At Least Try to Make a Legitimate Argument

As I've discussed before, arguments can often be won or lost in the way that the argument is framed. For example, in the United States, there is a lot of talk about tax relief. Now, this talk began with the Republicans – the more conservative of the two major political parties in the U.S. – but the language of tax relief was adopted by the Democrats. However, by adopting the idea of tax relief, the Democrats accepted the issues as framed by the Republicans. You see, the words "tax relief" were well-chosen by the Republicans to present their worldview. The word "relief" suggests that someone is being over-burdened by something, and that some sort of aid is needed to keep the unfortunate person from being buried under the problem. What type of relief is needed according to the Republicans? Tax relief is needed. In other words, taxes are overburdening the poor people, and someone needs to provide relief from those overbearing taxes. The Republicans claimed to provide the relief in the form of tax cuts. Now, the person who provides the relief is a hero. Anyone who doesn’t side with the proposed relief is seen as a villian. Get it? So, the Democrats – who generally do not favor tax cuts – allowed the issue to be framed in such a way that they were seen as the bad guys. Worse yet, they adopted the language of "tax relief" and thus started identifying themselves as the bad guys anytime they objected to any tax cut.

Even in the area of the debate about the existence of God, some issue framing takes place. The skeptics, for their part, try to frame the issue sometimes by arguing that it is irrational to believe in a book that talks about talking serpents (Genesis 3) and talking donkeys (Num 22:28), and thus frame the debate about believing in God as believing in fairy tales. Just recently, a commentor to one of Apologia_Christi's posts argued that belief in God is equivalent to a belief in Santa Claus or unicorns, again trying to frame the debate as concerning rational beliefs versus irrational beliefs. Since belief in Santa Claus and unicorns is not the same type of thing as a belief in God (thus, the argument is both a category error and an argument from contempt), the argument is really a non-sequitur. But skeptics know that if the argument is framed so that Christians look like they are having to defend God in the same way as a belief in unicorns, they have already taken control in the argument.

Certainly, we Christians are also attempting to frame the debate so that it gives the listeners the best impression in their minds. Hence, Christians sometimes frame the debate as the Godly people who are interested in an absolulte standard of morality versus the Godless people who have no basis for their morality. Like the argument comparing the belief in God to the belief in Santa Claus, this argument is more about how the issue is framed since, if the Christian is successful in making the case, then the Christian has taken control of the argument.

Now, I don't have a problem with framing issues because it is part of the process of argumentation. But where I think that the line between legitimate and illegitimate argumentation is crossed when the people try to make cases either through misrepresentation or manipulation. Just a couple of days ago, I came across as clear of an example of illegitimate argument due to manipulation that I have ever encountered. Not surprisingly, it came from the same people who made a video based largely on misrepresentation: Beyond Belief Media.

Beyond Belief Media has set up a "Statement of Belief" that they are encouraging skeptics to require Christians to sign before they can talk to the skeptic about Christianity. Of course, the entire idea is incredibly stupid, but then Beyond Belief Media is the organiation that brought us the Jesus-Myth film "The God Who Wasn't There" and the still-born War on Easter, so I am not particularly surprised. But even dumber than the idea of having someone sign a piece of paper before engaging them in conversation is the things that Christians must admit in order to have the privilege of talking with these skeptics. Here's what the Christian must sign:

By agreeing to the following statements, you are not agreeing that they settle any additional questions. You are only acknowledging that you understand the difference between evidence and faith. If you cannot sign this statement, you do not deserve to be taken seriously.

I acknowledge that the Bible is not infallible. It was created entirely by humans and may contain significant flaws.

I acknowledge that a claim can be part of Christian tradition and also be false.

I acknowledge that there is no known evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ that dates to the period of his alleged life.

I acknowledge that the names of the Gospels were most likely added well after their composition, and there is insufficient evidence to believe that these names correspond to the original writers.

I acknowledge that there is insufficient evidence to believe that any of the Gospels were written by disciples of Jesus Christ.

I acknowledge that it is common for religious cults to make things up.

I acknowledge that it is common for religions to influence each other, and for young religions to be derived from older religions.

I acknowledge that no figures such as "God" or "The Holy Spirit" or "Satan" performed any supernatural actions that had any effect upon the formation of early Christianity.

I swear, under penalty of perjury, that the foregoing is true and correct.

Now, obviously, these people don't really expect any Christian to sign such a ridiculous document. The "Statement of Belief" (which is really should be titled "Statement Ridiculing Belief") begins with a false dilemma which says that Christians either (1) sign the document that gives away their argument (since the final argument essentially requires the Christian to deny the resurrection) or (2) they are not worth taking seriously. Of course, the claims required to be accepted are largely untrue. In fact, this setting of the parameters of what contsitutes legitimate evidence is the same type of tactic engaged in by the infamous Jesus Seminar -- set the parameters of the evidence to predetermine the outcome and you win! Of course, if the parameters were all clearly on one side (as this Statement pretends), then there would be no argument in which to engage.

According to Brian Flemming's Blog, apologist J.P. Holding has previously commented on this silly Statement and came to the same conclusion at which I arrived. However, it is fascinating to see how Mr. Flemming (the "brains"[?!?] behind Beyond Belief Media) manipulates Holding's comments:

He says that if he signed the required Statement of Belief, that would be the same thing as saying, "I believe that Brian Flemming is right."

But that tells us a lot right there, doesn't it?

He's essentially said this:

"If the propositions in the Statement of Belief are true, Jesus did not exist."

I don't see how it could be read any other way. J.P. Holding is essentially admitting that without the supernatural trump card, his position loses.

No rational person familiar with the facts could disagree with the Statement of Belief. Every one of those assertions is as obvious as "Brian Flemming takes enormous glee in manipulating Christian lunatics." The only way not to believe them is to use the magic of faith.

So, let's look at what he is saying: The argument is whether Jesus existed. In order to engage in discussion with Mr. Flemming or his ilk the Christian needs to sign a statement that says that the evidence that the Christian wants to present is not valid. Therefore, because (according to Mr. Flemming) no one could rationally disagree with the statements made in his Statement of Belief, he wins the argument! What an absolute joke.

This is just another example of their arguments from ridicule and contempt which Mr. Flemming and Beyond Blief Media regularly employ -- it is a typical example of posturing in which Beyond Belief Media regularly engages. I encourage anyone (skeptics and Christians alike) who has any desire for serious debate to reject this type of argument since it isn't an argument that would be accepted in any other arena whatsoever. It is mean-spirited and counter-productive. Mr. Flemming and Beyond Belief Media should be ashamed.


slaveofone said…
Everyone has some sort of criteria about what constitutes a worthwhile conversation as opposed to a waste of time, effort, and resource. The advocates of this document clearly think that people with a contrary position are clueless, ignorant, or stupid and are not interested in communication with them. That's their perogative.

I will not engage in conversation with those who either prove themselves to be fools or will not listen to a thing I say except to throw it back in my face.

Since I believe many of their statements to be hopelessly irrational and the document itself evidence of unwillingness to do anything but blow off what I might say, I consider them fools and won't bother communicating unless I believe they have a brain with a capacity for understanding or an ear with a capacity to listen.

So it seems both parties have reached a mutual agreement. I don't know about Beyond Belief Media, but I'm thoroughly happy with it.
Layman said…
Sometimes skeptics can be self-parodying, which no doubts saves JP some time.

"I acknowledge that there is no known evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ that dates to the period of his alleged life."

Even the Jesus Seminar thinks that a significant amount of material from the Gospels goes back to Jesus. Why does this not count as evidence that "dates to the period of his alleged life"? Ah, he must mean written evidence. But there are many scholars who believe that there are written sources behind the Gospels that would reach back that far. So perhaps he means written, extant, evidence that goes back to the period of Jesus' life.

"I acknowledge that there is insufficient evidence to believe that any of the Gospels were written by disciples of Jesus Christ."

I think there is sufficient evidence to conclude that a disciple wrote John and believe that there is suffucient evidence for a reasonable person to believe that a disciple wrote Matthew. I myself am unconvinced as to the latter, but the evidence is there and reasonable people have conclude that disciples stand behind both gospels. Of course, this may not mean they wrote them in full, so maybe this would apply or maybe not.

"I acknowledge that it is common for religions to influence each other, and for young religions to be derived from older religions."

I'll go one up on the Statement, I'll acknowledge that it is certain that Christianty is derived from an older religion, Judaism. Does this not count? Perhaps not. He does use the plural afterall.

"I acknowledge that the names of the Gospels were most likely added well after their composition, and there is insufficient evidence to believe that these names correspond to the original writers."

I actually think there are strong cases to be made for Markan and Lukan authorship, and credible evidence for John. Obviously Matthew is the tricky one, but is there sufficient evidence to believe it was written by Matthew? Reasonable people differ though admittedly most believe not.

Can you sign this statment if you accept Lukan authorship but not Matthean? Apparently not in the strict sense. It seems to imply that you cannot accept traditional authorship for any of the gospels.

"I acknowledge that it is common for religious cults to make things up."

What the heck does this mean? That they lie? That they make mistakes? One thing that does not appear "common" at all is for religious cults to invent a recent purported historical founder figure.

"I acknowledge that a claim can be part of Christian tradition and also be false."

Which Christian tradition? I do not accept the perpetual virginity of Mary or her immaculate conception, so I've one upped the Statement here. I actually thinkg that some things that are part of "Christian tradition" are false. Or does the Statment mean something more fundamental to the faith?

These are hopelessly vague and ambiguous by even a lenient standard.
A Good World said…
This is quite hillarious. I just wish that I could use this approach with some people. Have them sign a document that says I'm right and only then they can proceed to argue with me. Huzzah!

Some of their arguments are quite bizzare, especially the ones dealing with the specifics of the gospels. The existance of Pre-Mark literature, such as 'Q' and an early passion piece as sources for Mark, Luke and Matthew are pretty universally acknowledged, though they may not be extant today. And by the way, what damn difference would it make if the names of the writers were not in some way 'original.' After all, 'Mark' and 'Luke' were not frickin disciples to begin with. Tools.

This is a fun blog, even if you do take athiests too seriously at times.


Kevin Rosero said…
BK, it might be worth adding that such statements as Brian Flemming's Statement of Belief look like a lack of confidence.

As you said, there is nothing wrong with framing an issue -- and I think that legitimate framing can be a sign and an expression of healthy confidence. But refusing to dialogue with people unless they first accept your claims looks like obvious underconfidence, and I doubt that Flemming is aware that his words make that kind of impression upon anybody.

There is a less charitable interpretation, which I am hesitant to embrace -- namely that the Statement of Belief is not an example of underconfidence at all, but simply contempt and gleeful manipulation (and unfortunately I'm using some words that Flemming uses to describe himself, which you quoted above).

Either way, there is no dialogue.

Note: a Statement of Belief is akin to a Creed or a Statement of Faith. Flemming asks us to understand the difference between evidence and faith, but he demonstrates right at the top that he doesn't understand them. Evidence is data. Belief and faith are, among other things, frameworks. His Statement of Belief is a framework -- and one of the best examples I've seen of the proposition that atheism is either a religion or very like a religion. The Statement of Belief is a keeper.
BK said…
Ian, thanks for the comment. I only take atheists seriously because they are taken seriously by others. I am constantly told that various skeptics -- especially Mr. Flemming -- are merely joking. The only problem is that others see their "joking" and take it seriously (and I am not convinced that Flemming is just joking -- he takes his own jokes far too seriously to be seen as completely divorced from seriousness.)

Kevin, I agree that Flemming is demonstrating the weakness of his own position. I also agree that atheism is a religious belief -- it is just a religion that doesn't accept God in its tenets.

Slaveofone, thanks for the comment. I struggle constantly with what to do with people like Flemming and his silly little organization. I want to ignore them, but I am concerned that some people may read their ridiculous pronouncements and believe them to be true because no one has spoken against them. Thus, I would gladly leave them alone if I thought they weren't reaching anyone. Unfortunately, they are on the Internet and have a movie that (incredibly) is actually registering some sales. Thus, I feel occasional forays into their work is needed (as distasteful as it may be).

Keep in mind, I don't mind legitimate skeptics asking legitimate questions. But these guys are not asking legitimate questions or making legitimate arguments. They are the propagandists of the skeptical movement and they use over-the-top language and tactic to bolster their very weak case.
BK said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
BK said…
Let me clarify something because I just re-read it and realized it sounded wrong. I do take atheists seriously who are serious about what they believe. I don't doubt the non-belief or doubts voiced by many atheists. I was limiting my comment to atheists who make outrageous claims or engage in outrageous tactics that others tell me "should not be taken seriously."

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