What are the best arguments, and what are the strawmen?
My on-going experiment to ruthlessly engage with those who wish to effectively argue for Christianity has been underway for what seems like an eternity (no pun intended), but in many ways, I’m no closer to finding that killer argument (unsurprising really). Reflecting back on my days as a Christian, I wish I had come up against some of these arguments earlier so it would have resulted in a paradigm shift in my thinking – but I’m really not sure that there was ever an argument out there that could penetrate the barriers to change prior to when one is ready.
So, it seems that no argument I have submitted to a Christian has even caused them to flinch. It’s quite depressing to leave it at that, because I imagine if I carried out a similar onslaught with members of another religion, I would get the same result – and they can’t ALL be right. At least some (if not all) people of religious faith seem to be immune to reasoned argument. Maybe that’s quite obnoxious on my part.
So what have I learned? What are the arguments to which the response has been particularly weak and/or non-forthcoming but there are also lines of debate which yield absolutely no fruit?
First of all, it is completely futile trying to point out contradictions, inaccuracies and difficulties within the bible. The response is one of ‘yes, it’s difficult, we need to try hard to understand all this… our mind is small compared to god’s”. Although they won’t admit it, Christians have less trouble with the bible because they choose the church denomination and scripture interpretation which best fits with their current lifestyle and world views. They make moral judgment calls and then look for and find the biblical justification. Whether it’s for being gay or hating gays; promoting gender equality or opposing it; enslaving people or stopping enslavement; being happy-clappy in church or being silent and reverent, creationism or evolutionism whatever your moral and lifestyle choices, there’s a Jesus interpretation for you.
This will of course be fervently denied, but I think every denomination or culture group secretly thinks it to be true about all the other denominations and culture groups. Similar to how one faith thinks that all the others are deluded apart from themselves.
The most interesting thing, from my perspective, that has resulted from the jousts was a full time Christian worker/studier who admitted that children of Christian parents are in a position where, for all intents and purposes, they are Christian from birth, and have an opt-out decision rather than an opt-in one.
There’s an interesting quote by Charles Darwin:
“Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”
Generally, in a protracted debate there will come a point when the religious person claims ‘faith’ as their shield (as instructed to in the bible). I find that it’s worth point out that it’s not enough to have faith, one must have the ‘correct’ faith. This is generally accepted, but how to sure one has the correct faith?
No Christian will say that salvation comes through faith in any old made up deity, but the ramifications of how one chooses the correct faith are more difficult to defend. The first point is that if you happen to find your self having chosen the same faith as your parents, then you should be wary of it as only 1 in 12 people hold a substantially differing religious view to their parents. So there is a very high chance that you would have chosen the faith of your parents with no significant scrutiny of its validity, other than that great human talent for post rationalization.
If your parents weren’t religious, but you’ve chosen the faith which is predominant in your culture, without having seriously considered any of the other major faith, then you should also be wary of how you came to that decision. Did you enjoy the warmth and friendship of church? Where the Christians interested in you and cared about you? Were you going though a difficult life experience, feeling a little lost and emotional maybe? Started feeling that life seems a bit futile? Did they seem really convinced by the Jesus stories and were you impressed with how it made them happy? Where you impressed by stories of answered prayer? Did you ruthlessly question and explore these claims? Did you meticulously investigate the bible bit by bit for its authenticity, taking on a lot of contrary opinion then making a judgment call that 67% of the world is wrong about the reliability of the bible, including people more intelligent and learned and (dare i say) christ-like than you?
So how DOES one choose the correct faith? I’ve proposed that there are only two ways, the first being a metaphysical other-worldly revelation from one of the proposed gods, directly informing you that he is the one, and helpfully pointing you in the direction of the correct sanctified texts. The other is to assess a religious text and come to a conclusion that it is factual, accurate and reliable.
As objectively as possible, I can’t think of, or have heard of another reasonable route to holding a religious faith. The first route of divine revelation manifests itself in the argument of ‘god is calling you… just open your heart…deep down you know its true… just reach out and accept the gift that Jesus is trying to give you…can’t you hear him?.. open your heart’ One must of course be extremely certain of this, due to the human ability for self-delusion (as manifest in all those other ‘wrong’ faiths). I find myself having to reject this ‘divine revelation’ possibility due to the fact that no one wakes up on a Tuesday morning in Mongolia, having never heard of Jesus or the bible, suddenly accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior due to his resurrection on the third day etc etc.
I propose that it can only legitimately be a decision that the bible is reliable and accurate and therefore one decides that Jesus is god then reacts to that as he deems necessary. Picking up a religious faith because it ‘feels’ right or you ‘like’ the message is very arbitrary and subjective, and also allows for you to be heavily influenced by people who actually haven’t made this decision for themselves, but who have actually been one of the 11 in 12 Christians who where taught the bible as fact from childhood, and thus have never had to ‘make a decision’.
I’ve had Christians stay with me right up until this point, until I say… if it’s a cognitive decision, then a massive factor in this is the level of our intellect and schooling. It’s surely meaningless to be a Christian and think that the bible (gospels) is less than reliable in their reportage of the Jesus stories. In this case, surely it would at least be reasonable to assume the miracles reported there didn’t happen, in the absence of irrefutable evidence. Given that the New Testament speaks of a loving god, it’s a stretch to believe that a loving god would appear on earth in such a way as to leave it being ‘reasonable’ for good people to make an informed open-minded decision that it didn’t happen.
In the light of this I find the religion-as-virus analogy very eloquent, passed from parent to child, with the occasional friend and bystander being infected along the way. I was infected as a child, and tried hard to infect others, with mixed results. I managed to break the chain more by luck than judgment and I feel a duty of care not to just walk away from my Christian friends but to take the wrath of their annoyance and prayers, and keep pointing to the emperor’s lack of clothes. A world with less religious delusion is surely a better place for my children to grow up – and the only way i can effect that is through finding the most convincing and respectful arguments.