Sunday, 13 December 2009

Hate debate?

I enjoy a ( friendly) argument. But it can be hard to find a willing partner.
With my husband, whose temperament is completely different, I have to temper my natural impulse to toss every question back and forth several times and examine it from every angle. To him, this is being picky and splitting hairs.
I think it's energising to have a spirited debate. He finds it draining, isn't excited about the minutiae that I find so stirring, and prefers what he calls a 'live and let live' philosophy ( not, despite the implication, that mine is conversely 'kill or be killed' lol!) and he is not fascinated by following minute points to their ultimate conclusion in the way that I tend to be.

I realise how irritating my 'arguing hobby' must be to some (ok most) but in my defence, it does come with a plus point in that I'm not touchy or easily offended when people disagree with me. Au contraire! Another opportunity to indulge in my favourite hobby!

On one of the home ed email lists I subscribe to, a question was posted about some 'friendly banter between the poster and her good friend who is an atheist.
This is what he said to her:

Is that the sort of love that leveled Sodom and Gomorrah, flooded an entire planet leaving only two survivors and committed various other genocidal atrocities eg Judges 19:29 , 20 , Numbers 31:18 , 25 and various others? Oh yes, Old Testament god, before the image makeover."

She wondered if anyone had anything interesting to say.

One of the responders said that it was better not to engage him as he was probably only wanting to make faith look foolish and to win the argument. She suggested praying for him instead and offered some very lovely suggestions for how to pray very specifically for him.
Her response got me thinking. Because of course she is right. But she probably isn't an 'amiable arguer' and, like my husband, tends to see comments like this as contrary and even hostile.
I don't. Because it's the sort of thing that I would say and sincerely not mean any offence at all.
So I thought I'd respond giving the perspective of an amiable arguer, because we are a sadly misunderstood and dare I say it, even unappreciated lot.
(Of course I don't know if the chap in question is in fact 'amiable' but since the poster describes him as a dear friend, I'm going to assume he is.)

Here's what I said:

Can I offer another perspective from someone who enoys the cut and thrust of friendly argument?
Sometimes this kind of provocative rhetoric is meant to actually drive the conversation forward rather than stop it in a hard place.

I've been around the tracks a bit in my spiritual journey and when I was questing it was a real treat to meet someone who was bright, articulate, willing to engage in some banter without getting easily offended and not afraid of tackling the hard questions.
I often asked hard, possibly offensive questions myself, not with the intention to provoke or to win the argument ( even though it may have looked like that) but because I really was sincerely interested in whether there could be a reasonable answer, however unlikely that may have seemed to me at the time.

I think a discussion of this nature can easily run all over the place and when it does it loses it's focus and therefore it's power to help us to think and even change our minds.

With the atheism/theism discussion I would use a similar approach to the one I use when discussing the issue of abortion. Be willing to discuss the hard issues, but first clarify why you believe your baseline principle or belief is reasonable and valid.

For example, with abortion, I start by explaining that I believe abortion is wrong because it involves killing a baby, and it is always wrong to do that. Then follows ( hopefully) a spirited discussion on the nature of what it means to be a baby or even human, in order to elaborate further. Once we have established that, it is easier to discuss the hard questions like abortion in the case of rape or fetal abnormality. Or at least, the discussion makes more sense.

Likewise, when discussing the issue of belief in God, I would first want to nail down some of the reasons why I believe it is reasonable, sane and logical to hold this belief.
The bottom line is that Gods existence isn't really something that we reasonably accept or reject because we like the sound of Him and approve of what He does.
We are free to accept or reject the idea of God based on those feelings, but the existence of God, or the non existence of God doesn't change according to our view.
It's either true or it's not.

And that's another very good question for another day.
Please leave me your thoughts, contrary or otherwise. I know you'll be amiable!


  1. My husband is like yours - and I thought it was a cultural thing (Japanese). He always stops our debates just when they're getting good. That really makes me feel like I'm left hanging!

    In my husband's case, though, it's not that he dislikes controversy - he just doesn't like the fact that I disagree with him (that's my theory, anyway)!

  2. This is exactly the reason why I didn't finish law school - I realized my personality (and therefore my very person) couldn't handle it. I like the idea of debate but in a courtroom session or deposition, etc. I would take things too personally. I still work in law, as a paralegal which I love - I can do a lot of the background work. I just can't believe how acrimonious some of the interactions with opposing attorneys can be and it rolls off them like water off a duck and they can got have lunch with eachother after , etc. Not me. My other problem is lack of speed processing my thoughts into coherent arguments! I guess I'd prefer your appraoch in the blog world because it's in writing and I like the extra time to process the other person's ideas and to formulate my own.

    By the way - I'm an "A" and of course my husband is a "B".

  3. What I found so interesting about the comment was his remark about only 2 survivors of the great flood, like someone who has learnt about it from a child's toy. That immediately makes me think that he is, like I used to be, someone who reads the Bible to prove his own point, rather than actually working up an open mind and reading it to see what God might want to teach him. Even my children know it wasn't just Noah and Mrs Noah who survived. I wish more athiests would read the Bible and seek to experience God with a spirit if humility and enquiry. The first time I read the Bible with an open mind as an adult I was utterly confounded to find it wasn't what I thought I knew it was.

  4. I think my problem with debating theism vs atheism that way is that it is problematic for the atheist. Quite honestly I simply don't care what anyone believes personally about the existence of God(s) or an afterlife so long as it doesn't affect my life (which it nearly never does). I can have a spirited discussion about bigger issues in faith but I pretty much won't argue about theism/atheism/nontheism because I have no desire to argue the proof/nonproof of a God(s).

    And I like a good debate. I enjoy a point/counterpoint style. To me arguing about God or not God is similar to arguing about how one deals with their spouse in their marriage. It just isn't anything I need to be involved in most of the time. It is too personal.

  5. Kelly, I agree with you here. Particularly with your reasons for not arguing about the existence of God.
    But I think in this case, there is a direct challenge which demands some kind of response. Even a refusal to discuss is a response of sorts.
    My own feeling is that sometimes people are offended by direct challenges when they don't need to be. Sometimes the question is sincere, although it may not be very sensitively expressed.
    I have been frustrated in the past when Christians wouldn't answer my questions, or just cobbled together something pretty lame off the top of their heads. I couldn't believe that they weren't prepared to help me to understand something that they were apparently building their entire lives on.
    I didn't want an argument, I was just (very) curious.
    As to your first point ( about being happy to discuss bigger issues in faith, but not the existence or non existence of God) I think for a Christian, it is impossible to defend or explain certain elements of faith without God, who is either real or the figment of many potty fairy tales.

    Yes, I noticed the 'only 2 survivors' comment too. I think you make a good point about that. Probably many people imagine themselves to be more familiar with the bible than they really are and much of their 'facts' are based on childhood remembrances.

  6. Clare,
    I specifically meant that for the purposes of a debate about the bigger issues of faith (which now that I write that out it seems silly..what is bigger than the existence of God???) I am willing to grant the existence for the debate at hand.

    I agree that Christians can be unwilling to simply confront rudeness or at the least a direct challenge.

    I am one of those people who learns a lot from debates (I don't see it at as arguing!). I typically make a lot of points for my beliefs but I spend hours and hours thinking over everything in my head. Even if it doesn't change my premise it usually gives me insight or knowledge or something. It makes me learn, and ultimately in my experience learning makes me a kinder and better person.

    This is likely cobbled together and nonsensical. Up late waiting for the drugs to hit!

  7. So how do you teach the Noah story? I saw an article in a Christian homeschooling magazine at the library which said that kids should be taught about the drowning children and floating bodies so they would learn to fear God. The author said something about how most kids were getting a too-sanitized happy giraffes version of Noah's ark instead of the true version. In light of all the people who supposedly died in that flood, whether two people or 8 people were saved is a minor detail.

  8. Highdesert
    Sorry for taking so long to approve your comment, I thought I had already!

    Catholics aren't obligated to believe that the Noah story is a literal scientific, historical account. It is principally an account of Gods covenantal faithfulness and mans obedience. It contains within it a type, or foreshadowing of a greater work of salvation which was to follow.
    The destructive/saving power of water is a common theme which ( I think) finds it's ultimate expression in baptism.

    Personally, I don't 'teach' the Noah story. I just tell it.
    It might be a springboard for musing about other thoughts like maybe the significance of Noahs obedient response to God, what it might be like to have all your neighbours think you're bonkers, the recurring theme of water in the bible etc. We might also talk about the other primitive flood stories from around the world ( although to date I don't know much about these. So much to learn so little time!)
    This Wikipedia site gives some information:
    The existence of these stories and the fact that they are so widespread, is interesting and does seem to lend credibility to the Noah story.

    With regards to your homeschool magazine story, I think that some people thinking 'fearing God' means being afraid of God. What a sad way to teach children.

    Lucys comment was not, I think, so much about the pettyfogging detail of two or eight people being saved, but rather an observation that the correspondent was not as well aquainted with this story as he seemed to imagine.