Apologetics,  Church,  Hermeneutics,  Theology

The Red Herring Fallacy and the Christian (with Examples)

Much like the broader society around them, many believers have become careless in their reasoning. I think this is obvious to everyone, but few are willing to claim they are susceptible to faulty logic. But logical fallacies are widespread, and we all are susceptible to poor thinking. It takes a wise and humble Christian to be willing to take steps toward growth in these areas.

When talking about logic, a logical fallacy is a defect or mistake in reasoning that undermines an argument, rendering it unsound or invalid. We have covered two previous fallacies. The first fallacy was the “Either-Or Fallacy,” where we examined how Christians frequently oversimplify issues into a binary choice when, in reality, they are more nuanced. We also discussed the “Straw Man Fallacy,” which happens when someone distorts or alters an opposing argument to make it easier to defeat.

Today, I want to delve into the notorious red herring fallacy.

The Red Herring Fallacy in Theological Discussion

A red herring is a strategy to avoid a question or the real issue at hand and introduce something that is irrelevant to the discussion. The term “red herring” originates from the practice of using a strong-smelling smoked fish (herring) to train hunting dogs. The scent was used to distract the dogs from the original trail, serving as a metaphor for misleading or distracting information in arguments.

This kind of strategy is used widely, but perhaps most notably among politicians. For instance, when asked a question about the economy, a politician will often bloviate by talking about his admiration for the working class and mentioning his friend Fred, who is doing better than ever. These may be interesting anecdotes, but they fail to deal with the actual economic issues raised.

In the theological realm, this kind of argumentation is often used as well. Any kind of argument that does not deal with the issue is technically a red herring. And it is very important to note that red herrings are usually powerful and persuasive arguments. They just don’t prove the point being contended. Here are some examples.

Example 1: Alcohol

Question: Should Christians drink alcohol?
Red Herring 1: Jesus turned water into wine at Cana.
Red Herring 2: Alcohol was commonly used in ancient cultures for medicinal purposes.

Although both of these points are interesting, neither point actually addresses the question of whether a Christian should drink alcohol. Importantly, both red herrings are factually true, but that does not mean they are relevant to addressing the question at hand.

Some might think that Jesus turning water into wine is an argument for Christians being able to drink alcohol, but switch the argument around to something else. For example, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, therefore Christians should raise people from the dead. These seem to be unrelated propositions. Just because Jesus himself did something does not automatically apply directly to us. 

Example 2: Marriage

Question: What is the biblical view of marriage?
Red Herring 1: Christians that oppose LGBT issues cause real harm.
Red Herring 2: Weddings in biblical times were often week-long celebrations.

Both of these responses may or may not be true (that can be debated), but the point is that both responses are irrelevant to the actual issue. The issue we are trying to discern is what the Bible teaches about marriage. Whether Christian opposition to LGBT causes harm is irrelavant to what the Bible teaches about marriage. Furthermore, although the ancient cultural context of weddings is tangentially related and can be helpful in some contexts to investigate, it also is an independent consideration of what the Bible teaches about marriage. Just because something is culturally accepted does not mean the Bible has the same perspective.

Example 3: Infant Baptism

Question: Is baptizing infants biblical?
Red Herring: Some early church fathers baptized infants.

The fact that some early church fathers baptized infants does not directly address whether the Bible teaches infant baptism. Church history is a valuable resource, but it is a red herring when discussing a biblical text or theology.

Example 4: Women Pastors

Question: Does the Bible teach that women can be pastors?
Red Herring: Many Christian women have made significant contributions to ministry.

The ministry contribution of women throughout history is not in doubt, but it does not directly address whether women should be pastors. The issue in consideration is what the Bible teaches on this given issue. So a discussion about the definition of pastor and the roles of men and women would be appropriate. But arguing that God uses women greatly in ministry is a red herring to the actual question.

Red Herrings and Presuppositions

At this point, it is important to note that some arguments might seem to be red herrings, but based on one’s presuppositions, they would not be. For example, many Christians (rightly) hold to the unity of God’s Word and its inerrancy (i.e., it is without error). Thus, we can rightly expect there will not be contradictions within God’s Word. So, when discussing the meaning of a text of Scripture, we can consult the broader message of Scripture.

This is in contrast to many situations of regular life. Note the following example.

Question: Does Bill believe that unicorns fly?
Red Herring: Mary believes that unicorns fly.

This is a red herring because what Mary believes about unicorns is irrelevant to whether Bill believes that unicorns fly or not. However, this is slightly different in biblical studies because of the concept of inspiration and how God cannot contradict himself.

Question: Does James teach that salvation is by works?
Not a Red Herring: Paul, who is also an inspired prophet (like James), teaches that salvation is by grace through faith, and since God cannot contradict himself, we know that James cannot be saying salvation is by works (at least in the same sense Paul speaks).

However, one needs to be very careful using this kind of logic. It is easy to bulldoze a passage of Scripture and say it does (or doesn’t) mean something on the basis of another passage. We should not use one text as a paradigm through which we read all other passages of Scripture. After all, it is possible that we have misunderstood one or both of the passages. We might also claim there is a contradiction between two interpretations when there is not. I have seen many well-meaning Bible students misinterpret a passage of Scripture because they assumed it had to be the same point another Bible passage was making.

The point is that we have to go through the hard work and allow Paul and James to be interpreted within their own context. When we interpret them correctly, they will not be in contradiction. But neither will they likely be saying the same exact thing. They likely will use words differently or emphasize a specific aspect of the discussion.

Why Red Herrings Are Popular

There are a variety of reasons that red herrings are popular, both in the larger world as well as in churches. I am sure there are more, but here are five reasons that red herrings are popular.

1. Distraction: They divert attention away from uncomfortable or challenging topics, allowing the speaker to avoid addressing the main issue directly. They help in evading direct answers, especially when the speaker does not have a strong or prepared response to the original question.

2. Manipulation: They can be used to manipulate the audience by steering the conversation towards a topic that the speaker is more comfortable discussing or that may evoke a desired emotional response.

3. Confusion: Introducing irrelevant information can confuse the audience, making it harder for them to follow the original argument and recognize weaknesses in the speaker’s position. One would hope that this is less prevelant among Christians, but experience tells me this is still a big issue due to pride.

4. Control: They allow the speaker to control the narrative by shifting the focus to areas where they have more knowledge or feel they have a stronger position. Many online debates on social media utilize red herrings to control the situation.

5. Engagement: Sometimes, they are used to engage the audience in a different, potentially more interesting or relatable topic, thus maintaining their interest and attention. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be if the main point of discussion is minimized or forgotten.

Identifying Red Herrings and Why it Matters for the Christian

In order to identify a red herring, one needs to know exactly what question or topic is being discussed. So, it can be helpful to ask yourself, “What is the question that we are discussing?” What is it that you are actually trying to answer?

The followup question, which ultimately identifies a red herring is whether the information being given is actually addressing that question, or whether it is addressing a different subject. If you are unsure how information relates to the subject at hand, it is probably a red herring.

Everyone should usually avoid red herrings, though there may be an exception here or there (e.g., getting an audience to relax or engaging them through a tangential topic). Christians especially have an obligation to avoid them. Christians are to be passionate about communicating the truth clearly. Christians are honor-bound to go wherever the truth of Scripture leads. If our understanding of a text of Scripture is wrong, we want to know! We want to know the real issues and understand them with clarity and to the best of our ability. Furthermore, we want to attract people to the truth, not confuse them or distract them from the actual issues. Christians are to be known as people of the truth (cf. Eph 4:25; Col 3:9; Zech 8:16, etc.).

I have found myself often using red herring arguments unintentionally, just because I’ve heard or seen others do so. I would encourage you to join me to “first take the log out of your own eye” and improve our own propensity to use red herrings, and then lovingly help others recognize their propensity to use red herrings. May we as Christians become effective and clear communicators.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

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