Many times in conversations about spiritual matters it can feels as though there is no answer to the argument given by the other person. Sometimes it can be from a lack of knowledge of that subject, possibly something we have never considered, or they are misrepresenting your view and giving arguments to defeat that view. Today, I would like to touch on the latter of the three problems someone might face in a discussion.
Not too long ago I had a conversation with someone about evil and sin. Basically, the questions was: How can the Bible say that everyone is evil or sinful? Then it became a battle of definitions of the words evil and sin. The problem was that the person wanted to define evil and sin, then have me answer it from my Christian worldview. They persisted that those who are evil or sinful were extremes such as Hitler. On the other hand, those who did other things like stealing or adultery were misinformed and considered wrong, definitely not evil or sinful. They proceeded to give more examples and prove that my view was wrong. However, the issue was they were redefining evil, sin, and God’s standard for holiness. This is committing the straw man fallacy.
The name straw man fallacy comes from a common practice of knights during the middle ages. A straw man would be mounted on a horse as an opponent for a knight to practice jousting. This gives a vibrant illustration of the straw man fallacy, which is the process of setting up a false argument (straw man) from the other side and then knocking it down. Unfortunately, this way of arguing does not address the actually view of the opponent, and then appropriate rebuttals to that view.
Typically the argument looks like this…
1. Todd affirms J.
2. Frank attributes K to Todd (K is not Todd’s view, but it sounds similar; it is misrepresented).
3. Frank offers rebuttals for K.
4. Frank concludes he has refuted J.
Someone can commit the straw man several ways:
1. Misrepresents the claim of Frank, then refutes it.
2. Cites Frank out of context, then refutes it.
3. Finding someone who defends Frank’s claim poorly, then suggest that is Frank’s claim and refute it.
4. Create a fake person or stereo-type, then presents that person as a representative for Frank’s claim and refutes it.
Another good example of this comes from the infamous question: Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it? First, this is a pseudo-qeustions. Second, the idea of “stronger than” can only be used when there are two subjects, but in this case God is a single subject. Third, this commits the straw man fallacy because it miscasts the Biblical idea of omnipotence. Omnipotence has to do with power, not necessarily ability. God being omnipotent does not mean He can do anything. For example, He cannot create a square circle. This does not diminish His power, rather we must see it as He is not able to be contradictory.
In light of this, we need to be vigilant to the misrepresentations of our views and cautious in our arguments not to misrepresent other’s views. Committing the straw man fallacy leads to false conclusions, which are not based on true claims. If we desire to seek out the truth, then we must also argue truthful claims.