- “No real scientist questions evolutionary human origins.”
- “Teaching children that the Scriptures are true is nothing less than child abuse.”
- “There’s too much hypocrisy in the church for Christianity to be worth believing.”
- “Religion is humanity’s most lethal weapon, and the most dangerous people are people of faith.”
- “Intelligent design is a whacked-out tea party movement.”
These are the sorts of messages we encounter regularly in today’s secular classrooms and culture, which have largely come to view the Bible as something akin to expired milk—outdated, distasteful, and potentially dangerous. Yet besides being distinctly unbiblical, these messages (and many others) share one thing in common: they all make arguments based on something irrelevant to truth. Instead, they persuade through channels including emotion, eloquence, positive or negative associations, name-calling, and powerful psychological phenomena, like humans’ need for acceptance. In other words, they’re all propaganda.
Like I mentioned in my last post, propaganda includes many forms of communication that persuade by appealing to something besides logic. And arguments that use propaganda often involve a class of flawed logic called fallacies of irrelevant premises. There’s a long, long list of these fallacies, but one critical thinking hack can help you catch any of them and respond to any argument from propaganda. It’s probably the most useful critical thinking hack I can share. And all you have to do is ask one question: “Is this message true or false because . . . .”
For instance, is a message true because many people seem to think so? No, history and social psychology have shown that large groups of people can be—and often are—wrong together. So, this is a fallacy called Appeal to Popularity, or ad Populum. The number of people who believe something is irrelevant to whether it’s true.
Similarly, is a message true because someone smart, famous, or wealthy said so? Or, on the flip side, is a message false simply because someone unsophisticated, immoral, or hypocritical said so? Not necessarily. These arguments all use different types of Genetic Fallacies, which claim that a message is true or false based only on the type of person who said it, rather than on the content of the message itself.
Here’s another example. Is a message true or false because it evokes strong emotions, like fear, pity, anger, or joy? Again, no: arguments that try to persuade by manipulating people’s feelings rely on different fallacies called Appeals to Emotions. But if we stop and think about it, it’s clear that how a message makes us feel is irrelevant to whether it’s true.
Or how about this one: Is a message false because people can disagree about it? Not necessarily. For instance, different church denominations have different ideas about certain concepts the Bible talks about, like worship or baptism. But that doesn’t affect the truth of biblical teachings. Saying that a message is false just because people can disagree about it is a logical error known as the Inflation of Conflict fallacy.
We’re on a roll, so let’s keep going. Is a message true because it’s communicated well? Many of my evolutionary professors, for example, were extremely eloquent, weaving highly poetic stories about ape-like ancestors supposedly rising up, walking upright, and becoming the first humans. Sometimes, I noticed these professors were such great communicators that almost whatever they said sounded true. But I had to remind myself that a message isn’t true just because it’s eloquently expressed.
Okay, one more example: Is a message true because people who disagree are called names? Again, no. Insulting a messenger cannot affect the truth of the message. So, attacking a message by attacking the messenger is called the ad Hominem fallacy, which is Latin for “to the man.” But have you noticed that you don’t actually need to know the Latin names for all these fallacies to recognize they’re not truth? It’s just like if you’re weeding a garden, you don’t need to know the Latin species names of all the weeds to recognize that they’re not flowers. Recognizing faulty logic often works the same way. To catch countless fallacies of irrelevant premises, the key is simply to ask, “Is this true or false because . . . ?”
This approach can come off as far more gracious in conversations anyway. After all, accusing people in Latin (“Bro, you just used an ad Populum fallacy!”) isn’t always the gentlest conversation tactic! First Peter 3:15, however, urges us as believers to defend our hope with gentleness and respect. So, by gently bringing a matter back to the question of what truth is—and Who truth comes from, we can communicate a biblical, logical response, expressing the truth in love.
For more on how to think critically about any faith-challenging message, stay tuned for future blog articles and my new video series, CT (Critial Thinking) Scan, available now on the AiG Canada YouTube channel and the AiG Canada Facebook page.