Learning about straw man arguments and bad faith

The internet is a great place to do research. There is so much out there that is interesting and factual. However, there is also a lot that is not factual or is founded on poor logic.

strawman scarecrow
The straw man is easy to knock down.

Today I want to show you what a “straw man” argument is. Think of a straw-man argument just like you would think of a scarecrow in a garden. A scarecrow is easy to knock down because it is not a real opponent, right? If you want to win an argument, it is tempting to setup a verbal or intellectual “straw man,” then you can just knock him down with your argument and declare victory.

It works like this. Somebody sets up an argument based on something their opponent did not say. They misrepresent their opponent–this is the first step in creating a straw man argument. Their misrepresentation becomes a “straw man” that they knock down by falsely discrediting their opponent. Let me demonstrate. Let’s say I said this: “Joel said we should never go to Rubios again. He is wrong and here is why.” Then I go into some detail about why Rubios is great and why we should continue to go there. I get to “win” the argument, but it was really no win at all, because Joel never said that we should not go to Rubios any more. I had a “victory” over something he never even said.  I’m sure you can agree that this would be no victory at all.

Now, let’s use a real life example that you will probably encounter somewhere on the internet: anti-Catholic Christians saying that the Catholic Church teaches people to earn their salvation by performing good works. These anti-Catholic Christians do this by misrepresenting what the Church teaches about meriting salvation.

The Catholic Church does teach us to merit our salvation. But these anti-Catholic Christians don’t understand how the Church uses the word merit. The just make up their own false definition (this becomes the “straw man”), then they refute it. They tell people that when Catholics say merit, it means that Catholics believe they earn salvation through good works, but it is not true.

Obviously this is a problem because it means that there is no real exchange of ideas and

straw man
The Church does not defend the idea that we earn salvation by performing good deeds. Those who say it does have committed the straw man fallacy.

no real conversation. But it may be the signal of a deeper problem: that the person is not interacting with others a good faith way. Good faith means treating others fairly, giving them the benefit of the doubt, understanding the limitations of the medium, being willing to overlook minor flaws in the argument, making genuine efforts to understand the argument, correcting or eliminating straw men and other fallacies in one’s own argument, etc. Bad faith means that the person just wants to win, is not willing to have an honest dialog, and will make no concessions. Repeated and uncorrected straw men might signal bad faith. They might signal that the person is not willing to have an honest discussion. If you ever sense bad faith, it is time to evaluate how much interaction you want to have with that person.

I do not know why anti-Catholic Christians do this all the time with the word merit. With all the information available online, it is easy enough to actually verify what the Catholic Church means. It makes me wonder if they are arguing in bad faith.

merit badges
Merit badges are super cool, but don’t get them mixed up with the Catholic teaching on salvation.

But perhaps not. For example, I have wondered if people associate the word merit with the Boy Scouts. Boy Scouts can earn merit badges, right? So perhaps the word merit is strongly associated with the word earn. Maybe their chain of reasoning goes like this:

“Boy Scouts earn merit badges which includes doing good deeds. Catholics believe they earn (merit) salvation by doing good deeds.”

I can see how somebody would assume that merit means earn, if they associate merit with the Boy Scouts. But I have no idea if I am correct about this. There must be something driving this pervasive problem and I’m just trying to explain what it might be.

I do know this: when Catholics say merit salvation, they do not mean earn salvation. They have not taken their cue from the Boy Scouts about what the word merit means.

Merit means reward, and the word reward is used quite a bit in the New Testament, even by Christ himself.


Merit in the Catholic world

I just wanted to take a few minutes to clarify the word “merit.”

But before I go into that, I want to touch on something related. In the Catholic world, the question of “Are you saved?” just doesn’t come up, yet Catholics don’t ascribe to “eternal security,” we don’t believe in the teaching called Once Saved, Always Saved. So it might be tempting to think that we are filled with fear, as if we Catholics are afraid that we’re going to hell unless we do enough good works. I can’t speak for other Catholics, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Quite the opposite in fact and I will go into that in more detail about that on Oct. 31.

If anybody tries to earn salvation, as if God could be obliged to provide it, they misunderstand the teaching. God owes us nothing and under no circumstances will He ever become indebted to us. It simply is not possible for God to become indebted to us because no amount of our good works oblige God to do anything for us. Salvation is a free gift, by grace alone. It is not earned in the contractual sense. But it is merited in the sense of a reward based on a love relationship, like an inheritance from a loving father. Please do not misunderstand what merit means; it does not mean that we can force God to owe us salvation if we behave well. The word merit comes to us from Latin and it means reward. There is a well known Catholic apologist named Jimmy Akin and he briefly discusses what the word merit means in this three minute video: