Have you ever had an argument with someone and known there was something wrong with it, but not known what? Here is a list of fifteen common fallacies which the reader might find in a debate and are good to recognize if one would wish to evangelize. You might find you have committed them yourself or that someone whom you met brought one up last week. You will probably also notice these many times in political debates, for many politicians use these often. Note, that although I am giving a number of examples of things various religious groups say, I am not attacking all of their arguments about the given issue at once. To prove this, I will even give a couple of examples of fallacious reasoning given by members of my own Catholic Church.
In this fallacy, people pick and choose which facts to pay attention to. I do not know why the name was chosen, but I suppose when one picks cherries, he finds the ones as are still good and not eaten by birds. A good example of this is how skeptics often view the Miracle of Fátima. They point out the power of suggestively, possible dust from Morocco, the fact that no photographs were taken of the Sun then (because the camera-men were too terrified) and the alleged claim that some people did not see it, while fail to point out that according to the eye-witnesses, hundreds of people saw the sun dancing around at once, all the rain in Fátima was dried out at once, and this all happened at the word of three children (not even teenagers). I would be hard-pressed to explain that scientifically.
In self-contradiction, one contradicts himself in an attempt to prove his point. J. R. R. Tolkien illustrated this fallacy very comically (and hobbitishly) in a dialogue between two hobbits, Sam Gamgee and Ted Sandyman, as follows:
“All right,” said Sam, laughing with the rest, “but what about these Tree-men, these giants, as you might call them? They do say that one bigger than a tree was seen up away beyond the North Moors not long back.”
“My cousin Hal for one. He works with Mr. Boffin at Overhill and goes up the North Farthing for hunting. He saw one.”
“Says he did perhaps. Your Hal’s always saying he sees things; and maybe he sees things that ain’t there.”
“But this one was big as an elm tree and walking – walking seven yards to a stride if it was an inch.”
“Then I bet it wasn’t an inch. What he saw was an elm tree, as like as not.”
“But this one was walking I tell you; and there ain’t no elm tree on the North Moors.”
“Then Hal can’t have seen one,” said Ted. There was some laughing and clapping. The audience seemed to think that Ted had scored a point.J. R. R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings (Single-Volume Edition) (44-45)
Here Ted seeks to prove that Hal must have seen a normal elm tree and then seeks to prove it by saying he cannot have seen one. This may not seem very realistic to us. You might be surprised to know that arguments just as unrealistic are commonly used. The only difference is that in the fields of politics, philosophy and religion, people sometimes do not care.
Here is an example: “There is no absolute truth.” In saying this, one is giving an absolute claim. If someone ever says this to you, reply: “Are you absolutely sure that is true?” Because if the speaker is sure, he or she must think it is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth. Likewise, there is also the claim: “Text has no meaning other than what the reader brings to it.” In that case, the text written there just now must likewise have no meaning other than whatever you, the reader, have brought to it.
Fallacy of the Ambiguous Middle Term
Also known as the fallacy of four terms, this fallacy occurs when one changes one of the words or its meaning in an argument so that a false conclusion is derived from an argument. A classic example is: “A ham sandwich is better than nothing. Nothing is better than God. Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than God.” Here, the two premises are true, but the conclusion is blasphemous. Here nothing has two meanings. The first, “nothing is better” denotes that God has the highest possible value. The phrase “better than nothing” simply means that a ham sandwich has some value.
Of course, no one would use an argument like this. For a more realistic example, I have heard Protestants use this argument on Catholics: “Catholics believe that at every mass, Christ’s sacrifice at cavalry is re-presented. However, if Our Lord had to be re-sacrificed every mass, that would contradict Hebrews 7:27, which says that Christ died once and for all. Transubstantiation, therefore, is a false doctrine.” Here they are switching from the term “re-present” to “re-sacrifice”. The Catholic doctrine is that Christ payed the price with his one single sacrifice, but God, who is above time and space, made it so that the same sacrifice at Cavalry might be present at every mass.🐷
In Circular reasoning, the argument with which one begins relies on the argument with which one ends. In other words, it follows the form: “A is true because of B, and B is true because of A.” Christians sometimes use it in arguments such as: “We know that God is real because the Bible says so and we know the Bible is true because the Bible is the Word of God.” If the Christian happens to be Catholic, the word Bible might be switched to Scripture and Tradition or Magisterial teaching. Atheists likewise often say: “We know there is no God, because all occurrences in the universe have a natural explanation, and we know all things have a natural explanation because there is no God.” Both arguments are logically invalid.
In the Red Herring, one misleads or detracts from the relevant or important question. There are many different varieties or Red Herrings (all of which might be found in a political debate). Here is a good example:
Catholic: The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ and it will last until the end of time.
Objector: But what about the abuse-scandals?
At that time what the Catholic might do is point out that the fact that that is corruption does not mean that the Church was not founded by Christ. If anything, the Devil would want to tempt the Catholic Church the most to make it the least obvious that it was actually of God. The scandals are horrible and should be dealt with, but corruption is as old as Judas Iscariot and there were plenty of evil bishops throughout Church history. The fact that many bishops and cardinals do not follow orthodox Catholic teaching does not make it less true.
Appeal to motive
In the appeal to motive, one challenges a thesis by calling into question the motives of its proposer. For example, someone could say to me: “It’s all well in good for you to defend Catholicism on the internet, but I’m sure you’re just doing it to be popular and get followers.” A good answer I could give would be: “Alright, maybe I am doing this just to be popular on the internet, but even if that were true, it would not invalidate my arguments.”
The Ad hominem—or in English, “to the man”—can denote a variety of fallacious arguments but in general, I am referring to when one attacks the debater rather than the argument. For example, someone might read my post, In Defense of the Sacraments: The Holy Eucharist, and say “It’s all well and good for the Catholic of Honor to be defending the doctrine of transubstantiation, but he also made jokes concerning cannibalism. My cousin was cannibalized and so I will not accept the argument.” To this I might say in reply: “Maybe I should not have made jokes about cannibalism, but that does not invalidate my biblical arguments all the same. If you have reason to say that my arguments were invalid, point that out, but my own bad jokes are irrelevant.”
Appeal to the stone
In an appeal to the stone (do not ask me the origin of such a title), one dismisses a statement as absurd, invalid, or incorrect, without giving proof of its absurdity. This is an example:
Christian: I’m telling you, Jesus Christ is the one true God.
Objector: That’s absurd.
Christian: How so?
Objector: It just is.
I believe we have all met this one before. If you have ever committed it, never do so again. It is very obnoxious. The appeal to the stone is effective because many of us are too proud to admit that we believe something that is thought to be absurd. Naturally, humility is an effective way to counteract it, both in the worlds of apologetics and of life in general and our journey to heaven. One wise reply would be: “If it is absurd, I do not see how that is so. Tell me what part of my reasoning is fallacious and I will consider it.”
In Bulverism, one assumes something to be wrong without discussion and brings one to think of the psychological condition that brought his opponent to that point. Some atheists say: “Religious people only believe in God because they are too weak to live life without a crutch.” Theists say: “Atheists only refuse to believe in God because if they did they would have to try to avoid going to hell.” Protestants often declare: “Catholics only believe in intermediaries like Mary and the saints, as well as those priests and sacraments so as to get in the way of worship of Christ.” Catholics use the same argument on Protestants: “Protestants only believe in Justification by Faith Alone because they are too scared of dealing with the fear of hell to recognize that they might have to actually follow God’s commandments to be saved.” Perhaps that is how some people came to believe these doctrines, but what matters is why they believe it now and most people have some logical argument or other for that. That might be a good response to anyone who uses Bulverism on you.
In the genetic fallacy, one attacks someone’s or something’s history, origin, or source rather than its current meaning or context. A good example would be if someone were to say to me: “You are only Catholic because you are a quarter Irish.” (This does indeed happen to be the case) “And by the way, the Irish are all drunk and only eat potatoes,” the objector might add. (This does not happen to be the case) A good reply of mine would be: “Perhaps if I lived in China there is a greater chance that I would be an Atheist or a Buddhist. If you lived in twelfth-century Italy, you would also most likely be Catholic. However, regardless of why I originally became Catholic, Catholic I am. This does not devalue my argument.”
Straw man fallacy
In the straw man, someone, instead of arguing with the opponent’s actual argument, creates a another argument (possibly out of straw) and argues with it as if it were the actual argument that the opponent suggested. One good example is what Protestants use on Catholics, that is: “Catholics believe that the Pope cannot sin. However, it is clear that Pope John XII, Pope Benedict IX, and others were great sinners. Christ himself often rebuked Peter, whom Catholics hold to be the first pope. Therefore, Catholicism is false.” This is entirely valid logic, but Catholics believe that the pope is infallible, not impeccable, and only under certain circumstances. To be entirely fair, Catholics also commit this same fallacy as I have read pointed out too often by Protestants explaining Sola Scriptura. I have not heard this exact argument, but I suppose it goes like this: “Protestants believe that the Bible is the only source of truth, thus considering all the writings of the Early Church, creeds, and councils to be useless. Thus, they trust that they themselves will correctly interpret Scripture without caring what those who lived closer to the time of Our Lord and the apostles had to say, trusting only in themselves and more modern scholars to be masters in interpretation.” This is not technically true. Although Protestants do not have a sense of Apostolic Tradition being as sacred as Scripture as Catholics do, I have never met a single Protestant who had no respect for St. Augustine, for example. They would say that all these writings must be clearly rooted in Scripture over Tradition, but I doubt any earnest Protestant would ignore any writing of the Fathers, nor any ancient council or creed as “not canonical” without any thought.
Also known as the false dichotomy, the false dilemma argues that there is a certain number of possibilities when the truth is another. In other words: “Either A or B” when the truth is C. One example would be the argument: “Are we saved by faith or saved by works?” Actually, we are saved by the grace of God. By allowing that grace to work in us, we receive both faith and charity, two necessities for salvation. If someone gives you this fallacy, the easiest thing to do is simply point out the other possibility.
Proof by assertion
This is pretty strait-forward. Actually it is hardly an argument at all and simply consists of asserting a proposition enough until it seems true.
Christian: Jesus Christ rose from the dead. There is no ancient writing with greater credibility than the New Testament.
Objector: He did not. The Bible is fiction.
Christian: How so?
Objector: Because it is.
A good response to this would be: “I understand that you believe that, but please explain how my argument is unsound.”
In retrospective determinism is an informal fallacy which states that since something happened under some circumstances, it was therefore bound to happen due to those circumstances. One might hear the argument: “Many Catholics do not know the Bible. They also believe that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Christ, was conceived without Original Sin, was assumed bodily into heaven, and is now queen. Therefore, if they were to read Scripture, they could not possibly believe as such.” It is an unfortunate fact that many Catholics do not read Scripture, but if one looks at the most devout Catholics who pray the rosary daily and often a few chaplets as well, they are actually the most likely to know the Scriptures, while the least devout, the ones who do not study the Bible, are the most likely to fall away.
As a somewhat harsher example, someone might say: “A few centuries ago when people, for the most part, were still Christian and thought it mattered in other parts of their lives, the slave trade was legal.” The assumption is that Christianity led to the slave trade. Actually, it was strictly condemned by multiple popes at the time, including Eugenius IV, Pope Paul III, Gregory XIV, and others.🐙 Some sought to justify the slave trade from Scripture (making this not necessarily purely retrospective determinism), but I personally believe it was an excuse. I will not get into the meaning of those verses concerning slavery at the moment, but I will simply say this. I think everyone knew that God did not approve of the slave trade, but chose to do it anyway as it was much more convenient. Thomas Jefferson, a notorious American slave-owner, spoke out about the evils of slavery. Abraham Lincoln said in his second inaugural address after slavery had brought about a terrible civil war in the U.S. (one of the last countries to get rid of the horrible practice): “The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses for it must needs be that offenses come but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which in the providence of God must needs come but which having continued through His appointed time He now wills to remove and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him.”
A good response to this argument would be to simply point out that there is not a necessary corollary between the two and possibly try to prove them wrong. If a Protestant says that a Catholic only believes something because he does not know the Scriptures, prove that you know the Scriptures. If someone says Christianity supports evil on account of Retrospective Determinism, one could point out that the truth is still true even if no one follows it. Christians today are not supposed to support abortion, homosexuality, and contraception, but many of them do. That does not mean that Christianity itself supports abortion, homosexuality, and contraception.
“I’m entitled to my opinion”
I believe we have all heard this one.
Christian: You need to repent and be baptized!
Objector: I’m entitled to my opinion. Let’s agree to disagree.
If someone says this to you, a good response would be: “I want to bring you to Christ because your immortal soul might be at stake.” If people were running a business and one person suggested Business Plan A and another Business Plan B, obviously no one would say: I’m entitled to my opinion. It might effect the outcome of the business. How much more important than a business is an immortal soul?
I hope this list has been enlightening. If you know of any other common fallacies used in apologetical debating feel free to alert me in the comments. If I can gather a large enough list, I might put together another post with more fallacies. Until then, farewell.
Bonum Certamen Certemus
I am the Catholic of Honor
🐷Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶1366-7
🐙https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/did-the-church-ever-support-slavery Accessed July 9, 2020