The Old Ad Hominem

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Thursday, April 22, 2021 2 comments

by Steve Risner

We’re 3 posts into a series discussing the kindly given advice of an evolutionist to creationists on how they should conduct themselves in the creation/evolution debate. The backstory is that I discovered a post in a group on Facebook from a person who wanted to help us creationists out by telling us what we should avoid when debating. We discussed preaching in the first post, and last time we looked at circular reasoning. This week is a fun one: ad hominems.

The Facebook post said, “AD HOMINEM ARGUMENT. A disparaging statement about a person’s character is not an effective argument, and it alienates instead of convinces. Better to stick to the elements of your argument and the reasons for them.”

This, of course, is absolutely true. Getting into a discussion where insults fly, characters are assaulted, or you vilify a person or simply appeal to emotions is never a good way to go. I couldn’t even guess on how many times and how many ways I’ve witnessed someone being called a liar or having their integrity questioned simply because they believe something that is at odds with someone else’s beliefs. It’s tragic because the person who says such things has walled themselves off so securely that they will just call someone a liar so they can relieve themselves of the opportunity to either learn or educate.

I wanted to present an example of this. I went to the group I mentioned in my previous post to see if I could find an example. It took only a few minutes to find this quote: “Why is every creationist post just another empty lie?” I have a difficult time dealing with people like this. They won’t discuss much, but they are happy to say you’re lying because you see it differently.

Lying has a very specific definition. Lying means that you are purposefully presenting false information or presenting true information in such a way as to deceive others. This could be leaving out key details or spinning something to be false even though much of the information might be true. So in fact, you can present completely wrong information and not be lying. To be honest, I believe we see this every time an evolutionist posts on the topic. Universal common descent is completely bogus in my opinion, so if you’re giving me facts about how it happened, while I think you’re totally wrong, I don’t necessarily believe you’re being dishonest.

Calling someone a liar because you don’t like what they’re saying means you believe you actually know someone’s intentions and what is in their heart. Of course, only God knows these things about the person in question. It also likely means you’re not mature enough to handle adult conversation. It’s important to realize that two different people can see the same information and draw two completely different conclusions. It happens all the time. The truth here is that one of you may be correct, both of you may be correct, or neither one of you may be correct. That’s just how it works. But attacking someone’s character because they think differently is a real problem.

This is just one of the many forms in which the ad hominem attack can manifest. A common reason for ad hominem attacks is to appeal to emotions. When we appeal to emotions, we’ve left the world of logic and reason. Irrationality is the way of emotions quite often. A great example can be found on the Worldview Warriors Facebook page as a comment on one of my recent blog posts. You can find this gem: “I told you to come back when you repent, hypocrite.” This is such a terrible statement for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the derogatory term at the end. But this is an attempt, I guess, to have a conversation or debate about something in this person’s mind.

There are several types of ad hominem arguments: abusive which is a direct attack on the person (as I mentioned above), circumstantial which means the person’s motives or circumstances have rendered their argument void, guilt by association which means because of some negative association an argument is rendered void, and tu quoque which essentially means a person’s argument is discredited because their actions are not consistent with their argument (example: you must not believe smoking is bad for you since you smoke). These are all quite common, and all of them are logical fallacies.

Another common use of the personal attack would be to criticize a person’s argument because of the person’s education level. This is also a very common tactic used by atheists and skeptics who do not believe the Biblical account. Akin to this is also attacking someone’s intelligence, making the claim that they’re too stupid to be taught anything or to see it the “right way.” Again, to reference a real example you can find on our Worldview Warriors Facebook page, when I asked someone to explain what they meant or what they thought I didn’t understand, the reply was, “To you? What a waste.” This was an insinuation that I was either too stupid or not good enough for this person to explain something to. I don’t believe anyone who actually wants to present a good argument for a position or who wishes to persuade someone or influence another’s position would speak like this. It makes no sense at all.

This tactic (questioning someone’s education) is very common. Scientists who are creationists get this a lot. Finding examples online would only take you a few minutes. They’re either not published in credible journals so they’re stupid, or they didn’t get their degree from Oxford so they’re stupid, or they work for a creationist organization so they’re too stupid to be taken seriously.

There are so many examples of this. Most of us have experienced this, I’m sure. And I’m not saying that creationists don’t do this. I’ve done this, unfortunately. It’s certainly not my first line of defense but I’ve been pushed long enough and hard enough that I have waded into these waters with people. On occasion, pointing out a personal flaw may actually have relevance, but it’s not common and, in general, it should be avoided.

If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of an ad hominem attack, the first thing to do is stay calm and not respond in kind. You don’t want to tarnish your argument or reputation by stooping to that level. Once a person decides to mock or ridicule you rather than discuss with you, there’s generally no turning them back. It’s like a dam that’s been breached. Once it ruptures, it’s very difficult to stop it. I would suggest gently encouraging the person to refrain from such attacks and if they receive that (which is not likely but possible), continue in your discussion. But if they refuse and continue to berate you, wish them well and call it a day.

God’s Word has a great deal to say about this topic. Proverbs 26:4-5 says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” This might seem to be a contradictory statement, but it needs to be pulled apart to make sense of it. The first part, “Don’t answer…” means we are not to accept the fool’s (unbeliever’s) premise as our own but we argue from the Truth of Scripture. The second part, “Answer…” means for the sake of argument that we can accept the premise to expose its absurdity. It’s the “Don’t answer… answer” technique. This link explains a great deal about this so you can read it there and I won’t repeat it here. This link also may prove useful.

You can also usually rest assured that if someone you’re debating with starts to attack you personally or appeals to emotional arguments, you’ve likely made some headway in the discussion and they’re uncomfortable with it. Keep up the good work!

This forum is meant to foster discussion and allow for differing viewpoints to be explored with equal and respectful consideration.  All comments are moderated and any foul language or threatening/abusive comments will not be approved.  Users who engage in threatening or abusive comments which are physically harmful in nature will be reported to the authorities.


Stephen Meiner said...

And likewise, you keep up the good work, Steve.

Steve Risner said...

I try :)