Your Straw Man’s House Won’t Stand

The Internet may be the most powerful democratic force in the world. Theoretically, every user has an equal voice. There are still a few problems, of course. Every once in a while a user  encounters a seriously problematic idea. Send in the trolls.

A tweet I read by Lauren Dubinsky (wife of Max Andrew Dubinsky, whose hyper-creative multimedia is worth checking out) this morning said:

@laurendubinsky I have yet to meet a homeless person that doesn’t praise God for what little they have.

Two replies followed thus:

@GabrielGadfly @laurendubinsky I wonder if homeless atheists feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers.
@GodlessAtheist @gabrielgadfly Many of the religious groups force their religion on them in return for food. Also much of the support is state funded.

In the first reply, Gabriel Gadfly (surely his birth name) poses what seems like an honest question. Do homeless atheists, in general, feel uncomfortable receiving aid from faith-based support centers? We will get to his question in a moment.

Meanwhile, both Lauren and Godless Atheist have made claims.

Lauren’s claim is based on her personal experience on the ground. Personal experience is good, but can be misleading. It’s easy for me to have an experience that is counter to the norm. But if Lauren’s sample group was large enough, we’d say her claim is statistically safe. So, Lauren, you’re off the hook for now.

Godless Atheist’s claims are:

1) many religious groups force their religion on them in return for food

2) much of the support is state funded

You, the reader, have a choice. You can believe these at face value, or you can question them.

If these claims were made in an academic setting, these arguments wouldn’t fly because they completely lack evidence, are unspecific, and are logical fallacies. They aim to persuade through rhetoric rather than evidence.

We are not in an academic setting here, but that doesn’t mean we throw out our brains. It’s simple to see when someone is making a broad claim to change someone’s mind, but doesn’t have a sufficient basis to do so.

At best, Godless Atheist’s claims contain several logical fallacies found on this beautiful illustrated chart: 1) Appeal to Ignorance, 2) Appeal to Popular Belief, 3) Division (or Spotlight), and 4) Sweeping Generalization.

At worst, Godless Atheist saw an opportunity to stir up angry debate. For now, we will give him or her the benefit of the doubt, and deal with why this claim they’ve made is such a problem.

1) Appeal to Ignorance: In both claim 1 and claim 2, Godless Atheist has not given any evidence for, but has not received any evidence that points the other way. Their own ignorance plies our own ignorance until one of us becomes better informed.

2) Begging The Question/Red Herring: Because it’s a common thing for states to fund humanitarian work, it’s not a stretch to make, or believe, claim 2. But what is the author’s intent with this comment? Are they trying to undermine the work that religious groups do because funding comes from the government? This would be like saying the work of teachers doesn’t matter because the government funds schools.

3) Sweeping Generalization/Composition: Claim 1 applies the characteristics of one or a few of these “religious groups” on all of the religious groups. This is unfair. It’s equivalent to calling all American citizens pro-war, because of their government’s position and their military prowess. (This links with guilt by association)

4) Generalization: Use of the word “many” and “most”: these are vague and generalizing, and can steer evidence very poorly, in the same was as using superlatives like never or always.

5) Appeal to Emotion (Fear): Use of the term “force their religion”. A vague term to begin with, no definition, examples, or evidence has been given. Has Godless Atheist observed an instance of this which they can cite? Forcing religion, in this situation, seems to me to be a general statement expressing potential discomfort from encountered ideas that are foreign to a person. And this happens every single day.

6) Division/Generalization: If a religious group exists that does proselytize to needy people before they give them anything, that group would not be representative of the majority. It is completely unfair and untrue for Godless Atheist to use words like “most” in their claim.

 

So, let’s get back to Gabriel, who has been waiting patiently to have his question answered. If Gabriel is in earnest, can we find the answer to his question? Yes, we can!  We will need to ask the only people qualified to answer: homeless atheists themselves.

But I’m pretty sure that if we do ask them (and there may be none, or very few, or very many), that they’re likely not going to all give us the same answer. I’d say it’s safe to assume that some will say yes, some will say no, and some will give a conditional answer.

But to further the discussion, why don’t pose a corollary? Do religious people feel uncomfortable receiving aid from non-religious organizations? Do religious people feel uncomfortable buying groceries from an atheist supermarket cashier or receiving tax breaks from secular governments? Sometimes it helps frame the nature of a question to think about its reverse.

If Gabriel’s question is not in earnest, it might instead be an incendiary comment meant to stir up debate on a completely unrelated topic, for example, whether religious groups oppress others.I chose to take some time out of my morning to respond to this discussion at the risk of feeding a troll, because I believe we can all do our part to make the Internet a place where good ideas are valued and fallacies aren’t simply let off the hook.

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