The Danger of False Analogies

It should come as no surprise that in today’s emotionally over-charged world, where every slight or mistake is regarded as an epic outrage, that not only the topics of conversation are dangerously over-wrought, but so are the manners in which those conversations are conducted. This is true in theology as well as politics, but for ease of observation I am going to highlight a couple of analogies that are currently being used that, to my semi-professionally trained eye, do far more harm than good. I want to say at the outset that I am critiquing a process, and I have no-one in mind as a guilty party, so if you have used one of these analogies rest assured I am not picking on you individually, just the bad analogy.

The first one compares what is going on with immigrant families being separated at the southern border with abortion. The line of thinking is this: you cannot be against abortion and support the separation of children from their families at the border. The analogy fails on just so many levels. To begin with, the question of the separation of children from adults in detention centers is muddied by the fact that most of the reporting is done by journalists and media personnel who utterly despise the current president, so their reporting is hardly to be considered fair or equal. On the other hand, no one doubts what happens at an abortion clinic – a pregnancy is terminated. Euphemisms aside, no one is doubting that result. The policy of separating children from adults is done, at least ostensibly, to protect the children from predators housed in adult detention centers. No one can argue that abortion protects the unborn. The policy of separating children from adults may be clumsy, misguided, and poorly administered, or it may be violent and immoral, but no one is suggesting that the end result is the mass extinction of millions of babies. The analogy is simply horrendous.

The second analogy follows along the same lines – you cannot be pro-life and support capital punishment. All life is sacred, so the argument goes, so if you are against abortion, you must be against capital punishment or you are a hypocrite. Once again, the analogy is simply false. Capital punishment is only administered at the end of a long and contested legal proceeding. Theoretically at least, only those who are guilty of certain crimes are executed. [Note: I am aware of the mis-management of the use of capital offense prosecutions. I am not arguing that such prosecutions are always fair or equal – only that the analogy to abortion is a false one.] On the other hand, no one argues that an unborn child is guilty of anything, and the baby has no advocate, no legal system in which to make appeals, no jury trial, no judge to oversee the proceedings. The analogy is actually hideous – all life is not equal, and anyone with a high school education should be able to understand the difference between a murderer or rapist and an unborn child. This argument also completely dismisses the fact that it was a holy and just God who commanded, not just allowed, the execution of murderers, rapists, and kidnappers. To suggest that God equates murderers with unborn children is simply obscene.

The problem with such analogies is that they are tremendously effective – for those who are in complete agreement with the speaker/writer. “Wow, how brilliant!” is the sycophant response. On the other hand, for the opponent, the argument is typically either ignored, or is actively mocked. I know of no one who has had their mind changed about the immigration debate, capital punishment, or abortion, due to such over-strained analogies.

I think what is worse is that, for the person who can see through the emotionalism, the analogy actually makes the speaker/writer appear uneducated and churlish. When I see or hear such analogies (and these two are not the only ones) I don’t immediately reframe my views; I think, “Poor fella, he needs to learn the rudiments of logical argument.” And I think this whether I agree with the writer/speaker 100% or disagree 100%.

One other extreme danger is that the truth of what the writer/speaker is trying to communicate gets lost in the emotionalism of the analogy. To separate a child from his/her parents at the border may indeed by a moral crime. The policy may indeed need to be changed – or just flat discontinued. There can be no debate that the judicial system has grossly mis-administered the capital punishment laws. Innocent men (and perhaps women) have been executed – of that I have no doubt. And there is no recourse when such a mistake is identified. The American system, with all of its checks and balances, has simply not worked in too many cases.

But, the truth of the matter gets lost in crass emotionalism when false analogies are used. The questions surrounding the immigration debate do not need to be clouded by illogical connections to the abortion debate. Likewise with  capital punishment. The issues revolving around the just administration of any penalty (corporal or capital) needs to be separated from the moral tragedy of the murder of unborn babies.

Obviously, the very same is true regarding theological debates. Whether a congregation has a fellowship hall cannot be compared to the role of baptism in salvation. Whether a person has a cup of coffee in a Bible class is not a question equal to the deity of Jesus. Whether or not it is appropriate to raise one’s hands during worship is not a question on par with whether God raised Jesus bodily from the grave. To equate something of mere opinion to that of saving faith is to make a false analogy, and in the final analysis, the entire conversation is corrupted.

Let us debate the serious issues of theology – and politics – but let us conduct those debates intelligently and with respect toward our opponents. False analogies do not build bridges – they are hand grenades tossed into the camp of the enemy. Jesus told his disciples to be wise as serpents, yes, let us be that wise! But – he also said to be as innocent as doves. That, my friends, is the mark of a thoughtful and intelligent debater.

Let us become wiser by descending lower.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

2 thoughts on “The Danger of False Analogies”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.