Continuing on with the discussion of rhetorical devices learned of in philosophy of logic courses, the straw man fallacy is quite a common occurrence. However, it is not quite so common as most people seem to think. I have witnessed more arguments mislabeled “Strawman” arguments than correctly labelled “Strawman” arguments. It’s one of those rhetorical devices that is very easy to claim, so easy that one would think there are Strawmen everywhere.
First a definition. The hint is in the name, and that is what makes it relatively easy to remember. What is easier to knock down, push over, or step past? A real man, or a man made out of straw? Of course the correct answer it the straw man. In formal argumentation, a straw man occurs when a person misrepresents, distorts, or exaggerates another’s argument. They do so in order to make the “argument” easier to knock down…I have found that they usually attempt this when there is an audience, either a group of listeners, or readers. One of the ways to avoid twisting another person’s argument is, if possible, to simply ask them if you are understanding their argument correctly, and reiterate their points to double check.
I’ve seen people legitimately call “Strawman” in the area of Apologetics, I’ve also seen it misused. One of the Logic textbooks I use actually has a fine example of a straw man used against Christians, though the interesting thing is, the authors of the textbook employ the straw man fallacy themselves. To paraphrase, “You cannot refer back to the Bible in support of God; why do you believe in God, ‘because the Bible tells me He exists,’ and how do you know the Bible is true? ‘Because it is inspired by God…’ Well, that’s circular logic.” Yes, and that is also a straw man fallacy. First, I have to say that I have never personally heard, or read, a Christian employ that argument…is it possible that it has been used? Yes. But, the Christian position is not that we believe in God because the Bible tells us to, that is a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation of our actual argument, and hence, a straw man fallacy.
What are some examples of the the real arguments that are often used that the author’s of the textbook characture? One is that the Bible, a collection of ancient documents, has been shown to be a historically accurate, archaeologically accurate, inherently accurate, prophetically accurate, etc… therefore, they can be used as evidence, as premises, in support of God. Now, if the atheist, or anyone who doubts these things wishes to question whether or not the Bible really is a valid source, that’s one thing (then, the Christian can direct them to the solid evidence that this is so). However, to simply twist the Christian’s argument into a straw man is a fallacy. For some odd reason many atheists insist that the Christian do not even bring relevant scripture into a conversation…it’s odd for several reasons, first, we hold the Bible to be inspired scripture (because it has been shown to be accurate in all of those previously mentioned areas, and more, so we hold that position based on evidence), of course we are going to employ it. Second, we believe that scripture has the ability to make men think, and feel, and hear…or, to put it another way, one manner that The Holy Spirit convicts us, both believer, and non-believer, is through the scriptures. We actually care about non-believers’ immortal souls, so we are going to do what we can, what we are instructed to do through scripture, to help; that includes introducing and clarifying scripture when appropriate.
So, learn what a straw man is, and be on the lookout for the straw man fallacy. This is one rhetorical device that does come up in Apologetics; that way when someone labels something a “Strawman,” you’ll know what they are talking about and be able to judge for yourself, or, you’ll be in the position to proclaim, “I call straw…man!”