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Five ways to lose the argument with atheists

Next time you find yourself sucked into a debate with secularists be careful not to make these five classic mistakes, says Peter D Williams

By on Thursday, 17 May 2012

Don’t stop to think what Pope Benedict might say if he were in your position (Photo: PA)

Don’t stop to think what Pope Benedict might say if he were in your position (Photo: PA)

It is not an uncommon situation. You are reading an interesting article online about some matter of recent religious controversy, but upon reaching the end of the piece you meet the comments area, and try to resist the temptation to scroll further down the page. How many times have you perused such sections before finding yourself infuriated by the base anti-Catholic bigotry you find there?

Still worse, how often have you found your time irretrievably wasted, as you are sucked into futile disputation with secularist trolls who, in the famous words of Churchill, “can’t change their minds, and won’t change the subject”? Like glancing at a car-crash, however, the curiosity can be too great to resist, and you begin to read on…

This experience is hardly atypical for the average Catholic reading online, but it has even become unsurprising to experience similar situations when having a drink in the pub, or while at an otherwise genteel dinner party. Where we are called to defend and expound our Faith in these situations however, we must do so in a constructive way that raises the standard and tone of discussion.
It is regrettable, then, that experience shows us how often Catholics fail to do this effectively. As an illustrative remedy for some of the more common mistakes in this endeavour, here are five brief tips on how not to argue with atheists.

1) Cynically assume the worst in people. Before speaking, or touching that keyboard, imagine your opponent to be an irredeemable ogre, whatever they may have said. Don’t charitably assume they are simply misinformed, or look for the good motivations they may have in arguing as they do. At a false accusation of “homophobia”, don’t try to understand the positive impetus behind this error (genuine concern about abuse and hatred), and refrain from showing how the Church teaches compassion and care for those who experience same-sex attraction – you may help to defuse anger rather than fuel it!

2) Argue as a means of venting emotion. When someone says or writes something shocking or offensive to Catholic piety, our natural reaction is to get angry. Indulge that. Try to forget any Christian goal of defending or expounding the Faith. That will only get in the way of fun. Instead, be determined to show how stupid your opponent is, and punish their ignorance and prejudice with counter-abuse. To be scrupulously gentle and reverent at all times is just far too hard. Of course it could be that, even if someone does not remember your arguments, they may remember what a model of virtue and decency you were in arguing, which might be a good witness that may help them later on – but such considerations should not get in the way of a good bout of rock throwing.

3) Don’t call out bad behaviour, mirror it! If someone is unnecessarily rude or vulgar, feel justified in returning like with like. That “turn the other cheek” stuff is far too high a standard. Simply pointing out your interlocutor’s unkindness (and how it hinders discussion) would be too laborious. And sticking to the substantive arguments that have been produced? What are you,
a robot? Think of our Lord’s response to the liars who accused Him, and the guard who hit Him, in front of the Sanhedrin. What was His answer to calumny and abuse? Well, we all know how that worked out.

It might be that following His example would accentuate the irrational meanness of the person you are engaging with (to themselves and anyone around watching your discourse) and even shame them into changing their behaviour. Don’t worry about all that, though.

4) Adopt the martyr complex. Few things are as convincing as arguing with someone who thinks your ideas will lead inexorably to a new totalitarian regime, or who believe themselves to be “persecuted”. Does this come across as hysterical, and make that person look silly? Of course not. So don’t forget to break out the comparisons with Hitler or Stalin, and be sure to moan about how hard done by Christians are (especially with comparison to Muslims). This is bound to win you lots of sympathy, and isn’t at all clichéd. Not even a bit. No.

5) For heaven’s sake, don’t Pray. Surely an obvious point. Praying before you interact with people, and asking God to give you the words He would have you say, and the sharp but loving mindset He would have you adopt, is just a massive spoiler. So, indeed, is praying for your opponent, that their minds and hearts might be opened, and that your conversation with them might be helpful. Prayer is lethal to good squabbling – so cut it out!

In reality, tailoring our words and our tone to the highest common denominator of human sentiment may not convince the people with whom we are immediately interacting, but may at least begin to win the hearts and minds of any bystanders who are watching. Focusing on how we can best practise the spiritual works of mercy (especially instructing the uninformed, counselling the doubtful, and bearing wrongs patiently) in our arguments with atheists will help us minister to our opponents in the most effective way. In doing so, and in witnessing to the truth of our Faith, humbly, gently and respectfully, we may truly witness to the virtue, as well as the rationality, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Peter D Williams is a Catholic apologist and speaker for Catholic Voices

  • maideqi

  • Los Leandros

    General Franco was by a long distance the lesser of two evils when compared to the vile socialists/Stalinists who established their killing fields in Spain, until Gen. Franco bravely took action. Viva, el Christo Rey.

  • Los Leandros

    It is ridiculous to compare the Crusades ( which were essentially defensive in origin ) & the genocide of the atheist regimes.

  • Los Leandros

    You need to get out more & become a little more discriminating in your reading. At least don’t just parrott their puerile views.

  • Los Leandros

    Good to know that you are such a staunch supporter of that great Catholic scientist, Gallileo. You should read James Hannam’s work ” God’s Philosophers “, for your further studies.

  • Los Leandros

    Having read all of the posts, it is clear that Fides et Ratio has really rattled the atheists cages, with the result that they resort to personalised insults instead of rational argument. Memo to atheists – when you are in a hole, stop digging.

  • julianzzz

    The very, very best way to lose an argument with anyone let alone an atheist is to confirm your prejudice and ignorance by getting your facts spectacularly wrong! Dismissing facts you don’t like and rewriting history in favour of propaganda will get you less than nowhere!

    I thought Catholics were in the business of saving souls through displaying a good example, not undermining their case with petulant falsehoods! You must have the devil on your tail today!

    Take the pope’s good example, he was very civil when he entertained Stephen Hawking at the Vactican!

  • julianzzz

    What a silly reply, no atheist or any other sensible person would agree! I thought the article was to help you win the argument, not help you tie your rethorical boot laces together to fall flat on your face!

  • julianzzz

    Atheists don’t have to believe in science either, they could believe in anything, providing that they by definition don’t believe in God!

  • Oli

    as an outsider who will keep my opinion to himself, i urge you to watch  a recent BBC documentary online, entitled ‘surviving progress’. If you feel the same way after this as you indicate that you do above, you could maybe help me to see where the BBC make false claims and how the world is actually doing fine on it’s current course, otherwise I’ll suspect that its because you were alarmed at what you learned on the subject of population. You have nothing to lose except blissful ignorance, should you posses it of course. 

  • Oli
  • Oli

    the sun is very instrumental in determining the range of tides. twice monthly, sun, moon and earth align to give spring tides, twice monthly we have neaps, small tides due to the moon changing it’s orbital position around us, while ours changes relatively little to the sun all because the sun’s gravitational influence is far from negligable. Just google spring and neap tides. Look at a diagram;very simple stuff and very predictable to the nearest minute and centimeter of tidal height (to the experts). Galileo was actually right about the suns influence to a great extent, (although the moon remains the main factor) just as he was absolutely correct in that we orbit the sun. I’ll personally excuse him for not thinking outside of our solar system during his period, probably wanted a break after figuring this all out correctly and getting ostracized for it if you ask me.

  • Freilef92

    Incredible post. Will surely make use of your reccomendations. Mary bless you. Greetings from Ecuador

  • renming328

  • beimabao

  • Frank

    Don’t agree, especially about praying

  • Carmen

    There is a interesant blog, which is recommended. It is written in Spanish, but has an automatic translator into English.Addresses issues of real importance and quite fresh. In fact, prompted a reaction airy atheist bloggers from various countries.His address: http://dignitad.blogspot.comIn particular there is an article entitled “Response to an atheist.”

  • Carmen

    There is a interesant blog, which is recommended. It is written in Spanish, but has an automatic translator into English.Addresses issues of real importance and quite fresh. In fact, prompted a reaction airy atheist bloggers from various countries.His address: http://dignitad.blogspot.comIn particular there is an article entitled “Response to an atheist.”

  • Carmen
  • Ben

    The reason some atheists may resort to unintelligible aggression or mocking is because of the christian’s lack of ability to provide a satisfactory argument which can be discussed. Many of my own discussions with Christians end in phrases such as “There are some things science cannot explain” or “I just believe” on the part of the theist.  Neither of these are proper arguments. The latter is used simply because the christian knows that it is too pathetic to even be considered for debate. However just because science cannot explain some thing does by no account mean that your superstition can. Christians are ignorant, insulting, morally corrupt megalomaniacs.  In the comments statements such as “… my experience of atheists is that they consider themselves to be of superior intelligence…”. This is true for some. But then again some may have reason to. After all the average IQ is statistically higher for an individual willing to not have their actions, thinking and mind slaves to ancient unreliable descriptions of supernatural beings. And I find this statement rather hypocritical as many Theists feel they are superior in every way to their more rational counterparts to such an extent that they hold the belief that whilst they deserve to enjoy an eternity in heaven (a paradise of incomparable leisure), atheists such as myself deserve to burn for an eternity in the pits of hell simply because we do not have a similar belief. I find this deeply disturbing and insulting as I would never wish such things on any person wheres Christians feel fit to use this sickening imagery to scare and terrify small children into embracing their parents’ and peers’ faith. I think a little mockery or aggressive arguments seems vastly insignificant in comparison to your disgusting, revolting assault on human culture in the name of a simple fictional being. 
                                                                                                           Yours sincerely, An Atheist  

  • Religionisforhomos

    Your religion is stupid