[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]
Knowing what to engage
Approaching any new field of apologetics can be intimidating, because until you’ve been thinking about and discussing an issue for some time (whether a single issue like abortion or an entire religion like Mormonism), you simply can’t know what the main points of contention are, much less how to answer them. It may seem like your only choice is to try to find some training group in your area, but if you can’t, not to engage that group at all, or to try to engage with no training and hope not to get caught flatfooted.
There is another option, and one you can do in the comfort of your own home: online blogs or groups about the issue (not just echo chambers, but groups where you actually engage “the other side”). These can be a vital tool to understanding and even mastering the topic, so that you can feel comfortable discussing these topics in person with people.
While people online are real people, and discussing things with them online can be considered “real life discussions”, online discussions (whether in groups, blog comments, via private message, or anything else), allow you to “hide” behind your computer fairly easily. For example, if your opponent brings up a devastating point [“Did you know that abortion was legal in America when the Constitution was ratified?!”], that may cause you some distress or confusion – and that will show on your face in real life, but won’t show on the computer screen.
You also will have plenty of time to do some heavy-duty research before responding, and your opponent may think you’re just sleeping or working, and may wonder if you’ve even seen the comment. When you respond, he may not know that you’ve spent hours researching the answer and writing your response. You can’t hide that in real life when your opponent is staring you in the face, waiting for your response.
Tip – if you find yourself in this sort of situation in real life, when somebody brings up something that you can’t answer, don’t panic! Instead, nod and frown and say, “Hmmm, I’ve never heard that before. Let me look into that and get back with you.” Then you can do your research that night.
While it is true that abortion was legal at the time of George Washington, it was legal only up until the time of “quickening”, which is when the mother can first feel the child move in her uterus. That is usually around 20 weeks, but can be earlier or later depending on different factors. The term “quickening” literally means “coming to life”, and at the time was thought to be when the child actually began living—which means that abortion was illegal once the child was believed to be alive.
American law has always been that innocent human life should be protected, including before birth (with exceptions such as to save the mother’s life, if both couldn’t be safely brought through the pregnancy and birth). The Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions were significant departures from this long-standing American tradition and legal understanding, claiming that when life began was unknown, which contradicted known medical understanding of that time.
A fly on the wall
When you join any new group, first take some time familiarizing yourself with the topic and the main points of discussion. It shouldn’t take long, particularly if the group is active. Lurk and read. I’ve seen a lot of “newbies” make some dreadful mistakes because they were ignorant of certain things, and were so ignorant that they didn’t even know that they didn’t know! Once you learn the basics and you feel up to it, you can venture in. Again, don’t come in “guns a-blazin’!” Instead, ask questions. Not only is it a brilliant way of getting to the truth (thanks, Socrates!), but you also have less of a risk of looking foolish if you make an ignorant assumption or get mixed up as to who believes what and why.
Once you’ve spent some time familiarizing yourself with the topic (the length of time may vary depending on the topic itself, and on how quickly you assimilate the information, and how much you need to feel comfortable before venturing forth to slay some dragons), then you can go further and further. What you will find is that the same topics keep coming up over and over and over again. This gives you practice in answering the objections. This practice is priceless, particularly when facing people in person, when you can’t go run off and research for hours, and spend time crafting and honing your responses.
I spent years arguing abortion online in a variety of blogs and other similar venues. Eventually it became obvious what the main issues and topics are, and what arguments do and don’t work.
This being a Christian Apologetics website, you might be expecting me to give you a bunch of “slam dunk” verses that will help in the abortion debate. Those don’t work either… unless you’re arguing with someone who accepts the Bible as being authoritative – and even then, they tend to argue about what the Bible means when it says X. But if you’re arguing with an atheist, agnostic, or other person who doesn’t believe the Bible anyway, it doesn’t matter what you claim God said in the Bible; a Muslim might as well try to tell you that you should believe X because Mohammed said it or because it’s in the Koran; or a Mormon tell you that Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon says X.
What does work? Well, it depends on how open-minded your opponent is. Some are so set in favor of abortion that no argument will work. None. There’s nothing that you can do about that, except attempt to give an answer to all the person’s objections. Even if you can’t change his mind, you can at least show that there is a reasonable answer to those objections.
All the science is on the pro-life side
What I suggested above about “online training” is what I have successfully done with discussing both abortion and talking religion with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps some people feel like they know enough after a weekend or even a week-long training session where they’re taught these issues, but it takes me a lot longer to feel comfortable engaging in in-person conversations (as opposed to online conversations, which allow more time to compose one’s arguments).
Most of the people I know in real life believe like me, and I don’t exactly walk up to people and start arguing about abortion in the checkout line, so while I had plenty of opportunity to learn about these topics in a safe, “echo chamber” type of environment, I had no opportunity to practice facing any real-life opposition. Except by engaging in online groups. Then, a few years ago there was a nationwide protest against Planned Parenthood, and of course there were many counter-protestors as well.
At first, I only planned on holding a sign, but then decided that I could spend my time better by trying to converse with abortion advocates. Even if I didn’t change anybody’s mind then and there, I hoped to plant some seeds, and at least to show by my calm, friendly demeanor and reasoned arguments that pro-lifers weren’t all a bunch of angry, deranged, Bible-thumping half-wits (which is what I assumed most abortion advocates believed about us – and I think that assumption is valid).
What I found was that the people on the sidewalk and the arguments presented were exactly like those online – both pro-life and pro-choice. It really was a microcosm of what I had experienced for all those years arguing abortion online. Some of the people (on both sides) were angry, only yelling slogans at each other; most didn’t engage the other side and a few talked to (or at) each other, for example with some Christians conspicuously kneeling and praying.
When approaching a person to talk to, I would see something about the person (the poster they were holding, a sticker on their shirt), and use that as my opening to “break the ice”. Because of my years of arguing abortion and knowing what does and doesn’t work, I tried to keep it to arguing science as much as possible.
At first, I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the arguments, because it had been a few years since I had regularly argued abortion with knowledgeable abortion advocates, and I was afraid I had forgotten a lot. But it was like riding a bicycle – the arguments just came back. It really helped that I had repeated those arguments frequently (sometimes even on a daily basis when I was particularly active in multiple venues), and even when I wasn’t arguing so frequently, when I did argue, it was the same arguments I’d used and honed through the years, so making them in person was basically the same.
Thanks to the years of practice, when I finally had a chance to argue in person, it was relatively easy. I was surprised at how easily the arguments sprang into my mind, but, really, when you say the same things over and over day after day or at least week after week, it’s like riding a bike or playing the piano. [This is not to say I was perfect; not by any means. I still wish I’d made some points clearer, or brought up some points that I had meant to, but time got away and the moment passed and I forgot at the time. It happens. But I did much better than I would have done, had I not practiced as I did.]
Developing muscle memory
Athletes and musicians develop “muscle memory” where they don’t even have to think about what they’re doing, because it just “feels right”. Doctors and other medical personnel, firefighters, and police officers all repeatedly practice emergency situations, so that when they’re faced with that situation in real life they can automatically do what they’re supposed to do (what they’ve repeatedly trained to do) without hesitation. Similarly, discussing these topics online helps you build mental “muscle memory” so you can make and answer arguments without hesitation.
You obviously have internet access since you’re reading this online post, so you can join online groups and start training in a new field of apologetics. While there is certainly a great amount of benefit to reading and studying positive presentations (i.e., lectures and other one-sided arguments that are not faced with opposition), and benefit in reading or watching debates where you can see others engaged in opposing arguments, there is even more benefit in “getting your hands dirty” or “getting into the trenches”, and actually facing the opposition yourself. But don’t go into the situation like a half-witted monkey with a machine gun; you’ll do more harm than good. Be circumspect. Be thoughtful. Learn the arguments for and against, and practice, practice, practice.