Conversing with atheists and former christians

To follow up on a previous guest post I have had (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/how-does-the-online-ex-christian-community-affect-those-who-have-questions-of-faith-or-doubt/) I asked unkleE of http://www.is-there-a-god.info/blog/ to answer a similar question from a Christian perspective and to touch on what its like to converse with ex-Christians. UnkleE has impressed me on other blogs with his calm and considered responses to questions where others have become defensive and aggressive.

The below is his post for me on the subject of conversing with atheists and former Christians.


 

Human beings are tribal

Most people seem to like to be part of a group and to take sides against other groups. Football fans cheer, argue and sometimes even fight on behalf of their teams.

It seems that atheists and Christians are often tribal too. Each group has its own heroes and gurus, its own predictable arguments, and, too often, a penchant for scorning those they disagree with.

 

Justifying nastiness

Both sides can find ways to justify nasty behaviour towards their opponents. Some Christians argue that atheists are dishonest and rebellious, and need to be forcibly reminded of their perilous position. Some atheists, finding their arguments bouncing off, conclude that Christians are delusional, and since rational argument isn’t working, ridicule just might.

It rarely works of course, but who needs truth to justify tribal behaviour?

 

The web is a different ballgame to real life

Often we use pseudonyms. It is easy to feel anonymous or separated from others, and easy to press the ‘Post Comment’ button too quickly.

When I first ventured onto the web about 7 years back, I found myself in an argumentative and polarising environment. At first I argued back, but I now feel there is a better way.

 

The world doesn’t need any more aggro

I don’t think many of us think the world needs more aggro. Yet somehow, we can convince ourselves that our little nasty comment is OK.

But as a Christian, I believe humans are made by God to have worth, gifts, feelings and logical minds. We are made for relationship and we need some affirmation. People should be treated with sensitivity and respect, something the New Testament emphasises.

So I try very hard now, without always succeeding, to respect each person, and only make comments that add to the discussion, not attack them. I try to ignore barbs that come my way and not respond in kind, even if it means I miss an opportunity to ram a point home.

 

Responses

I find many atheists I talk with appreciate this. But unfortunately many atheists on the web still seem to follow the inhumane model of ridicule a lot of the time. To my chagrin, a fair number of christians are just the same.

Consequently, I avoid some forums and blogs, and I avoid or ignore some who comment. It’s just not worth the aggro. Fortunately, there are plenty of atheists and agnostics who are happy to play by rules of common courtesy, and I gravitate towards them.

 

Talking with ex-Christians

Talking with ex-Christians is a special challenge. I naturally feel sad that they have given up what I believe is the truth. But often they have been hurt by the church, sometimes leading to their change of mind, sometimes as they went through the process of leaving. I think they need special sensitivity and patience from Christians – fierce argument is likely to be specially harmful here.

It is easy to feel they have betrayed the team, and to wonder whether they were ever personally convinced or their ‘faith’ was just cultural. But I cannot know what has happened in their lives, so I should respect what they tell me.

Perhaps the hardest thing is when I feel they have rejected a form of Christianity I would reject too. I want to explain this to them, but sometimes they are not ready for anything except friendship, the wounds are still tender. Sometimes I think they are better off out of there – as long as they come around eventually to a more thoughtful form!

Ex-Christians often assume they have made a permanent and final change in their worldview, but statistics show that people who change once are quite likely to change again. So patience and courtesy are needed.

 

Ways forward

We all need to learn not to take offence easily, to have limited expectations of changing people’s minds and not to take it personally when others don’t agree with our arguments. We should enjoy getting to know and understand people who are different to us, and be willing to be in conversations for the long haul.

At the very least, we may help remove some misunderstandings, and who knows, we may even be part of a process of someone changing their mind. I still hope and pray for the people I talk with, for I do indeed want what is best for them.

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Questioning Evolution!

Apparently tomorrow is Charles Darwin’s birthday and there are people who choose to celebrate it as Darwin Day. Personally that doesn’t excite me. That’s not because I have anything against Darwin, quite the opposite, his contribution to science is extraordinary and his dedication over many years to meticulous and sometimes boring experiments brought significant understanding and knowledge.

I just don’t get the need elevate a single man in this way. He will forever be a science legend, there is no need to name a day for him. Its arguable that he would shun such elevation himself. His work is testament to his status and stands on its own as a timeless statue. What gets to me is that this stinks of idolatry, the worshiping of a person. I would rather see an Evolution Day or a Scientific Endeavour Day, put the focus on what it was that he achieved and how it was achieved, not the man himself because that distracts from the result of his lifelong work. It’s the geek equivalent of a pinup, it grates on me and my default response is to reject it.

Stick to the Subject!

Rant over, now the subject of this post is taken from a creationist item I’ve just read (http://biblescienceguy.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/question-evolution-day/). Its stinks of the sort of nonsense I used to believe so I figured it would be fun to put up a response to it.

Firstly, yes we should question evolution. Everything we hold dear should be questioned honestly and with integrity (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/there-is-nothing-to-fear-in-doubt/).

The problem here is that the poster isn’t questioning evolution, he’s denying evolution, there is a very critical difference. I denied evolution for over 20 years, it wasn’t until I questioned evolution critically and honestly that I realised what a fool I had been.

On the post are 15 questions for Evolutionists, they’re not new questions; they’ve done the rounds and been rebutted and rebutted back. As someone who has been on both sides of the line I figured I’d look at them with my own perspective and comment on each one.

1.      How did life originate just by chemistry without a Designer?

That’s not known yet and is still being worked on. As a creationist I would have loved this argument. Now I am wiser I am interested in the work being done and am hopeful that I’ll live to see a breakthrough, sadly I doubt it.

This is a classic case of creationists being critical from a distance. They point at something that’s not got an answer and then claim that scientists don’t know therefore God! This level of poor judgement is embarrassing. If creationists want to see God being invoked for this then rather than mocking from a distance they should come up with a form of experimentation that can show a result.

2.      How did the DNA code originate?

I don’t know enough about the details here to really answer and I imagine few creationists do either. What I will address here is the assertion that DNA is exactly like code. Aparently untangling what DNA does leaves those who know with the impression that it looks just like computer code and there has never been anything else that looks like code that hasn’t come from an intelligent source. Well I know computer code and I do it for a living and have done it for fun too. If DNA looks like and acts like computer code and there has never been an occurrence of code like stuff from something that’s not intelligent then surely the conclusion must be that DNA came from humans, after all its them who created computer code and nothing else has ever created computer code.

Why should this imply God?

Also, if God is so great and intelligent, why did he create DNA in a way that looks like computer code? I am sure someone so clever could come up with a better way, I find it somewhere disappointing that the best way an intelligent creator can come up with to build life is to do it in a way that looks like the product of one of his creations. There’s something crazy silly about that.

3.      How could copying errors (mutations) create 3 billion letters of DNA instructions to change a microbe into a microbiologist?

Duplication, deletion and insertion. Things that work do better. I agree it’s a mind boggling concept. Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t make it wrong.

4.      Why is natural selection taught as ‘evolution’ as if it explains the origin of the diversity of life?

It’s not and it doesn’t. Natural selection and evolution describe the mutation of one form to another. The origin is something entirely different.

5.      How did new biochemical pathways, which involve multiple enzymes working together in sequence, originate?

This touches on the irreducible complexity argument. It’s an assumption that all the required components mutated at the same time. This needs to be demonstrated as true if it’s to be used as an argument. Mutations could have happened over time, some might have been useful elsewhere while others did nothing, a later mutation could have joined them up into another function.

6.      Living things look like they were designed, so how do evolutionists know that they were not designed?

They do? The laryngeal nerve doesn’t look designed (http://old.richarddawkins.net/videos/646660-the-laryngeal-nerve-of-the-giraffe-is-proof-of-natural-selection)  to name just one example.

7.      How did multi-cellular life originate?

Good question, I am sure the answer is being worked on by scientists who also want to know the answer. I guess it’s likely that cells clumped together and found being in a group benefitted the whole.

This is another case of Creationists jumping onto something that is not yet known and assuming that means God. How about rolling up sleeves and working on it. Remote criticism is boring.

8.      How did sex originate?

For fun?

Genetic variation is critical to a healthy population and sex seem to be the most direct and efficient way of getting the reproductive bits together. Relying on wind or insects to move the bits about, like plants do, is very wasteful.

No doubt creationists want the technical details of the how rather than a rational explanation as to why it may have happened. This is a familiar tactic to me as I used to employ it too. The technical details and the first animals to employ it may never be identified, but so what, why does the exact details matter? The creationists will always say ‘yeah but … ‘ to every answer given regardless of what the scientists come up with. This is not about being critical or asking honest questions, its about objecting to science because of a belief in god.

9.      Why are the (expected) countless millions of transitional fossils missing?

Fossils are hard to form, the vast majority of animals that die do not fossilise. Often animals are preserved to fossilise as the result of a tragedy, say a mudslide or a volcano (or yes, even a flood). Normal death in the open is not guaranteed to create a fossil due to scavengers and rot. The expectation is that there will not be all the fossils required.

The challenge is that every animal is a member of a species. We only see different species because of the present diversity. Looking back, how does one tell a transitional fossil from a species? All you would see is different species. That said, there are steps that are found which show animals with different configurations of the same bones. The conclusion of change over time is a valid conclusion from that evidence, this exactly what Darwin did when he examined the evidence. He also wasn’t the only one.

10. How do ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged over supposed hundreds of millions of years?

Animals find a niche and so there is no need to change. Understanding evolution means knowing that a species will change according to its environment, they don’t just change to the sake of it. This is another question from ignorance which attempts to create a problem where one does not exist.

11. How did blind chemistry create mind/intelligence, meaning, altruism and morality?

Living in a group requires rules to govern and benefit the group. Study groups of animals and you’ll see the same there.

12. Why is evolutionary ‘just-so’ story-telling tolerated as ‘science’?

This bugs me too. Scientists will create a story around a proposal to anthropomorphise the subject. I hate that too. It annoys me intensely. I think it is to try and make the science to bite-size for the common man.

That’s said, it is not a valid criticism of the science behind the conclusions. It’s a complaint about presentation.

13. Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution?

Huh?

I don’t get what is being asked here.

14. Why is evolution, a theory about history, taught as if it is the same as operational science?

Huh?

Evolution is a scientific theory about how species develop. Claiming its history seems to be intentionally misleading in the question. I don’t get what is meant by operational science. Evolution is tested through investigation and discovery. Can’t get much more operational than that.

Gravity is a theory too you know.

15. Why is a fundamentally religious idea, a dogmatic belief system that fails to explain the evidence, taught in science classes?

This is a bullshit question. Its (not intelligently) designed to push the motion that evolution is on a par with religion in that it’s a belief system with no evidence. This ignores the fact that evolution came out of a whole butt load of scientific and investigative work and years of compiling the results to come up with ideas that explained the observed facts. Those facts have been subjected to many years of scrutiny since and continue to. If there was a way to scientifically prove evolution false, someone would have done this by now. Instead we have agreement across multiple disciplines of science.

Choosing Death

Doug at GROPING THE ELEPHANT has written a worthwhile and personal account of the question of assisted suicide (http://gropingtheelephant.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/groping-assisted-suicide.html). Its prompted me to get on a write a post that has been boiling away at the back of my mind for what feels like ages.

Doug’s post is worth reading so go ahead and read that now.

Like Doug, I have a personal story that has shaped my view on this subject. Reading Doug’s final paragraph I wonder if we’ve arrived at slightly different places on this subject, but our journey has parallels.

My Story

Prior to my mum falling ill with Pancreatic Cancer (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/death-of-a-much-loved-mother/), the worst day of my life was when I received a phone call while I was preparing to bury my grandmother to say my grandfather had died (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/my-wonderful-godly-grandparents/). The shock of the loss was so great I can still close my eyes and revisit that moment almost 20 years later and still feel the deep hurt and sadness in my chest.

When Mum was diagnosed with her cancer, she would have three more years and almost every day of those three years the impending loss and dread in my heart was even heavier than that described above. It is impossible for me to overstate how hard it was watching Mum waste away, to talk to her and notice how her mind wasn’t quite so sharp, to hear her say she was feeling okay and to know she was lying to try to make it easier for me.

I would dearly love to scrub those memories from my mind and never to have to feel like again. I would dearly love to rewind time and not have Mum suffer like that.

She eventually decided to abandon treatment because there was no longer any benefit in feeling grotty from treatment for a cancer that was killing her anyway. It was then that the dread got even worse. It is one thing to rationalise treatment for the terminally ill, it is something different entirely to see your parent there needing that treatment.

To be blunt, Mum was never going to have long once the cancer was diagnosed and those last three years of hers were awful to watch. She was only just into her 60s and until that point I expected I still had at least 20 more years of her and to have that ripped away from me so cruelly hurts deeply, it always will.

Dying With Dignity

What makes me stop and think about end of life care, especially for the chronically ill, is this; where is the dignity in this death? I do not believe that extending Mum’s last years and months increased her dignity. Quite the opposite in fact, there is much that was undignified, far better to die suddenly and not see it coming. If only we could all chose that way. It’s how her parents went and it spared us all much suffering.

Would I have rather she died at the start of those three years of suffering? That’s the obvious looming question, but it misses the point somewhat. Of course that’s not what I’d rather. What I’d rather is that she was alive and well today. Faced with not having that as a choice, at what point would I, her loving son, have pressed the button? I don’t know, it is not a choice I’d like to have to make if I’m honest.

I think this sort of decision is best made and agreed while all parties are in good health. That way the stress of the situation does not taint the decision being made.

Her last week was spent unconscious and breathing labouredly. When asked, the nurses were very reluctant to give an indication of when to expect death. That is cruel. That waiting was terrible but at least she was no longer feeling pain. The weeks leading up to that were even worse. There are simply no words I can use to articulate the torture I felt. Between the terrible pain and deep discomfort she felt, there were moments of lucidness, but that wasn’t my mother. That was a tired and sick old looking woman who resembled her.

The whole process of watching a deeply loved relation dying like that is something that I would love to erase from my experience entirely. It is an experience filled with sorrow and pain and there is very little love and joy there at all. The best times I’ve had with my mum are times that predate her illness. Those are the memories I cherish. There is no experience or memory of her during those years that I desire to hold on to.

What does make me sad is when I hear stories about loved ones who are so unable to let go of a sick relative, that they will prolong treatment for as long as is possible just to have them alive for a little longer. Where is the dignity in that? I say there isn’t any. It is not dignified to prolong a life at any and all costs. There is nothing dignified about existing in pain and semi consciousness, death kept temporally at bay by drugs. It is one thing to treat a cancer and give someone another few decades of life, delaying the inevitable by only a few months only increases the torment for all involved.

Yet despite all that, I would not choose to press the button at the start of those three years. She is my mother damn it, she’s not a pet so treat her with respect!

Won’t somebody think of the Pets!

As Doug mentions, pets and working animals get put down in cases like this and no one thinks it is cruel or wrong. It would be cruel AND wrong to make an animal suffer like that. Yet humans are special and because of that we force them to suffer greatly in death like this. In my Mums case, you could argue that the medication and treatment caused its own suffering. In effect, her life was extended so that more suffering could be administered in the form of a delayed death and more medication.

Why be so cruel and inhuman to one so loved?

On to the money.

Was it worth those thousands of taxpayer’s pounds sterling to extend Mum’s life for a brief period of pain? Not really if I’m honest. Yet I would still not have pressed the button. What I would have needed then was the knowledge beforehand that Mum and I had agreed what would happen. The problem was that it came unexpectedly and no was thinking about end of life until it was forced onto us.

Doug’s post brings up the very important issue of making the old and infirm feel that they are a burden and we’d all be better off without them. I would have been devastated if Mum had felt that way. The issue here is not that about offing Mum early to save the state money, its about not delaying what’s coming anyway to save her and her family from an artificially protracted and lingering painful farewell. It is very important not to get the two confused.

However, the question of ‘encouraging’ the well and not dying into an early death by suicide is still valid and no one should be doing that. It is a despicable suggestion. Sadly, the quality of modern medicine now means the line between life saved and lingered death is more blurred than ever before and it is going to get worse. The discussion needs to be had now and old people should be encouraged to enjoy their life and there should absolutely not be any pressure to end it.

What I think complicates the issue is for cases like my Mum, modern medicine gave her extra years where not all that long ago she would have been dead within a few months of her diagnosis. It’s the quality of modern medicine that gave her those extra tormented years and no one questioned the wisdom of giving it to her. Yet, towards the end of those extra years the question of when to let her die and whether it is right to help it along becomes relevant.

There is an insane paradox here; extend her life and then struggle with the question of when to let (or encourage) her to die. Why not just skip the whole process by letting nature take its ugly course and save myself a whole heap of pain. The state gets to not spend money too as a helpful side effect. It’s the advance of modern medicine that has created this situation and I don’t blame people for looking at the costs and asking if it is worth it. Often it isn’t. My concern is about not forcing suffering onto people by extending a life of pain and torture. Saving money is just a by-product of that, no one should ever put the money saving bit first.

Who makes the decision?

This is one of the key questions. If not me, who? I’m too emotionally connected to make a rational decision. Take the decision out of my hands and allow the state to choose for me? Are you serious? Can you not predict the response to THAT proposal?

End of life suffering is terrible and rational decisions do not come easy for those who are close to the affected.

I don’t have the answers to any of the questions and I don’t envy those who are working through the process. It is important to not let emotional connections dictate decisions and it is important to see the wider context of these important issues. I support assisted suicide but to suggest to anyone that they’d be doing us a favour by removing themselves from the population is a step in the wrong direction and I will be very critical of that action.

What I would be cautiously supportive of is a situation where medical care of a severe terminal illness is not given because it does not actually provide a benefit. This was the case with my mother and looking back I think we would have all been served better if we had not rushed into assuming the operation and medical treatment was the right thing to do. I cannot explain how hard that last sentence was to write, it’s the truth, but that doesn’t make it an easy truth.