Apologetic Thursdays: A Lesson in Fallacies (Red Herring)

The next fallacy we’ll cover is called the Red Herring. When hunters trained their dogs to follow a certain scent, they would drag a red herring on the ground going a completely different direction from the original scent. Well-trained dogs were able to keep following the original scent and ignore the powerful, distracting smell of the red herring. Untrained dogs, however, would be led in the wrong direction. The Red Herring fallacy is committed when a person distracts his listeners from the original issue and diverts their attention to an irrelevant issue. He then claims that the conclusions he draws from the irrelevant issue settle the original issue, when indeed it doesn’t. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Richard: Theists say that in order to be moral realists, we have to believe in God. Objective moral values can only exist if God exists. But Christians are hardly more moral than non-Christians. The church has started wars in the past and many Christians today are bigoted and intolerant. Their argument just doesn’t work.
  2. Richard: Theists say that in order to be moral realists, we have to believe in God. Objective moral values can only exist if God exists. But look at the Bible. God commands the Israelites to commit genocide and He’ll send people to Hell if they don’t believe in Him. Surely their reasoning is flawed.

Do you see the problem with Richard’s argument? In (1), The original issue was whether God’s existence is necessary for objective moral values, but Richard quickly starts arguing against the moral character of many Christians. The character of people who claim to be Christian isn’t the issue, the issue is whether God’s existence is necessary for objective moral values. In (2), the original issue is the same as (1), but Richard quickly gets into issues of biblical theology and inerrancy. One does not need to be a Christian to believe that only God can ground objective moral values. If the original claim was that the Christian God as revealed in the Bible must exist in order to ground objective moral values, then the arguments brought up by Richard would be relevant, but not if we’re just talking about bare theism.

Here is another example from my logic textbook:

Many people criticize Thomas Jefferson for being an owner of slaves. But Jefferson was one of our greatest presidents, and his Declaration of Independence is one of the most eloquent pleas for freedom and democracy ever written. Clearly, these criticisms are unwarranted. (Critical Thinking: A Student’s Introduction, 3rd ed., p. 135)

The original issue is whether we can legitimately criticize Jefferson for owning slaves, not whether he was a great president or a valiant defender of freedom and democracy. The person making the argument changes the subject then pretends his conclusion settles the original subject.

Some red herrings are subtle, so pay close attention to the arguments of others when discussion your religious convictions or evangelizing. Do his arguments address the issue being raised, or does he avoid it? If he is committing the red herring, simply ask what his argument has to do with the original subject and lead the conversation back to it.

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