In a recent essay, I introduced the Straw Man argument, which is a type of logic fallacy involving the misrepresentation of an opponent’s position, and the subsequent attack of that misrepresented caricature.
Another type of logic fallacy is the Ad Hominem fallacy, which involves an attempt to discredit the person making an argument, rather than discrediting the argument itself. “Ad hominem” is a Latin phrase meaning “against the person.”
Ad Hominem arguments have many incarnations, and I frequently get a version of this fallacy when discussing issues related to biblical scholarship and traditional Christian beliefs. It typically happens when I write an essay discussing particulars of the Gospel stories, and it usually goes something like this: “You don’t even believe the stories in the Gospels are literal history, so how can you quote from those stories to make your point?” This is a version of the Ad Hominem fallacy because it ignores the salient points of whatever argument I am making, and instead attempts to refute my arguments by suggesting that I, as a non-literalist, am not at liberty to quote Biblical texts to support an assertion, and any such assertions I make must, by necessity, be rejected. As I mentioned above, I have been confronted with this argument many times, by both Christian friends and strangers.
I recently posted an essay on my blog, and a shortened version on an internet religion forum, about the “sinless” nature of Jesus. In the essay, I questioned whether Jesus really lived a sinless life, as is often asserted within traditional Christianity. I illustrated seven areas in the Gospels were it appears that Jesus engaged in what any modern Christian would consider sinful behavior, including one passage where Jesus quite openly and quite explicitly lies to his disciples. My overall thesis was to demonstrate how a literal reading of the Gospels creates enormous spiritual and intellectual puzzles, and how one cannot simultaneously believe in the sin-free nature of Jesus, and also read the Gospel stories literally.
More simply, here is the crux of the problem that my essay was attempting to address:
Assertion A: All humans are inherently sinful by nature because of the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Assertion B: Humans cannot help but sin because it is part of their imperfect nature. They have no hope of being “good” without God.
Assertion C: Jesus was fully God, but was also fully human, subject to the same temptations and frailties that humans are subject to.
Assertion D: Jesus did not sin.
If A, B, and C are all true, then D cannot also be true. If D is true, then either A and B are false, and/or C is false. That was the point of my essay, and I used passages from the Gospel accounts to illustrate this.
I feared that the old Ad Hominem argument might be employed by some of my readers, so I attempted from the very start to fend them off by stating in one of the opening paragraphs: “Since most people who believe Jesus was sinless also read and interpret the Bible’s stories literally, I will be approaching this subject from a direct and literal reading of the stories. In other words, for the purposes of this essay, I will be assuming that all the Gospel stories attributed to Jesus represent literal historical actions by Jesus.”
Unfortunately, this was apparently not enough.
One of my “internet” friends, a Calvinist who is a reader of my blog and is also a member on the religion forum where I debate, made the following comment: “If you deny the veracity of scripture, why should anyone take you serious when you quote certain portions of it as true? It seems we have to accept certain propositions that [Scott] tells us are true and reject the ones [Scott] tells us aren’t true.” Although we have polar opposite views on all things religious, I have a great respect for this person’s intellect, attitude, and expressive abilities. However, I was disappointed by this comment, because it is so obviously a fallacious line of reasoning.
A critic does not have to believe in the historicity of a story in order to evaluate its content. Traditionalists assert the Gospels give historically accurate accounts. They also assert that Jesus was sinless. By their own standards, these two propositions cannot be true. That was the spirit of my argument in the essay in question. What I believe personally is completely irrelevant.
In order to refute the Ad Hominem argument of my friend, I came up with an analogy to demonstrate the irrationality of such an argument. The analogy goes like this:
Bill Jones writes a series of books called The Smith Chronicles starring a man named Joe Smith and his relative, Tom Smith. In the first book, Joe Smith lives in an old Victorian mansion on a large estate. In one scene, there is a horrendous forest fire nearby, which sparks trees in Joe’s yard, which in turn set his own house on fire. The house burns to ashes and Joe is forced to move in with his cousin, Tom. In the second book, Joe Smith lives a long and glorious life, and his whole life is spent in a beautiful Victorian mansion. After his death, the mansion is handed down to his own son, Tom, and Tom Smith raises his family there in the decades after Joe’s death.
Now, there are some people who think The Smith Chronicles are real history. They do not realize they are reading novels. They come up with creative ways to reconcile the problems between the stories. Most notably, they suggest that in the second story, the implication is that Joe Smith must have eventually rebuilt the mansion. The first story simply leaves this part out. As for the contradiction between “son” and “cousin,” these are just words that imply that Tom Smith was a relative of Joe. Or, barring that, the Tom Smith of the second book just happens to have the same name as Joe’s cousin, who stars in the first book.
Other people, however, recognize that the literalists are missing the whole point. Why try to reconcile these issues? They are just novels, meant for entertainment. Bill Jones was not trying to write literal accounts of real events.
On an internet religion forum, a skeptic decides to give the literalists some food for thought.
Skeptic: “Reading those stories literally misses the entire point and causes all sorts of intellectual conundrums. In story one, Joe’s trees catch fire, and his house burns down and he moves in with his cousin, Tom. The story tells us this happened. But in story two, Joe lives in the same house the whole time, there is no fire, and he later passes it down to his son (not his cousin), Tom. Obviously something is wrong here. Reading these stories literally causes all sorts of factual issues, which forces literalists to come up with convoluted and creative ways to reconcile them. Only when one realizes that theses stories are fiction, written for the purpose of entertainment, does one come to finally understand the deeper meaning.”
In this analogy, the skeptic does not believe the stories are literally true, but to make his point, he has to assume a literal reading of the stories, to show why they are nonsense if you read them as literal historical fact. His point, then, is to suggest that there is a better way to understand them.
However, the skeptic gets a response to his efforts.
Literalist: “Oh, well, you don’t even believe the stories are true, yet you’re trying to make a point by assuming they are true. You can’t just pick and choose. Either you accept it or you don’t. But if you don’t accept it, then don’t make arguments where you are quoting words from the stories to make your point.”
Do you see how this analogy is pertinent to the Ad Hominem argument of my opponents who suggest I do not have a right to quote from Jesus’ teachings in making a point? My own personal beliefs are irrelevant. All that matters is that the traditionalist – to whom my essay is directed – does believe the words are literal. If the words are literal, then Jesus cannot have been without sin. That is the point.
This analogy, I believe, also illustrates the lengths to which literalists will go to reconcile textual issues. Just as the “Smith literalists” attempted to sweep the contradictions between the two books together into a nice, tidy package, so Bible literalists will frequently argue that textual contradictions are not contradictions at all, but are simply “different facts” focused on by different authors. Thus, when Matthew tells us magi visited baby Jesus in a home in Bethlehem, and Luke tells us shepherds visited baby Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem, these are not contradictions, but rather different emphases by the authors: Matthew emphasized the weeks and months after Jesus’ birth, and Luke emphasized the night of Jesus’ birth. This, of course, is irrelevant to the point at hand.
I would like to think that this essay will finally put to rest the Ad Hominem fallacies against my arguments when I quote scripture to make a point. However, I recognize that these sorts of logic fallacies are common, and it is always easier to attack the person giving a sound argument than to attack the argument itself (this is also what leads to the Straw Man fallacy – a caricature of a person’s position is easier to attack than the position itself).