How to Point Out Seven Self-Refuting Secularist Propositions

by Mark Lowery, Ph.D.


Even if you are arguing with someone who doesn't believe in objective truth, Dr. Mark Lowery says, you can still "take the secular 'faiths' of your opponents and show their irrationality." This essay briefly demonstrates that seven secularist premises are self-refuting.

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New Oxford Review



Publisher & Date

New Oxford Review, Inc., January-February 1997

Most of us have been in discussions that are like two ships passing in the night, due to the variance in presuppositions upon which the respective positions are based. For instance, you are discussing some disputatious point of Catholic doctrine with someone, only to find that he doesn't believe in the teaching authority of the Church that grounds the doctrine in the first place, or to find that he doesn't believe in objective truth at all. What to do?

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that while it does no good to keep on arguing the point of Catholic doctrine, reason can be employed to disprove the adversary's presuppositions, and thereby a kind of reverse psychology can be exerted: Although the truths of Revelation cannot be proven (if they could, then faith would lose its merit, says Thomas), their opposites cannot possibly be demonstrated as true, for the truths of Revelation are infallible. In a word, take the secular "faiths" of your opponents and show their irrationality. You can be assured that indirectly you are bearing witness to Christian truth, for if the contrary of the truths of the faith can be shown to be erroneous, then without saying as much you have directed the conversation in the direction of alternatives that are compatible with, and hence inadvertently guided by. Revelation.

A variety of contemporary authors level this type of argument against a variety of secular beliefs. I have collected their arguments over the years and have assembled here some of the best ones.

(1) Many secularists assert that all morality is relative. But a relativist actually makes an absolute claim in stating that "everything is relative." If someone every says that everything is relative, just ask, "absolutely?"

Not only do moral relativists contradict themselves in principle with their own first premise, they contradict themselves in practice. As Peter Kreeft notes,

The relativist lets the cat out of the bag when you practice what he preaches, when you act toward him as if his own philosophy of relativism were true. He may preach relativism, but he expects you to practice absolutism.

Kreeft gives the example of telling his relativist-leaning students that he will flunk all the women in the class just because they are women. Given their own premises, they have no argument to make against so blatantly unfair a practice.

(2) Closely aligned with relativism is the plea for tolerance. A relativistic outlook, it is claimed, will allow for the tolerance needed to make this a more peaceful world. But David W. Lutz recently noted:

Those who tell us that morality is relative are usually quick to add that, because morality is relative, we should tolerate those whose moral beliefs differ from our own. There are some moral absolutes after all.... We have replaced the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance with the four cardinal values of openness, equality, tolerance, and diversity.

In a word, those who push relativism with a view toward tolerance have built their own absolutist edifice. Curiously, those for whom tolerance is an absolute become extremely intolerant of those they deem to be intolerant. "It is forbidden to forbid," as student revolutionaries of the 1960s proclaimed.

(3) A determinist actually reveals free choice at work in telling you that of two options — freedom or determinism — determinism is the correct option. If anyone ever tells you that all actions are determined, ask him why he thinks none is free. When he begins to tell you, point out to him that he himself has made a choice. If he nonetheless invites you to make the same choice, tell him you cannot change your mind unless you are already free. As Donald DeMarco notes, "If all human behavior is predetermined, making...any request at all... contradicts [determinism's] basic principle that everything is pre-determined."

(4) A materialist claims that the world and mankind are evolutionary accidents. Consider the response of C.S. Lewis:

If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents — the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists... as well as anyone else. But if their thoughts are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true?

Lewis cleverly notes in another passage that those thoughts of materialists actually demonstrate God's existence:

Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen for physical or chemical reasons to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk-jug and hoping that the way the splash arranges itself will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an atheist.... Unless I believe in God, I can't believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.

Like the materialist, Sigmund Freud reduced man's capacity to think to, as Marjorie Rosenburg notes, "a neurotic exercise designed to inhibit instinctual needs." But there is one slight problem: "Excluded from this interpretation was, of course, the product of Freud's mind — psychoanalytic theory itself." Hence, Freud torpedoed his own thought.

(5) An atheist might take the positivist tack and claim that only what's logically and empirically provable is real, hence ruling out the idea of God and all revealed truths. While one cannot prove the truths of Revelation, one can easily disprove this positivist claim by simply saying to the atheist, "prove it." For if all truth is provable, his claim itself must be provable, which it clearly isn't, either logically or empirically. One cannot disprove God or the truths of Revelation. One can only be of the opinion that they are not true.

(6) The historicist claims that all truth claims ever made are historically and culturally conditioned, and hence open to revision. Each age or mode of thought is culture-bound, and can at best arrive at approximations of truth, if truth exists at all. When you meet someone who tries to convince you of this, just tell him, "and as for your own theory about historical conditioning — it too, I surmise, is historically conditioned, and hence unreliable."

(7) Many people today denounce the very idea of authority, thinking it an affront to their freedom and individuality. But it is impossible to avoid authority. Those who think they are avoiding authority are simply substituting, say, the authority of the secularist worldview for the authority of the Church. Upon discussing, say, absolute moral norms or the ordination of women with someone, you might be told you are rigid and obsessed with authority figures like the Pope, to which you could ask, "On whose authority do you claim that there are no ultimate authorities for humanity?" In a word, it is part and parcel of humanity to appeal to authority, simply because our powers of insight and judgment are limited. The real question is not whether authority is good or bad, but rather, whose authority it is wise and prudent to follow.

In each of the above instances we have discovered through rational argument what cannot be true. This negative method is quite beneficial for use amid certain sectors of our society that yield a knee-jerk reaction at the slightest hint that some objective truth is being "imposed" on them. For with this method, nothing at all is being imposed. Rather, those who argue for such things as relativism and materialism are themselves imposing a particular "truth," and an essentially irrational one at that, one that is intrinsically self-refuting.

St. Thomas spoke of certain truths that are "self-evident." One way to arrive at such self-evident truths is to show the irrationality of their opposites. From there, reason can move on to the positive stage of recognizing the self-evident truths themselves: Truth exists, it can be found, all humans have personal dignity, human beings have free will, and so on. Once these natural truths are in place, the stage is set for the gift of grace that presupposes nature and builds on it a most awesome edifice with the truths of Revelation, central to which is a relationship with a person, Jesus Christ. •

Mark Lowery is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Dallas.

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