Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Why the "Hostile Atheist"? [Jay]

Whenever we begin our Worldview class we do a role playing time with me pretending to be a hostile atheist. I am unapologetically dismissive of a belief in God in general and the Christian faith in particular. This is not a difficult role for me as I was exactly that type of atheist in my youth and can well remember encounters with Christians on my college campus. They were well meaning people who earnestly wanted to share their testimony but were woefully unprepared to defend their faith on the grounds from which I routinely attacked it.

In our role playing scenario, the students are aware that I am not really an atheist. It does not impact the outcome. Here are some of the lines of attack I use:

1 – There is no physical evidence for the existence of God.

2 – The bible, while important as a piece of literature, is no more authoritative than any other work of historical fiction.

3 – It is easier to understand the horrible manner in which we treat each other human beings and the terrible things that happen to innocent children by acknowledging that such things are incompatible with a “good and loving” God and consistent with the view that we are essentially evolved animals.

4 – The appeal to God is unnecessary as the naturalistic model is sufficient and consistent with scientific evidence. Ockham's Razor in principle tells us not to multiply entities when the evidence does not necessitate doing so and the evidence does not require us to appeal to God.

5 – The idea of an immaterial soul is incompatible with all that we know about neurobiology and creates absurdities in explaining how the immaterial (soul) interacts with the physical (brain) such that the soul influences my behavior.

It is fair to say that none of these positions are stupid and that all of them can either be defended or critiqued in a reasonable conversation, but we rarely have reasonable conversations. Students often fail to require that I further explain my claims and provide evidential support. Instead of asking me to specifically site which parts of the bible are fiction and my evidence to support that claim or if I have considered philosophical arguments as evidence for the existence of God, they begin justifying themselves and their beliefs. The substance of the claims, as well as the suppositions that underlie them, mostly go unchallenged.

Why? I suspect it is largely because of one comment that I always make at the beginning of the exercise. “I think your beliefs are silly.” And I reinforce this as we continue. For example, when they challenge me that the bible has historical facts that have been verified I counter that so do The Three Musketeers and Les Miserables, but that does not mean that I carry them around and treat them as authoritative. This encourages their worst argumentative impulses, and as a result I get away with huge leaps of illogic. All I have to do is feed the beast. Also, they, like the students that tried to share their testimony with me in college, are simply unequipped for this.

Megan and I both encourage the students that this class and our instruction is not about turning them into philosophers. It is about equipping them to engage conversations like the one we had yesterday without feeling overwhelmed. They need to develop an understanding about what rules govern our conversations when we enter into rational discourse and that those rules apply to all parties.

A supporter of LTI told me this week that he recently had a friend conversationally claim that she would probably abort any child that had serious physical abnormalities because she was older (almost 40) and would not want to take on that level of emotional and physical commitment at this point in her life. He struggled to effectively respond. Afterwards he remembered that he had The Case for Life and had never read it. Here is what sent me in an e-mail. “until I got caught flat footed in Tampa, I was thinking maybe this whole defending my view on abortion (as one apologetic example) might just be a waste of time. After starting Scott's book, I realized how 'easily' I can understand and begin to articulate the position I believe without having to be a Jay Watts!”

Our material is not intended to elevate us, but to equip people to defend their beliefs and the value of human life in a rational manner. We serve that mission in the hopes that when our students meet someone who challenges their views, they can be free to engage the person while giving reasons for the hope within them.

As an atheist, the single Christian that most impacted me was not the one who dismantled all of my beliefs in one fell swoop. It was the young woman who engaged me repeatedly in conversations without ever being personally threatened by my rejection of her beliefs. She shared her ideas and never let my off putting manner dictate the tone of our dialogue. One of my first attempts to shake her was a very aggressive declaration that she and every other Christian had no right to tell other people what they could and could not do with their bodies as it related to abortion. I asked her, “Who do you think you are?”

“I believe the unborn are human beings and it is reasonable to restrict other people's behavior when they are killing human beings. How do you respond to that?” And my life has never been the same since.

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