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Know Thy Enemy

Image by Björn via Flickr. Image by Björn via Flickr.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.

At the modern university, religious students expect to be in the minority. As an undergraduate, I saw this as an opportunity to examine my own beliefs and gain insight into the dominant secular perspective. Surrounding myself with people who disagreed with me, I learned their arguments just as well as my own. It was the best way to prepare myself to defend my values.

My first major foray into apologetics actually began in financial desperation. After transferring to a more expensive school, I heard about a scholarship competition sponsored by a campus organization called the Students for Free-Thought. At the time, I was not well acquainted with the group, but I submitted an essay on the implications of the argumentative theory of reasoning and won the scholarship.

Students for Free-Thought, it turns out, is a secularist organization. In fact, the scholarship the group offered was created in memory of an atheist founding member. Although Students for Free-Thought does not officially subscribe to a political creed, its members promote positions consistent with a socially progressive outlook, including supporting access to abortion. By contrast, I am a practicing Catholic. It was a strange situation, since members of Students for Free-Thought disagree with many of my views. But the experience taught me an important lesson: I learned I was capable of creating an appealing argument for a dissimilar audience without compromising myself or my values.

Almost as soon as I won the scholar­ship, I was invited to represent the pro-life position at a public dialogue. The event was not sponsored by the Students for Free-Thought, but my interlocutor and many in attendance were members. It was critical to examine the morality of abortion, and I did so. But it was equally important for me to portray the reasons why people disagree. With an audience of many skeptical secularists, I attempted to defy the stereotype that pro-lifers use misplaced emotional or religious appeals to justify their position. Using a more academic approach, I examined the historical development of the philosophical differences underlying the abortion debate.

Although I cannot say for certain whether I changed minds, a willingness to understand the arguments of my intellectual opponents put me in a position where I could. Knowing both perspectives is good strategy, as it allows us to anticipate objections while demonstrating careful consideration of the issues. By respectfully listening to one another, we can prove ourselves like-minded truth seekers rather than ideologues.

In a secular world, adherence to traditional values is often viewed as a consequence of ignorance. I have an obligation to be a witness to the falsity of this notion. Belief is not irrational; nor is defending the sanctity of life. Reason, religion, and ethics are all necessary and compatible responses to the recognition of a natural order.

Although we cannot ensure that everyone accepts this reality, thoughtful engagement can be the first step toward helping others—and ourselves—discover truths that transcend our material existence.

Mariana Barillas is an ISI Honors Scholar. This summer she served as an ISI Collegiate Network intern at Campus Reform.


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