Let us now consider how the straw man fallacy can be committed within Christian dialogue. Consider the following examples:
Keith says, “Personally, as a four-point Calvinist, I believe that Calvinism offers the best explanation of why people do not accept Jesus.”
Marilyn responds, “I disagree. I don’t see how anyone could possibly believe people do not have free will and are just robots under the command of God, and yet also believe that God is righteous in predetermining people to go to hell.”
Marilyn is essentially arguing that it seems very difficult to reconcile the belief that people do not have free will with the belief that God is just in choosing who will be saved and who will be damned. While this is a real problem for those who hold both views, and those who believe these views need to offer a response to this criticism, Marilyn has not demonstrated that this is in fact what Keith believes. Modern Calvinists do not all agree on the same beliefs. There are many different groups within Calvinism, and they do not all agree on everything. Though Keith should have been clearer about his beliefs, unless Marilyn can demonstrate that her comments accurately reflect Keith’s beliefs, she has committed the straw man fallacy. Marilyn should have asked Keith to more clearly explain his beliefs before she judged them. Had she given him an opportunity to elaborate on his statement, she would have been able to offer a better response to Keith’s beliefs.
Nate says, “In my opinion, Church X is overly concerned with secondary issues. They are right to hold some beliefs strongly, but I believe they are wrong not to allow any dissent on a great number of minor issues.”
Bob replies, “I disagree. Church X is right to take a strong stand against those who hold wrong beliefs. People need to be taught the truth and not allowed to spread falsehoods.”
Taking a strong stand against the teaching of falsehood and insisting that people are taught the truth is a good thing. However, while what Bob said is true, he did not address Nate’s position. Nate was arguing that Church X was overly “concerned with secondary issues” and needed to allow people to hold different views on subjects which are not essential beliefs. Nate even said that he felt it is right to hold some beliefs strongly. Bob ignored Nate’s position, and decided to talk about taking a strong stand against the teaching of falsehoods, implying that everything Church X teaches is an essential doctrine. But even if he could demonstrate this, which he did not, he would not have offered a proper response to Nate’s argument. Nate was talking about non-essential beliefs, not those beliefs which are essential to the Church. Arguing that all of the church’s beliefs are essential does not refute the argument that there needs to be room for dissent and disagreement over secondary issues. Since Bob said he disagreed with Nate’s position, he needs to provide a response to it. Instead of properly responding to Nate, Bob only set up and knocked down a straw man.
THE BOTTOM LINE: While straw man arguments can adequately refute the position they actually address, using them against an argument they do not refute is a logical fallacy.