Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Listening to Atheists

Today, I'm going to ramble a bit about a topic which has fascinated me over the last few months. The topic is understanding those who have no belief in God.

A couple of years ago, I finally admitted to myself that I really had little understanding of that view of reality. I've always had a rather strong belief in God, and assumed that most everyone else did as well. I was 19 before my God belief was ever seriously challenged.

Now, this doesn't mean I had never encountered any atheists before that. But, as is usually the case, they chose not to challenge me. Instead, they remained politely silent until the subject of the conversation shifted. Now the times have changed. With the popularity of authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, more and more atheists seem to be revealing themselves. It turns out that there are many more than we thought there were. Perhaps that has been the case for a long time, but we just didn't recognize it.

Why should this matter to me? One of the frustrations I run into a lot in discussions about "church growth" is the theory of "build it and they will come." If we just make our church more welcoming, more inclusive, etc. etc., then we'll bring folks in. And yes, that is true, to a point. You will attract those who perhaps have some background in Christianity but quit being active in church for one reason or another. And you may attract those who are "spiritual seekers," those open to the quest for that elusive "something more." And you may even draw in a few folks who like the music or the architecture.

But, if you're trying to attract those who have rarely been in a church, those whose experience of Christianity is limited to the stories of the bible and the televangelists, you're missing your target audience. They consider Christians to be engaging in "wishful thinking" at best, and as "delusional and dangerous" at worst. Regardless of what we do, to imagine these folks are going to wake up one Sunday and say "I think I'll go to church today" is indeed quite delusional, I'd say.

So what can we do? Well, I'm working on that. I've read of some ideas on how to engage this particular growing group of non-believers, but they didn't seem very convincing to me. So, I've been making an effort to do my homework. I've been trying to wrap my head around the mindset of those who have no belief in God. I've been attempting to listen, in the hopes of understanding.

I've had a few opportunities to seek such an understanding in my daily encounters with other people, but the majority of my conversations have happened online. As with most online conversations, you have to make a few assumptions before you can glean anything of value. First, if the person is using a nickname, you initially take everything with a grain of salt. You also recognize that the norms of civil discourse will often be thrown out the window. Folks are going to cuss you out, call you names, etc. That comes with the territory.

So, I've been talking with a few atheists for a few months now. I'm still trying to piece together the various things I've learned, but here's a few, in no particular order:

1. Most atheists, except the ones who are very young and just like to start flame wars, are highly educated. Not only do they know their science, they also know their bible. Unfortunately, there is often an underlying assumption that you cannot be both scientifically knowledgable and a Christian simultaneously. If you are a Christian, you haven't seriously studied the science. In other words, there is a bias that most Christians are "intellectually challenged." If we're not just plain dumb, we're too lazy to do the work necessary to find the "real" answers.

In listening, I've learned more than I ever wanted to know about evolution, as one example. That is another assumption among many atheists; all Christians are creationists, and deny evolution. As a result, I've heard many, many, many lectures of evolution. Sometimes I find the topic fascinating. But, as one who is not all that interested in the subject, after about the 25th time, I started to tune out.

In summary, the first point is that it is a mistake to consider atheists simply uninformed. The surprise is that is their perception of us theists! A side point is that once you get over that surprise, if your intention is sincerely to listen in order to understand, you'll recognize that you can learn a lot from these folks. That is cause to drop the assumption that you have the Truth that they need, and then move from a debate kind of conversation to a sincere form of dialogue.

Keep in mind, at this point, I'm not talking about conversions. That's another conversation. I'm just seeking understanding.

2. The assumption among many atheists that I've encountered is that all Christians believe the bible literally. Along with that is the notion that Christians see the bible as some kind of divine instruction manual. This is what leads to so many conversations about evolution. The assumption is if they can get a theist to question the creation stories in Genesis, or at least admit the world is more than a few thousand years old, then they have proved their point. The bible is in error, so everything in it no longer has authority.

According to the US Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by Pew Forum, 33% of US Christians believe the bible literally. Among the mainline churches, that drops to 22%. Note that since this survey involved 35,000 interviews, we can assume it is somewhat accurate. When I point this statistic out to some atheists, they make yet another assumption, then claiming that I am throwing out the bible, and so cannot be a "real" Christian. That usually causes me to chuckle, as I've heard that very same claim more than a few times from the other side!

The positive aspect of such discussions, for me, is that it has encouraged me to wrestle with aspects of the bible that are rarely challenged in church circles. I don't believe that non-literalists throw out the bible. That is an inaccurate assumption, for reasons I'll get into eventually. But, I do think that most Christians tend to gloss over the bits of the bible that those outside the church find not only challenging, but downright repulsive. Consequently, we are usually unprepared when asked to respond to difficult parts of a text.

3. Claims of "supernatural" events really bother most atheists that I've talked with. To them, it is the same as claiming unicorns or Harry Potter are real. It is often referred to as the "God of the gaps." If you don't know how something happened, just fill in the blank with some supernatural act of God.

For the most part, the atheists who have a strong reaction to the supernatural are empiricists. If there is not testable evidence, then the thing does not exist. I've been asked to "show the evidence" hundreds of times. It is by far the the most common argument against a belief in God.

Now, this is where things get a bit difficult. These "empirical" arguments are not new. To a great degree, they are a rehashing of Plato and Aristotle. As I'm trying to stay in the vernacular here, and am admittedly not the most well informed source regarding either science or philosophy, I'm going to need the help of those who are more knowledgable about those disciplines. Please feel free to correct my fuzzy thinking or inaccurate paraphrasing in the comments.

Empiricism is a tool of science, but the two are not synonymous. Empiricism, to simplify the term, claims that knowledge is derived from sensory data. Although the scientific method includes the need of empirical evidence, it also incorporates the use of theoretical methods. A minor point, but since I'm now shifting to primarily talking about science, I felt that clarification to be important.

It is also important to always remember that what we call "science" is not some "thing" out there. It is a tool, a mental construct, fully idenitified as the "scientific method, a procedure to search for cause and effect relationships in nature. It is the best tool we have to gain knowledge of the physical world.

Forgetting that science is a tool can lead to some very silly statements, such as "science is wrong" or "science is bad." The method itself incorporates the "iterative process", used when new information or thinking is suggested, which would be cause to repeat steps of the method. So, claiming science is "wrong" assumes that the method arrives at some static absolute truth, which is not how it works. When claiming science is bad (nuclear power, climate change, etc), one has attached a moral value to the scientific method. The reality is that science is morally neutral. The only morality within science is that brought in by the scientists themselves, and those who use the results of their research.

Sometimes I encounter those who will claim that the scientific method is the only source of all knowledge. That is the point in which I begin to disagree. Show me the empiricial evidence for love, or beauty, or art or even goodness for that matter. No, I cannot agree that love is an emotion, or a chemical reaction. And my experience of beauty is not limited to symmetrically pleasing lines. While I agree that the scientific method is indeed the best tool we have to understand the physical world, it seems to me that it has limits.

That concludes my initial thoughts about my recent conversations with atheists. I was going to continue with some suggestions of what we might have to say in such conversations, but this post has already become much too long. Watch for the next installment, in which I'll attempt to say a bit about inductive logic, tacit knowledge, and the importance of community.


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