Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 22: Question-Begging Definitions

When I came into Catholicism, a number of non-Christians and Protestant Christians asked me: “How could a good Christian like you ever become a Catholic?” It was a classic case of the fallacy we’re going to examine in this chapter. The fallacy is called Question-Begging Definition, and it occurs when the person challenging you with a question purposely or inadvertently subtly redefines a key term to make the question sound half reasonable, when in fact the question is fallacious.

This article is a series about right reasoning and the way logical and linguistic fallacies confuse communication and often lead us to embrace things that are false. The series is inspired by Pope John Paul II’s letter to the church about Faith and Reason (Fides Et Ratio) and why both are necessary to arrive at truth. John Paul II writes in the very first words of the letter: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Using one without the other is like flying with one wing, circling relentlessly before we get dizzy and crash.

There are all sorts of presumptive baggage in a question like, “How could a good Christian like you ever become a Catholic?” — or, I should say, how the question presumes to redefine the term “Catholic,” which to such folk is not “Christian” but rather some pagan cult. My non-Christian acquaintances, who asked me that question, perceived Christians as forgiving, gracious people, but saw Catholicism as strident, judgmental, and willing to burn pagans (like them) at the stake. (I guess they felt guilty — judgment’s a’ comin’, gang.)

My Protestant acquaintances perhaps defined Catholics as “saint idolaters.” I’ve heard them say:

Catholics are always kneeing before statues. (Yeah they are…we seen ’em in the movies.) Sure, I’ve been in Catholic churches, (once) and there’s these statues of saints all over the place; they even got a dead Jesus on a cross. So they’re surrounded by these idols, and I’m sure they never even read the Bible because you never see Catholics take a Bible to church. That’s because their priests won’t let ’em know what being a Christian is really about.

cross-and-bible.jpgBy redefining “Catholic” in terms of what is occasionally observed, and incessantly rumored, rather than investigating What Catholics Really Believe, non-Catholics can easily and unknowingly redefine terms and come to erroneous conclusions. Thus, the Question-Begging Definition fallacy leads to confusing conversations. The best way to answer such questions is not to answer them at all, but fling a question back at your accuser, perhaps a question like: “What defines a Christian?” Getting a straight answer, and one that can be found in the Bible, may take a while, but at least you’ll be discussing an important concept and helping to defuse the fallacious assumptions built into such questions.

What is a Christian?

In 2001, Evangelical pollster George Barna claimed that from 1992 to 2001 “the percentage of Catholic adults who have accepted Jesus as their savior [i.e. were Christian] has grown from 16 percent to 24 percent.” It marked a revival among Catholics he claimed. Now, it may come as a shock to Catholic leadership that in 2001 only one-fourth of Catholics are “Christian” and that in 1992 the numbers were much lower.

I did a little digging and found the questionnaire that Barna had been using to ask people about their religious beliefs and how he decided if a person was a Christian or not. There were three questions that were critical to understanding what he was asking. In one he asked if the person had a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. In another, he asked if they were to die today, they “had the security” they would go to heaven; and in a third he asked if they were “born again.” If you were a well-bred Evangelical Christian you would have answered “yes” to each of those questions. But if you were a Catholic your understanding of those questions could be quite different. Not that you were less of a Christian, but you defined those key terms differently that your Evangelical counterparts. What Mr. Barna had discovered, from 1992 to 2001, was how the jargon of Evangelicals had begun to be understood by Catholics. That is, in 1992 Catholics defined those key terms in the questions much differently than they did in 2001.

Unfortunately, these statistics were widely reported in the Evangelical community, reinforcing the misunderstanding that very few Catholics were Christians. Dave Armstrong notes that defining Christians the way Barna does would exclude most Lutherans and traditional Anglicans. And no sane person would argue that a Lutheran is not a Christian. My big problem with Barna is that he uses his 8th grade Catholic religious education (he was born and baptized Catholic) to propogate now, as a adult pollster, a false theology, quickly absorbed by poorly educated Evangelicals and Protestants. Thank you, George Barna for that fallacious bit of question begging-definition and the resulting propagating of false conclusions, thus further dividing Christianity.

Saved by a Protestant

Recently, another person challenged me, because I am a Catholic, with this question: “When are you going to get saved?” With this question my inquisitor is defining “saved” in Protestant terms, which limits God’s saving grace to a spiritual act without the broader Catholic definition that includes the physical person as well. The person is also assuming that any grace that flows through physical means, such as the sacraments, is contrary to Christian principles. By redefining salvation as something that can only happen through spiritual means, because the physical world is evil, they embrace one aspect of the first century heresy of Gnosticism.

As I was pondering how to write this particular chapter, I was “saved” by my anti-Catholic email pen-pal D.N. He is becoming a regular to this column and soon I’ll have to give him “by-line” credit. Last night he wrote:

Hi Stan, I heard Mother Angelica on EWTN the other day talking about how The Archangel Micheal (sic) is ‘the Prince of Heaven’. Im (sic) having trouble locating that in the Bible; is it in your Catholic Bible?

Let’s see how good you are at spotting the fallacy in the question (pun intended). This is not real obvious, but give it a go. Can you see D.N.s’ question-begging definition?

Here’s the answer. While, in fact, the Archangel Michael is in the Bible as one of the great angelic princes of heaven (Daniel 10:13, 21; 12:1), D.N. is making reference to Michael being the prince of heaven, possibly as the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret these references to Michael as indicating he is Jesus. While I didn’t hear the specific words he says Mother Angelica used, I am certain that Mother recognizes that our Lord Jesus and the Archangel Michael are not the same person. The context of D.N.s other missives to me indicate that he is redefining the word “Bible”. Where Catholics see the “Bible” as “an” infallible source of knowledge, D.N. sees the Bible as the “only” infallible source of knowledge.

I wrote back:

Dear D.N.: There are a lot of things you believe…that are not in the Bible. You’re not in the Bible, for instance; Sola Scriptura is not in the Bible; the Apostles Creed is not in the Bible; and the list goes on.

Reading between the lines, I was challenging D.N.’s assumption that since he was not mentioned in the Bible he must not exist. But putting facetiousness aside, I hoped at least that he might try to find where Sola Scriptura was in his Bible — even his Protestant Bible.

But, all of that must have flown over his head. He wrote back asking: “Are the following in the Bible?” and then he tacked on a numerical list of 60 ideas that he claimed are not in the Bible, things like:

1. Is Mary sinless in the Bible?

3. Salvation through a Church?

7. Baptism necessary to erase original sin?

24. Doing works of penance…?

53. Baptizing of infants?

Most of the 60 things D.N. mentioned are in the Bible, provided he were to define key terms in the same way the Church has defined them throughout history. But D.N. redefines “sin,” “Church,” “salvation,” “baptism,” “penance,” in perverse false ways, and thus attacks a strawman fallacy — thus committing another fallacy. A strawman fallacy is an argument that both sides would agree is false. In this way D.N. skewers the truth. Dave Armstrong adds:

Protestants like D.N. are usually unaware of the biblical arguments that exist for all these things. They often dimly comprehend at best, deductive arguments, analogies, and anything beyond what to them is a bald, obvious, unassailable “proof text.” They also misuse and miscomprehend different literary forms and idioms in Scripture. Thus, there is more in play here than just fallacies.

The Way of a Maid in the Arms of a Man

Solomon marvels at the mysteries of how a man can be manipulated by a woman. But I have it figured out. It happens nearly everyday to me. Pam, my endearing wife, is always asking me questions, questions that often include terms with definitions different than those with which I’m familiar.

For instance, she’ll ask me, “When are you going to wash the dishes?” The explicit question sounds perfectly legit, and you might think the question should elicit an immediate response from me like: “In five minutes, honey, as soon as I finish shaving the cat.” (Don’t laugh!) But, in fact, from my perspective, the explicit question buried within it is an implicit, unstated question, with an assumed response: “You are going to wash the dishes, aren’t you?” Actually, I wasn’t. It’s summer and for 3 months that’s your job, remember? The key word here that is being redefined is “YOU”.

Or, the most famous question-begging definition around our house is when Pam asks me, “When we take the grandkids [there are 8 of ’em, each under the age of 5] to the zoo, which car do you want to take?” The term that is being redefined in that one is the plural pronoun “we.” She has a different definition than I do.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love taking the grandkids to the zoo. It’s just that when we’re ready to leave I have a hard time distinguishing them from the leopards and other wild animals.

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