Even had I known in advance of the Intelligence Squared debate at which Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop Onaiyekan were soundly trounced defending the motion that “The Catholic Church is a Force for the Good in the World”, I would not have attended.
Such occasions are not mounted to explore truth but to use the force of rhetorical tactics to drive home selective points which will appeal to an often prejudiced audience. Not that I dislike public controversy – as an intellectual exercise and an opportunity to strut one’s stuff it is great entertainment.
When I took part in such things in the late 1950s, I was doing so at Marble Arch and Leicester Square for the Catholic Evidence Guild. But then our training for this was extremely demanding. We were required to make presentation after presentation to a roomful of experienced speakers who had learned to deal with every kind and technique of attack. They were merciless for our own good. No one should enter the lions’ den without the full equipment to deal with lions. By the accounts, neither of our champions was so prepared. Folly.
One rhetorical device which is worth mastering is called Tu quoque (“You also”). It doesn’t get you nearer to the truth but it can unsettle opponents, and make palpable hits.
Take, for example, the case of Galileo, which is so often raised as an example of the Church’s opposition to science. Of course there is a good defence for the Church’s decision in the context. But it takes time to demonstrate, and no one will listen. Much more (rhetorically) effective is to say: “That’s a strange accusation to make given that the history of science is marked by its refusal to accept plain evidence, with far more serious consequences than Galileo.” The audience will sit up (doesn’t science, unlike the Church, follow the evidence?). And you will be challenged. So you can take your pick of answers.
You might take first William Harvey’s demonstration of the full circulation of blood, which he published – with experiments and reasoned arguments – in 1628. His evidence was rejected by conservative medical science, and it took some 20 years before it was accepted.
More dramatic is Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who established, with indisputable results, that lack of hygiene led to a high rate of sepsis in midwifery and other medical treatments. This was in the 1840s. Despite the clear evidence his view was rejected time and time again by the scientific community of doctors. It was not until the last decades of the 19th century that medical hygiene began to be more widely recognised. Meanwhile, a very large number of deaths, particularly in childbirth, had taken place. It is thought that the mental illness which preceded Semmelweis’s death was caused by the continued, tragic rejection of his proofs.
The result of medical science’s conservatism was the death of many thousands of innocent people. Galileo only got house arrest.
In another part of the woods an attack may be made in this form: “You Catholics refuse to be guided by reason. You insist on faith, which none can prove.” You could, of course be tempted into philosophical argument, but how much better to say: “I have always been intrigued by the superstition of near-atheists – I do not call them atheists because it would be uncharitable to insult their intelligence. It’s really quite startling what they will believe without any evidence at all.” Again the surprise, again the challenge. So how do you back your statement up? Take your pick once more:
“I think I’m right in saying that you put a great deal of weight behind reason. Is that not so? I have always been disappointed when I have asked people to demonstrate the validity of abstract thought – without of course using abstract thought to do so. They never seem to be able to. I hope that you can, since you base your case on reason.”
Since this is a logical impossibility the demand may seem a trifle cruel. But this is a game where you take no prisoners. You might continue:
“I see you are scathing about miracles. But in the whole Bible and the history of miracles I have not come across a single one that is as far-fetched as the one that secularist scientists seem to believe automatically. I mean the miracle that something can emerge out of nothing by its own power. Do please explain why you believe this and how it could come about.”
Or if you really want to be naughty, try this: “You have condemned immorality in the Church over its history. I find this an odd approach because you also believe that human beings are no more than a complex of evolved neurons, entirely material. If that is true how can you blame the Church for anything it has done? Without free choice, morality and immorality have no meaning. Perhaps you could explain this strange contradiction in your thinking.”
Of course the Tu quoque technique I have described is no more than a tiny sample of the rhetorical skills built up since the Greeks and the Romans. And they are devices. Socrates, through Plato, rightly put rhetoric on a par with a skill like cooking. This did not stop him using such devices throughout his dialogues. But if we are to enter the public forum we need them. At the very least they put our opponents on the back foot, and leave even a prejudiced audience with some splinters of doubt in their minds.
Perhaps you agree, or you may think that such techniques are unworthy of the Christian. Perhaps you have further ideas on how to counter the ungodly. Let’s have some tips.