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Keeping Cool in Apologetics Conversations

It can be tempting to bring the heat when defending Christ and his Church against infuriating arguments (and obnoxious personalities). Our guest, Trent Horn, has developed a reputation for turning down the heat while remaining firm in the truth. He shares some of his secrets with us.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers Podcast for living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and we have one of the world’s best Catholic podcasters and YouTubers, authors and defenders of the faith with us to talk about how you keep cool in apologetics, discussions, conversations, back and forth, debates, all those things that we want to engage in, that we need to engage in order to explain and defend the faith, but they can become heated pretty quickly.

Our guest is Trent Horn apologist here at Catholic Answers the author of Why We Are Catholic and many other books, and the podcaster and YouTuber behind the Council of Trent. Hello Trent.

Trent Horn:

Howdy, Cy.

Cy Kellett:

Congratulations on being one of the world’s most important Catholic podcasters and YouTubers.

Trent Horn:

I’m probably the world’s most important Catholic YouTuber who shares a homonym with a ecumenical council.

Cy Kellett:

You think so? Even more than Bob Vatican Blue, that guy?

Trent Horn:

No, there is a Fred Lateran. He has a channel with about 40 subscribers. This is the fourth podcast he’s tried to start. So he calls it Lateran Four podcast. It’s his fourth time trying to get the channel off the ground.

Cy Kellett:

And the whole Calcedon family, they’ve been producing Catholic podcasts. All right, enough of that. Trent, here’s the deal. Before I get into how to remain irenic, and by the way, irenic I think is the first fancy word I ever learned as a child, and I’ve used it pretty much every day since. So how to remain irenic, peaceful when the heat gets turned up. But I want to start with the question, why remain irenic? Actually, you get more clicks if you don’t. If you go a little more oh, I don’t know. What’s that guy on now? I forgot Beck. What’s his name? The radio guy?

Trent Horn:

Glenn Beck?

Cy Kellett:

Glenn Beck. Yeah. If you go a little more Glenn Beck, you get a little angrier.

Trent Horn:

Or crying over your Christmas sweater is another way to get attention.

Cy Kellett:

I forgot about that. Or just go a little bit more hot and actually people respond to that. So why are you trying so hard to be irenic?

Trent Horn:

Well, I’m trying hard to be peaceful because Jesus Christ calls us to be. He’s the Prince of peace. We are called to be peacemakers, to make peace in the world. Now, that doesn’t mean that we just withdraw from the world and not say anything controversial. Jesus also said, “I came not to bring peace but a sword.” So there’s a bit of a paradox there as we find in many of Jesus’s teachings that he came to give an over lasting overwhelming peace, but sometimes peace can only be achieved through engaging conflict. So I try to walk a fine line with that. It’s interesting you bring up the word irenic, that comes from the Greek word for peace. If you’re reading the New Testament, when it refers to peace, it uses the word irene, which comes from the ancient Greek goddess of peace. That’s what it’s named after.

So yeah, to be irenic, to be peaceful, this is someone who doesn’t stoke controversy for controversy’s sake or they see controversy in fighting. It is something that is foreseen but not intended. So I would understand that. Right now I’m actually getting my travel arrangements together later in the month to go and do a talk at a Catholic university. And I have seen some of the students I’ve been posting online talking about wanting to protest me. I only get protests. I only get protests at Catholic universities by the way. I go speak to public university. Nobody cares but Kathy, how could our faculty committed to a Catholic vision invite someone from Catholic Answers who’s openly transphobic?

Cy Kellett:

Really?

Trent Horn:

Yes, the students said I was openly transphobic because I said that men and women are different and men can’t become women.

Cy Kellett:

And they believe that, that you are? Okay, but my question is serious in this regard because we get a lot of people who say, “Well, you need to fight more, that you’re not angry enough about Pope Francis. You’re not angry enough about the people who are angry about Pope Francis.” This kind of, I don’t know, there’s a kind of hatred of moderation of any sort as if any kind of moderating of discussion is somehow copping out from the seriousness of these times.

Trent Horn:

Right. There is a kernel of truth to the accusation that when people say, “Oh, you’re not angry enough about X.” It is possible to not be angry when you ought to be. Anger itself is not a bad thing. Righteous anger is a good thing. So it’s interesting in Ephesians 4:26, Paul says, “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” And I love that advice. “Be angry, but don’t sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” So when we come across something that is a clear injustice or evil, anger is the emotion we feel when injustice is present, when something is not right, when something needs to be set right. And so anger motivates us to act in that way. I think the danger becomes when you let anger get out of hand, it’s like a fire.

Fire is a good thing. It allows the human race to survive. So fire heats our food, cooks our food, heats our homes. But of course, as we all know, fire can easily get out of hand. If you let it grow too large and uncontrolled, it’ll burn your whole house down. It can burn a whole city or burn down a whole forest. So our re has to be controlled that way. So you’re right, there is an extreme, if we were talking about the Holocaust and I said, “Well, there are two sides to every story and let’s not be overly rash.” That would itself be sinful to have that. You don’t have to bothsides-ism is everything or be overly moderate and lack anger towards anything.

But on the other hand, I think many people when they want anger, they just want someone else to validate their own sense of feelings, what they have about something. “Oh good, he’s angry too. He cares about it”, or they enjoy the hysterics. Or there’s something, when you watch someone who’s very angry and passionate, it raises your cortisol levels, the stress hormones inside you, it can become almost exciting to watch and be a part of that. And that excitement in the brain, what it does to you, it can be kind of addictive. People get addicted to that kind of commentary because it raises their blood pressure, their heart beats faster. So I do have a concern that subconsciously that’s what some people are seeking when they want to listen to people who are angry, not necessarily shouting either.

There are some Catholic commenters I have seen who do not shout, but they stoke anger by saying very cruel, overly harsh, overly simplistic, slanderous, calumnious accusations towards other people all while saying it in a very moderate tone. They sound like they’re just having a nice little chat with you. They’re not yelling or anything like that, but they are stoking anger with the things that they’re saying and their failure to appreciate all the aspects of the issue under consideration.

So what I try to do is look at an issue and be honest. Just be honest and say, “This upsets me, this angers me. Here’s something else to consider about it.” But I think that that’s what’s important here when we’re talking about these issues to say, “Okay, here are the facts. Here’s what we can understand from them. Here’s what we can draw from them.” The more you stick to the facts and avoid opinion that’s just inflammatory, you stick to the facts and you go to consequences that can be reasonably inferred, not wildly speculated. I think it allows you to have a better emotional handle on the things you’re talking about.

Cy Kellett:

Well, one of the hardest things that I have seen you do, and I’ve been with you many times when we do the show, why are you pro-choice? And some of the things that I have heard people say during the why are you pro-choice shows they’re very hard to listen to, very hard to listen to. I mean, first of all, there’s the accusatory approach. I’ve always loved the, “Why are two men talking about this?” And where you feel like, “Why are you trying to make me justify myself before we can have a conversation about a topic?” But you don’t get mad at people, even when they’re saying insane things. I will never forget the young woman who said whether murder was right or wrong depended on what country you’re in because it depends on what their values are in that country.

Trent Horn:

And it’s easy to be angry about that. But honestly, how to avoid anger in those situations, there’s a few different elements that I employ, things that I focus on. So first I think having a solid prayer life, being close to God. God is the one who ultimately gives us peace. So the closer you are to him, the more you can share his peace with other people. So I think that that’s incredibly important. Jesus says in John 15, “I am the vine. You are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” So I think it’s very important for us to keep that in mind. I’d say that’s the number one.

Number two, I think what’s really helpful to maintain your piece in those difficult conversations is to recognize the other person as not some kind of just an enemy, a one-dimensional enemy, but to have a sense of pity on those who have been ensnared by lies or deception, who say these things who are even saying very hurtful things to you to know this is someone that the devil has ensnared. This is someone who has been captured by lies, by the father of lies. And to take pity upon that person and pray to God that you can engage them well to free them from these kinds of snares.

The third thing would be practice. Practice makes perfect and allows you to not be angry and emotional. I find that people get emotional in these situations when they don’t have a lot of practice or experience sharing the faith or defending the faith in these kinds of conversations. So what can end up happening is they hear something brand new and it startles them. So to hear somebody say, to hear someone espouse moral relativism for the first time, if you’ve never heard moral relativism before, it would be just quite shocking. But if you’ve lived in a culture where you’ve heard for decades, just imagine someone who is raised in the ultimate sheltered environment and then they go out in the world and it’s emotional and tiring. It would be so exhausting to see debauchery, relativism, awful things for the first time.

But then the more you get used to it, the less it has that hammer in the face kind of feel to you. So you’re able to handle when you see these difficult things. “Oh yes, I’m familiar with that.” So it comes to experience, experience with the evils that you are engaging. The evil ideas, I should say. Experience with your own arguments, so experience that I know my faith, I know the arguments for and against. Other people get angry in conversations because they’re defensive. They’ve heard these arguments and they don’t know how to answer them. And so they get defensive because they don’t know how to answer and they start to get angry as a result to try to deflect. So I think that’s the other way we have to look at it is that a lot of times an anger in a conversation is a projection that the thing you’re really mad about is that you just can’t answer this person and you don’t want to say you can’t answer them.

That would seem to admit defeat when rather you can just say, “That’s a really good question, I would like to think about that more. I know people have looked into it more than me. Let me look into it and get back to you.” And when you do it like that, you don’t have to worry about being on your toes and answering something. To make an analogy as I often do with martial arts for example, whether it’s boxing or grappling or anything like that. Or honestly, if you just end up, if you’re in a situation, it doesn’t have to be martial arts, it can be anything that feels there’s an element of danger. You’ve never been in it before. If you go skydiving or bungee jumping or even when you’re a kid diving off the high board. Remember when you’re a kid and you first went up to the big diving board and you’re just like, “Oh, I can’t do this”?

But after you’ve jumped off a hundred times, it’s fun. You can have fun with it. Whereas the first time you jump, the first few times you jump off, you’re nervous is all can be. It’s the same when I started doing martial arts and I’m grappling with people, the very first times that I was started, I had no idea what I’m doing. So I’m panicked, I’m struggling, I’m scared, I’m overusing my energy. But the more you do it, you realize, “Oh, I’ve been in this situation before. I know what to do. I’m familiar with this.” I think that also helps to avoid the angry response, because it allows to control your own internal sense of panic in those situations really.

Cy Kellett:

So prayer and practice, did I miss one? I thought you said you have to be rooted in prayer because look, nobody can do this disconnected from Jesus. You said you need to practice.

Trent Horn:

And there was two elements of practice or exposure. So one would just be being exposed to what the world offers as best as you’re able to receive it. And the other is to be exposed to what the church offers. What do we believe? Why do we believe it? So when you are familiar with the arguments and the answers, people say, “I’d be so nervous being on Catholic Answers Live, and someone calls and says, where’s purgatory in the Bible? I would just freeze up. I’d be so nervous.” And say, “Yeah, well, if you were a Catholic Answers Apologist and have heard where is purgatory in the Bible like 8,000 times, you’re not nervous anymore.” If anything, you’re thinking what’s a fun way I can answer this that I haven’t done before?

Cy Kellett:

Yes, and I see you guys do that sometimes where I’m like, “Oh, now we’re going at this on a path I’ve never followed before.” I sometimes almost think you guys are entertaining yourselves. Like, “Yeah, I’ve answered this 8,000 times. Let me try coming at it from this angle.”

Trent Horn:

But that’s what happens. And it’s the same thing with anyone else who becomes skilled in an art. I used martial arts as an example, but you could use any kind of art would apply. Let’s say even cooking for example. The first time you cook dishes, you’ll probably follow the recipe to the letter because you’re so scared of the souffle collapsing. You’re like, “Okay, I got to make sure I get everything right.” And then when you’ve been cooking the same thing 500 times, you think, “Maybe an extra egg might be nice, or I might try this spice instead. I’m just going to completely change up the presentation, but I’m going to get the same materials and this is going to work well.”

And it’s because you understand the fundamentals. Another analogy that I would give for keeping your cool in a situation, when you’re talking about the faith, the fact when you know the faith backwards and forwards, the catechism arguments people give and the data set you can play with it. It’s similar to how if you’re learning a musical instrument and you’re asked to go to a recital when you’re a kid.

I do think though I’m kind of peeved. In the original draft of the Geneva Convention, they prohibited exposing prisoners of war to recorder recitals. It was deemed a cruel and inhuman torture to make someone listen to the recorder. But I don’t think it made it into the final draft because one of the draftees’ kids was upset about that. But when you’re a kid and you do that Hot Cross Buns and you’re trying to do the recital and you’re just so nervous that you want to hit all of the right notes, you’re scared to deviate from the notes. But if you’re really great at not, I don’t know anyone great at the recorder, but piano or guitar or trumpet.

Cy Kellett:

Or pan flute.

Trent Horn:

Yeah, if you are really great at it, you know the basics so well, you would be bored playing the basics. You can improvise and have fun with it. And that’s what I think people can see when they see, we engage in conversations on Catholic Answers Live or we’re in debates or whatever it may be. If you know the material very well, when you engage in interlocutor, you can have fun with it. You can try a different approach, you can improvise, and that makes it just a good experience for everyone all around.

Cy Kellett:

So what do you do when you feel you haven’t done a good job? When maybe you kind of feel like I blew it. There’s that thing about, “What I should have said was”, which is actually the story of my entire life.

Trent Horn:

Absolutely.

Cy Kellett:

“What I should have said was.” So what do you do with all that?

Trent Horn:

I usually drown my sorrows in a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s with extra fake cheese, just actually that is a tradition. When I’m done with debate, it doesn’t matter how well I did or didn’t do. When I’m done with the debate, I’m always just really hungry. I feel like my brain consumed a lot of calories in that experience. And so when I’m done with it, I always say, I got to go. I want, oh, when I do, the problem is this or here’s why I’m hungry.

Now I promise I will get to the answer you’re really looking for. But this is still important. When I do a debate, before the debate, I have a very light meal, so I’m usually just going to have some kind of a salad with a light protein. You don’t want to go into a debate with a Double Double in your stomach, you just got from McDonald’s or In and Out or something like that. So I’ll eat something light and healthy before the debate. So when the debate’s over and I got nothing to lose anymore and it’s just I’m ready to go to bed, then I’ll hit the heavy duty stuff just to feel good and pass out basically.

Cy Kellett:

So there is some emotion involved in this for you. I mean.

Trent Horn:

Absolutely.

Cy Kellett:

That’s interesting.

Trent Horn:

Absolutely. I’ve done debates where I feel like, “Ah, that didn’t go the way I really would’ve hoped, or I should have said this, I shouldn’t have said that.” Always there, always there. And I always go through a predictable cycle my wife has to suffer through. I’ll say, “I think that went well.” Then a day later, “That went terrible. I’m such a dummy, why did I say that? I shouldn’t do any more debates.” And then a week later I’ll say, “I think I gave it my best. And I think that’s what’s important, and I still think it overall went well” and this or that. So look, if you feel that way when you talk to people about the faith. Listen, I’ve been on that roller coaster after every debate I do. Well, at least most debates, some of them where it’s just a hopeless opponent, I just feel bad.

The only time I don’t feel that way is just if it was somebody who was so unprepared, it wasn’t even a fair fight. I feel bad in those situations. So with someone who’s a skilled debater, they’re going to get their shots in, they’re going to make good points too. And so you just have to say, “Okay, you know what? It’s not about me. It’s just not about me. God is the one who has the victory. He’s given me the task to share the faith, and he’s set up situations where maybe what’s important here is that I learn what’s better to do the next time.” But ultimately just to trust in him and not inflate your own ego. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about me. So when you’re in those situations, you be like, “Ah, I really blew it.”

Well, what you really pray for is that you blow it. I think it is better, it is always better to make an academic mistake than a moral mistake. I’d rather have someone who doesn’t know the arguments super well, but comes off extremely kind in a debate versus someone who knows the Catholic arguments well, but they’re just a huge jerk. I feel like that pushes people away even more, that people will just be so repulsed by that and have hardened hearts towards what the speaker is saying. Whereas someone doesn’t, their academics or their knowledge of the arguments might be faulty. Other people might say, “I really like that guy. I really love him. Maybe he was having not a great day. Or maybe there’s other better arguments out there.” It’s easier to replace bad arguments with good arguments than it is to replace a bad impression from an obnoxious apologist with a good one.

Cy Kellett:

That’s a very good point. Yeah. I want to ask you about the role of questions in what you do as well, because I find that a lot of times the argument the other person is making, especially in the pro-life debate, but often sometimes in the debate about the faith as well, is not actually an argument. It’s more of either an accusation or an obfuscation, or let me throw this up there.

For example, in the life, if you want to argue, make the pro-life argument and the person says, “I’m sick of people just wanting to control women’s bodies.” And you’re like, “Wait, that’s not at all what we were talking about.” Do you see what I’m saying? So that I’ve seen you use questions to kind of turn the thing back into a conversation.

Trent Horn:

Exactly. Or a lot of times people will put forward an assertion with a conclusion embedded in the assertion and people will just respond against the assertion. So someone might say maybe in a Catholic Protestant or dialogue, and in a Protestant will say, “The Bible never says that we’re supposed to pray to saints.” And a Catholic might say, “Oh, well look here in Revelation chapter five, it says that the angels carry the prayers of saints to the heaven”, this and that.

Whereas maybe you need to take a step back and say, “One, how do you know that? Two, well, why does that matter? Or even further back, are you saying Catholics pray to saints? What do you mean by that? Oh, do you just mean they ask the saints to pray for them or to intercede for them? You’re saying the Bible never tells us to do that. Well, are you saying that all of our prayers, the kinds of prayers we make as Christians have to be found in the Bible?”

And then I sometimes like to ask here, “Does anyone in the Bible ever pray directly to the Holy Spirit? Like come Holy Spirit fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love?” So notice what I’m doing there is by asking questions, I’m drilling down to the core of what they believe and challenge it rather than have to argue with them on their own terms of what they think is the core issue that’s in dispute.

Cy Kellett:

But there does come a point I’ve noticed with you where the questioning has run its course because the person is, what do you call it, Lily padding or just-

Trent Horn:

Yes, I’ve called it Lily padding. You could also call it leapfrogging. Like someone in a conversation, you’ll refute one argument. They’ll jump to the next argument, like a frog jumps to a neighboring Lily pad. When that starts sinking, they jump to another one and they’re just going in a circle, going from argument to argument, and they’re not really in a position to want to have a fair-minded discussion or you’ve covered all of the points and there’s nothing to really go over anymore. And that’s when you might have to say, “Maybe we should pause what we’re discussing now and let this sit, and if you want to return to it in the future, I’m happy to do that.” There is a time and a place for everything.

Cy Kellett:

And you actually do enjoy this though. I think a lot of people, I’ve heard people say, “I wish I could be like Trent Horn. I wish I would not lose my cool.” You do have kind of a reputation for that, but I wonder if part of that is not a little bit of stubbornness on your part, almost like taking pleasure in the fact that you’re not losing your cool. You know you have this skill and so you kind of, you’re-

Trent Horn:

Well, I think it might also just be a temperament. Some people it’s going to come more naturally to others. I think I have a more detached temperament. So there are different temperaments people have. Some are more extroverted, unpredictable, energetic. My temperament is a lot more predictable, lower energy. So if you are a “hothead”, if you’re someone who has that kind of a temperament where you’re more likely to be animated, then it can be much harder to keep your cool. So for somebody like me, it might just come a little more natural. It doesn’t mean I’m always that way, and sometimes I purposely do. By the way, as we talked about moderation before, sometimes I do purposely lose my cool because I feel like it’s justified.

When I did the debate on prostitution and pornography with Destiny and Jasmine and Lila Rose was my co debater on the whatever podcast, I showed them that their worldview can’t show that acts of bestiality are wrong, and Destiny just tried to bite the bullet and act very cool and say, “Well, how can you say that having relations with an animal is wrong?”

I said, “Because it goes against human nature.” And he said, “Well, I’m not religious, so I just don’t see that.” We had been going at it animatedly for about two hours. And he said, “Well, I’m not religious.” And I said, “No, you’re not sane. You’re an insane person if you think human animal relations are not wrong.” Of course I yelled it and I was animated, but I purposely did that because at some point when someone is arguing that something so obviously wrong isn’t a big deal, sometimes you have to just drop the hammer on that. And it could be a wide variety of things you just have to say, I would probably have the same reaction. I’ve seen Muslim apologists on the internet defend consummated child marriage at the age of six or seven, and I’d probably have the same animated reply to them.

But in general, you learn, and I was talking with my wife about this, she said, “When you talk and you engage and do your talks and things like that”, she said, “How do you do that?” And I said, “Well, when I’m speaking about something, I also devote a part of my mind to thinking about what I’m going to say next.” And she said, “I can’t do that. I just blurt it out. I don’t have that little voice in there before I blurt it out.” And that’s a skill one has to develop over time that you can keep a cool in a situation if you’re able to think in your head, thinking before you speak. And if you can’t think while you’re speaking, then just stop talking. Look wistfully, tend to the middle distance. Think and then say something.

Cy Kellett:

The technique I’m looking-

Trent Horn:

It’s also called the Black Panther approach.

Cy Kellett:

Does the Black Panther do that?

Trent Horn:

He is the master staring off into the middle distance before he says something.

Cy Kellett:

I’ll have to watch Black Panther again.

Trent Horn:

You’ll see.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Well, I appreciate you doing this with us, Trent, because I do think a lot of people are afraid to have conversations because they believe they will not be able to kind of keep cool. I think there’s a lot of people who are afraid of losing their cool, either losing their cool in the sense, like you said, of panicking or in the sense of getting mad at people.

Trent Horn:

Right, absolutely. So I think that if we can just maintain that attitude focused on God, developing, this is a skill one has to develop the more you talk to people in real life. By the way, everything I’ve said is dealt with verbal exchanges, real conversations. When you start engaging people on Twitter or Reddit threads when you’re writing, a lot of that goes out the window because you lose the basic social conventions because you’re no longer speaking to another person, and you’ll write things. Tone can’t be seen in the words. That’s why I’m very hesitant to engage people solely in social media based text applications.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, I agree with you. I don’t want to do that on social media. I imagine there are people who are skilled at it and can do it, but if you’re not, don’t, because there is no tone of voice, there is no facial expression, there is nothing to give context to what you’re saying. Trent Horn, I always enjoy talking with you. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Trent Horn:

Thank you for having me on, Cy.

Cy Kellett:

And check out Trent’s work at, you can go to TrentHornPodcast.com, you can just search Trent Horn on YouTube. Millions and millions of people love watching Trent on YouTube, and you will too. Wherever you listen to this podcast, if you would be kind enough to give us the five stars and write a comment or two about what you find valuable in this podcast, it helps to grow the podcast.

If you’d like to support us financially, we do need your help to keep doing what we do. And you can do that at GiveCatholic.com. And as always, maybe you want to comment on this program or you have an idea for a future conversation or a future guest, whatever it is. If you’d like to communicate with us, focus@Catholic.com is our email address. Focus@Catholic.com.

I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Thanks for being with us. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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