This is part of a series of posts which tackles sexual ethics and debating strategies (but not at the same time)
A few weeks ago, in my post detailing mistakes atheists make about Catholics, one of the big ones was assuming that Catholicism, a tradition with a 2000 year history, doesn’t have at least a plausible sounding explanation for common objections to its tenets. Now, I know we atheists haven’t had as coherent a series of apologetics, but we’re not stupid. If you don’t bother to acknowledge and answer the objections of your opponents, I guarantee no one will take you seriously unless they already agree with you.
At Christopher Yuan’s talk on sexual morality, this was the point that rankled most for me. In his personal testimony, Yuan explained to the audience that, after reading the Bible and becoming a Christian, he went to see the prison chaplain to ask how he should live as a gay man, now that he had read the prohibitions in Leviticus. The prison chaplain told him that those laws weren’t necessarily binding, gave him a book of different theological perspectives on homosexuality, and encouraged Yuan to read it and see if he still thought being a practicing gay man was disobedience to God.
Yuan told us that he read the book the chaplain gave him, but he didn’t think it could stand up against God’s clear orders in Leviticus. Well, to be precise, he didn’t think the first chapter could stand up against Leviticus, since he was too put off by the book’s approach to biblical criticism to read any farther. He returned the book to the chaplain, and became certain that God was calling him to celibacy.
As you may guess, this prompted the most eye rolls and looks of genuine confusion from the audience. Ditching the book after the first chapter seemed pretty arrogant, and, if it was so obvious that the book was misguided and self-refuting, surely Yuan could explain what led him to that conclusion. But Yuan did not discuss or debunk the content of the book or any Christian argument in favor of gay relationships for the rest of the talk. His course was set.
It’s never ok, if you want to persuade people, to just handwave away the objections to your argument. You and your supporters may know your counterargument by heart, but if your opponents knew it, or found it persuasive, they wouldn’t still be your opponents. When a hostile audience assumes hears this kind of casual brush-off, they assume that the speaker is being glib because he knows his rebuttal is weak.
Let me make sure to address a variant of this mistake. I’ve heard plenty of debaters claim that their opponent only holds the opposite position because it is easy and that any defense offered is only a pathetic justification for their preferences. I certainly won’t deny that my Christian friends who don’t consider gay relationships sinful or intrinsically disordered hold beliefs that are much more comfortable and nice feeling than the alternatives. The Christians I know who are universalists have it even easier.
But pointing this out is not a compelling argument. (Well, unless you’ve already convinced me that the truer argument is always the one that seems more inhumane or upsetting — and I have heard people make that case). You still need to answer the arguments that you dismissed, and if they’re really just rationalizations papered over big logical gaps, your task is easy. If not, maybe you should do a little more research and thinking before you open your big yap.