Upton Sinclair is credited with the following observation “It is difficult to get a man (sic) to understand something, when his salary [or reputation or even salvation?] depends upon his not understanding it!”
At high school I was introduced to the art of debating. We were taught that once you had been given a side of a moot to defend you assembled your supporting arguments and only considered the likely counter arguments as points to be refuted at all cost. It was rare indeed for team members to be convinced by an opposing argument and indeed the whole point of the debate was to assemble a case as irrefutable as possible, and in the process to undermine the opposition argument by fair means or foul. I would have to say that this version of debating encourages intellectual dishonesty because in the process it was more common to parody the opposition case and exaggerate the rightness of ones own cause than it ever was to seek genuine enlightenment from listening to other points of view.
Years later – looking at the current Atheism versus conservative Christianity debates I am convinced I see the same cynical school debating team characteristics demonstrated time after time. If the protagonists were genuinely seeking possibilities of truth from the opposition they are hardly likely to do so when riding into battle under a previously chosen emperor’s flag. For the conservative Christian, particularly one convinced that they have adopted a genuinely better view of life and religion under the born again rubric, it is hardly likely that he or she might be wanting to admit a possibility they were deluded or just plain wrong in their self-perceived decision for salvation. The Atheist, also often born again into a new way of thinking about what now seems to them a newly discovered contemptible version of Christianity – (particularly where the new stance has involved a conscious decision to reject a previously held state), has too much at stake to now admit error of judgement.
On more than one occasion, taking such presuppositions into debate, results in wilful misunderstanding. Let us start with the atheist who contrasts the objective attitudes of science-based understanding with the ancient crass behaviours advocated in ancient texts. To take some quotes from one observed internet discussion.
“What “Truth” does one get from Numbers 31:17-18? I get that the deity of the Christians ordered genocide; the murder of babies, children, women, men and the enslavement and rape of young virgin girls……
Christians will a) refuse to accept that dirty little fact, try to justify genocide and rape or try to write it off as ‘in the old testament’ even though the Jesus Christ they claim to worship very specifically said he not only agreed with the old laws but if one didn’t follow them all to the letter one would not be entering heaven……
Another lovely ‘Truth’ can be found in Psalm 137:9. “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”. What “Truth”, precisely, is one to take from that? Happy about bashing a child, ANY child’s head against anything?”
Of course if the claimed atheist alternative is in fact the modern objective seeking of the sort of truth that may then be used for the betterment of humankind there would be no contest if the above verses did actually represent mainstream Christian belief.
Remembering my elderly, well- intentioned and demonstrably caring congregation at Epsom who not so long ago knitted balaclavas for the children in the aftermath of the Christchurch Earthquake and thinking of them instead abducting small children to beat their innocent tiny brains out against rocks is truthfully stretching the bounds of possibility. The weakness in this case against Christianity is that it is seizing upon an historical artefact of an antecedent to Christianity and holding the modern version accountable for the uncertain past.
However when the Christian apologist talks of the morally bankrupt atheism and derides the continual shifting in understanding and uncertainties of emerging theory that characterises modern science, again there are assumptions that don’t do justice to the atheist position. There are demonstrably good moral atheists like Bertrand Russell, just as there are atheists in community service clubs like Rotary and the Lions – and to say that their motivating philosophy is morally bankrupt is a nonsense since as my psychology professor used to remind us, that demonstrated behaviour is the only possible way of guessing at what might be in the heart.
Since despite the good behaviour of many Christian nurses, social workers and reformers through the ages there have equally been self claimed Christians who have been psychopaths, war criminals, child molesters and Church secretary gropers, to only notice the moat in the other’s eye seems a little unfair.
In reality there is learning to be had from listening carefully to the points of the other side.
Atheism per se is not automatically to be feared in that its main premise of not believing in God is more than reasonable if the God which has been rejected is not worthy of belief. Remember that despite whatever mysterious forces might be in control of the Universe there are very many interpretations and downright guesses as to what this creative process involves.
The many versions of “God” followed by untold religious groups and sects are often mutually exclusive and to learn that God is therefore not plausible always raises the interesting question of what the speaker has in mind when they use the term. After asking that question of a number of atheists I have encountered through the years, and hearing about the God they don’t believe in – I have often found myself agreeing that I too, do not believe in that sort of God. On the other hand, having the outsider correctly identify my or my group’s weaknesses in thought and action offers salutary reminders of the need to live the best in one’s faith. If in return, the atheist might learn that there are areas where the self claimed moral alternative were to result in little visible signs of helpful activity this too might be of assistance.
My chief concern is that we do not genuinely listen to one another. If we approach the discussion with the assumption that we mustn’t give honest consideration to the other’s point of view we are going to miss many genuine insights.