googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Answering the Ten Questions Every Intelligent Christian Must Answer. Part 1

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Answering the Ten Questions Every Intelligent Christian Must Answer. Part 1

A group of atheists have a website called, “Why won't God heal amputees?” A few years ago, they put out a widely viewed video that asks “Ten Questions Every Intelligent Christian Must Answer”. They are provocative questions aimed at making Christians doubt their faith. It's semi-clever since the questions, while not really novel or unanswerable, are still somewhat difficult for many people to answer or at least find an answer difficult to articulate. I thought it would be fun to discuss the video and post some responses. Here's the full video. It's 10 minutes long but I suggest you review because it will help you understand what I'm talking about if you've seen it for yourself.

I wasn't sure if I should try to knock all ten questions out in a single post or make it a series of posts. Ten posts would be a very long series for my blog but if I tried to fit them all into one post I may not be able to give each one the proper attention. Instead, I'll compromise and make it a miniseries which answers a couple of questions in each post. Some of the questions make duplicate points anyway so it seems natural to include those in one post. I can probably wrap up the series in five or six posts. By the way, I have a self-imposed rule that I don't publish more than one post per day and I typically don't have time to write every day so this series will be posted over at least a week or more. Be sure to check back daily.

Rather than get into the questions immediately, I'd like to take this post and comment on the video in general. While asking the ten questions, the video commits a large number of logical fallacies. As you watch the video, look out for some of the following things.

First, I have a question about these questions: why MUST we answer them? What happens if I don't answer? What if I can't answer? The video is trying to create a false sense of urgency or importance concerning the questions. It's rather ordinary for there to be questions about any subject that we can't answer. What causes gravity, for example? I don't know. Some people have theories about what causes gravity and some people don't have a clue. What does it prove? It proves nothing! If there is a question about gravity that we can't answer, it's certainly not evidence against gravity! Likewise, if there are questions about the nature of God that we can't answer, it's not evidence against God. We can continue in our belief with our faith unshaken. Just as the fact of gravity is not affected by our ignorance of it, so also is the truth of Christianity.

The video begins in a seemingly complimentary fashion where the narrator assumes the viewer is an intelligent, educated, reasonable person. As first hearing, this may sound flattering but later in the video we will see it is not sincere. This is actually a rather transparent sales tactic we usually see employed by used car salesmen. See if this sounds familiar: “I can tell that you're a shrewd buyer so I'm going to make you a deal on this car.” Have you ever heard something like that before? If I wanted to look like a shrewd buyer to the salesman, I might be afraid to say “no” to his offer. Likewise, no one wants to seem unintelligent or unreasonable so he might feel like he has to admit some things about Christianity seem unreasonable. This is just a gimmick – and an over-used one at that!

Later in the video, the narrator turns the tables a little. Where he starts by assuming the viewer is intelligent and rational, he later says that Christians have no intelligent or rational answers to the questions. Instead, he suggests that intelligent and rational people will see that God is imaginary. This is a fallacious argument known as the “No True Scotsman” argument. Basically, the video is saying that every intelligent person knows that God is imaginary and if you believe in God, then you're not intelligent.

Another tactic I noticed is the narrator's use of loaded words. This is where someone attempts to diminish his opponent's point by describing it in unflattering terms. Let me give you an example: I could say, “My opponent believes in evolution” or I could say, “My opponent believes in the crazy idea that, over billions of years, amoebas can turn into men.” Substantively, there isn't a lot of difference between the statements but there is a considerable difference in the impression it gives. We see much the same thing in this video. The narrator describes in advance any possible answer as being “irrational.”

Along with using loaded words, the video is also attempting to “poison the well.” When you try to diminish your opponent's point before he makes it, you bias other people against his point. Like my above example, what if I said something like this: “My opponent is going to tell you that mutations are a mechanism that can introduce novel traits into a population. We normally call mutations, 'birth defects.' When someone suggests they are the driving force behind evolution, it shows you how weak the theory is!” The irony is that mutation truly is the driving mechanism that supposedly introduces novel traits into a population but if my opponent mentions that, he will seem to be doing the very thing I've already biased the audience against. This video attempts to do the same thing. At certain points, the narrator will say something like, “Some Christians might suggest...” He then proceeds to describe that rebuttal using loaded words. He has poisoned the well. If any Christian did respond with an argument suggested by the narrator, his point has been made to seem predictable and weak.

Finally, in many places where the video is attempting to poison the well, we often see that it is really using a straw man argument. To the first question, for example, the narrator suggests that some Christians might say that “God has a special plan for amputees.” This is a very weak rebuttal and no serious apologist would ever say such a thing. Nevertheless, the narrator presents this as the kind of response Christians offer, thereby making it seem that Christians offer weak answers. It's a textbook example of the straw man fallacy.

If I were to rate this video objectively, I would give it a C-. As I've said, some of the questions are clever but it overplays its hand and comes across more confrontational than persuasive. The longer the video goes, the more it sounds like a rant rather than a thoughtful argument. I know these folks aren't interested in my advice but giving advice is what I do so I will offer it anyway. I believe they would have better achieved their intended objective if they limited the questions to only the first question and asked it in a sincere tone rather than a condescending one.

If you haven't watched the video yet, I again recommend that you do it now. See if you can't spot the things I've discussed. I'll begin answers the questions directly in my next post. Be sure to check back!

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8


Steven J. said...

This isn't really a "no true Scotsman" argument: the narrator isn't saying that people who believe in God aren't really intelligent and educated (even if they have the degrees and tests scores and jobs that we normally take as evidence that one is intelligent and educated); he's arguing that these people aren't applying that education and intelligence to the question of God. He's suggesting that they compartmentalize: they have intellectual abilities and skills, but they don't use them for all aspects of their lives; rather, they have some aspects of their lives for which they avoid or subvert rational thought.

Actually, I think that probably applies in one way or another (religion, politics, personal relationships, or whatever) to all people, unless there are a few who don't think rationally about any aspects of their lives.

I think you resort to the "no true Scotsman" argument yourself, though, when you say that no serious apologist would deal with the question by saying that "God has a special plan for amputees." I have not, in truth, come across any apologist who offers this argument (the usual resort is to change the subject: to claim that God has done even greater miracles, so stop nagging Christians about this, or flat out ask why atheists with no standards of right or wrong think losing a limb is objectively bad), but I don't see that the argument is inconsistent with claims that God's ways are above ours or that He has plans for our lives that we don't necessarily understand. There's no obvious reason why a "serious" apologist could not offer such an argument.

It does seem to me that the questions get weaker and easier to answer as they continue down the list (but then, I've long had my own, non-cannibalistic, theory about what Jesus meant when he enjoined his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood). You're probably right about the tone.

Steven J. said...

A side note dubiously relevant to your main argument: if you called mutations "birth defects," you would be doubly wrong.

First, many, perhaps the vast majority, of birth defects are developmental disorders: not errors in the genes, but errors in the way the genes are expressed. To take a drastic but telling example, the reduced limbs caused by exposure to thalidomide in the womb are not mutations (such children can have children of their own with normal limbs, because the genes are unaffected; rather, the drug interferes with the normal workings of the genes as the embryo grows.

Second, the majority of mutations are neutral, rather than harmful or beneficial. Even harmful mutations seldom have the striking, immediately obvious results that we typically call "birth defects."

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Thank you for your comments. I agree that "birth defect" isn't synonymous with "mutation." Of course, nearly all expressed mutations could be called birth defects though not all birth defects are due to mutations. However, my point was only an example of "poisoning the well." I was intentionally exaggerating only to demonstrate the fallacy not to make an argument against evolution. You'll find other posts on my blog refuting evolution.

My use of the the word “serious” might be justly be labeled as a “No True Scotsman” argument. Perhaps I should have said, “This doesn't sound like an argument most apologists would use.” Nonetheless, I stand by my claim that the video's comment is a “straw man.”

I'm not sure if you're saying the video uses the No True Scotsman argument nowhere or if you're saying some particular instance is not a No True Scotsman. In question three, for example, when the video asks questions about “murdering” people over trivial matters, the narrator says, “That makes no sense, does it? In fact, if you think about it, you realize it is insane.” So the narrator might say he assumes the Christian is reasonable and intelligent, but he next suggests that agreeing with certain Mosaic laws makes no sense and is insane.

I'm not going to address your other points here. I've already posted a response to the first question. I'm sure you'll let me know what you think.

God bless!!