Good conversations can help us understand one another, find truth together, and flourish. Unfortunately, there are three ways healthy and profitable conversations can be derailed. The second wrong turn is the “Genetic Fallacy.” We hear it all the time and must avoid it at all costs. In this post I’ll define the genetic fallacy and illustrate ways it was used against Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights Movement, how I hear it in conversations about the Gospel, and how it underlies the charge of “homophobia.”
What is the Genetic Fallacy?
The genetic fallacy, as the name implies, confuses the origin of a belief with whether or not the belief is true. For instance, suppose I came to believe “Two times two equals four” because I read it on a bathroom wall. Does the fact that I believe this for such a wrong reason mean two times two does not equal four? Of course not! I may believe it for wrong reasons, but the belief itself is still correct. Two times two does in fact equal four.
Not all examples of the genetic fallacy are so easy to spot. But once they are identified, they are as silly as the example above.
A Historical Example—Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Work
Dr. Martin Luther King (d. 1968) did a great deal to address racial inequality and work toward justice for all. He ultimately gave his life for this noble and necessary cause. However, not everyone agreed with or appreciated his efforts. Some of his opponents offered the following argument against his views on civil rights:
Martin Luther King’s views on civil rights are wrong. He gets his beliefs from the Bible. But religious beliefs are private and shouldn’t the basis of public, political positions. Therefore his views about civil rights cannot be right!
By analyzing this argument the genetic fallacy becomes apparent. The major premise is that MLK’s views on civil rights are wrong. But the minor premise, offering support, is the origin of his belief: his Christian faith and belief in God’s will as revealed in the Bible. Therefore the conclusion is drawn that his view of civil rights must be wrong.
This argument is fallacious. Regardless of the reason he holds his view on civil rights, his view may still be correct (and in this case is). The origin of the belief is irrelevant to whether or not it is true. Again, the genetic fallacy.
A Ministry Example—“Belief in God is Just a Crutch!”
I often encounter this fallacy when discussing my faith in Christ with skeptics. They often object:
God doesn’t exist. You only believe in God because you need a crutch. So you make up Someone to help you. Therefore there is no God.
When someone raises this objection I quickly point out this is flawed reasoning—an example of the genetic fallacy. The point being made is that God does not exist. But the evidence he gives is that I (allegedly) believe from a wrong reason—that I need a “crutch.” It is then concluded that, due to a poor origin of this belief, the belief must be wrong.
For sake of argument, even if the only reason I believe in God is because I need a “crutch,” it may still be true that God exists, and I simply believe for wrong reasons. The origin of the belief has nothing to do with whether or not the belief is true.
Usually when I point this out the skeptic sees his logical error. We are then able to get back on track and discuss the evidence for God’s existence and eventually the Gospel.
By the way, this same fallacy is in play when skeptics argue that people only believe in Christ because they were raised in a Christian home or culture, and therefore Christianity is not true. Again, even if this were the origin of everyone’s belief (it is not), it would not follow that Christianity is not true.
A Current Example in the Public Square—“Homophobia”
As I said last week, a “hot topic” these days is the LGBTQ agenda. So for a contemporary example of the genetic fallacy in the “public square” I’ll use an example from this cultural conversation. How often have we heard people say:
“Love is love.” But you can’t embrace this because you are homophobic. You need to overcome your fear of ”the other.” Then you will be able to affirm, with me, that “Love is love.”
This sounds right, reasonable and even “loving.” However, it disguises the genetic fallacy. The premise being defended (the major premise) is that all types of love are equally healthy and life affirming (“Love is love”). But the supporting data (the minor premise) is that those who oppose this view are driven by fear (homophobia). From this (alleged) origin of the belief, the conclusion is drawn that all types of love are in fact equally health and life affirming.
Unpacking the argument more formally brings to light the genetic fallacy. Let’s say, for sake of argument, that everyone who doesn’t believe same-sex relationships are healthy and life affirming take this view because they are “homophobic.” Such fear would be very wrong. However, even if this were the case, it does not follow that their conclusion is false. They may come to a correct conclusion (that all types of love are not equally healthy and life affirming), even if for wrong reasons (due to their phobia).
Again, I am not here claiming there are no good arguments in favor of the LGBTQ perspective. In an earlier series I’ve made the case that the LGBTQ position is based on a faulty view of what it is to be human, and therefore what leads to human flourishing and the common good. I believe I supported my view with sound and valid arguments. But I may be wrong. I invite those who disagree with me to engage my arguments there.
Nor am I arguing that those in the LGBTQ community should not be treated with respect and honor. In the blog series I cite above I’ve argued all people are valuable and worthy of the upmost respect as co-image bearers of the imago Dei. This is why their arguments should be honestly and thoughtfully engaged, and the conversation not derailed by fallacies like this one.
Here I am simply making the point that this often-heard argument in favor of the LGBTQ agenda (call it the “homophobia” argument) is not a good one. It is an example of a classic fallacy of logic. Therefore when anyone hears this fallacy employed, no matter what their position, they should be quick to identify the argument as invalid. Hopefully this will lead to “less heat and more light” in conversations around this issue.
Christians Must Also Be Careful To Avoid This Fallacy In conversations about the gospel
One place Christians are often guilty of the genetic fallacy is the inverse of the “crutch” or “projection” argument above:
There are good reasons to believe in God. But you don’t want to be honest with the evidence because believing in God would mean life changes you are not ready to make. Whether you will admit it or not, there are good reasons to believe in God.
The premise being defended (the major premise) is that there are good reasons to believe in God. However, the support (the minor premise) is that the origin of the person’s skepticism is her desire to be her own master. From this the conclusion is drawn that the major premise is true.
But this doesn’t follow. Even if the unbeliever says there are no good reasons to believe in God for this reason, she may still be right. It is incumbent on the believer to discuss with her the evidences for God’s existence, rather than brush off her objections with the genetic fallacy.
It’s easy to commit the genetic fallacy. But we only fall into traps of which we are unaware. So our first responsibility is to understand and be able to spot this fallacy. When we see it in our reasoning, we need to quickly admit we are not being fair to the other person or their position.
Similarly, when we spot this fallacy in other’s arguments, we should graciously point out that the reason a person holds a belief is irrelevant to whether the belief itself is true or not. Hopefully this will help redirect the conversation back to a healthy and profitable discussion that leads to the discovery of the true, the good and the beautiful, necessary to promote human flourishing and the common good.
There is a third logical fallacy that immediately shuts down healthy conversations—the “Ad hominem” fallacy. I’ll tackle that next week. Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic.