Friday, January 25, 2008

TurretinFan Conclusion to the Holy Water Debate

American baseball players are notorious for their superstitions. Some always enter the batters box the same way, and some have a “lucky” way of digging in their spikes before each pitch. We can write these superstitious traditions off, because we know that it takes strength, speed, and a good eye to be a baseball great, not drinking exactly three ounces of water before warming up with two bats of the same weight. Even if we like the superstitions, we expect baseball managers to play the numbers, not rely on talismans.

In this debate we’re posed with something similar. PhatCatholic (PC) has attempted to defend a resolution that the application of Holy Water is an effective means for stopping demonic forces. It is a superstition (or, at a minimum, PC cannot establish otherwise), and we don’t have a valid basis for accepting it.

I. Scriptures and the Early Church Fathers do not teach the resolution

PC essentially conceded this point from the start. He argues out that they do not say anything contrary either. In other words, there is no testimony from Scripture that demons laugh at holy water. There is also none that they laugh at limericks, but that would not be a valid basis for a resolution: “resolved that limericks stop demons.”

Nevertheless, PC immediately retreated to arguing that demons are “rightly repulsed” by “anything” holy.

II. But Scriptures and the Early Church Fathers do not teach that demons are “rightly repulsed” by “anything” holy

In fact, we saw examples in which Satan was not afraid to tempt Jesus, and appear among the holy angels in the presence of the Father. PC essentially admits this, and thus PC has retreated to a second fall-back position, namely that sometimes God lets demons be in the presence of something holy, and sometimes he doesn’t, holy water being in the latter category.

III. But Scriptures and the Early Church Fathers also do not say that God does not allow demons to be in the presence of holy water

In fact, there’s not even any example from the Scriptures or the Early Church Fathers from which we could infer such a thing, because neither had any concept of such a principle. PC, again, has essentially admitted this, for he turns to a third fall-back position, namely that it has supposedly worked so many times in the course of human history.

Actually, he says “Christian history,” but he might as well say “human history,” for other religions, from Judaism and Islam to Hinduism, Shamanism, and Shinto claim success in opposing demonic forces, some even with “holy water.”

But the fact that all these people succeed in opposing demonic forces, and use holy water in doing so, does not back up his claim. It’s a classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, one leg upon which (to one degree or another) superstitions are based. To put in statistical terms: correlation does not establish causality. Wearing women’s shoes is highly correlated with incurring breast cancer, but it would be invalid to conclude that the strappy sandals are the cause.

It’s also a class example of self-reinforcement: it “worked” this time, so I’ll use it next time. In fact, I’ll use it every time. And look: it keeps working. This is the “Dumbo” fallacy: I flew with the feather, so the feather must be magic. That’s a second leg upon which superstitions stand.

Finally, to complete the superstitious stool, there is the leg of the statistical fallacy of filtering. This is the fallacy where only the successes are noticed, and the failures are passed over. This is the sort of fallacy that “Friday the 13th” superstionists engage in. The day does not bring bad luck in itself, but people notice when something bad happens on that day. PC reports hundreds of alleged successes of demon opposition using holy water, but does not indicate any of the failures.

In short, PC’s attempt to harness anecdotal evidence is fallacious. But the careful reader will see that PC has backed even further away from the resolution. In his rebuttal, he finally argues that holy water, plus faith (“in the prayers of the church”) can be effective. Let’s suppose that is the case. PC acknowledged in his very first post that faith is effective at stopping demons. So, it should be no surprise that “holy water” does not destroy faith’s power. Neither does wearing a tin foil hat while we resist demons with faith in God, but that doesn’t make a tin foil hat effective.

There are a few miscellaneous things to be cleared up.

- Apostolic Canons: There is no way to definitively push the cited passage of the Apostolic canons past the 12 century, and, as already demonstrated, there is evidence suggesting insertion. PC’s comment that they were unknown to the Western Church simply means that it was someone in the Eastern Church who made the insertion. They claim to be written by Clement of Rome, and the author claims that they are a collection of the statements of the apostles. Both claims are generally recognized to be false. Furthermore, as already demonstrated, other parts of the same document undermine the idea that demons are afraid of holy things, or consecrated water, such as the prohibition on ordination of demoniacs.

- Origin of the Practice: PC talks about how the practice developed organically. I'm sure it did develop, and I'm glad he acknowledges that. It probably developed from an over-reverance of the water of baptism, and a mistaken belief in baptismal regeneration, which began quite early and quite understandably. How it developed, though, is not the issue for debate.

- Unclean Spirits: If we were trying to make unclean spirits clean, sprinkling holy water on them might make sense. But we are not, so it doesn’t. Ritual uncleanness for which the OT prescribed washing is unlike spiritual uncleanness, for which the OT prescribed sacrifice.

- Anecdotal Evidence: Alternative causality, the placebo effect, and so forth could have been explored in this debate if PhatCatholic’s main argument had been, it has worked hundreds of times. The claims that water works are not verifiable, further more it is suspect, as will be discussed below.

PC says that he is not willing to take John Paul Perrin’s word for the fact that the use of holy water against demons was simply a medieval superstition. Perrin however, documented his claim with an appeal to a Roman Catholic doctor (physician) who testified to that fact.

Furthermore, we have the testimony of other Catholics, such as Erasmus (who was offered the position of cardinal by Paul III), who acknowledge that the medieval era was awash with superstitions (see, for example, “In praise of folly,” pp. 85-87 (link)). One can even find admissions of the extent of superstitions in Europe from Cardinal Newman, who was certainly accepting of a continuity of miracles (see, Lives of the English Saints, Section 3 “Hermit Saints,” p. 57 (link)).

One can even see implicit testimony to that fact from the discontinuance by Catholicism of the public display of relics, from prohibitions on the sale of relics, and the like. Indeed, Trent itself ordered: “that the ordinary bishops of places shall take diligent care, and be bound to prohibit and abolish all those things which [among other things] … superstition, which is a false imitation of true piety, may have introduced.” (link)

IV. In short, the entire remaining case for the alleged effectiveness of Holy Water (unless PC provides a new argument in his conclusion) is anecdotal evidence, evidence that is suspect, because it arose in a time of superstition.

At the end of the day, we need to decide whether to accept the resolution. We don’t have any a priori reason to do so. And if we have this kind of response: “When asked which part of the ritual was most important, he said, ‘You can’t really tell what’s most important so it all becomes important. I’d be afraid to change anything. As long as I’m winning, I do everything the same’,” then we are just superstitious. (source) We are not being rational about the matter, but simply indulging in a variety of statistical fallacies. If we are doing that, we should stop. Either way, we should reject the resolution.

Thanks to PC for his participation in this debate, and I await his concluding argument.



Turretinfan said...


I count around 1400 words. I guess this gives you until the 31st of January (i.e. before the 1st of February) to respond with your own conclusion.

phatcatholic said...

Hey, just so you know, I'm gonna be down to the wire on this one too, but I won't be late.