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.

Reflections: The Sanctified Imagination

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” Romans 12:2

Much effort is required to rescue someone, say, from exploitation. Yet the rescue is just the beginning of a new journey. A longer process of healing is needed to lift psychological and emotional weights.

This illustrates sanctification, the journey of transformation that follows salvation. Sanctification means “to grow in grace”. Like a sunflower turns its face towards its namesake, we must also grow to face God and walk into our future with eyes fixed on him.

Transformation begins in the mind. Actions stem from thought patterns: we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. If we contemplate sin, allow fantasy to take root, or dwell in the past, we entertain deception. Our thinking must be sanctified because 90% of the time, we use our minds as weapons against ourselves.

For lack of a sanctified imagination, one is susceptible to suffering. Falsehood takes root subtly in unguarded minds. Nostalgia can idolize the past instead of trusting in goodness for the days to come. Old pain can distract us from present opportunity, fostering helplessness. Refusing negative thought patterns is part of sanctification.

Without a sanctified imagination, the church has only the world to imitate. It will reproduce bland facsimiles of worldly art, education, economics, relationships, and governance. It follows suit instead of setting an example.

God desires a child-like church that believes anything is possible. Embrace godly imagination: Jesus said to pray for heaven on earth. Is the church dreaming big enough? Some decline the invitation to pray for the impossible, opting instead for safe yet stifling religious principles and platitudes. However, God’s business is doing the impossible. Religion and intellect have not saved humanity and we are not any closer today than before. Saving humanity is God’s domain, and he lives in us. The impossible is nothing.

The prophet Joel wrote that in the end times, God’s people will see visions and dream dreams, presumably ones that will change the world. If the church seeks to carry out God’s plans, it needs the barriers down. The book of Acts references Joel’s prophecy, which the early church lived out, and saw miracles become commonplace. Our imagination must grow in grace or we will resist God instead of dreaming with Him.

Reflections: Belief

“As you have believed, so let it be done for you” – Matthew 8

Jesus’ disciples barely weathered a potentially life threatening storm as Jesus slept soundly. In panic, they woke Jesus and he pacified the storm around them with a word. As the storm within them calmed, Jesus perplexedly asked where their faith (confident expectation) was. The disciples had great faith in their impending doom, but Jesus needed them to have faith in the giver of life.

Jesus healed again and again throughout this chapter. He demonstrated his power over real and threatening circumstances. Sovereign over nature, he stilled a storm; sovereign over the spirit realm, he cast out demons; and sovereign over life itself, he raised the dead. All of this he did with a word

We are tempted to put our faith in many things and at times may question our ability to stay afloat. Instead, we are to place our faith in God’s ability. Incredibly, God is more real than anything we can experience, for He is not limited by our dimensions. This revelation will revolutionize one’s mind-set. With God, all things are possible.

A pivotal story in Matthew 8 is that of the Roman centurion. Approaching Jesus, he declared his faith in Jesus’ authority to heal his sick servant. Jesus proclaimed that the centurion revered God more than many of the “sons and daughters of the kingdom.” The centurion knew his own authority, including its limits, and realized the authority of God.

Jesus’ response to this man was, “Go your way, and as you have believed, let it be done for you.” To the centurion it was an affirmation that his request is granted.

Whatever we believe can come to pass. Cease speaking negative prophecies over your life – chances are they may come to fulfilment. Instead, seek to align your mindset with God. You will see life if you confidently expect to receive it from its giver. Focus your faith not on the potency of your problems but on the greatness of your God.