August 31, 2003
Theirs was not to reason why

Captain Inertia has a nice post up about online debates between Christians and nonbelievers. He admonishes his fellow Christians to be better witnesses in those arguments, but he's still kind of puzzled about why atheists come to argue in the first place and why they keep raising the same points over and over.

I don't know for sure, and I'm sure it varies with the individual, but speaking from the other side of the fence I can offer my own observations. As to why people debate, at least part of it is that there are so few opportunities out there to discuss this stuff. We're taught not to discuss politics and religion in polite company, a rule that tends to assume such conversations can never turn out well. Yet it seems like a natural human thing to want to talk about, so instead it gets pushed into impolite company.

As to people asking the same questions over and over, the Captain rather unflatteringly compares us to unrecovered alcoholics, but I don't think that's quite fair. In reality, it can be very hard to get answers to these questions; not because answers aren't out there, but indeed, there are so many of them.

For some reason when I woke up this morning, I remembered an argument I made to Telford when he was pushing me to study historical Jesus research last spring. It's an issue that still bugs me: if the evidence for Jesus' resurrection is so compelling, why isn't it better known? I don't think Telford knew what I meant, because it's well enough known in his little world of Christian academia. But it seems to me that if the evidence is there it would be mind-bogglingly useful in evangelism and popular debates. After all, surely one of the "same ten objections" to Christian faith is the lack of hard evidence. Yet when people raise it, Christians hardly ever bring it up; they're more likely to make arguments that have inexplicably become more popular (argument from design, the anthropic principle, Pascal's wager etc.) or to dismiss the need for empirical evidence at all.

It's the same story with a lot of those issues, actually. Ask five different Christians and you'll get seven different answers. Yet many Christians don't seem to realize this. One recent debate that the Captain's post reminded me of was this one on Amy Welborn's blog, which exemplifies the nastiness these things can descend into. Which is a shame, because I've made the same argument that J.B. makes in the thread (though I try to be less obnoxious about it) and have often gotten the same basic answer: "Free will. Duh." But not only am I unsatisfied with the conventional understanding of free will, so are many Christians, as someone like David Heddle exemplifies.

I contrast this in my mind with the way scientists, for instance, argue in favor of evolution. Ask any one why they think evolution is true, and you'll likely get the same answers. And so, since this is a publicly debated topic, the evidence is pretty easy to find anywhere in the library or on the Web -- unlike the evidence for the resurrection.

But this, really, comes from the difference between Christianity and science. To be a Christian, you must ascribe to a certain set of beliefs, but it really doesn't matter how you arrived at them. To be a scientist, by contrast, means ascribing to a method of arriving at a conclusion, but it doesn't matter what conclusion you come to. So it's impossible to get 100% of scientists to agree on much of anything, but if a number of them do agree on something, they tend to have a consistent line about why.

This can all be very difficult for the nonbeliever to sort out. And one discouraging thing for me in all this is that I've run into a lot of flimsy arguments, leading me to believe a lot of Christians don't have great critical-thinking skills. But on the other hand, most people don't have great critical-thinking skills, whether they believe in God or not, and I can't claim to be perfect at it myself. It does not mean that good reasons don't exist. I would just warn Christians, though, that if they feel like saying, "What, haven't we answered that already?" or "Read this book, it answers it perfectly!" (a line I seem to get a lot), they would do well to remember that what seems like a foolproof answer to them may not be so to everyone. It does not mean the other person is just making excuses, or trying to be a pain in the ass. It's the diversity of human thought and experience, that no one theory has ever been able to capture.

Posted by Camassia at August 31, 2003 09:38 AM | TrackBack

I think that atheists and believers go on and on each for the same reason: the atheist secretly wants to believe (and therefore is not merely indifferent) and the believer wants to affirm belief (but, secretly, and sometimes desperately, can't).
I have been reading a book by Idries Shah entitled The Sufis. In it he cites a saying of the Prophet Mohammad: "Everything but God is unnecessary, for events change." Later, he quotes the Persian Poet, Rumi: "You cannot teach by disagreement."
There can be only one capital "T" Truth. There can be innumerable ways to attempt to describe it. No such attempt will ever fully succeed. It is probable that no honest attempt is entirely without merit.

Posted by: Rob on August 31, 2003 11:13 AM

I don't think it's so surprising that these debates go on or that they easily turn vituperative. People have been killing other people over matters of belief since time immemorial (including atheists; e.g. Communist regimes). Faith can inspire the highest expression of love and beauty, but it's a topic that can often give rise to hate and fear as well.

Posted by: Tom T. on September 1, 2003 05:53 PM

It should be surprising (I think) and certainly is sad (I'm certain) that such discussions become "vituperative" from the Christian side. Nothing seemed to upset Jesus other than lack of faith and hypocrisy--both of which are in flagrant deployment when Christians are being vituperative.

Posted by: Rob on September 1, 2003 06:39 PM

I don't think the atheists "secretly want to believe" at all, Rob.

I think Camassia is on to something when she says that things aren't often debated.

This is true in secular society AND in Christian society. Doubt or questions are seen as a sign of weakness within churches, a weakness that needs to be eliminated by the stronger Christians -- not as reasonable debate.

Within Christian churches, the most rigorous discussion only consists of one person tentatively voicing some kind of doubt, and a "wiser" Christian providing some sort of awful analogy or faulty logic ("he's either liar, lunatic, or Lord!") which the others are expected to accept. Even if they don't accept it, they simply be quiet. After all -- if they don't believe yet, it's because their faith isn't great enough to see The Truth. It's not a case of faulty arguments, because after all, absolute Truth is on the side of the faith authority.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on September 2, 2003 08:18 AM

Well, to be fair, the discussions we had at Alpha were way better than what Kynn describes. But of course Alpha was specifically designed for that sort of talk, and one of my frustrations with church after Alpha ended was the lack of further opportunities for that. Most people, believers or atheists, tend to hang out with their own kind, and so spiritual questions often throw them for a loop.

As to what atheists secretly want, I don't think one can make a sweeping generalization. But if one is bothering to spend time on blogs arguing with believers, as opposed to just being indifferent (as are most atheists I know), that suggests a soul not at rest. It might be an underlying yearning, or it might be a specific bad past experience with faith, or maybe both.

Posted by: Camassia on September 2, 2003 08:44 AM

I see that I have been called out for the sin of not applying the proper modifiers to deployed nouns: mea culpa.
Okay, "atheists" don't secretly want to believe. Only the type of atheist who seeks out believers and tries argue away their belief arouses my suspicions along those lines. He's kind of like the repressed homosexual who is driven to beat up on gays: he hates what he can't let himself have.
I have to hope that this kind of atheist is ultimately susceptible to the Good News.

Posted by: Rob on September 2, 2003 01:14 PM

Rob, Camassia, look at your point from the other side. Are Christians who seek out atheists and try to argue away their unbelief (i.e., Christians who evangelize) "souls not at rest"? Are evangelical Christians also like repressed homosexuals, hating atheists because of what the Christians can't let themselves have?

Posted by: Tom T. on September 2, 2003 05:05 PM

Tom T. --
In some cases, sure.

Posted by: Rob on September 2, 2003 06:06 PM

Eh ... it depends on how they do it. Certainly the way some Christians evangelize, it makes you wonder. But I'm not sure the two things are strictly comparable. Evangelism is built into the Christian belief system, it's the Great Commission, so many Christians do it not out of their personal desire but out of their belief that it's what God wants. They believe people need saving. Most atheists I know don't care if someone else believes in God, unless that belief intrudes on them somehow. If some Christian seems happy and nonviolent, why disturb them?

As I said here a couple months ago, witnessing is actually pretty subtle when it's done properly. It's about forming relationships, about genuinely wanting to help someone instead of just scoring points. The same goes for atheist 'witnessing'. And as Captain Inertia noticed, in most of these blog discussions neither side manages to live up to that.

Posted by: Camassia on September 2, 2003 06:06 PM

I certainly agree with the idea that perhaps the more effective mode of witnessing is the more subtle mode of witnessing.
Another difference between atheistic "witnessing" and Christian witnessing, is the possibility that the Christian witness, if her witness is honest and truthful and performed in a spirit of charity, will be receiving help in the form of grace. If the atheist receives "help", it will come from the opposite moral pole and be pretty standard and ultimately banal stuff.

Posted by: Rob on September 2, 2003 06:21 PM
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