Monthly Archives: January 2015

I’m right and I know it

Though I enjoy a robust sparring with my ideological opponents, there are times I have to step away from the fray in the interest of preserving a valued relationship. I have to back away from being “right” to being a friend. But why does it have to be this way? What are the factors that push a dialog to the brink of ill will?

Of all the landmines that threaten progress in dialogue, perhaps the greatest is our failure even to attempt to see things from our opponent’s point of view. And perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this failure is our tendency to assert our respective beliefs as matters of fact, without first convincing our sparring partners of their validity.

To illustrate this tendency, I’ll draw from my own history of failure. Though it happened over a decade ago, I remember as if it were yesterday a conversation I was having with a young-earth creationist friend in which I made an unqualified assertion that the earth is very old, much older than the 10,000-year limit he placed on its age. Sure, I started by reciting some scientific arguments I thought should convince him of my position, thereby giving me (in my mind) grounds to make the blanket pronouncement, “The earth IS old” [subtext: “whether you like it or not”]. It didn’t help matters when I told him I was 100% certain of that fact. Not 90% certain, not 99% certain, not 99.999% certain, but 100% certain.

It has only slowly and relatively recently dawned on me how counterproductive it can be to act like this, nor have I fully learned my lesson. It’s just so tempting to underline and bold and italicize my position by stating it with the utmost confidence, as if I couldn’t possibly be mistaken. If only I can get my opponent to see how confident I am in making my assertions, maybe he’ll internally compare his lesser confidence with my greater confidence and so begin to doubt his own hold on his position. But what if the opponent comes back with an equal and opposing confidence in his view? Perhaps both sparring partners really do inwardly share the same confidence, in which case Newton’s 3rd law will have its way, like two equally massive locomotives cruising at equal and opposite velocities ramming each other on the tracks. Not pretty. Alternatively, perhaps one of the sparring partners really is as confident as she projects, while the other is not quite as confident but feels the need to project an equal degree of confidence so that the other’s locomotive doesn’t push her locomotive back when they collide. Or perhaps neither party is as confident as they project but must maintain the illusion of supreme confidence for fear of appearing weak. And so it becomes a game of chicken, a bluffing game to defend one’s position at all costs. This projection of confidence, this strutting, too often pushes otherwise friendly exchange of views to the brink of enmity.

This posturing can take both defensive and offensive forms and can become a two-way game. For example, if, after presenting their case, one of the two parties can’t understand how the other party still can’t see the light, it can be tempting to call the other’s bluff: “You don’t REALLY believe that; you’re just bluffing to avoid having to come to terms with your unsupportable position.” This shrewd tactic serves not only to elevate one’s own confidence but to diminish (at least in the mind of the one calling the bluff) the confidence of the opponent, thus doubly tipping the confidence game of chicken in one’s favor. But it’s also devastating to the relationship, as it challenges the integrity of the opponent, essentially coloring him as a liar. Once that happens, any further dialog becomes difficult at best.

The psychological experience of complete confidence in one’s position is exceedingly common, even for those who are mistaken. Recently I listened to a lecture series called Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills by neurologist Steven Novella. I was particularly struck by how easy it is for our memories to be contaminated while remaining 100% confident that we remember past events correctly. It’s not something we do consciously; our minds simply invent new details or distort real ones, resulting in false memories. This is why eyewitness testimony is so often problematic: witnesses exhibit full confidence in their memories but are often nonetheless mistaken. It’s not that they’re bluffing; they do believe they’re correct when in fact they’re not. This being the case, I consider it both charitable and realistic to give others the benefit of the doubt when they say they believe something that seems incomprehensible to us, rather than assuming a bluff. It’s still possible they’re bluffing, but I’ve learned not to assume it.

Looking back at my behavior in debating my young-earth creationist friend, I now realize that instead of saying outright, “The earth is old,” a more productive, friendly approach would have been to say, “I’m convinced the earth is old, and here are some reasons why.” This doesn’t mean I’m any less confident in the antiquity of the earth than if I were to assert it point blank, but it demonstrates more respect to my sparring partner when I explain my reasons rather than asserting the conclusion. And here’s the hard part: even AFTER explaining my reasons,  I will now still refrain from asserting my conclusion unless and until my opponent adopts my position. This is difficult, especially when I have that psychological experience of complete confidence in my position, along with just about every practicing field geologist in the world today. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. But at least we keep our friendship intact.

Lest you think I’m being entirely altruistic in backing down from a more assertive stance, I’m looking for a trade of sorts. Both skeptics and believers issue their fair share of blanket pronouncements in dialog rather than acknowledging differences of opinion and prefixing their pronouncements with simple softeners like, “I’m convinced of a because of x, y, and, z“. I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naive) that if we could all tone our bravado down a notch, we could engage in a more productive, charitable exchange of ideas.

Accordingly, I’ll aim to avoid unqualified pronouncements like the following when addressing those who disagree:

  • We share a common ancestor with all other living creatures
  • It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that). [Quote from Richard Dawkins in the New York Times, 1989]
  • The Universe is 13.7 billion years old
  • Jesus is not coming back
  • Jesus is Dead [The title of a book by Robert M. Price]
  • You believe because it gives you hope for life after the grave
  • You believe because it gives you meaning in life
  • You believe because it gives you a foundation to impose your moral views on others

And in return, I would hope my sparring partners would avoid unqualified statements like the following when engaging with those like me who don’t accept them:

  • Jesus is coming back
  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life
  • You don’t really believe in evolution; it’s too unbelievable
  • Deep down, you really believe in God and in the Gospel; you’re just not admitting it
  • Jesus rose from the dead
  • Atheists just want to get God off their back so they live their lives free of him
  • Atheists are angry at God
  • You have no reason to be moral if you don’t believe in God
  • You can have no basis for logic if you don’t believe in God
  • Life can have no true meaning without God
  • You’re going to be in for a surprise when you wake up before God after you die
  • Many prophecies in the Old Testament where were supernaturally fulfilled in Jesus’ life
  • Homosexuality is a sin against God
  • Moses wrote the Pentateuch
  • Paul wrote all the epistles ascribed to him in the New Testament

Let me be clear: I am most emphatically NOT saying believers should avoid making statements like the above. What I am suggesting is that, when addressing nonbelievers, they should preface such statements with the simple modifier, “I believe that…”. For example, “I believe that atheists have no reason to be moral, and here’s why” is a whole lot less provocative than, “Atheists have no reason to be moral.” If you’re a believer and you don’t appreciate the difference, then consider the following two statements: “Jesus is dead,” and, “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and here’s why.” Which one do you prefer?

No doubt there will be those on my side of the fence who will object to the suggestion that we add any disclaimers to propositions that enjoy a scientific consensus, rather than stating them as matters of fact. For example, if I were to encounter a geocentrist who believes that the sun goes around the earth, or an animist who believes that infectious diseases are caused by evil spirits rather than by microbes, or a flat earth believer, should I risk watering down the truth by saying, “I am convinced the earth is not flat,” rather than stating unequivocally, “The earth is not flat!”, or by averring, “I am convinced the earth is old,” rather than plainly stating, “The earth is old!”

I understand and share this concern, and I’m also concerned that I’ll be perceived as a post-modernist who holds that all truths are relative and simply “true for me” or “true for you.” To be sure, I would prefer to just say, “The earth is old; now get over it!” rather than to qualify my statement in the interest of improved relations. But if the facts are on our side, arguing our case respectfully with the facts will stand a better chance of getting through to the other side than deliberately bludgeoning them with a take-no-prisoners pronouncement.

This modest proposal is rooted in the ideal of putting oneself in the shoes of another. It’s also rooted in mutual respect, whereby when one party says they believe something, we take them at face value rather than imputing the worst of motives on them. Some atheists assume that all believers are willfully ignorant or that they really don’t believe what they say they do. Some believers assume the same about all atheists. I’m convinced our mistaken beliefs are rooted more in the foibles of our imperfect brains than in a willful self-deception over which we have conscious control. I’ve lived on both sides of the divide: I know what it feels like to be convinced that evolution is untrue, for example, but I also now know what it feels like to be convinced that it’s true. If you say you don’t believe evolution is true, I’ll take you at your word; I’ve been there. If you tell me I don’t really believe evolution is true, then we have nothing further to say to each other, especially if you have never lived the experience of being convinced of the truth of evolution.

I’ll speak frankly here: some–certainly not all–believers with whom I’ve engaged in conversation have demonstrated not the slightest willingness to put themselves in my shoes. They assume my motives are dark. They know that morality can have no foundation without God, and they are not in the least interested in learning the basis for my morality or for that of millions of humanists the world over. They know that the complexity of life could not have risen by chance, and they’re not in the least interested in truly knowing the evidence that has lead to a consensus on evolution (which is based not merely on chance) among biologists. And many atheists are no less ugly toward believers who don’t bend in the face of their assertions.

What if we were all willing to step back a bit from our machismo, from our need to assert, from our need to blame? Would this not increase the chances for a dialog of mutual respect in which we’re willing to show some humility, acknowledge the possibility we could be mistaken, open ourselves to learning something new from others, and refuse to impute the worst possible motives on our ideological opponents?

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How to Prevent Youth from Apostatizing

We’ve all read the hand-wringing articles alerting the faithful to the growing crisis of youth apostasy in the church. Depending on the article, between 20% and 85% of church youth leave the fold in college or early adulthood, never to return. Inevitably these articles offer an analysis of why this is happening (typically blaming their parents or churches or pizza-and-entertainment-loving youth groups), along with prescriptions for stemming the tide (usually including better teaching, more Bible study, more apologetics, more prayer, and more true conversions). For a sampling of such articles, simply google why our youth are leaving the church.

Most of these analyses seem to be based on the best guesses of the authors, supported by the conventional wisdom and shared views of their believing audience. A few of the authors do go to the trouble of actually asking apostates why they left the faith. However, the articles I’ve read in the latter category tend to filter the words of the apostates through an evangelical lens, without really allowing the apostates’ true reasons come through.

As a flesh and blood apostate, I’ll offer a few of my humble best guesses as to how to prevent youth from leaving the fold, based on a retrospective of my own experience. I offer two alternative tracks, which I’ll call the Insular Track and the Liberal Track. I’m not sure which track, if any, would have prevented me from taking the path I’ve followed.

#1: Insular Track

    1) Don’t give them unfettered access to the Internet. On this point I’m in agreement with apologist Josh McDowell, who maintains that the Internet is the greatest threat to Christians. Granted, it’s probably rare for an unwavering youth to be blindsided by a single Internet article, but if she already has some doubts about the truth of the gospel, she’ll have no problem finding a wealth of well-reasoned arguments against her faith, potentially destabilizing her moorings irrevocably. This is what happened to me: I was struggling with certain passages of the Bible in Africa in 2000, searched for some help from a Christian perspective, and ended up finding and reading Dr. Robert Price’s Beyond Born Again, which threw my already fragile faith into a tailspin and led me to realize I was not alone in my doubts.

    2) Don’t send your kids to a Christian college. I attended LeTourneau University, an evangelical school whose library happened to have a book called Christianity and the Age of the Earth by evangelical geologist Davis Young (1988), that had convinced me I had been wrong about the age of the earth and that my reasons for believing in a young earth had been merely illusory. This was not the main reason I left the faith, but it did put me at odds with the majority of Christians in my circles, making it easier eventually to question others of their claims.

    3) Don’t encourage them to read the Bible in its entirety, especially the Old Testament, unless you’re prepared to explain, for example, why it was moral for God to order the Israelite men to keep the virgins for themselves (we all know what that means) after slaughtering the Midianite men, women, and children. And don’t condemn Muslims for doing similar acts if you’re not prepared to condemn those of the Israelites.

    4) Don’t dismiss their genuine questions with exasperation or with accusations of rebellion or bias. Listen to them and admit they have good questions, and don’t offer them facile answers they can see through.

    5) Don’t let them meet kind and wise individuals outside the fold, like some of the Muslims I met in Africa, or like one of my bosses as work, who’s married to another man. A sensitive soul can’t rightly stomach the idea that these outsiders are deserving of eternal damnation.

#2: Liberal Track

    1) Teach them that the earth is very old and that we share common ancestors with all other creatures on earth. This will spare them a rude encounter with reality once they discover the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

    2) Teach them that the Bible is not inerrant. When they find true contradictory passages in the Bible, they won’t be thrown into an existential crisis like the one I faced when I had to sign a statement of inerrancy with my mission employer.

    3) Teach them that hell is either nonexistent or of limited duration, and that even some of the NT writers like Paul did not subscribe to eternal damnation, but rather the annihilation/destruction of the lost.

    4) Teach them that love and respect are the pillars of any decent family, friendship, and society, and for goodness’ sake, spend more time advocating for the poor, the outcast, and the unjustly treated, than you do expressing thinly veiled or explicit contempt for blacks, gays, welfare recipients, and Obama.

Interestingly, some of the strongest criticisms of my book came from those who believe my background was too strict, so that when I did encounter the real world of ambiguity, I wasn’t able to weather the storm like a pliable liberal reed, but instead broke like a brittle fundamentalist oak. See, for example, this review and my response to it. See also this review.

In truth, probably neither of these tracks would have prevented my departure from the fold, but I’d like to think that Track #2 would have offered me a better chance, because I think it’s the more honest approach.

I’ll offer yet a third track, which I’ll call the Pious Track, representing some of the most common suggestions I’ve read in the online articles aiming to diagnose and treat the problem of apostasy. It’s the track I actually followed, but it didn’t prevent me from doubting the Bible and eventually the existence of God.

#3: Pious Track

    1) Accept Jesus into your heart and really mean it

    2) Read and study the Bible, both individually and in groups, and believe it’s God’s very word

    3) Pray, cultivating a one-on-one relationship with Jesus

    4) Respect, love, and obey your parents

    5) Attend church

    6) Serve God in ministry a lot

    7) Tell others about Jesus and lead them to him

    8) Study doctrine and believe orthodox things about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the resurrection, and the Bible

    9) Live a chaste life

    10) Ask God forgiveness for every known and unknown sin

    11) Praise God for who he is and what he’s done

    12) Believe that salvation is through faith, not works

I confess I have no answers for those who really do want to know how to prevent their youth from leaving the fold, though that’s likely unsurprising coming from someone like me. Perhaps this post will offer a window in the mind of an apostate for those who’ve only read articles on this subject from the point of view of the faithful.

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