Review of _Why Good Arguments often Fail_ by James Sire

This is not a book of arguments per se; that is, it does not outline several recommended arguments for, say, the existence of God. In it, rather, professor James Sire, author of numerous books, including The Universe Next Door, Scripture Twisting, and How To Read Slowly, insightfully yet accessibly discusses “the pitfalls facing Christians who wish not merely to assert the truth of the Christian faith but to do so with the greatest likelihood of success” (p. 15).
The book is divided into three parts: the first deals with “common logical fallacies,” the second with “good arguments that often fail,” and the final with “good arguments that work.” While its thesis is quite serious, the book is often humorous and witty. For example, the first chapter recounts a story, written by Max Shulman in 1951, in which a number of informal fallacies of logic are wittily introduced.
The second chapter looks at two such fallacies: unqualified and hasty generalizations. After treating examples of each, it is observed that they are often characteristic of inductive arguments. Because apologists frequently employ inductive argumentation, Sire accordingly urges care.
Similarly, chapters three and four expose fallacious reasoning as seen in both objections to and arguments offered for Christianity. The former begins by addressing causal fallacies, and then moves to distinguish causes from reasons (a distinction, Sire notes, that is generally lost on sociologist and Freudian-type objectors to Christian faith). The chapter ends with a brief look at internally inconsistent and speculative claims. Chapter four rounds out the first section of the book by considering three somewhat more subtle fallacies: those based on sentiment, false analogy, and poisoning the well.
Why are good, rational arguments for Christianity often not just ignored, but rejected (p. 73)? Chapter five opens the second section by addressing one reason: they are not effectively presented. Primarily in view is the apologist’s manner. “Reason alone,” Sire writes, “is not enough.”
Sire begins the sixth chapter by laying out what he believes to be the limits of theistic arguments. While preserving a decidedly backseat role for such projects, he maintains they are largely ineffective due to their highly abstract nature (indeed, his “point is…to understand their limitations and the fact that they do not convince even those well capable of understanding them,” p. 84). Emphasis is placed on the need to know one’s audience as much as is possible in order to maximize effectiveness.
Chapters seven and eight discuss worldview commitments as hindrances to the persuasiveness of arguments. The former begins with what is essentially a review of Sire’s explanation of the concept of worldviews (as seen previously in Naming the Elephant and The Universe Next Door 4th ed.; both 2004), before assessing the current debate between the Christian and evolutionary-naturalist worldviews. He recommends we non-specialists “let the whole issue of evolution remain unaddressed…except when it arises as a question” (p. 105). Chapter eight addresses the pervasive principle of relativism, focusing on the related situation of religious pluralism. Examples of the latter are considered, and three options for responding are evaluated.
Chapter nine identifies moral blindness as one of the most prevalent reasons for the failure of good arguments to persuade (p. 117), though Sire warns against immediately assuming this is the explanation for our failure to convince (p. 120).
The book’s final section opens with a “look at two examples of effective public presentations of the gospel” (p. 128). In chapter ten Paul’s witness to the Athenians is closely examined. Sire draws from the text numerous incisive suggestions for a modern witness. In chapter eleven Sire recounts one of his frequently given presentations, which answers the question, “Why should anyone believe anything at all?” The lecture’s short accompanying bibliography is also included. Chapter twelve closes the book with a fine annotated bibliography to guide further study in numerous areas of apologetics.
In short, Why Good Arguments Often Fail is characteristic of the insightful, readable style we’ve come to expect from James Sire. Written from years of experience and full of wisdom, this will be a valuable read for all apologists, especially those new to the field.

One Response to Review of _Why Good Arguments often Fail_ by James Sire

  1. […] James Sire, author of numerous books, including The Universe Next Door, Scripture Twisting, and H…Officials link loss of ‘icon industries’ in Maine to ’94 NAFTA agreement Bangor Daily NewsWASHINGTON […]

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