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The Red Herring

It is fascinating how idioms can so succinctly explain concepts through an image. The red herring is one of the most recognizable English idioms and is used in various contexts, including film and philosophy. In general, however, it is used in similar ways, no matter the context.

The (likely legendary) story goes like this. Apparently, centuries ago, hunting dogs would be trained to track various scents. The so-called "red herring" (which is actually a cured herring called a kipper that has a strong scent) would be used to train puppies to track animal scents. But, since red herrings had a stronger scent than normal animals, red herrings could also be used to confuse hunting dogs on the trail of a weaker scent (such as a raccoon). Thus, red herrings distract and mislead. This is the heart of the red herring fallacy.

Thus far in this series, we've only talked about informal logical fallacies. Remember that informal logical fallacies do not violate any specific rule of logic, as opposed to fallacies such as, for instance, negating the antecedent. Because of this, informal logical fallacies (1) occur more often in everyday discussion but (2) can be harder to find. People also often, but not always, use red herrings intentionally, since red herrings are an easy way to distract from the weakness in one's own case. Finally, true to its name, the red herring fallacy often involves statements with a strong "scent," usually something that would be offensive to the person the speaker is trying to distract. For this reason, we have to be self-controlled and discerning, if we're going to spot the red herring in discussions with others.

Let's illustrate the red herring as we did the bandwagon argument, with a sample discussion between a Christian and atheist:

Christian: So, why do you think that Christianity is false?

Atheist: It just seems to me that a good God like what the Bible describes could exist with all of the evil in the world.

Christian: I see. That's understandable. The evil and suffering in the world is overwhelming. Do you mind if I tell you how I think through it as a Christian?

Atheist: Sure.

Christian: The problem of evil (which is the argument you're referring to) contends that God's existence is inconsistent with the evil in the world. This isn't true if we can account for the evil in the world in a way that shows that it is consistent with God's existence. For example, God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist in the world. In fact, the Bible implies that God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil to exist in the world. We discuss those if you'd like.

Atheist: But Christians have also caused a lot of that evil! What about the Crusades?

At first glance (especially in the heat of debate), such a statement from the atheist seems relevant. How could it not be? It's true! Of all of the evil caused in the world through history, Christians have been the source of (too) much of it. The atheist's claim is undeniably true. Furthermore, many Christians today are troubled by the Crusades and similar atrocities committed by supposed Christians over the centuries. Such a statement can easily strike a nerve in the Christian, making it very tempting to shift the discussion to that topic.

But such a shift would be a shift from the topic at hand, since the atheist's statement is actually irrelevant to the argument being discussed (i.e., the problem of evil). Why is that? First, the issue at hand in the problem of evil is the existence of evil at all, let alone evil caused by Christians. Therefore, ways of accounting for the existence of evil that are consistent with theism will account for the existence of evil at all, including evil caused by Christians. (Leave aside for now the distinction between moral and natural evil.)

Second, it is just not normally the case that, in situations like this, the atheist has made this move in the discussion in order to refute the Christian response to the problem of evil in the world. Rather, the atheist is likely expressing a doubt that he or she personally has about the truth of Christianity, given atrocities committed by professing Christians, whether or not it has some logical connection with the problem of evil. Whether intentionally or not, this shift can distract you from the prior discussion about the problem of evil itself, and this is what the red herring fallacy does. Therefore, the red herring fallacy is also a fallacy of relevance.

This can be considered a case in which the red herring fallacy is used unintentionally. When used intentionally, the speaker who uses it is acting in bad faith, using an irrelevant claim (usually) to distract you or the audience from the weaknesses in his argument. More often than not, the person with whom you'll be discussing these things will use the fallacy unintentionally, not realizing that he or she has distracted from the topic under consideration. At this point, you'll have two options to consider as you continue in the discussion. I'll illustrate those options by showing how the Christian in the discussion above could proceed:

Option 1:

Christian: I understand that atrocities caused by Christians (or professing Christians) may disturb you, as it has disturbed me before. I think that I might have a way to respond to that. But what I'm about to discuss about evil and God's reasons for allowing it apply to any kind of evil, including evil committed by Christians. I just don't want to let that important issue distract us from what we were discussing.

Option 2:

Christian: While issues like the Crusades aren't directly related to the problem of evil, you seem to really care about this instead. Would you rather discuss evil committed by Christians (or professing Christians) instead? That seems like something you care about more.

Notice that these options are between "not following the red herring" and "following the red herring," respectively. In Option 1, the Christian chooses not to follow the red herring, instead showing why the comment about evil committed by Christians is irrelevant and staying focused on the discussion of the problem of evil. In Option 2, the Christian notices that the atheist is more invested in discussing evil committed by Christians than he or she is in discussing the problem of evil and decides to follow the shift in conversation to that issue.

I'm not opting for one option over the other. In fact, depending on the person and situation, one or the other may be preferable. The key is that it is your choice whether you take the bait or not. When we're dealing with real people, the most compassionate thing to do may be to notice that their irrelevant comments, even if irrelevant to the discussion, are important to him or her and therefore worth discussing in more detail. Doing apologetics well isn't just about winning a debate; it's about persuasively working to win a soul to Christ. Let's remember to deal compassionately with people where they are, not just pouncing on fallacies as we see them.

That being said, you must recognize the red herring in order to make a decision whether to follow it. Too many Christians immediately follow it. Thus, recognizing logical fallacies helps us to be versatile and compassionate in our responses to the unbeliever, able to make choices that recognize the logical structure of arguments and that are wise in recognizing the person's particular doubts concerning the truth of Christianity.

That's it for this post! These posts are intended to very short and easy to read. I want them to a helpful resource for reference and an introductory resource for people who haven't been exposed to these concepts. I hope that the content will be edifying to you. If you have questions or would like to reach out to me to discuss these things, feel free to comment here or to send me an email or message on Facebook. If this blog has been helpful and interesting for you, feel free to subscribe to be notified of any new posts. Finally, if this post would benefit anyone else, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks for reading!


For the sake of full disclosure, this is the main resource that I will be using for this series. This is an excellent textbook and worth checking into if you want more information on the subject:

Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Twelfth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

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