People need to learn how to argue better on the internet, especially about religion, Catholic media personality and Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron said in remarks at Facebook's headquarters on Monday. “Seek with great patience to understand your opponent’s position,” he advised, adding that it can be “very tempting just to fire back 'why you’re wrong.'” Instead of going after what’s wrong, he said, one should seek also highlight what your opponent has right. This is an “extraordinarily helpful” way to get past impasses.
Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire website and media content reach millions of people each year over the internet. The bishop spoke to Facebook employees Sept. 18 at the company's Menlo Park, Calif. headquarters on the topic “How to have a religious argument.” The event was live-streamed to around 2,500 viewers.
“If we don't know how to argue about religion, then we’re going to fight about religion,” he said. For Bishop Barron, argument is something positive and “a way to peace.” If one goes on social media, he said, “you'll see a lot of energy around religious issues. There will be a lot of words exchanged, often angry ones, but very little argument.”
Bishop Barron praised the intellectual tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and his time's treatment of disputed questions. A professor would gather in a public place and entertain objections and questions. “What's off the table? Nothing as far as I can tell,” the bishop summarized. He cited the way St. Thomas Aquinas made the case for disbelief in God before presenting the arguments for rational belief in God.
“If you can say 'I wonder whether there's a God,' that means all these questions are fine and fair,” Bishop Barron continued. “I like the willingness to engage any question.” Aquinas always phrases the objections “in a very pithy, and very persuasive way.” In the bishop's view, he formulates arguments against God's existence even better than modern atheists and sets them up in the most convincing manner, before providing his responses to these arguments. Further, St. Thomas Aquinas cites great Muslim and Jewish scholars, as well as pre-Christian authorities like Aristotle and Cicero, always with great respect.
Bishop Barron said authentic faith is not opposed to reason; it does not accept simply anything on the basis of no evidence. He compared faith to the process of coming to know another human person. While one can begin to come to know someone by reason, or through a Google search or a background check, when a relationship deepens, other questions arise. “When she reveals her heart, the question becomes: Do I believe her or not? Do I trust her or not?” he said.
“The claim, at least of the great biblical religions, is that God has not become a great distant object that we examine philosophically,” the bishop said. “Rather, the claims is that God has spoken, that God has decided to reveal his heart to his people.” Bishop Barron addressed several other mindsets that he said forestall intelligent argument about religion.
The mentality of “mere toleration” keeps religion to oneself and treats it as a hobby. However, religion makes truth claims, like claims that Christ rose from the dead. “Truth claims, if they really are truth claims, cannot be privatized,” he said. "A truth claim always has a universal scope, a universal intent."
“The privatization of religion is precisely what makes real argument about religion impossible.” While science has created great knowledge that should be embraced, there is the mindset of “scientism” which reduces all knowledge to scientific form.
“It results in a deep compromise of our humanity, it seems to me,” he said, contending that religious truths are more akin to those of literature, poetry and philosophy. The scientistic mindset would have to argue that Shakespeare’s plays or Plato’s philosophical dialogues do not convey deep truths about life, death, faith, and God. Scientism also mistakes its subject when attempting to consider God. “The one thing God is not is an item within the universe,” Bishop Barron said.
The bishop also faulted a mindset that is “voluntarist,” which believes that the faculty of the will has precedence over the intellect. In a religious context, this holds that God could make two plus two equal five. This gives rise to a view of God as arbitrary and even oppressive. In response, some people believe humanity’s will trumps the intellect and determines truth through power. According to Bishop Barron, they see God as incompatible with human freedom and, in the words of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, see freedom as the inherent liberty to determine the meaning of one’s own concept of existence, the universe, and human life itself.
Addressing the Facebook employees about their work, he said that their company’s social media network shows an “extraordinary spiritual power” in connecting all the world. “I think that it’s a spiritual thing that you’re bringing everybody together,” he said.