The Approach to the Skeptic

By Hilaire Belloc


The skeptic is the most sympathetic to the Catholic mind of all non-Catholics: that is, if he be intelligent. For there is a Skepticism of the Intelligence as there is a Skepticism of Stupidity. The latter is intolerable. It is found in most popular works on Science, Histories of Religion, and Outlines of all kinds. But the Skepticism of the Intelligence is noble and respectable. We can present to it the claims of the Catholic Church only by admitting that its own postulates are sound, its process of reasoning accurate. We must tell intelligent Skepticism that it is on the right road, but has not gone far enough. We must ask it to appreciate. We must ask it to distinguish quality: to discover the Faith as one discovers great music or great verse.

Skepticism may be defined as that attitude of the mind which advises us to reject any unaccustomed statement.

  By "unaccustomed" I mean "That which the hearer does not happen to have acquaintance with, so that it jars with that conception of reality which he has formed through his experience."

  For instance, supposing a man who died forty years ago had come to life again, and I told him I had flown through the air from Beauvais to Croydon in a machine, he would presumably doubt that statement. His doubt would be an example of Skepticism. Flying through the air in a machine was outside all the experience which he had had of earthly conditions.

  In thus defining Skepticism, I do not include, of course, the larger meaning of the term, which extends it to a doubt upon one's own existence, or the existence of any reality outside one's own mind. I am talking of only what might be called "Natural Skepticism,"-----the twin to "Natural Religion,"-----the Skepticism normal to the human mind.

  Again, it is not Skepticism to doubt something which is a contradiction in terms, or which is contrary to the laws of thought.

  We form, by the habit of experience, a certain vague picture of reality, and that which does not conform to it we doubt. If the thing told us is too violently in contrast with our common experience, we not only doubt, we deny.

  Skepticism, in the sense in which I am using the word, is eminently sane; it is native to our race, and for that matter necessary to the preservation of it and of the individual. For to accept habitually any absurd affirmation-----as, that it would be safe to jump out of a fourth-story window because one was being prayed for-----would lead to immediate disaster.

   I insist at the outset on this natural and healthy character in human Skepticism, because it is the foundation of the thesis I desire to propose, which is this: that those who would present the truths of the Faith to those unacquainted with the process by which we come to hold them, must not only take natural Skepticism for granted, but must respect it. What is more, we of the Faith do well to safeguard in ourselves this robust and healthy quality; for in the absence or weakness of it we may come to accept nonsense even in sacred things, and, what is perhaps worse, we shall weaken our reasoning faculty.

   Nothing does greater harm to the prestige of the Faith, to our chances of presenting it successfully to our fellow-beings, or, for that matter, to their opinion of our judgment in holding what they do not hold, than the attitude [once commoner than it now is, but still common] which denounces with a sort of horror the rejection by another of what is, to the speaker, sacred.

  The horror is excusable in those to whom the negation comes as a sort of shock; those, that is, who have had no personal experience of unbelief in others; who have lived sheltered lives, and who, on hearing denied what is to them all in all, are moved to an irrational anger; but that anger is irrational all the same.

  The truths propounded upon the authority of the Church consist in part of what we may expect any average man to accept, for they consist in part of truths consonant with common experience, as, for instance, the Catholic truth that right and wrong are realities, not pathetic illusions. But a great number of Catholic truths and the Catholic system as a whole, based as it is upon Mysteries and particularly upon the supreme Mystery of the Incarnation, cannot be accepted as a matter of course by those to whom it is unfamiliar. To expect them to do so-----even to expect them not to be hostile-----is much more unnatural on the part of one who believes than is the Skepticism of one who does not.

  Now, our object in appreciating the nature of Skepticism is to combat it successfully; at least, in the things that count. Complete success in this may be called the conversion of the skeptic to Catholic truth. When we have taken the first step and appreciated the nature of Skepticism, that it is "doubt of the unaccustomed statement," we can approach the task of convincing the skeptic; but until we have taken that first step we cannot approach his conversion. It is a falsehood and a folly to tell the plain man, who has no conception of what the Faith is all about, that his rejection of its unaccustomed statements is evil. It is even wrong to call him blind. He is no more blind than a man is blind who does not see the stars by daylight.

   But in our approach to the task of convincing the skeptic we must begin by distinguishing between two kinds of Skepticism, which do not merge one into the other by gradual degrees, but which are totally distinct in kind, and which may be called, the one "the Skepticism of the Intelligent," the other "the Skepticism of the Stupid."

  The Skepticism of the Stupid is that denial of an unaccustomed statement which is based upon an undefined, but nonetheless real, belief that the hearer is possessed of universal knowledge. It is a common error in our day, and I touch on it elsewhere in this book.

   The test of this kind of Skepticism [which, like other manifestations of stupidity, presents a formidable obstacle to human conversation] is the misuse of the word "reason."

   When a man tells you that it "stands to reason" that such and such a thing, to which he is unaccustomed, cannot have taken place, his remark has no intellectual value whatever. Not only would he be unable to analyze his "reasons" for rejecting the statement, but he would, if pressed, be bound to give you motives based upon mere emotion. For instance, if a man tells you it "stands to reason" that a just God could not allow men to lose their souls, he suffers from the Skepticism of the Stupid.

   The Skepticism proceeding from intelligence is of an exactly opposite nature.

   Intelligence may be measured by the capacity of separating categories. Thus, a man who distinguishes between the office and the person is more intelligent than the man who does not. The man who distinguishes between the functions of an office in exercise and in quiescence is more intelligent than the one who does not. The man who distinguishes between the two meanings of a word often used in two senses is more intelligent than the man who does not.

   For example, in the question of office. The man who confuses infallibility with impeccability is less intelligent than the man who does not; while a man who distinguishes between infallibility exercised upon a positive affirmation, and infallibility exercised in advising discretion, is more intelligent than a man who cannot so distinguish. When infallible authority bids us not to be certain on an uncertainty, it is using its function in one way. When it affirms a specific certitude it is using its function in another. A man who distinguishes between the two is more intelligent than one who does not so distinguish. Thus an authority denying the present certitude of man's terrestrial origin and who says "We are not fixed upon the way in which man came to be what he certainly is-----quite distinct from other animals" is saying one thing. The same authority affirming the certitude of Original Sin is saying something quite different. It is right in each case, but right in a different particular. In the first statement there is not positive pronouncement on the origin of man, but only a pronouncement that, at present, this origin is not known. In the second statement there is a positive pronouncement that man suffers from a special taint incurred at the [undefined] origin of his kind. The man who sees the distinction is more intelligent than a man who mixes up the two pronouncements.

  Again, in the matter of the ambiguity of words: A man who thinks that, because the Church needed "Reformation" in the early sixteenth century, therefore the disruptive movement also known as "the Reformation" was necessary and good, is less intelligent than a man who does not confuse these totally distinct terms, though they happen to be expressed by the same set of syllables.

  One test of intelligence being, then, the power to separate distinct categories, the corresponding test of stupidity is inability to do so, and I say that stupid Skepticism, like stupid anything else, is the despair of the intelligent believer who tries to deal with it. He may approach it with rhetoric, or with appeals to what is the fashion, or in any other irrational way. He may even approach it with bribes. He may approach it with that very modern weapon, perpetual reiteration, after the fashion of the "slogan" upon which the masters of salesmanship depend. But all these methods are so basely unworthy of high controversy on the ultimate truths, that I would rather not contemplate them.

  The approach to intelligent Skepticism is quite other. It is this: to make clear to the opposing mind what is the nature of that conviction which has settled our own minds. And in this, as it seems to me, there are three successive stages to be undertaken at the outset.

  The first of these stages is to make clear what the Catholic system is. Until the elements of the unknown thing are presented, the two opposing minds are living on different planes and are reasoning from different premises.
It is not only so in this supreme matter of Catholic truth, but in any number of lesser matters. Thus, if you would persuade a man that the Humanities are of value in education, you must begin by giving him some idea of what the Humanities are. Often such a one will think that the Humanities are only a dull acquisition of languages no longer in use. If the Humanities were indeed no more than that it would be most rational to oppose such a waste of time as the acquirement of classical scholarship. Since the objector cannot see of what value the Humanities are, he must be shown by example how those who have passed through their curriculum have thereby been increased in the power of thought and of feeling, have come to the roots of our civilization, have enjoyed the highest masterpieces and have come into touch with the greatest beauty and the most profound thought; he must be shown how their experience has explained to them the European world in which they live, and perhaps may help them to save civilization, even though it has declined into its present condition.

   So it is with the much greater business of the Faith. You must introduce the Person. For you must remember that in the first place the intelligent skeptic whom we approach does not, as a rule, know the full body of Catholic doctrines; and in the second place, he usually regards those which he does know [even if he is familiar with a great number] as disconnected statements not belonging to one Being, not forming a unity, not a living system spreading from a single root and inspired by a single essence, but a bundle of dead sticks.

   The skeptic whom you approach must first appreciate that the Thing he is asked to examine is what it is; an organism endowed with a life, having a character and savor of its own: a personality, and, above all, a personality undoubtedly and wholly One. Next he must be shown that its judgments fit exactly to the whole range of man's being, which it at once explains, enlarges and rectifies. He must be presented with the Faith as that which demonstrably enlarges, which [in the judgment of those who hold it] undoubtedly explains, human life; which gives that life its rationale, and morally and aesthetically rectifies-----that is, sanely guides and maintains in health-----the same.

   Not till all this has been done can you proceed to the second stage of instruction, which I take to be this: the postulating of mystery. In becoming acquainted with the Faith as the most reasonably human of things, he must also come across its mysteries-----which at first he cannot accept. Your instruction must approach these and show what place they hold, what character they have; as, for instance, the Mystery of the Incarnation.

   I use "instruction" in the sense, not of didactic and enforced exercises, but of the getting a man in touch with some real thing; thus, a man is instructed in seafaring by going to sea, though no formal teaching be given him; is instructed in good verse by hearing much good verse, though he be told no rules of prosody.

  The Faith, I say, will be found to contain, or rather to be inextricably bound up with, mysteries. There is that supreme foundational mystery of which I have spoken, from which all flows-----the doctrine of the Incarnation; and apart from the mysteries of positive intellectual doctrine, such as the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of survival, and the rest, there are moral mysteries, nearly all of them connected with that awful double question of Will and Doom, Freedom and Fate; and there are mysteries of definition; or, again, the mystery of the Visible Church where certain superhuman powers designed for superhuman ends of holiness are necessarily exercised by human agency, often base.

  Now, just as it is a test of intelligence to be able to separate categories, so it is a test of intelligence to accept mystery.

   It is no test of intelligence to accept a particular mystery. Any number of statements could be put forth as mysteries, and all of them be false; as, for instance, the very old Puritan mystery, that there are two principles in God-----the one good, the other evil. Or the highly modern mystery that evil is an illusion.

   No, it is certainly not a test of intelligence to accept a particular mystery, but it is a test of intelligence to admit that mystery must form an inevitable part in any statement of reality. For to do so is but to acknowledge that man is limited in divers ways, and that while with one power of his mind he may see a truth, with another power another, and be certain of both, yet he may not have the further ability to reconcile the two certitudes.

   A man who laughs at mystery merely because it is mystery, that is, a man who ridicules the idea that there are things beyond, but not contradictory to, our reason, may be put at once in that other category of the stupid skeptic, at whom we laugh or weep according to our mood. But the presentation of particular mysteries to the opposing skeptical mind is not the same thing as the proposing of mystery in general. The intelligent skeptic must grant you at once the existence of mystery, for he will not have passed his life without thinking, and he must have discovered that he is surrounded by mystery and is himself a mystery.

   For instance, he does not exist in time immediately past nor in time immediately to come, yet he only is because he takes part in all three. Without extension in time a creature of time cannot be; yet what extension in time can be applied to a creature who only lives in a moment infinitesimal, and therefore in itself not extended? Or, again, what is Memory? Or again, the self-defined trinity of space, time and motion must be in one aspect static; in another aspect it is known not to be so. Or again, the mystery of personality-----what is the principle of continuity therein? Is it sane to deny the oneness of personality? No. Is it sane to deny that personality is successive, perpetually disappearing into the past? No. Then what is it? And so through an indefinitely long list-----all the vistas upon which the mind dwells, reaching no horizon.

   The intelligent skeptic can be familiarized with the idea of mystery until it becomes a habit of his mind and takes its part, as it should, in his scheme of reality. Indeed, this second step in the approach is one certain to be reached and passed when the intelligence is sufficiently lively.

   But the third step is the decisive one, and upon that all turns. Granted that the Faith is such and such; a personality with a Voice and a character; an authority whose commands and explanations can be discovered by sufficient trial to be consonant with experience; granted that the Faith's admission of mysteries is no bar to its credibility, then mystery can be accepted if the Church substantiates its claim to authority. Yet how shall it substantiate that claim? What proof can we bring that if there be Divine authority on earth it is Hers?

   Here we must approach the skeptic's last position by the presentation of that truth which our age has forgotten more than any previous age ever did-----the rare knowledge that proof is of various kinds. Proof is not of one sort only; it is multiple in character. The very word "proof" takes on a different savor according to the matter towards which it is directed. Reality is reached not in one way only, as by deduction or by measurement, or by observation, or by the elimination of possible alternatives, but in anyone of each of these ways, or by two or more combined, or by anyone of an indefinite number of other ways, each specially applicable to the indefinite number of problems presented.

  Would you prove to a man that two sides of a triangle are longer than the third, you may go through the deductive mathematical proof; but if you would prove to him that Jones has not committed a particular murder, you must enter into the field of knowing human motives, and of known human capacities; man being known not to have the power of bilocation, you may establish an alibi, or you may prove the absence of motive. Would you prove that Swift is a better writer than Kipling, you cannot establish certainty in the same degree; but in your efforts to convince anyone who doubted such a proposition your methods would probably be to make him familiar with numerous parallel examples taken from these two masters. Would you prove that the music of Mozart more charms the ear than the siren of a steamboat, you would appeal to repeated experience of the two sounds; in morals you would appeal to the moral sense; in beauty to the aesthetic; as in physical science to measurement, coupled with the postulate that things happening repeatedly in the same fashion presumably follow a process normally invariable. In every case your proof must vary with the nature of the thesis to be proved.

  Now, I have said that the chief difficulty before us today, in presenting the proof of the Faith, is that appeals to mathematical science or to experimental physical science are almost the only kinds to which men are now directed by their education. Lack of use has atrophied what should be the common powers of mankind in other fields; powers taken for granted in a better past.
Those powers, in presenting the Faith to the intelligent skeptic, we must seek to revive, for the intellectual basis of the Faith is not that of positive proof, using the word "positive" in the scientific or mathematical sense; but an appeal to proof within one category: that applicable to Holiness. If there be Holiness on earth, what institution is Holy? One only: The Faith. The Faith is witness to itself. It is a proof by taste. If the quality be perceived, it is unmistakable; conviction follows. If it be not perceived, there is no other avenue. For the sense is of grace; the acceptation an act of the will. The Faith, I say, is witness to itself. The Faith convinces of its truth by its holiness; is its own witness to its own holiness, whereby also it is known. There is much more: there is its consonance with external and historical reality upon every side; there is personal experience, gained by living it, of its consonance with reality in daily detail, of its wisdom in judgment, of its harmonies where human character and the effect of action are concerned; of its perfect proportions, which are such that all within that system is in tune with all, and each part with the whole. And there is further this: that the Faith is unique; it is not one among many kinds of similar things, It is not a religion amongst many religions. It is like the I AM of Holy Writ, from which it also proceeds.

All that. All that. I do not say that you will thus convince; but I say it is by this progression that the intelligent skeptic, our only worthy opponent, can at last be brought into the household.

First to know where the House is: then to be shown that the gates are open. Then to find himself in the House. And what other roof is there in this world?