Suggestions for Reasoning with a Skeptic

asfChristianity is a rational faith system, based on evidence of certain historical events which give credence to a particular worldview. But not everyone is ready to use reason and the rules of logic in arriving at conclusions. In many such cases, it is emotion – not reason – that is setting preconditions on what decisions the skeptic is willing to reach.

Some people reject Christianity, for example, because they have never personally experienced a miracle or because they think certain Christian leaders are bad people. These positions find their roots in emotion, not reason, and may stem from many things: early childhood experiences or trauma; a desire to live a life that is unconstrained by restrictions placed from outside; a rebellious nature that simply takes pleasure in bucking the established order. Given human nature, it is exceedingly difficult to use rational arguments to change the mind of someone who is letting emotion cloud their thinking.

Prosecutors preparing to make a case must assess not just the rational aspects of why guilt has been proven, but the emotional aspects that can sway a jury into thinking that a vote of not guilty is the “right thing” to do despite the evidence of guilt. An experienced prosecutor will not willingly take on the challenge of persuading an emotionally-driven skeptic; that’s why jury selection is so critical to success. Weeding out jurors who refuse to be bound by reason, and the rules of logic, is essential if a rational verdict is the goal. Christian apologists don’t have that luxury. If they seek to “make the case” for Christianity – often times with family or close friends – they must consider both the rational and the emotional aspects of their presentation.

A proper sense of humility requires an acknowledgement that often times nothing will work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to breaking through such defenses. But, generally speaking, the head-on approach will not work. A more subtle and perhaps longer term strategy is necessary.

Consider for example the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba. David’s craven behavior in sending Bathsheba’s husband to his death was not something he would have willingly discussed. The prophet Nathan would not have “reasoned” David into seeing his guilt – and his need for repentance. Yet Nathan slips past any emotional defenses by disguising his point. In this way, David is able to see through his denial to the underlying moral issue that was at play. However much David would have rejected the straight-on argument as to his guilt, he could not help but see Nathan’s point when presented in this nuanced way.

Head-on arguments tend to embed people in their original position. But getting them to see their approach from a different perspective can help to dislodge them. Thus, the first step in dealing with someone who rejects the rules of reason is to get them to see just how foolish that position is. This takes some knowledge of the person, his likes and dislikes, and the things he prizes or holds dear. It also takes patience – waiting for the right time to discuss an issue. As in the case of David and Nathan, the apologist must be able to recognize when the other person feels strongly enough about a subject that an apologetic point can be made.

A starting point is to demonstrate the absurdity – and danger – of abandoning reason. Imagine going to a doctor and having him tell you that he won’t be ordering any tests this week because lab tests are unfriendly on even-numbered days. Would you pay a car mechanic who wants to flush the radiator so that the brakes will stop squeaking? Words can be put together to form sentences, but the words ultimately have no meaning if the rules of logic and reason are abandoned. Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty put it best: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean –neither more nor less.” It’s no problem that the words are put to multiple, inconsistent use. “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra.”

The absurdity of this point makes for laughter, but a person who abandons reason needs to see how silly that position really is. Whatever they happen to be saying means only what they want it to mean, regardless of the truth of the underlying situation. This is not an enlightened position to hold.

If you’re dealing with someone who does not care whether his position is enlightened, there probably isn’t much that you can do. Despite their denials, however, they intuitively understand that rules exist for a reason. Try playing poker with them and start changing the rules, so that a pair of threes will beat a royal flush. Or tell them that their bank will start compounding interest in a way that removes money from their account. When the impact on them is direct, as in these examples, they won’t need to be motivated as to the importance of applying the correct rules. They will understand that following the proper rules ensures fair and predictable outcomes.

Rules of thinking – the rules of reason and logic – also exist so that we can arrive at correct conclusions about what our senses perceive. Sloppy thinking can lead to bad outcomes, such as when I conclude that if one aspirin makes me feel better, 20 will make me feel 20 times better. Or when I decide that my lungs should work just fine underwater or my arms can be used as wings. Nature has a nasty way of dealing with people who reject rational thought. Everyone who lives long enough to be an “irrational skeptic” knows this – regardless of whether they will admit it.

The fact is that most people don’t really reject the rules of reason and logic. Instead they reject the conclusions to which those rules may lead them. Understanding this might not make you a better apologist – but it will probably make you a less frazzled one. Sometimes there is nothing that can be done but bide your time, while waiting for the right opportunity to arise.

Posted by Al Serrato

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