Reason and Debate, or, why sometimes people fail to convert

This week I have been thinking a lot about knowledge-exchange and the transfer of news within the dialogue genre for a paper I will be giving in a few weeks in Cambridge. One of the elements that seems to be appearing again and again as I have been reading them is the way in which dialogues were being conducted across social, religious and political divides. They are fascinating in the way in which they navigate through the treacherous waters of political unrest, religious strive and social divides. As a form they embody a faith in discussion as a means to overcome differences and to achieve reconciliation and harmony.

In doing this they create a portrait of the ideal learner or scholar. This is seen in the dialogue The Kingdom of Macaria in which the scholar says “We Scholars love to heare newes, and to learne knowledge.” The ideal scholar that appears in the dialogue genre is generally one who was thirsty to learn from other people and gain new knowledge. They not only had a desire to increase their knowledge but they were also open-minded; ready to change their opinion in the light of new evidence and news. As the traveller says to the scholar whilst he is sharing his news and knowledge with him:

“If I could change all the minds in England as easily as I suppose I shall change yours, this kingdome would be presently like it.” (Kingdom of Macaria, p4)

This ideal conversion in the light of new knowledge is manifest in the dialogue that I picked for my dialogue of the week. Namely, A dialogue betwixt an Atheist and a Christian. The ideal scholar is invoked within the dialogue when the Christian asks the Atheist to expound upon his views and opinions saying:

“I pray let me heare them: and although they are not mine they may be made so by such reasons as are beyond my answer: For indeed I look on my tenents as well with the eye of Reason as of Faith.” (p.1)

The Christian is keen to articulate his faith in reason and debate as the process through which he has came to his conclusions by entering into a dialogue with the Atheist. This confidence in reason is manifest by his willingness to confront the views of the Atheist. The Christian has nothing to fear for he follows reason and as long as the Atheist follows them they have a mutual point from which to debate. As the Christian says:

“I shall be glad to hear what they are, and the rather, because you will maintain them by Naturall Phylosophy: which I conceive to signifie true & substantial reason.”

The opening conversation clearly establishes the Christian as open-minded, rational and ready to learn from new ideas and opinions. In short he is prepared to convert to a different position through the process of debate. One of the narratives that are popular within the genre is the conversion narrative. Many of them are rather crude in their form it is usually a Catholic discussing a theological issue with a protestant. The dialogue that is given between them serves as a template for conversion it allows them to see how the faith can be defended and the responses that can be given to arguments against the tenants of their faith.

This is a point that has been made by John Puterburgh in regards to the dialogues in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – the dialogue is more an attempt to convert the other then it is to have a conversation. It is in the moment of interrogation that it formulates the Protestant identity, under the inquisitions questioning it reveals the Protestant and separates them from the Catholic.

In A dialogue between three travellers it embodies the caricature of conversion in a debate between the Catholic ‘Crucy,’ Anabaptist ‘Factious’ and Moderate ‘Weighall.’ The dialogue again expresses its faith in the process of reason when Crucy says to the Protestant:

“Not so hasty Master wrest-wright, a good cause should be disputed with reason, not with passion.” (2)

The two end up in a heated debate regarding the differences between Catholicism and Puritanism. It is at this point that the moderate enters the debate and offers a middle way between them. Weighall suggests that Catholicism is too tied to ceremony, pomp and circumstance and that the Anabaptists are too irreverent towards the sacrament. The solution, he suggests, is a middle way between the two. After he has suggested this, we witness the conversion of the other two participants to his views as they see the light of moderation presented to them and accept his views. As they say:

Crucy: I thanke you for your good counsels, and shall endeavour to embrace them.”

Factious: And I shall acknowledge my selfe to be much improved by you.”

Not all conversions are as smooth as this. Indeed, despite a faith in reason and debate not everyone who is taught by evangelical members ends up converting through the debate. It is for this reason that A dialogue betwixt an Atheist and a Christian is so fascinating in that neither of them end up being converted through the process but instead it provides a narrative that explains why the atheist failed to be converted to the Christian cause. It articulates why discourse sometimes fails to convert through the very process of discourse.

As the Atheist and Christian discuss the reasons for the Atheists lack of a belief the Christian starts to search for reasons why he does not believe them. The conclusion that he comes to is that it is his love of the life of sin that prevents him from being persuaded by his reasoning, as he says to the Atheist:

“I perceive your keeping to your opinion is for love of the worldly liberties you gain by it; for the way to heaven you finde too strait and narrow to pass, but I tell you that it is a fond fancie of yours.”

Such reasons are common rationale for the failure of people to belief and this reasoning is as common today as it was in the seventeenth century. A more interesting dynamic is exposed through the dialogue itself.

The Atheist responds to the Christians accusations with the following:

“I am not yet resolved, nor will by your fallacies: but keep stedfastly to my opinion to the last: and whereas you say your reasons are beyond mine, I suppose not, and your persuassiding me to your opinion and judgemet works not one me. I should rather chuse anything then the opinion of an Englishman, a people compacted of the worst of all nations… a nation of bred up apes”

This reveals what the writer sees as being the real obstruction to conversion: prejudice, bias and a closed mind. In contrast to the ideal Christian learner constructed in the opening passage, the Atheist reveals that he is not open to conversion because he is not a true lover of knowledge and learner, but is determined to ‘keep steadfastly’ to his opinion. This is taken further as his rejection of the arguments of the Christian are not founded on rationality but on the prejudice of the fact it was expressed by an Englishman. The Atheist is thereby depicted as being a dogmatic individual blinded by his own prejudices. The dialogue in this instance then does not provide an template of the ideal conversion, but rather, functions as an answer to why dialogue sometimes fails to convert others.


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