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

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!

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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

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