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Keeping debates on topic

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It is so easy to talk past one another and get sidetracked in a debate. So how do we keep it on track? Today’s correspondent writes in asking for some help on a debate he is having with a friend. CMI’s Shaun Doyle offers some pointers on how to keep the origins debate on topic.

A.B. from Australia writes:

Below is a copy of my Christian friend’s reply to a comment in a recent discussion about taking advice from atheists on evidence for an old earth.

In 4 you say, “I am disinclined to walk in the counsel of the ungodly, therefore if atheists propose an old earth I choose not to believe that proposal”. This is a simplistic and dualist approach to the debate. What about the Christians who propose an old earth?

My response: An old earth is not a Christian proposal. It is adopted….

My friend again: I addition “Walking the counsel of the ungodly” is about being ungodly. Is your Dr / mechanic / architect / dentist a Christian? If not do you take his / her counsel? We don’t only heed the advice of Christians.

My response: This is a false argument….

Can you advise me on a better way to respond. Particularly in regard to the “false argument”. There is a logical fallacy involved here which my friend would recognise if pointed out but I was not confident to identify what type.

CMI’s responds:

Dear Mr B.,

Thank you for your email.

From the little window into the discussion you have given me, it would seem that you and your friend are talking past one another.

Your friend appears to have been sidetracked from the main issue by the statement he quotes from you: “I am disinclined to walk in the counsel of the ungodly, therefore if atheists propose an old earth I choose not to believe that proposal”. Your statement as quoted commits the informal fallacy of hasty generalization. When you take this statement: “I am disinclined to walk in the counsel of the ungodly, therefore if atheists propose an old earth I choose not to believe that proposal” and replace “if atheists propose an old earth” with “if atheists propose that Jesus existed”, the statement becomes nonsensical: “I am disinclined to walk in the counsel of the ungodly, therefore if atheists propose that Jesus existed I choose not to believe that proposal”. This statement is a fallacy because a proposal is not automatically false just because an atheist proposes it.

I’m not saying that we should follow the advice of the ungodly, but the point of that statement is that the ungodly will typically give ungodly advice, and so we shouldn’t make them our most trusted moral guides and spiritual counsellors. In other words, the ungodly do sometimes give good advice, but we should always weigh what they say against the Scriptures. If your friend is a Christian, I doubt he/she would disagree with that.

As regards listening to what atheists say about evidence for an old earth, there is nothing wrong with giving their arguments a fair hearing, but that doesn’t mean we should ultimately accept their conclusions as true. Biblical creation is not devoid of evidential support or philosophical rigour, and atheists (or any long-agers) are not infallible. This is a situation where Proverbs 18:17 applies: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Your friend asks a fair question: “What about the Christians who propose an old earth?” And your response “An old earth is not a Christian proposal. It is adopted….” is a good response to his question, but it needs substantiating. As a starting point for substantiating that deep time contradicts Scripture, please see Deep time doesn’t make sense!, Did God create over billions of years?, Common ground with old-earth creationists?, and The good news without the bad news is no news at all!.

Next, when your friend says, “‘Walking the counsel of the ungodly’ is about being ungodly”, there is potential for misunderstanding here. Ungodliness consists of more than just immoral conduct; it also consists of anti-biblical belief. In this circumstance ‘not walking in the counsel of the ungodly’ would be refusing to adopt their anti-biblical assumptions. If your friend rejects this inclusion of anti-biblical belief into the definition of godliness, then just ask him: “Can we call disbelieving the Gospel ‘ungodly’?” I sincerely doubt many professing Christians would say ‘no’! If rejecting biblical beliefs is ungodly, then accepting anti-biblical beliefs is also ungodly since rejecting biblical beliefs entails accepting anti-biblical beliefs. As such, if deep time contradicts Scripture, it doesn’t matter if even Christians believe in deep time—deep time would still be an ungodly belief.

Finally, I would suggest you need to steer the argument away from who believes what and address the question: does deep time contradict the Bible? Yes, there are Christians who believe in an old earth, but that doesn’t mean the Bible and deep time are compatible; it just means some people believe they are compatible. It’s up to you and your friend to decide whether the Bible and deep time are compatible or not, and there’s no shortcut to investigating that—you must look at the evidence and arguments from either position and decide for yourselves who is right. “Test everything, hold to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

(All of this assumes that your friend agrees that all anti-biblical beliefs are false (i.e. that the Bible is perfectly trustworthy and true). If he does not, that opens up far more serious problems that go well beyond the origins debate (see e.g. Jesus on the age of the earth and Jesus Christ on the infallibility of Scripture).)

As such, I would suggest that you emphasize that anti-biblical belief is just as ungodly as immoral conduct, and that regardless of what some Christians believe deep time does in fact contradict Scripture. I imagine he would then ask you to prove it, and you can then concentrate on the arguments and evidence substantiating that claim, which is the core issue of the origins debate (as a starting point, see Common ground with old-earth creationists? and The good news without the bad news is no news at all!).

I hope this helps,
Shaun Doyle
Creation Ministries International

Published: 8 June 2014