I have a confession to make. I secretly enjoy sparring with my Christian friends over matters of religious belief. At the same time I often find such discussions frustrating. And I will also admit that I cannot think of a time when I convinced any of my “sparring partners” to change their beliefs. So why do I have this love-hate relationship with these discussions?
First, the frustrating part. It has been my experience that if one of my Christian friends were told a statement, backed by evidence, that is not in conflict with his Christian faith, he would have no problem accepting that statement. Scurvy is caused by chronic vitamin C deficiency. No problem. On the other hand, if he is told a statement that contradicts his religious beliefs, his response is simply to reject the statement or to reinterpret it to make it consistent with his existing religious beliefs. Thus if my friend believes that God is all-loving, then he simply reinterprets the dozens of references in the Old Testament to God as a vindictive murderer: It was a different time. Or Christ’s death changed everything. Or it was our fault because we sinned and brought evil, as well as pain and suffering, on ourselves. Or even Satan actually wrote parts of the Old Testament and is responsible for the descriptions of God as murderous! Really?
Bottom line: For many of my Christian friends, religious faith is based on a belief system that is grounded, not in objective evidence and rational analysis, but in acceptance of an assertion of revealed truth, whether that is an interpretation of scripture or the expressed statements of parents, teachers, or religious leaders. This is simply a different standard than they apply to others of their beliefs. And when beliefs are not arrived at through rational analysis, they are not susceptible, it appears, to change through rational discourse.
As I have said, I have had essentially zero success in persuading Christians to my point of view. But even more frustrating has been how they have responded—or not—to the points I have tried to make. Oftentimes the response has simply been a reference to scripture, as if that is dispositive of the issue being discussed. Or they state that they are simply too busy to come up with a better response. Perhaps most frustrating has been when there is no response at all; the dialogue simply ends because they stop responding.
I know, I know, it’s pretty unrealistic to expect an epiphany as the result of a Facebook thread. On the other hand, I do care about these matters and I work hard to understand and to give due respect to the points that others make as well as to think through and to express my own point of view. And I assume that others also care about their points of view and their efforts to communicate that perspective to me as well as to anyone else who might be involved either as a participant or as an observer.
In brief, if someone believes they have something to contribute to a discussion on a particular topic, I believe they have an obligation to do their best to contribute in a way that is germane to that discussion. That to me is a matter of respect.
So, since I find Christians’ intellectual entrenchment, as well as their frequent lack of responsiveness, so frustrating, why do I say that I also enjoy such discussions? For one thing, perhaps it’s my legal training. I do enjoy trying my best to apply rational analysis in framing and responding to intellectual discourse. More important, however, has been the impact the experience has had on my personal point of view.
It has been just about a year and a half since I began my Skeptic Reflections blog along with my participation in discussions of these matters both on the blog and on Facebook. One of my goals in all this has been simply to tell the story of my intellectual journey through the realms of religion and meaning. But I also realize that the very struggle I experience in thinking through my point of view and in putting my thoughts into writing has resulted in a refinement and, in some ways, a transformation of my view of the world.
I also realize that the considered comments of others, whether in support or in disagreement with what I have written, have been of immense help to me in that endeavor. There are a number of reasons for this. First, knowing that others might be reading—and critiquing—what I write has provided me incentive to be as careful in my thinking and as clear in my exposition as I am able. Second, the comments by others have in many cases served to expose some of the weak points in my thinking and have forced me to think through and to articulate more carefully the reasons for my points of view or, if need be, to amend those points of view. It’s been a great experience for me, and I would recommend it to everyone.
© 2015 John M. Phillips