I’ve just finished reading Thomas Jay Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. Most people who will read this will have no idea who he is. He is a scholar, philosopher, and a theologian. This latest book of his offers a ‘new way’ to look at the subject of providence — how God works in this world. In so doing, he addresses the problem of evil: the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in philosophical and theological approaches to the subject, or anyone truly battling with making sense of life, who can also read something a bit on the heavy side and are familiar with big philosophical and theological ideas. (It’s not that bad, but it’s also not for everyone!). I learned quite a few things. I also recommend it to skeptics, they might find it interesting that Oord, a Christian, is able to recognize the clear issues of theism and admit they are real issues, and deal with them honestly and creatively.
If I had to summarize the main thought of the book, I’d say this: God’s primary nature is love, and this love forces him (so to speak) to create a world comprised of various degrees of free agency, and never override or coerce this world in respect of this agency. Some will say my choice of words is poor and doesn’t quite reflect Oord’s thoughts, but this is my impression of what he stated by the time I finished the book. I think such impressions count when you are reviewing these sorts of things.
The book opens up with real-life stories of tragedy and evil, each showcasing a particular “kind” of evil: a chance accident with a falling rock, a horrific rape, and a sad story of birth defect. It then moves to scientific and philosophical reasons why randomness (chance) is real. It also argues that free will is real and not an illusion. Skeptics might benefit from some up to date arguments on these topics (Sam Harris may be behind!) and it gives plenty of food for thought, challenging pat Christian answers to evil — God’s plan is mysterious, we grow from tragedy, you’ll have to wait until you get to heaven until you know, sort of stuff.
Oord seems to be a philosophical realist. This means, in general, that the way we experience the world intuitively is how it really is. I am more aligned to this. (This is one reason why I’m not an atheist). So I appreciate attempts to make sense of the world. This sort of thing actually affects me deeply.
Oord is also a process theologian, or at least seems to be, which is difficult to define. But he does prescribe to open theism in a way. This means that he believes God does not exhaustively know the future, because the future doesn’t exist yet. Choices are real things. God can move in history according to his plan, but the choices of free agents can frustrate or change his plan — at least in the details.
In Oord’s scheme, God’s creation is an extension of his primary nature, love. So in other words, God could never create a world where he is fully in control, as that would be a world that does not reflect his nature of perfect love. Perfect love must require others to make their own free choices and never be coerced.
But while God is not fully in control, he is able to influence creatures to choose to collaborate with him. This is the thrust of Oord’s argument, as I understand it. God never coerces, he only ever invites collaboration. This collaboration is not just an invitation to humans, but also extends to micro-organisms or other aspects of creation, including those that help our bodies function. This is one reason why someone with faith might not get healed — organisms in their body may decide not to comply to God’s request. In this case, it’s not God’s fault, it’s not the person’s fault, it’s the fault of the body and / or the disease itself. (Oord does present some scientific findings as to why he believes free will can be found in micro-organisms, etc.).
So what do I think of it? Does it solve the problem?
It’s a noble attempt at the issue, that’s for sure. You’ll find it really provides satisfying answers, logically, that make sense of terribly perplexing questions. The problem is that logic can often lead you pretty much anywhere, if you create a sufficient starting base (presuppositions). Logically, I could show you why infanticide is right, so long as I get you to agree to a few presuppositions.
But it has its strong points and they’re great. Firstly, to think of God as love first, power second (as Oord reiterates) is (I think) a brilliant exercise. God IS love, says 1 John 4:8 — not just that God loves. I really took that to heart. Oord makes an effort to work out the implications of this, but I disagree with how he always works it out. (Also, I think that we ought to rather put them together — God’s power is his love, his love defines his power and motivates it. Oord might agree to this, I just word it differently).
But this doesn’t mean God is only love. Why I say this is because a God who cannot choose to love strikes me as a God without much personality. While Oord criticises models of providence that make God out to be an impersonal force or the universe etc., there’s a tendency to strip God of actually being a person when we take aspects of God’s own free will away. Oord tries to get around this by saying God loves of necessity (he must love) and choice. So he recognizes God must also make a choice. But he doesn’t qualify this much though. I wish he did.
Rather, I think God could choose to not love his creatures. Of course, one would criticize this and say this implies God could hate, and surely he can’t hate, it goes against his character. Maybe. But I’m not too sure. God surely hates evil, and sin, and many other things too, if you take the Bible as scripture (as I do). It’s just that God consistently chooses to love his creatures, despite their rejection of him. This, for me, lines up much more closely with God’s love in grace.
There’s also an argument here I think Oord misses. If God can only create a world from his own nature (being love), it’s hard to understand why he was able to create creatures that could choose not to love. God can’t choose not to love, according to Oord, but yet his creatures can. That must mean God is able to create a world that is different to his own nature. However, if God is able to choose to love, or not, it would make sense that those made “in his image” (as Genesis puts it) have the same sort of freedom.
We are to trust God for who he is, not what he is.
God is perfectly free, as far as I’m concerned. The tough bit of Christianity is you have to choose to trust Jesus for who he is, not what he is. Calvinists who emphasize God’s sovereignty and power (especially in predestination) put a lot of faith in God’s attributes of power and sovereignty, while — in this case — Oord’s model makes us put our faith in God’s attribute of love. This would be like me putting my faith in my wife because she is a woman, not because I trust her, the person. See the difference?
Therefore, I must trust God that he makes right decisions, not that he isincapable of ever making a wrong decision. Again, Oord criticises ‘negative’ theology (the idea that God can only be described in what he is not, not by what he is) but there is a sense in which his understanding of God can very much take us there.
Does God never coerce?
Oord’s hypothesis that God can’t coerce anyone or even, to a degree, micro-organisms (and perhaps even objects) but only enlist their co-operation lines up to many things we see in scripture. He does a brilliant job of highlighting how miracles in the scriptures tend to only happen when people are involved. Even big ones, like the Read Sea crossing, required Moses to some degree.
He has a positive view of this coercion. It’s only ever for the well-being of creation. “Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being.” (page 94.) I like this positive view and I really like the way this is worded and carefully presented.
But then I come across Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. God strikes these two dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. Again, we see Peter’s involvement (so maybe Oord is right that God always needs co-operation) but the end result just doesn’t line up to the general idea that God inspires creation only ever toward well-being. Maybe Oord doesn’t want to take this story literally, or wants to claim that the writer of the book assumed that it was God when it wasn’t (I don’t know the specifics of Oord’s take on scripture) but then he has to be consistent with other miraculous accounts, positive or negative. Unfortunately, he didn’t address this. But he does address many other honest questions, so I think it might have been an oversight in the edit of the book.
Oord’s take on randomness and spontaneity is refreshing, and I loved reading some of the science and philosophy behind it all. Quantum mechanics fascinates me, and so does Chaos Theory. I also loved how he views randomness positively: the fact that God has made the world with chance and randomness often brings great adventure and creativity, not to mention the ability for us to enjoy sports.
But sometimes this randomness goes wrong. At this point, mention of the Fall in Genesis 3 would bolster his overall argument. But he never mentions it. Maybe he doesn’t believe in it as it’s usually presented, but I think he might be missing out on a fantastic reason why what God created for good can be used, or turned into, evil.
Does God’s love stop him from preventing evil?
No, I don’t think so. So what’s my theory? I think we’re getting there, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
For those who didn’t read McKaiser’s article or know about the debate, McKaiser, as an agnostic, asserts that we don’t need God to know what is right and wrong. Of course I cannot speak for all Christians, but there are several problems with McKaiser’s attempt to put Christian ethics on the “backfoot” in an “800 word article” that are at least worth thinking about. (By the way, it was 1278 words – I say cheekily.) The main problem is this: I think he may be barking up the wrong tree.
McKaiser’s sentiments appear well-founded but I think he is ignorant of Christian theology and philosophy which has addressed the problem in many ways. So much so, that in many respects, Christian theology actually agrees with McKaiser’s analysis.
Really? Yes. McKaiser says he was “shocked that Lennox’s main response” to him “was that he partly agrees” that God is not needed for morality. I didn’t find it shocking but consistent. Christian theology forces Lennox to do so. The book of Genesis says that God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. Many people don’t think about that. It wasn’t a tree of sin or of pleasure or even of just knowledge, but knowledge of good and evil. This is why Christian theology asserts an interesting philosophical point: our knowledge of good and evil is actually core to our problem.
We know what’s right but we repeatedly fail to do what’s right. We constantly judge others by standards we believe in but can’t even live up to. We live under guilt and try to justify our actions to get rid of it. We’re an inherently self-righteous and prideful bunch to be honest, and Christian theology teaches that God didn’t want us to live by good and evil but in a trust-filled relationship with Him.
Many miss the relational aspect of the Christian God, which is why they are confused about what Christians really mean by faith. Sure, we all know it’s all about a “personal relationship with Jesus” but many just don’t make the link as to how that looks. Many Christians don’t even know, thanks to decades of prosperity name-it-and-claim-it nonsense.
McKaiser says he can “communicate sensible rules to children: ‘Don’t hit your sister, Johnny! It’s wrong to go around just hitting people for no reason my boy!’. He is right and Christian theology actually agrees with him. But atheists and agnostics hardly ever address why Johnny needs to have this communicated to him if he inherently knows it. Most of us know that even though children know right from wrong, they still often choose the wrong. We do it too. All the time. But why?
According to Christianity it’s because we ultimately have a heart problem not a knowledge problem or even an ability problem. (The fact that Christians believe no one has an excuse for not knowing right from wrong actually gets people’s backs up.) The heart problem limits our ability and distorts our knowledge, but those are just symptoms of the real problem.
Agnostics and atheists don’t like this kind of language because it comes close to speaking about a soul or acknowledging a spiritual problem. But that doesn’t mean that we can be accused of thinking what McKaiser and / or others accuse us of thinking. Let’s reiterate: for the Christian, the issue of whether or not we need God to tell us if something is right or wrong isn’t the issue. What is the issue is whether we need God so that we will do what is right. Can anyone be moral without God?
As far as the Christian is concerned, the answer is yes on the one hand but no on the other. “Yes” because we can all be moral to a certain degree, “no” because even when we do what is right our motives and our pride and self-righteousness still come into play. Many an outwardly righteous person is inwardly hateful and full of themselves. We call them hypocrites. And we’re all one.
Jesus was all about this in Matthew 5 – 7. And this is where Christian theology differs from other religions in that it states that we are saved from our propensity to evil (we are saved from sin) by faith (trust in God) because of grace (God’s love for us) instead of works (doing what’s right). Furthermore we can grow morally inside (grow in perfect love) which results in outward action – not by principles or laws or religious codes, but ultimately by God himself living in us (the Holy Spirit). For those wondering: I’m speaking beyond just Protestantism here.
If a society continues down the path of self-righteousness, it eventually ends up not being very righteous at all. All religion faces this problem and this is also my personal problem with modern liberalism. Left to our own, morality goes one of two ways: either to horrific licentiousness or to oppressive legalism. And so the question isn’t whether or not we need God to know right from wrong, it’s whether we need God to live it out consistently.
Does mankind need a parent or not? Christians say we do but others say we don’t. McKaiser says we don’t, but I wonder why we need to teach children any morality at all in his framework (they know it already, why do we have to guide them?) and I have questions around how he doesn’t fall into some kind of moral relativism when he says humankind is learning how to be more moral over time. (“…flowing from social and psychological truths we have come to know about human beings over time like a general negative preference for being beaten up…”). I also think he is speaking beyond epistemology and ventures into ontology here, and such a statement puts his moral realism into a quagmire. But it was only an 800 (1278) word article, not his thesis, and I don’t expect him to lay it all out in this forum.
You’ll have to make up your own mind – just make sure you have good reasons to do so that go beyond, “I just don’t like someone else telling me what to do.”
Last night, well-known Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, PowerFM talk show host and agnostic philosophical lecturer, went head to head (mind to mind, more like it!) in a debate on morality at WITS. You can pick some of the conversation on Twitter at the #GMWits hashtag and a Youtube video will be pasted later (I’ll update this blog with it when it comes out).
So what happened? It was invigorating and stimulating, as these debates should be. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was impressed with the turn-out. I loved the brilliance and civility of both speakers. However, I did feel that Lennox could have been stronger, McKaiser could have been clearer. I loved the debate but felt it got bogged down in the wrong areas.
The topic was whether or not God is required for morality. Can morality exist on its own? Or does it require God? (How you frame the question really betrays your bias, doesn’t it?) Each speaker opened up with a brief breakdown of how they came to believe in the existence or non-existence of God. Some interesting points: Lennox said that the conflict between Science and Religion is superficial and then stated, “I am coming to believe that atheism and science don’t mix at all.” From McKaiser’s side, he simply stated that he does not believe that “God exists” is a true claim and all of his philosophical study has never really produced any viable evidence for the existence of God. At the very best you can come to the conclusion there is a deity, but not that the Christian god exists, he said.
But onto the real debate
But this was a debate on morality and it’s here where I felt McKaiser didn’t address the key question I was hoping he would. McKaiser, interestingly enough, believes that objective morality exists, but it doesn’t require God to exist. That was fascinating for me. He is not a moral relativist. (He even stated that relativism is, in his opinion, highly dangerous.) But what does he ground objective morality in? The answer seems to be rationality (or his own rationality, I would imagine, as a starting point). So the question posed to him from Lennox was, “Why do you put so much faith in your own rationality?”
Why does McKaiser believe this is a reliable base? Unfortunately I didn’t feel he answered this question or articulated his position clearly. This for me was really what I wanted to hear. But whether he dodged the question or just didn’t make it clear, I didn’t hear an answer that satisfied me (I’m using that phrase deliberately in a tongue-in-cheek way to McKaiser’s argument about evidence for God). At first he answered the question by highlighting that Lennox is thoroughly convinced of the reliability of scientific method, but makes a jump to believing that water could turn to wine. It was a brilliant challenge and Lennox didn’t really answer it directly in my mind either, but it didn’t really answer the question. I suppose he was saying that Lennox himself places great faith in rationality, but Lennox was clear that the only reason why that is is he believes we are made in God’s image and as a result we share some attributes of God, such as the ability to be rational.
Why does McKaiser believe people have intrinsic value? On what basis does he make that claim? As my friend Wesley asked, “If moral objectivity exists outside of God and we say rape is bad, because that person has value, who / what determines that value?” I wondered: if I must trust my own rationality for morality, how do I know I can trust it? What if I’m actually mentally ill and don’t know?
So I’m left to play a bit of a guessing game on McKaiser’s position. I wondered if McKaiser was going to bring up some sort of Kantian model for his position, but he didn’t go there. I wondered if he was going to bring in society and “nurture”, or evolutionary arguments, but he seems to reject either of those. It would seem to me that he takes rationality for granted. Where does rationality come from? What is the standard for rationality? Where does that standard come from? Does it come from an external place (society?) or an internal place (EQ?). Is this really about cosmology? (For example, the universe is an ordered place, and therefore we are naturally inclined to order. But of course, the drive for order has resulted in some pretty immoral actions!) Is this really about the conscience? And where does that come from? McKaiser obviously wants to avoid anything that sounds like an inner light or mysterious “knowing” or a soul or even the “heart”, or something along those lines, and talking about the conscience might force him in that direction (and besides, it seems the conscience can be tweaked).
I realise the limits of this sort of debate in terms of time and structure, but I really didn’t feel satisfied by the end that this was answered. Yes, I know my own presuppositions but try my best to be open-minded.
Usually arguments that say we don’t need God for morality seems to venture around the idea of how we “ought” to be. (Lennox brought this up saying it seems people move from “is” to “ought”.) We “ought” to not need anyone to tell us right from wrong, but we all know the world is not like that. (Lennox’s statement that atheism in particular has no argument for the problem of evil was an interesting one.) Simple observation tells us that not all people are rational and not all societies are rational – including some religious ones. So where is this grand objective rationality coming from?
Obviously, given my beliefs, I would agree with Lennox that it comes from something external and bigger than us, built into us as part of our very make-up. That, of course, is God.
Two common answers
There are generally two common answers I find to the question of “If it’s not God, what are you basing your rationality on?” The first is, “It doesn’t need to be God” and then we need to know what it is. Unfortunately, like last night, I never quite find that people who hold that position really get to what it really is. The second is, “Why does it need to be God?” which doesn’t answer the question. That answer is really just being the irritating mountain man seer who only ever answers your questions with a question; or a psychologist who is trained to just ask you questions to help you come to your own conclusions. That doesn’t work for philosophy, though.
Lennox could have been stronger last night and could have pushed this question harder, in my opinion. Yes, there are some questions he didn’t really answer either, but what I really wanted to hear addressed wasn’t – not to a degree that satisfied me, at least!
The point of debate
But don’t get me wrong – I learned a lot last night, which is the point of this sort of debate. It’s about learning, not about winning. All the smack down comments on Twitter and some of the blogs I’m expecting to see today I think will miss this point. Some people seem to go to these things pre-deciding who will “win”. What’s the point of that? You’re never going to learn anything like that.
There was no clear winner last night (there seldom is) but there was a ton of stuff to think about and consider from both sides, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It didn’t get into ridicule zone (which I was afraid it might) and the crowd was fantastic too. Thanks Eusebius and John for an invigorating, enjoyable evening!
LAST LAUGH: Someone put a Dianetics book from L.Ron Hubbard on McKaiser’s seat when he wasn’t looking. Chuckled at that!
Well-known radio personality, political commentator, debater and philosophical lecturer Eusebius McKaiser published an article through The Star this morning entitled: “No need to treat God with kid gloves“. It’s the perfect example of apologetics gone wrong – atheist or Christian.
(In the article McKaiser advertises his upcoming debate with well-known Christian apologist John Lennox, which will be taking place this Thursday, 7pm, at WITS University JHB’s Great Hall. I’ll live-tweet the debate and blog about it on Friday. My Twitter handle is @RyanPeterWrites.)
McKaiser basically takes religious people apart in his article for being sensitive when their personal beliefs are questioned, especially publically. He is right that “too many religious believers think that debating their beliefs is intrinsically offensive” and that questions about our beliefs should turn us on. He is wrong about how this should be done – or at least he hasn’t explained his position too well.
On one hand, McKaiser states that he “doesn’t mean being offensive is acceptable” but on the other hand he says, “Why do many people who believe in some sort of higher power think that religious convictions are beyond lampooning, ridiculing, criticism or close intellectual scrutiny?”
Unfortunately, ‘close intellectual scrutiny’ and ‘lampooning’ and ‘ridiculing’ don’t really belong in the same sentence. McKaiser says that ideas should be engaged with a ‘mix of reason and ridicule’ but I fail to see how the latter has ever helped the former to take place. He uses Richard Dawkins as a prime example, but it runs against his point – Dawkins has, in recent years, decided that ridicule works better than reason, but all we’re seeing is a quick degrade into irrelevance and silliness.
Much like the comments section at McKaiser’s article. (Don’t read the comments – you’ll waste precious hours of your life.)
If he is talking about comedy, that’s fair and well, but he isn’t. Substitute all that he says about how ridicule and lampooning is perfectly acceptable with homosexuality or race and it all falls flat. In fact, all he would look like then is that wonderful debate-stirring word used for anything these days, ‘bigot’. Why should religious people have to grow thick skin but everyone else is the victim of some vicious hate speech crime if you disagree with their views?
McKaiser’s article represents all that can go wrong with apologetics because it encourages the wrong things. Respect should be encouraged. And so should love.
Respect doesn’t mean that everything is relative and there is no truth and facts fly out the window. Respect simply means that, regardless of your views, I still see you as a person of intrinsic value and treat you as such. Ridicule, however, never does that as it’s about attacking the person.
Unfortunately, anything McKaiser wants to say about morality (that’s what his debate with Lennox will be about on Thursday) is weakened when he says ridicule is a valid form of debate. Does McKaiser have any reason outside of his own relative and changing morality to respect or love someone despite their beliefs? Is that kind of morality something we can build our lives on?
This is the kind of question the debate on Thursday will probably cover. Should be a good one!
Apologetics is one of my big interests – given my interest in theology. I tend to feel that good apologetics is actually more about knowing the theology of your faith than knowing metaphysics, philosophy and science – but I don’t discount those topics at all (I particularly like philosophy and I respect science a great deal!)
These days you can sharpen your wits and theology, and test your heart, on the Internet in a thousand different forums. Over time I’ve developed some “rules of engagement” for apologetics (although, these rules will work for any topic you would like to debate). Not that I’m the best in the world at this, but I thought these might be helpful to you. If anything, they help to prevent an online debate becoming a bloodbath – and help you keep your sanity and heart intact. At least, that’s what they do for me.
So, here are the ten rules for engagement:
1. You are there to serve, not to win
A debate – especially an online one – can often be an angry one. Passion is one thing, but calling a person a dumb idiot another. Do not engage in a debate to win. Engage in it to serve; to add to the discussion; to help people think through their own choices and thought processes. You’re there to love and respect people. You want to help people dig deep. This is because, ultimately, our choices take place in our heart, not our heads. Many atheists might claim that their choice to be an atheist was a head decision and emotions had nothing to do with it, but those atheists will frequently betray that thought by the way they will talk to you and about the topic.
2. Respect. Always.
People have intrinsic value – they are made in the image of God and we must love and respect them. Always. Remember, once again, you are not there to win! Many people are going to read the comments section and the first thing they are going to notice is who is acting with respect and who is being immature.
3. Don’t be afraid to call people out
Does this go against (2)? Not really. Respect people, but try and look for their hearts in the discussion and address that. I don’t mean we should get all psycho-analytic, but I do mean that when people are arrogant or self-righteous and they’ve got a high opinion of themselves, there’s no problem with – respectfully – saying so.
Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers and a whole lot of other rather hectic things. He wasn’t scared to call them out on their self-righteousness. I frequently call out people who claim that “they don’t need a crutch for religion” for their self-righteousness and arrogance. I have no problem with saying that Jesus is a crutch, and more; they, however, seem to have a very high opinion of themselves and a very low opinion of people who don’t make their grade and who aren’t as tough, intelligent, and accomplished as they are. This hidden self-righteousness should be called out. I think that, perhaps, self-righteousness is the one thing we can always be confident in calling people out on, because Jesus did it.
4. Know the topic fairly well
Don’t debate something you actually know very little about and don’t write a blog about a topic you don’t know much about! There’s no reason to enter that kind of debate unless you are more keen on winning than serving, which you shouldn’t be. How are you going to add to a discussion if you don’t really even know much about the topic?
For example, I won’t debate economical theory or evolution. Neither of these, in my opinion, really have any bearing on my faith anyway (evolution is not a big deal – honestly, it doesn’t matter if it’s true) so I’m not going to talk about the third law of thermodynamics or engage in a debate about the fossil record. If anyone tries to bait me that direction I won’t bite. It’s not my field. I might, however, engage with an atheist who claims that evolution is the nail in the coffin for Christianity. It’s not, and I know enough about the topic of whether or not it is – and I know Genesis 1, 2 and 3 well enough; and I know Christian theology, both present and historic, well enough – to know that evolution has very little bearing on Christianity and the Bible.
People make this mistake all too often. Atheists do it too – it’s not uncommon for an atheist to try their hand at theology, trying to prove why the Bible is self-contradictory or claim that certain verses mean what they actually don’t. Richard Dawkins is often trying his hand at theology and philosophy, when his field is biology, and he fails at the former two. Help them to understand the Bible and you’ll help them get over their bias around the topic. Remember, they are usually projecting their understanding onto the Bible and then criticising the Bible based on their own projection!
5. Don’t get distracted
A debate can go nowhere soon. Someone posts a blog that says, “Christians don’t believe in Science” and you reply with some stats that show that to be untrue. Then, instead of talking about that, they post “Your God is evil! What about violence in the Old Testament!” After your brief answer about that, the next one will be, “Yeah, but he’s going to roast everyone in hell! Some god that is! And look how many pastors steal money!”
Stick to the topic, even if they don’t. If they want to talk about violence in the Old Testament, don’t engage it unless you are able to somehow come to the heart of the issue fast (their heart, mostly) or you know the topic well enough that you can easily dismiss their claims and guide the conversation into something more helpful, healthier and of benefit to everyone who is reading it and those engaged in the conversation. And remember, if you don’t know the topic well enough, don’t engage it! I won’t engage most discussions around Old Testament violence, for example; I just don’t know enough about the topic to do so.
6. Be a good sport
If someone attacks you personally, laugh it off or try and see the funny side to it. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
7. Remember, it’s usually more beneficial to the readers
While the person who you are engaging will nine times out of ten put their back up, the people who are reading or listening to the debate are carefully considering the different thoughts being presented. So, keep them in mind and always remember how you can also help them to find value in the discussion.
8. Admit when you’re wrong, learn, and move on
Swallow your pride, admit your mistake, and move on. Don’t try and defend an obvious gaff!
9. Ask questions
Questions are a great way to help everyone relax and also probe the heart. You don’t want to be the mountain mystic who only ever answers a question with a question! If someone wants to know what you think then tell them. But ask them questions too – find out why they think what they think; their background; their story; and see how you can help them think carefully about their decisions and thought process. Remember, you want to serve them, not beat them!
10. Write / speak on topics that don’t always attack
As soon as you attack people are going to put their back up. Rather, write or speak on interesting topics that add to the discussion. For example, a post on a recent study on how many scientists are theists might stir discussion around whether or not religion and science really are at odds. It’s good to let atheists see that their common perception on this topic is incorrect, without directly attacking them on it.
Or, use allegory and poetry – Jesus spoke in parables and also made use of poetry. This is because poetry and allegory and art are able to often bypass the “dragons” as C.S. Lewis called them and go straight to people’s hearts. This is an apologetic method I’m exploring right now and, to be honest, I think is probably the most effective – not that debates on logic and philosophy are not valuable, but it’s the heart that matters.
A very interesting post at Reddit provides some unexpected insight. The user, CynicalMe, decided to run an informal survey around the popular social site in relevant areas (subreddits) and asked two questions:
If you left the Christian faith, what was your greatest reason for doing so?
What do you consider to be the greatest obstacle to belief in the Christian God?
What was the outcome? Most said that the problem was “Christian teachings that conflict with findings of modern science”.
That suprised me. Really? Science? I would have thought that superficial teachings or acts of violence in the Bible would be bigger factors. But Science?
Yes, this is an informal survey (2020 users took part) and something for the kind of community that frequents Reddit – arguably, geeks, mostly – is worth considering.
The original poster makes some interesting points. Here’s a quote:
“What I have found to be particularly interesting is the massive disconnect between popular Christian perceptions of the obstacles to belief and what atheists actually have to say about this matter for themselves.
“Of particular interest is the large number of Christians (30%) who think this has to do with superficial teaching and not taking the bible seriously enough, compared to a mere 2.5% of non-Christians who at one point left Christianity giving this as their greatest reason for leaving and 1.7% of those who were never Christians stating this as their greatest obstacle.”