Thursday, February 28, 2008

Good Advice from a Skeptic

There is a place for apologetics. A person needs to be able to explain what he or she believes and why. We Christians should be able and willing to talk with non-believers and non-believers should be able and willing to talk with Christians. Christians of one persuasion (fundamentalist, moderate, liberal and their various shadings) should be willing and able to talk with Christians of another persuasion. Many of us are able but too few of us are willing.

I want to advocate for greater willingness to have such discussions. I likely have more of my life behind me than before me now and I am coming to the realization that I have spent too much time and energy defining myself by what I am against or what I am not. I would like to spend the rest of my days talking with all kinds of people, building bridges where I can, respectfully disagreeing when I must, and never, never dismissing or devaluing someone whose stance toward life is different than mine.

I want to advocate for civil discourse in a civil society. I have in mind first the society of the United States of America. Here we value our freedom to assemble, to speak, and to worship how we feel led or to worship not at all. We tend to assemble with like-minded people, to speak with like-minded people, and to worship with like-minded people. We need to assemble, to speak, and to worship sometimes with folks who do not think like we do. And we need to be civil about it—we need to treat each other with respect and to speak to each other with respect.

I have in mind second the society of the Church. We Christians tend to assemble, to speak, and to worship with like-minded Christians. Fundamentalists don’t often meet with or speak to moderates, moderates with fundamentalists, liberals with conservatives, and on and on. But we need to do so. We need to talk with one another, to share with one another, to pray with one another, and, where we can, to work with one another in the cause of Christ. We need to be civil about it—we need to treat each other and to speak to each other with respect—and with love.

We get some good advice on how to do this from an unlikely source—Dr. Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine. In a column in the September 2007 issue of Scientific American entitled “Rational Atheism: An Open Letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens,” Shermer talks about the need for scientists to exercise appropriate civility in their responses to religious believers. He says, “Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of religious liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance.”

He then offers five reasons that this is so. I suggest that we Christians would do well to keep the same things in mind as we get more involved in discussions with non-Christians and with Christians of differing mindsets.

(I should note that Shermer’s article addresses some popular virulent pro-science and reason and anti-religion authors. He thus writes in terms of how he thinks scientists should behave and speak in their conflicts with religious people. I do not believe that scientists and people of faith either should be or must be in conflict with one another. Many scientists are people of faith. Many people of faith do not fear science. Atheistic scientists are, however, one group of people with whom Christians should be in civil dialogue.)

First, Shermer says, “Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.” “Atheists,” he goes on to say, “cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe.” The same is true for Christians. Too often we are known only for what we are against largely because that is the way that we define ourselves. It is not enough to talk about what we are against. It is also not the best place to start a conversation. The best place is to start is not even what we believe or what we’re for. The best place to start is by talking about Who we know.

Second, Shermer says, “Positive assertions are necessary.” “Champion science and reason,” he advises. His point is that rather than attacking religion, scientists would be well served to speak positively about science and reason. Similarly, we Christians will gain much more by speaking positively about Who we know and what we have experienced than we will by attacking folks with whom we disagree.

Shermer next asserts, “Rational is as rational does.” He continues, “It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind.” Christians should be rational and reasonable in their conversations with non-believers and with other Christians as well. In addition, our attitudes and speech should be fueled by love and tempered by compassion. In all things, we should keep our cool.

Fourth, Shermer says, “The golden rule is symmetrical.” In other words, Shermer says, “If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.” We Christians should also think of and treat others as we would have them think of and treat us. How ironic would it be if non-Christians and even anti-Christians treated us with more kindness and respect than we treat them? What kind of witness do we offer the world when Christians prejudge each other negatively and treat each other based on such negative prejudgments?

Shermer’s final piece of advice is “Promote freedom of belief and disbelief.” He says, “A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedoms of others.” As a Christian, I affirm that the highest principle of all is salvation by grace through faith. But I would put freedom right under it. I would also affirm that for American society, freedom is the highest principle. The truth is the truth and in the end the truth will be known. In the meantime, we all—conservative Christians, liberal Christians, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Buddhists, and the rest---need to affirm and celebrate the freedoms in which we all share. We Christians are free to believe but that freedom means something only if others are free to believe differently or not to believe.

I am advocating for civil discourse between Christians and non-Christians and between Christians of differing perspectives. I am grateful to the skeptic Dr. Shermer for reminding us of some solid principles that can undergird such discourse.


johnj said...

I feel Shermer is being disingenuous with his recent advocacy of civility. He was a leading advocate for Dawkins' "The God Delusion" when it was published. His advocacy was sufficiently strong and one-sided that he could be viewed as championing Dawkins for canonization the the Church of Atheism.

Perhaps this recent call for civility towards believers could be better read as an admission that the slash&burn approach to dealing with Christian, religious belief in general, isn't working. Shermer's call for civility is at most a call for different tactics in their continuing dispute with the religious.

Civility doesn't always work either. The American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) is an organization of scientists who "share a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science." Sixty years of the civility Shermer proposes doesn't seem to have made much difference in the dispute with the cultic Young Earth Creationist movement. (Perhaps this view just reflects the part of the country I now live in.)

We Baptists, evangelicals in general, need to be exceedingly careful about calling into question the very science that enables the technology we employ in our day-to-day lives and ministries. Flagrant anti-science statements not only promote the rants of the Dawkinses, they also tend to keep our voices from being heard in the debates concerning appropriate uses of technology.

D. Jordan said...

Paul always began his sermons and conversations with telling what Christ had done for him. That is hard to argue with. He did not try to go to deep theological teachings. A Christian should be able to do the same! Belief in the Bible, just as it is and has stood all this time, takes faith. Dr. Lee said that the Bible is a book of faith, not of science.