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.

How to Win a Complex Theological Argument Without Really Trying – A Lament

I saw it again today. A complex theological discussion ended abruptly, yet without a legitimate conclusion. One side walked away feeling euphoric, the other feeling cheated and abused. The discussion was over, yet nothing had been settled. Neither side was changed; indeed, because of the nature of the argumentation neither side could be changed. What is sad is that through the specific use of tactics the conversation is likely never to be honestly entered into again. The “victor” obviously sees no need to, and the “vanquished” rejects the inherent dishonesty of the other. Never again shall the twain meet.

How do you win a complex theological argument without ever really trying? It is profoundly simple, actually. All you need to do is appeal to experience. Experience is the “Mother of all Debate Bombs (MOADB).” Drop it once and your enemy is reduced to picking up the splintered shards of whatever evidence they might have produced. Its effect can be devastating – although virtually never appropriate or legitimate.

Consider the two examples where I see this most frequently used. (No names will be provided to protect the guilty). A respectable, although intense, discussion begins over the significance of baptism, both in terms of salvation and the larger issue of ecclesiology (who should be considered a member of the church). At a critical point in the discussion one of the participants asks a rhetorical question: “Are you saying my father, God rest his saintly soul, will not be in heaven?” The MOADB was just dropped. How can there be a response? Say, “no” and all the fiery pit of hell will explode. Say, “yes” and derail the entire discussion into who has the mind of God. Say, “I do not know” and the discussion then becomes moot. Why discuss something with an ignoramus? (Never mind that option three is clearly the best, unless someone DOES have access to God’s infinite wisdom.) The point is that with the introduction of the dearly departed saintly relative, the issue becomes one of experience (the experience of having to deal with relatives/loved ones who disagree with me) and the playing field never will be level again.

Example two: A proponent of gender egalitarianism defends his (and it is almost always “his”) change in understanding the increased leadership role of women in a worship service. “I knew I was wrong when I looked into the eyes of my sweet little 10 year old daughter and realized she would never be considered worthwhile in my church.” Here is a case of the double MOADB. First, who wants to accept the role of arguing with a “sweet little 10 year old girl.” My daughter has had me wrapped around her little finger ever since the day she entered this world. Two dogs and a turtle are ample proof of that, and my fortress of arguments against a rabbit is crumbling by the minute. But I digress.

The second, and more insidious, experiential argument in the above statement is the declaration (accusation, actually) that a female is considered “worthless” in a congregation that places the role of leadership solely upon qualified men. But I hear it all the time! In a recent article in a national magazine, the writer stipulated that one of the factors in deciding whether a congregation was “healthy” or not was whether there were females participating in significant leadership roles in the worship service. Clearly, not having women (plural) on the stage means a congregation hates women (and, I would assume, that means the women in the congregation hate themselves – a rather pernicious loathing, I might add).

However, once dropped, the MOADB cannot be recalled. The discussion is over, regardless of whether the subject is a dearly departed relative or one’s precious little progeny. Move the discussion from reason (logic, exegesis, historical examples, etc) to emotion (experience) and the battle is won. You really do not even have to try very hard. It is so simple it is astounding.

All of this is to illustrate, and to stress, my Undeniable Truth of Theological Reflection #1 all over again. If your goal is to win the argument (or at least prevent your opponent from answering you), then by all means drop the MOADB. But if your goal is to humbly submit to the truth of God’s word, and to lovingly attempt to correct someone else who you feel is in error, then the pretentious use of empty emotionalism is absolutely forbidden.

To paraphrase a teaching of our Lord, it is far better to lose an argument and maintain your virtue, than to win a debate and lose all sense of your honor.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.