Three Ways to Win Every Debate with an Atheist
About a month ago I received the above comment from a gentleman named Tim.* My first reaction was to go and fetch Leila Miller’s post, “Did Jesus really die and rise?” And I thought I’d use an appeal to consistency, and explain how if someone believes Aristotle existed then they have no basis to reject the historical evidence of Jesus’ existence either (never mind that no one in the modern world would even know who Aristotle was if it hadn’t been for the Church’s passion for knowledge, truth, and meticulous preservation of documents). I also thought I might finally get around to finishing reading Robert E. Van Voorst’s book, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, an exhaustively (to put it mildly) referenced 262 page volume that addresses the question at hand.
But then I thought a little more fundamentally about this atheist debate that’s been going on for all time. Frank Sheed’s author page at Ignatius Press says that he noticed a long time ago, and wrote in his 1935 book Training Outlines, that “proof has ceased to be the apologists principal weapon” because first a non-believer “must understand quite clearly what the thing is that you are trying to prove” and then “he must realize that it is important — and important for him.” And finally: “He must want it.” (page 15)
This is true of any acquired knowledge; this is scientific. One must know his criteria for determining the truth of propositions, he must understand what he opposes, and he must want to learn the new knowledge. This is where freethinkers fail time and time again. So, here’s three ways to win every debate with an atheist. I think these three things need to be remembered. Have fun debating, but use this to stay grounded.
1. Demand that they define what constitutes proof. This is a very philosophical question, but if it’s not answered, you will waste time presenting evidence that will only be rejected because you’ll be aiming for a moving target. In any science, consistent definitions of axioms matter. Once “proof” is defined, then you’ll know what to offer as proof. It’s not that Catholicism offers no proof for its dogma, the Church has dealt with this question of proof for all time and answered it thoroughly. The problem is, an atheist will come to the debate unaware of any of it and will have already predetermined that no proof exists. This is a very fair thing to require – define proof, define your terms. This will require an examination of logical proofs and deduction, will demand ultimately some admission that not everything is proven by sensory evidence. If there is no knowable thing higher than what can be sensed (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch), then there is no higher science than basic physics. And that is not true. This requires a great deal of honesty. Win!
2. Insist that they articulate the Church’s position accurately. St. Thomas in Summa Contra Gentiles (Book One, Chapter 9-12) advises that teaching of the arguments that make Divine Truth known should be for the training and consolation of the faithful, not to refute adversaries. It will strengthen them in their error since they will not understand, and they will therefore conclude that faith is based on weak arguments. We only need to demonstrate that faith is reasonable, and, using scripture and reference to Church documents, explain the logical process if asked. So rather than getting lost in the futile effort to refute the atheist’s bashing of straw-god after straw-god (i.e. theological strawman fallacies) based on an atheistic idea of what God really is (yeah, think about that), invite them to study the Church documents and help them to reflect the meaning accurately. Insist on nothing less and be glad! The Church has been at this for 2,000+ years and you will have begun to swim around in the beauty of the faith with your atheist opponent. This requires a great deal of thought. Win! Win!
3. Offer a prayer for every answer your atheist friend gives. Remember, God wins, God has already won so don’t worry about backing away if the atheist refuses to acknowledge what constitutes proof, or if he refuses to even try to sincerely understand what he’s arguing against. We are all God’s creation and He has a Divine plan we cannot comprehend fully. Christ suffered, died, and rose again for the salvation of all people. Be grateful you are engaging with a searching soul who identifies as someone who lacks a belief in God even as he searches for Him in the scientific, human art of debate. This is an opportunity for prayer and evangelization. Win! Win! Win!
*My good friend Stuart at eChurch Blog emailed me later with a little confession that he and Tim were in on this together as a little trick. This is probably not what they were expecting, but I hope it’s a start. If anyone’s read the Voorst book, I’d love to hear from you.