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.