One of the most insidious arguments is the strawman. It’s insidious because it is effective, and insidious because it takes great effort to avoid on your own.
The simple formula for a strawman is to invent the arguments of your opponent, and then argue against those arguments, rather than the actual arguments of your opponent.
Consider the debate about homosexual marriage. Proponents poo-poo the arguments of the opponents by claiming that they support bigotry and hatred against homosexuals, and are opposed to homosexual marriage simply because Jesus said so. Both of these are not arguments that the best and representative opponents use. In fact, opponents would argue easily against these two reasons as valid reasons for opposing homosexual marriage.
If you want to avoid the strawman, you have to dig into your opponents mind. You have to first assume that your opponent is a reasonable and good person. You must assume that they have thought the issue through and have come to the conclusion they have because they believe that is the best decision for them or for the people around them. At the very least, you must suppose that they are exposed to the same arguments and evidence that you are exposed to, and try to understand why they have not changed their mind.
You have not freed yourself from the strawman until you can express your opponent’s positions, and the logical and reasonable reasons for them, at least as well as he can himself.
I know that people who support homosexual marriage do not believe that it is right to discriminate against homosexuals and deny them the “right” to marry whomever they love. I know that people who support homosexual marriage do not have to be homosexual themselves.
Once I have accomplished this, I can actually begin arguing against them. For instance, I can say that there is no discrimination in marriage because we do not limit who can marry whom based on their sexual orientation. Whatever limitations exist are there for reasons way beyond simple discrimination. The same reason why a corporation is not the right legal structure for a partnership is the same reason why marriage is not the right legal structure for two people who love each other very much but are of the same gender.
When we engage in this kind of debate, we learn more about each other and what we are thinking. Two people can learn a lot from each other, even when they agree on nothing. This is because people tend to be reasonable and there is no preliminary requirement for agreement for two people to reason together.
On the debate of religion vs. atheism, there is a ton of strawmen arguments out there. It’s quite clear that the vast majority of people who claim to be Atheist know little to nothing of the world’s religions. They may be familiar in one or more religions, but they do not have an appreciation for why perfectly reasonable people would believe in those things, and so cannot help but make strawmen arguments. It’s rather pathetic, because every religious individual must have already conquered the arguments for atheism before they could begin to believe. In other words, one set of beliefs is superior than another simply because you cannot believe in it without completely comprehending the other, while the other has no such requirement.
I’ll call strawmen when I see them. I hope you’ll do your best to identify your own strawmen arguments by educating yourself to opposing viewpoints.