A false cause fallacy occurs when someone incorrectly assumes a causal relationship between two things; the name of the fallacy is fairly literal. Any time someone thinks, “A causes B,” without a sufficient reason to believe that B is truly caused by A, it’s an example of the false cause fallacy.
Specific versions of false cause fallacies include the post hoc, ergo propter hoc error, which literally means “after this, therefore because of this.” The false idea here is that, just because two things are consecutive, the first one must have caused the second. The baseball player who hits a home run while wearing mismatched socks should not assume the different socks caused his power surge. Many superstitions outside of baseball are based in this specific error, from knocking on wood to crossing one’s fingers.
Inflated causality, related to post hoc, is another type of false cause fallacy. This variation relies on over-simplification. It takes an event—one that contributes to a result—and attempts to make it the sole cause. For example, saying that Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses caused the Protestant Reformation relies on inflated causality. Luther’s action was certainly a catalyst for and benefit to the movement, but the cause of the Reformation is much more complex than that.
Another example of a false cause fallacy is cum hoc, ergo propter hoc, or “with this, therefore because of this.” In this case, the mistake is to assume that, when two events often happen together, one causes the other. But the rooster crowing at the crack of dawn does not cause the sun to rise. And advertising that points out that people who use a certain product tend to be healthy does not necessarily mean that the product causes the good health.
An important feature of any false cause fallacy is a perceived connection between two events. In most cases, people are reacting to what appears to be a connection, even if it’s entirely artificial. In some instances, there truly is a connection between the events, but not an “A causes B” relationship. When there’s not even a tenuous link between two events, people rarely assume a connection.
These statements are all examples of false cause fallacies:
“John started going to church more often, then won the lottery; therefore, God is rewarding his faithfulness.”
“Talking to cashiers at fast food restaurants causes obesity (the more often I talk to fast food cashiers, the heavier I get).”
“Football games are won based on which team has more enthusiastic fans (every time our football team scores, I hear people cheering, so the cheering is what leads to points).”
“Bleeding makes your skin break (every time I bleed, there’s a split in my skin).”
Some skeptics of the Bible fall into the false cause fallacy when they say that the story of Jesus is simply a pagan mythology retold. They point to the stories of Osiris, Adonis, and Mithra and allege that the gospel narratives simply copycat the old myths. However, even if myths from the pre-Christian era resemble the life of Christ (and they don’t), it wouldn’t mean they caused the New Testament writers to invent a false Jesus. Making such a claim is akin to saying the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” caused the invention of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Committing a false cause fallacy, a person might cite a pagan mystery religion with a dying and rising god and conclude, on that basis, the life of Jesus was invented or His resurrection never took place. But similarity doesn’t prove dependence—besides, the pagan religions aren’t all that similar to the story of Christ. The evidence for Jesus’ life and resurrection must be judged on its own merit and not simply dismissed out of hand.