Friday, September 28, 2007

Dialogue with Former Christian, Dr. Jim Arvo, on Various Aspects of "Deconversion"


Dr. Jim Arvo: Associate Professor of
Information and Computer Science
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
University of California, Irvine

This exchange took place on the ExChristian.Net site (in a combox), in response to my critique of the webmaster Dave Van Allen's "anti-testimony." Dr. Arvo's words will be in blue. My older cited words will be in green. Dave Van Allen's words will be in purple.

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Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

You start by responding to Dave's comment "None of this proves or disproves Christianity..." with the statement "If such stories give no reason whatsoever to reject Christianity then (not to be insulting), I humbly submit: what good are they at all?"

You erroneously equate lack of "proof" with "no reason whatsoever to reject Christianity". That is a gross misinterpretation. Dave is acknowledging what is manifestly true--that neither side can be PROVEN absolutely. However, proofs are not what we employ when deciding upon empirical matters; we marshal evidence. I submit to you (not to be insulting) that the difference is enormous, and that the weight of evidence is not on the side of Christianity.

That's a good point, and it did cross my mind. However, in light of Dave's later comments, I think I was justified in reading it the way I did, and not in the more technical epistemological sense you suggested. E.g., Dave claims in the combox:
My mind was opened to reality, and is continuing to be opened to reality, as the myths and gods of my youth are abandoned to be replaced by reason.
Also: he describes Christianity as "primitive imaginings" and a "phony cult" that "enslave[s] the mind." It is supposedly anti-science and (most ridiculous of all) allegedly "caused the Dark Ages." To me this implies that somewhere along the line he assumes Christianity has been rationally disproven, or at least so discredited that he has justification to speak in such insulting and derogatory terms.

And that gets back to my point: either he thinks his deconversion story offers some of the reasons why he thinks Christianity is false or it doesn't. If it does, where are they? I saw none as I examined it. If it doesn't (as I interpreted), then what good is it? Frankly, who cares about horror stories of the ignorant, anti-intellectual fundamentalists he mostly associated with? It may tickle the fancy of former Christians who love to hear these things, but it doesn't advance the discussion at all. It is merely anecdotes about fools.

And I would add that if he couldn't extricate himself from such know-nothingism for 30 years, what does that say about his intellectual discernment? Does he mean to imply that he couldn't find a single Christian congregation anywhere for 30 years, that respected the mind and science and philosophy, and had a thought-out view of culture, politics, the arts, etc.? I find that astounding. Catholicism (my group) certainly offers all that. And many Protestant groups and congregations do. I've been in them myself (as a former Protestant evangelical). But it doesn't reflect well on his own judgment as a Christian.

In response to Dave's story about asking difficult questions as a child, DA responded "I would ask the child back: 'why do you presume to question God's purposes for doing anything, or act as if we would or could or should understand everything that God does, in the first place?'"

What a terrible answer. You are, in effect, saying that the child must simply accept the story as given, without testing it against their own experience or their own notion of justice and compassion. While the latter ought not be the ultimate yard stick, it should certainly sound an alarm if a religious teaching proclaims compassion yet appears to lack it in its most basic teaching. I should think it far better to explain why we should accept that god's actions appear less charitable than the child's own would have been, and why the child should continue to seriously question actions that appear unkind or downright devious.

I didn't say all that. You read that into what I said. My point was simply to note that we shouldn't expect to know all about God's deepest purposes, by the very nature of the case (or Being). Later I made analogies to the many deep mysteries of science (origins of life, DNA, why gravity acts as it does, etc.). I'm contending that if we can acknowledge mystery in science, why not also in theology? In that context I was presupposing belief in God. If you grant that, then given the traditional theistic / Jewish / Christian concept of a transcendent, monotheistic, omniscient, omnipotent God, it is foolish to think that we can figure all that out, since clearly such a Being is many magnitudes greater in thinking ability.

That was my point: not that one should render blind faith, or be a fideist. I have always opposed that. I would never urge that on anyone. Now, if people in your past or Dave's taught that they were wrong, and I fully agree with your general critique of their mentality.

"...many atheists collapse Christianity into know-nothing fundamentalism, so that it can be dismissed as 'anti-intellectual' and 'anti-science'..."

I don't know who the "many" are that you speak of.

Isn't it obvious even in this combox? E.g.:
rd:

. . . the total fallacy of religions is anyway? Your longing for a belief in the after life that you are willing to deny the obvious? The obvious truth being, that it's all a lie.

Anytime you need faith in order to believe something, you are expected to go beyond your own intellectual honesty and accentually lie to yourself knowing full well deep down inside it could not possibly be true.

Kill the old self and lie to the new self, step beyond reality into mental delusions of psuedo [sic]grandeur.

. . . incredable [sic] imbecilic nonsense . . .
It was clear in Dave's deconversion as well. Such rhetoric is very common among atheists / agnostics / skeptics / "freethinkers". Look at Dawkins and Hitchens, for heaven's sake. There are exceptions (you seem to be one of them and I know others personally from the Internet and in "real life") but I stand by my generalization, based on many years of experience of debates and discussions. I used the word "many"; not "most" or "almost all."

At exchristian.net there are hundreds of Christian visitors who zealously place themselves into this category by refusing to examine any of their beliefs and by attempting to discredit science in the large with childishly simplistic and fallacious arguments. We, as a rule, do not use such visitors as an excuse to dismiss anything (which is what you are apparently suggesting).

Why deal with them at all? If thinking Christians and ex-Christians agree that they shouldn't be dealt with seriously, then why the obsession with them? It's because (in my humble opinion) that is the easiest way for an ex-Christian to live with his or her decision to leave Christianity. It's in their interest to caricature Christianity into the silly anti-intellectual wing of it, so it can be rejected (because even a Christian like myself would readily reject the same things insofar as they are stupid and mindless). You take the very worst, fringe aspects of something in order to reject it.

In fact, some sites, like Debunking Christianity, openly state as a matter of emphasis and policy that they are interested mainly if not solely, in dealing with fundamentalist Christianity. 95% or so of the remaining sectors of Christianity are ignored (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, more sophisticated brands of Presbyterianism and Calvinism in general: folks like Alvin Plantinga, Anglo-Catholicism, Methodism, etc.).

Serious analysis of a competing view will deal with the most respectable form of it, not the dumbest and least respectable.

However, they do get dismissed because they contribute nothing.

And then a serious Christian who comes along gets to deal with all their baggage and the latent hostile attitudes, as if they represented the sum of Christianity . . .

"...what makes him [Dave] think that he knows better than scholars who have studied these things for years? This is a common motif in atheist deconversions. They know better than everyone else."

Tell me, which scholar should we all listen to?

I wasn't talking about any particular one, but all of them as a class. Again, if one is to rationally dismiss a point of view, shouldn't he at least seek out some of the better representatives of it?

Yes, of course. Do you imply that people here have not done that?

My replies had to do with Dave Van Allen, not all 473 skeptics at ExChristian.Net.

That was my point. I kept wondering if Dave had even tried to do that, or if he would ask a question of some pastor who wouldn't have a clue, and then just give up, as if no Christian on the face of the earth could offer the slightest reply to his probing questions.

Many made a desperate effort to rescue their waning beliefs by pursuing a wide spectrum of apologetics, looking for something well-founded. The Webmaster himself went though this.

If so, there was no indication of it whatsoever in his anti-testimony.

It sounds as though you chastise them for not having settled upon your particular brand of Christianity. Each sect could take the same stand (and to a degree, that's what they do).

My reply had nothing whatsoever to do with Catholic distinctives over against other brands of Christianity. I never defend Catholicism when debating atheists, but Christianity in general.

Not everybody thinks Catholicism is the most rational branch of Christianity--I'm sure you are aware of that. (To the regulars here: Please pardon my understatement.)

No kidding? I'm so shocked I think I'll faint.

You know as well as I that 1) what some scholars have to say is not worthy of the name "scholarship", and 2) there are legitimate scholars on both sides of practically any issue.

Sure, but that was irrelevant to my point, clarified above.

In the end, each of us must decide which line of reasoning is most coherent and has the greater force of evidence (thanks, in part, to the efforts of legitimate scholars).

Indeed. That's what I'm saying: read the best of both sides, in any given debate, not the best of one and worst of the other, or only one side.

That's what I've done for close to thirty years. Do you claim to have read the best on both sides?

I try to familiarize myself with the best arguments, yes (money- and time-permitting). I prefer one-on-one discussion with informed advocates, but it is rare to find such people.

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Do I know better than everyone else? No, I don't believe so, and I don't claim to. But I have a well-thought-out position--one that is coherent, and has benefited from exposure to nimble minds on both sides (Plantinga, who you mention, is among them).

Good for you. I would say exactly the same about my own view. Looks like you and I, then, may be able to engage in some excellent, fruitful dialogue. It's the love of truth and reason and dialogue that allows that to take place.

Bottom line: don't dismiss all atheists as simply thinking they are smarter than anybody else.

Many clearly do think so. Again, I appeal to the rhetoric commonly seen here and in similar places, about how "imbecilic" and "obviously false" Christianity is. That is the language of condescension and a "know-it-all" mentality. You are an exception, apparently, but exceptions don't disprove the rule, as they say.

Instead, I encourage you to address their arguments with the same dedication that they put into forming them.

I did my best with Dave's anti-testimony, and am doing so presently.

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Thanks again for your thoughts. I am enjoying the discussion.

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