How to Win the Argument Without Losing the Soul

shutterstock_108316334If you frequent websites such as YouTube or Facebook, you’ve read the exchanges that take place on these forums. Sometimes they are intelligent and substantive, but often they resemble two toddlers squabbling: “Did too.” “Did not.” “Did too.”

If we are to heed the instruction of our first pope, which is to “always be ready to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15), we must have at least a basic understanding of argumentation. We must know what constitutes a strong argument and what constitutes a weak one.


What an Argument Isn’t—and Is

An argument is not an assertion such as, “God exists.” Nor is an argument merely a contradictory assertion such as, “No, he doesn’t.” An argument is not a quarrel, a fight, or a disagreement. An argument, properly speaking, is a set of propositions called premises from which the person who is making the argument seeks to establish a conclusion.


Types of Arguments

There are two main types of arguments: deductive and inductive. A deductive argument is one in which, provided the premises are true and the logic sound (valid), the conclusion follows necessarily. Here’s a classic example of a deductive argument:

Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates was a man.
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates was mortal.

Do you see that if both of the premises are true and the logic valid, then the conclusion follows necessarily? If someone disagrees with the conclusion, then he must, on pain of irrationality, argue that one of the premises is false or that the logic unsound.

An inductive argument is one in which a generalization is made based on specific instances so that, provided the premises are true, the conclusion probably follows. For example:

Premise 1: Socrates was a Greek.
Premise 2: Most Greeks ate fish.
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates ate fish.

Though the conclusion here gives us probable certainty, it does not give us the absolute, logical certainty that a deductive argument gives.

Understanding what constitutes a sound argument—and what does not—will allow you to clear away the smoke of impassioned language that is sometimes used in faith related dialogues so that you can see clearly the argument your opponent is trying to make.


Watch Out for Deceptive Arguments

Now that we understand what an argument is and the two main types of arguments, let’s take a look at five common fallacies. The word fallacy comes from the Latin word fallacia, which could also be translated as “deception.” A fallacy is a misleading or unsound argument that can be either accidental or intentional.

To demonstrate five common fallacies, I’d like to propose a deductive argument and offer five fallacious replies. Then I will explain why they are fallacious and how one ought to respond.

Premise 1: Jesus Christ established a church.
Premise 2: The only church that can trace its roots back to the time of Jesus and the Apostles is the Catholic Church.
Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church.


Now I will offer five fallacious replies, explain why they are fallacious, and show how one ought to respond.

1. Red herring: The person making the argument raises an irrelevant issue to distract the attention of his opponent or audience.

Example: How can you believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus Christ established in light of the recent sex abuse scandal?

Response: The sex abuse scandal, is an important topic, which I’d be happy to discuss in a later discussion, but it has nothing to do with whether Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church. Let’s stick to the argument at hand.

2. Ad hominem (from the Latin: “to the man”): The person hearing the argument rejects the argument because of the one making the argument.

Example: You argue that Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church, but the last time I checked you were neither a biblical scholar nor a historian.

Response: You are right, I am not a historian, nor am I a biblical scholar. So what? I may also be obnoxious, arrogant, and smelly. None of that means my argument is unsound. Let’s focus our energy on the argument I’ve offered.

3. Non sequitur (from the Latin, “it does not follow”): The person making the argument draws a conclusion that does not follow from his premises.

Example: Jesus Christ was perfect, but some popes who have reigned over the Church have been corrupt; therefore, Jesus Christ did not establish the Catholic Church.

Response: The conclusion does not follow from the premise. While it’s true that all popes, because of original sin, are sinners—the first pope, St. Peter, denied our Lord three times—this does not disprove the Church’s divine origin.

4. Genetic fallacy: The person making the argument tries to invalidate a position based on how that position originated.

Example: The only reason you are making this argument is because you were raised Catholic. If you had been raised in the Bible Belt, you would have been Protestant.

Response: While it’s true that a person may come to hold a belief for inadequate reasons, this does not mean that the belief is false.

5. Straw man: The person making the argument misrepresents his opponent’s position in order to refute it.

Example: Just because the Catholic Church is the largest denomination in Christendom, that does not mean Jesus Christ established it. Islam is the second-largest religion in the world and may one day have more followers that the Catholic Church. Wouldn’t that then make Islam the true religion?

Response: You’ve misrepresented my argument entirely. I did not say that Catholicism is true because it has more adherents than all Protestant communities combined. Rather, I proposed that Jesus Christ established a church and the Catholic Church is the only church that dates back to the time of Christ; therefore, Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church.

Regardless of the argument you may find yourself in, it is essential that you recognize that the Holy Spirit, not you, converts hearts. Follow the advice of Peter who, before charging us to “always be prepared to make a defense,” tells us to “reverence Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15). Pray not only for the person you are speaking with, that he may come to believe the truth of the Catholic Church, but pray also for yourself, that you would be humble, loving, attentive, and respectful. Remember that, as Fulton J. Sheen put it, it’s entirely possible to win the argument and lose the soul.


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After experiencing a profound conversion at World Youth Day in Rome in 2000, Matthew Fradd has committed himself to inviting others to know Jesus Christ and the Church he founded. As a full-time apologist with Catholic Answers, Matt speaks internationally to thousands of teens and young adults each year about chastity. He also speaks to parish audiences on a wide variety of faith topics.

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