Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Article: How to Talk to an Atheist about Christianity

Continuing on my series on articles by theists for theists about how to convert those darned atheists, today I have:  How to Talk to an Atheist about Christianity via the Catholic News Agency.

Frankly, I find these fascinating. It's a combination of getting insight into their (anti-)epistemologcal mental processes, and train wrecks that I can't stop watching.

Let's dive in.

I won't address every part, just those things that stand out to me.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, atheism was the belief system that dared not speak its name.
Here's the first foreshadowing that this is going to be great. How do they figure that atheism is a "belief system"? It's like saying that not owning a Corvette is a "Corvette Collection."

My impression is that they're so mired in their theistic world view, that they can't even categorize us correctly. Since atheism is a position on religious matters, it itself is clumped together with the other "positions on religious matters", and then we magically get an equivocation between "position on religious matters" and "belief system"... and voila! Atheism is now a belief system.

Of course, this comes from the same people who say "evolution is just a theory", so I can't expect too much from them.
Even the most ardent skeptic paid lip service to faith, or at least to the blessings that mankind derived from it.
Yes? Maybe because the theists made it a question of health concerns to do so?
If we're going to be encountering more atheists (and we are, whether at work or the laundromat or around our own dinner tables), we should be prepared to explain our beliefs in a way that resonates with people outside the faith. As a starting point, what follows is a list of dos and don'ts to keep in mind when you find yourself discussing religion with an atheist: 
Ah, this is easy!
  • Do: Provide peer-reviewed scientific evidence in sufficient quality and quantity to support your claim.
  • Don't: Not provide peer-reviewed scientific evidence in sufficient quality and quantity to support your claim.
Again with this idea that it just hasn't been explained quite right...
1. Don't be afraid to admit that you have faith. Christians frequently report that they've been in situations where the topic of why they believe comes up, and all they can say is that they have faith even though they've never done any major investigation. They often seem embarrassed by this defense. If you get caught in a conversation about why you believe and that's all you've got, don't be afraid to go with that. Articulate it as best you can. For example, you might explain that your faith is not just a story you tell yourself to feel good, or talk about what leads you to believe that you have a real relationship with Something outside of the material world.

So their #1 is "Don't be embarrassed to admit that you're totally irrational and believe things for no good reason?"

... how does that help their case? How about ending the conversation, saying that you'll have to look into it further, because you don't currently know the answer? That would be respectable.

If none of the explanations include actual evidence... don't bother - you're just wasting everyone's time.
2. Don't assume that your atheist friends are secretly angry at God or feel like something is missing in their lives. Work from the assumption that this person is an atheist because he or she simply has not seen any evidence that God exists. 
I'm glad I'm finding multiple sources pointing this out. They're becoming aware enough to work to end it. All it does is piss off the atheist, and cause him/her to further believe that theists are delusional.

3. Don't quote the Bible, but do know the Bible. The Bible is a source of great wisdom, but if you quote it to an atheist as an authority, it will be like your doctor explaining his diagnosis by reading a passage from a Harry Potter book. Don't just cough up Bible verses and expect that to convince anybody. There are reasons why the Bible says the things it says. Know the reasons behind them and be prepared to explain them. 
Star Trek is a source of great wisdom too, but I'm not going to pretend that Captain Kirk is a real person.

It's exciting to see Christians have some amount of self awareness of the limitations of their position, though it sounds like the author is pushing for Apologetics... trying to come up with rationalizations why the Bible condoned slavery, and ordered genocide by a supposed "good" sky wizard.

Here's better advice: be prepared to explain with evidence why you think the events in the Bible actually happened. Trying to explain God's reasoning for his commands usually breaks down into the Christian being forced to defend vile and corrosively evil things.
4. Don't feel like you have to have all the answers right then and there. It is far better to simply say, "Great question! I don't know the answer to that, but I'd love to research it and get back to you," than to wade into territory that you're not familiar with. 

I don't often read ahead, as it turns out. I prefer to dive in and address it as it goes. I've thought on and off that I really ought to read through the article first, but I quickly lose patience and start railing away.
5. Explain the big picture. Familiarize yourself with the historical case for Christianity, and offer a high-level explanation of what makes this religion's claims compelling -- that Jesus' life and death fulfilled ancient scriptures that all historians agree existed before His time; that almost all the apostles were martyred for their faith; that Christianity spread like wildfire despite horrendous persecution. Study the writings of the earliest Christians, who were defending Christianity in a pagan world that was largely hostile to their beliefs (sound familiar?). 
Strangely, most disagree with these claims.

Re: "that Jesus' life and death fulfilled ancient scriptures" - here's what the Jewish have to say (source link):
Jews do not believe that Jesus was the mashiach. Assuming that he existed, and assuming that the Christian scriptures are accurate in describing him (both matters that are debatable), he simply did not fulfill the mission of the mashiach as it is described in the biblical passages cited above. Jesus did not do any of the things that the scriptures said the messiah would do.
It's also not all that compelling if a well-known prophecy can be ordered up on-demand after the fact. That's as compelling as a "Restaurant Prophecy" - where you order a steak dinner at a restaurant, and predict one will be delivered to you. This does not require magic to foresee... especially when the prediction has no expiration date.

Re: "that all historians agree existed before His time"

They do.. but they don't all agree that he fulfilled them... or that he even existed. We don't have any extra-biblical contemporary evidence, only people many decades later talking about events that happened before their time. Would you be compelled by a story by someone who knew someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens?

Here's a lecture if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Re: "His time; that almost all the apostles were martyred for their faith; that Christianity spread like wildfire despite horrendous persecution."

So, the tired "they wouldn't die for a lie" trope? I thought the Atheist Experience lecture on this was fairly thorough. Below is part 1 of 4. The others should be available in the additional videos list, but I won't embed them all here.

I acknowledge that these responses come from atheists (though that shouldn't matter), but if we're addressing specifically how to discuss these issues with non-believers, one should know what they're up against... and why these arguments will likely be ineffectual.

Re: "Early Christians defending Christianity in a Pagan world"

So what? Most religions are defending their religions in a world that outnumbers them, and are sometimes hostile to them. Humans are capable of being fanatical about things that aren't true. Muslim terrorists/jihadists, for example?

My point is that, it's good that they realize they need to support the claims, but they don't appear to be aware that the supposed support they're advocating has already been thoroughly demolished, and they'd be lucky to find an ignorant enough atheist who isn't already aware of that fact.
6. Be logical. Don't deny the validity of logical, scientific thought out of hand. It's true that science doesn't have all the answers, but it does have some of them, and if you try to deny that, you risk pushing yourself into crackpot territory. 
Great advice. Too bad few, if any, actually pay attention to it. It's quite possible that the people who actually get this, know enough to not even try, and so my available samples of theists are heavily slanted.
As Pope Benedict XVI is always reminding us, the God in whom we believe is a God of reason. 
Then why are we sent to hell for employing it? I realize many Christians have gutted their own doctrine enough so that faith in Jesus is no longer required for salvation, but many haven't and it's still right there in the Bible. Heck, I was arguing last week with a Christian who insisted that the only "True Christian" is one who believes in Salvation-through-faith (and oddly, that there's no merit n salvation-through-works, apparently... it's not like salvation-through-works would actually help anyone or anything!).

I'm sorry, but you can't whitewash your own doctrine away.
There is a long, learned history of rational arguments for Christianity, and if you can use them, you'll be speaking in terms that your atheist friend can understand. Get to know some of the great Christian philosophers and apologists. If you haven't read C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, what are you waiting for? 
Oh boy.... please cite me a "rational argument" that isn't riddled with logical fallacies, presuppositions or invalid premises. They've all been debunked... a thousand times. I throw a party (I say "WOO!" and party is thus completed) whenever I come across a new argument.

I actually have a copy of that... I just need to... you know, read it. I don't have a lot of patience for book-reading these days. I prefer hyperdimensional access to information over sequentially starting at the beginning and working to the end. The Internet has changed me... just point me to the argument!
7. Realize that your only goal is to plant a seed. In these discussions we can sometimes get so focused on the details that we lose sight of the big picture.
Ironically, that's my attitude towards them. I'm trying to plant a seed of rationality and epistemology, to the point where they'll hopefully engage in critically thinking about their own beliefs.
It's extremely unlikely that the person you're talking to is going to be completely convinced of the truth of Christianity in one conversation. Just defend Christianity the best you can, and remember that conversion is ultimately God's job, not yours. 
I don't understand this attitude. If it's God's job... why even bother do anything? Is God not omnipotent? What does he need your help for? If everything is part of God's plan, and you think you're part of God's plan, doesn't that also mean that it's God's plan that the atheist stay an atheist, and thus goes to hell? How do you know you aren't interfering with God's plan for the atheist? Why would God make the atheist, have you try to convert him, waste both your time, and then ultimately have the atheist go to hell anyway? Why not just leave it in God's hands completely? Or is God just "winging it", and his plan is simply an idea that he's attempting to actualize, but failing miserably?
8. Put yourself in your atheist friends' position. What if, for example, Christianity was false and Greek mythology was actually true? What would it take to convince you of that? 
It's not bad advice, actually. It's suggesting some level of critical thinking... but it doesn't go far enough. The question shouldn't what would convince you of that thing... because many people can be convinced of things that are wrong (doesn't this suggestion basically imply that about your prior Christianity?).

The trick is to figure out how to demonstrate that it's actually true... not merely convince a person that it's true. We're interested in the truth in this conversation, right?

9. Don't use a lot of Christian catchphrases. Christians "give their hearts to Jesus" and "the Holy Spirit indwells us" and we take a "daily walk with Christ" so that we're "in the world but not of the world." All these phrases are meaningful and profound and instantly understandable for almost any Christian, but they don't mean anything to people who are outside the faith. It's hard to avoid them, because we're used to using them as shorthand for some very complex concepts. But you should be able to explain those concepts in plain terms anyway. 
I didn't realize "indwells" was a word. The atheist side of the debate has had to be self-aware of the same issue... whenever we throw "THAT'S ARGUMENT FROM IGNORANCE #105 IN THIS DEBATE" at the apologist/evangelist, it might not mean anything to them, because they're not familiar with the terms.

That's not to say that terms shouldn't be used, but rather explaining what they mean, even obliquely, is typically good.

My problem with these catchphrases isn't that I don't understand them, so much as they're literally talking about their experiences with delusions, as far as I can tell. If you were talking about taking a ride on Harry Potter's flying broom as an actual real thing, I'd be dismissing that too, as delusional.
10. Pray. Don't make the mistake of relying solely on your own smarts when you have the Holy Spirit at your disposal. Pray for guidance for yourself and for a receptive heart within your atheist friend. You might be surprised at the effectiveness of this technique. It'll be good for you, too.
Do: Pray

Do: After praying, have a thorough discussion with each of your 37 invisible imaginary friends. They'll surely modify reality on your behalf!

Of course, this advice is indistinguishable from simply taking a timeout to think things through, and then attributing the success to invisible spooks, when you come to a realization.

I love that they end the list on the single most useless advice they could possible provide.... which was certainly challenging, given some of the items they listed.
We're not encouraging anyone to go out and pick a fight -- no one ever got harangued into the family of God. But with a little mental preparation, when the time comes, you'll be ready to present the case for faith in terms that are familiar to your non-believing friends and family members.
The case for faith? If you have a valid case, it's not faith. That's definitional.

If you have the evidence the support a claim, it doesn't take faith to believe it. You've got evidence now.

Yep... this article... not exactly abnormal. Treat the atheist like some hurt dog who just needs to be befriended enough to completely abandon rationality and believe in the Magical BubbleGum Forest, just like you!

No comments:

Post a Comment