Show Notes - Episode 55
The Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:1–23, Mk 4:1–20, Lk 8:4–15 )
When you reverse engineer this parable, we learn something that I've said many times before: the way people think hasn't changed much over time, and the principles in the parable translate well to basically any kind of debate. People will either resent the message, lend it momentary attention and dismiss it, or think about it and let those thoughts become more complex over time. Ideally, we'd like this last scenario to be the one that wins out. In reality, the evangelical mind is VERY thorny ground and difficult to penetrate.
This is why I don't try. I provide point-counterpoint, make suggestions for ways to replace toxic thoughts and behaviors with healthy ones, but I never try to change anyone's mind. This kind of “just the facts” approach will always be minimally effective, but just like in the parable, once in a while those seeds fall on good soil and that's one less lifelong casualty of this religion. The concept of leaving the 99 to save the one works well here, too, because the ones who listen and hear will always be in the minority, but they're worth saving from this religion and the things it does to rob people of their lives and identities.
The thing that I feel needs to be understood from the very beginning is that the likelihood of changing an evangelical's mind about ANYTHING is very unlikely. That isn't the point of debating with them. In my opinion, the only way to get through to an evangelical is to play their game their way. This is where the concept of sowing seeds comes into play. The whole point of this show is NOT de-conversion. While I would like to think I have the power and magnetism to get people to ditch their faith as the result of listening to a podcast, I know that's not going to happen.
This is why I take the approach that I do with this. I can get a little passionate and even a little aggressive with my tone and language at times, but at the end of the day, the goal of Unbound is to plant seeds. It's easy to dismiss the truth in the heat of the moment and it's easy to close off your mind when your opinions are being challenged, but the words get heard... and I promise you, when they aren't in defense mode anymore, those words play back in their heads.
Some approaches are flat-out ineffective and, in my opinion, aren't supposed to change how people think. Far too often, atheists fall into the same trap that evangelicals do. We become obsessed with being right. And at that point, it becomes far less about conveying truths and far too much about assaulting people with knowledge.
*The Atheist Experience - “Thug De-Conversion” and philosophy vs. method
Now, I do understand why some atheists take a more aggressive approach. I think that what evangelical faith does to people is cause for righteous anger. It's cause for urgency because we want people to break free from their delusions and see the real truth. But when that passion isn't mixed with a healthy dose of empathy and compassion, what comes out is boorishness and arrogance.
So how do we go about opening healthy dialogs or simply sowing seeds in good soil?
First, it starts by doing something that most evangelicals never do on their own: reading and understanding the Bible. I know, it sounds loathsome, but it's necessary. This brings me to the topic of exegesis. I've used the word before on the show, but tonight I want to both explain what it means and define the process in a little more depth. This can get very involved and if you want to really dig into it, you can check out these resources.
I'm going to make it simpler, though, mostly because so much of this is such a waste of time. Exegesis is the process of determining the meaning of a passage in the bible in proper context. It's a largely pointless effort from the standpoint of trying to pull “spiritual truths” or “sound interpretations” from the texts, but the core principles of exegesis are vital when it comes to dismantling the messaging. Lots of theologians spent lots of time developing this process, but I don't think they realized just how easy they made it for people like us to use it against them.
What is biblical exegesis?
“exegesis is the process of careful, analytical study of biblical passages undertaken in order to produce useful interpretations of those passages. Ideally, exegesis involves the analysis of the biblical text in the language of its original or earliest available form.” https://libguides.marquette.edu/c.php?g=36796&p=2974240#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Anchor%20Bible,original%20or%20earliest%20available%20form.%22
In simplest terms, exegesis involves a few key elements:
Understanding the genre of the passage – prose, poetry, penpals, and prophecy
Establishing where the thought begins and ends (limits of pericope)
The main idea (thesis)
Historical and literary contexts
Contextual language analysis (concordances)
The progression of ideas and thoughts in the passage
Now, following all these steps in an exhaustive way isn't always (or usually) necessary. The most important elements are context and language, which is what I appeal to when trying to find the truth behind the words. I skip consulting commentaries in most instances, which is a huge part of exegesis, because there's no such thing as an unbiased analysis of a biblical passage. This part always annoyed me because it really came down to deciding whose interpretation I agreed with most or the one that showed up most often.
Neither approach leads to the truth because, like with any novel, the Bible has as many interpretations as it has people to read it. You can't apply truth to fiction, but you can pull truth from it if you are doing pure, unbiased analysis without the aid of confirmation bias, which is how many fledgling biblical scholars approach exegesis.
The other half of the argument is that people aren't going to care how much research you've done and they aren't going to sit through a dissertation. This is why it's necessary to reduce the process down to three elements:
Choose verses with traceable contextual agreement to your argument (verses and passages should apply directly to the conversation)
Understand the words used in the most reliable manuscripts (there's no such thing as “the original text” seeing as we don't have “the original” bible to work with) and how they shape the meaning of the message
Be prepared to explain your position based on the first two criteria
I WILL consult commentaries from time to time just to be sure I'm conveying the message in a way that evangelicals will understand, but I'm almost always using the commentator's words against him. “A popular opinion among biblical scholars is _________, but that can't be true because...”
I also want to mention that this is not something I do specifically to prepare for a debate. It's something I do to make sure I understand the messaging so that when I'm called upon to defend or refute a point, I have a foundation to work from. At the end of the day, though, people are going to interpret the words any way they want, or, more to the point, the way that validates their position. Remember, you're trying to educate, not convince.
This is why I say, do this for yourself and for the purpose of building your counter-apologetic and having clearly defined perspectives at the ready whenever certain arguments arise. This is more work than the average evangelical will ever do which makes it easy to convey confidence in your position.
For the most part, evangelicals will gravitate to several basic arguments when it comes to defending their positions:
1. The Bible says...
2. The Lord told me...
3. I can prove that god exists (or I can prove any spiritual point I wish to make) – which typically brings us back to #1. It's an endless game of “Who's on First?
“The Bible says...”
“But the bible is only a book.”
“No it isn't, it's the inspired word of God.”
“And how do you know this?”
“Because the Lord speaks to me through its words.”
“If I asked God to speak to me, would he?”
“OK... God? God? Come in, God. Spider to God, come in, God. Yeah, I'm getting nothing.”
“You're mocking him. I wouldn't answer you either.”
“Well I would assume that if he existed, he'd want me to know he exists.”
“He does exist.”
“Do you have proof?”
“And what's your proof?”
There are several key concepts that are absent from nearly every argument that Christians make in defense of their faith:
Evidence – Heaven is a real place. “Please show me proof that Heaven is a real place”
Facts – Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He's the only way to get to God and you need to accept his gift of salvation if you want to be saved. “Please show me proof that Jesus is the only way to God.”
Logic – You need to be set free from sin. “Please explain why God would allow sin into the world and then blame people for succumbing to it.”
Reason – You have to admit that you're a sinner and repent. “Well, if God knows everything and he is the ultimate judge of everyone, he already knows I'm a sinner and that this is by his own design. If God loves us all, why not just admit that he made us too flawed to ever be worthy of his grace and save everyone?”
So with those examples firmly in place, it's time to head into battle... or is it?
I'm going to comment from an article I found on DanielMeissler.com (source: https://danielmiessler.com/projects/atheist_debate_reference/) quite a bit in this section, and, believe it or not, there are definitely times when you want to let sleeping dogs lie. Here are a couple examples:
1. The person refuses to be educated (and that accounts for a large number of evangelicals) – in this instance, the author suggests simply shutting down the dialog. I like the verbiage he uses here:
“Well, if you are someone who holds beliefs without regard for actual evidence then I have no interest in continuing this conversation. Basically, if facts don’t sway your beliefs, then there’s no reason I should believe I will be successful either.” (Dale Carnegie in reverse)
2. The person's life will not improve as a result of de-conversion – people on their deathbeds, people whose entire lives are built on their faith and would lose their identity in the process, etc. Remember, the goal is to change people's lives for the better, not fill their final days with fear and anxiety.
This is why I don't engage with my mother on this and on a number of other points. That ship has sailed, it's coasting along down a lazy river called evangelical security, and I don't want to be the one that capsizes it. In the end, she'll never know she was wrong and that's true of everybody. When we die, we're dead. There's no self-assessment, no ecclesiastical judgement, no instant replay. So what does it really matter? She (and anyone else to whom this applies) will die never knowing how badly they've been duped and it won't matter.
Now let's look at how to approach the subject of debate in instances where it IS appropriate. The author of the article asserts three distinct foundations for evangelical defenses of faith. It almost always springs from one of these assertions:
What they believe is true
Their faith enhances their lives and does good for others
Atheism is just another belief system
So let's look at the truth argument first:
Literal interpretations of the Bible – conniving snakes, talking donkeys, falling massive structures by yelling at them... come on, now.
Contradictions in the bible – I don't think I even need to link to a source on this one they're so plentiful. Google “biblical contradictions” and get comfy.
Unknown origins - Not knowing who actually wrote it, how much is original thought, and how the messaging changes over time by way of translation and redaction.
There are plenty of passages in the “word of God” that have been argued to be redactor's notes or translator commentary, and evidence exists to corroborate claims of flat out changing, excluding, and embellishing information that the “translators” found important or had personal issues with. How on earth does one glean truth from a document that has been through so many changes, been adjusted to appeal to so many cultures and people groups, and for which there is no foundational, authoritative, original Ms from which to draw definitive conclusions? This is supposed to be the Word of God. Why, then, have so many PEOPLE over the years questioned its contents, concepts, and trajectory in the messaging?
Let's also keep in mind that the bible was meant to persuade BRONZE AGE HUMANS who knew nothing about science, were minimally educated (if at all), and quite often couldn't even read thereby guaranteeing that they would have to trust the opinions and assertions of others to gain knowledge in the area of religion.
In the information age, access to better information should put a stop to all of it, and yet it doesn't. Why? Because even modern humans find it easier to let other people do their thinking for them and too often choose comforting lies over uncomfortable truths. Their parents taught them this, therefore it's true, forgiving the fact that their parents also led them to believe in things like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy that turned out not to be true...
“My life is better with Jesus in it”
We've all heard the dramatic conversion stories of people who claim that their religion literally saved their lives. It gives them something to live for. It provides a moral compass. It alleviates the fear of death, etc.
People often stick with their religion because it makes them feel good, and it comes with a lot of perks. It provides things like community, acceptance, a sense of being loved, a sense of control over one's destiny, and more. Their thoughts are so fixated on their religion being the source of these things, they are often literally oblivious to the fact that there are other outlets for all of these things and anything else their religion provides in the way of comfort, self-worth, moral guidance, etc. It is in our nature to gravitate toward things that make us feel good, but just because it feels good does not mean that it has any real benefit. Your average heroin addict will tell you that shooting up makes them feel good, but they fail to weigh the long-term damage it does against the short-term satisfaction of the behavior.
“Atheism is also a belief system.”
No it is not. I would never make a definitive statement like, “there is no god” because I have no proof for the non-existence of anything. While there are a few very pointed exceptions, it is nigh unto impossible to prove a negative. I will, however, assert things like, “If there is a god, or multiple gods, or any kind of higher intelligence out there, it isn't making itself known and if it understands logic the way I do, it would simply reveal itself and end the debate.”
I'll also assert definitively that if there is a god, the Hebrew Yahweh ain't it, with my primary argument being the sheer disparity between how he interacted with primitive humans and his conspicuous lack of involvement with modern ones. Again, it makes sense for him to reveal himself and judging by his insanely narcissistic, self-gratifying persona, there's no way he could restrain himself from exercising the full extent of his power and making our lives a living hell day to day.
Bottom line: non-belief is not a belief system. It's a call for proof. Prove that your god exists and I'll change my mind, in much the same way that I got on THIS show on episode 23 where I encouraged masking but also complained about masks making me re-breathe CO2. I then had to retract that statement several episodes later when a presentation of sound evidence from credible sources made me understand that I was wrong and that the trouble breathing in a mask was based on personal discomfort, irritation, and anxiety, not rebreathing carbon dioxide. I'm more than happy to apply the same deference to the existence of god. Show me proof and I will change my mind. I'm not right all the time and I know it.
But here's the other very important end of that: I'm also not afraid of being wrong and being taught better. I WANT my opinions to be valid. I want my words and messaging to have credibility that goes beyond my own narrow-minded opinions. I want the things that I accept about life to be rooted in fact. So no, I don't embrace atheism as a matter of belief. I embrace it in the absence of a reason to believe. If proof of god – any god – ever presents itself, I will cease to be an atheist. I won't necessarily pledge my allegiance to it, but I'll gladly acknowledge that it's there.
Some other common arguments:
Some of the worst people out there have been atheists – well, yes. There are good and bad eggs out there who identify as lots of things. Stalin, for example. They like bringing him up, but what about Hitler? There's a common misconception that Hitler was an atheist. He wasn't. He was militantly theist, just like your average klansman. Neither Nazi or white supremacist ideology is good for society and both are rooted in interpretations of Christianity.
You can't have good in the world without god – for starters, why not? It is entirely possible to be good simply for the sake of being good without any thought to what an invisible, uninvolved entity thinks about it. I would further argue that the existence of god can work as well against the concept of good as it can for it. If a person lives an upright life, is empathetic toward his or her fellow humans, and devotes his or her life to improving people's lives still goes to hell if they reject Christ. Where is the positive in that? Why does Ted Bundy get to go to heaven while Aunt Sophie who spent 50 years working in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter has to go to hell simply for not believing in something absent of proof?
The improbable nature of our existence dictates that there is a creator and we are here as a manifestation of his will – All right, but are there any other possible explanations? Because if there are (and there are), then it is irresponsible to not explore them and lend them equal deference when deciding whether or not we are here by design or by chance.
Intelligent design – I love Neil DeGrasse Tyson's take on this. In the video link below, he covers all the ways that the universe demonstrates chaotic non-design, as well as the inefficiencies in human genetics and anatomy:
The universe is almost completely inhospitable to life
90% of all life that has shown up on earth is now extinct
Limited visual and olfactory acuity that could protect us from things like radon and carbon monoxide
Eating, drinking, and breathing through the same soles
Excretory and reproductive functions
Also understand that science and christianity will never mesh. These concepts will be flatly and immediately rejected in the heat of debate. It's OK, say it anyway. Sow those seeds. Play the game their way. They might not want to think about it today, but who knows what just imparting the information to them will do over time.
Questions for Theists
The first and most important thing to establish is whether or not God is real. If we are to believe that god is all-knowing and that he can see everything – our pre-existence, our past, and our future, he has to know what each and every one of our lives is going to look like from the way we're raised to the way we think and behave as adults. He knows what every serial killer will grow up to be. He knows which children will die of starvation. He knew what Hitler would do to HIS CHOSEN PEOPLE. Why did he allow it? There are only 2 conclusions:
1. God is inherently evil or insane
2. God is a human construct
In this instance, the only option the average Christian should consider is option 2.
NGT puts it another way. Given the nature of the universe and its clearly unstable and inhospitable attitude toward “creation” why doesn't god just fix the flaws? Why are they here in the first place? Why are people born with birth defects? Why is cancer a thing? Why do natural disasters happen? Either your god is not all-powerful or not all-good. An all-powerful god would fix the flaws. A good god would at least protect us from them.
Damning Words for the “Word of God”
The average evangelical will do what he or she can to get you thinking about their position. OK, then let's pull out the best ammo we have and use it against them. That's right: the Bible. Presenting these arguments is the same as collecting unspent ammo from fallen enemy soldiers and firing back at the opposing side.
And now it's bottom line time...
The purpose of developing counter-apologetics is not to wage war on people's beliefs. We do it so we can understand where they're coming from, the thing they've learned about what they are expected to believe, anticipate objections, and know how to deal with them. At the end of the day, out job is not to convince anyone of anything. It's simply to present sound information and counter-argument that inserts information where questions and uncertainties exist. It's the God of the Gaps with an actual legitimate and productive application. The GOTG theory argues that those gaps in our understanding of things like the world, the universe, and who we are are filled by inserting the influence of God into the equation. Since this is how evangelicals think, we can use this concept to our advantage.
Have conversations, not arguments. Be sure-footed, not loud. Fill those gaps in a way that doesn't cause discomfort.
Be prepared to be rejected. Be prepared to be laughed at. Be prepared to be yelled at, sworn at, and called names. Be prepared for condescension and dismissal. “I'll pray for you...” “I hope you see the truth eventually...” “God wants to show you how wrong you are...” Take all of this in stride. Don't keep pushing back. Let the discussion end amicably. You had your say. They had theirs. Say “thank you,” and walk away. Thank them for hearing you and thank them for being concerned about you. These things have a disarming power that I don't think some people realize when they're in the mode of wanting to win an argument. It's not about winning, it's about communication.
If we really care about helping people get their lives back from a religion that's designed to shackle it, fill it to the point where there is room for nothing else, and ultimately consume it, we can't approach debate in a way that turns their brains into rocky ground. We can work around the thorns. We can till that soil with sincerity, empathy, and maturity. We can motivate people to see our point of view if we only bother to keep in mind that these are people like us who, in many instances, share a lot of the same thoughts and experiences we once did. If you were looking in a mirror trying to convince your theist self to abandon evangelical faith, how would you respond to anger, insults, and aggression? These tactics get us nowhere.
Understanding what evangelicals believe, why they believe it, where the flaws are in their beliefs, and why we no longer believe for ourselves is vital in this fight to steer people away from the life-stealing harm that evangelical faith deals people. Work to develop a comprehensive counter-apologetic and approach debate and discussion from the foundations that they claim their faith is built upon: love, compassion, kindness, and empathy. That's how we get through to them, that's how those gaps get filled and that's how we help people get and stay Unbound.