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Dear visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

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How to Approach an Intelligent Skeptic

Skepticism may be defined as that attitude of the mind that advises us to reject any unaccustomed statement. By unaccustomed I mean “that which the hearer does not happen to have acquaintance with, so that it jars with that conception of reality which he has formed through his experience.”

In thus defining skepticism, I do not include the larger meaning of the term, which extends it to doubt one’s own existence or the existence of any reality outside one’s own mind. I am talking of only what might be called “natural skepticism,” the twin to “natural religion,” the skepticism normal to the human mind. This skepticism is eminently sane; it is native to our race and necessary to the preservation of it and of the individual. For to accept habitually any absurd affirmation—as that it would be safe to jump out of a fourth-story window because one was being prayed for—would lead to immediate disaster.

I insist at the outset on this natural and healthy character in human skepticism, because it is the foundation of the thesis I desire to propose, which is this: that those who would present the truths of the faith to those unacquainted with the process by which we come to hold them must not only take natural skepticism for granted, but must respect it. What is more, we of the faith do well to safeguard in ourselves this robust and healthy quality, for in the absence or weakness of it we may come to accept nonsense even in sacred things, and, what is perhaps worse, we shall weaken our reasoning faculty.

The truths propounded upon the authority of the Church consist in part of what we may expect any average man to accept, for they consist in part of truths consonant with common experience—as, for instance, the Catholic truth that right and wrong are realities, not pathetic illusions.

But a great number of Catholic truths—and the Catholic system as a whole, based as it is upon mysteries and particularly upon the supreme mystery of the Incarnation—cannot be accepted as a matter of course by those to whom it is unfamiliar. To expect them to do so—even to expect them not to be hostile—is much more unnatural on the part of one who believes than is the skepticism of one who does not.

In our approach to the task of convincing the skeptic we must begin by distinguishing between two kinds of skepticism, which do not merge one into the other by gradual degrees, but which are totally distinct in kind, and which may be called stupid skepticism and intelligent skepticism.

Stupid skepticism is that denial of an unaccustomed statement that is based upon an undefined but nonetheless real belief that the hearer is possessed of universal knowledge. It is a common error in our day. The test of this kind of skepticism (which, like other manifestations of stupidity, presents a formidable obstacle to human conversation) is the misuse of the word reason.

When a man tells you that it “stands to reason” that such and such a thing, to which he is unaccustomed, cannot have taken place, his remark has no intellectual value whatever. Not only would he be unable to analyze his “reasons” for rejecting the statement, he would, if pressed, be bound to give you motives based upon mere emotion. For instance, if a man tells you it “stands to reason” that a just God could not allow men to lose their souls, he suffers from the skepticism of the stupid.

The skepticism proceeding from intelligence is of an exactly opposite nature.

Intelligence may be measured by the capacity of separating categories. The man who confuses infallibility with impeccability is less intelligent than the man who does not. Likewise, a man who distinguishes between infallibility exercised upon a positive affirmation and infallibility exercised in advising discretion is more intelligent than a man who cannot so distinguish.

When infallible authority bids us not to be certain on an uncertainty, it is using its function in one way. When it affirms a specific certitude it is using its function in another. Thus an authority denying the present certitude of man’s terrestrial origin and who says, “We are not fixed upon the way in which man came to be what he certainly is—quite distinct from other animals,” is saying one thing. The same authority affirming the certitude of original sin is saying something quite different.

It is right in each case, but right in a different particular. In the first statement there is not positive pronouncement on the origin of man, but only a pronouncement that, at present, this origin is not known. In the second statement there is a.positive pronouncement that man suffers from a special taint incurred at the (undefined) origin of his kind. The man who sees the distinction is more intelligent than a man who mixes up the two pronouncements.

The approach to intelligent skepticism is to make clear to the opposing mind what is the nature of that conviction which has settled our own minds. In this, as it seems to me, there are three successive stages to be undertaken at the outset.

The first of these stages is to make clear what the Catholic system is. For you must remember that in the first place the intelligent skeptic whom we approach does not, as a rule, know the full body of Catholic doctrines. In the second place, he usually regards those which he does know (even if he is familiar with a great number) as disconnected statements not belonging to one being—not a living system spreading from a single root and inspired by a single essence but a bundle of dead sticks.

The skeptic whom you approach must first appreciate that the thing he is asked to examine is what it is: an organism endowed with a life, having a character and savor of its own, a personality above all undoubtedly and wholly one. Next he must be shown that its judgments fit exactly to the whole range of man’s being, which it at once explains, enlarges, and rectifies. He must be presented with the faith as that which demonstrably enlarges and (in the judgment of those who hold it) explains human life, which gives that life its rationale and sanely guides and maintains its health.

Not till all this has been done can you proceed to the second stage of instruction, which I take to be this: the postulating of mystery. In becoming acquainted with the faith as the most reasonably human of things, he must also come across its mysteries, which at first he cannot accept. There is that supreme foundational mystery from which all flows—the doctrine of the Incarnation. Apart from the mysteries of positive intellectual doctrine, such as the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of survival, and the rest, there are moral mysteries, nearly all of them connected with that awful double question of will and doom, freedom and fate.

Just as it is a test of intelligence to be able to separate categories, so it is a test of intelligence to accept mystery. It is no test of intelligence to accept a particular mystery. But it is a test of intelligence to admit that mystery must form an inevitable part in any statement of reality. For to do so is but to acknowledge that man is limited in diverse ways and that, while with one power of his mind he may see a truth, with another power another, and be certain of both, he may not have the ability to reconcile the two certitudes.

The intelligent skeptic must at once grant you the existence of mystery, for he will not have passed his life without thinking, and he must have discovered that he is surrounded by mystery and is himself a mystery. He can be familiarized with the idea of mystery until it becomes a habit of his mind and takes its part, as it should, in his scheme of reality.

But the third step is the decisive one, and upon it all turns. Granted that the faith is an authority whose commands and explanations can be discovered by sufficient trial to be consonant with experience. Granted that the faith’s admission of mysteries is no bar to its credibility. Mystery can then be accepted if the Church substantiates its claim to authority. Yet how shall it substantiate that claim? What proof can we bring that if there be divine authority on earth it is hers?

Proof is not of one sort only; it is multiple in character. The very word “proof” takes on a different savor according to the matter towards which it is directed.

Reality is reached not in one way only, as by deduction, or by measurement, or by observation, or by the elimination of possible alternatives, but in any one of each of these ways or by two or more combined.

Would you prove to a man that two sides of a triangle are longer than the third, you may go through the deductive mathematical proof. But if you would prove to him that Jones has not committed a particular murder, you must enter into the field of known human motives and of known human capacities; you may establish an alibi, or you may prove the absence of motive. Would you prove that Swift is a better writer than Kipling, your methods would probably be to make him familiar with numerous parallel examples taken from these two masters. Would you prove that the music of Mozart more charms the ear than the siren of a steamboat, you would appeal to repeated experience of the two sounds.

In morals you would appeal to the moral sense, in beauty to the aesthetic, as in physical science to measurement, coupled with the postulate that things happening repeatedly in the same fashion presumably follow a process normally invariable.

The chief difficulty today in presenting the proof of the faith is that appeals to mathematical science or to experimental physical science are almost the only kinds to which men are directed by their education. Lack of use has atrophied what should be the common powers of mankind in other fields, powers taken for granted in a better past.

Those powers, in presenting the faith to the intelligent skeptic, we must seek to revive. For the intellectual basis of the faith is not that of positive proof, using the word positive in the scientific or mathematical sense, but an appeal to proof within one category: that applicable to holiness. If there be holiness on earth, what institution is holy? One only: the faith. The faith is witness to itself. It is a proof by taste. If the quality be perceived, it is unmistakable; conviction follows. If it be not perceived, there is no other avenue, for the sense is of grace, the acceptation an act of the will.

The faith, I say, is witness to itself. The faith convinces of its truth by its holiness, is its own witness to its own holiness, whereby also it is known. There is much more. There is its consonance with external and historical reality upon every side. There is personal experience, gained by living it, of its consonance with reality in daily detail, of its wisdom in judgment, of its harmonies where human character and the effect of action are concerned, of its perfect proportions which are such that all within that system is in tune with all and each part with the whole.

And there is this: that the faith is unique—it is not one among many kinds of similar things. It is not a religion among many religions. It is like the I AM of Holy Writ, from which it also proceeds.

All that. All that. I do not say that you will thus convince, but I say it is by this progression that the intelligent skeptic, our only worthy opponent, can at last be brought into the household. First to know where the house is: then to be shown that the gates are open. Then to find himself in the house. And what other roof is there in this world?

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