Monthly Archives: December 2008

Is it worthwhile to debate someone of faith?

When it comes to reasoned discussion with the religious, skeptics veer between two opposing positions.  On the one side, many see it as an exercise in futility, preferring to mock believers and dismiss their claims outright.  Freethinkers such as Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and the irrepressible Pat Condell are representative of this camp.

On the other side, we have the “evangelical” atheists and agnostics, often former faithful themselves, who seek to engage with logic, reason, and evidence the beliefs of the pious, convinced that their former associates can be converted to freethought in the same manner they were.  Such individuals include  Hector Avalos and John W. Loftus.

Both sides have fairly solid arguments.  Those who hold to a hardline position wonder, how can you have a reasoned discussion with someone whose beliefs are fundamentally not based on reason?  You can crush the religious with a metric ton of evidence, but in the end, they’ll retreat to faith, “inner witness,” or changed lives to justify the truth of their beliefs (while hypocritically rejecting such things as evidence for the truth claims of other religions).   A small degree of doubt in one’s own beliefs is typically presumed among opponents in a debate, but if one side lacks it, then what’s the use?  You might as well be talking to a brick wall.

There’s also their argument that puncturing the aura of respectability surrounding faith is one of the most effective means for diminishing it.  Ridicule, mockery, and dismissal are the favored tools here.  Implicitly recognizing their effectiveness, many believers stridently protest such tactics, and seek to return their faith-based dogmas back beyond the pale of criticism, either judicially or violently.  Such censorious responses only play into the hands of the skeptics, both by forcing religious moderates to stand up and reject them, and by demonstrating the moral bankruptcy of a “truth” that requires Gestapo-like methods to uphold.

Proponents of engagement counter with personal examples and numerous de-conversion stories, which demonstrate that someone can be reasoned out of faith, under the right circumstances.   Not every believer’s views are immovably fixed.  And even while they may consciously profess absolute conviction, sub-consciously, it may be a different story, resulting in an epiphany of sorts when suppressed doubt bursts to the surface.  You never know what fertile ground the seed you’ve cast may find.

The skeptical evangelists also know that in our internet-driven information age, discussion is no longer local or confined, but instant, global and permanent.  The individual with whom you’re conversing may be immune to persuasion, but the same may not be true of whatever audience happens by, now or in the future.  Little-by-little, skeptics are building a tremendous library of freethought, accessible at the speed-of-Google.  Even my insignificant corner of the blogosphere gets a number of visitors as a result of searches which leave little doubt they are of Christian origin.

Finally, opponents of the dismissive approach to religion wonder whether it repels more believers than it draws.  Poisoning their well doesn’t inspire confidence that your own is good to drink from.  The simple fact is that the vast majority of the planet’s inhabitants profess belief in supernatural beings.  This is a tide whose ebbing will not be facilitated by removing ourselves from it.  Besides, freethought grants the possibility, however remote, that there may in fact be some supernatural being(s).  We cannot shut completely our eyes and ears to belief in the supernatural, lest we become like the very type of individual we oppose.

Where do I side on this question?  I tend toward engagement.  I’ve been particularly impressed by de-conversion stories like DagoodS’, in which online investigation and discussions with skeptics, among other things, ultimately led him to abandon Christianity.  Former believers are among the most powerful forces against faith, in my view.  Not only is their apostasy extremely difficult for believers to deal with (many religions have typically put such individuals to death), but they can speak to believers far more effectively than life-long outsiders.  “Winning” one over is a huge plus for freethought.

Yet, I also see the utility in forthright ridicule.   While some religious views retain a degree of plausibility, others are just plain nuts, if not dangerous to our collective well-being.  Significant expectation of the “imminent” return of some long-dead god or prophet, for example, has spawned reflexive rejection of the danger posed by possible man-made global warming.  Mocking and outrage at such beliefs will rob them of respectability far faster than reasoned explanation why they’re erroneous.  Ridicule also quickly stretches the boundaries within which religious dogmas may be discussed among more sober-minded individuals.  And let’s face it.  The media thrive on conflict, which is why someone like Hitchens or Dawkins is far likelier to get in front of the cameras than someone who takes an engaged approach.

In sum, rejection and engagement are both proper responses to believers.  The path to freethought has many avenues, and it’s impossible to predict what influence will spur the believer to take that first step along one of them.  I sometimes see (heated) debate about which approach is best.  Can’t we have a combination?  It seems to me, they reinforce and strengthen the other.

Pssst, guys…

It seems that some liberal/progressive groups are upset over President-elect Barak Obama’s decision to invite Christian pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration.  Warren, who typically sides with conservatives on social issues, is a staunch opponent of gay marriage.

“[T]he sad truth is that this decision further elevates someone who has in recent weeks actively promoted legalized discrimination and denigrated the lives and relationships of millions of Americans,” fumed Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way.

Joe Solmonese, head of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, was even harsher.  “We feel a deep level of disrespect when one of architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination,” he wrote to Obama.

Perhaps if Kolbert, Solmonese, and millions of other liberals had been paying attention during the campaign, they’d know that Obama and Biden are among the same “promoters of an anti-gay agenda” as Warren.  From the vice-presidential debate on October 2, 2008:

IFILL: Let’s try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

BIDEN: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it.

It’s up to people of faith, like Warren, to determine what constitutes marriage, according to Obama and Biden.  Doesn’t seem to get any clearer (or ridiculous) than that.  But if liberals weren’t so keen to project their every wish, dream, or fantasy onto Obama during the campaign, their shocked reactions today would be mere shrugs.

The fact of existence for which theists have no good answer

The introductory scene from the movie Contact frames the point I wish to make better than any words I can come up with

The universe is vast.  Literally, unimaginably so.  We occupy the minutest spec of it, a planet near a star among billions of other stars in a single galaxy among billions of galaxies.

When our true place in the heavens began to dawn on astronomers, their picture was rejected as heresy by the pious.  Indeed so, for it made a mess of what they had understood and taught for centuries.  One can only imagine their reaction if our present knowledge of the scope and origins of the universe was revealed to them.

Explaining this tremendous expanse has been exceedingly difficult for theists who believe in a god that specially created us and the environment we live in.  What is the purpose of the 99.99999999999999999999999% of the universe we don’t occupy, most of it extremely hostile to life?  They grope for an answer.  Arguments on the existence of God naturally focus on issues that directly revolve around us (e.g., the problem of evil, morality, etc.), but in my opinion, the brute fact of the universe’s scope poses as daunting, if not lethal, problem for the existence of the theist’s involved god.  Far from being some beloved (if benighted) creation, the true picture shows us to be the heirs of an extremely unlikely set of circumstances.  And before the theist replies that the faint odds actually prove an interventionist deity, allow me to point out that even with trillion to one odds, someone will win.

One attempted explanation I read proposed that God made the universe like it is in order to impress upon us his grandeur and majesty.  If so, that isn’t reflected in his scripture (whichever one it is).  Its creation barely warrants a mention in the Bible, for example; the trillions of stars are seemingly an afterthought (“[God] also made the stars.” – Genesis 1:17).  The heavens’ unimportance was reflected in centuries of theology, which viewed celestial bodies created to help us mark time and navigate.  It’s hard to imagine anything more beside the theological point than our boundless universe.

I think theologies like Christianity and Islam will undergo a seismic shift if life is ever discovered outside our solar system, which seems ever more likely given what we are discovering about the abundance of its building blocks in space.  We might not find intelligent life any time soon, but more hard questions will need to be answered by religion if it ever is.  It wouldn’t surprise me if such discoveries actually spawned new religions, or revived older, currently disfavored ones.

Skeptics don’t raise this argument all that much, I’ve noticed, though it’s probably among the late Carl Sagan’s writings.  Perhaps I should take the hint? 🙂  What I do find interesting, however, is how often some picture of the sky or space will sit atop atheist blogs, so perhaps I’m on to something.  Thoughts?

Another heart-breaking casualty of faith

Amora Bain Carson.  13 months old.  Killed by her parents with a hammer trying to beat “the demons” out of her.  She was also bitten more than 20 times.  Rest in peace, baby Amora.

I sometimes think the “new atheism” is actually a welcome distraction to Christians.  Instead of squabbling among themselves, which must be exhausting after 2,000 years with nothing to show for it except for more points of view to squabble with, they have a common cause to unite around.  Children accused of “witchcraft” in Nigeria, tortured and killed?  *yawn*  Some atheists place a few ads in Washington questioning any link between God and goodness?  The horror!

It’s not hard to understand why.  Tragedies like Amora’s raise too many uncomfortable and challenging questions for faith.  Christians cannot deny the existence of demons; casting them out every five minutes was Jesus’ favorite pasttime.  It’s therefore possible she was possessed.  And how can they can gainsay the method of “exorcism” when God allegedly made a baby sick for a week before killing it, merely to punish its father (2 Samuel 12:15-18)?  Perhaps Amora’s parents received a “personal witness from the Holy Spirit”–you know, the kind Christians say confirms their faith–granting them permission to act the way they did.  Outrageous?  Why? 

“No one can know the mind of God.” 

“His ways are not our ways.”

And my personal favorite,

“It’s a mystery.”

Fortunately, most Christians have not succumbed to the moral nilihism their theology leads to and will rightly recognize the abject evil that took place here.  The question is, what will they do about it, this real problem that causes the most innocent to suffer and perish?

39,000 and 1

According to the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 39,000 Christian demoninations in the world.  Today, that number increased by 1, as estranged members from the Episcopal Church formed a new church, the Anglican Church in North America.  To anyone following the long-smoldering drama over the ordination of gays and women within the Episcopal Church, the move comes as no surprise.  A significant minority of Episcopalians stongly objected to the reformist direction their church has taken, sparking a drive to divorce themselves from the larger body that is finally coming to fruition.  In times past, such schism would almost certainly have led to bloodshed, a prospect today annulled by the separation of church and state, a weakening of which the conservative Episcopalians ironically favor.

The ceaseless splintering of “the body of Christ” must be disconcerting among Christians, when they actually stop to consider it.  After all, their own scripture requests unity,

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)

Paul was clearly referring to an issue that bedeviled Christianity even in his day.  Yet given that Paul’s plea is no more closer to reality than it ever was, what else is there but for the Christian to paradoxically conclude that God desires division, for whatever mysterious reason he has?  Over 39,000 Christian denominations!  The number doesn’t even include all those that once existed!

For those who believe every religion is a purely man-made invention, facts like this are easily explained.  Just as we all have different tastes in food, clothing, mates, etc., so do we have different tastes in religion.  When competition for believers is allowed in a relatively free and open market, “specialization and differentiation” inevitably result, just as for any other good.  I also tend to believe that much of the basis for schism is shared with the basis of religion itself: faith.  Beliefs held in spite of reason or evidence are extremely resistant to conciliation.  In fact, they tend to encourage humanity’s in-bred tribalism, leading occassionally to violence.  In contrast, when was the last time you saw scientists waging war over a scientific theory?

Despite 2,000 years of existence, the cacophony of Christian voices each proclaiming “the Truth” is only growing louder.  Who among you is right?  When you finally agree, please let me know.  Perhaps then I’ll take your religion seriously.

Remove “Under God” from the Pledge?

David Waters makes a novel case for removing the phrase “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.  The person who’s credited with the idea, Presbyterian minister George M. Docherty, has passed on.  And so too has the era which elicited adding the phrase to the Pledge.  In short, it’s an anachronism, no longer relevant in today’s pluralist society.

Of course, I agree.  Atheists have long supported removing the phrase for the very reasons Waters cites.  But I believe the Pledge itself is an anachronism.  It’s unnecessary for those who agree with its words, and irrelevant to those who don’t.  It’s not a pledge that makes America worth living in and fighting for, but the ideals that founded it.  We would do better to educate fellow citizens why those ideals make for a superior society, rather than force them to memorize words and kid ourselves we’ve strengthened the country’s foundations somehow.