When Arguments Aren't Arguments

Learning to tell the difference between an argument and a non-argument will make it easier for you to defend your faith.

Almost every day I come across people who challenge my views. “God does not exist.” “Your Christian views are homophobic.” “You can only know what is proven by science.” “You shouldn’t judge other people.” What do all these challenges have in common? Not a single one is an argument.

An argument is a particular kind of thing. It contains two parts: a claim and reasons for it. One must offer both parts for it to qualify as a bona fide argument.

You can think of an argument as a house, which has a roof supported by walls. The roof is the claim and the walls are the reasons. Without the walls, you don’t have a house – you just have a roof on the ground.

Not realizing this, many people attempt to “argue” against the Christian faith without ever offering an argument. And many Christians don’t realize there’s no argument to defend against.

Opinions

For example, “God does not exist” is not an argument.  It’s a claim without reasons, making it nothing more than an opinion. It’s a complete argument as much as a roof is a complete house. Consequently, there’s no need to respond defensively to such a statement. If you hear this claim, don’t expend your energy defending against it. Just ask for a reason why it’s true (the “Columbo” tactic) and listen.

In fact, the majority of challenges that fail to qualify as an argument fall under this category. “Joseph Smith is a prophet of God,” “Evolution created all of life,” “The Bible is full of fables and myths,” and “The Qur’an is the uncorrupted word of God” are all examples of opinions – not arguments.

Name-Calling

Another kind of challenge that fails to qualify as an argument is name-calling. For example, “You shouldn’t be so judgmental” is not an argument. It’s meant to make you feel bad for being labeled, “judgmental.” But don’t take the bait. You have no obligation to respond with an explanation for your view. Instead, ask them to define the “bad” word they called you and listen to their response. The same is true for other names like homophobic, intolerant, narrow-minded, bigot, and anti-science.

Phantom Arguments

Sometimes a person tries to show your view is mistaken, but can’t offer reasons at the moment. I call this a phantom argument. A Muslim once responded to a critique of the Qur’an with “There’s a website that has answered your objection.” That’s not an argument. The website might actually have reasons to reject my view, but unless they’re offered during the conversation, there’s no value to them.

Other phantom arguments include, “I have these books that can refute you,” “Christopher Hitchens, the famous atheist, has answered that claim,” or “One day science will be able to explain that too.” Remember, these aren’t arguments so don’t feel compelled to answer them. Respond to a phantom argument with another phantom argument. For example, when someone tells you he has books that can refute you, respond with, “I have other books that can refute your books.” The point is to show that phantom arguments are vacuous.

Self-Refuting Statements

The challenge that qualifies the least as a valid argument is a self-refuting statement. Not only does this challenge fail to refute your view, but it actually destroys their view. That’s because the claim refutes itself. For example, “You shouldn’t judge other people,” is self-refuting. People who make this claim are saying that it is wrong for you to judge other people. But by telling you that you’re wrong they are judging you. In other words, they are guilty of doing the very thing they are saying is wrong.

Surprisingly, many challenges leveled at Christians turn out to be self-refuting. “There is no truth,” “You shouldn’t force your morality on others,” “You can only know what is proven by science,” and “It’s wrong to change other people’s religious beliefs” are all examples of self-refuting statements. These attempts at arguments are not weak, they’re hopelessly false.

As an ambassador for Jesus Christ, you’ll benefit from recognizing these false-start challenges. It will make your task of engaging non-believers easier. Instead of expending your energy with a lengthy response, you can make your mission more manageable by asking some of the simple one-line questions I suggested for each kind of non-argument.

Alan Shlemon

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