The Besetting Sin of Christian Worldview Education

The besetting sin of Christian worldview education is the genetic fallacy, defined as an irrational error made by appealing to something’s origin (or “temporal order”) to explain away its truth-claims (or “logical order”). Here’s an example of how someone using the genetic fallacy (GF) might respond to various arguments:

A: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

GF: “Andrew Breitbart said that, and he was a right-wing troll, so you’re obviously wrong.”

B: “The unanimous testimony of Scripture is that homosexual acts are sinful.”

GF: “That’s exactly what Westboro Baptist Church says. Do we really want to be like them?”

C: “How well or poorly policies and systems treat minorities matters to God.”

GF: “Progressive Democrats talk about systemic injustice all the time. This is just code for abortion/socialism.”

Notice that in each example of the genetic fallacy, the retort is factually true. Andrew Breitbart DID say that politics was downstream from culture, and he DID popularize a belligerent style of journalism. Westboro Baptist Church DOES preach against homosexuality, and they ARE a horribly cruel cult. Progressives DO talk a lot about systemic injustice, and they often DO mean abortion and socialism as part of the solution. The retorts are true, or at least believable.

So if the retorts are true, why are these answers fallacious? Because they do not answer the actual question. Statements A, B, C make independent  claims that stand alone. By invoking a suspect source and then critiquing it, the responses are actually responding to a claim—about the worthiness of the source—that’s not being made. In other words, the retorts don’t actually tell us anything about the validity of the claim, only the validity of people who make similar claims. But since truthful statements and human credibility are not the same thing, the retorts miss the argument entirely. It would be little different, logically, if you told someone you believe it would rain later and her response was, “I don’t think so, because you need to clean your car. ” Ridiculous, right?

And yet the genetic fallacy is, in my experience, one of the logical errors least likely to be recognized in conversation. Each of the examples above are actual statements and retorts I have seen in prestigious magazines or from well-educated speakers. Evangelicals rarely rise above contemporary culture on this, too. This week Joe Carter was accused by some readers of this TGC column of smuggling in language from secular, disreputable sources. Without even dipping a toe in the debate over whether Joe’s piece makes a valid argument (I think it does, for the record), shouldn’t there be a little bit more incredulity that some professionally trained theologians sincerely believe “This term was coined by a Marxist” is an actual counter-argument?

My working theory is that much Christian worldview pedagogy, with its one-note emphasis on coherent systematization of religion, has habituated a lot of us to care more about identifying the ideological “root” of a claim than the claim itself. If you believe that the ultimate marker of Christian belief is how it contrasts in every aspect to non-Christian systems, then it makes sense to evaluate truth claims by whether they originate from the right system or not. If they don’t—in particular, if they’re a widely held belief among non-Christians—then those claims are de facto inconsistent with Christianity, because they fail the ideological paternity test.

So in a conversation about, say, conservatism and white nationalism, an evangelical who thinks strictly in terms of worldview systems comes into the conversation with much different goals than someone who doesn’t think like that. The worldview-shaped evangelical is constantly pulled in the direction of Sort, Contrast, Dismiss: Sort truth claims (“White nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics”) into appropriate “Teams” based on where this claim is most likely to come from. Here, the answer is obvious: Secular liberals and progressives. Having sorted, the worldview-shaped evangelical can now Contrast, but here’s a twist: He doesn’t have to contrast the claim itself, he only has to contrast the team into which he has sorted the claim, against the “team” he identifies with. So he contrasts secular progressivism with conservative Christianity…and now it’s all over but the yelling. He can safely Dismiss the claim that “white nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics” on the basis that this statement embodies the antithesis of his religious worldview—all without actually examining the factual basis of the claim.

The only way to break this cycle would be to convince our worldview-shaped friend that a secular progressive can be wrong about Christianity and abortion but right about white nationalism. But it’s likely that this just isn’t how he was educated. To grant that a secular progressive could be right is to open the door, to teeter on the slippery slope, to the claim that the progressive is right about everything: God, the unborn, religious liberty, etc. To grant that a secular progressive might be right is to grant a measure of legitimacy to his intellectual system. If the underlying presupposition of the worldview-shaped evangelical is that only one truth system can have any legitimacy, then this is unthinkable.

It’s unthinkable partly because it’s difficult to hold such a notion in one’s head. But it’s also difficult because, in a culture war society, the capacity of our beliefs to generate enemies and weapons against those enemies is actually a measure we use of truthfulness. The more enemies you have, the more oppressed you are, and the more oppressed you are, the more there must be a reason for that oppression. And everyone thinks the reason is that they’re right.

5 thoughts on “The Besetting Sin of Christian Worldview Education

  1. Samuel this is overall an excellent article and agree with the overuse of the genetic fallacy. Your defense of Carter is unfortunate. Carter said 2 plus 2 is 5. That is why there has been an outcry. Condescending from below is not a good look, and Carter repeated a lie I believe out of ignorance as opposed to malice in telling us that a term came from a place where it did not. He is guilty of a false claim of paternity to employ the genetic fallacy (cultural marxism is a racist term!) and it should have already resulted in a retraction. Yet just as with the “hands up dont shoot lie” being woke means never having to say you’re sorry. It is too bad. He was literally decades wrong in his claim, and he slurs many people including friends of mine who clearly know a great deal more than he does about the topic and have written about it.

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  2. Mr. James,

    I thought this was an insightful and thought-provoking piece. Thank you for writing it- I’ll admit that many times, my response to a difficult issue is to check it’s source, and dismiss out of hand if I think the source is messed up.

    However, I think that Mr. Carter was committing the exact error you accuse him of in his article.

    A: XY and Z cultural movements apply an unbiblical, power-dynamic-based social analysis that the inventors of said analysis called cultural marxism since the 1970’s. Therefore, XY and Z movements are making flawed arguments because they are making Cultural Marxist arguments.

    GF/JC: the term “cultural marxist” was used by Lind in a different sense 40 years after it was invented, with racist undertones. Therefore, people who use the term cultural marxism are either racists or capitulating to Racists.

    B: Joe Carter’s argument was first advanced by the pro-abortion SPLC. Therefore, Joe Carter is either pro-abortion or capitulating to the abortion lobby.

    You criticize the B statement without realizing that (i) Mr. Carter made the same error the first time around, and (ii) the reason people started making the B statement was not to actually accuse Mr. Carter of being pro-abortion, but to *point out* that he was committing the genetic fallacy. Doug Wilson’s post “the leftward drift of The Gospel Coalition” makes this explicit (and before anyone commits the genetic fallacy by reciting DW’s litany of questionable views and statements, let me just point out that that’s the genetic fallacy. I have no problem criticizing DW on things, probably more things than I’d disagree with Carter on, on any given occasion. But avoiding tribalism means not defending error in our own camp.

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  3. I see that Mr. Carter had added an addendum/partial retraction to his article, and also that I was misinformed about Lind’s early use of the term. I demur on the second point, and am grateful for the first. I believe that the body of what I wrote was relevant to thor original article as published, and therefore to this article, which is a commentary on the aftermath of Carter’s original article.

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