I'm with stupid

2012-04-10 06:40

A few weeks ago, while participating in a particularly heated online debate, I made a stupid mistake.

I admitted to being a Christian.

Yes, that’s right: in an unguarded moment, I exposed myself for the irrational, Bible-bashing, fairy-tale believing, inexcusably ignorant fool that I am (that’s how the story goes, right?), outing myself as a member of one of the most annoying, most abrasive and most obstinate groups on the wild, wild interwebs.

Usually, I try to keep my involvement with the loony set on the down-low – not because I’m ashamed of what I believe in (in fact, some might say I’m a little too vocal about all that) – but because any seasoned explorer of the blogosphere, the Twitterverse and the web in general would be able to tell you that introducing a topic of a religious nature in an online discussion is much like watching your average Jerry Springer episode: you may be tuning in for a conversation, but sooner rather than later, the fat guy in the spotlight is going to hit the cocky blonde with the mullet over the head with a chair. It’s true: give a believer and a non-believer a platform to discuss a religious topic, and the conversation is bound to be about as constructive as an altercation between two of Jerry’s finest.

In the case of the particular online discussion I’m referring to, the exact same thing happened. Galvanized by my off-handed remark about my religious sensibilities, two commenters – one a hard-line atheist, the other an opinionated believer – proceeded with an argument that soon devolved into a nonsensical name-calling and mud-slinging session ultimately boiling down to nothing more than a few half-baked circular arguments.

Been there. Done that. Got the T-Shirt. No doubt you’ve read a gazillion comment threads of the sort.

Which is why you’ll forgive me for having given up long ago on ever enjoying an informative, well-reasoned conversation between two people on opposing sides of the religious divide.

I am allowed to dream, though. And when I do dream, I dream of a day when commenters on both sides finally take a long, hard look at some of the misconceptions and unwarranted assumptions behind this sorry state of affairs. Because believe it or not (no pun intended), both groups have a number of bad habits and invalid preconceptions that contribute to the ever-widening communication gap:

For a start, it would be great if my Christian friends could drop their persecution complex and stop whinging whenever someone disagrees with their views.

Yes, being a Christian nowadays doesn’t exactly guarantee bonus points in the popularity stakes, but lately it has become rather fashionable to point out that the Christian faith is under attack. From atheists. From humanists. From Hollywood. From the left. From little green men on Mars. From just about everyone that doesn’t buy Christianity Today and watch TBN.

Interestingly, you’ll notice that the “persecuted” are often rich Westerners from megachurches in countries that guarantee religious freedom.

Yet, if Jesus could talk sense about God in a world as pluralist as the first-century Roman empire and Paul could defend his faith before Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill, perhaps Christians could learn to interact in a meaningful and sensible way with those who oppose their views today. There is a difference between persecution and disagreement. When you respond from a mindset of persecution, it colours your response to the point where your reaction to disagreement involves nothing more than hissy fits and tantrums. The recent reaction of some South-African Christians to halaal certification on hot cross buns is a good example of persecution complex hysterics. If it achieved anything, it was to make Christians look like rather pathetic cry-babies. Way to go.

But while the Christian persecution complex is mildly irritating, another, far more serious threat to meaningful interaction (and to the Christian faith itself), is it’s love-hate relationship with science – another element that often crops up in online discussions. Apparently, when Christian groups aren’t complaining about hot cross bun labels and other equally weighty matters, they love spending their time marrying their interpretations of specific biblical passages to the latest scientific views. Usually, this involves attempts to discredit particular scientific theories in order to address perceived incongruencies between scripture and science.

Instead of overturning the established wisdom with their awe-inspiring intellectual gymnastics, however, the net result is often just a deeper entrenchment of the myth that faith is an enemy of science. Worse still, Christians who engage in these conversations aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about the particular area of science that they’re trying to address. For example, many Christian commenters seem to conflate big bang cosmology and evolutionary biology (you know, the kind who, during a discussion on natural selection, triumphantly declare that you wouldn’t expect to find a fully formed Lexus after an explosion at an auto plant). Excuse me for being unreasonable, but if you’re going to make sweeping statements that nullify the sum total of human scientific knowledge and achievement over the past 500 years (because you are that clever), you should at least have a basic understanding of the topic you’re ranting about. All too often, though, that is not the case. Christians who buy into the myth that science is an enemy of faith and treat it that way need to be aware of the fact that they’re doing immeasurable damage to their own cause.

Christians aren’t the only blabbering belligerents in the equation, though. Their non-believing conversation partners – especially those who subscribe to the more militant form of atheism in vogue at the moment – could also do with a reality check or two.

For one thing, atheists could stop pretending that they’re the sole guardians of reason and enlightenment. Yes, I’m fully aware that especially new wave atheists exist on an intellectual plane far above that of us regular, uneducated folk with a genetic propensity for the religious and other medieval maladies. But these fearless fighters for the rational tend to forget that there are more than enough “intellectually fulfilled” Christians (if I could borrow a phrase from my dear friend Richard Dawkins) from all walks of life, who arrived at their position of faith not because they abandoned reason, but because they’ve looked at the same data, and have come to a different conclusion.

At the root of this particular issue is the misguided insistence of some non-believers that the Christian faith requires a so-called leap of faith – abandoning all faculties of critical thinking in exchange for a weak emotional crutch based on wishful thinking and the remnants of a primitive religious impulse. While that idea might fit in with the preconceptions of a Dawkins groupie who never reads past overly simplistic atheist paperbacks on the pop science shelf, it is most certainly not consistent with the biblical idea of faith, which requires – no, demands – engagement on both a spiritual and intellectual level. There is no room in the Bible for “blind faith,” and atheists who nevertheless insist on portraying the Christian mindset along these lines achieve no more than the believers I referred to earlier who obstinately broadcast their own misconceptions on science forums.

Come to think of it, much of the tension between the two groups arise from tired, outdated and frankly unhelpful refrains repeated ad nauseum. There’s nothing worse than a recently converted Sam Harris fan who snarkily shares quotes from the latest pop science besteseller as if it’s news to believers. For example, non-believers love pre-empting potentially interesting conversations with the oft-repeated assertion that Christianity is nothing but a dying remnant of an ancient worldview. If I could get a dollar for every time I’ve been in an online conversation where some clever, forward-thinking individual has derailed a valid conversation with the revolutionary declaration that the end is nigh for Christianity, I’d be able to single-handedly buy out the 425th print run of The God Delusion. Enlightened know-it-alls have been declaring for centuries that faith is going the way of the Dodo. French philosopher Voltaire famously declared that the Bible would disappear within 100 years of his death. Of course, he’s been pushing daisies for more than double that, while the Bible remains the world’s best-selling book. Today, in the online world, an instance of YouVersion, the popular Bible app, is downloaded every 1.1 seconds. The observation, my friend, does not seem to fit the data.

Here’s the deal: your latest Dawkins-inspired one-liner might sound pretty cool to you, but chances are the Christian you’re smugly sharing it with has heard it a million times, in a million forms. Forget the condescending one-liner, and answer the poor bloke’s question.

For as long as we’re dealing with generalizations, misunderstandings and over-simplifications we won’t have much to say to each other.

Yes, I’m sure each of the issues I’ve raised (in an admittedly superficial way) warrant blog posts of their own – but this post is already three times the length it was supposed to be.

If we hope to ever sit around a campfire and sing Kumbayah, though, I guess we have to start somewhere.

– You can catch Heinz's blog at heinzeugene.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, connect with him on Facebook, or reach him by mail.

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