Chivvying the ungodly

Arguing with the ungodly is often a frustrating business. You put up your evidence and argument and they put up theirs. Minds do not meet and each of us leaves “of the same opinion still”. (I use the term “ungodly” merely as an apt description of those who are confident in their rejection of the existence of God.)
So let’s go to the fountainhead of debate: Socrates. His methodology was to elicit the truth, hidden within his opponent, by asking the right questions. The technical term for this is “maieutic”. Maia means midwife. We cannot join Socrates in his belief that we have all inherited this truth from a previous existence, but we do hold that we were given the faculty of reason which, by nature, is suited to the discovery of truth. And that is enough for the purpose. In this column I will attempt to show how this method can be used in some well-known examples.
The maieutic approach certainly needs skill, but at least it offers us the chance of leaving the ungodly wondering whether or not they should re-think their positions. The first difficulty is to get your opponents to answer questions. They, like you, are keener on making incontrovertible statements than exposing themselves to the danger of being asked a question which may lead who knows where. Socrates would often need to ask his opponent to indulge his idiosyncrasy just for a few minutes. And we may have to ask the same favour.
The second skill required is asking the right questions. Let’s start with a simple example. Suppose the opening statement is: “I have no respect for a pope who is ignorant or fundamentalist enough to say that condoms don’t solve the Aids problem and may actually make it worse.” Of course you know the answer to that one (at least I hope you do). But the maieutic approach would simply say: “An enormous amount of money has been spent on condoms together with acres of accompanying publicity. Tell me, which sub-Saharan countries have solved their Aids problem through condom promotion?” Since, of course no such country can be identified, it is natural next to ask in what way the Pope’s statement is at variance with the evidence.
The evidence? Yes that’s what the ungodly are always demanding. And we agree. So let’s look at some issues in the way that a scientist sincere in his quest for truth might use.
Typically, scientists are concerned with establishing the causes of phenomena through empirical evidence. That means that they must first establish the kinds of evidence which would be adequate to answer their question. Only then can they devise a methodology for actually establishing the evidence.
Thus when we are discussing phenomena with those of a secular and scientific mind, charity – if nothing else – requires us to follow scientific concepts in our questioning. Again, I take a simple example – the freedom of the will. Assuming that they, perhaps reluctantly, accept freedom of will then they can be asked what criteria the existence of free will requires.
This may prove difficult because they have to accept that there has to be a self which is, at least to some extent, independent of the operations of the material brain. But selfhood, and the capacity to work through the brain without being entirely ruled by it, is a challenge to explain in material terms. Science finds those phenomena which are by definition uncaused difficult to fit into its remit. It is not our job to help scientists out; we have merely steered them in the direction of realising that there is an important phenomenon for which there is no empirical explanation.
The ungodly who deny the possibility of free will are open to another question. One prominent feature of atheistic polemic is to attack religions and religious people on the ground of their immoral behaviour. No one has a higher moral tone than a militant atheist. So the question might be: “How can you disapprove of religion so heartily, or indeed at all, when you hold that free will doesn’t exist?” In fact, the ungodly do have a grasp of right and wrong – as we all do. It’s just that the concept of moral obligation is incompatible with the materialist’s philosophy.

Remember that in all these points our objective is limited. We are not seeking to convince, merely to challenge the boringly repetitive claim that to hold as true a proposition which cannot be, in principle, proved by scientific evidence is mere superstition.
But self-consciousness, moral obligation, free will and rational thought are all realities of experience which everyone in fact recognises, but which science cannot prove. (For example, try proving the validity of rational thought without assuming the validity of rational thought in the first place.) We may hope that those who are humble enough to accept that science has not, indeed cannot, explain such realities may at least open a chink in their minds to the idea of the immaterial. And the Holy Spirit only needs the smallest chink to get in. While this is of course a column in the newspaper, I had particularly in mind a number of contributors who have asked for discussion on how we might deal with those who attack our beliefs. So it would be useful if you would comment on what I have written, and add additional suggestions which may help others.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Chivvying the ungodly

  1. claret says:

    I find such ‘discussions’ fairly pointless as you are inevitably faced with the ‘scatter gun’ approach where if one ‘attack’ is not having the right effect, or is being successfully countered , then the person just moves on to the next topic of attack. There is admittedly plenty to go at, especially when truthfulness and accuracy are not pre-requesites of the arguements levied at you.
    However one ploy that has the benefit of being amusing to the user and also reducing the self righteous anger that can soon well up inside you is to agree with your opponent! The ‘rider’ to this though is that you exaggerate the problem so as to make the arguement ridiculous.
    For example to take the issue of condoms and Aids in Africa it could go something like this. “How right you are. I mean look at the extent of the problem and Africa is not even a Catholic Country. it is amazing that in a country that is less than 10% Catholic that so many adults in the total population take so much notice of what the Pope says about condoms. I mean they have no loyalty to the Catholic faith as Muslim is probably the main religion but on this one point of not using condoms they all do what the Pope tells them. It says a lot that they are so willing to do this one thing when at the same time we hears of countless Christians being killed in Africa for their faith. I know that of those African countriews that do have a significant catholic population that the problem of Aids is nowhere near that of those who aren’t but this just goes to show er…. that the Pope may actually have a point.”

  2. peterdwilson says:

    One approach might be to request the scientific evidence for the proposition that “A proposition which cannot be, in principle, proved by scientific evidence is mere superstition.” I don’t know that A J Ayer ever got round that one; nor, according to one of his students, did he ever provide a satisfactory explanation for his own moral sense.

  3. st.joseph says:

    I think somewhere Quentin you made the point about our taxes supporting abortions-or something like that.

    Marie Stopes carries out 65,000 abortion a year in Britain,most of them through NHS contracts,along with the money directed towards their overseas operation, costs the UK taxpayer £30 million.. C.H 4.6.2010.

    I live in a area where there are 34 families,mostly pensioners. I am the only catholic,and only 10% of those are church goers. But I must say that 100% of those are Christian and act like that in the way they live in a neighbourly manner. I never have had to justify my belief with any of them.Even though I have statues, crucifix’s outside and inside,and a’We Vote Pro-Life’ sticker on my back window ,and a picture of St Pio with Our Lady on the front window and Our Lady of Walsingham in the jnside .Some when they go on holiday have even brought back Holy pictures from churches they have visited, and one couple actually brought me back a Rosary from Rome, with a medal of the Holy Father on it.’Maybe they are playing safe in case there is a God'(Joke).
    But I will say and it does upset me, the only time I have ever had to defend my faith was with catholics!
    .

  4. st.joseph says:

    The stickers by the way are on my car. I have never had rude gestures made to me ‘yet’

  5. Iona says:

    St. Joseph: I too have never yet had any rude or even challenging comments made to me about my faith (and I do wear a small crucifix so it is moderately observable), – except by my own (adult) children, all of whom have lapsed and one in particular of whom likes to tease me!

  6. st.joseph says:

    For years now an elderly lady well into her 80s, on the first Saturday,s of the month at 12 o.clock, takes Our Lady of Fatima’s statue,walks up the High Street, carrying the statue, sits on the bench, by the Cross, where people years ago, used to preach, I join her most times. And she says the Rosary quietly for Peace in the World,and for all the sins we commit that offends Our Lord.We are joined by 2 or 3 and sometimes an Anglican Minister.It is advertised in the Church Bulletin.Down further in the street, there are all sorts of people with placards ‘Stop the War’ etc.Very peaceful witness’s to our Christian faith.
    Never have we been approached from anyone who wanted to challenge us,but they have stayed a short distance away,just listening.
    I sometimes wear a little pro-life badge of the tiny feet of a 10 week old aborted baby.Buying petrol one day a young person serving me at the till asked me what it was ,and I told him. He was quite amazed, and asked where he could get one as he wanted to show it to his ‘mates’. I gave him mine and he was delighted.No problem there.
    We don’t have to do big things for Our Lord, as St Therese, The Little Flowers says.
    When someone asked Mother Teresa, did she think that all the things she did was like a small drop of water in the sea,: She replied all the small drops make up the whole Ocean..I cant remember the exact words(but words to that effect).
    We all play our different part in life, and can’t all do the same thing.As long as it is working for The Lord.To quote a saying of my mothers R.I.P. ‘We can never do enough for God!
    I am no good with ‘big’ intellectual words of science ,so I am not likely to convert anyone in a discussion I would probably fall at the first fence.So I leave that to others, who know better than me.

  7. claret says:

    No-one needs a science degree. All that is needed is to remember that every creature is perfectly designed for their role in the world, and they don’t have to be.

  8. Michael Mahoney says:

    There is no point in debating with closed minds, as Socrates found when defending himself before the Athenian Assembly. The Socratic method, as I understand it, has nothing to do with point scoring, but is a dialogue in which the questioner and the respondent both seek to further their understanding. I don’t think that is possible unless there is a mutual empathy between the participants.

  9. st.joseph says:

    There was a saying years ago’Never argue about politics or religion. So people in those days didn’t discuss it, afraid that it would turn into an argument.
    When I met my husband I was 17 he was 21, his idea of catholics well ‘Wasn’t much’of the right ideas. He listened and learned- we never argued.
    Always came to Church but only became a catholic 3 yrs before he died at 67. After many years of listening to ‘good’ homolies .One might think what I mean by good homolies. I cant say what they are but those who have heard them will know what I mean!
    He was a good kind person who listened to people It was the work he did required it. He taught me maybe more than I taught him- he made me see things from a non-catholic point of view-and how they view catholics.Which really gave me a better understanding of non-catholics .But always knowing that we were in the one True Church!He thought abortion was O.K until he saw a video of the Silent Scream. Ignorance can sometimes obscure the Truth and false Charity takes over, he understood that eventually. Then became a marvellous worker for pro-life.Working to disaffilate a Union from funding abortion. Which my son also did with his University Union 26yrs ago. I maybe would not have the beliefs I have if it wasn’t for his encouragement and Grace of course.or if I had married a catholic. May he R.I.P.

  10. st.joseph says:

    Quentin mentioned when he made his comment, that what we say may help others.
    This may or may not apply when defending their faith, but may help those who are wavering.

    As I said my husband was not a catholic.
    The saying of Sts Paul or Peter I dont remember unless I look it up.It is probably not important as they would have both felt the same I am sure.
    But my husbands life reminded me of this.
    That was -he would run the (course)good race till the end,meeting many obstacles ,taking every jump at a time, and until the next bend takes him home to the winning post. The prize being The Blessed Sacrament. He always believed that if he had enough faith to receive Our Lord and-It was the Real Presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle.I think that was the biggest jump he had to take.
    I hope he is on his way to Heaven now.He had so many people who have died now over the years priest and laity praying that he would become a catholic- even if in Purgatory-he will get their in the end and see The Lord Face to Face.
    It is uncanny that he was never ill until he became a catholic.
    It didn’t make me angry with God, I often wonder why I dont feel that way-some people do, when their loved ones are taken away from them.I
    dont feel that he has gone very far. I thank God for the 53 years He has given him to me since we met A lot longer than some people have with their loved ones. But we believe we will all meet happily in Heaven Hopefully Please God.
    Thank you all for listening to this testimoney of Peter.

  11. Ion Zone says:

    One thing to note with Socrates is the dishonest way he would win debates, which is by corridor-ing the person he is debating until they have no choice but to, effectively, agree with him by agreeing on a hugely insignificant point. For example, you can read about this in The Irrational Atheist (type 301 into the page-number box (top left)):
    .
    http://irrationalatheist.com/files/TheIrrationalAtheist.pdf

  12. Michael Mahoney says:

    I quote from Vox Day, The Irrational Atheist:”Here we reach the weak point in Socrates’ argument, where he reveals the devious and intellectually dishonest aspect of his character.”
    I undertand what a devious aspect of character is, but am baffled by the phrase intellectually dishonest aspect of character.
    However, leaving that aside, perhaps you could explain, Ion Zone, how anyone could possibly know such allegations about a person’s character to be true without actually knowing that person. One presumes Vox Day has not met Socrates.

  13. Ion Zone says:

    (Note) As this site is being moved, several links are broken. You can search for the highlighted text to find articles here:
    .
    .
    http://www.truefreethinker.com/articles/omni-science
    .
    .
    “One of the most pernicious falsehoods
    ever to be almost universally
    accepted is that the scientific method
    is the only reliable way to truth”
    .
    -Professor Richard H. Bube, Stanford University
    .
    .
    “Even if all the data pointed to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”
    .

  14. st.joseph says:

    Ion Zone.You say one of the most pernicious falshoods ever to be universall accepted is that the scientific method is the only reliable way to truth.
    Science is a Gift from God ,and sometimes it is used to find the Truth
    When my husband saw the Silent Scream film of a aborted baby, he soon realised it was a baby.
    When N.F.P knowledge was discoverd by Science-it also brought people to the Truth.
    Obviousley we do better if we have blind Faith-but The Lord helps us along a little, and we thank him for that.
    The discovery that the use of some methods of contraception-cause abortions.
    There have been many Eucharistic Miracles-Now, that needs Faith and other things pertinant.
    Science used for God is good.

  15. st.joseph says:

    Something I heard on E.W.T.N yesterday at the daily Mass homily. It is not science but based more on Faith.And I thought I would mention it for those who havn’t heard it.
    The miners who were trapped , and they were not sure whether they would come out alive.
    33 Rosaries were sent down to them as October is the Month of the Rosary.
    They made a little Altar in a corner of the Mine and each day recited the Rosary of the Blessed Virgn Mary.
    They were supposed to be brought up -around about Christmas.Thank God they were- brought up on the 15th October the last day of the Apparitions at Fatima.Our Lady asked that the Rosary be recited daily for Peace in the World.
    Just a thought!

  16. Ion Zone says:

    The reason I say that I say “one of the most pernicious falsehoods ever to be universally accepted is that the scientific method is the only reliable way to truth.” is an indictment of, both, how those who worship the material-centred scientific method, and scorn religion, scoff at and ignore other disciplines and non-materialistic answers, but also the fact that science thinks it is the only system capable of deriving truth, when it is not. There is a good reason why the humanities and sciences are seen as separate spheres of knowledge and understanding. Science can’t tell you what art is, and it can’t deduce morality.

  17. Upea blogi sulla! En tavallisesti paljoa blogeja seuraa, mutta tällä kertaa kirjoitin osoitteen ylös – oli
    sen verran mielenkiintoista tekstiä. Pidä lippu korkealla
    jatkossakin!

    This is a translation of this contribution. “The magnificent blog you got ! I do not normally follow a lot of blogs, but this time I wrote address up – was so interesting text. Keep the flag flying continue !” from the Finnish.

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