Sunday, May 10, 2009

Offering Offense

In the world of debate, people cling passionately to what they believe they know. What they believe they know often becomes the platform for what they believe others should know and believe. But not everyone believes what they know. An atheist doesn't believe in God, even though he may know the traditional articulations for the existence of God. Similarly, a theist doesn't believe in the non-existence of God, even though he may know the premises for the denial of the existence of God.

Both the atheist and the theist have at their disposal a portfolio of arguments eager to defend their respective positions. Neither side considers the other side to have convincing arguments. So both claimants come to the table with fixed, resolute, and irreversible conclusions. In most cases, that places both parties in a position of 'offense' at the other before a word is spoken, or a word written.

Richard Dawkins wants to believe that people of faith have nothing cogent to offer to the cultural conversation on God, thus they can only be relied on for being offended. In fact, he thinks 'offense' is the only thing believers have left to offer.

Is he right?


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your statement. It is profound in its succinctness, and it also clearly defines the unfortunate stance taken in many ideological and theological arguments. From the debate that swarmed around Plato's theory of forms to Dawkins brand of atheism, it seems to be a very human trait to state a set of rules or beliefs in an attempt to understand the nature of our existence, and then for the proprietor of the idea or their followers to become offended when these assertions are questioned. It seems to me that what can be missed, is the fact that the challenge to the thought has the potential to lead to an even greater understanding of the nature of our reality. Even Dawkins rants and those of his fellows has caused the careful thinkers among Christianity to consider how we present our beliefs to society.
To return to an old discussion on this blog, the nature of creation, it is far more productive to debate the ruminations of mature thinkers from both sides without languishing in offense. Sadly, it would seem that when it comes to certain topics, we attach to much personal identification to our ideas and indeed arm ourselves with an arsenal of arguments to defend our positions, while excluding any hope of honest reason.
For example, just try challenging any parent concerning the principles they are using to raise their children. Duck!

Anonymous said...

I'm going to reply without reading the first comment, then look at it and possibly add (different, I know).
But, my first thought in reading this is this: If you know something, don't you believe in it?
I have gone through quite a journey in what I thought I knew (sounding circular again).
I knew God was "this way", but then found he was "that way" and then questioned if I really knew what I thought I knew ... oh help.
It is good to be willing to consider things outside of what we think we know: I say "think" because it strikes me as arrogant to believe we actually "know" something.
There is an arrogance that can come with knowledge, if we're not careful.
If knowledge is wisdom -- if it can be applied to our lives and benefit others as well as ourselves, then that is wisdom, I believe.
How can someone (a theist) believe in the non-existence of something (God). Doesn't that sound a bit ridiculous? It sounds like a double negative (which results in a positive ...).
Now on to the first comment.

Anonymous said...

Now, reading the first comment, I like the idea that a challenge to our thoughts leads to greater understanding.
Sounds like transformation to me. That should be welcomed, I would think, by anyone who is a seeker and has a sincere desire to learn and apply knowledge (gain wisdom?).
I like the thought that attaching personal identification to our ideas may not be prudent.
But, on the other hand, when things are meaningful to us they are also personal.
If we cling to our ideas, as if they are gods, then perhaps that is where the trouble is.
I want to learn and grow in my understanding of life in this journey.
It is an investment that is worthwhile. It is also humbling to unclench your fistful of ideas and be willing to grasp new ones.
I want to be humble.
If I don't go there willingly, I will go kicking and screaming.
(Introverts don't like kicking and screaming.)
Good thoughts in the first comment. They have enriched my thoughts on this.

Craig said...

I've been thinking about something related to this.
Lately it seems that my spirit grows more and more in faith while my rational mind grows more and more in doubt and I have a difficult time reconciling the two. For example, I find some of the atheist reasoning is a lot easier on my rational mind, but it doesn't sit well with my spirit. I find the opposite with the biblical propositions and some of my own experiential learning. It's very easy on my spirit but makes my rational mind work really hard.
How does one reconcile the two?
Which is the greater sin, to conform my rational mind to my spirit or to conform my spirit to my rational mind.
Both seem impossible on some subjects.
I seem to lack a suitable meta narrative to merge these two experiences of the same reality.
There does seem to me to be a biblical theme of trusting what I think of as the heart or spirit over the rational mind (is this the soul?).
Does doubt make a person double minded?
Can reason, science and matter itself be set up as culprits? Have perhaps the rocks conspired to create fossils in order to harass the great and invincible spirit given to christians?
What is this life?
Is life all insane delusion?
Or is there a line of reason that will be easy on both my rational mind and my spirit?

Gregory said...

Some thoughts:

There is a certain sense in which I think Dawkins is quite right: We do have only offense to offer one such as him. The Cross is, after all, a stumbling block and a sign of contradiction. I disagree that we have only left to be offended, however. Dawkins does not offend me because he disagrees with me. He offends me only when his disagreements lead him to be vitriolic and insulting. I fail to see why one should not be offended at an insult. Whether one is only offended, however, is a test of their maturity, both as a person and as a person of faith.

What offends the mind of those opposed to faith is faith itself--that is, the surety that comes from faith (for faith is the evidence of things hoped for, and the substance of things unseen). One without faith cannot understand how one with faith can be so sure of that faith--particularly since the one without views faith as a "blind leap" usually into darkness, whereas he with faith often, or at least it has been my experience, has built that faith up through reason, and views it more as a gentle step into the light.

It is automatically offensive when a person disagrees with you and claims to be right. After all, you believe yourself to be right, and any contrary claim is implicitly (or explicitly) calling you wrong. It's not an easy thing to hear (especially if you are wrong).

So I suppose the only alternatives are to humbly examine your own beliefs and either be further convinced by them, or honestly reject them and follow the truth wherever it leads; or ignore all offenses with your head in the sand and refuse to grow.

Problem with having your head in the sand is the oxygen deprivation. It's bad for the brain, I hear.

Wyatt, good thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree!

J, again, I completely agree. I wonder, having journeyed myself from one idea to another (which I now wholeheartedly believe), how likely is it, do you think, for you personally to go back to a former position? What I mean is, If you believed X, and were convinced of Y, which contradicts X, and so moved to embrace and believe Y, would you think you would be easily persuaded to revert back to believing X?

I suppose I ask because, having converted from one belief to another, I have friends (such as Chris himself) who still hold to my former beliefs. I have been called arrogant (not by Chris, but by others) for not finding their arguments against my current beliefs convincing. I am viewed as being closed-minded and, as I said, arrogant, but the simple truth is that, during the process of my conversion, I resisted my current beliefs for many years. I did not want to convert. And I employed the same arguments (and more) against my current position as those of my former position who debate me now use against me.

I guess I wonder, desiring to be humble as you also desire, is it arrogant to be not swayed by arguments which you have previously held, used, and then seen overturned? Is it arrogant to find that you would need different arguments or lines of thought to convince you of a previously held position?

Craig, In sincerely sympathise with your plight. I would say, echoing Sts. Augustine and Anselm, "Credo ut intelligam." That is, "I believe in order that I might understand. While I firmly believe that Christian faith is entirely rational, I definitely believe that it cannot be arrived at solely by reason alone. As you yourself point out, there is an element of trust involved--a definite act of the will. But I firmly hold to the truth of Hebrews 11:6, that "God is a rewarder of those who seek Him."

I most certainly do not think that having doubts is being double-minded, but is rather a sign of critical thinking. However, it is what we do with those doubts that makes the difference. I offer, hopefully, some encouragement by referring to a talk I gave at a youth retreat on "Doubting" Thomas.

As for whether any line of reason will be easy on one's mind and spirit, I think I must reply in the negative--or, at least, qualify any positive response with an "if there is, it must not be truth." I think that a faith, any faith (or unfaith), that is simple or easy bears the obvious sign of being manmade. I believe C. S. Lewis made this point in Mere Christianity when he was discussing the Trinity. It is the very difficulty and complexity of the doctrine that testifies to its truth. As the adage goes, truth is stranger than fiction. I'm obviously not saying that anything difficult to comprehend or reason through is true. Simply that anything that is too easy to reason through is, at best, incomplete.

After all, Jesus told us to strive to enter by the narrow gate, for wide and easy is the way that leads to distruction, but narrow and difficult is the way that leads to life.

God bless

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the comments and the honesty of them.
You are right, Gregory. I thought I could go back to believing "X"; in fact, I almost had myself convinced, but I cannot because it is not the Father that I have come to know.
Don't you think that growth is an understanding of the Father's character? It is a relationship and He reveals Himself to us, as in any relationship.
It is impossible to know all there is to know about God this side of heaven.
I have wondered if He reveals certain things about Himself to certain people at times in their live when they need to know and understand that part of HIm.
I hope this isn't confusing. I'm not sure I understand it all myself.
When I discovered "Y", which was something that I understood to be wonderful about God and also came at a time of healing, I was almost overjoyed. I was relieved.
But sometimes others have great difficulty with our new discoveries, especially if that is not something God has revealed to them about Himself.
Does God reveal aspects of Himself according to a person's need?
I have heard about people who have seen visions. I have never had a vision with my eyes open, but why should I doubt that He is able to reveal Himself according to that person's relationship and need -- in a way that I can't relate to or understand.
I have had experiences with God that others wouldn't understand.
Some would.
I have learned to be quiet and not expect others, even those who are closest to me, to share what I believe about God.
I have learned to listen to others and appreciate and consider what they have to say.
I hope that my faith is unshakeable. It is based on a solid foundation.
When I doubt, I go back to that foundation and find that He is enough. My relationship with Him is enough. He knows the things I think about Him. He knows my questions. He knows my heart.
I know He loves me.
My expectations have changed. With that, I have found peace.
I couldn't go back to "X" because He showed me "Y", even if pretending to go back might make my life easier in some ways.
I have learned to believe certain things in quiet ways and that is no less real.

Christopher said...


Thank you for the compliment; it's encouraging. I agree with you that people set out their parameters for discussion and become offended when those parameters are somehow transgressed. I think the offense is sometimes justified, but by-and-large, I think that people need to recognise that, when dealing with metanarratives, the parameters for discussion are necessarily malleable. How can they not be with so many competing experiences, and claims to divine understanding? This does not make a case for agnosticism moreso than it does a case for cumulative, common human understanding that there is a reality that supercedes our immediate senses.


Your contributions are insightful, and very much appreciated. I am intrigued by your suggestion that returning to belief X from Y would be an olympian struggle. I wonder if your X -->Y -->X could be used as a rational defense for how former Christians should return to the faith they previously held. The premise, of course, being a re-examination of the beliefs s/he once held, but with an uncommon twist: that their current set of beliefs (atheism) would mean that s/he has nothing to lose by a) returning to Christian beliefs, and b) sticking with atheism (if it is, in fact, a true view).


Here is what I can offer you so far (I have to put more thought in to your comments/questions): atheists, though their reasoning seems easier to embrace, often miss the middle steps between what they propose and what they conclude. They are famous for the fallacy of the undistributed middle. The reason for this is that there is no logical connection between what is and what you deny is. So while the reasoning seems easier, it actually pulls toward a massive load of irrationality. For example, this example from Victor Stenger's book God: The Failed Hypothesis"6. A God that can suffer pain or is destructible is not one than which no greater being can be thought.
7. For you can think of a greater being, one that is nonsuffering and indestructible.
8. Therefore, God does not exist."

Now, without addressing the definitional problems in step 6 of his argument (that a suffering God is a lesser thought than a nonsuffering God), what is the logical connection between a God (in this case the human person of Christ) that can suffer and die, and the non-existence of God (in general)? The connection is horribly weak at best, and wildly absent at worst. And in this case, the missing middle is largely dependent on the lack of definition provided by Stenger as to which 'god' he's talking about, and his flip-flopping between a reference to specific kinds of deities (those that suffer and die) and just God as a general concept. To any Christian with some philosophical savvy, Stenger's argument runs him headlong into a grand fallacy of ambiguity, not to mention his undistributed middle, and definitional difficulties. And this is common for atheists!

Craig said...

Thanks Chris and Gregory,

I liked Gregory's quote from Augustine about believing in order to understand.
I've been thinking now about Jesus' parable of the sower. The kingdom of heaven starts with a seed being planted in a person's heart. I think it's significant that that's where the process begins.
Have you guys seen the utube video asking why God doesn't heal amputee's?
I have for a long time comforted my mind about the irrationality of the universe through Kierkegaard. But lately, I want to live in a universe that can be understood and for my Christian faith to make scientific sense. Maybe there is some other way to approach the problem of reality?
Or maybe the solution is just to focus on letting God's seed's in my heart grow and not worry about things like dinosaurs (just a very good example) at all... but that's living in a leap of faith and puts me about where I have been, isn't it?

Christopher said...


I think as an actually entity, the universe is nonrational as opposed to irrational; impartial and unforgiving as opposed to anthropocentric and excepting. Given that, it is easier, at least for me, to reason out that I don't need to depend on everything making sense in order for my Christian faith to be justified.

However, as far as having a Christian faith that makes scientific sense, you may be putting the cart before the horse. That is, why should your faith in Christ be beholden to our measurements of the physical universe? It would seem to make more sense to me to gain scientific understanding while being Christian. Some things may seem to come to contradiction (e.g., the argument for a 'fine-tuned' universe being contrasted against our eventual collision with the Andromeda galaxy -- fine-tuned?), but may in fact be resolved via a confidence that despite our best measurements, we cannot prognosticate the intentions of God. Nor can we use our own limited contexts to place determinations on the self-contained context of God. Thus the need for revelation, and illumination. Thus the beauty of St. Augustine's dictum, "I believe in order to understand."

What are your thoughts?

Gregory said...

Glad I could help somewhat :)

I quite agree with your thoughts. I think that one might be able to go back to X if X could be shown to include Y, but yes, if they are mutually exclusive, it seems rather impossible.

Chris, you wrote:

Your contributions are insightful, and very much appreciated. I am intrigued by your suggestion that returning to belief X from Y would be an olympian struggle. I wonder if your X -->Y -->X could be used as a rational defense for how former Christians should return to the faith they previously held. The premise, of course, being a re-examination of the beliefs s/he once held, but with an uncommon twist: that their current set of beliefs (atheism) would mean that s/he has nothing to lose by a) returning to Christian beliefs, and b) sticking with atheism (if it is, in fact, a true view).
I think you're right on the point of what I mean. If I may put it in concrete and personal terms, you and I recently became very frustrated with each other in a recent dialogue on my blog, precisely, I think, because of the X-->Y-/->X dynamic. That is, since my conversion to Catholicism, I honestly do not think I could return to Protestantism. This becomes even more the case when the only arguments for Protestantism that are presented to me, are the self-same arguments that I presented to Catholicism in my own journey to it, and which, I felt, were insufficient at best to overcome what I was rapidly believing to be the truth of Catholicism. Else, of course, I never would have accepted it.

So, I recall our disagreement including something similar to the following, where I criticised your argument for being the "same old same old", and you retorted that the age or originality of an argument is not a determinant of its truth. And insofar as that was my objection, you are right.

However, my objection was precisely here: that an argument which I have already rejected, presented to me again without any alteration, is not going to be convincing, even if it is true.

Thus, to apply my personal situation to your question, I think that an atheist, having rejected Christianity, must be shown that the Christianity they personally rejected was not the whole of Christianity, or else was a deficient version of Christianity. Thus, if one is to bring a former Christian back to Christianity, it seems that it must be by presenting Christianity, as you put it, "with an uncommon twist".

It is perhaps the lack of this "twist" in the public arena that causes Dawkins et al. to conclude that Christians have nothing left but offense to offer.