It’s been said that the beauty of argument is that if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong. That’s true perhaps, but as the poet George Herbert has mused, when arguing without calmness, “fierceness makes error a fault, and truth discourtesy.”
Here’s the point: While anyone can make an argument, a persuasive arguer is not merely one who tells the truth. He is skilled also at marshaling evidence, anticipating objections, composing syllogisms—and he does it with charm. His charisma makes his partner want to hear him out, and what is more, take him seriously.
Now, here’s a grim reality very apparent and inevitably true: You may be the world’s most persuasive debater, but there will always be those for whom your every utterance —however true, charming, eloquent, and compelling—will be as vomit. These outliers we might call the Resistant.
As apologists for the Christian faith, then, how might we efficaciously engage the Resistant?
Here are three options for your consideration.
Walk away and pray.
Refusing to proceed with or even enter into an argument is not always a bad choice. Even for the great G.K. Chesterton not every fight was worth having. Although he frequently enjoyed sparring publicly with clever rivals like George Bernard Shaw, Clarence Darrow, and Bertrand Russell, Chesterton was not afraid—when he deemed it most wise—to walk away.
For instance, Chesterton showed an uncommon reticence to engage with the writer and occultist Aleister Crowley. After reviewing a poem written by the infamous Crowley, Chesterton was challenged by the poet to publicly debate the issues raised in the review. Chesterton obstinately refused. Why? Likely because in Crowley he saw a transposed likeness of “The Diabolist,” in whom evil was found to have a life of its own. Chesterton thus thought it best to keep his distance, both for spiritual safety and to prevent giving further public exposure to Crowley.
Like Chesterton, we need to identify such times when our wisest option is avoidance. When interacting with the Resistant we may see no sign of them hearing us. Indeed, we may see no sign of them hearing themselves. In such cases, and for a variety of reasons, walking away may be both wise and prudent. Other times, we may discern it best not to walk in the direction of the Resistant in the first place.
This is not to say that we should do nothing in such cases. There’s always the less invasive spiritual approach to employ: prayer. Intercede for the Resistant. Invite the saints, and especially their guardian angels, to do the same. By doing this we submit the Resistant to the mercy, timing, and tactics of God, and let go of control.
Plant a pebble.
Contrary to the impression YouTube may give you, the point of effective arguing is not to “destroy” your opponent. This is not to say, however, that all bad arguments should be left undestroyed. Remember St. Paul’s battle cry: “We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
To compel with argument and “destroy” objections whilst maintaining the goodwill (or at least upholding the dignity) of one’s opponent is an art. But that’s what it takes to be formidably persuasive. Affronting, scathing, or condescending speech risks a complete shutdown of serious dialogue, potentially moving the affected intellects from clear thinking to emotional sniping. It may even lead to a blunt refusal to continue the exchange, jeopardizing any chance for resolution.
Your best option may be to offer small, stimulating points to ponder. Apologist Greg Koukl likens this tactic to putting a pebble in the shoe of the other. The goal is to humbly but powerfully offer an interesting insight that will penetrate through the irrational shell to the intellectual core. We want to offer “pebbles” that will unsettle those who disagree with us, even mildly irritate them, that in private they may find themselves staring off into the cosmos musing to themselves: “Maybe it is true!”
Not every contentious person is actually interested in having a long, serious argument. It may be more tactful in such carefully discerned cases to offer a pebble or two—then walk away and pray.
There will be times when a vigorous exchange of arguments and counterarguments will be merited.
But wait a second. How is a productive debate even possible with an interlocutor afflicted by deep-seated resistance or irrationality? Well, just because someone is excruciatingly impervious does not mean that they can’t be argued with to some avail. This is what we need to tease out.
How, then, should the Resistant be argued with? Here are a few suggestions:
A) Start where you agree. Sometimes mental resistance stems from hostility, which can fog the mind. Though there is almost never an instant fix to this, one helpful tactic can be to shed light on common ground—that is, to start by fostering unity rather than division. Jordan Peterson did this in his much-watched debate with atheist Sam Harris: he began by pointing out what he and Harris already agreed upon. Done well, this tactic sets a congenial tone right at the outset, dampening negative emotions and eliciting active listening from both parties.
B) Become well-acquainted with common logical fallacies. Logic is a fine art. It’s hard to do well, particularly as critical thinking goes untaught. Nevertheless, when we engage with those who appear to have lost all sense of reasonableness, the logical fallacies they will most frequently commit may almost be predicted. One likely error—sometimes intentional and sometimes not—is the straw man fallacy, in which an interlocuter will distort or misrepresent your argument to such a degree that it becomes a caricature and much easier to refute.
Another common mistake is the ad hominem (Latin for “to the man”), which is the attempt to turn an argument by critiquing the arguer in a personal way, rather than the argument. This may happen in a number of ways: by attacking an opponent’s moral character, her motivations, his hypocritical behaviors, or even his association with other negatively viewed people or things. These critiques might all be true: but they are a misdirection; they say nothing about the argument itself.
One more fallacy to watch out for is the genetic fallacy. This happens when a claim is rejected because of its origin. A common genetic fallacy committed by atheists is the claim that Christian belief is to be rejected on the grounds that if one was born in, say, Morocco, he would be a Muslim instead. One’s religious convictions are then dismissed as mere propinquity—relative to where they live. But the likelihood of a person being brought up as a Christian versus a Muslim has nothing to do with whether Christianity or Islam is true. That’s a separate question. Again, appealing to a belief’s origin is a slippery misdirection. It’s the belief itself that’s on trial—not how it came to be.
C) Become well-acquainted with common rhetorical tricks. Sloganeering is perhaps the most familiar consideration in this regard. People today have a tendency to clasp on to pithy sayings and assertions, and proclaim them confidently, as though they are self-evident to all—that is to say, as though their slogans are so obviously true that anyone who opposes them is hopelessly idiotic or, in some cases, morally bankrupt.
G.K. Chesterton critiques this tendency in Orthodoxy when he writes, “Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true.”
The problem is not that all slogans are false. The problem is that many slogans are false, including popularly held ones. Business slogans are often meant to coerce, not to teach about reality: Is Disneyland the happiest place on earth? Is Maxwell House coffee good to the last drop? Are Wheaties the breakfast of champions? Should we always just do it? Probably not. Again, to hearken back to Chesterton: “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
So the next time an internet infidel steeped in radical, unreflective scientism announces to you, “There’s no evidence for God!” be sure to press him on his slogan, demanding more than a mere maxim: “What kind of evidence, kind sir, are we talking about here?” If he demands scientific evidence, you’ve found your fallacy (i.e., category mistake). If he says philosophical evidence, then you’ve got yourself an argument probably worth having.
What happens to apologetics when we find ourselves in an encounter with the eminently resistant? It depends.
Sometimes our best move will be to create or maintain distance between ourselves and our critics. Other times some tactful though subtle argumentation may be best, the placing of a pebble in our intellectual opponents’ shoes—but nothing more. And in some cases, an all-out intellectual sparring match may be called for. For there are some among the Resistant who are more easily disarmed than you imagine, who don’t know they’re committing logical fallacies, who don’t know how ill-nuanced the slogans are that they hold. You might be the first one to show them their unreasonableness. Then again, you might be the hundredth, but the first to meet with any success.
Whatever the future holds, the time is now for preparing to make a defense of the hope that is within you. That’s St. Peter’s command to us all (1 Pet. 3:15). But we should also never forget that without prayer, wisdom, and discernment, all intellectual preparation is futile.
Painting: Albert Edelfelt, Women Outside the Church at Ruokolahti / Women of Ruokolahti on the Church Hill, 1887.