21 March 2009

The Big Alpha Fight

Finally, here it is. The event you've been waiting for, that I've been promising for four months: the big fight I had with the church elder at the Alpha Course weekend retreat. Events that follow are from hurredly-scribbled notes I took after we got back from the weekend. Hopefully, not too many of the details have been lost or corrupted in the retelling.

Sorry to say, but I did not behave in a very respectable, high-road manner in this argument with the elder. Fortunately, I did not have an audience other than my wife. In general, I blame the complete lack of sleep. More specifically though, I blame the fact that I had been there for a couple of days already, surrounded by nothing but mind-numbing Christian talk, and told that finally here was the wise man - the one who knew so much more than the regular Alpha group leaders - who would have the very best most convincing answers for me. Then this old, well-spoken, seemingly intelligent person sits down and begins to speak with the mind-blowing wisdom that I've waited two months for with bated-breath:

"What about the eye?"

Fuck.

I just went off the handle. I hope you can forgive me.

-----------------------------------

For some time, my wife had been very, very eager for me to speak to the church elder who'd be present during the Alpha retreat weekend. Both she and our group leader had wanted me to write down all my questions to ask him, if not during the large group discussion, then whenever I could get a moment to speak to him in private (I didn't bother). I had been told several times by the group leader that he was wise, and that he had cleared up a lot of the questions she had when she first started getting serious about her religion. I had my doubts, but when the course started I was curious and somewhat looking forward to the opportunity to match wits with a church elder. But as the course dragged on, my enthusiasm waned. I really had little interest in the discussion anymore. By the Alpha weekend, things had not changed. The large group discussion further reinforced these apathetic feelings, as the elder just gave canned answers to inane theological questions.

While I really didn't feel like talking to him , he did make some comments I wanted him to clarify; it sounded like he was a biblical literalist but he was still essentially making shit up with respect to solving the "what to do about the deaf-dumb-blind guy who can't reasonably be expected to hear of Jesus" problem (see the end of the large group discussion post linked above). That said, I didn't care enough about it to seek him out and sit through a chat with him.

My wife, though, thought my curiosity about this question would be a great excuse to get me to sit down and talk to the elder (and hopefully be converted, I'll bet).

So immediately after games night had ended, she hunted the elder down and told him that I wanted to talk to him. Sigh. So he came to me and the three of us found an empty restaurant-style booth (conveniently located in the main rec room for such occasions) in which to sit (FYI, the table at the booth was covered in apologetics books they were trying to sell), me facing him with my wife beside me. I was on the inside. Trapped.

So I asked him to confirm his views on the deaf-blind-dumb guys, and how he thought God would come to them in some way when we couldn't, thus giving them a chance to accept or deny God. He said he's sure God is good and that he would do this for people Christians couldn't reach. I said "But that's not in the bible." He said that of course the bible is the most important thing in determining what it means to be Christian, but he wouldn't say exactly how his idea fit into this.

I asked him if he was a biblical literalist. He said that he essentially was. I decided that I really didn't care about his answer to the original question that much anymore. As long as I was here, I was going to go with other, more interesting questions, especially since he was just avoiding the problem of his idea not meshing with the bible anyway.

We established that he was a Young Earth Creationist. I didn't have a problem with that, but I wanted to explore the implications of his views, ie. living in a scientific world and the subsequent disagreements between his biblical literalist views and the scientific knowledge re: the age of the earth, evolution, geology, etc. So I asked him that question. He replied with a counter question about my beliefs. "Well I ask you this: How do you think the world came to be?"

I was game, so I explained evolution in a nutshell, from the common descent of humans and apes from an earlier ape ancestor, to a 4.5 billion year old earth with life arising somewhere around the -3.5 billion year mark, right down to the self-replication of chemicals in a nod to the problem of abiogenesis.

He then said, "Well look what you said. You said 'chemicals'. Now, how do you explain the chemicals?"

"No no no no no," I said, finger waggling nay-nay. "I know where you're going with this, some argument about the origins of the universe, cosmological, first mover 'Who made the chemicals?' stuff. I've heard it before. And honestly, I'm willing to accept a little lack of understanding. Scientists are working on it, and we may never know, but I accept not knowing as a possibility. But we weren't talking about that. I wanted to know about you reconciling YEC with modern science."

"Where do you get the 100s of billions of years-"

"About 4.5 billion for the earth, 12-14 for the universe," I interjected.

He continued,"-the billions of years you need for evolution. Scientists thought it was a few thousand, then a million, then a few hundred million, then billions," insinuating that science was untrustworthy. I got annoyed and went on a tirade about the powers and achievements of science in the very short amount of time since the scientific revolution, and how without it, we'd likely all be dead from disease right now.

He said, "But many scientists, you'd probably heard of them, believe in creation." I told him I didn't need to hear his list, but I suspect it was the same one as Nicky Gumbel listed in his Alpha introduction video (mainly pre-Darwin, pre-Hubble, guys like Newton, etc.); if so, it's amazing how they act like the Alpha attendees are so stupid or inattentive that we can't remember the basic course material. Sadly, for many of the attendees, this seems to be true. I hand-waved it away, asking for the actual evidence, not just the fact that there are scientists who are Christian.

He said that scientists have discovered a lot of new evidence that points back toward God. I said that was unlikely. He replied:

"What about the eye? What good is half of one?"

At that, MY eyes rolled so far that I almost ended up with half an eye.

I merely replied, "The eye????" and turned away with a big theatrical sigh.

Realizing that I had to say something instead of just getting up and leaving (remember, sitting in the inside seat of a booth), yet wanting to leave, I continued by saying, "I don't have time to teach you all of biology starting from grade 1 up to the university level."

"Look, you said your piece, now let me say mine." Then he went on regurgitating his beliefs ad nauseum. He followed that by accusing me of dodging questions, especially regarding the origin of chemicals.

I got offended. I told him that he never did answer about how he reconciled science and creationism, other than saying he felt science was wrong just because scientists have changed their conclusions over the centuries. I would like for him to read more science texts to gain a better understanding of the method and the evidence, and maybe a little of Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World. I'd like to think that it would help, but somehow I doubt he'd be that open-minded.

We yelled a lot and talked over each other. Then I got really annoyed and shut it down. We had stopped looking at each other when we spoke. I had my arms crossed and let out a loud, frustrated sigh of exasperation. Eventually, I said we should calm it down and switch to another topic. He agreed.

My wife volunteered that I was really interested in history. Figuring that was as good a place to go as any, I said that one of the main failings of Christianity for me was how poorly supported it was historically. I wanted extra-biblical evidence for the events of the Gospels.

He gave Tacitus and Josephus as examples. I cut him off and said that they were not adequate contemporary evidence for the historicity of Jesus. They weren't written during the events in question and were probably written based on what Christians were saying about Jesus, not on any other historical documents.

He looked angry and frustrated. "I can't be responsible for your preconceptions."

"My preconceptions can't be responsible for your horrible arguments."

His turn to sigh. Slowly, deliberately, he said "Well, I'm probably not as smart as you."

Make no mistake, this was not an admission of being beaten in an argument, rather, I'm pretty sure it was a set-up to an argument to prove my intellectual failings. I countered, saying that I didn't think he was stupid and really couldn't say if I was smarter than him, for he seemed like an eloquent and well put-together person. (This was a little modest, since, while he did appear pretty smart, I'm fairly certain I am much smarter than him - that's the conceit of having a Masters of Applied Science and twice getting the highest average in my highschool without really trying.)

I think he was trying to maneuver into a "my mind is down here" (holds hand about a foot off the table) "and yours is up here" (holds hand about 2 feet off the table) "but God's mind is way up there" (pointing at the ceiling) "so who are you to make decisions as to what God can and can't do" argument (similar argument to the degree of goodness argument), but I think the modesty/counter-modesty battle derailed his point as he got distracted and went onto a different topic.

He told me that I should read the bible, because people read the bible and then they believe. He mentioned CS Lewis, and asked if I had heard of him, because CS Lewis, the great author, started as an atheist, but he read the bible and it made him into a Christian. He spoke as if I either never heard of CS Lewis or never heard the story about him coming to Christianity. It's amazing that someone whose arguments come directly from Alpha doesn't seem to realize that almost every Alpha sermon mentions CS Lewis and his conversion.

I said that it sounds fair, and I'll consider reading the bible once I had some time and energy. I added that he should read some science books and that I'd be happy to recommend some.

The elder ignored that and went back to CS Lewis. "I want you to think about something. CS Lewis said that Christianity, if true, is of utmost importance, and if false, it's of no importance. But if it's of the utmost importance, shouldn't you learn as much as you can about it?"

I asked, "How do you mean? I consider it to be of moderate importance due to the societal and cultural impacts. Are you considering that?" The elder then made it clear that he just meant as a religion, not as a piece of culture.

Anyway, I said, "Well, how is that any different from any other religion? You can say the same thing about Islam, or Hinduism, or Zeus, so how is this an argument for Christianity?" He replied that it's not proof, just something for me to think about. "Why bother saying it then?" I exclaimed angrily. "I'm here at Alpha already, so obviously I'm trying to learn something. We're supposed to be talking about evidence."

At about this time, the energy was sapped from the table. I realized how sore my throat was from an hour of nearly screaming at the supposedly wise ignoramus across from me. I was sweaty. He looked rundown.

I felt like I'd just spent the past hour swinging a baseball bat at a reinforced concrete wall - a big, well-meaning, but dumb reinforced concrete wall. It really went nowhere and made me tired and frustrated.

Angry and mutually given-up, the two of us agreed to end the argument there with a strained handshake. I thanked him for showing patience and taking the time to talk. As we were getting up, he tried to get in the last word, reminding me to read the bible. I told him again to read some science as I turned and left, with my wife quickly following me.

The elder and I each made an effort not to speak to or look at each other for the rest of the weekend.

Conclusions:

I don't think I did a very good job in the argument. In large part, I think it was due to not really expecting the argument and therefore not really having a plan. I didn't know what points I wanted to make, what level of confrontation to employ, how much contempt or respect to show, etc. Hell, at several points, I couldn't decide whether or not to even bother staying in the discussion. Was I supposed to nonjudgmentally pick his brain? Was I supposed to engage in a heated logical debate? Was I supposed to remain calm and try to convert the old bastard? Was I supposed to just yell at him for his ignorance? I could never decide, and as a result, I did a little bit of each, and rather ineffectively at that.

All the while, my wife was great. Though she didn't say a word during the discussion, she was solid, sitting there with me, not interrupting or judging. She never got emotional. Afterward, she listened to what I had to say about my anger, frustration, and disappointment with the elder.

I think, those who most Christians regard as "elders" or "those who are much wiser" have exactly the same crap arguments as the religious neophytes who unthinkingly parrot those crap arguments. They have no greater understanding, no better arguments, no more balanced or rational thinking. When it comes to why they believe, they are no better than any other bible thumper; they are just older and more eloquent.

Final thought:

St Augustine said something to the effect that a Christian who knows little about a subject better stay silent about it, lest any unbelievers around won't pay him any mind when he starts proselytizing, as the unbeliever will think he is as full of crap regarding Christianity as he is with whatever other topic he was talking about.

I guess my point here can be best summarized as, "Hey! Old Guy! St. Augustine says you should shut the hell up."

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19 Comments:

At March 21, 2009 10:34 PM, Blogger Larro FCD said...

Interesting. I don't have any idea of what kind of conversation I'd have with a religious authority figure.

I'd probably do much worse than you. With much more expletives (I love swearing :P).

Like the YEC crap. This would require me to actually get into their tiny little heads. Screw that.

 
At March 21, 2009 11:08 PM, Blogger Eamon Knight said...

I tried arguing with one of these fuck-heads once (specifically about YECism). It was frustrating enough to make me start my own blog just so I could vent.

 
At March 22, 2009 1:12 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Frustrating is essentially it. Larro, I honestly did pretty bad. I guess it's a bit like public speaking; you really have to know your material and even rehearse to do a good job.

Re: get into their tiny heads. I didn't even get into his head. I tried to get him to explain but he just closed his mind to probing and threw up a wall. Perhaps if I pried harder at it instead of switching to different topics, I would have gotten something.

Eamon, I guess I was well prepared since I already have a blog to vent on.

 
At March 29, 2009 12:30 PM, OpenID sunnyskeptic said...

Wow, you have exciting conversations. My last one was just a college kid who asked me why I thought Christianity was a 'lie'. I said I didn't think of it as a 'lie', but just as a product of the evolution of religions among humans. He didn't know what to say, because he's not an authority, and thus it ended... :)

 
At March 31, 2009 12:19 AM, Anonymous Annie said...

If you haven't read the bible, you should at least read the highlights. It gives you plenty of ammunition to use against the Xians.

Also, while it is frustrating as hell to talk to people so uninformed as these folks appear to be, losing your temper accomplishes nothing. I mean if you really do hope to make points, you must remain calm and assured.

Given the circumstances, though, I'm sure I would have done no different.

 
At March 31, 2009 9:59 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Sunnyskeptic, that sounds too easy and not aggravating enough. You should have kicked him in the groin just to raise the animosity.

Annie, unfortunately we never took the conversation directly to bible passages, keeping it more general and extrabiblical. My choice, for the most part. I do wonder where the conversation could have gone if I had asked about biblical contradictions etc. I wish I could have remained more calm, but I was pissed.

 
At April 17, 2009 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So you went to the Alpha course, because your wife, a Christian, asked you to go. Cool. My husband would never do that.

Then you had a big argument with a Christian. Your conclusion is that he is not nearly as smart as you are. You seem very very smart so it's not surprising the Christian guy couldn't out argue you.

Like your wife, I love Jesus. Like her, I'd like you to know him, because I think your life would be better. It's that simple. I'm guessing your wife also loves you. And wow, you must really love her to go to the Alpha course.

I doubt that any person will ever be able to out-argue you on this. Maybe you should approach this a different way. Does your wife seem to be delusional? Does her relationship with Jesus make a difference in her life? Maybe you should consider making your own investigation of the evidence.

 
At April 19, 2009 7:09 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Anonymous,

Yes, it is good of me to go. I do understand why your husband wouldn't. Most guys aren't quite as whipped as I am.

That said, I do think it's important to try to understand my wife. Good bonding, that.

As far as the rest of what you say, I think I need to clear things up for you.

1) My conclusion wasn't that the elder wasn't as smart as me. It's an assumption (because I'm vain about my brain) that's not particularly important to my conclusions. He certainly seemed smart enough to weigh intelligently on what we were discussing; however, he DIDN'T weight in intelligently. My problem with him is that he's ignorant and willfully closed-minded about science, history, and reason.

I certainly appreciate it that my wife and other christians want to share because they care about us (some of the leaders, especially the megachurch pastors and televangelists, I'm not so sure of). It doesn't mean that they are correct. Eg. Jenny McCarthy obviously wants to prevent autism, but she's horribly wrong in how she's going about it.

Out-argue? Probably not, because I'm pretty stubborn and would require striking new facts and arguments. But I was really pissed-off because he couldn't even meet me in the argument. I simply expected a knowledgable discussion, and I could not even get that out of him.

Does my wife seem to be delusional? Sometimes yes. She believes invisible demons can attack the minds of her and those around her. She believes an invisible sky daddy answers her prayers (despite some recent doozies that have gone completely the other way, and not in a good way). So yeah, delusional is one way of putting it.

Does Jesus make a difference? Only mildly. For the most part, I've noticed that Christians act just like everyone else, except with extra hints of guilt and righteousness, and they don't sleep in on Sunday.

I love it when Christians implore me to investigate the evidence. Like I haven't been doing it (5 years of Catholic school, read religion and atheism blogs, history texts, Discovery Channel, go to church occasionally, talked to pastors, and go to this Alpha Course thingie). Would you read one damn popular evolutionary biology book? I doubt it. Talk to me once you've outstretched yourself even a little bit of the way that I have.

 
At April 19, 2009 7:11 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Btw, if you actually have read up significantly on church history, biology, etc, then I apologize for my tone. I just haven't met anyone who asks me to "investigate the evidence for myself" who has.

 
At April 23, 2009 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, yes, I do try to read as much as I can by people who don't agree with me. Like, for example, I read your blog. And yes, I have recently read a book about evolutionary biology. I have no desire to believe in something that's not true. I guess my comments did sound kind of trite. But my point is--look, I can't explain to you why we know that the earth revolves around the sun, instead of vice versa, but I know there are plenty of people in this world who could explain that. And I believe it is true. We can believe things that we are unable to explain to others. Very smart people can make their own investigations and figure things out on their own. You seem like that kind of person, so I don't see why you would waste your time trying to get people whom you don't respect to explain Chritianity to you. There's no way their answers will be adequate for you, but that really doesn't mean they are wrong.

 
At April 26, 2009 11:41 AM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

I would hope that you read stuff from people who don't agree with you who are better writers than me. My complaining isn't really meant to be a be-all, end-all argument :)

As far as trying to get the elder guy to explain, I'm really trying to understand the frame of mind theists work under, to see how they can hold what I consider to be conflicting views of the world. Basically to see if there is something I'm missing.

The elder may not be wrong about everything, but he thinks the earth is less than 10000 years old. He is greatly wrong.

 
At April 27, 2009 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think he is probably wrong about that. I don't understand Christians who make that the center of their thinking. Really, it's the resurrection of Christ that is the only essential in my view. And to me, the most compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection is found in the gospels and the book of Acts. If the whole thing were fiction, I don't think they would have been written the way they are. Also, the actions of the apostles after the resurection and the ascension of Jesus just aren't consistent with the whole thing being a lie. But I guess to get to that conclusion you have to first accept that the Bible offers an accurate account of the events following the resurrection--which I do, but I guess you probably don't. Just read the book of John with this question in mind--if I were making up a story to convince people that Jesus were God--is this how I'd write it? To me, the little details, especially all the ones that cast the disciples in a bad light (there are a bunch) suggest the story is credible. But then, I'm a lawyer, not a scientist so that's how I look at things.

 
At May 14, 2009 11:45 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

If you are a lawyer, I'd expect a better idea about the concept of motive. Not the motives of Jesus or the apostles, but of the authors of the books of the NT.

The Apostles were cast in a bad light, you say? Kind of clueless and lacking resolve, eh?

Ever read Sherlock Holmes? Doyle wrote Dr. Watson as quite clueless. Why? To make Holmes that much more impressive. And was a doctor, no mere fisherman.

As to the resurrection, I'd prefer some contemporary Roman records rather than religious texts written a generation after the fact. It's just not conclusive enough as it is.

 
At May 21, 2009 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I'm saying is--the apostles behavior after the "alleged" resurrection is inconsistent with the resurrection being a lie. If they knew Jesus was a fraud, why would they have risked their necks to start the church? It really didn't end well for them you know. I'm sure someone has shared that idea with you before--people will die for a lie, but typically not if they KNOW it's a lie they are dying for. Are you unconvinced that most of the apostles were put to death in rather gruesome ways?

As for the disciples being portrayed as the DUH-ciples just to make Jesus look good. Wow. Never heard that one before. I guess that's possible. But I think the odds on that one are still in favor of the disciples being portrayed as clueless fishermen because that's what they were--and what most of us are too in comparison to the creator of the universe. Oh well. I give. Happy summer!

 
At May 23, 2009 12:12 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

I'm unconvinced about the apostles to a certain degree for the same reasons I'm unconvinced about the rest of the bible - lack of external confirmation and with a definite bias to push. Doesn't mean it's not true, but in and of itself it's not really convincing. Assuming there were apostles and some of them did die gruesomly, it's certainly possible they did believe Jesus was the messiah. And it still sucks that people would kill each other over religion.

Hey, you have a good summer too.

 
At May 26, 2009 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, I was going to stop, but--I just keep thinking about your statements which suggest to me that you feel there must be unassailable, unbiased proof before a person can reasonably be expected to accept the truth of the gospel.
As a lawyer, I deal with the concept of "burden of proof" all the time. The legal system recognizes that you need to make decisions and move on--and that unassailable proof usually isn't available. So, for example in many of the civil cases I deal with--the facts need only be established by a "preponderance of the evidence" to be accepted by the trier of fact. Even in criminal matters, the burden of proof is --"beyond a reasonable doubt"--which does not mean that the prosecution must disprove all conflicting possiblities. At some point, people have to look at the evidence and say--this is enough, it's time to decide. And often the best information comes from someone with a bias since they are the ones who tend to be involved and have first hand knowledge of the facts.
I will admit that it is POSSIBLE I am wrong about all this. Maybe Jesus never lived, maybe he wasn't God, maybe believing in him won't lead to my salvation. I've made a decision that he is who he (and the Bible) says he is based on my assessment of the evidence.

I don't know you, it really won't affect me if you choose to live your whole life rejecting Jesus--but I do think that the standard of proof you require is unreasonable, and I think you are missing out on something very good as a consequence. Oh yeah, and I do feel for your wife.

Ok. sorry to go on so. now I'm done. Thanks for the interaction.

 
At July 25, 2009 10:50 PM, Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Minor note about the Sherlock Holmes/Watson thing: It's my understanding that Watson as a bumbler is purely adaptation-related. He was perfectly intelligent and covered some fields Holmes wasn't well versed in, like literature. He just didn't have significant investigation abilities, so every spinoff exaggerated that particular hole in his abilities.

 
At August 16, 2009 9:28 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

Hey BD,

I've read quite a few of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. It is fascinating looking at Watson in there. You'll find that a lot of the time, Watson is in fact portrayed as quite dumb a lot, though not all the time. His competence strangely varies from story to story, from situation to situation.

He's kind of a Worf character in many respects (I'd link to the TV Tropes page, but I don't think I want to waste the next three hours clicking links); he's there to be smart against the shlubs, then fail against the big bad in order to make Holmes look awesome.

 
At March 02, 2012 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another anonymous person, as could be guessed by the distance in dates...
I recently had a debate/talk with a friend and was quite surprised when he showed a belief similar to what you seem to show, that Jesus never existed. For Roman documents containing reference to Jesus, try googling Flavius Josephus. He was a Romano-Jewish historian who was most certainly not a Christian. At least according to wikipedia, his records on Jesus are disputed, but most things in this world are. Heck, even whether the earth actually is round is "disputed." If I shared your beliefs I'd say even the earth's age is "disputed" with the same feeling as the prior statement.
By the way, it's very interesting reading your blog. In many ways, at least ego wise, I have quite a similar story as you. The only place I seem to really differ is on my age (college) and view on Christianity. I am certainly one of those who checks out books with a view other than my own, in some cases tearing them apart, in others looking for the means to do so (ask my history teacher). Very rarely I change my view. I'm enjoying seeing if your blog has what it takes.
Also, sorry once again for commenting on such an old post.

 

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