Attack the argument, not the person!
By necessity, any apologetics venture, including that of Christianity, entails critiquing other people’s arguments, positions, and overarching worldviews. Defending the faith often involves clash because two viewpoints that genuinely contradict (negate or deny) one another cannot both be true. The Law of Noncontradiction states that “A cannot equal A and equal non-A.”
Unfortunately, when you strongly disagree with someone over a critical issue it is easy to lose sight of that person’s argument and instead attack or impugn the person’s character. This human proclivity illustrates man’s flaws of both mind and moral fiber.
In logic, assaulting an opponent’s character is considered an informal fallacy known as the ad hominem or “attack against the man.” If a person’s character is not the logical issue at hand, then any appeal to character-related issues is logically irrelevant. Even morally flawed people can present cogent logical arguments.
The Golden Rule exhorts us as Christians to treat other people the way we want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). And since this ethical principle applies to every action, it includes the enterprise of apologetics (1 Peter 3:15-17). In an apologetic context, the Christian needs to treat other people’s beliefs, viewpoints, and arguments the way they want theirs treated; recognizing, of course, that no one keeps this rule perfectly and that believers are saved solely by God’s unmerited favor (“grace”) in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5).
Avoiding the Ad Hominem Fallacy
As forgiven sinners, Christians are certainly not immune to engaging in “name-calling” or impugning the character (or motives) of others. However, to steer clear of this fallacious practice during an apologetic encounter involves intellectual concentration and moral discipline. When critiquing the position of an opponent, stay focused on the central argument at hand. Realize that uncovering the truth of an issue is itself a noble task. And arguing cogently and fairly is certainly much more important that winning an argument by appealing to illegitimate and/or dishonest tactics.
If you are the victim of an ad hominem attack while engaged in an apologetic debate, resist the temptation to respond in kind. Rather, clearly identify the irrelevant attack on the part of your challenger. Then you can refocus the discussion by getting the discourse back to the logically relevant issue.
Often times those listening to the discussion will appreciate the care and fairness that you have exhibited and will be more open to your viewpoint. Even your opponent may be positively impacted by your show of intellectual integrity.
Remember, attitude and demeanor may carry as much weight toward ultimate persuasion as do the apologetic arguments themselves (1 Peter 3:15).
Ensuing articles will address other ways in which the Golden Rule of Apologetics can be appropriately applied.
For more on building intellectual virtue in the area of apologetics, see chapters 3-4 of my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.