Lately I’ve been having a lot of discussions with fellow Christians about different ideas. Typically we’re are on different sides of the debate and are trying to come to either an agreement, compromise, or understanding. One of the things that I have noticed all too often (I wouldn’t worry about a couple times) from too many people and from the same people after I’ve pointed it out, is that they will offer a challenge that does not even apply to my view. Last week I discussed “zombie” topics in Christianity. One of the identifiers of a zombie (person) is that they continue to argue against “strawmen”.
“Um, that’s not what I believe.”
The strawman is a slight (or not so slight) variation of an argument or position that is easier to defeat than the real argument or position. This is a fallacious way to argue because it does not actually address the challenge at hand. Its power comes by the fact that the nuances of the incorrect argument or position can be so close to the actual one that those listening may not recognize the difference, and believe that the actual challenge has been addressed and defeated when, in fact, it has not been addressed, much less defeated.
Leading to the ad hominem attack
Unfortunately, for the one presenting the strawman (and the one being misrepresented), nothing of value has actually taken place. However, reactions can get interesting. It seems that there are two ways to react when someone presents a strawman of your argument or position. The first is to accuse them of intentionally misleading the audience to make their view seem more plausible. As much as I’m tempted to take this route (and have done in the past), I’ve realized that all I have done is just offered a personal attack on the character of the person (an ad hominem attack). The person may very well not understand the nuances of my view. They may also be intentionally addressing a misrepresentation, but what will my pointing that out so blatantly really accomplish?
Putting It Nicely
The second reaction comes from the fact that I like to assume that the person is not misrepresenting intentionally. I try to discover what exactly they are addressing and show how that does not represent my view. I will also show how the critique does not apply to my view. I don’t have to state explicitly that a strawman has been offered, it will be obvious when I show that the critique does not address my view. By my avoiding the temptation to accuse the person of a strawman (intentional or unintentional), the other person is not immediately put in a position of defending their character (which is not the topic of the discussion anyway).
Pay Attention to Detail
As mentioned last week, it is important that we understand the nuances of the views that we do not believe are true. When we offer a critique of a certain view, we need to make sure that we offer a critique that applies to the view being offered. Moving outside the church: about a year ago an atheist attempted to demonstrate to me that Christianity cannot be true by refuting the idea that the universe is no older than 6000 years. The atheist was addressing a strawman, because I don’t believe the universe is even close to 6000 years old. When I told her that I believed the universe to be 13.7 billion years old and that her critique did not apply to my view, she told me that I was a heretic and not a real Christian anyway. She believes that based on her first critique, she has overcome Christianity. She also believe that my view is not actually Christian, so she does not need to address it. This leads me to the next thing.
Learn From Our Mistakes
We have to be careful to recognize when we are addressing a strawman and stop addressing it. The atheist above would be perfectly justified in offering her critique to a young-earth creationist, but not to an old-earth creationist or a theistic evolutionist. In the former case, it is not a strawman; in the two latter cases, it is. If we are going to defend against a certain worldview, we need to be prepared to address different nuances within it. The atheist should have been prepared to address Christians who do not hold to a young universe, if she wished to demonstrate that Christianity was false…but I’m still here thinking that Christianity is true because she offered to critique a strawman and did not give my view the respect of being accurately represented and properly addressed.
If the atheist was willing to accept that I held a different view, then she would have had the opportunity to address it. Now, back to the Church: I have experienced too many Christians who want to debate certain doctrines with me, but continue to address strawmen of my positions and arguments. Frankly, the lack of respect and actual engagement makes it very difficult to have the desire to discuss with these people. On the other hand, I have several friends with whom I disagree, yet we respect each other enough to take the time to make sure that we understand the view before we address it. We have to be intentional about avoiding strawmen, and if we accidentally address one, the other let’s us know, and we attempt to figure out where exactly the misrepresentation is. Then we either adjust our critique or drop it.
Avoiding strawmen is not easy, but the practice can become “second nature”. There is much patience and humility involved is such a pursuit. Unfortunately, both of those go against our sin nature, so it will also take much prayer and perseverance. Over time we will become accustomed to searching for the nuances in views and adjusting our critiques based on what specific views we are addressing. It will always be easy to spot a misrepresentation of our own views, but as we get better at avoiding strawmen ourselves, we will notice when misrepresentations of views we disagree with are being addressed (even the nuanced views). That ability helps us to know what are appropriate and inappropriate challenges to a view that we don’t agree with. We can learn from others’ mistakes. Being able and willing to address accurate representations of alternate views is all part of offering a reason for the hope that we have with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).