Logical Fallacy of the Week

This weekend I watched the debate between Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens. The topic of the debate was ostensibly the existence of god and the value of religion. The debate originated from Hitchens’ wildly popular new book: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I won’t go into the proceedings too much but I definitely recommend checking it out, it was pretty amusing.

How does the debate relate to the Logical Fallacy of the Week? Well debates are fertile grounds for logical fallacies, especially when your debate includes someone like Al Sharpton (yeah I know thats an ad hominem (which I’ll cover another week) but I never said I was perfect). The logical fallacy I’d like to focus on in this post is:

The Straw Man (dun dun dun!!!!)

Description:

The Straw Man is a fallacy I generally see used in the course of intellectual dishonesty. The Straw Man is the act of taking a weaker interpretation of your opponents’ argument than what was actually meant. By doing this you set up an argument that is easier to refute than the argument actually put forth by your opponent.

In the debate Sharpton makes the tired argument that if atheists/agnostics do not believe in god or some higher power then they can not possibly be moral as there is no one to judge them. Hitchens responds to this by pointing out some of the many very morally questionable acts and decrees that are laid out in the bible. He further argues via example that many crimes and atrocities are committed by people of faith, even in service to their faith. Now here comes the good part, Sharpton comes back with this:

“So you are saying no crimes have ever been committed by atheists?”

And there was much puffing of his chest. This, friends, is a Straw Man argument. Sharpton took Hitchens’ argument:

That godly people are very capable of immorality and that the source of their morals (the bible) is rife with god-approved atrocities

and presented it as the obviously ridiculous and simplistic claim that atheists don’t commit crimes. Sharpton does this because it is very easy to refute such a claim, far easier than addressing Hitchens’ actual argument.

Beware of the straw man, while it is very easy to pick out it often will score cheap points with your audience. I am of the opinion that if your opponent tries this you call them on it on the spot. Inform your audience about what your opponent is doing and how it is an attempt to mislead the audience. This will hopefully result in putting a mental asterisk next to those points your opponent earned and may even sour the audience on his future arguments.

That’s all for now, thank you for your time.

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