Arguing With Ourselves

As per usual, I was reading Slacktavist and was struck by something. I know, I know, I link to him a lot, but he says a lot of excellent things in an interesting way.

In this case, Clark was talking about Ken Ham. Specifically, he was talking about how Ham seems to know absolutely nothing about the things he claims to be an expert about in regards to science. Clark, unlike Ham, when he doesn’t know things about science, goes to scientists and trusts that people who have studied something for years and made it their life’s work will know more about the subject than somebody who hasn’t (him).

Similarly, many of his scientist friends, who also are often atheists, will ask him about Ham’s exegesis and whether the guy gets the Bible right either. Clark, who was raised an evangelical, has been studying the Bible all of his life, and been discussing exegesis for over 25 years, confirms that Ham is also wrong about what the Bible says.

Now, I know, it’s difficult to be wrong about something that is left entirely open to interpretation because there is no empirical way of testing it, but hear me out for a second. This will make sense in a moment.

The thing that gave me pause about the post was when Clark discusses what he describes as a “a new and disturbing alliance between young-earth creationists like Ham and those who subscribe to a certain aggressive strain of Internet atheism.” You see, he will be arguing with a young-earth creationist who claims that the Bible literally says the world was created in six days some 6,000-10,000 years ago, he will present his evidence that this is hardly the only interpretation and certainly not the most likely one given context (see also the common atheist argument that it’s ridiculous to trust the words of illiterate bronze age goatherds about the creation of the universe), and then will be informed by atheists that no, that’s actually what’s said there and it must be treated as literal.

The thing is, yes, that is what it says, but that’s not what Clark is saying. I’ve seen atheists in comment threads make this sort of mistake, too, in which we end up bolstering the arguments of people like Ham by assuming that the only way to make the argument is to discredit the source. As a result, we end up arguing not with Clark, but with a strawman.

Let’s take an example. I have a copy of On the Origin of Species that was handed out several years ago by Ray Comfort’s ministry with Comfort’s own “special introduction” in it. I should point out that I wasn’t an atheist at the time and only vaguely familiar with how evolution worked, but my girlfriend was a Molecular and Microbiology major, so between her, what reading I had done, and my knowledge that Ray Comfort had said a number of other provably wrong and stupid things, I at least knew what to look for.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Here are a couple of the gems.

“Aside from the immense volume of information that your DNA contains, consider the likeilhood of all the intricate, interrelated parts of this ‘book’ coming together by sheer chance.” (p. 9)

“Some critics also question the scientific basis for assuming that similar DNA indicates a common ancestor. Just as a biplane and a jet share common features of wings, body, tires, engine, controls, etc., they argue, does not require that one must have evolved from the other naturally, without a maker.” (p. 11, also notice how he changes the argument in the middle there)

And my favorite, which is most pertinent to this conversation, “So if I was an atheist [Editor: It’s “were,” you moron], I would see that I have an intellectual dilemma. If I deny that there is a God, I am saying nothing created everything, and that’s a scientific impossibility.” (p.39, italics his)

There are several more cases in which Comfort argues against the strawman evolution that exists only in his mind and is contradicted by the book that he is introducing, so much so that I would argue that the defining trait of this particular bit of writing is that he says that the following 241 pages say things that they manifestly don’t. My girlfriend at the time and I had a good laugh at the whole thing. Those of us who are science-oriented can recognize what he’s doing, and it’s part of what makes Ray Comfort such a comic figure outside of his little bubble of ignorance.

Inevitably, the problem arises where somebody, usually in the imperfect communication medium of a comment thread, will start attributing beliefs to people in order to make solid arguments. However, as atheists we should recognize that this is intellectually dishonest. Moreover, it oversteps our bounds to tell people what they do and don’t believe. Telling Clark and people like him (or John Shore, or Rob Bell, or my minister friends, or anyone else) that in order for them to be a Christian, they must believe the same things that Pat Robertson, David Barton, Bryan Fischer, Ray Comfort, or any of the other fundamentalist nutjobs believe, we re-enforce the perception that a complex, cobbled together collection of folk tales that spans centuries and originated in one of the least educated parts of the world at the time has a correct interpretation.

But how can something that is that complex and contradictory, written in a dozen different genres by who knows how many people who never met and collected by others that were born hundreds of years after every one of the authors was dead, then translated over and over again, have one correct way of interpreting it? I may as well ask you to interpret the correct meaning of any sixty-odd vaguely related books. Part of the reason why atheists reject the Bible as a valid source is because it has no consistent message on any specific topic. So why insist that it must be taken in the worst way possible?

Now, I know this is going to smack of accomodationism, but really it’s just intellectual honesty. Again, another common atheist argument against religion is that there are so many of them, all claiming absolute truth with exactly the same amount of testable data, more than 30,000 Protestant denominations in the US alone. If that’s the case, then why would any of us then turn around and say that any one of those 30,000 is the one true Christianity to argue against? It’s no more likely that Matt Barber is right than Shane Claibourne, so what good is it to argue against Claibourne devotees that the things Barber says are terrible? They already agree.

When talking to liberal Christians, we can’t argue against them using Biblical interpretations that encourage misogyny and homophobia because they already think that stuff is worth ignoring. There’s no point in telling Rob Bell that the idea of a real, physical place where unbelievers will be consciously tortured for all of eternity is ludicrous and, if such a place did exist, that the person sending people there is not worthy of worship. Rob Bell already thinks that, and making that argument not only legitimizes the idea that the One True Christianity is the homophobic, misogynistic, until-recently racist one with the awful, abusive megalomaniac ready to torture anyone who doesn’t show proper obedience to his vague wishes, but it also degrades our own credibility. It makes us work hard at convincing somebody of something they already believe. Don’t waste your time, focus on a disagreement.

Were I to debate with Clark, for example, I know enough about his exegesis to know that he thinks that most of the Bible is composed of stories, myths that “explain the character if God.” So arguing that most of the stuff that is claimed to be history doesn’t have archeological evidence to back it doesn’t help me, because Clark could simply say that of course those things didn’t really happen, they’re parables to show us how God reacts to certain types of events.That doesn’t keep me from pointing out that humans don’t rise from the dead or walk on water. It doesn’t prevent me from pointing out that there are no non-gospel records of an itinerant Canaanite rabbi named Yeshua saying the things that were said (Clark does believe in a savior Jesus). It doesn’t hold me back from asking for some evidence that there is an undetectable person who sees everything I do and cares very deeply about my life.

It is important for us to make our arguments appropriate. By that I don’t mean be nice all the time. Believe me, nice is not my go-to approach. But I do mean that we have to argue with the people sitting in front of us, not the people who make us want to argue most.

And for the sake of Ceiling Cat, if you see another atheist trying to tell somebody what they believe, call them out on it. Tell them it’s no different than telling atheists that we worship Satan, or feminists that we want to stop all people from flirting, or any number of dumb generalizations. It ignores the nuance and complexity in the world and amounts to intellectual dishonesty, which we don’t need to win an argument.

As a growing movement, we are experiencing a lot of growing pains. We’re still working a lot of things out and while we have a number of brilliant and mature voices speaking for us (Matt Dillahunty, Richard Carrier, Greta Christina, Dan Barker, Jerry Coyne, the list goes on), we also have a lot of people like me who are still trying to find their voice and understand their arguments. Many of us let our passion precede our intellect, and that leads to sloppy arguments.

However, rational human beings, atheist or not, should be above such things, and if we wish to raise the level of discourse, we can’t allow them to pass unmentioned. If you’re fighting a pell, you’ve won no victory.


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