Friday, June 22, 2007

Shifting the Argument

This is one of those arguing techniques that Christians have a very unfortunate habit of getting caught out by. I don't know whether people use it deliberately or not, but it seems to work.

The idea goes something like this:

[Person 1]: I like shepherd's pie
[Person 2]: But it's often got overcooked peas in and they are horrible
[Person 1]: No they aren't - they're the best bit

Because people's pride has got involved or something, they want to defend against what the other person says, even if it slightly misses the target. So in the above example, they went from defending a reasonable contention - that shepherd's pie is nice - to a completely unreasonable one - that the overcooked peas are the best bit. If you think that example is bad, there are some more real-life ones later.

Here's a responses that would have kept the argument on track.

[Person 1]: I like shepherd's pie
[Person 2]: But it's often got overcooked peas in and they are horrible
[Person 1]: But in shepherd's pie they are transformed by their surroundings so that they are actually quite nice and they make their surroundings nicer too. One of the best things about shepherd's pie is the way it takes rubbish things, like overcooked peas, and makes them good.

Here are some examples of how Christians have got sidetracked like that.

In the 1800s, pretty much all the non-Christian scientists, and some Christian scientists, thought that Darwin's ideas were pretty neat, and that they might well explain how complex animals came to exist. Other Christians didn't - they didn't think that Darwin's ideas made too much sense and they believed in a God who could do things differently if he wanted to. For people who didn't believe in God, evolution was the only way to explain how complex animals came to exist, so there wasn't so much choice.

Over time, the conversation went something like this:

[Christian]: Evolution didn't necessarily happen - I know that God could have done it directly if he wants to and the scientific evidence isn't conclusive.
[Atheist]: Evolution happened. There's lots of evidence.
[Christian]: Evolution didn't happen.

It's as if there's a pressure to force people into holding the opposite position to the person they are arguing with, which Christians are particularly vulnerable to. In fact, I might state that an an aphorismy thing.

In any argument, there is a psychological pressure towards holding an intellectual position diametrically opposite to that of one's antagonist.
"Allister's first rule of arguments"

Sadly, I think we can see the same in the McGrath/Dawkins debate. It's as if the following has happened.

[McGrath]: [explains Christian theology]
[Dawkins]: God doesn't exist, [attacks religion in general].
[McGrath]: God does exist [defends religion in general]

But that is silly. We don't believe that religion in general is true. When it comes to Islam, Hinduism, etc, we should largely agree with Richard Dawkins. What we should be arguing for is not the general existence of God and religion in general, but the specific divinity of Jesus Christ.

The result of that debate is that we get steered off into discussing whether God exists in the abstract, when the whole point of Christianity is that God is not abstract. He walked round on the Earth 2000 years ago.

That last bit is kind of a synthesis of my thought and the third hand comments of a tutor here - John Lennox. When he debates Dawkins (and they've got a booking), I hope the debate would go more like this.

[Lennox]: [Christian theology] i.e. Jesus is God
[Dawkins]: God doesn't exist, [attacks religion in general].
[Lennox]: I agree with you on most of that, but Jesus was quite clearly God [insert evidence here], so there must be a God, and the question is how we make sense of that and what we do about it.

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