Saturday, August 29, 2009

How to Debate a Christian

When I was a kid, I believed all the popular stories of the bible. I believed that Noah and his family really did build a big boat. I believed Adam and Eve were the first people on Earth. I believed that Eve spoke to a snake and that Jonah was eaten by a whale (although it turned out to be a big fish). The sad part is I believed most of these things at least a little all the way into my college years.

Lacking a single epiphany, I gradually started to question the literality of these biblical events. I was a science major in college. I knew that Noah could not have gotten a pair of all the world’s animals into a single boat. I knew Jonah could not have survived inside a giant fish for three days. But I was still open to the possibility of Adam and Eve, although I was dubious about the talking snake.

I also knew that the six days of Creation were not really six literal days. They were just the bible’s way of meaning periods of time. I certainly believed things evolved, because it’s hard to ignore scientific evidence if you’re not a fundamentalist. But I thought it was probably guided by God.

But when I was in my mid-40s, I did have a moment of epiphany. While talking to my pastor about a years-long crisis of faith, after spending 10 years going to church every week, reading the bible, praying, getting baptized, and trying to debate skeptics about the existence of God, it dawned on me that I was an agnostic. My pastor asked me what I believed, deep down. I replied I didn’t really know at that point. I told him I think God exists, but I know nothing at all about Him and I’m not sure how anyone else does either.

He told me I had stumbled on the right answer. I had been asked, and I had answered the $64,000 question. I was an agnostic who leaned toward believing. But if there actually is a god, nobody knows any more about what he is like or what he wants than I do. My pastor was, and is, a very smart man. Unlike many Christian leaders, he is open-minded and non-dogmatic.

Since then, my disbelief has grown as my belief has diminished. But I still do not call myself an atheist; that would mean I know too much about the God situation. It would mean, to me at least, that I know enough to know he does not exist. I don’t know that much yet. What I do know for sure is that I still know nothing at all about God or his existence. And I know enough to say for certain that nobody else knows either. I can say that because I do not have enough evidence to prove or disprove anything about God. And nobody has any more evidence than I do. Therefore, they can’t know either. Some only believe they know and they’re not shy about telling the world what they think they know.

So, over the past few years, and especially over the last few weeks, I have found myself in confrontational mode regarding religion. I was raised Christian and spent most of my adult life calling myself a Christian. Many of my family members are Christians. My mom is a Christian. Sometimes when we get together at family birthdays or holidays, a debate breaks out about religion. Sometimes it isn’t pretty.

I have found myself drawn into debates on Facebook, in the forums, about the existence of God, or whether the phrase “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, or whether “In God we trust” should be removed from our currency. I hear things like “This nation was founded on Christianity” all the time. I also seem to be the object of a lot of prayers from well-meaning but utterly self-righteous Christians.

Although I hold my own in these debates, I don’t really expect to win any converts. I am hopeful, however, that the lukewarm Christians or the fence-sitters will see the light of reason and not fall into the illogical abyss of Christianity.

Why do I care? I’ve been asked that a lot. I don’t really care what people I don’t even know believe. I respect their right to believe whatever kind of fairy tale they want, but don’t expect me to respect the belief itself. I care more what my family believes because I am close to them and I would like for them to be enlightened.

I’m a teacher. I can’t help but feel somehow threatened by ignorance. I can’t help but to try to correct people when they say something that is obviously incorrect, such as when they say this country was founded on Christianity. That is factually wrong. I teach science, so it bothers me that so many people prefer to believe the allegory in Genesis about God’s Creation instead of the evidence-based theory of evolution. It’s in my nature to try to set people straight, whether they want to be set straight or not.

So in an effort to make future debates easier, I have done some research. I’ve collected some counter arguments to some of the most popular claims of the evangelical Christians. I’ve produced some in-context quotes of our Founding Fathers proving that the U.S. is not really a Christian nation. And I’ve learned how to recognize straw-man arguments brought forth by Creationists and how to counter them with the truth.

It won’t make a bit of difference to the person I am debating. But, as I said, it might do those who have an open mind some good to read rational thoughts among the bible babble.

One thing I have noticed is that Christians love to quote the bible. They use it as their source of information and their one and only manual of attack. But what might not be so obvious to an innocent bystander is that almost all of their bible-based arguments are logically flawed.

For one thing, it is hard to take the bible seriously when it is so self-contradictory that you can use it to prove or disprove almost any contention. Here are just a few examples of how it is self-contradictory:

Take the first and second chapters of Genesis. They tell two completely different and mutually-exclusive stories of Creation. Fundamentalists often say that Chapter 1 gives a full account of Creation and Chapter 2 merely sums it up using different words, but that isn’t true. In Genesis 1:20 and 21 it says, “every living creature” is brought forth from the waters, including every winged fowl. But in Genesis 2:19 God brings forth “every beast of the field and every fowl of the air” from dry ground.

The order of Creation is completely different between the two biblical accounts, too. In Chapter 1, beasts were created before man; in Chapter 2, man was created before beasts. This may not seem too important a point, but it makes it difficult to reconcile obviously contradictory passages with the idea that the bible is literal and infallible. You can’t have it both ways.

The Genesis 1 and 2 contradictions are useful when debating a Creationist. But they are hardly the only biblical contradictions. There are contradictions within the Old Testament, contradictions within the New Testament, contradictions between the New and Old Testaments, even contradictions within the same book.

In Genesis, it tells us that God needed to rest on the seventh day of Creation. But Isaiah says that God “fainteth not, neither is (He) weary.” Matthew (19:26), “with God all things are possible.” But the Book of Judges (1:19), says that God could not drive out the inhabitants in the valley “because they had chariots of iron.” Apparently, God has trouble moving things made of iron.

When confronted with the fact that there is lots of evil in the world and God could do something about it if he wanted to, Christians are quick to point out that man has free will and that the devil makes evil. But God said (Isaiah 45:7) “I make peace and create evil.” So evil is God’s fault.

How about this one? “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt.7:l). And yet others must be judged? (1Cor. 6:2-4). And, “God is love.” He is “the God of Peace” (Romans 15:33), but in Exodus 15:3, “the Lord is a man of war.” The sheer number of contradictions could fill a book.

Evangelicals love using what they believe is logic to argue their point. Creationists are fond of saying that scientists think that complex life “just happened” or “came together at random.” This is a straw-man argument, one which attempts to refute a sound contention by refuting an extreme version of the contention.

Take the very banal argument against evolution that if you put a monkey in front of a word processor and have him type randomly forever, he still won’t type out A Tale of Two Cities by accident. A novel implies a writer. But evolution does not happen by pure random chance. There are selective pressures at work.

If you put a monkey in front of a keyboard and have him type at random until he accidentally types out the word “it” and then save it in a file, then have him continue typing until he types out “was” and save it in the same file, and so on, the monkey would eventually type out the first sentence of the novel, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” It would take awhile, but the monkey would, indeed, eventually type out the entire novel.

Arguing by begging the question or using circular reasoning is another favorite weapon in the Christian arsenal. But it isn’t an effective one. “The bible is the absolute truth.” How do you know? “Because it is God’s word and God doesn’t lie.” How do you know it is God’s word? “Because it says so in the bible.” It’s amazing how many otherwise rational people don’t pick up on this.

Many Christians argue using false cause reasoning. For example, “Statistics show juvenile delinquency is rising. Therefore, we need to post the Ten Commandments in public schools.” It’s a conclusion based on insufficient evidence. There is no proof that having the Ten Commandments posted in school will result in less juvenile delinquency.

Then there are the slippery slope arguments. A conclusion is assumed based on the happening of a single event. “If we take ‘under God’ out of the Pledge, it will eventually lead us to be a Godless nation.” Christians also use this type of argument to conclude that atheists and agnostics have no sense of morality because they have nothing to base it on. They don’t seem to realize that morality pre-dated the invention of God. Our morality is an evolutionary adaptation that keeps us from killing off our own species.

In the poll forums on Facebook, there are often large majorities that support a pro-Christian question. So a lot of debaters use the argument of popular sentiment as proof that their side is right. But just because an opinion is popular doesn’t necessarily mean it is correct. A lot of people can be deluded. Slavery used to be popular. The only proof of an argument that is worth considering is empirical evidence.

And don’t forget that anecdotal evidence does not count. Evidence has to be repeatable and verifiable.

It is easy to stump a Christian with logic. But you probably will never change his or her mind. They are very good at cop-outs, such as “God works in mysterious ways,” or “God does things in his own time.” These are not proofs. When Christians start using these aphorisms, it means they have surrendered to logic; they just can’t admit it and still maintain their faith. But you will know that you have won the debate at that point.

There are many more types of fallacies that Christians often use to prove their point. All of them are flawed. An exhaustive list of fallacies can be found here. And a good source for bible contradictions is here. And you can find my assemblage of Founding Fathers quotes against religion here.

And, of course, if you are debating with a Creationist, some of your best sources of information are here.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

My Confrontation with Spirituality

This column is going to be a little different from all the others I’ve posted. It is much more personal and relates an incidence regarding my wife’s death and how she communicated to me just before it happened. I’ve never related this story to anyone in detail, especially my thoughts on how I should have reacted to her message.

It was two days before Christmas, 2002. Donna had recently been released from a convalescent center following a serious leg fracture. She also had myotonic muscular dystrophy, which caused her to fall frequently. She had four leg fractures over a 10 year period.

I was frustrated. She was an invalid and a burden. I resented having to take her to the bathroom and bathe her. It was a hassle having to lug around wheel chairs or her motorized scooter whenever we would go out. The part that bugged me most was that she seemed to just expect to be helped without much gratitude. I don’t know.

I loved her very dearly, but I can’t say that I was in love with her. We married pretty much on a whim. The fact that I didn’t think I would have another chance if I passed up the opportunity to marry her didn’t help. Few girls showed much interest in me. Regardless, our 25-year marriage had its ups and downs, like any other, but as time went on and Donna became more and more of a burden as her disease progressed meant that the downs far outnumbered the ups.

About a week before she died, I remember becoming particularly frustrated after wheeling her to our small, wheelchair-inaccessible bathroom. I blurted out, “I just can’t do this anymore.” She didn’t respond. It wasn’t long after that when I was getting dressed in our bedroom and overheard our teenage son frankly telling his mother that she was about to die. I thought that seemed rather cruel, but I didn’t step in. I just listened. Donna responded that she was ready to go. It was not a hostile communication at all. They were just speaking very frankly to each other. I’m not sure why he felt she was about to die. After all, it was only a broken leg. But he seemed rather confident in his statement.

Then, on December 23, I took my son, daughter, and my daughter’s friend to Indianapolis to see the IMAX version of one of the Star Wars movies. On our way home, we stopped to eat at a sandwich shop and I took the opportunity to call home to check how Donna was doing. She didn’t answer. I thought it was odd so I called my mom to go check on her. When I called back several minutes later, Mom told me Donna was asleep and couldn’t be aroused. I assumed it was the medicine she had been taking for her headaches she had been having.

When we returned home, we tried to wake Donna, but to no avail. I knew at that time it probably wasn’t the medicine. We wet her face and she responded with head movements. It looked as though she was about to arouse, but she never did, so I called 911.

Then, she raised her left arm high above her head and pointed her finger upward. Mom was standing right next to her and I was watching from across the room. Mom assumed she was pointing at the poll lamp, gesturing that the light be turned off so it wouldn’t be in her eyes. Mom turned out the light.

But I knew the message had nothing to do with the lamp. Donna was telling us she was on her way to heaven.

She was a very religious person. We would often argue about religion. She was a fundamentalist; I was at that time a borderline agnostic. I had attended church for years and even been baptized, but I just wasn’t feeling it. She attended every Sunday and had found a church she really enjoyed. It was the same church I attended, which was not fundamentalist, but she loved the people.

But on the evening she died, I knew that she knew she was going to a better place and she wanted to let me know. I knew right away what she was telling me. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want my children and my fundamentalist mother to misinterpret my thoughts on Donna’s hand gesture. So I remained silent.

After she got to the hospital, she became completely unresponsive. She was still alive, but I knew she was gone by then. I remember hearing her snore loudly, and I knew that snoring while in a coma is a grave sign of impending death. A few hours later, after her CT scan revealed a massive brain hemorrhage, the plug was pulled and her body died.

To clarify, I can’t say for certain what she saw or felt when she was pointing her finger skyward. I believe that she was satisfied that she was going to heaven and was trying to tell me so. And whether it was real or just her dying brain synapses firing in response to elevated serotonin levels, who’s to say? I am fairly certain it was the latter.

But that doesn’t matter. In her mind, she was comforted in the minutes before her brain died. She knew she was going to heaven, and it doesn’t matter whether she really was or not. Either way, she was not in misery anymore. And, after a period of grief, I realized my burden had been lifted.

My regrets are that I didn’t treat her as well as I could have in the time before she died and that I didn’t just come right out and say what I knew she was trying to communicate during her final moments.

She officially died on Christmas Eve. I had bought her a necklace that had the birthstones of each of our children. She never got to see it, but she wears it in her grave. We spent 25 years together in a marriage that was not as loving as it should have been, mostly because of me. But I still miss her.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

In Science v. Religion, Science always Wins

The earth is the center of the universe, with the sun, moon, stars, and planets all circling around the earth in perfectly circular orbits. That was the view of Aristotle and Ptolemy and was the accepted view of all thinkers up until the time of Copernicus.

Copernicus suggested that the behavior of planets could best be explained if the sun was in the center of the universe, and not the earth. Copernicus was ridiculed for his blasphemy. That is because the bible clearly implies, or in some cases actually states, that the earth does not move and that celestial objects orbit it. Here are a few of such bible passages claiming a geocentric worldview:

"He has fixed the earth firm, immovable." (1 Chronicles 16:30)
"Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm ..." (Psalm 93:1)
"Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken." (Psalm 104:5)
"...who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast..." (Isaiah 45:18)
"The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." (Ecclesiastes 1:5)
"So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day." (Joshua 10:13)

Johannes Kepler spent most of his adult life observing the motions of the planets. He concluded, based on reams of data, that the earth was a planet and that all planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths. Kepler did not publish his thesis until he was near death, for fear of being rejected as Copernicus was.

Galileo Galilei refined the telescope enough so that he could see moons orbiting the planet Jupiter and could see spots on the sun. He was one of the early heliocentrists, believers that the earth revolves around the sun. He was arrested by the Church and forced to recant his heresies. Pope John Paul II formally apologized to Galileo in 1976, claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding.

You might think today that every schoolchild knows that the sun is at the center of the solar system and is but one of billions of stars in our galaxy, and that the earth and other planets revolve around it. But if you think that, you are wrong.

In 1967 Walter van der Kamp, a schoolmaster, started a movement reviving the notion that the earth is actually at the center of the universe. After van der Kamp’s death in 1988, Gerardus Bouw, an astronomer and cosmologist, took over. He still has many followers today who believe that, because the bible says so, the earth must be the fixed center of the universe.

Aristotle, Ptolemy, and other thinkers of ancient times also believed that the earth was flat. Again, this belief came from biblical passages as well as the fact that the earth looks flat when you’re standing in a field.

Here are some bible verses that imply a flat earth:

“[The King] saw a tree of great height at the centre of the earth...reaching with its top to the sky and visible to the earth's farthest bounds.” (Daniel 4:10-11)
“Once again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their glory.” (Matthew 4:8)
“After this, I saw four angels stationed at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds...” (Revelation 7:1).

Around 250 BCE, Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar, used trigonometry and observation to mathematically prove that the earth was a sphere. He even obtained an estimate of the size of the earth’s circumference, which was very close to the modern value.

Early sailors knew the earth was a sphere; after all, they sail around it. But common folks held on to their flat-earth views well into the 15th century. Even some of Christopher Columbus’s men were starting to get nervous when it was taking longer than expected to reach landfall.

But, again, today’s schoolchildren know that the earth is spherical. There are globes in almost every classroom. But also, just as with the geocentric view that the earth is at the center of the universe, there remain holdouts on the shape of the earth as well.

The Flat Earth Society has several thousand members who have developed an elaborate scheme that tries to prove the earth is flat. The scheme comes complete with the notion of a worldwide conspiracy that tries to brainwash the masses into believing that the earth is spherical. They base their arguments for a flat earth almost solely on the bible.

History is replete with examples of how science has been stymied by Christianity and other religions that base their truth on the bible and that don’t want to be bothered with the facts. And since the church has always been a very powerful player in world politics, scientific progress has often been hindered.

The big hot-button debate these days is between those who accept the scientific facts of the theory of evolution and those who claim that God created the earth and everything on it in six literal days. Again, the basis for the creationists’ beliefs is the bible, specifically the Book of Genesis. And, again, the basis of the scientists’ acceptance of evolution is, well, the evidence.

While there remains only a small fraction of the population that literally believes the world is flat or is at the center of the universe, almost half of all Americans believe in the biblical story of Creation. That’s kind of scary for a science teacher like me. It’s difficult to overcome dogma with facts.

But I am at least comforted in the knowledge that in every other case throughout history, science has won out over religious dogma eventually. One day, the story of Creation will be relegated to the backburner of biblical theses along with the flat earth and geocentric notions. I hope that happens sooner than later, since evolution is the foundation for the rest of biological science. But with so many politicians in this country embracing archaic religious mythology, I’m afraid true enlightenment won’t come anytime soon.