An Unhappy Marriage II: Stuck in the Middle with You

“Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am stuck in the middle with you.” — Stealers Wheels

We are all fools. One type of fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

“Answer a fool according to his folly.” Sometimes, you have to set aside your ultimate aims and simply meet people where they are. You can’t just point an atheist to a Bible verse. That’s like quoting your mother to your wife in an argument.

As I suggested in my previous post, we all have biases, prejudices, and presuppositions. In fact, it would be difficult to function in the world without them. There is even a place for stereotypes in our daily living. For instance,  I think it is okay for my children to see all police officers as friendly, good, community helpers because I want them to feel safe going to a police officer, if they are ever lost or in trouble. They can learn later about the exceptions to this general rule.

We are aware of some of our biases and some are hidden from us even if they are apparent to others.
As a Christian, I have biases that shape how I see the world and it would take considerable counter-evidence on specific points for me to have a change of mind (to be converted).

In my lifetime, I have discovered prejudices that in the face of new data and counter-evidence, I have overcome. As a teenager, I had imbibed a cultural assumption that the free market economy was the origin and perpetuator of most of the evils in the world. Then, in Graduate school, after meeting people who had experienced communism first hand, I began to read actual histories of communism and Marxism. Here, I experienced a conversion. If you told me as a teenager or a new Christian in a Protestant environment that I would one day love reading Papal Encyclicals, I would have thought you were nuts. Indeed, if you told me as a teenager that I would one day attend church regularly and teach Sunday School, I would have smirked to your face and laughed at you behind your back. I despised “organized religion” as did most of the people around me.

Like fears and aversions, some culturally received prejudices are extremely difficult to overcome. Simply telling people that most spiders’ fangs are not even able to penetrate human skin will not help the majority of people who are afraid of spiders to overcome their fear. Yet, most people will be able to acknowledge the validity of the statement especially if you point them to experts on the subject. They might say something like, “Wow, I did not know that. That is intereting. However, I am still afraid of spiders and I don’t want to be near them.”

In other words, in many cases, people are able to acknowledge their prejudices and, at the same time, acknowledge that new evidence or data ought to alter their prejudice even if they still find themselves behaving in accordance with or committed (for other reasons) to that prejudice. Again, let us take the fear of spiders, the arachnophobic might say, “Wow that is fascinating information but I am no expert and I cannot identify which spiders can bite me. So, I will treat all spiders as if they can bite me. Besides, it is not even fear of being bitten I just don’t like the way they move. All those legs. Ick!”

Some of our fears and prejudices are so deeply ingrained (maybe even genetically inherited — snakes and spiders?) that we can acknowledge that our prejudice is irrational but we still hold it. Acknowledging this inconsistency and limitation is an exercise in humility, honesty and growing self-awareness.

What I find in “conversations” with evangelistic atheists (even where biases are known and acknowledged by both parties) is that counter-evidence and data is simply dismissed as if anything I (as a Christian) suggest is due to my Christian biases. My usual approach in such situations is to recommend non-Christian sources that give the same information, preferrably a source that shares some of their biases and presuppositions.

In my experience, most of the time, even this attempt is viewed with suspicion and rejected. Many Christians do the same thing but from the evangelistic atheist’s point of view that is what one would expect from “fideistic irrationalists who believe in revelation from an invisible being.” That is why Christian hypocrisy is mostly associated with Christian moral failings (real or imagined) rather than our intellectual failings.

Recently, in a discussion of whether or not Jesus was an actual, historical person, I found myself defending Bart Ehrman which is a strange position for someone like me to find myself in. It is like George W. Bush coming to the defense of Hilary Clinton. “Look even Hilary Clinton believes the Declaration of Independence exists.” Bush might say to some way out Democrat who thinks the revolution was made up to favor lax gun laws and low taxes.

When someone I follow on Twitter mentioned that they had read something that confirmed their suspicions that Jesus did not exist, I responded by saying no reputable historian would deny Jesus existed even if they reject the “Jesus of faith” and the reliability of the Gospels. Look, I said, even Bart Ehrman thinks Jesus was an historical person and recommended his book Did Jesus Exist?. (It would do no good to recommend N.T. Wright, Larry Hurtado, Richard Hays, etc.) As is often the case, this person had found that one scholar (who had also found one scholar from 50 years ago) who argued that Jesus did not exist. It is like Christians finding that one book by a scholar who argues that the Grand Canyon could only have formed as a result of a global flood.

So, I looked up this scholar and after listening to his talks and perusing his CV and blog, I concluded that he was a “young” scholar trying to make a name for himself by taking on a one of the big dogs. I picture one of the yappy Chihuahua’s threatening Cesar Milan’s PitBull, Big Daddy. Guess who Big Daddy is? That’s right, Bart Ehrman. Apparently, Bart Ehrman is just too conservative and traditional for this guy.   Ehrman rather graciously responds to the rather viscious charges on his own blog. In my opinion, that is all the attention this scholar deserves on this topic.

The point is that when we already have “suspicions” and biases we are often on the lookout for supporting evidence and ignore any counter-evidence. J.I. Packer and other professors at Regent College taught me to read the best work by those with whom I instinctively or knowingly disagree. The problem for many of us is that it takes work to find and read the best thinking and research on a subject. Yet, if this topic is so important should we not put in at least as much time and effort to weigh the evidence as we do when we are looking for a new car. That is why I try to link y’all to so many books on my blog.

In this conversation, I was not trying to convert this individual to Christianity or admit that Jesus was God incarnate. I was simply asking him to apply the same skeptical reasoning that he claims to uphold and attend to the evidence. Of course, when your bias has you reject all the available evidence from the outset, you are free to come up with whatever story you want to fill the void and no one can penetrate the void. This applies as much to YECs as it does to evangelistic atheists.

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly.” Recognize when a discussion has become a shouting match (figuratively or literally) and be strong enough to take a breath and walk away. Don’t get caught in the fowler’s trap.

In the words of the King of Rock n’ Roll, it is like a dysfunctional marriage:

We’re caught in a trap
I can’t walk out
Because I love you too much baby

Why can’t you see
What you’re doing to me
When you don’t believe a word I say?

We can’t go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can’t build our dreams
On suspicious minds

The Fine Young Cannibals version is also worth adding to your playlist.

Related Posts: An Unhappy Marriage I, An Unhappy Marriage III


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