I applaud them on that point. They are not being criticized here. I write this blog after reading a piece by one writer who, I believe, projects himself as a spokesperson for his point of view. It is that point of view - EBAT - that I am challenging here.

I am also not out to pick a fight with any individual writer, so I am not naming names. I make that choice not out of cowardice but rather out of a conviction that we Christians do not need to have personal catfights in public. I want to keep the focus on the arguments and the rhetorical devices used to communicate.

It is not difficult to ridicule your opponents in a debate when you first take it upon yourself to define their position for them. Calling out evolutionists as a group for not acknowledging divine causality, EBATs often attack people, like me, who think there is room for both Biblical creationism and some parts of evolutionary theory in a consistent world view, arguing that we are simply looking for a way to resolve conflict and implying that we are without conviction. A favorite argument is that we, in attempting to negotiate middle ground, always favor the godless construct and dilute the basics of the faith.

The argument that I think is most persuasive is that the Bible tells the story of the who and the why of creation, but not the how. EBATs tend to counter by claiming, in authoritative tones, that the Bible does in fact explain the how, but unfortunately, these fundamentalist EBATs do not tell us what the Bible tells us about the how. Genesis 1:27 says that God created man in God’s image. I don’t find a how in that verse. Genesis 2:7 says that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Again, the mechanism is neither obvious nor explained. Genesis 2:22 says that God “made a woman from the rib He had taken out of the man” without detail.

That’s it. There are not any other verses in the first three chapters of Genesis that address the how.

I am curious – what does it mean to say that God breathed into Adam the breath of life? What exactly did God do with dust and a rib to end up with Eve?

Let me be clear. I agree absolutely with the doctrine of creation ex nihilo – that is, God created out of nothing. God needed neither raw materials nor help to create human beings, or anything else for that matter. I agree absolutely that creation was not a matter of chance but rather resulted solely from the intentional will of God. I even agree that some – perhaps even many – evolutionists deny the role of God in creation.

As a matter of faith, I don’t have to know how God did it. I am fascinated by the issue from an observational and scientific standpoint, but the answer has little to do with my faith.

Where I part company is in the assertion that those who look around and study the world and conclude that evolution is a reasonable explanation for part of the process of creation are necessarily rivals of Christianity. I disagree partly because that makes me an enemy of Christianity, and I do not think that anyone is any position to pass that judgment on me.

I started this blog talking about bad argumentation. Let me return there now. Here are some of the classic rhetorical fallacies in the common EBAT argument:

1. Faulty syllogism/inductive reasoning. Example – most Americans are Caucasian; Tom is an American; therefore, Tom is Caucasian. Of course that may be incorrect. The logic is fundamentally flawed.

In like fashion, the EBAT position is that, since many evolutionists attack the authority of scripture and the role of God in creation, therefore anyone who believes in evolution cannot be Christian. The claim is that the entire understanding of the Bible has to be revised if evolution is given any credence. There is an assumption that all of Christian doctrine rises and falls on one particular view of the first three chapters of Genesis. (The third chapter is the story of the fall, and the fundamentalist position is that the remainder of scripture is based on their interpretation of that passage.) Regardless of the theological differences (and there are several) I have with their interpretation of the fall, original sin, and the role of Adam, my point here is to point out how poor the argument is that all Biblical narrative must be revised simply because of any partial truth in the theory of evolution.

2. Ad Hominem attack. Example – Hitler was evil; Hitler said that broccoli is good for you; therefore broccoli must really be bad for you.

Here, these EBATs bash the entire “evolutionist” community as though it were a monolith and throw out everything that anybody says who believes anything about evolution.

Again, I am trying to be careful in how I write so that I am not accused of the same thing. I am writing this blog largely in response to particular writings from particular writers, and perhaps I am treating the fundamentalist camp monolithically. Let me emphasize again that I am only speaking about those I am calling EBATs, those who group the entire evolution debate into a single camp. If you are a fundamentalist who does not do that, I am not including you here.

3. Hasty Generalization. Example - Every ten-year-old girl I have seen in Keller, Texas likes Justin Bieber; therefore, all ten-year-old girls like Justin Bieber.

EBAT writers pick a few striking examples of evolutionists with whom they disagree (and often evolutionists with whom I disagree) and assert that therefore all who believe anything about evolution must also take the same anti-Christian position.

The care I am taking in this blog to limit my criticism to EBATs is precisely because I do not also want to be guilty of hasty generalization. I am not generalizing the EBAT position to all creationists or all fundamentalists - I am speaking specifically and only of those with a particularly point.

4. False Dilemma. Example – I assert that every car in the parking lot is either silver or aqua; your car is not silver; therefore it must be aqua. The fact is that your car is red, but I created the dilemma by narrowing the field to two choices when nothing requires that limitation.

For the EBATs, there are only two options: either you accept “naturalistic” God-rejecting evolution; or you accept their view and interpretation of scripture. They allow for no other alternatives. They defend this approach, of course, by saying that they have not picked the alternative – Jesus did. They have the only line to Jesus (made clear in the Bible as they interpret it), and if you disagree with them, you don’t believe the Bible and therefore reject God. Once you formulate and build from that premise, you get to set the boundaries and create whatever dilemma for your reader that you so choose.

5. Straw Man. Example – Mother tells son to clean out the garage. Son responds “You are so mean, making me do meaningless work every day of my life.” It is easy to attack doing meaningless work every day, even though that has nothing to do with the premise before you – to clean out the garage today.

The EBAT position is based on effective uses of straw men, criticizing poor positions advanced by evolutionists such as claims that finding authority in the Bible is a “thought crime.” Well, of course, none of us wants to be accused of committing “thought crimes.” We can all recognize that those who cast the debate in that light are silly. It does not follow, however, that all evolutionary evidences are therefore wrong.

6. Appeal to belief. The EBAT trump card is to paint evolution as the key threat to everything that good Christian readers hold dear. EBATs will say something like this: There can be no question but that the authority and truthfulness of the entire Bible are at stake. The claim will be made that the New Testament gospel is based on a literalist account of creation, and that if the EBAT position on creation is not accepted, the gospel of Jesus falls like a house of cards. Leaving aside the literalist/fundamentalist vs. moderate debate over inerrancy, this argumentation is faulty because it reduces a legitimate discussion that can take place among Christians to a “you’re either with me or against me” line in the sand. It is made more offensive by the implication that Jesus is the one drawing that line.


I believe that arguments like those forwarded by the EBATs drive hordes away from the gospel. When someone asserts that the Bible means one thing (in this case, the how of creation) without explanation and then says that everyone who disagrees is a heathen, I believe many will choose to go a different direction. There has to be a way to allow for discussion about many issues like this one without sacrificing the true basics of doctrine.

What underlies the EBAT position, of course, is the belief that (1) anyone who disagrees must not believe the Bible and that (2) if you don’t believe the Bible, you are free to reject whatever parts of Christianity are inconvenient for you. I sympathize with this position. As I said at the outset, I agree about the authority of scripture. I wish that proponents of the EBAT position were more willing to allow for a wider interpretation of scripture, wherein smart Christian people could disagree on some of the sub-doctrinal details and still find unity on the critical items of our faith. I also wish that they would not rely on common classic fallacies to make their point. Rhetoric is a tool to be used by the Christian, but it should be used properly.

1 comment:

Caleb Bear Ryen said...

This was excellent to read.

I stumbled upon this looking for information about argumentation and rhetoric... I myself am not a Christian, but my family is.

I remember being maybe 7 or 8 and hearing my Aunt and her friend debate evolution and the Bible. Right around the time of studying Earth Science and Geology in school.

Your post touches on that experience and does a great job of outlining what followed:

I, naively asked "can't they both be true? Couldn't God have created everything in 7 days to Him, but in people time it's billions of years? And maybe God made it so that there were dinosaurs one day, and then the next day no dinosaurs so there could be humans..."

Because my Aunt's friend was an EBAT, she had to reject all scientific evidence to maintain logical coherence in her (bad) argument; and, thus, drove me further from Christianity.

As I said, I'm not a Christian - though I do believe that the Bible must have great spiritual wisdom - yet, I've wanted to explore it's teachings and have been reluctant as finding folks willing and able to reason and still have faith is hard.

Thanks for sharing.