What are the best arguments, and what are the strawmen?

September 9, 2008 at 10:58 am 11 comments

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.

- QuestionMonkey

Entry filed under: QuestionMonkey. Tags: , , , , .

William P. Young’s “The Shack” In the Mirror of God

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. orDover  |  September 9, 2008 at 11:28 am

    You’re asking for a lot of critical thinking in a world that values “feelings”-based decision making a lot more. We’re encouraged to “go with your gut,” “trust your instincts” and listen to anecdotal information rather than rely on objective scientific reporting. In the same vein, people are encouraged to go with whatever religion “feels right” to them. Subjective opinion and experience is valued above the rigorous and empirical world of the scientific method.

  • 2. LeoPardus  |  September 9, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    This bit of your article sounded so much like an advertisment:

    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.

    So send in your $12.95 (plus shipping and handling) to “Jesus-Just-For-You”; a division of Ronco Inc. and receive your WWILJTD (“What would I like Jesus to do”) bracelet.

    And this bit from your article sounded very much like something from a hypnotism tape:

    ‘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’

    Now when I count to three and snap my fingers, you will wake up and feel “peace like a river in your soul”.

  • 3. karen  |  September 9, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Interesting article, thanks for your tips and advice.

    My take on it is that religious individuals have to be ready to deconvert (or at least consider it) themselves, from their own self-motivation. The interest in logic and reason has to come from within, not from hearing someone argue or bring up objections to religion. We all know that those objections are swiftly and firmly papered over by “interpretation.”

    That said, what you’re doing may spark some latent skepticism in people who would not admit it openly (at least not where they are presently in their thinking/faith). In my case, I had always been a strong skeptic about all sorts of things other than Christianity – I just never opened up religion to the scrutiny of the rational.

    It wasn’t until I read some articles like this one that the wall came down protecting my Christian beliefs from my natural skepticism – and that, of course, was the beginning of the end. Let me add that I was a lurker – the online conversations I read weren’t directed at me specifically but they sure affected me personally.

    So, keep up the good work but don’t expect to be “making deconverts” left and right. It doesn’t really work that way.

  • 4. SnugglyBuffalo  |  September 9, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    Karen-

    That said, what you’re doing may spark some latent skepticism in people who would not admit it openly (at least not where they are presently in their thinking/faith). In my case, I had always been a strong skeptic about all sorts of things other than Christianity – I just never opened up religion to the scrutiny of the rational.

    It wasn’t until I read some articles like this one that the wall came down protecting my Christian beliefs from my natural skepticism – and that, of course, was the beginning of the end. Let me add that I was a lurker – the online conversations I read weren’t directed at me specifically but they sure affected me personally.

    That’s how it definitely was for me. I can probably trace the first real cracks in my faith back to the James Randi Education Foundation’s website. Eventually I realized that I found myself in agreement with the views on everything mentioned there except when it went against my faith.

    I doubt any Christian will ever de-convert due to a rational argument, but that doesn’t mean those rational arguments have no impact.

  • 5. anton kozlik  |  September 10, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    “Killer Arguments”

    You may find that the religious will get bound up in the “challenge” found in my last post. It is a “tongue in cheek” approach designed to get the religious “going”, but oh so logical answer to the religious argument. Enjoy.

  • 6. The Nerd  |  September 10, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    Good one, LeoPardus!

    I also like to use these arguements mentioned in the post in talking with people who believe an absolute morality is needed. I use them to show how people can never have an absolute morality, because they will always interpret it reletively, especially in line with society’s influence. It really negates their assertions that their moral compass is somehow superior to mine.

  • 7. Dan Hendrick  |  September 11, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    GODISNOWHERE

  • 8. Hugo  |  September 13, 2008 at 9:21 am

    As pointed out already, these are intellectual “reason-based” arguments, while a person’s worldview is a matter of subjectivity and picking “what works for them”. I don’t think reason-based arguments are effective.

    Furthermore, I’m surprised at how little attention is given to Bible-taught techniques for converting. Ideas like “you can’t convert someone, only God can” – is extremely true. You can but introduce them to ideas, and whatever happens inside them (consider God as something inside someone, be it an idea or a concept implanted at birth or a sense of curiousity or whatnot… ah, whatever).

    I believe, in a memetic sense, breaking down and removing someone’s memes is near impossible. It creates a void that doesn’t want to exist. I believe much more effective is providing replacement memes that then displace the other memes. These beliefs have not been rigorously tested, but I’m working on that. If it were possible to quantify and objectively compare the success rate of converting someone from one religion to another with the success rate of directly removing religious belief, it would provide some insight.

    So what then, where to then? I’ve been doing a lot of reading of liberal Christian material. The idea is to not bash and break down the memes and stories that they build their worldviews on, but to understand and develop them instead. It is a lot more work, because it requires understanding more context and history than merely thinking rationally, but I enjoy it. I consider it to be “memetic engineering”, and the direction it is headed is “religionless Christianity”. It connects with emerging church literature and ideas as well, and I consider every conversion from fundamentalism to emerging-church style tolerance and cross-cultural understanding and appreciation to be a success in its own right.

    Heaven and hell then? Yes, they are certainly realities, here in this life. An idea, a concept of an ideal way of living (expressed in the metaphor of being “with God”) -> heaven. Removal from love and compassion and empathy, fighting for Darwinian survival in a life of poverty and oppressed by political regimes: hell. The afterlife? Well, does that really matter, when there is a heaven and hell to worry about here and now? In the end whether there is a belief in an afterlife or not should make no difference to the way you live this life. The best way to accomplish that kind of consistency is to forget about the afterlife, simply not care about it, and focusing on the heaven and hell here on earth.

    Must have faith? Well… must not give up on having a positive attitude. Must maintain hope and focus and aim for the best. A positive attitude towards life, deciding life is worth living, is not a scientific impartial thing – it is a “leap of faith”, a decision, followed by the application of confirmation bias. We decide life is worth living, then we prove it by recognising the pleasures of a good glass of wine, a hike in the mountains, the experience of a marvelous movie or piece of art, etc. *That* then is the kind of faith that is important.

    Etc.

    Of course the problem with this approach is it requires *demonstrating* the approach as well. It is a way of not fighting *their* worldview, but rather explaining and defending your own in a way that they can understand and potentially embrace. Inviting them to attack my worldview, and then explaining and defending the value of it in the words that they are used (but then *also* explaining the differences in how the words are used, only after emphasizing the similarities though), that is my style of “evangelising”.

    It requires a long journey for people doing the converting, it isn’t a “hit-and-run and on to the next person” approach. It requires building friendships and taking a long term view. It is *my* Christianity, then, *my* “WWILJTD”, and my Jesus would think for himself and use his rational mind…

    In the end… many supplementary paths? And we all contribute to help “let the kingdom of heaven come” – or rephrased in contemporary terminology and promoted by Pullman iirc, “the republic of heaven”? I have yet to read Pullman, but I look forward to doing so, critically. I’m an aspiring bridge builder, so I look for similarities as well as differences, and try to find the problems and dangers as well as the benefits of any particular viewpoint.

  • 9. Anonomouse  |  September 13, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    “This bit of your article sounded so much like an advertisement:”

    Of course, they are trying to sell you something. In this case it is ignorance and Jesus.

  • 10. Derek  |  September 15, 2008 at 11:44 am

    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.

    My grandparents on my mom’s side were Christian missionaries in Afghanistan. My grandma would always tell stories of children who spoke to Jesus in their dreams and became Christians despite having no contact with the Bible or Christianity.

    For me, that’s simultaneously a hard pill to swallow, and hard to reject totally because for god’s sakes they’re both medical doctors and both are *extremely* intelligent people.

    Of course, all the “irrefutable” claims of that type are also totally unrepeatable and unverifiable, so it’s like, there’s your circumstantial evidence if you want it but if you want something a little more direct, you pretty much aren’t going to get it, shy of interpreting a religious experience a certain way.

  • 11. Lyra's Alias  |  August 10, 2010 at 6:36 pm

    A couple of people on here have said something along the lines of ‘arguments of reason aren’t bad but aren’t effective.’ They may not be on the whole – really, I’d have to agree that they aren’t – but as an individual I am so grateful for the well-reasoned arguments I have seen presented in detail on this site.

    Some Christians I know have used what to me sounded like reasonable arguments in the recent past to argue for belief, knowing that I’m the kind of person who puts serious time and thought into wanting to know what really is and what really isn’t. Now, just a few months down the road, discerning what points/arguments are solid has become much easier for me, having read a good number of articles and comment section discussions on this site.

    I truly think trying to grasp onto Christianity, and the resulting cognitive dissonance, significantly hindered my critical thinking. I’m sure I’m not close to being the first nor the last person to experience this. In more recent months, I’ve been able to let go of the fear that caused that grasping largely because of sound arguments dismissing the source of those fears.

    It’s discouraging to know that reason will not change the thinking of a large percent of the population, but this tiny fraction is grateful for not just your stories, but for your arguments. They are empowering and have helped me get my ability to think back. Keep on being logical and articulate and patient; people like me are better for it.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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