I overheard a conversation a while back that went like this. Someone mentioned an article that had appeared in the press. The author of the piece had reported on a scientific breakthrough and concluded that this—along with the advance of science in general—rendered obsolete any and all speculation about the existence of God. It’s a common argument, of course, and one that appears regularly enough, though this particular piece did have a specific twist that apparently upset many Christians as a challenge to their beliefs. The second speaker in the conversation responded to the article’s conclusions by saying that the publication involved had been shown to be disreputable as a news source and was in financial difficulty.
This approach to argumentation is easy to categorize. It’s “if you don’t like the message, attack the messenger.”
This is a very common strategy, used extensively by both Christians and non-Christians, as a way to support their position against some challenge. Christians use it, for example, as they did here, in defense of the faith—and thus as a part of what is technically referred to as an apologetic for their beliefs. It is, however, a form of argumentation that we as Christians should never use.
As a matter of fact, I know of no serious study that has shown this particular publication to be disreputable as a news source. Perhaps such a study exists, but as I will demonstrate in a moment, that really does not matter. I didn’t engage in too exhaustive of a search, but I found none. As Christians we should be very careful of speaking poorly of people. Asserting that the publishers, editors, staff, writers, and reporters of a publication are untrustworthy is a serious charge. Not agreeing with or liking a publication’s editorial position does not make that publication disreputable. Three times the apostolic instruction in Scripture is that “all” instances and forms of “slander” are forbidden to the believer (Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8; 1 Peter 2:1). It is a very high standard, especially in a cynical age like ours, but it is our standard nevertheless.
But let’s assume, for the sake of discussion that such a study—or better yet several such studies—exists. As a publication, it is a source of news that has been shown to be disreputable and untrustworthy. That does not mean this article can therefore be dismissed. Even a clock that has stopped working tells the time correctly twice each day. This article, now that it has been brought up, can be examined on its own merits. The fact that the author and our conversation partner are both made in God’s image demands such a response from us. We can examine the ideas involved, to the best of our ability test them against what we know to be true, and draw conclusions appropriately.
In their classic book, How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren clearly delineate how to properly disagree. If we are to disagree with an author, we must show specifically where the author is uninformed, misinformed, or where his argument is illogical or incomplete. Failing being able to demonstrate this, we must agree at least partly, or we can say truthfully we don’t know but would like to suspend judgment pending further study and thought. We would be wise to limit ourselves to this framework, especially if we expect a watching world to take seriously our claim to care for the truth because we worship one who claimed The Truth. (See my summary of Adler’s and Van Doren’s helpful ideas here.)
Interestingly at a scientific conference (see information here) a speaker outlined what he called “a general manual of denialism,” a list of six tactics used by believers against science. As you will notice, attacking the messenger is one tactic that he lists:
“First, cast doubt on the science. Second, question the personal motives and integrity of the scientists. Third, magnify genuine disagreements among scientists, and cite nonexperts with minority opinions as authorities. Fourth, exaggerate the potential harm caused by the issue at hand. Fifth, frame issues as a threat to personal freedom. And sixth, claim that acceptance would repudiate a key philosophy, religious belief, or practice of a group.”
As a matter of fact, I would argue that these tactics are not limited to religious believers—the arguments used by unbelievers, including scientists, against religious belief often engage in the same tactics. Still, speaking as a Christian, regardless if we find these tactics used against our faith, as Christians we need to be discerning, not reactionary. And that includes, among other things, refusing to engage in the dishonest and often slanderous tactic of refuting a message by attacking the messenger.
Source: Thanks to my friend John Eddy or bringing my attention to the article cited in this piece.