Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cool Hand Luke and How to Win a Debate Against an Atheist

Up until sixth grade I was a bit of a bully. But that abruptly changed when I had my rear end handed to me by a country boy named Adam Johnson who used to drink "Tequila with his 'diddy' in the woods behind his house". I started the fight, but boy, he ended it, and subsequently ended my reign of terror. I bring this up as a metaphor to describe the way in which many people lose a battle, not because they are unable to win it, but because they fight the battle in the wrong way. Before Adam Johnson so kindly humbled me (I am truly grateful for his fine work), I had won my previous battles, not due to the fact that I was a particularly skilled brawler, but because I was athletic and had pretty good instincts. I was generally quicker and more agile than my opponents, and so I came out on top. However, with Adam Johnson I met my match. In fact, I met more than my match. Adam punched me about five times before I even lifted my arms. I was so dazed and disoriented, that the fight was over before it began. He didn't knock me out, but after a few minutes I basically hugged him like a boxer begging for mercy. The problem wasn't necessarily that I couldn't have won the fight (though it would have been difficult), the problem was I had fought him in a way that inevitably put me at a disadvantage. I was all arms. And so was he. But in a war of "all arms" he was far stronger and quicker than I.

In the same way, intellectuals like the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, as well as other like-minded skeptics, may also have a similar kind of "upper body strength" when it comes to debate (see below). Yet in spite of all this, there is no reason that one should be humiliated like I was in sixth grade. To carry the metaphor a little further, if they keep hitting you up high (which is all the atheist and skeptic can really do), then go for legs. How do you respond to a stinging indictment of your beliefs? Well, you certainly don't do it by simply addressing each particular criticism, one by one. If your opponent wants to drag you into a hundred unrelated scandals, then don't try to match him blow for blow, for you will most certainly find yourself in the weeds. Rather, go for the "legs of his argument." I say this in particular for those who feel intellectually overmatched. It certainly isn't a bad idea to try and respond to one or two of their best objections in the hopes of getting a technical knockout, but why not try and get them on the ground as quickly as possible. Knocking their legs out from under them is the best way to bring the argument to equal footing- otherwise you must depend upon your natural skills for eloquence. Indeed, on the ground their greatest weapon (viz. their ability to deliver quick blows) is almost entirely neutralized.

To bring this back to practical terms, I present several basic ways in which you can "go for the legs" (i.e. take the offensive) when confronted with a litany of accusations like those above:

  • It is important to understand from the outset that there is, on some level, a built in disadvantage to defending the Catholic Church. Why? Because the Church holds such high standards for itself, it can be criticized anytime it fails to live up to them, while the atheist is given a pass precisely because there is no universally accepted standard for them. That said, if one simply exposes this inequity from the beginning, one may also be able to expose just how shallow and whiney folks are that demand great things from others but nothing from themselves. 
  • Don't allow them to bully you with accusations. Accusations are not arguments. Saying the Church started the Inquisition because it loves to torture people is not an argument. Saying the Catholic Church is cruel because of its teachings on sexuality is not an argument. Calling Catholic priests a bunch of pedophiles is no more rooted in sound reasoning than calling parents or school teachers a bunch of pedophiles because they are parents and school teachers. The point is you must not let them get away with superficial name calling. Accusations are to argumentation what heckling is to comedy.   
  • Always bring the discussion back to authority. In other words, upon what standard of morals does your opponent judge the Church? Darwinian evolution? Survival of the fittest? No, in all likelihood, he is criticizing the Church based on the best standard of morality available, namely that of the Catholic Church. Thus, don't let them simply just go about accusing the Church, make them explain where they themselves get the justification to do so.
  • Hitchens, and many others, like to invoke the Enlightenment, while simultaneously appealing to things which are decidedly not empirical, such as: morality, beauty, love, free-will, conscience, equality, etc. A good question to ask them is how they justify appealing to these supernatural principles when they themselves are only interested in debating what is rationally verifiable?
  • Church history may seem like the enemy in any discussion, but let me suggest otherwise. First, it is always good to make your opponent prove himself. Don't let him continually put you on the defensive. Might I recommend that you use the intellectual equivalent of a "rope a dope" when you engage in verbal sparring. Let them accuse away, and then make them prove that they know what the are talking about. If it's Galileo, then ask them for at least two other examples of the Church meddling in science. If it's the Inquisition, then ask them to tell you what they know about the Inquisition. In many cases, their knowledge will be limited at best. In the case of someone like Hitchens (who is a little more intellectually sophisticated), ask them to explain the origin of the Inquisition and why it was instituted in the first place. Many things have gone awry in Church history, but few things (if any) were from their outset corrupt.
  • Simplistic rants like the one above almost invariably include some accusation that the Church was always and everywhere against progress. The simplest way to refute this is to ask them the origin of just about every major institution in the West today. Why are so many hospitals named after saints? Where did the university system come from? Why were so many early scientists not only Catholics, but clerics in the Church. Where did the notion of charity beyond borders (and religion) come from? If the Church is so anti-woman, then why did so many women in the early centuries convert? If the Church is so ignorant and evil then why do so many people derive hope and refreshment from it today? On and on. Pretty much everything humane today can be historically tied to the Church.
  • Since child-abuse is such a topical issue let us address that one individually. Who would deny the horror of child abuse (except pederasts and a society like ours that was relatively silent on the matter until recently). Yet the question should be asked: why is it that we as a society are so disgusted by the idea of it in the first place? Is it because atheists throughout the centuries have demanded justice for little children? To the contrary, if you read St. Paul, or know anything about the sexual attitudes in the Mediterranean world during Paul's day, you know just how common the practice of pederasty was. The pagan world had no problem with man-boy love. Thus, it was only after the Christian Church gained influence that the behavior ultimately became taboo. 
  • Always look to return the discussion to first principles. If someone points to the evil and intolerance of the Crusades, press them on their knowledge of why the Crusades were launched in the first place. Whatever you want to say about the results, it was initially a war of defense. If someone brings up pederasty in the priesthood, bring the subject back to the original inspiration for the priesthood (i.e. imitating Jesus Christ). If someone regards the Church as intrinsically anti-Semitic, point out the Jewish roots of the faith (which by the way was the taunt of the Nazis about the followers of Jesus). There indeed have been those in the Church who have been responsible for anti-Semitism, but it is also true that the Church's doctrine regarding the spiritual equality of all human beings provides the only logical basis for an end to all discrimination. 
  • In the above video Hitchens ridicules the Church's idea of infallibility, and then expresses his hope that such an arrogant office would quickly come to an end. This is certainly ironic, especially considering that Hitchens and others like him are themselves a kind of self-elected official, ordained to stand above all of history judging it more scrupulously than any real pope would. Yet not only is Hitchens infallible on historical matters (apparently), he is impeccable as it relates to his own life. And so as a result I am always wont to say; "there but for the grace of Hitch go I". Behold the arrogance of the man who receives all of the wisdom and experience of the ages, and then roundly mocks and ridicules those who lived in prior ages because they do not have the same benefit as he. A little historical humility is never a bad thing.
  • Probably one of the most effective and easiest applause lines for atheists is to condemn the Church for what the Church herself already condemns in principle; "In Uganda priests are responsible for raping and killing this or that group of individuals. This is disgusting." Well, yes, it is. Thanks for pointing that out." The force of the argument comes not as a consequence of being an atheist or a skeptic, but from living in a Christian society that condemns certain behavior as immoral. Congrats you have merely plagiarized a Christian principle and then used it to accuse Christians. 
  • Oftentimes the Church is roundly criticized (as in this video) for teaching that there is such a thing as sin. However, I would argue that this practice is entirely practical. First, in order to have a moral basis for making any judgment whatsoever one needs a basic standard of right and wrong. And secondly, in order for there to be any possibility of reform and/or correction in religion (or anything else for that matter), there must be an idea of perfection towards which one strives.
  • Classic witch hunt rules here. If the Church admits to evil, she is condemned by her own words. If she hasn't admitted it, then she is evil for failing to admit it. All this from a man/group that doesn't believe that such a thing as evil exists in the first place.
  • If they accuse the Church of murdering millions of Africans because the Church doesn't believe that condoms will solve the Aids crisis there, then play dumb and ask the individual to explain how promoting widespread condom use is a solution to the crisis. Many times when people are forced to explain their position the weakness of their argument is exposed. The truth is it is easier to demand eloquence than it is to produce it. However, I have to admit that I have always found it rather strange that the same people who complain that the Church promotes overpopulation in Africa, are the same folks that complain that the Church is creating a holocaust there.
  • One final way to avoid getting "Hitchslapped" is by asking a simple question. This question has been around a while, but it is nevertheless still potent. If the Church is as thoroughly corrupt as Hitchens and others like to think, then how do you account for her longevity and resilience?" Remember we are not speaking here about some vague but popular idea that has been floating around for a millennia or two, we are talking about an institution running, uninterrupted, on the same principles she began with. To shrug off this question without offering a solution is simply to avoid the elephant in the historical room.

Hopefully at least some of the above suggestions offer insight into how to approach a discussion that is laden with accusations against the Church. Like I said, one need not be a black belt in apologetics to force an intellectually impressive opponent to the mat simply by forcing them to defend their own position. In closing, I leave the following scene from the film Cool Hand Luke. I have always felt that in some small way it summarizes the inexplicable resilience of the Catholic Faith. To the eyes of the outside world it must really seem like the Church is forever getting Hitch-slapped, or going down in a sea of flames- and yet, in spite of all this, it is an indisputable fact that the Church is somehow the only one left standing in the historical ring.


No comments:

Post a Comment