Ethnic Epistemology (Part 2): The Genetic Fallacy

Adam Coleman

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January 8, 2019

So, it’s been way too long since I dropped my last article here at FTM; “Ethnic Epistemology Part 1”. My bad for leaving y’all hanging. When I initially outlined the points I wanted to cover in my Ethnic Epistemology series, I’d intended to keep it pretty simple. My goal was to address a few common objections to Christianity that have been gaining traction amongst African Americans and provide a few user-friendly rebuttals to them. With that being said, I think putting some distance between myself and this Ethnic Epistemology series for a while has actually done me some good in terms of gaining more insight as to the questions that are plaguing people.

Throughout 2018 I received a number of emails, FB Messages, Tweets, etc. from Christians who are encountering these kinds of concerns and becoming increasingly aware of the need for “urban” apologetics. While engaging the questions that seem to be most pressing for folks I noticed a few epistemology-related common threads that I believe many of them were rooted in. As I looked back to my Ethnic Epistemology series I realized that what I had already intended for the series would have touched on some of these common threads and yet there were other important ones that I could tackle by expanding my scope a bit. So, I’ve added a few detours to the Ethnic Epistemology series that I think will be helpful. My intentions for the remainder of this series are now two-fold.

  1. Identify and provide responses to what I believe to be the most common logical error that we encounter in urban apologetics.
  2. Explore how a particular model of “religious epistemology” solves a key problem that people from the Conscious Community tend to fall back on as an argument against Christianity.

Much of what we do as urban apologists revolves around contextualization. What I mean by that is we are drawing from the same kinds of theological, philosophical, historical, scientific, etc. resources that any other apologist would; However, we’re applying them to a specific subset of questions and objections to Christianity. In this article, we will begin taking aim at a logical error people in the Conscious Community often make when attacking Christianity—the Genetic Fallacy. In this context, I think the Genetic Fallacy most often rears its ugly head in the form of the assertion that “Christianity is the White Man’s Religion” and so I will be discussing the Genetic Fallacy in relation to that claim.

Break it Down

What are people really saying when they allege that Christianity is the white man’s religion? Most of the time what they are getting at is the idea that because Christianity was imposed upon Africans during slavery by “the white man”, Christianity among black folks today traces back to that forced indoctrination, and as descendants of those African slaves we ought to reject Christianity on that basis. Some people accuse Christianity of being the white man’s religion in a more broad sense and simply say Christianity is European so as African people we shouldn’t fool with it; case closed.

When someone makes an objection to Christianity, in this case “Christianity is the white man’s religion”, we can look at that objection as being like a house. Just like houses, every objection to Christianity you come across has a foundation; some concept or supposed fact the objection is built upon. If the foundation of a house is weak then the house will eventually crumble under its own weight. Likewise, if we can identify cracks in the foundation of someone’s objection, we can help that person to see how their objection fails. There are two main ways we can attack the foundation of an argument. First, we can provide evidence to show that the argument is based on something that is factually untrue. A second option would be to demonstrate that the foundation of the argument is logically flawed. For the remainder of this article I will focus on that second approach in showing how rejecting Christianity, on the basis of manipulation and indoctrination practices during slavery, is completely illogical as it is a classic example of the genetic fallacy.

Now, in order to understand what the genetic fallacy is and how we can use it to slice through “white man’s religion” arguments, we first need to get a handle on what a “fallacy” is. In using the term fallacy, I’m talking about something along the lines of faulty reasoning, a mistaken conclusion, or error in one’s thinking. When it comes to logic, debate, or making a case for what someone claims to be true–fallacies are like guidelines that philosophers and professional thinker folks use to weed out bad arguments from good ones. If you can identify a fallacy in the foundation of a person’s objection then you have logical grounds to dismiss that objection.

So what is the genetic fallacy? As a working definition, the genetic fallacy means to accept or reject a claim based on its origins rather than on the actual merits of that claim. I am using the word “claim” here to refer to something that a person affirms to be true. Notice, this a sort of two-sided fallacy. It can apply to a person’s reasoning whether they are making an argument for or against something. In either case, the reason it is illogical to draw a conclusion solely based on the origins of a claim is this: the truth or falsity of a claim does not completely hinge upon how someone came to believe it. Let’s take a look at this scenario in order to get a better grasp of this point.

So what’s, So what’s, So what’s the Scenario

Back in 2000, the popular adult cartoon series, The Simpsons, had an episode in which Donald Trump was elected President. Who would have thought that over a decade later this cartoon prophecy would actually come true? Now, let’s say I had a cousin who has been in a coma since 1995 and I go to visit him every Sunday. Suppose I were to visit him on the Sunday after Donald Trump’s inauguration and as I enter my cousin’s room a nurse informs me that my cousin has awakened from his coma about 5 minutes before I arrived. As I excitedly rush into my cousin’s room, the first thing my cousin says to me is, “Wow, Donald Trump is the President.” At this point, I ask my cousin how he just came out of a coma and yet knows Donald Trump is President. Let’s say my cousin responds to me by pointing to the television in his room which just happens to be playing a rerun of the Simpsons episode in which Donald Trump was made president. My cousin then says, “I was watching this cartoon in which Donald Trump is President so I figured it must be true.” Now let’s ask ourselves 3 questions about this scenario.

  1. Are cartoons reliable sources of information concerning politics or real events? A. Yes

B. No (Correct)

  1. Was my cousin correct when he stated, “Donald Trump is the President”?

A. Yes (Correct)

B. No

  1. Which of these statements would be the more logical response for me to make to my cousin?

A. “The only reason you believe Donald Trump is president is because you saw it on a cartoon, therefore your statement about Donald Trump being president is false.”

B. “I wouldn’t recommend relying on cartoons for information but you are correct about Donald Trump being president and, Simpsons aside, there are good reasons for holding that belief.” (Correct)

In this scenario, my cousin has a correct belief about Donald Trump even though how he came to hold that belief was based on an unreliable source. This illustrates the point that the fact of whether or not a claim is true is independent of how someone comes to believe it is true. With that in mind, let’s bring this point home by applying it to some of the main objections made by the Conscious Community against Christianity.

How can I apply this?

Consider the following statements:

  1. The only reason you believe Christianity is true (our claim) is because white slave-masters forced it upon our ancestors to keep them mentally enslaved (source/origin).
  2. Why is the Bible (our claim) the only book the slave-masters (origin) allowed our ancestors to read?
  3. You only believe Christianity is true (our claim) because you were raised in a country that beat Christianity into your ancestors (origins). If you had been born in Iraq you would be a Muslim. If you were born in India you would be a Hindu.
  4. How can you believe Christianity is true (our claim) when the Bible was given to us by the same people who beat, raped, and enslaved our ancestors (origin)?
  5. You pray to the same God your oppressors prayed to when they stripped us of our religion and forced us to be Christians (origin).

Now, I want my readers to be able to digest this information and put it to good use whether it be resolving doubts concerning Christianity and ethnicity for themselves or in helping others to see there is no logical reason to believe there is discord between the two. I would say shedding light on the genetic fallacy is one of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to cutting down arguments regarding slavery and Christianity. Notice how in each case the person making the objection commits the genetic fallacy by implying that because of how Christianity in the black community supposedly originated (slave-masters, Europeans), we ought to reject Christianity. Any time we come across objections to Christianity like these, we know that we have logical grounds to dismiss them because they are built upon a foundation of faulty reasoning.

Of course, I realize that philosophy is foreign to most people. Those who make the type of objections I’ve covered in this article may not grasp the weight of our counterpoint when we point out they’ve killed their own argument by committing a logical fallacy—But that’s okay. Just because a person we’re dialoguing with doesn’t understand the reasoning behind our response doesn’t mean we’re wrong. It just means they don’t understand.

In a battle, a soldier will take all sorts of gear. Some of that gear is to inflict damage on their opponent (i.e. sword, spear, etc.). Some gear is carried for defensive purposes (i.e. shield, body armor). What I have explained about the genetic fallacy thus far will probably be most helpful if used “defensively”. From now on, when a person says something to you like, “You’re only a Christian because slave-masters beat Christianity into our ancestors”, you now know that such claims are logically bankrupt which takes the “logical fangs” out of them. That being said I think arguments like these get thrown around because of their emotional force rather than logic; we will address that in articles to come.

I often tell people, if they want to build their worldview on a foundation of illogical reasoning, be my guest. As for me, if their “white man’s religion” argument is based on a fallacy then I have no logical grounds to take their objection seriously as a wedge between the Christianity puzzle piece and ethnicity puzzle piece in my worldview. If you are dealing with someone who is willing to be rational and not just looking to hurl Conscious Community slogans at you, taking time to help them think this through can certainly be worthwhile.  In addition to that though there are a few quick and easy ways to go on the offensive with the genetic fallacy.

In our next article we will take a look at how we can use the genetic fallacy to our advantage when encountering Conscious Community objections.


Note:

The term “Ethnic Epistemology” is being applied throughout this series in a tongue in cheek sort of way. Broadly speaking, what I’m referring to is the inappropriate application of one’s ethnicity to truth claims. I’m suggesting that among the Conscious Community (and others) individuals often attempt to assess the veracity of a claim based upon whether the individual believes that claim to be compatible with their ethnic identity or not.

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About the Author

Adam Coleman

Adam Coleman is passionate about equipping Christians with evidences for the faith and engaging the culture. He is a husband, father of three busy children, social worker, writer, and public speaker. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master’s in Social Work Adam began a career of community development, mentoring youth, and service to our nation’s veterans. Currently, Adam is primarily focused on using his "Tru-ID Podcast", writing, and public speaking to promote the gospel of Christ through Christian apologetics.

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