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?"
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.
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.
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."