On Sermons, Strawmen, and Monkeys

In light of the disturbing prevalence of poor thinking in the media, on the internet, and in conversations among friends, we at UN·A·BRIDGED have decided to take it upon ourselves to look at arguments and claims and to analyze them for the quality of their thinking. This is not the same thing as fact-checking as we will be looking at more than basic matters of truth vs. falsehood. Instead, we will be digging into the actual thinking that we are being told to follow and ask whether the thinking is any good or not. As an example of what we will be striving to do, I want to take a moment to analyze some claims made by Baptist minister Dr. W. A. Criswell back in 1957.

He was preaching on January 20th of that year, addressing the text of Genesis 1:26 in the Christian Bible. That text reads as follows: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'” (Genesis 1:26, NRSV) The sermon was entitled “The Facts of Biology Scorn Evolution,” and you can read it in its entirety here.

I want to take a hard look at a section of Dr. Criswell’s argument that he presents in his sermon.

I received this week a gracious note from the illustrious federal judge, Judge T. Whitfield Davidson [Thomas Whitfield Davidson, 1876-1974], and the great federal jurist sent to me a copy of a lesson that he had delivered to his Sunday School class entitled: “The Faith of Our Fathers.” And on page fifteen of that lesson that the illustrious judge taught his Sunday School class, he says, and I quote from Judge Davidson: “Turning to Mr. Darwin and his Origin of Species [On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin, 1859], his conclusions have been universally accepted, and he who does not respect them is not considered even literate.”

But, just for the interest of it, may I continue with what the illustrious federal judge has to say about Mr. Darwin [Charles Darwin, 1809-1882]. I quote again: “However, the basis of his conclusions upon which he has founded his theory is but little above a surmise. Under the rules of circumstantial evidence, he could not establish any fact before a judge and a jury. If his theory and teaching be correct then, well, if then correct, he has done Christianity a great disservice. History reveals” – still quoting from Judge Davidson’s lesson – “History reveals man of six thousand years ago the same as of today. If the apes have not produced a new man in six thousand years, how do we know they ever did? The ape is still with us. He’s in the zoo. He’s in the jungle. Why shouldn’t he give us another specimen of his offspring? A later edition might be an improvement upon the first.” End quote from Judge Davidson.

Dr. Criswell breaks the rules of good thinking a couple of times in this selection. He makes use of two types of fallacies: The Strawman and The Appeal to Authority.

First, Dr. Criswell cites an authority figure to back up his argument against evolution: “the illustrious federal judge T. Whitfield Davidson.” Here’s the problem: a judge is not a particularly well-qualified source for information about evolution. He might be an excellent source for a discussion of law, or maybe even politics, but he possesses no qualifications that should lead us to think of him as an authority on the subject. Dr. Criswell made use of the judge’s position of authority to bolster his point, even though the position of judge does not grant scientific credentials.

Second is the Strawman. The Strawman is a particularly dastardly means of cheating in your argument. All you have to do to pull it off is to create an argument that sort of looks like the other party’s argument, and then debunk the fake argument you just made. Those who are reading or listening and do not know any better will think you have skillfully defeated the silly position your opponent held. Instead, all you did was avoid the other party’s argument altogether.

In this case, Dr. Criswell cites Thomas Davidson’s argument that looks like this:

  • The theory of evolution claims that humans evolved from apes.
  • There are still apes among us today.
  • The apes do not seem to be producing humans, or anything like humans.
  • Therefore humans did not evolve from apes and the theory of evolution is false.

The problem is that the theory of evolution does not claim that humans evolved from apes. It claims instead that humans and some other primates probably share a common ancestor. By misrepresenting the theory of evolution, Dr. Criswell is able to make it appear to his audience that evolutionists have silly beliefs that are easily refuted, even though he said nothing about the actual content of the theory of evolution.

Whatever your views are about the origins of the diverse life on planet earth, if you even have views about such things, it is important that those views be discussed honestly and not using misrepresentations of what either side claims and not using inappropriate appeals to authority.


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