On dialogue with atheists

I have some friends who are atheists – not just soft agnostics like most of society – but reasoned, secular humanists who think Dawkins lacks objectivity and is a rabid fundamentalist. You know, the logical type of atheists who have thought through life and made their own conclusions on the basis of the evidence they see around them. The type who make “moral judgements” based on empathy and reason. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in pretty intense debate with them via email. The discussion has been protracted and mostly frustrating. I’ve also been feeling pretty outnumbered – it was three to one and then they introduced these two guys I’ve never met into the email circle. One of them is pretty much the only person who now reads this blog – so hi. I actually don’t know where he sits on the issue because he just commentates on the debate – and how much he hates analogies. 

This debate has made me question – not my beliefs – but my response to having them attacked. Pride is something I struggle with. I want to be right, I want to engage in the debate in an intellectual sense and essentially prove my faith* and convince these guys they should convert – and be just like me. Which again, kind of misses the point of Christianity – because I should be trying to convince people to be just like Christ. Here’s the rub – the Bible promises that the world’s wisdom will see Christianity and its message of a capitally punished God as foolishness (1 Corinthians) – so I can’t expect to be convincing, nor can I mention this in some kind of argumentative context – because to argue the veracity of something using that thing doesn’t really stack up. I can’t say “the Bible is true because it says it is.” Nor can I say “the Bible is true because I have experienced that it is” – because that is subjective. I also can’t say – “the Bible is true because all the observable evidence (ie pain and suffering) suggest it is” – because all the observable evidence is observed, and compartmentalised based on the starting hypothesis – ie if God is not there it’s all just chance and coincidence. My basic instinct in this debate is to debate. To apologise (in the “mount a defence for” sense) for my beliefs. Is this the right way to respond? I’m not convinced that it is – not in the frames of science and philosophy.

Science is limited. Science has merit, and a place in the world. Science answers questions of cause and effect, and makes observations to test and demonstrate hypotheses – science is good at what it does. What it can’t do is test that which can not be observed – and it is limited to the theories and subjective whims of those testing them through hypothesis. I can observe “facts” and essentially plug them into my frame of reference to demonstrate a theory. The theory always comes first.

History also has limits – postmodern criticism has merit – but to rob any text of the chance of being true and accurate objective history does a disservice to our understanding of human history and anthropology. Why can’t we trust the accounts of a number of people recorded in the one book – from very separate original documents – to reveal truth? This exercise also taught me that those who are passionately disinterested – or dispassionately interested – in Christianity have very little knowledge of the actual text of the Bible – and its history. Instead relying on years of inaccuracies and insipid, purposeful lies. “The bible has been changed over time” is one of those half truths that misses the point – it hasn’t been changed by whim – but by desire to bring it closer to the original text based on rigourous academic scholarship. It has been used as a political tool in the past – and those who most stridently opposed that were the Christian church – and these men were martyred for the cause. This sort of shoddy criticism has no grounding in anything but what my atheist friend told me in primary school so I believed it.

I think it’s unhelpful to present this debate (theism v atheism) in the sphere of the rational, observable or philosophical. To do so puts the existence of God on our terms – a God by nature transcends the rational and observable. God sets the rules for this debate – not humans. To move God into these realms, and into our terms is not rational or reasonable – if God exists then there is no reason for him to conform to our experience of the world – or human conventions of understanding – anymore than there is reason for us to bark when communicating to dogs. We do not do this when interacting with our subordinates (the animal kingdom).

Thanks to Dawkins, Atheists now tackle these arguments by realigning the burden of proof and changing the terminology – now we, “theists” have to demonstrate why God must exist – before even tackling which God they should believe in. Therefore the Bible is dismissed as an authority (partly because post-modern literary criticism means nothing can be trusted as true anymore), Christians can’t claim any unique authority on the debate on the basis of the historicity of Jesus – particularly because any of the eye-witness accounts to his life must now be ignored or disputed, any third party accounts of Christianity – and the leaders of the early church – are not as valuable as “modern science” and observation – and the default position is now that the complexity of life is a product of randomness and an infinite spectrum of time. I don’t really understand that being the default. Atheists are now critical of the “watchmaker” assumption – ie when you see a wristwatch in a field you assume based on complexity the watch was designed and placed there. I think that’s something that’s been slowly indoctrinated. Atheists are now taught to proselytize in the same way they accuse Christians of brainwashing their children and others.

One of these guys scoffed at my suggestion that his lifestyle is the result of his atheism – and vice versa. He suggested the two were not linked. The atheist point of view by definition dismisses the idea of God – and hence questions regarding whether their atheism influences the way they live are flawed – theism v atheism is still the fundamental question that ultimately shapes the worldview of the individual – morals, ethics, philosophy and conduct all stem from this fundamental position – whether we (or they) like it or not.

The “church” has been responsible for some terrible injustices over time – or at least these have been conducted in the name of the church – ignoring the wildly publicised misdemeanours and wars, in a broader sense the church has failed to adequately educate casual church attendees. Both these atheists had backgrounds including church attendance. Both had strong – and in my opinion inaccurate – understandings of the “teachings of the church” and felt adequately qualified to make assessments on the basis of their childhood experiences. This may be unfairly representing their opinions and positions – but in my opinion something as serious as religion – and the underlying foundation we build our lives on – should be considered by adult minds. Both in the case of people who have always been Christians – and in the case of people who have chosen not to be. In either case I’d hate to think this is the kind of decision you make at 10 and never revisit.

It’s been a pretty interesting discussion all told – and I’d love any readers input on the issue. This post ended up being much longer than I planned.

*Not technically scientifically possible because faith is the belief in something that can’t be observed.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

7 thoughts on “On dialogue with atheists”

  1. Well said mate. The older I get the more I realise that God doesn’t have to transcend to prove Himself to us. The fact that He did in Jesus speaks volumes of His grace. To dismiss this and require more hard proof of God speaks volumes of our prideful rebellion.

  2. Wow. So I guess if I make a wild statement like ‘there is an angel orbiting Proxima Centauri’ then it’s up to other people to prove me wrong… Nice. And the older and more obfuscated by time my fantasy is, the truer it becomes. And I guess the more people believe my fantasy, the truer it becomes… So logically Santa Claus is real, because LOTS of children have believed in Santa Claus for a long time.

    But then, that’s not really fair, because the main difference between Santa and Jesus is of course that Santa Claus is based on a historical figure, not an everyman conglomeration of year 0 contemporary favourite myths and legends… Oh, and when you don’t get presents at XMas you can start doubting the existence of Santa. Not like Big J, cos you have to die before you realise you’ve been scammed.

  3. asmoday – strawman arguments put up by atheists (eg the flying spaghetti monster and your angel orbiting Proxima Centauri) are weak logical tools designed to confuse poor defenceless Christians into submitting to the superiority of your argument. Throwing a non-sequiter reference to Santa Claus doesn’t help make your case – it just dillutes the underlying logic.

    It’s not a question of wild statements – it’s a fairly limited number of religions making exclusive claims. Nobody is taking “wild statements” seriously.

    The theism v atheism debate is not a case of the enlightened v the ignorant. That’s why it’s a debate and not a walkover.

    The obfuscation of time is no reason to dismiss history – history happened. The fact that a number of sources suggest it happened the same way is usually grounds for accepting something as credible testimony.

    Though I am a Christian I have no doubt that Muhammad lived, that he thought God (Allah) told him to do stuff – or at the very least wrote down a bunch of rules. I then have to weigh up the evidence on whether I believe what he wrote to be true.

    You atheists throw out so many tangental pieces of logic followed by unsubstantiated, unrealised “QEDs” that debating or arguing with you becomes a frustrating and largely pointless exercise. Christians only continue to do it out of love for you – and a desire for you not to discover you’re the victims of the “sham” post death.

    On what basis do you dismiss claims from the past as myth? and on what basis do you ever accept them as true? Only on the basis they are consistent with your experiences no doubt? This only backs up my point that atheists are, as a matter of necessity, dismissive of history in an arrogant “enlightened” sense.

  4. defenceless = defenseless
    sequiter = sequitur…

    Post publication proof reading gets me everytime…

    Also, the paragraph about Allah – the logic is obviously that “as a theist I must then weigh up the evidence”

  5. Lot’s of good stuff here, and in your follow-up post.

    I think it’s really interesting how the ‘rules’ have changed and the smug assumption that the new-atheists have the upper hand and the right to dictate how the discourse is run. (However this may be a reaction against the smugness of Christian apologists over the years, which, if the case, should be repented of.)

    Oh, and your ‘confession’ is spot on the money and needs to be learned by many (myself included). If somehow this can be taught well to the next generation of angry-young-reformed blokes …

  6. I find the most frustrating thing is the tendency of the arguments to be largely cross-purpose due to a misunderstanding of each person’s worldview. The most frequent one is the atheist dogma that “faith = totally unsubstantiated belief”.

    In an effort to define the argument better, I recently wrote on how I have found it to be understood by Christians:
    http://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com/2010/04

    Strangely enough, it was still followed by a stream of comments by atheists mis-interpreting my use of the word “faith”…

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