When I was a young child, I loved professional wrestling. I grew up watching my favorite wrestlers, like The Undertaker, The Rock, and Triple H, and I wanted to be like them. At the time, my mother had a very large stuffed animal that looked like Pluto the dog. It was so large that it was bigger than me, and I liked to pretend that I was wrestling it in a ring, performing body slams and suplexes on it like I was at the main event of a show at Madison Square Garden.
As it turned out, I was both the shortest and skinniest child in my class. I couldn't take anyone in a fight, and I was not physically imposing in the slightest. I treated my mother's Pluto stuffed animal as if it were another human being, since it was light enough for me to lift. But it was a poor representation of a real human being, who I wouldn't have been able to lift.
My experience with that Pluto stuffed animal is a good illustration for what happens when someone commits the straw man fallacy. You see, I only wrestled that stuffed animal because it was easy to lift. It made me look better (in my own mind) to wrestle it than it would have looked to wrestle another human being. But it would be absolutely wrong if I had claimed, on the basis of my skill in throwing Pluto, that I could therefore throw another human being. Pinning Pluto for a three-count in the ring is not the same as pinning The Undertaker at WrestleMania.
The straw man fallacy is much like wrestling Pluto in that it is an attempt to defeat someone's argument by misrepresenting it as a much more easily defeasible argument. It proceeds generally in three steps:
Misrepresent the argument by constructing it in terms of a much more easily defeasible argument.
Defeat the easily defeasible version of the original argument.
Claim to have therefore defeated the original argument.
Those steps might look abstract, but you've likely seen more than one actual example of the straw man fallacy before. Often, this is called "straw-manning," using the term as a verb. Typically, straw-manning takes the form of jumping from the initial statement of the original argument to a statement that few agree with. In Christian contexts, this very often happens with theological disagreements. For instance, consider this example of two people - Bob and Jones - discussing young-earth creationism, the view that Genesis 1 teaches that God created the universe recently in six literal, 24-hour days:
Bob: I was reading Genesis 1 the other day, and I was just amazed that God created all of this in six days!
Jones: Wait, you believe that the universe was created in six days?
Bob: Of course. That's what the Bible teaches. You don't?
Jones: No, I don't think that that's the right way to interpret Genesis 1.
Bob: Well, I believe the Bible, so I'm going to stick with what the Bible says.
Ask yourself: did Jones say that he did not believe the Bible? No, he said that he didn't think that Genesis 1 ought to be interpreted literally. In this example, Bob commits the straw man fallacy by taking Jones to be arguing that we shouldn't believe the Bible, a claim that most Christians would reject. By taking this route to address Jones's argument, Bob can conveniently avoid addressing any reasons for thinking that Genesis 1 shouldn't be interpreted literally, whether or not those reasons are good. So, you see, the straw man fallacy is another fallacy of irrelevance. In committing the fallacy, one successfully objects to a weaker argument, not the argument actually being made.
Just as, colloquially, we can call committing the straw man fallacy "straw-manning," the opposite of straw-manning is "steel-manning." Steel-manning is part of a broader intellectual virtue often called "charity," that is, being willing to understand and, if necessary, oppose an argument in its strongest form. Sometimes, philosophers will actually help their opponents in strengthening their arguments before attempting to refute them.
As Christians, who are called by God to love Him with all of our minds, we are called not to straw-man but instead to steel-man. Just as my wrestling Pluto wasn't impressive to anyone, committing the straw man fallacy exhibits neither intellectual virtue nor merit. In fact, it is intellectually lazy and dishonest. It does not honor the Lord.
Thankfully, I believe that we can steel-man the arguments against Christianity and still show that they fail to demonstrate that Christianity is false. If you make a practice of steel-manning, you will feel more confident in your ability to reason, even if the process is harder. Yes, it is easier to straw-man an argument, but it is not worth it. It doesn't make for a confident and virtuous thinker.
That's it for this post! As always, these posts are intended as short introductions to basic mistakes in reasoning that we, if we pay close attention, will see in our everyday lives. My hope is that, through these posts, you'll be better equipped to think critically as you interact with the concepts and ideas that shape our worldviews.
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