How to Debate Christians and On Answering Questions



A Worrisome Trend
As I’ve been engaging with fellow Christians, friends, family, and the occasional passerby, I have come to realize a disturbing pattern. Each time I approach subjects of controversy, or what they hold to be controversial, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, Biblical errancy, or the doubtful historicity of Jesus and so on, there is a reoccurring theme with nearly all of them. The vast majority of believers I speak with have not read anything related to Darwin’s theory of evolution, they haven’t read any of their own religion’s history, and certainly they have barely managed to peruse the pages of the Bible, let alone read it closely enough to find any internal inconsistencies.
What this means is, in the realm of the dialectic, it appears that those like myself who are taking the time to keep up on the current events, information, and ideas are largely debating those who are relatively in the dark. Now before you judge me as sponsoring an elitist form of atheist snobbery, I should like to point out that this borderline illiteracy of believers was reported on earlier this year by the Christian research group Barna. Barna found numerous embarrassing facts about Christians reading habits, two statistics which are worth reiterating: 1) Christians normally don’t even have a rudimentary knowledge of their Bibles because, in most cases, they don’t read it, and 2) Atheists, on average, have a better understanding of religion than most Christians.
I find it astonishing that so many Christians are so comfortable with not having read the whole Bible. After all, I’m pretty sure many of them have read the Lord of the Ring trilogy, all seven Harry Potter books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The DaVinci Code, The Pillars of the Earth and more. Yet God wrote a book (or directly inspired it) and the majority of his followers haven’t actually bothered to read it. Even as Christians constantly pay lip service to “God’s Holy Word” by invoking their bibles as a moral anchor and guiding force in their lives, it seems totally hypocritical since, apparently, most haven’t even read it. Shocking to think that, if we are to give Christians the benefit of the doubt and assume the Bible is a divinely inspired work, we have the single most vitally important text in the entire universe, but Christians don’t think it worthy of their time to read in full.
Just to be fair, the lackadaisical routine of Christians isn’t the only cause in the amassing ignorance I detect in my conversations with them. Indeed, the U.S. education system can take the bulk of the blame. The Associated Press recently reported that less than half of American students are proficient in science. Last I checked, fifty percent constituted a failing grade (i.e., a big fat F marked in red ink). The American education system has been slowly declining over the decades, and now the effects are starting to take their toll. At the same time, and it’s no trivial matter, religious institutions are inculcating children into superstitious modes of thinking and teaching them to be weary and distrustful of science. All this really means, however, is that religious faith is acting as an impediment to the learning of the next generation of thinkers. Needless to say, religious children will be at a disadvantage as they will have fewer opportunities as adults when they are competing for careers in a global economy dedicated to science and technology.
Engaging in the Dialectic
The above facts reflect something I have been noticing in my conversations with believers, which is there is often a tendency for the Christian (or person of faith) to demand the atheist (or nonbeliever) explain their position. In other words, believers are frequently demanding we justify our position, and more often than not, we do! What this normally entails is an atheist will sit down and explain the scientific, philosophical, textual, and/or historical reasons for why they simply can’t believe in God and the far fetched tenets and strained theologies of any particular religion. Peculiarly enough, many believers find such ideas downright offensive. As with any critical analysis, whether it be Higher Criticism or Comparative Religion, ideas that oppose the orthodox customs, beliefs, and practices or which may interfere with or undermine Christianity are usually eschewed. As with most robust religions, Christianity has a long history of trying to quell religious opposition and stamp out heretical views. Today this takes the form of many Christians just denying everything nonbelievers have to say, in fact, many like to engage in online debates and just state the contrary to whatever an atheist or secular humanist or free thinking naturalist might have to say.  
For example, if we state evolution is a fact, they state it’s not. If we say the bible is riddled with discrepancies and errors of every kind they deny this too. If we say that modern historical research casts doubt on the historicity of Jesus they just assert the opposite. This tactic of denying everything the atheist says may work to frustrate the atheist who is trying to have a serious conversation, but it does nothing to address the valid, and multifarious, points which the atheist raises. For each piece of evidence the atheist cites, which simultaneously works to validate their position, the theist simply takes the opposite stance—regardless of whether or not they have actually looked at the information, understood it, or not. It is literally like trying to talk to a toddler who is hell bent on frustrating you just to get one up on you. Christians might as well stick their fingers in their ears and yell “Blah-blah-blah!” at the top of their lungs, or like many adolescent children, they may choose to simply say, “Nuh-uh” to every affirmative statement you make.
On the rare occasion you do find someone patient enough, and willing enough, to engage in an adult conversation, usually, as has been my experience, you get into circular arguments, semantic accusations, or accusations that you didn’t address their flurry of questions to absolute satisfaction. Consider, for example, those precious times when you do manage to give a knock down argument, or bring up a great example they haven’t ever thought of before, they will often break into a series of sporadic, disorganized, sometimes rehearsed, string of questions, usually integrated with endless scriptural citations and third rate exegesis, which they typically feel atheists won’t be capable of responding to. When we do respond, they either raise more questions, or retreat back to their accusation that we didn’t address the prior set to their satisfaction and rephrase the entire set of questions, usually asking more convoluted questions instead of trying to clarify their initial points. (Admittedly, this is partially due to their general lack of training in formal logic and/or analytical thinking skills—and it’s not just Christians who are guilty of this as many haven’t had formal training in such areas—but I would like to point out that whereas religion has a tendency to create bubble environments of like mindedness, frequently creates dogmatic certainties, and often compel confirmation biases of all kinds, atheism less so—for obvious reasons). Other times they’ll quickly change the meanings of words and continually shift the goal posts of their own terminology to accommodate themselvesbut then turn around and blame you for playing semantic word games when your definition disagrees with theirs.
Recently, I got bombarded with a string of such meandering and unfocused questioning with regard to my previous post “Because the Truth Matters,” and I feel like I should paraphrase them here just to depict the sort of disorganized, confused, and ill-informed nature of the questions. Nonetheless, I feel that anyone who has ever had a religious discussion will recognize instantly the sort of thing I am referring to by seeing the questions laid out.
Now I should preface this with a short disclaimer, many of these questions come from a dear friend of mine, and I mean him no ill will by reproducing the questions here (you may wish to refer to my previous post “Because the Truth Matters” just to be clear as to the context of these questions).
“To say that Hitler was a devout follower of Christ is nonsense. Tristan, do you honestly think that the cleansing of the Temple gives anyone any grounds for eliminating an entire nationality? Firstly, Christ did not kill anyone, but merely removed them from His Father’s house. Secondly, the apostles in Acts spoke very harshly against the Sanhedrin and accused them of killing Christ. But, they did not kill the members of the Sanhedrin but instead, the Sanhedrin imprisoned them for blasphemy and spreading rumors which put them in a bad light.
“Simply stated, give me a Biblical case for genocide. If none can be made, then a Christian should view it as wrong.
“Mostly, you need to read more about Christian Apologetics if you’re only now hearing of Hank [Hanegraaff], then you’re in the dark about a lot of authors probably. My personal favs (currently) are CS Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, RC Sproul, and John Lennox. I believe you know of Lennox who is a gifted mathematician. Most of the articles you’re slamming are very light and go into NO detail. Rather than slam them, read more exhaustive ones. For example, if you haven’t read Miracles by CS Lewis then you’ve not heard a well stated Supernaturalist view of the world. I agree that Hank won’t get you there… Lewis will get you closer and an honest reading of scripture will get you the closest… only the Holy Spirit can do the rest.
“I’d like to end on your “Thirdly” point about Metaphysics… Sure, this article whetted your appetite for easy slander, but have you stopped to consider the point? Are you too entrenched in other’s thoughts (such as Dennett) to think of your own?… Do you feel angry? What physical reaction in your brain causes repulsion? Which causes swooning? Which causes fear? If you could tell me where the brain produced the physical reaction, does that explain why it happens?… Write a word down on a piece of paper and describe it in pure physics and chemistry… Don’t like that example? What does Father mean to you? Is there a text book definition that you could quote? Perhaps a sociological study is more in order. Is the love for your family just the movements of atoms through your brain? Can I make myself think things? If I can, is there an order of thoughts? Meaning, can some thoughts rule others and create others?
“If everything is physical: Who are you? Are you the sum of atoms, or more? If you lost one of atoms, would you cease to be you? What part has to go before that happens?… Before you write off all these questions as “Christian philosophical drivel” or something else, you should think. With all these thoughts swirling about in my brain: why should I believe any one of them?… I beg you, try not to slam the messenger who you feel doesn’t measure up to your level of intelligence or research. Wisdom may be gained from many different levels of a person.”
The inner workings of the mind of a devout Christian ladies and gentlemen! I know, because I used to think just like this, believe it or not. My friend is right, however, that we should try not to simply write off other people’s thoughts and ideas as “philosophical drivel” or worse. Personally, I have good critical methods which help me sift the layers of information and detect the gold nuggets hidden within otherwise rocky silt, techniques such as Occam’s razor. Critical thinking skills help to analyze and scrutinize the content of an idea, and I usually rely on a strong basis of research to balance and weigh the value, accuracy, and consistency of what I am hearing or reading. Logic helps me gauge what is most probable, and helps me hone in on the best inference to the truth. Indeed, without these tools we could not make light of any information we had.
Just to be clear, I do not think my friend is deliberately trying to be accuse me of sophistry, rather, I feel he is genuinely sincere in his sentiment. However, sentiments can sometimes be misguided, and our feelings can sometimes be misleading. I will attempt to address some of his points, however superficially, as I am no expert in all of the areas. As such, I can only point out obvious fallacies, mistakes, and show the evidence to my friend.
Critically Responding to the Questions
As I am formally trained in literary criticism, I must warn that the language of any critique can sound disconcerting, but where there is both positive and negative criticism, the thing we must pay attention to is the level of objectivity we apply in scrutinizing any idea and assessing its value. As such, if I sound harsh it is not because I am angry or offended. Rhetorical parrying can often come off sounding like mean spirited jabs, but I can assure you, I intend no ill will. That said, let the dialectic commence. (As per usual, my words are in red.)
“To say that Hitler was a devout follower of Christ is nonsense.”
Actually, I merely quoted Hitler, who himself, said it. As controversial as it is though, Hitler was a devout Christian. Here’s an overview: 1) Hitler was raised a devout Catholic, 2) the Nazi party prescribed to Positive Christianity (as Point 24 in the Nazi Party Program indicates) and held to an age old Christian tradition of Anti-Judaism, 2) the Nazi plan for Jews is nearly identical to Martin Luther’s seven-point plan to rid the world of Jews in his (extremely sinister) essay On the Jews and Their Lies, 3) Luther’s anti-Jewish tract was the basis for anti-Jewish policies implemented by Nazi Germany (which even leading Lutheran scholars agree, e.g. Martin H. Bertram), 4) Hitler praised Martin Luther in Mein Kampf and named him as one of his three main influences, 5) many of Hitler’s speeches pay lip service to God and Jesus Christ, the savior, and often mimics the Jewish extermination rhetoric of Pope Innocent III, 6) Hitler stated he believed he was doing a continuation of Catholic policy confirmed by a conversation he had on April 26, 1933 with the bishop of Osnabruck, Hermann Wilhelm Berning, 7) Hitler cited the 1933 Concordat between the Catholic Church and the Nazi Party as helping to further his cause, 8)   Holocaust historian, Guenter Lewy, has stated “Hitler was merely doing what the church had done for 1,500 years.” 9) I refer you to the original quote in which Hitler calls himself a Christian, and states he admires the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, regardless of what anyone may think, Hitler was, by any other definition, a believing Christian, 10) and on top of all this Hitler never once (not once!) mentions Darwin (or any of his works) in any of his speeches, writings, or dinner conversations which rules out any ties to Darwinism, meaning that Christianity was the main force behind Hitler’s superstitious religious ideologies regarding the Jews.
“Tristan, do you honestly think that the cleansing of the Temple gives anyone any grounds for eliminating an entire nationality? Firstly, Christ did not kill anyone, but merely removed them from His Father’s house. Secondly, the apostles in Acts spoke very harshly against the Sanhedrin and accused them of killing Christ. But, they did not kill the members of the Sanhedrin but instead, the Sanhedrin imprisoned them for blasphemy and spreading rumors which put them in a bad light.”
I am going to skip this biblical exegesis since it has no actual bearing on whether or not Hitler was a believer in Christ (other than to show he knows his Bible stories), because as we have seen, he undeniably was. All I will add is that—like most Christians—Hitler was a “sinner” in need of saving. I personally make no distinction between Christians who fail a little bit to exemplify the life of Christ and those who fail a lot. But it is no secret that Christians in every age have invoked the name of God and the authority of Holy Scripture to attempt to gain power, control, and total hegemony over others.
“Simply stated, give me a Biblical case for genocide. If none can be made, then a Christian should view it as wrong.”
Without meaning to sound sardonic, try the Old Testament.
“Mostly, you need to read more about Christian Apologetics if you’re only now hearing of Hank [Hanegraaff], then you’re in the dark about a lot of authors probably.”
Actually, I’m not sure Hank was well known when I was in the Evangelical upswing of mid-West in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Certainly his online ministry would not have been known to me at that time, but as for reading more third rate apologetics which show an incompetence to do basic research, which gets basic facts wrong, and which are theological unsophisticated, how is this going to help? Believe you me, I have read my fair share (probably 120 books in all). I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news here, but I think it’s painfully obvious that, in the case of Christian apologetics, less is more.
“My personal favs (currently) are CS Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, RC Sproul, and John Lennox. I believe you know of Lennox who is a gifted mathematician. Most of the articles you’re slamming are very light and go into NO detail. Rather than slam them, read more exhaustive ones. For example, if you haven’t read Miracles by CS Lewis then you’ve not heard a well stated Supernaturalist view of the world. I agree that Hank won’t get you there… Lewis will get you closer and an honest reading of scripture will get you the closest… only the Holy Spirit can do the rest.”
I have read Miracles thrice over, in fact, I’ve read all of C.S. Lewis’ theological works. My original copy of Miracles has been literally highlighted to death, and I had to buy a new copy when I turned atheist just to re-read it without the pages falling out! Even so, that doesn’t mean he proved a single thing in that book, in fact, I am perfectly willing to argue that it was his poorest theological piece. It is fraught with false premises, fallacy driven inferences, and so much reductionism (disguised as methodological deduction) that it cannot even hold a flame to his other works. But that is a debate for another time.
“I’d like to end on your “Thirdly” point about Metaphysics… Sure, this article whetted your appetite for easy slander, but have you stopped to consider the point?”
Just to make myself absolutely clear, I never slandered anybody. I refuted the incompetent essay written by someone, who by default, must be either incompetent or deluded. That’s not a slander, that’s simply a result of the factual evidence. I then corrected the evidence, gave my sources, and showed the exact level of incompetence. Indeed, I was very careful to remain objective, and my rhetorical parrying should not be mistaken for personal attacks against anybody. Moreover, those criticized are more than welcome to write a rebuttal and defend their points with better research. In fact, I encourage it.
“Are you too entrenched in others thoughts (such as Dennett) to think of your own?”
On the contrary, I’m not entrenched in others thoughts, and I can think perfectly well on my own (and do). But I do use others as a springboard for new ideas, furthermore I rely on professional’s exacting research and their findings to support my claims. This is part of critical thinking and writing. What’s more, you can’t expect to weed out the bad theories and data and thereby replace it with the correct theories and data if you don’t take the time to do the minimum required research first. To prove a truth claim true requires, at the least, a bare minimum effort to support one’s claim with evidence. If you fail to do that, then all you have is an empty claim. Citing one’s sources is the scholarly thing to do, otherwise you are just talking out of your hat, and then nobody has any good reason to believe anything you say.
“Do you feel angry? What physical reaction in your brain causes repulsion? Which causes swooning? Which causes fear? If you could tell me where the brain produced the physical reaction, does that explain why it happens?… Write a word down on a piece of paper and describe it in pure physics and chemistry… Don’t like that example? What does Father mean to you? Is there a text book definition that you could quote? Perhaps a sociological study is more in order. Is the love for your family just the movements of atoms through your brain? Can I make myself think things? If I can, is there an order of thoughts? Meaning, can some thoughts rule others and create others?”
As I stated in my previous article, there is a vast and growing literature in the field of cognitive sciences. I referenced three books (Dan Dennett and Zoltan Torey’s work which both addressed human consciousness) but I will recommend some more.  Supersense by Bruce M. Hood answered both your questions about disgust and fear, as well as addressed the metaphysical perceptions generated by the mind. Antonio Damasio’s book Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain is an extremely thorough look into the mind/body link and is one of the best introductions into the evolutionary basis for human consciousness and cognition. The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge by Jean-Pierre Changeux examines how we know what we know, how we know if it’s true or not, and whether or not we can trust our own perceptions/intuitions. The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris examines whether or not morality has a basis in science and whether or not the cognitive sciences yield any insights into how the brain generates morality. The reason I didn’t cite these examples before is because they did nothing to support my point about Hitler’s Christianity, but by all means refer to them and consult the experts!
“If everything is physical: Who are you? Are you the sum of atoms, or more? If you lost one of atoms, would you cease to be you?”
Well, technically, yes—if I lost an important atom I would become something else. It’s elementary my dear Christian! Take an oxygen atom away from H2O and you’re left with two paired hydrogen atoms. So, technically speaking, if you changed a single atom my atomic properties would be changed. However, you can remove mass and still maintain your basic physical properties. For example, if you have a surgery to take out a defective gallbladder you are losing the atoms which comprise that gallbladder without compromising your atomic stability (in this case you’re just losing cells–not your atomic composition). Again, since there is no evidence that any metaphysical reality exists independently of the reality we observe, I simply cannot answer the first question, but at the same time it would be a futile endeavor to try to do so without the requisite evidence.
“Before you write off all these questions as “Christian philosophical drivel” or something else, you should think. With all these thoughts swirling about in my brain: why should I believe any one of them?… I beg you, try not to slam the messenger who you feel doesn’t measure up to your level of intelligence or research. Wisdom may be gained from many different levels of a person.”
I already addressed the first two points above. As for wisdom, what is wisdom if it is not experience gained? And through experience knowledge? I for one feel that there is just one level of wisdom—experience. Now the application of wisdom, that is, applying what we have learned through our daily experience, and using this knowledge for good, is a different matter entirely. If wisdom can come from any place else than experience, then I am unaware of any such case. I understand religious types believe there is a supernatural experience to be had, but as I have alluded to, we can explain our understanding of the world via strictly physical processes regarding the mind/body relationship. There is no reason to presuppose an alternate realm of experience, especially when all the desired evidence is still completely lacking, and so it begs the question—how could there be any other form of wisdom than that which we accrue from our daily interaction with the world around us and the experiences which help us to learn and grow?
Reversing the Trend by Setting the Record Straight
Whether or not I adequately answered my Christian friend’s questions, I do not rightly know. I guess you will have to be the judge of that. But I did my best to keep my responses succinct and state with clarity my ideas. Whether or not my answers will be looked into, that is fact checked, maybe, but maybe not. All I can say is, thus far, rarely has any Christian I have ever encountered read even one book I have referenced—let alone taken it upon themselves to follow up on all of the references. Usually they just engage in further rambling and question begging—and finally, when you’re worn down, they like to preemptively declare victory, assert that you have no real answers, and so claim their position becomes true by default—as if they were unconscious during the entire conversation—oblivious to the avalanche of refutations which relentlessly assaulted them from all sides.
Even so, by setting the record straight perhaps we can begin to reverse the worrisome trend I spoke about earlier, indeed, maybe by making the correct and up to date information more accessible, then our level of education won’t be such a dividing ordeal.  Hopefully, by being erudite and rising to the challenge, the religious will be persuaded to do the same—or else admit defeat.
In summation, the best method I have found for engaging with Christians (and the religious in general) in any debate, on any subject, is simply to refer them to the evidence—ask them to consult the relevant information—and hope they have as strong as desire as myself to keep searching out the truth—wherever it may lead.
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